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Grumman F4F Wildcat: The Most Underappreciated World War II Fighter?

Grumman F4F Wildcat
Grumman F4F Wildcat. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Grumman F4F Wildcat – Designed by Grumman Iron Works, the F4F Wildcat helped hold the line and keep America in the fight in the early dark days of the Pacific War. After Pearl Harbor, it was the Wildcat squadrons of the United States Marine Corps and United States Navy that made their stand against Japan’s superior Mitsubishi A6M “Zero.” The portly, mid-winged fighter was known to be sturdy yet highly maneuverable.

Though the A6M held the advantage in performance, the Wildcat still achieved greatness in no small part due to the exceptional men who flew it. It may have been outnumbered and outgunned, but it held the line until the Grumman F6F Hellcat was able to turn the tide in the Pacific.

The Wildcat first saw action with the United States Marine Corps squadrons VMF-211 at Wake Island.

Notable F4F Wildcat Facts:

Grumman Aircraft?

The F4F was one of a long line of Grumman-built naval fighters, and is known universally as the Grumman Wildcat, yet most were not built by Grumman. Total production of the aircraft was 7,825 Wildcats, including 1,988 built by Grumman and 5,837 built by General Motors.

With its folding wings and catapult gear, the Wildcat was developed to be a dedicated carrier fighter, yet also saw action from land bases.

The aircraft was first flown by American Air racing pilot and aircraft designer Robert L. Hall on September 2, 1937, and the top Wildcat ace was Major John L. Smith, who was reported to having shot down nineteen Japanese aircraft.

Transitional Aircraft

The Wildcat’s undercarriage design was little changed from that of inter-war Grumman biplanes, where the main wheels only half retracted to lie flat against the lower fuselage in a shallow wheel well. In addition, the cockpit was rather cramped and visibility was even limited. However, the pilot was protected by thick armor behind the cockpit while the “bullet proof” glass and the engine provided additional protection.

The cockpit problems were noted and addressed with the Wildcat’s eventual replacement, the Grumman F6F Hellcats.

The F4F was heavily armed for its day, and it had no less than six .50-calbier (12.7mm) wing machine guns. Although not as powerful as an aerial cannon, the weapons were quite adequate against most Japanese opposition.

Service in Europe

Though the F4F Wildcat is known for its contribution in the Pacific, during the Second World War, carrier-based aircraft operating from United States Navy escort carriers were used to escort convoys. In addition, the F4F operated from USS Ranger (CV-4) during Operation Torch in November 1942, the Allied invasion of French North Africa; and in Operation Leader, an anti-shipping strike in Norway.

Meet the Marlet

In foreign service, the aircraft was actually known as Marlets. In 1939 the French Navy ordered 81 aircraft to equip its new Joffre-class aircraft carriers: Joffre and Painlevé. After France’s defeat in the Battle of France, all of the contracts were taken over by the UK, and the aircraft saw service with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm.

Belgium and Greece had also ordered a number of the aircraft, but those were also subsequently transferred to the Royal Navy. Interestingly, all of the variants of the F4Fs in service with the Royal Navy were known as the Martlet, except for the Mk VI variant, which was designated the Wildcat.

Major Contribution to the War Effort

In addition to being the aircraft that held the line against the Japanese, the total contribution made by the Grumman F4F Wildcat can’t be overstated. During the war, the Grumman F4F and General Motors FM flew 15,553 combat sorties, including 14,027 from aircraft carriers.

The Wildcat destroyed 1,327 enemy aircraft at a cost of just 178 aerial losses, 24 to ground or shipboard fire, and 49 to operation causes.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.