Another example of the far flung World at War, let’s take a look at the Wildcat in North Africa.
No doubt we’ve looked at Grumman’s Wildcat a few times here. I’ll admit its a favorite of mine, and a type that succeeded in spite of its unremarkable performance numbers.
This time we’re looking at Operation Torch, the allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942. The idea was to trap Axis forces in a continent wide pincer move. The British Eighth Army was driving across Africa from the east, from Egypt through Libya. A combined force of American and British units would land in Morocco and Algeria to drive from the west. The drives would meet in Tunisia to finally trap and crush the Axis.
Operation Torch would lead to the first large scale engagement of the US Army against Nazi Germany, but the operation itself mainly involved fighting Vichy French forces. Which means the politics were messier than the actual fighting. The politicking really started with choosing a date, FDR was pushing hard for an engagement against Germany before the November 3 mid-term elections. The invasion missed that target (November 8, the elections went FDR’s way regardless), but more was to come. Mainly the idea that French sentiment was pro-allied, anti-German. So how to invade their territory in a friendly sort of way? It was also known that there was considerable animosity between the French and British, so even if almost half of the assets available were British, everything would be under US leadership and the American flag and markings would be prominently displayed regardless of specific nationality. (Eventually I’ll get to some of those British planes in US stars!)
French loyalties were actually more divided than anyone expected, which led to several hard fought engagements… and several total push-overs.
The Western landing, aimed at Casablanca was however a wholly American affair. Key commanders were Major General George Patton commanding the troops and Rear Admiral Henry Hewett the fleet. This Western Force was further divided into three landing sites, each was supported by a single escort carrier with a mixed air group of Wildcats, Dauntlesses and Avengers. The fleet as a whole was protected by a single fleet carrier, the USS Ranger with two Fighting Squadrons (VF-9 and VF-41 with a total of 54 F4F-4 Wildcats) and one Scouting Squadron (VS-41 with 18 SBD-3 Dauntlesses). All around a different mix of squadrons than was commonly used in the Pacific.
Which all leads to one of my detours, let’s briefly look at how the early War US Carrier fleet came to be. After World War I it was obvious carrier aviation was a new naval technology that demanded attention. The 1922 Washington Naval Limitations Treaty put tonnage limits on several types of ships, which led to the decision to first do a pure and temporary test build. CV 1, the USS Langley was converted from a collier to experiment with carrier systems and operations. It provided a lot of valuable data and helped designers and officers to understand what would matter in a “real” aircraft carrier.
Those first two “real” carriers would be major projects. Two battle cruisers had been suspended as a result of the Treaty. It was decided these would be ideal hulls for new aircraft carriers. They were big and fast, 36000 tons at 34 knots, and could operate almost 100 airplanes. These became CV 2 (Lexington) and CV 3 (Saratoga). They were also very successful ships, surprisingly so for a first real effort at an aircraft carrier. But these two ships meant only 69000 tons remained for US carriers under the Treaty. Obviously something much smaller was needed. It was decided to put a maximum air group of 76 on a minimum hull of under 14000 tons. This became CV 4, Ranger. It didn’t take long to decide they had taken “small” entirely too far. It was slow (29 knots), short ranged, bouncy and wet. It was quickly decided this ship would only serve in the Atlantic; not that conditions weren’t rough, but at least deployments were shorter and the nearest harbor was usually close by. Ultimately the Ranger was replaced in the Atlantic by escort carriers and it finished the War as a training unit.
A lot had been learned about aircraft handling on the Ranger. Its arrangement of elevators, maintenance and hanger space were much more sophisticated than on the huge Lexingtons. So an improved ship of 20000 tons, what became known as the Yorktown class was designed. Two ships, CV 5 (Yorktown) and CV 6 (Enterprise) were built. These could operate up to 100 aircraft, had a speed of 32 knots, plus better range and sea keeping. This would prove to be an excellent design, even to say much was carried over to the later Essex class.
But now the Navy had a problem. For those who’ve been keeping score at home, 15000 tons was left on the Treaty limit. There was some cautious optimism that enough had been learned with the two previous ship classes to come up with a much more capable smaller carrier. They were only partially right. CV 7 (Wasp) was an absolute improvement on Ranger. It could operate 72 planes at 29 knots. Soooo… not exactly a huge improvement! Its sea keeping and range were actually better. But still well behind the Yorktowns. So it was decided the Wasp would also be an Atlantic only ship. This was maintained until Lexington and Yorktown were both lost in the Pacific. Wasp was redeployed to the Pacific for the Guadalcanal campaign, where it was sunk in September 1942.
By the time Wasp entered service in 1940 the Washington Naval Treaty, and its follow on the London Naval Treaty were dead and gone. The US Congress passed a “Two Ocean Navy” bill that allowed for rapid, explosive even, expansion of the fleet. With no Treaty to bind them, naval planners decided to design and build a new, ultimate aircraft carrier. The Essex class was 27000 tons, could operate over 100 aircraft and by most measures was the most capable and effective aircraft carrier design of the War. 24 Essex class carriers were built, 14 saw service during World War II.
But there remains one curiosity. The Navy recognized that it would take time, possibly more time than they had since War had already started in much of the world, to actually get this ultimate carrier into service. So one last Yorktown was ordered first. CV 8, the USS Hornet was ordered as the Essex program was getting underway.
Which all ties back to the subject of this post being based on the Ranger in North Africa.
This was the mount of Fighting 9 skipper, Lt Cdr John Raby. If the combat ashore was sporadic, it was more intense in the air. The French, equipped with Dewoitine D.520 and Curtiss Hawk 75 fighters fought for three days. The French pilots were generally more experienced than their American opponents, some aces from the Battle of France were among them, while many of the American pilots had less than 25 carrier landings. In theory their aircraft were closely matched, most Hawk 75 even used the same R-1830 engine as the Wildcat. The Hawk being lighter was actually more maneuverable.
But combat went decidedly in the US Navy’s favor. 25 kills for 5 air-to-air losses, although two of those kills were actually British planes that strayed into the wrong operations area. 21 of those kills were scored by the Ranger fighter squadrons. Over three days, six pilots claimed two kills, the other 13 were all singles. Interesting quirk, all six of those who scored two were based on Ranger, with John Raby being the only pilot in Fighting 9 to do so.
To prove the point about the overall lack of experience among American pilots, aircraft lost in landing accidents far exceeded combat losses. Fighting 29 on the USS Santee lost 10 of its 12 airplanes to this cause. In another odd quirk, the Santee‘s other fighter squadron VF-26, was the only squadron in the whole War to have kills on three tours of duty from four different aircraft carriers (2 in Torch). So I guess they learned…
This is the Tamiya kit with Superscale decals. A reliably easy and fun build.