By Ken Wright & Anne Gafiuk
In newsreels, newspapers and magazines during the Second World War, the headliner and star was the Spitfire. Lagging behind in coverage, but just as important, was the Typhoon. The exciting ‘Spit’ shot down enemy aircraft. The Typhoon, or Tiffy as it was fondly known to its pilots and to the Canadian and British Armies, provided the men on the ground with aerial support. They just had to ‘whistle for a Tiffy.’ The Spitfire was the beauty, the Typhoon the beast, yet both served the Allies worthily.
Of the 3,317 Second World War Typhoons built, only one still exists today, although there are now a few undergoing restorations. Of the 22,000 Spitfires produced, 35 are still flying, bringing the masses out to air shows, promoting WWII’s sweetheart, keeping her front and centre in the public eye.
There are not many pilots of both aircraft left who are able to recall their contributions to the Allied war effort. Flying Officer Gordon Hill says, “It is the end of an era.”
Four fighter pilots who flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force candidly discuss their experiences, the characteristics of the Hawker Typhoon and the Supermarine Spitfire, and the roles each of the aircraft played during the Second World War.
Flight Lieutenant Jack Hilton, C.D., 98 years old, of No. 438 Squadron (Typhoons) says:
I flew about 100 operations. Our squadron’s nose art was Walt Disney’s Wild Cat. We were flying low level about 100 to 200 feet off the ground to attack our targets including tanks, convoys, and trains. The Typhoon did the job. There were two squadrons with rockets that had RP3 25-pound warheads, four under each wing. They could blow a tank apart. In the beginning, the rockets were very hard to control. The Battle of Falaise Gap in August 1944 was a good example. While the German army was retreating, we were attacking troop carriers, with 30 to 40 men in them. There were so many targets that when you fired at them, you were going to hit something!
Although the rocket-firing Typhoon is commonly regarded as the aircraft that was predominant in the destruction of the trapped German army, it was, in truth, extremely valuable as a platform for strafing and a great morale booster for the Allied troops, but not for its lethal rocket firing capability as detailed in many books on the battle.
The destruction of the trapped German forces in the Falaise Pocket in August 1944 was due to land-based forces. Historians vary in their estimates of German losses. Between 80,000 and 100,000 troops caught in the encirclement of which 10,000 to 15,000 were killed, 40,000 to 50,000 taken prisoner, and 20,000 to 50,000 managed to escape. In the northern sector alone, German material losses included 344 tanks, self-propelled guns and other light armoured vehicles as well as 2,447 soft-skinned vehicles and 252 guns abandoned or destroyed.
According to a subsequent British analysis, RAF Typhoon rockets had not caused as much destruction as first thought or claimed. It has been assessed that only about 100 armoured fighting vehicles were knocked out during the whole campaign, in stark contrast to the Allies’ loss of a total of 1,726 aircraft. The Tiffy’s real contribution, at least as far as the Falaise Gap was concerned, was the sense of panic their attacks caused — the German crews quickly abandoned their vehicles and took cover in the fields at the onset of a strike.
People don’t know much about the Typhoon and have asked me about its idiosyncrasies. The Typhoon had a terrible attrition rate because of its specialist role. It carried bombs and it was fast, but it had a poor turning radius. The Typhoon is one of the most difficult aircraft for a pilot to fly.
It killed a lot of pilots at the beginning. The tail fell off, the engine quit, and when this happened, the Typhoon was going nowhere but down. The Typhoon had such a high wing loading that you had no room for safety and turns. You had to turn when you were in a fight and when we tangled with the Messerschmitts; we would dive down and outrun them in the dive. The deadly flaw with the Typhoon was that when we got to low level at high speed, we could not turn. We did not have the radius to get inside them to shoot at them. In addition, carbon monoxide seeped into the cockpit, which if undetected, could be fatal.
So the only thing we had going for us was to go straight at the target, faster than the enemy could go, and then get the hell out of there. The turn is the secret in fighting the German fighters. If I pulled tight turns at 150, the darned thing would spin on me and I would dive straight into the ground. I had no safety margin. It was one of these questionable things. Speed was the only thing you had. One of our guys tried to stay in a fight and didn’t come back. There is no second chance. Get in and get out. You don’t go back for a second look. I never went back for a second look. Those who did never came home.
We always went out in two groups of two. We were very tired with an average of 2 hours a trip from start to finish. Sometimes I did two operations a day. My logbook showed that at one point, I flew 28 operations in 30 days. Imagine the pressure on the pilots to take off and land. During the D-Day invasion, we were right up to our ears. Flying 150 feet over the water, the spray of the water was hitting our airplane. It was a desperate situation.
Flight Lieutenant Harry J. Hardy, DFC, 95 years old, of No. 440 Squadron (Typhoons), recalls:
During the Battle of Normandy (D-Day to August 25, 1944), 151 Typhoon pilots were killed, including 51 Canadians. Casualties were replaced as available from the Operational Training Unit (OTU) in the UK. We were always under-strength after D-Day to VE-Day. As the pilots were being killed, we could not replace them fast enough. There were also pilots on leave, on special duty, in hospital (sick bay).
You are shot at going in and shot at going out. So often when we did the dive-bombing, you didn’t see what you hit or even if you got what you were aiming for. We’d go in at 500 or 550 mph — that’s fast for a prop airplane.
A Spitfire and Hurricane could turn tightly. The Spitfire has a low wing loading and thin wings, great for turning. I never flew the Spitfire, but the Tiffy was a great air to ground attack aircraft.
As an experiment, one of our fellows took one of our Typhoons up to 30,000 feet and he put it into a spin. It took him to 5,000 feet before he got out of it! The tail was too small. The weight was too heavy. We had cannons in the wings, armour underneath, and armour all around us. It had a big engine: Napier Sabre 24-cylinder with 2,100 horsepower (hp) on the MK 1A and a 2,200hp engine in the MK 1B. The MK 1 was armed with twelve 0.303 machine guns and the MK 2 had Hispano cannons in the wings plus up to two 1,000-pound bombs or 8 rocket projectiles.
Flight Lieutenant Robert [Bob] Spooner, DFC, 95 years old, served with No. 438 Squadron (Typhoons) added:
I flew the Typhoon for seven months. You really recognize it because of the big air scoop. With its 24-cylinder, 2200hp engine, it needed a lot of cooling. It is a one-person airplane. I was in an all-Canadian wing. We had three squadrons on that wing and we all had identification numbers. Our squadron was F3.
I was given specific targets and I always hoped I didn’t hurt any innocent people and I don’t know whether I did or not. At one time, we were given a target and we were in the attacking dive when my squadron got a message to call off the attack. Seems we were about to bomb our own troops. Pulling out of the dive with a 1,000-pound bomb attached under each wing was not easy. When you are in the dive, you gain speed really fast and there was a chance you could pull the wings off by pulling back too fast.
The Typhoon was a good aircraft but a real tank of a plane to fly because it was very heavy. It was supposed to replace the Hurricane, built by Hawker, but it didn’t fill the role, which was as a mid-to-high-altitude interceptor. Its performance fell off quickly above 20,000 feet and the Napier Sabre engine continued to prove unreliable.
Our job was to go low level armed with our four 20mm cannons and two 1,000-pound bombs or rockets. A devastating package, but it was hungry on fuel. It would go about 150 miles out and 150 back before the tanks were empty.
Flight Lieutenant Harry Hardy of No. 440 Squadron explains:
The Typhoon was well armoured and could take a lot of punishment. I went through four Typhoons. Had any been a Spitfire, I would have been dead. I had a chance to fly 14 different types of aircraft during fighter pilot training and later through Ferry Flight. The Spitfire was intuitive. You just had to think and then it would do what you wanted. It was good in a tight turn and it was cosy. The engine was at my feet and the firewall separating the engine kept me warm.
I had a 20-hour conversion to learn about what a Typhoon could do. We were not allowed to tail spin. We could not get out of it. I never did a loop. I did do rolls. The first dive was from 8,000 to 4,000 feet when I dropped the bomb. The second dive was from 11,000 to 6,000 feet, because we were expecting ground fire. The windscreen is not as important for a Spitfire because the enemy planes would be on their tail. With the Typhoon, we had 1½-inch to 2-inch thick armoured plated glass as our job was to strafe low down. Most of the enemy ordnance sent at us was from the ground in front of the aircraft.
Typhoons were sometimes victims of friendly fire as its profile was similar to a Focke-Wulf 190. For recognition, we had yellow stripes [painted under the wings] to distinguish us from the Focke-Wulf. The black and white stripes painted under the wings were for the [D-Day] invasion —they were put on the night before so our own troops would not shoot us down.
Flying Officer Gordon Hill, 94 years old, of No. 416 Squadron (Spitfires) added:
I had about 1,000 hours flying and over 200 trips. We flew 50 feet above the ground or lower when we were engaging air to ground. We were up to 25,000 feet when we were air to air, up to the end of 1944, then the Germans and British came down to more sensible levels of 10,000 to 12,000 feet.
This saved fuel and time. On our approaches, we stalled at 78 mph to drop to the ground. It was easy for us to land. We flew the easiest aircraft. One hand did the job. When it came to ground targets, we flew in groups of six up to a maximum of 12. I was often number 3. Occasionally, we were in a group of just two. We flew 1¼ hours, maximum 1½ hours.
We saw Messerschmitt Me 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s, but never saw a German bomber until the end of the war. By September 1944, though, the Germans had Me 262 jets and another aircraft, the Arado 234 which, in my opinion, were better than the Me 262s.
Most of our casualties were due to air-ground attack from below. We had four machine guns, two cannons and a gun camera. On the Spitfire F. Mk XVI, acquired December 18, 1944, the armament went from 0.3 to 0.5. It made all the difference in the world and I became a better marksman.
Spitfires were the envy of most people in the air — the darling of the sky. It was extremely manoeuvrable with a weight of about 7,000 pounds. Once I got to England, I flew nothing but Spitfires: Mk I, II, V, IX, XVI and XIV, in order of the types I flew. My favourite was the Mk XVI (Sweet Sixteen). The Brits were flying the Mk XIV before the Canadians flew them.
As a Spitfire pilot, we were different than Typhoon pilots. The Spitfire’s primary role was engaging other aircraft. Typhoons were more for air to ground attack. As the war progressed towards the end of 1944, the air war was virtually over. The Luftwaffe was having enormous problems. They were suffering from an acute shortage of fuel, trained pilots and machines, and were hardly able to put up a fight anymore. This situation necessitated changing the role of the Spitfire from aerial combat to attacking ground targets. Periodically, we still encountered German fighter planes.
In September 1944, when the German Me 262 jets came out, they could outrun our Spitfires, but by then it was too little too late.
Every single Spitfire had a limited amount of fuel of 90 gallons, except for the modified versions. This worked out to be about 1.5 hours’ flying time. If we were carrying auxiliary tanks, the rule was to use them first. We had a 45-gallon (plywood tank) and 90 gallon (steel). The steel tank was a blasted nuisance! When we were climbing through cloud in a tight formation, the aircraft tended to move slightly.
The fuel would then start rolling/sloshing in the tank, causing the aircraft to move even more, creating a degree of instability. Auxiliary tanks had to be dropped if engaged in an air-to-air fight, but we had to slow down to 180 mph to get rid of the tank, otherwise it would not fall off.
After June 16, 1944, 416 Squadron went to France and stayed there. Auxiliary tanks were used less and less as we were nearer to the front lines and our fuel supplies. The Allies were well fuelled so we had no restrictions on the number of sorties we could do that I can recall. We did, however, have to always watch our fuel gauge at the end of each flight as four gallons was needed to come in to land.
The Spitfire’s fuel tank was situated directly in front of the pilot, between the engine and the cockpit. If, during aerial combat, the fuel tank holed and the escaping fuel was to catch fire, the flames were blown back towards the cockpit. By opening the canopy to escape the inferno, the forward motion of the aircraft dragged the fire into the cockpit even more.
When I got a new version of the Spitfire, I would take it up for tests to see how it performed. The Mark XVI had a sharp tail and cropped wings. It had a four-bladed prop and the turn rate was excellent. The Mk XIV had a round tail and a five-bladed prop.
Typhoon pilots had more plane to manage and had more weight to handle. Is it comparing apples to oranges? Sort of. Different men were flying different aircraft. Sometimes it came down to the pilot.
The Hawker Typhoon had established an excellent reputation for low-level attacks and lowering enemy morale at the mere sound of its distinctive whining sound. Playing a key role in the Normandy campaign, the Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, later singled out the contributions the Typhoon made to the Allied victory.
The Supermarine Spitfire also earned an enviable place in the history of aviation alongside the Messerschmitt Bf 109, Focke-Wulf 190 and the North American P-51 Mustang, but the Spitfire remains the most recognisable aircraft of the Second World War.
NOTE: The writers thank Harry Hardy, Gordon Hill, Jack Hilton and the family of Bob Spooner for permission to use their stories and photographs. Jack Hilton wrote the book The Saga of a Canadian Typhoon Pilot in 2015 and it is available through Amazon.