Even though both the United States and Great Britain became fighter aircraft powerhouses by the late stages of World War II, the situation was quite the opposite during the early years of the war. The fearsome Luftwaffe was king of the skies above Europe as well as above the Atlantic Ocean.
Therefore, in order to counter the menace, in 1940 the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm together with the French Navy ordered a shipment of newly produced naval fighter aircraft, from Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation in America.
The aircraft in question was the F4F Wildcat, and it was hastily purchased in hopes of turning the tide of the upcoming threat. Alas, for France it was too late.
The fall of France in the summer of 1940 and the subsequent aerial battle above Great Britain caused the Wildcats to be put into action as soon as they arrived.
On Christmas Day, 1940, a Wildcat shot down a Junkers Ju 88 bomber over the Scapa Flow naval base in Scotland, becoming the first ever American-built aircraft to do so in the war.
That was the opening of a hunting season for Wildcat pilots, and F4Fs were further engaged in smaller escort-carrier actions. They were tasked with providing protection for supply convoys across the Atlantic.
Known as the Martlet among the British, the F4F basically pioneered this type of combat, proving very effective against Fw 200 Condor bombers harassing Allied ships.
While Great Britain was leading the Allied cause in Europe, by late 1941 the U.S. entered the war as well, focusing their campaign on the Pacific Theater.
The F4F, which was U.S. Navy’s weapon of choice, was generally considered to be inferior against the fearsome backbone of Japanese aviation ― the Mitsubishi Zero.
The Zero was considered at the time to be best in its category, but nevertheless, Wildcats had several significant advantages which still made them a formidable foe against the Japanese aircraft.
The Wildcat could sustain much more damage than the Zero, due to its heavy armor. Its self-sealing fuel tanks also ensured the aircraft wouldn’t lose fuel or catch fire if shot.
Later on, a specific defense tactic known as the “Thach Weave” was adopted by American pilots, which put them on par with their Japanese opponents.
The F4F Wildcat served honorably until 1943, when it had to make way for the F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair. Both of those aircraft would raise the bar concerning aerial warfare in the Pacific and contribute to the complete downfall of the Japanese.
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War History Online and Nikola Budanovic