The one, the ONLY – Hawker Typhoon

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Til it’s gone

Joni Mitchell

Imagine that there was just ONE P-51 Mustang, or P-47 Thunderbolt, or P-38 Lightning, or – whisper this softly – one Supermarine Spitfire. One example of a fighter that was built by the thousand and played a pivotal role in the invasion of Normandy and the defeat of Germany. Just one left…..

Well, taking the words of the Joni Mitchell song to heart, here it is, the one, the ONLY Hawker Typhoon in the whole, wide world – and it survived by a complete fluke involving the USAF and the Smithsonian Institution, and with no thanks to the Royal Air Force of the day.

In 1937, even before the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire had achieved squadron service with the Royal Air Force, the Air Staff were thinking of their replacement. It was to be a ‘super fighter’, carrying 50% more armament (the Spitfire carried 8 x .303″ Browning machineguns) and capable of 400 mph. It was to be powered by the next generation of engines, which would be in the 2,000 hp class. The Air Staff knew this was possible, as the Rolls-Royce ‘R’ racing engines, as used by the successful Schneider Trophy seaplanes, were already producing this for short periods. The preferred engines, which were only in the design stage, included the Napier Sabre and the Rolls-Royce Vulture – an unusual engine formed from the cylinders from two V-12 Peregrine engines arranged in an ‘X’ formation on a new crankcase. It was also suggested that the new Bristol Centaurus sleeve-valve radial might be suitable, when it was built.

Air Ministry Specification F.18/37 was issued to a number of manufacturers, including Hawker Aircraft Limited, whose Chief Designer, Sydney Camm, had produced some of the very best fighters for the RAF. Camm designed two closely-related types, to meet the new specification. One was the ‘R’ Type, powered by the Vulture engine, and the other the ‘N’ type, which was to use the Napier Sabre. They were known as the Tornado and the Typhoon, in keeping with the recent Hawker habit of naming their fighters after storms! The Tornado flew first, in October, 1939, with the Vulture engine. It was a clean airframe with a front fuselage built around a tubular-steel frame, attached to a aluminium alloy monocoque rear fuselage by four large bolts; there was a large radiator bath under the fuselage center-section, just like the Hurricane, and this was the immediate cause of the designs first problem – but not its last.

Because of its high speed – in excess of 420 mph – the Tornado was one of the first British aircraft to encounter compressibility (although it was not called that, at this stage). Camm’s instinctive reaction was to move the radiator from the fuselage to a ‘chin’ position, giving his brawny new fighter its distinctive look. Unfortunately, the Vulture was suffering a few teething problems – which it is estimated were not critical in a fighter application, and could be solved. The bad news was that the other aircraft which used the engine, the Avro Manchester heavy bomber, was having terrible trouble with it. It was NOT suitable for the Manchester application, and because Rolls-Royce couldn’t spare the time to sort things out, the Vulture was cancelled!

This meant the Tornado had no engine, but it was rapidly modified for the Bristol Centaurus, and although it has no part in our story (see one of my previous posts), it eventually gave rise to a superb series of fighters including the Tempest II, Fury and Sea Fury. The Typhoon prototype, P5212, had, meanwhile, made its first flight on 24 February, 1940. Because Hawker’s were being pressed for more and more Hurricanes at this critical stage of the war, they sub-contracted the whole of the production run to the Gloster Aircraft Company near Bristol.

Typhoons were powered by the Napier Sabre IIA of 2,180 hp, and had a very thick wing, capable of carrying 12 x Browning .303″ machineguns (Mark Ia), or up to SIX 20 mm Hispano cannon (Mark Ib), although the number fitted was always four. This thick wing was a source of great displeasure – initially – to the RAF, who took their first Typhoons into squadron service in August, 1941 (No. 56 Squadron, at Duxford, later a USAAF P-47 base). Initially, the Typhoon had a ‘car door’ like the P-39, and a heavily framed canopy; later versions (after the 1,700th aircraft) had a cut-down rear fuselage and bubble canopy, like a P-47. The climb rate was slower than anticipated and the service ceiling a grave disappointment. However, that was the least of the new fighter’s worries. First of all aircraft started to break up in the air, with the whole tail coming off. This was eventually traced to a bracket on the elevator mass balance failing, causing massive flutter and structural failure of the tail. This was solved by replacing the bracket, and strengthening the tail transport joint (which took the load) with a great number of short, external, ‘fishplates’. These pieces of metal can be seen around the fuselage to this day.

There was a worse problem. Typhoons started diving into the ground under full power, with the pilot making no attempt to bail out. It wasn’t until an autopsy on one dead pilot revealed abnormally high concentrations of carbon monoxide in the blood that the problem became obvious. Exhaust fumes were leaking into the cockpit in flight, and poisoning the pilot. These leaks were never really cured, and the problem was solved by the constant use of oxygen – at ALL altitudes. The Typhoon came close to being cancelled on several occasions but it was only its 400 mph plus speed low down that saved it. This was because it became the ONLY RAF fighter capable of catching and shooting down the new Fw190 fighter-bombers, which were making quick ‘tip and run’ raids on Southern England from Spring 1942 onwards.

Typhoons started making deep penetrations of France and the Low Countries from 1942 onwards; they had a 920 mile range with drop tanks, and began a harassment of the Continental rail system which continued to VE Day. Hundreds of locomotives fell to the heavy punch of the 20mm cannon. Soon ‘Bombphoons’ as they were initially called, were seen, carrying 2 x 250lb bombs, which became 2 x 500lb, then 2 x 1,000lb when the Sabre IIc of 2,260 hp and a four-bladed propeller were fitted. The big fighter (nearly 7 tons in weight) took part in ‘Operation Channel Stop’ attacking German shipping along the Channel Coast, but it really started to prove its worth when fitted with its iconic load of 8 x 3″, 60lb rocket projectiles. With the formation of the Second Tactical Air Force in June, 1943, the Typhoon came into its own. Squadrons moved into ‘the field’ living under canvas, and pilots learning how to help service their own aircraft, with particular reference to re-arming and re-fuelling. It was obvious to all that the ‘Big Show’, the return to the Continent, was coming. Southern England (indeed, England as far north as Nottinghamshire, where the 82nd Airborne were based) became an armed camp, with aircraft crammed into every corner, and armored units and infantry regiments everywhere.

On 2nd June, 1944 Typhoons attacked the German radar station at Dieppe and put it off the air, then on the 5th June, the eve of D-Day, Nos 174, 175, and 245 Squadrons, acting as a Wing, blew up the radar at Joubourg in France. These vital actions helped blind the coastal forces to the over 5,000 vessels headed in their direction! Soon, Typhoon Wings were operating from PSP (pierced steel planking) airstrips right behind the front line in Normandy. They ran a ‘cab rank’ system of patrols, just waiting for requests for air support. They were often controlled by RAF forward observers – mounted in converted Sherman tanks – where they would swoop down like falcons and spray targets with 20mm fire before unleashing a salvo of 3″ RPs, equivalent to a light cruiser broadside. Along with American units from the 9th Air Force, this effort was enough to establish air superiority (tending towards air supremacy, at times) over the battlefield, and do severe damage to the German armored divisions at places like Falais and Mortain. For example, on the 7th August, 1944 the 1st SS Panzer Division took a fearsome battering from Typhoons during the German counter-attack, Operation Lüttich, which was focussed against US Army units around Mortain.

As the Allies surged towards the Rhine and the German border, the Typhoons sometimes made use of ‘special intelligence’. For example, an Enigma decode had placed the Headquarters of the German 15th Army in a certain château. It was attacked, and destroyed, by Typhoons carrying 500lb and 1,000 lb bombs. Seventy senior staff officers and two generals were killed, causing huge disruption to German operations. A batch of ‘tactical reconnaissance’ Typhoons were built, with five cameras and a reduced armament of two 20mm cannon, and were issued to Nos. 4 and 268 Squadrons, and these did valuable work. Despite the fact that there was no lack of available nightfighters, one Typhoon, R7881, was fitted with AI Mk IV radar; trials showed that it was difficult to operate at night, and the experiment was quietly dropped.

The last gasp of the Luftwaffe, Operation Bodenplatte, the attack on Allied airfields on New Year’s Day, 1945, might have seemed a disaster with 162 Typhoons being amongst the many Allied aircraft lost on the ground. However, the loss of many of Germany’s most experienced pilots in the raid was a terrible blow from which the Luftwaffe did not recover. In contrast, the Typhoon losses were made up from stocks held in the U.K. within one week!

The end came swiftly. With VE Day, there was no longer any need for the Typhoon. Its much more potent and refined relative, the Tempest, was in service, and so were the first generation jets. The last of 3,330 Typhoons was delivered in November, 1945 – straight into storage. Soon, they were all scrapped. All, save one…..

In 1944, the USAAF had requested a Typhoon, so that they could conduct an investigation into fighter-bomber characteristics and range extension. MN235, a Typhoon Ib, was pulled out of storage at No 51 Maintenance Unit, RAF Lichfield and sent across the Atlantic as crated cargo, on board the SS ‘America Manufacturer’. MN235 arrived at Wright-Patterson Air Base, Ohio (via New York) on 6th May, 1944 and was assigned the US identity T2-491/FE-491 (FE standing for ‘Foreign Experimental’). Sadly, the aircraft suffered a minor accident after only 9 hours flying, and was placed in storage, pending disposal.

The story starts to get complicated at this stage, but after a LOT of shuffling around, the Typhoon was assigned to the Smithsonian Institution in January, 1949. It went to the then Paul E. Graber facility at Silver Hill, Maryland, and stayed there, crated, until no less than 1967. That is when the newly opened RAF Museum at Hendon tracked it down and asked the Regents of the Smithsonian if they could please have it back. A deal was worked out, whereby the Smithsonian got a Hurricane IIc, (an example of which they did NOT have) in exchange.

In January, 1968, the SS Samaria (Cunard Line) took one crated aircraft on board as deck cargo at Baltimore, and sailed for Liverpool – the Typhoon was coming home. Suffice it to say that it was a difficult homecoming. At RAF Shawbury, it was found that there was no radiator (one was modified from that on a Bedford truck), no side panels below the cockpit, the undercarriage was incomplete, an aileron was gone, as was a 20mm cannon, the propeller spinner, cowlings and many inspection panels! New parts were fabricated, and the aircraft painted to represent a typical Typhoon in D-Day markings. In November, 1968, the completed aircraft was handed over to the RAF Museum, and there it resides to this day, in the midst of the Fighter Hall. Despite several cockpit and airframe sections in various parts of the world, and a replica using a few original parts in France, this is the one, the only – Hawker Typhoon.

Editor’s Note:

Since this was written, the TYphoon has been shipped off to Canada, where it will exhibited as part of the Canadian events to mark D-Day. Obviously, MN235 will returning to the Royal Air Force Museum, afterwards!

A fearsome fighter, and an aircraft that made a huge difference in Normandy and beyond.

One comment on “The one, the ONLY – Hawker Typhoon”

  1. Thorough research and excellent writing — thanks so much 🙂


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