The IRA’s S-Plan & the Bombing of Broadgate, 1939

In the wider perception of European history, the late 1930s is remembered as the time when Nazi Germany began to cast its shadow over Europe leading ultimately to the most destructive conflict in history – World War II. At the same time however, old grievances were bubbling to the surface once more in Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were about to resume their campaign to unify Ireland and expel what they saw as a British military occupation of Northern Ireland.

Sean Russell IRAEarlier efforts to conduct operations against the British government and the British Army in Northern Ireland were curtailed by the turbulent internal politics of the IRA in the 1930s. One major source of contrition was how the organisation should associate itself with the government of the Republic of Ireland with many members viewing it with suspicion and mistrust, accusing it of being an imperialist puppet of the British. In 1938, Seán Russell resumed his post within the IRA’s council having been investigated for misappropriating funds and began gathering support for a coordinated campaign against the British. His plan called for a series of bombings against British industrial and economic targets coinciding with a wider propaganda war aimed at gathering support from the Irish people on both sides of the divide and abroad. Known as the S-Plan (the “S” standing for sabotage), Russell and his supporters went to work training recruits through 1938 and finalising targets in the UK mainland.

By December 1938 the plan was ready to be put in to place. As the propaganda angle was a major factor in the plan the IRA declared itself the true government of all 32 counties that made up the entirety of Ireland in an effort to give their cause an air of legitimacy and even foster a feeling of sympathy from abroad; freedom fighters waging a war against an imperial foe and their collaborators in the south. This was especially important for rallying support from Irish-Americans but served to alienate the government of Irish Republic President Douglas Hyde who the IRA were effectively declaring as illegitimate and which began passing tougher laws to limit and criminalise the IRA as a result.

Despite some reservations within the IRA about the organisation’s readiness for the campaign, they nevertheless delivered the following ultimatum to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax on January 12th 1939;

I have the honour to inform you that the Government of the Irish Republic [32 counties], having as its first duty towards its people the establishment and maintenance of peace and order here, demand the withdrawal of all British armed forces stationed in Ireland. The occupation of our territory by troops of another nation and the persistent subvention here of activities directly against the expressed national will and in the interests of a foreign power, prevent the expansion and development of our institution in consonance with our social needs and purposes, and must cease.

The Government of the Irish Republic believe that a period of four days is sufficient notice for your Government to signify its intentions in the matter of the military evacuation and for the issue of your Declaration of Abdication in respect of our country. Our Government reserves the right of appropriate action without further notice if upon the expiration of this period of grace, these conditions remain unfulfilled.

The British government refused to adhere to the demand and thus the IRA declared war on the United Kingdom on Sunday 15th January 1939. The next day, five bombs were detonated in London, Warwickshire and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. The targets were electricity pylons and power sub-stations in an attempt to specifically harm industrial outputs in those areas. This set the tone for much of the IRA’s campaign and over the following week a significant number of targets were hit but with almost no fatalities since they were aimed at infrastructure, power and gas supplies. This was a key factor in supporting the propaganda war since large numbers of deaths might turn the all-important American support against them.

Throughout 1939 the IRA carried out repeated attacks aimed at further undermining the British industrial complex and the British people’s confidence in their government to protect them. In July 1939, attacks were made on cinemas in London and Birmingham using tear gas bombs which although didn’t kill anyone struck fear in to the wider public that their enemy was on their own streets and walking among them. At the same time, perhaps frustrated by the lack of results thus far, the British government revealed that it had been informed that the attacks on the UK would intensify in the coming months. Not long after this, bombs were detonated at banks across London killing one person while a second was killed in a blast at King’s Cross train station a month later. The British responded with emergency powers that saw large numbers of the Irish community in Britain get deported to Southern Ireland who were themselves introducing legislation to combat the IRA. The British were also increasingly concerned about reported support for the IRA’s campaign coming from Berlin.

Then on August 25th 1939, less than a week before Hitler’s forces crossed in to Poland, a rather inconspicuous-looking bike was placed up against a wall in Broadgate, part of Coventry’s busy city centre. The bike had a basket on the front, common for the time, with a bundle inside it. A rather frustrated man had left it there and walked away having found it difficult to take the bike across the tramlines in the area. His name was Joby O’Sullivan who came from Cork and he was the only one who knew that the bundle in the basket was in fact a bomb. He would later state that he intended to take the already armed bomb to a nearby police station but the tramlines had slowed his progress down meaning the bomb was due to detonate soon and not wanting to be a martyr he left it where it was.

At two minutes after half past two on a busy Friday afternoon, the 5lbs of explosive was detonated by an alarm clock timer. The blast shattered glass which shot out like bullets that cut down people walking by at the time. A young shop assistant, 21-year old Elsie Answell, was killed instantly having been standing by a window near where the bomb detonated. She was due to be married in early September but ended up getting buried in the same church her service was to take place.

IRA bombing Broadgate coventry

In the W.H. Smiths store, 30-year old Rex Gentle who came to Coventry from North Wales for holiday work and 15-year old local boy John Arnott were also killed in the initial blast. 50-year old Gwilym Rowlands was killed while sweeping the roads for the council while the oldest victim, 82-year old James Clay, was struck down as he walked home from his regular café which he had left earlier than usual because he was feeling unwell. Another 70 people were injured many of them with severe lacerations caused by the flying glass.

The British public were outraged and the attack served to further diminish confidence in British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his government who seemed impotent to stop both the IRA at home and Hitler in Eastern Europe. Arrests of people with Irish descent in Britain increased as did hostility towards the Irish community in the UK which should have played in to the hands of the IRA’s propaganda war but the loss of life in Coventry had dealt it a severe blow with their sympathy from moderate US supporters starting to taper off as a result. Behind closed doors the IRA itself began to recognise the potential disaster the Coventry bombing was to their cause and coupled with the lack of results from their operations in the previous months, Russell addressed the Irish world trying to affirm that their time for victory was at hand;

“England’s difficulty – Ireland’s opportunity” has ever been the watchword of the Gael.. Now is the time for Irishmen to take up arms and strike a blow for the Ulster people.

The outbreak of war between Britain and Germany looked set to further Britain’s problems and offer the opportunity for Irish victory especially with Nazi German support, after all it had been the last war that helped secure partial home rule for the Irish people in the south. Alas it was not to be for Russell and his supporters. The outbreak of war increased British security and limited the once commercially available materials in Britain needed for bombs making attacks all the more difficult. Not forgetting the deaths at Coventry, the British eventually arrested five people on the charge of the bombing among other terrorist offences and hung two of them, 29-year-old James Richards and 32-year old Peter Barnes, in February 1940. Joby O’Sullivan was not arrested for the bombing and would only confess to it years later to a reporter.

By 1940 the IRA’s campaign was completely running out of a steam as a result of British and Irish Republic emergency powers to curtail their operations. Arrests and deportations ran high in both countries while the US authorities started to clamp down on IRA members and supporters in America amid the increasing evidence of Nazi support. The hanging of Richards and Barnes effectively signalled the demise of the S-Plan although the last attack associated to it would occur on March 18th 1940 by which time the British people were more concerned about facing their own foreign invader in the form of Germany than paying any significant attention to the IRA’s cause. Indeed, despite Russell believing Nazi Germany could aid the Irish cause the events of the first six months of war actually overshadowed the IRA’s operations which did much to diminish their effectiveness. He believed this to the point where he would actually die in a German U-Boat trying to get to Nazi-occupied Europe.

The IRA leadership would be deeply self-critical of the operation in the years that followed with many members pointing out that there were warning signs of its inevitable failure even before 1939. Many of the attacks were rendered ineffective by poor training of agents, something that was pointed out in 1938 but ignored by Russell, while others cited that the organization had not yet adequately recovered from the disarray of the mid-30s leadership debate. Also, some of the more grandiose plans such as bombing the Houses of Parliament failed to come to fruition.

While the plan failed to establish the unified Ireland under the IRA’s government that it was intended to it did regenerate the feelings of Irish patriotism. Many of those involved joined the list of earlier IRA martyrs that would inspire the next generation of members and keep the organization alive only to flourish in the 1960s and 70s (Sean Russell’s statue is below). The deliberate effort to limit civilian casualties also endeared many Irish communities overseas to give their support to the IRA who were seen as heroic; it can be argued that the propaganda side of the S-Plan was quite successful in the long term despite the Broadgate bombing.

Sean Russell IRA statue

For Coventry, the bombing was unfortunately a mere taster of what was to befall the city in the coming year and a half.

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Rolling Thunder Vietnam War battle re enactment at Fortress Wales 2016

The members of the Rolling Thunder, a UK-based living history group dedicated to the US soldiers who served in Vietnam re-enact a battle that took place in 1968 between the 1st Air Cavalry Division and the Viet Cong.

Not “British” but a fascinating demonstration nonetheless.

Visit Defence of the Realm’s YouTube page by clicking here.

Five Of The Most Significant Submarine Attacks In History

SM_U9_Postcard

The development of the submarine changed the very nature of naval warfare forever. Suddenly, the huge fleets of yesteryear found their supremacy threatened by an unseen force and for a long time they were largely defenceless to the new weapon. However, it took a certain type of courage to volunteer for submarine duties especially in the early days when their vessels were often as dangerous to their crews as to the enemy. As a result of this courage submarine commanders and their crews were often exceptionally daring in their efforts to fight the enemy.

Here are five of the most significant submarine attacks in history.


 

  1. The First Ever Submarine Attack in History

Submarine Turtle Eagle 1776Largely thought of as a 20th century invention, primitive submersibles have actually been around since the 17th century. On September 7th 1776 the submarine Turtle designed by American inventor David Bushnell was given over to the American patriot cause for use against the British in the American Revolution. Piloted by Ezra Lee, the submarine approached the British 64-gun warship HMS Eagle and attempted to plant a bomb on it. However, he was unable to secure it to his target’s hull and it fell off the British ship before detonating which saved the Eagle from destruction. Although a failure, Lee’s mission is considered the first submarine attack in history.


 

  1. The Cressy Catastrophe

HMS CresseyUpon the outbreak of World War I, Britain’s Royal Navy had the most powerful surface fleet in the world and the British people were confident that they were safe on their island nation as a result. That confidence was shattered on September 22nd 1914 when German U-Boat U-9 attacked a formation of three Cressy-class heavy cruisers – Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue.

When the first ship, the Aboukir, was hit the crews of the other two cruisers believed that the explosion was caused by an accident onboard and went to assist them. Seizing the opportunity, U-9 attacked the Hogue and sank it. The remaining British ship, Cressy, attacked U-9 before returning to rescuing survivors of the other two ships. U-9 attacked again and sank Cressy. In all 1,450 British sailors were killed in what was at that time an unprecedented victory for a submarine.

For more on this read The Cressy Catastrophe


 

  1. The Submarine That Sent A Nation On The Path To War

RMS LusitaniaOn May 7th 1915 the British liner Lusitania was travelling south of Ireland on a route from New York to Liverpool when it was spotted by the German U-Boat, U20, which was taking part in an attempt to blockade Britain’s sea lanes. At the time the US was neutral in the First World War but despite being warned by the Germans that they reserved the right to attack any ship heading for British ports a large number of Americans were aboard believing that the Germans would never target an ocean liner with 2,000 people on it.

They were wrong.

Shortly after 2pm, U20 fired on the ship and in the resulting explosion and sinking, 1,198 people were killed including 128 Americans. The attack outraged the American people who were at that time largely oblivious to the war in Europe and pushed America closer to the Allies before they eventually declared war on Germany in 1917.


 

  1. Submarine vs. Submarine

HMS VenturerContrary to the myth perpetuated by Hollywood movies, submarines sinking other submarines has only happened in exceptionally rare cases. In all but one of these incidents the target submarine was on the surface when it was attacked. The exception occurred on February 9th 1945 when the British submarine, HMS Venturer, detected the German U-Boat U-864 on the surface with engine trouble. The U-Boat was actually on a highly secretive mission to deliver two scientists and several key jet engine components to Japan, Germany’s ally, for use in their own jet fighter program.

Realising he had been spotted by a British submarine the captain of U-864 dived to escape. The captain of Venturer, 25-year old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, attempted to match the U-Boat’s dive and by estimating the approximate position of the German vessel, fired a spread of six torpedoes in to its vicinity. One of the torpedoes successfully struck the U-Boat destroying it and its precious cargo. It remains the only time in history where one submarine has deliberately sunk another in combat while both were submerged.

For more on this read The Only Underwater Submarine-to-Submarine Kill in History


 

  1. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff

MV Wilhelm GustloffFrom the outbreak of World War II Germany’s navy, the Kriegsmarine, exercised a policy of unrestricted U-Boat warfare against the Allies. This in turn dictated a similar policy amongst the Allied navies and the oceans became a brutal killing ground as a result. In January 1945 this policy was about to reach its bloody climax and it would actually be the Germans who would be on the receiving end. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a cruise liner requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine for service as a hospital ship when the war broke out. When it became clear the vessel could no longer safely go to sea it was held in port at Gdynia in German-occupied Poland where it was painted in naval grey and used as an accommodation ship for trainee U-Boat crews.

By the start of 1945 the Soviet Red Army was pursuing the retreating German Army across Eastern Europe and so the ship was pressed back in to service to evacuate thousands of German troops, Gestapo officers, officials and civilians who had made a life in occupied Poland. On January 30th 1945, the ship along with another liner, the Hansa, and a torpedo boat made their breakout attempting to reach Germany through the Baltic. Official records show that over 6,000 people were onboard but the actual number was closer to 11,000 as a large number of civilians desperately crammed aboard and in the chaos of the boarding the crew simply gave up counting.

Shortly after leaving port the Hansa had to turn back because of mechanical problems but the Wilhelm Gustloff continued on before it was discovered by the Soviet Navy’s S-13 submarine. The S-13 torpedoed the overloaded vessel which quickly sank taking around 9,500 people with it of which nearly 5,000 were children.

It remains the biggest loss of life at sea in a single incident.

 

American aircraft at the Helicopter Museum

A collection of the American manufactured aircraft on display at the Helicopter Museum in Weston-Super-Mare, UK.
History: The Helicopter Museum
Photos: Tony Wilkins

 


Bell UH-1H Iroquois, 66-16579, C/N. 8771.
Built 1967 in Hurst, Texas, as a 13-seat utility transport helicopter powered by one Lycoming T53-L-13 turboshaft engine. Total production of the UH-1 family since 1956 has exceeded 13,000 aircraft. Originally built in 1967 as a UH-1D it was immediately shipped to South East Asia in support of the Vietnam War effort. It was later upgraded to UH-1H standard and stationed in West Germany; in August 1990 it deployed to Saudi Arabia for the Gulf War. Donated to the Museum in 1992 and collected by road transport it arrived in August 1992. Re-assembly began almost immediately, although some missing components had to be found through various sources before the work could be completed.

Hughes OH-6A Cayuse, 67-16506.
Built 1968 in Culver City, California, USA this four-seat Army scout-utility helicopter is powered by a 317 shp Allison T63-A turboshaft and was delivered for operatiomns in Vietnam in 1968. It was shot down in 1970 but rebuilt for further service with the Army National Guard until retirement and subsequent acquisition by the Museum. The airframe was delivered to Weston-super-Mare at the end of September 1999.


 

Piasecki HUP-3 Retriever, RCN 622/51-16622,C/N. 51.
Following the success of the early Piasecki HRP naval helicopter, which on the 7th March 1945 was the first practical tandem rotor (fore & aft rotors) to fly, the Piasecki company began a smaller design and the first prototype flew in October 1948. The aircraft on display at the Museum, was one of the three HUP-3s to enter service with the Royal Canadian Navy for utility and search and rescue missions and built in 1954 in Morton, Pennsylvania, USA. With the help of The Helicopter Association International, the HUP-3 was donated to the Helicopter Museum, which had it restored in Philadelphia by volunteers at Boeing Helicopters. It was shipped to the UK in November 1991 and then transported by road to Weston-super-Mare by Museum volunteers. The aircraft is the only example of a Piasecki helicopter in the UK.

If you have photographs or articles you wish to contribute to Defence of the Realm than you can email them to defencerealmyt@gmail.com. If successful you will of course be given full credit for your contribution and can even promote your own website.

 

A Free-Fire Zone in the skies of the Middle East?

RAF vs Russia

There is no denying it any longer; the world is now in the grips of a second Cold War between the East and the West. Not since the shooting down of a Korean airliner by the Soviet Union in 1983 has tensions been so high and there seems to be no sign of them subsiding any time soon.

So what is the shape of this new Cold War?

The current situation can be traced back to 2008 when Russian forces began their campaign in the South Ossetia region of Georgia. Distracted by the war on terror and the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan the West appeared powerless to stem Russian ambitions. While American aircraft did fly Georgian troops home from Iraq to defend their homeland the West categorically refused, openly and publicly, that they would not interfere directly. Russian confidence grew as a result and while the war of words over American ambitions for a missile defence system in Eastern Europe and the death of Alexander Litvinenko heated up it was clear that the West had lost the first round of Cold War II.

Skip forward over six years later and the world’s focus shifted to Syria and the Ukraine in particular the Crimea. Putin’s success in the Crimea has again boosted Russian confidence forcing the West in to action by training the Ukrainian military to help combat the pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine. Thus the stage was set for a “proxy war” – essentially a conflict between NATO and the Russians fought through an intermediary in this case, Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels. This was the very nature of the way the Cold War was conducted. It was a way in which the two superpower blocks could face off against one another without directly fighting themselves (although this did happen occasionally most notably in the skies over Korea between 1950-53 but both sides denied it was happening to prevent an escalation). It was an unspoken agreement between the East and West that where one’s military fought the other would not get involved directly.

(Source: The Washington Post)

(Source: The Washington Post)

The situation in Syria however threatens to unhinge that agreement. For the first time since the Second World War, American and Russian warplanes are engaged in military operations in the same airspace but not as part of a joint force. In fact there is a feeling that both militaries are trying to achieve different aims with Western media claiming that the majority of targets hit by Russian aircraft are aimed at supporting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad rather than combating Islamic State as claimed. If true this flies directly in the face of Western ambitions in the country which calls for Bashar Al-Assad to step down.

So far both sides have been extremely careful to avoid one another’s aircraft during operations but in the last week the situation seemed to escalate when reports came out in the British media that pilots of the Royal Air Force were apparently granted permission to fire on Russian jets over the Middle East. The reports were apparently backed up by the fitting of AIM-132 ASRAAM air-to-air missiles to RAF Tornado GR.4 strike aircraft operating against Islamic State in Iraq and this prompted angry exchanges between British and Russian diplomats in Moscow and London. The British Foreign Office claimed that the fitting of the weapons had been “misinterpreted” by the Russians.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said;

The Russian government sought clarification over inaccurate newspaper reports concerning RAF rules of engagement in Iraq. The defence attache reiterated the British government’s concerns about Russia’s military operation in Syria, including targeting legitimate opposition groups, using unguided weaponry and leading to large numbers of civilian deaths.

The Russian ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, hinted his belief that British authorities deliberately leaked the idea of the story as a warning to Russia stating:

(The) RAF does not participate in the anti-ISIS coalition strikes in Syria. The question arises, what is the goal of such a provocative media leak?

The Russian ambassador makes an important point. Despite the response to the media story from Moscow, British aircraft are not carrying out operations within Syria as a result of a Parliamentary decision not to carry out airstrikes there in 2014. RAF operations are limited to Iraq at present but in the last month Michael Fallon, the British Defence Secretary, has reiterated his belief that to fight Islamic extremists in Iraq and not Syria was “illogical” and that a new vote should be undertaken to reconsider the decision now that the Conservative party has a majority in Parliament. This means there is the possibility that British aircraft could operate over Syria along with the US, French and of course the Russians.

If that was to happen then the question must be asked; what should RAF pilots do if they encounter a Russian plane?

AIM-132 ASRAAM arming RAF Tornado aircraft

AIM-132 ASRAAM arming RAF Tornado aircraft

The immediate answer is of course do nothing. Despite the feelings of animosity between London and Moscow the United Kingdom and Russia are not engaged in open hostilities. Therefore if aircraft from both sides encounter one another there is no reason for them to begin firing. If we analyse the orders published in British media, regardless of how accurate they are, the result is that British pilots’ rules of engagement are not to shoot down Russian aircraft but to defend themselves if attacked by Russian aircraft. This follows international law which allows military forces to retaliate against an attack even if the countries are not officially engaged in a military conflict. Almost certainly, Russian aircraft operating over Syria have similar orders and have been armed as a precautionary measure.

But can two air forces with separate agendas operate over the same condensed airspace without coming in to conflict with one another?

At present the Russians have claimed to make attempts to at the very least create some kind of control structure for air operations over Syria to avoid meetings of aircraft. The Russians claim that the Americans are refusing to cooperate while the West claim that the Russians will only agree to such a structure if they could control all aircraft and allow them to continue supporting Al-Assad. Washington, London and Moscow have all said the same thing; that the mission in Syria would be best served by a coordinated mission. However, neither side is willing to submit to the other’s proposals for what the best way forward for Syria is and as such it will only be a matter of time before both sides will have to confront one another diplomatically and directly.

Just like in the Cuban Missile Crisis one side will eventually have to blink and step down leaving the other to dominate the situation. Politically this is unthinkable for all sides. What is worrying is that with more and more armed aircraft filling the skies of Syria the chances of a collision or worse, misidentification leading to a missile firing, may force that confrontation a lot sooner than either side may be prepared for. If one side was to lose an aircraft as a result of action from the other even by mistake then that side would be on the defensive and would be less likely to step down thus worsening the situation.

Until a political plan for Syria can be agreed by all sides of the debate then the situation remains delicate and will only worsen with time especially if Islamic State escalates the situation themselves with a high profile terrorist attack in Russia, America or the UK.

Soviet Hawker Hurricane Specials

General Kuznetsov climbs from a British Hurricane cloaked in Soviet colors (history.net)

General Kuznetsov climbs from a British Hurricane in Soviet colors (history.net)

The Soviet Air Forces were in an extremely poor state when the Germans struck east on June 22nd 1941. The vast majority of their aircraft were relatively impotent in the face of the advanced German Luftwaffe but worse still was the Soviet’s inability to detect incoming raids early enough to respond. Vast numbers of Soviet aircraft were destroyed on the ground by the Luftwaffe and their bases overrun before being used as forward operating posts against their former owners.

In London the opening of the eastern front by Hitler was greeted with staunch enthusiasm and some disbelief by the military leadership including Churchill who viewed it as an obvious blunder. Hitler hadn’t finished the fight against the British Empire in Western Europe or North Africa and now he was taking on the millions of Soviet soldiers. The superiority in numbers on the battlefield the Soviets were expected to offer however appeared to be evaporating before the eyes of the world as German and their Eastern European allies (Romania, Bulgaria and Finland) appeared unstoppable and once again Blitzkrieg produced victory after victory.

Churchill was no supporter of Stalin. In fact Churchill was a bitter opponent of his regime in Moscow and Communism at large but Nazi Germany was the more immediate threat and going on the principle of the enemy of my enemy is my friend Churchill offered his support to Stalin. What the Soviets needed were enough aeroplanes to help hold back the tide against the Germans while they relocated their own aviation manufacturing facilities further east out of range of German bombers. Churchill therefore ordered that large numbers of Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters be sent to the Soviet Union via the dangerous Arctic convoys to shore up the depleted Soviet fighter regiments. Additionally, RAF squadrons were sent to both fight alongside the Soviets and help train them by passing on their own experience against the Luftwaffe.

Given the prestige both these aircraft have in the UK it may come as something of a surprise that the Soviet pilots generally disliked their British mounts intensely. The Spitfire was especially unloved since its narrow undercarriage made it extremely awkward to land on the poorly prepared Soviet runways and was considered too fragile to operate effectively in the austere conditions. By contrast the Hurricane was a far more sturdy design that better suited the Soviet’s needs on the ground but in the air the aircraft was considered inferior to the German Messerschmitt Bf109E fighters. One thing the Soviets loathed on both aircraft was their relatively light armament and the fact that the guns were all located in the wings as opposed to around the forward fuselage as on Soviet and German fighters.

Nevertheless the two aircraft were still superior to many of the types the Soviets operated before and could at least hold their own against the Germans for the time being. With 2,952 Hurricanes being delivered to the Soviet Union it was inevitable that the aircraft would be modified in the field by the ever resourceful Soviets to either improve performance or to serve in other roles.


Trainer Conversion

Hawker Hurricane two seater conversion (source unknown)

Hawker Hurricane two seater conversion (source unknown)

For many of the Soviet pilots who survived the German onslaught in the early days the Hurricane was a big leap forward in performance compared to their biplanes such as the I-152 of which there were still 1,000 in service when the Germans attacked. The Hurricane also handled differently to equivalent Soviet designs and as a result the Soviets asked for a two-seater trainer version very early on.

Ten Hurricane Mk.IIs were selected for conversion which involved removing the armour behind the original pilot seat and effectively fitting a duplicate cockpit complete with second windscreen. The extra weight of the second cockpit necessitated the removal of eight of the Mk.II’s twelve Browning .303 machine guns and even then the remaining guns were only ever armed for training purposes. The two seat trainer never had full canopies fitted to them which as well as making them extremely cold in the harsh Soviet weather also caused buffeting problems at high speeds. A similar conversion for the Persian (Iran) Air Force resulted in the same problem leading them to design a blown transparent canopy for the second cockpit to improve the flow of air over the aircraft.

Hawker Hurricane two seater conversion (wp.scn.ru)

Hawker Hurricane two seater conversion (wp.scn.ru)

There is some evidence to show that the conversions were not universal such as differently shaped aft cockpit openings. With the arrival of the newer Soviet types the Hurricane training role was negated and the aircraft were transferred to glider towing and other second-line duties where they were worked to death before scrapping.


Alternative Armament

Like the RAF before them the Soviets quickly learned that the Hurricane’s eight .303 Browning machine guns were too weak to adequately take on the German aircraft with their armour and self-sealing fuel tanks. The Hurricane Mk.II introduced a new wing with twelve .303 Brownings but this was hardly ideal while later models introduced four Hispano 20mm cannons. This had a far better punch and the Soviets did receive some examples of this variant but something needed to be done about the earlier variants.

Hawker Hurricane with ShVak cannons (ran-home.com)

Hawker Hurricane with ShVak cannons (ran-home.com)

The Soviets looked to aero-gun designer B.G. Shpital’nyj from the Yakovlev design bureau in Moscow to design alternative weapon configurations for the Hurricane. With the impending replacement of the type in the fighter role Shpital’nyj was instructed to include ground attack weapons in his redesign. After considering several configurations he eventually settled on;

  • 4x 20 mm ShVAK cannons
  • 2x 7.7 mm ShKAS machine-guns
  • 6x RS-82 ground attack rockets

Around 1,200 airframes were reworked to feature Soviet armament. As well as packing a harder punch against the Germans the Soviet armament also eased the supply chain since they no longer had to rely on replacement parts for the guns to come via the convoys from Britain. A large number of other less official conversions were undertaken in the field and these configurations varied depending on what was available.

This heavier armament had an unfortunate side effect however in that the extra weight caused a deterioration in performance forcing them to be used more and more for ground attack duties and avoiding German fighters altogether. Soviet pilots continued to complain about the Hurricane in this role stating that there was insufficient protection for the pilot and engine compared to the Il-2 Shturmovik and this resulted on more armour being scabbed on. This further reduced performance which in turn increased Soviet complaints.


Artillery Spotter Conversion

Hawker Hurricane BV948 (airwar.ru)

Hawker Hurricane BV948 (airwar.ru)

One of the more fascinating conversions carried out by the Soviets was the development of an artillery spotter/correction version designed to support long range artillery units. Having gained experience building the two seat trainers the Soviets went about converting the aircraft with a second position behind the pilot for an observer who faced rearward and was thus not as obstructed by the aircraft’s wing when looking down as the pilot was. This configuration actually produced what looked like a monoplane version of the earlier Hawker biplane bombers such as the Hawker Hind which share a design lineage with the Hurricane. The conversion also featured a port in the floor for the observer to look straight down below the aircraft and the fitting of a long radio aerial wire from the tail to the cockpit which was no doubt needed to communicate corrective instruction to the artillery units.

To help with defence the observer was given a single 7.7mm ShKas machine gun on a trainable mount. It is possible that like the trainer versions the artillery spotters also had a number of their Browning guns deleted to save weight. It is difficult to establish just how many airframes went through the conversion but researching this article two aircraft have been identified these being BV945 and BV948 which came from the Canadian production line. These aircraft apparently operated over the Leningrad, Volkhov and Kalinin fronts after which they were replaced in the role by Il-2m Shturmoviks. This indicates that the aircraft were operated up to 1943.

Profile of BV948 (sas19456.com)

Profile of BV948 (sas1946.com)


Meteorological Reconnaissance Conversions

With the introduction of the new breed of superior Soviet fighters the ever-complaining Soviet pilots could finally discard the Hurricane from frontline use but with such high numbers still available they were quick to press them in to use for other roles one of which was meteorological reconnaissance. According to some reports around 150 aircraft were modified for this role with equipment to measure air pressure and humidity as well as radio compasses to assist navigation. The aircraft flew frequently in advance of major operations to help ascertain the weather conditions which assisted in planning at staff headquarters. It seems this variant of the aircraft was quite well received by the Soviets and examples were still on charge as late as 1950!


Engine Conversion Proposals

In the early stages of the war keeping the Hurricane flying relied largely on supplies getting through from Britain particularly concerning the 1,480hp Merlin XX engine. Concerns at the rate of which these supplies were getting through coupled with the threat of U-Boats and the Luftwaffe cutting off the convoys led the Soviets to consider replacing the Merlin with their own engines.

Three engines were considered;

  • Shvetsov M-82A 14-cylinder air-cooled radial engine (1,570hp)
  • Tumansky M-88B 14-cylinder air-cooled radial engine (1,100hp)
  • Klimov M-105 V12 liquid-cooled inline engine (1,100hp)

Converting the Hurricane to a radial engine such as the M-82A or M-88B would have required extensive work whereas fitting the M-105 would offer a reduction in performance. Therefore the plan was dropped entirely and no conversions were carried out.


Other Conversions…

Air Ambulance

As strange as it might sound at least one Hurricane was modified as an air ambulance. Details are sketchy and no photos or even a description of what the modification involved appear on the internet but what is known is that it was a two seater that was used and the conversion was carried out in the field.

Ski-Fighter Conversion

A number of Hurricanes had skis fitted in place of their regular landing gear to allow them to operate off snow covered airstrips in the thick Soviet snowstorms of winter. The skis were fixed and actually lightened the aircraft because of the removal of the heavy wheels and hydraulics. The conversion was similar to a Canadian conversion although it is likely this is just a coincidence. Attempts were made to produce a retractable ski system but it proved too problematic and was dropped.

Tactical Reconnaissance Versions

A small number of aircraft had AFA-1 reconnaissance cameras fitted in the rear fuselage. Lacking the speed or altitude to escape interception from the newly introduced Bf109F or Focke-Wulf Fw190 the conversion was not a great success and was used only temporarily.


Hawker Hurricane soviet union 2

The Hurricane was not well-loved by the Soviets but this was not unique to Sydney Camm’s aircraft. Except for the unique Bell P-39 Airacobra the Soviets disliked nearly every American or British fighter they got their hands on. In some cases this was from genuine criticism while in others it had more to do with patriotism. Nevertheless the Hurricane helped keep the Red Air Force fighting when their own planes were either destroyed or being built in the new factories of the east and achieved some notable successes. As the Soviets found out however the Hurricane was an easily adaptable design and whether the Soviets liked to admit it or not the type played its part in the defence of the motherland.