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Curtiss P-40

P40 redirects here. For the Italian tank, see Carro Armato P 40.

The Curtiss P-40 was an American single-engine, single-seat, all-metal fighter and ground attack aircraft that first flew in 1938. It was used by the air forces of 28 nations, including those of most Allied powers during World War II, and remained in front line service until the end of the war. By November 1944, when production of the P-40 ceased, 13,738 had been built.

The P-40 design was a modification of the previous Curtiss P-36; this reduced development time and enabled a rapid entry into production and operational service.

Warhawk was the name the United States Army Air Corps adopted for all models, making it the official name in the United States for all P-40s. The British Commonwealth and Soviet air forces used the name Tomahawk for models equivalent to the P-40B and P-40C, and the name Kittyhawk for models equivalent to the P-40D and all later variants.

The P-40's lack of a two-stage supercharger made it inferior to Luftwaffe fighters in high-altitude combat and it was rarely used in operations in Northwest Europe. Between 1941 and 1944, however, the P-40 played a critical role with Allied air forces in three major theaters: North Africa, the Southwest Pacific and China. It also had a significant role in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Alaska and Italy. The P-40's high altitude performance was not as critical in those theaters, where it served as an air supremacy fighter, bomber escort and fighter bomber.

P-40s first saw combat with the British Commonwealth squadrons of the Desert Air Force (DAF) in the Middle East and North African campaigns, during June 1941. The Royal Air Force's No. 112 Squadron was among the first to operate Tomahawks, in North Africa, and the unit was the first to feature the "shark mouth" logo, copying similar markings on some Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engine fighters. The logo was most famously used on P-40s by the Flying Tigers in China.

In theaters where high-altitude performance was less important, the P-40 proved an effective fighter. Although it gained a post-war reputation as a mediocre design, suitable only for close air support, more recent research including scrutiny of the records of individual Allied squadrons indicates that the P-40 performed surprisingly well as an air superiority fighter, at times suffering severe losses, but also taking a very heavy toll on enemy aircraft. The P-40 offered the additional advantage of low cost, which kept it in production as a ground attack fighter long after it was obsolete in air superiority.

As of 2008, 19 P-40s remain airworthy.

Design and development

The prototype XP-40 was the tenth production Curtiss P-36 Hawk, with its Pratt & Whitney R-1830 (Twin Wasp) 14-cylinder air-cooled radial engine replaced by a liquid-cooled, supercharged Allison V-1710 V-12 engine. The V-12 engine offered no more power than the radial but its smaller frontal area reduced drag.

Performance characteristics

The P-40 had good agility, especially at high speed and medium to low altitude. It was one of the tightest-turning monoplane fighters of the war, although at lower speeds it could not out-turn the extremely maneuverable Japanese fighters such as the A6M Zero and Ki-43 Hayabusa ("Oscar").

Allison V-1710 engines produced about 1,040 hp at sea level and at 14,000 ft: not powerful by the standards of the time and the early P-40's speed was average. (The later versions with 1,200 horsepower Allisons were more capable, as were the Merlin engined P-40F/L series.) Its climb performance was fair to poor, depending on the subtype. Dive acceleration was good and dive speed was excellent. The highest-scoring P-40 ace, Clive Caldwell (RAAF), who scored 22 of his 28.5 kills in the P-40, said the type had "almost no vices", although "it was a little difficult to control in terminal velocity". Caldwell said that the P-40 was "faster downhill than almost any other aeroplane with a propeller." However, the single-stage, single-speed supercharger meant that it could not compete with contemporary aircraft as a high-altitude fighter.

The P-40 tolerated harsh conditions in the widest possible variety of climates. It was a semi-modular design and thus easy to maintain in the field. It lacked innovations of the time, such as boosted ailerons or automatic leading edge slats, but it had a strong structure including a five-spar wing, which enabled P-40s to survive some mid-air collisions: both accidental impacts and intentional ramming attacks against enemy aircraft were occasionally recorded as victories by the Desert Air Force and Soviet Air Forces. Caldwell said P-40s "would take a tremendous amount of punishment — violent aerobatics as well as enemy action."

It had armor around the engine and the cockpit, which enabled it to withstand considerable damage. This was one of the characteristics that allowed Allied pilots in Asia and the Pacific to attack Japanese fighters head on, rather than try to out-turn and out-climb their opponents. Late-model P-40s were regarded as well armored.

Caldwell said that he found the P-40C Tomahawk's armament of two .50 caliber machine guns firing through the prop and two .303 Browning machine guns in each wing to be inadequate. This was rectified with the P-40E Kittyhawk, which had three .50 caliber guns in each wing, although Caldwell preferred the Tomahawk in other respects.

Operational range was good by early war standards, and was almost double that of the Supermarine Spitfire or Messerschmitt Bf 109, although it was inferior to the A6M Zero, Ki-43, P-38 and P-51.

Visibility was adequate, although hampered by an overly complex frame and completely blocked to the rear in early models due to the raised turtledeck. Poor ground visibility and the relatively narrow landing gear track led to many losses due to accidents on the ground.

Operational history

In April 1939, the U.S. Army Air Corps, witnessing the new sleek, high-speed, in-line-engined fighters of the European air forces, placed the largest single fighter order it had ever made for fighters: 524 P-40s.

French Air Force

An early order came from the French Armée de l'Air, which was already operating P-36s. The Armée de l'Air ordered 140 as the Hawk 81A-1 but the French military had been defeated before the aircraft had left the factory, consequently, the aircraft were diverted to British and Commonwealth service (as the Tomahawk I), in some cases complete with metric flight instruments.

In late 1942, as French forces in North Africa split from the Vichy government to side with the Allies, U.S. forces transferred P-40Fs to the GC II/5, a squadron that was historically associated with the Lafayette Escadrille. GC II/5 used its P-40Fs and Ls in combat in Tunisia and, later, for patrol duty off the Mediterranean coast until mid-1944 when they were replaced by P-47Ds.

British Commonwealth units in Mediterranean & European theaters

Deployment

In all, 18 British Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons, as well as four Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), three South African Air Force (SAAF), and two Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadrons serving with RAF formations, used P-40s.

The first units to convert were Hawker Hurricane squadrons of the Desert Air Force (DAF), in early 1941. The initial Tomahawks delivered came without armor, bulletproof windscreens or self-sealing fuel tanks. These were installed in subsequent shipments. When they converted to the P-40 in early 1941, due to a rear-folding landing gear that was more prone to collapse, DAF pilots found that landing required a flatter, two-point landing, contrasted to the three-point landings used with Supermarine Spitfires and Hurricanes.

Testing showed the aircraft did not have adequate performance for use in Northwest Europe in combat operations against Messerschmitt Bf 109s. RAF Spitfires used in the theatre operated at heights around 30,000 ft, while the naturally-aspirated Allison engine worked best at 15,000 ft or lower. When the Tomahawk was used by Allied units based in the UK from August 1941, this limitation relegated the Tomahawk to low-level reconnaissance and only one squadron, No. 414 Squadron RCAF was used in the fighter role. Subsequently, the British Air Ministry deemed the P-40 completely unsuitable for the theatre. P-40 squadrons from mid-1942 re-equipped with aircraft such as Mustangs.

The Tomahawk was superseded in North Africa by the more powerful Kittyhawk ("D"-mark onwards) types from early 1942, though some Tomahawks remained in service until 1943. Kittyhawks included many major improvements, and were the DAF's air superiority fighter for the critical first few months of 1942, until "tropicalized" Spitfires were available.

DAF units received few of the speedier Packard Merlin engined P-40F/L models (Kittyhawk IIA), most of which went to the USAAF. The later P-40M/N versions arrived after, but were also used mostly in the fighter-bomber role.

From July 1942 until mid-1943, elements of the US 57th Fighter Group (57th FG) were attached to DAF P-40 units.

The British government also donated 23 P-40s to the Soviet Union.

Combat performance

Tomahawks and Kittyhawks would bear the brunt of Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica fighter attacks during the North African campaign. They were considered superior to early versions of the Hurricane, which it replaced as the primary fighter of the Desert Air Force. The P-40 initially proved quite effective against Axis aircraft and contributed to a slight shift of momentum in the Allied favor. Its appearance and gradual replacement of Hurricanes led to the Luftwaffe accelerating retirement of the Bf 109E and introducing the newer Bf 109F, flown by the veteran pilots of elite Luftwaffe units such as Jagdgeschwader 27 (JG27), to North Africa. The Bf 109 proved to be generally superior, particularly the later F and G variants. The P-40 was generally considered inferior at high altitude, but roughly equal or slightly superior to the 109 at low altitude. Most of the air combat in North Africa took place well below 16,000 feet, the altitude at which the performance of P-40s began to taper off. The P-40 usually had an edge over Bf 109 in horizontal maneuverability, dive speed, and structural strength; was roughly equal in firepower, slightly inferior in speed and outclassed in rate of climb and operational ceiling. The P-40 was generally superior to early Italian fighter types, such as the Fiat G.50 and the Macchi C.200. However, Clive Caldwell is reported to have said that the Macchi C.202 would have been a superior fighter to both the P-40 and the Bf-109, if not for its inadequate armament of only four machine guns. The earliest claims by P-40 pilots also included Vichy French aircraft, during the 1941 Syria-Lebanon campaign, such as five Dewoitine D.520s, a type often considered to be the best French design used in World War II. The P-40 was deadly against Axis bombers in the theater, as well as the Bf 110 twin-engine fighter.

In June 1941, Caldwell, serving at the time with No. 250 Squadron RAF in Egypt, recorded in his log book that — as F/O Jack Hamlyn's wingman — he was involved in the first air combat victory for the P-40, a CANT Z.1007 bomber on 6 June. The claim was not officially recognized, as the crash of the CANT was not witnessed. The first official victory occurred on 8 June, when Hamlyn and Flt Sgt Tom Paxton destroyed a CANT Z.1007 from 211a Squadriglia of the Regia Aeronautica, over Alexandria.

Several days later, the Tomahawk was in action over Syria with No. 3 Squadron RAAF, which claimed 19 aerial victories over Vichy French aircraft during June and July 1941, for the loss of one P-40 (as well as one lost to ground fire).

Because DAF P-40 squadrons were frequently used in bomber escort and close air support missions, they suffered relatively high attrition rates.

Some DAF units initially failed to use P-40s according to its strengths and/or utilized outdated defensive tactics, such as the Lufbery circle. However, the superior climb rate of the Bf 109 enabled fast, swooping attacks, neutralizing the advantages offered by conventional defensive tactics. Various new formations were tried by Tomahawk units in 1941–42, including: "fluid pairs" (similar to the German rotte); one or two "weavers" at the back of a squadron in formation, and whole squadrons bobbing and weaving in loose formations. Werner Schröer, who would be credited with destroying 114 Allied aircraft in only 197 combat missions, referred to the latter formation as "bunches of grapes", because he found them so easy to pick off.The leading German expert in North Africa, Hans-Joachim Marseille, has claimed as many as 101 P-40s in his career.

The introduction of the Kittyhawk barely offset the strengths of the Bf 109. On 15 July 1942, No. 2 Squadron SAAF, in its first combat with the new P-40E, attacked a formation of six Stukas, and was in turn attacked by eight Bf 109Fs. Neither side suffered any losses in the encounter, and this enhanced the confidence of the German fighter pilots that the 109 remained superior to the P-40. By this time, the frequent use of height in attacks by Bf 109 pilots had resulted in South African commanders instructing their pilots to operate at altitudes as high as 18,000 ft. However, the Bf 109 had an exceptional operational ceiling of 36,000 ft, and the German pilots responded by climbing higher, at an earlier stage of sorties.

From 26 May 1942, all Kittyhawk units operated primarily as fighter-bomber units, giving rise to the nickname "Kittybomber". As a result of this change in role, many Desert Air Force P-40 pilots were caught low and slow by marauding Bf 109s.

Victory claims & losses, No. 239 Wing, Desert Air Force (June 1941–May 1943)
Squadron   3 Sqn RAAF    112 Sqn RAF 450 Sqn RAAF*
Claims with Tomahawks 41 36
Claims with Kittyhawks 74.5 82.5 49
Total P-40 claims 115.5 118.5 49
P-40 losses (total) 34 38 28
* Commenced training on P-40s in December 1941 and became operational in February 1942.

Clive Caldwell believed that Operational Training Units did not properly prepare pilots for air combat in the P-40, and as a commander, stressed the importance of training novice pilots properly.

Nevertheless, in the hands of competent pilots the P-40 proved effective against even the best of the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica. A total of 46 British Commonwealth pilots reached ace status in P-40s, including seven double aces. For instance: Caldwell — who scored 22 of his 28.5 victories flying P-40s in North Africa — is the prime example of a pilot using the strengths of the P-40 to its utmost. On one occasion in August 1941, while flying alone, he was attacked by two Bf 109s, one of them piloted by Schröer. Although Caldwell was wounded three times, and his Tomahawk was hit by more than 100 7.9 mm bullets and five 20 mm cannon shells, he survived the encounter and shot down Schröer's wingman. Some sources also claim that in December 1941, Caldwell killed a prominent German Expert, Erbo von Kageneck (69 kills) while flying a P-40. Caldwell's victories in North Africa included 10 Bf 109s and two Macchi C.202s. Billy Drake of 112 Sqn was the leading British P-40 ace with 13 victories. James "Stocky" Edwards (RCAF), who achieved 12 kills in the P-40 in North Africa, shot down German ace Otto Schulz (51 kills) while flying a Kittyhawk with No. 260 Squadron RAF. Caldwell, Drake, Edwards and Nicky Barr were among at least a dozen pilots who achieved ace status twice over while flying the P-40.

Chinese Air Force — Flying Tigers (American Volunteer Group)

The Flying Tigers, known officially as the American Volunteer Group, were a unit of the Republic of China Air Force, recruited from U.S. aviators. From late 1941, the P-40B was used by the Flying Tigers.

Compared to opposing Japanese fighters, the P-40B's strengths were that it was very sturdy, well armed, generally faster in a dive and possessed a good rate of roll. While the P-40s could not match the maneuverability of Japanese Nakajima Ki-27s and Ki-43s they were facing, AVG leader Claire Chennault trained his pilots to use the P-40's particular performance advantages. The P-40 had a higher dive speed than the Japanese fighters, for example, and could be used to exploit so-called "boom-and-zoom" tactics. The AVG was highly successful, and its feats were widely-published, for propaganda purposes. According to their own count, the Flying Tigers shot down 286 aircraft for the loss of up to 19 pilots. The lowest count of AVG victories from other sources is 115 kills.

United States Army Air Forces

A total of 15 entire USAAF pursuit/fighter groups (FG), along with other pursuit/fighter squadrons and few tactical reconnaissance (TR) units, operated the P-40 during 1941–45.

As was also the case with the P-39, many USAAF officers considered the P-40 inadequate, and it was gradually replaced by the turbo-supercharged P-38, P-51 and P-47. However, the bulk of the fighter operations by the USAAF in 1942–43 were borne by the P-40 and the P-39. In the Pacific, these two fighters, along with the U.S. Navy's F4F Wildcat, contributed more than any other U.S. types to breaking Japanese air power during this critical period.

Pacific theaters

The P-40 was the main USAAF fighter aircraft in the South West Pacific and Pacific Ocean theaters during 1941–42.

In the first major battles, at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, USAAF P-40 squadrons suffered crippling losses on the ground and air to Japanese fighters like the Ki-43 "Oscar" and the A6M Zero.

However, in the Dutch East Indies campaign, the 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional), formed from USAAF pilots evacuated from the Philippines, claimed 49 Japanese aircraft destroyed, for the loss of 17 P-40s. And in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea Campaigns, as well as the air defense of Australia, improved tactics and training allowed the USAAF to more effectively utilize the strengths of the P-40.

Due to aircraft fatigue, spare parts and replacement problems, the US Fifth Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force created a joint P-40 management and replacement pool on 30 July 1942 and many P-40s went back and forth between both air forces.

The 49th Fighter Group was in action in the Pacific from the beginning of the war. Robert DeHaven scored 10 kills (from 14 kills overall) in the P-40 with the 49th FG. He compared the P-40 favorably with the P-38:

If you flew wisely, the P-40 was a very capable aircraft. [It] could outturn a P-38, a fact that some pilots didn't realize when they made the transition between the two aircraft. [...] The real problem with it was lack of range. As we pushed the Japanese back, P-40 pilots were slowly left out of the war. So when I moved to P-38s, an excellent aircraft, I did not [believe] that the P-40 was an inferior fighter, but because I knew the P-38 would allow us to reach the enemy. I was a fighter pilot and that was what I was supposed to do."

The 8th, 15th, 18th, 24th, 49th, 343rd and 347th PGs/FGs, along with the 71st TRG, flew P-40s in the Pacific theaters, between 1941 and 1945, with most units converting to P-38s during 1943-44. They claimed 655 aerial victories.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, with sufficient altitude the P-40 could actually turn with the A6M and other Japanese fighters, using a combination of nose-down vertical turn with a bank turn, a technique known as a low yo-yo. Robert DeHaven describes how this tactic was used in the 49th Fighter group:

[Y]ou could fight a Jap on even terms, but you had to make him fight your way. He could outturn you at slow speed. You could outturn him at high speed. When you got into a turning fight with him, you dropped your nose down so you kept your airspeed up, you could outturn him. At low speed he could outroll you because of those big ailerons ... on the Zero. If your speed was up over 275, you could outroll [a Zero]. His big ailerons didn't have the strength to make high speed rolls... You could push things, too. Because ... [i]f you decided to go home, you could go home. He couldn't because you could outrun him. [...] That left you in control of the fight.

China-Burma-India theater

USAAF and Chinese P-40 pilots performed extremely well in this theater, scoring high kill ratios against Japanese types such as the Nakajima Ki-43, Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki ("Tojo") and the Zero. The P-40 remained in use in the CBI until 1944, and was reportedly preferred over the P-51 Mustang by some US pilots flying in China.

The American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers) was integrated into the USAAF as the 23rd Fighter Group. The unit continued to fly newer model P-40s until the end of the war, racking up a high kill-to-loss ratio.

Units arriving in the China-Burma-India theater after the AVG in the 10th and 14th air forces continued to perform well with the P-40, claiming 973 kills in the theater, or 64.8 percent of all enemy aircraft shot down. Aviation historian Carl Molesworth stated that "...the P-40 simply dominated the skies over Burma and China. They were able to establish air superiority over free China, northern Burma and the Assam valley of India in 1942, and they never relinquished it.

In addition to the 23rd FG, the 51st and 80th FGs, along with the 10th TRS, operated the P-40 in the CBI. In addition to its role as a fighter aircraft, CBI P-40 pilots used the aircraft very effectively as a fighter-bomber. The 80th Fighter Group in particular used its so-called B-40 (P-40s carrying 1,000 pound high explosive bombs) to destroy Japanese-held bridges and kill bridge repair crews, sometimes demolishing their target with a single bomb. At least 40 U.S. pilots reached ace flying the P-40 in the CBI.

Europe and Mediterranean theaters

The first victory over a German aircraft by the USAAF in World War II was achieved in a P-40C, by 2nd Lt Joseph D. Shaffer of the 33rd Fighter Squadron, based at Reykjavík, Iceland on 14 August 1942. A Focke-Wulf Fw 200C-3 overflew the base and was damaged by Shaffer, before being destroyed by a P-38F.

Some of the first USAAF P-40s used in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO) took off from aircraft carriers during Operation Torch, to land on newly-captured Vichy French airfields.

Though the P-40 suffered heavy loses in the MTO, many U.S. P-40 units had good combat records in the theater, racking up high kill-to-loss ratios against Axis aircraft. For example the 324th Fighter Group scored better than a 2:1 ratio in the MTO. In all, 23 U.S. pilots became aces in the MTO while flying the P-40, most of them during the first half of 1943. As in the Pacific, success in combat seemed to largely be a matter of experience and effective tactics.

It was also in this theater that the much-lightened P-40L was most heavily used, primarily by U.S. pilots. Many US pilots stripped down their P-40s even further to improve performance, often removing two or more of the wing guns from the P-40F/L.

The 99th FS, better known as a famous African American fighter unit, the Tuskegee Airmen or "Redtails", flew P-40s in stateside training and for their initial eight months in the MTO. The first time that African American fighter pilots engaged enemy aircraft was on 9 June, 1943, when 99th FS fighters were over Pantelleria, Italy. A single Focke Wulf Fw 190 was reported damaged by Lieutenant Willie Ashley Jr. On 2 July the squadron claimed its first verified kill; a Fw 190 destroyed by Captain Charles Hall. The 99th would continue to score with P-40s until February 1944, when they were assigned P-39s.

The 57th Fighter Group was equipped with the Curtiss fighter until early 1944, during which time they were credited with at least 140 air-to-air kills. The 57th was the main unit involved in the "Palm Sunday Massacre", of 18 April 1943. De-coded Ultra signals had given away a plan for a large formation of German Junkers Ju 52 transports to cross the Mediterranean, escorted by Bf 109s. An ambush was planned, using three squadrons of the 57th, a P-40 squadron from the 324th FG and a small group of Desert Air Force Spitfires. In total the Allied force numbered some 80 fighters. They intercepted 65 Ju 52/3ms, covered by just six Bf 109s. Twenty-four of the Junkers transports were shot down in what became known as the "Palm Sunday Massacre". Despite being outnumbered, the Bf 109 escort of II./Jagdgeschwader 27 shot down six Allied fighters, five of them P-40s. On 22 April a similar force of P-40s attacked a formation of 14 Messerschmitt Me 321s covered by seven Bf 109s from II./JG 27. All of the transports were shot down, while three P-40s were destroyed.

The 325th Fighter Group (also known as the "Checkertail Clan"), also flew P-40s in the MTO. The 325th was credited with at least 133 air-to-air kills in April-October 1943, of which 95 were Bf 109s and 26 were Macchi C.202s, for the loss of only 17 P-40s in combat.

One anecdote, concerning the 325th FG, indicates what could happen if Bf 109 pilots made the mistake of trying to out-turn the P-40. According to 325th FG historian Carol Cathcart: "on 30 July, 20 P-40s of the 317th [Fighter Squadron] ... took off on a fighter sweep ... over Sardinia. As they turned to fly south over the west part of the island, they were attacked near Sassari... The attacking force consisted of 25 to 30 Bf 109s and Macchi C.202s... In the brief, intense battle that occurred ... [the 317th claimed] 21 enemy aircraft." Cathcart states that Lt. Robert Sederberg who assisted a comrade being attacked by five Bf 109s, destroyed at least one German aircraft, and may have shot down as many as five. Sederberg was shot down in the dogfight and became a prisoner of war.

The 33rd, 57th, 79th, 324th and 325th FGs operated the P-40 in the MTO.

Royal Australian Air Force

The Kittyhawk was the main fighter used by the RAAF in World War II, in greater numbers than the Spitfire. Two RAAF squadrons serving with the Desert Air Force, No. 3 and No. 450 Squadrons, were the first Australian units to be assigned P-40s. Other RAAF pilots served with RAF or SAAF P-40 squadrons in the theater.

Many RAAF pilots achieved high scores in the P-40. At least five reached "double ace" status: Clive Caldwell (22 kills), Nicky Barr, John Waddy, Bob Whittle (11 kills each) and Bobby Gibbes (10 kills) in the Middle East, North African and/or New Guinea campaigns. In all, 18 RAAF pilots became aces while flying P-40s.

Nicky Barr, like many Australian pilots, considered the P-40 a reliable mount: "The Kittyhawk became, to me, a friend. It was quite capable of getting you out of trouble more often than not. It was a real warhorse."

At the same time as the heaviest fighting in North Africa, the Pacific War was also in its early stages, and RAAF units in Australia were completely lacking in suitable fighter aircraft. Spitfire production was being absorbed by the war in Europe; P-38s and P-39s were trialled, but were regarded as unsuitable and were also difficult to obtain; Mustangs had not yet reached squadrons anywhere, and Australia's tiny and inexperienced aircraft industry was geared towards larger aircraft. USAAF P-40s and their pilots originally intended for the U.S. Far East Air Force in the Philippines, but diverted to Australia as a result of Japanese naval activity were the first suitable fighter aircraft to arrive in substantial numbers. By mid-1942, the RAAF was able to obtain some USAAF replacement shipments; the P-40 was given the RAAF designation A-29.

RAAF Kittyhawks played a crucial role in the South West Pacific theater. They fought on the front line as fighters during the critical early years of the Pacific War, and the durability and bomb-carrying abilities (1,000 lb/454 kg) of the P-40 also made it ideal for the ground attack role. For example, 75, and 76 Squadrons played a critical role during the Battle of Milne Bay, fending off Japanese aircraft and providing highly effective close air support for the Australian infantry, negating the initial Japanese advantage in light tanks and sea power.

The RAAF units which made the most use of Kittyhawks in the South West Pacific were: 75, 76, 77, 78, 80, 82, 84 and 86 Squadrons. These squadrons saw action mostly in the New Guinea and Borneo campaigns.

Late in 1945, RAAF fighter squadrons in the South West Pacific began converting to P-51Ds. However, Kittyhawks were in use with the RAAF until the very last day of the war, in Borneo. In all, the RAAF acquired 841 Kittyhawks (not counting the British-ordered examples used in North Africa), including 163 P-40E, 42 P-40K, 90 P-40 M and 553 P-40N models. In addition, the RAAF ordered 67 Kittyhawks for use by No. 120 (Netherlands East Indies) Squadron (a joint Australian-Dutch unit in the South West Pacific). The P-40 was retired by the RAAF in 1947.

Royal Canadian Air Force

In mid-May 1940, the Royal Canadian Air Force had its first look at the Curtiss P-40. At that time a party of American officers flew to Uplands Airport near Ottawa where they saw the XP-40 and a Spitfire flown in comparative tests. When Canadian Army requirements for France were drawn up, one of the units was to have been an Army Co-operation Wing (No. 101) consisting of three squadrons: No. 400 (previously No. 110) Squadron and No. 414, equipped with P-40 Tomahawk aircraft, formed No. 39 (Army Co-operation) Wing (RCAF). By January 1943, all three squadrons had converted to the Mustang Mk I. In all, the RCAF received 72 Kittyhawk I, 12 Kittyhawk Ia, 15 Kittyhawk III and 35 Kittyhawk IV aircraft, for a total of 134 aircraft, plus the loan of nine P-40Ks in the Aleutians, all in lieu of the 144 P-39 Airacobras originally allotted to Canada and rejected.

One of the most significant uses of the RCAF P-40s occurred in the 1942 Aleutians campaign. When the Imperial Japanese Navy moved to attack Midway, it sent a diversionary battle group to attack the Aleutian Islands. The RCAF sent No. 111 Squadron RCAF, flying the Kittyhawk I, to a forward base on Adak Island, Alaska. During the drawn-out campaign, 12 Canadian Kittyhawks operated on a rotational basis from a new, more advanced base on Amchitka, 75 miles southeast of Kiska. Two RCAF fighter squadrons, No. 111 and No. 14, took "turn-about" at the base. During the deployment, one Nakajima A6M2-N seaplane was shot down by Squadron Leader Ken Boomer. After the Japanese threat diminished, the RCAF units returned to Canada and eventually transferred to England without their Kittyhawks.

Royal New Zealand Air Force

Some Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) pilots and New Zealanders in other air forces flew British P-40s while serving with DAF squadrons in North Africa and Italy, including the ace Jerry Westenra.

A total of 301 P-40s were allocated to the RNZAF under lend lease, for use in the Pacific Theatre, although four of these were lost in transit. The aircraft equipped 14 Squadron, 15 Squadron, 16 Squadron, 17 Squadron, 18 Squadron, 19 Squadron and 20 Squadron.

RNZAF P-40 squadrons were successful in air combat against the Japanese between 1942 and 1944. Their pilots claimed 100 aerial victories in P-40s, whilst losing 20 aircraft in combat. Geoff Fisken, the highest scoring British Commonwealth ace in the Pacific, flew P-40s with 15 Squadron, although half of his victories were claimed with the Brewster Buffalo.

The overwhelming majority of RNZAF P-40 victories were scored against Japanese fighters, mostly A6M Zeroes. Other victories included Aichi D3A "Val" dive bombers. The only confirmed twin engine claim, a Ki-21 "Sally" (misidentified as a G4M "Betty") fell to Fisken in July 1943.

From late 1943 and 1944, RNZAF P-40s were increasingly used against ground targets. The last front line RNZAF P-40s were replaced by F4U Corsairs in 1944. The P-40s were relegated to use as advanced pilot trainers.

The remaining RNZAF P-40s, excluding the 20 shot down and 154 written off, were mostly scrapped at Rukuhia in 1948.

Soviet Union

Though only moderately popular with the Soviets, the Soviet Air Force used the 2,097 P-40s they had been given quite extensively against the Germans on the Eastern front; most Soviet P-40 squadrons had good combat records. The Warhawk provided close air support as well as air-to-air capability for the Soviet Air Force, with many Soviet pilots becoming aces on the P-40 (although not as many as on the P-39 Airacobra, which was the most numerous American fighter used by the Soviet Air Force).

The Soviets stripped down their P-40s significantly for combat, in many cases removing the wing guns altogether in P-40B/C types, for example. Soviet Air Force reports state that they liked the range and fuel capacity of the P-40 which were superior to most of the Soviet fighters, though they still preferred the P-39. Their biggest complaint was its poor climb rate and problems with maintenance, especially with burning out the engines. VVS pilots usually flew the P-40 at War Emergency Power settings while in combat, this would bring the acceleration and speed performance closer to that of their German rivals, but could burn out engines in a matter of weeks. They also had difficulty with the more demanding requirements for fuel quality and oil purity of the Allison engines. A fair number of burnt out P-40s were re-engined with Soviet Klimov engines but these performed relatively poorly and were relegated to rear area use.

The P-40 saw the most front-line use in Soviet hands in 1942 and early 1943. It was used in the northern sectors and played a significant role in the defense of Leningrad. The most numerically important types were P-40B/C, P-40E and P-40K/M. By the time the better P-40F and N types became available, production of superior Soviet fighters had increased sufficiently so that the P-40 was replaced in most Soviet Air Force units by the Lavochkin La-5 and various later Yakovlev types.

Japan

The Japanese Army captured some P-40s and later operated a number in Burma. The Japanese appear to have had as many as ten flyable P-40Es. For a brief period, during 1943, a few of them were actually used operationally by 2 Hiko Chutai, 50 Hiko Sentai (2nd Air Squadron, 50th Air Regiment) in the defense of Rangoon. Testimony to this fact is given by Yasuhiko Kuroe, a member of the 64 Hiko Sentai. In his memoirs, he says one Japanese-operated P-40 was shot down in error by a friendly Mitsubishi Ki-21 "Sally" over Rangoon.

Other nations

The P-40 was used by over two dozen countries during and after the war. The P-40 was also used by Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Finland and Turkey. The last P-40s in military service were those used by the Brazilian Air Force (FAB), which were finally retired in 1958.

In the air war over Finland, several Soviet P-40s were shot down or had to crash land due to other reasons. The Finns, short of good aircraft, collected these and managed to repair one. This aircraft was attached to an operational squadron of the Finnish Air Force, but lack of spares kept it on the ground, with the exception of a few evaluation flights.

Variants and development stages

  • Departing from normal USAAC convention, there was no P-40A. Some records indicate this might have been reserved for a reconnaissance variant that was briefly in development by Curtiss, but quickly discarded.
  • Revised versions of the P-40 soon followed: the P-40B or Tomahawk IIA had extra .30 cal (7.62 mm) U.S., or .303 British (7.7 mm) machine guns in the wings and a partially protected fuel system; the P-40C or Tomahawk IIB added underbelly drop tank and bomb shackles, as well as actual self-sealing fuel tanks and other minor revisions, but the extra weight did have a negative impact on aircraft performance. (All versions of the P-40 had a relatively low power-to-weight ratio compared to contemporary fighters.)
  • Only a small number of P-40D or Kittyhawk Mk Is were made—less than 50. With a new, larger Allison engine, slightly narrower fuselage, redesigned canopy, and improved cockpit, the P-40D eliminated the nose-mounted .50 cal guns and instead had a pair of .50 cal (12.7 mm) guns in each wing. The distinctive chin airscoop grew larger in order to adequately cool the large Allison engine.
  • Retrospective designation for a single prototype. The P-40A was a single camera-carrying aircraft.
  • The P-40E or P-40E-1 was very similar in most respects to the P-40D, except for a slightly more powerful engine and an extra .50 in (12.7 mm) gun in each wing, bringing the total to six. Some aircraft also had small underwing bomb shackles. Supplied to the Commonwealth air forces as the Kittyhawk Mk IA. The P-40E was the variant that bore the brunt of air to air combat by the type in the key period of early to mid 1942, for example with the first US squadrons to replace the AVG in China (the AVG was already transitioning to this type from the P-40B/C), the type used by the Australians at Milne Bay, by the New Zealand squadrons during most of their air to air combat, and by the RAF / Commonwealth in North Africa as the Kittyhawk IA.
  • P-40F and P-40L, which both featured Packard Merlin engine in place of the normal Allison, and thus did not have the carburetor scoop on top of the nose. Performance for these models at higher altitudes was better than their Allison-engined cousins. The L in some cases also featured a fillet in front of the vertical stabilizer, or a stretched fuselage to compensate for the higher torque. The P-40L was sometimes nicknamed "Gypsy Rose Lee," after a famous stripper of the era, due to its stripped-down condition. Supplied to the Commonwealth air forces under the designation Kittyhawk Mk II, a total of 330 Mk IIs were supplied to the RAF under Lend-Lease. The first 230 aircraft are sometimes known as the Kittyhawk Mk IIA. The P-40F/L was extensively used by U.S. fighter groups operating in the Mediterranian Theater.
  • P-40G : 43 P-40 aircraft fitted with the wings of the Tomahawk Mk IIA. A total of 16 aircraft were supplied to the Soviet Union, and the rest to the US Army Air Force. It was later redesignated RP-40G.
  • P-40K, an Allison-engined P-40L, with the nosetop scoop retained and the Allison configured scoop and cowl flaps. Supplied to the Commonwealth air forces as the Kittyhawk Mk III, it was widely used by US units in the CBI.
  • P-40M, version generally similar to the P-40K, with a stretched fuselage like the P-40L and powered by an Allison V-1710-81 engine giving better performance at altitude (compared to previous Allison versions). It had some detail improvements and it was characterized by two small air scoops just before the exhaust pipes. Most of them were supplied to Allied countries (mainly UK and USSR), while some others remained in the USA for advanced training. It was also supplied to the Commonwealth air forces as the Kittyhawk Mk. III.
  • P-40N (manufactured 1943-44), the final production model. The P-40N featured a stretched rear fuselage to counter the torque of the larger, late-war Allison engine, and the rear deck of the cockpit behind the pilot was cut down at a moderate slant to improve rearward visibility. A great deal of work was also done to try and eliminate excess weight to improve the Warhawk's climb rate. Early N production blocks dropped a .50 cal (12.7 mm) gun from each wing, bringing the total back to four; later production blocks reintroduced it after complaints from units in the field. Supplied to Commonwealth air forces as the Kittyhawk Mk IV. A total of 553 P-40Ns were acquired by the Royal Australian Air Force, making it the variant most commonly used by the RAAF. Subvariants of the P-40N ranged widely in specialization from stripped down four-gun "hot rods" which could reach the highest top speeds of any production variant of the P-40 (up to 380 mph), to overweight types with all the extras intended for fighter-bombing or even training missions.

  • P-40P : The designation of 1,500 aircraft ordered with V-1650-1 engines, but actually built as the P-40N with V-1710-81 engines.
  • XP-40Q with a 4-bladed prop, cut-down rear fuselage and bubble canopy, supercharger, squared-off wingtips and tail surfaces, and improved engine with two-speed supercharger was tested, but its performance was not enough of an improvement to merit production when compared to the contemporary late model P-47Ds and P-51Ds pouring off production lines. The XP-40Q was, however, the fastest of the P-40 series with a top speed of 422 mph as a result of the introduction of a high-altitude supercharger gear. (No P-40 model with a single-speed supercharger could even approach 400 mph or 640 km/h.) With the end of hostilities in Europe, the P-40 came to the end of its front line service.
  • P-40R : The designation of P-40F and P-40L aircraft, converted into training aircraft in 1944.
  • RP-40 : Some American P-40s were converted into reconnaissance aircraft.
  • TP-40 : Some P-40s were converted into two-seat trainers.
  • Twin P-40 : Probably the most unusual variant, it was a P-40C outfitted in 1942 with a pair of 1,300 hp (969 kW) V-1650-1 Merlin engines mounted atop the wings, over the main landing gear.

Survivors

Of the 13,738 P-40s built, only 19 P-40s remain airworthy. Approximately 80 aircraft are on static display or under restoration. It is possible that more will be recovered from crash or scrap sites, mostly in the South Pacific, China, the United States, Canada and Eastern Europe.

Famous P-40 pilots

Operators

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Specifications (P-40E)

Popular culture

  • In the John Wayne movie: Flying Tigers, (1942) real P-40s are featured, along with some inaccurate studio models.
  • Future US President Ronald Reagan appears in the Identification Of The Japanese Zero (Training Film) (1942) as a young pilot learning to recognize the difference between a P-40 and a Japanese Zero. In this film Reagan mistakes a friend's P-40 for a Japanese Zero and tries to shoot it down. In the end, Reagan gets a chance to shoot down a real Zero.
  • In the film God is My Co-Pilot (1945), based on Robert Lee Scott, Jr's book about the Flying Tigers and the USAAF pilots who replaced them in the Republic of China and Burma, a mix of real P-40 and "movie" P-40s are featured.
  • In Arthur Miller's play ''All My Sons (first performed in 1947), the characters of Joe Keller and his partner Steve Deever are shown to have knowingly sold cracked cylinder heads to the Army Air Force. As a result, 21 P-40s crash in Australia. For this, Keller and Deever served time in prison, although Keller was released shortly after when he was found innocent. At the beginning of the play, his partner is still in prison.
  • In Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), P-40s are depicted at the attack on Pearl Harbor, both being shot up on the ground and shooting down Zeros.
  • Steven Spielberg's comedy 1941(1979) features a P-40E in the less-than-capable hands of John Belushi's character, "Wild Bill" Kelso.
  • In the film Pearl Harbor (2001) P-40Es are the main aircraft seen in the film besides Japanese Zeros. The characters of Rafe Macauley and Danny Walker fly P-40s during the raid on Pearl Harbor, being the only two pilots able to get in the air, recreating an actual event where George Welch and Ken Taylor operated from a satellite field. A P-40N and a P-40E in this movie came from the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho.
  • The alternative history/science fiction pastiche Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) has a computer-generated twin-seat fighter aircraft patterned after the P-40 performing amazing feats, including doubling as a submarine.

See also

References

Notes

Bibliography

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