World War Two: The Missing Hurricane

On August 18th, 1940 in the skies above the Kent countryside, a savage dogfight raged between the brave men of the Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe. Eye witnesses at the time recalled seeing a British fighter plane plummet from the sky and crash into a nearby corn field. It was believed to be the Hurricane flown by one Kenneth "Hawkeye" Lee and for 70 years speculation has mounted as to the whereabouts of the site of the crashed World War Two fighter plane.

Hawker Hurricane of the Battle of Britain
Hawker Hurricane of the Battle of Britain
Squadron Leader Kenneth 'Hawkeye' Lee
Squadron Leader Kenneth 'Hawkeye' Lee

A Day to Forget

August the 18th was remembered as probably the most difficult day of the Battle of Britain as this was the day that both sides lost the most aircraft in a single day. A total of 136 British planes were destroyed or damaged and 4 of these were Hurricanes shot down over Whitstable in Kent.

Kenneth "Hawkeye" Lee grew up in Birmingham and worked in a paint factory after he had left school. When he turned 21 years old in 1937, Lee joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve. This meant learning to fly aeroplanes during the weekends and summer camps, and in 1939 he joined the permanent full-time ranks of the Royal Air Force.

He had by this time accumulated around 400 hours of flying time and by wartime standards this was considered a very experienced pilot. Just two months after his 25th birthday, Kenneth's Hurricane was shot down in the dogfight over Whitstable.

As the plane is hit and engulfed in flames, Lee turns the stricken Hurricane over and drops out of the cockpit. He manages to pull on his parachute's ripcord and floats down to a nearby field.

Hawkeye Lee's Hurricane is currently at the centre of an archaeological excavation attempt in a field close to where he parachuted down in 1940.

A Hurricane was about 4 tonnes in weight and it is considered that the plane would have crashed at a speed of around 350 miles per hour. Therefore a widespread array of debris and shrapnel could well be scattered across a wide section of the field.

Excavating a Hurricane

The Hurricane's Merlin engine would be considered as the prize find as it would have been stamped with a serial number and therefore would determine the identity of the crashed plane.

The plane would have caused a huge crater on impact with the ground and many parts would have splintered and scattered in all directions.

Initial finds of aircraft skinning from the Hurricane's wings are the first items that were detected, thus confirming a plane did crash in the field where the team are searching. Metal detection equipment is soon put to work and a high reading of metallic presence is recorded.

Large diggers are then brought in to excavate the ground and a detailed diagram of a Hurricane is brought in to identify any discovered parts.

The first pieces to be dug up are pieces of the wooden propellor, a 'G' joint from the Hurricane's seat, a picket ring which was used to tie the aircraft down at night and then a piece of the aircraft's battery with R.A.F. stamped on it is found. This confirms that this was a British aircraft. Next to be found was a piece of the rudder balance counterweight with a part number stamped upon it.

The Spitfire Girl

One of the unsung heroines of World War Two was now 93 years old Mary Ellis, she was a 'Spitfire Girl' and at the age of just 23 she flew completed Spitfires from their factories, as well as flying them between aerodromes and maintenance depots to their waiting squadrons at frontline bases around the country.

This was a vital role to keep the Royal Air Force on the offensive, their pilots were too badly needed for active service and could not be spared. This task was done for them by the A.T.A, the Air Transport Auxhilliary and Mary was one of these pilots.

These women pilots who were not allowed to fly in combat, were affectionately given the name the 'Spitfire Girls', but it wasn't just Spitfires they flew. In fact Mary flew an amazing 67 different kinds of aircraft on around 1,000 occasions. There were 22 variants of the Spitfire throughout the 14 years that the aircraft served the RAF and they had a top speed of 425 miles per hour.

With additional training, Mary and other Spitfire Girls were expected to fly any variety of aircraft including fighters, bombers and even jets towards the end of fthe war. It was extremely dangerous work, 170 A.T.A pilots lost their lives during the war and there is now only 5 of them left.

Excavated wreckage of Hawkeye Lee's Hurricane
Excavated wreckage of Hawkeye Lee's Hurricane

The Dig Continues

Back at the excavation in Kent, the archeological team unearth more important finds. They also confirm that the rudder weight found previously, is that belonging to a Hurricane. As the team digs deeper still, they uncover what they believe is the main block of the Hurricane's wreckage.

They find a radio faceplate, seating armour and then finally, the Rolls Royce Merlin engine is revealed from out of the mud, 15 feet down in the ground.

The dig at Whitstable then turns from elation to frustration, as the engine's data plate is too badly corroded to read the all important serial number required to confirm the plane as Hawkeye Lee's.

Then amazingly, a propellor hub is found stamped with the very same number of Hawkeye's Hurricane as shown on a 1940 photograph of the very same plane, the identity of the wreckage is finally confirmed once and for all.

Credit where it's due

There are only 11 Hurricanes still flying today out of the 14,500 that were built throughout the second world war. Whilst the Spitfire seems to take most of the glory for the Battle of Britain triumph, it was actually the Hurricane that accounted for 65-70% of all enemy aircraft, fighters and bombers alike, that were shot down in the battle.

The Hurricane had gone into production in December 1937, eight months before the Spitfire. Powered by that mighty Merlin engine, it was the first British fighter capable of exceeding 300 miles per hour.

RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, once home of the famous 617 Squadron 'The Dambusters', is now the home of not only the RAF's high tech Typhoon fighters, but also to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

This is a collection of priceless World War Two aircraft which are painstakingly preserved and flown to commemmorate what Prime Minister Winston Churchill called "Our Finest Hour".

Since the formation of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight in 1957, the display team have completed thousands of displays and tens of thousands of fly-pasts. They are a large Flight within the Royal Air Force and are extremely proud of their history.

The RAF continues to police the skies above Britain, much like the Spitfire and Hurricane of the Flight did some 70 years ago. They are without doubt a "museum without walls" and a "living and breathing tribute" to those courageous young men who paid the ulitmate sacrifice.

The Dams Await by Dave Harris
The Dams Await by Dave Harris
The Battle of Britain Memorial at Chapel Le Ferne
The Battle of Britain Memorial at Chapel Le Ferne

A Fitting Tribute

A Battle of Britain Memorial at Chapel Le Ferne near Folkestone in Kent, overlooks the famous white cliffs of the south-eastern coast of England.

There is no more fitting a place to commemmorate the 2,900 men who overcame impossible odds to defend Britain in the summer of 1940.

A total of 537 Royal Air Force aircrews were killed during these three and a half months of unrelenting aerial combat.

Their names, along with Hawkeye Lee's are forever etched in stone as a permanent reminder to future generations of the bravery and determination of these men to defend their country.

Lest We Forget.

Which is your favoured WW2 fighter plane, the Spifire or the Hurricane?

See results without voting

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Comments 8 comments

Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

Man, that Hurricane isn't getting a lot of votes!


Dave Harris profile image

Dave Harris 6 years ago from Cardiff, UK Author

Ha yeah, I know what you mean, the Spitfire was a beautiful looking aircraft, but you got to give credit to what the Hurricane achieved too! thanks for commenting Wesman!


scarytaff profile image

scarytaff 6 years ago from South Wales

Amazing how its taken all this time to discover the wreckage, and then not to be sure if its the right plane. Good old British bureaucracy. Great hub, Dave.


Dave Harris profile image

Dave Harris 6 years ago from Cardiff, UK Author

Lol Your right there scarytaff, amazing that it wasn't totally disintegrated too. Thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed it.


Stewart G Park 5 years ago

i am 71 and I have always stood up for The Hurricane. It is great to be proved right. I have just watched your film of the search for "Hawkeye's Hurricane" on Discovery History. I was clicking through the ch's and came across it. Very glad I did. Cheers Dave. Sorry about getting your name wrong. Put it down to age m8.


Dave Harris profile image

Dave Harris 5 years ago from Cardiff, UK Author

Hi Stewart, thanks for your comments, the Hurricane didn't really get the credit it deserved did it?. Thanks for stopping by!


TankerCMD profile image

TankerCMD 4 years ago from Philadelphia, PA USA

The Hurri vs. Spit is the British equivalent of the American B-17 vs. B-24 bomber legacies- the B-24 was ugly but had longer range, more bomb load, etc., while the B-17 was graceful and glamourous, nicknamed "The Queen of the Skies." Like the Spit's place in history, you'd think the B-17 was the only American bomber in WW Two, when in fact the plain but hardworking Liberator was accomplishing just as much with little fanfare! Great story, Dave!!


Mike Bassett 21 months ago

Excellent articles, but surely the sub-editor of these pages should have been more thorough: at the top of the page we read: "More by Dave Harris. World War Two: The Lancaster bomber..." etc., But the photograph is not of a Lancaster at all. If I am not mistaken it is of a Blenheim.

This sort of error makes one nervous of the accuracy of the articles themselves.

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