SEA HURRICANE IA – THE HURRICAT ‘CATAFIGHTER’
By the end of January, 1941, Hawker had an order for 50 field-modification kits to enable surplus RAF Hurricanes to be sent to sea as single-shot air defence system fitted to key merchant ships. The hapless pilots had to ditch alongside their mothership.
Some 35 merchant ships – designated Catapult Armed Merchantmen (CAM ships) - were rapidly fitted with the crane, catapult and between one and three Hurricanes. Five Royal Navy Auxiliary vessels were likewise equipped (and designated Fighter Catapult Ships).
The aircraft themselves were very tired discarded RAF machines, flown by RAF pilots and maintained by RAF mechanics.
The first ‘Hurricat’ launch in anger was on June 18, 1941, when the FCS HMS Maplin launched her aircraft against a German shadower. The Fw200 Condor was shot down.
The‘Hurricats’ was soon given a 44 gallon overload tank to give the pilots the opportunity to return to land after launch – a vital boost to morale given the aircraft’s horrific ditching record. The slding cockpit hood was also modified to make it easier to jettision, and an inflatable dinghy fitted.
Eventually, 250 Hurricanes were modified for the catapults.
SEA HURRICANE IB – THE HOOKED HURRICANE
Letter from Vice Admiral, Naval Air Stations to Secretary of Admiralty [ADM 1/ 13522] 21 September 1941
Selection of Hurricanes for conversion to
Be pleased to represent to Their Lordships that the Vice Admiral Naval Air Stations does not consider that the selection of Hurricanes for conversion to Sea Hurricanes has up to the present been altogether satisfactory.
2. Many of those selected have been of the L.P. and N. series, and most of these have had previous service in Royal Air Force Operational Squadrons. One particular case may be quoted; N. 2455 has since October 1939 been in two different Royal Air Force Squadrons, took part in the Battle of Britain, and was twice extensively damaged, once by forced landing and once by enemy action, before being converted to Sea Hurricane.
3. All these old aircraft suffer from a multitude of minor defects and the Stations have had to expend many weeks’ work in rendering them fit for allotment to a Squadron, and although after this work had been completed the aircraft can be considered as serviceable, it is thought from consideration of their age and previous history that it is most likely that they will continue to suffer from minor defects during their remaining life.
4. It is further considered that even if they can be maintained serviceable, the effect on morale of allotting aircraft of this type to a new Squadron forming is deplorable. Many of the Pilots joining will be young and enthusiastic officers, joining an Operational Squadron for the first time, and to be given an aircraft which can only be described as a ‘cast off from the Royal Air Force’ causes a considerable damping of their ardour.
5. It is submitted that in future only new Hurricanes or those with a minimum of flying hours should be selected for conversion to Sea Hurricanes.
Minute from Prime Minister to Secretary of Chiefs of Staff Committee [ADM 116/ 5348] 30 September 1941
Fighters for aircraft carriers
When I visited INDOMITABLE last week, I was astonished to learn that the handful of Hurricanes to be allotted to this vital war unit were only of the lower type Hurricane Ones. I trust it may be arranged that only the finest aeroplanes that can do the work go into all aircraft-carriers. All this year it has been apparent that the power to launch the highest class fighters from aircraft-carriers may reopen to the Fleet great strategic doors which have been closed against them. The aircraft-carrier should have supreme priority in the quality and character of suitable types.
The Hurricane did need modification in order to sustain ongoing carrier operations.
So a handful of Hurricane Mk Is, mostly deemed surplus to RAF requirements, were reluctantly handed over for navalisation.
These were re-designated Hurricane Mk IBs to denote the fact they were carrier fighters, not CAM-ship aircraft.
An A-frame arrester hook was fitted to a test aircraft in March 1941 and delivered to the RAE at Farnborough for evaluation. It was to become the prototype for the IB.
The arrester hook was given a retaining spring to absorb some of the shock from grabbing a wire, as well as preventing the hook from bouncing up and damaging the fuselage. A green light in the cockpit would notify the pilot the hook was down and a carrier landing was possible.
Some strengthening of the airframe was also found to be necessary to cope with the deceleration forces experienced when landing aboard a carrier.
The provision of a folding wing was examined in 1940. But the desperate need for aircraft designers for next-generation aircraft, as well as concerns over the Hurricane’s ability to accommodate the extra weight, soon saw this idea abandoned.
This had immediate and significant consequences. Only the older carriers such as HMS Eagle and HMS Ark Royal could stow the unfolded Sea Hurricane below deck. HMS Indomitable, with its large forward lift, would not be complete until 1941. HMS Illustrious, Formidable and Victorious would be limited to deck parks of only six or so machines.
This left the Sea Hurricanes exposed to the weather, slung out over the open sea on outrigger struts when aboard fleet carriers, or simply lashed to the decks of the early escort carriers.
But the inherent ruggedness of the Hawker design handled these conditions well. Serviceability – given the conditions – remained surprisingly high.
The first FAA squadron to receive the IB was 880 which would later be assigned to HMS Furious. The aircraft were delivered in January 1941, but only embarked for sea operations in July. A short time later, on July 21, the type scored its first victory: An 880 Squadron Sea Hurricane shot down a reconnaissance Do 18 flying boat off Norway.
By the end of 1941, some 100 Sea Hurricanes IBs equipped 801, 806 and 885 squadrons. These were serving on HMS Argus, Eagle, Formidable and Victorious.
Eventually 32 FAA squadrons were to be issued with the Sea Hurricane IB. It saw service in the Atlantic, the Russian Convoys and the Malta Convoys.
But it would be Operation Pedestal that would mark the type’s high point. Soon after the Mk IIC would begin to surplant it.
Many Mk IB’s would again be modified. They would be given four 20mm cannons and redesignated Mk ICs. These returned to operations early in 1942.
About 70 also had their engines upgraded with the XX-series Merlins. These were reclassified Mk IICs.
SEA HURRICANE IC
First deployed with 811 Squadron in January 1942, the IC was simply the grafting of the four-cannon Hurricane IIC's outer wings with a Merlin III engined Hurricane Mk I.
Naturally, the heavier guns compromised the fighter's speed. The MkIC would achieve 256kts at 15,000ft.
The most famous Sea Hurricane IC was, ‘Dickie’ Cork’s personal machine during Operation Pedestal. It was the only example of its type carried aboard HMS Indomitable at that time, and its 20mm armament gave Cork several kills.
Limited numbers of the IC were to see service aboard HMS Eagle (when she was sunk in Pedestal), Furious and Victorious.
The up-engined Sea Hurricane IIC would displace the type in late 1942.
SEA HURRICANE IIC
The RAF attempted to extend the functionality of its Hurricane force by giving it four 20mm cannon in the place of its earlier octet of .303mg. Unfortunately, the Hispano I and II cannons only came with 100 rounds per gun.
Later machines could also carry four 'zero-length' rockets, two under each wing.
Some 81 Hurricane IIC airframes, again originally intended for the RAF, were taken aside in May 1942 and fitted with the necessary arrester hooks and naval radios for carrier use.
The 1460hp Merlin XX was capable of pulling the Sea Hurricane along at 342mph at 22,000ft, or 322mph at 13,500ft. At economical settings, internal fuel could take it some 460 miles. With two external 44 Imp gal drop tanks, this extended to 908 miles.
Eventually some 18 FAA squadrons would operate the type. It was also the last Sea Hurricane in operational service aboard the escort carriers HMS Vindex and Nairana.
The high point of the IIC’s operations would be Operation Torch in November 1942. Some 40 Sea Hurricanes were embarked aboard the escort carriers HMS Avenger, Biter and Dasher. Avenger was torpedoed by U-155 on November 15. She sank rapidly, taking with her the entire complement of aircraft and most of her crew.
The last Sea Hurricane deliveries were made in August 1943, but the type was already being withdrawn from front-line squadrons. From this point the Sea Hurricanes would steadily be to be supplanted by the more efficient folding-wing Martlets (suddenly available as the USN restocked on Hellcats) and the new - but 'difficult' - Corsair made its first appearances.
The last unit operating the Sea Hurricane was 835 Squadron, which converted to Martlets in September 1944.