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Hurricanes in Action Worldwide
A look at the role of the 'Hurribomber' as a tank buster in North Africa in early 1943, part of a wider study of the ubiquitious, multi role Hurricane
Adrian Stewart has previously written two very popular books on the role of the Hurricane in the war - the fighter that was responsible for eighty per cent of RAF engagements with the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. This encouraged him to conduct a wider study of the role of the aircraft around the world.
Hurricanes in Action Worldwide! is very much an overview, covering the role of the Hurricane in Norway, Malta, Russia, Sumatra and Java and at Dieppe, as well as at sea, including the remarkable ‘Hurricats’. Aircraft enthusiasts may want to look deeper into these different episodes but Stewart provides an excellent introduction.
The following excerpt considers the role of the Hurricane in ground attack in Tunisia in the final stages of the North Africa campaign:
225 [Squadron]s pilots had cause to be thankful for their Hurricanes’ strength. Their wide, sturdy undercarriages were particularly welcome after Tunisia’s bad weather closed in, as they made the aircraft easier to operate than other fighters, even in conditions like those at Souk el Arba which became little more than a sea of mud and lacked proper maintenance facilities.
The Hurricanes’ sturdiness also saved several pilots’ lives. On 3 December, for instance, two of 225’s aircraft were badly shot up by enemy fighters, but both pilots were able to crash-land. Pilot Officer Short did so in Axis-occupied territory and was taken prisoner, but Flying Officer Sharman got back to the Allied lines before coming down at some 200 mph. He walked away from his wrecked Hurricane unhurt.
Finally, on 14 December, much to the pilots’ delight, 225 was allowed to act as a Hurribomber unit. Flight Lieutenant Bryan Colston nonchalantly informs us that ‘We attacked and destroyed enemy transport and men. We were greeted by a hail of anti-aircraft fire but we all managed to return safely to base.’
After 225’s departure on 29 December, 241 [Squadron] continued to make Hurribomber strikes, plus an occasional reconnaissance flight, in early January 1943. Targets attacked included troops, road and rail transport, a vehicle repair depot and a gun battery. Enemy opposition was fierce. During the attack on the battery on 6 January, Pilot Officer Beckwith was shot down by Messerschmitt Bf 109s and killed; while in a raid on the railway on the 8th, Pilot Officer MacMurray was hit by flak but managed to get back to the Allied lines before baling out safely.
These sorties were the more commendable because conditions at Souk el Arba remained deplorable. Fortunately an area of flat, hard sand was discovered at Souk el Khemis, north of Souk el Arba, and here the army sappers prepared a number of firm landing strips that were much more suitable. To these 241 moved on 16 January and over the next two or three days 225 returned to join them, both squadrons forming part of 324 Wing.
It was now accepted that Hurricanes were very vulnerable when used on reconnaissance duties. Accordingly, first 225 and later 241 received Spitfires which thereafter flew most of the Tac R missions, though not without their own losses of men and aircraft. Both squadrons, however, continued to fly Hurricanes on fighter-bomber sorties and for the remainder of January and early February, they would be found striking at Axis troops, tanks and transport.
On one attack on enemy lorries on 31 January, Pilot Officer Baker of 225 Squadron was hit by anti-aircraft fire, but managed to crash-land in Allied-held territory without injury. More dangerous were strafing raids on Souk el Khemis by enemy fighters and a number of 225’s aircraft were destroyed or damaged on the ground. The value of Hurribombers would soon become even more apparent.
[General] von Arnim … despite express orders, had given minimal assistance to Rommel. Instead, he embarked on a full-scale offensive of his own in northern Tunisia on 26 February, sending seventy-seven tanks against a vital Allied communications centre at Beja.
After some initial success, he was halted on the 27th in a narrow marshy valley known as ‘Hunts Gap’ by British anti-tank guns, with the support of a raid by twelve of 241’s Hurribombers that would have a special significance.
Among von Arnim’s tanks were fourteen Panzer Mark VI ‘Tigers’. These monsters were armed with the 88mm gun that had proved a deadly anti-tank weapon in the desert. They weighed 56 tons and carried up to 102mm of armour, yet could come across country as fast as most other gun-armed tanks. They had first been spotted in Tunisia by 225 Squadron on 27 November 1942, but the shells from its 20mm cannons had literally bounced off them.
The 250 lb bombs used by 241 Squadron on 27 February 1943, however, were capable of harming a Tiger if they scored a direct hit. This admittedly was not easy to achieve — by far the most accurate and effective weapons against enemy armour were the two 40mm anti-tank guns carried by the Hurricane IIDs - but 241 was very capable and on this occasion hit three tanks. One of these was a Tiger, previously immobilized but still in action; 241’s bombs ended its useful life and killed the entire crew.
During the next few days, both 225 and 241 Squadrons made repeated assaults on von Arnim’s tanks and transports; the ground crews meeting the returning Hurricanes at the end of the runway to service, refuel and rearm them in only eight minutes, ready for another mission.
On 28 February, 241’s Pilot Officer Richmond was shot down and killed by flak, but both squadrons, undaunted, flew forty-two sorties between them on 1 March without loss. There were more casualties the next day. Flying Officer Marshall of 225 crashed on take-off, destroying the Hurricane and injuring the pilot who had to be taken to hospital. Pilot Officer Gould of 241 was injured by AA fire; he got his damaged Hurricane back to base, but he too went to hospital.
By the end of 2 March, twenty-two of von Arnim’s tanks were total losses and forty-nine more had been disabled in one way or another. Rommel was openly contemptuous of the whole affair, and now took advantage of his appointment as head of Army Group Afrika to halt the offensive. However, neither 225 nor 241 had finished with von Arnim, making several more Hurribomber assaults in early March. In one of these on the 6th, 241’s Flight Lieutenant Nicholl was hit by flak; he crash-landed within the Allied lines and escaped unhurt.
Also on 6 March, Rommel attacked the Eighth Army at Medenine with the 10th, 15th and 21st Panzer divisions, two German and two Italian infantry divisions and as much artillery as he could assemble, only to find that Montgomery had prepared a perfect defensive position. Rommel gained not a yard of ground and lost some fifty tanks, mainly to the British artillery. It was his last move in Africa. He left for Germany, sick and disillusioned, three days later.
On 14 March, decisions were taken that would greatly influence the fortunes of both 225 and 241. The latter squadron, which had in any case carried out few reconnaissance missions recently, ceased them altogether to concentrate on its Hurribomber role. By contrast, 225 became a purely Tac R squadron, receiving first more Spitfires and later Mustangs for this work and gradually passing over its Hurricanes to 241.
Not all of them, however. Bryan Colston, among others, regretted parting with ‘our dear old Hurricanes’ and has left us a description of his last operational flight in one of them:
Towards the end of the month [March 1943] the weather improved and.. .in one of the Hurricanes that we retained for photographic reconnaissance, I took vertical photographs along the Beja-Sidi Nsir road, known to all pilots as ‘Flak Alley’. It was a hazardous task as I had to fly backwards and forwards over the area, straight and level, and keeping my height at exactly 10,000 feet.... A few days later I saw my photographs at the Intelligence Officer’s Unit and they were excellent and gave the Army a tremendous amount of information, so it was all worthwhile.
This excerpt from Hurricanes in Action Worldwide! appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.
The above images are my own selection and do not appear in this book - but it does have a good selection of contemporary images and maps covering the different theatres of war featured.