The forgotten history of Hawker Hurricanes

Hawker Hurricanes, such as this one photographed at RAF Biggin Hill in the 1970s, were based at RAF Drem during WWII. Picture: Malcolm Fife
Hawker Hurricanes, such as this one photographed at RAF Biggin Hill in the 1970s, were based at RAF Drem during WWII. Picture: Malcolm Fife
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A new type of fighter plane revolutionised aerial combat in the Second World War. This advanced model was responsible for downing more German fighters than any other RAF aircraft during the six-year conflict.

It wasn’t the famous Supermarine Spitfire - it was the Hawker Hurricane.

RAF Drem was also home to North American Mustang fighter planes flown by the Polish 309 Squadron. Picture: Malcolm Fife

RAF Drem was also home to North American Mustang fighter planes flown by the Polish 309 Squadron. Picture: Malcolm Fife

The Hurricane was designed by aeronautical engineer Sydney Camm in 1933, the first monoplane to be made for the RAF before the war. Until prototypes were flown in late 1935, Gloster Gladiators with their ageing biplane designs were used by the RAF.

In early 1938, a Hurricane piloted by Squadron Leader JW Gillan made the trip from Scotland to RAF Northolt in London in just over 45 minutes at an average speed of 409mph. Impressed with the speed, relatively stability and durability of the design, the Air Ministry ordered 600 of the Rolls-Royce Merlin-engined planes to be built.

Military historian and author Malcolm Fife has studied both the Hawker Hurricane and the history behind RAF Drem; a now-defunct World War I and II airbase with grass runways in East Lothian. Along with an array of other fighter aircraft, Hurricanes flew from the base in defence of Scotland’s eastern coastline during the Second World War.

Malcolm said: “The Hurricane was more the white Transit van or workhorse, whereas the Spitfire was the sportscar. That’s why more people remember the Spitfire than the Hurricane today.

The Hurricane was more the white Transit van, whereas the Spitfire was the sportscar

Malcolm Fife, military historian and author

“But despite the Spitfire’s higher speed, the Hurricane was easier to service. It used traditional construction techniques, with canvas covering the outer wing in the Mk1 versions of the plane. It also had a metal and wooden skeleton which meant that bullets and cannon shots could pass through it without too much damage.”

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The Spitfire by comparison featured a metal stressed skin, making it much harder to repair in the field than a Hurricane. This was decisive in regions of the North African theatre, where parts and supplies were harder to come by for Allied forces. As a result, the Hawker Hurricane garnered a reputation as a durable fighter during its service, seeing action across the European, Tropical and African theatres of war.

RAF Drem - which had previously been known as West Fenton Aerodrome and then Gullane Aerodrome, was one of the first bases to receive the new plane for the pilots of 111 Squadron to use.

Malcolm's new book considers the role of the Hawker Hurricane in downing more enemy planes than the Supermarine Spitfire during WWII. Picture: Malcolm Fife

Malcolm's new book considers the role of the Hawker Hurricane in downing more enemy planes than the Supermarine Spitfire during WWII. Picture: Malcolm Fife

The base was pressed into service in 1939 to protect the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh and Scapa Flow in Orkney from attacks by German Luftwaffe bombers, with the Hawker’s more glamorous counterpart the Supermarine Spitfire also delivered to Drem’s 602 Squadron.

“43 Squadron were based at Drem for only 6 months in early 1941, yet they also had Hurricanes”, Malcolm added. “They had been formed in 1916 at an airfield underneath Stirling Castle but, like other squadrons, had to move base as the war progressed.”

During this time, a small yet effect scientific breakthrough was made at the base when the Drem Lighting System came into being. Invented by Station Commander “Batchy” Atcherly, a series of shrouded lights were mounted on 10ft high poles around the airfield to be visible only to aircraft arriving to land at certain heights and angles. This development made it much safer for Hurricanes and Spitfires to land at night, thus elimating the problems previously caused by the aircraft’s long nose and blind spots which obscured the pilot’s vision.

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RAF Drem was named after the village of Drem where it was based in East Linton. Picture: Malcolm Fife

RAF Drem was named after the village of Drem where it was based in East Linton. Picture: Malcolm Fife

For much of the conflict, RAF Drem was home to Hurricanes, which occasionally shared the runways with American Mustang fighter planes. Research by Malcolm Fife found that the last squadron of Hurricanes were operational at the base until 1944, when the ageing machines were shifted away by their Polish squadron due to a lack of German air raids over the Firth of Forth.

Fife estimates that as much as 55 per cent of German losses during the Battle of Britain were due to Hawker Hurricanes, compared to 42 per cent wrought by Spitfires.

By war’s end in 1945, more than 14,000 Hurricanes had seen action on both sides of the conflict. After passing into the hands of the Admiralty, the base was closed and is now home to a small museum commemorating the history of the base.

- Malcolm Fife’s ‘A History of RAF Drem At War’ is available to purchase now, and examines the role of Hurricanes and Spitfires as well as the base’s larger history over two World Wars.

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