The P-40 design was a modification of the previous Curtiss P-36 Hawk which reduced development time and enabled a rapid entry into production and operational service.
The Warhawk was used by most Allied powers during World War II, and remained in frontline service until the end of the war.
It was the third most-produced American fighter of World War II, after the P-51 and P-47; by November 1944, when production of the P-40 ceased, 13,738 had been built, all at Curtiss-Wright Corporation‘s main production facilities at Buffalo, New York.
The British Commonwealth and Soviet air forces used the name Tomahawk for models equivalent to the original P-40, P-40B, and P-40C, while the name Kittyhawk for models equivalent to the P-40D and all later variants.
P-40s first saw combat with the British Commonwealth squadrons of the Desert Air Force in the Middle East and North African campaigns, during June 1941.
No. 112 Squadron Royal Air Force, was among the first to operate Tomahawks in North Africa and the unit was the first Allied military aviation unit to feature the “shark mouth” logo, copying similar markings on some Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engine fighters.
The P-40’s lack of a two-speed supercharger made it inferior to Luftwaffe fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 or the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in high-altitude combat and it was rarely used in operations in Northwest Europe.
However, between 1941 and 1944, the P-40 played a critical role with Allied air forces in three major theaters: North Africa, the Southwest Pacific, and China. It also had a significant role in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Alaska and Italy.
Although it gained a postwar reputation as a mediocre design, suitable only for close air support, more recent research including scrutiny of the records of individual Allied squadrons indicates that this was not the case: the P-40 performed surprisingly well as an air superiority fighter, at times suffering severe losses, but also inflicting a very heavy toll on enemy aircraft.
Based on war-time victory claims, over 200 Allied fighter pilots – from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, the US and the Soviet Union – became aces flying the P-40.
These included at least 20 double aces, mostly over North Africa, China, Burma and India, the South West Pacific and Eastern Europe
The P-40 offered the additional advantages of low cost and durability, which kept it in production as a ground-attack aircraft long after it was obsolete as a fighter.