The Curtiss P-40 was on the shopping list of the British Direct Purchasing Commission in Washington, D.C.; established before the outbreak of WW2 to buy (using Britain’s foreign currency and our whole gold reserves), any and all war material that would enable Britain to defend itself against the coming storm of war. An article in ‘Flight’ (Dec. 5th, 1940) listed the Lockheed Hudson, Brewster Buffalo, Bell P-39 Aircobra and the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk amongst types already on order. Of these, the Buffalo and Aircobra would be major failures in RAF service, the Hudson would give excellent service as a patrol bomber and the early model P-40 was a developed version of the P-36 (known as the Mohawk in RAF service) with an engine change from the Pratt & Whitney R-1830-13 radial to the Allison V-1710-33 inline of 1,040 hp. The ‘Flight’ article made one huge error; it predicted that the new aircraft, which the RAF called the Tomahawk, would be superseded by large orders for the Curtiss P-46, ‘an improved, near 400 mph P-40′. The P-46 was a total bust, it was hardly faster than the P-40s which were on the assembly line in Buffalo, New York. Instead, the engine specified for the P-46 – the Allison V-1710-33 – was fitted to the P-40 airframe, the radiator placed under the nose, and the armament increased to 4 x .5″ Browning machineguns (later 6 guns). This aircraft, the USAAC P-40D, was named the Kittyhawk Mk. 1 by the RAF which ordered 560 of them.
The Tomahawk had been used by RAF Army Co-operation Command (including No. 2, 13 and 26 Squadrons) in Britain for low-level tactical reconnaissance, as the Allison engine was adequate up to 10,000 ft but its single-stage supercharger was ineffective above 15,000 ft; this made the Tomahawk unusable as a fighter in Northwest Europe. Many Tomahawks were shipped to the Middle East, where the RAF’s Desert Air Force was fighting a low-level war against the Italian Air Force and units of the Luftwaffe. Here, they were joined by the new Kittyhawks, whose rugged construction, and heavy armament, began to take a toll of the Macchi MC.200, Fiat CR.42 and Breda 65 units. Despite the fact that the Me109E (Trop) and Me109F (Trop) fighters of the Luftwaffe outclassed them, they still gave a good account of themselves. The Junkers Ju87 was slaughtered, whenever it was encounted, just as it had been in the Battle of Britain by Spitfires and Hurricanes.
No. 112 Squadron became one of the premier Kittyhawk units, with pilots such as Neville Duke and the Australian ‘ace’ Clive Caldwell amongst its leading scorers (Squadron Leader Neville Frederick Duke DSO,OBE, DFC & two bars, AFC, FRAeS, Czech War Cross, became a noted test pilot post-war – I was fortunate to get to know Neville and Gwendoline, much later). The Squadron was converted to the fighter-bomber rôle in March, 1942, and their famous ‘Sharkmouth’ emblem – used before the ‘Flying Tigers’ – was carried throughout the Italian campaign, even on their later Mustang III aircraft.
The aircraft you can see here, in the RAF Museum, London, represents ‘FX760′, ‘GA-?’ which was flown by Sgt. G.F. Davis, RAF of No. 112 Squadron, in Italy in 1944; it is finished in the standard Desert scheme of Dark Earth/Mid-Stone over Azure Blue. The ‘?’ symbol was sometimes used when a unit had more than 26 aircraft on charge. I have seen a photograph of this Kittyhawk IV about to take-off from Cutello/San Angelo, Italy on a mission, carrying 2 x 500lb bombs. However, ’FX760′ is a composite aircraft, and includes components from several P-40N variants recovered from New Guinea in 1974. Tim Routsis of Historic Flying Ltd acquired several of these, and proposed a swap for two ex ‘gate guardian’ Spitfire XVI aircraft, stored by the RAF, for a Bristol Beaufort and this Kittyhawk to be fully restored to exhibition standards. This deal raised a few eyebrows at the time, but the Beaufort and Kittyhawk were much needed types, and filled major gaps in the Museum’s collections. One interesting fact – during close examination of ‘FX760′ by RAF Museum staff, it turned out that the propeller blades fitted were Hamilton Standard 23E50, like those used on C-47 and B-17 aircraft, and NOT the correct Curtiss Electric C5315S-D10 propeller blades as specified for the P-40N (Kittyhawk IV).
The Kittyhawk might not have been the best fighter around, but it was – amazingly - still being built in December, 1944. It was used by Russia, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France, Canada, and many other Allied nations. Its combination of rugged strength, firepower and availability meant that it could still play a useful rôle in many theaters of operations, even at this late stage of the war. Whatever you say about the P-40, it gave of it’s best.