A restored Hawker Hurricane, the unsung hero of the Battle of Britain. While the "Hurry" shot down more German planes than the Spitfire, the latter aircraft received most of the credit for defeating the Luftwaffe in the pivotal 1940 air campaign (Reuters photo via the U.K. Daily Mail).
On this 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, there are the inevitable tributes to the men (and women) of the Royal Air Force, who prevented a German invasion in the late summer of 1940, and in the process, saved a nation and altered the course of World War II.
Today, Winston Churchill's immortal tribute to British fighter pilots who defeated the mighty Luftwaffe has become the battle's accepted synopsis ("never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few
"). The Prime Minister's stirring words conjure up images of undermanned RAF fighter squadrons, rising to meet vast formations of German fighters and bombers. Ironically, it the was Luftwaffe that was most affected by shortages of pilots and aircraft, while the British had far more success at replacing combat losses.
Another famous misconception about the Battle of Britain concerns the RAF's two primary fighters, the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. Eight decades later, the Spitfire is regarded as the most important fighter of the campaign, a superb aircraft that outclassed German ME-109s and 100s in the skies over Britain, and secured final victory for the RAF.
But that image is also an exaggeration, as the U.K. Daily Mail recently reminded us:
"...the summer of 1940 will always be associated with the Supermarine Spitfire, the single-engined RAF plane which became the most potent symbol of Britain's fight against German subjugation. The very name Spitfire is now synonymous with victory in the air.
But this is a travesty of what really happened in the crucial months of 1940.
For the RAF aircraft which actually won the Battle of Britain was an older, larger, slower but still deadly fighter, the Hawker Hurricane.
Without the Hurricane, the RAF would have probably lost the Battle of Britain, because there were simply not enough Spitfires emerging from the aircraft factories and into the squadrons. In the national struggle for survival, the Hurricane dominated the front line.
On the eve of the Battle of Britain in early July 1940, Fighter Command's operational force throughout the United Kingdom was made up of 29 squadrons of Hurricanes and 19 of Spitfires, proportions that were to remain the same throughout the coming months.
The overall distribution between the two fighters was largely reflected in German losses. According to the Air Ministry's own figures, for every two Luftwaffe planes brought down by the Spitfires, three were shot down by Hurricanes.
Despite such statistics, the Hurricane's contributions are often viewed as secondary, through the prism of history. Popular accounts suggest Hurricane squadrons were dispatched to attack German bomber formations, while the more nimble Spitfire battled Luftwaffe fighters.
But that image is equally misleading; with Hurricane squadrons forming the backbone of Fighter Command in 1940, those units engaged the ME-109s more often than the less-numerous Spitfires. Yet, press accounts of the era--and British propaganda--almost always featured the "Spit." As author Leo McKinstry writes
, footage of a German aircraft being shot down was used in a popular newsreel feature in 1940. The film was recorded by the gun camera of a Hurricane, which was responsible for the kill. On the newsreel, the narrator attributed it to a Spitfire; Hurricane pilots in the audience groaned.
With the passage of time, the "Hurry's" slight became even more pronounced. When the British MOD staged a Battle of Britain fly-by in 1945, there wasn't a single Hurricane in the formation. While pilots trumpeted its virtues, the Hurricane was largely forgotten by the public and air power historians.
Why did it happen? The Spitfire simply captured the public's imagination, like other legendary aircraft of the Second World War. Ask someone to name a fighter plane from that era, and they'll probably mention the Spitfire, the P-51, the ME-109 or a Japanese Zero. Never mind that other aircraft were equally capable--or more widely produced. Allied propaganda gladly fed romantic notions of the Spitfire, to help sustain public support for the war effort.
Mr. McKinstry's new book attempts to rectify oversight of the Hawker Hurricane, and it's long overdue. Unfortunately, most of "The Few" who flew Hurricanes into combat in the summer of 1940 have passed on. It's a fitting requiem for a great aircraft and the men of Fighter Command who helped turned the tide of the war eight decades ago.
Labels: Hawker Hurricane; Battle of Britain