A Plucky Street Fighter Named “Tiffy”

15 March 2004

The question that put World War Two fighter pilot Kenneth Charles “Chad” Hanna into a stall at his dining room table in Ottawa on a recent April morning was: How would you summarize the Typhoon as an aircraft? 

Canadians, for the most part, pay little attention to that war that saw what was arguably the most important battle in ­history 60 years ago – D Day. Most could snap off an answer if you asked them what a Spitfire was. Few know the Typhoon. 

The Spitfire was a sexy, high class fighter. The “Tiffy” worked the streets.

Caught relaxing at home, Mr. Hanna shows off the detailed model Typhoon built years ago by his son.

It wasn’t a loveable machine and although almost 3,500 were built, they were melted down after the war. One survived by sheer luck. It was on loan and being studied in the United States when  its sisters were rounded up and killed after the war. There’s a life-size model of a Tiffy in a shallow dive hanging in the war museum in Caen. Other than those two, the aircraft now exists only in photographs. 

Chad Hanna flew 127 combat sorties at the controls of a Typhoon, and after lengthy contemplation came back with this answer: “It was a good weapon for what had to be done.” 

Now 81, he’s one of dozens of Typhoon veterans from around the globe getting ready to visit their battle and burial sites in Normandy in May, planning to beat the June rush when tens of thousands of pilgrims from all services and many countries will gather to mark D Day plus 60 years.

Originally intended as a fighter to replace the Hurricane, the Typhoon was powered by a 2100 hp. Napier Sabre, almost twice the power of the popular Rolls-Royce Merlin. In his 1992 book, Typhoon and Tempest, The Canadian Story, Ottawa historian, Hugh Halliday, makes it clear the Tiffy was difficult. It almost gassed one of its test pilots. The big engine filled the cockpit with toxic fumes. Although design changes provided exhaust improve­ments, the Tiffy redesigned the pilot. “First thing you did when you got behind the controls,” recalled Mr. Hanna, “was put on your oxygen mask, then you started it up. You didn’t take the mask off again until you turned the engine off. I used to see Spitfire pilots dressed in three pairs of socks and two pairs of pants and heavy coats. We didn’t worry about cold.” 

The big engine threw a lot of heat. And the Typhoon wasn’t exactly a smooth ride. All that horsepower made it vibrate, and a rumour started that the ride was so rough the pilots would become sterile. 

The Typhoon was reassigned from fighter duty to ground support without really getting into a fight. It was an awesome weapons platform, especially when loaded up with eight rockets, each powerful enough to lift a locomotive off its tracks.

Unveiled in September 1999, a new monument, dedicated to the memory of "All Typhoon Pilots [665] and Support Staff [21] who gave their lives in World War II," proudly stands in Normandie.

Asked to try to remember one mission that stood out, Mr. Hanna flipped through his logbook and came up with July 4, 1944 – attack Caen Aerodrome.

He was flying one of four Typhoons sent in to help break resistance. German tanks were dug in with only their turrets showing and with a clear field of fire, ­decimating troops trying to take the field. 

They took off from a temporary field and launched four attacks on the Caen field, working at ground level. (Mr. Halliday found a recorded case where a Typhoon “clipped” a German soldier on the ground, leaving damage and gore on a wing.) 

“Odd,” said Mr. Hanna as he recalled that Caen attack. “What I remember most clearly was after my last attack, having fired my last rockets and before I pulled up, I saw a British soldier cheering. He threw his helmet in the air and he was laughing.” The Typhoon may have been something of a streetwalker, but she was loved by troops in need of support.

 A closer look at the log showed how intense life in battle can be. From take-off to return, only 15 minutes had passed. He and his fellows would fly more missions that day. Low level work brought them within rifle range. A third of the pilots of Typhoons became casualties. 

One of the ceremonies the visiting Tiffy pilots are looking forward to is at a bridge called the Pont des Vers, near Falaise. It had to be knocked out, and four Typhoon pilots were killed doing it. Their names are on a plaque that will be welded to the new bridge, to be renamed Pont des Canadiennes. 

Dave Brown retired in 2003 after a 38-year career as an Ottawa columnist. Many of his 10,000 columns were individual war memories. He won the Canadian Legion Media Award in 1997.