The Extraordinarily Versatile P-40

DAYTON, Ohio — Curtiss P-40E Warhawk at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Today’s Plane-of-the-day will be a little different as I would like to speak a little about a type, rather than a variant.

The Curtis P-40 is the third-most produced American fighter of the war with some 13,738 having been produced between 1939 and 1944 but it was, one way or another, operated in combat by allies and axis pilots alike because many fell into Japanese, German and even Finnish hands in the early years of the war when the allies were often in retreat.  Finland, who was aligned with Germany throughout the war, in fact used a captured P-40 as did the Japanese over China leading to the surreal possibility of P-40s fighting against other P-40s.  The Germans operated them for testing purposes and clandestine missions but never deployed them as fighting aircraft.


The P-40 in Japanese Army Air Force colors

The P-40 in Luftwaffe colors

 The P-40 in Finnish Air Force colors

The P-40 in Dutch colors

 The P-40 in Free French colors

 The P-40 in Soviet Air Force colors

USA and Commonwealth countries:  United States Army Air Corps, United States Army Air Forces, Royal Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal New Zealand Air Force, South African Air Force

Allied countries:  Soviet Air Force, Soviet Naval Aviation, Republic of China Air Force, (free) French Air Force, Royal Netherlands East Indies Army Air Force, Poland

Axis Countries:  Japanese Army Air Force, Finnish Air Force, German 

The P-40 was first ordered by the French but delivery did not occur before the invasion of France leading Curtis to redirect all available aircraft to Britain.  When the British were unable to deploy all available production, Curtis was authorized to make them available to the USSR who became the second country to take delivery of, and operate the aircraft.

The first serious use of the P-40 as a fighter occurred when Iraqi forces led by Rashid Ali El-Ghailani rose against the British in Iraq on May 2, 1941. When the Germans and Italians sent aircraft to assist the revolt, staging from Vichy French bases in Lebanon and Syria, the British sent three Bristol Blenheims to bomb the air base at Palmyra on May 14, escorted by two Tomahawks of No. 250 Squadron, RAF, flown by Flying Officers G.A. Wolsey and F.J.S. Aldridge. The Iraqi revolt was crushed by May 30, but the British decided that Vichy France’s violation of neutrality justified the invasion and occupation of Lebanon and Syria. Tomahawks of No. 3 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), took part in the first attack on June 8, helping to destroy a Dewoitine D.520 fighter and damage three others at Rayak airfield. Elsewhere on that same day, two of No. 250 Squadron’s Tomahawks drew first blood for the P-40 in the air when they shot down an Italian Cant Z.1007bis reconnaissance plane five miles northwest of Alexandria, Egypt. The Vichy French put up a spirited fight before finally signing an armistice on July 14, but the Tomahawks of No. 3 Squadron RAAF also acquitted themselves well, holding their own against France’s top-of-the-line D.520s and shooting down two out of eight German Junkers Ju-88As of II Gruppe, Lehrgeschwader 1, operating from Crete, that tried to interfere with British landings on the Levantine coast on June 12.(1)

Unfortunately the P-40s were mostly relegated to fighter-bomber and ground-support roles later in the war which led to much higher attrition rates and the unfortunate assumption that this fighter had outlived it’s usefulness.  However, in the right hands it remained formidable and competitive aircraft throughout the war and continued to be operated by numerous countries well into the 1950s.



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