American Wildcats of the Fleet Air Arm

The Grumman F4F Wildcat first flew seventy five years ago on 2 September 1937. The Wildcat was an American carrier-based fighter aircraft, but first saw active service in Europe in 1940.

At the end of 1939, Grumman received an order for 81 aircraft from the French navy, but following the fall of France in June 1940 the contract were taken over by Britain. The first aircraft entered service with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in August 1940 and were allocated to 804 Naval Air Squadron stationed at Hatson in the Orkney Islands.

The British version of the F4F Wildcat was known as the Martlet and was introduced as a replacement for the Fleet Air Arm’s Fairey Fulmar aircraft. The Martlet scored its first victory on Christmas Day 1940, when a land-based aircraft brought down a German Junkers Ju 88 over the Scapa Flow naval base. A further six Martlets were allocated to the converted former German merchant ship HMS Audacity in September 1941 and were responsible for shooting down a number of German bombers during convoy escort operations.

The name of the British aircraft was changed to Wildcat in January 1944, with nearly 1,200 Martlets serving with the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War.

The wildcat entered service with the United States Navy and Marine Corps in October 1941 and was the only effective fighter available to them in the Pacific during the early part of the Second World War. The aircraft had a top speed of 318 mph, but was outperformed by the faster and more agile Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, which could reach a maximum speed of 331 mph. However, superior tactics, combined with the aircraft’s robust construction, meant that United States Navy pilots were able to achieve an air combat kill-to-loss ratio of nearly seven to one.

Many United States Navy pilots were saved by the Wildcat’s ZB homing device, which allowed them to find their carriers in poor visibility once they were within 30 miles of the homing beacon.

In all, over 7,800 Wildcats were built, with production ceasing in 1943. The subsequent F6F Hellcat was developed from the Wildcat and first flew in 1942. The Hellcat had enhanced performance and was able to outperform the Zero in its own right.

For more information on military conflict in the Pacific in the first half of the twentieth century take a look at The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Imperial Naval Sir Service by Peter Edwards.

The book is published by Pen and Sword Books (Aviation) and is currently available in hardback, priced at £25.00. The ISBN reference number is 9781848843073. Click here to order your copy.