Saturday, February 12, 2011

L. Ashwell Wood - Behind the Scenes part 3

L Ashwell Wood’s Hurricat Launch
by Jeremy Briggs

Our series of the preliminary pencils that artist Leslie Ashwell Wood used for his detailed paintings continues with this illustration of a Hurricane fighter being launched from a merchant ship during the Second World War. This illustration was published in black and white as a two page spread in two different Odhams hardbacks both published in 1944, Britain’s Merchant Navy and Warfare Today.

Wood is best known for his cutaway work during the 19 years that Eagle was published in the 1950s and 1960s but, even in Eagle, not all his illustrations were true cutaways as we have previous shown with his pencil prelim for the British 6 pdr anti tank gun, and this painting of the Hurricane launch is educational without the need for any of the image to be cut away. However before we go into the details of the artwork, an explanation of what the illustration is about.

At the beginning of the Second World War Allied merchant shipping was poorly protected from attack by U-boat and Axis aircraft. These attacks soon lead to the convoy system being introduced to help protect the merchantmen by grouping civilian ships together with naval destroyer escorts. While this gave improved defence against U-boats, enemy aircraft remained a threat either through direct attack on the ships or by passing on their position and heading to enemy shipping. At this stage in the war the big fleet aircraft carriers were too important to use to protect convoys while the small escort carriers, newly designed for the task, had yet to be commissioned. To bridge the gap between these escort carriers being ordered and actually coming into service, some British merchant ships were fitted with a catapult rail onto which a modified Hurricane fighter, known as a Sea Hurricane Mk1, could be fitted. This Sea Hurricane, nicknamed a Hurricat, could be catapult launched into the air when enemy aircraft were spotted and, despite a limited amount of ammunition, the threat of this single fighter was often enough to at least make the crews of attacking aircraft wary.

The reality for the Hurricat pilot was that his plane could not land back on its mother ship and it was unlikely to have enough fuel to reach the nearest dry land to attempt a landing. This left the pilot with the choice of bailing out or crash landing his fighter in the sea and while that doesn’t sound so bad if the convoy was in the Mediterranean, Hurricats were often assigned to convoys heading for Russia in the Artic winter. Needless to say it took a special sort of person to volunteer to be a pilot in the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit.

While in reality there were only ever nine combat launches from CAM ships, the concept of the plucky pilot punched into the air to defend his convoy before deliberating crashing his fighter into the ocean in the hope of rescue has inspired many comics writers over the years and CAM ship stories have appeared in Warlord and Commando amongst others. Titan’s release of the Battle reprint book Johnny Red: Falcon's First Flight reminds us that while Johnny Redburn and his Hurricane ended up in the Soviet Union they both came from a CAM ship in a story that was inspired by the real life actions of Flying Officer Arthur Henry Burr of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve who won the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving his aircraft.

L Ashwell Wood illustrates the Hurricane’s launch from the CAM ship and includes both its attack on a German bomber and the recovery of its pilot after he has ditched his aircraft in the sea. The comparison of the pencils with the published illustration shows how tight Wood's pencils were to the final version. One thing that is generally accepted about Wood's work is its accuracy, be it illustrations of ships, vehicles, aircraft or buildings, his attention to detail was always impressive. So it comes of something of a surprise to discover than many of the elements of this illustration are quite simply wrong.

The major inaccuracy is in the launch rail. Wood illustrates this as the type of compressed air powered launch rail that a battleship or cruiser would use to launch their spotter aircraft, aircraft that were lighter and able to fly considerably slower that a combat capable fighter. While the CAM ships did use launch rails, their Hurricanes were fitted onto a rocket sled and it was the sled that powered the aircraft into the air rather than any pressurised mechanism. In addition to this, the real launch rails were set at an angle to the ship pointing slightly to starboard for two rather important reasons. Firstly when the rockets were fired their exhaust was up to three times the length of the fighter and so it was best for them to be directed overboard rather than aimed at the ship’s bridge which would have happened if the rail was positioned on the centreline of the ship. Secondly it meant that if the Hurricat did not achieve flying speed and immediately ditched into the sea, it did it to one side of the ship giving the pilot at least a chance to get out of it rather than ditching directly in front of the ship would then have steamed over the top of it.

There is one more obvious error and that is the name of the German aircraft. The illustration shows a typical target for the Hurricat which is a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 long range maritime reconnaissance bomber and the printed version of the illustration calls this a Kurier. The Fw 200 was actually called the Condor and while there was a German aircraft of the era called a Kurier it wasn’t manufactured by Focke-Wulf.

There is also one less obvious error and that is that the Hurricat is missing its tail wheel – the semicircular gap for it is there on the bottom of the rear fuselage but the wheel is missing in both the pencil and the printed versions. There is a fallacy about the CAM ship fighters that they were always launched on one way missions (and if you weren’t planning to land on your wheels why not remove them to save weight?). In combat it is true that it was a one way mission, for the aircraft at least, but the vast majority of launches were for training purposes which were made within sight of land and after which the aircraft landed safely at a friendly airfield. Once landed the aircraft would be transported back to the CAM ship and reloaded onto the launcher. In fact at the end of each convoy cruise it was standard procedure for the Hurricat to be launched to maintain the pilot’s flying proficiency and he would certainly have needed a tail wheel to land safely.

So why did Wood get his facts about the launcher wrong? I would assume it was simply wartime secrecy over the details of the CAM ships and their launchers. Not knowing the details Wood would have made his best guess of how to launch a fighter off a freighter based on how spotter planes were launched from cruisers and battleships and extrapolated from there. Indeed he had already illustrated a spotter plane launcher on board a Town Class light cruiser, the best known of which is HMS Belfast, for the Odhams book Britain’s Wonderful Fighting Forces published in 1940 so he would have been familiar with the cruiser’s launch system. With hindsight we can look at the illustration of the Hurricat launch and see that is was wrong, yet the vast majority of the readers of the books would not have known any better.

We look back on these ships and their aircraft as part of history yet by 1944, when the two books that this illustration appeared in were published, the CAM ships had completed their designed task, their duties had been taken over by the small escort carriers and the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit had been disbanded. Even then they were already part of history.


Britain's Wonderful Fighting Forces, ed.Captain Ellison Hawks. London, Odhams Press, 1940.

Britain's Merchant Navy, ed.Sir Archibald Hurd. London, Odhams Press, 1944. "With more than forty explanatory drawings specially prepared by L. Ashwell Wood”

Warfare Today, eds.Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, Major-General J. F. C. Fuller & Air Marshal Sir Patrick Playfair. London,Odhams Press, 1944.

(If you missed the previous two episodes of this series looking at L. Ashwell Wood's preliminary sketches, follow the link in the text to part 1. Part 2 can be found here.)


  1. Hi, Steve. Having found some time to actually read your posts, I found this and #4 (haven't yet read 1 and 2) on LAW of great interest. Your mention of "Odhams book Britain’s Wonderful Fighting Forces published in 1940 " reminded me that at one time I was going to to a CB&M page on Odhams series of "Britain's -----". Has anyone done a page, or created a list of same? Cheers, John

  2. Hi John,

    There hasn't been a page as far as I know. The Collecting Books and Magazines pages are always of interest - anyone who hasn't visited John's site can find a link somewhere over on the right of this page.



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