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Joe Baugher's Tomahawk files (part 2)

continued from part 1

Tomahawk, Flying Tigers, North Africa

AVG Tomahawk IIB
Much-rebuilt Tomahawk IIB, recovered from Russia and painted in the colors of Bob Neale of the AVG. The plane is on display at the Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola.

At a very early stage, the Curtiss P-40 attracted the attention of foreign air forces. On May 10, 1939, the French ordered 140 export versions of the P-40 for the Armee de l'Air. These aircraft were designated Hawk 81-A1 by the manufacturer. The Hawk 81-A1s were identical to the US P-40 except that they had French instruments and equipment and were equipped with reverse-movement "French-fashion" throttles. The first of the French-ordered H81-A1s flew on June 6, 1940, and a few were actually completed with French markings. However, before any of their H81-A1s could be delivered, France surrendered. Britain agreed to take over the entirety of the French order, and gave the H81-A the name Tomahawk I in RAF service. RAF serials were AH741/840 and AH841/880.

The USAAC had agreed to defer deliveries of their P-40s so that the Tomahawk Is could be supplied to Britain as soon as possible. The first Tomahawk Is reached England in September of 1940. The two 0.5-inch machine guns in the nose were retained, but they were supplemented by four wing-mounted 0.303-inch Browning machine guns in place of the 7.5-mm FN-Brownings specified by the French. Such was the urgency of their delivery to Britain that many of the 140 machines still had French instruments and bore cockpit lettering in French when they arrived.

However, Britain quickly concluded that these planes were not suitable for combat, since they lacked armor protection for the pilot, armor-glass windshields, or self-sealing fuel tanks. Nevertheless, since a German invasion was feared to be imminent, they were actually issued to several operational squadrons.

However, the Hun never invaded England, and so the Tomahawk Is were used only for training roles within Britain. Overseas, the first Desert Air Force squadron to be equipped with Tomahawks was No. 112 which exchanged its Gloster Gladiators for the Curtiss fighter. No 112 Squadron became famous for its "shark's tooth" insignia on the engine cowling, and this scheme was later adopted by the American Volunteer Group in China. AH774,793, and 840 were sold to Canada for use as instructional airframes, but they retained their RAF serials.

The Tomahawk IIA (Model H81-A2) was equivalent to the US P-40B. It had protective armor and externally-covered self-sealing tanks. 110 were built for the RAF under a direct-purchase contract. It carried two 0.30-inch machine guns in the wings in addition to the two 0.50-in guns in the fuselage. A British radio was fitted. RAF serials were AH881/990. AH938 was transferred to Canada as an instructional airframe. 23 of these planes were transferred to the USSR.

The Tomahawk IIB (Model H81-A2) was generally equivalent to the US P-40C. It had four 0.303-inch Browning machine guns in the wings in addition to the two nose-mounted 0.50-in guns. Whereas the Tomahawk IIA had a British radio, the Tomahawk IIB had US equipment. A total of 930 of these planes were produced in four lots. RAF serials were AH991/999, AK100/570 (36 of this batch were shipped to China and were selected at random with no particular sequence), AM370/519 (64 were shipped to China, selected at random), and AN218/517. They were used extensively by the RAF and the South African Air Force in North Africa starting on June 16, 1941.

After the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, one hundred and ninety-five Tomahawk IIBs were shipped to the USSR, some from the USA, others selected from the reserve forced based in the United Kingdom in anticipation of the German invasion which never came. These Russian Tomahawks went into action on the Moscow and Leningrad fronts in October 1941, and were the first US-built planes to be used by the Russians in the new battle area.

An unspecified number of Tomahawk IIBs were sent to bolster Turkish neutrality in November 1941. Turkey was supplied with planes from both the Allies and the Axis during World War II.

The Tomahawk IIs were active in the Middle East from October of 1941 onward. They shared in the strafing of the retreating Axis troops. The ability of the Tomahawk to absorb an incredible amount of punishment became almost legendary. They served with Nos 2, 26, 73, 112, 136, 168, 239, 241, 250, 403, 414, 430 and 616 Squadrons of the RAF. They also served with Nos 2 and 4 Squadrons of the South African Air Force and No 3 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force. At low altitudes, the Tomahawk II was actually superior to the Bf 109, but this advantage rapidly disappeared when combat took place at altitudes above 15,000 feet. The weight which handicapped the performance of the Tomahawk did have one tangible benefit --- the rugged structure could absorb a terrific amount of battle damage and still allow the airplane to return to base. Although generally outclassed by the Bf 109, the Tomahawk was a capable fighter in the hands of experienced pilots such as Neville Duke. Wing Commander Clive Caldwell of the RAAF scored more than twenty victories while flying a Tomahawk in the Middle East. However, much of the opposition to the Tomahawk was provided by obsolescent fighter biplanes (e.g. Fiat CR-42) and underpowered, lightly armed fighter monoplanes such as the Fiat G-50 of the Regia Aeronautica. It had difficulty with the more advanced Macchi C-202 Folgore.

100 of the RAF Tomahawk IIBs were released to China and served with the American Volunteer Group (AVG) --- the famous "Flying Tigers". Company records list them as Model H81-A3. The Tomahawk IIB was more-or-less equivalent to the P-40C, but some sources list the Flying Tiger Tomahawks as being equivalent to the P-40B. There is confusion on this point.

It is with the Flying Tigers that the P-40 achieved immortality. Newly-promoted to Brigadier General in the Chinese Army, Claire Chennault went to the USA in November 1940 to recruit pilots for the AVG. The AVG came into existence in August 1941. General Chennault ordered 100 P-40s through a loan from the US government. By the time of Pearl Harbor, some 80 American pilots were serving with the AVG based at Kunming and Mingaladon. Contrary to popular understanding, the AVG did not actually enter combat until AFTER Pearl Harbor. The famous "shark's teeth" marking did not originate with the Flying Tigers, but was copied from the markings used by the Tomahawks of the RAF's No. 112 Squadron in North Africa.

The AVG drew first blood on December 20, destroying six out of ten attacking Japanese bombers. When the AVG encountered the Japanese Zero for the first time, they initially underestimated the maneuverability of their opponent, and they lost two pilots on December 23. [Actually, the Dec. 20 encounter ended with three Kawasaki Ki-48 "Lily" bombers shot down and one force-landed in Vietnam. The retractable-gear aircraft that fought the AVG were Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa fighters, later called "Oscar" in the west.] It was soon learned that it was wise not to mix it up with the Zero on a one-to-one basis because of the inferior maneuverability and climb rate of the Curtiss, but instead to use the P-40's superior speed and diving ability to advantage. The most effective tactic against the Zero was a diving pass followed by a rapid departure from the scene. The P-40 gained a reputation for ruggedness which enabled many an AVG pilot to return safely home after his plane was damaged in combat.

[These files were written by Joe Baugher and posted here with his kind permission. Comments in brackets are mine. For Joe's files on later marks of the P-40, click here.]