Curtiss Tomahawk Mk IIb

Here’s a type we all know well. Right?

Let’s take a look at a familiar type, that gets more than a little confusing in knowing where it actually fits into the grand scheme of things!

In the late 1930s Curtiss was looking at improving their successful Hawk 75 family of fighters. Something that might make it relevant for a few more years.
They modified a Hawk 75 fighter with an Allison V-1710 engine, one with turbo-supercharging and 1150 horsepower. This was designated XP-37, and led to a test run of 13 YP-37. The test was not particularly successful.
So Curtiss did some different modifications on another Hawk 75, with a different Allison V-1710 that featured simpler mechanical super-charging only. Output was about the same, but this aircraft was simpler and improved in other details. It was designated XP-40 (Curtiss adopted “Hawk 81” as their own designation for the type), and was successful enough it generated a production order. This was now early 1940, and the Curtiss fighter looked to be completely modern. It was first ordered as a P-40 (I’ll say “no suffix”. That’s not completely true, it technically had a manufacturer’s code of “-CU”, but that is all!)
These first production examples had a couple improvements over the prototype; first was armament. The prototype had only the two .50s in the nose, production aircraft added a .30 to each wing. Second was flush riveted construction, this reduced drag over the whole airframe and made for a faster ride. All told, 199 P-40 Warhawks were built.
The French were happy customers of the Hawk 75 and placed their own order for this new Hawk 81. The one change they requested was an additional .30 in each wing. Unfortunately for the French they were conquered by Germany before any of their new fighters could be delivered.
The British happily took over all orders of new French fighters and designated the type “Tomahawk”. It could be a Mark Ia or Mark Ib depending on equipment. 142 examples went to the British.

Curtiss YP-37 in flight. Not quite there yet…

Meanwhile, the Hawk 81 was still being refined. One P-40 was modified with a camera and became a P-40A. The USAAC was watching combat in Europe and decided the P-40 was truly not combat ready, all were retained for stateside use.
Pilot armor would be added as well as light armor for the fuel system. The four gun wings developed for the French seemed to be a good idea so this would be added also. This was the P-40B. 131 were built for USAAC, these were deployed to Hawaii, Alaska and the Philippines. 110 more were built as Tomahawk Mk IIa for the British who deployed the type to Egypt for use in Syria and North Africa.
The P-40C was similar except for a self-sealing liner for the fuel tank. This reduced fuel capacity so the capability of a center drop tank was added. 193 were built for USAAC and 828 “Tomahawk Mk IIb” were built for the RAF. This was the most refined version of the Hawk 81 and was deployed similarly to the P-40B/Tomahawk IIa. A further 100 were ordered by China for the Flying Tigers.
Later, an unknown number, possibly 40 or more, of the original P-40 (no suffix) were reconditioned with the four gun wings and redesignated “P-40G”.
Several of these Hawk 81s were among the first American types lend-leased to the Soviet Union.

All told, the Hawk 81 wrapped its production run by Summer of 1941. And to be (un)clear, I’ve seen the exact description and breakdown of the Tomahawk variants handled very differently by different writers, confusion is endemic. Exactly when pilot armor, self sealing fuel tanks, center bomb/fuel tank rack, which radio, how many wing guns; were added to the Hawk 81 is NOT agreed on by different writers. I followed Bert Kinzey’s breakdown from “P-40 Warhawk in Detail and Scale”.
It was replaced by the P-40D with a more powerful variant of the Allison engine and an improved fuselage and cockpit. The fuselage guns were removed and the type featured two .50 machine guns in each wing. This firepower was found lacking, and production quickly moved on to the “E” model with three .50 in each wing after maybe less than 50 “D” models were built. The British called this improved design “Kittyhawk”, Curtiss called it a Hawk 87. But we’ll save more of that story for another day…

Mohawk begat Tomahawk
Tomahawk begat Kittyhawk

I’m sure my sharp eyed readers noticed that makes the RAF the top user of the early (sometimes called “long-nose”) P-40s. They passed some, especially the Mark I and Mark IIa to the Soviets. Total British squadron usage (of all P-40 types) came to 18 RAF Squadrons, 4 Canadian (RCAF), 3 South African (SAAF), and two Australian (RAAF). Squadrons in North Africa saw the most combat usage, the type was a modern and capable compliment to the Hurricane. Tomahawk advantages being maneuverability at speed, structural strength, very high diving speed, structural strength, simplicity of maintenance and structural strength. Apparently it was sturdy. It could acquit itself very well in low altitude/close support missions, showed complete dominance over Italian types and was survivable against even Bf 109s down low.
The Tomahawk’s biggest disadvantage being performance dropped off quickly with altitude. The quip I’ve seen before is that Curtiss claimed the Tomahawk should have full power up to ten thousand feet, the chief improvement of the Kittyhawk being being that it actually delivered full power up to ten thousand feet.

This particular aircraft was assigned to 112 Squadron, one of the better known operators of the type. The squadron had a lineage back to World War I, but was inactive for most of the inter-War period. Shortly before the Second World War broke out the squadron was reconstituted with Gloster Gladiators for the defense of Egypt. They flew in this role until January of 1941 when they were deployed to Greece. After being routed out of Greece and Crete the survivors retreated to Egypt where they were rebuilt, and re-equipped with the new Tomahawk in July. The Tomahawk’s prominent front radiator (and some magazine articles with photos of Bf 110s from ZG 76) inspired a new shark mouth design, that became the group’s signature look and made them the best known P-40 unit in Africa. Later that year, pictures of 112 Squadron in Life Magazine inspired a group of American mercenaries in China to adopt a similar look.
In December, 112 Squadron switched to Kittyhawks they would fly until mid-1944.

A Bf 110 of ZG 76 in flight. Such photos inspired 112 Squadron to come up with a similar motif for their mounts. I think the Tomahawk carries the look better! [photo via]

Two prominent aces passed through 112 Squadron. The first was Neville Duke, who joined in November 1941. He had previously flown the Spitfire Mk V and found both Tomahawk and Kittyhawk problematic, he was shot down twice by Bf 109 aces of JG 27. He did score eight kills of his own during this time (out of 27 total at War’s end), but wasn’t really happy until he transferred out and returned to flying Spitfires.
Clive Caldwell had a different experience with ‘Hawks. Back in June 1941, with 250 Squadron, he scored a part of the first ever P-40 kill against an Italian bomber. He would claim three JG 27 aces as kills. After seeing a friend shot and killed while in parachute, he adopted the practice of killing any aircrew who escaped from his own kills. Further, he would never return to base with ammunition remaining; he used every bit of it on Axis ground troops after his assigned mission was over. The press took to calling him “Killer”, a nickname he disliked and protested that he never shot anyone who was coming down where they could be captured, but he was not going to fight the same men again. [I believe most aircrew always found this behavior unacceptable. But many, after a particular experience like Caldwell had, did adopt it. To the best of my knowledge, no one on either side was ever prosecuted for this. It may not have been considered “sporting”, but it wasn’t “illegal”.]
On August 29, while flying between bases in his Tomahawk, he was jumped by a pair of JG 27 Messerschmitts led by Werner Shroer. He shot down the wingman, while he and Shroer wounded each other. On December 5 he shot down five Stukas in a couple minutes.
Caldwell was posted to command 112 Squadron in January 1942, after the squadron converted to Kittyhawks. He led the squadron through all of 1942. Caldwell was the top Allied ace in North Africa with 22 kills. All of these kills were in Tomahawks or Kittyhawks, making him the top P-40 ace of all time. He was later recalled to Australia to command a wing against the Japanese and scored 6.5 kills in Spitfire Mk Vc. This made him the top Australian ace of the War.
Overall, “Killer” Caldwell liked the P-40 and considered it a plane with few vices, noting it was only a little difficult to control at speeds approaching terminal velocity.

Clive Caldwell and Werner Shroer dueled. Both left injured.

This is the Airfix kit. My second time building one, and I’ll say that I really like this kit. It is well engineered, offers good detail and is easy to build. The decals are by Aeromaster.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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6 Responses to Curtiss Tomahawk Mk IIb

  1. Neil says:

    ..nice work Dave. Always a little a confusing to know what’s what in the scheme of ‘hawk things. Caldwell also shot down Erbo Graf Von Kagenek in December 41, a 65 (ish) victory JG 27 ace. (Erbo died of his injuries two months later)

    • atcDave says:

      The hawks do get confusing! I was especially frustrated with writers directly contradicting each other. But I think Kinzey is most credible on purely technical stuff.
      Caldwell had impressive results against JG 27. Especially considering how few pilots did.

  2. jfwknifton says:

    That was a very interesting blog post about an aircraft that was probably a lot better in practicer than it was in theory. Certainly most of its pilots seem to have been very happy with it, at least until something really superior came along.
    Incidentally, I am not proud of the way that the British invariably gave different names to most American aircraft they were given. My increasingly shaky memory says it was all the fault of the Royal Navy!

    • atcDave says:

      The American services didn’t use names at all until just before the War, and in a lot of cases they simply adopted the name the Brits were using. I think the ‘Hawks are particularly confusing because where the manufacturer and RAF applied three different designations the USAAF only used two (P-40 Warhawk for both Tomahawk and Kittyhawk).
      The RAF did attempt to choose names in agreement with the manufacturer, like naming three Curtiss Hawks with hawk names.
      Interesting comment on the RN. You are right that initially their naming seemed really arbitrary! But eventually they renamed everything to follow US practice.

  3. This must be one of (if not the) most confusing of all aircraft types built and used during the Second World War. The various designations confusing even ‘experts’ in the field, so what chance do us mere mortals have! You have two terrific models anyway, good examples of a not so bad aircraft that were always overshadowed.

    • atcDave says:

      It is confusing! I have a couple of books I mostly trust, but there’s always a bit of a question mark on some of the details.

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