Our forgotten freedom fighter: Why the unsung Hurricane is the true ace of the Battle of Britain

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The Independent Online

It took a lot of muscle to haul her round the sky. Burnt to cinders – like a match. It would do what you wanted it to do. Pure joy. Like flying a brick. Just incredible. It had the wonderful ability to absorb battle damage. It became a good friend right from the start, and I loved it more and more. Very reliable. I never had to worry about that Merlin engine ... you're flying very low, a couple of trees high off the ground, and you do want it to keep going. Cross-wind landings are particularly easy. At 2,000 feet and 200mph, petrol consumption is 30 gallons per hour. The cockpit is weather-proof. Against a fighter, the Hurricane was hopeless."

A few – they were, after all, The Few – pilots' comments on the Hawker Hurricane. The plain one. The dumpy one. The unsexy sister of the glamorous Spitfire, its partner in the Battle of Britain. The one which, according to some estimations (not particularly revisionist ones, either) actually won it, if winning is a term which can be applied to one of the oddest, in all respects, of military engagements in living memory.

Seventy years ago this summer – on 10 July 1940, it's generally reckoned – the Battle kicked off. The first 10 decades remain fresh in the calendar of anniversaries. After that, it's quarter-centuries, then halves, then – perhaps after 200 years – only centenaries remain, and only then for the truly significant events of the past. The Battle of Britain must surely be one, like the Battle of the Hot Gates, Thermopylae, which should be remembered for ever, not because of jingoism (these days, no can do) nor triumphalism (never been the British way) but because it was one of those battles which shaped geopolitical destiny far beyond the boundaries of the territory and the time in which it was fought.

The iconography has become a matter of folk memory. Public school chaps in silk scarves leaning against the wing-roots of their kites, twinkling-eyed and eager for a scrap. Chaps dozing in deckchairs outside the dispersal hut. Henry Hall on the wireless. A lethal cat's cradle of vapour-trails in the blue Home Counties sky. Here stumps legless Douglas Bader; behind a desk in Whitehall, Lord Beaverbrook plys his tyrranical telephone. WAAFs push coloured markers over a map in Bentley Priory while Hugh "Stuffy" Dowding, AOC Fighter Command, looks on from the observation post, marshalling his forces. Deckchairs. NAAFI tea wagons. Irvin sheepskin flying jackets, one of the great sartorial icons of the fighter-pilot though designed by an American who had previously been a Hollywood stuntman.

The other was, of course, the silk scarf. Not a matter of devil-may-care, David-Niven-style flamboyance, but a prophylactic against a neck chafed to running sores by the constant twisting and turning of the head in combat; 80 per cent of fighter kills were scored within 15 degrees of dead astern and even after an ingenious mechanic had bought, and fitted, rear-view mirrors from a local garage to his Hurricane squadron, there were still blind spots. And as Brian Milton says in his new book Hurricane: The Last Witnesses: "Shooting people in the back is perfectly acceptable behaviour for a fighter pilot on any side in any war." There, as in so many ways, the iconography is in conflict with the truth.

Another conflict with the iconography is summed up in the title of Leo McKinstry's book, published later this month, Hurricane: Victor of the Battle of Britain. We know – just as we know from the satirical drawls of Armstrong and Miller's fly-boys that flying fighters was a public school affair – that it was the Spitfire that did it, the Spitfire that left the contrails in the sky, that Jerry's alarmed cry of "Achtung Spitfeuer!" summed up the balance of power in the knackering, desperate, ludicrous weeks between June and September 1940. And just as we're wrong about the fly-boys – only about 200 of the 3,000 Battle of Britain fighter pilots were public school chaps – so we are wrong about the Spitfire. It had glamour, certainly: the elliptical wing, the unfeasibly long and haughty nose, the radical chic of its stressed-skin construction and even its name all added up to star quality, at least as far as the public was concerned. "Spitfire Funds" were so successful that they drew in money from an 8-year-old girl who charged her family every time they (literally) spent a penny, and from a man whose son had been shot down and killed in one; they even inspired fraudulent versions (and prompt prison sentences), while the odd attempt at a Hurricane Fund got nowhere.

But the majority of kills and probable kills in the Battle of Britain were scored by the Hurricane. "Nobody loves us," one Hurricane pilot complained, but least of all the enemy. Precise figures, all historians agree, are hard to come by. Both sides in any conflict exaggerate their gains and minimise their losses. McKinstry quotes Fighter Command's claim of 2,741 German losses, 55 per cent made by Hurricanes, 42 per cent by Spitfires. Historian John Alcorn's cited research, which suggests that RAF fighters actually destroyed only 1,218 Luftwaffe aircraft, still gives the Hurricane the lion's share.

The dumpy one, the unsexy one (with its nevertheless, to any pilot, extremely alluring characteristic smell – all aeroplanes have their own characteristic smell – of leather, rubber and glycol) was also a killer and a frightful maimer of men. A friend of my father had, as well as two glorious daughters, a badly burned face, red and puckered and glossy with a recognisable nose from the early McIndoe period. Aged 10, I asked him what had happened to him. "Shot down," he said. "An East Grinstead rebuild." "Gosh," I said. "In a Spitfire?" "Hurricane Rash," he said. Two unarmoured petrol tanks at the wing root, vulnerable to gunfire astern; no floor to the cockpit; the flames drawn like a mobile airborne crematorium over the pilot's hands and face. It wasn't just the Hurricanes that went down in flames.

Yet according to many pilots, Sydney Camm's fighter – an evolutionary design, its origins essentially a Hawker biplane with the top wing removed – was more reliable, better-harmonised in the controls, its old-fashioned construction better able to take damage and continue flying. The celebrated ace "Ginger" Lacey (ah, those nicknames: Boost and Dimsie, Bull, Grubby, Tubby, Sandy, Dizzy and Stapme), saying: "They are shooting me down too often." He said he would rather fly in a Spitfire but fight in a Hurricane on the grounds that the Hurricane "was made of non-essential parts. I had them all shot off at one time or another, and it still flew just as well without them." Stories are legion of pilots landing in Hurricanes with little idea that anything was wrong until they saw the faces of their "erks".

Above all, the Hurricane was a better gun-platform. The RAF armourer who said he regarded pilots as really just chauffeurs for his guns got close to the truth. The Spitfire might have been better in the vertical plane – it could outclimb and outrun the Hurricane – but the Hurry was more agile in the horizontal, could, all-importantly, turn tighter than its most significant opponent, the Messerschmitt Me 109, and was more stable once the guns began to fire. It just kept going.

Keeping going isn't glamorous, of course; but then the Battle of Britain wasn't, in military terms, glamorous either. Fighter pilots may have been swooned over in Oxford Street, but the actual Battle itself was an oddly ambiguous affair. In an undated memorandum, Hugh Dowding – whose meticulously-organised system of fighter control was as much responsible for success as the fighters and their pilots themselves – wrote: "Even during the war there were very few people who realised the true significance of the Battle of Britain. Most of the battles of the war were fought as might be expected, in order to win the war, but ... the Battle of Britain was fought to prevent the country being invaded ... when, about the end of October, the daylight fighting died down, the night attacks still continued and to the ordinary civilian, as well as the professional service man, there were no outward indications that the battle had been won at all."

There are, of course, other heroes of the Battle of Britain, still largely unacknowledged. The etiolated, appeasing, grey Neville Chamberlain and the fat little Bristol solicitor and Defence Co-ordination Minister Thomas Inskip were the two most determined proponents of the doctrine that success depended not on carrying the war to the Germans, but preventing them conquering Britain, and that the best way of doing that was the single-seat fighter. For all his rhetoric and hands-on obsessionality, Winston Churchill was wrong there; and had he had his way, Germany would have succeeded in invading and conquering Britain and the map of the world would today be entirely different.

If this, as McKinstry's and Wilton's fine books suggest, is to be the Year of the Hurricane, it is no more than it deserves. Like many who never quite achieve stardom in the public eye, the Hurry was no diva. Camm's design for Hawker proceeded, mostly, smoothly. The machine itself was evolutionary, not revolutionary: the thick leading edges, the dobbin nose, the spar-and-longeron construction were all perhaps cart-horse set against the Spitfire's slim stressed-skin ellipses and long-nosed thoroughbred. But it more than carried its weight and if the world can owe a debt to an inanimate object, it owes one to the Hurricane.

Leo McKinstry, 'Hurricane: Victor of the Battle of Britain' (John Murray, £20); Brian Wilton, 'Hurricane: The Last Witnesses' (Andre Deutsch, £18.99)