Key Point: The plane that had such a troubled development and almost never become operational proved itself as perhaps the deadliest fighter in the Allied arsenal.
From the Supermarine Spitfire to the North American P-51 Mustang, and from the Soviet Yak series to the Vought F4U Corsair, the Allies were able to field a formidable array of fighter planes against the Axis powers in World War II.
There were a number of other first-rate fighters that proved to be more than a match for their German, Italian, and Japanese foes. Yet, one of these Allied planes, which emerged as among the deadliest during the second half of the war, ironically almost never entered service because of myriad problems in its development.
This was the big British Hawker Typhoon, a low-wing, all-metal monoplane with a powerful single engine, bubble canopy, and the capacity to carry machine guns or 20mm cannons, plus bombs and rockets. Few Allied planes in World War II overcame more teething troubles or were initially more unforgiving, yet which aspired to a combat role in which they performed more spectacularly. Though the Typhoon failed to make the grade as a pure fighter, it brought a new concept to air warfare.
The Hawker Typhoon: Brain Child of the Famous Sydney Camm
Design of the Typhoon was initiated by the tall, irascible Sir Sydney Camm, one of the great aircraft designers of all time. A Windsor-born, self-taught carpenter’s son, he worked for the Martinsyde Company before joining Hawker Aircraft and becoming its chief designer in 1925 at the age of 32. Camm designed several highly successful single-engine aircraft for the Royal Air Force, most notably the Fury, Hart, and Demon biplanes and the famous Hurricane, and from then on, Hawker rose to the forefront of the British aviation industry.
Camm anticipated in 1937 that the Air Ministry would soon be seeking a successor to the Hurricane, which was to distinguish itself in the Battle of Britain and other theaters of operation. Well aware of the ascendancy of German air power, it was reasoned in Whitehall that the RAF needed a new generation of interceptor, a 12-gun fighter with an engine promising to deliver twice the power of a Rolls-Royce Merlin.
In January 1938, the far-sighted Air Ministry issued Specification F.18/37 calling for a replacement aircraft for both the Hurricane and Reginald J. Mitchell’s legendary Spitfire. The new plane would have, above all, a top speed exceeding that of contemporary bomber types (over 400 miles an hour) at altitude. Its armament would consist of no fewer than a dozen 7.7mm Browning machine guns. Hawker Aircraft Co.’s early interest in the project was rewarded with a contract for two designs, each of which would have two prototypes.
One of these was powered by Rolls-Royce’s new X-configuration Vulture, and the other by a Napier H-type Sabre powerplant. Both engines were large, 24-cylinder designs expected to produce about 2,000 horsepower. Both airframes were all metal with tubular framework for the front half of the fuselage and an alloy monocoque at the rear. An equally robust one-piece wing was supported by a sturdy widetrack undercarriage. The wingspan was 41 feet, seven inches.
The main differences between the two prototype aircraft were related to their differing engines. The first Vulture-engined machine, named Tornado, had a Hurricane-type ventral radiator, while the Sabre-engined Typhoon had the characteristic “chin” radiator arrangement. The Vulture development proceeded at a faster pace, and the Tornado was the first to fly, on October 6, 1939, a month after the outbreak of war. The Typhoon prototype took to the air for the first time on February 24, 1940.
But powerplant and other problems soon emerged. A routine test of the first Typhoon prototype on May 9, 1940, almost ended in disaster when the fuselage suffered a structural failure in flight. A month’s development work was lost before an investigation and remedial action put the prototype back on the flight line.
Orders were placed for 500 Tornados, 250 Typhoons, and another 250 of whichever type proved the most successful. Though both were dogged by problems with engine reliability, planning went ahead for production by Gloster Aircraft Co. (Typhoon) and A.V. Roe Co. (Tornado). But Britain soon had her back to the wall as German forces overran the Low Countries and France in the spring of 1940. Development of the critically needed interceptors had to take second place while the Air Ministry demanded the manufacture and delivery of Hurricanes, Spitfires, and Merlin engines for the fateful Battle of Britain that summer, when RAF Fighter Command defeated the German Luftwaffe and staved off the planned invasion of England.
The Typhoon Enters Service
The first flight of the second Typhoon did not take place until May 3, 1941. This plane incorporated several improvements, including four 20mm cannons in place of machine guns and a larger fin and rudder to increase directional stability. Progress was made, and a production Typhoon flew later that month. Built by Gloster Aircraft at its Hucclecote, Gloucestershire, plant, this was the first of 110 Typhoon Mark IAs, equipped with machine guns due to a shortage of cannon-feed mechanisms. All subsequent Typhoons—there would be 3,205 in all—would be cannon-armed Mark IBs.
Meanwhile, the Tornado program was cancelled after being plagued by serious engine failures. Only one production machine was ever completed.
Tactical trials with the Typhoon were started in September 1941. In comparative flights with a Spitfire Mark VB, the Typhoon reached a top speed that was 40 miles an hour faster at 15,000 feet and faster still at lower altitudes. The new fighter was less agile than the smaller, lighter Spitfire, but it was felt that its speed would make up for the deficiency.
The first production Typhoons began to enter RAF service with No. 56 Squadron in September 1941. They were operational from May 1942. But soon after the deliveries it became apparent that the Typhoon still had flaws, some serious and some minor. Fatigue failure at a rear fuselage joint was responsible for the loss of the complete tail units of an alarming number of planes. Carbon monoxide leaking into the cockpit was blamed for a fatal crash in November 1941. Though the cockpit sealing was improved, the fumes were never fully eradicated, and Typhoon pilots had to fly with oxygen masks in place.
The plane had poor rearward visibility that was eventually corrected with a new teardrop canopy. Meanwhile, as more accidents claimed both RAF fliers and Gloster test pilots, the Typhoon was still plagued by the unreliability of its Sabre engine. This was attributed to deformed sleeve valves that caused engine seizures, and a solution was not found until mid-1943.
Some officials at the Air Ministry suggested that the Typhoon be withdrawn from service, while the former Hurricane and Spitfire pilots assigned to it were not happy. Most of them agreed unanimously that the Typhoon had an abysmal rate of climb and disappointing high-altitude performance.
A Flawed Aircraft, a “Magnificent Gun Platform”
Squadron Leader H.S.L. “Cocky” Dundas, a 21-year-old decorated veteran of the Battle of Britain and the Bader Wing flying sweeps over France, took over command of No. 56 Squadron just before Christmas 1941. He reported, “I was, of course very excited to be commanding the first squadron to get the great new fighter, but I must say I was slightly horrified, perhaps that’s too strong a word, but was astounded by what I found. It seemed like an absolutely enormous airplane compared with the Spitfire. One sort of climbed up, opened the door, and walked in!”
Dundas was alarmed with the Typhoon’s oil, starter, and rear-view visibility problems and explained them during a Fighter Command conference at Duxford Airfield attended by Air Ministry officials and the plane’s designer. “Sydney Camm was very put out when I was arguing so vehemently that this was a bad design and we couldn’t go into action with it. I remember him saying something to the effect, ‘My bloody airplane’s so fast you don’t have to see behind you!’ Things got quite heated, I remember.”
Dundas got his way, and the Typhoons went back, one by one, for modifications. “They gradually got the oil business more or less right during the early months of 1942,” he said. “Then came the trouble with the tails.”
Pilot Officer J.G. Simpson of No. 198 Squadron found there was the chance of the Typhoon’s engine catching fire when it was started. “The real problem,” he said, “was the size of the propeller, and the torque resulting from opening the throttle, and the fact that she swung like hell to the right as you charged down the runway.”
Another experienced pilot who admitted to being intimidated by the new fighter was Sergeant A. Shannon of No. 257 Squadron. He reported, “I remember the Typhoon as being a hairy machine, and the wind would put you up long before you ever met it…. The engine was quite a huge thing … and frightened the life out of me when I just got in and opened the throttle. I felt, after the takeoff which didn’t disturb me too much, that I was up to 15,000 feet before I knew it—before I started to think! It was frightening, and I rather think it flew me rather than I flew it, for a while.”