The Hawker Sea Hurricane was the sea-launched version of the legendary Hawker Hurricane of Battle of Britain fame. The Mark 1 version of the Hurricane, designed by Sidney Camm, was very much one that needed a runway to take off and land. Camm probably did not give much if any thought about a sea-launched Hurricane. Yet when the time came the small fighter proved to be as adept at sea as it was flying from land.
The use of the Hurricane as a sea-launched aircraft started almost by accident. Land-based Hurricanes were used by the RAF to give fighter cover to British troops during their withdrawal from the disastrous campaign in Norway in 1940. On June 7th 1940, pilots flying Hurricanes from 46 Squadron were ordered to fly to Norway, do what they could to support the troops, land in Norway, destroy their aircraft and return to Britain via ship. The CO, Squadron Leader K B Cross, believed that the RAF needed as many fighters as was possible and asked the pilots from his squadron for volunteers to land their aircraft on the deck of ‘HMS Glorious’. All the pilots volunteered and on June 8th all ten Hurricanes were landed on the aircraft carrier. On June 9th, ‘HMS Glorious’ was sunk in an attack by the ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’. Only two of the pilots survived but they had proved that it was possible to land fighter aircraft onto the deck of an aircraft carrier even if that aircraft was specifically designed for this purpose.
On August 2nd 1940, 12 Hurricanes took off from ‘HMS Argus’ and landed in Malta to bolster the island’s defences.
Many Sea Hurricanes actually started off as land-based aircraft. Initially few maritime versions were built from scratch. The main changes that were made to the Hurricanes to enable them to be used at sea were around those areas in the frame that were put under a great deal more stress as a result of catapult launches and arrester-hook landings. The extra strengthening of the aircraft increased its weight by 150lbs. This impacted its maximum speed, which was reduced to 280 mph. Its rate of climb was also reduced. Despite this, the firepower that the Sea Hurricane brought with it was a greatly welcomed asset in the war at sea.
The Fleet Air Arm ordered nearly 800 Sea Hurricanes. The first version was the Sea Hurricane IA. Its primary task was to protect convoys against FW Condor bombers. The first Sea Hurricanes joined No 880 squadron at Arbroath, Scotland, in January 1941. In July 1941, they joined their aircraft carrier, ‘HMS Furious’. 880 Squadron was also the first to shot down an enemy plane using Sea Hurricanes when a Dornier Do 18 was shot down off Norway.
Later Sea Hurricanes were equipped with 20mm cannon as opposed to the traditional eight .303 machine guns.
The most common way for assisting a take-off from an aircraft carrier was via rocket-fired catapult. The Sea Hurricanes were placed on expendable carriers (that once the launch had taken place simply fell into the sea) and a solid fuel rocket would launch the fighter into the air. The power of the rockets was such that parts of a carrier that were exposed to the heat had to be specially protected. The launch procedure placed the pilot under a great deal of stress – physical and emotional. Not only did he have to get the Hurricane to full throttle, he had to brace himself against the 3.5 g-force his body was put through as the launch took place. While this was happening, a pilot would have been very conscious of the Hurricane’s tendency to pull to one side on take-off and would have needed to be in full control of his rudder and flaps to counterbalance this. Any failure would have resulted in a stall and the aircraft would have fallen into the sea. Few could have doubted that take-off was a very hazardous process.
Once in the air, the Sea Hurricane had a limited operational time though the Mark II variant was fitted with two 44-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks. During the legendary Russian convoys, Sea Hurricanes gave vital air cover to the ships in a convoy. The pilots frequently tried to land at air bases in northern USSR once their fuel ran low. The value of the sea-launched Hurricanes was shown during Convoy PQ18 when five Luftwaffe aircraft were destroyed and seventeen damaged. Four Sea Hurricanes were lost with three pilots being rescued.
Sea Hurricanes played an important role in the battle to save Malta in 1942, especially ‘Operation Pedestal’. This was one of the last times that the aircraft was used in anger.
After Malta, Sea Hurricanes were primarily used as escorts for convoys and were carried on escort carriers. By mid-1944 the Sea Hurricanes were all but removed from frontline service and replaced by aircraft specifically designed to be flown at sea. However, the Sea Hurricane had served the Fleet Air Arm well as any help that could have been given to the convoys was vital to the UK and, for the Artic Convoys, the USSR as well.