16 August 1940
Of the two main British fighter types participating in the Battle of Britain, the rugged Hawker Hurricane was notorious for its cockpit fires. The two main fuel tanks of this aircraft, positioned between the main spars in the wing roots, were completely unprotected by either armoured plate or self-sealing padding. Because of their placement, the tanks were vulnerable from behind and easily set ablaze when hit by enemy gunfire.
The Hurricane’s construction had made it dangerous in the event of the aircraft catching fire. As there was floor in the cockpit, flames from a burning wing tank could easily penetrate into it through the open space underneath the pilot’s feet. In addition, the gravity fuel tank which collected the fuel from the wing tanks before feeding it into the engine sat in the fuselage right in front of the instrument panel, without any form of protection between it and the pilot. If set on fire, it could sent a jet of flame right in the pilot’s face and body. To make matters even worse, the wooden construction and fabric covering of the rear fuselage meant that fire could spread through the rear fuselage structure quite easily.
Official RAF pilots’ instructions warned that at an altitude of 15,000 feet, cockpit temperature in a fighter suffering fuel fire rose from cool room temperature to 3,000 degrees Centigrade in the space of ten seconds. Even given the limited protection of his flying suit and gloves, the pilot had to get out immediately – or risk not being able to get out at all.
In contrast, fuel tanks of a Spitfire were located in the forward fuselage, protected from the rear and above by armoured plate and by the bulk of the engine from the front. Also, a sealed firewall separated the tank from the cockpit. In statistical terms, the Spitfire’s construction translated into much lower rate of burn injuries on Spitfires than on Hurricanes.
To be fair, the placement of fuel tank in Bf 109 was almost as bad as that in the Hurricane. In the German fighter, it was located… under the pilot’s seat. However, the Messerchmitt featured a jetissonable canopy with quick release handle, an invention which greatly simplified the bail out procedure.
On balance, the Hurricane was the most fire-prone of the three types. Many Hurricane pilots were seriously burned as a consequence of fuel fires which turned the cockpits of their aircraft into a blazing death traps.
The day of 16 August brought but two memorable examples of such ordeal.
F/Lt James Nicholson, 23, was one of the flight commanders in No. 249 Hurricane Squadron. On this day, his unit was vectored over Southampton to engage a larger enemy formation. Commencing the attack, they split into sections. Nicholson and his two wingmen attacked a flight of Bf 110s. Seconds later, they were in turn jumped by Bf 109’s diving from above.
Nicholson’s aircraft was hit by four cannon shells, two of which wounded him in the left eye and foot. At the same time, the two other shells damaged the engine and set the fuel tank on fire. The cockpit of the Hurricane erupted in flames.
Nicholson quickly slid back his canopy and released the safety harness. As he struggled to abandon the burning aircraft, his remaining eye caught a glimpse of a Bf 110 still looming in front of his aircraft. In a split of a second, he changed his mind. Managing to get back into the seat, he attacked the Messerschmitt and kept it in sights, firing, until it dived away to destruction.
As a result of staying in his aircraft, Nicholson sustained serious burns to his hands, face, neck and legs. Not until then did he bail out, and he was able to open his parachute in time to land safely in a field. Once on the ground, his hands were so badly burnt that he was unable to release his parachute. He laid still, yanked by the harness of the silk canopy flowing in the wind, which caused him terrible pain. After a while, he was approached by Home Guard patrol, but his ordeal was not yet over. One of its members shot him in the leg from a shotgun as a precautionary measure, to prevent the alleged POW from escaping!
For “exceptional gallantry and disregard for the safety of his own life”, Nicholson was awarded Victoria Cross. He was the only Fighter Command pilot to achieve this distinction. After long recovery, he returned to flying in April 1941 in the rank of a Squadron Leader.
In Tangmere, No. 601 “County of London” Squadron was scrambled to intercept a formation of German Junkers Ju 87s, which were crossing the coast east of Selsey Bill. Among their number was P/O Billy Fiske – a 29 years old American volunteer. Fiske was a graduate of Cambridge University and a leading personality in the American bob sleigh teams that won the Olympic championships in 1928 and 1932. He was one of seven American citizens who fought in the Battle of Britain, although due to the neutrality of the United States, he pretended to be a Canadian. Also serving with No. 601 Squadron was his countryman F/O Carl R. Davis.
After only a few minutes after take-off, No. 601 squadron engaged the approaching German formation. During a combat that ensued, eight of the Stukas were claimed destroyed. A return fire from one of the dive bombers’ rear gunner disabled the engine of Fiske’s Hurricane and put an incendiary bullet through a fuel tank. Predictably, the tank caught fire.
With Tangmere aerodrome in sight, Fiske decided to try to save his aircraft and nurse it home, even though the flames were entering the cockpit from below. He made a gliding approach over a hedgerow to the airfield, making a proper belly landing amidst the ongoing bombardment. As the aricraft came to a standstill, flames engulfed its entire fuselage.
At that moment, Billy was probably barely conscious and too weakened to get out of the cockpit on his own. Two ground crew, Corporal Jones and AC2 Faulkner, drove an ambulance over to the aircraft and, after agonizing few moments, unstrapped the pilot and extracted him from the cockpit. Before placing him on a stretcher, they had to extinguish a fire in his lower clothing.
Geoffrey Faulkner recalled:
“We were sent down to get him out. A bomb landed 15 yards in front of us. By the time we got him out we’d had 28 bombs in two minutes. He was very badly burned.”
As their ambulance drove off to the Medical office, the Hurricane finally exploded.
Fiske was taken to Royal West Sussex Hospital in Chichester for treatment, but his burns, especially to his lower body, coupled with surgical shock overwhelmed him. He died on the following day.
Fiske’s Flight Commander, Sir Archibald Hope, wrote about him:
“Unquestionably Billy Fiske was the best pilot I’ve ever known. It was unbelievable how good he was. He picked up so fast it wasn’t true. He’d flown a bit before, but he was a natural as a fighter pilot. He was also terribly nice and extraordinarily modest, and fitted into the squadron very well.”
Fiske was the only American pilot who gave his life during the Battle of Britain, and the eighth RAF pilot to be killed by the fighting on the 16 August. A plaque in his honour is located in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
– Max Arthur: Forgotten Voices of the Second World War, Ebury Press, 2005
– Liane Oldham: Tangmere’s American Hero, Sussex Life, October 2008