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 Ironically, although this design was outdated, it did mean that the Hurricane was able to withstand a tremendous amount of punishment and still be capable of relatively quick repair.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

Saturday 8 January 2011

Lord's at War

With cricket in the news due to the victorious exploits of the England team in Australia, perhaps now is a good time to write about Lord's Cricket Ground in wartime, then as now headquarters of Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), English cricket and surely the spiritual home of the World game, as this was and remains the ground at which every player around the World wants to play.

In 1939, this famous old ground had already been in existence since 1814 and was well established as the home of cricket. The domestic cricket season had already come to an abrupt end on 1st September 1939 - two days before the declaration of war - and the ground was becoming a hive of activity as many of the buildings on the adjoining Nursery Ground were requisitioned by the RAF. This part of the ground was to be used by 903 Squadron Balloon Barrage, part of London's defences against low flying enemy aircraft. At the opposite end of the ground, many of the buildings at the Pavilion End were used as the RAF's No. 1 Aircrew Reception Area, where many new recruits had their first taste of service life with many of them later making the ultimate sacrifice. Today a small unobtrusive bronze plaque on the pavilion records this fact. The ground was also used as Auxiliary Fire Station 11V of the AFS and the excellent Lord's Museum today contains some wonderful photographs of the usual collection of converted London taxis converted into makeshift fire engines parked at the perimeter of the playing area.

Although many test cricketers who had previously graced the hallowed turf such as the Middlesex players Bill Edrich, Jack Robertson and Denis and Leslie Compton as well as other England players like Len Hutton and Hedley Verity of Yorkshire had left their counties to join the fighting services, cricket at Lords still carried on, albeit in a reduced form and with a leaning towards inter service matches. These matches were of huge importance, not just for the morale of the public but also to demonstrate that whatever the Nazis could throw at Great Britain, cricket and cricketers could not and would not be intimidated in the face of tyranny.

One of these inter service matches was tinged with tragedy - a match between the Home Guards of Surrey and Sussex, held on July 23rd 1942 was abandoned when Andrew Ducat, the former Surrey & England cricketer (and England footballer) died at the crease from a heart attack whilst batting for the Surrey Home Guard. He had been retired from cricket since 1931 and was aged 56 at the time of his death. He had become a sports journalist and his tragic record remains that of being the only player in history to die during a match at Lord's.

To counterbalance the sadness of this event, in 1944 came another incident which showed both defiance and humour in equal measure. On July 29th 1944, the Army played the RAF in a representative match and whilst Middlesex and England batsman Jack Robertson was at the wicket batting for the Army, the unmistakeable sound of a V1 Flying Bomb could be heard approaching the ground. To make matters worse, the engine cut out and for a short time it looked as if the missile would land on the cricket ground. The players threw themselves to the turf, with one of them taking shelter behind the stumps! Fortunately for all concerned, the doodlebug fell harmlessly short of the ground in Albert Road, near Regent's Park. Starved of 'live' sport these matches were always well attended by Londoners and off duty service personnel and when play resumed, Jack Robertson hit the second ball after the re-start - a long hop from Bob Wyatt - for six. Not surprisingly, the crowd erupted at this show of defiance from the Middlesex and England opening batsman.

The famous ground was not always immune from damage. On October 16th 1940, at the height of the First Blitz, an Oil Bomb fell onto the outfield at the Nursery End near the sightscreens. When the bomb burst open, it revealed the photograph of a young German officer, across which was written the message 'With Compliments.' The only other direct damage sustained was when one of the houses owned by MCC, 6 Elm Tree Road, which adjoined the ground was destroyed by a direct hit also during 1940.

There were other incidents such as the time when one of the resident barrage balloons went out of control and wrapped it's cable around Old Father Time, bringing the iconic weather vane tumbling down from his lofty perch onto the seats of the Grand Stand. There was also an incident straight from the script of 'Dad's Army' when the local Home Guard was reported to the MCC Committee for using the garden of another of the Club's houses, this time at 2 Grove End Road, for 'bomb throwing practice.'

As the war went on, some of those illustrious names who had graced Lord's before the war made the ultimate sacrifice and were never to return. Kenneth Farnes, a fast bowler of Cambridge University and Essex had first played for England in 1934 but was still only 30 when his plane crashed on a night flying exercise in 1941.

Then, in July 1943 arguably the most famous English sportsman to fall in the Second World War, Hedley Verity of Yorkshire and England was killed whilst serving with the Army in Sicily. Aged 38, he was a Captain in the Green Howards and was leading his men in an assault on a German strongpoint when he was struck in the chest by mortar shell fragments. His men last saw him on the ground, his head being cradled by his batman and murmuring 'Keep going, keep going and get them out of that farmhouse.' He died a few days later on 31st July 1943 in an Italian POW Camp Hospital at Catania - his last words were said to have been 'I think I have played my last innings for Yorkshire.' An excellent off spinner, Verity had a special connection with Lord's, having taken 15 wickets against Australia in the 1934 Ashes test match at the ground, including 14 in one day and dismissing Don Bradman twice in the game, which incidentally was the only time in the 20th Century that England beat Australia in a Lord's test match.

In August 1944, Maurice Turnbull, who was a fine all round sportsman, captain of Glamorgan, an England cricketer and who had played rugby, hockey and squash for Wales, was killed instantly by a sniper's bullet at Montchamp in Normandy, aged 33 and with probably many more years of international cricket ahead of him after the war had fate not intervened.

In May 1945, when victory in Europe was won, the Secretary of MCC, Sir Pelham Warner arranged what became known as the five 'Victory Tests' - not test matches in the conventional sense - but three day matches, England v Australia, three of which were played at Lord's - the others were at Bramall Lane, Sheffield and at Old Trafford, Manchester. These matches were played in front of huge crowds who had been starved of cricket and who were treated to a festival of attacking, open cricket, played in a tremendous spirit. The series was drawn two matches each, with one drawn match and the exuberant play seemed to reflect the joy and relief that the players and spectators alike felt on emerging from the war into a hopeful peace. Cricket had survived and for those players who had served in the war, the game was put into perspective by the great Australian all-rounder Keith Miller, who had served on operations over Germany as a Mosquito pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force and who once when asked about the pressures of playing test cricket famously replied 'I'll tell you about pressure. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not!'

Published Sources:

The Lost Seasons: Cricket in Wartime 1939-45 - Eric Midwinter, Methuen 1987
Double Century, The Story of MCC and Cricket - Tony Lewis, Guild Publishing 1987
Wisden at Lord's - edited by Graeme Wright - John Wisden & Co/MCC 2005