The Hawker Tempest took a circuitous route from Sir Sydney Camm’s drawing board to operational service, but when it arrived it more than fulfilled its promise. After the prototype Tempest I had its first flight on February 24, 1943, it became one of the most powerful high-performance fighters to see operational service in World War Two, the Tempest extended the boundaries of piston-powered flight. Every pilot who flew it considered the experience exhilarating and never to be forgotten. The fighter was the result of lessons quickly learned by Camm and his team from the problems revealed in the development of its stablemate the Hawker Typhoon, and from the first flight, the Tempest was the fast, manoeuvrable, heavily armed interceptor that the Typhoon could not be due to lack of aeronautical knowledge of high-speed flight at the time of its birth. The maximum speed of the Hawker Tempest was equal to 695 km/h largely thanks to its superior engines and four-blade propeller.
Coming into service in the spring and summer of 1944, just in time to meet the threat of the V1 flying bomb, the Tempest became the front line of defence – destroying more V1s than any other interceptor. Moving on to the Continent after successfully meeting that challenge, the Tempest became the terror of the Luftwaffe in the difficult and deadly air battles over the Western Front, the fighter most successful in vanquishing the Me-262 jet, and the nemesis of the German railways. It served successfully into the dawn of the Jet Age in the years following the war and will always be recognised as one of the best designs Camm ever created during his long career as Britain’s premier aircraft designer.
A Hawker Tempest has flown for the first time in almost 70 years. It’s the culmination of an incredible restoration story that’s taken decades to complete. Gary Brown describes this extraordinary return to flight and reflects on the type’s use in India
With the quite incredible news that a Hawker Tempest has taken to the skies for the first time in some seven decades, we dedicate this week’s quiz to the development of the type that holds the distinction of being the last piston-engined fighter in operational service with the Royal Air Force…
The long awaited first post restoration flight took place today in the hands of renowned warbird pilot Pete Kynsey…
In trying to improve cooling on its liquid-cooled Sabre engine, Napier felt a different concept could work wonders
Within weeks of arrival on operations, the first Tempest squadrons were confronted by their greatest challenge – the V1 flying bomb. Beginning shortly after D-Day and lasting until the launch sites were captured by Allied armies in September, the Tempest pilots flew day and night in a desperate effort to explode the world’s first cruise missiles before they could reach London, which Hitler vowed to destroy with his ‘Vengeance’ weapon.
Thomas McKelvey Cleaver describes how the Tempest provided the fighter core of the British Occupation forces in Germany and served in India to become the initial equipment for the air forces of India and Pakistan.
The Hawker Tempest's immense contribution in World War Two
The first Tempest wing flew a few missions over Normandy following the June 1944 invasion before becoming Britain’s first line of defence against the infamous V-1 flying bomb. The German campaign against London and southern England began shortly after D-Day, and lasted until early September, when the Allied armies finally overran the launch sites in northern France and Belgium. By that time there were two active Tempest wings, Wg Cdr Roland Beamont’s 150 Wing (comprising 486, 3 and 65 squadrons at Newchurch, Kent) and Wg Cdr John Wray’s Manston Wing with 274 and 80 squadrons.
By the end of September, the Germans had been pushed out of France and Belgium, as well as southern parts of Holland. However, Operation Market Garden – the bid to create an Allied invasion route into northern Germany – had failed and the Western Front was static. The Allies had outrun their supply lines and would not be able to mount a further offensive until the port at Amsterdam was cleared. The arrival of the coldest European winter in a century further delayed action. Certainly, dreams of ending the war by Christmas had died at Arnhem.
The enemy, however, had suffered grievous blows. The loss of experienced pilots that summer had a profound effect on the Jagdwaffe. The ‘experten’ were now a rare breed; the overwhelming majority sent into combat were ‘nachwuchs’ (new growth), young, inexperienced pilots.
Hawker Tempests move to Belgium
In late September, it was decided that Tempests would move to Belgium and take up residence at B60 airfield in Grimbergen. This co-ordinated with the return of 122 Wing’s North American Mustangs. The Tempests would become 122 Wing, while the Mustangs became 150 Wing. On the 27th, Roland Beamont and 486’s OC Johnny Iremonger flew over to Grimbergen; they found a grass airfield barely sufficient to sustain Tempest operations. The wing was nevertheless ordered to make the move across the Channel the following day.
September 28 was grey and wet with a cold wind off the North Sea. After a ‘wing ding’ of a party the night before to celebrate their departure for combat, Beamont and his pilots were nursing serious hangovers. Nevertheless, he intended to “arrive in style” over Brussels. The formation would consist of four Tempest squadrons of 12 aircraft Tempests with a ‘V’ of three to the rear. He said: “If any had hangovers like mine, we were going to need that long straight leg over the North Sea to get together properly, and full oxygen would not do us any harm either!”
The Tempests roared over Grimbergen at 1,000ft, then touched down two at a time on the short runway at 20-second intervals. Beamont sent off 56’s Sqn Ldr Digby ‘Digger’ Cotes-Preedy to make an armed reconnaissance of the wing’s new operating area.
An hour later, 2nd TAF commander AVM Harry Broadhurst arrived to welcome his new wing. Beamont told him they were already ‘blooded’. Cotes-Preedy’s flight had sighted Supermarine Spitfires engaged with at least 20 JG 26 Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. Spotting one fighter that dived away from the skirmish, Cotes-Preedy quickly closed on the Fw 190A-8, which crashed in the forest below. It was officially the Tempest’s first air combat victory since June.
Relocating the Tempests
The Tempests moved to Volkel aerodrome in Holland on October 1. A permanent base with brick runways, it had been built by the Luftwaffe. Seriously damaged during Market Garden and only 11 miles from the front lines, the all-weather runways were still usable, which was important as the winter rains came. When Beamont flew in, he took fire from flak and his right horizontal stabiliser had to be replaced.
The wing was reinforced by 80 and 274 squadrons on October 7. The wrecked airfield was a new and harsher operating environment for the Tempests, since there was little in the way of shelter, and all maintenance was carried out in the open. The cold did nothing to improve the temperamental Napier Sabre engines – a procedure of starting them up every four hours through the night became standard. Such were the problems that for every sortie of eight aircraft, a spare was started up. The engines were raised to 3,000rpm after ten minutes of ground-running immediately prior to take-off until all signs of oil smoke had vanished from the exhausts. Failure to do this after taxiing to the active runway often ended with the engine cutting completely on opening up to take-off power.
On October 2, Beamont led 56 Squadron on an air superiority patrol off the Nijmegen-Rhine front at 15,000ft. All was quiet for the first 45 minutes. He reported: “Eventually, I turned the formation on a southerly heading to take us back to base when radar control came up with ‘Bandits east of you, ten miles, no height.’ Then ‘Trade closing at one o’clock, same height, five miles.’”
The Tempests soon engaged Fw 190As from JG 26. Beamont followed the leader as he dived away. “In this near vertical dive we were already down through 7,000ft when I fired a short burst from about 300 yards. There was smoke from his wing roots and the 190 nosed over beyond the vertical. At well over 500mph indicated, I rolled easily to the right and pulled up hard as the fields and trees now seen through the scattered cloud rushing up from below looked altogether too close at this dive angle and speed. There, below and to port, was a flash and eruption of smoke and the white globe of shockwave as the 190 went straight in near Cleve. My number two confirmed this and said ‘We were over 510 when you fired at him!’”
On the way back to Volkel, a pair of Messerschmitt Me 262 jets were spotted but were too far away to be caught. The frequent raids by the Me 262 ‘Sturmvogel’ fighter-bombers of 3.KG(J) 51 operating from Rheine aerodrome (in northwest Germany) would keep the Tempests occupied with defensive patrols over the front.
On the night of October 12, Hawker chief test pilot Phillip Lucas visited the wing and told Beamont he was to be posted back to Hawker as number two to Bill Humble. After the war Hawker would offer him a position as test pilot. There was more news for Beamont the following morning – 3 Squadron was tasked with flying a patrol to Rheine. Their target? The Me 262s. Roland could not resist taking the lead for one last mission. His final point at briefing was to remind the pilots that if they did any strafing, the rule was to make just one pass and stay low until five miles out, before climbing away.
The 12 Tempests headed east. “I began to search the ground ahead and was surprised when still only 30 miles from our base I saw the unmistakable smoke and steam plume of a train,” Beamont reported. “This was broad daylight, so what was a train doing here?” The wing commander led a strafing run and stopped the lead engine – he then ignored his own ‘one-pass’ rule and made two more attacks. On the third, the flakwagon finally opened fire. As Beamont pulled away, his number two informed him that his Tempest was streaming smoke. “I looked at the radiator temperature gauge – it was already off the clock!”
Side-slipping between tall pine trees and aiming for a small clearing, he stopped near a fence adjacent to woodland. Before he could run into the forest, a German squad appeared. Roland Beamont, the pilot most responsible for successfully bringing both the Typhoon and Tempest fighters into combat, raised his hands and walked off into seven months as a prisoner of war.
The top-scoring Tempest ace of the war turned out to be an American, Sqn Ldr David ‘Foob’ Fairbanks. After completing his advanced training in the UK, he joined 501 Squadron on December 1, 1943. In the spring of 1944, he refused transfer to the United States Army Air Forces, since he would only qualify as a flight officer (a non-commissioned warrant officer in US service).
Flying a Spitfire, he subsequently scored his first victory over Normandy on June 8, 1944, shooting down one Messerschmitt Bf 109 and damaging another near Le Havre. When 501 transitioned to the Tempest in August, Fairbanks was transferred to 274 Squadron where he had more time to learn about his new charge. The move turned out to be fortuitous – No.274 was sent to continental Europe in September while 501 remained in the UK for the rest of the war.
The Hawker Tempest Mk. V
Fairbanks began to show his mettle during a ‘train-busting’ sortie on November 19, where he flew the later production Tempest, flying Tempest Mk.V EJ786. As he made a low-level strafing run, his Tempest took a flak hit to the leading edge of the left wing, which set the fuel tank afire and sent flames streaming behind. With the fabric-covered rudder ablaze, the Tempest rolled inverted. The flight’s leader Warren Peglar called out to find out who had been hit. Fairbanks’ wingman, Jock Malloy, informed Peglar it was Fairbanks and said he would lead him back to base.
In the meantime, Fairbanks, still inverted at low level, switched fuel tanks and flew over the train. He then recovered, flipping the Tempest upright to put out the fire, and headed for Volkel. By the time the rest of the flight returned, Fairbanks had already been photographed standing next to his badly-burned Tempest, which had lost all the fabric from the rudder, making his recovery from inverted flight all the more amazing.
The Tempest’s first two months of operations with the 2nd TAF proved costly, with losses of 21 aircraft and ten pilots, five of whom were POWs. Seven had been brought down by the ubiquitous flak while three had fallen to German fighters. On top of this, no fewer than eight had been lost due to engine failure, which had claimed 274’s commander, Sqn Ldr J R Heap. He was replaced by Sqn Ldr Alex Baird, previously a senior flight commander.
Operations changed from defensive to offensive in December. The German counterattack through the Ardennes that began on the 16th caught the Allies by surprise. Extremely poor weather allowed only a few Luftwaffe aircraft to support the offensive, but the following day conditions improved, enabling fighters from both sides to get airborne; 122 Wing experienced its most successful day of combat since arriving on the European mainland.
At 1010hrs, eight 274 Squadron Tempests flew to the Münster area, where they found and engaged scattered formations of Bf 109s. At 1030hrs, Flt Lt Fairbanks, flying the now-repaired EJ786, claimed one destroyed, followed 15 minutes later by a second Bf 109, while Flt Lt Hibbert brought down a third. Shortly after, ‘Foob’ spotted a pair of Bf 109s passing him in the opposite direction. He later wrote in his combat report: “One was being chased by another Tempest and I broke on to the second one. This enemy aircraft continued straight and level just at the base of cloud at 4,000 feet. I quickly closed the range from below to approximately 150 yards and fired, but only my port cannons worked. After a few bursts I saw strikes on the enemy aircraft’s starboard wing. He did only a very slight turn to starboard and continued on. I rolled on to him again and fired until my ammo ran out. I overhauled the enemy aircraft and came right under his wing for a few seconds – the pilot was looking out the opposite side and did not seem to have a clue! He finally saw me and I pulled over the top of him, gave the finger sign and came home.”
The constant Allied bombardment against German industry and infrastructure meant that a fuel crisis was compounding the Luftwaffe's problems. In a desperate bid to save fuel, they were forced to halt all non-essential transport from December 23. Eighty-five German pilots were reported killed or captured the following day; 21 others were wounded. Air battles over the front were frequent and deadly. The Tempest Wing’s claims in December for 33 aircraft destroyed for the loss of nine pilots, two surviving as POWs, was impressive.
The Tempests were, however, unable to engage the Luftwaffe again until the afternoon of January 4, 1945, when the weather cleared. Fairbanks, now a flight commander with 3 Squadron, claimed an Fw 190 for his fourth victory, while 56's Fg Off Ness claimed one of two Bf 109s credited to the squadron; this was also his fourth victory. The weather prevented ‘ops’ in the Ardennes area, and while a few sorties were made to Münster, air combat would not resume in earnest until January 14.
That day dawned clear and cloudless. The Tempests were hunting trains again; 3 Squadron found several. While they attacked, Fairbanks spotted and engaged a Bf 109 and an Fw 190 that were trying to interfere with the strafing. He brought them both down, raising his ever-increasing tally to six victories. The weather turned poor again for eight days. On January 22, clearing skies saw Fairbanks score a single victory while the wing shot up trains and trucks. The next day Fairbanks led four Tempests to tussle with ten Fw 190 fighter-bombers fitted with rocket launchers. The unit claimed four shot down, with Fairbanks ‘bagging’ two.
The American pilot was put in command of No.274 after Sqn Ldr Baird was shot down on January 24. The next day he spotted what he identified as an Me 262 on approach to Rheine. Closing to 300 yards, he opened fire with a short burst. The jet caught fire and dived into the ground in the middle of the airfield. The victim was in fact the first Arado Ar 234 jet-powered bomber to be shot down.
‘Foob’ was no less busy through the rest of January. He shot down an Fw 190D-9 Dora and a Bf 109G, destroyed a pair of Junkers Ju 88s in a strafing raid and was credited with one-and-a-half Ju-52s. In an ironic reversal of the usual phrase, he became nicknamed ‘Terror of Rheine’ for the many combats he fought near the German airbase. An Fw 190D-9 dispatched on February 24 would, however, turn out to be his last victory.
Tempest Assault on Germany
After two days of bad weather, Tempests were again roaming western Germany on February 28. Fairbanks led six 274 fighters on an ‘armed recce.’ They were ten miles east of Osnabrück when ‘Foob’ spotted ‘40-plus’ aircraft that he identified as Fw 190s and Bf 109s forming up over the Black Forest. In fact, they were all Fw 190D-9s of III./JG 26. Fairbanks led a charge straight into the formation.
It was to be a costly combat. Six of the Doras managed to get on the tails of the Tempests as they flashed past. Caught in a wild melee, the Tempest pilots fought to escape. Four got away, but Fairbanks and Fg Off J B Spence were reported missing. The American pilot’s last call was “Five on my tail!”
The ‘Terror of Rheine’ was credited to Fw Karl-Georg Genth of 12./JG 26, son of a World War One Gotha bomber pilot. Too low to bail out, Fairbanks force-landed and was immediately captured – a German officer thankfully rescued him from a civilian lynch mob. He spent the rest of the war as a POW. Returning from captivity at the end of the war, he claimed to have shot down the fighter he was last seen shooting at, though this was never officially credited. Luftwaffe records do however list a loss at the correct time and place, an Fw 190D-9 of 9./JG 26, Weiss 17, flown by Uffz Franz Schmidt of 12th Staffel.
Hawker Tempests engaged the enemy right to the end, with the type’s final victory registered on May 3, a Focke-Wulf Fw 44 trainer shot down at 2015hrs by 3 Squadron’s Flt Lt H K Hughes. The same unit had made the first Tempest combat claims 11 months earlier. The assault on enemy airfields continued relentlessly until the ceasefire on the evening of May 4 – no more Tempests were lost.
The Legacy of the British Hawker Tempest
The 2nd TAF officially credited the Tempest wings with 240 aerial victories. These were achieved despite the Tempest being nominally earmarked for ground attack. A total of 155 had been lost on operations, with the loss of 93 pilots. Of those, 55 were killed and 38 became prisoners – nearly half had been brought down by flak, with only 26 to enemy fighters. Even if we look purely at fighter vs fighter results, with 191 Fw 190s and Bf 109s claimed, this is a combat kill/loss ratio of 7:1 in the Hawker’s favour, a remarkable tally for an aircraft that certainly deserves more fame than it received.
By Thomas McKelvey Cleaver