Curtiss Tomahawk


Tomahawk was the name given by the British to the Curtiss Hawk 81 (P-40 in American service). Like many American aircraft, the Tomahawk came into British service as a result of the collapse of France. Early in the production run of the P-40, the USAAF had allowed Curtiss to divert 140 aircraft for the French. However, none had arrived before the collapse of France in 1940, and so these aircraft were taken over by the British.


Mk I

The Tomahawk Mk I was the name given to the 140 Hawk 81s taken over from the French. The RAF replaced the .30 calibre machine guns with standard British .303s, but the Mk I was not considered suitable for use as a fighter in Europe. A small number were used with army cooperation squadrons.


The RAF ordered 111 Tomahawk Mk IIAs. These were similar to the P-40B, with two extra .303 machine guns in the wings, to give the Mk IIA a total of six guns. Twenty three of these aircraft went to Russia.


The most common version of the Tomahawk was the Mk IIB, which was similar to the P-40C, but with .303 guns. 828 were ordered. Of those 49 went to Russia, 4 were lost at sea, and the most of the rest were delivered directly to North Africa. Delivery of these aircraft began in November 1940 and ended in August 1941.


The Tomahawk had its moment of glory in China. Captain Claire Chennault, a retired USAAC pilot, had been the Director of Combat Training for the Chinese Air Force since 1937. This period saw the Japanese invasion of China. The Chinese Air Force performed admirably, but was eventually overwhelmed by the Japanese, especially after the appearance of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero in 1940. In the aftermath of this defeat, Chennault travelled to Washington to lobby for American aid to China. What he got was 100 Tomahawk fighters, and permission to recruit volunteer pilots and ground crew from the USAAF.

The American Volunteer Group assembled in Burma in July 1941. However, before they could move to China, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and invaded Burma. Soon nicknamed the Flying Tigers, the AVG got its first combat experience during the defence of Burma. Their Tomahawks were the best allied fighter in Burma – the RAF was using the Brewster Buffalo. In one raid on Rangoon the AVG claimed 35 victories. Despite the best efforts of the AVG and the RAF, the Japanese captured Rangoon on 9 March. The AVG retreated north to China. In May and June 1942 the AVG operated from China. By now the Tomahawk was being replaced by the more modern P-40E Warhawk. The AVG disbanded in July 1942, when the volunteer contracts expired, and the USAAF took over.

North Africa

The first Tomahawk squadron was No. 250, which formed in Palestine in April 1941. After a brief adventure in Syria, the Tomahawk took part in the first retreat in the western desert, in the summer of 1941. The Tomahawk was facing the Bf 109E, which was no longer the best version of that aircraft, having been replaced by the Bf 109F in Europe. The 109F appeared in the desert in the autumn of 1941, and began to take a deadly toll of the Tomahawk. Fortunately, the improved Kittyhawk was about to appear. In December 1942 the first squadron was withdrawn to reequip with the new fighter. In 1943 the Kittyhawk would take the burden as the main RAF fighter in the desert.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 June 2007), Curtiss Tomahawk,

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