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The Bell P-39 Airacobra in the RCAF (Updated)

Written by Jerry Vernon on 15 February 2012.

Bell 14 AiracobraQuite by chance I stumbled across the article on the CAHS website recently, about the Bell Airacobra and the RCAF. During one of my visits to the Directorate of History in 1983, I was given a copy of a couple of research papers by Dr. Steve Harris on the procurement of fighter and other aircraft for the RCAF early in the Second World War. Most of this information was later incorporated in the appropriate places in the 3-volume official RCAF history, and can be read there in more detail.

Photo Caption: Bell 14 Airacobra I (RAF s/n AH621) with engine running, Bell test pilot Robert M. “Bob” Stanley is at the controls, Buffalo, New York, c. 1941.  Photo reproduced with permission from the Rudy Arnold Photo Collection, National Air Space Museum Archives.

The papers are titled "Research Note 7 - Canada, Britain and the Home War Establishment" and "Research Note 1 - Canada and American Fighters - the P-39 and the P-40"
Several years later, while I was poking through RCAF Record Cards and RCAF Accident Cards at DHist, I stumbled by chance upon the accident card for a P-39 that was written off by an RCAF pilot near Rockcliffe, while the RCAF were evaluating the type.

My Comments on Research Note 7:

In late 1940/early 1941, the Canadian view of the need for the Home War Establishment (HWE) was the following:

  • 151 Bolingbrokes
  • ?? Stranraers
  • 50+ PBYs(to be built in Canada)
  • 144 Airacobras(to be built in Canada)
  • 200 Martin Marauders(to be built in Canada)      

Britain wanted Canada to build heavy bombers, and proposed that Canada get the P-39s and B-26s from British contracts in the US instead.  Later, the B-26s became Lancasters and the P-39s became P-40s.  There was also a proposal to built the obsolete Short Stirling in Canada, before the plan was switched to Lancasters.  The 160 obsolete Hampdens were built as an "educational exercise", in order to built up expertise in large all-metal aircraft in the Canadian aircraft industry.

In order to keep the CanCar plant in operation, C. D. Howe ordered 400 additional Hurricanes and 300 Harvards, with no definite RCAF or RAF need for the Hurricanes.... they were for foreign sale to Holland, China or whoever.  This posed another problem, to get 400 Rolls Royce or Packard Merlins for the Hurricanes.  

A deal was struck to trade 50 PBYs to the UK for 240 Merlins, and later the UK agreed to take 200 of the Hurricanes (they are listed in Griffin's book as "Free Issue"), which were shipped to Russia, India, etc., using older Merlins from UK stocks.  In Sep 42, the RCAF agreed to give up 200 Hurricanes, if replacements were made available by Mar 43.

In August 1942, the RCAF was looking at a HWE of 35 squadrons, vs. an earlier view of 49 squadrons, which included five Kittyhawk and/or Mosquito units … at total of 575 aircraft.  

In more recent years, I have found documentation that a later allotment was made to supply the RCAF with P-51D and P-51K Mustangs in 1945 for the HWE, but the war wound down and this never happened.  Pity!!  We later bought Mustangs in 1947 and 1950.

My comments on Research Note 1:

In 1939, Canada were looking into obtaining Seversky or Curtiss fighters off US contracts, since the supply of British aircraft did not look promising at that time.  They stopped looking in January 40.  After No. 1(F) Sqn. went overseas with its Hurricanes in mid-1940, we started looking again, this time at the Vultee Model 48 (P-66) Vanguard or at manufacturing the Lockheed P-38 in Canada.  However, the "most available" fighters were the P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Kittyhawk

In November 1940, the USAAC advised Canada that the P-40(modified) would be superior to the P-39. … however, W/C Larry Dunlap(postwar Chief of Air Staff) advised that the P-40 was "very poor" compared to the P-39!!!  Dunlap was the RCAF's Director of Armament from 1939 to 1942, and his opinions were generally accepted.  Based on Dunlap's recommendation, Canada decided in Dec 40 to seek a production agreement to build P-39s in Canada, using American engines.  C. D. Howe opposed this, and preferred to obtain aircraft transferred off British orders instead.

Also touted about and available in the 1940–41 period were the Vultee P-48 Vanguard, Vultee A-31 Vengeance, Grumman G-36A Wildcat and G-45A (the land-based XP-50 version of the twin-engined XF5F Skyrocket).

A total of 144 P-39s were needed.  If obtained off British orders, this would be okay … this was before the RAF decided that the P-39 was a dud.  If obtained after the British and US production orders were completed, as a separate RCAF order, this would be too late for the RCAF's projected need.

In March 1941, Canada was advised that they could not get P-39s until 1943, and that they should look at Canadian-built Hurricanes instead.  That same month, Canada asked for 50 Hurricanes and 144 Airacobras, later reduced to 110 Airacobras in April 1941.

In April 1941, it had become apparent that P-39 production was delayed, due to Allison engine problems, and also it became clear that British and US needs would use up all production capacity until 1943.   However, the RAF did offer 72 of their P-39s to Canada, for delivery before 1943.  

Within a few days, it became apparent that the supply of 50 Hurricanes was also in doubt, and it was suggested that Canada take 50 early model P-40 Tomahawks instead.  Canada counter-offered to take 50 more P-39s, which was what we really wanted.

By June 1941, the total P-39 program was back up to 144, but no Hurricanes.  However, the UK advised that we could have none of these until late 1942, and should consider taking the P-40 instead.

In August 1941, Canada advised that they would take 72 P-40s, but only if they could be traded for 72 P-39s later, plus a further 72 P-39s to come later.  This was about the time that the RAF concluded that the P-39 wasn't such a great performer after all.

In September 1941, the RCAF negotiated to get 12 P-40s per month, starting immediately.  The total number to come would depend on the P-39 situation, and the Brits did agree to replace P-40s with P-39s as they came available.

In November 1941, RCAF staff advised the Chief of Air Staff that Canada should take the additional 72 P-40s as well, and not wait for P-39 production to catch up.  If we didn't take them, the US would, and we would get nothing more.  At the time, the decision was deferred, since the RCAF lacked the aircrew and ground crew to handle them.

By April 1942, the RCAF had taken delivery of all 72 P-40s, and by May 1942, we had dropped the bid for 144 P-39s and asked for the full 144 to be P-40s instead.  By that time, we had taken delivery of 72 Kittyhawk Mk. I aircraft plus 12 Mk. IA(P-40E-1) aircraft.

That's the end of my summary of my notes on Steve Harris' Research Notes, so it has been summarized twice!!

Just to digress for a moment, the Kittyhawk Mk. I(Model H87A-2) was not strictly a P-40E …it was a bit of a hybrid between the 4-gun P-40D(Model H87A-1) and the 6-gun P-40E (Model H-87A-3).  In fact, the first 20 had been delivered with only 4 wing guns, but the rest had 6 guns when the RAF modified their order to take advantage of the P-40E improvements.  These aircraft were part of an RAF order for 560 Kittyhawk Mk. I aircraft… they were not Lend Lease (or Lease Lend, depending on which end of the pipe you were at).  The Kittyhawk Mk. IA was a P-40E-1 and they were Lend Lease aircraft, with both a USAAC s/n and a RAF s/n.  The Mk. I Kittyhawks had only an RAF s/n and were later given RCAF s/ns when they became part of the HWE.  The later Kittyhawk Mk. III and Mk. IV aircraft were also from Lend Lease orders, and had USAAC, RAF and eventually RCAF s/ns assigned.

In a way, this looks like a bit of a beancounter's exercise … and it is amazing how much the beancounters influenced the action on aircraft deliveries, etc. … I have often wondered if they realized that there was a war going on!!  

A total of 144 Airacobras became 72 Kittyhawks, with a promise of 72 more to come later.  Later deliveries, as you have noted, were 15 Kittyhawk Mk. III (P-40M) and 35 Kittyhawk Mk. IV  (P-40N) aircraft, for a total of 134.  Thinking like a beancounter, this is how I have rationalized it … 134 were delivered to the RCAF + 9 borrowed from the US in the Aleutians (some of which we destroyed) + the one P-39 that the RCAF destroyed at Rockcliffe = 144 aircraft, so we got our full amount!

Bell Aircraft publicity photograph of RAF AH621Photo Caption (left): Bell Aircraft publicity photograph of RAF AH621

What about the one RCAF Airacobra??  It was RAF s/n AH621 and it was being tested at Rockcliffe in 1941.  The RCAF Accident Card shows that the aircraft crashed at 1100 hrs, 26 November 1941, 2 1/2 miles from Rockcliffe.  The pilot was F/L R. B. Middleton of 12 Comm Sqn., slightly injured.  The card says that the aircraft suffered a forced landing in a field, with the undercarriage up, following "engine failure due to gasoline stoppage".  Category A (writeoff)
I have not looked for a Court of Inquiry file on AH621, but there may be one.  The Finding Aid does not indicate that there is a C of I file, but it does indicate a couple of RCAF correspondence files on the Airacobra, one on Policy and one on Technical Aspects.

Photo Caption (right): Bell Airacobra I RAF AH621 (Stan Piet Collection)Bell Airacobra I RAF AH621 (Stan Piet Collection)

Referring directly to statements in the article, The Bell P-39 Airacobra in the RCAF…
The substitution of Kittyhawks for P-39s appears to have been mainly a result of delayed P-39 production and deliveries coupled with the availability of Kittyhawks that could be diverted to the RCAF from the RAF's order.  One of the RCAF's senior technical officers had recommended that the P-39 was superior to the Kittyhawk, but we had to take what was available.  It was not what we wanted, but I think it worked out better in the end!!
The Kittyhawks were not "mostly diverted from RAF Lend-Lease orders".  The first 72 were diverted from the RAF's own cash order for 560 aircraft and the following 62 were indeed from Lend-Lease production.

S/L Ken BoomerPhoto Caption: S/L Ken Boomer

There is some doubt whether or not S/L Ken Boomer actually shot down a Japanese aircraft or not.  Carl Vincent told me years ago that his research into Japanese Quartermaster's records showed no aircraft lost in the Aleutians that day … and the stores records were often a much better representation of the accuracy (or inaccuracy!!) of kill claims!!!  However, Carl said that he decided to leave it be and not bring up the matter in the articles he was writing on the Aleutian campaign for his High Flight magazine.

Related to this, I have seen a PR photo (via Carl Vincent) of F/L Jack Gohl standing on the wing of Kittyhawk 1044 and pointing to a Japanese flag "kill" marking on the cowling.  Jack Gohl was one of the RCAF pilots in the Aleutians who was awarded the U.S. Air Medal, but there is no indication that he also had a kill.  Gohl later went overseas on Typhoons and was killed in a bailout that went wrong.  The Kittyhawk (RCAF 1044) later turned up as a fuselage hulk in a farmer's field in Alberta, with the Japanese flag still painted on the cowl in the identical spot, and is a warbird restoration project in the U.S.  It is not the aircraft that Boomer was flying when he claimed his kill, as Boomer was flying a borrowed P-40K while RCAF 1044 is one of the RCAF Kittyhawk IV aircraft (P-40N), but it did fly in the Aleutians.  It is one of those mysteries that may never be solved, but it may just have been a posed PR photo op when Jack Gohl was visiting … as I recall, without digging out the photo, there is a Canadian Pacific Airlines hangar in the background, so it might be at YVR.

Victory over KiskaPhoto Caption: Victory Over Kiska by Rich Thistle - Aleutian Islands, 25 September 1942, Ken Boomer of 111 Sq. RCAF - but fighting with the USAAF's 11 Sqdn. and their "extra" fighter aircraft – reportedly downs an A6M2-N "Rufe" Float plane over Kiska to become the only Canadian to shoot an enemy aircraft in North American skies.

From my research in the 1970s, I am only aware of two Japanese balloons being shot down by RCAF Kittyhawks, and I did correspond one of the pilots at the time.  His Kittyhawk currently flies with the Planes of Fame Air Museum at Chino, California.  This was F/O J. Gordon Patten, who contacted me from California when my series of Kittyhawk articles started to appear in Air Classics magazine.  His aircraft was Kittyhawk IV RCAF 858, now flying as N85104 and the kill date was 10 March 1945.
One Kittyhawk kill was in the area of Saltspring Island or Active Pass and the other one was near Sumas Mountain, as depicted in a painting by Don Connolly that was used as a cover for Air Force magazine.  Don's painting was in error, as it showed a P-40E rather than the somewhat different P-40N, but he later corrected the original painting to show it as a P-40N and kindly sent it to me as a donation to the Canadian Museum of Flight & Transportation … I don't know if the museum still has it or if they sold it.
Don is normally a very meticulous artist on aircraft and background details, but the Kittyhawk cover had been a panic job because an earlier-submitted painting of the event from another artist was in landscape rather than portrait format, and could not be used as a magazine cover.  
The Connolly painting has been reproduced again recently in another publication, but strangely enough has been reversed, possibly for editorial layout reasons, so the geographic background is flipped East to West, but yet the aircraft lettering has been corrected to suit the flipped image.  Maybe it was a test for historians?
Where and when was the third Kittyhawk balloon kill?  The Kittyhawks had a hard time getting up to the altitude of the balloons, which is why 133(F) Sqn. was re-equipped with half a squadron of Mosquitos late in the war.

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