The P-40 Warhawk and the A6M Zero

By Patrick Masell

The P-40 Warhawk and A6M Zero were two prominent U.S. and Japanese fighters at the beginning of the Second World War. Both had achieved admirable records. Being two of the most recognizable and widely used aircraft of the war, their paths crossed many times. Yet their performance and career tracks were very different.

The Zero concept started in May of 1937. A few years before the Type 96 fighter or A5M (code named Claude by the Allies) had been introduced. It was very successful against the aircraft it met in the air war over China in the 1930's, but the Japanese Imperial Navy wanted a new high performance fighter to supplant the opened-cockpit, fixed landing gear A5M, which was already outpaced by more advanced western aircraft. The Horikoshi team designers were called upon to create a modern fighter with excellent speed, range, armament, visibility, and most important maneuverability that at least matched that of the Type 96. Amazingly, the team managed to pull it off; making a machine that matched and in some cases exceeded the Navy's requirements.

Their creation was the Type 00 or Zero fighter (first code named Ben, then Ray, and finally Zeke by the Allies). It attained a speed of 331 mph; the later A6M5 reached 350. It had a climb to 9,840 feet in 3 minutes 30 seconds, though its dive speed was limited to 350 mph. It had an impressive range of 1,200 miles. The armament consisted of two 7.7mm machineguns firing through the propeller and two 20mm cannons in the wings. The new fighter's maneuverability was unmatched by any other mass produced fighter. Delighted with the Zero's performance, the Imperial Navy ordered it into series production. On the 31 July 1940 the Imperial Japanese Navy officially adopted the A6M.

Across the Pacific Ocean the P-40's birth was playing out much differently. Its forerunner, the Curtiss P-36 Hawk, was the United State's front line fighter. Obsolescent P-26 Peashooters and Brewster Buffaloes still served overseas on the most distant airbases. The USAAC had fallen behind its European rivals; its aircraft was decisively inferior. The Air Corps set out to find a fighter capable of matching European standards. In 1937 a competition for the best fighter plane was announced to the major aircraft companies.

Boeing, Seversky, Bell, Lockheed, and Curtiss all entered their designs for the trials. Lockheed submitted the XP-38 and Bell the XP-39. The XP-38 was revolutionary in design. Twin engines and turbo superchargers gave it superb performance at high altitude and tricycle landing gear gave it a futuristic look. The XP-39 was equally unconventional. Its turbo-supercharged engine was placed behind the pilot in order to accommodate a 37mm cannon in the propeller hub. It also featured a tricycle landing gear, plus a car-like door to enter and exit the cockpit. Its overall performance with the supercharged engine was very good. Curtiss, on the other hand, was unwilling to risk millions on a completely new design. They opted instead to re-engine the existing P-36. The liquid-cooled Allison V-12 (V-1710) was chosen to beef up the plane's performance. The in-line engine reduced air drag and increased speed.

The speed of the P-40 varied from model to model. Initially it was around 350 mph; with the addition of pilot armor and self-sealing fuel tanks it slumped to 345 in the C model. The E had a more powerful engine and could reach 360 mph. And the N model, which was the last production model, approached 380 mph.

The P-40's dive speed exceeded 480 mph. The P-40B could climb to 15,000 feet in 5.1 minutes. The later E reached 20,000 feet in 11.5 minutes. Its range was roughly 850 miles and armament was two .50 caliber machine guns in the nose and four .30 caliber guns in the wings. The D variant introduced the standard armament of six .50's, three in each wing. A common misconception is that the P-40 had limited maneuverability. Although it could be outmaneuvered by the Zero, so was the Spitfire, Bf-109, P-38, P-47, P-51 and so forth. In actuality the P-40 was more agile than many contemporary fighters, including both the Bf-109 and P-51 Mustang.

Most historians believe the Army made a big mistake when they choose the P-40 over the P-38, but at the time it seemed the best way to go. The U.S. Army was fiercely conservative and new and unorthodox designs were frowned upon. The P-38 seemed too unconventional, and it doubled the requirement for engines. Also, it did not fit the Army Air Corps concept of a standard fighter. Most Army officials assumed that the bomber would always get through and saw only a limited requirement for a high-altitude interceptor. They opted for low-altitude performance and durability in the ground support role. This is also why they stripped the P-39 of its supercharger, seriously reducing its speed and altitude performance. Also, Lockheed did not have the facilities to produce the P-38 in numbers. (It was a complex aircraft, never intended for mass production.) Curtiss only needed minor revision to their factory to produce the P-40. Lastly, the prototype XP-38 crashed while landing after a cross-country demonstration flight insisted upon by the Army, destroying any hope for the Lockheed entry. Curtiss won the competition. The Army placed the largest order for aircraft up to that time, in a hurry to replace aging Hawks and Peashooters.

The overall performance of the A6M Zero and the P-40 Warhawk were as different as night and day. While the P-40 employed speed and survivability, the Zero relied on its tight turn-radius and swift climb to succeed in combat. The A6M's nimbleness was legendary; in low-speed dogfights it almost guaranteed success. Its superb climb rate gave it a big advantage over the Allied fighters it met at the beginning of the war. The Zeke's armament of two 7.7mm machineguns and two 20mm cannons was adequate but not outstanding. Although the Japanese 20mm cannon lacked range and accuracy, they hit hard at close range. The Type 00 also had excellent all-around vision.

Along with these advantages came flaws that proved fatal for many Japanese pilots later in the war. The Zero's speed in level flight was below that of the fastest Western fighters. Early models could only achieve 331 mph, while the A6M5 (the most common model) reached roughly 350 mph.

Japanese pilots were trained to engage enemies in slow speed dogfights. Above 275 mph the Zero's excellent handling diminished, making tight high speed turns nearly impossible. The Zero's maximum safe dive speed was 350 mph. Above that speed the fighter lost the ability to roll and the skin on the wings would begin to wrinkle. It the pilot pushed harder the Zero might shed its wings.

The Zeke's roll rate at any speed was slower then all U.S. fighters of WW II. A plane's roll rate is important because all acrobatic maneuvers with the exception of the loop start with a roll. If a P-40 latched onto the tail of a Zeke and the Zeke banked to turn away, a quick reacting pilot could roll his Warhawk inside his target. For a brief period the unfortunate Zero would be under his guns and fly right through his line of fire. The A6M also lacked armor protection for the pilot and self-sealing fuel tanks. This omission cost many pilots dearly. Bullets could easily penetrate the thin aluminum skin of the cockpit. With no protection for the fuel tanks, the Zeke flamed rather easily.

As a dogfighter the Zero was unparalleled, and its great range gave it tactical flexibility. It was the world's first great long-range escort fighter. Yet as an all-around fighter its flaws came back to haunt it. Once its adversaries became aware of its drawbacks and limitations, the myth of the Zero's invincibility was shot to ribbons, along with many a plane.

The P-40's attributes were near opposites to that of the Zero's. The fastest model P-40 could outrun the fastest model Zeke by at least 30 mph and no model Zero could outrun its contemporary P-40 rival. The P-40's dive speed was also better. The normal dive limit speed for a P-40 was 480 mph and sometimes exceeded 500 mph. This proved especially useful using the hit and run tactics pioneered during the war. The structural integrity of the P-40's airframe could stand over 9 G's, far better then the frail Zeke. The Curtiss fighter also had pilot armor and self-sealing fuel tanks, standard for all U.S. fighters.

The question of whose armament was better is debatable. The Zero's 7.7mm (.303') machine guns had good range and accuracy, but there were just two of them and they were not as powerful as the P-40's .50 caliber machine guns. The two 20mm cannons were powerful yet inaccurate. They had a limited range and a slow rate of fire. The P-40's six .50s or two .50s and four .30s packed more punch than the Zero's 7.7s, were accurate, and had exceptional reach, yet weren't as powerful as the Zero's cannons. Against another WW II era fighter I would favor the P-40's armament; against a bomber I would prefer the Zero's armament.

Another good point about the P-40 was its amazing ability to absorb punishment and still continue to fight, be it from machine guns and cannons, wear-and-tear, hostile weather, or rough landings. Clive Caldwell, Australia's top-scoring ace with 28 1/2 victories and the leading P-40 ace with 20 1/2 of these victories demonstrated this rather dramatically in North Africa.

While flying top cover for supply planes inbound for Tobruk, two Bf-109's led by the 114-victory ace Werner Schroer ambushed him. The German planes punched 108 machine gun bullets and five 20mm shells into the hapless fighter, damaging its instrument panel, controls, tail, wings, and wounding Caldwell in the back, shoulder and leg.

Instead of crashing to the ground, the Tomahawk managed to stay airborne. And instead of attempting to escape, the Sydney-born Caldwell turned into his attackers and returned fire. He shot down Schroer's wingman, unnerving Schroer to the point that he ran for home. The Australian ace made it home.

Although early in the war the Zero was thought of as invincible, the P-40 was more worthy of this title. Many stories have been told and retold by pilots grateful for their plane's solid construction.

One unique account was that of Lt. Alexi Khobistoff of the Red Air Force, who perfected an unusual method of destroying enemy aircraft when his plane's guns froze from ice build-up. With his sights set on a Heinkel 111, the distracted Khobistoff struggled to clear his guns when all of a sudden the prop of his plane tore through the bomber's wing. He managed to stay airborne while his target careened into the ground. He repeated this act a second time, but on this day it was intentional, cutting the rudder off of yet another German bomber. The third time and his fifth kill happened when a 109 mortally wounded his plane. Rather then go out quietly, the tenacious Khobistoff dove his plane into the nearest enemy fighter he saw, chewing its tail to bits. He bailed out and spent several weeks in the hospital, never to repeat his unorthodox tactic.

The Warhawk was not without flaws, however. For one thing its climb speed was inferior to the A6M and many other types of World War II fighters. In fact a number of P-40s captured at Java were going to be used to defend the Japanese home islands until it was discovered that it could barely out climb the Val dive bomber. The P-40's rearward vision was also limited, unlike the all-around vision enjoyed by Zero pilots. Its turn-radius was inferior to the Zeke's, but so were most other fighters. In a turning dogfight the P-40 could not compare to the Zero. It also suffered from bad stall characteristics. Because of this many planes and pilots were lost in training. The range of a P-40 was around 850 miles, well under the range of the Zero. The service ceiling of the P-40 was comparatively low compared to the Zero and practically all German fighters.

The P-40's most crippling handicap was the deterioration of its performance at high altitude, making it ineffective as a high altitude bomber escort. The higher a P-40 went the more it's performance dropped, much like the Zero's maneuverability decreased as its speed increased. Above 20,000 feet, handling and speed slumped; at 30,000 feet the P-40 could barely function as a fighter. The P-40's best bet was to stay around 15,000 feet.

When pilots were taught to avoid these problems the P-40's shortcomings could be overcome with relative ease. The Japanese Zero, on the other hand, could not combat enemy planes using its fine points if the enemy refused to slow down and turn with it. Yet in 1940 when the Zero was introduced, though technology dictated that the antiquated tactics of dog fighting were obsolescent, the world's fighter training schools still practiced it. This was the main reason for its success early in the war.

Before the A5M Claude was introduced, Chinese pilots, flying mostly Russian-built Polikarpov I-15 biplane and I-16 monoplane fighters enjoyed success against the Japanese bombers attacking their cities. After the Claude was introduced control of the skies over China passed to the invaders. Once the Zero debuted the Chinese had no chance of regaining air superiority without outside help. Chinese pilots even refused to engage the sleek, ultra-modern Zeroes with their out-of-date, fixed landing gear, open cockpit relics.

The Type 00 did extremely well in China, downing 99 enemy planes with no losses of their own (although the aircraft they flew against were woefully obsolescent). Chinese citizens and soldiers weren't the only witnesses to the A6M's deadly efficiency. Generalissimo Chaing Kai Shek, the commander-in-chief of the Chinese Military, invited military advisors from the United States and Europe to help modernize China's defenses. These advisors took notice of the Zero fighter and warned their own countries of its existence, though these warnings were largely ignored. No one could believe that such an aircraft could come from a country known for shoddy products.

Claire Lee Chennault was one such advisor. This former colonel had retired from the U.S. Army Air Corp. because his theories on tactics were so at odds with the fiercely conservative Air Corp. brass. He was asked to help modernize the Chinese Air Force, and quickly became friends with Chaing Kai Shek and his lovely wife. The retired colonel wrote a report about the deadly Zero and sent it to the U.S. government. It was promptly filed away. This was a mistake. If the threat had been taken seriously, and if American pilots had been trained to deal with such a fighter, the Japanese would likely have sustained much heavier losses in the early air war.

Meanwhile, the P-40 was being mass produced and sent to fighter squadrons across the continental U.S. and to overseas bases in the Hawiian Islands, the Philippines, and other places. In March of 1940 Congress approved Lend-Lease, letting American arms manufacturers sell to the Allies. Curtiss would have several buyers before the war ended. These included England, the USSR, China, Australia, Brazil, and others. France would have been one of the first buyers, but Curtiss could not fill the order before the country surrendered to Germany. Great Britain, desperately needing planes after losses sustained during the Battle of Britain, took over the French order. The first P-40s they received had no pilot armor or self-sealing fuel tanks. They were deemed unsafe and used as trainers and second-line fighters. Curtiss took this criticism to heart and incorporated these necessities into all B and later models. These P-40s were known as Tomahawks to the RAF and were mostly used as fighter-bombers in North Africa.

The P-40 first saw combat in the skies above the North African desert. Squadrons such as No. 112, who painted ferocious shark mouths on the front air intake of their P-40's and inspired other squadrons to do likewise, flew Tomahawks. They strafing and bombed German tanks, trucks troops, and regularly mixed it up with bombers and the famed Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters. The Warhawk held its own against its German enemies and was considered by both the British and Germans to be superior to the Hawker Hurricane. In fact, in an effort to reduce losses for No. 33 squadron, obsolescent Hurricanes were replaced with P-40s.

North Africa was the first place the Hawks and Eagles met, but it was not their last confrontation. On the Russian front Soviet P-40s faced the Luftwaffe's 109s and Focke Wulf 190s with considerable success. In Italy the 325 Fighter Group, known as the "Checker-Tailed Clan" because of the yellow and black checkerboards painted on their tails, scored two impressive victories over German 109s.

On 1 July 1943, 22 P-40s made a fighter sweep over southern Italy. Forty Bf-109s surprised the checker-tails, engaging them at moderate altitude where the P-40 performed best. After an intense dogfight the Germans lost half their force while only one P-40 failed to come back.

A similar event took place on the 30th of the same month in which 20 P-40s were bounced by thirty-five 109s. The Germans limped home after losing 21 of their own while the checker-tails came through with only one loss. The Germans lost 135 aircraft (ninety-six of which were 109s) to the pilots of the checkered-tail P-40s while shooting down only seventeen of the 325th.

Back in North Africa, the most successful engagement by Tomahawks was what has come to be known as the Palm Sunday Massacre. Just before sundown on Palm Sunday, 18 April 1943, P-40s on anti-transport patrol spotted over 60 Ju-52s escorted by 21 fighters off of Cape Bon, making their way to Sicily. Elements of the 57th and 324th as well as the British 92 Squadron intercepted. 11 Spitfires covered 46 P-40Fs as they pounced on the Axis formations, ripping them to shreds. The carnage ended with 59 Ju-52s and 16 fighters crashing into the sea or Tunisian soil for the loss of only 6 P-40s. While the P-40's debut was not as spectacular as the A6M's it was very favorable, and just a preview to the P-40's later success.

On 7 December 1941 the bell rang and the Zeke charged out of its corner swinging. Numerous Zeros from six carriers escorted Kate and Val bombers to their target at Pearl Harbor Hawaii, triggering a war that led to Imperial Japan's eventual downfall. The attack was nothing short of devastating, as the torpedo planes scored hit after hit on the ships moored along battleship row. Val dive-bombers and Type 00 fighters smashed the airfields at Hickam and Wheeler. The resulting destruction was near total. The airstrips and hangers were shattered P-40s and other aircraft were turned into flaming wreckage. Zeros and Vals raced through the black smoke billowing from fires as shocked pilots and ground crew raced for cover. Some managed to get to anti-aircraft guns and return fire, but with little result. Bellows Field was also attacked with the same cataclysmic results. Most of the 180 P-40 fighters on Oahu were destroyed on the ground; the three airfields lay in shambles.

A few American fighters got off the ground. Two P-40s piloted by George Welch (a friend of Chuck Hawks' father) and Kenneth Taylor managed to get airborne and score some of the first American victories of the war. By a stroke of luck their planes had been reassigned to a remote field in an effort to disperse forces in the event of an air strike. After witnessing the first minutes of the attack they phoned the ground crews to arm and fuel their aircraft. The two pilots jumped into a car and raced to their aircraft. They were strafed by a dive-bomber on the way but escaped unharmed. Upon reaching the field they found their planes intact and ready to go. Welch and Taylor took off and quickly engaged the Japanese. Before the attack was over they scored 7 victories between them, including a few Zeros, while taking only minor damage, although Taylor sustained an injury to his right arm.

Soon after the attack the Japanese began a steamroller offensive against the Allies across the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and the rest of the Western Pacific. The A6M led the way; its stunning agility and offensive power decimated all opposition. Indeed the rapid advance across the Pacific was due in most part to the Zero's exceptional dog fighting capabilities. U.S. pilots flying P-40s, P-39s, F4F Wildcats, F2A Buffaloes and P-26 Peashooters found themselves at a disadvantage fighting a numerically superior force of Japanese fighters using antiquated dog fighting tactics. Every time the Americans took a stand they were beaten. The Zero possessed almost mythical agility and seemed to be invincible; the Allied forces in the Western Pacific quickly fell.

The British fared no better than the Americans did. The RAF squadrons stationed in Malaya were flying the American Brewster Buffalo; a short barrel shaped fighter that was outmoded before it reached the front. Aware of its lack of performance the British had banished the fighter to Burma, away from combat with the superior German Bf-109. The general impression was that the Japanese had nothing but outdated biplanes that would not be a match for the Brewster fighter. When the British Buffaloes came in contact with the A6M they were sliced to ribbons.

To reduce their losses the RAF decided to replace the outmatched Buffalo with the more formidable Hawker Hurricane, famed for its decisive role in the Battle of Britain. Unfortunately, its pilots also found that fighting a Zeke on its terms was practically hara-kiri. Finally, the British threw their best at the Japanese, the fabled Supermarine Spitfire. To the Allies dismay, this fighter also could not compare with the incredibly nimble Zero. In only two engagements, Zeros downed 17 of 27 while losing 2 of their own.

It seemed the A6M was an unstoppable juggernaut. It soon gained the reputation of being invincible. Everywhere it was encountered, the Zero vanquished its enemies.

Everywhere with the exception of China, that is. Patrolling the skies over China were a band of American mercenaries known as the AVG (American Volunteer Group). Flying P-40s adorned with fearsome shark's mouths they shattered the myth of Japanese invincibility and almost single-handedly saved China. Amazingly, this ragtag group of renegades, or so their Japanese opponents called them, fought using only fifty or so planes at a time and downed several times that many. They became known to the grateful Chinese populous as "Fei Hu" or Flying Tigers. The keys to their success was understanding their enemy, the tactics they employed, Col. Chennault's uncanny ability to predict the enemy's next move, and an aircraft that excelled in their method of fighting. Much has been written about the AVG, so this article will only briefly summarize the accomplishments of the famed unit.

The AVG was made up of three squadrons, The Adams & Eves, The Panda Bears, and The Hell's Angels. They began combat operations on 20 December 1941 and officially disbanded on 4 July 1942. For seven months this ragtag band of Army, Navy, and Marine pilots were the only effective defense in the skies over China. Once organized, the men of the AVG recorded an unprecedented 70 to 1 kill ratio, 296 (although some sources say 286) enemy aircraft confirmed and an additional 153 probables for a loss of only 12 planes and 3 pilots in air combat. An even more impressive feat considering that the American mercenaries had virtually no combat experience while the Japanese had been fighting in China for years.

The tactics of The Flying Tigers were the key to its astounding record. The early warning net (a primitive yet effective network of spotters and ratio operators set up to report enemy aircraft) would report the position, direction, and estimated altitude of incoming Japanese aircraft. The Flying Tigers would climb above the enemies' altitude on an intercepting course. On sighting the Japanese they would dive on them at high speed and slash through their formation, guns blazing. After the attack the Tigers would use the speed from the dive to exit the combat zone and climb for another pass. It was essentially a drive-by shooting.

Saburo Sakai, Japan's leading ace to survive WW II, recounted an incident over Port Moresby, New Guinea where a P-40 piloted by Les Jackson used this tactic with deadly efficiency. This is Sakai's account of that encounter.

"We passed Moresby and the bursting flak fell behind. I sighed with relief. Too soon! Nearly a mile above us, a single P-40 fighter dove with incredible speed. He came down so fast I could not move a muscle; one second he was above us, the next the lone plane plummeted like lightning into the bombers. Six hundred yards in front of me, I watched the fighter- he was going to ram! How that plane ever got through the few yards' clearance between the third and fourth bombers of the left echelon, I shall never know. It seemed impossible, but it happened. With all guns blazing, the P-40 ripped through the bomber formation and poured a river of lead into Miyazaki's plane. Instantly the Zero burst into flames. With tremendous speed the P-40 disappeared far below."

A few volunteers were displeased with this tactic and resigned. This method of fighting did not go over well with the Chinese and British flyers in the area, either. Initially, British pilots seen diving away from combat would be court-martialed; Chinese pilots seen doing the same would be shot. However, as the Flying Tigers' success mounted other units adopted their tactics.

With the exception of the AVG the Allies were losing ground everywhere in the Pacific in the days immediately following Pearl Harbor. Yet over time a few units managed to hold their own against the advancing Japanese.

One such group was the Australian 75th squadron stationed in Port Moresby. This group faced long odds, much like the AVG. With only a handful of planes and a trickle of resources, they were the only serious aerial defense against Japanese attacks coming from Rabaul and Lae. The men of the 75th had a great responsibility; they had to stop the Japanese or leave Australia open to invasion.

The Australian pilots displayed an immense amount of courage against daunting odds. It was not uncommon for only one plane to challenge twenty or more Japanese. After 44 grueling days of combat the 75th destroyed 35 planes with another 15 probables and roughly 50 damaged. Their loss was 11 pilots and 16 P-40s lost to combat and 6 to accidents. Though theirs were not an outright victory, the brave souls of the 75th saved Port Moresby and held off the enemy until more squadrons could be formed.

After six-months of dominance over the Allies, holes were being punched in the Zeke's aura of invulnerability. Not only did the Zero (as well as the K143 "Oscar" and other Japanese fighters) suffer defeat time and again at the hands of the 23rd Fighter Group (the successor to the AVG, who ended the war with 594 confirmed victories), two major carrier battles hit the Zero and the Imperial Japanese Navy particularly hard.

At the battles of Coral Sea and Midway five of Japan's precious carriers were lost with an even more valuable asset, their pilots. Much time, money, and resources were spent turning cadets into some of the most skilled flyers in the world. At Coral Sea and especially at Midway, many of these young men were lost and with them the proficiency they possessed. As the war progressed Japan (like Germany) found it increasingly difficult to train new pilots, and found it impossible to hone their skills to pre-war levels.

The Zero suffered another heavy blow when the Allies captured a Zero nearly intact. On 4 June 1942 an A6M2 flown by Flight Petty Officer 1st Class Tadayoshi Koga from the carrier Ryujo took part in a raid on Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutians Islands. Koga's aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire, forcing him to crash land on Akutan Island. The plane was captured by the U.S. and shipped to the States. There a number of pilots tested the Zeke's performance and engaged in mock dogfights with American aircraft.

The secrets of Japan's miracle fighter were quickly discovered. The information collected was forwarded to pilots on the front. The sun was setting on the Zero's reign. Unfortunately, in the summer of 1944 a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver taxied into Koga's Zero, chopping it up with its giant four-blade propeller.

A crippling blow was struck when it became widely understood that the Zero could be defeated in maneuvering combat at speeds in excess of 250 mph. Worse still for the Zero pilots, new more powerful aircraft like the P-47 Thunderbolt, F4U Corsair, and F6F Hellcat were being introduced by the U.S. However, the Zero would remain a dangerous opponent until the end of the war, whenever Allied flyers tried to dogfight with it.

While the Zero was losing control of the skies in the Pacific Theater, the P-40 was in its heyday. Across China the P-40s now dominated the skies. This was also true in the South Pacific.

No one demonstrated this better than the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). In 1941, with the possibility of a Japanese attack looming, New Zealand began updating its meager air force. Eighteen P-40 K and M models were diverted from the Middle East to create No. 14 squadron in April of 1942. In later months the 15th, 16th, and 17th squadrons were formed with further deliveries of P-40s. New Zealand airmen stationed in Britain and North Africa were recalled to their homeland for its defense. Many were veterans of the Battle of Britain.

One of the first combat actions of the RNZAF P-40s was the destruction of a Japanese floatplane while escorting a Hudson. Another was participating in an Allied attack on three Japanese destroyers that had steamed into an Allied minefield.

Their first clash with Japanese fighters resulted in the downing of 4 Japanese planes; 2 of their own were forced to make forced landings at Russell Island airstrip. Not a bad start.

Later the Japanese sent a large fighter sweep to crush the Allied airbases. Fourteen Squadron joined an Allied force that intercepted the Japanese force. They lost 1, but they claimed 6 of the 25 Japanese planes shot down that day.

The New Zealanders performed fighter sweeps, interceptions, escort, reconnaissance, and bombing missions in their P-40s, often alongside U.S. Army and Marine air units. So it went until 1944 when new F4U Corsairs replaced the P-40s.

But by this time Japanese air power was all but wiped from the sky, so no RNZAF Corsairs saw air to air combat. The destruction inflicted upon the Japanese by the RNZAF P-40s was 99 confirmed kills (the majority of which were Zeros) and 14 probables. The New Zealanders lost 20 P-40s.

The P-40 had to give up center stage to new, higher performance fighters. Lockheed's P-38 Lighting was the first of these, rushed into production when the need for new fighters became critical.

When the P-38 was introduced in early 1942 it proved to be less of a match for the Zero than the Warhawk. U.S. pilots were still attempting to outmaneuver the Zeke. When U.S. pilots took Claire Chennault's teachings to heart and used the Lightning's speed to overcome the Zero. Then the P-38 became a frightening adversary. The twin-engine Lighting had a much greater range than the P-40, and when the Allies took the offensive it was the P-38 that carried the war to the enemy.

The P-47 Thunderbolt, the heaviest and most powerful Allied fighter, replaced the P-40 as a fighter-bomber. North American's thoroughbred P-51 Mustang, used primarily as a long-range escort for large four-engine B-17s, B-24s, and B-29s striking deep into Germany and Japan, spelled doom for the P-40 as well as the A6M, eventually supplanting P-40s even in the 23rd Fighter Group.

One similarity between the Zero and the P-40 was that the companies that created them didn't keep them up-to-date to compete with newer types. With each new variant Supermarine and Messerschmitt kept their crowning achievements, the Spitfire and Bf-109, competitive with newer birds. Curtiss and Mitsubishi, on the other hand, made numerous minor changes without significantly improving their fighters.

For Mitsubishi the emphasis was primarily on simplifying production for larger quantities as Japanese losses mounted. The J2M Raiden, known to the Allies as Jack and slated to replace the Zero, had fallen behind schedule due to development problems. Improvements to the Zero to strengthen the airframe and increase the dive speed were also a priority. Later model Zekes attained dive speeds of 400 mph, still not enough to catch or escape from American fighters.

Curtiss was taking steps in the opposite direction. Even though the P-40 was the fighter to prove that speed could overcome maneuverability, weight saving became a priority with the primary objective of making the Hawk more agile. Armor plating and ammunition were reduced, and on some variants of the N model two machineguns and the starter were sacrificed. The stripping of parts to save small amounts of weight became so ridiculous that some aviators and ground crews nicknamed these P-40s "Gypsy Rose Lee," after the famous stripper of the era. More often than not they would replace the missing parts.

The final version of both fighters was the best attempt at bringing them up to par with modern types. But essentially it was too little too late. Whether these efforts were successful remains questionable because neither saw action. The A6M8c or Zero 64 replaced the Nakajima NK1C Sakae 12 engine with the more powerful Mitsubishi MK8K Kinsei 62. With considerably more power on tap, features to protect the pilot such as armor plating and bulletproof windshields were added while still retaining the Zero's trademark nimbleness. The two 7.7mm machineguns were replaced with the heavier 12.7mm (.50 caliber) guns. Though it was 25 mph slower than the Hellcat the Japanese were confident that the Zero 64 was the equal of Grumman's F6F.

As for the P-40, its power plant was also replaced. It was given an Allison V-1710-121 with 1,425 hp. Other modifications were aimed at reducing drag and included a four-bladed propeller, smaller chin scoop, clipped wingtips, and a bubble canopy like that of the P-47 and P-51. These alterations gave the XP-40Q a top speed of 422 mph at 20,000 feet. By that time, given the success of the newer P-47 and P-51, the AAF deemed the heavily revised P-40Q unnecessary and it was not put into production.

In the wide spectrum of World War II fighters the P-40 Warhawk and A6M Type 00 were at opposite ends. One was an American aircraft, one Japanese. One sported an in-line engine, the other a radial. One emphasizes speed and strength, the other agility.

Perhaps the most dramatic difference between the two is how history remembers them. Today the Zero is thought of as one of the great fighters of the Second World War, despite its flaws and its ineffectiveness when those flaws were exploited. The P-40 is denounced as being one of the worst fighters of the war even though it achieved a 70 to 1 kill ratio with the AVG, was used by the most successful U.S. squadron of WW II (the 23rd FG), was essential in the defense of China, Australia, North Africa, New Zealand, and the South-West Pacific, and proved to be a better fighter then the Zero time and again. Hopefully further research (and perhaps this article) will help to vindicate the Warhawk and destroy the myth of the frail Zero's superiority.

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Copyright 2002 by Patrick Masell. All rights reserved.