How Obsolete Warplanes Have Altered the Course of History Part I

The year is 1941 Pearl Harbor has just been devastated by a sneak attack by more than 300 Japanese carrier based aircraft from a task force commanded by Admiral Nagumo. Having set sail on November 26th 1941 the carrier group has evaded detection by setting course along the northern Pacific close to the Aleutian Islands and then heading south to approach the Hawaiian Islands. As a result, what is considered one of the most successfully executed attacks in military history deals an awesome blow to the US Navy. Although Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the strategy warned that Japan would have to win quick within 6 months to a year before the US could unleash its awesome industrial capability “awaking the sleeping giant” as Yamamoto had phrased it would lead to sure defeat.

Grim early days

From 1941 to 1942 the Japanese forces of the Imperial Army and Navy went on to secure an uncanny succession of victories that decimated US, British, and European outposts with savage determination. Manila, Guam, Wake Island, and Corregidor fell along with massive numbers of captured US troops and Navy personnel stationed there. The US had only one major Army Fighter plane to stem the tide and it was the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, Tomahawk, and Kittyhawk variants. Other aircraft such as the Brewster Buffalo, the Boeing P-26 Peashooter, and the P-36 fighter were considered substandard and in what fighting these aircraft had seen for the mainland Chinese since 1937 the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero had made short work of such opposition.

Stiff challenge

The US had only the P-40 with which to buy time and in itself it was considered a ground attack aircraft designed for troop support and although designated P for pursuit it was not the equal of the experienced Japanese pilots flying their lighter and more agile Zero fighter plane. As a result if US pilots who had little military aerobatic training or dogfight theory went up against the Zero chances were they would get shot down in a turning contest with the Japanese aviator.

Superior enemy hardware

The only other front line carrier based fighter America had was the F-4 Wildcat slower than the P-40 Warhawk this aircraft saw extensive action against the Japanese throughout the war and even though considered a mismatch did score many victories once American fighter pilots had gotten more experience and adjusted their tactics to the Jap Zero. Along the way, many US servicemen would be wounded, killed, or forced to eject as bitter battles were fought over Guadal Canal, Wake Island, and the Coral Sea until better suited aircraft began to be manufactured once the war department had issued new specifications for faster and deadlier fighter planes.

New arrivals

Not until the arrival of such legendary fighter planes as the P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt,

F-6 F Hellcat, and the gull winged Corsair did America gain absolute air superiority and that took 2 hard years of bloody fighting to achieve as the two aging fighters the P-40 and F-4 fought head to head with the Japanese Zero and many of its armed light bombers (Nakajima A6M2 or Aichi D3A1) while others were protected by turret gunners. Yet, by using the strengths of the US fighters against the weaknesses of their Japanese counterparts the tide of the war turned and American fighter pilots began to rack up greater kill ratios than their Japanese opponents could sustain!

The evolution

First conceived in the mid 1930’s as part of the P-36 program, it was a fighter that Chuck Yeager claimed when training in it could suddenly go squirrely on a pilot and dig a hole in a corn field if the flyer wasn’t careful. Yeager would later distinguish himself in the Mustang P-51. The Curtiss P-40 evolved from its predecessor with a more powerful engine and better armament. During World War II the United States was forced to fight a two ocean war so even as the more advanced fighters were released from the industrial plants most were prioritized to North Africa and Great Britain were the Eight Airforce needed air to air combat planes to escort their B-17 Bombers for daylight bombing raids into Germany.

The opposition begins

Just days after Pearl Harbor, Captain Claire Chenault and his AVG unit would begin wreaking havoc against Japanese Bomber groups that had previously gone unopposed in the skies above Chinese cities that they had unleashed horrid attack raids upon. Chenault, retired at one point prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, had been reactivated and commissioned by FDR as an observer working with the Chiang Kai Shek government. He observed the Japanese Zero in action and quickly warned his superiors that the enemy had a more maneuverable fighter that would score many victories against US airmen if not respected and approached using different tactics!

Technical trade-offs

Although the Zero was agile and armed with a 20 millimeter cannon in the nose through the propeller shaft, the P-40 was faster at 378 mph, well armored, had a self-sealing gas tank, iron plate around the cockpit to protect the pilot, and six wing to wing 50 caliber machine guns gave the P-40 a devastating punch! In order for the Zero to have been so maneuverable protective armor plate and self-sealing gas tanks had been removed in order to make the fighter lighter and a faster turning aircraft in a dogfight. Chenault warned his pilots about the Zero’s capability teaching his men to never engage in a turning contest with the Japanese plane, but instead use high speed hit and run tactics coming in from higher altitude taking a shot and diving away for the Mitsubishi built fighter.

Superior tactics

This tactic, Chenault had advised other commanders of fighting groups in the Pacific to adopt, although who many times had refused to listen, accounted for the P-40’s to overcome the Zero and make a record number of kills in a short period of time over China. The “Flying Tigers” as they were soon famously called racked up the highest number of enemy planes destroyed by a single US fighter group in American history! This happened under severe conditions and disadvantages as well. At times the Fighting Tigers would only have between 5 and 20 airworthy P-40’s to go up against 80 or more Japanese planes at one time. Chenault’s AVG P-40 pilots accounted for 299 enemy planes destroyed with another 153 probably kills for the loss of 22 aircraft in the air and 61 planes on the ground due to Japanese bombing raids. With a 14 to 1 kill ratio, the Flying Tigers became legend and easily out performed their RAF colleagues who refused to use Chenault’s tactics and often only achieved a 4 to 1 kill ratio. Losing many more of their warplanes!

Against all odds

The small number of operational P-40’s in comparison to at least a thousand Japanese fighter and bomber aircraft at the disposal of the Imperial Army were intimidated by the Flying Tigers! The Japanese were so flustered at the number of their air to air losses and the disruption of their bombing campaigns that they estimated the AVG had some 300 to 400 operational fighter aircraft when no more than 22 of the Flying Tiger P-40’s could fly at any given time. Using a well-connected warning network manned by spotters throughout China allowed Claire Chenault’s fliers to know when the enemy was coming but being out numbered 20 to 1 in the skies over Nanking and other heavily bombed cities made the heroic efforts of the pilots even more commendable! Blazing away at the Japanese bombers and knocking down their escorting Zero Fighters distinguished the valor the American Volunteer Group and just how a seemingly inferior aircraft figured heavily in the critical early days of World War II when the American public had little to be optimistic about!





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Comment by Rob Wittmann on February 13, 2018 at 11:57am

This is a really interesting story from American military history. Oftentimes, you can develop superior tactics for inferior weaponry, and prevail. On the other hand, nations can become arrogant and complacent with superior weaponry, over-rely on same, and do little to develop new and innovative tactics in the utilization of said weaponry.

One of the things I always found fascinating about the P-40, was that it had dramatically inferior high-altitude performance when compared to contemporary fighters, like the Zero, and German FW-190 and Bf-109. That said, the P-40 didn't need to operate at high altitude. It was a guerilla fighter of sorts in China, and made use of the terrain, weather, radar and the like, enabling them to appear out of nowhere for an attack, and then disappear afterwards.

It also proves the idea that in war, you don't need overwhelming qualitative superiority in every way, everywhere. You only need to have sufficient force in any given place, relative to the enemy (in both quantity and quality). As such, the P-40 was never employed as an air-superiority fighter over occupied France, where it would be destroyed by the Luftwaffe with ease. On the other hand, it was employed with great effect in North Africa, the Balkans and Mediterranean, against Axis naval and air transports (the Axis in the Mediterranean, due to their being spread so thin throughout the continent, never had sufficient air-cover for their logistics).

We are seeing a similar concept re-emerge today in the War on Terror. Brazil has developed an amazing piston-engine close-air support airplane, Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano.

It has modern radar, jamming, GPS, and missile guidance systems. But its a propeller plane. It can loiter for longer periods of time than a helicopter or jet-fighter. And it can go slower than a jet-fighter, which is often needed for CAS, especially when enemies are fighting from cover. The US has acquired many of these, and has similar aircraft of our own that we are using in this regard. Everybody thought propeller planes were obsolete, but they are making a major comeback. Of course, you need total air supremacy in order to use these.

As an aside, the P-51 Mustang developed into the Piper PA48 Enforcer. Although the program was retired in 1984, many want to bring it back. The Pentagon is starting to realize that we don't always need a 2 billion dollar plane, using 5 million dollars in gas expenses, to drop a 50 million dollar bomb on 5 insurgents with 5 $100 AK-47s, in a $10k Toyota pickup truck.  We're finding that we run out of money, really fast, doing things like that.

Comment by Doc Vega on February 13, 2018 at 2:52pm

Rob I agree with you sometimes superior tactics trump superior hardware. The Flying Tigers using the  P-40 achieved more kills than any other US unit in history so that should be testament to the plane itself. Over North Africa the P-40 pilots swore they could out turn an ME-109 at lower altitudes. Also the P-40 continued to be produced in new variants that became lighter and faster as WWII grew on. A pity so many of these historic pieces of history ended up dumped off aircraft carriers intro the ocean or scrap heaped. The bone yard in Arizona still has quite a few customers scavenging for parts even for the space race among small aerospace companies.


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