The Royal Air Force's two most famous fighters in the Second World War were the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire, both of which appeared in many guises. The Hawker Hurricane IIC first flew on 6 February 1941 and entered service in the late Spring of 1941. Of all Hurricane versions (there were 14,533 aircraft in all), it was the one built in greatest numbers: 4,711 were constructed in Britain and Canada, the majority at Langley. This particular mark of Hurricane was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin XX engine and had a maximum speed of 330-336 miles per hour and a service ceiling of 35,600 feet.
Only two Hurricanes are still flying in Britain today. Both are owned and operated by the Royal Air Force's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, based at Coningsby in Lincolnshire, England, and both are Hurricane IICs - one is LF363 (believed to be the last Hurricane ever to enter service with the RAF) and the other is PZ865 (the last Hurricane ever built, rolling off the production line with the inscription ‘The Last of the Many’).
The Hurricane was not a particular success as a night fighter, but it proved very suitable as a night intruder with squadron's like No 1 - where it was used with great effect by Flight Commander Karel Kuttelwascher and Squadron Leader James MacLachlan - and No 43, both of which were based at Tangmere at the time of conducting such operations.
As one of 43 Squadron's night intruder pilots Harry Lea puts it:
"The Hurricane IIC was a splendid aircraft for the job in hand. It had range with its two 45 gallon wing drop tanks, excellent armament with four 20 mm cannon, and it was a tough, solid aircraft that could withstand a great deal of punishment and still survive. This later point was proved at the Dieppe Raid when we suffered severely from ground fire and all but two aircraft returned, of which five sustained varying degrees of damage, one of these you would wonder how it managed to stay in the air".
There were three features which particularly distinguished the intruder Hurricanes from the ones flown by 1 and 43 Squadrons in the Battle of Britain: colour, armament and fuel.
Prior to being allocated to night intruder duties, night-flying Hurricanes tended to have a hybrid day and night colour scheme: upper and side surfaces in dark green and dark grey (day fighter) camouflage with lower surfaces including fuel tanks all black and no underwing roundels (night fighter). However, many intruder Hurricanes were painted matt black all over (except for the red spinner). It was appreciated that the matt finish on the aircraft could increase 'drag' and therefore reduce top speed, but the intruder - unlike the inceptor - did not depend on speed but on concealment.
In spite of the black colour scheme, the aircraft could still give itself away in the darkness because the exhaust manifolds used to glow red hot, so part of the maintenance routine was to apply very thick red lead paint to the manifolds. As 43 Squadron pilot Jack Torrance comments: "Even with the flame shields over the exhaust, I found the flickering blue flames strangely comforting over the water but, once over the French coast, one felt very conspicuous in the night sky". His squadron colleague Morrie Smith makes the same point: "I felt that everyone for miles around could see the exhaust stubs glowing in the night, but the anti-glare cowlings protected the pilot's night vision from this glow".
Godfrey Ball, another 43 intruder, remembers a disturbing occasion on the return from an operation:
"As I descended deeper into the cloud, I experienced a frightening phenomenon: the whole inside of the cockpit was lit up by a red glow. My immediate reaction was: 'Fire!' But there was no heat and all my instruments showed everything to be in order, so I ventured to look outside. My two exhaust manifolds were belching out the usual flame, made perhaps a trifle more red and less blue from being throttled back, and this source had illuminated the surrounding very dense cloud. It was an eerie sensation but, once I knew what it was all about, it ceased to trouble me".
The IIC was fitted with four 20 mm cannon, two in either wing, in place of the eight or twelve Browning machine guns on the earlier marks. These cannon were French Hispano-Suiza HS.404 guns. It was immediately obvious that a Hurricane was a IIC because its cannon protruded so far out of the leading edge of the wings - the overall length was of the guns was 8 ft 2.5 in - and the recoil springs stood out along the barrels. These protruding cannon had rubber covers like over-sized condoms, so that it was a simple matter for ground crew to see if a returning pilot had used his weapons.
On No 1 Squadron's intruder aircraft, the cannon's ammunition consisted of equal quantities of high explosive (HE) and ball (20mm or 0.787 in). The former exploded on impact to create a hole in the enemy aircraft and the latter was a solid steel missile designed to pierce the plating of the German planes. They alternated in the belt and, at a muzzle velocity of 2,880 feet per second, it did not take them long to reach their target.
Many think of the fighter aircraft of the Second World War as having a considerable volume of ammunition - certainly the movies give that impression. In fact, the available firing time of a Hurricane armed with cannon was even less than for one with machine guns, although of course there was much more power in the punch.
The IIC's carried a total of 364 rounds (91 per cannon) which - at an approximate rate of fire of 600-650 rounds per minute - was only long enough for about nine seconds of firing. So every second had to count and a typical burst would only be between one and three seconds.
Like all fighter armament, the IIC's cannon were aligned to focus at a point some way ahead of the aircraft. The original Hurricane had its machine guns aligned to converge at a point about 650 yards ahead, but later the distance was reduced to 400 yards. Finally, at the insistence of Squadron Leader P J H Halahan (the Commanding Officer of No 1 Squadron until May 1940), the alignment was further reduced to 250 yards.
Therefore successful night intruder pilots would position themselves behind the enemy, so as to escape observation, and a little above or below, so as to hit the fuselage, and the usual mode of attack would be to tuck in close and fire from a distance of 100-200 yards.
Use of cannon could be colourful. Godfrey ball of 43 Squadron recalls:
"When shooting up trains, the cannon shells would ricochet from both the engine strikes and from the permanent way (if you undershot when aiming at the guard's van) and looked remarkably like flak- blue, red, green and white. It almost seemed at times as if I were going to fly into my own bullets!".
Intruder operations over the Continent required plenty of fuel and so Hurricanes on such operations were fitted with two 45 gallon drop tanks, one under each wing. This additional 90 gallons of fuel, added to the 66 gallons in the two main tanks carried in the wings and the 28 gallons in the reserve tank located between the engine and the cockpit, provided a total of 184 gallons and took the overall combat weight to 8,000 lbs. If necessary, these drop tanks could be jettisoned by pulling a lever on the starboard side of the cockpit (what American pilots on long range Mustangs would later call, in characteristically colourful language, "punching your babies").
43 Squadron intruder Harry Lea points out: "Before carrying out an attack, we used to jettison our long range tanks. This was because, even when empty or partially empty, they were lethal when struck by enemy fire". So invariably the pilot - having started and taken off in the normal way on the main tanks - would use the fuel in these additional tanks before switching to his main tanks, in case he had later to release the drop tanks.
Another of the 43 Squadron intruder pilots, Godfrey Ball, recalls a particular problem about flying a Hurricane with drop tanks:
"This extra 90 gallons just about doubled our endurance in flying time. I always aimed to use this extra fuel up first. As we had no gauges for these extra tanks, it was necessary to time how long they had been in use very carefully for, if they ran dry, one was likely to get an air lock in the fuel system which, while not being disastrous, was very frightening, especially at night.
The Hurricane was fitted with a 28 gallon gravity tank which, when turned on, got rid of air locks very quickly, and it was fitted mainly for this purpose as air locks could also be caused by draining the main wing tanks. I allowed for a consumption of 60 gallons per hour so, when they had been on for an hour and a half, I would operate on the normal tanks. When actually in an area of possible combat, I always used the wing tanks rather than the auxiliaries.
One night over France, I ran the long range tanks dry by mistake and got an awful fright. I was only at about 500 feet when the red fuel warning light came on like a huge beacon in the darkened cockpit and, at the same time, the engine faded out. I had turned the reserve tank on in less than a spilt second but, although the engine responded quite readily, it seemed to me that it would never come good. It was only then that I found out how long 'immediate' could be, for the good book said that under such circumstances turning the petrol cock on to 'gravity' would bring an immediate response!".
The price of having drop tanks was a certain loss of manoeuvrability. As 43 Squadron Jack Torrance notes: "The old Hurricane gave a feeling of great reliability and steadiness, although it was sluggish in the air with the drop tanks full".
Of course, the benefit of the drop tanks was increased range. The combined fuel volume of 184 gallons enabled an operation to last - at a normal average consumption rate of around 50-60 gallons an hour - about three to three and a half hours and to cover - at an optimum cruising speed of about 170 mph - a range of about 900 miles. Since up to half the intruder pilot's fuel could be used reaching and returning from the general target area, his maximum time over the German bases would be around two hours. However, any action would increase fuel consumption and reduce the time available in the air and, in fact, a typical sortie would be about two to two and a half hours.
Now three or more hours was quite a long time to spend sitting in the fairly confined space of a Hurricane cockpit and some of the intruder pilots used to joke that an essential characteristic of those carrying out such operations should be a tough posterior.
Fortunately one of the attractive features of the Hurricane for its intruder role was that its cockpit was a little more spacious than some other fighter aircraft. Morrie Smith flew intruder operations with 43 Squadron and insists: "The Hurricane IIC was a very easy aircraft to fly and a good gun platform. Since the cockpit was so roomy, a pilot had room to stretch - a welcome exercise for a pilot compelled to sit for three to four hours on an uncomfortable dinghy attached to a parachute. For some reason, the escape equipment in the dinghy seemed after a while to be all edges and most uncomfortable!".
The night intruder operation was a specialist exercise requiring a pilot with keen eyesight, cool nerves, and the ability to seize a chance that would only last seconds. It involved flying a lone fighter over to the enemy's own airfields and seeking to destroy his bombers as they were taking off or landing. As such, it was a particularly furtive operation where success came from striking an opponent in the back when he was least expecting it.
Usually intruder activity took place during the two weeks around a full moon, known by the pilots involved as "the moon period". The moon assisted flying as well as the location of enemy bombers. As they waited for an operation, intruder pilots would tend not to read or write because the whiteness of the page would have dulled their vision. Indeed some pilots would prepare for such sorties by wearing 'dimmer' glasses - goggles with dark lenses - which protected their eyes from lights and accustomed them to the darkness which lay ahead.
In the course of the year or so that the RAF carried out these night intruder operations (Spring 1942-Spring 1943), the tactics rapidly went through various phases before settling on a combination of all of them.
At first, the RAF waited for the watchers on the coast to notify them that German bombers were on their way across the Channel seeking English targets. As soon as the Luftwaffe was over English soil, a few pilots would then set off singly and head for the Continent. They had to guess, from the direction of the bombers, which airfields the Germans were using. They would circle the enemy's bases, waiting for the Luftwaffe bombers to return. When the Germans did come back, they were at their most vulnerable: low on fuel, possibly the ammunition used up, and the crews tired and unsuspecting. The navigation lights and the slow speed of the bombers as they descended to the ground, plus the lights on the runway, all assisted the British pilot in locating and destroying the enemy.
The next phase came when it was decided to take more of the initiative, fly over to France early in the night, and try to find German bombers as they were actually taking off. This was a riskier kind of operation: the German crews were alert and the ammunition racks were full of rounds. Yet it had the marvellous advantage that, if successful, the sortie not only destroyed the enemy aircraft but also its bomb load which could not then be dropped on English targets.
The third phase grew up when the intruders could not find any aircraft to hit and, rather than return with the rubber sheaths still over the protruding cannon barrels, they looked for trains to attack. Railway lines usually stood out well in the black-out because they were so much straighter than roads. Trains betrayed themselves by red and yellow sparks from the engine and by plumes of smoke which gave the pilot some indication of wind direction and strength. The RAF told its pilots that the Germans imposed a strict curfew on the French and would not allow them to travel by night, so normally pilots would have no compunction about strafing the wagons and carriages as well as the engines.
In fact, the chances of finding and finishing German aircraft were low. Night after night, many of the pilots would not even see an enemy aircraft, let alone engage or destroy one. The Luftwaffe aircraft often returned to a different airfield than the one from which they had taken off and they had something like twenty bases from which to choose.
The Hurricane intruder operation was a lonely and dangerous kind of mission. Unlike the Douglas Havocs and de Havilland Mosquitoes which also performed night intruder operations, the Hurricanes had one engine and a single crew member. If the Merlin engine failed or the aircraft was badly damaged, the pilot would have to crash-land his aircraft and he was on his own. Navigation was almost by 'feel'. The pilot had to have one hand permanently on the control column and the Hurricane only had two little red cockpit lights, so there was no way to unfold cumbersome maps or - if one could - see them at all distinctly. Each aircraft was invariably alone, flying over enemy territory in the vicinity of well-defended airfields in circumstances which made them visible to the Germans. It is astonishing that there were not more fatalities.
By far the most successful of the RAF's night intruders was a Czech pilot with the unlikely name of Karel Kuttelwascher who flew all his successful intruder operations with the legendary No 1 Squadron [for more information on his exploits click here]. He was my father-in-law and his exploits were graphically described in my 1985 book "Night Hawk".
The Hurricanes of 1 Squadron commenced their intruder operations on 1 April 1942 and continued them until 2 July 1942. In the course of these three months, a total of about 140 night intruder operations were flown by a total of 19 pilots. Karel Kuttelwascher - or Kut, as he was known - flew 15 trips during which he managed to shoot down no less than 15 enemy aircraft - three of them on one night - and damage another five. These spectacular achievements won him the Distinguished Flying Cross twice in a mere 42 days and attracted the sobriquet 'the Czech night hawk'.
All of Kut's intruder victories were accomplished flying the same Hawker Hurricane IIC. It had the serial number BE581 and the squadron code letters JX:E. At the height of his success, he had an emblem painted on the starboard side of his aircraft. It depicted a scythe in yellow and across it a banner in red carrying the name 'Night Reaper', a gruesome image which reflected his acute sense of vengeance. The Frog company - which manufactured plastic construction kits until 1975 - used Kut's aircraft as the version of its Hurricane IIC model.
Early in 2005, the Royal Air Force's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, based at Coningsby in Lincolnshire, England, painted its Hawker Hurricane IIC PZ865 in the colour scheme of BE581 'Night Reaper'. The scheme includes 11 swastika kill markings under the cockpit sill on the port side (as seen in a contemproary newspaper photograph) as BE581 might have appeared the morning after 'Kut's' triple kill on 5 May 1942. The BBMF aircraft will wear this scheme for the next few years as it performs at air displays around the country.
RAF's No 1 Squadron click here
Battle of Britain Memorial Flight lick here
Last modified on 19 April 2005