The Hawker Typhoon was intended to be the replacement for the aging Hawker Hurricane, a fighter (and occasional ground attack platform) which had formed the backbone of the RAF since the beginning of the war, but which was finding itself rapidly outclassed by the new generation of German fighters. Come the middle of 1941, and it was painfully evident that even the best flown Hurricane was no match for an BF-109G. As for pitting it against the newly encountered Focke-Wulf Fw190, well, that didn’t bear thinking about.
Luckily for the RAF, the British and the Allied war effort as a whole, Hawker’s Sydney Camm had been working on a Hurricane replacement since before the war – 1937, actually. The core elements of the plane that would become the Typhoon were in place before the end of the decade, including a low, thick (too thick, as it later turned out) wing, a tubular, semi-monocoque construction with removable duralumin panels, and a large, 24 cylinder Napier Sabre engine.
The Sabre originally vied with the Rolls Royce Vulture as the powerplant of choice for the new plane (and several Vulture powered prototypes, the Hawker Tornado, were flown), but the Sabre eventually won out by dint of being more reliable – though only barely. The H-block (like a massive Subaru ‘boxer’) Sabre made an easy 2180hp from the very start thanks to its large size and two-speed supercharger slung over its side. Later versions of the Sabre made up to 2260hp, giving a top speed comfortably north of 400mph. The liquid cooled Sabre also gave the Typhoon its most distinctive feature, the massively imposing intake under its nose.
It didn’t take long for some of the problems inherent in the design of the new plane to become apparent. A protracted development phase – extended by the RAF’s need to mass produce Spitfires and Hurricanes in 1940 – gave plenty of time to uncover a litany of gremlins, some rather more alarming than the others. Those early tests revealed the cockpit’s propensity to absorb potentially lethal levels of carbon monoxide, while the tail’s ability to part company with the rest of the aircraft (a trait which resulted in many a dead pilot) became known in August 1942.
Ensuring that the tail remained attached to the fuselage in tight turns and other, high-stress manoeuvres would prove to be a career long battle for the Typhoon development team, though Mod 286 which saw the fitment of externally fastened reinforcing ‘fishplates,’ did at least partially cure it.
Many of these issues were exacerbated by the rush to get the Typhoon into service following the RAF’s first encounter with the Fw190 in the summer of 1941, whereupon the German radial fighter proved to be better than the Spitfire MkV in every measurable way.
The RAF hoped that the Typhoon would be better suited to dicing with the Luftwaffe’s new wunderplane, but in this it was only ever a partial success. A Typhoon was fast and well-armed enough to make short work of an Fw190 at low levels (something it did throughout 1943), but its thick wink and sheer size made it less than idea when dicing at higher altitudes. As such, the Typhoon never became the consummate air-to-air interceptor it had been designed to be, which in turn lead to the development and production of the visually very similar Hawker Tempest.
So, with the above in mind you might well ask why the Hawker Typhoon deserves to be remembered at all, much less feted as a Retropower Hero. In essence the reason is that for once, the RAF had the right plane at the right time, for the a role which required fulfilling as soon as possible – ground attack.
The Typoon’s suitability for the ground attack role had been apparent from the end of 1942, when a number of the type were modified to carry a pair of 1000lb bombs. The resulting airplanes were colloquially known as ‘Bombphoons,’ with a squadron of the type formed in September of that year.
A year later, and the Typhoon gained the weapon for which it is best known – the RP-3 rocket. These unguided rockets (4 per wing) would in time be paired with the Typhoon’s twin 20mm cannons to form the basis of a fearsome ground attack platform, more than capable of making mincemeat of think skinned armoured vehicles like half-tracks, and also medium and heavy tanks like the German Panther and Tiger.
The effectiveness of the rocket firing Typhoon has been the source of heated discussion ever since the Second Tactical Airforce’s extensive use of the munition in the weeks and months following the D-Day landings in 1944. Various squadrons saw extensive action over Normandy at the time, acting as an early form of close air support through the RAF’s innovative ‘Cab Rank’ system. They were especially prominent fixtures over the skies of Operation Goodwood in mid July, as well over the Falaise pocket a month later.
There was no denying that rockets were a tricky thing to master, being totally unguided and therefore reliant on the pilot having a steady aim and nerves of steel, and the number of tanks destroyed by Typhoons over Falaise was overstated at the time. But they were also monstrously effective when they did hit, with a full broadside having the explosive power of something like a small Destroyer or Frigate.
There was another, almost as important factor at play however, namely the psychological impact a squadron of rocket firing Typhoons could have upon German tank crews. There are many reports which state that many a panzer crew opted to ditch and run in the face of such a terrifying broadside, something normally only reserved for equally terrifying Allied creations like the Churchill ‘Crocodile’ flame throwing tank.
A continuous programme of revision and improvement meant that the Typhoon became better and better with each passing year, with key additions being a bubble canopy and, perhaps most significantly, revised tail following the design found on the Tempest, and a four-bladed propellor. The latter was intended to improve takeoff performance, itself an essential trait with a heavy load of bombs, rockets and or drop-tanks.
Yet for all its undoubted effectiveness as a ground attack and close-air-support platform, the Typhoon’s career was very short indeed. There was no immediate need for a dedicated tank killer in the post war, pre-Cold War world, and in any case, it was felt that any airplanes of the type needed in the years to come would be powered by jet engines. There was little less useful to the RAF than yesterday’s ground attack platform, and as such the vast majority of Typhoons were unceremoniously scrapped. This means that just the one complete airframe survives, on display at RAF Hendon in London.
The Hawker Typhoon was far from perfect; it was flawed, prone to unreliability and was never the dedicated interceptor its maker had intended. Yet in time it matured into a dependable, reliable proposition – an immensely powerful one with a tank-busting punch, and as such it was an indispensable part of the Allied war effort in the months following the invasion of Europe. A Retropower Hero, and a British one to boot.