Sunday, 16 January 2011

Sir Sydney Camm, the plane that won the Battle of Britain and the Jump Jet

Sir Sydney Camm, to put it quite simply was a genius. Born in Windsor on August 4th 1893, he was involved as a youngster in the design of model aircraft and gliders before joining the H.G. Hawker Engineering Company and presiding over successive designs starting with fabric skinned biplanes such as the Hart, Hind and Fury, then seeing in the monoplane age with the first eight gun fighter in the form of the Hurricane and eventually war winning designs such as the Typhoon and the Tempest before being involved at the dawn of the jet age with the Hunter and finally being responsible for the truly ground breaking design that eventually became known as the Harrier, the World’s first practical vertical takeoff or landing (VTOL) aircraft or ‘jump jet.’

Camm started his career as a Carpenter’s Apprentice with the Martinside Aircraft Company and later joined Hawker’s at Kingston in 1923 as Senior Draughtsman and rose quickly to the position of Chief Designer two years later. In this role, he was responsible for the design of what were for the time, traditional designs of biplane aircraft. This type of aircraft, of which the Hawker Fury was to prove the last, were still being produced as late as 1937 and as good as these traditional designs were, it was apparent to those with foresight, of whom Camm was one, that these aircraft would be no match for the modern monoplane aircraft being produced in Germany for the resurgent Luftwaffe and which were now seeing service in the Spanish Civil War.

So it was in 1934 that Camm started work on the design of an eight gun monoplane fighter aeroplane to be built to Air Ministry specification F36/34 which was to be powered by the new Rolls Royce engine later to become known as the Merlin. In tandem with Reginald Mitchell at Supermarine and one or two other far sighted individuals, just in time, the British were waking up to the threat posed by the Nazis.

Unlike the more technologically advanced Spitfire, the Hurricane was an evolutionary design and the biplane ancestry was clearly apparent on closer inspection. Although it was quickly fitted with metal skinned wings capable of supporting the eight .303 machine guns, the fuselage was of a traditional design with steel spars supporting a fabric covering of linen tightened with dope. Ironically, although this design was outdated, it did mean that the Hurricane was able to withstand a tremendous amount of punishment and still be capable of relatively quick repair. Conversely, it did mean that whilst many bullets and cannon shells would pass through the fuselage without exploding, the aeroplane was also prone to catching fire when these shells hit the fuel tank and many Hurricane pilots in the Battle of Britain would suffer what became laconically known as ‘Hurricane Burns’ when their largely fabric covered aircraft caught fire. Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command, would insist on Hawker’s retrofitting the Hurricanes with self-sealing fuel tanks using a material called ‘Linatex’ which would drastically reduce these types of incidents and which a short-sighted Government (some things never change) had omitted from the original design on cost grounds at the expense of the lives of the men that flew them.

Whilst the Spitfire was the undoubted glamour puss of the RAF during and after the Battle of Britain and a wonderful far sighted design in its own right, the Hurricane at this time provided the backbone of Fighter Command with far more Hurricanes than Spitfires in service. In spite of being slower than its main antagonist, the Messerschmitt Bf109E, it could out-turn it, especially when dogfighting at lower altitudes and was responsible for many such ‘kills’ during the Battle, as well as bringing down many enemy bombers.

The only Victoria Cross won during the Battle of Britain - indeed the only VC won by a member of Fighter Command during the War - was won in a Hurricane, when on 16th August 1940 Flight Lieutenant James Brindley Nicolson, having seen his own aircraft hit and himself being wounded in an eye, remained in the blazing cockpit of his Hurricane in order to shoot down a Messerschmitt Bf110 over Southampton. Only once the enemy aircraft was destroyed did he bail out and to add insult to his terrible injuries, he was then fired upon by the local Home Guard despite his protests that he was an RAF fighter pilot. Nicolson survived this incident and wounds eventually healed, later served in Southeast Asia flying Beaufighters before tragically being killed on 2nd May 1945 when the Liberator aircraft in which he was travelling crashed into the Bay of Bengal following a mechanical failure.

After the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane made the transition into a cannon armed, ground attack fighter and served with great distinction in North Africa, Malta, Burma and the Far East as well as in the European theatre, where as well as fighting over occupied Western Europe, it also fought on the Eastern Front with the Soviet Air Force, having been supplied to the Russians under Lend Lease. The Hurricane also served at sea on the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers as the Sea Hurricane as well as on CAM Ships (Catapult Armed Merchant ships) and as such was responsible for the defence of many convoys bringing vital supplies to Britain. In total, some 14,500 Hurricanes of all marks were constructed, mainly at Hawker’s factory in Kingston but also with a significant number being built in Canada.

With the RAF in Europe, the Hurricane was supplanted by two more of Camm’s Hawker designs, the Typhoon and the Tempest, both of which were instrumental in giving the Allies air supremacy over the Luftwaffe following the Normandy invasion and striking terror into the hearts of German land forces whenever the sound of their engines were heard overhead. The Tempest was for a time, the fastest piston engined aeroplane ever built, being capable of speeds well in excess of 450 mph. Apart from their ground attack duties, the Tempests were used on ‘anti diver’ patrols over Southern England in which they were responsible for shooting down large numbers of German V-1’s which would otherwise have wreaked havoc on London. Of the 9,500 V-1s launched against London, some 638 were shot down by a handful of Tempests, which was the largest number shot down by a single type of aircraft, although it should be mentioned that a further 1,316 were shot down by Mosquitos, Spitfires, Mustangs and with a nod to the future, the new jet powered Meteors.

The jet engine was clearly the way ahead and after the war was over, Camm turned his hand to the design of these sleek new fighters, with the Hunter being the favourite of many schoolboys (this writer included) and RAF fighter pilots and which formed the mainstay of the RAF’s fighter force in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

However, it was the Harrier that was arguably Camm’s most revolutionary design; able to take off from non-airfield locations such as motorways, this was the ideal aircraft for the nuclear age which was quickly embraced by the Americans and built by them under licence for the US Marine Corps as the AV8B. The Harrier in its carrier borne guise as the Sea Harrier also ensured British victory in the Falklands War and has only been recently retired by a short sighted, parsimonious government (where have we heard that before?)

Sydney Camm was knighted in 1953 for his services to the aircraft industry but never really retired and at the time of his death in 1966, was working on the design of an aircraft capable of travelling at Mach 4. It is indeed a sobering thought to consider that this man started working at Hawker’s only twenty years after the Wright Brothers pioneering powered flight. He was indeed a truly remarkable man.

Published Sources:

Dowding of Fighter Command - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2008
Hurricane - Leo McInstry, John Murray 2010
The Big Show - Pierre Clostermann, Cassell 2004
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000

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