F4F Wildcat

1. The Wildcat was born out of a 1936 competition to provide the US Navy with its first monoplane fighter. Although the Brewster F2A Buffalo fighter ultimately won the contract competition, the Grumman G36 was still ordered into production as a stand by. The first machines (XF4F-1 and XF4F-2) proved to be only marginally faster than the F3F-1 Biplanes already in service and it was not until the arrival of the XF4F-3 that the aircraft with a 1,200-hp supercharged XR-1830-76 engine was able to attain the US Navy’s performance specifications. This led to a Navy order for seventy-eight production aircraft.

2. The G36 however soon impressed some overseas customers. The French Navy placed an order for eighty one machines powered by a 1,000-hp Pratt and Whitney R-1820-G208A engine, and Greece ordered thirty with the 1,000-hp R-1830-S3C4G engine. Both of these export machines retained the four wing-mounted 0.5-in guns like those of the US Navy although those on the French machines being more spread out than those on the Greek

3. By the time that the first machines were ready for the French Navy on the 27th July 1940, France had already been overrun by the Germans, and so the order was taken over by the British purchasing committee who increased the order to ninety machines. The first five going to Canada with the remainder being shipped to the United Kingdom where they were given the name of received Martlet-I.

4. The Martlet-I entered service with the Fleet Air Arm in October 1940 with No.804 squadron based at Hatston. On Christmas Day 1940 two Martlets of the squadron piloted by Lieutenant L.L.N. Carver and Sub-Lieutenant A Parke intercepted and shot down a German Junkers JU88 whilst patrolling over the fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow. They were the first American built aeroplanes in British service to shoot down an enemy aircraft

5. None of the thirty fighters ordered by Greece were delivered by the time that country too was overrun by the axis powers, and these also ended up in the hands of the Fleet Air Arm. These fighters were given the designation of Martlet III although the first ten were in actual fact Wight R-1830-90 powered models which had originally been earmarked for the US Navy as a safeguard against delays in delivery of the Twin Wasp engine.

6. The first US Navy squadron to receive the F4f-3 Wildcat was VF-41which began equipping with the type from the 4th December 1940. During 1941 Grumman commenced working on an improved model. The G36B, using much knowledge gained from the combat experiences by the British with the earlier model. This was to become the F4F-4; the most widely build variant and the only US Navy fighter to be employed for the first part of the war in the Pacific. Amongst the changes made were the fitting of Folding wings, Armour, Self-sealing fuel tanks, and an increase to a six gun armament.

7. Thirty-six F4F-4s were shipped to the United Kingdom during 1941 where they became known as the Martlet-II. A further fifty-four were delivered to the Far East for use by the British Empire forces there. The Martlet-II was to be the first of the type to be employed on board Royal Navy Escort carriers.

8. The first ‘Kill’ by a Martlet-II launched from a carrier at sea occurred on the 20th of September, 1941 when a No.802 Squadron fighter from the small escort carrier HMS Audacity shot down a FW-200C Condor which was shadowing the convoy that the Audacity was protecting. On the Audacity’s next voyage No 802 squadron’s Martlets destroyed another four Condors.

9. On the 8th December 1941 the Japanese attacked the American Base of Wake Island in the Pacific. Twelve Wildcat aircraft of USMC squadron VMF-211 put up a magnificent fight against overwhelming numbers of attacking Japanese aircraft until their last Wildcat was lost shortly before the island fell, on December 22 1941. Despite overwhelming odds this squadron thwarted numerous Japanese attacks and even managed to sink a destroyer (The pilot Captain Robert McElrod losing his life in the process although he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor), and damage a transport with bombs.

10. On the 20th February 1942 Lt (jg) Edward H ‘Butch’ O’Hare’ of VF-3 flying an F4F-3 from the Carrier USS Lexington was one of six pilots sent to intercept a formation of nine Mitsubishi G4M1 bombers reported to be approaching the fleet. Once airborne VF-3’s pilots split up to search for the incoming bombers. Lt 0’Hare and his wingman were the pilots who located the enemy force, but unfortunately the wingman’s guns failed and O’Hare was left to face the enemy alone. In the ensuing action Lt O’Hare single handed shot down six of the Japanese bombers making him the first US ace of the Pacific war. For his gallantry he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and awarded the coveted Congressional Medal of Honour.

11. During the landings on Madagascar twelve Martlets from No. 881 and eight from No.882 squadrons operated from HMS Illustrious supported the allied landings on Madagascar. During this operation Lt. C.C. Tomkinson FAA became the Royal Navy’s most successful Martlet Pilot with 2½ vuictories over Vichy aircraft. Sub-Lieutenant B.J Waller also shared in the destructiobn of three Vichy french aircraft (a Potez 63 and a pair of MS406s

12. At the Battle of Midway on the 4th June 1942 the three American aircraft carriers, USS Yorktown, Hornet and Enterprise were operating seventy-nine wildcat fighters between them. Most were kept back to protect the carriers and only twenty were sent out to escort the torpedo bombers on their mission to attack the Japanese Fleet. All but six failed to find the enemy ships with disastrous results for the bombers. Many ran out of fuel and were forced top ditch in the sea. Two counter-strikes, the first by eighteen ‘Val’ dive bombers and six ‘Zero’ fighters, and the second of ten ’Kate’ torpedo-bombers from the Japanese carrier Hiryu was however devastated by the defending Wildcat fighters. The Japanese losing thirteen ‘Vals‘ three ‘Zeros’ and four ‘Kate’ torpedo bombers

13. During 1942 Grumman manufactured for Lend-Lease the F4F-4B (Martlet-IV) for the Fleet Air Arm. This variant differed from the American machines in being powered by a Wright GR1820-G205A3 Cyclone engine. Two Hundred and twenty being delivered to the United Kingdom with No.892 Squadron being the first to receive this type on the 15th July 1942 for service aboard the carriers Archer and Battler.

14. Another Congressional Medal of Honour winner was Marine Corps pilot Joseph Jacob Foss, the Executive Officer with VMF-121 on Guadalcanal. Credited with shooting down twenty three enemy aircraft during that campaign, he later scored another three victories making him the highest scoring US ace since Eddie Brickenbacker

15. Fleet Air Arm Martlets-IIIs were also involved in the war in the Western Desert with No.805 Squadron based at Dekheila contributing to the operations of the Desert Air Force.

16. Both US Wildcats and FAA Martlets took part in Operation Torch, the Allied Landings in North Africa in November 1942.The Americans deployed 57 on board the Fleet Carrier USS Ranger and another 57 between the Escort Carriers USS Sangamon, Santee, Suwanee. During the landings near Casablanca a squadron of USN F4F-4 Wildcats clashed with sixteen Vichy D.520s shooting down eight for the loss of four Wildcats. The Royal Navy committed 24 Martlets from HMS Formidable and another 11 from HMS Victorious‘, one of which, from No.882 squadron actually took the surrender if the Vichy garrison at Blida airfield.

17 Although the undercarriage was fully retractable, the Wildcats pilot had to change hands on the stick and crank 29 turns on a small hand-crank connected to a bicycle chain to raise or lower it,

18. A total of 1,468 Wildcats and Martlets were produced during 1942, including 21 F4F-7 long range unarmed un-armoured photographic reconnaissance models with cameras mounted in the fuselage. The following year Grumman built only 100 aircraft as it was turning over production to the new F6F Hellcat fighter. However such was the Navy’s need for this versatile little fighter that continued production was turned over to the General Motors company

19.General Motors (Eastern Division) finalised the contract to build the F4F-4 under the new designationfm-FM-1on the 18th of April 1942 and the first of the 1,152 aircraft that they manufactured between late 1942 and 1945 made its maiden flight on the 31st August 1942. Prior to the change of manufacturer Grumman had built two prototype, XF4F-8 to be powered by a more powerful 1,350-hp R-1820-56 Cyclone engine. General Motors took on this project too as the model FM-2 building a total of 4,777 machines before production terminated in August 1945

20. The Fleet Air Arm received 312 FM-1 and 370 FM-2. These were known in British service as the Martlet -V and Martlet VI respectively. Most FAA Martlets being equipped with provision for carrying either two 250-lb bombs or two 220-litre drop tanks under-wing. Some trials were also made with a six-rocket installation under the wings utilising either the British Mk.1 rails or the American MK V launchers but these trials proved unsatisfactory and Rocket equipped Martlets were never used operationally.

21. The primary role of the dozen FAA Martlet squadrons was to fly defensive sorties and to attack surfaced U-Boats from Escort Carriers between April 1943 until September 1944. In this role they were to make a significant contribution to the winning of the Battle of the Atlantic. A further four squadrons contributed aircraft to Escort Carriers operating in the Indian Ocean. In January 1944 the British renamed all their Martlets with the American name of Wildcat to avoid confusion with the Americans

22. Although largely relegated to a training role by 1945 FAA Wildcats would occasionally participate in operations such as the one that occurred in March 1945 when March 1945 when No.882 Squadron led by Lieutenant Commander Bird shot down four Messerschmitt Bf109Gs off the coast of Norway.

23. One aircraft designated F4F-3S was tried out as a floatplane in order to produce a floatplane-fighter similar to the Japanese A6M2 ‘Rufe’ Trials soon indicated that the floats reduced the aircrafts maximum speed to an unsatisfactory 266-mph. The one hundred Wildcat Floatplanes that the US Navy had rather rashly ordered were converted back to conventional F4F-3 training aircraft.

24. In the year 2000 there were known to be at least fifty Wildcats remaining around the world including a good number still flying, usually in private ownership.

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