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The Curtiss P-40

Overview

Curtiss revised the P-36 with the new Allison V-1710 engine. This gave the new fighter, the XP-40, performance similar to the Messerschmitt Bf-109 and Hawker Hurricane. Test Pilot Edward Elliott piloted the XP-40 for its first flight on October 14, 1938.[i] Curtiss received its first P-40 contract on April 26, 1939. The contract was for 524 aircraft. Curtiss produced P-40s until December 1944. The production run was over 11,600 aircraft.[ii] The last P-40 retired from active service in 1958. It was serving with the Brazilian Air Force.


[i] Defense Media Network, The P-40 Warhawk Looked Great, But Fell Just Short of Greatness, by Robert F. Dorr, The P-40 Warhawk Looked Great, But Fell Just Short of Greatness | Defense Media Network, last accessed 9/22/22.

[ii] Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide by Tony Holmes, © HarperCollins Publishers 2005, P. 145.

P-40 and Contemporary Stats

Luftwaffe Fighter Aces by Mike Spick (c) 1996

P-40 Tomahawk IIP-40 Kittyhawk IIIBf 109E-3Bf 109F-3

Engine HP

1,040 hp

1,600 hp

1,100 hp

1,300 hp

Weight

7,459 lbs

8,500 lbs

5,523 lbs

6,063 lb

Wing Loading

32 lb/sq.ft.

36 lb/sq.ft.

32 lb/sq.ft

35 lb/sq. ft

Speed Max.

345 mph

362 mph

354 mph

391 mph

Ceiling

29,500 ft

30,000 ft

36,091 ft

39,370 ft

Range

730 miles

700 miles

412 miles

440 miles

Before Pearl Harbor

France was supposed to receive 140 P-40s but with France’s defeat the aircraft were instead delivered to Great Britain. Britain initially used them as training aircraft. The Royal Air Force (RAF) designated these P-40s the Tomahawk Mk I.[i]

P-40s first went into combat on May 14, 1941 when Flying Officers G.A. Wolsey and F.J.S. Aldridge of No 250 Squadron flew Tomahawks to escort three Bristol Blenheims on a bombing mission against an air base in Palmyra, Syria. On June 8, P-40s of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) No. 3 Squadron participated in an attack on Rayak airfield. The attack destroyed a Dewoitine D.520 and damaged three others. RAF No. 250 Squadron shot down an Italian Cant Z.1007bis reconnaissance aircraft near Alexandria, Egypt. On June 12 RAAF No. 3 Squadron Tomahawks shot down two Luftwaffe Ju-88As.[ii]

The RAF No. 112 Squadron in North Africa was the first P-40 unit to use the shark teeth paint scheme.[iii] On June 26, No. 112 Squadron encountered about 30 enemy aircraft over the Tobruk area. RAAF pilot Clive Robertson Caldwell shot down a Bf 109. He finished the month by shooting down two Ju 87s and shared a Bf 110 kill with another pilot. On August 26 Werner Schröer and his wingman attacked Caldwell. The Bf 109s scored over 100 machinegun and five 20mm hits on Caldwell’s P-40. Caldwell damaged Schröer’s Bf 109 and shot down the wingman. On December 5 P-40s attacked a formation of Ju 87s and their fighter escorts. The Tomahawks shot down 11 aircraft. Caldwell shot down five Ju 87s in this battle. Caldwell ended his tour in North Africa in May 1942 with 20.5 air victories to his credit. He also destroyed many vehicles and other targets in ground attacks.[iv] Wing Commander Billy Drake shot down 13 aircraft while flying P-40s. He was the RAF’s highest scoring P-40 ace.[v]


[i] World War II Weapons, P-40 Curtiss Hawk, P-40 Curtiss Hawk – WW2 Weapons (ww2-weapons.com), last accessed 9/25/22. The U.S. Army designated the P-40 Warhawk. The U.K. and U.S.S.R. designated the early models Tomahawk Mk II and Kittyhawk Mk III.

[ii] History.net, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk: One of WWII’s Most Famous Fighters, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk: One of WW II's Most Famous Fighters | HistoryNet, last accessed 9/26/22.

[iii] Luftwaffe wing ZG 76, a Bf 110 unit, was the first unit to use the shark teeth paint scheme.

[iv] Allied Aces of World War II by W.N. Hess © 1966 by A. G. Leonard Morgan. Caldwell’s highest rank achieved was a Group Captain with 28.5 air victories to his credit, the most for an Australian pilot in World War II.

[v] His total score was 24.5 air victories, Allied Aces of World War II by W.N. Hess © 1966 by A. G. Leonard Morgan.

Pearl Harbor and Aftermath

On December 7, 1941 Japanese aircraft and min-submarines attacked U.S. military bases in Hawaii. There were 99 P-40 Warhawks based in Hawaii that morning. The Japanese destroyed 42 and damaged 30, almost all were on the ground. Japanese aircraft shot down two P-40s soon after they took off from Bellows Air Field. Three P-40s took off from Hileiwa Air Field.[i] Second Lieutenants Kenneth Taylor and George Welch each flew two sorties against the Japanese. Welch shot down four enemy aircraft and Taylor shot down two. Japanese aircraft damaged both P-40s and wounded Taylor. Welch shot down two Nakajima B5N “Kate” dive bombers and two Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zero” fighters. Taylor shot down two B5Ns.[ii] Welch and Taylor received the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions.[iii]

The first American fatality in the Philippines in World War II was First Lieutenant Max Louk. He died when his P-40B ground-looped on December 8, 1941.[iv] Japanese attacks destroyed most of the 26 P-40s lost that day.[v]

On December 12 four Nakajima Ki.27s attacked a P-40 piloted by First Lieutenant Boyd D. Wagner. Wagner shot down two Ki.27s, ground strafed a Japanese airfield, and shot down two more Ki.27s. He strafed another airfield and shot down another Ki.27 on December 16. This made him the first United States Army Air Force (USAAF) ace.[vi]


[i] WW II Pacific, Dec 7, 1941, Aircraft at Pearl Harbor, Aircraft at Pearl Harbor (ww2pacific.com), last accessed 9/25/22.

Scroll to Continue

[ii] Pearl Harbor Hero Stories: George Welch & Kenneth Taylor, December 16, 2020, Pearl Harbor Hero Stories: George Welch & Kenneth Taylor | EAA Warbirds of America (warbirds-eaa.org), last accessed 9/25/22.

[iii] History.com, Heroes of Pearl Harbor: George Welch and Kenneth Taylor - HISTORY, last accessed d9/25/22.

[iv] Defense Media Network, The P-40 Warhawk Looked Great, But Fell Just Short of Greatness, by Robert F. Dorr, The P-40 Warhawk Looked Great, But Fell Just Short of Greatness | Defense Media Network, last accessed 9/22/22.

[v] History.net, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk: One of WWII’s Most Famous Fighters, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk: One of WW II's Most Famous Fighters | HistoryNet, last accessed 9/26/22.

[vi] History.net, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk: One of WWII’s Most Famous Fighters, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk: One of WW II's Most Famous Fighters | HistoryNet, last accessed 9/26/22.

Defending Australia

In Java the P-40 equipped USAAF 17th (Provisional) Squadron fought against Japanese forces. In February 1942 Captain Andrew J. Reynolds shot down four enemy aircraft. The USAAF transferred him to the 49th Fighter Group. From March 31 to July 30, he shot down six enemy aircraft.

Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin and Broome on March 14, 1942. The Japanese destroyed some RAAF P-40s on the ground. Zeros attacked a flight of five P-40s and shot down four of them. Robert Oestreicher piloted the surviving P-40. After escaping the Zeros he shot down an Aichi D3A dive bomer and damaged another. Captain Robert Morrissey and his wingman Lt. House engaged other Zeros. Morrissey shot down a Zero. House downed a Zero by intentionally ramming it. House safely landed his damaged P-40.[i]

On March 22 two RAAF P-40s shot down a Ki-15 reconnaissance plane. A coin toss decided Lt. Steven Poleschuk would get credit for the kill. On March 31 RAAF P-40s attacked Mitsubishi G4M bombers that had a Zero escort. The P-40s shot down at least four Japanese aircraft without loss. Andrew Reynolds received credit for two kills, this made him an ace with 5.5 air victories. Friendly fire shot down two P-40s and killed pilot J. Livingstone. The other P-40 pilot Grover Gardner bailed out safely.[ii]

In a major air battle on April 25 RAAF P-40s shot down 12 aircraft. Jim Morehead received credit for thee of these shootdowns. This brought his score to five. There was another engagement that day. Total P-40 losses were four. In engagements from June 13-15 the P-40s shot down 15 aircraft for 9 losses. One P-40 pilot died. The RAAF credited the P-40s with downing 78 aircraft during the Darwin campaign.[iii]


[i] War History Online, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaign, by Herbert Kilroy, June 23, 2018, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaigns (warhistoryonline.com), last accessed 10/5/22.

[ii] War History Online, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaign, by Herbert Kilroy, June 23, 2018, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaigns (warhistoryonline.com), last accessed 10/5/22.

[iii] War History Online, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaign, by Herbert Kilroy, June 23, 2018, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaigns (warhistoryonline.com), last accessed 10/5/22.

The Flying Tigers

The American Volunteer Group (AVG), nicknamed the Flying Tigers, were U.S. pilots who got permission to resign their commission and join the Chinese Air Force. Then Lieutenant Colonel Claire Chennault[i] commanded the AVG. He received some P-40s that the U.S. sold to China. Their first combat came on December 20, 1941. They attacked a force of 10 Japanese bombers and claimed nine shot down. One P-40 ran out of gas and crash landed. They scored 299 confirmed air victories for a loss of 12 aircraft during the winter of 1941/42.[ii] Anti-aircraft fire shot down and killed John Van Kuren Newkirk and William D. McGarry, each with 10.5 air victories on March 24. Each was credited with 10.5 air victories. Newkirk was killed and McGarry was interned in French Indo-China. Groundfire shot down Robert L. Little on May 22.[iii]


[i] Chennault achieved the rank of Major General in the USAAF. He received the honorary rank of Lieutenant General.

[ii] NPR.ORG, The Flying Tigers: How Americans fought for China in World War II, The Flying Tigers: How Americans fought for China in World War II : NPR, last accessed 10/2/22.

[iii] Air Aces by Christopher Shorts, © 1983 Bison Books Corp.

Later Action

On November 1, 1942, over New Guinea, Zeros attacked some RAAF P-40s. Zeros shot down one P-40 and in the ensuing combat P-40 pilots Dick Dennis and Bill Day were each credited with shooting down a Zero. On November 22 the RAAF 7th Fighter Squadron claimed 2 kills for the loss of two P-40s. Two more P-40s fell to Zeros on November 30. The P-40 pilots claimed several Zeros shot down. On December 7 Japanese bombers were on a bombing mission against Allied ground forces. The bombers aborted their mission after losing two bombers to RAAF P-40s. Bob Vaught shot down two more bombers. P-40 pilots claimed additional bomber kills before the escorting fighters drove them off. On December 26 P-40s came to the aide of an RAAF Hudson under attack from Ki-43 fighters. P-40s claimed seven Ki-43s for the loss of one P-40. John Landers shot down two Ki-43s before he successfully bailed out of his stricken P-40.[i]

American P-40s damaged the Myoko Maru on January 7, 1943. The crew beached the ship and bombers destroyed it the next day.[ii]

Over the Mediterranean, on April 18, 1943 P-40s with a Spitfire top cover attacked a fleet of Ju-52 transports, with a small escort. The allied fighters shot down 24 transports another 35 Ju-52s crash landed. The allies shot down 10 fighters. The allies lost 7 fighters.[iii]

Over the Pacific, on April 11 RAAF P-40s shot down 9 Japanese Aichi D3A dive bombers. Earnie Harris, who had four previous kills to his credit, downed three. The next day RAAF P-40s downed 18 Japanese G4Ms.[iv] The RAAF P-40 equipped 7th and 8th fighter squadrons were credited with destroying 87 Japanese aircraft. They had only lost five pilots to enemy action.

Over the Mediterranean, on April 22, 36 South African P-40s attacked a fleet of SM.79s with a fighter escort. The P-40s shot down 12 Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero transports and a Macchi C.202 fighter. The allies lost five of the Spitfire top cover and three P-40s. Later that day another 36 P-40s with a Spitfire top cover attacked 14 escorted Me 323 Gigants. The P-40s shot down all 14 of these 6-engine transports. [v] The Luftwaffe also lost seven fighters. The axis shot down four P-40s, Leutnant Bernd Schneider claimed two of them. Unteroffizer Rudolf Lenz was credited with shooting down a Spitfire, which crash landed.[vi]

The Soviet Air Force also flew P-40s. The Soviets used P-40s on the Northern Front almost till the end of the war. The P-40 USSR ace list includes; Major Petr Pokryshev (22 victories and 7 shared), Captain N. Zelenov (24 and 10 shared), and Major Alsksei Khlobystov (30 victories). On May 30, 1942, Lt. Colonel Boris Safonov of the Soviet Naval Air Force led three P-40s on a mission to cover the British convoy PQ.16. The P-40s attacked 40 bombers, that had a fighter escort. Safonov shot down two bombers before he was shot down and killed. The other P-40s shot down another two bombers.[vii]

RAAF P-40s shot down three G4M bombers and a Ki-61 on September 6, 1943. They shot down seven Japanese aircraft on the 22nd. On January 2, 1944 the RAAF 35th Fighter Squadron shot down 19 Japanese aircraft. The 35th got credit for 65 air victories in P-40s before they switched to P-38s in February.[viii]

The P-40 was credited with 1,944 air victories.[ix]


[i] War History Online, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaign, by Herbert Kilroy, June 23, 2018, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaigns (warhistoryonline.com), last accessed 10/5/22.

[ii] War History Online, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaign, by Herbert Kilroy, June 23, 2018, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaigns (warhistoryonline.com), last accessed 10/5/22.

[iii] Tunisia: The Forgotten Stalingrad of Africa, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBXUgQoWxfM, last accessed 10/2/22.

[iv] War History Online, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaign, by Herbert Kilroy, June 23, 2018, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaigns (warhistoryonline.com), last accessed 10/5/22.

[v] Tunisia: The Forgotten Stalingrad of Africa, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBXUgQoWxfM, last accessed 10/2/22.

[vi] WWIIForums, Me 323 Massacre, Me 323 massacre. | WWII Forums (ww2f.com), last accessed 10/2/22.

[vii] Air Aces by Christopher Shores, © 1983 Bison Books Corp.

[viii] War History Online, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaign, by Herbert Kilroy, June 23, 2018, P-40 Warhawk Workhorse of the Australia and New Guinea Campaigns (warhistoryonline.com), last accessed 10/5/22.

[ix] Fighter Aircraft with Most Kills Comparison 3D, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=096MlNLGyLw, last accessed 10/5/22. NOTE: Confirmed kill numbers are often greater than the actual aircraft shot down.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Robert Sacchi

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