Montagu Curzon

A dream to fly

Undeniably the Hawker Hurricane has suffered the fate of the less pretty sister.

Text settings

Hurricane: Victor of the Battle of Britain

Leo McKinstry

John Murray, pp. 355, £

Hurricane: The Last Witnesses

Brian Milton

Deutsch, pp. 253, £

Bomber Flight Berlin

Mike Rossiter

Bantam, pp. 289, £

Undeniably the Hawker Hurricane has suffered the fate of the less pretty sister. It is the Spitfire, at once beautiful and deadly, that is forever the star of 1940, firmly lodged in the British military pantheon, beside the longbow and HMS Victory, and the Hurricane is in the shadow. Yet it did more of the work, in greater numbers, and with more victories in the Battles of France and Britain. It too was loved and admired.

Leo McKinstry, after his definitive books on the Spitfire and the Lancaster, sets out to repair this reputational injustice. His subtitle, ‘Victor of the Battle of Britain’, states the claim clearly. Hurricanes made up 63 per cent of Fighter Command’s strength in the Battle and were responsible for 61 per cent of Luftwaffe losses: ‘Without it the thin blue line of defenders would have been too thin to hold.’

Hawker produced 14,533 Hurricanes up to July 1944. Its designer, the great Sidney Camm, regretted that it had been so rushed into production in the late 1930s (by the prescient Secretary for Air, Lord Swinton, no appeaser) that its development potential was limited — by fabric covering and simple construction. But it arrived in numbers just in time.

McKinstry uses the best witnesses — the pilots — to make his case, who were somewhat miffed by the glorification of the Spitfire. (Some German pilots even protested to their Hurricane victors that they had been shot down by Spitfires, as if this made them feel better). ‘She was a dream to fly, she really was’: this was the general opinion. For Peter Townsend, it was ‘our faithful charger and we felt supremely sure of it’. And they were partisan: ‘As a general purpose aircraft [it] would beat the pants off the Spit.’ ‘It was more rugged . . . in many ways nicer to fly, also a better gun platform.’

Production was at first slow: at the time of Munich the RAF was extremely worried, so that agreement bought a year in which the number of fighters was built up to a balance. McKinstry’s detailed narrative of aircraft construction and modification and RAF organisation takes wing in every sense on the outbreak of war.

Being so robust, Hurricanes were adapted to all manner of tasks. They were launched from ships to protect northern convoys to the doomed Norway campaign, where they ‘proved very effective’. There they had to evacuate on the too short carrier, Glorious, with a sandbag in the tail to help them brake in time — only for Glorious to be sunk, and all the fighters to go to the bottom. They were impossibly outnumbered in the Battle of France, their damage patched up in any way to hand; later they were used to defend Malta; as formidable tank-busters in the desert war; and as air support fighters much appreciated by the 14th Army in Burma. And many Hurricanes were sent to Murmansk for the Russians, who subsequently pretended they had had none.

Of course this is more than a purely aeronautical story of an aircraft. Because of the Hurricane’s historical importance, McKinstry allows his narrative to broaden out from the aircraft per se to the air war in general, and packs in as much human as technical detail. And what story is more worth retelling? His trilogy should be required reading for every patriot.

Such presentation is just the point of Brian Milton’s Hurricane: The Last Witnesses, assembling the first-hand accounts of the pilots, of whom 17 survive. They speak for themselves, and, given the epic they are recounting, are well worth listening to. More personal and biographical, largely made up of quotes, it is very readable and evocative.

Mike Rossiter’s Bomber Flight Berlin belongs less in this company than in that of McKinstry’s Lancaster and Patrick Bishop’s Bomber Boys. It tells the tale of a particular bomber crew who flew 50 missions together, 10 of them to Berlin. It is a straight, factual account, terrifying enough just to read, remarkable mainly for the crew’s survival, and as a testimony to the lifelong bond often forged by the intensity of combat.

What these three books have in common is the parade of first-hand witnesses, a few still living; all of it vivid, inevitably, some heroic, much of it moving.