Curtiss Kittyhawk

The Kittyhawk was the name give by the RAF to the Curtiss Hawk 87 fighter (known in the USAAF as the P-40D and above).

Kittyhawk I

The Kittyhawk I saw two major changes from the earlier Tomahawk. It used the Allison V-1710-39 engine, which gave better performance at altitude than the earlier engines, although still not as good as that provided by the Rolls Royce Merlin, and the two .50 calibre machine guns from the nose were moved to the wings. The RAF received 20 Kittyhawk Is, before requesting an increase in firepower, which resulted in the Mk IA.

Kittyhawk IA

The Mk IA was the same as the P-40E. The main change from the Mk I was the replacement of the .30 calibre wing guns with .50 calibre guns, giving the new model six .50 calibre guns. 1,500 Kittyhawk IAs were produced, and the model was used by the RAF and several Commonwealth air forces.

Kittyhawk II

The first Kittyhawk IIs were similar to the P-40F, using Packard Merlin XX engines, which improved the performance at altitude. 250 of these aircraft were allocated to the RAF, but in the event none of the reached RAF service, going instead to the Russians and Free French. The P-40L was also called the Kittyhawk II by the RAF, but again did not serve in significant numbers.

Kittyhawk III

This RAF designation was also allocated to two different versions of the fighter. It was first used for the P-40K, with the Allison V-1710-73 engine and six .50 calibre machine guns. Only 21 of these aircraft served with the RAF. The designation was retained for the 595 P-40Ms received by the RAF. The only main change between the two types was the use of the Allison V-1710-81 engine.

Kittyhawk IV

The RAF and Commonwealth air forces received 586 P-40Ns, under the designation Kittyhawk IV. This was the best version of the Kittyhawk, with the best top speed, of 378 mph. Originally it was armed with four .50 calibre guns, but the extra two guns were soon restored. The Kittyhawk IV was normally used as a ground attack aircraft, as despite the improvement in performance it could not compete with the most modern German aircraft.

North Africa

The Kittyhawk reached North Africa in December 1941, when it replaced the Tomahawks of 3 RAAF Squadron. The Kittyhawk was the RAF’s main fighter in the desert during the first half of 1942. Sadly, it was badly outclassed by the Bf 109F. The German fighter had much better performance at altitude, and suffered heavy losses. The German pilots could fly above the Kittyhawks, swooping down on the lower flying allied aircraft, and then climbing away. The fighting was not entirely one-sided, and not every German or Italian aircraft was a Bf 109. The Kittyhawk could cope with most other Axis aircraft present in North Africa.

With the Americans in the war, the Kittyhawks in North Africa were soon joined by P-40s of the USAAF. Shear weight of numbers eventually wore down the German’s Desert Air Force. The P-40 also played a part in the Allied victory at El Alamein, in its ground attack role. Although its role in North Africa became increasingly that of a fighter bomber, it retained a fighter role for the rest of the campaign. Between 1 January 1942 and May 1943, Kittyhawk pilots had claimed 420 victories.

Italy

Although many of the Kittyhawk squadrons used in North Africa reequipped with Spitfires, Mustangs and other more modern aircraft for the invasion of Italy, two retained their Kittyhawks until the end of the war. In Italy the P-40 was used almost entirely as a ground attack aircraft, taking advantage of its good low altitude speed and rugged construction.

Australia and New Guinea

At the same time as the RAAF was getting its first Kittyhawks in the desert, the Japanese entered the war. Australia itself was suddenly vulnerable. Twenty five Kittyhawk Is from the RAF order were diverted to Australia, where they equipped 75 Squadron. On 21 March 1942 this squadron transferred to Port Moresby. There it came face to face with the Mistubishi A6M Zero. By 9 May only two aircraft remained serviceable, but the squadron had shot down 18 Japanese aircraft and destroyed 17 on the ground, at a cost of 22 Kittyhawks.

Two new Kittyhawk Squadrons (76 and 77) arrived in time to play a decisive part in repelling an attempted Japanese attack on Milne Bay on 24 August. This marked a major turning point in New Guinea. RAAF Kittyhawks played a part in the allied counterattack in New Guinea. As the Pacific war moved closer to Japan, the RAAF was left to deal with the isolated Japanese garrisons left behind.

Russia

Russia received 2,000 Kittyhawks, starting with small numbers from British orders. A large number were used for advanced training, but some did see combat in the northern front, against the Finns.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 June 2007), Curtiss Kittyhawk, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_P-40_kittyhawk.html

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