438 Sqn Typhoons Looking for Trouble

Article by Rich Thistle ©

Looking for Trouble by Rich Thistle ©438 Wildcats LOOKING FOR TROUBLE by Rich Thistle© If looks could kill, in appearance alone, the Hawker Typhoon was a formidable weapon. Its substantial, chunky wings virtually bristled like some fantasy dark-ages flying dragon, with eight rocket rails and four Hispano 20 mm cannon. Its no-nonsense cigar of a fuselage and gaping under-nose air intake communicated a sense of animal brute force.

And, in this case looks were not deceiving. Through the late war in the European theater, the 'Tiffy' indeed lived up to its looks. It was a much-feared ground-attack aircraft, helping to blast a path for the ground advance all the way into the heart of Germany. Many Canadian flyers - first in the RAF and later in the RCAF No. 143 Wing which included three Typhoon squadrons (438, 439 and 440) - flew this “seven-ton brute” effectively with skill and courage. In fact, it became one of the great aviation success stories of the war. However, success usually has its price, and the Typhoon was no exception.

Originally conceived as a high-altitude interceptor, it was to be deployed in the defensive anti-bomber role, to decimate the German daylight bombers sent against English cities. Ruggedly designed and constructed in the tradition of Hawker’s other legend, the Hurricane, it was powered by the hugely powerful Napier Sabre 'H' type, water-cooled 24-cylinder engine. But both its rugged strength and its Napier power plant would cast serious shadows of doubt over the early development and service of this now legendary aircraft. In fact, it quickly acquired a reputation among its pilots as a 'jinx' aircraft. In fact, unresolved engine and airframe problems threatened to sink the whole project before it got too far off the ground.

On paper, the Typhoon was a world-beater. Another concurrent Hawker design, the Tornado, was designed as a hedge against the possible failure of Napier’s development of the new Sabre sleeve-valve 2000 hp (plus) engine. Sharing the same airframe as the Typhoon, the Rolls-Royce Vulture-powered Tornado was the first to fly due to delays in the delivery of the Sabre engine. With its two parallel rows of exhaust stacks on each side - the Vulture was a twenty-four cylinder 'X' configuration - and its Hurricane-like under fuselage air scoop, the Tornado first flew October 6, 1939. Ironically, unlike its application in the Manchester bomber, the Vulture proved reasonably successful in the Tornado. This is doubly ironic considering the teething (and ongoing) problems suffered by the Sabre-powered Typhoon. Intended to be the first of 200 production aircraft, three flying Tornado prototypes proved reasonably successful. However, as it turned out, circumstances would favor the 'Tiffy'.

By February 24, 1940, the prototype Sabre-powered Typhoon flew for the first time. It quickly became evident that the development of the Typhoon would not be a smooth one. Of the several problems, however, the poor performance of the Sabre engine was the most distressing. It did not produce the power expected of a second-generation RAF interceptor. In fact its performance dropped off significantly above 20.000 feet, just where an interceptor must come into its element. Speed also fell well below the projected 460 mph.

Early production models (IAs) were armed with twelve Browning 303 machine guns. However, the aircraft had the strength to mount four 20 mm cannon, and later marks were armed this way. Although a potentially potent aircraft, the Typhoon would not succeed as an interceptor. Time would prove its worth in its eventual niche as a top ground-attack machine.

In the meantime though, the aircraft had become extremely unpopular among its operational pilots. The whole tail section, which was riveted during manufacture as a unit to the airframe just ahead of the leading edge of the tail planes had a habit of falling off with disastrous results. And the Sabre engine would fail suddenly, without warning, which could definitely lead to problems at 380 mph at 200 feet!

The disappearing tail section problem was finally solved with a surprisingly simple fix. Metal staples, visible on the surface of the rear fuselage, clamped the tail section securely to the aircraft. But the Sabre problem was never really solved. The unreliable engine proved to be a problem which continued to plague the Typhoon for its entire service career and it must have been in the back of every 'Tiffy' pilot’s mind on every sortie.

All this aside, the Typhoon was destined to become a highly successful fighter bomber in the ground-attack role. It was certainly not a welcome sight to German troops on the ground and, with its devastating fire power, became the scourge of transport targets. Rarely meeting the enemy in the air, it was - and has been - generally ignored in accounts in the popular press which tend to focus on the more spectacular forms of aerial combat. Nevertheless, 'Tiffy' squadrons, including No.438 RCAF racked up impressive records in their ground attack role.

By the end of April, 1944, 438 Squadron, as part of 143 Wing, 2nd Tactical Air Force was helping to soften up the continent in preparation for D-Day, bombing Noball (anti V-weapon) targets, bridges, road and rail junctions, airfields and radar stations. Following D-Day the squadron worked in close support of the Army on its drive to final victory, attacking behind enemy lines and ahead of advancing forces. Thus they followed - and preceded - the advance through France, Belgium, and Holland all the way into the heart of Germany.

Armed with two one-thousand pound bombs on hard points, one under each wing, the Typhoon weighed almost seven tons. Needless to say the aircraft lost more than a little performance and agility in this mode. So it’s not surprising to hear that the pilots were much relieved when they could finally deliver their ordinance and look for targets of opportunity on their way back to base, or set out without bombs at all.

“We enjoyed these ops. No bombs, no pre-selected target; just stooging around in battle formation at 10,000 feet looking for something to hit with our (cannons)...we would split up into sections of four...and each of which would fly home separately once his 20 mm ammo was used up.” ~ (438 Squadron History)

Having decided to paint Canadian Typhoons, I remembered that a former acquaintance, Ray Brown, had won a DFC on 'Tiffys'. Unfortunately, he was no longer living, but I was able to contact his widow, who resided in my home town Stratford, and gladly made his log book, squadron history, and other papers, including his DFC citation, available to me.

The resulting painting, 438 WILDCATS LOOKING FOR TROUBLE, represents an 'armed recce' sortie during April of 1945 as four Canadian Typhoon Ibs set off to look for targets of opportunity, without bombs. To me, it symbolizes the travail and sacrifice of thousands whose lives were entwined for those years with an aircraft which finally proved itself worthy of its hard-earned reputation as one of the most potent ground-attack aircraft of the war, including those who designed and built it, as well as all who flew and maintained it. But I especially wanted it to memorialize all Canadians who flew the legendary Typhoon in the Canadian squadrons of 143 Wing.