The Curtiss P-40 "Tomahawk" became an offshoot of the classic American P-40 "Warhawk" monoplane fighter and were made up of early-form production Warhawks - namely the P-40, P-40B and P-40C models becoming the "Tomahawk I", "Tomahawk IIA" and "Tomahawk IIB" respectively. The B- and C-models were slightly improved forms of the base P-40 with more machine gun firepower and increased survivability and these marks gained considerable fighting experience in the skies over Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa, Southeast Asia and along the East Front. Lend-Lease ensured availability to many of the primary Allied players including Britain, Australia, Canada and the Soviet Union.
The initial U.S. Army order for Warhawks constituted 524 aircraft of which 199 of these were of the P-40 mark with the export designation of Hawk 81A being assigned. Deliveries began in June of 1940. These aircraft were very lightly armed by comparison to frontline fighters of the day - 2 x 0.50 caliber heavy machine guns fitted to the engine cowling were all that the pilot could muster against a target. Additionally these aircraft were delivered without cockpit armoring of any kind and - perhaps most importantly - lacked self-sealing fuel tanks despite Curtiss designers having the experience of observing the expanding air war over Europe.
Because of the need for modern fighting aircraft in Europe, powers like Britain and France came to the United States for help and this led to easing of foreign sales for American aero companies. Both countries then ordered the new American fighter in number and Curtiss obliged. Despite the numbers eating into a standing U.S. Army order, the branch adopted a wait-and-see policy against the aircraft for it knew the design could be made better at the expense of combat exposure brought on through foreign service.
The French order came to naught for the country fell to the Germans before any P-40s could be delivered. These, instead, went to the British but they lacked armoring and self-sealing fuel tanks. These were designated as "Tomahawk Mk I". The aircraft proved to be poor performers as fighters against modern German foes and were ultimately relegated to the low-level tactical reconnaissance role (P-40s generally suffered in high-altitude fighting, making them inferior to enemy aircraft like the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190 series fighters).
The original French order for Warhawks, now becoming British Tomahawk Is, were further addressed to acquiesce to new British requirements for the P-40. Ninety aircraft were modified to have armoring and self-sealing fuel tanks, reversed throttle controls and British instrumentation - producing the "Tomahawk IIA" designation. Twenty-more were added as new-builds from Curtiss lines.
Then came an order for 930 "Tomahawk IIB" models which replaced the original American 0.30 caliber wing guns with British 0.303-inch guns. This variant was also given provision for a jettisonable ventral fuel tank, featured British instrumentation and installed with an updated fuel delivery system.
Tomahawks were fielded by British and Commonwealth forces over Europe, during the North African Campaign, across Southeast Asia and around the Mediterranean. It was in the desert campaign that the Warhawk received its iconic "shark's mouth" nose decal - a detail later featured on American-piloted P-40s in China against the Japanese.
About 100 aircraft of the British order were sectioned off for delivery to China following a Chinese government purchase of the modern fighter. These were assembled locally and eventually fielded with volunteer American pilots at the controls through the "American Volunteer Group" - or AVG. The AVG served as indirect American involvement against Japan with the force made up of Army, Navy and Marine airmen.
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Curtiss-Wright Corporation - USA Manufacturer(s)
Australia; Canada; France; Soviet Union; United Kingdom; United States Operators
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