Curtiss P-40 Warhawk (Tomahawk/Kittyhawk)


In the autumn of 1942 Curtiss attempted to reduce the P-40’s weight, hoping to boost its performance. Most importantly, one pair of machine guns was removed, as well as the front fuel tank in wings and some of the protective armor. The end result was P-40L, which was basically a lightened version of the P-40F. In the first months of 1943 Curtiss produced 700 aircraft of this version. The ‘slimming’ operation proved of little value, because the reduction of weight by some 200 kg had only a marginal effect on the aircraft’s performance. In the event, field workshops often put back the removed items. The British, who were offered 100 P-40Ls, gave them the same designation as to the earlier P-40Fs – Kittyhawk Mk II.
Despite the obvious shortcomings of the Allison-powered P-40s, Curtiss continued to develop and produce them. The main reason was the fact that priority in deliveries of Merlin/Packard engines was given to the production of P-51 Mustangs. Therefore, Curtiss had no qualms about designing P-40M, which was coupled to an engine of more durability but less takeoff power (as compared to the P-40K), which resulted in further deterioration of the aircraft’s performance, especially its maximum speed. Most of the 600 P-40Ms, which were produced at the turn of 1942/43, were handed over to America’s allies, mainly Australia and USSR. The British called them Kittyhawk Mk III (same name as for the earlier P-40K). Of the 264 aircraft they received, the British passed as many as 170 to Russians, who additionally took a delivery of 90 directly from Americans. In fact, few P-40Ms served in the USAAF or the RAF.

P-40K Rhapsody in Rivets of 78th FS / 15th FG; Midway, April 1943.


In early 1943 Curtiss designers undertook another attempt of improving their fighter’s performance. Again they tried to achieve it by reducing the aircraft’s weight, this time even more drastically. The P-40N, initially lightened by nearly 500 kilograms, indeed proved the fastest serial-produced version of the Warhawk. However, the trade-off was unacceptable and during the production run some of the removed items were put back in place (including battery and the third pair of guns). Although by that time American industry produced fighters of much better performance, eventually no fewer than 5,520 P-40Ns were built! Most of those received by the USAAF were shipped to Asia and the Pacific. The British used their share in Italy, under the name of Kittyhawk Mk IV. Over 1,100 were supplied to Russians.
All in all, from March 1940 until November 1944 nearly 14,000 P-40s of all versions and variants were constructed. Of those, only 2,011 were powered by Merlin/Packard engines.

 

Operational service

P-40, due to its unsatisfactory performance at high altitude, wasn’t of much use over north-western Europe. However, it was there that it scored by all means a historic victory. Beginning with August 1941, the Americans provided Iceland with fighter cover, deploying 33rd PS for that purpose. The squadron, equipped with P-40Cs, performed defensive patrols over the island. During one of them, on 14th August 1942, 2/Lt. Joseph Shaffer intercepted a reconnaissance Focke-Wulf 200 Condor and teamed up with a P-38 pilot to shoot it down. It was the first victory by a US Air Force fighter over a Luftwaffe aircraft in WWII – at least partially scored by a P-40. The squadron remained at Iceland until the war’s end (as part of 342nd Composite Group), with time converting to P-47 Thunderbolts.
Of all the Second World War fronts, the P-40 is most readily associated with China, the operational area of the famed ‘Flying Tigers’ aka. AVG. During their relatively short combat career (December 1941 – July 1942) they made a lasting impression on friend and foe alike. Initially they were equipped with 100 early P-40s from a British order. The machines from this batch differed from one another, but most were of P-40B (Tomahawk Mk IIA) standard. First P-40Es didn’t arrive in China until March 1942. The AVG pilots took the idea of painting the distinctive ‘shark jaws’ on their P-40s from the British of No 112 Sqn RAF, at that time fighting in North Africa.

P-40E (s/n unknown) flown by Col. Robert Scott, the first CO of 23rd FG; China, September 1942. Scott was credited with 10 victories.[Painting Janusz Światłoń]