Curtiss P-40 Warhawk in American Service

The Mediterranean

The P-40 served at both ends of the Mediterranean. The 57th Fighter Group reached the Western Desert in August 1942, to help oppose Rommel’s last offensive. At first it operated with British Kittyhawk squadrons, but went operational in its own right on 7 October 1942. This was just in time to take part in the Battle of El Alamein, which opened at the end of the month, and the ensuing advance west in pursuit of the retreating Axis forces. Three months later, the 33rd Fighter Group took part in Operation Torch, the invasion of North West Africa. By the start of 1943 the two allied armies were coming together in Tunisia. As always, the P-40 was slightly outclassed by the best enemy aircraft, in this case the Bf 109 and Fw 190, and suffered heavy losses, although not without winning its fair share of victories. The 33rd F.G. was withdrawn to regroup in February 1943, by which time only 13 of the original aircraft remained.

The Mediterranean saw one of the P-40’s most successful missions. On 19 April 1943 four squadrons of P-40s intercepted a German air convoy of 60 Ju 52 transport aircraft, escorted by 21 fighters, travelling from Tunisia to Sicily. Forty six P-40Fs were involved in the attack, which destroyed 59 of the Ju 52s and 16 of the fighters (most of the fighters fell to the RAF Spitfires providing top cover to the P-40s). Out of 81 German aircraft, only six reached their destination. Only six P-40s were lost.

As the war moved to Sicily and then Italy, the P-40 increasingly acted as a fighter bomber, with fighter cover provided by more modern aircraft. By the spring of 1944 the Merlin powered P-40L had been replaced by the Allison powered P-40N in production. This version of the fighter did not have the same performance at altitude, and was replaced in Italy by the Republic P-47.

China

The Curtiss P-40 made its debut in China with the American Volunteer Group in the spring of 1942. With American now in the war, the AVG no longer had to use the export version of the fighter, the Tomahawk, and was given a number of P-40Es, to use as ground attack aircraft. The Flying Tigers attracted official attention because while the P-40 was performing badly in the Philippines, it was achieved success in China and Burma. The credit for this has to go to Claire Chennault, the commander of the AVG. He had been in China since 1937, working with the Chinese Air Force, and had developed a great understanding of Japanese aerial tactics.

Hanger full of P-40Fs on USS Chenango (CVE-28)
Hanger full of P-40Fs on USS Chenango (CVE-28)

On 4 July 1942, the one year volunteer enlistments of the AVG expired. It was to replaced by the 23rd Fighter Group of the USAAF. Chennault was promoted to command the Tenth Air Force’s China Air Task group. The new unit inherited 48 aircraft from the AVG – a mix of Hawk 81 Tomahawks, and P-40Es, but not the pilots – only five transferred to the 23rd FG. Another sixteen P-40Es soon joined them.

The new CATF’s first task was the protection of the Hump. This was the air route over the Himalayas that was now the only supply route into free China. Their P-40s often came up against Japanese Army Aircraft such as the Ki-27 “Nate” and the “Ki-43” Oscar. The Ki-43 was the most modern Japanese army fighter, but it was actually slower than the P-40. The P-40 also had more firepower and better armour. Over the summer of 1942 the P-40 held its own against the Japanese fighters it encountered. The P-40s of the CATF were also used to escort B-25 bombers on raids into Japanese held territory. Targets included Hanoi and Hong Kong.

During 1943 the P-40K joined the P-40E in China. When the CATF was replaced by the Fourteenth Air Force on 10 March 1943, Chennault had 103 P-40s, with 65 operational, only three more aircraft than had equipped the AVG two years earlier. The P-40 had an excellent combat record in China. In the year to 4 July 1943 it was credited with 171 victories at a cost of only seven pilots lost in the air (another eight had been lost to ground fire). August 1943 saw the debut of the Ki-43 “Tojo”, a new Japanese fighter that clearly outclassed the P-40 at altitude but could still not catch it in a dive.  

1944 saw a major Japanese offensive in China. The P-40Ms and Ns of the Fourteenth Air Force played a major role in disrupting that attack, partly in their role as fighter bombers and partly as fighters. The autumn of 1944 saw a long retreat for the American air units in China, but also the arrival of the P-51 Mustang in significant numbers. The year also saw the number of losses amongst P-40 pilots rise. At the start of 1945 the P-40 Warhawk was finally withdraw from the front line. Although some units retained the aircraft until as late as April 1945, their last confirmed victory came in February 1945.

The Philippines, Java and Australia

Four squadrons of P-40s were in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked in December 1941. Within four days the P-40s had suffered so badly that they were withdrawn from fighter duties, to be used for urgent reconnaissance only. They were later used against the Japanese invasion force, suffering heavy losses. The last serviceable P-40s were lost on 2 March 1942. At the same time as the P-40s were being overwhelmed in the Philippines, the same was happening in Java and across the Dutch East Indies. By the end of February all P-40s in the area had been destroyed.

The spectacular Japanese advances of early 1942 brought them within bomber range of northern Australia. The first P-40 unit to face them was the 33rd Squadron of the USAAF. This reached Darwin on 15 February, and four days later suffered heavy losses in a Japanese raid. They were soon joined by the 9th Squadron of the 49th Fighter Group, and the raids on Darwin became rather more costly for the Japanese. The 49th FG remained in northern Australia until it was moved to New Guinea in September 1942.

New Guinea

The P-40s of the 49th Fighter Group reached New Guinea in time to take part in the allied counterattack. They played a important role in stopping Japanese reinforcements reaching New Guinea by attacking shipping in the Bismarck Sea. However, their role in New Guinea was short-lived. Their last aerial victory came in May 1943.

Guadalcanal

The P-40 was one of many American aircraft to operate from Guadalcanal. It arrived with the 18th Fighter Group in early 1943. With the F4F it helped to win air superiority over Guadalcanal. The P-40 was also able to use its ground attack abilities to directly help the fighting on the ground.

Aleutian Islands

The most extreme conditions endured by P-40 pilots were probably those found on the Aleutian Islands. Specially winterised P-40s operated from the snowy islands from December 1941. Towards the end of 1942 the Americans went onto the offensive in the Aleutians, raiding Japanese held islands until the Japanese withdrawal in August 1943.

India and Burma

The P-40 arrived in India in March 1942, with the 51st FG. However, it took some time for significant numbers to arrive. The Fighter Group did not see its first combat until 19 October 1942. Its main duties were to protect the Indian end of the Hump, and to help hold off Japanese attacks on India from Burma. The P-40 was also used as a fighter bomber in Burma, originally with 300 and 500 lb bombs, but eventually with 1000 lb bombs. The P-40 was well suited to the ground attack role, as it was fast at low level, and could take a lot of damage and still return to base. The P-40 remained active in Burma until the summer of 1944, when it was replaced by the P-47.

Introduction - P-40 Variants - Kittyhawk - Tomahawk - P-4o in American Service - Statistics


Curtis Warhawk Aces of MTO, Carl Molesworth (Aircraft of the Aces 43). The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk was the main Allied frontline fighter for nearly a year in North Africa. As the war in desert reached its climax at El Alamein and with Operation Torch, American pilots arrived to join the RAF and commonwealth pilots with their Kittyhawks. [see more]
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P-40 Warhawk Aces of the CBI, Carl Molesworth. This volume in the Aircraft of the Aces series looks at the P-40 Warhawk in its most consistently successful theatre of the war – China, Burma and India. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 June 2007), Curtiss P-40 Warhawk in American Service, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_P-40_american_service.html

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