Curtiss Hawk with Armee de l'Air

Last revised June 12, 1999

Although the P-36 saw very little combat in American hands, the Curtiss fighter was to see quite a bit of combat in foreign hands. In fact, it is one of the few military aircraft actually to see combat on BOTH sides during the Second World War.

The largest foreign operator of the Hawk was the Armee de l'Air, the French Air Force. Next to the Morane-Saulnier M.S.406, the Curtiss Hawk was numerically the most important fighter in French service during the German onslaught into Western Europe in May of 1940.

In February 1938, two months before the first P-36A had rolled off the Buffalo assembly lines for the USAAC, the French government entered into negotiations with the Curtiss company for the supply of 300 fighters of the Hawk 75A type which Curtiss had offered to the Armee de l'Air. The Hawk 75A was an export version of the P-36A, and was being offered for sale with either the Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp or the Wright Cyclone engine.

However, the unit price asked by Curtiss was considered exorbitant by the French--almost twice as high as that of the Morane-Saulnier M.S.406. In addition, the proposed delivery schedule commencing in March of 1939 with 20 planes and continuing at a rate of 30 planes per month was considered totally unacceptable. Furthermore, the USAAC was itself unhappy with the Curtiss company's inability to meet delivery schedules for its P-36As, and felt that the French sale would only slow things up still more. Consequently, the USAAC opposed the French sale.

Nevertheless, the rapidity of German rearmament made the modernization of the Armee de l'Air's equipment a matter of the utmost urgency, so the French persisted with the negotiations. As a result of the direct intervention of President Roosevelt, a leading French test pilot, Michel Detroyat was permitted to fly a Y1P-36 service test prototype at Wright Field in March of 1938. He submitted a thoroughly enthusiastic report. In addition, Curtiss suggested that more acceptable delivery schedules could be offered if the French government would finance the construction and equipping of supplementary assembly facilities.

The French still felt that the unit price was too high, and on April 28, 1938 they decided to delay their decision until the completion of the test trials of the Bloch MB-150, the quoted price of which was scarcely half that of the Curtiss fighter. However, the MB-150 was suffering an extensive series of teething troubles (the first prototype couldn't even fly!) and had been subjected to a succession of modifications for nearly two years. By mid-1938, it was felt that the Bloch fighter's main problems had been overcome. However, it was soon realized that in order to adapt the design for mass production, a complete structural redesign would have to take place.

The rework of the Bloch MB-150 would obviously be a costly and time- consuming process, and time was something the Armee de l'Air did not have. Consequently, on May 17, 1938 the Minister for Air announced that the French would acquire the Curtiss Hawk, and that a French purchasing commission was instructed to order 100 Hawk airframes and 173 Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engines. The contract stipulated that the first Hawk should be flown at Buffalo by November 25, 1938 and that the 100-th plane should be delivered by April 10, 1939.

Hawk 75A-1

The initial production version of the Hawk was designated Hawk 75A-1 by Curtiss, of which 100 had been ordered by France. According to the original plan, the majority of the Hawk 75A-1s were to be shipped by Curtiss in disassembled form to France, with assembly being completed in France by the Societe Nationale de Constructions Aeronautiques du Centre (SNCAC) at Bourges. The first Hawk 75A-1 was flown at Buffalo early in December 1938, only a few days after the committed date. The first Hawk 75A-1s (actually the fourth and fifth examples off the line) were delivered by ship to France on December 14, 1938. Fourteen more Hawk 75A-1s were delivered in fully-assembled form for Armee de l'Air trials, but the rest were delivered in disassembled form. The first assembly was commenced by SNCAC in February 1939.

During March and April of 1939, the 4e and 5e Escadres de Chasse had initiated conversion from the Dewoitine 500 and 501, and by July 1, 1939 the 4e Escadre had 54 Curtiss fighters on strength and the 5e Escadre had 41. The conversion had not been without problems, one Hawk 75A-1 having crash- landed when an over-speeding propeller had caused the engine to overheat, and another one had been destroyed in a fatal crash as a result of a flat spin that developed during aerobatic trials with full fuel tanks. Throughout the entire service history of the Hawk 75A, there were problems with maneuverability and handling when all the fuel tanks were completely full.

The Hawk 75A-1 was powered by the Pratt & Whitney R-1830-SC-G engine, with an international rating of 900 hp at 12,000 feet and 950 hp for takeoff. Armament comprised four 7.5 mm machine guns, two mounted in the upper decking of the fuselage nose and two in the wings. Apart from the altitude indicator, all instruments were metric calibrated. A modified seat was fitted to accommodate the French Lemercier back parachute. The throttle operated in the "French fashion", i.e. in the reverse direction to the throttles of British or US aircraft.

France used the manufacturer's model number as the official designation, and numbered the aircraft consecutively within the model. This information appeared in three lines on the rudder as so:

No. 09

The C stood for Chasse (pursuit) and the 1 indicated a single-seater, and the 09 was the ninth H75 ordered by France.

Hawk 75A-2

Following the placing of the initial French order for the Hawk 75A in May of 1938, an option had been taken for 100 more machines. This option was converted into a firm order on March 8, 1939. These aircraft differed from the A-1 in having an additional 7.5 mm machine gun in each wing, some structural reinforcement of the rear fuselage, and the minor modifications necessary to permit interchangeability between the R-1830-SC-G and the more powerful R-1830-SC2-G, the latter affording 1050 hp for takeoff.

The new model was designated Hawk 75A-2 by Curtiss. The four wing guns and the new engine made the Hawk 75A-2 more or less equivalent to the US Army's XP-36D. The first A-2 was delivered to France at the end of May, 1939. The first 40 of these were basically similar to the A-1 in both powerplant and armament. The first A-2 to have both the uprated engine and the increased armament was actually the 48th off the Buffalo line. French Air Force numbering continued from the Hawk 75A-1, the first Hawk 75A-2 being numbered 101.

Hawk 75A-3

One hundred and thirty-five of the Hawk 75A-3 version were ordered by France on October 9, 1939, with improved 1200 hp R-1830-S1C3G engines and armament similar to that of the A-2 (six 7.5-mm machine guns). Maximum speed was 311 mph at 10,000 feet. Initial climb rate was 2350 feet per minute, service ceiling was 33,700 feet, and range was 820 miles. Wingspan was 37 feet 3 1/2 inches, length was 28 feet 7 inches, and wing area was 236 square feet. Weights were 4483 lbs empty, 5692 lbs gross. About sixty Hawk 75A-3s reached France before the surrender, with the rest being diverted to Britain.

Hawk 75A-4

The last French order before the Armistice was for 395 Hawk 75A-4 aircraft. These were armed like the A-3s but were fitted with 1200 hp Wright R-1820-G205A Cyclone engines. Cyclone-powered 75s could be distinguished from Twin Wasp models by their short-chord cowlings of slightly greater diameter and by the absence of engine cowling flaps and bulbous nose gun port covers. Maximum speed was 323 mph at 15,100 feet. Initial climb rate was 2820 feet per minute, service ceiling was 32,700 feet, and range was 670 miles. Weights were 4541 lbs empty, 5750 lbs gross. Wingspan was 27 feet 3 1/2 inches and length was 28 feet 10 inches. Only two hundred and eighty-four of these A-4s were actually built, and of these, only six A-4s actually reached France before the surrender.

Action with Armee de l'Air

The French Hawks were in action from almost the first day that the war began in Europe. On September 8, 1939, the Groupe de Chasse II/4, operating Hawk 75As succeeded in destroying two Messerschmitt Bf 109Es, the first Allied aerial victories of World War 2. However, during the invasion of France in May of 1940, the Hawks were generally outmatched by the Messerschmitt Bf 109E. The Hawk 75A served with Armee de l'Air Groupes de Chasse III/2, I/4, II/4, I/5 and II/5, these units claiming 230 confirmed kills and 80 "probables", as against losses totaling only 29 aircraft destroyed in aerial combat. Although these figures are probably over-optimistic, it seems likely that the French Hawks gave better than they got. The Hawk 75A was neither as fast nor as well-armed as the Messerschmitt Bf 109E, but it was more maneuverable and could take more punishment. The leading French ace of 1939/40 was Lt Marin La Meslee, who scored 20 "kills" while flying the Hawk.

Only 291 Hawk 75A fighters were actually taken on strength by the Armee de l'Air before the collapse of French resistance, but a number were lost en route to French ports. As mentioned before, only six A-4s actually reached France before the Armistice. Thirty A-4s destined for France were lost at sea during transit, seventeen were disembarked in Martinique and a further six were unloaded in Guadeloupe. These machines were, incidentally, shipped from the West Indies to Morocco during 1943-44, placed in flying condition and used for training, their unreliable Cyclone 9 engines being replaced by Twin Wasps. The rest of the French Hawk 75A-4 order was taken over by Britain as Mohawk IVs.

After the collapse of French resistance, those Armee de l'Air Hawks which had not escaped to unoccupied French territory or flown to England were taken over by the Luftwaffe. Some of the Armee de l'Air Hawk 75As were captured while still in their delivery crates. These were transported to Germany, whey they were overhauled and assembled by the Espenlaub Flugzeugbau, fitted with German instrumentation, and then sold to Finland. Finland received 36 former Armee de l'Air Hawk 75A-1s, A-2s and A-3s, along with eight former Norwegian Hawk 75A-6s. These Finnish Hawks participated in the war on the Axis side when Finland entered the war against the Soviet Union on June 25, 1941. These Hawks gave a good account of themselves in Finnish service, and some Hawks remained in service in Finland until 1948.

After the Armistice, Armee de l'Air Groupes de Chasse I/4 and I/5 continued flying their Hawks with the Vichy Air Force, the former unit based at Dakar and the latter at Rabat. These Vichy Hawk 75As were to fight against other American planes when the Allies made the Operation Torch landings in North Africa in November 1942. In an air battle between these Hawks and carrier-based Grumman F4F Wildcats, 15 Vichy planes were shot down versus the loss of seven Wildcats. This is one of the few occasions during the Second World War in which American-built planes fought against each other.


  1. Curtiss Aircraft, 1907-1947, Peter M Bowers, Naval Institute Press, 1979

  2. The Curtiss Hawk 75, Aircraft in Profile No. 80, Profile Publications, Ltd. 1966

  3. War Planes of the Second World War, Fighters, Volume Four, William Green, Doubleday, 1961.

  4. Air Enthusiast, Volume 1, William Green et al, Doubleday, 1971.