Ilyushin’s DB-3/Il-4 medium bomber

Ilyushin IL-4.DB-3F






Ilyushin’s DB-3/Il-4 medium bomber entered service in 1937 and served throughout World War II as a standard bomber and torpedo-bomber for both the air force and the navy. A few bombed Helsinki during the Winter War against Finland. Three hours after Soviet forces had crossed the border and started the Winter War, aerial bombardment of Helsinki began. The most intensive bomb raids were during the first few days.

Helsinki was bombed a total of eight times during the Winter War. Some 350 bombs fell on the city, resulting in the death of 97 people and the wounding of 260. In all, 55 buildings were destroyed. Finland lost only 5 percent of its total man-hour production time due to Soviet bombings. Nevertheless, bombings effected thousands of civilians as the Soviets launched 2,075 bombing attacks on 516 localities. Air raids killed 957 Finnish civilians. The city of Viipuri, a major Soviet objective, was almost leveled by nearly 12,000 bombs.

In 1938 a version of the DB-3 was developed with a totally new, easily-built airframe and equipped with two 765 hp (570 kW) M-85 engines but these were soon replaced with two 960 hp (716 kW) M86 engines. As a result the appearance of the design was completely changed, the nose being slim, streamlined and with a large glazed area, with the nose turret of the DB-3 (DB for Dalni Bombardirovschik or long range bomber) replaced by a swivel gun mounting. State acceptance trials were completed successfully in June 1939 and by the end of that year the type was readied for quantity production. This new version was known as the lIyushin DB-3F, later redesignated Il-4 when delivered in quantity to the bomber regiments of the long-range air arm, the ADD. A small number had the same type of dorsal turret as the DB-3, but this was soon replaced by a more effective design. Additionally, the ventral machine-gun ring was replaced by a more complex semi-retractable mount.

The Il-4 remained in large scale production until 1944, the number built being 5,256. The original M-87A engine was replaced by the more powerful M-88B with a two-speed supercharger in 1942. Most aircraft built in 1942 were completed with wooden wing spars as a result of shortage of light alloys due to the German invasion, but metal components were reintroduced in late production machines when new plants in Siberia became operational.

In addition to its use for long-range bombing raids, the Il-4s of the ADD’s various long-range bomber corps were used frequently in attacks on tactical targets immediately behind enemy lines, carrying their maximum bombload. The Il-4 also came to be used widely by the mine/torpedo bomber regiments attached to the Baltic, Black Sea and Northern Fleets. When deployed in a torpedo-carrying role the Il-4 was armed with a 2,072 lbs (940 kg) 45-36-AN (Iow-level) or 45-36-AV (high-Ievel) torpedo. There was also provision for an auxiliary external fuel tank mounted under the rear fuselage. During 1943 the Ilyushin Il-4 also saw duties in the reconnaissance role and some even were converted to glider tugs.

The Il-4 was a robust and successful aircraft, a number surviving into the post-war period for use in a variety of support roles. It had sufficient longevity to earn the NATO codename ‘Bob’. Four Il-4s purchased from German war booty stores were used by the Finns against the Soviet forces from 1943 to 1945.


Shooting Star




Lockheed XP-80A (44-83021)

In late 1944 the Army pilots visited Muroc to fly the Gray Ghost and Lulubelle in mock combat against such front-line fighters as the P-38, P-47, and P-51 and various bombers. The secret tests were designed to find out what tactical formations, if any, could be used against the German jets then being seen in combat over Europe. The jets bested the propeller-driven planes every time. The results of the exercise made production of American jet fighters all the more urgent to counter the German threat.

On January 8, 1944, the Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star Jet fighter made its first flight at Muroc. At the controls was Milo Burcham. The plane soon proved capable of reaching over 500 mph. Tex Johnston knew what it meant for the P-59. After seeing the first flight, he telegraphed Bob Stanley: “Witnessed Lockheed XP-80 initial flight STOP Very impressive STOP Back to the drawing board.” Later, a mock dogfight was held between a P-80 and a Grumman F8F Bearcat, the navy’s latest prop fighter. Unlike the YP-59A, the P-80 held the initiative, controlling the fight. The F8F was never able to catch the jet in its sights long enough to get a shot. The era of the prop fighter was over.

The XP-80 contract specified that the prototype was to be delivered in 180 days. Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, Lockheed’s chief designer, went to company chairman Robert Gross. Gross told Johnson, “Go ahead and do it. But you’ve got to rake up your own engineering department and your own production people and figure out where to put this project.”

For some time, Johnson had been asking Lockheed management to set up an experimental department where there would be direct links between designer, engineer, and manufacturing. Johnson decided to run the XP-80 program on this basis. The only place for the new section was next to the wind tunnel. The tools came from a small machine shop Lockheed bought out. The walls were wooden engine boxes, while the roof was a rented circus tent. Johnson assembled a group of twenty-two engineers; the new group had its own purchasing department and could function independently of the main plant. Working ten hours a day, six days a week, they had the XP-80 ready in 163 days.

Part of the secrecy surrounding the project was that Johnson’s new section had no name. Soon after the makeshift shop was finished, Lockheed engineer Irving H. Culver was at the phone desk. The phone rang, Culver was alone, and he had not been told how to answer the phone. Culver was a fan of Al Capp’s comic strip “L’l Abner.” In the strip, “Hairless Joe” brewed up “Kickapoo Joy Juice” using old shoes, dead skunks, and other ingredients. On impulse, Culver answered the phone with the name of that brewery.

It was called “the Skunk Works.”

Armée de l’Air 1940 Part I

The Potez 637 was one of the more modern aircraft in the reconnaissance groups, but losses were heavy. Production of this variant was limited, and the Potez 63.11 played just as important role in these group. The Potez 63.11 was also the most important aircraft in the army co-operation units, where it suffered heavy losses, mostly to ground fire and on the ground (although managed to hold its own against German fighters). By 1940 the entire family was outdated, with the lack of engine power.

The French aviation industry during the interwar period had built far more military aircraft than any of its foreign competitors. Some 1,500 Breguet 19 bombers (1922) and 3,500 Potez 25 Army Cooperation Aircraft were constructed. Between them they were the most widely used military aircraft in the world – they were extremely robust and reliable. Back in 1927 one of the bombers had flown across the Atlantic. No fewer than thirty of the Potez 25s had circumnavigated Africa in 1933. These were not the only examples of extremely good aircraft. They were famed for their technical excellence and reliability. For a three-year period, from 1924, the fast medium bomber, the Lioré et Olivier 20, beat all-comers. In 1934 the Potez 542 retained the prestigious label as the fastest bomber in Europe for two years. Comparatively speaking, a number of the French aircraft were hugely superior to other bombers being built by European competitors. The Amiot 143, of which the French had eighteen squadrons, could carry a 2-ton bomb load at a speed of 190 mph at just short of 26,000 feet.

The Germans had their Dornier Do23G, which could only carry a 1-ton bomb load. It had a maximum speed of 160 mph and could barely reach 14,000 feet.

The French beat the 30,000 feet ceiling in 1936, with the Bloch 210. It was to be the only aircraft that could reach this height before 1939. The French would eventually equip twenty-four squadrons with this aircraft. The French also had the first modern four-engine heavy bomber, in the Farman 222, built in 1936. It was designed to carry a heavy load of bombs, so it was an ideal night operation aircraft, as comparatively speaking it was slow. They also had the fastest medium bombers in the Amiot 354 (298 mph) and the Lioré et Olivier 451 (307 mph). The Bloch 174 reconnaissance bomber, which was introduced during 1940, had a speed of 329 mph, which made it the fastest multi-engine aircraft in the world. All three of these French aircraft could easily outpace the German equivalents. The fastest the Germans could muster was the Junkers Ju88A, with a top speed of 292 mph. The Dornier Do17K and the Heinkel He111e were upwards of 30 mph slower than this.

It was not just in the bomber field that the French excelled. Their fighters were of excellent quality. Of the twenty-two world airspeed records that were set between the wars, French fighter aircraft held half of them. In fact, the Nieuport-Delage 29 (1921) held seven alone. For four years from 1924 the Gourdou-Leseurre 32 was the fastest operational fighter. This aircraft was only beaten by another French fighter, the Nieuport-Delage 62. The Dewoitine 371 took the record in 1934 and in 1936 the Dewoitine 510 reached a speed of 250 mph, the first operational fighter to do so.

The French fighters were also excellent in other areas of development. In 1935 the Dewoitine 501 became the first fighter with a cannon that could fire through a propeller hub.

Whatever the shortcomings of the French Air Force in 1940, it was not a lack of technical ability, nor indeed, for that matter, lack of numbers. By May 1940 French aircraft manufacturers were producing 619 combat aircraft every month. The French were also buying American aircraft, which were being delivered at a rate of 170 per month.

The French Air Force during the First World War had suffered from the same lack of understanding and poor deployment that the majority of other air forces had experienced during the conflict. On the one hand, the army wanted to have squadrons of aircraft under their direct command. For the aviators themselves, they saw the opportunity to concentrate their forces and deliver crippling blows against the enemy at decisive points on the front line. In the end it was the aviators that won the argument and in April 1918 the 1st Aviation Division was created. It had 585 combat aircraft split up into twenty-four fighter squadrons and fifteen bomber squadrons.

The creation of this unit did not solve all of the problems. Corps and divisional infantry commanders tended to use the assets as protection for their observation aircraft. Like all of the other aviation wings the French Air Force, as it was then, was still a junior partner. The situation began to change after the First World War. The French Government passed two laws in 1928 and in 1933 that effectively created a separate French Air Force. It would no longer be subordinate to either the army or the navy.

In the period 1926 to 1937 the number of squadrons steadily rose to 134. By 1937 there were two air corps and six air divisions. Compromise in terms of command and control of these units was protracted. This meant that the army and the navy, with the connivance of the French Air Ministry, retained operational control of 118 of the squadrons. Thus, only sixteen bomber squadrons were directly under the air force chain of command.

The influence of the army and the navy was even deeper. Back in 1932 the air force had argued for the creation of large, heavily armed aircraft that could engage in bombing, reconnaissance and aerial combat. They were not designed for close cooperative support of any battle on the ground. As a consequence, the army had an undue influence on the type of aircraft chosen and their deployment. In January 1936, of the 2,162 front-line aircraft 63 per cent were primarily observation and reconnaissance aircraft, which would work directly with the army. A further 20 per cent were designed to protect observation aircraft.

Even after disastrous military manoeuvres in 1935, which seemed to indicate that Bloch 200 aircraft were not ideal for attacking motorized columns, there was still refusal to consider introducing dive bombers or assault aircraft. As far as the French Air Force was concerned, it was not their job to attack targets on the battlefield; they were a strategic force. This point of view was supported by the French Air Minister, Pierre Cot (June 1936 to January 1938). He authorized the tripling of the bomber force through acquisition and reorganization. Observation was now the role of air force reserves. This meant that the majority of regular air force units were designated as strategic bombing units. Cot dealt with the opposition from the Superior Air Council by getting the French Parliament to reduce the mandatory retirement age of senior officers. This swept away all of the senior commanders in the French Air Force. Cot simply replaced them with men that supported his own military viewpoint.

The air force was thrown into even greater confusion in 1938 when Guy la Chambre took over from Cot as the air minister. Not only did the new man not agree with this strategic bombing role of the air force and do a u-turn, ensuring that the air force would focus on close support for the army, but he also removed all of the men that Cot had promoted. As a result of this the air force now found itself fighting a secretive war with the government, the air minister and parliament. They simply continued following the strategic bombing approach, while making comforting noises to their opponents.

In their preoccupation with this strategy, vital elements of air warfare were ignored. The airfields were under-funded, command, control and communications were poorly developed and there was a very rudimentary ground-based observer corps. This would ultimately mean that when the French Air Force faced the Luftwaffe in 1940 they would find it impossible to track and to intercept incoming streams of enemy aircraft.

The chief of the French Air Force, General Vuillemin, found himself in a very difficult position in January 1939. He was told that in 1940 the aircraft production schedules would provide him with 600 new aircraft per month. Owing to the lack of aircrew and ground crew, Vuillemin responded by saying that he only needed a maximum of sixty per month. In the end he settled for 330, which was forty fewer than the French factories were to produce per month alone. Vuillemin was aware that to expand the training programme would take up almost all of the time and effort of the air force. He called up reservists and many of these men would fly in frontline aircraft, but it was still not enough. Consequently, he began imposing modification requirements on the new aircraft. This meant that newly delivered aircraft were not even commissioned, as they required additional components, such as extra guns and radios. The air staff kept up this ridiculous pretence by instituting incredibly complicated acceptance inspections. American aircraft arriving in crates were simply left in the crates and were never unpacked.

As the French Air Force moved toward combat with Germany in 1940 it had insufficient aircrew and ground staff, a pitiful infrastructure, and secrets to be kept from the government, the air minister, the army and the navy. The net result was that the air force would end up fighting an entirely different war from the army when the Germans launched their attacks in May 1940.

In the early hours of 10 May 1940 three German army groups began an assault on the Low Countries and France. The Germans had a nominal strength of some 3,634 aircraft. Of this total just over 1,000 were fighters, 1,500 were bombers, 500 were reconnaissance aircraft and 550 were transports. The German plan was precisely the same as it had been in Poland – to destroy the Allied air force on the ground.

The French faced the invasion with 4,360 combat aircraft. By this stage 790 new aircraft were being delivered by French and American manufacturers every month. As we have seen, the French Air Force was neither prepared nor organized to cope with these numbers of new aircraft and it was also not organized to fight a war.

Just 119 squadrons were deployed on the north-eastern front. This was out of a total of 210 squadrons. All of the others were either based in the Colonies or were in the process of being re-equipped. This all meant that the combined Allied air force was decidedly weaker than their German counterparts.

If the Germans had expected to catch the French napping, however, they would be sadly mistaken. The Morane 406s of Groupe de Chasse II/2, based at Laon-Chambry, attacked incoming Do17s. A pair of Curtiss Hawks out of Suippes engaged Bf110s. Over Verdun, Do17s and their Bf110 escorts were also engaged by Curtiss Hawks. Elsewhere, the Germans were luckier; the Curtiss Hawks of GCII/4 at Xaffevillers suffered a total of six write-offs.

GCII/5, at Toul-Croix de Metz, came under attack from a formation of He111s. The Curtiss Hawks of the French unit were widely dispersed, with some preparing to take off as they had already spotted a reconnaissance flight of Do17s. Two of the Hawks managed to get aloft and engage the German raiders. Meanwhile, at Norrent-Fontes, Morane 406 fighters engaged a number of He111s, destroying several of them.

Some of the other French units were not as lucky; the Groupes Aérines d’Observations (GAO) and Groupes de Reconnaissance (GR) were hit particularly hard. A single raid did for all of the aircraft of GAO2/551, while GAO4/551 lost all but three of their nine aircraft in a single raid. At Monceau le Waast, the GRII/33 were attacked by Do17s. They lost one aircraft in the raid and another two were damaged.

With the Germans finally having shown their hand, it quickly became apparent that the key bottleneck would be the Albert Canal in Belgium. German troops had crossed it on the first day of the assault. If the Allies could destroy the bridges across the canal, along with the crossings in the Maastricht area, over the River Maas, this would mean slowing, if not halting, the German advance. The Lioré et Olivier 451s of GBII/12, based at Persan-Beaumont, and those with GBI/12 at Soissons-Saconin were earmarked for the attack. The twelve bombers were escorted by eighteen Morane 406s belonging to GCII/6. The first attack in the morning of 11 May 1940 was unsuccessful; the Germans had brought up flak guns and positioned them around the bridges and there was also German fighter cover. A second attack only succeeded in causing slight damage to one bridge.

On 12 May a French reconnaissance flight over the area stirred up a hornet’s nest of German defences. German airborne troops had taken the Vroenhoven and the Veldwezelt bridges across the Albert Canal. Both the RAF and Belgian aircraft had tried to destroy these bridges. The French now threw the assault bomber group, GBAI/54s Breguet 693 twin-engine bombers, at the target. They attacked in three waves of three aircraft. German troops were crossing one of the bridges when the attack came in. The French managed to destroy some German transports, but accomplished little else. The task of dealing with these bridges now passed to the RAF.

On the night of 11/12 May one of GRII/33’s Potez reconnaissance aircraft had taken off from the airfield at Athies-sous-Laon. To the horror of the pilot, he spotted that the roads to the south of the River Meuse in the Ardennes region of Belgium were packed with German transports. On the morning of 12 May a second mission was flown and as the Potez 63 approached the small town of Marche the spearhead of a German armoured division was located. From the French aircraft’s advantage point German armoured cars and motorcycles could be viewed moving freely across the countryside, directly towards the French border. The Potez, flown by Adjutant Favret, along with an army observer and an air gunner, dropped down to as low as 65 feet and even engaged German ground targets. The crew were not believed when they returned to base and tried to describe what they had seen. Quite simply, the commander of the French 9th Army did not believe them.

A little later, another Potez of GRII/22 spotted German troops crossing the River Semois at Bouillon in Belgium. Once again, their observations were largely ignored, this time by the French 2nd Army. By the time it dawned on the French that what the pilots had seen was not only correct but also highly dangerous, it was too late and the Germans had crossed the River Meuse at Montherne and Sedan. The French Air Force launched waves of bombers against the German motorized columns near Sedan, suffering a number of casualties. German ground losses were particularly high in the area.

On 13 May 1940 came the arrival of the Dewoitine 520. One of the squadrons, GCI/3, entered combat for the first time, shooting down a number of German aircraft, including an He111. For a time the squadron was based at Wez-Thuisy. On the following day the squadron added to their tally, shooting down two Do17s, three Bf110s and a pair of Bf109s. So far, the squadron had only lost one aircraft.

These kinds of kill ratios were replicated across a number of different aircraft types. Certainly, in many instances the kill-to-loss ratio of French to German aircraft was decidedly in the French favour. There were eight squadrons equipped with Curtiss aircraft and they claimed 220 confirmed German aircraft kills for the loss of just thirty-three pilots. In seven major aerial battles, where Curtiss aircraft engaged combinations of Messerschmitt Bf109es and 110cs, the French destroyed twenty-seven of the former and six of the latter for just three aircraft. In the aerial battles that pitched the Morane 406 against Messerschmitts the kill-to-loss ratio was 191 to 89. There were eighteen squadrons equipped with the Morane 406 in May 1940.

Even the Bloch MB150, or 152, which was even faster and more powerful than the Morane, performed extremely well. On 10 May there were twelve squadrons equipped with these fighters and another half a dozen became operational before the campaign was over. The kill-to-loss ratio was again in favour of the French, with 156 to 59.

Whilst the French Air Force was more than holding its own in the skies, the army was suffering disaster after disaster. On 15 May the French 7th Army in Belgium withdrew and the 9th Army practically ceased to exist.

Throughout 16 May the French Air Force threw everything they could at the Germans to halt the advance. It was all in vain, however, as huge numbers of German troops had already crossed the River Meuse. There were now so many conflicting priorities; on the one hand steady retreats, which threatened to turn into routs, had to be covered, while on the other hand the piercing German armoured columns had to be stalled. Added to this were the other targets, which still included bridges and river crossings.

Armée de l’Air 1940 Part II

By 10 May 1940, when Germany invaded France and the Low Countries, 228 D.520s had been manufactured, but the French Air Force had accepted only 75, as most others had been sent back to the factory to be retrofitted to the new standard. As a result, only GC I/3 was fully equipped, having 36 aircraft. They met the Luftwaffe on 13 May, shooting down three Henschel Hs 126s and one Heinkel He 111 without loss.

The Germans were still able to launch surprise raids. A prime example took place on 17 May, when German Do17s hit Maubeuge airfield, which was then home to GC2/6. The eighteen Morane 406s were destroyed and just two of their aircraft could be salvaged. French squadrons in forward positions were now beginning to take a severe beating.

Amidst all this chaos, units were still receiving new consignments of aircraft, including Glenn Martin 167s and Douglas DB7s. While some squadrons were receiving long-awaited aircraft, other squadrons were still perilously under strength when they were called into action. GBI/21 and GBII/21 were eagerly awaiting Amiot 354 bombers, but only a handful had arrived when they were ordered to the front line.

Over the period from 22 to 23 May the French Air Force were launching bombing sorties against towns that their army counterparts had recently abandoned. Their mission was to block the main roads with debris. It soon became apparent that one of the key areas in this crucial stage of the war was around Cambrai, Arras and Amiens. The French Air Force threw everything they could against this region. Attacks were made on German troop concentrations. A notable attack was made on 22 May by Potez 633s of GBAII/51, with just nine available aircraft.

In fact, this aircraft was never meant to be used in France at all. The French Government had decided that all of these aircraft would be sold to foreign air forces. It had come as no great surprise when three Potez 631s were attacked by half a dozen Dewoitine 520 fighters during the evening of 20 May.

The Dewoitine aircraft belonging to GCII/3, based at the tiny airfield at Betz-Bouillancy, engaged a large formation of He111s to the south-west of Senlis on 21 May. No fewer than eight German bombers were shot down here. They, too, made the mistake on their return flight of engaging a Potez 631. One of the Dewoitine fighters buzzed the Potez five times. By this time the pilot of the Potez, Adjutant Martin, was convinced that the French aircraft had probably been captured by a German. His air gunner, Adjutant Guichard, opened fire, shooting down the Dewoitine to the north of Senlis.

There were other incidents such as this, which only serve to prove that communication within the French Air Force was rudimentary to say the least. A Potez was flown from base to base so that all of the French pilots could recognize its configuration.

The French army did try to launch an armoured counter-attack in the Cambrai sector and GCII/3 provided eighteen aircraft as cover on 22 May. They encountered a large number of Ju87s. The air combat began at around 1710 hours and in a matter of minutes eleven of the German dive bombers had been shot down. Suddenly, ten or more Bf109s arrived; they managed to shoot down one of the Dewoitine 520s, a second was lost when it ran out of fuel and a third had to be crash-landed.

The auxiliary units, known as the Escadrilles Légères de Défense (ELD), or Escadrilles de Chasse de Défense (ECD), had been mobilized on 11 May 1940, although some local defence units were already established. These auxiliary units were mainly reservist pilots. Some of them were test pilots attached to aircraft factories. At the Châteaudun base one of the pilots flying a Bloch 152 shot down a He111 on 12 May. More of these local defence flights were called up to protect aircraft plants. In the majority of cases the aircraft they were flying had come straight off the production line and others were there for repairs. Many of the pilots were not, in fact, French Air Force at all, but were employed by aircraft companies. The majority of the units could muster no more than six aircraft. Most of them flew Bloch fighters, others Morane 406s or Dewoitine 501s and 510s. A number of Dewoitine 500s were also being flown.

One peculiar aircraft that was also used was the Koolhoven FK-58A. It was Dutch built and there were fourteen of them parked at Romorantin. Four of them were sent to Lyons-Bron, where former Polish Air Force pilots were being trained to use French aircraft. The Ecole de l’Air based at Salon was ordered to create another Polish unit with seven of these aircraft on 16 May. It actually received nine of them. The school itself had its own local defence flight with Dewoitine 520s. At Bourges, the defence flight was equipped with Curtiss Hawks, where ten were in service. They managed to shoot down a number of German aircraft.

Meanwhile, on the front line, small numbers of French aircraft threw themselves at the advancing German ground forces. Little by little, attrition was beginning to make its mark. Between the period 26 May to 3 June 1940 the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BAE) and large numbers of French troops was being undertaken at Dunkirk. The RAF provided much of the air cover for this operation, but Bloch 152s of GCII/8, operating out of Lympne, were also on hand. These aircraft had left France on the afternoon of 30 May and had been ordered to support the 1st French Army, which by this time had been surrounded. There was a delay in being able to deploy them, as the engine oil designed for Hurricanes did not meet the Bloch 152s requirements. Oil did not arrive until 31 May. Also at Lympne were some Potez 63s belonging to GRI/14 and a pair of Glenn Martin 167s of GBI/63.

The Belgian army had surrendered on 28 May and on 31 May one of the Potez aircraft, escorted by Hurricanes, undertook a reconnaissance mission. Another Potez took off in the afternoon of 1 June, protected by eight Bloch 152s and Hurricanes. The mission was to spot German artillery positions so that the French artillery could zero in on the target. The aircraft arrived just as the Germans were launching a bombing attack against Dunkirk. The Bloch fighters shot down a He111, but then they were nearly attacked themselves by Hurricanes and French anti-aircraft batteries. Once the Dunkirk withdrawal had come to an end GRI/14 and GCII/8 returned to France.

The heaviest fighting had been taking place around the Somme. The French had lost 112 aircraft up to 25 May.

By the beginning of June the Luftwaffe was hitting French cities, raiding Marseilles on 1 June and Lyons on 2 June. On the following day, Polish pilots belonging to GCI/145 and flying Caudron Cr714s had their first taste of action. The unit was at Villacoublay, but by this time it had been ordered to Dreux to help defend Paris. Nominally they had thirty-four aircraft, but only eighteen were serviceable.

The Luftwaffe struck Paris on 3 June and not only was this Polish unit involved in the interception, but also elements of a number of other units. The alert was sounded at around 1306 hours. An estimated 200 German bombers were inbound, escorted by Bf110s for close support and Bf109s for cover. The Polish-manned aircraft intercepted at around 1310 hours. This was at about the same time as seventeen Dewoitine 520s of GCI/3, out of Meaux, also made contact. The Poles shot down a pair of Bf109s. The Dewoitines shot down three Do17s and a Bf109 for the loss of two fighters.

More units now joined the swirling air battle, with the French then the Germans then the French again ambushing one another’s formations. In total, the Germans lost twenty-six aircraft plus a number of others that were badly damaged. Some twelve French pilots lost their lives. On the ground the Germans had hit motor car plants, other factories, railway junctions, and the airfields at Le Bourget and Orly. This was just a taste of what was to come, as on the ground the Germans were about to launch a major attack around the River Aisne.

Significantly, Colonel Charles de Gaulle had been appointed the commander of the new 4th Armoured Division, with a strength of 5,000 men and eighty-five tanks. He would spearhead the counterattack. De Gaulle would later play a confusing role in the Allies’ struggle with Vichy France.

Over the next few days the French Air Force did their utmost to support the ground effort. In the period from 10 May to the morning of 5 June 1940 the French had lost 473 fighters, 194 reconnaissance and observation aircraft and 120 bombers. In comparison, French fighters had had over 375 confirmed kills out of a claimed total of 550.

On 5 June the German preceded their ground attacks with a series of air strikes, coming in at around 0400 hours and primarily aimed at French aircraft on the ground. At this point the French could deploy three fighter and six bomber squadrons.

Three whole German panzer corps manoeuvred to attack across the River Somme. The French army managed to effectively halt the advancing enemy, having been able to create a number of strong points. But by the evening of 7 June German armoured units, led by Rommel, were just short of the River Seine and Rouen. The halting of the German main force was ably assisted by the French Air Force. Some eighteen Breguet 693 bombers, escorted by Curtiss Hawks, had inflicted great damage to lead units of the German ground forces close to Amiens. The Luftwaffe pounced on the bombers and their escorts on the return flight. The Germans, in the ensuing battle, only managed to down one of the Curtiss Hawks for the loss of eight of their own fighters.

There were other attacks that day, notably against German armour near Bray Sur Somme, when eighteen Glenn Martin 167 bombers, protected by twenty-three fighters, attacked.

Over the course of 5 June the French bombers had flown 126 sorties. The counteroffensive continued into the night, with attacks even being made on Frankfurt and Bonn. It was never going to be enough, however, as the French army was ultimately forced to continue its retreat, which meant that the air force had to abandon large numbers of bases. It is believed that some fifteen French fighters were lost over the course of 5 June, but they had claimed some sixty-six German aircraft.

Over the next few days the pilots of GCI/6, GCII/2 and GCIII/7 in Morane 406s valiantly tried to blunt the German armoured attacks using their 20 mm guns. Around thirty-six aircraft were used in these attacks, of which about a dozen were shot down. It was a case of desperate measures for desperate times.

By 12 June the Germans had successfully established three bridgeheads on the lower Seine River. Day by day, more French towns and cities were falling to the Germans. The momentous decision to abandon Paris was made on 13 June. For the French Air Force, the hundred or so fighters that had been detailed to protect the capital managed to concentrate at Auxerre.

On 11 June Italy had declared war on France and on 13 June a formation of Fiat CR42 biplanes appeared over the airbase at Le Luc, on the French Riviera. The field was the home of GCIII/6, with their Dewoitine 520s. As the Italians appeared, some of the French aircraft had just landed from a patrol, but others were still aloft, including Adjutant Le Gloan. In the ensuing air battle he shot down four Italian Fiat fighters and shot up an Italian bomber. That night French bombers hit targets in Italy.

On 14 June it was decided that the bulk of the French bomber force would be withdrawn to bases in North Africa. Bombers were to make their way south and cross the coast between Marseilles and Marignane. Other units were ordered to fight on and began to assemble at airfields at Salon de Provence and Istres. Altogether, some eleven groups would remain to fight to the very end.

It is believed that the last mission flown against German targets took place on 24 June 1940. The targets were German pontoon bridges. Before that, the French fighters continued to support the army’s weakening efforts. Dewoitine 520s of GCIII/3 attacked and shot down several German aircraft in the Auxerre area on 16 June. The following day an order was issued instructing all fighter groups with Dewoitine, Curtiss or Bloch aircraft to leave for North Africa. The day after, Charles de Gaulle made his famous speech, urging the French to continue to fight. By now, de Gaulle was safe in a BBC studio in London. Fighter groups began moving to Algeria. The ground crews were left to fend for themselves and to get on any available ship transport to take them across the Mediterranean.

In the period 20 to 24 June, reconnaissance aircraft made their way to North Africa. The armistice was finally signed on 22 June, but this was not the end of operations. There were still scattered elements of bomber and fighter formations bombing German units near Lyons, Genoa, Grenoble and Chambéry. Morane 406s of GCI/6 hit German armoured units and trucks around Beaurepaire. Second Lieutenant Raphenne was shot down in the attack and killed. This was just four hours before the armistice came into effect. The lieutenant was probably the last member of the French Air Force to be killed in the battle for France. The Germans would later bury him with full military honours.

For all of the problems that the French Air Force had been struggling with in the run up to hostilities, and the appallingly bad showing that the French ground forces had exhibited during the campaign, the French Air Force’s record was comparatively good. In all, although the figures can only ever be approximate, the French Air Force lost 1,200 aircraft to all causes. Despite this, the strength of the French Air Force at the end of operations on 25 June 1940 was actually greater than when war was declared in September 1939. In the period from 10 May to 12 June, French industry had delivered 1,131 new aircraft; some 668 of these were fighters. Many of the French aircraft losses during this period had been of older types of aircraft, but all of the replacements were obviously modern ones.

The exodus of French aircraft from the mainland was by no means complete. Large numbers of aircraft, many of which had literally just been delivered, fell into German hands. This included 453 Morane 406s, 170 Dewoitine 520s, 260 Bloch 152s and a host of other aircraft, including Curtiss Hawks and Glenn Martins.

Armistice arrangements meant that a large proportion of France would become an occupied zone. The rump of France, or the non-occupied zone, was centred round the spa town of Vichy. Around three-fifths of France, including all of the Channel and Atlantic ports and Paris, were occupied. The French continued to administer their colonies without any interference from the Germans. In fact, the Germans had no interest in the French colonies in Africa, or, for that matter, the Middle East. What did remain a problem, however, was the French fleet. Like the French Air Force, some of the vessels had made their way to Britain, while the majority had fled to North Africa.

The new head of the Vichy Government was Philippe Pétain. He was a career soldier and by February 1916 had risen to the rank of general. He had taken command of the French 2nd Army at Verdun and, despite crippling casualties, had held it against the Germans, so gaining his reputation. A year later he became commander in chief of the French army. Pétain had ridden a grey charger on Bastille Day, 14 July 1919, at the head of a victory parade in Paris. It was sixteen days after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which for many would be one of the prime reasons for the outbreak of the Second World War.

Out of the post armistice chaos of 1940, Pétain emerged as a man that could end an unpopular war. He was determined to secure France’s future, perhaps to become Germany’s partner rather than another occupied country. France was still powerful. Its air force was still strong and its navy was intact. Although scattered and under armed, hundreds of thousands of French soldiers protected France’s colonial possessions. Pétain was as sure as the Germans that it would only be a matter of weeks before Britain was forced to come to terms with Germany. In this certainty, Pétain was determined to preserve what he could of France and to rebuild. He would not risk what remained of the empire on a throw of the dice by continuing to support the cause against German aggression.

So it was that many thousands of Frenchmen found themselves cast adrift from their homeland and ordered to protect and to preserve France until the time came when she could rise again as a true force in Europe.

Chinese Air Force to 1939

In early February 1939, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang invited to their residence in Chungking the new British air attaché in China, Group Captain Robert Stanley Aitken of the Royal Air Force. Over tea, he hoped to find out more about their requests to buy British aircraft and bring RAF advisers to China to reform the air force. Madame interpreted for her husband in flawless English with a slight southern accent. She told Aitken that the administration of the air force was “absolutely rotten” and offered poor value for money. On Chiang’s behalf she stated, “We have had to do without a Navy, we would be better off without a rotten Air Force.” She claimed that the British would have “carte blanche” to reorganize China’s air ministry, the Commission on Aeronautic Affairs (CoAA), and the air force.

This was not the first time that the Chinese Air Force and its “ministry” had been labeled as rotten. In October 1936, Aitken’s predecessor, Wing Commander Harold Kerby, reported that China’s ruling couple were “thoroughly disgusted” by standards at the main flight school at Hangchow and described its white buildings as “a cloak for the rottenness within.” At the end of the month, the generalissimo appointed his wife as chairman of the CoAA. Chiang’s chief air adviser at that time was General Silvio Scaroni of Italy’s Regia Aeronautica. He warned Madame Chiang, “Your Air Force is rotten and as a weapon of war, it is entirely useless.”

Rarely if ever did foreign military attachés have anything good to say about China’s air force or army. The founding father of such critiques was Major John Magruder, who served as the US military attaché in Peking from 1926 to 1930. He would later return to China in the autumn of 1941 as the head of the American Military Mission to China (AMMISCA). In an April 1931 article for Foreign Affairs, Magruder described the Chinese as “practical pacifists.” Whereas Japan had a deep reverence for the fighting man, according to Magruder, the Chinese had no martial spirit, and with the exception of an increased use of machine guns, the Chinese had hardly modernized their armed forces. Military aviation was in a “period of transition from military stage property to a moral auxiliary,” and the Chinese army did not regard it as “a necessary arm”; owing to the inferior performance of army air bureaus, the air force was an “an overrated scarecrow.”

CAF pilots fought bravely in the first three months of the Sino-Japanese War but lacked leadership as well as reserves to prolong the war in the air. When the conflict began on July 7, 1937, Japan’s air forces had outnumbered the CAF by four to one: Japan had 620 army planes with 25 percent reserves, and 600 navy aircraft, all produced by Japanese manufacturers. The Chinese had only 250 airworthy planes, all of which were imported: 230 came from the United States, the rest from Italy or Germany. By the end of November 1937, the CAF had lost all its prewar stock and was down to about 27 planes.

After the air force collapsed, the Chinese started to rely on Russian airplanes and pilots. In August 1937, Chiang had signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, which became the basis for military assistance. The terms of the pact featured low-interest loans with which the Chinese could buy hardware, especially aircraft. Planes began to arrive in November 1937. Over the next three years the Nationalists received a total of nine hundred Soviet planes, of which 80 percent were delivered by the end of 1939.

With equipment came advisers, and the mission known as Operation Zet began to expand. In the Soviet Union the pilots achieved heroic status comparable to that of the Flying Tigers in the United States. In January to February 1938, Russian crews carried out 150 bombing missions against the enemy. By the end of the year, three hundred Russians were involved in Chinese military aviation. Nor was their service risk-free: from 1937 to 1940 some two hundred Russian volunteers died in China.

Operation Zet was so well established by 1938 that the Chinese Air Force seemed to have transferred its loyalty from the Chiangs to the Russians. Such was the conclusion of the assistant US naval attaché, Marine Corps captain James McHugh, who during a long tour in China for the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) reported in detail not only about military aviation but also about the intrigues of the generalissimo’s family circle involving his various Soong in-laws. McHugh was of enormous influence in shaping how the US Navy perceived the shifts of power in the Nationalist regime, as well as at the State Department through his special reports to the US ambassador, Nelson Johnson.

At the end of February 1938, Madame Chiang gave up her chairmanship of the CoAA. Exhausted and in ill health, she retired from aviation affairs and persuaded her brother T. V. Soong to take over as chairman of the CoAA. As McHugh reported, Soong was content to let the Russians assume responsibility for the country’s air defense because they provided much-needed credit and better airplanes than the “superseded models” available from the United States. In a letter to Bill Pawley, Bruce Leighton also observed that Dr. Kung was “relinquishing all initiative in the purchase of aircraft . . . and passing it all over into the hands . . . of T. V.” From 1933 to 1938, Dr. Kung in his role as finance minister had handled nearly all negotiations with Bill Pawley of Intercontinent to buy Curtiss-Wright “Hawk” fighter planes. In 1933, Pawley and Kung set up a joint venture between three American partners—Intercontinent, Curtiss-Wright, and Douglas Aviation—and the Nationalist government: the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO) was designed to save the Chinese government money on the cost of importing planes in their large principal parts—fuselage, wing, and motor. The arrangement was to take advantage of lower labor costs and local raw material to make certain parts in China and assemble the planes there.

This business model worked well until the outbreak of war, which had the effect of greatly increasing the cost of plane parts from the United States and inducing the Chinese to rely on less-costly Russian equipment. In April 1938, Leighton noted that the USSR provided planes at costs that were much lower than anything Intercontinent could offer. Therefore, the prospects for selling American planes were “far from brilliant.” By October 1938, the Nationalists had 207 airworthy combat planes, of which 95 were Russian and 80 were American. There also were 14 French Dewoitines, 10 British Gloster Gladiators, and 8 German Henschel bombers.

  1. V. Soong willingly accepted dependence on Soviet aid, but others in the family circle were uneasy about it, especially Dr. Kung and Madame Chiang and her closest confidant, W. H. Donald. Donald gave special briefings to British diplomats, particularly the air attachés. At the end of 1937, Harold Kerby reported Donald’s suspicions that the Russians and Japanese would settle their differences and carve up China between themselves. Two years later, Aitken, the air attaché, discovered that “mention of the Russians was not welcome”: Madame Chiang flatly commented that “they [the Russians] look after themselves,” while others confirmed that “they will not talk.” Aitken surmised that absolute secrecy was one of the conditions of Soviet aid, and if that condition were broken, Stalin might withdraw his helping hand. There were reports that Russian pilots were just using China as a “sort of training ground.” Even so, the Russians inspired universal respect for their courage and efficiency when they chose to fight; they appeared to be in China for the long term, as some eighty Sino-Russian interpreters were teaching Chinese personnel to speak Russian.

Donald had invited Aitken to come to Chungking and arranged his appointments. He too told the new British air attaché that the air force was in a hopeless state, mainly because of its incompetent officers: Donald singled out for special sanction General Mao Pang-chu (also known as Peter or P. T. Mow), the head of air operations. Because General Mao was “irresponsible and corrupt,” Chiang had appointed General T. C. Chien (Chien Ta-chun), a loyal and honest army officer, to replace him as head of the air force. General Chien, however, knew so little about aviation that he had to rely on Mao for guidance. Madame Chiang asked Aitken to keep the real nature of his visit a secret from T. C. Chien, who proved to be equally cagey toward Aitken. When the latter asked for hard numbers about air force capability, the former said that he could not possibly release these to a British air attaché.

To his surprise, Aitken found that General Mao spoke more common sense about aviation than anyone else, even if he was a “corrupt scoundrel.” His was a pragmatic approach to combat: pilots engaged the enemy only if they had a reasonable chance of success, and they were not allowed to “indulge in heroic deeds against impossible odds.” He showed Aitken a new air force chart that featured at the top the generalissimo, Madame Chiang, and her brother T. V. Soong, as well as a few military men. In Aitken’s view the organization was nothing more than “a heterogeneous collection of terminologies bunched indiscriminately in groups.”

At Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, Aitken met the senior CAF officer in charge of flight instruction, General Chow (Chou Chih-jou), as well as the chief instructor, an American called Colonel Chennault. The conversation was hampered by language difficulties, the evasiveness of Chow, and the deafness of Colonel Chennault. When Aitken asked Chennault what he thought of Mao’s new organization chart, the latter dismissed it as “hopeless” but had no views on improving it: Aitken surmised that “organization was not his forte.”

Aitken understood that there were a dozen or so American Army Air Corps reserve officers training CAF cadets. By all accounts, however, the Americans had poor relations with their students as well as with Chinese officers, who resented the Americans telling them how to teach. There had been a “mutiny” at one school when Chinese instructors told cadets that once they had flown solo, they did not have to mind their American superiors.

One of the American instructors was William MacDonald, an old flying companion of Chennault. In the mid-1930s, Mac had been a wingman in the latter’s AAC aerobatic trio, Three Men on a Flying Trapeze. Although Mac refused to admit that he had flown combat missions, he nonetheless alluded to one: he had tried to instill a true sense of loyalty and duty in Chinese crews, but the first time that he led them against an equal number of Japanese (nine), they deserted him immediately. Aitken understood that MacDonald received a handsome reward for each enemy aircraft that he brought down. When the Chinese reduced his bonus to “a thousand dollars gold,” by which he meant a thousand US dollars, MacDonald objected that on those terms the Chinese could “shoot the blankety things down themselves.”

Aitken got hold of a questionnaire in which Chennault listed for the generalissimo the CAF’s countless defects: weak organization, poor training, bad discipline, and lack of initiative on the part of Chinese personnel, as well as the shortage of reserve aircraft and spare parts. In his view, pilot error due to unsound and inadequate training had caused the air force to lose half its planes in the first six months of the Sino-Japanese War. Nonetheless Chennault believed that Chinese pilots, if properly drilled and equipped, could carry out “guerrilla air action” against Japanese supply lines. The CAF already had a few Curtiss Hawk 75 planes suitable for such air strikes, and he recommended the procurement of more long-range single-seater fighter planes armed with heavy guns or cannon. Aitken disagreed with Chennault’s tactics on the grounds that fighter planes flying over long distances would be vulnerable to enemy attack. Given their air superiority, the Japanese could easily destroy whatever equipment the Chinese might deploy.

Although the CAF seemed to be a lost cause, the Chiangs gave every indication of wanting to reform and revive it. On December 13, 1938, US diplomats in Chungking had reported that the generalissimo was intent on “revamping and expanding the Chinese Air Force.” The government also was about to sign a large contract for planes to be built at a new CAMCO factory located in Yunnan Province. Aitken, however, made no mention of these significant developments. It would appear that the Chinese managed to keep secret their renewed commercial relations with the Intercontinent Corporation, its partner in CAMCO. In December 1938, after a yearlong break, Dr. H. H. Kung resumed his responsibility for American aircraft procurement. He entertained tenders from Bill Pawley as well as another aircraft broker, A. L. “Pat” Patterson. Kung was in the market to buy as many as three hundred new American combat planes from one or the other.

At about this time, Kung also approached the British ambassador to China, Archibald Clark Kerr, about securing export credits worth £10 million to purchase aircraft. Kung raised the possibility of building an aircraft assembly plant at the port of Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma, from which finished planes could be flown to Yunnan Province. This might be necessary because, as Kung pointed out, the transport of oversize aircraft parts on the Burma Road would prove “extremely difficult.”

In February 1939, Aitken was aware of the proposal for a Chinese-owned aircraft factory in Burma. In his secret report, he took issue with the idea of allowing any foreign interests to build and operate aircraft factories “in our possessions.” He concluded, however, that a few RAF officers should come to China to promote British aircraft because they might have a better chance than any other foreign agents to gain a foothold in that market.

Such was the conundrum that enveloped Chinese military aviation during 1938 and 1939. On the one hand, Chiang wanted airpower but had no faith in Chinese subordinates to deliver it. On the other hand, he could not dispense with the Chinese element of air defense: no matter how incompetent senior air force officers might be, the generalissimo needed an air force manned by his own people for the sake of prestige, if nothing else.

Since the Chinese were entirely dependent on foreign planes, foreign personnel were always required to teach the Chinese how to man and maintain their imported equipment. The Chiangs presided over an air organization that resembled the spokes of a wheel: foreign experts had little interaction with each other and formed separate relationships with the CAF clique that flew American, Italian, or Russian aircraft. At the hub was the generalissimo, who demanded the loyalty of foreign as well as Chinese air personnel. The Chinese saw nothing contradictory about the Soviet Union providing nearly all aircraft and personnel for air operations while they themselves explored the possibility of engaging RAF officers to reform the air ministry, the CoAA.

The Chiangs had learned no lessons from past experience about the drawbacks that such cohabitation inflicted on the air force. For example, from 1933 to 1937, thanks to misguided procurement policies, the Chinese ended up with an official Italian air mission, as well as a privately organized group of American flight instructors. The commander of the American group was Colonel John Jouett, a retired officer of the US Army Air Corps. In 1934, he stated categorically that “oil and water cannot mix and it cannot be expected that Italians and Americans with totally different racial characteristics, ideas, methods of training, etc. could work harmoniously together.”

Last but not least was the problem of logistics, which more than any other factor was bound to restrict procurement of Western aircraft. In December 1938, Dr. Kung pointed out to the British ambassador the difficulty of transporting large aircraft parts over the Burma Road. So even if the Chinese ordered planes from Britain or the United States, there was no reliable way of delivering components to Yunnan. The Soviet air mission, by contrast, faced no such obstacles in sending planes to western China: since 1937, they had assembled aircraft near the railhead of the Turkestan-Siberia Railway at Alma Alta (Almaty) in Kazakhstan and flown them to their main base at Lanchow in central China (Gansu Province). From there, planes went on to the large CAF base at Chengdu in the western province of Szechuan, of which Chungking was the capital.

The Russian ferrying operation probably inspired Dr. Kung to believe that a comparable system could be established whereby planes assembled at Rangoon could be flown up to Yunnan. That, however, would require the consent of the British, who were caught between their desire to help China and the need to avoid conflict with Japan. “Nonprovocation” of Japan prevailed and ruled out the possibility of ferrying planes from Far East ports over British territory into China. Therefore in Washington and in London, officials faced the awkward reality that in order to help China in the field of military aviation, they had to rely on the unreliable Burma Road. So, unfortunately, did Intercontinent.

U.S. Bomber/Fighter Aircraft I

Boeing B-9 Bomber and a Boeing P-26 Fighter.

In the fifteen years that followed WW I, the meager funds allotted for air power had gone mainly for manufacturing training planes or fighter types. Nevertheless, there were enthusiasts even then who had crude visions of a strategic bomber. Arguments for such a plane — one that could reach into enemy territory — ebbed and flowed according to political beliefs, limited funds, and embedded, archaic military thinking. The development of such models as the Douglas YIB-7, the Keystone B-2, and the Boeing B-9 gave promise that an all-metal, enclosed cockpit, multi-engine, long-range bomber could be built.

In 1931, Boeing Aircraft had made the transition from wood and fabric to metal when it built a fighter plane named the Peashooter. In that same year, Boeing also produced the B-9, America’s first all-metal monoplane designed specifically for a bombardment role. Although the B-9 never went into large scale production, its concepts led to designs which appeared in several later models.

The first strategic American bomber was about to emerge, and it did so as the Boeing Flying Fortress. It was none too soon, for Japan by then was well on its way to conquest of the Asian rim, and in Europe both Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler were casting ominous shadows.

In late 1935, the U. S. Air Corps arranged competitive flights for aircraft from Douglas Manufacturing and Boeing Aircraft. Douglas Manufacturing adapted its DC-2 transport into a stubby, deep fuselage aircraft called DB-1 (for Douglas Bomber One). In production, these planes were known as B-18 Bolos because the fuselage profile resembled that type of knife.

Boeing Aircraft chose as its entry a modification of its B-9, equipping it with twin in-line engines. In this competition, Boeing Aircraft lost the production contract, but the company capitalized on the design of the B-9 to produce an all-metal, low-wing airliner known as Model 247. The structural design of Model 247, combined with the military features of Boeing’s later XB-15 were precursors to the design of the B-17.

Douglas B-18 Bolos

Between 1937 and 1941, the Douglas B-18 Bolos made up about half the entire bomber fleet of the U.S. Air Corps. Based on a production run of 220 aircraft, the B-18 Bolos cost only 59% of Boeing’s B-17 ($58,000 vs. $99,000). Cost was the determining factor, therefore, when the army decided to buy Bolos rather than Flying Fortresses.

On that fateful December 7, 1941, one hundred and twelve Bolos, half the original production run, were stationed at bases overseas with bomber and reconnaissance units. Fortunately, the Air Corps had been impressed enough with Boeing’s models that thirteen of them had been ordered in1937. Designated as the YB-17, the initial thirteen ships were patterned after the B-9, Model 247, and Model 299. More powerful engines replaced earlier ones, increasing the horse power from 750 to 1,000 per engine, and soon turbo-superchargers were installed, which vastly improved the plane’s performance at higher altitudes. Now although limited in numbers, the B-17 was the largest and most complex aircraft in the Air Corps inventory.

Bell P-39

In 1939 when war in Europe began, several U.S. manufacturers were producing airplanes, but the ones they turned out were mainly for defense: fighters, pursuit, or ground support. The Bell P-39 was the principal fighter plane in service then.

Nicknamed the Aircobra, the P-39 saw combat throughout the world, particularly in the Southwest Pacific, the Mediterranean, and Russian theaters. It had an innovative layout with the engine installed in the center fuselage behind the pilot, relied on a tractor-type propeller with a long shaft, and was the first American fighter to be fitted with a tricycle landing gear. Because its engine was only equipped with a single-stage, single-speed supercharger, the P-39 performed poorly above 17,000 ft. In both Europe and the Pacific, the P-39 found itself outclassed as an interceptor and was gradually relegated to other duties, usually at lower altitudes for such missions as ground strafing.

The most renowned of the P-40s were the 100 dispatched to China for use by the American Volunteer Group, or the “Flying Tigers” as they were called.

Another pursuit plane in America’s air fleet in 1941 was the Curtiss P-40, called the Warhawk. The P-40s first saw action at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Of the ninety-nine Warhawks stationed in Hawaii that day, only seven managed to get airborne during the attack. The seven shot down five Japanese planes — two Nakajima torpedo bombers, a Mitsubishi Zero fighter, and two dive bombers. By the end of the day, however, only twenty-five P-40s remained operational; three had been shot down, the rest destroyed on the ground.

The most renowned of the P-40s were the 100 dispatched to China for use by the American Volunteer Group, or the “Flying Tigers” as they were called. The Flying Tigers got the idea for their famous shark mouth markings from magazine photographs of one squadron’s colorful ships. Exploits of other squadrons flying P-40s all over the world quickly copied the icon.

A few visionaries in the American Air Service were looking beyond coastal defenses and thinking of offensive air tactics, that is, aircraft used to destroy an enemy’s ability to wage war. General Billy Mitchell had seen the potential for such strategy as early as WW I, but targeting factories, ammunition storages, power plants, and cities called for planes different from fighters built for defense. Isolationist factions within the U.S., sheltered by two ocean fronts, remained adamantly opposed for increased expenditures.

In the year the war broke out in Europe, the U.S. had fewer than 1800 operational aircraft, mostly fighters or observation planes, but there was a small collection of two-engine planes, mainly the North American B-25 and the Martin B-26, that could carry bombs or torpedoes.

The B-25, named the Mitchell in honor of the legendary General Billy Mitchell, was a twin-rudder, mid-wing monoplane powered by two 1700 horsepower Wright Cyclone engines. Normal bomb capacity was 5,000 lbs., and some versions carried 75 mm. cannon, machine guns, with added firepower of two .50 caliber guns in the bombardier’s compartment. Another model mounted two guns in the top turret, manned by the flight engineer. These two, in addition to the pair in the bombardier’s space and four in the sides of the fuselage just below the pilots’ seats, totaled eight 50 caliber guns in the nose — an arrangement that provided the ship with fourteen forward-firing guns.

The B-25 was used for high and low level bombing, strafing, photo reconnaissance, submarine patrol, and even as a fighter. It gained special recognition as the aircraft that completed the historic raid on Tokyo in April, 1942. Standard equipment for the Allied Air Forces throughout WW II, the Mitchell perhaps was the most versatile combat plane of the war.

U.S. Bomber Aircraft II

Its contemporary, the Martin B-26, familiarly called The Maurauder, was an all metal monoplane with a tricycle landing gear. The craft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engines in nacelles slung under the wing, driving two four-bladed propellers.

Slightly faster than the B-25, the Maurauder’s relatively small wing area and more powerful engines made it challenging to fly. It was not a craft for novice pilots, and when inexperienced ones sat in its cockpits, the accident rate mounted. The number of crashes at MacDill Field in Florida — the chief training base for 26s — rose accordingly. A catch phrase was “One a day in Tampa Bay,” and flight crews gave the plane colorful nicknames, such as Widowmaker, Martin Murderer, Flying Coffin, Sky Prostitute (fast with no visible means of support, referring to its small wings), or Baltimore Whore, a reference to the home city of Martin Aircraft Inc. where the ships were built.

The Maurauder was used mostly in Europe and the Mediterranean and also saw action in the Pacific. By the end of the war, it had flown more than 110,000 sorties, dropped 150,000 tons of bombs, and had been used in combat by British, Free French, and South African forces in addition to U. S. units.

Adolph Hitler had been Chancellor for less than three years when he announced he was reconstituting Germany’s armed forces. Among the revisions was creation of a separate air force named the Luftwaffe, commanded by General Hermann Goring. By March, 1935, the Luftwaffe was as strong as the British Royal Air Force.

In 1939, aviation forces in the U.S. were still a part of the army and miniscule if compared with those of either Germany or Britain. Yet in America, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, assistant chief of the Air Corps and a devotee of theories expounded by the Italian Doughet and General Mitchell, had eked out approval for development of larger planes capable of offensive bombing.

Boeing Aircraft, a fledgling company in Seattle, Washington, had secured in 1918 a contract to build small airplanes designed for mail service. Arnold kept pressing and was able to convince that company to build larger planes. In 1934, Boeing had on its drawing boards plans for a four-engine bomber. The next year, 1935, the company brought out Boeing Model 299, which made its maiden flight near the end of July. A newspaper reporter for the Seattle Times described the ship as a “Flying Fortress,” and that became its common name.

The Army ordered a baker’s dozen of these prototypes in January of 1936. Ostensibly, the ships were to be used in the nation’s defense, but the B-17 also vindicated the doctrine of strategic bombing. The initial order for the four-engine behemoths was received just thirty-three days before Billy Mitchell died, a sick and broken man in a New York hospital on February 19, 1936.

Tooling up for production of B-17s was a big gamble for Boeing’s little company, and its hopes for winning a contract for more planes fluttered when an early Model 299 crashed on take-off. Fortunately, investigation revealed that the aircraft had attempted the take-off with its controls locked, so safety of the ship’s design was not suspect.

Orders for the B-17 mounted, and Boeing teamed up with the Douglas and Lockheed Aircraft companies to meet the demand. Newer models were equipped with turbocharged engines providing faster maximum speeds and a higher service ceiling. With these changes, a Flying Fortress could reach an altitude of thirty-six thousand feet, had a ferry range of 3,600 miles, and a top indicated air speed of 213 miles per hour. B-17Ds and B-17Es, later models, were given self-sealing fuel tanks and revised armament.

The B-17E was truly a Flying Fortress, armed with one .30 caliber machine gun in the nose and twelve .50 caliber other ones for defense. Modifications of this model would replace the .30 caliber gun with a chin turret with twin .50 caliber guns below the bombardier’s compartment. Such improvements meant better defense against head-on attacks from the Luftwaffe.

From Britain, more than from anywhere, came tales of indestructible B-17s, flown by intrepid crews. An example displaying both phenomena was the B-17 with Memphis Belle painted on its fuselage. From November 1942 until May 1943, this plane and its crew flew twenty-five missions over Nazi-occupied Europe, taking terrible beatings from both flak and fighters. Riddled by bullets, holed by flak bursts, the Belle returned from one mission missing most of its tail, and from another with one wing so badly shredded it had to be replaced. Five of the Memphis Belle’s big engines had to be replaced in the more than 20,000 miles of its twenty-five combat missions. Her crew dropped over 60 tons of bombs on Nazi targets and was credited with shooting down eight enemy fighters, five probables, and a dozen more damaged. With twenty-five missions completed, under orders the Memphis Belle and its crew flew back to America to tour the country, accepting acclaim not only for their own accomplishments but for deeds of their comrades.

From bases in England and later ones in Africa, Italy, and the Pacific, B-17s bombed targets of the two enemies, Germany and Japan. By the war’s end, a total of 12, 731 Fortresses had been built, and an even larger one, the Superfortress, had just become operational.

America’s other four-engine bomber during WW II was the Liberator, the B-24 produced by Consolidated Aircraft. First flown in December 1939, early models were designated LB-30A and sent to Britain. As war threats came closer to America via attacks on Atlantic shipping, the U.S. Army Air Corps began ordering B-24s in June 1941.

A little larger and slighter faster than the B-17, the Liberator could carry loads over a longer distance. B-24s flew in every theater of the war: North Africa, England, Italy, Burma, China, Alaska, Australia, and island hopped across the Pacific. Liberators were flown by twelve Army Air Forces and a dozen Navy squadrons.

The B-24 had a wing span of 110 ft., compared with the 103 ft. 9 in. of the B-17. The wing’s cross section was shaped like a raindrop and mounted atop the fuselage. The wing provided good lift, and the ship had a fuselage sixty-six feet long and eighteen feet high. Without a load, the Liberator weighed 32,505 lbs. Its weight with a full bomb load was 60,000 pounds. The ship could reach an indicated air speed of slightly more than 300 mph. with a range of 2,850 miles and fly as high as 32,000 ft.

The most distinguishing feature of the Liberator was its twin rudders. Each of its four propellers was as large as a full-grown man, and it had a tricycle landing gear with one wheel under the nose and two bigger ones under the wings. Its four engines were usually Pratt & Whitney, each rated at 1,200 horsepower, and each engine was equipped with a turbo supercharger that increased the mass air charge of the internal combustion engine while compensating for the lower air density of air at high altitudes.

The bombardier-navigator compartment in the nose of the 24 was more cramped than that of the 17, but the ship had two bomb bays, each of which would match the capacity of the B-17’s single one. The bomb doors were of the roll-up type, thus eliminating the buffeting caused by standard doors that opened into the air stream below the fuselage.

B-24s were called Box Cars by crews from their rival B-17s. Other detractors referred to them as Garbage Scows With Wings, Flying Brick, Old Agony Wagon or even more demeaning names. On the ground, the B-24 was an ungainly-looking ship, but airborne with capable, well-trained crews it carved an ineradicable niche in air warfare. The Eighth Air Force in England and the Fifteenth Air Force in Italy flew both B-24s and B-17s.

B-24s are remembered as ships which bombed Rome in July 1943 and a month later carried out the historic low-level attack on Ploesti oil refineries, a raid in which 57 planes with eight to nine crew members were lost.226

Notwithstanding its combat record in Europe, the major and unchallenged contributions of Liberators to America’s wartime operations were in the Pacific. In January 1942, Liberators were first flown in action against Japanese held islands. For more than two and a half years, B-24 crews bombed enemy bases, ammunition dumps, and oil storages. By 1943 in the Pacific, Liberators had replaced Fortresses and become work horses for the U.S. Air Corps in its fight against Japan.

The U.S. bombing record could not have been achieved without such aircraft, for costs in lives of young men were high, and squadrons would suffer horrendous losses before perseverance and determination would pay off in final victory.