The Curtiss Hawk 75A-C1 was the designation given to around 266 Curtiss Model 75s that formed the most effective part of the French fighter forces during the German invasion of 1940.
The Hawk 75 was ordered as part of the French pre-war re-armament programme, after it became clear that the French aircraft industry would be unable to produce as many aircraft as required. At first 100 aircraft were ordered, but as the situation deteriorated the number on order was increased, first to 200, then 335 and finally to 1130.
The Hawk 75 received the French designation Hawk 75A-C1, with C1 standing for Chasse (pursuit), single seat. They were numbered consecutively, so aircraft from the first order were numbered from No.01 to No.100, and those from the second order from No.101 to No.200.
First Order H75A-1
The aircraft exported to France were given the Curtiss designation Model H75A, with successful versions given dash numbers. The first one hundred aircraft were thus the H75A-1. These aircraft were powered by a 1,050hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-SC3G engine and were armed with four French 7.5mm guns, two in the nose and two in the wings. Their French-standard throttles operated in the operate direction to those of most other nations, with forward reducing power. Deliveries of the H75A-1 began in December 1938. A small number escaped north to Britain at the end of the Battle of France, where they were renamed as the Mohawk I.
Second Order H75A-2
A second order for 100 more aircraft soon followed. These were powered by the 1,050hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-S1C3G engines and carried two extra guns in the wings, for a total of six 7.5mm machine guns. Deliveries began in May 1939. Those aircraft that reached Britain became the Mohawk II.
Third Order H75A-3
The third order, for 135 aircraft, came too late for all of the aircraft to reach France. These aircraft had the same six guns as the A-2, but used a more powerful 1,200hp R-1830-S1C3G engine. Sixty reached France, while others were delivered to French Morocco. Finally twenty were taken over directly by the RAF, where they became the Mohawk III.
Fourth Order H75A-4
Only six of the 795 aircraft in the fourth order ever reached France. They carried the same six guns as the A-2 and A-3, but saw a change of engine to the 1,200hp Wright R-1820-G205A Cyclone. The new engine had a short-chord cowling with a slightly greater diameter than on the Pratt & Whitney powered machines, and had no engine cowling flaps. Of the 795 aircraft ordered a total of 284 were completed. Six reached France, four were lost at sea and 23 reached Martinique. This left 251 which were taken over the British as the Mohawk IV.
On 1 September 1939 the Armée de l'Air had eight Escadres de Chasse (fighter wings). Of these the 4th and 5th (made up of GC I/4, II/4, I/5 and II/5) were equipped with the Hawk 75, and 172 aircraft were on strength. Two more wings were equipped with the Dewoitine 510, which by 1939 was verging on being obsolete, while four used the Morane Saulnier Ms 406, with 573 aircraft on strength. The Bloch 152 had entered service in small numbers, and the excellent Dewoitine 520 was on the verge of appearing. Of the French aircraft only the Dewoitine would prove to be superior to the Hawk.
In the early months of the Second World War most aerial clashes involving the Hawk came when it was used to escort French reconnaissance aircraft. The first such clash, and the first fighter clash on the Western Front, came on 8 September when five Hawks of GC II/4 were attacked by four Bf 109s, shooting down two at no cost. Similar fights took place on 20 and 24 September, and by the end of the month the French had lost six Hawks and four MS.406s, and claimed to have shot down 20 Bf 109s. However the reconnaissance aircraft they were protected had suffered heavier losses, and from October most French reconnaissance aircraft were forbidden to fly deep into German territory.
October and the first part of November were quiet, but one of the largest aerial battles yet seen took place on 6 November, when nine Hawks of GC II/5 clashed with around 27 Bf 109Ds. The French scored four confirmed and four probably victories at the cost of one aircraft and no pilots. The rest of November was busy, and saw the Hawk hold its own, but bad weather in December kept most aircraft on the ground.
The first Hawk victory of 1940 came on 2 January, when a group of twelve aircraft from GC II/5 shot down a Bf 109E from I./JG 53. During the next few months the Luftwaffe gained in strength as most of the units based in Poland moved west. The introduction of larger numbers of Bf 109Es also caused problems for the Hawk units, which had faired well against the Bf 109D. The weather intervened for most of February and March, and the pace of activity didn't begin to pick up until April. Even then the start of the month saw little activity on the Western Front as the Luftwaffe concentrated on the invasion of Denmark and Germany. After a burst of activity in late April the Luftwaffe went quiet for the first nine days of May.
Invasion of the West and the Battle of France
By 10 May 1940 the Armée de l'Air had reorganised its fighter groups into large Groupes de Chasse, splitting up the escadres of 1939. The same four units were operating the Hawk 75, but they were now split between Groupement 23 at Laon, Groupement 25 at Avie sur la Lys and Groupement 22 at Velein en Haye (two groups). During the fighting GC III/2 'Alsace' would convert to the Hawk 75, which replaced its MS 406s.
On the morning of 10 May the Germans began their great offensive in the west, and the empty skies were suddenly full of German aircraft. The Hawk units had very different days. GC I/5 claimed eight Dornier Do 17s. GC II/4 was caught on the ground and lost six Hawks to German bombs. GC II/5 was also caught off the ground. Two pilots were able to get off the ground, and shot down two Heinkel He 111s, but damage was still done.
Over the next few days the Hawk groups were used to provide fighter cover for the French armies, operating against German bombers and dive-bombers, while attempting to fend of the Bf 109s. Losses on the ground and in chaotic moves cost them more aircraft than they lost in combat. In the few days of June the French fighter groups were repeatedly forced to retreat by approaching German ground groups, often abandoning their aircraft. Eventually those aircraft with the range were ordered to retreat to North Africa. Amongst them were a significant number of Hawks.
By the end of the Battle of France the top three French fighter aces were all Hawk pilots. Top was Edmond Marin la Meslée of GC I/5, with fourteen confirmed and three probable victories (16 and 4 in some sources). Joint second were Captain Michel Dorance (also of GC I/5) and Sous Lt Camille Plubeau, both with 14 confirmed and 3 (4 in some sources) probable victories. The five Hawk units had a total of 230 confirmed and 81 probable confirms, second only to the larger number of MS 406 units, with 269 confirmed and 81 probable victories.
By the end of the Battle of France the Hawk squadrons had scored 230 confirmed victories and 81 probables. Only the more numerous MS 406 units claimed more victories, with 269 confirmed and 81 probables, while the smaller number of D.520 units claimed 114 confirmed and 39 probable victories.
The Hawk 75 remained in service with the Vichy air force in North and West Africa until the end of 1942. They were very quickly involved in fighting against their former allies, beginning during the British attack on the French fleet at Mers el Kebir (near Oran in Algeria) on 3 July. GC I/5 and GC II/5 took part in the fighting, claiming four victories over Blackburn Skuas - two confirmed and two probables, although the British actually only lost one aircraft during this fighting. Soon after this the fighter units left Algeria. GC I/4 moved down to Dakar while GC I/5 and II/5 moved to Morocco.
In September 1941 a French and British force attempted to capture the West African port of Dakar. They had not expected to encounter any real resistance, but the pro-Vichy forces at Dakar put up a stiff fight, and the invasion ended in failure. GC I/4 and its Hawk 75s played a major role in the fighting, shooting down a number of Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, part of a total of eight Swordfish, two Skuas and one Walrus lost during the fighting.
When the Allies invaded North Africa on 8 December 1942 the two Hawk-equipped units were based around Casablanca (Morocco). There they came up against US Naval aircraft, including the Grumman F4F Wildcat and the Dauntless.
On the first day of the fighting GC II/5 was involved in a lengthy dogfight with Wildcats over their own airfield, losing seven dead (five in combat and two in take-off accidents) and four wounded. Amongst the dead were several of their best pilots. A total of 13 Hawks were destroyed. On the next morning five Hawks from GC II/5 took part in an attack on American landing craft at Fédala, all five aircraft returning safely. GC I/5 was less fortunate. Its first battle of the campaign was an attack on the American fleet later on 9 November, in which the Wildcats shot down four of the fifteen Hawks involved.
On 10 November the remaining French aircraft retreated into southern Algeria, effectively ending the Hawk 75's French combat career. When GC II/5 re-entered the battle on the Allied side it had been re-equipped with Curtiss P-40F Warhawks, and the surviving Hawk 75s were moved to training units.