Which is better, the Supermarine Spitfire or the Hawker Hurricane? That question has been asked by pilots, historians and air enthusiasts since 1940. It does not have a definitive answer, however, each aircraft had its strong points and its disadvantages. Although both aircraft played a decisive role in the Battle of Britain they could not have been more different from one another. Each was created under a completely different set of circumstances and came from totally different backgrounds and antecedents. The Spitfire owed its famous graceful lines and speed to its early ancestors, evolving as a fighter from a series of extremely successful racing seaplanes that were designed in the 1920s–and 1930s. All of those racers were built by the firm of Supermarine Ltd. and were designed by one man–Reginald J. Mitchell. The innovative Mitchell has been called one of the most brilliant designers Britain has ever produced. His designs really were ahead of their time. In 1925, when he began building racing airplanes, streamlining was considered more a theoretical exercise than an engineering possibility. But Mitchell made engineering theories more than just possibilities; he turned them into brilliant successes.
Mitchell’s efforts at streamlining produced aircraft that were not only graceful but also among the fastest in the world. In 1927, his S.5 racer won the Schneider Trophy with a speed of 281.65 mph. Four years later, his elegant S.6B captured the Schneider Trophy outright for Britain with a speed of 340.08. Later, on September 29, 1931, his S.6B, fitted with a special ‘Sprint’ engine with its horsepower upgraded to 2,550, pushed the world speed record to 407.5 mph.
During that time, Britain’s Air Ministry began looking for a replacement for the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) standard fighters, the Bristol Bulldog and Gloster Gladiator, both of which were biplanes. Knowing he had the experience and the reputation he acquired by designing his Schneider Trophy winners going for him, Mitchell decided to make a bid for the Air Ministry’s contract to design this new fighter. The Supermarine firm had been taken over by the industrial giant Vickers by this time; the new corporation was known as Supermarine Aviation Works (Vickers) Ltd.
The first prototype of the aircraft that would become known as the Spitfire was an odd-looking affair. Officially designated the F.7/30, it was a gull-winged monoplane with an open cockpit and spatted undercarriage. It looked more like a German Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber than the Battle of Britain fighter. Mitchell was not satisfied with his F.7/30 for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was underpowered–its Rolls-Royce Goshawk II engine gave it a speed of only 238 mph. So he began to experiment. He added a larger engine, enclosed the cockpit, and gave his new fighter a retractable undercarriage with smaller, thinner wings. These thin, elliptically shaped wings would become the fighter’s most recognizable feature. Mitchell continued to modify his design in 1933 and 1934. The larger engine he had in mind was supplied by Rolls-Royce–a new, 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled power plant called simply the PV-12. Rolls-Royce would rename this engine the Merlin–a name that would become legend among aircraft power plants. The new fighter, now designated the F.10/35, developed into a low-wing interceptor with retractable undercarriage, flaps, enclosed cockpit, and oxygen for the pilot. The Merlin engine promised to give it all the speed Mitchell wanted and the Air Ministry would require. For armament, he gave his fighter four wing-mounted .303-caliber machine guns. Air Vice Marshal Hugh ‘Stuffy’ Dowding, Air Member for Supply and Research, had been in charge of the RAF’s technical development since 1930. He was favorably impressed by Mitchell’s F.10/35 except for one item-he wanted eight machine guns. Recent tests had shown that the minimum firepower needed to shoot down an enemy bomber was six or, preferably, eight guns, each capable of firing 1,000 rounds per minute. With that armament, it was estimated that a pilot would need only two seconds to destroy an enemy bomber in the air-the time during which a fighter pilot would be able to keep the enemy in his sights, it was thought.
Dowding had the future in mind. He knew that the German Luftwaffe was expanding and that Adolf Hitler’s ambition would probably lead to an armed conflict between Britain and Germany. His farsightedness would pay off eight years later, in 1940, when he was chief of RAF Fighter Command.
Because of his aircraft’s elliptical wings, Mitchell was able to fit four Browning .303 caliber machine guns into each wing without increasing drag or radically altering the design. With that armament, along with the RollsRoyce Merlin engine and the other features he had designed, Mitchell knew that his fighter would be a match for any aircraft the Luftwaffe might produce. Now all he had to do was convince the Air Ministry.
Mitchell’s fighter first took to the air on March 5, 1936. It had been given a name-the Spitfire-by Vickers and made official by the Air Ministry. (Mitchell himself did not like the name very much; he called it ‘a bloody silly name.’) This Spitfire was flown by J. ‘Mutt’ Summers, chief test pilot for Vickers and Supermarine, out of the Eastleigh airport in Hampshire. It was unarmed and fitted with a fixed-pitch wooden propeller. After landing from his test flight, Summers told his ground crew, ‘I don’t want anything touched.’ Although some alterations would be made, he realized from just one flight that the Spitfire was an outstanding fighter.
Following some persuasive arguments from Air Vice Marshal Dowding, the Air Ministry agreed with Summers’ assessment. With a maximum speed of 342 mph, the plane was classed as the fastest military aircraft in the world. Less than three months after Summers’ test flight, on June 3, 1936, a contract was placed with Supermarine for 300 Spitfires. Six hundred more were ordered the next year. By the time Britain went to war with Germany on September 3, 1939, the war that Air Vice Marshal Dowding had foreseen, 2,160 Spitfires were on order for the RAF.
But R.J. Mitchell never lived to see the success of his creation. In 1937, at the age of 42, he died of cancer.
Although the Spitfire was the product of one man’s imagination, the Hawker Hurricane did not owe its origins to any single individual. It was the result of an evolutionary process that began with the fabric-covered biplanes of World War I. Revolutionary for its time-it was the RAF’s first monoplane fighter and its first fighter to exceed 300 mph-the Hurricane was still a wood-and-fabric airplane. It was once referred to as ‘a halfway house between the old biplanes and the new Spitfires.’ Sidney Camm, Hawker Aircraft’s chief designer, was the leading force behind the Hurricane’s development. In the early 1930s, when the Air Ministry began looking to replace its biplanes with a more modem fighter, Camm already had a design for what he called his Fury monoplane, a modification of the graceful and highly maneuverable Fury biplane. The Fury was the direct descendant of Sopwith’s Pup, Triplane, Camel, Dolphin and Snipe-fighters of World War I. Hawker Aircraft Ltd. had begun its life as Sopwith Ltd.
Apart from the fact that the Hurricane was a monoplane, its major differences from the Fury were its power plant and armament. The Fury was powered by the Rolls-Royce Kestrel, which gave it a maximum speed of 184 mph. But the Kestrel was much too small for the Hurricane. When Camm heard about RollsRoyce’s PV-12 engine, the Merlin, he modified his new monoplane to accommodate it.
The original armament of the new Hawker monoplane consisted of two .303-caliber Vickers Mark V machine guns mounted in the fuselage, and two .303-caliber Browning machine guns in the wings. But when Dowding decided that eight guns would be needed to destroy an enemy bomber, Camm changed his design. Just as Mitchell had done with his Spitfire, Camm incorporated eight Browning machine guns in his new fighter, four in each wing. But while Mitchell spaced the guns across the wing’s leading edge, Camm grouped four guns together on each wing; this made for a tighter and more destructive concentration of fire.
When the Hawker plane made its first test flight on November 6, 1935, it was still without a name-the Air Ministry did not approve ‘Hurricane,’ the name suggested by the manufacturer, until June 1936. The Hurricane’s maiden flight impressed the Air Ministry, but there were still some who had their doubts about such an ‘unconventional’ airplane-one that had eight machine guns and an enclosed cockpit. The first order of 600 Hurricanes was not placed by the Air Ministry until seven months after the initial test flight.
Enclosed cockpits, retractable landing gears and other features that would become standard for World War II-era airplanes were considered too unorthodox by many authorities, even as late as the mid-to-late 1930s. High-ranking officers who had flown during World War I were accustomed to open cockpits, fixed wheels, struts and supporting cables. Wood and fabric biplanes were familiar; monocoque monoplanes were new and strange to them. And the ‘old school’ types had a good deal of influence in the pre-1939 RAF.
Some World War I pilots even insisted that the monoplane would always be outclassed by the biplane, because a biplane could always outmaneuver any monoplane. If those officers had had their way, the RAF would have faced the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf-109s with obsolete Gloster Gladiators in the spring and summer of 1940. It was that line of thinking that made Dowding’s job of upgrading and modernizing the RAF more difficult.
The first RAF unit to be equipped with the Hawker Hurricane was No. 111 Squadron, which received its new fighters late in 1937. Production went into high gear during the following year, after the Air Ministry realized that the coming conflict was not far off. By the time war was declared, just under 500 Hurricanes had been delivered. Eighteen squadrons had been equipped.
Although it may appear from their close completion dates that the Hurricane and Spitfire were developed in parallel, the fact that they appeared on the scene at roughly the same time was purely coincidental. Work on the Spitfire design actually began several years before the Hurricane, but because it was a more complex and innovative airplane, it took longer to develop. Eventually, 14,000 Hurricanes would be built and 22,000 Spitfires (including Royal Navy Seafires).
During the Battle of Britain, between July and September 1940, 19 squadrons of Supermarine Spitfires (372 aircraft at peak on August 30) and 33 squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes (709 aircraft on August 30) faced the Luftwaffe from airports throughout southern England. Other fighters were also employed, such as the grossly underpowered Boulton Paul Defiant, which was no match for the Messerschmitt Bf-109 in spite of its four-gun power turret (neither was the twin-engine Bristol Blenheim). A squadron of Gloster Gladiator biplanes was actually assigned to defend the Royal Naval dockyards at Portsmouth. But the brunt of the fighting was taken on by the Spitfire and the Hurricane.
The Luftwaffe had tried to destroy the RAF, especially the RAF Fighter Command, during the Battle of Britain and had conspicuously failed. This failure was almost entirely due to the ‘unconventional’ creations of Reginald J. Mitchell and Sidney Camm. Dowding’s insistence upon equipping the RAF with these two fighters while he was still attached to Supply and Research paid large dividends in the skies over the south of England during the summer of 1940. But the question persists as to which was better, the Hurricane or the Spitfire. Pilots have been making comparisons between the two airplanes for more than 50 years. Wing Commander Robert Stanford-Tuck said the Spitfire was like ‘a fine Thoroughbred racehorse, while the dear old Hurricane was rather like a heavy workhorse.’
‘After many years of reflection,’ said a former Spitfire pilot during the 1980s, ‘I take the view that it took both of them to win the Battle of Britain, and neither would have achieved it on its own.
For attacking formations of bombers, the Hurricane offered better visibility and much greater steadiness for shooting. The Spitfire was a slightly higher performance airplane-faster, a better rate of climb, and much more responsive to the controls, according to StanfordTuck. In other words, each had its good points and bad points. Or, as another pilot said, ‘The Spitfire and the Hurricane complemented each other.’
A former pilot of No. 65 (Spitfire) Squadron observed that the Hurricane inflicted greater damage on the enemy bombers than did the Spitfire; but without the Spitfire squadrons to fight the Messerschmitts, the Hurricane-inflicted casualties might not have been enough to win the battle.
By 1939, the Spitfire was significantly faster and had a higher rate of climb, according to Dennis Richards and Richard Hough in The Battle of Britain, and they noted, ‘In handling, there was little to choose between the two,’ The authors went on to point out that the Hurricane’s twin batteries of four Brownings closely grouped together in the wings was preferred to the ‘widely scattered’ guns in the Spitfire’s wings. Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, who became an ace in spite of losing both legs in an air accident, added that the Hurricane ‘had more room in the cockpit and a better view, and the Spit’s much trickier to land … on that little, narrow undercarriage.’
Peter Townsend, who flew both Spitfires and Hurricanes, said that Spitfires were ‘faster and more nimble, the Hurricane more maneuverable at its own speed and undoubtedly the better gun platform.’ One of Townsend’s fellow Battle of Britain pilots defended the Spitfire: ‘Our Spits were so well balanced they would fly themselves. Many pilots owe their lives to this property …. If a pilot passed out through lack of oxygen, the Spitfire would fall away in a dive and correct itself’ But another of Townsend’s contemporaries spoke up for the Hurricane: ‘ [It] was built with the strength of a battleship, had an engine of great power and reliability, and was throughout an excellent and accurate flying machine.’ Some of the Hurricane’s detractors (or Spitfire’s defenders) point to the Hawker fighter’s wood-and-fabric construction as one of its failings. But author Len Deighton claimed that this ‘old-fashioned’ construction was actually one of the airplane’s advantages. He noted that the exploding cannon shells of the Messerschmitt Bf- 109, which inflicted heavy damage to metal skin, had less effect on any sort of girder work-in the same way that bomb blasts so often failed to topple the skeletal British radar towers. He pointed out that the RAF had very few men who understood the complexities of the Spitfire’s stressed-metal construction, but that its airframe and flight mechanics had spent their lives servicing and rigging wood-and-fabric aircraft like the Hurricane. In consequence, many seriously damaged Hurricanes were repaired in squadron workshops while badly damaged Spitfires were being written off.
Deighton also noted that the Hurricane had a tighter turning radius than the Spitfire-800 feet for the Hurricane compared with 880 for the Spitfire. This meant that the Hurricane could turn inside the Spitfire, like a sports car outmaneuvering a sedan–a vital attribute in air combat.
The Spitfire’s job was to engage the enemy’s fighters, to draw the Messerschmitts away from the German bomber formations. Then, when the Bf-109s were out of position, the Hurricanes would attack the bombers. That was the plan, but it didn’t always work out that way. Hurricane pilots found themselves fighting Messerschmitts as often as did the Spitfire pilots.
German pilots had a great deal more respect for the Spitfire than for the Hurricane. The standard wisecrack among Luftwaffe fighter pilots was that the Hurricane was ‘a nice little plane to shoot down.’ But this could be attributed to Spitfire snobbery-no German fighter pilot wanted to admit that he had been badly shot up by a fighter made of fabric and wood.
Some Spitfire pilots shared that bias in regard to the Hurricane. A former pilot of No. 65 Squadron admitted that he had become slightly partisan on the relative merits of the Hurricane and the Spitfire, and noted ‘I would not like to have been a Hurricane pilot in 1940 and greatly respect the courage and achievements of those who were.’ Among RAF pilots, the Spitfire-vs.-Hurricane controversy went on and on, with no quarter given by either side. And the argument was not always confined to the officers mess.
Shortly before the Battle of Britain began, a practice air raid had been arranged between a Spitfire squadron and a Hurricane squadron. The Hurricanes were to make a mock bomb run over the Kenley airfield in Surrey. Number 64 Squadron was to send six Spitfires to intercept the incoming ‘bombers.’ It all looked like a nice, easy practice drill on paper, but whoever planned the exercise had not reckoned on the rivalry between Spitfire and Hurricane pilots.
Each side thought its own airplane was the best. Now they had their golden opportunity to demonstrate which fighter really was superior, once and for all. The exercise began according to plan-the Spitfires patrolled above their aerodrome, and the Hurricanes showed up flying in bomber formation. But when the Spitfires dove to the attack, the plan quickly fell apart. When the Hurricane pilots saw their adversaries closing from behind, they broke formation and turned to meet their attackers–a highly unbomberlike maneuver! For the next several minutes, the two squadrons chased each other for miles in all directions. The strain of dogfighting quickly wore down the pilots’ enthusiasm, and both squadrons landed after several minutes of wild aerobatics. Despite the great effort, however, nothing was accomplished by the little drill. Nobody’s skills at breaking up bomber formations had improved, and neither side could brag about a clearcut victory over the other. But at least it had given the pilots something else to argue about.
The pilot at the controls of either a Hurricane or Spitfire was not the most comfortable person in the world. Both machines may have had their good points and bad points, but no one ever praised either one for its comfort or luxury. According to Wing Commander Raymond Myles Beacham Duke-Woolley, who flew with the all-American Eagle Squadrons, a fighter pilot was a lonely man. The cockpit was so narrow that his shoulders brushed against the sides whenever he rubbernecked for enemy fighters (which was constantly); his flying helmet, with his radio headset, covered his ears; his nose and mouth were covered by an oxygen mask, which also contained his microphone. He could not hear very well-even the engine roar was muffled; his vision was severely restricted, and his entire body was boxed in by the confines of the cockpit. He was, in short, not only lonely but also extremely uncomfortable.
The pilot’s disposition was not improved by the fact that he was traveling at speeds in excess of 300 mph, and he felt even more anxious when a pilot in another machine-probably just as uncomfortable-began shooting at him.
Die-hard defenders of the Hurricane are quick to comment that the Hawker aircraft is credited with shooting down more enemy aircraft than the Spitfire. The Air Ministry confirmed this with its statement, ‘The total number of enemy aircraft brought down by single-seater fighters was in the proportion of 3 by Hurricanes to 2 by Spitfires,’ and also noted, ‘the average proportion … of serviceable [aircraft] each morning was approximately 63 percent Hurricanes and 37 percent Spitfires.’ A cynic might be tempted to say that the Hurricane did most of the work, but the Spitfire got most of the glory. And the cynics would have a point. For in spite of all the facts, it is the myth that is best remembered-the myth of the Spitfire taking on the air fleets of the Luftwaffe single-handedly. In their jubilee edition of The Battle of Britain, Richard Hough and Denis Richards give their own version of the Spitfire myth: ‘The Battle of Britain, despite Fighter Command’s being down to its last few aircraft, was won by unfailingly cheerful young officers flying Spitfires … and directed by ‘Stuffy’ Dowding ……
The reason for the Hurricane’s second-class status was that it was competing not with another fighter, but with a genuine legend. William Green wrote: ‘The Supermarine Spitfire was much more than just a highly successful fighter. It was the material symbol of final victory to the British people in their darkest hour, and was probably the only fighter of the Second World War to achieve legendary status.’
The fact that the Hurricane was responsible for more enemy aircraft destroyed is eclipsed by the Spitfire’s graceful silhouette and romantic legend. Glamour usually outshines performance, in war as in love.
Both aircraft were modified many times as the war progressed; they were given larger engines, more spacious cockpits, and 20mm cannons. Both also saw active service until World War II ended in August 1945. Although they served on other fronts from Malta to Singapore, they reached their pinnacle during the high summer of 1940, when the Spitfire and Hurricane joined forces to thwart the Luftwaffe over the green fields of southern England.
In spite of their differences, both in origin and in performance, the two fighters became counterparts. Together, they turned the tide of history’s first great air battle.
This article was originally published in the November 1994 issue of Aviation History Magazine. For more great articles subscribe today!