‘This Man Saved Britain’ ran a headline in the News Chronicle on 18 February 1941, in a reference to the role of Sydney Camm, designer of the Hawker Hurricane, during the Battle of Britain. Similarly, the Minister of Economic Warfare, Lord Selborne, advised Winston Churchill that to Camm ‘England owed a great deal’.
Twenty-five years later, following his death in 1966, obituaries in the Sunday Express and Sunday Times, among other tributes, referred to ‘Hurricane Designer’ or ‘Hurricane Maker’, implying that this machine represented the pinnacle of Camm’s professional achievement. Sir Thomas Sopwith, the respected aircraft designer and Hawker aircraft company founder, believed that Camm deserved much wider recognition, being ‘undoubtedly the greatest designer of fighter aircraft the world has ever known.’
Born in 1893, the eldest of twelve children, Camm was raised in a small, terraced house. Despite lacking the advantages of a financially-secure upbringing and formal technical education after leaving school at 14, Camm would go on to become one of the most important people in the story of Britain’s aviation history.
Sydney Camm’s work on the Hurricane was far from the only pinnacle in his remarkable career in aircraft design and engineering – a career that stretched from the biplanes of the 1920s to the jet fighters of the Cold War. Indeed, over fifty years after his death, the revolutionary Hawker Siddeley Harrier in which Camm played such a prominent figure, following ‘a stellar performance in the Falkland Island crisis’, still remains in service with the American armed forces.
It is perhaps unsurprising therefore, as the author reveals in this detailed biography, that Camm would be knighted in his own country, receive formal honors in France and the United States, and be inducted into the International Hall of Fame in San Diego.
GUEST REVIEW FROM MARK MAGUIRE!
Today I am delighted to hand my blog over to my husband Mark, so he can share with you his review of Sydney Camm, Hurricane and Harrier Designer, Saviour of Britain!
“The pre-existing World War 2 narrative cannot be said to be short of contributions. However, it is perfectly fair to suggest that has been found wanting in key areas – the Hawker Hurricane being one example.
The Hawker Hurricane suffered a raw deal when the plaudits for the successful allied prosecution of World War 2 were being doled out. Ignominiously dropped from post World War 2 fly-pasts, the Hurricane has forever after lived very firmly in the shadow of its illustrious elliptical winged stable mate despite the Hurricane’s superiority in both number and contribution.
Part of the reason behind this is due to revisionism. For the vast majority of authors, the Spitfire represented a sleek and graceful nod to modernity, whereas the robust, linen-covered Hurricane was viewed as being an outmoded machine suitable for relegation to secondary duties tackling the HE111 as opposed to duelling directly with the BF109. Not only are these accounts patently untrue, (303 Squadron being but one example), they also serve to undermine the incredible achievements of Hurricane pilots who greatly outnumbered their Spitfire counterparts during Britain’s Finest Hour. Indeed, the adaptability and reliability of the Hurricane; its relative ease of construction and repair, and its overall performance when coupled to the tenacity of air and ground crew saved Britain from imminent invasion.
Any consideration of the Hurricane and its Hawker stable mates necessitates a thorough review of the man who ultimately designed and constructed it. The author of this work clearly understands this, and lays the foundation for this eminently readable and incredibly detailed account of the man who led to the machine which saved Britain.
Sir Sydney Camm is a name that will not be familiar to the vast majority. Born into a large family of 12 children in Windsor as the eldest, Camm was fortunate to be influenced by two principal factors: the advancement of aeronautics during the course of World War 1, and secondly, carpentry / joinery – his father’s trade. This combination of interest; knowledge, and practical skill led initially to the foundation of the Windsor Model Aeroplane Club in 1912 culminating in the construction of a manned-glider shortly afterwards. Camms’ early endeavours were widely covered by the specialist press, (The Aeroplane et al) and it was this convergence which led to Camm accepting his first paid role as a shop-floor Carpenter at Martinsyde at the time of World War I and then Handasyde in 1921 after the former went into liquidation. During his time with both manufacturers, the prototypical transition from Bi-Plane to Mono Plane was beginning to gain traction, a sentiment which was not shared by the deeply conservative Air Ministry.
A critical turning point came in November 1923 when Camm joined the Hawker Aircraft Company. Founded by T.O.M Sopwith, (of Pup and Camel fame) Camm enjoyed and excelled in the position of senior Draughtsman leading to the design and implementation of jointed tubular steel in aircraft manufacture and an articulation of the monoplane– critical developments in the context of the Battle of Britain. The ascendancy of Hawker products during the uneasy interwar period are a testament to this. Aircraft penned by Camm such as the Nimrod; Hart and Fury all formed the backbone of the RAF during this period. This has led to the unfair charge that due to the dominance of the bi-plane in the interwar period, Camms’ design language was inherently conservative. Indeed, as the Author elucidates, any conservatism in design was determined by the deeply conservative Air Ministry whose mistrust of the monoplane was to pose a considerable obstacle to the modernisation of the RAF. Indeed, as the Author highlights, this notion of Camm versus the Ministry was to prove a recurrent theme with the development and introduction of the Typhoon; Tempest; Sea Fury and P1127 – all of which are covered by this book.
This convergence of events are, quite rightly, viewed by the Author as a critical step in the birth of the Hurricane and the successful prosecution of the Allied air war. The combination of a tried and tested design portfolio and the subsequent financial footing converged when the Air Ministry began to issue specifications for future aircraft.
The subsequent coverage of this aspect of Camms’ life is detailed and thought-provoking. It is at this juncture that the Author places Camm at the forefront of the narrative and we learn to appreciate the traits which caused him to be feared and revered in equal measure. The Author’s portrait is one of a man who was incredibly driven and incisive with a determination that all of those engaged on his projects worked to his own exacting standards. This was frequently the source of conflict, and the Author documents some of the more pertinent disagreements. The Author resists the temptation to depict Camm as an ogre, but it is clear that the associated pressures of delegating and delivering the Hurricane on a Private Venture basis took their toll on Camm as the Air Ministry arbitrarily revised specifications, particularly armament, on an apparent whim.
The Author’s skill lies in the humanisation of Camm and the inextricable link between him and the Hurricane. It becomes clear that had Camm not been tenacious; dominant, and open to measured criticism, the Hurricane may never have made it beyond a speculative Private Venture and into RAF service. Whilst it may be unfair to suggest that Camm was solely responsible for these developments, his force of character ensured that he was front and centre when a decision needed to be made or an argument had.
Far from being conservative, the Author posits Camm as a radical who sought to overthrow the bi-plane orthodoxy at a time of overarching governmental myopia and complacency. When K5083 was delivered to Martelsham Heath for trials, not only was it the fastest and most advanced single seat interceptor in the World but it represented the critical and qualitative break that the Air Ministry could fail to ignore. In this instance, Camm and the Hurricane can be seen as symbiotic as Britain and the Hurricane would later become during the Finest Hour. The Author’s articulation of this is critical if we are to accurately position the Hurricane within an evolving World War 2 narrative.
In summary, this is an informative; thoroughly researched and engaging account of how Britain’s fortunes were inextricably linked to Sydney Camms’ vision and strength of character to bring the promise of the Hawker Hurricane to fruition against a conservative and vacillating Air Ministry.
The Author’s reassessment of the Hurricane is particularly welcome in this regard, and whilst the moniker of “Saviour of Britain” sat uneasily with Camm, it is hard to argue against the pivotal qualitative and quantitative role played by his most famous machine at a time when Britain stood alone, anticipating Nazi invasion.”