Grumman F4F Wildcat
The Grumman F4F Wildcat is an American carrier-based fighter aircraft that began service with both the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy in 1940, where it was initially known by the latter as the Martlet. First used in combat by the British in the North Atlantic, the Wildcat was the only effective fighter available to the United States Navy and Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater during the early part of World War II in 1941 and 1942; the disappointing Brewster Buffalo was withdrawn in favour of the Wildcat and replaced as units became available. With a top speed of 318 mph (512 km/h), the Wildcat was outperformed by the faster 331 mph (533 km/h), more maneuverable, and longer-ranged Mitsubishi A6M Zero. However, the F4F’s ruggedness, coupled with tactics such as the Thach Weave, resulted in a claimed air combat kill-to-loss ratio of 5.9:1 in 1942 and 6.9:1 for the entire war.
Lessons learned from the Wildcat were later applied to the faster F6F Hellcat. While the Wildcat had better range and maneuverability at low speed, the Hellcat could rely on superior power and high speed performance to outperform the Zero. The Wildcat continued to be built throughout the remainder of the war to serve on escort carriers, where larger and heavier fighters could not be used.
Grumman fighter development began with the two-seat Grumman FF biplane. The FF was the first U.S. naval fighter with a retractable landing gear. The wheels retracted into the fuselage, leaving the tires visibly exposed, flush with sides of the fuselage. Two single-seat biplane designs followed, the F2F and F3F, which established the general fuselage outlines of what would become the F4F Wildcat. In 1935, while the F3F was still undergoing flight testing, Grumman started work on its next biplane fighter, the G-16. At the time, the U.S. Navy favored a monoplane design, the Brewster F2A-1, ordering production early in 1936. However, an order was also placed for Grumman’s G-16 (given the navy designation XF4F-1) as a backup in case the Brewster monoplane proved to be unsatisfactory.
It was clear to Grumman that the XF4F-1 would be inferior to the Brewster monoplane, so Grumman abandoned the XF4F-1, designing instead a new monoplane fighter, the XF4F-2. The XF4F-2 would retain the same, fuselage-mounted, hand-cranked main landing gear as the F3F, with its relatively narrow track. The unusual manually-retractable main landing gear design for all of Grumman’s U.S. Navy fighters up to and through the F4F, as well as for the amphibious Grumman J2F utility biplane, was originally created in the 1920s by Leroy Grumman for Grover Loening. Landing accidents caused by failure of the main gear to fully lock into place were distressingly common.
The overall performance of Grumman’s new monoplane was felt to be inferior to that of the Brewster Buffalo. The XF4F-2 was marginally faster, but the Buffalo was more maneuverable. It was judged superior and was chosen for production. After losing out to Brewster, Grumman completely rebuilt the prototype as the XF4F-3 with new wings and tail and a supercharged version of the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 “Twin Wasp” radial engine. Testing of the new XF4F-3 led to an order for F4F-3 production models, the first of which was completed in February 1940. France also ordered the type, powered by a Wright R-1820 “Cyclone 9” radial engine, but France fell to the Axis powers before they could be delivered and the aircraft went instead to the British Royal Navy, who christened the new fighter the Martlet. The U.S. Navy officially adopted the aircraft type on 1st October 1941 as the Wildcat. The Royal Navy’s and U.S. Navy’s F4F-3s, armed with four .50 in (12.7 mm) Browning machine guns, joined active units in 1940.
On 16th December 1940, the XF4F-3 prototype, BuNo 0383, c/n 356, modified from XF4F-2, was lost under circumstances that suggested that the pilot may have been confused by the poor layout of fuel valves and flap controls and inadvertently turned the fuel valve to “off” immediately after takeoff rather than selecting flaps “up”. This was the first fatality in the type.
Even before the Wildcat had been purchased by U.S. Navy, the French Navy and the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm (FAA) had ordered the Wildcat, with their own configurations, via the Anglo-French Purchasing Board. The F4F Wildcat (known in British service at first as the Martlet) was taken on by the FAA as an interim replacement for the Fairey Fulmar. The Fulmar was a two-seat fighter with good range but at a performance disadvantage against single-seater fighters. Navalised Supermarine Spitfires were not available because of the greater need of the Royal Air Force. In the European theater, the Wildcat scored its first combat victory on Christmas Day 1940, when a land-based Martlet destroyed a Junkers Ju 88 bomber over the Scapa Flow naval base. This was the first combat victory by a US-built fighter in British service in World War II. The type also pioneered combat operations from the smaller escort carriers.
Six Martlets went to sea aboard the converted former German merchant vessel HMS Audacity in September 1941 and shot down several Luftwaffe Fw 200 Condor bombers during highly effective convoy escort operations. These were the first of many Wildcats to engage in aerial combat at sea. The British received 300 Eastern Aircraft FM-1s as the Martlet V in 1942–43 and 340 FM-2s as the Wildcat VI. In total, nearly 1,200 Wildcats would serve with the FAA. By January 1944, the Martlet name was dropped and the type was identified as the Wildcat. In March 1945, Wildcats shot down four Messerschmitt Bf 109s over Norway, the FAA’s last victory with a Wildcat.
I would still assess the Wildcat as the outstanding naval fighter of the early years of World War II … I can vouch as a matter of personal experience, this Grumman fighter was one of the finest shipboard aeroplanes ever created.
— Eric M. “Winkle” Brown, British test pilot.
The last air-raid of the war in Europe was carried out by Fleet Air Arm aircraft in Operation Judgement, Kilbotn on May 5th, 1945. Twenty eight Wildcat VI aircraft from Naval Air Squadrons 846, 853 and 882, flying from escort carriers, took part in an attack on a U-boat depot near Harstad, Norway. Two ships and a U-boat were sunk with the loss of one Wildcat and one Avenger torpedo-bomber.
The Wildcat was generally outperformed by the Mitsubishi Zero, its major opponent in the early part of the Pacific Theatre, but held its own partly because, with relatively heavy armour and self-sealing fuel tanks, the Grumman airframe could survive far more damage than its lightweight, unarmored Japanese rival. Many U.S. Navy fighter pilots also were saved by the Wildcat’s ZB homing device, which allowed them to find their carriers in poor visibility, provided they could get within the 30 mi (48 km) range of the homing beacon.
In the hands of an expert pilot using tactical advantage, the Wildcat could prove to be a difficult foe even against the formidable Zero. After analyzing Fleet Air Tactical Unit Intelligence Bureau reports describing the new carrier fighter, USN Commander “Jimmy” Thach devised a defensive tactic that allowed Wildcat formations to act in a coordinated maneuver to counter a diving attack, called the “Thach Weave.”
Four U.S. Marine Corps Wildcats played a prominent role in the defense of Wake Island in December 1941. USN and USMC aircraft formed the fleet’s primary air defense during the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway, and land-based Wildcats played a major role during the Guadalcanal Campaign of 1942–43. It was not until 1943 that more advanced naval fighters capable of taking on the Zero on more even terms, the Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair, reached the South Pacific theater.
The Japanese ace Saburō Sakai described the Wildcat’s capacity to absorb damage:-
I had full confidence in my ability to destroy the Grumman and decided to finish off the enemy fighter with only my 7.7 mm machine guns. I turned the 20 mm cannon switch to the “off” position, and closed in. For some strange reason, even after I had poured about five or six hundred rounds of ammunition directly into the Grumman, the airplane did not fall, but kept on flying. I thought this very odd—it had never happened before—and closed the distance between the two airplanes until I could almost reach out and touch the Grumman. To my surprise, the Grumman’s rudder and tail were torn to shreds, looking like an old torn piece of rag. With his plane in such condition, no wonder the pilot was unable to continue fighting! A Zero which had taken that many bullets would have been a ball of fire by now.
— Saburo Sakai, Zero
Grumman’s Wildcat production ceased in early 1943 to make way for the newer F6F Hellcat, but General Motors continued producing Wildcats for both U.S. Navy and Fleet Air Arm use. At first, GM produced the FM-1 (identical to the F4F-4, but with four guns). Production later switched to the improved FM-2 (based on Grumman’s XF4F-8 prototype, informally known as the “Wilder Wildcat”) optimized for small-carrier operations, with a more powerful engine, and a taller tail to cope with the increased torque.
From 1943 onward, Wildcats equipped with bomb racks were primarily assigned to escort carriers for use against submarines and attacking ground targets, though they would also continue to score kills against Japanese fighters, bombers and kamikaze aircraft. Larger fighters such as the Hellcat and the Corsair and dedicated dive bombers were needed aboard fleet carriers, and the Wildcat’s slower landing speed made it more suitable for shorter flight decks.
In the Battle off Samar on 25th October 1944, escort carriers of Task Unit 77.4.3 (“Taffy 3”) and their escort of destroyers and destroyer escorts found themselves as the sole force standing between vulnerable troop transport and supply ships engaged in landings on the Philippine island of Leyte and a powerful Japanese surface fleet of battleships and cruisers. In desperation, lightly armed Avengers and FM-2 Wildcats from Taffys 1, 2 and 3 resorted to tactics such as strafing ships, including the bridge of the Japanese battleship Yamato, while the destroyers and destroyer escorts charged the enemy. Confused by the fierce resistance, and having suffered significant damage, the Japanese fleet eventually withdrew from the battle.
U.S. Navy Wildcats participated in Operation Torch. USN escort carriers in the Atlantic used Wildcats until the end of the war.
In all, 7,860 Wildcats were built. During the course of the war, Navy and Marine F4Fs and FMs flew 15,553 combat sorties (14,027 of these from aircraft carriers), destroying 1,327 enemy aircraft at a cost of 178 aerial losses, 24 to ground/shipboard fire, and 49 to operational causes (an overall kill-to-loss ratio of 6.9:1). True to their escort fighter role, Wildcats dropped only 154 tons of bombs during the war.
U.S. Navy Wildcats
The original Grumman F4F-1 design was a biplane, which proved inferior to rival designs, necessitating a complete redesign as a monoplane named the F4F-2. This design was still not competitive with the Brewster F2A Buffalo which won initial U.S. Navy orders, but when the F4F-3 development was fitted with a more powerful version of the engine, a Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp R-1830-76, featuring a two-stage supercharger, it showed its true potential.
U.S. Navy orders followed as did some (with Wright Cyclone engines) from France; these ended up with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm after the fall of France and entered service on 8th September 1940. These aircraft, designated by Grumman as G-36A, had a different cowling from other earlier F4Fs and fixed wings, and were intended to be fitted with French armament and avionics following delivery. In British service initially, the aircraft were known as the Martlet I, but not all Martlets would be to exactly the same specifications as U.S. Navy aircraft. All Martlet Is featured the four .50 in (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns of the F4F-3 with 450 rpg. The British directly ordered and received a version with the original Twin Wasp, but again with a modified cowling, under the manufacturer designation G-36B. These aircraft were given the designation Martlet II by the British. The first 10 G-36Bs were fitted with non-folding wings and were given the designation Martlet III. These were followed by 30 folding wing aircraft (F4F-3As) which were originally destined for the Hellenic Air Force, which were also designated Martlet IIIs. On paper, the designation changed to Marlet III(A) when the second series of Martlet III was introduced.
Poor design of the armament installation on early F4Fs caused these otherwise reliable machine guns to frequently jam, a problem common to wing-mounted weapons of many U.S. fighters early in the war. It was an F4F-3 flown by Lieutenant Edward O’Hare that in a few minutes shot down five Mitsubishi twin-engine bombers attacking Lexington off Bougainville on 20th February 1942. But contrasting with O’Hare’s performance, his wingman was unable to participate because his guns would not function.
A shortage of two-stage superchargers led to the development of the F4F-3A, which was basically the F4F-3 but with a 1,200 hp (890 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-1830-90 radial engine with a more primitive single-stage two-speed supercharger. The F4F-3A, which was capable of 312 mph (502 km/h) at 16,000 ft (4,900 m), was used side by side with the F4F-3, but its poorer performance made it unpopular with U.S. Navy fighter pilots. The F4F-3A would enter service as the Martlet III(B).
At the time of Pearl Harbor, only Enterprise had a fully equipped Wildcat squadron, VF-6 with F4F-3As. Enterprise was then transferring a detachment of VMF-211, also equipped with F4F-3s, to Wake. Saratoga was in San Diego, working up for operations of the F4F-3s of VF-3. 11 F4F-3s of VMF-211 were at the Ewa Marine Air Corps Station on Oahu; nine of these were damaged or destroyed during the Japanese attack. The detachment of VMF-211 on Wake lost seven Wildcats to Japanese attacks on 8th December, but the remaining five put up a fierce defense, making the first bomber kill on 9 December. The destroyer Kisaragi was sunk by the Wildcats, and the Japanese invasion force retreated.
In May 1942, the F4F-3s of VF-2 and VF-42, aboard Yorktown and Lexington, participated in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Lexington and Yorktown fought against the fleet carriers Zuikaku and Shōkaku and the light carrier Shōhō in this battle, in an attempt to halt a Japanese invasion of Port Moresby on Papua. During these battles, it became clear that attacks without fighter escort amounted to suicide, but that the fighter component on the carriers was completely insufficient to provide both fighter cover for the carrier and an escort for an attack force. Most U.S. carriers carried less than 20 fighters.
The F4F-3S “Wildcatfish”, a floatplane version of the F4F-3. Edo Aircraft fitted one F4F-3 with twin floats.
This floatplane version of the F4F-3 was developed for use at forward island bases in the Pacific, before the construction of airfields. It was inspired by appearance of the A6M2-N “Rufe”, a modification of the Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zeke”. BuNo 4038 was modified to become the F4F-3S “Wildcatfish”. Twin floats, manufactured by Edo Aircraft Corporation, were fitted. To restore the stability, small auxiliary fins were added to the tailplane. Because this was still insufficient, a ventral fin was added later.
The F4F-3S was first flown 28th February 1943. The weight and drag of the floats reduced the maximum speed to 241 mph (388 km/h). As the performance of the basic F4F-3 was already below that of the Zero, the F4F-3S was clearly of limited usefulness. In any case, the construction of the airfields at forward bases by the “Seabees” was surprisingly quick. Only one was converted.
One of the main features of the F4F-4 were the Sto-Wing-design folding wings, a Grumman patented design
A new version, the F4F-4, entered service in 1941 with six machine guns and the Grumman-patented Sto-Wing folding wing system, which allowed more aircraft to be stored on an aircraft carrier, increasing the number of fighters that could be parked on a surface by more than a factor of 2. The F4F-4 was the definitive version that saw the most combat service in the early war years, including the Battle of Midway. The F4F-3 was replaced by the F4F-4 in June 1942, during the Battle of Midway; only VMF-221 still used them at that time.
This version was less popular with American pilots because the same amount of ammunition was spread over two additional guns, decreasing firing time. With the F4F-3’s four .50 in (12.7 mm) guns and 450 rpg, pilots had 34 seconds of firing time; six guns decreased ammunition to 240 rpg, which could be expended in less than 20 seconds. The increase to six guns was attributed to the Royal Navy, who wanted greater firepower to deal with German and Italian foes. Jimmy Thach is quoted as saying, “A pilot who cannot hit with four guns will miss with eight.” Extra guns and folding wings meant extra weight, and reduced performance: the F4F-4 was capable of only about 318 mph (512 km/h) at 19,400 ft (5,900 m). Rate of climb was noticeably worse in the F4F-4; while Grumman optimistically claimed the F4F-4 could climb at a modest 1,950 ft (590 m) per minute, in combat conditions, pilots found their F4F-4s capable of ascending at only 500 to 1,000 ft (150 to 300 m) per minute. Moreover, the F4F-4’s folding wing was intended to allow five F4F-4s to be stowed in the space required by two F4F-3s. In practice, the folding wings allowed an increase of about 50% in the number of Wildcats carried aboard U.S. fleet aircraft carriers. A variant of the F4F-4, designated F4F-4B for contractual purposes, was supplied to the British with a modified cowling and Wright Cyclone engine. These aircraft received the designation of Martlet IV.
Two F4F-3s (the 3rd and 4th production aircraft, BuNo 1846/1847) were fitted with a Wright R-1820-40 engine and designated XF4F-5.
General Motors / Eastern Aircraft produced 5,280 FM variants of the Wildcat. Grumman’s Wildcat production ceased in early 1943 to make way for the newer F6F Hellcat, but General Motors continued producing Wildcats for both U.S. Navy and Fleet Air Arm use. Late in the war, the Wildcat was obsolescent as a front line fighter compared to the faster (380 mph/610 km/h) F6F Hellcat or much faster (446 mph/718 km/h) F4U Corsair. However, they were adequate for small escort carriers against submarine and shore threats. These relatively modest ships carried only two types of aircraft (along with the GM-built TBM Avengers). The Wildcat’s lower landing speed and ability to take off without a catapult made it more suitable for shorter flight decks. At first, GM produced the FM-1, identical to the F4F-4, but reduced the number of guns to four, and added wing racks for two 250 lb (110 kg) bombs or six rockets. Production later switched to the improved FM-2 (based on Grumman’s XF4F-8 prototype) optimized for small-carrier operations, with a more powerful engine (the 1,350 hp (1,010 kW) Wright R-1820-56), and a taller tail to cope with the torque.
The F4F-7 was a photoreconnaissance variant, with armor and armament removed. It had non-folding “wet” wings that carried an additional 555 gal (2,101 L) of fuel for a total of about 700 gal (2,650 L), increasing its range to 3,700 mi (5,955 km). A total of 21 were built.
The F2M-1 was a planned development of the FM-1 by General Motors / Eastern Aircraft to be powered by the improved XR-1820-70 engine, but the project was cancelled before any aircraft were built.
Royal Navy Martlets
Martlet Mk I
At the end of 1939, Grumman received a French order for 81 aircraft of model G-36A, to equip their new Joffre-class aircraft carriers: Joffre and Painlevé. The main difference with the basic model G-36 was due to the unavailability for export of the two-stage supercharged engine of F4F-3. The G-36A was powered by the nine-cylinder, single-row Wright R-1820-G205A radial engine, of 1,200 hp (890 kW) and with a single-stage two-speed supercharger.
The G-36A also had French instruments (with metric calibration), radio and gunsight. The throttle was modified to conform to French pre-war practice: the throttle lever was moved towards the pilot (i.e. backward) to increase engine power. The armament which was to be fitted in France was six 7.5 mm (.296 in) Darne machine guns (two in the fuselage and four in the wings). The first G-36A was flown on 11th May 1940. After France’s defeat in the Battle of France, all contracts were taken over by Britain. The throttle was modified again, four 0.50 in (12.7 mm) guns were installed in the wings and most traces of the original ownership removed.
The Martlets were modified for British use by Blackburn, which continued to do this for all later marks. British gunsights, catapult spools and other items were installed. After attempts to fit British radio sets, it was decided to use the superior American equipment. The first Martlets entered British service in August 1940, with 804 Naval Air Squadron, stationed at Hatston in the Orkney Islands. The Martlet Mk I did not have a wing folding mechanism and was therefore only used from land bases. In 1940, Belgium also placed an order for at least 10 Martlet Mk 1s. These were to be modified with the removal of the tailhook. After the surrender of Belgium, none were delivered and by 10 May 1940, the aircraft order was transferred to the Royal Navy.
Martlet Mk II
Before the Fleet Air Arm took on charge the Martlet Mk Is it had already ordered 100 G-36B fighters. The British chose the Pratt & Whitney R-1830-S3C4-G engine to power this aircraft; this too had a single-stage, two-speed supercharger. The FAA decided to accept a delay in delivery to get Martlets fitted out with the Grumman-designed and patented Sto-Wing folding wing system first fitted onto U.S. Navy F4F-4 Wildcats, which were vitally important if the Martlet was to be used from the first 3 Illustrious class carriers which had elevators that were too narrow to accommodate non-folding wing aircraft. Nevertheless, the first 10 received had fixed wings. The first Martlet with folding wings was not delivered until August 1941.
In contrast to the USN F4F-3, the British aircraft were fitted with armor and self-sealing fuel tanks. The Mk II also had a larger tailwheel. For carrier operations, the “sting” tail hook and attachment point for the American single-point catapult launch system were considered important advantages. Nevertheless, the Martlets were modified to have British-style catapult spools. The FAA had ordered G-36Bs with fixed wings, but wing-folding allowed a carrier to handle a larger number of aircraft, so the contract was amended to specify the Sto-Wing-system folding wings, but the first ten of the order had already been built with fixed wings. Deliveries of the folding-wing G-36Bs began in August 1941, with 36 shipped to the UK and 54 shipped to the Far East; they were designated “Martlet Mark II”. Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) testing of the Martlet II at a mean weight of approximately 7350 lb showed a maximum speed of 293 mph at 5400 ft and 13,800 ft, a maximum climb rate of 1940 fpm at 7600 ft at 7790 lb weight, and a time to climb to 20,000 ft of 12.5 minutes. The service ceiling at 7790 lb was 31,000 ft.
The Martlet was the second single-seat, monoplane fighter to operate from Royal Navy aircraft carriers following the introduction of the Sea Hurricane IB on HMS Furious in July 1941.
The majority of the Martlet Mk IIs were sent to the Far East. The first shipboard operations of the type in British service were in September 1941, aboard HMS Audacity, a very small escort carrier with a carrier deck of 420 ft (130 m) by 59 ft (18 m), no elevators and no hangar deck. The six Wildcats were parked on the deck at all times. On its first voyage, it served as escort carrier for a convoy to Gibraltar. On 20th September, a German FW 200 was shot down. On the next voyage, four FW 200 Condors fell to the guns of the Martlets, and of the combined total, two of these five Condors were shot down by Eric “Winkle” Brown during his time aboard. Operations from Audacity also demonstrated that the fighter cover was useful against U-boats. Audacity was sunk by a U-boat on 21st December 1941, with only Brown and one other pilot surviving, but it had already proved the usefulness of escort carriers.
In May 1942, 881 and 882 squadrons on HMS Illustrious participated in operations against Madagascar. In August 1942, 806 NAS on HMS Indomitable provided fighter cover for a convoy to Malta. Later in that year they participated in the landings in French North Africa.
Martlet Mk III
The first 30 F4F-3As were released for sale to Greece, after the Italian invasion in November 1940. However, at the defeat of Greece in April 1941 the aircraft had only reached Gibraltar. They were taken over by the FAA as Martlet Mk III(B). As these aircraft did not have folding wings, they were only used from land bases. They served in a shore-based role in the Western Desert.
Ten fixed-wing G-36Bs were used by the FAA as Martlet III(A).
Martlet Mk IV
The Royal Navy purchased 220 F4F-4s adapted to British requirements. The main difference was the use of a Wright R-1820-40B Cyclone in a distinctly more rounded and compact cowling, with a single double-wide flap on each side of the rear and no lip intake. These machines were named Martlet Mk IV. Boscombe Down testing of the Martlet IV at 7350 lb weight showed a maximum speed of 278 mph at 3400 ft and 298 mph at 14,600 ft, a maximum climb rate of 1580 fpm at 6200 ft at 7740 lb weight, and a time to climb to 20,000 ft of 14.6 minutes. The service ceiling at 7740 lb was 30,100 ft.
Martlet Mk V
The Fleet Air Arm purchased 312 FM-1s, originally with the designation of Martlet V. In January 1944, a decision was made to retain the American names for US-supplied aircraft, redesignating the batch as the Wildcat V.
Wildcat Mk VI
The Wildcat VI was the Air Ministry name for the FM-2 Wildcat in FAA service.
Hobbymaster Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat White 2, VMF-223, USMC, Guadalcanal, September 1942
The Hobbymaster Brand New Tooling Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat White 2, VMF-223, USMC, Guadalcanal, September 1942 is now available to pre-order from Flying Tigers. Collectors are already ordering this NEW TOOLING in large numbers. Simply click on the image and links below to go straight to the model page to order now.
Hobbymaster Latest Model Announcements are now available to order from Flying Tigers !
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