by Rick Kent
The Sharkmouth Squadron
Several moths ago, after the release of my pictorial history of No. 74 ”Tiger” Squadron RAF I received requests from readers asking me do do the similar profile article for the No. 112 Sqadron, which is commonly remembered for their sharkmouth-painted aircraft.
So… presenting the 50 years-long story of No. 112 Squadron RAF (from 1917 to 1957), I’d like to remind readers that squadron’s motto was Swift in Desctruction, and the unit’s official badge always featured a… cat. No trace of any sharks there! The immortal sharkmouth motif was not ”invented” until 1941, but it had been carried ever since. Here is the full story…
World War I
Sopwith Pup, 112 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, pilot: Secont Lieutenent J.G. Goodyear
Throwley, Kent, August 1917
The Squadron was formed on 30 July 1917 out of ’B’ Flight of 50 Sqn as a Home Defence fighter unit to defend London and the south east corner of England against German bomber raids from bases in Belgium. It was first equipped with Sopwith Pups like the one shown here; this particular aircraft attacked Gothas bombing Southend on August 12 1917 and was in action again ten days later against bombers attacking Margate, Ramsgate and Dover. The unit operated both by day and night.
This aircraft has the usual PC10 Khaki uppersurfaces with clear doped and varnished linen undersurfaces; the struts are varnished in their natural wood colour, and the cockpit coaming is natural brown leather. The metal cowling and forward fuselage panels are painted black rather than the more usual natural metal; this was common on Home Defence fighters to give better camouflage on night operations.
The national markings are of the standard type used in WW I and so the blue is leading on the rudder and red trailing, just like French aircraft; indeed British tail stripes were not reversed from that order until 1930. The serial number is of fairly standard presentation on the fin in black outlined with white. The white code ”A7” probably indicates aircraft number 7 of ’A’ Flight of the Squadron.
112 exchanged their Pups for Sopwith Camels from March 1918.
Sopwith F.1 Camel, 112 Squadron, Royal Air Force, Throwley, Kent, August 1918
The F.1 Camels that re-equipped 112 Sqn from March 1918 carried no actual squadron markings as such, each aircraft being decorated by its pilot with his own personal insignia. Thus this Camel has the white swastika on the fin and the red fuselage decoration outlined in white.
The use of the swastika as an individual marking during WW I was quite common as, at that time, it was simply a good luck charm or mystic symbol which originated in very ancient times in many parts of the world from India through Central Asia and accross Europe and also in North America. The British of course ruled India at that time and so were well used to it as a lucky sign; nobody could have foretold the evil purpose with which it would become associated only a few years later. The rest of the colour scheme on this Camel is the same as for the Pup except that the serial number has been painted over and the roudels on the top wing are red and blue only with no white.
112 Sqn only scored one victory in World War I in its defence of London when the Squadron Commander shot down one out of 43 Gothas on 19th May 1918. The Squadron was disbanded on 13th June 1919, having re-equipped with Sopwith Snipes shortly before. Unfortunately no illustrations of the Snipes seem to have survived so I am unable to do a profile of one, though some of their serial numbers are known (eg E6643, E6839, E6844, E6848 and E7429). Judging from photos of other Snipes based in the UK at that time they were probably very plain, without any squadron markings or codes. The basic colours would have been the same as for the Pup and Camel, with roundels in red and blue only thinly outlined in white on the fuselage and upper wings; the rudder stripes would also have been just blue and red with no white; underwing roundels would probably have been in the full red, white and blue.
World War II: Africa
Gloster Gladiator Mk. I, 112 Squadron, Royal Air Force, Helwan, Egypt, August 1939
After 1919, 112 Squadron was not reformed until 16 May 1939, on board the aircraft carrier HMS Argus at Southampton for transit to Egypt where it arrived ten days later, equipped with a mixture of Gladiator Mk.I’s and II’s. This profile shows one of the early Mk.I’s in the markings used up to September 1939. The upper surfaces are in Dark Earth and Dark Green camouflage (although biplanes were officially supposed to have the lighter shades of Earth and Green on the lower wings and fuselage, most in fact did not at this early stage). The undersurfaces are white on the right hand side and black on the left, divided down the centre line, which was standard for fighters from 1938 to June 1940.
There are ’B’ Type red-&-blue roundels on the fuselage and upper wings but no underwing roundels or fin/rudder stripes (this was also standard for the time). The Squadron’s pre-war code letters of ”XO” and individual aircraft ident ”n” appear in light grey on the fuselage.
As was common on many RAF aircraft from 1938 to 1940, the serial numbers have been overpainted with the camouflage for security reasons. The propeller is painted grey, similar to the later Medium Sea Grey shade. This particular Mk.I Gladiator has the original ”Y” shaped radio aerials going out to the wingtips as I previously described in my Gladiator article.
Gloster Gladiator Mk. I, 112 Squadron, Royal Air Force, Helwan, Egypt, May 1940
Here’s the second Gladiator which shows the markings just before the war in North Africa got started when Italy entered it in June 1940. The Squadron continued to fly its Gladiators until June 1941, most of it moving to Sudan in June 1940 to face the Italians in Central Africa, the first wartime action taking place on June 16th when two SM.81’s attacking Port Sudan were attacked by two of the Gladiators.
A Battle Flight remained at Helwan and this also saw action against a night raid soon after. The Squadron scored its first victory on June 29 when a SM.81 was shot down south of Port Sudan. In July most of the Squadron moved into the Western Desert, only ’B’ Flight remaining in Sudan; both elements of the Squadron were in constant action. In January 1941 they moved to Greece and became operational there on February 1st; as an example of how hectic the action was, they destroyed ten enemy aircraft and damaged three more on February 28. However, they were forced to withdraw to Crete in face of the German onslaught on 22 April; and then forced to return to Egypt on 31 May.
The poor old Gladiators were replaced by Tomahawks in July 1941. For a short time between March and June 1940 the Gladiators were supplemented by a few Gauntlet II’s but these were only used for operational training of new pilots in order to save flying hours on the Gladiators.
This Gladiator retains the same basic camouflage of Dark Earth and Dark Green with the black and white undersurfaces as the previous one. The Squadron codes were changed to ”RT” in September 1939, and at the same time the white was reintroduced in the fuselage roundels and from 1st May 1940 the yellow ring was added (note how it slightly overlaps the letter ”T” in the code).
Red-white-blue fin stripes were also ordered to be applied on the same date, but as you can see this has not yet been done on this aircraft. The serial number (K6135) has been restored on the fuselage in light grey instead of the official black and in characters approximately only half of the correct size. Also the propeller by now has been painted black. This aircraft also has the later modified single-wire radio ariel going to the peg on the top wing centre section.
Curtiss Tomahawk Mk. IIB, 112 Squadron, Royal Air Force, Sidi Heneish, Egypt, September 1941
112 Sqn operated the Tomahawk IIB from July to December 1941 and at this time adopted the famous Sharkmouth markings by which it was known from then on. It is said that they copied them from the Me 110’s of ZG 26 – which may well be true as at a later date 81 Sqn copied the Ace of Spades marking on to its Spitfires in North Africa from the Me 109’s of JG 53.
The Sharkmouth squadron markings were, of course, highly unofficial but several squadrons in North Africa were able to get away with using such coloured markings (eg 73, 208, and 274, all on Hurricanes). As readers will see on the rest of these profiles the painting of the sharkmouth was by no means the same on all aircraft; in particular the teeth were sometimes straight edged, as on this one, and sometimes curved. The eyes above the mouth also varied quite a lot.
The Squadron was very busy with both air-to-air and ground attack fighting in the Western Desert throughout its time with Tomahawks.
These aircraft were delivered to the RAF from Curtiss already painted in the standard early wartime fighter finish of Dark Earth and Dark Green upper surface camouflage with Sky undersurfaces (these colours were, of course, very close American equivalents of the British shades). During this period, the use of squadron code letters had been discontinued in North Africa, aircraft carrying only individual identity letters in light grey or white.
By the time that the Squadron re-equipped with Kittyhawks in December 1941 the new code letters ”GA” were used so it may be that later Tomahawks had these letters and also perhaps desert camouflage, though I have to say that I have never seen any photos of them if they did.
The propeller spinner is painted the normal red recognition colour used on fighters right through the war in the Mediterranean Theatre. Note that the wing root fairing goes over the top of the fuselage roundel yellow – this was common on RAF Tomahawks both in the UK and North Africa (presumably the aircraft were painted at the factory before assembly). The serial number is smaller than the standard 8 inches specified, being about only 6 inches high; this again was a common feature on aircraft in the African theatre.
Curtiss Kittyhawk Mk. I, 112 Squadron, Royal Air Force, Gambut Main, Libya, February 1942
Firstly I would like to offer the following explanation for the confusing business of the RAF Kittyhawk I and IA designations, and comparable USAAF P-40D and P-40E. The RAF first ordered by direct purchase 560 Hawk 87A’s with the new Allison V-1710-39 engine with the deeper cowling. The USAAF also placed a large order for the same type as the P-40D. All of these aircraft were intended to be fitted with only four wing mounted .50 calibre Browning machine guns. However the USAAF were not satisfied with the four guns only and only took delivery of 22 of them before switching instead to the six gun Hawk 87A-3 which it designated P-40E.
The RAF only took delivery of 20 of the four gun aircraft (AK571-AK590) before also switching to the six gun aircraft for the remainder of its purchase of 560 (serialled between AK591 and AL230). Now many references state that the RAF Kittyhawk I was the four gun equivalent of the P-40D and that the Kittyhawk IA was the six gun version equivalent to the P-40E. Most of these reference sources at the same time refer to six gunned aircraft in these serial ranges as Mk I and, above all, credit the Mk I as having served with far too many squadrons for a mere 20 aircraft. In my view the truth of the situation is that all of the 560 purchased aircraft were known to the RAF as Kittyhawk I; it was the P-40E’s delivered as Lease-Lend aircraft that were designated as Kittyhawk IA and serialled between ET239 and EV431; in other words the ’A’ suffix on the RAF designation had nothing to do with the armament but indicated Lease-Lend aircraft which probably had some slight differences of US equipment instead of British. There were supposed to be 1,500 Lease-Lend P-40E’s for the RAF but many of these were diverted to other air forces, including the USSR, Canada, and Australia, and some were also retained by the USAAF itself.
The 112 Squadron Kittyhawk I shown here is thus a six-gunned aircraft with the serial number AK675 repainted in black in the often seen smaller characters used in North Africa. These Kittyhawks were delivered in the usual Dark Green/Dark Earth over Sky finish and, so, had to be repainted in the desert camouflage of Dark Earth/Mid Stone and Azure Blue, thus the serial on this one is repainted in the small characters. Quite often a rectangle of the original Green and Earth was simply left around the serial numbers to avoid the necessity of repainting them.
The new code letters ”GA”, which 112 used for the rest of the war, plus the individual ident letter ”F” are in white. Note that the whole area in the middle of the sharkmouth is red and the front teeth are curved, also this aircraft has no eyes. The red in the Squadron markings was always brighter than the dull red in the national insignia and on the propeller spinner.
112 Sqn flew Kittyhawk Mk I’s and IA’s between December 1941 and October 1942, flying mostly bomber escort missions but also some fighter bomber missions of its own against enemy armour. They flew from many different bases in Egypt and Libya throughout this time in support of the famous Eighth Army.
Curtiss Kittyhawk Mk. IA, 112 Squadron, Royal Air Force, Amirya (LG.175), Egypt, October 1942
Here’s the Mk.IA Kittyhawk, with its serial number yet again painted in the smaller characters so often seen in North Africa and also a slight gap between the letters and numbers, something else that was common on African repaints.
The basic camouflage scheme is the same as for the Mk.I but the markings differ somewhat. The roundels and fin flash have the narrow (2 inches) white and yellow introduced in July 1942. This aircraft also has the yellow wing leading edges outboard of the guns, a feature that was also quite common on Kittyhawks and some other single-engined fighters in the Mediterranean Theatre even on the desert finish; indeed many had the yellow right up to the fuselage.
To avoid boring readers by saying it for every single profile, I will say that this aircraft has the usual red propeller spinner of this theatre as did all of 112 Sqn’s aircraft from the Tomahawk onwards to the Mustang by the end of WW II in Italy. Yet again the middle of the mouth is red only but the teeth are quite different from the previous Mk.I profile; also this aircraft has its eyes in place. The other thing of note is that the white code letters are fairly thin in stroke and quite square in shape, something that became a feature of most of the Squadron’s aircraft for the rest of the war.
The Squadron re-equipped from the Mk.I and IA Kittyhawks at Amriya, where there was more than one Landing Ground (LG), to the Mk.III in October 1942
Rick Kent is a modeller, IPMS:er and a productive aviation artist. His speciality are computer-generated aircraft profiles.
This article was originally published in IPMS Stockholm Magazine in March 2000.