World War II Aviation

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World War II Aviation

Although it cannot be said that airpower won World War II,
it is fair to state that airpower made possible and accelerated the Allies’
victory over the Axis powers. If airpower had been removed entirely from the
equation, it is possible that the end result might have been exactly the same;
given the difference in resources between the Allies and the Axis, however, it
is fairly certain that the war would have lasted much longer with much greater
loss of life. Airpower proved to be the great advantage of the Allies.

Summary of the Air
War: Timing, Technology, Scale

One of the ironies is that the Axis nations chose airpower
as a tool for aggression, but the Allied nations made better and far more
extensive use of airpower to achieve final victory. The reason for this
turnabout was that airpower in World War II turned entirely on three major
issues: timing, technology, and scale. The Allies were able to exploit these
issues to a far greater degree.

In the beginning, the Axis powers made excellent use of
timing and technology. The timing of the war was almost solely of their
choosing, and they chose to strike when their air forces were at the peak of
modernization, equipped with first-rate aircraft in numbers deemed necessary
for victory. Italy has been left out of this equation because its military
services were totally unprepared for modern warfare in equipment, training, and
morale. It was Italy’s misfortune to have a leader, Benito Mussolini, who was
so greedy for the spoils of war that he ignored Italy’s blatant military
deficiencies. In doing so, he sacrificed many brave and capable soldiers,
sailors, and airmen.

Democratic Allied powers, because they were democracies,
found themselves in a typical position: unprepared for war because politicians
had refused to risk electoral defeat by voting to raise taxes necessary for
defense. In the Soviet Union-an accidental Ally as a result of the German
invasion-the situation was different. Great sums had been spent on the
military, including the Soviet air force, but the armed forces were paralyzed
with fear as a result of Stalin’s insane purges. They left the military bereft
of leadership, with the great majority of senior officers executed, the
remainder afraid to take any action for fear of arrest and a quick death.

Germany and Japan were thus able to prepare first-class air
forces, equipped with the most modern equipment and sufficiently strong to win
almost all of their initial objectives. Both nations considered an air force of
3,000-5,000 aircraft, flown by well-trained, well-motivated crews, to be
sufficient for their purposes. When Germany initiated the war on 1 September
1939, and when Japan entered the war on 7 December 1941, both nations had bent
timing and technology to their will.

However, neither nation had any concept of the scale of
effort that airpower required. As a result, their production would soon lag
behind that of the Allies. When they finally perceived the scale of the task at
hand, they were in no position to achieve it.

Only two nations did. The Soviet Union was one, and it
formulated airpower projections in the same way it created divisions and
employed infantry, artillery, and tanks: on a grand scale-far beyond the
concepts of either the German or the Japanese leaders. In fact, even when
properly informed of the scale of the Soviet effort, German leaders refused to
believe it.

Even more remarkable was the Soviet ability to relocate the
aircraft industry from European Russia to behind the Urals. There they not only
instituted mass production in amazingly short order but also introduced new and
more effective types of aircraft. It was a magnificent effort, totally beyond
the comprehension of the Nazi leaders, Adolf Hitler in particular. In terms of
industrial miracles, the Soviet effort corresponded fully to the renaissance of
the U. S. aviation industry during the war.

The United States was the other nation to correctly estimate
the scale of effort that would be required. The fact that it did so was
improbable, as was the method by which grandiose estimates were made and

The United States, nurtured in its isolation by two oceans
and still resenting the events in Europe and Asia following World War I, had
let its armed forces be reduced to a bare minimum. In January 1939, the U. S.
air forces had a nominal strength of some 1,700 aircraft, 1,000 officers, and
18,000 enlisted personnel. Most of the aircraft were obsolescent, and none were
equivalent to their European and Asian counterparts. Only one year later,
President Franklin D. Roosevelt would call on Congress to permit the building
of 50,000 aircraft per year. It seemed an impossible assignment, but it was the
clarion call that brought forth the plan conceived by four brilliant young
officers: Lieutenant Colonels Harold Lee George and Kenneth N. Walker and
Majors Haywood S. Hansell and Laurence S. Kuter. These four men-all future
general officers-created the plan for U. S. airpower in World War II during
nine hectic days in August 1941. Their audacious plan-AWPD-1-would prove to be
uncannily accurate in concept and fulfillment.

In large part this was due to the permissive and aggressive
leadership of the U. S. air forces, personified by Major General Henry H.
“Hap” Arnold and Brigadier General Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz,
backed up by the president of the United States. In stark contrast, the
Luftwaffe was under the command of a dissolute dilettante: Reichsmarschall
Herman Goering, who had selected a fellow dilettante, Generaloberst Ernst Udet,
to supervise the technical development of the service. The chief of state,
Hitler, was too preoccupied with the army to do more than treat the Luftwaffe
with benign neglect.

AWPD-1 was subsequently modified, but not to a significant
extent. The final plan called for 207 groups of aircraft, 68,416 operational
aircraft (including 3,740 Consolidated B- 36 bombers, a design that was still
on the drafting boards). The officer force was to be expanded to 179,398 while
enlisted personnel would number almost 2 million. Monthly attrition was
estimated at 2,133 aircraft-more than existed in the entire USAAF at the time.
Also included were requirements for training, factories, targets, sorties,
fuel, bombs, and all the other materiel that an air force of almost 70,000
aircraft would require.

At any other previous moment in history, the tender of such
an extravagant plan would have been considered insane. It would have been
rejected forthwith, and the careers of the men who made it would have been
over. But the planners’ timing was impeccable. As grand as it was, their plan
was accepted on its merits and implemented with blinding speed. In 1939 in the
United States, annual aircraft production of all types had barely reached
3,000, mostly small, simple aircraft. By 1944, the United States was producing
aircraft at the rate of 100,000 per year, including some of the largest and
most sophisticated aircraft in history. When the war ended, the United States
Army Air Forces possessed some 70,000 operational aircraft and had suffered
almost exactly the predicted rate of attrition.

In stark contrast, the Axis powers had based their plans on
a series of short wars quickly won by the superior technology and numbers of
their aircraft working in cooperation with land and naval forces. A production
level of 3,000-5,000 aircraft per year was considered adequate in both nations.
When the war grew long, both Germany and Japan made valiant and determined
efforts to expand aircraft production. Both succeeded to a remarkable degree,
with Germany manufacturing some 40,000 aircraft in 1944, at the height of the
Allied bombing raids. In the same year, Japan manufactured 24,000 aircraft,
approximately six times its 1939 figure. If the leaders of the two nations had
the foresight to make such an effort in 1939 and 1940 rather than in 1943 and
1944, the war might have taken a very different turn.

However, timing now worked against them. They were locked
into manufacturing aircraft types that had begun the war and were largely
obsolete by 1943. Both nations would introduce new and improved models,
including such radical advances as the Messerschmitt Me 262 and Arado Ar 234
jets. These would prove too little, too late.

The Allies reflected the mirror image. Although the Allied
forces suffered early defeats in every theater, they endured and were then able
to begin large-scale production of more modern types. Thus, in Great Britain
the late-model Supermarine Spitfire was supplemented by Hawker Typhoon and
Tempest aircraft, and the RAF bomber force moved quickly from twin-engine
bombers to the superb four-engine Avro Lancaster and the sensational
twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito multirole fighter-bomber. In the United
States, production saw multiple modified versions of the Boeing B-17 and
Consolidated B-24 bombers, complemented by the introduction of the B-29-the
best bomber of the war. Fighter production was originally concentrated on the
obsolescent Curtiss P-40, soon replaced by the Lockheed P-38, Republic P-47,
and the best U. S. fighter of the war, the North American P-51.

The forced draft of the war effort stoked the fires of
technology in all the combatant countries, especially Great Britain, Germany,
and the United States. Such technological advances as airborne radar,
electronic counterwarfare methods, pressurized cabins, advanced fire-control
systems, and jet engines were found in all three countries. Germany, in
desperation, leaped ahead in some areas, including rocket and missile
technology. Japan lagged behind in almost all areas, for its economy was
incapable of expanding production while also conducting extensive research in
new disciplines. The Soviet Union lagged as well, but primarily because it was
concentrating on the basic weapons necessary to defeat Nazi Germany in the
ground war. When the time came-particularly after the acquisition of German
engineering data-Soviet technology moved rapidly ahead.

By 1944, timing and technology had turned against the
aggressor nations on a scale the likes of which the world had never seen. Japan
and Germany reacted like typical militaristic dictatorships: They allowed the
discrepancy between their forfeited airpower and the overwhelming airpower to
be made up by the blood of their people-soldiers as well as civilians. Axis
leaders knew there was no way to win this war, their powerful opponents now
fully armed and growing stronger every day, yet they forced their populations
to fight on to the very end. In Germany that end came when Allied forces met
their Soviet counterparts on the River Elbe. In Japan that end came with the
union of the B-29 and the atomic bomb. This combination represented, for the
first time, absolute airpower, and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
finally forced even the Japanese militarists to realize the war was lost.

The following contains year-by-year summaries of air warfare
in World War II:


The Luftwaffe paved the way for Germany’s victory over
Poland, demonstrating blitzkrieg tactics in which aircraft and armor cooperated
to penetrate enemy positions. The Allies remained cautious and inactive on the
Western Front: The few bombing raids that they did conduct met with failure,
and a great deal of effort was expended on utterly pointless leaflet drops. The
Germans were careful not to antagonize the Allies at first, in the hope that
the war could be ended quickly. In November, the Soviet Union invaded Finland.
The Finns resisted valiantly, and their small air force took a heavy toll of
Soviet aircraft. In Asia, the Japanese air forces continued to operate over
China with little opposition.


By February, after having suffered heavy losses, the Soviet
Union exhausted the Finns and a peace was concluded. In April, Germany used
airpower to overwhelm Denmark and Norway, offsetting German inferiority at sea.
On 10 May, Germany invaded the Low Countries, its Luftwaffe again spearheading
the attacks in the Battle for France. The inadequate Allied air forces caused the
Germans some casualties, but they were defeated in the air and on the ground.
Luxemburg, Belgium, and Holland were quickly overrun. In late May, the Royal
Air Force succeeded in preventing the Luftwaffe from interfering with the
evacuation at Dunkirk. This was the first defeat the German air force had
suffered. By 21 June, France had surrendered. Great Britain upped the ante in
the air war, sending bombers to attack targets in Germany, particularly in the

After his lightning victories, Adolf Hitler offered Great
Britain peace-but at too great a price. The United Kingdom was now led by Prime
Minister Winston Churchill, a longtime supporter of airpower and a man who was
determined never to surrender. He was exactly the right man for the job, for he
brought the United Kingdom back from the brink of despair and set about
building a bombing force that he hoped would punish Germany.

In the meantime, Germany attempted to establish air
superiority over England in the Battle of Britain. It was here that timing and
technology first began to work against the Germans, for the aircraft
(Messerschmitt Bf 109s, Heinkel He 111s, Dornier Do 217s, and Junkers Ju 87s
and Ju 88s) that had been perfect for a continental campaign were now too few
in numbers and technologically inadequate for a strategic bombing campaign.
Timing and technology worked instead for Great Britain, whose factories were
churning out hundreds of Hurricanes and Spitfires and whose radar system formed
the core of an integrated command-and-control system that would enable the RAF
to decisively defeat the Luftwaffe. Defeated in the Battle of Britain, Germany
realized that invasion was impossible and turned to nighttime bombing of
British cities even as the Nazis reorganized their forces for an invasion of
the Soviet Union. Events in Europe had served to alert the United States that
it was necessary to increase production capacity, and Allied investment in the
U. S. aviation industry aided this effort. Large orders for combat aircraft
were placed by England and France (with smaller orders being placed by other
countries), which prompted an expansion of the U. S. aviation
industry-critically important in the coming years. Japan began the occupation
of French Indochina in an effort to move closer to the vital oil and mineral
resources of Southeast Asia. On 28 October, Italy invaded Greece from its
Albanian bases. The invasion was inadequately prepared, and the Greeks proved
to be tough adversaries who promptly forced the Italians back beyond the
Albanian frontiers. Great Britain sent troops and aircraft to Greece, beginning
a relatively small but politically important air battle there.


German bombing of the United Kingdom continued through May
1941 but on a reduced scale. In Africa, very limited British forces were able
to maul Italian armies in Libya and in Eritrea and Ethiopia. The defeats in
Libya would cause Hitler to send the Afrika Korps, with limited but very
effective air components, to rescue the Italians. This would begin the long,
bitter North African campaign. In eastern Africa, there were dogfights between
biplane opponents, with Gloster Gladiators contesting Fiat Falcos in a World
War I-type atmosphere. Air attacks on Malta began to build in intensity. The
United States moved closer to open warfare by announcing its Lend-Lease plan,
whereby it would provide arms to Great Britain on a massive scale. On 6 April,
Germany began its Balkan campaign, which was massively successful and ended
with the evacuation of Greece by British forces and the occupation of Crete. It
had the effect, however, of delaying the German invasion of the Soviet Union,
which many observers feel was critical to the outcome of the 1941 campaign. On
22 June, German launched Operation BARBAROSSA, its invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet air force was virtually destroyed on the ground, but once again the
scale of German air effort was hopelessly inadequate, and despite overwhelming
success, the fighting ground down in the winter snows. The Soviet Union began a
massive relocation effort that saw no less than 1,523 factories moved beyond
the Urals.

On 7 December, imperial Japan began a whirlwind air campaign
with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. Japanese airpower would
soon seem to be invincible as it swept through Southeast Asia, sinking HMS
Prince of Wales and Repulse in passing. It would be dominant for the next six
months of the war. Germany declared war on the United States on 11 December.


The Japanese forces, employing relatively small but highly
effective elements of airpower, conquered some 20 million square miles of
territory, including the Philippines, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and Burma,
along with critical Pacific islands such as Wake and Guam, by March 1942. The
only ray of hope came in the famed 18 April Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, the first
of many. In Europe, the RAF became increasingly aggressive with daylight
fighter and bomber sweeps over occupied territories. In March, RAF Bomber
Command began its new offensive, intensifying the nighttime bombing of Germany.
The United States would join Great Britain in the Combined Bomber Offensive,
which would grow from modest beginnings to an overwhelming force over the next
three years. In the Atlantic, German U-boats began a war against shipping that
would become known as the Battle of the Atlantic; they would succeed for more
than a year because of inadequate Allied airpower.

The war in the Pacific took a sudden and surprising turn in
favor of the Allies following the Battle of Midway in early June. On August 7,
the United States would invade Guadalcanal, beginning a bloody six-month battle
that would literally turn on the possession of a single facility-Henderson
Field. In Russia, German advances continued to the south toward Stalingrad and
the Caucasus. In Africa, Germany would suffer a major defeat at El Alamein in
October, then be confounded by the massive U. S. invasion of North Africa on 8
November. Allied airpower in every theater was causing the tide of war to


The fortunes of war turned irreversibly against the Axis
powers in 1943, beginning with the catastrophic German losses in the Battle of
Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe could still attain local air superiority at specific
spots along the Eastern Front, but the Soviet opposition was gaining both in
numbers and tactics. The effectiveness of Soviet airpower and the decline in
the Luftwaffe’s strength was demonstrated in the Battle of Kursk, the largest
tank battle in history. Germany also suffered defeat in the Battle of the
Atlantic, where the combination of land- and carrier-based aircraft shut down
all areas of operation by the U-boats and, in cooperation with surface ships,
caused prohibitive losses. The Germans were also defeated in North Africa,
which was followed by defeats throughout the entire Mediterranean Theater with
the loss of Sicily and the invasion of Italy. At the same time, the Combined
Bomber Offensive grew in intensity and effectiveness over Europe, exemplified
by the destruction of Hamburg. The Luftwaffe was still capable of dealing out
tremendous punishment, however, as in the air battles over Regensburg,
Schweinfurt, and Berlin.

In the Pacific, the defeat at Guadalcanal forced the
Japanese on the defensive throughout the theater as Allied forces followed a
two-axis strategy. The first was a step-by-step advance toward the Philippines
by the forces of General Douglas MacArthur, the second an island-hopping
advance under the direction of Admiral Chester Nimitz. The island-hopping
campaign was characterized by bitter battles such as Tarawa.


Allied airpower came into its own in Europe with the
introduction of long-range escort fighters and a new philosophy that was aimed
at destroying the Luftwaffe. By March 1944, the Luftwaffe had been soundly
beaten; although it was occasionally able to muster strength for savage
attacks, it was never again able to secure daytime air superiority. However, in
the same month the Luftwaffe did defeat the RAF in its nighttime-bombing
campaign against Berlin. The combined USAAF/RAF forces focused on preparing the
European continent for an invasion; the 6 June 1944 D-Day operation was so
successful that it was virtually unopposed by the Luftwaffe. The air battle
over Germany intensified and was regarded as a “second front” by no
less an observer than Albert Speer even before the D-Day landings.

In the Pacific, the airpower of the U. S. Army and Navy
proved superior to the Japanese at every point. The Japanese were now
desperately short of trained pilots, so much that their remaining aircraft carriers
were sometimes forced to sortie as mere decoys without any aircraft aboard.
They incurred massive defeats in the Marshall Islands and the Philippines and
were forced to resort to kamikaze suicide tactics.

In the last days of 1944, the Germans took advantage of bad
weather, which hampered Allied air operations, to launch their final offensive
of the war in the West-the Battle of the Bulge. As soon as the weather cleared
a bit, however, Allied airpower reasserted itself.


Airpower played itself out in Europe; useful targets
disappeared by April, and the Germans surrendered in May. In the Pacific, true
airpower came into being for the first time in the B-29 fire-bombing of Japan,
which reduced major cities to ashes. The Japanese militarists still refused to
surrender until the application of absolute airpower in the form of atomic
weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is worth noting that the final application of airpower in
both the European and Pacific theaters was compassionate, with the dropping of
food, clothing, and medical supplies to POWs still held in the defeated
enemies’ camps.

References Boyne,
Walter J. Clash of Titans: World War II at Sea. New York: Simon and Schuster,
1995. ______. Clash of Wings: World War II in the Air. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1994. Goralski, Robert. World War II Almanac, 1931-1945. New York:
Bonanza, 1981.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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