P-40 Warhawk: Incredible American WW2 Fighter

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Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

In this article, I thought it best to explain the various names assigned to the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk at the outset of this article. Export versions sold overseas were assigned a different name based on the country of purchase. The P-40 Warhawk was also known as the Tomahawk in England, and Kittyhawk in Australia. During the P-40s years of service 17 countries flew this aircraft, including the Japanese. Between the years 1939 to 1944 the P-40 Warhawk was the third most produced American fighter behind the North American P-51, and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Over 13,700 were built that served in every theater of the war.

P-40 Origins

In 1909 aviation pioneer Glenn Hammond Curtiss and Augustus Moore Herring formed the Curtiss Aeroplane Company in Hammondsport, New York. After several successful decades Curtiss, in 1929 was involved in a monumental merger with the Wright Aeronautical Company to form Curtiss-Wright. The new company was a leader during the interwar years of producing fighter planes for the Army and Navy with its Curtiss Hawk series. During the interwar years Curtiss produced over 700 bi-plane models in 30 different variants. In the mid 1930’s Curtiss moved from the bi-plane to the mono-plane era with the introduction of the all-metal model 75A, later known as the P-36 Hawk.

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Glenn Curtiss, Curtiss Founder

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Donovan Berlin, Curtiss Engineer

The P-36 Hawk first took to the skies in 1935 and was introduced into service in 1938. The P-36 was powered by a Wright R-1820-G205A Cyclone Piston radial engine. With a 3-blade propeller the P-36 could attain a maximum speed of 322 mph, climb at a rate of 2500 feet per minute, and reach a ceiling of 32,000 feet, and a range of 650 miles. This all-metal bird was 25.5 in length, 37 feet in width, and 9.3 feet in height. The original model was equipped with 1 X 0.50 50 caliber and 1 X 0.30 caliber machines in the cowling. Later versions would add 2 to 6 machine guns in the wings. Another version added 2 cannons in the wings. Curtiss would either experiment with or develop numerous models that would one day result in the P-40. In essence, the P-36 was the early Hawk without the top bi-plane wing and other innovations. A contract for 210 production P-36As was awarded on July 7, 1937. This was the largest US military order since WW1.

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Curtiss P-36 Hawk

The export model for P-36 was the Hawk Model 75. At the dawn of the war the French Armee de l'Air purchased 100 P-36’s. The P-36 was the first to claim a victory against the German Air Force. After the defeat of the French, the remaining P-36’s were withdrawn to England. The Hawk 75A-5’s that fought in Asia were built under license by the Chinese but after significant losses production was moved to India under the direction of the British and in keeping with the name of the British purchased P-36’s they were designated the Mohawk. However, as history would soon show, the P-36 would soon be obsolete as a front-line fighter in comparison to the British Spitfire, Hurricane and Japanese Zero. It would later serve as a pilot trainer.

The Introduction Of The P-40

Donovan Berlin, Curtiss P-36 designer, knew that more powerful engines would soon be available – the Allison V-12. With that in mind, provisions were made for the upgrade to the model 75. This new design would be the Model 75-1 (XP-37) with the Allison V-12 1710-11. The XP-37 maintained certain features of P-36, but to accommodate the Allison engine would require substantial change to the nose and fuselage. To achieve top performance at high altitude the Allison was turbocharged. The Fuselage was extended to not fit the engine but also its radiators and the intercooler. This modification pushed the center of gravity forward. To compensate for this the cockpit was pushed back. This change gave the XP-37 the look of a sleek early 1930’s racer. But this also revealed a problem for pilots with reduced visibility in the front and rear.

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Curtiss XP-37

Regardless of this issue the Army Air Corp commissioned that a prototype be built. Making the changes would be more difficult than what was anticipated. Not to mention, more expensive. To better illustrate this, the cost of the prototype of the P-36 was $23,000, while the XP-37 was $104,000, just over 2 million in today’s dollars. The XP-37 took to the skies in April 1937. The results were mixed – it achieved a top speed of 340 mph with the possibility of going even faster. On the negative side the visibility issue was a problem. Despite these worries 13 test aircraft designated as the YP-37 with the Allison V-12 1710-21 were ordered. Another problem would soon appear – this time the turbo supercharger. Results with the turbo supercharger were unsatisfactory, development of this important unit lagged behind those in production in Europe. Testing revealed the unit was unreliable because they lacked the technology to make a turbine wheel that could withstand the high RPM’s required. These early superchargers had manual controls that had to be operated by the pilot, a risky venture for a pilot engaged in aerial combat.

The XP-37 experiment would eventually fail, but valuable information would be a contributing factor later. In 1939 the Army Air Corp requested bids for a new fighter. The Army’s main concern was to produce a fighter quickly that could serve as a stopgap until more promising designs under development could go into production. Specification required a fighter with a speed of 310 to 370 mph at 15,000 feet. This would be the Achilles heel for the new Curtiss fighter. Aerial battles in Europe often occurred at over 20,000 feet. Curtiss designer Don Berlin’s submission was a modified YP-37. The most notable change was the elimination of the turbo supercharger instead, utilizing a single stage supercharger. The cockpit was moved closer to the nose to negate pilot concerns. In addition, the fitting of the coolant radiator to the underside of the fuselage just aft of the wing trailing edge. These, along with other changes, were submitted as the Model 75-P.

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Curtiss XP-40

The ace-in-the-hole for Curtiss was the Army trust in their ability to deliver a good plane, at a reasonable cost, and ease of production. A contract was signed in early 1938 for a prototype designated XP-40. The XP-40 made its maiden flight in October 1938, however, persistent problems consisted too dog the XP-40 – it barely managed 300 mph at 12,000 feet. Going back to the drawing board, the wind tunnel test revealed several issues. The Curtiss team made the necessary changes. With these changes the XP-40 was ready to face off against its competitor the Seversky AP-9. The Army selected the XP-40 and placed an order for 524 aircraft, designated the P-40. The contract was valued at 12.9 million dollars, the largest order at that time.

The P-40 Warhawk

Fourteen month after its first flight the P-40 Warhawk plane went into production in March 1940 as the P-40 Warhawk. One of the first units to receive the new P-40 was the 8th pursuit unit at Langley field in Virginia, in June 1940. Units in California and Michigan would soon follow. After the delivery of the first 200 P-40’s, the Army allowed the under sieged French Forces to get their order filled. The original P-40’s were armed with two 50 caliber machine guns as the cowling, and one 30 caliber in each wing. The French deemed they under-gunned, they requested four wing guns with their own 7.5 FN Browning. The Army took note of the changes made for the French and requested the same for the remainder of their order and would be designated P-40B. Sadly for the French, when their country fell many of their P-40’s were still under construction. The French order was taken over by the British, who had also placed their own order, this was known as the Tomahawk Mk 1. The British version replaced the wing mounted 50 caliber guns with the 303 guns which were readily available.

For the British, the Tomahawk lacked several key features critical in combat – self-sealing tanks, bullet-proof glass, and no armor plating. Because of these deficiencies the British Tomahawk was not used in front service where aerial combat in European skies occurred above 20,000 feet. The British relegated them to either ground attack or training use. Continuous improvements to the Mohawk resulted in several needed changes – self-sealing fuel tanks, pilot armor, bomb racks. This new iteration resulted in the Mark II.

Anticipating the fall of France, and the precarious situation of the British, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies. To enlarge his African Empire, he attacked the British stronghold in Egypt from bases in Libya. After several stinging defeats by the British, German dictator Adolph Hitler came to his aid with his Africa Legion. In the desert skies the main British fighter was the venerable Hawker Hurricane. The balance in the air war began to change with the introduction of later model Messerschmitt Bf 109’s and the Italian Macchi 202. In Africa, aerial battles tended to occur at less than 15,000 feet. The British deduced that this was the situation to better utilize the P-40 Tomahawk.

Enhancements to the P-40B would bring the fighter more in line with British expectations – self-sealing tanks, a 52 gallon drop tank, and a new radio. For Curtiss this would be the P-40C, and for the British the P-40 Tomahawk Mark IIB. 200 Tomahawk Mark IIBs arrived in late 1941 to form the British Dessert Air Force. The first squadron to take possession was number 250 squadron of the RAF based in Egypt. The Royal Australian Air Force and the South African Air Force would soon follow. In early engagements the P-40 proved to be very resilient – excellent in a dive and taking considerable battle damage. They performed well in ambushing Axis bombers, ironically one of the first bombers they downed were American made Martin Maryland’s operated by the Vichi French. The Tomahawk’s began to roll up aerial victories. Australian pilot Clive Caldwell became the first Tomahawk ace. He would become the all-time leading ace from any Air Force, the highest Allied ace in Africa, and the highest scoring Australian pilot.

While the Tomahawk’s performed well against Axis bombers and heavy attack aircraft the introduction of the Messerschmitt Bf 109F made it difficult for the Tomahawks. The Tomahawks could survive as long as they played to their strengths. They soon developed a look to their aircraft production that would cement the iconic status. Squadron 112 started appearing with toothy shark mouths on the nose of their planes. It was thought this was inspired by th Messerschmitt Bf 110 operating above the Mediterranean. More Tomahawk squadrons joined in, and the nose art became widely used in North Africa. As 1941 drew to a close the Tomahawk fought valiantly but losses were beginning to take their toll as the production run of the Tomahawk came to an end.

The P-40 In Asia And The Pacific

Late 1942 would see a sea-change in the war after the Japanese attacked the Americans at their Navy and Army bases in Hawaii and other locations. The U.S. had about 500 P-40s in their arsenal at that time. A contingent was stationed stateside for coastal patrol, while the majority were either in Panama to protect the canal, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and the Philippines. In a two-day period, the Japanese virtually destroyed the Americans air power at Hawaii and the Philippines. This is best illustrated in the Hawaiian attack when only 5 of the Curtiss planes managed to get off the ground. It was even more disastrous the next day when the same sad events occurred in the Philippines. The first bright moment for the P-40s would occur in the most unlikely place.

The Japanese had been at war since 1932 with the seizure of Manchuria. The Japanese declared war on the Allies with the December 1941 attack, it was now an all-out war. It was important for the Japanese to knock the Chinese out of the war on their march west to India. The Chinese enlisted the aid of American Army aviator, instructor and tactician, Claire Lee Chennault in 1937 to advise Chiang Kai-shek on his Air Force. Chennault soon realized the Chinese were in dire straits. Rightfully, Chennault assumed that there would not be enough time to adequately train Chinese pilots to stem the tide of war. While the U.S. was neutral at the time, they could not send American pilots, however, they could supply the Chinese with aircraft. The U.S. gave permission to Chennault to actively recruit American pilots to resign their commissions and join the fight as private contractors, at a hefty pay increase. They would be known as the AVG (American Volunteer Group) but better known as the “Flying Tigers”.

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Claire Chennault, Flying Tigers

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Flying Tigers

The Chinese purchased 100 P-40 Mark IIBs, Chennault recruited 99 pilots, and 200 ground crews for the war effort. Chennault’s strategy was clear from the start – defend Southwest China and keep the life-line Burma Road open to supply China from India. The Flying Tigers would see their first action on December 20, 1941, a short 12 days after Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese attacked their base in Kunming. The Japanese received a black eye the Tigers downed 9 out 10 bombers with the loss of one that was forced to crash land after running out of gas. The AVG were a constant thorn in the side of the Japanese.

Chennault insisted his pilots adhere to his tactics of playing to the strength of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk in high-speed diving and climbing, never mix-it-up with the nimble Japanese fighters. The powerful Japanese forces would eventually push the British out of Burmese colony, however, thanks to efforts of the Flying Tigers they harassed the Japanese on the ground and maintained the skies. When America entered the war Chennault was promoted to brigadier general and rejoined the U.S. military, and later led the China Air Task Force before eventually taking command of the 14th Air Force. The exploits of the Tigers were immortalized in the Hollywood movie Flying Tigers in 1942, starring John Wayne.

The Soviet Air Force received 2,200 P-40s through the U.S. Lend-Lease program. The Soviet military was very successful at squeezing every ounce of efficiency out of any equipment from the Allies. The Russian weather would present its own unique challenges, though. Next to Britain, the Soviets were the 2nd largest overseas user of the P-40. Many think their personal favorite Lend-Lease aircraft was the Bell P-39 Cobra. They received a mixture of Tomahawks and Kittyhawks. Unfortunately, the first planes to arrive in the grips of brutal winter, were in various states of disarray – missing parts, wrong ammunition, no ammunition to name a few instances. Understandably, the Russians were disappointed.

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Russian P-40

The next batch began to arrive in the spring and were in much better condition. Soviet pilots who valued speed and maneuverability would take some time in utilizing the strengths of the P-40 – sturdiness, range, and firepower. Soviet pilots viewed the P-40s not up to speed with their favorite the P-39 and their Yaks and Lavochkins. Therefore, the P-40s would serve as trainers for new pilots. Some were utilized as escorts on bomber missions and did well in ground attack roles.

The U.S. entry into the war began with the disastrous attacks in Hawaii and the Philippines. Nearly the entire fleet of the American P-40 Warhawk fleet was destroyed on the ground in only two attacks. The next opportunity for the P-40 Warhawk plane to demonstrate its worth in American hands would come in late 1942 with Operation Torch in North Africa. The joint Anglo/Saxon operation to attack the German and Italians in the deserts of Africa. At this stage of the war the most plentiful Americans were the Curtiss P-40 and Navy, Grumman F4F Hellcat. The P-40 already had considerable battle experience in North Africa with the British and their Commonwealth pilots with mixed results.

The first American unit to deploy to Africa was the 57th Fighter Group in August 1942 just in time to later participate in the decisive Battle of El Alamein that served as the beginning of the end for the Axis in Africa. The 33rd fighter would later deploy to North Africa under the command of Colonel William Momyer. Under his command was the 99th Pursuit Squadron, a squadron that would make history as the first black pilot in U.S. history. These outstanding WW2 pilots would go on to establish a number of achievements in the war despite the racism they experienced.

The first American unit to deploy to Africa was the 57th Fighter Group in August 1942 just in time to later participate in the decisive Battle of El Alamein that served as the beginning of the end for the Axis in Africa. The 33rd fighter would later deploy to North Africa under the command of Colonel William Momyer. Under his command was the 99th Pursuit Squadron, a squadron that would make history as the first black pilot in U.S. history. These outstanding WW2 pilots would go on to establish a number of achievements in the war despite the racism they experienced.

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Tuskegee Airmen

Perhaps the country that faced the most danger of a Japanese invasion was Australia in 1942. While the British and France lost colonial Asian possessions, their home was now in grave danger. After successful attacks against the U.S. in Hawaii and the Philippines, the Japanese were now poised to strike in the Southwest Pacific. New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Australia itself were in the line of fire. The only appreciable fighter available at the time was the P-40. The P-40D also known as the Kittyhawk would have to hold the line against Japanese air and sea power. The RAAF had a substantial number of skilled fighter pilots who flew in combat in Europe, the Mediterranean, and North Africa who were returning to defend the homeland. In the Pacific battles generally took place at less than 15,000 feet, this, of course, played to the strength of the Kittyhawks. They were able to hold their own in the hands of a capable pilot. The top Australian ace, Clive “Killer” Caldwell shot down 22 of his 28 in a P-40. The Australians were a key player in the all-important push back against the Japanese beginning in mid-1942.

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Australian Ace Clive Caldwell

The P-40 Warhawk made a considerable contribution to the Allied war effort in World Warr II. While not versatile as other fighters of its era, when utilized correctly t could hold its own. The ability of the Curtiss-Wright company to deliver on production was a key component in its success.

Evolution Of World War 2 Fighter Aircraft

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