Palestine, April 194: the Gloster Gladiator pilots from ‘K‘ Flight were in a strange new world. They were now in No 250 Squadron, the first pilots of the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk in the desert. Blooded fighting the Italians in East Africa, their first kill was another of the Regia Aeronautica, a Cant Z.1007 on 8 June, by Flight Officer Hamlyn. Thus began the combat record of the Curtiss P-40; FO Hamlyn also became the first lost in a P-40, downed by Flak near Tobruk. As such, he became the first P-40 pilot to appreciate the survivability of his machine, walking back to base for more missions. No 3 Sqn first used their American-built P-40s to fight Vichy French forces over Syria, battling American-built Martin 167s and France’s D.520s. These first RAF P-40s arrived in the standard RAF European colors, the repainting complete around August. During that time the famous P-40 trait, the savage snarling mouth appeared, designed by No 112 Sqn Flt Lt Jerry Westenra (who took the idea from Luftwaffe ZG 76 Bf 110s over Greece).
Tomahawk’s first big fight was “Battleaxe”, the British campaign in June, and the first loss to Messerschmitts began. The top-scoring P-40 pilot (20 P-40 kills), Australian Clive “Killer” Caldwell, killed the first Bf 109 on 26 June. Caldwell was an amazing fighter and leader, created the widely adopted training method of “shadow-shooting”, and became the first P-40 ace on 7 July, vanquishing a Regia Aeronautica G.50. Once, after loosing a dogfight with an Bf 109 Experten, afire and wounded, Caldwell regained control, re-engaged and shot down another enemy plane, then returned to base! He was one of scores of Commonwealth pilots to reach acedom in the P-40, and one of many colorful fighters of the United Kingdom.
‘The best second-best fighter of the war,’ the Curtiss P-40 was praised by one of America’s top P-40 aces Gen. Robert Lee Scott Jr as, "Damned by words but flown into glory". USAAF’s front-line fighter of 1941, P-40s were outperformed by European designs with high-altitude engines, and by Japanese fighters of maximum weights being less than a P-40 weighed empty. The P-40 (sequentially named Tomahawk, Kittyhawk and Warhawk by the British) was not a bad fighter. Actually it was an excellent airframe that performed as designed, but hobbled by a low-altitude air combat concept overtaken by the high-altitude revolution of WW2. Despite its obsolescence, when employing proper tactics capitalizing on its strengths and avoiding those of its opponents (like any competent fighter pilot would), P-40s were very dangerous to any opponent. The P-40 with its Allison engine was a tough bird to kill, and many outfought pilots survived to fight again (some several times); their learning curve was sharp during the hard lessons.
In the low-altitude arena the P-40 was powered for, especially during the heightened tempo of an ground offensive, Desert Air Force Curtiss pilots could run up impressive tallies. "Stuka parties" and battling the Regia Aeronautica often yielded multiple kills. Yet, as over the Channel Front and Russia, Messerschmitt’s Bf 109 was a serious threat. On a single day during Operation Crusader, No 3 Sqn lost 9 P-40s and 5 pilots. The relatively small 109 force over the desert was not omnipotent, just nearly so. Tomahawk was a useful fighter and the pilots liked its four rifle-caliber machine guns and two “cannon“, as they called the .50 caliber machine guns.
The Kittyhawk was Curtiss’ attempt to redress Tomahawk’s performance shortcomings with a redesigned fuselage and a more powerful engine, but a Messerschmitt the P-40 was not to be. Commonwealth pilots made the best of the P-40 over North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Southern Pacific and off the coast of Alaska. They first held the line, then took the fight to the Axis. RAAF No.75 and No.76 Sqns are credited with a significant role in stopping the unstoppable Japanese drive around the eastern coast of New Guinea, and RNZAF P-40s battled up the Solomon Island chain and eventually over Rabual; giving a good account of themselves against the experienced combat pilots of Imperial Japan, arguably the world’s best fighter pilots flying the world’s best air-superiority fighters. South African P-40s hammered the Germans over Europe, and Canadians flew them in protection of the Aleutians.
Mainly a footnote in WW2 fighter history, the Curtiss P-36 Hawk nonetheless performed admirably in most of its battle zones. The liquid-cooled engine P-40 was developed from the radial-powered Curtiss P-36 Hawk. The RAF evaluated a P-36, finding it more maneuverable and faster in a dive than the Spitfire I, but not suitable for European combat due to its weak armament and anemic performance at altitude. P-36s with more powerful engines and armaments were sold to many countries. France bought almost 300 as the Curtiss H75-C1, which were successful far out of proportion to their numbers, eight squadrons downing 220 German aircraft in exchange for thirty-three loses. In fact the Hawk’s performance against the Messerschmitts was thirty-three kills to three Hawk losses!
However, at the fall of France, the RAF took possession of undelivered French (and other countries) Hawks. Named Mohawk, these were sent to India. Infrequent, small air-to-air actions occurred, yet the Commonwealth pilots found their Mohawks could out-turn even the Japanese Hayabusa! By February 1944, the Mohawks had been scrapped and replaced with Spitfires.
Authored by RAF officer and researcher Andrew Thomas, Tomahawk and Kittyhawk Aces of the RAF and Commonwealth is packed with engaging descriptions, contemplative facts, and interesting details in 112 pages. Combat reports and personal narratives fill the book. Pilots’ accounts bring their war to life. Almost every page features at least one photograph, many revealing fascinating detail for the modeler and historian. Commonwealth P-40s sported a plethora of camouflage and markings: white stripe patterns, solid white tails, pre-war unit markings, and a great range of national insignia. Contours of the big nose was a perfect canvas for impressive nose art.
Osprey’s signature format is followed within. Color profiles of 41 aircraft are the usual exceptional artwork. Line art provides a four-view of the Tomahawk I (P-40B) and seven profiles of the major P-40 models, including the P-36 Mohawk. An appendices includes a list of aces who flew the P-40.
Six chapters, an introduction and the appendices guide you through the story:
Chapter 1, DESERT WAR HATCHETS
Chapter 2, TO ALAMEIN - AND VICTORY
Chapter 3, NEW GUINEA
Chapter 4, THE SOUTH PACIFIC
Chapter 5, THE ALEUTIAN CAMPAIGN
Chapter 6, THE MOHAWK
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Highs: Excellent illustrations, plentiful photographs, brief historical overviews, pilot interviews and statements, interesting lists of data.Lows: No maps with which to orient oneself. I would appreciate a chart comparing the P-40's performance with that of its enemies.Verdict: This is yet another excellent offering from Osprey. Fans of the P-40 and United Kingdom air operations need to add this work to their libraries. Recommended.I thank the wonderful people at Osprey Publishing for assisting me with this book to review.
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About Frederick Boucher (JPTRR) FROM: TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES
I'm a professional pilot with a degree in art.
My first model was an AMT semi dump truck. Then Monogram's Lunar Lander right after the lunar landing. Next, Revell's 1/32 Bf-109G...cried havoc and released the dogs of modeling!
My interests--if built before 1900, or after 1955, then I proba...