By Willie Bodenstein

All colour photos © Willie Bodenstein

First used in combat by the British in Europe, the Wildcat was the only effective fighter available to the United States Navy and Marine Corps in the Pacific Theatre during the early part of World War II. 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. More than 7,800 were built.

Brewster F2A-1. Photo © U.S. Navy U.S. Naval History and Heritage

Grumman F3F. Photo © USN / commons.wikimedia.org

In 1936 Grumman was working on the design of its single-seat F3F biplane design that had the general fuselage outlines that was later used in the Wildcat. The US Navy (USN) however, favoured a monoplane design and placed an order for the Brewster F2A-1 but hedging its bets the Navy also placed an order for Grumman's G-16 (X4F-1) bi-plane just in case the Brewster proved unsatisfactory.

Realising that the age of the biplane was over and that the G-16 would probably be inferior to the Brewster, Grumman instead started work a biplane design. The X4F-2, even though it was faster than the Brewster, was not as manoeuvrable and Grumman again lost out. Not perturbed work was started on the X4F-3 (F4F). The F4F had a new wing and tail and was powered by the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 "Twin Wasp" radial engine and found favour with the USN that ordered the type into production.

The first F4F Wildcats left the factory during February 1940 destined for France but then France capitulated and the consignment went to Britain who became the first operator christening the fighter the "Martlet." F4F's delivered to British Royal Navy were powered by a Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9 and armed with four .50 in (12.7 mm) Browning machine guns. On Christmas day 1940 a Martlet scored its first combat victory when it downed a Ju 88 bomber. In September 1941 six Martlets during convoy escort duty, ironically aboard the HMS Audacity a converted former German merchant ship, shot down several Luftwaffe Fw 200 Condors.

In total nearly 1,200 Wildcats, the name Martlet was dropped in 1944, served in the Fleet Air Arm (FAA). In the European theatre Wildcat victories were many, both against shipping and in air to air combat. On 5 May 1945 28 Wildcats attacked a U-boat base in Harstad, Norway sinking two ships and a U boat for the loss of one Wildcat. In March 1945, Wildcats shot down four Messerschmitt Bf 109s over Norway, the FAA's last victory with a Wildcat.

The Wildcat was already a proven war veteran when the USN received their Wildcats on 1 October 1941. In USN service in the Pacific its foe was the Mitsubishi Zero, agile and much faster but unarmoured, the Wildcat barely held its own. Its saving grace was its self-sealing tanks, relatively heavy armour, ability to survive more punishment than the Zero that sort of, but not completely, levelled the playing field.

Photo © commons.wikimedia.org

Wildcat's none the less played a prominent role in the war in the Pacific. USN and USMC (United States Marine Corp) F4F's were the major defenders of Wake Islands after their capture late in 1941. Wildcats were the primary defenders during the crucial Battles of Coral Sea and Midway and played a major role during the 1942-43 Guadalcanal Campaign.

In all, 7,860 Wildcats were built. During the course of the war, Navy and Marine F4Fs and FMs flew 15,553 combat sorties, destroying 1,327 enemy aircraft at a cost of 178 aerial losses, 24 to ground/shipboard fire, and 49 to operational causes. True to their escort fighter role, Wildcats dropped only 154 tons of bombs during the war.

Eric M. "Winkle" Brown, British test pilot said, "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."

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