When a left-wing coalition government, including the French Communist Party and other radical elements and called the Popular Front, was elected in France in 1936, no-one could envision that in that election lay the roots of the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the virtual destruction of the French aviation industry, and, ultimately, due to appalling morale problems and incompetence, the fall of France itself. Leon Blum, the President of the Council, moved swiftly to enact a whole raft of measures, including the forced nationalization of the many French aircraft companies and their combination into regional entities. Just as with the disastrously similar policies followed by the British Government after World War Two, no account was made of specialist knowledge or organizational culture. The Air Minister, Pierre Cot, oversaw the formation of the National Aircraft Building Company (La Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques). It was an utter disaster.
Airframes stood without engines, engines lacked propellers, some aircraft lacked instruments, and those companies who had resisted nationalization found orders drying up. Everywhere, the process of research, production and the approval of promising designs slowed to a glacial pace. It was 1938 when the French Government woke up to the fact that their air arm was almost useless. A French Purchasing Commission was dispatched to the U.S.A. with orders to buy anything – and everything! Orders were issued for the NAA-57 and NAA-64 trainers from North American Aviation, for the Douglas DB-7 attack bomber, for the Vought V.156-F naval dive bomber, for the Glenn Martin 167-F bomber, and above all, for hundreds of examples of a popular fighter from Curtiss – the Hawk 75.
It was 1934 when Don A. Berlin, the Chief Engineer of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation’s Aircraft Division, drew up plans for a new aircraft to take part in the United States Army Air Corps fighter competition to replace the beloved P-26 ‘Peashooter’. The Hawk 75-B had trouble with its Wright XR-1820 radial engine of 850 hp, going through no less than FOUR engines during the trial. Needless to say, the entry from Seversky won. Eventually, after substituting a Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp for the balky Wright engine, Curtiss won an order for three test examples as the Y1P-36. These proved to have a speed of 300 mph, and with their retractable undercarriage, enclosed cockpit, all metal construction and split flaps, were a big step towards the era of modern fighters in the USAAC. The United States recognized the deteriorating international situation and, in the Spring of 1938, ordered 210 aircraft as the P-36A (1 x .30″ Browning, 1 x .5″ Browning); the last 30 aircraft were P-36Cs with two extra .30″ guns in the wings. Meanwhile, the export department of Curtiss-Wright had been busy, and orders for the Hawk 75, as it was known, with various armament combinations and either fixed or retractable landing gear, came flooding in from Norway, China, Holland, Siam (as it then was) and largest of all – France.
The French Purchasing Mission ordered 100 Hawk 75A-1 fighters, with the 1,050 hp Twin Wasp engine. These were similar to the P-36A, but had 4 x 7.5mm FN-manufactured Browning machineguns, metric cockpit instruments, a Radio-Industrie -537 radio, Munerelle oxygen supply, Baille-Lemaire gunsight, a seat which was recessed for a Lemercier back parachute and a throttle control which worked in the French fashion, i.e. you pulled it BACK to increase the power! The first two fighters were tested at the Curtiss works in Buffalo, then shipped to Le Havre, arriving there on the 24th December, 1938. They were followed by 14 more aircraft, and all were re-assembled and test flown at the S.N.C.A.C plant at Bourges. From February, 1939, the process was speeded up by just shipping kits of parts, straight to Bourges.
The first French units to convert to the American fighter were 4ème and 5ème Escadres de Chasse (4th and 5th Fighter Wings) – later called, GC I/4, I/4 and I/5, II/5 – based at Rheims, in March, 1939. The French now piled more and more orders onto Curtiss; 100 75A-2 with 6 machine guns (2 more in the wings); 135 75A-3 with 6 guns, but with the R-1830-S1CS-6 Twin Wasp offering 1,200 hp at take-off; no less than 395 75A-4 with the Wright GR-1820-6205A Cyclone 9 engine, which also offered 1,200 hp but was to prove unreliable.
The very first Allied air victories on the Western Front in World War Two were scored on the 8th September, 1939, when 5 H-75A-1 fighters of GC II/4 tangled with a patrol of Messerschmitt Bf109E fighters and shot down two without loss. Despite the Bf109 being around 30 mph faster and having superior climb and dive speed (thereby allowing it to engage or break off combat at will), the Hawk was far more manoeuverable and could sustain a lot of combat damage. French units which used the Curtiss fighter before the June 24th Armistice with Germany were GC III/2, GC I/4, GC II/4, GC I/5, and GC II/5. These fighter groups amassed 230 kills, plus 81 ‘probables’, in that period. No less than 291 Hawk 75s were on charge by the June collapse, and the Germans captured a large number still in their packing crates. These were sent to Espenlaub Flugzeugbau GmbH in Wuppertal-Langerfeld, Germany, where they were fitted with German instrumentation, assembled and test flown. Thirty six of them were sold to Germany’s ally, Finland, who was desperate for any aircraft she could get (Finland also got some Norwegian Air Force Hawk 75A-6, the same way). Some Hawk 75A’s had been sent out of France before the fall, and were used by the new Vichy French Air Force. For example, Hawk 75A-3, No. 267 was with 5ème Escadrille, GC I/5 at Casablanca, Morocco during the Summer of 1941, and a Hawk 75A-3 was on charge with 2ème Escadrille, GC I/4, at Dakar, Senegal in Summer, 1942. Many Hawk 75s tangled with RAF and USN aircraft during this period.
A few French aircraft flew to the U.K. when the Armistice was announced, and they were taken into RAF service as the Mohawk I and Mohawk II, depending on the mark. Also, French contracts were taken over by the British Government, despite the fact that the aircraft were not really up to combat in Western Europe at this time, due to their performance being optimized for low altitude operations. Never the less, many Mohawk III (A-3, with Twin Wasp) and Mohawk IV (A-4, with Cyclone 9) were shipped direct to the U.K., where they were fitted with British instruments and 6 x .303″ Browning machineguns, also the throttle movement was reversed! The aircraft were held at RAF Maintenance Units as a reserve in case there was a desperate supply situation, until late 1941, when they were shipped out to Africa (service with the South African Air Force) or the Far East, where the Mohawk IV was used by the Indian Air Force and the RAF until December, 1943.
The aircraft you can see above belongs to The Fighter Collection, and is based at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. It is a Curtiss Hawk 75A-1, No. 82, and was part of the very first 100 aircraft order sent to France. It served from April, 1939 with the 1ère GC II/5 ‘Lafayette’, at Reims, and is painted with ‘command stripes’ which indicates that it was the personal mount of Commandant Murtin, the Officer Commanding both GC I/5 and GC II/5. It was stationed at Toul-Cros de Mete, during the Battle of France, then flown to Oran, Algeria, prior to the Armistice. From 1940 to 1942 it had engagements with both American and British aircraft, over Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Postwar, it was with the 4th Training Squadron at Cazaux in southwest France – an advanced fighter training unit – from 1946 to 1949, along with 23 other 75A-1 aircraft. Somehow, in the 1950s, it was saved and put into store, which is where it stayed until it was bought by The Fighter Collection, and sent to Chino where it underwent a total restoration. You can see that the aircraft is up on jacks and that various access panels are open so that system checks and maintenance can be carried out. You have a good view of the split flaps, and I dare say that the Curtis patented undercarriage retraction mechanism will be cycled a few times. The wheels are retracted straight back, and the legs are turned through 90 degrees, so as to lie flat inside the wing. This makes for the efficient use of space. If you watch carefully during a take-off you will observe that the port undercarriage leg always starts to retract first – by a noticeable margin. One thing that RAF pilots found was that the undercarriage locks were not as strong as on some ‘planes, so to avoid an ‘uncommanded retraction’ as it is called these days, you had to ‘wheel it on’, that is gently make contact with the main gear first, rather than aim to pull off a ‘three pointer’.
I just wish that the RAF could have acquired a squadron or two of the XP-36F in time for the Battle of Britain. Why? Well the XP-36F was armed with 1 x .300″ and 1 x .5″ Browning in the fuselage, and two great 23mm Madsen cannon in underwing pods, with 100 rounds per gun! Even with a slightly reduced speed, they would have blown huge holes in the Heinkels, Dorniers and Junkers bombers – I would even have settled for the Siamese Hawk 75N, the fixed undercarriage equivalent!
The Hawk 75 reminds us of the desperate battles at the start of the Second World War. It might not have been the fastest, or the best armed, but it was a ‘genuine’ aircraft. Oh, and one more thing, The Fighter Collection’s Hawk 75A-1 is now the ONLY member of the whole Curtiss P-36/Hawk 75 family of fighters that is in flying condition – anywhere in the world.