The United States Air-power in 1918

In 1918 the United States, still inexperienced in modern warfare, rushed to field an effective air arm for the European war, while struggling to establish an industry to support the new service and the logistics to transport supplies to the front. The optimistic predictions and expectations of 1917 yielded to the chastening realities of coordinating an effort to fulfill them in 1918.

At the front the U.S. Air Service command was riven with internal rivalries, which the May appointment of Brig. Gen. Mason M. Patrick as chief to replace Gen. Benjamin Foulois did not resolve. Only when Col. Billy Mitchell became the top American air combat commander, with considerable independence in establishing objectives despite the army’s ultimate control, did these tensions ease. Yet certain problems continued to plague the new arm. The command of fliers by nonfliers and the army’s ignorance—from division staff officers to troops of the line—regarding the air service and its work remained dilemmas.

Colonel Mitchell, as his mentor Trenchard, was determined to take the aerial offensive. June’s strategic bombing and independent air operations, the formation of the RAF’s Independent Force, and Trenchard’s refusal to acknowledge any superior—even Marshal Foch, Allied commander in chief—prompted the United states to switch from assisting the British campaign to supporting Foch’s coordinated plan. Meanwhile, Pershing’s chief of staff warned air service officers “against any idea of independence.” The American air war would be a tactical campaign.

U.S. units saw action in the quiet sector around Toul in the spring. Ninety-three Lafayette Escadrille members transferred to the U.S. Air Service and 26 went to naval aviation. The escadrille’s aces took command of U.S. units. For example William Thaw was commanding the 103rd Squadron of mostly former escadrille fliers when it transferred into the U.S. Air Service in May. Raoul Lufbery, the escadrille’s ace, after a short stint flying a desk at the huge U.S. training base at Issoudun, returned to the air only to be shot down in flames in May by a German two-seater. Lufbery had shared his knowledge with Eddie Rickenbacker, a 27-year-old new pilot of the 94th Squadron and former race-car driver. Rickenbacker scored his first victory on 29 April and ultimately gained 26 victories to become the United States’ leading ace.

By the end of June, 13 squadrons were operating at the front—6 pursuit, 6 observation, and 1 bomber squadron—when they transferred to the fighting around Château-Thierry during the Aisne-Marne offensive in July. Over Château-Thierry U.S. pursuit pilots encountered for the first time large concentrations of Fokker D7s, which fought aggressively and tenaciously in teams and made attacks on German observation planes dangerous. The inexperienced pilots of the First Pursuit Group, mounted on France’s second-line fighter, the Nieuport 28, found that they could not yet compete with the D7. In their three-plane incursions over German lines, they were barely able to defend themselves, much less U.S. observation planes.

The first U.S. day-bomber units, flying Breguets, began operations in June attacking railroad yards. On 10 July six Breguets of the United States’ only bombing squadron, the 96th Squadron, got lost and were forced to land behind German lines. They compounded the disaster by failing to burn their aircraft, prompting the German message, “We thank you for the fine airplanes and equipment which you sent us, but what will we do with the Major?”

By fall circumstances had improved markedly. When the AEF First Army attacked the Saint-Mihiel salient on 12 to 16 September, Colonel Mitchell had under his direct command or on call 1,481 airplanes—701 pursuit, 366 observation, 323 day bombers, and 91 night bombers—the largest concentration of Allied air forces during the war, nearly half of which belonged to the United States. Despite poor weather conditions, this overwhelming mass retained aerial control as the fighters penetrated over German airfields and day bombers struck targets on the battlefield and in the rear. Saint-Mihiel marked the meteoric ascent of the 27th Squadron’s Arizona balloon-buster Frank Luke, who concentrating on observation ballons shot down 18 Germans in 17 days, but was downed by the Germans on 28 September as the Meuse-Argonne offensive began. In an unusual gesture for a downed pilot, Luke, rather than surrender, pulled his pistol to fight on the ground and was killed. His wingman and protector, Joseph Wehner, an ace in his own right, had fallen 10 days before.

American bomber crews, whether flying Breguets or DH4s, suffered severe losses during the offensive when operating in small formations of 3 to 6 airplanes but far fewer in larger tight formations. The United States’ use of virtually unprotected day bombers on raids 10 to 20 kilometers behind German lines—a French and British practice—resulted in such heavy losses that the U.S. Air Service resorted to bomber escorts in the Meuse-Argonne campaign. In that campaign from 26 September to the end of October, Mitchell pursued the same tactics as over Saint-Mihiel. He sent 100 aircraft-pursuit groups strafing over the lines, and staged his largest daytime raid on 9 October with 200 bombers and 100 fighters attacking German troop concentrations. Mitchell also further increased the size of his fighter patrols to counter German formations at the point of the U.S. attacks. The corps observation planes had the most difficult task—keeping pace with the infantry in contact patrols performed at tree-top level, often in fog and ground mist—in addition to their artillery observation tasks. Ultimately 18 observation squadrons would serve army or corps headquarters in what the army regarded as aviation’s most essential task.

Losses in the intensive fighting in the war’s last three months offset the influx of new units to the front, and many of these approximately 31 units were understrength. On 26 September the air arm had 646 airplanes; on 15 October it comprised 579; and at the Armistice it could muster 45 squadrons with only 457 serviceable planes, less than half the authorized program. Supply remained a problem throughout the war, and was particularly grave during the Meuse-Argonne campaign. At the end of October the three pursuit groups could assemble only a little over half their listed strength of 300 Spads.

The U.S. Air Service received 6,624 combat planes—4,879 from the French, 1,440 DH4s from the United States, 272 from the British, and 19 from the Italians. Of its French planes, 1,644 were Nieuports, 893 were Spad 13s, and 678 were Salmsons. At the war’s end some 80 percent of the air service’s planes were French made. The Spad 13, France’s first-line fighter, though not particularly maneuverable, was strong and the fastest fighter at the front. It was more difficult to keep in operation than the Nieuport 28 because the geared Hispano-Suiza 220-hp engine was more difficult to adjust and repair than the Nieuport’s 160-hp Gnome rotary. In the August Saint-Mihiel buildup, problems with the 220-hp Spads of the 22nd Squadron made concentration on combat difficult, and at Saint-Mihiel some pilots could fly only one mission a day because mechanics were able to keep only 65 percent of the planes serviceable.

U.S. squadrons judged the DH4 inferior to the Breguet for bombardment and the Salmson for observation. Similar average losses of Breguet, Salmson, and DH4 squadrons in the war’s final months were misleading, since squadrons in quieter sectors used the DH4. The Breguet was faster, its metal-tubing fuselage stronger than the DH4’s wood frame, and possessed better load and altitude capability. The sturdy Salmson 2A2 was overall the best observation craft. Although corps observation missions—especially infantry-contact patrol—suffered serious losses to enemy pursuit in the absence of fighter protection, on army observation missions above 15,000 feet the Salmson with its 260-hp radial could outrun the Pfalz, Albatros, and Fokker D7 and outclimb both the Pfalz and the Albatros.

There were numerous complaints about faulty materiel, particularly engine assembly and magnetos. The DH4 frame was too weak for the Liberty engine to run at full throttle without shaking the plane to bits. One U.S. engineer officer considered Liberty planes unprepared for service and often replaced their shock absorbers and wheels with Breguet parts. Beyond such construction flaws, the absence of self-sealing gas tanks offering some protection against fire in the DH4s did not help the morale of bomber crews. French plane tanks had asbestos-rubber coatings that automatically sealed bullet holes. The DH4’s nickname, “Flaming Coffin,” stemmed from its unprotected gas tanks and pressure-feed gas system. If a bullet punctured the gas tank, the pressure system forced fuel out of the unsealed hole over the airframe. A single incendiary bullet or spark made the plane a flaming funeral pyre for its crew.

Such potential fate did not deter American aircrews. Second Lt. W. J. Rogers, a DH4 observer of the 50th Aero Squadron, commented:

Aerial observation is neither a bed of roses nor the path to glory that the man on the ground imagines it to be. The wind behind a Liberty is terrific, and it taxes the strength of the strongest to fight it for three hours. If the ship is rolled and tossed about very much, . . . the occupants sometimes get sick . . .

But I like it. I’m sorry we had war, but since we did, I’m glad I was an aerial observer.

Aircrew members underwent training at home and in Europe. The Signal Corps adopted the Canadian method, establishing ground training units at eight universities that ultimately put more than 17,000 cadets through an 8- to 12-week course. Although the army increased its flying fields for primary training from 3 in 1917 to 27 by the war’s end, airplane and instructor shortages in the United States caused many aircrews to receive their primary and advanced training in Europe.

The most noted training grounds in France were the pursuit school at Issoudun and the bomber school at Clermont-Ferrand. The French fighter-training method emphasized individual tactics rather than teamwork and formation flying, although “gang” or “collective and cooperative” fighting, perhaps the “exact antithesis of the ‘sporting attitude,’” was most efficient and appropriate in 1918. The U.S. fliers did not fully appreciate the necessity for formation training until after the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, when they modified their instruction. Meanwhile, trainees and instructors in the bombardment school at Clermont-Ferrand suffered from dissatisfaction and poor morale. School commanders complained that pursuit aviation received excessive publicity, and that training for observation and bomber aviation was undervalued, neglected, and used as a threat for poor fighter-pilot trainees.

Casualties of U.S. Air Service personnel attached to all armies in Europe mounted steadily from four in March to 537 in October. Of the total 583 casualties, 235 were killed in action, 130 were wounded, 145 taken prisoner, 45 were killed in accidents, 25 were wounded, and 3 were interned. Accidents at the front and in flight training were as lethal for the American air arm as other air arms. The figures show that 681 flight personnel died in the air service, 508 (74.6 percent) of them in accidents (263 training in the United States, 203 in AEF training schools in Europe, and 42 at the front), 169 (24.8 percent) in combat, and 4 (.6 percent) from disease. In 1920 Lieutenant Colonel Rowntree of the Medical Reserve Corps concluded that “for every flier killed in combat three succumbed to accidents.” In addition, 72 were missing, 137 taken prisoner, 127 wounded, and 3 interned at the front. Of the 2,034 flight personnel—1,281 pilots and 753 observers—who reached the front, for every 100 trained fliers 24 had been killed; for every 100 pilots 33 had been killed; and for every 100 observers 4 had been killed. Pursuit training took the highest toll, followed by night bombing, day bombing, and then observation.

On 6 April 1917 the navy had 21 seaplanes in use, and on 14 October it had over 500 seaplanes at U.S. naval stations and 400 abroad. U.S. naval aviators flew Capronis in the northern bombing group at Calais-Dunkirk. However they received only 18 Capronis in July and August 1918 instead of the 140 promised, and the planes’ Fiat engines were so poorly built that they had to be completely reconstructed. The first Caproni with the superior Isotta-Fraschini engines arrived just after the Armistice. The group’s day bomber DH4s flew with RAF units. The naval operation remained small, and at the Armistice it had only 17 serviceable aircraft—6 Capronis, 12 DH4s, and 17 DH9s—instead of the 40 Capronis and 72 day bombers planned. By the war’s end naval aircraft would be based at 27 naval air stations from Ireland to Italy, and for their overwater operations they would rely increasingly on U.S.-made seaplanes—Curtiss boats with Liberty engines.

In the United States, the disarray in the aviation industry continued in 1918. By January the production program’s failures led President Wilson secretly to authorize sculptor and air enthusiast Gutzon Borglum to investigate the existence of an “aircraft Trust.” Borglum’s attacks forced the resignations of Col. Edward Deeds and Howard Coffin. By mid April aviation manufacturers, members of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and particularly a president’s special committee investigating the industry recommended placing the aircraft program under a powerful civilian executive separate from the Signal Corps. Builders complained about the lack of definite orders; the Senate committee decried the delays in the provision of training aircraft, the “gravely disappointing” production of Liberty engines, and combat-plane production that was “a substantial failure and constitutes a most serious disappointment in our war preparations.” The committee majority believed that production needed to be removed from the Signal Corps entirely, although a minority insisted that the program was doing well given its difficult circumstances.

In May the president appointed Brig. Gen. William Kenly, Pershing’s former aviation chief, director of the Division of Military Aeronautics directly subordinate to the Secretary of War. President Wilson selected John D. Ryan, a director of the Anaconda Copper Company, to direct the army’s Bureau of Aircraft Production and chair the Aircraft Production Board. The two offices proceeded to operate independently, since Secretary of War Newton Baker was too overburdened to serve as liaison between Kenly and Ryan. On 22 August a report by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs recommended establishing an independent air secretary with a seat in the cabinet over a department of aviation, as existed in both England and France. In August 1918 President Wilson placed Ryan in charge of aviation, appointing him a second assistant secretary of war and director of the U.S. Army’s air service, but Ryan then left on a six-week tour of Europe, and the war ended before the new arrangement took effect.

As the government struggled to correct matters, rumors spread. The 22 March New York World carried part of Gutzon Borglum’s report to the president, and Wilson referred the matter to the Justice Department. Charges of profiteering and conflict of interest led to an investigation of aircraft production by Charles Evans Hughes, Wilson’s opponent in the 1916 election and a former Supreme Court justice. The investigation, which was completed in October, yielded evidence of confusion and conflict of interest though none of corruption or conspiracy. The matter was dropped at the war’s end.

During this political turmoil, the U.S. aviation industry strove to develop and produce combat airplanes. DH4 production began to accelerate in May, when 153 were manufactured, and culminated in October with the production of 1,097. Only 67 had reached the battlefront by 1 July, but tests showing them to be structurally weak and defective forced a temporary suspension of contracts. In 1918 Liberty-engine production increased dramatically from 39 in January to 620 in May to 1,102 in June and finally to 3,878 in October. In July some aircraft plants were shut down or running below capacity.

The failure to manufacture foreign designs in the United States resulted from production problems. The government’s cancellation of Spad production at Curtiss in January necessitated providing large advances to prevent the firm’s collapse. In late April the Joint Army and Navy Technical Board recommended SE5 production at Curtiss, but the prototype, an SE5a with a 200-hp geared Hispano-Suiza, arrived with incomplete drawings that mixed the SE5a and the SE5 with a 180-hp Hispano-Suiza. Later, on 20 August, the official test of the U.S. SE5 revealed engine and radiator problems. When the order was canceled at the Armistice, Curtiss had produced only one SE5.

The 2,000 Bristol fighters ordered from Curtiss in January met a similar fate. Curtiss initially believed that the plane required extensive redesign and strengthening to contain the Liberty, but later abandoned these reservations. The first plane crashed in test on 7 May, then another crashed nose first on 7 June, killing the crew, as did a third in a 15 July test. The overpowered plane was deemed “unsafe, overloaded, and [of] no military value.” On 20 July the order was canceled. The United States would build no frontline fighters, only fighter trainers.

In February the Aircraft Production Board decided to produce both Handley Pages and Capronis and placed contracts in April with the Standard Aircraft Corporation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. By late June Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peyton C. March was studying the United States’ ability to produce the Handley Page four-engine giant V/1500. In late July the plant began to ship unassembled Handley Page 0/400 bombers without engines to England for assembly. It ultimately sent fewer than 100, none of which reached the front. Meanwhile, after much delay, misunderstanding, and trouble, the Caproni flew on 4 July and proved to be overpowered by the Liberty engines. In October the government decided that Capronis and Handley Pages were a stopgap measure until the manufacture of U.S. Martin bombers, a new design by Glenn L. Martin and Donald Douglas that would prove to be the world’s best light bomber in 1920. The Armistice, however, led to the cancellation of all Caproni and Handley Page orders.

Capt. Frank Briscoe, assigned to manage Caproni production, attributed the long delay and great expense to the serious problems of adjusting metric plans for skilled woodworkers to production by machine methods using U.S. measurements. He considered the greatest obstacle of all to be “the military method of handling industrial projects,” specifically the absence of a single authority to manage the project.

A report on U.S. aircraft production submitted on 22 August by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs ascribed the disappointing results in aircraft production to the automobile manufacturers’ control of the program. Their lack of experience in aircraft production and the emphasis on the Liberty engine, which was thought capable of powering all aircraft types, were largely responsible for production delays. The committee rejected as reasons for delays the difficulty of measurement conversion and of securing sufficient engines, and accused the board of being mainly concerned with adapting planes to the Liberty engine, referring to the abortive attempts to adapt the engine to the Bristol fighter and the Spad. It condemned the organization under the Aircraft Production Board as unsystematic and inefficient, and believed that the board should have heeded the 1917 recommendations of Colonel Clark and Colonel Boiling to produce foreign planes and engines. The committee also suggested that the board should have adopted the Italian approach of selecting the best French types for production and then gradually moving to domestic designs. It judged that a substantial part of the $640 million appropriation had been wasted, citing the $6.5 million expended on the Bristol fighter and the over $6 million expended on 1,200 standard J-trainers that had to be condemned.

The navy’s seaplane procurement was highlighted not just by Curtiss’s success but also by that of the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia, which had begun deliveries in April. The first Naval Aircraft Factory plane flew in March, only 228 days after the factory’s ground-breaking ceremonies. By the war’s end the factory employed 3,750 workers, a quarter of them women, and by 31 December 1918 it had built 183 twin-engine flying boats, the last 33 of them Felixstowe F5Ls, the final version of the British boat powered by a Liberty engine. A critical difference between the circumstances of naval and military procurement was the navy’s foundation of the Curtiss designs, which compared favorably to those abroad and were probably the United States’s true aircraft production success story. The military had no domestic landplane design of comparable standing.


Imperial Japanese Army and Navy – Night fighters

J1N1-Sa Gekko Model 11 Kou
Unit: Yokosuka kokutai
Serial: Yo-101
Pilot – Juzo Kuramolo; observer – ensign Shiro Kurotori. Yokosuka (Oppama) AB/Kanagawa, Japan. Early May 1945.

In the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy there was no alternative to visual recognition, because until early 1944 neither service used any avionics apart from communications radio and DF loops. AI radar and IFF were slow to come into Japanese service, though preliminary information on FuG 202 Lichtenstein was sent by submarine from Germany in 1942. But it would be misleading to picture Japan as a land of technology illiterates, able only to copy Western innovations. This image may have comforted the Allies until the first few days after Pearl Harbor, but it was knocked for six by the superior combat performance of the A6M (Zero) fighter, and it never had much basis in fact. In 1928 Okabe in Tokyo had been the first microwave worker to generate enough power for communications in this band of new centimetric wavelengths, and at about the same time Professor Yagi had devised the short-wave directional aerial that bears his name. Comprising a linear array of dipoles, the Yagi aerial is today seen on many millions of rooftops around the world, and it was this type of aerial that was used in the first Japanese AI installation.

Though their development was slow and often troublesome, no fewer than five types of airborne radar were worked on by the Japanese in the Second World War. At first the main effort went into ASV (air-to-surface vessel) sets, which by 1944 were operational in several types of Navy aircraft down to the familiar B5N (‘Kate’) torpedo-bomber. The three types of AI radar for night fighters were less successful. One was an Army copy of FuG 202, and though it was tested in an obsolescent Mitsubishi Ki-21 bomber in 1943 it either never reached combat units or made only an insignificant impact on operations. The much more important Army set was the E-1, operating in the S-band at near 11 cm wavelength, the main carrier of which was the Kawasaki Type 2 heavy fighter, also called Ki-45 Toryu (dragon-killer) and known to the Allies as ‘Nick’. Originally a day long-range fighter, with forward-firing guns, the Ki-45-Kai-C (modification C) version appeared in June 1944 with two 20 mm guns mounted obliquely in the mid-fuselage and, in some aircraft until October 1944, a searchlight in the nose. Gradually the AI radar was fitted and operators trained, but there is no evidence that radar played the central role in the occasional successes scored by these aircraft defending Japan against the B-29. At least the Ki-45 could reach the B-29 attack height of around 31,000 feet, and at full throttle could just overtake the speedy American bombers. Over Japan there was often chaotic radio communication, and no GCI system at all. Night fighters were thus left to their own devices, and the few successful night interceptions that took place were usually on moonlit nights when the B-29 contrails showed up from a considerable distance.

Intercepting a B-29 formation called for great courage. Whereas a Luftwaffe NJG pilot had nothing to fear from 99 per cent of the RAF heavies, the B-29 had no blind spots and carried heavy armament covering every possible direction of attack. Downwards and to the rear a fighter could be seen from three sighting stations and fired upon by six 0.5 in guns and a 20 mm cannon, and as these great bombers held tighter formation than the RAF bomber stream it was probable that, if one bomber opened fire, several others would open up on the same target. Added to the fact that head-on attacks were impractical at night, one is left with a situation in which a single fighter is faced with withering heavy-calibre fire in a stern chase at a closing speed hardly more than walking pace. A few Ki-45 night fighters attempted to get more speed and altitude by fitting only two 12.7 mm (0.5 in) oblique guns, a totally inadequate armament for the task of bringing down a B-29. Typical Ki-45-Kai-C forward-firing armament comprised a single heavy cannon of 37, 50 or 75 mm calibre, but these fired slowly and carried a very limited number of rounds. How eight of these fighters managed to bring down seven of a force of B-29s attacking northern Kyushu on the night of 15 June 1944 remains a mystery: there may have been some deliberate collisions.

The equivalent of the Ki-45 in the Imperial Navy was the Nakajima J1N1 Gekko (moonlight), called ‘Irving’ by the Allies. Planned as an escort fighter in 1940, the original J1N1-C failed to make the grade, but eventually entered service as a reconnaissance aircraft. It first operated in late 1942 in the area of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and though it had inadequate performance for day fighting it was locally judged to be a possible answer to the US Army heavy bombers that were making life a misery at night. The initiative to turn the J1N1-C into a night fighter stemmed from the commander of the 251st Air Corps at Rabaul, Yasuna Kozono, who proposed the same upward-firing armament as was being experimented with by the Luftwaffe. He went further, and suggested two pairs of 20 mm Type 99 Model 2 cannon, one pair firing obliquely up and the other pair obliquely down. Compared with the Luftwaffe Schräge Musik installations the inclination was less steep, a typical angle being 30°.

In March 1943 Kozono received permission for the proposed modification, and two aircraft were returned to Japan for this purpose. At the same time the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in Tokyo recognized that the basic aircraft was eminently suitable for use as a night fighter, a category of aircraft then non-existent in the Imperial Navy. Work began on a specialized sub-type, the J1N1-S. Meanwhile the first two night-fighter conversions, designated J1N1-C-Kai, returned to Rabaul in May 1943 and soon proved their worth by shooting down two B-17s, following the next night by a B-24. This was no mean achievement, as the C-Kai had long exhaust stacks discharging above the wing, without flame dampers, and maximum speed not higher than 300 mph. At one time one of them had a trainable searchlight in the nose. They retained a crew of three, the pilot being assisted by a navigator and a gunner, the latter being needed to change ammunition drums.
These successes, the first ever gained by Japanese night fighters, were followed by others until both the original C-Kai conversions had been destroyed. But by August 1943 the definitive J1N1-S Gekko was in production, and most of the 479 of all J1N versions built were of this sub-type. The new Type 99 Model 2 guns had belt feeds, so no gunner was needed, and the previously lumpy rear fuselage was made more streamlined. From December 1944 the Gekko was the chief Navy night fighter, but its success against the B-17 and B-24 could not be repeated against the B-29; it could not climb high enough nor fly fast enough, despite the speed being increased to 315 mph at the best height of about 16,000 feet and 272 mph at 30,000 feet. In the final versions produced in 1945 a Navy-developed AI radar was fitted, again using Yagi-type aerials in a neat quadruple array and being under the control of the observer. There is no record of successful B-29 interceptions, and these aircraft either languished on the ground or were used for Kamikaze attacks.

The Army’s success with the Ki-45 led to a successor, the Ki-96, first flown in September 1943. Much more powerful, it had a speed of 373 mph and carried a 37 mm cannon and two 20 mm guns. The Army could not make up their minds whether it should have one seat or two. Eventually the Ki-96 was redesigned into the Ki-102 two-seater, flown in March 1944. One of its guns had a calibre of 57 mm, and a single shell blew an engine off a B-29 in the course of a prototype test flight with loaded guns. Only a handful of different types of Ki-102 were built, the last two being Ki-102c night fighters with two oblique 20 mm Ho-5 cannon and two forward-firing 30 mm Ho-105s. All these were new guns marking a great improvement on the old patterns used previously. The Ki-102c also carried AI radar, almost certainly E-1, and its crew comprised a pilot and radar observer. The Allied name for all Ki-102 versions was ‘Randy’.

It so happened that the best of all Japanese night fighters was a converted bomber extremely similar to the Ju 88 in character. Though many years later in conception than the German aircraft, the Yokosuka P1Y1 had precisely the same wing span, almost identical weights and engine power, a close-grouped crew of three and very similar flight performance. Like the Ju 88 it was big, tough, durable and could be flung round the sky like a single-seater. So good was it that the Navy instructed the Kawanishi company to redesign it into the P1Y1-s Kyokko (Aurora), known to the Allies as ‘Frances’. The tricky airframe was made simpler to build, the troublesome Homare engines were replaced by robust Kaseis, and the interior was rearranged with the navigator in the nose, the pilot in the centre and the rear gunner in the aft cockpit. The usual armament comprised two oblique 20 mm guns (said to be Type 99 but almost certainly Ho-5s) and a third gun of the same type in the rear cockpit for defence. Radar was fitted, related to that of the J1N1-S but derived from the widely used ASV installation with a completely different dipole aerial array, there being a single large Yagi array in the nose and an axial trio of dipoles along each side of the rear fuselage. About ninety-seven Kyokkos were built, a few having a twin 20 mm dorsal turret. It was perhaps fortunate for the Allies that protracted trials were still going on when the war ended.

There were many other ‘heavy fighter’ programmes in Japan which might have yielded a useful night defender. Among these were the Ki-46-III-Kai version of an established reconnaissance machine, with an oblique 37 mm cannon; the big Mitsubishi Ki-109 with a forward-firing 75 mm gun; the Nakajima J5N-1 Tenrai (heavenly thunder), designed to replace the J1N1-S; the Kawasaki Ki-108 with twin turbocharged engines and a pressure cabin; the Rikugun Ki-93, with two six-blade single-rotation propellers; and the Mitsubishi Ki-83, which was one of the best combat aircraft the Japanese produced in the Second World War. None of these played any part in the war, owing to a combination of muddled administration, severe technical snags, crippling shortages, and the catastrophic effect on Japanese industry of the devastating B-29 raids. Unlike the air battles in the German night sky, those over Japan – if they took place at all, which was very seldom – were one-sided. The general objective of the Japanese was not so much to develop a better fighter that would destroy the B-29 faster, as to develop one that could actually get within firing range. There was quite a difference between a Lancaster cruising at 200 mph at 22,000 feet and a B-29 cruising at 300 mph at 32,000 feet. This must be borne in mind when reflecting on the Japanese lack of success.

Russian Air Power 1924 to 1941 Part I

On 31 December 1940, hundreds of Russian airmen met at the Pilots’ House on Gorki Street in Moscow with their wives and girlfriends to ‘eat, drink and be merry’ as they welcomed in the New Year.1 In crowded rooms people chattered and toasted each other while couples waltzed and tangoed on the dance floor in celebration of the end of their three-year ordeal.

On 1 December 1934, the popular Leningrad Party boss Sergei Kirov was assassinated outside his own office. This triggered Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s nascent paranoia and offered him an excuse to purge his rivals, or as Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka observed, ‘There are going to be fewer, but better, Russians.’ The purge initially focused upon the Communist Party, but from May 1937 it swept through the armed forces with the arrest of the Red Army’s leading commanders, including Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevskii. His radical ideas were based upon mechanised forces capable of driving deep into enemy territory, with air support clearing the way. But his failure to make it work, because Red Army command and control lacked radios, was used to push him into the execution chamber.

During the next two years the armed forces suffered a holocaust at the hands of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodny Komissariat Venutrennikh Del, NKVD), with thousands of officers arrested, hundreds executed and many more cashiered on suspicion of disloyalty merely for seeking to modernise the forces. The impact upon Soviet air power was devastating, with the Red Army of Workers and Peasants Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sili-Raboche-krest’yanski Krasnoi Armiyy, VVS-RKKA), usually referred to as the (Army) Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sili, VVS), losing more than a third of its officers in 1937. A total of 4,773 personnel were dismissed, of whom 1,590 were arrested, including the commander-in-chief, two chiefs-of-staff, most district air commanders and the head of air training.

Those associated with air power also suffered, with aircraft designers Andrei Tupolev, Vladimir Myasishchev and Vladimir Petlyakov arrested, together with the entire staff of the Aviation Industry Research Institute (Tsentralnyy Aero-gidrodinamicheskiy Institut, TsAGI). An aircraft-design Gulag was established where Tupolev began work on his Tu-2 medium bomber, although it was not until 1940 that he was sentenced to 15 years in jail for being ‘a French spy’. He would be released in July 1941 to ‘conduct important defence work’, but he was not formally ‘rehabilitated’ until 1955.

The new generation of military leaders lacked their predecessors’ experience, while the climate of fear undermined their self-confidence. At any moment a disgruntled junior or a tortured acquaintance might denounce them and, to avoid displeasing their superiors, they rarely displayed any initiative. The result was the appalling failure of Soviet air power during the Winter War with Finland, whose 120 aircraft faced down nearly 3,900 Soviet aircraft almost to the end. The VVS commander, General-leitenant Yakov Smushkevich, who had led airmen with distinction in Spain and China, was ‘kicked upstairs’ as Deputy Defence Minister in March 1940, and five months later became General Inspector of the VVS. He was replaced by fighter ace General-leitenant Pavel Rychagov, who was credited with 20 victories in Spain while serving under Smushkevich. Rychagov had also distinguished himself in the summer of 1939 during future Marshal Georgii Zhukov’s Khalkin-Gol campaign against the Japanese on the Mongolian border.

Prowling through the Pilots’ House that December night in 1940 was a man who had suffered indirectly during the Purges, but would soon lead Stalin’s long range bombers. Aleksandr Golovanov was Aeroflot’s Chief Pilot and an instrument flying expert. He was also a former member of the secret police who turned to civilian aviation and honed his skills during a training course in France. When he returned to the Soviet Far East in 1937 he learned that his brother-in-law had been shot as ‘an enemy of the people’ and his local Communist Party had deemed him guilty by association, removing his Party membership card and banning him from flying.

Golovanov and his wife became pariahs, ignored by everyone and forced to sell almost everything to survive. Ironically, his NKVD friends saved him by arranging his transfer to Moscow, where he renewed his career and regained his Party membership card. Although a civilian, Golovanov is reported to have flown some of the NKVD’s victims from the Far East to Moscow. During the Winter War he flew leaflet missions at night using the skills common among Civil Air Fleet (Grazhdanskiy Vozdushnyy Flot, GVF) pilots.

He was astonished to discover Russian bomber crews, including those in the long range force, were unable to emulate these feats, and he tried to persuade the VVS leadership to improve navigation and instrument flying training. Leningrad Party boss Andrei Zhdanov showed some interest in the subject during the Winter War but Rychagov was dismissive, although he did create a navigation academy in March 1940. However, its instructors had little experience in instrument flying, so Golovanov now sought a meeting in more pleasant surroundings to put his case.

In the Pilots’ House he encountered Smushkevich, who was with the Aviation Industry Minister (Commissar) Andrei Shakhurin. Smushkevich was interested, but felt he was under a cloud after the Winter War. He also lacked the technical expertise to make a presentation, so he suggested Golovanov write directly to Stalin, and offered to have a courier convey his letter to the Kremlin. Golovanov followed his advice, and after meeting Stalin he was transferred to the Long Range Bomber Aviation (Dahl’niy Bombardirovochnaya Aviatsiya, DBA) to form an operational training unit, 212th Independent Long Range Air Regiment (OAP, DD) in February 1941, with GVF pilots and two PS-84 ‘flying classrooms’, while in March work began on a VVS electronic navigation aids system.

Rychagov was still not impressed, unlike DBA head General-leitenant Ivan Proskurov, who had been deputy commander of the Far Eastern VVS before his appointment in October 1940. Also formerly Head of the Red Army Intelligence (Glavnoe Razvedyvatelynie Upravlenie, GRU), Proskurov was an experienced bomber pilot who had also seen combat in Spain – indeed, he was responsible for the bombing of the German pocket-battleship Deutschland in 1937. Smushkevich was also pleased with the expansion of the DBA for he was all too aware that Russian air power was a giant with feet not of clay but of sand.

The VVS had blossomed in the 1930s, having especially benefited from the industrial cornucopia of the First and Second Five Year Plans (1928–32 and 1933–37). The new factories produced more than 20,000 aircraft and VVS strength rocketed – in 1924 it had 341 combat aircraft, which rose to 1,285 (including 48 TB-3 heavy bombers that could carry two tonnes of bombs 1,100 kilometres) by 1 January 1929. In 1933, at the beginning of the Second Five Year Plan, front-line strength was 3,156 (including 647 heavy bombers), and by 1937 it was 8,139, including 443 medium and heavy bombers. When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the VVS had 7,321 aircraft, including 569 TB-3 four-engined heavy bombers organised into three Armies for Special Employment (Armiya Osobogo Naznachiya, AON), and by June 1941 the total had doubled to 15,599 combat aircraft and 3,934 trainers; but, as George Canning observed, ‘Statistics can tell you everything you wish to know, except the truth.’

Until 1939, the quantitative expansion was matched by a qualitative one, as shown by Tupolev’s bomber designs. In 1930 there was the maiden flight of a four-engined bomber based upon Junkers corrugated duralumin (aluminium) technology that became the TB-3, which served until 1945. Yet within four years Tupolev had produced a smoothed duralumin, stressed-skin design as the SB, with two M-100 engines – deliveries began in 1936. Industry was able to meet contemporary fighter requirements for both traditional, slow but ‘agile’ I-15/I-15bis biplane fighters with fixed undercarriages and ‘fast’ I-16 Donkey (Ishak) monoplane fighters with retractable undercarriages. Yet they suffered from industrial weakness for, with limited aluminium production, these Polikarpov fighters and the I-153 Seagull (Chaika) interceptor biplane with retractable undercarriage were largely of wooden construction, augmented by duralumin, steel and doped fabric. Like all the biplanes, the Chaika lacked the performance either to sustain attacks on enemy bomber formations or to inflict serious damage with their four rifle-calibre machine guns. Later Ishaks had heavy (12.7mm) machine guns or even 20mm cannon, which were more destructive, and all of these fighters, together with the SBs, proved effective over Spain and China. Nevertheless, experience showed the need for advanced replacements.

Their development and production proved prolonged as the Soviet aircraft industry expanded steadily from 1939 to 1941. In Shakhurin the Soviet Union had a dynamic and able administrator who was a graduate of the Moscow Engineering-Economics Institute and who had briefly served in the Red Army. From 1934 he had worked with, or in, the aviation industry, and would be a safe pair of hands throughout the war. Shakhurin headed the People’s Commissariat for the Aircraft Industry (Narodnoi Komissariat Aviatsionny Promyshlennosti, NKAP or Narkomaviaprom), which was established in January 1939. In the next two years he supervised a steady expansion of the industry with the NKVD using Gulag labour to build new plants in Kuibyshev, in Siberia. He also took a leaf from the British in taking over civilian factories and facilities that could be used for aircraft production. Via these means he had significantly expanded production capacity by the time of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, and had some 174,360 workers who switched to 24-hour production in March 1941.

Yet his ministry did not have supreme authority in the highly politicised field of aircraft development and manufacture. An exception was the Air Force Scientific Test Institute (Naucho-issledovatelskii Institut, NII-VVS), which conducted state acceptance trials and also monitored aircraft for technical problems for which it provided solutions. But the designers, notably Aleksandr Yakovlev, exploited contacts with senior Party officials, the Party regional organisations and ultimately Stalin himself. Stalin changed his mind four times about authorising production of the four-engined TB-7 bomber! This might also have been influenced by his ne’er-do-well son Vasilii, who was in the VVS and would play an undistinguished role in air operations.

Yet despite Shakhurin’s efforts there were significant weaknesses, for the expansion was fuelled by drafting much unskilled labour into the factories which in turn resulted in half the components they made having to be rejected. This shortage of skilled workers made it difficult for the craft-based and under-capitalised industry to introduce sophisticated, all-metal, stressed-skin aircraft, which required more working hours to build than traditional designs. The weakness was illustrated when Moscow decided to build the famed DC-3 airliner at Factory 84, leading to production of the PS-84 transport (Li-2 from 9 September 1942). This was not a copy of the Douglas aircraft but a Russian version whose empty weight was more than one tonne less than the original, but whose two Russian engines developed only 2,000hp, compared with the 2,800hp of their American equivalents, thus making it up to 50km/h slower and reducing range from 2,575 kilometres to 2,330 kilometres.

Despite the problems, factories were expected to increase production, but the Purges had removed the best managers, leaving inexperienced men in fear of the NKVD. Their priority was to meet production targets with little regard for quality or adequate stocks of spares. Indeed, quality was regarded as a ‘bourgeois’ concept and therefore treasonous. Tupolev, for example, would always rush aircraft into production despite shortcomings, which he would later work to overcome. He failed, however, with the SB’s forward defence, which remained a pair of machine guns that could move vertically but not laterally.

Production of modern aircraft was also handicapped by the Soviet economic system based upon extremely bureaucratic central planning on a ‘top-down’ model. The development and marketing of new technological products depends upon vision and the willingness to take risks – features rarely found among bureaucrats, with the result that the Soviet Union lagged behind Germany and its future Western allies in key elements of technology. Aluminium was the basis of modern aircraft production, yet the Soviet Union produced only 60,000 tonnes in 1939 compared with Germany’s 194,000 tonnes, while the 100,000-tonne 1941 target compared badly with the 324,000 tonnes received by the Reich in 1941. The Russians tried to buy aluminium from Germany, but the first deliveries were due only in the summer of 1941. Throughout the war Moscow depended upon its allies to augment its own limited resources.

The Russian electronics industry also trailed behind its European competitors, and indeed continues to do so in the 21st century. Consequently, the VVS would be short of navigation aids throughout the war. Furthermore, while radio-telephone transmitter–receivers (transceivers) were in service with the Luftwaffe and the RAF in 1939, they did not become universal in Soviet-built combat aircraft until 1943. The need to have them in fighters was recognised by Russian pilots serving in Spain as early as 1937, but their reports were pigeonholed. This meant that until 1943, only formation leaders had transmitters while the remainder of the pilots had receivers, which hindered cooperation in air combat. Worse still, throughout the war the Russians had only high frequency (HF) radios, even in foreign aircraft, at a time when their allies and enemies had HF, VHF (very high frequency) and even UHF (ultra high frequency) sets. Reception on many of the radios installed in Russian aircraft was poor due to low quality and bad installation. Russian radar was also hamstrung by the Purges when Pavel Oshchepkov, the man spearheading development, was arrested and not released until 1946. Even when its allies delivered some modern sensors, the Soviet Union lagged compared with the Germans.

The petrochemical industry also caused problems for the VVS. When exposed to sunlight the Perspex in aircraft canopies tended to degrade and become opaque – a problem which does not appear to have been overcome until later in the war. Because of this, even in the bitter Russian winter, pilots would fly with open canopies and often end up with blackened, frost-bitten cheeks. The oil refineries produced only 70–78 octane fuels (B-70, B-74 and B-78) that front-line units had to mix with additives to provide the fuel required for the high-performance engines installed in combat aircraft. B-70 was used for trainers and night bombers and B-89 was the equivalent of the Luftwaffe’s 87-octane B4, used for bombers and transports. German fighters used C3 (94–100 octane) and Western fighters had 100–130 octane fuel. The Russians produced little of the essential ingredient – tetraethyl lead – in this high octane fuel, so all of their fighters, including Western ones, were restricted to B-95. Additives created a crisis for General-polkovnik Sergei Rudenko’s 16th Air Army (Vozdushnaya Armiya, VA) in the summer of 1944 on the verge of the great ‘Bagration’ offensive, for which it had the largest concentration of Soviet aircraft. Although he received thousands of tonnes of fuel, they lacked additives without which aircraft performance was degraded and engine running time reduced to 20–30 hours between overhauls. Yet Moscow’s bureaucrats claimed they were unnecessary and refused to supply them. Rudenko passed concerns to his political officer or commissar, General Konstantin Telegin, and then they discovered that the octane labels were unreliable with different readings in nominally the same batch. Telegin raised the matter at the State Defence Committee (Gosudarstvennyi Komitet Oborony, GKO), which brought Stalin into the picture, and he ordered the distribution of additives that brought the fuel up to the correct octanes within two days.

Russian Air Power 1924 to 1941 Part II

In 1939 and 1940 the aircraft industry produced more than 10,000 aircraft per year, while a December 1940 plan called for 16,000 in 1941. During the first half of that year 3,900 aeroplanes rolled out of the plants, and this rose to 11,800 during the remaining six months of 1941. Total engine production that year was 28,700 units, although the Soviet aero-engine industry suffered the perennial problem of developing reliable, high-performance motors. Instead, they usually produced derivatives of imported designs, while the change to new engines meant that production output dropped from 22,686 in 1939 to 21,380 the following year, although it then recovered. However, the engines that powered the wartime generation of Russian-built VVS aircraft were often unreliable, leaked oil and were difficult to maintain.

The collective impact of these problems was severe. The Ilyushin DB-3 medium bomber with composite construction of a wooden fuselage and steel wings, and the improved DB-3F (Il-4 from March 1942), began to augment the TB-3 from 1939. However, the new heavy bomber, Petlyakov’s four-engined TB-7 (Pe-8 from January 1942), proved more difficult to produce. Indeed, although its maiden flight took place in December 1936, only a handful were in service by 1941.

Spearheading the re-equipment programme from 1939 was a new generation of fighters – Yak-1, MiG-3 and LaGG-3, together with light bombers such as the twin-engined Yak-2/4 and single-engined Su-2, all of which began to trickle into the regiments from 1940. In their aircraft-design Gulag, Petlyakov and Myasishchev began work on a long range escort fighter, rather like the Bf 110, but in 1940 this was changed at the NKVD’s behest to a long range dive-bomber as the Pe-2.

Many pilots distrusted the new aircraft, and with some reason. The MiG-3 was not only heavy but some had defective synchronisers that meant the nose-mounted machine guns shot off their propellers when fired, the hydraulics of the LaGG-3 were extremely unreliable, the Yak-1 engine proved troublesome and the canopy tended to stick when the aircraft dived.

One field where the VVS was ahead was in ground-attack, or ‘assault’ (Shturmovaya), aviation. Its assault trooper (Shturmovik) pilots provided the Red Army’s spearheads with direct air support by strafing and bombing enemy concentrations. Most of these aircraft were armoured versions of the single-engined Polikarpov R-5 army cooperation biplane, the R-5Sh and R-Z, augmented by I-5 and I-15bis fighters. Experience in Spain had confirmed the need for the dedicated ground-attack aircraft, and Sergei Ilyushin began designing the Il-2, whose pilot and engine were in an armoured compartment with armoured glass windscreen. The aeroplane entered production in 1941, and it would be the backbone of VVS ground-attack units despite the fact it was never a very stable weapons platform.

Unfortunately for the VVS, the re-equipment programme was bungled, for rather than withdraw units to re-equip, the bureaucrats often despatched a quota of new aircraft to regiments. At the Baltic District’s Kovno airfield, for example, two fighter regiments had 253 aircraft, including 128 MiG-3s, while a few bomber regiments on the airfield received the Su-2 and others small numbers of Pe-2s.

Many of the new generation of aircraft would receive affectionate nicknames often based upon their official designations. The Yakovlev fighters were called ‘Yakovs’ (Jacob/Jake/Jim) or ‘Yakis’ (Jakes), the Pe-2 was ‘Peshka’ (Pike) while the single-seat Il-2 would be called ‘Gorbun’ (Hunchback), although throughout the war the Il-2 was commonly called ‘Ilyusha’ and the units that flew them were known as ‘Mudlarks’ (Ilovs), based upon the word for mud (il). Not all the names were complimentary, and the lumbering, wooden LaGG-3 with its unreliable hydraulics was reportedly described as a Guaranteed Lacquered Coffin (Lakirovannyi Garantirovannyi Grob), although some have dismissed this claim, arguing that the Soviet authorities would have regarded it as ‘defeatism’. The new aircraft helped to fuel a further expansion of the VVS, and in February 1941 it was decided to create 106 regiments, including 15 (later 13) equipped with long range bombers. In 1939 regiments were organised into air brigades, but the Winter War showed the need to concentrate air power into larger formations. Each district was reorganised into a number of divisions, with two to five regiments of three to five squadrons, each with 12 aircraft, augmented by a few independent army cooperation squadrons with R-5s. Most divisions were mixed (Smeshannaya), with both fighter and strike (bomber or assault) regiments, and every army had at least one to support its operations. Dedicated fighter and bomber divisions tended to remain under district command, fragmenting VVS strength. Although each army headquarters was supposed to have a VVS commander, few did, and few of them would prove competent.

Their operations, together with those of reserve units, the DBA and PVO, were coordinated in peacetime by District VVS commanders who became Front VVS commanders in wartime. With the disbandment of the AON in the winter of 1939–40, the long range bombers were concentrated into the DBA and organised into bomber divisions (usually of three regiments) and then paired into corps from 5 November 1940. One or two corps were assigned to each Western military district, which, in the event of war, would become a Front (army group). To support the new divisions, work started on reorganising the rear services’ infrastructure, although this was not scheduled for completion until August 1941.

For the Soviet Union, the prospects of war seemed to recede in August 1939 when the USSR and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact that helped Hitler take Poland and allowed Stalin to regain territory lost to nationalists during the Russian Revolution. Stalin sought to buy time for a renaissance of his forces by bribing Germany with substantial quantities of food and raw materials, but he knew that sooner or later the Nazis and Communists would fight.

The pact allowed the Red Army to invade eastern Poland and the Baltic states and deploy up to 250 kilometres west of the original frontier, but this aggravated VVS problems. Each regiment was supposed to have its own airfield, but there were few in the occupied areas. The Russians hastily began an extensive construction programme, which was hampered by two severe winters and the NKVD, who were responsible for its execution. NKVD head Lavrenti Beria would criticise his subordinates on 22 May 1941, for trying to build large numbers of airfields rather than well-equipped air bases. This left most VVS squadrons on little more than cleared fields. Indeed, of 1,100 VVS airfields, only 200 – mostly DBA bases in the rear – had concrete runways, while there were too few satellite airfields to house dispersed regiments.

Within the Western District only 16 of 62 airfields had concrete runways, while none of the 23 scheduled for the Baltic District had been completed. Furthermore, some 30 ‘airfields’ were actually airstrips designed as satellites to the main bases. On 10 April 1941, Moscow approved plans for another 251 airfields, mostly in the West, but work had not begun by the time the Germans attacked. With space at a premium, 14 airfields held two or three regiments. Most of the available airfields were too close to the German border. The situation was most acute north of the Pripet Marshes, where the Russians had advanced deeper into Poland but found fewer suitable airfield sites. In the Baltic Military District 39 per cent of the aircraft were concentrated in three airfields, while in the Western District 45 per cent were on six airfields. South of the Pripet Marshes the advance was shorter and sites more plentiful – only 25 per cent of the Kiev District’s aircraft were on four airfields, including 206 at Lvov, while in the small Odessa District 17 per cent of the aircraft were in Odessa itself.

On 27 December 1940, Defence Minister (Commissar) Marshal Semon Timoshenko ordered all airfields within 500 kilometres of the border to be camouflaged by 1 July 1941. Progress was slow, and attempts within the Kiev District during the spring of that year to build revetments for aircraft, vehicles and supplies were hamstrung by labour shortages. Acute shortages also plagued the VVS. The lack of accommodation meant that in the Western District some pilots were billeted five kilometres from their bases, while few airfields had adequate stocks of fuel and ammunition. There were also severe shortages of trained radio operators for the district VVS headquarters, which were often at a third of establishment. This left commanders dependent upon landlines, with fatal consequences in the summer of 1941.

Rychagov faced tremendous challenges in trying to prepare the VVS for future combat – he needed to re-equip his regiments, ensure their crews were adequately trained, provide sufficient supplies for a prolonged campaign and organise an infrastructure that could move those supplies, repair damaged aircraft and bring in replacements. This required a mature individual with broad experience in all aspects of military aviation and the administrative skills to address the prime problems in detail. What Moscow got was a 30-year-old who had peaked in the Winter War as commander of a small air force on a minor Arctic front, who disliked ‘flying a desk’ and preferred to visit the regiments to enjoy the convivial company of fellow airmen. Smushkevich was also no administrator, and being crippled with leg injuries following a crash, he frequently had to work from his bed, which he moved into his office.

The only silver lining was that, unlike the mechanised forces, there were few disputes over doctrine. In a comprehensive review of the Red Army’s Winter War shortcomings, Smushkevich noted, ‘The need to divide the VVS into the Red Army’s air arm to operate with the ground forces and an Operational Level air arm supporting large-scale operations has been proved beyond reasonable doubt.’

Soviet military aviation was divided into four elements – Frontal Aviation Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sili-Frontovaya Aviatsiaya, VVS-FA), Naval Fleet Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sili- Voyenno-Morskoy Flot, VVS-VMF), Long Range Bomber Aviation (Dahl’niy Bombardirovochnaya Aviatsiya, DBA) to March 1942 then Long Range Aviation (Aviatsiya Dahl’nevo Deystiviya, ADD) and Home Air Defence (Protivovozdushnaya Oborona, PVO). The VVS-FA and VVS-VMF provided support for the Red Army and the Red Navy at the Tactical/ Operational Level (army and army group levels), with operational command delegated to army groups (Fronts) and armies, each with their own air commander. DBA was under the control of the Defence Ministry in peacetime and VVS headquarters in wartime, and was to conduct Operational/ Strategic Level missions (army group and the rear) with formations assigned to front commands, as were many fighter regiments of the PVO.

While it recognised the value of defending, and attacking, industrial and administrative centres, the Red Army leadership had no truck with Italian General Giulio Douhet’s claims that strategic bombing alone could win a war. Indeed, the Russians would use the term ‘attacks upon administrative, political and military sites in the hinterland’.

The VVS’s army support mission would be reflected throughout the Great Patriotic War against Germany and her allies. From the beginning to the end of this conflict, nearly two-thirds of VVS sorties (63.44 per cent) were at the Tactical Level either supporting the troops in the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) or shielding them from air attack, while 5.52 per cent were spent striking Operational Level (operations for commands up to army group/ front headquarters) targets. Another 14.62 per cent of sorties were escort missions, while 11.18 per cent were reconnaissance. DBA would also be diverted to Tactical Level air support, which accounted for 40.44 per cent of its sorties, while 45.80 per cent were Operational or Strategic Level attacks. Before the war VVS doctrine anticipated destroying enemy air power in the air and on the ground, while the PVO covered the assembly of reserves for a counter-offensive in which Soviet airmen would pound enemy communications to ease the way for the armoured formations.

The Red Army leadership could see for itself the potent power demonstrated by combining mechanised forces with air power, and during 1940 there was growing disquiet about the ability of the VVS. Confusion about organisation and the execution of operations became all too clear in December 1940, at the moment when Hitler published his directive for the invasion of the Soviet Union. During the summer of that year, following the successful German campaigns in the West, Timoshenko summoned senior officers to the Defence Ministry for a conference on the Red Army’s status. Afterwards, five reports were presented looking at the latest ideas in warfare, including one by Rychagov on ‘Combat aviation in the offensive and the struggle for air superiority.’ This sparked a bitter argument over the best way to achieve air superiority. The Baltic and Kiev District VVS commanders, General-leitenantii Gregorii Kravchenko and Yevgenii Ptukhin, said their experience fighting the Japanese at Khalkin-Gol and the German– Italian forces in Spain showed this goal was best achieved in the air. Rychagov straddled the fence and advocated the destruction of the enemy both in the air and on the ground, but he produced no concrete plans to achieve this goal.

From 8 January 1941, watched intently by Leningrad Party boss Andrei Zhdanov as Stalin’s representative, the senior commanders conducted war games involving German invasions, firstly in the Western (Belorussia and eastern Poland) District and then the Kiev District. The Red Army was judged to be successful in its defence of these areas, although the exercises had a considerable degree of unreality. Yet Zhdanov was sceptical, and when the war games concluded, Stalin summoned the participants to the Kremlin on 13 January to discuss the results. He was not pleased by the explanations and demanded realistic discussions among the commanders, which led the VVS officers to complain bitterly about their structure and training.

While these complaints were largely dismissed, the Communist Party’s Central Committee decided on 25 February to introduce the aviation division instead of the smaller aviation brigade, and Rychagov apparently implemented this on 10 April. Of more immediate effect was Stalin’s appointment of Georgii Zhukov as Army Chief-of-Staff on 14 January. Although he was an advocate of air power, having been a grateful customer at Khalkin-Gol, his pursuit of excellence began a process which, ironically, almost destroyed the VVS.

The war games confirmed the Soviet General Staff’s belief that the main enemy thrust would be towards the Baltic states and Belorussia, but Stalin was convinced the Germans would go for the Ukraine’s mineral and agricultural riches. Consequently, the defence plan was a compromise, with the largest concentration in the Kiev and Odessa Districts, while retaining substantial forces in the Baltic and Western Districts. Naturally, VVS dispositions in 1941 reflected this, although General-maior Aleksandr Novikov had some 1,000 aircraft, plus 227 PVO fighters, to shield Leningrad from the Finns.

Kravchenko had been sent to the General Staff Academy and replaced in the Baltic District by General-maior Aleksei Ionov, who had another 1,200 aircraft, while in the Western District, General-maior Ivan Kopets had 1,500 aircraft. The largest concentration – more than 1,900 aircraft, and 114 PVO fighters – was under Ptukhin, augmented by more than 800 aircraft plus 72 PVO fighters in the Odessa District under General-maior Fyodor Michugin.

These figures exclude some 180 reserve aircraft, but on 1 June 1941, only 1,597 (19.4 per cent) were new generation aircraft. Some 768 of these were in the southern districts, the latter also receiving most of the 600 modern aircraft delivered to the military districts in the following weeks. Nevertheless, by 22 June only 27 per cent of combat aircraft were modern, with 690 aircraft awaiting delivery from the factories. Most of the DBA’s 1,300 aircraft were modern DB-3s but, with the exception of nine TB-7s, the 212 heavy bombers were obsolete.8 The VVS reconnaissance force was similar in size to the Luftwaffe’s, but many of its 270 long range aircraft lacked cameras – an essential sensor found in all Fernaufklärungstaffeln aeroplanes.

Because Soviet industry (like its counterpart in Germany) was more interested in producing aircraft than spares, the number of serviceable aeroplanes declined. On 1 June 1941, 12.9 per cent of VVS and DBA aircraft in the West were officially unserviceable (that figure was nearly 24 per cent in the DBA). This total may in fact be an underestimate, although it compares favourably with the Luftwaffe, where the figure was 26 per cent. However, the Russian numbers may relate only to aircraft undergoing overhauls or major repairs, for it is worth noting that on 15 June, 29 per cent of all tanks were being overhauled while 44 per cent were unserviceable with lesser problems.

In addition to air forces supporting the armies, the Navy also had small forces supporting each fleet. The strongest naval air concentration was the Baltic Sea Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily Baltiyskogo Flota, VVS-KBF) with 656 aircraft (including 353 fighters and 172 bombers), closely followed by the Black Sea Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnyye Sily Chernomorskogo Flota, VVS-ChF) with 624 (including 346 fighters and 138 bombers). The NKVD also had a small air force in the West, with 12 squadrons (150 aircraft) of mostly reconnaissance aircraft, but with some SB bombers and two squadrons of MBR-2 flying boats.

Arab Fighters circa 1967

Egyptian MiG-21

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.

Egyptian Fighters
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.

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15.
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

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17.
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.

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19.
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.

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21.
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.

Syrian Fighters
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.

Jordanian 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.
Hawker Hunter.
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.

Iraqi Fighters
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.

‘Battles” in France 1940

12 Squadron aircraft going in against the bridges over the Albert Canal.

Destroying the Albert Canal bridges would be a major setback for the advancing German forces, but bridges are notoriously difficult targets. Only a direct hit is likely to cause any damage against even a small bridge, and the bridges over the Albert Canal were very solid structures. The Belgian Air Force tried to destroy them on 11 May with its sole bomber squadron, which was equipped with Fairey Battles. Interestingly, the Belgians were using them as two-seaters. The planes only carried 50-kg bombs, which were unlikely to inflict much damage on a bridge. Six of the nine Battles, along with two of the six escorting Gladiators, were shot down by flak and German fighters and the few bombs that landed anywhere near the bridges did little damage.

Attacking such small targets required precision, which meant either low-level or dive-bombing. The Albert Canal was not supposed to be the AASF’s zone of operations, but destroying the bridges seemed like a job for the Battles. By 12 May, the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions were approaching Gembloux, some fifty miles to the west. The bridges were well in the German rear, close to German fighter airfields, and there had been plenty of time to organise strong anti-aircraft defences. The heavy losses that the French, Belgian, and British air forces had already suffered in the area underlined the strength of the German defences.

Nevertheless, it seemed worth the risk. Rarely are targets so far in the rear so crucial; there were no obvious alternative ways of getting supplies and reinforcements across the Albert Canal and temporary substitutes would not be easy to organise. However, for a reasonable chance of success, the attack required a reasonable number of bombers carrying bombs larger than the 250-lb weapons the Battle could manage. As it was, a single squadron of Battles was given the task and this would only be assigning three planes to each bridge.

The mission was judged so dangerous that volunteers were called for. All the pilots volunteered, so the crews due to fly the next mission took on the task. Two Blenheim squadrons were supposed to bomb nearby Maastricht at the same time to distract the defences. The official narrative talks of twelve Hurricane squadrons providing cover, but most of these were only operating in the general area—indeed, half of them were operating well to the northwest, with instructions to cover the Belgian forces retreating westwards towards Antwerp. Only No. 1 Squadron seems to have had the specific role of protecting the bombers, and it hoped to achieve this by flying ahead and clearing the area of enemy fighters.

Fg Off. Garland, Fg Off. McIntosh, and Sgt Marland had the metal Veldwezelt bridge as their target, while Fg Off. Thomas, Plt Off. Davy, and Fg Off. Brereton were to tackle the concrete Vroenhoven bridge. As they prepared to set off, Garland and Thomas were involved in a ‘heated discussion’15 about the best way of attacking the bridges. Garland was adamant that the low-level approach was best, while Thomas insisted dive-bombing was more likely to succeed. Brereton’s Battle had a technical fault, as did a second plane his crew tried, so just Thomas and Davy set off for the Vroenhoven bridge. They seemed to have benefitted from three Hurricanes that had attached themselves to the Battles in the run in, which helped beat off Bf 109s and gave the Battles a chance to begin their dive-bombing runs. The two planes dived from 6,000 feet and released their bombs at 2,000 feet. Both planes were hit by anti-aircraft fire and again, it was damage to the engine that proved to be decisive. Thomas crash-landed near the bridge, while Davy made it as far as friendly territory before his engine gave out. Their bombs appear to have landed close to the bridge, but did not inflict any serious damage.

Meanwhile Garland’s flight was heading towards the Veldwezelt bridge. McIntosh’s fuel tanks were ablaze before he could drop his bombs, but he did his best to send his bombs in the general direction of the bridge before crash-landing. McIntosh was pulled clear from the blazing wreckage by his crew and had to endure a lecture from his German captors on the futility of attacking a bridge after giving the defenders two days to prepare their defences. Garland and Marland were able to aim their bombs more accurately and caused some damage but both were hit, and all six crew-members died when the planes crashed within a few miles of the bridge. All of them were equally courageous, but fears of devaluing the Victoria Cross by distributing it too liberally meant only Garland and his navigator Sgt Gray were so honoured. There was no alternative posthumous award to give, so the bravery of LAC Reynolds, Sgt Marland, Sgt Footner and LAC Perrin went unrecognised. It was an operation that had all the heroic and hopeless qualities associated with The Charge of the Light Brigade. The known strength of the fighter and anti-aircraft defences made the Albert Canal operation a suicide mission, but so did the lack of adequate armour protection and self-sealing tanks.

The Albert Canal operation was always going to be a risky operation in which heavy losses were almost inevitable, but the losses against less well-defended targets were the real cause for concern. In the middle of a crucial battle, Air Marshal ‘Ugly’ Barratt, commander of the BAFF, and his staff found themselves desperately trying to work out a way to use his bombers without incurring unacceptably high losses. Barratt felt the bombers needed to operate from higher altitudes to avoid the worst of the anti-aircraft fire, but Air Vice-Marshal Playfair, commander of the AASF, believed that the maximum altitude from which they could expect to hit small targets would still be within the range of light flak.18 There were no easy solutions. Barratt and Playfair followed the various tactics adopted by the Battle squadrons on 12 May particularly closely in the hope that answers would emerge. For the first time, the Battles were targeting Guderian’s crucial drive on Sedan. All the missions were in the Bouillon area, where Guderian’s panzers were now just ten miles from Sedan and the main French defence line. The Semois flowing through the town was the last river barrier before the Meuse.

At dawn, a section of three Battles from No. 103 Squadron bombed a bridge over the Semois, it would seem from a very low level, and all returned safely. At around 1.00 p.m., three Battles from No. 103 squadron approached the same target at 4,000 feet. Almost inevitably, they ran into German fighters in the shape of twin-engined Bf 110s, but at least the Battles were now fitted with armour that offered some protection to fighter attack. There was no attempt to close formation and slug it out with the enemy; the Battles dived to ground level in an effort to shake off the Messerschmitts, which they succeeded in doing. They then bombed from just 20 feet what looked like a pontoon bridge under construction next to a blown bridge and made their escape.

At around 03.00 p.m., three Battles from No. 150 Squadron bombed columns between Neufchâteau and Bertrix ten miles east of Bouillon. One of the planes was hit, exploded and crashed in flames, but the remaining two attacked the columns from 100 feet and escaped. Two hours later, three Battles from No. 103 Squadron and another three from No. 218 Squadron set out to attack more targets in the Bouillon region. Those from No. 218 Squadron were flying at 1,000 feet in formation, while the three from No. 103 Squadron flew to the target individually, presumably at low level. The Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron were supposed to be in the area providing protection, but again, it was only very loose general cover. The bombers never saw the fighters, and the only claim made by the Hurricanes was for a Henschel Hs 126 observation plane.

Two of the three Battles from No. 218 Squadron were lost, at least one of them the victim of anti-aircraft fire. No. 103 Squadron’s individual low-level approach was no more successful, and they also lost two planes. Interestingly, by this time, No. 103 Squadron had decided it was pointless carrying a specialist navigator/bomb aimer for short-range, low-level daylight missions; they were not needed and it just put another life at risk unnecessarily. From now on, the squadron flew its Battles as two-seaters. It was a step that could have been adopted by all Battle squadrons long ago and would have enabled the bombers to carry more protection. The sole survivor from No. 103 Squadron had demonstrated another way of reducing losses. The plane, piloted by Plt Off. Cunningham, had not flown as far as Bouillon. Short of the target, he came across a column of German tanks and, in line with the original plans for using the Battles to block the leading German elements, bombed these. The column was taken by surprise and the Battle escaped. Admittedly, Bouillon was only a few miles further east, but attacking the first enemy forces encountered seemed far more useful and far less risky. There was perhaps a danger that pilots using their own initiative might hit friendly forces by mistake, but there were few Allied forces east of the Meuse, and the Battle crews seemed in little doubt that the columns firing at them were German.

The day’s operations provided no clear evidence that the low-level approach was more dangerous, although it was difficult to draw any conclusions from such a small number of sorties. The tragedy for the RAF was that its commanders were having to work out what might work in the middle of a crucial battle. So far, in sixty sorties, thirty Battles had been lost—Portal’s pre-offensive prediction was coming to pass with uncanny accuracy. In the evening, Newall ordered Barratt to cut back on operations in order to conserve the force for the crucial phase of the battle that must lie ahead. To the Allied commanders, that still seemed a few days away; German forces were beginning to reach the main French defensive position along the Meuse, but it would take time to bring up the artillery needed to cover a crossing. The failure to appreciate that air support could substitute for artillery was about to cost the Allies dear. On 13 May, German forces, covered by a fearsome aerial bombardment, began crossing the Meuse.

As dawn broke on the 13th, the AASF squadrons had no inkling that, just fifty miles from their airfields, a crisis was looming. Allied commanders believed the situation in the Netherlands was far more threatening; the French were in trouble in the south and the Dutch were asking for air support further north, on the central front. No. 76 Wing (Nos 12, 142 and 226 Squadrons) was ordered to send a flight of four Battles to bomb German forces advancing in the Wageningen area, some 250 miles from the Battle bases. Poor weather in the Netherlands spared the Battles from having to perform this mission but, later in the morning, seven Battles from No. 226 Squadron were dispatched to attack German columns moving south-westwards from Breda, some 200 miles from AASF airfields. It seemed strange to be sending Battles so far to attack targets that were easier to reach from No. 2 Group airfields in Britain. No enemy forces were spotted near Breda, but a factory was brought down to block the route. All the bombers returned. Ironically, just a few miles from the Battles’ home bases, there were countless targets to choose from, and all of them were far more important than any targets in the Netherlands.

As the day progressed, Playfair and Barratt slowly became more aware that a major crisis was brewing on the Meuse front. ‘[W]eaknesses in the French line between Sedan and Givet’ were enough for AASF HQ to begin discussing contingency plans for a possible withdrawal to safer airfields further south. Barratt and Playfair were not only becoming aware that the Allied line was in trouble, they also had an opportunity to do something about it. In the evening, a French reconnaissance plane had spotted Rommel’s first attempt to cross the Meuse at Dinant and, following instructions for passing on information about crucial targets of opportunity, the pilot headed for the base of No. 12 Squadron. It would have been an opportunity to provide real close support for the French forces struggling to contain Rommel’s advance. Authorisation was sought to attack the bridgehead but both Playfair and Barratt felt they had to conserve their Battles and so permission was denied. This was a missed opportunity. It would soon become clear that the decision to risk the Battles in the Netherlands but not along the Meuse was a serious misjudgement.

By late evening, Barratt was coming under intense pressure to use his bombers. General Billotte, the overall commander of Allied forces, explained how the air assault on Sedan had caused elements of the French Army to panic and flee. The German infantry had established bridgeheads on the west bank of the Meuse and pontoon bridges were under construction; once these were ready, the tanks would be able to cross. French reinforcements were moving into place but Billotte needed d’Astier and Barratt to buy as much time as possible. He wanted both commanders to throw everything they had against the German crossing points, starting that night if possible. This was a very different proposition to the attacks on the bridges over the Albert Canal on the 12th. These had taken place after the Germans had been given two days to set up their anti-aircraft defences, and the bridges had been very near German fighter airfields. Sedan was much closer to RAF bases and more distant from German airfields, and German forces were just beginning to cross the river, so had not yet had time to organise defences. The bridges were also just temporary pontoons under construction, far easier to destroy than permanent bridges.

Despite the plans Barratt was making for a possible evacuation, he still could not believe the situation had become so critical so quickly, and conservation remained uppermost in his mind. He would only promise a small raid at dawn the following day. Six Battles of No. 103 Squadron bombed pontoon bridges in the Sedan sector and all returned, although one wounded pilot was forced to crash-land. Encouraged by this relative success, another four Battles attacked the bridgehead at around 7.00 a.m., and all returned safely. It would seem at this point that the fighter and anti-aircraft defences were not as formidable as they would be a few hours later.

During the morning of 14 May, French pleas became more frantic. The French Air Force was planning to throw obsolete Amiot 143 bombers against the bridges, a plane that was broadly equivalent to the Fairey Hendon, so desperate was the situation. At around midday, the French persuaded Barratt to join these attacks with every bomber he had. It was the AASF’s first all-out effort. The plan was for the French to attack first; the AASF would then follow. Both forces would then return to base, rearm and attack again. Blenheims from No. 2 Group would then round off the assault.

Hurricane squadrons operating further north would fly south to reinforce the AASF and the French fighter force. However, while French fighters would fly with their bombers, RAF fighters would still only be providing general support in the area. Once again, the Hurricanes would be operating out of sight of the Battles. They did useful work shooting down several Henschel Hs 126 observation planes and Ju 87 dive-bombers, but this was little consolation to the Battle crews. Some of the Battle formations were assured they would have French fighter escorts, but in reality, these were just fighters which happened to be in the general area on other missions. By the afternoon, German fighters were operating in strength and anti-aircraft guns had been extracted from the columns making their way into Sedan. The scene was set for the worst day in the RAF’s history. It was a day that would seal the reputation of the Fairey Battle.

The French attacked first. Eight modern LeO 451s and thirteen ancient Amiot 143s, with a powerful escort, attacked the bridges soon after midday, losing three of the lumbering Amiot 143s and one LeO 451 in the process. Between 03.00 p.m. and 03.45 p.m. forty-five Battles attacked bridges and another eighteen, along with eight AASF Blenheims, bombed enemy columns. It seems that some of the Battles were now flying at higher altitudes, which reduced their vulnerability to ground fire, but also increased the chances of meeting German fighters.

Five Battles from No. 12 Squadron dive-bombed the crossroads at Givonne, between Sedan and Bouillon, where they ran into low-calibre but intense flak. At least two bombed the target, but only one made it back to base. Eight Battles from No. 142 Squadron set off in pairs to bomb the pontoon bridges, carrying eleven-second-delay fused bombs in a clear intention to attack from low-level. Nevertheless, they were unable to avoid German fighters, and at least two of the four lost were shot down by Messerschmitts. No. 226 Squadron sent six Battles to dive-bomb the bridges at Douzy and Mouzon, just south of Sedan, and here ground fire seemed to be the main problem. Of these six, one was forced to return with heavy damage before it even reached the target, and three others failed to return. Only four out of eleven No.105 Squadron Battles made it back—one very badly damaged machine landed at another airfield, while another made it to friendly territory before crash-landing. The four Battles of No. 150 Squadron ran into Bf 109s and all were lost. Eight Battles from No. 103 Squadron, still the only squadron flying with a two-man crew, attacked the crossing points, some at very low-level, others in dive-bombing attacks. Three failed to return, although all three crash-landed in friendly territory. One of the pilots subsequently died of his wounds, but the other crews safely made it back to their squadrons. Of eleven No. 218 Squadron Battles, only one returned. No. 88 Squadron dispatched ten Battles, four to attack bridges and six to bomb enemy columns between Bouillon and Givonne; all attacked successfully and only one plane was lost.
It was the highest loss rate suffered by the RAF in any major operation in its history. Of the sixty-three Battles taking part, thirty-five were lost. Five out of eight Blenheims also failed to return. Those that made it back were so badly damaged that there was no question of carrying out the second round of raids.28 With more planes attacking from higher altitudes, there were fewer losses to ground fire but German fighters had made sure no advantage was gained. It had all been very different earlier in the day when neither the flak nor the fighter defences had been so strong: if the bombers had struck sooner, the outcome might have been very different. A prompt response could have helped to reduce the risks. This was another lesson learned the hard way.


Lockheed SR-72 concept rendering.

The final curtain call for the SR-71 was long and complex. Although decommissioned in 1990, it served as a flight-research platform for NASA until 1997. The US Congress voted in 1994 to reactivate three SR-71s for the air force. The final USAF flight occurred in 1997, and in 1999 NASA made a last flyover during its annual Edwards AFB open house.

But public interest in secret, high-altitude, high-speed aircraft refused to die with the SR-71. Even before the Blackbird left the tarmac for good, media reports speculated whether strange sounds and contrails in the skies over the western US meant that American military and intelligence services had developed a successor aircraft, known by the codename Aurora.

Whether Aurora existed or not, in November 2013 the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works unveiled to Aviation Week and Space Technology a plan for a next-generation SR-71. In releasing its concept, Lockheed pinpointed the specific role of a demonstrator that it called the SR-72: an armed, hypersonic, uncrewed aircraft capable of reacting to flashpoints around the world more quickly than satellites or subsonic aircraft. In a time of unpredictable acts of terrorism— and in an environment in which US satellites could be tracked and airspace fortified against American incursions—Lockheed argued that its candidate vehicle could evade detection, get to targets more rapidly, and strike at adversaries before they had a chance to escape.


In its announcement, the Skunk Works revealed that it had been collaborating with the Aerojet Rocketdyne Company since 2006, with the goal of arriving at a breakthrough in “air-breathing” (ramjet) propulsion technology that would enable the SR-72 to travel at Mach 6—more than 4,500 miles per hour (7,240 kilometers per hour).

Some significant steps had been taken in the years between the last NASA SR-71 flight and the Lockheed Martin/Aerojet Rocketdyne merger of interests in 2006. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had sponsored research for the Falcon Project, which focused on developing a reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle. After NASA cancelled research on its successful X-43C scramjet demonstrator in 2004, DARPA folded it into Falcon. (The scramjet proven by NASA worked with no moving parts. At sufficient speed, the engine compressed the supersonic airflow as it entered the aircraft’s inlet, mixed it with propellant, and ignited it. Most of the heated exhaust that poured from the nozzles drew air from the atmosphere—hence, an air-breathing engine). Lockheed participated in these studies, gaining critical knowledge about—but as yet no solution for—the necessary propulsion transition from turbojet to ramjet and back again.

When the Lockheed Martin and Aerojet Rocketdyne engineers met to push development forward, the key problem still involved how to bridge this handover between the turbine engine, which propelled the aircraft from takeoff to Mach 2.5, and the ramjet, which became effective between Mach 3 and 3.5. Clearly, a yawning speed gap existed between the two technologies. Lockheed’s air-breathing hypersonics manager Brad Leland revealed in the SR-72 announcement that the two sides had found a way to close the difference between Mach 2.5 and 3 and to integrate the two propulsion systems. It involved using a standard jet engine like the F100 or F110 and a modified ramjet capable of producing thrust at a lower speed, through which it could take over seamlessly from the turbine engine. Leland did not elaborate on the mechanisms of the ramjet modification.

The dramatic planform of the SR-72 features chines blended into a delta that extends backward from about the midpoint of the fuselage. It has deep, underwing nacelles mounted close inboard and a humpbacked fuselage.

Following these public revelations, NASA officials decided in December 2014 to transfer over $892,000 to the Skunk Works for a feasibility study of the SR-72, after which (in March 2016) Lockheed Chief Executive Officer Marillyn Hewson predicted that her firm could fabricate an SR-72 demonstrator for less than $1 billion. Because the US Department of Defense planned to build a hypersonic weapon during the 2020s, Lockheed foresaw potential SR-72 production during the 2030s.


In development. Lockheed proposed the fabrication of a flight demonstrator aircraft (with an optional piloted version) starting in 2018, with flight testing to begin by 2023.