Probably the most successful British fighter of World War II; placed in front-line service throughout the war. At least 22,759 Spitfire and Spitfire variants (photo-reconnaissance aircraft and naval fighters) were built between March 1936 and March 1949 in 54 major marks (not counting variants in engine fit and prototypes).
The Spitfire was a pilot’s airplane—a very responsive aircraft with superb control harmony that gave the pilot plenty of feedback as manoeuvre limits were approached. The ability of the Spitfire’s airframe to accept progressively more powerful engines was a major factor in its continued success. Its only real fault was a relative lack of range on internal fuel (approximately 490 miles for a Mk.1, 660 miles for a Mk.VIII/IX with fuselage tank).
The Spitfire Mk.I was fitted with a Rolls-Royce Merlin III producing 990 bph using 87-octane fuel. It was armed with eight 0.303-inch Browning machine guns and played an important part in the Battle of Britain. A number of performance improvements were made during 1940, including the use of 100-octane fuel. From November 1940, all Spitfires were retrofitted with metal ailerons that increased the roll rate at high speed. The Mk.II was fitted with a 1,140-bhp Merlin XII. Tactical comparisons with a captured Messerschmitt Bf 109E showed that the Spitfire had a much better turning circle, was generally more manoeuvrable (particularly at high speed), and that the Bf 109 had a slightly better climb below 20,000 feet and was able to accelerate faster in a dive.
Photo-reconnaissance Spitfires were stripped of nonessential equipment and received a highly polished paint finish. They carried two F.24 cameras and were 10–15 mph faster than standard Spitfires. Subsequent versions carried much more fuel, increasing range to a respectable 2,000 miles. The Mk.V entered service in February 1941 and had a 1,450-bhp Merlin 45. It served in every theater during World War II and fought with distinction during the defense of Malta.
Most Mk.Vs were armed with two 20mm Hispano cannons and four 0.303-inch Browning machine guns. The Mk.V was comparable to the Messerschmitt Bf 109F2, but it was severely disadvantaged by the Focke-Wulf Fw 190A, which outclassed the Spitfire V in every department except turning circle. The Spitfire LF Vb with a 1,580-bhp Merlin 50M redressed the performance balance at low altitude at the expense of performance above 12,000 feet, and a much higher rate of roll was achieved by removing the detachable wing tips.
Messerschmitt Bf 109
Willy Messerschmitt began developing his benchmark fighter in 1933 once the Luftwaffe desired to substitute its Arado Ar 68 and Heinkel He 51 biplanes. The prototype flew in 1935 as a rather angular, low-wing monoplane with a fully enclosed cockpit and narrow-track landing gear. Results were impressive, and in 1937 the new Bf 109B fighter outpaced all other rivals at the International Flying Meet in Zurich, Switzerland. By 1939 the first production model, the Bf 109E, was introduced, featuring a bigger engine and heavier armament. As a fighter, the diminutive craft flew fast and maneuvered well, features that helped secure German air superiority at the start of World War II. Simply put, Bf 109s annihilated all their outdated opposition until encountering Supermarine Spitfires during the 1940 Battle of Britain. Although speedier than its British opponent, Bf 109Es turned somewhat slower and never achieved superiority.
The most famous fighter of the German Luftwaffe, produced in greater numbers (in excess of 30,000) than any other fighter aircraft. Created by Willy Messerschmitt and his chief engineer, Walter Rethel, the Bf 109 was the world’s most advanced fighter at the time of its first flight in September 1935. A development of the very successful four-place touring Bf 108, the Bf 109 featured retractable landing gear, an enclosed cockpit, all-metal stressed-skin construction, heavy armament for the time, slotted trailing-edge flaps, and automatic Handley Page leading-edge slots.
Despite the pressures for ever-increasing production, the Bf 109 went through a long series of modifications, the last production version being the Bf 109K. In the process, horsepower was increased from the prototype’s 695-hp Rolls- Royce Merlin to the 2,030-hp Daimler-Benz DB 605 engine in the Bf 109K.
The aircraft served in every theater in which the Germans fought and was used by many nations allied to Germany. In the early months of the war, it reigned supreme over the battlefield until it met its match in the Supermarine Spitfire. As the war progressed and new Allied fighters such as the Soviet Yak-3 and U.S. North American P-51 were introduced, it became increasingly difficult for the Bf 109 to compete on equal terms. Nevertheless, in the hands of a capable pilot it remained a dangerous weapon until the end of the war. Versions of the Bf 109 were produced in Czechoslovakia and Spain, and it fought again in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.
Although it was the favorite mount of many top German aces, Allied pilots who flew test versions had mixed feelings. The cockpit was cramped, with visibility limited by the heavy frames of the canopy. By Allied standards, the control harmony was poor, a problem that was amplified by the inexplicable lack of a rudder-trimming device. At cruising speeds, the Bf 109 was generally considered delightful to fly, but its controls became very heavy as speed increased. The most notorious aspect of the Bf 109 was its appalling takeoff characteristics. An estimated 3,000 aircraft were lost during takeoffs in which the pilot lost control. Landing characteristics were also challenging, but a skilled pilot could land in a relatively short distance, using heavy braking once the tailwheel was firmly planted on the ground.
From 10 May until 11 June, the British and French air forces lost around 1,850 aircraft in combat, of which some 950 were French. Luftwaffe losses were around 1,100. These figures suggest a clear victory for the Luftwaffe, but even they give no idea of the scale of the defeat suffered by the Allied air forces. Such heavy losses, indeed even heavier losses, would have been perfectly acceptable if they had enabled the Allied armies to avoid such a total and catastrophic rout.
Most French problems stemmed from the way long-range bombing dominated French thinking at all levels, political and military. The threat the bomber posed to French cities was overestimated and what it might achieve on the battlefield underestimated. Paranoia over the long-range bomber had emerged long before the outbreak of the First World War. In 1914–1918, the needs of the front prevented this from dominating military thinking, but in peacetime, the theory and the fear were able to flourish. French politicians assumed bombing could bring swift and total defeat and ruin to their country.
The idea that bombers alone would decide future wars was a far more radical notion than the blitzkrieg that would eventually defeat France. The German strategy was just a restatement of the importance of mobility, with the internal combustion engine replacing the horse. Douhetism envisaged an entirely new form of warfare in which armies would be irrelevant. It is perhaps no coincidence that these theories took root most strongly in the democracies (France, Britain, and the United States) where public anxiety over aerial bombardment could find an effective political voice. In the totalitarian states (Germany, USSR, Italy, and Japan), where public opinion had less influence, more pragmatic military uses of air power prevailed.
The French are often accused of trying to fight the Second World War with the weapons and ideas of the First World War. This is true for some aspects of policy, but as far as the air war is concerned, in 1940, France needed the sort of Air Force it had in 1918. The Great War had underlined the value of aerial reconnaissance and the need for the strongest possible fighter force to enable the reconnaissance fleet to operate. The Air Division had demonstrated how effective air power could be as a flexible defensive and offensive weapon. In 1940, the French did not have enough fighters, they had no equivalent of the Air Division and were completely taken by surprise when the Luftwaffe turned their very similar VIII Air Corps on the French Army. Instead of building on the close air support tactics developed in the First World War, the French focused on developing a long-range deterrent bomber force. How fast, how far, and how many tons bombers could carry became the yardstick for measuring French air strength. Ironically, once the country was at war, it was the Ju 87, the slowest German bomber with the least range and lowest bomb load, that proved so decisive.
The French Army never believed the long-range bomber could be decisive; they had no doubts that wars would still be won or lost on the battlefield. Unfortunately, the zeal with which the Douhet-style conflict was promoted induced a scepticism within the Army about all forms of bombing, strategic and tactical. Battlefield bombing in direct support of ground forces proved to be far more effective than the generals imagined, and, more importantly, meant armies did not have to wait for artillery. The French found themselves facing a German Army that could advance far more rapidly than they believed possible. This was at least as significant as the actual damage bombing inflicted.
Yet developing a long-range bomber force was not a mistake. It might not decide the outcome of a war, but it did have huge influence in peacetime. Politicians needed the security a powerful bomber fleet provided. Bargaining positions were determined by how many bombers you had. Foreign policy was shaped by the bomber. The value of a powerful bomber fleet was amply demonstrated during the Rhineland and Sudetenland crises. Hitler got his way without firing a bullet. At the time, it did not occur to the Air Force or the politicians that the long-range bomber was not a decisive war winning weapon, that its value was political and psychological rather than military. Without fully understanding what was happening, it was difficult to see that a balance was required between what the politicians needed in peacetime and the military needed for fighting a war. Attempts to match the German bomber fleet led to far too much effort being devoted to strategic bombers at the expense of shorter-range tactical bombers. It was the latter that France would need when it came to war. They also happened to be much easier to build. The LeO 451 was not only the least effective and suffered the highest loss rate of any French bomber, but it also required far more resources to build.
The lack of trust between Army and Air Force was another major problem. Even in the tactical domain, the Army felt that in the First World War, the Air Force had tended to disregard Army needs and go its own way. The Air Force focus on independent strategic air warfare in the interwar years increased the mistrust. The more independent the Air Force became, the less the Army trusted it. The Army had good reason not to trust their sister service. Even in the May–June campaign, d’Astier tended to run air operations as he thought best, rather than as the Army wanted.
As far as the Army was concerned, centralised control meant Air Force control, and the only way the generals felt they could be sure of getting the air support they needed was to attach squadrons permanently to army units, even though this made it even more difficult to focus air effort where it was needed. Ironically, as the Army did not think tactical bombing was so important, control of the bomber force was centralised, and it could be switched to where it was required. Fighter squadrons, however, were attached to armies, which stretched available resources along the length of the front. Fears that French cities and industry would be wiped out by German bombing meant fighters also had to defend these targets. In the end, French fighter resources were stretched in two directions: along the front and deep into the French rear. Even if the French fighter force had matched the Luftwaffe in terms of quality in 1940, it would have still been at a disadvantage numerically because of the way it was dispersed.
The inability to secure local air superiority meant that the large fleet of reconnaissance planes the French had assembled, and into which so many resources had been poured, could not function. The French were quite right to emphasise the importance of reconnaissance, but a smaller reconnaissance fleet with a larger fighter force to protect it, would have enabled the French to gather more information.
On the technical side, the French fascination with large multi-seater, multi-purpose planes proved particularly unfortunate. France missed out completely on the Blenheim and Dornier Do 17 generation of bomber design and as a result, the French bomber force had nothing suitable to fly by day when war broke out. Even in the 1940 campaign, the products of the multiplace de combat era flew nearly as many sorties as the French bombers that were supposed to replace them. Perhaps more significantly, the low speeds expected of the turret laden bombers, meant required fighter speeds were too low, and although the BCR multi-purpose plane was abandoned in 1934, French fighter design never quite caught up with what was being achieved elsewhere.
France started rearming much later than Germany, but it was not fatally late. The mistake was the planes the French decided to build. The RAF and Luftwaffe fought the air battles of 1940 largely with planes conceived in the early thirties or upgrades of these designs. For France, this was the Amiot 340, M.S.406, Potez 63, and Mureaux 113 generation. France, however, decided these were not good enough and placed all their trust in the next generation. This was not necessary. The makeshift Potez 633 was a reasonable equivalent to bombers like the Dornier 17. The Mureaux 117 was no more obsolete than the Henschel Hs 126 the Luftwaffe used successfully. An upgraded M.S.406 could not have matched the Bf 109, but it might have been good enough. These were the only planes that France could have built in sufficient numbers in time for the 1940 campaign.
In peacetime, there was a case for waiting for the very latest designs, but once war broke out, continuing to rely on the 1936 generation became a fatal mistake. The Dewoitine D.520 and Bloch MB.174 were excellent planes that would have played an increasingly important role from mid-1940 onwards. The Martin 167 and Douglas DB-7 did go on to have very successful careers with the RAF. They were all capable of making some contribution in the spring of 1940, but it was too soon to be relying on them. New planes invariably have teething problems and aircrews need time to become familiar with them. In the end, the Dewoitine D.520 was no more successful than the Curtiss H75, because the H75 pilots had learned how to get the best out of their fighters. Fighter production plummeted when the M.S.406 was phased out. The Potez 633 was easy to build and could have been built in large numbers. In the end, France fell between two stools: it did not have enough combat planes of either the old or the new generation.
Even with the resources that were available in 1940, the French could have done better. No battle is lost before a shot is fired. On the ground, there were opportunities for the French to rescue the situation even after the breakthrough at Sedan. Once it was obvious how serious the situation was, there was plenty of urgency, but little flair or improvisation. During the 1918 crises, doctrine had been ditched and instinct took over. Fighters and reconnaissance planes, as well as bombers, were thrown into the ground-attack role, regardless of doctrine. In 1940, everything was done by the book. Tremendous risks were taken by committing large ungainly multi-seaters and floatplane bombers to daylight operations. Frantic efforts were made to make obsolete long-range bombers available for operations, but there was no thought about how smaller, more manoeuvrable fighters or reconnaissance planes might be used for ground-attack. A striking feature of the campaign was how obsolete biplanes like the Henschel Hs 123 and Fokker C.V could be used for ground-attack, provided they were not expected to attack targets far beyond the front line. The way French aircraft were used was determined by what they were designed to do rather than what they might be capable of doing. The French had far more useable planes than they imagined but the lure of the ultra-modern that had led them to reject the 1934 generation of combat planes also blinded the French to how even older equipment might make a contribution.
The strange contrast between frenzy and inaction was another striking feature of the French reaction to the crisis. Rear defence flights were formed and squadrons converted to new equipment in days, but elsewhere, trained foreign and French aircrews were left kicking their heels with nothing to fly. Army and Air Force commanders called for maximum effort, but at the height of the battle, some units remained unused and with those that did operate, sortie rates throughout the campaign were low by comparison with other Allied and enemy air forces. D’Astier placed too much emphasis on using his squadrons in a controlled, measured way, but in some ways, it was too measured. He insisted that available planes had to be used correctly, when the crisis facing the French demanded a more radical approach. The way any combat planes are used has to depend on the situation and how what is available can make a contribution rather than peacetime practice, doctrine and theories about how planes ought to be used.
Much is often made of various quotes which seem to prove that French Army generals did not understand the importance of air power. Although they underestimated the value of close air support, they never doubted the need for a powerful air force. The Army’s fierce fight to retain control of the Air Force is proof of that. Many of the quotes were provoked by frustration at the constant talk of bombers deciding wars on their own. The expressions ‘lutte aérienne’ or ‘bataille aérienne’, were standard ways of describing the Douhetian aerial struggle. Those who use these quotes tend to confuse these references to battles fought by opposing bomber fleets, with the battle for air superiority fought by rival fighter forces. It was the former the Army opposed, not the latter. On hearing the dreaded Douhetian ‘bataille aérienne’ mentioned yet again at a lecture in the summer of 1939, a frustrated Gamelin famously interrupted to point out that ‘There is no such thing as the “aerial battle”, there is only the battle on land.’ This did not mean he saw no need for fighters to secure the skies above the battlefield. He was just objecting to the idea that bombing cities wins wars. He was right. The Second World War was decided on the battlefield by all arms working together, not by air forces fighting their own independent bombing war.
The French Air Force failed in 1940, not so much because it was stuck in the past, but because it had been seduced by radical and unproven theories on the way air power would develop in the future. In the process, it forgot how it had used air power successfully in the First World War. France was not alone. For most of the interwar years even the German military did not believe bombers were a battlefield weapon. Initially, the fighter force had a low priority in the new Luftwaffe. Both Germany and France began revising their ideas about the same time. Crucially, the Germans had the experience in Spain and Poland to speed up the process. Even so, in 1940, the gap was not as wide as it might appear. As Liddell Hart put it, the German Army was successful not because ‘it was overwhelming in strength or thoroughly modern in form, but because it was a few vital degrees more advanced than its opponents’. With their superior tanks and growing appreciation of tactical air support, the French were arguably more than a just few degrees ahead of their British ally. In June 1940, French Army and Air Force commanders were a lot closer to understanding what was required to defeat the German Wehrmacht than their British counterparts. The loss of this expertise was as big a blow to the Allied cause as the lost manpower resources and industrial capacity. If France had managed to hang on, the war would have been won a lot sooner.
At the end of 1943 Royal Air Force Bomber Command gained a new capability to assist its night raiders: No 100 Group, a force with the task of reducing the effectiveness of the German air defences. The Group’s commander, Air Vice-Marshal Edward Addison, planned a two pronged attack on the defences. First, by jamming and spoofing the German radar systems and blocking the radio channels, he would make it more difficult for night fighters and anti-aircraft gunners to find and engage the bombers. Second, by sending long-range night fighters to seek out their German counterparts and attack their airfields, the Group would impose constraints on the operations of the defending night fighter force. In recognition of the dual-nature of its role, the Group’s official motto was ‘Confound and Destroy’.
During the autumn of 1944 No 100 Group began to make its presence felt during the night attacks on targets in Germany. The role of the formation was termed ‘bomber support’ (what is now called ‘defence suppression’). No 100 Group’s jamming force comprised four squadrons of converted heavy bombers: No 171 with Halifaxes, No 199 with Stirlings (later it would convert to Halifaxes), No 214 with Flying Fortresses and No 233 with Liberators (later it would convert to Flying Fortresses). These aircraft were modified to carry a menagerie of specialized electronic jamming equipment: ‘Mandrel’ and ‘Carpet’ to jam the Germans’ ground radars, ‘Piperack’ to jam their night fighters’ airborne interception radars and ‘Jostle’ to jam their communications radio channels. In addition, several of the aircraft were modified to carry large quantities of ‘Window’ metal foil to create thousands of false targets on the enemy radar screens to distract and confuse the defenders.
The Group’s destroying element comprised seven squadrons of Mosquito night fighters. In addition to their normal airborne interception radar, some of these aircraft carried the ‘Serrate’ or ‘Perfectos’ homing devices. ‘Serrate’ picked up the transmissions from the German night-fighter radars and gave a bearing that enabled the Mosquito crews to home on their source. ‘Perfectos’ was even cleverer: it radiated signals to trigger the IFF identification equipment of any German aircraft within a range of about fifteen miles, and the latter’s coded reply signal betrayed its exact whereabouts. ‘Perfectos’ provided the three pieces of information necessary for a successful interception: it gave relative bearing and distance, as well as providing a positive hostile identification of the aircraft under observation. The last of these was particularly valuable, since the Mosquitos were too deep in enemy territory where there might be a few German night fighters in an area of sky filled with several hundred friendly bombers. No longer could Luftwaffe night fighters cruise over their homeland concerned only with finding and shooting down bombers: now these hunters were liable at any time to become the hunted.
As well as seeking out German night fighters in the air, two of the Mosquito units, Nos 23 and 515 Squadrons, specialized in flying night intruder missions against the enemy night-fighter bases. These aircraft would orbit over the enemy airfields for hours on end, and bomb or strafe any movement seen on the ground.
To provide ELINT support for these operations the Group had its own ‘Ferret’ squadron, No 192, with Halifaxes, Wellingtons and Mosquitos fitted with special equipment to collect signals from the various German radar systems.
No 100 Group’s jamming element flew four general types of mission in support of the night bombers: the ‘Mandrel’ screen, the ‘Window Spoof’, the Jamming Escort and the Target Support operation. The ‘Mandrel’ screen usually involved between ten and sixteen aircraft orbiting in pairs along a line just clear of enemy territory, with an interval of fifteen miles between pairs. Each aircraft carried several ‘Mandrel’ transmitters, and the purpose of the operation was to produce a wall of jamming about 100 miles long, to prevent the German early-warning radar operators from seeing aircraft movements behind the screen. Usually the ‘Mandrel’ screen was employed to conceal the approach of a raiding force, but when no raid was planned it was erected to cause the enemy controllers to think that a raid was in the offing and so force them to scramble night fighters to waste their dwindling supplies of aviation fuel.
The ‘Window Spoof’ comprised up to twenty-four aircraft in two formations of twelve aircraft flying in line abreast, with 2¼ miles between the aircraft and the second line some 30 miles behind the first. Each aircraft released ‘Window’ at a rate of thirty bundles a minute, one every two seconds. In this way the formation could produce on enemy radar the illusion of a bomber stream of some 500 aircraft. The aim of the tactic was to lure night fighters away from the real raiding forces (each real bomber stream also dropped ‘Window’, though at a lower rate, so that it was impossible to tell the real attacks from the feints).
The Jamming Escort role involved Fortresses and Liberators of No 100 Group flying above the main bomber stream and jamming with ‘Jostle’ and ‘Piperack’ transmitters to blot out, respectively, the German night fighters’ radio channels and their airborne interception radars. When the Jamming Escort aircraft arrived at the target they often assumed the Target Support role, in which they orbited in the area and operated their ‘Carpet’ transmitters to jam the frequencies used by the German flak control radars.
Sergeant Kenneth Stone, an air gunner of No 233 Squadron flying Liberators, described his impressions of the types of operations his unit flew:
‘Window Spoof’ raids were carried out by a few aircraft dropping the metal foil to simulate a large force of aircraft on the enemy radar. The operation was very precisely worked out; there would be a rendezvous point in a safe area and timing was critical to within two minutes. If a crew arrived later than this it had to abort the mission because one aircraft late was a sure give-away on radar. All aircraft had to go in together and dispense ‘Window’ at a regular pace. The aircraft flew a ‘corkscrew’ course to disperse the ‘Window’ more effectively and give the illusion of a larger force than was actually present. Generally six spoofers would show up on radar as 300-plus plots. A spoof target was generally selected which either committed the defences in that area and left the genuine target free, or at worst split the defences and rendered a proportion of them useless. There were two methods of ending this type of spoof. Either we continued to the spoof target and dropped target markers there; or we stopped ‘Windowing’ short of the target and dived away at a great rate of knots. There is no doubt that the ‘Window Spoofs’ were highly successful in achieving their purpose, by fooling the defences and diverting their effort. The casualty rate for spoofing aircraft was not so high as might have been expected, because the enemy night fighters would be tied up with the paper-chase and could not winkle out the real aircraft.
In Stone’s view the Target Support operation was the most dangerous of those flown by his unit, and in recognition of the hazards these missions were shared out amongst the crews in strict rotation:
The general principle was to cover the target from five minutes before the initial marking began until five minutes after the bombing stopped. The big hazard was having to hang around while the bomber boys ran in, bombed, and got the hell out of it! Fifteen minutes seemed a long, long time suspended over the inferno below. The support aircraft generally flew some 2,000 to 4,000 feet above the bomber stream and jammed the flak and searchlight radars, the night-fighter H/T frequencies, the night fighter radars, etc. — in other words diverting the defensive forces away from the bombers during the most critical period.
The reader may gain an impression of the way in which No 100 Group’s tactics dovetailed with those of the rest of Bomber Command from a more or less typical operation of the late war period, that on the night of 20/21 March 1945. The targets were the oil refineries at Bohlen near Leipzig and at Hemmingstedt near Hamburg; the former was to be attacked by 235 heavy bombers, the latter by 166.
The first action by Bomber Command that night was a large-scale nuisance raid on Berlin by 35 Mosquitos, beginning at 9.14 p.m. The Mosquitos, flying fast and high, required no support from No 100 Group’s jamming force. As the raiding force moved in, night-fighter Mosquitos of Nos 23 and 515 Squadrons fanned out over Germany making for the enemy night-fighter bases likely to become active that night. When the intruders reached their objectives they orbited, waiting to pounce on any aircraft seen taking off or landing.
Just after 1 a.m. the main raiding force bound for Bohlen crossed the French coast and headed south-east towards southern Germany. Also heading across France, on a track almost parallel to that of the Bohlen attack force but a little further south, was a feint attack force of 64 Lancasters and Halifaxes. These aircraft belonged to operational conversion units and were flown by crews in the final stages of their training.
No 100 Group’s electronic trickery began at 2.05 a.m. on the morning of the 21st. Established in a line 80 miles long over France and just inside Allied-held territory, seven pairs of Halifaxes of Nos 171 and 199 Squadrons turned on their ‘Mandrel’ equipment to provide a wall of jamming to conceal the approach of the Bohlen attack force, which by then had split into two separate parts.
Running across France outside the cover of the ‘Mandrel’ screen, the feint attack flown by trainee crews continued heading east in full view of the enemy radars. German night fighters moved into position to block the threatened incursion but, at 2.55 a.m., when the bombers were just short of the German border, the feint attackers turned round and went home. A few minutes later, well to the north, the two Bohlen attack forces burst through the ‘Mandrel’ jamming screen and crossed the Rhine into German-held territory. Twenty miles ahead of the bombers flew four Halifaxes of No 171 Squadron and seven Liberators of No 223 Squadron dropping ‘Window’ to conceal the strength of the attacking forces. Flying ahead and on the flanks of each of the bomber streams, 33 Mosquito night fighters of No 100 Group began their deadly game of hide-and-seek with their enemy counterparts.
Shortly before 3 a.m. a Mosquito of No 85 Squadron, with pilot Flight Lieutenant Chapman and radar operator Flight Sergeant Stockley, picked up IFF identification signals on ‘Perfectos’ from an enemy aircraft at a range of 12 miles. Chapman afterwards reported:
At 0255 hours just after passing Hamm on the way in to escort the bomber stream we got a ‘Perfectos’ contact at 12 miles’ range — height 12,000 feet. Range was closed to 1 mile but no AI [radar] contact was obtained and the range started to increase again, so deciding that the contact must be below we did a hard diving turn to port down to 9,000 feet and finally D/F’d [took a bearing] on to the target’s course at 7 miles’ range. We closed to 6 miles’ range on a course of 120° and an AI contact was obtained…The target was still climbing straight ahead and was identified with the night glasses as an Me 110. I closed in to 600 feet and pulled up to dead astern when the Hun started to turn to port. I gave it ½ ring deflection with a three-second burst whereupon the E/A [enemy aircraft] exploded in the port engine in a most satisfying manner with debris flying back. It exploded on the ground at 0305 hours, position 25-30 miles NW of Kassel.
From start to finish the engagement lasted ten minutes and, as can be seen, this type of operation tended to involve the Mosquito crew in a lengthy chase before they reached a firing position.
The spoof tactics that night were successful. The German fighter controller seriously underestimated the strength of the two raiding forces heading for Bohlen; he estimated their strengths as about 30 aircraft each and thought they might even be ‘Window’ feints. Only after the raiders had crossed the Rhine and reports had started to come in from German ground observers did it become clear that the southerly force was far larger than had been thought: no amount of electronic jamming could conceal the roar of 800 aircraft engines.
By now 89 German night fighters were airborne and orbiting over their holding beacons, waiting for their controller to clarify the air situation and direct them against the bombers.
That night the intention of the No 100 Group operation was to create the impression that the raiders’ main objective was Kassel, and soon after the main raiding force had crossed into German-held territory it turned north-east towards the city. The German fighter controller swallowed the bait and ordered almost all of his night-fighters to head for radio beacons Silberfuchs, Werner and Kormoran in the vicinity of Kassel. He ordered the rest of his force, a single Gruppe of Ju 88s, to move to radio beacon Otto near Frankfurt to cover a possible threat to that city. Soon afterwards there came reports from Kassel that the city was under imminent threat of attack, as Pathfinder flares blossomed overhead and a few bombs detonated.
German night fighters were ordered to move on the city, but this was no full-scale onslaught, merely a feint by Mosquito bombers backed by No 100 Group Liberators and Halifaxes dropping ‘Window’. During the course of this spoof a German night fighter shot down a Liberator of No 233 Squadron; only one member of the crew survived.
Meanwhile, some 25 miles south of Kassel, the main raiding force had turned away from that city and was heading for Bohlen. The Liberator crewmen had not sacrificed their lives in vain, however, for the feint against Kassel kept most of the German night fighters uselessly in that area for nearly half an hour. Not until 3 a.m. did the German fighter controller realize that he had been tricked and order his force to head east in pursuit of the raiders. Six minutes after that he gave the probable target as Leipzig, the city nearest Bohlen, but by then the vanguard of the raiding force was within thirty miles — eight minutes’ flying time — of the target.
Still No 100 Group had not exhausted its repertoire of tricks. Just short of Bohlen six Flying Fortresses and Halifaxes broke away from the main raiding force and ran a ‘Window’ trail to the important oil refinery complex at Leuna which lay twenty miles to the north-west. Twelve Lancaster bombers accompanied the jamming aircraft to give substance to the spoof. When the feint attackers arrived over the complex they dropped further target markers and the Lancasters put down their loads of bombs. Leuna lay directly in the path of the German night fighters streaming to the east, and the spoof attack delayed their arrival at the real target still further. One Lancaster crew paid the supreme price for the precious minutes of additional delay inflicted on the defending night fighters in reaching the main target.
The 211 Lancasters assigned to the Bohlen raid reached their objective and carried out a concentrated eleven-minute attack. The five Flying Fortresses and the Liberator that had provided Jamming Escort Support along the route to the target now orbited over the refinery in the Target Support role throughout the period of the attack. Not until 4.10 a.m., as the last raiders were leaving Bohlen, did the first of the German night fighters arrive in the area. Their radar operators encountered severe jamming and they had great difficulty picking out their prey amongst the large numbers of ‘Window’ returns. To add to the defenders’ confusion, as the Bohlen attack force withdrew to the west, the No 100 Group Halifaxes that had operated in the ‘Mandrel’ screen role had a further part to play. They now ran a further ‘Window Spoof ‘attack’ on Frankfurt, and dropped target markers to simulate the opening of a large-scale raid on that city.
As the Bohlen attack force crossed the Rhine to safety, Bomber Command’s operations for the night were only half complete. While the defenders’ attention had been concentrated over central Germany, the raiding force of 166 Lancasters bound for Hemmingstedt ran in at low altitude, maintaining strict radio silence. Shortly before reaching their target the bombers rose above the radar horizon and began climbing to their attack altitude of 15,000ft. Each aircraft released large amounts of ‘Window’ to give the impression on radar that this was yet another feint attack. At 4.23 a.m. the attack on the refinery began, supported by jamming from a Fortress and a Liberator of No 100 Group. Because of the low-altitude approach and the clever use of ‘Window’, the German raid tracking organization failed to appreciate the strength of this force and the bombers were well on their way home before the first radar plots on ‘weak formations’ were reported in the target area. Night fighters were scrambled to engage the force but there were few interceptions and only one of the bombers was shot down.
During the two raids the oil refineries at Bohlen and Hemmingstedt were both hit hard and neither would resume production before the war ended. The night’s action cost Bomber Command thirteen aircraft, including a Liberator and a Fortress of No 100 Group. Eight of the losses were attributed to attacks from night fighters and one to flak, two bombers were lost in a mid-air collision and the cause of the remaining two losses could not be established.
That night No 100 Group’s Mosquitos had several skirmishes with German night fighters but only two of the latter were shot down — and both fell to Chapman and Stockley. The bombers’ gunners claimed the destruction of two more enemy night fighters. German records indicate that the Luftwaffe lost seven night fighters that night, however. The fates of the other three aircraft will probably never be known but it is not difficult to speculate: a tired pilot, trying to land quickly on a dimly lit airfield patrolled by Mosquitos, might misjudge his approach and crash; a crew flying at low altitude to avoid being intercepted by a Mosquito might run into a hillside; a night fighter crew would switch off their IFF equipment to avoid betraying their position on ‘Perfectos’ and be shot down by ‘friendly’ anti-aircraft guns. Such losses, which were frequent, were the result of No 100 Group’s efforts as surely as were those brought about by its night fighters. By this stage of the war the wide-ranging Mosquitos had become the bane of the German night fighter crews’ existence.
When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, No 100 Group had honed its tactical stills to fine edge. Many of the electronic warfare techniques that it had pioneered for supporting bomber attacks would prove useful nearly more than forty-five years later, in the skies over Iraq.
Although it is sometimes introduced as the most famous of all US World War II aircraft, there are many who will argue that Boeing’s B-17 Flying Fortress ranks equally with several other superb machines which became available to the US Army at just the right moment. The North American P-51 Mustang has its ardent advocates for pride of place in the USAAF’s wartime armoury, but it was a child of war, conceived to live, fight and endure in the battle-torn skies of Europe. The origin of the Fortress was very different, its gestation long and troubled.
In the first few years after World War I the US Army Air Corps’ Brigadier General William (‘Billy’) Mitchell began his campaign in favour of strategic bombing, demonstrating (perhaps inconclusively) the ascendancy of bomber over battleship in July 1921 and September 1923 by the destruction of captured or obsolete warships anchored at sea. His burning belief in air power led to a bitter campaign, against the US Navy initially, but later involving also the US Army. In the last month of 1925 ‘Billy’ Mitchell was court-martialled and suspended from the service. He resigned very soon after this verdict, so that he could continue his campaign for the creation of the air force which he believed was needed by the USA. World War II was to prove him right in his ideas for in 1946, 10 years after his death, he was elevated to the rank of the nation’s heroes by the posthumous award of the Congressional Medal of Honour.
Although Mitchell had been discredited in 1925, there were many of his former colleagues who were less outspoken but nevertheless believed in the concept of air power. With Mitchell no longer there to provide support and encouragement, the efforts of this small steering nucleus were necessarily slow. More far sighted, in some ways, were the nation’s aircraft manufacturers. Boeing, for example, began work in 1930 on its Models 214 and 215, twin-engined developments of its revolutionary Model 200 Monomail civil airliner. Built as a private venture these were ordered in small numbers as Y1B-9 and YB-9, but the first significant order for monoplane bombers went to the Glenn L. Martin Company for 48 twin-engined B-10 bombers.
Deliveries of production B-10s began in June 1934, and in a changed climate of opinion the US Army had issued a month earlier its specification for an even more advanced multi-engined bomber, able to haul a bomb load of 2,000 lbs (907 kg) over a range of between 1,020 miles (1640 km) and, optimistically, 2,200 miles (3540 km), at speeds of between 200 – 250 mph (322 – 402 km/h). So far as the US Army was concerned, ‘multi’ meant more than one engine but Boeing, invited to submit its proposal for this requirement, elected to use four engines to power its Model 299, on which design work was initiated in mid-June 1934.
For Boeing the Model 299, built as a private venture, was a make or break gamble. Hitherto the company had built aircraft in only ‘penny packet’ numbers. The failure of the B-9 to win a worthwhile order had forced economies af near desperation upon Boeing, with its work force split in half and working two weeks on and two weeks off. Unless the Model 299 entered production in significant numbers the company faced, at the least, a very bleak prospect. Not surprisingly, every effort was devoted to the success of the project; every employee knew that he or she had an important contribution to make if the company was to survive.
The US Army specification had stipulated that the prototype should be available for test in August 1935, and however impossible this target had seemed in mid-1934, it became reality on 16 July 1935 when the Model 299 was rolled out of its hangar at Boeing Field, Seattle, for its first introduction to the press. Headlines on the following day announced the new’15-ton Flying Fortress’, and seizing upon the name the company had it registered as the official name of its Model 299. Contrary to popular belief, this was not because of its defensive armament, but because it was procured as an aircraft which would be operated as a mobile flying fortress to protect America’s coastline, a concept which needs some explanation.
USAAC protagonists of air power were still compelled to step warily, despite procurement of the B-10 bomber, for the US Navy had the most prestigious support in the corridors of power and was determined to keep the upstart US Army in its place. Even if strategic bombers were required, efforts must be made to prevent the US Army acquiring such machines. The USAAC was, however, quite astute when needs be and so, with tongue in cheek, succeeded in procuring 13 YB-17s, the original service designation of the Fortress, for coastal defence. However, this explanation anticipates the story.
On 28 July 1935 the Model 299 flew for the first time: just over three weeks later it was flown non-stop to Wright Field, Ohio, to be handed over for official test and evaluation. The 2,100-mile (3 380-km) flight had been made at an average speed of 252 mph (406 km/h), a most impressive performance which augured well for the future. The elation of the Boeing company was understandable, especially with confirmation that initial trials were progressing well. On 30 October 1935 hopes were dashed with the news that the prototype had crashed on take-off. Subsequent investigation was to prove that the attempt to take-off had been made with the controls locked, and in view of the satisfactory testing prior to this accident, the USAAC decided on the procurement of 13 YB-17s (later Y1B-17s), plus one example for static testing.
The prototype (X13372) which had crashed at Wright Field was powered by four 750 hp (559 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-1690-E Hornet radial engines. The cantilever monoplane wings were in a low-wing configuration, the wing section at the root so thick that it was equal to half the diameter of the circular-section fuselage; and wide-span trailing-edge flaps were provided to help reduce take-off and landing speeds. Landing gear was of the electrically retractable tailwheel type. Armament comprised five machine-guns, and a maximum bomb load of 4,800 lbs (2177 kg) could be carried in the fuselage bomb bay.
The initial Y1B-17 (36-149) flew for the first time on 2 December 1936, and differed from the prototype by having 930-hp (694-kW) Wright GR-1820-39 Cyclone radials, accommodation for a crew of nine, and minor changes in detail. Twelve were delivered between January and August 1937, equipping the USAAC’s 2nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field, Virginia. The thirteenth aircraft went to Wright Field for further tests and after one of the Y1B-17s survived without damage the turbulence of a violent storm, it was decided that the static test example would, instead, be completed as an operational aircraft. Designated Y1B-17A, this aircraft (37-369) was provided with 1,000 hp (746 kW) GR-1820-51 engines each fitted with a Moss/ General Electric turbocharger (supercharger powered by a turbine driven by exhaust gases). It flew for the first time on 29 April 1938, and subsequent testing by the USAAC gave convincing proof of the superiority of the turbocharged engine over those which were normally aspirated, and such engines were to become standard on all future versions of the Fortress.
The utilisation of the Y1B-17s, designated B-17 in service with the 2nd Bombardment Group, did little to improve relations between the US Army and US Navy. When three of the force were used to stage an ‘interception’ of the Italian liner Rex some 750 miles (1207 km) out in the Atlantic, to demonstrate that the USAAC was more than capable of defending the nation’s coastline, it sparked a row which dispersed the air power disciples from General Headquarters Air Force (GHQAF) to other commands, where they were remote from each other and potential influential supporters. Orders for additional B-17s had to be reduced after it had been underlined by Major General Stanley D. Embrick that . . . “the military superiority of a B-17 over the two or three smaller aircraft which could be procured with the same funds has yet to be established.” This helps explain why, despite the growing war clouds in Europe, the USAAC had less than 30 B-17s when Hitler’s forces invaded Poland on 1 September 1939.
The order for Y1B-17s was followed by a contract for 39 B-17Bs, more or less identical to the Y1B-17A prototype with turbocharged engines. The first of these flew on 27 June 1939, and all had been delivered by March 1940. In 1939 the B-17C was ordered, the first of the 38 on contract making its first flight on 21 July 1940. They differed by having 1,200 hp (895 kW) R-1820-65 engines, and by an increase from five to seven machine guns.
The B-17C was the first version of this bomber to be supplied to the RAF in Great Britain, which designated the 20 examples received in early 1941 as Fortress I. Equipping No. 90 Squadron, they were used operationally for the first time on 8 July 1941 when aircraft launched a high-altitude (30,000 ft / 9145 m) attack on Wilhelmshaven. In the 26 attacks made on German targets during the next two months the Fortress Is proved unsatisfactory, although there was American criticism of the way in which they had been deployed. Nonetheless, their use in daylight over German territory had proved that their operating altitude was an inadequate defence in itself, and so they needed more formidable defensive armament, for Messerschmitt Bf 109E and 109F fighters had little difficulty in intercepting them at heights of up to 32,000 ft (9750 m). Until improvements in the Fortress were made, or means found of deploying them more effectively, they were withdrawn from operations over Europe.
With the end of 1941 drawing near, the USA was soon to become involved in World War 11, initially in the Pacific theatre, but following the containment of the initial explosion of Japanese expansion it was decided that the Allies would first concentrate their efforts on bringing about a speedy conclusion of the war in Europe. Thus, large numbers of B-17s which otherwise would have found employment in the Far East were instead to equip the USAAF’s 5th Air Force in Britain. Those allocated to serve with the Anglo-American Northwest African Air Forces were later to become part of the US 15th Air Force.
In 1940 Boeing received an order for 42 B-17Ds. These differed little from the B-17C, but as a result of early reports of combat conditions in Europe were provided with self-sealing tanks and additional armour for protection of the crew, and these were delivered during 1941. The B-17E which followed was the first version to benefit from the RAF’s operational experience with its Fortress Is. A major redesign provided a much larger tail unit to improve stability at high altitude, and to overcome the criticism of inadequate defence 13 machine-guns were mounted in one manual and two power-operated turrets, radio compartment, waist stations and in the nose. Of the 512 of this version built under two contracts, the first flew on 5 September 1941. B-17Es were the first to serve with the 8th Air Force in Europe, with deliveries beginning in July 1942. They were used operationally for the first time by the 97th Bombardment Group, 12 aircraft being detailed for a daylight attack on Rouen on 17 August, with fighter escort provided by RAF Supermarine Spitfires.
The B-17F, of which the first flew on 30 May 1942, was the first version to be built in large numbers. Boeing produced 2,300 at Seattle, and further construction of 1,105 came from Douglas (605) and Lockheed Vega (500). Major changes included a redesigned nose, and strengthened landing gear to cater for a higher gross weight. Other changes included increased fuel capacity, the introduction of additional armour, provision of external bomb racks beneath the inner wings and, on late production aircraft, the introduction of R-1820-97 engines.
The B-17Es and B-17Fs became used extensively by the 8th Air Force in Europe, but in two major operations against German strategic targets, on 17 August and 14 October 1943, a total of 120 aircraft were lost. Clearly the Fortresses could not mount an adequate defence, no matter how cleverly devised was the box formation in which they flew. The hard truth was that without adequate long-range fighter escort they were very vulnerable to attack during mass daylight operations. Many of the losses were attributed to head-on attack, and the final major production version was planned to offset this shortcoming.
Thus the B-17Gs had a ‘chin’ turret housing two 12.7 mm (0.50 in) machine guns mounted beneath the fuselage nose, which meant that this version carried a total of thirteen 12.7 mm (0.50 in) guns. To increase the aircraft’s operational ceiling, later production examples had an improved turbocharger for their R-1820-97 engines. B-17G production totalled 8,680, built by Boeing (4,035), Douglas (2,395), and Lockheed Vega (2,250).
Although used most extensively in Europe and the Middle East, B-17s were operational in every area where US forces were fighting. In the Pacific theatre they offered invaluable service for maritime patrol, reconnaissance, and conventional and close-support bombing. A number of variants were also produced or converted for special purposes and operations, and details of these follow. Although almost 13,000 B-17s were built, only a few hundred B-17Gs were retained in USAAF service after the end of the war, and these were soon made redundant.
Fighter aircraft and their ability to secure air superiority were of decisive importance to the course and outcome of the Arab-Israeli wars. Initially, Israel and the Arabs employed surplus World War II fighters, but both sides quickly sought modern jets. Israel bought fighters mainly from Britain and France until 1967 and then afterward from the United States. The Arabs principally obtained their fighters from Britain until 1955 and thereafter from the Soviet Union.
Arab and Israeli fighter technology largely depended on the willingness of external suppliers-Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union-to provide their clients with the latest systems. Airframes, engines, avionics, sensors, and weapons improved continuously over the course of the Arab-Israeli wars. Initial jet aircraft such as the Meteor, Ouragan, and Vampire were straight-winged aircraft aerodynamically similar to propeller-driven fighters. They operated at high subsonic speeds with optical gunsights and mechanical control systems. The next development was the sweptwing transonic fighter-such as the MiG-15/17, Mystere, and Hunter-that operated close to the speed of sound.
These were quickly superseded by fighters such as the Super Mystere and MiG- 19 that were capable of level supersonic flight. Next appeared the truly supersonic fighters, such as the Mirage III and the MiG-21, typically armed with air-to-air missiles. Then, supersonic fighters such as the Phantom, Mirage V, MiG-23, and the later model MiG-21 appeared with greatly improved avionics, sensors, heads-up displays, and a wide range of air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions. The final generation consisted of agile supersonic fighters such as the F-15 and F-16, which were capable of both great speed and high maneuverability. These aircraft had advanced radars and flight controls and employed diverse precision air-to-surface weapons.
Fighter technology, though not unimportant, was less critical to Israeli success in air combat than superior leadership, organization, training, and individual initiative. Israeli pilots continuously practiced their close-quarters air-to-air combat skills (dogfighting), and that training repeatedly proved its value.
In the early 1950s, Egypt transitioned from propeller-driven to jet fighters. Britain sold some Gloster Meteors and de Havilland Vampires to Egypt, but Britain and the United States refused to sell Egypt advanced weapons. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser then turned to the Soviet bloc. In 1955, the Soviets agreed to supply Egypt with Mikoyan-Gurevich fighters and Ilyushin bombers, which were superior to anything in Israel’s arsenal. When the October 1956 Suez Crisis began, Egypt had 120 MiG-15s, some MiG-17s, 50 Il-28s, and 87 Meteors and Vampires. Egyptian MiG pilots were not yet fully trained, and the combined British, French, and Israeli Air Forces were superior in numbers and quality. Nasser decided to withhold his pilots from combat, and as a result, his air force was largely destroyed on the ground.
The swept-wing Soviet MiG-15 was still relatively new in 1956. It had excellent acceleration and rate of climb but poor control at high speed, poor stall characteristics, and an outmoded gunsight. Egypt operated the MiG-15 and MiG-15bis as well as the two-seat MiG-15UTI trainer from 1955 until 1982. A Soviet copy of the Rolls Royce Nene engine, provided by Britain to the Soviets in 1946, powered the MiG-15, which had a 688-mph maximum speed and a 50,900-foot ceiling. Range was 826 miles on internal fuel. The aircraft weighed 8,115 pounds empty and 11,861 pounds loaded. Originally designed to intercept American bombers, the MiG-15 was heavily armed with two 23-mm cannon and one 37-mm cannon. The MiG-15 (and its successors, the MiG-17 and MiG-19) rarely carried bombs
This was essentially an improved MiG-15 with better wings and more power. Extremely agile and with excellent turning abilities, the MiG-17 proved a tricky adversary for ostensibly superior U. S. aircraft such as the F-100, F-105, and F-4 over North Vietnam in the 1960s. Egypt operated MiG-17F and PF models from 1956 to 1982. The MiG-17F had a 710-mph maximum speed and a 54,500-foot ceiling. Range was 913 miles on external tanks. Armament consisted of two 23-mm cannon and one 37-mm cannon. The MiG-17 weighed 8,664 pounds empty and 11,773 pounds loaded. The MiG-17PF incorporated an afterburner and radar.
Egypt’s air force was destroyed during the Suez Crisis, but the Soviets quickly replaced it. In June 1967, Egypt had 120 MiG-21s, 80 MiG-19s, and 150 MiG-15/17s. Readiness was poor, however, with only about 60 percent of aircraft operational.
The MiG-19 was the first Soviet fighter capable of supersonic level flight. These aircraft were difficult to fly and prone to hydraulic failures and engine fires. During the Arab-Israeli wars, Egypt flew the MiG-19F, the MiG-19PF, the MiG-19S, and the MiG-19SF variants. Egypt received 80 in 1961 and another 50-60 after June 1967 (when they were apparently restricted to providing air defense over Egypt). Egypt bought 40 Chinese-built MiG-19 variants (the F-6) in the 1980s. The MiG-19S had a 903-mph maximum speed and a 56,145-foot ceiling. Range was 430 miles on internal fuel. Armament was three 30-mm cannon. The MiG-19 weighed 11,399 pounds empty and 19,470 pounds loaded.
First flown in 1955 and extensively exported, the delta-wing Soviet MiG-21 was superior to anything in Israel’s inventory in 1967. High thrust-to-weight gave it good acceleration and rate of climb. The MiG-21 could not turn as tightly as the MiG-17, which some pilots preferred even though the MiG-17 was subsonic and the MiG-21 supersonic. Skillful Israeli pilots could beat the MiG-21 even while flying greatly inferior aircraft such as the Ouragan or Super Mystere. During the Arab-Israeli wars, Egypt operated hundreds of MiG-21F-13, MiG-21FL, MiG- 21M, MiG-21MF, MiG-21PF, and MiG-21PFM interceptors as well as training and reconnaissance versions. Egypt bought 100 Chinesebuilt MiG-21F-13 fighters (the F-7) in the 1980s. The MiG-21F-13 had a 1,350-mph maximum speed and a 50,000-foot ceiling. Range was 808 miles on internal fuel. Armament consisted of one 20-mm cannon and two Vympel K-13 air-to-air missiles (a Soviet copy of the American AIM-9 Sidewinder). The MiG-21 weighed 10,979 pounds empty and 19,014 pounds loaded.
The MiG-21PF had a 1,350-mph maximum speed and a 50,000- foot ceiling. Range was 963 miles on internal fuel. Armament was the same as the MiG-21F-13. The aircraft weighed 11,587 pounds empty and 20,018 pounds loaded.
Most Egyptian aircraft were destroyed on the ground in June 1967, but again the Soviets replaced them. By October 1973, Egypt had 210 MiG-21s, 100 MiG-17s, and 110 bomber and ground-attack aircraft, although many were unserviceable. After the Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Israel reached a peace agreement and have not met in aerial combat since then.
During the Israeli War of Independence (1948-1949), Syria operated no fighters per se. It bought several dozen Fiat G. 55s, 10 Macchi C. 205s, 20 Supermarine Spitfires, and 23 Gloster Meteors (T. 7, F. 8, FR. 9, and NF. 13 models) in the 1950s. These never saw combat. After Egypt obtained Soviet arms in 1955, Syria requested Soviet military assistance. Syria operated the MiG-15bis from 1955 to 1976 as well as the two-seat MiG-15UTI trainer. Syria began receiving the MiG-17F in 1957, the MiG-17PF in 1967, and the MiG-19S and MiG- 19SF in 1963. Accidents and maintenance problems kept Syria’s operational inventory low.
Syria flew hundreds of MiG-21 interceptors during the Arab-Israeli wars. It received the MiG-21MF, the MiG-21F-13, and the MiG-21PF in the 1960s; the MiG-21PFM in the 1970s; and the MiG- 21SMT in 1983. It also operated training and reconnaissance versions. Syria still flies the MiG-21 today Syria had 36 MiG-21s, 90 MiG-15/17s, and some MiG-19s at the beginning of the Six-Day War. Few aircraft were operational, and few pilots were well trained. At least 58 Syrian fighters were destroyed, mostly on the ground. The Soviets quickly replaced these losses. Syria began the Yom Kippur War with 200 MiG-21s and 120 MiG-17s and lost 179 aircraft during 19 days of intense combat. After the war Syria remained Israel’s enemy, and again the Soviets replaced lost Syrian equipment. Prior to the final major clash with Israel in 1982, Syria received Soviet MiG-23 and MiG-25 fighters.
Jordan created its air force in 1955. Its first fighters were 20 British Vampires (10 FB. 9 and 7 F. 52 fighters and 3 T. 11 trainers), but they never saw combat. Before the Six-Day War, Jordan acquired British Hawker Hunters and had taken delivery of U. S. F-104 Lockheed Starfighters. However, the American F-104 pilots flew them to Turkey before the war began. After 1967, Jordan played no further direct role in Arab-Israeli air combat.
The Hunter, Britain’s first transonic fighter, first flew in 1951 and was widely exported to Middle Eastern air forces. Hunters had excellent flying qualities and were very agile and ruggedly built. From 1958 to 1968, Jordan bought 15 F. 6 interceptors, 16 FGA. 9, and 23 FGA. 73 ground-attack aircraft; 2 FR. 10 reconnaissance aircraft; and 3 T. 66 trainers. It retired them all by 1975. In June 1967, Jordan’s 22 Hunters were destroyed, after which Jordanian pilots flew Iraqi Hunters. The F. 6, with Rolls Royce Avon engines, had a 623-mph maximum speed and a 51,500-foot ceiling. Range was 1,840 miles with external tanks. Armament consisted of four 30-mm cannon and up to 7,400 pounds of ordnance on four pylons. Hunters could carry four air-to-air missiles, but Jordan did not have these weapons in 1967. Hunters weighed 14,122 pounds empty and 17,750 pounds loaded.
The Iraqi Air Force played a minor role in the Yom Kippur War. Four British-built Hawker Fury fighters flew a few armed reconnaissance sorties over Israel from Syria before hostilities ended. In the 1950s, Iraq obtained British Vampires, 12 FB. 52 fighters, and 10 T. 55 trainers. All were retired in 1966. Iraq began buying British Hawker Hunters in 1958 and ultimately obtained 15 F. 6 interceptors, 42 FGA. 59/59A ground-attack aircraft, 5 T. 69 trainers, and 4 FR. 59B reconnaissance aircraft. (The FGA. 59 and FR. 59B were F. 6 airframes modified for ground-attack and reconnaissance, respectively.)
In 1958, a postcoup Iraqi regime requested Soviet military assistance. As a result, Iraq received perhaps 20 MiG-15bis, 30 MiG- 15UTI trainers, and 20 MiG-17F in 1958-1959. Iraq also received 50 MiG-19S in 1960. Starting in 1963, Iraq received MiG-21F-13s, MiG-21PFs, MiG-21PFMs, MiG-21MFs, and MiG-21UTIs, although exact numbers are unclear. The Iraqi Air Force frequently led coup attempts from 1958 to 1973, and the resulting purges of its pilots reduced Iraqi Air Force effectiveness. An Iraqi pilot with his MiG- 21 defected to Israel in 1966, allowing the Israelis to analyze the aircraft’s capabilities.
Iraq had 88 fighters when the Six-Day War began but suffered from severe readiness problems. Iraq’s participation in the war was modest and involved a bombing raid launched against Israel. Hunters in western Iraq managed to shoot down 3 Israeli aircraft. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Iraq deployed 12 Hunters to Egypt along with 20 Hunters, 18 Sukhoi Su-7BMK attack aircraft, 18 MiG- 21PF, and 11 MiG-21MF fighters to Syria. Iraq lost 21 aircraft but shot down 3 Israeli aircraft.
A Royal Air Force Douglas A-20 Boston light bomber retracts its landing gear as it takes off from a base in England. British bombers participated with American planes in the first bombing mission for the U.S. Army Air Forces against German targets on the European continent.
Captain Charles Kegelman, commander of the first U.S. Army Air Forces bombing raid on targets in Nazi-occupied Europe, poses with other members of his crew in front of its Douglas A-20 Havoc light bomber. Royal Air Force A-20s accompanied the American planes on their first mission.
General Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz pins the Distinguished Service Cross on the chest of Captain Charles Kegelman, who led the first U.S. Army Air Forces bombing strike against Nazi-occupied Europe on July 4, 1942.
On the heels of the victory at Midway, the British, from Churchill on down, continued to press the Americans, including Maj. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had assumed command of the European theater of operations, United States Army (ETOUSA), to do something. In North Africa, Afrika Korps commander Erwin Rommel threatened the Suez Canal, while across Egypt, the British and Australians barely hung on in front of Alexandria. On 2 July, the Nazi juggernaut smashed into Sevastopol, completing the conquest of the Crimea. German radio sneered at talk of an American airpower debut.
The Nazis seemed to have better intelligence than Washington. Hap Arnold, unfortunately, to placate the British Prime Minister, had told him on 30 May 1942, “We will be fighting with you on July 4th.” At the moment he made his rash promise, Arnold believed the 97th would have trained for a month over England and be ready to commence operations. Eaker and Spaatz had precious little with which to work. When word reached Eaker, he reportedly remarked, “Someone must have confused the 4th of July with April Fools’ Day.”
To fulfill their boss’s order, Spaatz and Eaker in desperation turned to the one unit actually on hand, the 15th Bombardment Squadron. It was not a heavy-bomber outfit. Far from it, the 15th, originally intended to employ night fighters, flew twin-engine Douglas A-20s, four-man light bombers that the British called Bostons. The aircraft used by the 15th actually belonged to the RAF and carried the British insignia. One crew from the unit, with Capt. Charles Kegelman as pilot, flying with the RAF 226 Squadron, had been, on 29 June, the first to bomb occupied Europe during a raid on a marshaling yard at Hazebrouck.
With the 15th was Bill Odell, a Chicago youth born in 1915, who entered the army under the Thomason Act, an officer program established at his college, Washington University in St. Louis. Odell and his fellow members of the 15th reached England in mid-May of 1942 and the crewmen were assigned to RAF outfits that flew Bostons. “These were front-line, operational units doing battle almost every day. Every day was packed with learning opportunities. Covered were the essentials to survival in combat; aircraft identification, communications procedures, ditching techniques, discussions of all phases of aircraft operation, and combat flying.”
Another member of the 15th was Marshal Draper, a bombardier. “The spirit [of the first Americans in England] was willing but the supplies were meager. The German submarine campaign was in full swing and confusion reigned. I had an abbreviated course in the Royal Air Force navigation system and did a little practice bombing.”
As 4 July approached, Odell kept his diary informed. On 2 July, while at Swanton he went off on another preparatory exercise “We’re practicing for a 4th of July show somewhere over Germany [occupied Europe] We expect to make an American low-level attack on fighter airdromes during daylight. General Spaatz and Eaker arrived and Keg talked to them. They wanted us to put on a ‘circus’ without fighter escort. Just shows how much our brass hats know or how they value the cost of mens’ lives.” The July 4th event brought out Spaatz, Eaker, and Eisenhower who met the crews going on the sortie. They shook hands with everyone. “It was obvious they had been told it was not going to be a ‘piece of cake.’ Their faces were somber, if not grim. Then to dinner and the food did some good.”
The planned U. S. Independence Day affair, endorsed by President Roosevelt as a highly appropriate date for actual entrance into the shooting war, met none of the concepts behind the Eighth Air Force. Instead of a huge armada of heavy bombers soaring far above the clouds, penetrating deep into enemy territory while relying on the precision of the Norden sight, a dozen Bostons, all of which belonged to the RAF, with six U. S. crews combined with an equal number of Britons, would raid four enemy airfields in Holland at low level. British bomber command had balked at a high-level excursion because the Spitfires ordinarily assigned to escort such raids were already committed to other operations. Civilian leaders may have relished the effort by the U. S. Air Corps, but the senior RAF people recognized the operation as more show biz than strategy.
Bombardier Draper recalled, “Our assigned target was De Kooy, a Luftwaffe base on the northern tip of Holland. The fight was led by an RAF pilot with Capt. Charles Kegelman and 2d Lt. F. A. Loehrle, both US pilots, flying the wings. I was the bombardier-navigator in Loehrle’s plane. Just before takeoff, the RAF officer who normally flew in this plane, handed me a one-inch by two-inch piece of armor plate and a steel infantryman’s hat and said, ‘Be sure you put the plate under your feet and wear the hat.’ I have been told that this practice was vigorously discouraged later because of the added weight in heavy bombers with a larger crew. Nevertheless it probably saved my life since I was the point man of our plane.
“The flight took off, formed up, and we headed east at a height of about fifty feet above the water toward Holland. About ten miles from the target we passed a couple of small boats that appeared to be fishing craft but were picket boats, called ‘squealers’ by the RAF, and whose function was to alert the shore-based antiaircraft defenses, as we soon discovered.
“A few moments later, we were approaching a seawall on the shore when heavy flak opened up. Tracers were going by and above the plane and on both sides of my head like flaming grapefruit. This kind of situation, like hanging, concentrates the mind wonderfully, and everything went into slow motion. I could not see why we weren’t getting hit but we cleared the seawall and I felt the plane lift as we let the bombs go. We immediately turned left and came face to face with a flak battery. [The German word for antiaircraft was Fliegerabwehrkanone which U. S. fliers shortened to flak. The British usually used “ack-ack”, a World War I term.] The four wing guns were firing but we were so close the fire was converging beyond the battery. I glanced at the air-speed indicator, which registered 285 mph, and suddenly realized the battery gunner was shooting directly at me. We were getting ripped right up the middle as we passed over, about two feet above the gunner’s head. We were fifteen feet off the ground at this point. That was my last memory of the attack.”
In his diary for 4 July, Odell scribbled, “Up at 5:15 and had a cup of coffee in the mess hall. Then to the operations room and turned in papers and got packet for combat flight (concentrated food, water purifier, compass, and French, Dutch, and German money). Had no trouble but was a bit anxious on the takeoff. After getting in the air, we settled down and flew right on the trees to the coast. When we went down on the water, felt a bit uneasy because there was a cloudless sky but no fighters appeared. Found land ahead and could spot the landmark of the lighthouse a long way off.” In the diary, Odell reports, “Swung over the edge of the coast even lower than the leader and stayed right on the grass. I opened the bomb doors, yelled to [bombardier Leslie] Birleson and then it started. I fired all the guns for all I was worth and Birly dropped the bombs. I saw the hangar but that wasn’t my dish. I saw Germans running all over the place but I put most of my shots over their heads.” Two gunners on RAF Bostons manned single, flexible machine guns from rear, upper, and lower positions. Affixed to the fuselage also were two pairs of .303-caliber machine guns located on the lower port and starboard sides of the ship. A pilot like Odell could fire all four in unison by depressing a single trigger on his control column.
As the raiders zoomed over the airfield, dumping bombs and spraying machine gun bullets, the defenders fired back. “Our bombs were okay,” Odell noted, “but I thought we would crash any moment for I never flew so reckless in my life. The next moment we were flashing past the coast and out to sea-the water behind us boiling from the bullets dropping into it all around. I kicked and pulled and jerked from side to side. Didn’t look at the air speed-was trying to miss the waves. Over the target we were doing 265 but shortly after I opened it up a bit.
“‘Digger’ [another pilot] claims he shot his guns into a formation of groups lined up for inspection. His bombs hit well before they should have. ‘Elkie’ was a bit behind but he got rid of his load. He got a broken radio antenna and a mashed-in wing edge. I picked up a hole just above the pilot’s step and a badly knocked-up bomb door. We zigged and zagged until three miles out, then closed up waiting for fighters. None came. We reached the coast and were the first home.
“All came back except Loehrle, Lynn, and a Britisher (Henning). Loehrle was hit by a heavy shell and hit the ground right in the middle of the airdrome. ‘He flew into a million pieces,’ one of the rear gunners said. And I owed him one pound ten shillings. I feel like a thief! Lynn was following before the flight hit the target but never came away from it. His wife is to have a baby in November. He really wasn’t cut out for this game. At breakfast he was salting his food, trying to hold the salt spoon steady, yet throwing salt all over his shoulders. I hope he didn’t crash. Henning was shot down by an ME 109 that took off just ahead of him. He tried to get it but it turned, got behind him and set one motor on fire. He crashed into the sea. Keg got his right prop and nose section shot off by heavy stuff right over the target. His wing dropped, hit the ground and he managed to right it and come home on one motor.”
While a gunner said he saw Loehrle’s bomber crash onto the tarmac, Draper, the bombardier on the fallen A-20, said, “I woke up lying on my back on the bottom of the North Sea in about twenty feet of water, very confused about where I was or what I was doing there. I thought I was dead and kept waiting in the gray gloom for something to happen. Then I sat up and saw my breath bubbling up through the water and finally realized I was submerged.
“When I surfaced I was opposite a small beach under the seawall and with the tail of the A-20 protruding from the water, which was all that was visible of the plane. Various subsequent reports had us crashing in flames, or disintegrating, but I saw no smoke or signs of fire associated with the plane and no debris. However, for me to be vectored nearly sideways to the plane, which appeared pointed to the west, I must have been subjected to very powerful force.
“I swam ashore, walked a few feet from the water’s edge, and sat down, overcome suddenly with an enormous fatigue. Somehow I had been taken right out of my parachute harness and flotation vest and my uniform was ripped to shreds. Also, I was bleeding from an assortment of places. A path led up from the beach to the seawall and I could see several soldiers at the top of the path but they made no effort to come down. So I sat and rested for a time. After a while, my mental tiles had clattered back into place, somewhat, and it occurred to me that I might be better off starting up the path than sitting on the beach bleeding like a stabbed hog. I got to my feet with some difficulty, trudged across the little beach and started up the rather steep path. To my astonishment, the soldiers came rushing down the path and grabbed me by the arms. They were mumbling ‘minen,’ ‘minen’ as if to excuse some perceived lack of hospitality in not coming to my aid. The beach had been mined, presumably by the Dutch before the Germans got there.
“The next thing I remember I was lying on a table in what appeared to be a first-aid room. The cast had changed from the Wehrmacht to three Luftwaffe types, one of whom was holding my eyelid up and looking at my eye with a little flashlight. He straightened up, turned off the flashlight and announced to the room at large, ‘Shock.’ Then he asked me, ‘Have you lost many blood?’ I corrected him, ‘That’s much blood. You mean much blood. I don’t know.’ “I was still functioning in an offset mode. I did notice that my clothes had been removed and I could see my shoes lying on another table. The rubber heels had been torn off-shoe heels were a common hiding place for escape materials. I thought that must have been a big disappointment. I was already acquiring a Kriegsgefangener [POW in German; shortened to “kriegie” by those who were incarcerated] mind-set.” In fact, Draper qualified as the very first U. S. Air Corps prisoner in Europe.
The 4 July event was celebrated in newspapers and Kegelman received a Distinguished Flying Cross. But, overall, the affair was a fiasco. The tactics had no relation to the concept of strategic bombing. The three Bostons shot down represented a 25 percent loss; an insupportable rate of casualties. The bodies of the other three men with Draper were recovered. Furthermore, most of the aircraft that made their way home needed considerable repairs from the shot and shell inflicted by flak gunners and enemy fighters. One researcher, George Pames, claims that Eisenhower was so dismayed he “never again permitted men of his command to engage in needless combat to satisfy American pride or produce media events for propaganda purposes.”
The air war over Indochina was a decidedly one-sided affair. The Viet Minh did not have the ability to operate an air force, especially one with modern jet fighters. Nor did Mao offer them one. This was just as well for the French, who relied on slower propeller-driven aircraft throughout the conflict. In Korea, Soviet and Chinese-piloted MiG-15 jets operated south of the Yalu, intercepting American B-29 bombers targeting North Korea’s defence industries. This led to fierce aerial battles, though the communists ultimately failed to gain control of the air. The North Koreans were supplied the MiG, but they and their allies’ jet fighters had little bearing on the ground war as they spent much of their time locked in dogfights.
In contrast, America was soon providing the French with Second World War-vintage naval dive-bombers to support their ground war in Indochina. However, France’s greatest failing was its complete lack of a strategic airlift capability and the weakness of its tactical airlift. The French never really generated the ability to support more than one operation at a time, which was to have catastrophic results at Dien Bien Phu.
Once China and the Soviet Union had recognized the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the Viet Minh began to receive ever-growing quantities of Chinese and Soviet weapons.
Subsequently, French reliance on fortified ‘hedgehogs’ meant aircraft played a key role in the escalating war, providing vital ground support and supplies. The French air force committed around 300 aircraft to Vietnam, while the French navy rotated four carriers with their naval air squadrons in the South China Sea.
Prior to the Second World War, the French Armée de l’Air (air force) and Aéronnautique Naval or Aéronavale (naval air force) had maintained only token units in Indochina. Most of the aircraft there were obsolete, consisting of 1925-vintage biplanes. At the outbreak of the war in 1939, the French had about 100 aircraft, of which just 13 were modern fighters. These accounted for 20 Thai aircraft during the brief border war with Thailand, but they could do nothing to counter the powerful Japanese air force.
The French air force first returned to Saigon on 12 September 1945, when Americanbuilt Douglas C-47 Skytrains ferried in 150 French troops to serve alongside the British. Subsequently, C-47 and Toucan (Ju 52 variant) transports were used to drop rudimentary barrel bombs on Viet Minh positions. On their return to Indochina, until 1949, the French feared that America might impose an embargo on spares for U.S.-made combat aircraft and thus greatly limit their deployment options. This concern, however, evaporated once Mao had taken over in China.
Ironically, the Nazi war machine helped equip the French armed forces. The trimotor Toucan was a hangover from the Second World War. While under Nazi occupation, France had been forced to build the German Junkers Ju 52 medium bomber and transport aircraft. These were constructed at the Amiot factory at Colombes. Post-war designated the AAC.1 Toucan, it was kept in production with over 400 built for Air France and the French air force. The drawback with the Toucan, and indeed the Skytrain, was the limited number of men they could carry: eighteen and twenty-eight respectively. This meant that parachute and air-landing operations required very large numbers of transport aircraft. In the Second World War, the Axis and Allies conducted such operations, but they always resulted in considerable losses in aircraft.
Similarly, occupied France built the German Fieseler Fi 156 Storch (Stork) reconnaissance aircraft, made famous by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. It was also kept in postwar production as the Morane-Saulnier Criquet (Cricket). This proved ideal for Indochina because of its short take-off and landing capabilities, plus its low speed, which enabled it to use the roughest of air strips. The Criquet was deployed in Indochina by the French army, Armée de l’Air and Aéronavale for a wide variety of tasks.
The first fighter aircraft sent out were British-supplied Supermarine Spitfires, rather than the Armée de l’Air’s American-built Republic P-47Ds. While waiting for them, French pilots conducted hair-raising training flights in a dozen dilapidated and untrustworthy Japanese fighters. The Spitfires though, were not suitable for ground support due to their limited range and small bomb load. Nonetheless, they were flown from Saigon in Cochinchina, Nha Trang and Tourane (Da Nang) in Annam and Hanoi, and Lang Son in Tonkin until 1947. Likewise, the British-supplied, twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito proved ill-suited to the conditions, as the bonded-plywood structure had a habit of falling apart in the tropical heat. Confined to Saigon, they were eventually sent home.
To back up the Armée de l’Air the French navy sought to keep a carrier stationed off the coast of Vietnam, though these deployments really stretched its capabilities, operating so far from home. The escort carrier Dixmude (former HMS Biter) first arrived in the South China Sea in March 1947, with nine American-supplied Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive-bombers – the victors of the Battle of Midway in June 1942. These aircraft made their first carrier sorties on the 16th of that month, with additional raids against targets in Annam and Tonkin.
After problems with her launch catapult, Dixmude was forced to return to Toulon for repairs, thereafter making only one more combat deployment the following year. On the return journey, the vessel carried Toucans and Spitfires for the air force. The elderly carrier was then employed as an aircraft-transport vessel. Dixmude was photographed in 1950 on the Saigon River with a deck full of F6F-5 Hellcats.
The light carrier Arromanches (former HMS Colossus) arrived in November 1948, making a total of four combat deployments up to and including 1954. This carrier operated the American Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver dive-bomber. While it provided accurate and powerful support for the French ground forces, the Helldiver was vulnerable to ground fire. During these deployments, the aircraft usually operated from forward land bases rather than from the carrier.
The third carrier committed to the war was La Fayette (former USS Langley), which took over in April 1953, minus its aircraft, ready to take on those from the Arromanches. It only stayed on station for five weeks.
The fourth and final carrier, Bois Belleau (former USS Belleau Wood), only operated from 30 April to 15 September 1954. The navy also deployed amphibious aircraft, such as the PBY Catalina, to patrol Vietnam’s coastal waters and the Red River Delta. Additionally, they acted in air-support, transport and medical-evacuation roles. These were replaced by the four-engine PB4Y Privateer, which was the largest aircraft operated by the French.
Once Mao was in power and the Korean War had broken out, Washington saw France less as an unsavoury colonial power with dubious democratic credentials, and more as a staunch anti-communist ally. The Spitfires were soon followed with American-supplied Bell P-63 Kingcobras, called ‘Kings’ by their French aircrews. These helped cover the ill-fated withdrawal from Cao Bang in the summer of 1950, but again, could not carry a large enough bombload and could not operate from forward airfields.
What arrived next was much better and just what the French needed. To re-equip French fighter units, the Americans provided the F6F-5 Hellcat and the F8F-1 Bearcat. Both these were designed as carrier strike aircraft, so were capable of relatively short takeoff and landing. This meant that they were ideal for forward deployment in Indochina. The Hellcats were delivered by U.S. carrier in November 1950 with the ‘Beercats’ as the French called them, following in January 1951.
The Hellcat was only intended as an interim solution until all the fighter squadrons could be equipped with the Bearcat – this conversion though, was not completed until early 1953. In contrast, the Bearcat remained in service until the final French withdrawal in April 1956, and fought at Dien Bien Phu. It became the premier fighter-bomber in Indochina, being used almost solely for ground-attack missions. Some ‘Beercats’ though, were converted to a reconnaissance role by fitting specially modified U.S. drop tanks fitted with two cameras.
In the French armoury was napalm. This jellied-petroleum bomb, developed by the Americans in the early 1940s, and used against the Japanese during the Second World War, was then employed by UN forces in Korea. This terrible weapon, which bursts on contact with the ground into a wide carpet of flame, generates enormous heat and, once stuck to skin, cannot be removed. Used as an anti-personnel weapon, it was devastating. The Bearcat was capable of dropping 100gal. napalm tanks. It was first used by the French on 22 December 1950, against a Viet Minh troop concentration at Tien Yen.
The French air force desperately wanted a twin-engine light bomber, but none was available. It especially needed such an aircraft once the Viet Minh’s air defences began to improve. The best available aircraft to fill this role was the American Douglas B-26 Invader, which was known as the A-26 until 1948. While the Bearcat and Hellcat were surplus to U.S. Navy requirements, the USAF was employing its B-26 as night bombers in Korea. Nonetheless, the first four aircraft were supplied to the French in early November 1950.
The B-26 was the most potent type of air power the French were able to bring to bear during the war, with the ability to carry 2,722kg of bombs, napalm or rockets, and armed with up to fourteen machine guns. Equipping a French bomb group, the B-26s were operated from Tourane. A further two bomb groups were later formed using this aircraft. Despite its growing strength and newfound confidence, the French air force was unable to provide the army with a decisive edge during the inconclusive Black River offensive in the winter of 1951–52. From then until the end of the war, America provided some eighty bombers, fighter-bombers and transport aircraft. Many of these, however, arrived too late to influence the outcome of the war.
Funds were not made available for the acquisition of limited numbers of helicopters from Britain until 1952. America also supplied some rotary-wing aircraft. The French army, air force and navy all deployed helicopters to support their operations. The Groupement des Formations d’Hélicoptères of the French army was created under Commandant Marceau Crespin. In honour of General de Lattre’s late son, who was killed in action, the French army’s main helipad at Tan Son Nhut air base outside Saigon was named Camp Bernard de Lattre. Army helicopter squadrons were also based at Bien Hoa to the north of Saigon. These were used almost entirely for medical evacuation rather than troop carrying. By the time of Dien Bien Phu, the French had just thirty-two helicopters, most of which were Sikorski S-55s, dubbed the H-19 by the French.
General Salan, relying on the strategy of les hérissons fortified ‘hedgehog’ bases and mobile commando operations, needed the commitment of massive airpower. By this stage, the air force had some 300 aircraft, including four groups of Bearcats and two of Invaders. This strength was to remain unchanged until after Dien Bien Phu, when the third bomb group was added.
After the withdrawal of the antiquated Toucans, there were three transport groups equipped with C-47s, providing logistical support for the ground troops. To supplement this insufficient fleet, the French made use of commercial- and American-supplied Fairchild C-119Cs, which were sent from Japan and Korea. Some aircraft were flown by American mercenaries, operating from Formosa. These civilian pilots could earn up to five times that of their counterparts in the Armée de l’Air. The French armed forces’ lack of a strategic airlift meant that to fly troops and equipment from France or the other colonies required the help of Air France. America also stepped in, transporting almost 1,000 military personnel from Paris to Saigon in April–May 1954.
By 1953, the key Armée de l’Air officers were General Charles Lauzin, commander of the French air force in Indochina, General Jean Dechaux, commander Tactical Air Group North (Tonkin), and Colonel Jean-Louis Nicot, commanding the air transport group. Army aviation came under Commandant Crespin, who was responsible for the limited helicopter units.
The changing strategic focus of Axis forces in the summer of 1942 for the southern assault towards the Volga and the Caucasus (‘Operation Blue’) was signalled by the sudden increase in air attacks on railway communications across the southern zone as a prelude to the new campaign. In May and June a majority of attacks were directed at the southern Ukraine, the area around Voronezh and the Krasnodar region on the Black Sea coast leading to the Caucasus, 59 per cent of all German sorties. By the time Operation Blue started on 28 June the German Air Force had already inflicted substantial damage on rail centres and killed an estimated 1,400 people, including the two deadliest raids so far, when 415 mostly evacuees were burned to death at Kavkazskaia station and 466 killed at the rail centre at Kochetkova. In July attacks on railways targets more than 100 kilometres from the front line intensified, taking up almost two-thirds of all raids. These included the preliminary raids on Stalingrad and the region around the city as it became clear with German operational successes that the city would soon be an object within the grasp of Army Group South. There were 59 raids on the Stalingrad region, four on the city itself, doing little damage but killing 99 people. By August the German Air Force devoted one-third of all raids on the Eastern Front to the Stalingrad area, 17 per cent to the Caucasus.
The commander of the German Fourth Air Fleet for the campaign against Stalingrad was Wolfram von Richthofen, the officer who had commanded the bombing of Guernica in 1937 and the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 and who had led the ferocious aerial assault on the Crimean city of Sebastopol in June 1942. This month-long campaign saw the progressive destruction of the fortress city by a combination of repeated air strikes and the effects of 2,000 artillery pieces around its perimeter. The 390 bombers and dive-bombers available to von Richthofen pounded the city into ruins, leaving at the end only 11 undamaged buildings. When they did not drop bombs, the aircraft carried scrap metal – old engines, ploughs, rail track – which they dropped on the defenders. Sometimes they dropped leaflets asking Wie geht es? (‘How’s it going?’). Thousands of civilians were evacuated across the Black Sea, attacked by aircraft as they went. Those who chose to stay or were ordered to do so lived a subterranean existence in the hundreds of caves, tunnels and storerooms on the rocky peninsula which gave a natural protection. The local authorities counted only 173 dead after the first days of bombing, though many more died from the powerful artillery barrage. The shelters were filled with stale air, making it difficult to breathe, and were piled high with a jumble of goods and luggage. The Russian journalist Boris Voyetekhov found himself in one of the largest underground caverns, where machinery turned out a stream of grenades, newspapers were typeset and printed, the party officials worked on their reports and artists worked on posters encouraging greater effort. In the underground post office, the postmen wrote ‘to be looked for after the war’ on letters that could not be delivered to the streets of rubble on the surface. Sebastopol finally fell on 1 July.
Much against his will, von Richthofen was moved from the Sebastopol campaign shortly before its conclusion to set up headquarters for the new operation in which he was to play a leading part. The German Air Force allocated more than half of all aircraft to the Eastern Front, 1,155 in total, for Operation Blue. But the number of serviceable aircraft available to von Richthofen for the drive on the Volga and the Caucasus that developed from mid-July was only around 750, divided between the VIIIth and IVth air corps, the first for the drive across the Don steppe to Stalingrad, the second to support operations further south in the Caucasus. Most of the air force action was in direct support of ground forces and in combat against the Soviet Air Force which proved unable to contest air superiority successfully, although night-bombing attacks against German bases inflicted some effective damage. As Army Group B, under the command of General Friedrich Paulus, pushed its way rapidly across the steppe towards Stalingrad, the way was paved for a bombing assault on the city. This has always been treated in the literature as the most deadly bombing operation not only of the entire Eastern war, but of any day of raiding before Hiroshima.
The situation at Stalingrad, both at the time and since, has encouraged a popular sense of historical extremes, and there is no disguising the mounting drama as German armies, the Sixth Army under Paulus, the Fourth Panzer Army under General Hoth, pushed back the embattled Stalingrad defenders of the Soviet 62nd and 64th Armies into a narrowing zone in front of the city and, by September, back into the city itself. The Soviet Eighth Air Army commanded by General T. Khriukin had only 454 aircraft when the assault started, of which just 172 were fighters. There were too few heavy anti-aircraft guns, since Stalingrad had not been expected to be a major target. The balance of air power lay for the moment with the German Air Force. On 21 August the German army crossed the Don River and pushed on towards the city; the bank of the Volga was reached on 23 August. On that day von Richthofen was apparently ordered by Hitler’s headquarters to bring together as many of his scattered air units as possible to support a major bombing attack on the city. Around 400 Ju88 and He111 bombers were available. There is no record in the War Diary at Supreme Headquarters, where Hitler watched closely the course of the campaign, to indicate that a heavy bombing of the city was ordered that day, but air force records show that the bomber force flew 1,600 sorties against targets in Stalingrad, dropping around 1,000 tons of bombs, though it seems likely that this took place over a six-day period and not all on 23 August. Because of poor anti-aircraft defence, bombers could fly at around 2,000–3,000 metres to drop their bombs. Soviet records show that they came in waves of 70–90 aircraft, sometimes in much smaller formations.
The attacks were not simply directed at destroying the city, which would be of little help in trying to capture it a few days later, but were concentrated on key military, administrative and economic targets, including the large oil-storage depots on the bank of the Volga. German air intelligence had produced detailed maps of Stalingrad, along with other cities, showing the key industrial sites and military installations. These included the vast ‘Dzerzhinskii’ tractor factory and the Red October metalworks, as well as an oil refinery. From early August the Soviet reports indicate attacks on warehouses, quays and industrial installations. The attacks on 23 August produced extensive damage to the main industrial installations and the communications system. The burning oil produced a vast fog of black smoke that contributed more than anything else to the sense that the raids on that day had substantially destroyed the city, but it was the bombing of the city centre the following day, 24 August, that did the most damage. Destruction of the central water supply system that day robbed the fire service of water at a critical juncture and allowed the fires to take hold, destroying or damaging around 95 per cent of the buildings in the central district. The standard figure cited for the losses of the Soviet population who remained in the city has been put at 40,000, which would indeed make 23 August 1942 the most deadly day of bombing before the atomic attacks.
There can be little doubt that this figure, like the exaggerated death toll at Rotterdam, will not stand up to scrutiny. No one doubts that by mid-September, pounded by a circle of heavy guns and tanks, bombed and dive-bombed regularly to destroy military resistance, the city was heavily destroyed. When Churchill’s interpreter, Arthur Birse, was invited to tour Stalingrad later in 1943, he found it an incredible sight: ‘A collection of scattered and broken remains … The streets, as far as I could distinguish any, were mounds of rubble. The inhabitants lived in dugouts and cellars.’ Yet the Soviet records of the damage to Stalingrad from the air (rather than the massive damage inflicted by artillery and tanks) present quite a different picture. The bombing of 23 August was not given particular prominence in the reports produced at the time, which focused instead on the regular raiding that took place over the whole period from 23 to 29 August, resulting in a cumulatively severe level of damage. The death from bombing of 40,000 people would almost certainly have been treated, as it was in Hamburg in July 1943, as a disaster without precedent and could have been produced only by a major firestorm. The report from the local air defence authorities for August simply records ‘Starting from mid-August the city experienced non-stop air bombing by large groups of enemy planes.’ The assessment of casualties for the six-day period of heavier raiding arrived at a figure of over 1,815 dead and 2,698 severely injured, many of the fatalities inflicted at the Volga River crossings. In September the number of raids fell from 100 to 69, mostly on the city, burning down many of the buildings still standing. Data was recorded as incomplete, which under the circumstances is unsurprising, but the recorded death toll was 1,500 for the whole month, not including those killed by the continuous artillery fire. Death statistics for October were again incomplete, but those recorded numbered 380. Between July and October 1942 the local civil defence authorities counted 3,931 deaths, a figure much more consistent with the scale of the raiding and the tonnage of bombs dropped.
There is little doubt that these figures understated the actual deaths from bombing, given poor communications and the emergency conditions, but no margin of error could turn this figure into 40,000. There are other factors to bring into account in reducing this statistic: Stalingrad was a city of 440,000, many of whom were in fact evacuated (or fled) across the Volga as the German army approached; no pre-atomic bombing succeeded anywhere in killing at least 10 per cent of the population in a single day. The German bomber force was anyway much smaller than the later Allied forces which could indeed obliterate half a city under the right circumstances. There were only 400 aircraft, all of them medium bombers, and the final tally of 1,000 tons represented what the same force had dropped on London in one night without exacting more than 1,000–2,000 deaths. Stalingrad was a modern city, with wide roads, parks, and a great many more stone and concrete buildings than less modern Russian cities. As in other more modern cities it would have been difficult to generate a firestorm sufficient to consume 40,000 people. As it was, the figures of over 1,800 in August and 1,500 in September were the highest death tolls recorded in the Soviet Union from bombing throughout the war. In the end the figure of 40,000, like the ‘20,000 dead’ in Rotterdam, has fitted a popular view of German atrociousness, but not the facts.
After the bombing in August 1942 the capability of von Richthofen’s Fourth Air Fleet declined steadily, the victim of persistent attrition from a reviving Red Air Force, and of the deteriorating weather and supply lines. By 20 September there were only 129 fully operational bombers left, some of which were used to attack Soviet oil production at Grozny in a raid on 10 October. At the same time the PVO defence of the region was greatly expanded. By November there were 1,400 Soviet aircraft on the Stalingrad front, with more in reserve, and thanks to reforms introduced by Novikov, following his promotion to air force commander-in-chief in April, the air units were centrally controlled, fitted with radio communication and more tactically adept. When Paulus and his Army Group were finally cut off and encircled at Stalingrad, Göring promised to supply the pocket using all the transport and bomber aircraft that could be spared. The result was the loss not only of 495 transport and bomber aircraft, but also of some of the experienced training officers brought out of Germany to boost the declining pool of regular pilots. One of the aircraft lost was a Heinkel He177, one of a first group of 20 sent to southern Russia for trials. Only seven were fit for service and the group commander was shot down on his first mission. The failure of the supply programme to keep the Sixth Army fighting contributed to the cooling of relations between Hitler and Göring, and marked a turning point in the offensive capabilities of the German Air Force. In his first post-war interrogation, Göring complained, without much justification, about the crisis of the German bomber arm prompted by the events in Russia: ‘I built the Luftwaffe as the finest bomber fleet, only to see it wasted at Stalingrad. My beautiful bomber fleet was used up in transporting munitions and supplies … I always was against the Russian campaign.’