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Book Review
P-40 vs Bf 109
P-40 Warhawk vs Bf 109 MTO 1942–44, Duel 38
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by: Frederick Boucher [ JPTRR ]

Originally published on:

P-40 Warhawk vs. Bf 109, MTO 1942–44
Series: Duel 38
Author: Carl Molesworth
Illustrators: Jim Laurier and Gareth Hector

Curtiss' P-40 was called The best second-best fighter of WWII. Messerschmitt's Bf 109 was considered one of the best. WWII lore holds the P-40 as obsolete, slow, heavy, and unmanuveravble. The Messerschmitt was the mount of Jagdfliegers who individually scored 100s of kills. So when they met over North Africa, one would assume the Bf 109 would clip the 'Hawk's wings. Yet the Tomahawks, Kittyhawks, and Warhawks proved to be commendable dogfighters and were not swept from the skies. In fact the USAAF P-40 unit’s loss ratio against the Messerschmitt was less than 2-to-1. Surprised that it was not worse?

Why not worse? This book explains the machines' development, strengths and weaknesses, employment, and the pilots who fought them. The P-40 was almost a ton heavier, was always about 200 hp short of the Bf 109's engine power, lacked the two-stage supercharger that gave high-altitude performance, was slower, and almost always flew lower than the Messerschmitt. When the USAAF arrived in Egypt in August 1942, the green pilots were facing experienced Jagdfliegers, some with three years of combat behind them. Bf 109s almost always attacked the P-40s from a height advantage. Legendary ace Hans-Joachim Marseille, “The Star of Afrika”, counted 101 P-40s amongst his 158 kills!

An aerospace adage is that a fighter is only as good as, and never better than, the engine that powers it. The Luftwaffe had Messerschmitt design the '109 to sweep the skies of enemy aircraft; a two-speed, two-stage Daimler-Benz engine optimized for high altitude was fitted. United States’ Army Air Corps had Curtiss design the P-40 as a fighter but for some reason accepted a two-speed, single-stage Allison engine optimized for low and medium altitude.

Comparing fighters against one another has been a favorite pastime of pilots for almost 100 years. "What if's" still intrigue hanger flyers and spawn many articles. How was the P-40, restricted to low altitude and hit-and-run attacks against the Japanese, a formidable dogfighter against the scourge of the first half of the European war, the Messerschmitt 109? Carl Molesworth, author of several P-40 titles for Osprey, examines and explains the technical, tactical, doctrinal, and operational attributes of these opponents. He explores the flight training the Germans and American fighter pilots received. How they were introduced to combat is examined. The overall strategic situation is discussed, too. And of course, several air-to-air narratives are provided, such has how to shake three 109s off of your tail with “an eye-popping ‘P-40 turn’”! Two tables are provided, one of USAAF P-40 aces with Bf 109 kills, and one for Jagdfliegers with their total scores and P-40 scores.

The what and how of this duel Mr. Molesworth describes in sufficient detail. Bf 109E Emils had been scourging the Desert Air Force’s Hawker Hurricanes when the first P-40C Tomahawks appeared over the Western Desert. Although they were well matched in top speed, rate of climb, dive performance, and firepower, the German’s engine gave them the altitude advantage, while the Curtiss’ bigger wing gave it greater maneuverability.

Then came the ultimate Messerschmitt dogfighter, the Bf 109F Friederich. It was almost 30 mph faster and climbed even higher, with better maneuverability. The newer P-40E Kittyhawks, with more powerful engines, could not close the performance gap. But they could still maneuver with the ‘109s, and now had far more firepower. And they could take damage, which was good because the Germans almost always got the first pass against the P-40s. The sturdy P-40 could absorb many hits from the Bf 109, though the Messerschmitt was vulnerable to the P-40’s storm of .50 caliber fire.

As USAAF P-40s joined the fight, the Luftwaffe was fielding the Bf 109G Gustav with an even more powerful engine and heavier weapons.

By the time the 33rd FG of the USAAF arrived, Curtiss was installing the Packard-built Rolls-Royce Merlin 28 engine with a single-stage two-speed supercharger engines – famed powerplant of the early Spitfires and Hurricanes – into the P-40F Warhawk. This increased the P-40’s altitude performance slightly, but a Messerschmitt the Warhawk would never be. Still, when Warhawk pilots could draw the ‘109s down into turning battles, a P-40 the Messerschmitt would never be, to the sorrow of many a Jagdflieger. The famous 325th FG “Checkered Tail Clan” turned their Warhawks into air superiority killing machines over Pantelleria, Sardinia and Sicily, with a kill to loss ratio against the Bf 109 of almost 6-to-1! At least twice the Clan was bounced by a superior force of Messerschmitts, yet returned claiming a kill ratio of 20-to-1!

As the war moved on P-40s flew off of Sicily and Italy. German air activity fluctuated and Warhawks predominately flew ground support. Escort and air superiority sorties went to other fighters, types which also replaced the Warhawks. P-40s and Bf 109s were still shooting each other down into the spring of 1944, but by summer there was only a single USAAF Warhawk group left.

After the last USAAF Warhawk flew its last mission, over 1,100 had fallen to the Bf 109. Over 600 Messerschmitts fell to USAAF Warhawks. What can be concluded by this indistinct duel? Tactics, tactical employment, and pilot experience and training all must be considered. The Allison and Merlin powered Warhawks were inferior to ‘109s in many roles. However, P-40s did not need special apparatus or weapons fitted to them to be effective against specific German targets, and a Jagdflieger had better not vary from the script when fighting a P-40. The P-40 was employed in its role as a fighter-bomber, the Bf 109 in its role as an air superiority fighter. In the end the two duelers were of different philosophies. Used as envisioned they acquitted themselves well.

Through P-40 Warhawk vs. Bf 109, MTO 1942–44 Mr. Molesworth explains all of this with 80 pages in eight chapters, an introduction, chronology, and index:

• Introduction
• Chronology
• Design And Development
• Technical Specifications
• The Strategic Situation
• The Combatants
• Combat
• Statistics And Analysis
• Aftermath
• Further Reading
• Index

Photographs, Illustrations and Graphics
Ah, a favorite part of any book. This one does not disappoint. I’ve been reading about these aircraft for decades and am happy to have found some photos that are new to me. The photographs used for this title are a fine selection. Although a few were obviously taken by unprepared casual photographers, most are of high quality. There are even two high quality original German color photos! Whether you are a modeler or historian, the images in this work are sure to please.

Impressive, informative color artwork is included. The piece de resistance is a dramatic two-page digital scene of Lt Walter “Bud” Walker’s lone tree-top dogfight with a trio of III./JG 77 Bf 109s over Oristano, Sardinia on July 30, 1943. (He made it home, they didn’t!) Other art in the title’s portfolio include:

Color 3-views of aircraft
1. P-40F-10 Y7*O HELL’S BELLS of Maj. Frederick J. Delany Jr, CO of the 316th FS/324th FG
2. Bf 109G-6/trop “Yellow 16” of 9./JG 53

Color illustrations
a. P-40F Machine Guns
b. Bf 109G Machine Guns
c. Bf 109G Engine-Mounted Cannon (I didn’t know its ammo bay extended in the wing!)
d. P-40F/L Warhawk Cockpit
e. Bf 109G-6/trop Cockpit
f. RAF “Fluid Six” P-40 Formation
g. Engaging The Enemy (P-40 cockpit view of the destruction of a Bf 109.)
h. Jagdflieger Formation

I. P-40/Kittyhawk and Bf 109 Airfields, October 23, 1942
II. P-40/Kittyhawk and Bf 109 Airfields on Italy, Tunisia, Sicily, Sardinia, Pantelleria and Malta

Osprey has scored another success with this title. Mr. Molesworth’s knowledge and presentation, plus the wonderful art by Messer’s. Laurier and Hector, presents you with an excellent comparison of these two antagonists of the Mediterranean air war. I definitely recommend this book.

What If…?
The P-40 had one of the fastest rates of roll amongst US fighters and it had the lowest wing loading of any mid to late war US fighter. Messerschmitt development of the ‘109 from the Emil through the Karl is well known. While neither well known nor touched upon in this book, what the P-40 performance could have been with a high altitude engine is demonstrated by the P-40Q. With its high altitude Allison engine it achieved 422 mph at 20,000 feet, with a 4,100 feet per minute rate of climb to that altitude (A rate of climb 50% greater than the P-51D); it was faster than the Spitfire IX and climbed as fast. Thus the P-40Q could outrun, outmaneuver, and out climb the Bf 109G-6 and Focke-Wulf 190A, while retaining the devastating armament and tank-like construction of the P-40.

Though work on the P-40Q started about the same time similar work began to re-engine the P-51, the P-51 was not widely committed while the P-40 was heavily engaged around the world. Disrupting the Warhawk production line was not an option. Additionally, USAAF had production P-38s and P-47s equipping more and more fighter squadrons.

Thus development of the P-40Q was redundant. Had the P-40 been equipped with a high altitude engine from the beginning, those other fighters would be the “What if” fighters of today.

Please let your vendors and publishers know you saw this book here on Aeroscale!
Highs: Well written by a very knowledgeable author. Outstanding portfolio of illustrations and photographs.
Lows: It ends?
Verdict: Simply, this is an excellent book for fans of the P-40 in USAAF service, the Bf 109, and the MTO air war.
Percentage Rating
  Scale: Other
  Mfg. ID: ISBN: 9781849084697
  Suggested Retail: $17.95, 12.99 GBP
  Related Link: Duel Series
  PUBLISHED: Sep 10, 2011
  NATIONALITY: United States

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About Frederick Boucher (JPTRR)

I'm a professional pilot with a degree in art. My first model was an AMT semi dump truck. Then Monogram's Lunar Lander right after the lunar landing. Next, Revell's 1/32 Bf-109G...cried havoc and released the dogs of modeling! My interests--if built before 1900, or after 1955, then I proba...

Copyright ©2021 text by Frederick Boucher [ JPTRR ]. Images also by copyright holder unless otherwise noted. Opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of ModelGeek. All rights reserved.


Looks like an excellent read. I didn't realize that the P-40 was as good a performer against the 109 as it was. Russell
SEP 12, 2011 - 11:15 AM
A deffinate book that I will get in the near future. Gotta love those P-40"s. Hey Russel, the armor of a P-40 could absorb alot of punisfment and the 6 50's could produce alot of damage. Nose to nose at altitude, I'd take the P-40 every time. Now if I only won the lottery and could P/U a P-40Q, I'd be in heaven, and probably divorced.
SEP 13, 2011 - 04:10 AM

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