70 years ago to the day Adolf Hitler was feeling rather pleased with himself. Ever since his unprovoked invasion of Poland on the 1st September 1939 his armies had blitzkrieged their way through Denmark, Norway, Holland, Luxembourg and France and nobody had been able to stop them. O.K - He may have been a little miffed that a fleet of small ships had suddenly appeared over the horizon to pull the British Army and their allies off the beaches at Dunkirk - but apart from that everything was going swimmingly. All that was left to do was to sweep the RAF out of the skies, leaving the way clear for the Fuhrer’s final ambition - the invasion of Great Britain.
Winston Churchill knew that an invasion would be next on Hitler’s wish list. On the 18th June 1940 he addressed the House of Commons…
“What General Weygand called the “Battle of France” is over. I expect that the “Battle of Britain” is about to begin.”
In a futile attempt to bring the British government to the conference table - preferably bringing a flag of surrender with them - Adolf issued Luftwaffe High Command with this directive…
“Since England, in spite of her hopeless military situation, shows no sign of being ready to come to an understanding, I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England and if necessary to carry it out….The English Air Force must be so reduced, morally and physically, that it is unable to deliver any significant attack against an invasion across the Channel.”
The men and women at the Hawker Factory in Canbury Park Road, in Kingston, hadn’t seen Hitler’s order - but even if they had if wouldn’t have made much difference to them. They were far too busily building the aircraft that would in a few months time become the real winner of the Battle of Britain - not the sleek and charismatic Spitfire but the chunky, workmanlike Hawker Hurricane. Although it was not as fast or nimble as the Spitfire the Hurricane had many advantages over its newer and sexier sister. It was easier and cheaper to build, simpler to repair, a much more stable gun platform and with a wide undercarriage, safer to land on damaged airfields. Above all, in July 1940 we had far more Hurricanes than Spitfires, 463 against 286.
The Canbury Park Road factory in Kingston had been an ice rink when it was purchased in December 1912 by aircraft manufacturer Thomas Octave Sopwith. In those days aircraft were built on lines chalked out on the floor - and the former ice rink provided the large flat area that Sopwith needed. The location of the new factory - in the middle of a town and nowhere near an airfield - was not seen as a problem. Sopwith thought that Float Planes were going to become the next big thing and all he needed to launch them was a stretch of straight water. The River Thames just north of Kingston Bridge was ideal although Sopwith often got in trouble from the River Thames Conservancy group and the local police when he ‘forgot’ to ask permission to use the river. To avoid trouble he would wheel his float planes down to the river very early in the morning when there were few people around. In the 1920s when land based aircraft became the priority Sopwith transported his aircraft to Brooklands airfield on the back of a Daimler lorry. Some accounts state that he towed some of them there behind his own car.
The Hurricane was designed by Sir Sydney Camm. He had joined Hawkers in the early 20s as a draughtsman and within two years had become Chief Designer. Thomas Sopwith later described him as “the greatest designer of fighter aircraft the world has known”.
The aircraft was developed by Hawkers in response to Air Ministry specification F.36/34 for a fighter built around the new Rolls Royce engine PV-12 or “Merlin” as it became better known. Camm’s initial design was rejected by the Air Ministry as being ‘too orthodox’, so Camm started again. To save money and time the plane was designed to use as many existing tools and jigs as possible. In May 1934 a 1/10th scale model was tested in the wind tunnel at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington and by December of that year a full sized mock-up was produced. The first prototype flew on 6th November 1935. When the last Hurricane, PZ865, rolled off the production line in the summer of 1944, 14,533 of the aircraft had been built in a variety of types - night fighter, night intruder, tank buster, the ‘sea hurricane’ and the ‘hurribomber’ fighter/bomber.
There are many reasons why we won the Battle of Britain - we had radar, our squadrons were fighting over home territory so damaged aircraft could land and pilots parachute to safety to fight again and our factories were able to replace lost aircraft very quickly - but essentially the Luftwaffe was losing many more aircraft and crews than we were - about 1,598 aircraft against the RAF’s 902. On the 17th September 1940 Hitler finally conceded defeat and abandoned his plans to invade Britain.
That great air battle over Southern England in the summer of 1940 didn’t bring us victory but after the reversals of Dunkirk it did give us the time and space to rebuild our military strength and set our feet once again on the long road to annihilating Hitler and the Nazis.
The Hawker Factory in Kingston has gone. Only the office building remains and that has been turned into flats. There is nothing else to remind us of the company, the aircraft it produced or the men and women who designed and built them. The only significant token of those heroic days are small propellers built into the wrought iron fence surrounding the flats. On March 25th of this year Kingston University did something to redress the situation by naming the new learning resource centre at its Roehampton Vale campus the “Sir Sydney Camm Centre” after Hawker’s famous chief designer and creator of the Hurricane. The centre was opened by TV presenter Kate Humble whose grandfather Bill Humble who had once been Hawkers Chief Test Pilot.
HURRICANES AND ST MARGARETS
While putting this article together I spoke to a neighbour who was a small boy during the 2nd World War. He said that he could remember sections of Hurricane airframe being brought up the Thames by barge to Lion Wharf in Isleworth. They were then loaded onto lorries and transported by road through St Margarets to Kingston for final assembly. I contacted a Hawker archivist who that he could find no records to confirm the story but he also said that with an air battle raging overhead accurate records were not always kept.
Does anyone remember Hurricanes being transported up the St Margarets Road - and did we wish them well as they went on their way?
– from Martyn Day