At a very early stage, the Curtiss
P-40 attracted the attention of foreign air forces. On May 10,
1939, the French government ordered 140 export versions of the
P-40 for the Armee de l"Air. These aircraft were designated
Hawk 81-A1 by the manufacturer. The Hawk 81-A1s were identical
to the US P-40 except that they had French instruments and equipment
and were equipped with reverse-movement "French-fashion"
The first of the French-ordered
H81-A1s flew on June 6, 1940, and a few were actually completed
with French markings. However, before any of their H81-A1s could
be delivered, France had surrendered. Britain agreed to take
over the entirety of the French order, and gave the H81-A1 the
name Tomahawk I in RAF service. RAF serials were AH741/AH840
In September of 1940, the USAAC
agreed to defer deliveries of their P-40s so that the Tomahawk
Is could be supplied to Britain as soon as possible. The first
Tomahawk Is reached England in September of 1940. The two 0.5-inch
machine guns in the nose were retained, but they were supplemented
by four wing-mounted 0.303-inch Browning machine guns in place
of the 7.5-mm FN-Brownings originally specified by the French.
Such was the urgency of their delivery to Britain that many
of the 140 machines still had French instruments and bore cockpit
lettering in French when they arrived.
This was in the days before
Lend-Lease, and so the aircraft had only RAF serial numbers
and markings, and were not issued USAAC serials or designations.
The Curtiss construction numbers were 14446/14545 and 14091/14130.
RAF serials were AH741/AH880. At least three (AH774, AH793,
and AH840) were retained in Canada but still retaining their
However, Britain quickly concluded
that these planes were not suitable for combat, since they lacked
armor protection for the pilot, armor-glass windshields, or
self-sealing fuel tanks. Nevertheless, since a German invasion
was feared to be imminent, they were actually issued to several
However, the Hun never invaded
England, and so the Tomahawk Is were used only for training
roles within Britain. Overseas, the first Desert Air Force squadron
to be equipped with Tomahawks was No. 112 which exchanged its
Gloster Gladiators for the Curtiss fighter. No 112 Squadron
became famous for its "shark's tooth" insignia on
the engine cowling, and this scheme was later adopted by the
American Volunteer Group in China
Tomahawk II was the designation
given to a new and improved export Tomahawk, one which was better
equipped for combat. It was functionally equivalent to the P-40B
and P-40C then being issued to USAAC units. Unfortunately, some
discrepancies exist in Curtiss records matching Tomahawk designations
to RAF serial numbers and correlations to P-40s.
The Tomahawk IIA (Model H81-A2)
was generally equivalent to the US P-40B. It had protective
armor and externally-covered self-sealing tanks. 110 were built
for the RAF under a direct-purchase contract. . RAF serials
were AH881/990, with Curtiss construction numbers being 14131/14220
and 14582/14601. It carried two 0.30-inch machine guns in the
wings in addition to the two 0.50-in guns in the fuselage. A
British radio was fitted. Tomahawk IIA AH938 was transferred
to Canada as an instructional airframe. AH936, 952, 965/971,
974/895, 987, 989, and 990 were delivered to the Soviet Union.
The Tomahawk IIB (Model H81-A2)
was generally equivalent to the US P-40C. It had four 0.303-inch
Browning machine guns in the wings in addition to the two nose-mounted
0.50-in guns. Whereas the Tomahawk IIA had a British radio,
the Tomahawk IIB had US equipment. The British did not like
the externally sealed tanks of the Tomahawk IIA, so these were
replaced by internally-sealed tanks on the Tomahawk IIB. A total
of 930 of these planes were produced in four lots. RAF serials
were AH991/999 (c/n 14658/14666), AK100/570 (c/n 14582/14951,
15243,/15522), AM370/519 (c/n 15823/15972), and AN218/517 (c/n
17817/18116). AK210/224 and AK226/241 were lost at sea in transit.
After the German invasion of
the USSR in June 1941, one hundred and ninety-five Tomahawk
IIBs were shipped to the USSR. Some were shipped directly from
the USA, others were selected from the reserve forced based
in the United Kingdom in anticipation of the German invasion
which never came. I don't have a full listing of all the Tomahawks
that were diverted to the USSR, but AH1991/999 and AN469/517
are among the list. These Russian Tomahawks went into action
on the Moscow and Leningrad fronts in October 1941, and were
the first US-built planes to be used by the Russians in the
new battle area.
An unspecified number of Tomahawk
IIBs were sent to bolster Turkish neutrality in November 1941.
It is curious to note that Turkey was supplied with planes from
both the Allies and the Axis during World War II.
AK254, 434, 40, 448, 470, and
561 were transferred from the RAF to the Royal Egyptian Air
The Tomahawk IIs were active
in the Middle East from October of 1941 onward. They shared
in the strafing of the retreating Axis troops. The ability of
the Tomahawk to absorb an incredible amount of punishment became
almost legendary. They served with Nos 2, 26, 73, 112, 136,
168, 239, 241, 250, 403, 414, 430 and 616 Squadrons of the RAF.
They also served with Nos 2 and 4 Squadrons of the South African
Air Force and No 3 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force.
At low altitudes, the Tomahawk II was actually superior to the
Bf 109, but this advantage rapidly disappeared when combat took
place at altitudes above 15,000 feet. The weight which handicapped
the performance of the Tomahawk did have one tangible benefit--the
rugged structure could absorb a terrific amount of battle damage
and still allow the airplane to return to base. Although generally
outclassed by the Bf 109, the Tomahawk was a capable fighter
in the hands of experienced pilots such as Neville Duke. Wing
Commander Clive Caldwell of the RAAF scored more than twenty
victories while flying a Tomahawk in the Middle East. However,
much of the opposition to the Tomahawk was provided by obsolescent
fighter biplanes (e.g. Fiat CR-42) and underpowered, lightly
armed fighter monoplanes such as the Fiat G-50 of the Regia
Aeronautica. It had difficulty with the more advanced Macchi
Perhaps the best-known aircraft
of the Tomahawk series were those supplied to the American Volunteer
Group (AVG)--the famous Flying Tigers. In 1941, the Chinese
government asked for US military assistance in its fight against
the Japanese invaders. President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to
help out as much as he could, but almost the entire US aircraft
production at that time was dedicated to American and British
production. Nevertheless, because of the urgency of the situation,
the British agreed to exchange 100 of the Tomahawk IIBs on order
for later model Kittyhawk Is. These Tomahawk IIBs were then
diverted to China. Since US law at the time allowed only for
cash-and-carry sales of arms to belligerents, A China-based
corporation known as the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company
(or CAMCO) was formed to purchase these aircraft.
There persist to this day some
confusion about which version of the Tomahawk that was actually
delivered to China. Was it the Tomahawk IIA (equivalent to P-40B)
or Tomahawk IIB (equivalent to P-40C)? Curtiss company records
list them as Model H81-A3, which would seem to make them Tomahawk
IIBs (equivalent to the P-40C). There are some discrepancies
between Curtiss records matching Tomahawk designations to RAF
serials and to equivalent US Army P-40 models, so there is confusion
on this point. However, the AVG planes couldn't be Tomahawk
IIAs, since only 172 of these were built and there is no record
of any of them being delivered from the RAF to China. Therefore,
many historians have concluded that the AVG planes had to have
been Tomahawk IIBs, which would make them equivalent to the
USAAF P-40C. However, Erik Shilling, who was a member of the
AVG and who was also a flight leader and an engineering officer
for the group, maintains that the airplanes with the AVG were
actually export models of the P-40B and not the C. After all,
he was there and he ought to know! He says that the Flying Tiger
airplanes did not have the equipment to carry the external 52-gallon
drop tank, nor were they equipped with bomb shackles. In addition
all of the fuel tanks had external self-sealing material, not
internally-mounted sealing material as in the "C"
model. Also the Model "C" had armor plate in the front,
ahead of the pilot, installed on the firewall between the two
fifties, but the AVG's planes did not.
The resolution of the problem
seems to be be in the fact that the AVG Tomahawks were actually
built to a special order. The planes were indeed diverted from
Tomahawk IIB contracts, which was equivalent to the P-40C, but
when the the planes were actually built they were equipped with
the externally-sealed fuel tanks that had been used on the Tomahawk
IIA. It seems that Curtiss had some surplus externally-sealed
fuel tanks lying around that the British did not want, and decided
to use them on the Chinese contract. In addition, the Chinese
contract did not specifically ask for plumbing or shackles for
an external fuel tank, so this was deleted. Consequently, the
AVG Tomahawks were functionally equivalent to Tomahawk IIAa,
even though they were taken from a Tomahawk IIB production batch.
So they are basically P-40Bs and not P-40Cs.
It is with the Flying Tigers
that the P-40 achieved immortality. Newly-promoted to Brigadier
General in the Chinese Army, Claire Chennault went to the USA
in November 1940 to recruit pilots for the AVG. The AVG came
into existence in August 1941, and was backed by the US government
in recognition of China's fight against the invading Japanese.
The Tomahawks on the Chines order were shipped to Rangoon, Burma,
arriving in June of 1941. They were reassembled there and were
flown to the AVG base at Toungoo, Burma, where they were intended
to defend the Burma Road between Chungking and Lashio. After
Pearl Harbor, the AVG moved to Kunming. By the time of Pearl
Harbor, some 80 American pilots were serving with the AVG based
at Kunming and Mingaladon. Contrary to popular understanding,
the AVG did not actually enter combat until AFTER Pearl Harbor.
The famous "shark's teeth" marking did not originate
with the Flying Tigers, but was adapted from the markings used
by the Tomahawks of the RAF's No. 112 Squadron in North Africa.
The AVG drew first blood on
December 20, destroying six out of ten attacking Japanese Ki
21 bombers. When the AVG encountered Japanese fighters for the
first time, they initially underestimated the maneuverability
of their opponents, and they lost two pilots on December 23.
It was soon learned that it was wise not to mix it up with Japanese
fighters on a one-to-one basis because of the inferior maneuverability
and climb rate of the Curtiss, but instead to use the P-40's
superior speed and diving ability to maximum advantage. The
most effective tactic against the Japanese was found to be a
diving pass followed by a rapid exit from the scene. The Tomahawk
gained a reputation for ruggedness which enabled many an AVG
pilot to return safely home after his plane was damaged in combat.
However, the stress of combat and lack of spares had taken their
toll, and by March of 1942, only 20 Curtiss machines were serviceable.
At that time, 30 P-40Es were issued to the AVG. By the time
that the AVG was incorporated as the 23rd Fighter Group of the
USAAF in July 1942, the AVG pilots had clamed 286 confirmed
kills, with four Curtiss machines having been lost in combat.
However a lot more had been lost in Japanese strafing attacks
and many had to be cannibalized to keep others in the air.
Contrary to popular myth, the
AVG Tomahawks never encounter ed the Japanese A6M Zero-sen in
combat. At that stage in the war, all the Zeros had been moved
out of China and eastward into the Pacific or southward to the
Netherlands East Indies. The fighter that the Tomahawks actually
encountered was the Japanese army fighter, the Nakajima Ki 43
Hayabusa (code named Oscar). However, at that stage of the war,
virtually every Japanese single-seat fighter was called a "Zero"
An ex-Soviet P-40C has been
restored in the livery of Erik Shilling's AVG machine (number
71). It had been delivered to the Soviet Union early in the
war and had been shot down but had been recovered and shipped
to England. It was later sent to the United States to be restored
at Chino, California.
War Planes of the Second World
War, Fighters, Volume Four, William Green, Doubleday, 1964.
The American Fighter, Enzo Anguluci
and Peter Bowers, Orion Books, 1987.
United States Military Aircraft
since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1989.
Curtiss Aircraft, 1907-1947,
Peter M. Bowers, Naval Institute Press, 1979.
The Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk, Ray
Wagner, Aircraft in Profile, Volume 2, Doubleday, 1965.
Hawk Dynasty: The Curtiss Hawk
Monoplanes, Part 2, Ken Wixey, Air Enthusiast No 72 (1997).
E-mail from Erik Shilling on
Flying Tiger P-40B/C controversy.
on restored AVG P-40 and more details on the B versus C