Shark attack: Marking airplanes with a shark mouth used by both sides during both World Wars

Since the start of World War I, one of the most popular “extra” markings on military aircraft (aside from the standardized nationality and unit markings) has been the application of a mouth (sometimes a whole face) with very prominent painted-on teeth. This was supposed to represent a face or mouth for the plane itself, not just a side decoration or painted-on picture.

This practice started early in the war, and was not limited to either side. Both the Allied and Central powers used it, mostly on an individual basis, but sometimes squadron-wide. There was no standardization, of course; details differed greatly and were further complicated by the nose contours of a particular plane.

The marking fell out of regular use during the years between World Wars except for occasional use on planes that were given special markings for air shows. It remained for World War II to put toothy airplanes back in business in a big way.

Again, the first applications were individual, but the marking was soon in use squadron-wide by the German II ZG-76 (Second Destroyer Group, Squadron 76) operating twin-engine Messerschmitts in 1940. The marking made an impression on the British 112th Fighter Squadron that opposed II ZG-76 over Malta. When the squadron re-equipped with American Curtiss “Tomahawks” (equivalent to the U.S. Army P-40B) in North Africa in 1941, it adopted a shark-mouth marking for its own use and applied it with considerable more finesse than the Luftwaffe. The 112th Squadron was successful in the African desert operations, and its unique marking was well publicized in the British press, which was pretty hard up for good news at the time. It was a photo spread in the “Illustrated London News” that impressed the founder of the American Volunteer Group (AVG, the “Flying Tigers,” a band of mercenary pilots who signed up to fly for the Chinese against the Japanese just before Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war) to the point where they adopted the marking for their own P-40s. It was sort of a natural for the circumstances — the marking was well suited to the particular shape of the P-40 nose and, besides, the Japanese were supposed to have a superstitious fear of sharks.

The AVG made history in its six months of independent operation and the marking got still more publicity. When the AVG was taken into the U.S. Army in June 1942, it brought the marking with it. By this time the teeth were so famous that they were widely used by all sorts of aircraft to war’s end, including little liaison planes, four-engine bombers and even some gliders.

Relatively wide military use has continued into the jet age. However, because of the early exploits of 112 Squadron and the AVG, the marking is principally associated with the P-40 airplane and is almost a mandatory feature of latter-day P-40 restorations, regardless of whether they carry military markings.

A comment here on how some most-meticulous restorers inadvertently compromise authenticity: They carefully lay out and mask the teeth, then spray the paint and sand out of the raised edges. The teeth on the wartime planes were applied in the field with a brush, sometimes with the aid of a stencil, but more often freehand to a chalked-on layout, again with a brush. A present-day unit might have the teeth applied in a depot-level paint shop, but those weren’t available when the 112 Squadron in Africa and the AVG in China put teeth on their P-40s.

IN THE BEGINNING: An early use of teeth shown on a German Roland C-II “Walfische” (whale) in 1916. This is an individual application. At another time, several other planes in the same squadron were so marked.

TWINS IN TWO: Squadron use in World War II by Messerschmitt 110 twin-engine fighters of II ZG-76. Note the early use of drop tanks to extend airplane range for fighting over the island of Malta from shore bases in 1940.

THE COPYCATS: The American Volunteer Group in China copied the 112 Squadron marking. The AVG planes were generally called P-40s at the time, but were not actually such. The British released 100 Curtiss H81A-2 “Tomahawks” to the AVG; they were pre-Lend Lease models and were not procured through the U.S. Army or with U.S. funds.

IN THE U.S.: Other American units used the sharks’ teeth long after the AVG was disbanded. This Lockheed P-38J in the South Pacific has the teeth under each engine instead of on the nose.


  1. McKinley Butler says

    Good article, however your statement that he AVG was “a band of mercenary pilots who signed up to fly for the Chinese” is somewhat misleading. They were all military pilots (and enlisted support staff) who were selected by the military to be allowed to join this effort. The AVG was definately not US military but it was recruited with the suport of the US military. The AVG itself was a mercinary organization, the pay was much better than military pay.)

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