In July of 1940, the Battle of Britain begins as Adolf Hitler begins a relentless bombing campaign over England. Tom Neil, a pilot in the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force, flies the sturdy and dependable Hawker Hurricane during one of the greatest aerial battles of World War II. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- Hurricane and the Battle of Britain
KATE SNOW, reporting:
Ten months into World War II, Nazi Germany has invaded most of Western Europe, including Poland, Belgium, and France. Only Great Britain stands between Adolf Hitler and total domination of the continent.
Prime Minister WINSTON CHURCHILL: The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.
SNOW: Over the next several months, the German air force, called the Luftwaffe, sends wave after wave of deadly bomber and fighter aircraft to attack British military sites, towns, and the capital city of London. But the British are fighting back. Outnumbered and flying around the clock to protect their homeland are the pilots of the RAF, Great Britain's Royal Air Force. Nineteen-year-old Tom Neil is a brand new pilot with only a few hundred hours of flight time.
TOM NEIL (Pilot, Royal Air Force): I encountered my first Germans the beginning of July with no experience at all. I flew 141 times in 16 weeks. And we were unprepared for war.
CORY GRAFF (Curator, Flying Heritage Collection): The Royal Air Force pilots from the Battle of Britain era are called “The Few,” and there was very few of them. And they were worked almost all day long every day to repel these German attacks.
SNOW: To beat back the German aerial assault, Neil flies the Hawker Hurricane, one of the sturdiest and most dependable fighter planes in the RAF.
NEIL: The Hurricane was altogether a different aircraft. We used to go through the cloud at 140 miles an hour, climb up to the enemy, and work up a bit of speed before we could attack the bombers.
GRAFF: During the Battle of Britain, the airplane that shot down the most enemy aircraft was the Hawker Hurricane.
SNOW: The Hurricane is the RAF’s first monoplane, a plane with one pair of wings, which makes it more steady and aerodynamic in flight.
GRAFF: The Hawker Hurricane was a super tough and great flying airplane. It was very, very stable and it had many guns. And that made it a perfect firing platform to attack these German bombers as they came over.
NEIL: The Hurricane of course outdistanced and outperformed from the word go.
SNOW: Even with its stability, the Hurricane still lacks many of the sophisticated innovations of other modern planes. Instead of being built strictly with aluminum or steel like most planes, the Hurricane has a metal and wood framed tail that is covered by durable linen. The RAF keeps this more primitive design because it makes it lighter and more maneuverable in the air and less of a hassle on the ground.
GRAFF: Parts of the airplane are still fabric. When they would get damaged, they were much, much easier to repair. They’d be up flying the next day.
SNOW: Engineers need to make the Hurricane fly in all types of weather, so they design its linen to be weatherproof and airtight. They do this by treating the fabric with a sealing agent called aircraft dope. But a key ingredient in aircraft dope called nitrocellulose makes the Hurricane flammable. Nitrocellulose is made of wood pulp, which contains nitrogen. If the nitrocellulose contains more than twelve percent nitrogen, it becomes extremely susceptible to catching fire. In combat, fires caused by damage to the Hurricane's engine or fuel tanks, can easily travel the length of the Hurricane's metal and wood frame and ignite the nitrocellulose in the tail, setting off a deadly chain reaction.
NEIL: The first thing that happened was the fire came up into the pilot’s face, hands, and feet. And they were always hideously burned. And you had to get out of the cockpit in about three or four seconds as you were barbecued absolutely.
SNOW: Despite the risk of fire, the Hurricane is durable, fast, and reliable in the air. On September 15, 1940, Neil and his squadron experience how well the Hurricane flies in a dogfight during the German Luftwaffe’s heaviest bombing raid over London.
NEIL: I remember attacking a chap from the outside and came very, very close. And I chased it down the Thames. And suddenly, the tail touched the water. And he plopped down into the water. We had an enormously successful day.
SNOW: Victorious, Neil and his squadron return safely to base. After months of relentless combat and continuous flying, the RAF and its Hurricanes defeat the Luftwaffe, handing Hitler his first major defeat of the war.
NEIL: Had we lost the Battle of Britain, the whole history of the war would have been changed. The whole history of the world would have been changed.
World War II was the central event of the 20th century. It involved all six major continents, all three of the great oceans on the planet, dozens of countries and billions of people.
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