The Grumman Corporation has produced many fine naval combat aircraft for service with the United States Navy, but it is one of their earliest offerings that became the first Allied carrier-based fighter to hold its own against the Axis fighters of the early Second World War. This aircraft, the F4F Wildcat, served with distinction during the conflict with the Royal Navy, USN, Royal Canadian Navy and the United States Marine Corps.
It enabled these services to deploy a naval fighter that could successfully combat often superior German and Japanese aircraft during the dark days of 1939-42.
The Wildcat had a distinguished combat record, serving until the end of the war in most maritime theatres and gaining a reputation as a tough, dependable combat fighter.
Not as fast or manoeuvrable as its main opponent the Japanese A6M Zero, it was more ruggedly constructed and able to withstand far more battle damage, but with the right tactics was able to successfully fight and defeat its faster adversary.
The F4F is particularly remembered for its participation in two iconic naval battles of the Pacific Theatre; at Midway where its stout defence of US carriers helped America win perhaps the most vital battle of the Pacific War, and off Samar Island where the Wildcat joined with light USN naval and air units to desperately hold off a savage attack by heavy Japanese surface units on American amphibious landings in the Philippines.
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In both battles, the F4F covered itself with glory and thereby earned its place as an iconic combat aircraft of World War Two.
Design and Development
The United States Navy employed biplane fighters for most of the 1930s, but the service was looking to introduce a monoplane fighter into service. Grumman had produced the F2F and F3F for USN service, but the naval staff had decided to procure the Brewster F2A-1 Buffalo fighter. However, they still ordered Grumman to produce a new biplane design known as the XF4F-1 as a backup plan if the new plane was unsatisfactory in any way.
The XF4F-1 was a result of a Grumman design program known as the G-16 Project, but the designers realised that the biplane concept was seriously outdated, and revised the design into a single-seat monoplane fighter.
The updated XF4F-2 was still unsatisfactory, but a new design for the XF4F-3 got the tick of approval, and the type began to be manufactured as the F4F-3, with the ‘Wildcat’ name being formalised soon after.
The new design drew many of its main features from its earlier biplane cousins, having a short stubby airframe with a hand-cranked undercarriage that retracted into the fuselage.
Armed with four heavy machine guns, this variant took part in the very early naval battles of the Second World War but some design deficiencies led to an upgraded model being accepted in service in May 1941.
This F4F-4 version was the penultimate model of the Wildcat and took part in the most important battles of the Pacific War from 1942 onwards.
Armed with an extra two machine guns and fitted with a folding-wing system that allowed a smaller footprint aboard carriers, the type was sometimes disliked because the increased armament didn’t allow for extra ammunition to be carried, reducing its total firing time with all guns to a low 20 seconds.
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Two further variants were built in very small numbers, but Grumman production of the Wildcat ceased in 1943 as the company began to produce the F6F Hellcat fighter instead. But Wildcat manufacture still continued at General Motors, which built the aircraft as the FM-1 and FM-2.
This was done because newer Allied fighters were too large and powerful to operate from Allied escort carriers, but the F4F could easily do so thus allowing the newer aircraft to operate exclusively off big fleet carriers.
The F4F and GM versions served with the Royal Navy as the Martlet I-V models, until the formal name for the type was changed to Wildcat to promote uniformity in aircraft designation. A total of 7,860 Wildcats and Martlets were built until production ceased in 1945.
The F4F had a height of 11 feet 10 inches (3.61 metres), a length of 28 feet 9 inches (8.76 metres) and a wingspan of 38 feet (11.58 metres). Empty, the F4F tipped the scales at 4,907 pounds (2,226 kilograms) and the gross weight of the aircraft was 7,423 pounds (3,367 kilograms).
The Wildcat was fitted with a Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 radial piston engine generating 1,200 HP, driving a three-blade constant-speed airscrew. The F4F had a top speed of 331 mph (533 km/h) and an unrefuelled range of 845 miles (1,360 kilometres). The service ceiling of the Wildcat was 39,500 feet (12,000 metres).
The F4F-3 was armed with four Browning M2 .50 calibre heavy machine guns with 450 rounds supplied for each weapon, but the six guns of the F4F-4 only had 280 rounds per gun. The Wildcat was fitted with underwing racks to allow the carriage of two 100-pound (45 kilograms) bombs or drop tanks with a capacity of 48 Imperial gallons (220 litres) of extra fuel.
The F4F did much to stave off Allied defeat in the dark early days of the Second World War and had a sterling service record during the conflict. Fifty-eight Allied pilots became aces flying the Wildcat, mainly in the USMC and the USN, and the F4F ended the war with a very respectable kill-loss ratio of 6.9:1.
Early French orders for the type were diverted to Britain after August 1940, and the Wildcat/Martlet entered active service with both the Royal Navy and the USN in October 1940. The F4F was formally admitted into service with the United States Navy in October 1941.
A RN Martlet operating from land shot down a Junkers Ju-88 in December 1940, making this the first kill by an American-made fighter in World War Two.
The Martlet had been ordered to replace the Fairey Fulmar in RN service, as sufficient Spitfires were unavailable for conversion into Seafires for naval use.
The Wildcat/Martlet were amongst the first types of aircraft able to operate efficiently from small escort carriers, and the F4F gained a new lease of operational life in this role after newer and faster types of fighters had entered naval service.
The Royal Navy employed Martlets on escort carriers to support convoy operations in the Atlantic Ocean, and the aircraft served right up until the end of the war. Martlets took part in the last air raid of the war on May 5th 1945, when the Fleet Air Arm attacked submarine pens in Norway.
The F4F-4 entered service just in time for the Midway campaign and served on board US carriers and in USMC service in Midway Island. During the battle, Wildcats escorted the crucial dive-bombing sorties that sank all four Japanese carriers, and the staunch defence of the US fleet by F4F-4s allowed the Hornet and Enterprise to survive the battle.
However, this did not mean the end of active service for the Wildcat, as the F4F was able to safely operate from escort carriers, and the USN employed many of these small vessels to support amphibious operations and other littoral combat tasks. This allowed the big fleet carriers to continue roaming the Pacific in search of the Japanese fleet.
It was during the Leyte campaign that the Wildcat was to become a combat legend, in one of the most desperate battles ever fought by the United States Navy.
The Japanese plans for the Battle of Leyte Gulf were typically convoluted and often relied on the enemy doing what was expected of him, and this type of planning had often brought the Japanese unstuck.
However, for once it worked and the powerful US Third Fleet was drawn off chasing elements of the Japanese fleet, leaving the amphibious landings only lightly protected.
A heavy surface force of four battleships, 8 heavy and light cruisers and ten destroyers managed to approach the Allied invasion force undetected, which was only guarded by light destroyers and escort carriers.
At dawn on the 25th of October 1944, the horrified US escort forces perceived the Japanese fleet bearing down on them, and despite being horribly outnumbered and outgunned swiftly swung into action to protect the amphibious fleet.
Destroyers and smaller destroyer escorts made suicidal attacks against Japanese battleships and cruisers, and escort carriers launched waves of Wildcats and Avengers, the latter armed only with high-explosive bombs intended for use against ground targets.
Wildcats made many strafing runs against Japanese heavy units, including riddling the bridge of the flagship Yamato and wounding the Japanese fleet commander.
Landing briefly on the rapidly-retreating escort carriers to load more machine gun ammunition, the F4Fs would take off and resume the attack, and the ferocity of the US naval and aviation attacks persuaded the Japanese fleet commander that the Third Fleet was about to intervene in the battle.
Wounded and somewhat rattled, he gave the order to withdraw and the chance of victory was lost. The USN now had a famous triumph to add to its laurels.
The Grumman Wildcat ensured that the Allies started the Second World War with a naval fighter that, while not being the best fighter serving was good enough for the desperate early days of the conflict, and held the line until newer Allied designs entered service after 1943.
Rugged, tough and reliable, the F4F battled successfully against superior Axis fighters and served until the end of the war with distinction.
The Wildcat had its detractors but also had its champions including legendary RN test pilot Commander Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, who flew the type on operations during the Battle of the Atlantic.
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During the proof-of-concept voyage of the first escort carrier HMS Audacity, Brown shot down two Focke-Wulf FW 200 Condors, and says of the 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, that this Grumman fighter was one of the finest shipboard fighters ever created”.
Stubby and blunted, the F4F was not noted for its good looks, but still goes down in history as a fine naval fighter that did much to stave off Allied defeat early during the war, and set the stage for eventual Allied victory. As such, the Wildcat has a distinguished legacy and a prominent place in the pantheon of successful combat aircraft.
- Crew: 1
- Length: 28 ft 9 in (8.76 m)
- Wingspan: 38 ft 0 in (11.58 m)
- Height: 11 ft 10 in (3.61 m)
- Empty weight: 4,907 lb (2,226 kg)
- Gross weight: 7,423 lb (3,367 kg)
- Powerplant: 1 × Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 14-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engine, 1,200 hp (890 kW)
- Maximum speed: 331 mph (533 km/h, 288 kn)
- Range: 845 mi (1,360 km, 734 nmi)
- Service ceiling: 39,500 ft (12,000 m)
- Rate of climb: 2,303 ft/min (11.70 m/s)