P-38s with US Navy and Foreign Air Forces

Last revised June 13, 1999

This account of the Lockheed Lightning concludes with the story of its service with the US Navy and a description of its operations with foreign air forces.

The US Navy acquired four F-5Bs from the USAAF in North Africa. They were designated FO-1 and were assigned the BuNos 01209/01212. They were operated exclusively as land- based aircraft and never from carriers. Lockheed had proposed a carrier-based version of the Lightning, the Model 822, with folding wings, arrester hooks, and a strengthened airframe. However, the Navy looked askance at such a large aircraft on its carrier decks, and they disliked liquid-cooled engines for carrier-based planes. Consequently, this project never got past the paper stage.

The number of foreign operators of the P-38 were quite small. Fifteen P-38J/P-38L fighters were delivered to China late in the war. Later they were supplemented by a similar numbers of F-5E and F-5G reconnaissance aircraft. I have no details of their service or their ultimate fate.

The Royal Air Force never flew Lightnings on an operational basis. The RAF has initially ordered 143 Lightning Is and 524 Lightning IIs. However, they had received three Model 322 Lightnings and had found them completely unsatisfactory and canceled their order for all the rest. The remainder of the cancelled British order was diverted to USAAF contracts.

Three F-4-1-LOs were given to the Royal Australian Air Force in September 1942, and they were assigned to the No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit which them under the RAAF serial numbers A55-1, 2, and 3. A55-1 and 3 were written off in landing accidents, while A55-2 was returned to the USAAF three months after it had entered Australian service.

The Free French also operated photographic Lightnings. Six F-4s were assigned for conversion training to Groupe de Reconnaissance II/33 in Morocco in April of 1943. The Groupe later re-equipped with F-5s and operated as as squadron attached to the 3re Photographic Reconnaissance Group of the Twelfth Air Force of the USAAF. The best-known Free French F-5 pilot was the famous author Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Saint-Exupery was lost off southern France on July 31, 1944 while on a combat sortie in his F-5 from Corsica.

After the liberation of France, GR II/33 was renamed GR I/33 "Belfort" and continued to fly reconnaissance Lightnings (F-5A/F-5B/F-5F/F-5G) for several years after the war. They finally re-equipped with modified Republic F-84G Thunderjets in 1952.

Two P-38s of the First Fighter Group had been forced to land at Lisbon, Portugal while being ferried from England to Algeria. The Portuguese government obtained American permission to retain these planes and assigned them the serial numbers 300 and 301.

There is at least one occasion in which Lightnings served with Axis forces, joining the list of aircraft which served on both sides during World War II. The Regia Aeronautica managed to obtain an intact P-38G when it had been forced to land on Sardinia on July 12, 1943 due to navigation equipment problems during a flight from Gibraltar to Malta. The captured P-38G was repainted in Italian markings and was flown to the experimental center at Guidonia for evaluation. It was flown from there on August 11, 1943 by Col Angelo Tondi to intercept American bombers. Tondi is credited with possibly shooting down one B-24D Liberator. However, the Italian P-38G was grounded shortly thereafter because of a lack of spare parts.

The Italians acquired additional Lightnings in a more orthodox manner six years later. When Italy joined NATO, the Aeronautica Militare Italiana received 50 Lightnings (P-38Js, P-38Ls, and F-5Es), which operated them until they were replaced by jets.

The Fuerza Aerea Hondurena received a dozen P-38Ls in the late 1940s.

In 1947, several P-38Ls ended up in service with the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD) based at Cayo Confites in Cuba. The PRD was a revolutionary movement originally founded in Cuba in 1939 by opponents of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. By 1947, both the American and Cuban governments were supposedly providing covert support to the PRD rebels, who planned to stage an amphibious and airborne attack on the Dominican Republic and overthrow the Trujillo regime. The P-38s were apparently purchased on the sly in the USA by the revolutionary plotters, and were designed primarily for long range photographic work and were not equipped with guns or bomb racks when they arrived in Cuba. However, the invasion plan leaked out to the press, and both the Cuban and American governments changed their minds and the invasion plan was blocked and all the rebel's weapons were confiscated. The P-38s (along with a single PB4Y-1) were all seized by the Cuban government before they could be used against Trujillo. They were flown until they were worn out or scrapped.

With the end of the war, large numbers of Lightnings were scrapped. A few were sold off as surplus. Some of these were used for aerial surveys and some were flown in postwar National Air Races. There were still a few P-38Js and P-38Ls still around when the USAF was formed, and in June 1948 they were redesignated F-38J and F-38L. By 1949, all of these F-38s were out of service.


  1. Lockheed Aircraft Since 1913, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1987

  2. The P-38J-M Lockheed Lightning, Profile Publications, Le Roy Weber Profile Publications, Ltd, 1965.

  3. War Planes of the Second World War, Fighters, Volume Four, William Green, Doubleday, 1964.

  4. Famous Fighters of the Second World War, William Green, Doubleday, 1967.

  5. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion Books, 1987.

  6. Wings of the Weird and Wonderful, Captain Eric Brown, Airlife, 1985.

  7. United States Military Aircraft since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

  8. E-mail from John Anthony on Cuban Lightnings.