World War II: Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

P-40 Warhawks. US Air Force

First flying on October 14, 1938, the P-40 Warhawk traced its roots to the earlier P-36 Hawk. A sleek, all-metal monoplane, the Hawk entered service in 1938 after three years of test flights. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1830 radial engine, the Hawk was known for its turning and climbing performance. With the arrival and standardization of the Allison V-1710 V-12 liquid-cooled engine, the US Army Air Corps directed Curtiss to adapt the P-36 to take the new power plant in early 1937. The first effort involving the new engine, dubbed the XP-37, saw the cockpit moved far to the rear and first flew in April. Initial testing proved disappointing and with international tensions in Europe growing, Curtiss decided to pursue a more direct adaptation of the engine in the form of the XP-40.

This new aircraft effectively saw the Allison engine mated with the airframe of the P-36A. Taking flight in October 1938, testing continued through the winter and the XP-40 triumphed at the US Army Pursuit Contest staged at Wright Field the following May. Impressing the USAAC, the XP-40 demonstrated a high degree of agility at low and medium altitudes though its single-stage, single-speed supercharger led to a weaker performance at higher altitudes. Eager to have a new fighter with war looming, the USAAC placed its largest fighter contract to date on April 27, 1939, when it ordered 524 P-40s at a cost of $12.9 million. Over the next year, 197 were built for the USAAC with several hundred being ordered by the Royal Air Force and French Armée de l'Air which were already engaged in World War II.

P-40 Warhawk - Early Days

P-40s entering British service were designated Tomahawk Mk. I. Those destined for France were re-routed to the RAF as France was defeated before Curtiss could fill its order. The initial variant of the P-40 mounted two .50 caliber machine guns firing through the propeller as well as two .30 caliber machines guns mounted in the wings. Entering combat, the P-40's lack of a two-stage supercharger proved a great hindrance as it could not compete with German fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 at higher altitudes. In addition, some pilots complained that the aircraft's armament was insufficient. Despite these failings, the P-40 possessed a longer range than the Messerschmitt, Supermarine Spitfire, and Hawker Hurricane as well as proved capable of sustaining a tremendous amount of damage. Due to the P-40's performance limitations, the RAF directed the bulk of its Tomahawks to secondary theaters such as North Africa and the Middle East.

P-40 Warhawk - In the Desert

Becoming the primary fighter of the RAF's Desert Air Force in North Africa, the P-40 began to thrive as the bulk of aerial combat in the region took place below 15,000 feet. Flying against Italian and German aircraft, British and Commonwealth pilots exacted a heavy toll on enemy bombers and eventually forced the replacement of the Bf 109E with the more advanced Bf 109F. In early 1942, DAF's Tomahawks were slowly withdrawn in favor of the more heavily armed P-40D which was known as the Kittyhawk. These new fighters allowed the Allies to maintain air superiority until being replaced by Spitfires that were altered for desert use. Beginning in May 1942, the majority of DAF's Kittyhawks transitioned to a fighter-bomber role. This change led to a higher attrition rate to enemy fighters. The P-40 remained in use during the Second Battle of El Alamein that fall and until the end of the North Africa campaign in May 1943.

P-40 Warhawk - Mediterranean

While the P-40 saw extensive service with the DAF, it also served as the primary fighter for the US Army Air Forces in North Africa and the Mediterranean in late 1942 and early 1943. Coming ashore with American forces during Operation Torch, the aircraft achieved similar results in American hands as pilots inflicted heavy losses on Axis bombers and transports. In addition to supporting the campaign in North Africa, P-40s also provided air cover for the invasion of Sicily and Italy in 1943. Among the units to use the aircraft in the Mediterranean was the 99th Fighter Squadron also known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The first African American fighter squadron, the 99th flew the P-40 until February 1944 when it transitioned to the Bell P-39 Airacobra.

P-40 Warhawk - Flying Tigers

Among the most famous users of the P-40 was the 1st American Volunteer Group which saw action over China and Burma. Formed in 1941 by Claire Chennault, the AVG's roster included volunteer pilots from the US military who flew the P-40B. Possessing a heavier armament, self-sealing fuel tanks, and pilot armor, the AVG's P-40Bs entered combat in late December 1941 and had success against a variety of Japanese aircraft including the noted A6M Zero. Known as the Flying Tigers, the AVG painted a distinctive shark's teeth motif on the nose of their aircraft. Aware of the type's limitations, Chennault pioneered a variety of tactics to take advantage of the P-40's strengths as it engaged more maneuverable enemy fighters. The Flying Tigers, and their follow-on organization, the 23rd Fighter Group, flew the P-40 until November 1943 when it transitioned to the P-51 Mustang. Used by other units in the China-India-Burma Theater, the P-40 came to dominate the skies of the region and allowed the Allies to maintain air superiority for much of the war.

P-40 Warhawk - In the Pacific

The USAAC's principal fighter when the US entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the P-40 bore the brunt of the fighting early in the conflict. Also widely used by the Royal Australian and New Zealand Air Forces, the P-40 played key roles in the aerial contests associated with the battles for Milne Bay, New Guinea, and Guadalcanal. As the conflict progressed and distances between bases increased, many units began to transition to the longer-range P-38 Lightning in 1943 and 1944. This resulted in the shorter-range P-40 effectively being left behind. Despite being eclipsed by more advanced types, the P-40 continued to serve in secondary roles as a reconnaissance aircraft and forward air controller. By the final years of the war, the P-40 was effectively supplanted in American service by the P-51 Mustang.

P-40 Warhawk - Production & Other Users

Through the course of its production run, 13,739 P-40 Warhawks of all types were built. A large number of these were sent to the Soviet Union via Lend-Lease where they provided effective service on the Eastern Front and in the defense of Leningrad. The Warhawk was also employed by the Royal Canadian Air Force who used it in support of operations in the Aleutians. Variants of the aircraft extended to the P-40N which proved to be the final production model. Other nations that employed the P-40 included Finland, Egypt, Turkey, and Brazil. The last nation utilized the fighter for longer than any other and retired their last P-40s in 1958.

P-40 Warhawk - Specifications (P-40E)


  • Length: 31.67 ft.
  • Wingspan: 37.33 ft.
  • Height: 12.33 ft.
  • Wing Area: 235.94 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 6.350 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 8,280 lbs.
  • Maximum Takeoff Weight: 8,810 lbs.
  • Crew: 1


  • Maximum Speed: 360 mph
  • Range: 650 miles
  • Rate of Climb: 2,100 ft./min.
  • Service Ceiling: 29,000 ft.
  • Power Plant: 1 × Allison V-1710-39 liquid-cooled V12 engine, 1,150 hp


  • 6 × .50 in. M2 Browning machine guns
  • 250 to 1,000 lb. bombs to a total of 2,000 lb.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Curtiss P-40 Warhawk." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Curtiss P-40 Warhawk." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).