The greatest aircraft of the IAF, part 2: Hawker Hurricane by K S Nair

Credit: IAF

The Hawker Hurricane was, quite simply, the numerically most significant aircraft type flown on operations by the Indian Air Force (IAF) during the Second World War. Eight of the nine IAF squadrons which saw action during WW2 flew it for extended periods on operations. By mid-1942, when the Indian Air Force first got their hands on the Hurricane (or their feet on its rudder pedals), it was certainly not representative of the most modern aircraft that the Allied air arms were operating, even for the Burma Front. But it was still a massively important weapon system for the Empire and its allies. And the period when the IAF operated it was an important marker in the development of the Indian Air Force. Almost all Hurricanes operated by the IAF were second-hand or third-hand machines which had been previously used in England, Malta, or by the Desert Air Force, the tactical force that supported the North African campaign. The approach of equipping IAF units with aircraft types that were being discarded by regular RAF units was, by design or chance, to remain a standard until late 1945. It was entirely in line with long-standing Indian Army policy, of equipping Indian sepoys with older models of muskets, and later of rifles, which British units were discarding. Indian fighter-reconnaissance and fighter-bomber units were equipped, and took on the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force, with Hawker Hurricanes, at the same time that RAF units with the same tasks were receiving the far more prestigious Supermarine Spitfires. Undoubtedly there were some rational arguments for this policy. Prioritising the most modern equipment for the units most likely to confront the most modern adversaries, realistic assessment of the abilities of colonial units to make best use of the equipment, and constraints on training: these arguments all have some validity. But IAF crews, fresh from operating Westland Lysanders during the First Burma campaign, were quite pleased to be promoted to Hurricanes. By contemporary accounts they put enormous effort into keeping the aircraft in as good condition as possible in the circumstances. And their mastery of the machine prepared them for the Spitfires and Tempests they would soon be operating. The Hurricane, for all its production and operational history, never quite measured up to the Spitfire in mythology; but in difficult environments such as North Africa and the China-Burma-India theatre, it proved to be more robust and able to withstand extreme heat, dust and cold, than most other aircraft of its class. Its older materials and construction methods meant that it was easy and quick to produce, and simple to repair in the field. The wide-set main undercarriage legs made it easy to land and stable to taxi even on rough fields. It was flown in Yugoslavia, South Africa and the Sudan even before the Battle of Britain, demonstrating its ability to perform in extremely varied environments. Burma and India were in fact the last theatre in which Hurricanes were used in significant numbers as first-line fighters. The Hurricane served in virtually all Indian Air Force combat roles with distinction – fighter, bomber, ground-attack, reconnaissance, and army co-operation among them. Something like twenty of the two dozen-odd DFCs received by IAF personnel, including to such icons as later Marshal of the IAF Arjan Singh, went to Hurricane pilots. Because of its robustness and simplicity it was also used for numerous other applications – combined operations, despatch delivery, meteorological reconnaissance, radar calibration. It was also used in India for roles for which it was never intended – including anti-malarial and crop-protection spraying. It served with the IAF for only about four years. By 1946, immediately after the War’s end, there were so many surplus late-mark Spitfires available in theatre that Hurricane units were able to convert to the Spitfire, or in some cases to the Tempest quite soon after the end of the War. But its status, as the most widely-flown IAF combat aircraft of the Second World War, goes well beyond the years it served. It should be remembered as an IAF classic.

K S Nair is the author of two books and over 70 articles on the Indian Air Force and other developing country air arms.

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  1. Jim

    Hurricane pilots who flew combat sorties near Burma (Myanmar) in WWII were surprised when attempting to down Ki-43s flown by jap pilots.
    The Ki-43 or ‘Oscar’ when pursued would make a 180 degree turn and engage the hurri with a frontal assault.

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