Although the Hurricane was not designed as a naval aircraft, the Sea Hurricane served the Fleet Air Arm in three separate roles – shore based, catapult launched and carrier based. The Sea Hurricane filled an important gap, providing the navy with a modern fighter aircraft at a time when no other model was available.
The impetus for the development of the Sea Hurricane came in 1940. The German invasion of Norway demonstrated the limitations of British air power overseas, and at the same time showed that the standard Hurricane could land on the deck of the big fleet carriers, both when being ferried out to Norway and during the evacuation. At the same time the surrender of Norway and France greatly increased the threat from the Fw 200 Condor, which could now wander almost at will across the Western Approaches, reaching into areas that were well outside the range of all but carrier borne fighters.
In the summer of 1940 the Directorate of Research and Development (Air) became to look at the possibility of launching the Hurricane from catapults mounted on merchant ships. In October Hawkers was approached to see if it was possible to fit the required equipment to the Hurricane, and on 19 January 1941 a decision was made to go ahead with the project, which would produce the Sea Hurricane Mk IA. At the same time Hawkers began work on a carrier version of the aircraft, the Mk IB or Hooked Hurricane.
The Sea Hurricane IA, carried on either Fighter Catapult Ships or Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen (CAM) ships, entered service in the summer of 1941. It was withdrawn from the Atlantic in August 1942, but remained in use on other routes in 1943. The carrier-born Mk IB entered service late in 1941, to be followed early in the next year by the cannon armed Mk IC. The IB was the first high performance fighter to enter Fleet Air Arm service, and helped fill the gap before the arrival of more modern aircraft (mostly American aircraft, along with the Seafire). The Mk IB and Mk IC played a major part in the defence of Operation Pedestal, the August 1942 Malta convoy, but soon after this began to be phased out. The final major version, the Mk IIC, appeared just as the Sea Hurricane was going out of front line service, but did play a part in the Mediterranean.
In some respects the Sea Hurricane was more suited to carrier operations than the Seafire, being a more robust aircraft and less dangerous to land, but its relative lack of speed meant that by 1942 Sea Hurricane pilots found it increasingly difficult to catch their opponents.
Sea Hurricane Mk IA: Catapult launch only, for use on CAM ships
Sea Hurricane Mk IB: For use on aircraft carriers, with arrestor hook and eight gun wings
Sea Hurricane Mk IC: As above, but with four cannon wings
Sea Hurricane Mk IIC: Conversion of Hurricane II, with more powerful engine
Sea Hurricane Mk XII: Canadian production.