Aviation in World War II
From beginning to end, World War II was an air war. Germany opened the conflict with drives across Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and France during 1939 and 1940. Despite the fact that the bulk of the ground troops of the German blitzkrieg relied on horses for transport, the airborne component was modern. Dive-bombing Stukas became a familiar sight in European skies. The might of the Luftwaffe was never seriously challenged over mainland Europe in that first year of war. The French Air Force, although finally equipped with modern aircraft in reasonable numbers, crumbled through lack of communications and strategy.
Britain's Spitfires and Hurricanes, hurriedly flown to France to shore up its failing defences, were equally hurriedly flown home when it became apparent that the vital aircraft might be captured by the sheer speed of the German advance. Attempts to achieve air superiority over Britain in preparation for an invasion began with German attacks on shipping in the English Channel in July 1940, followed by aerial raids on British coastal installations and RAF bases, and day-and-night bombing attacks on London and other British towns and cities.
The fighter pilots of Britain's RAF won the Battle of Britain in 1940 by a narrow margin. The quality of their solidly built Hawker Hurricane and speedy Supermarine Spitfire interceptors was one vital factor. Equally important, the RAF was operating in the skies close to its own airfields, while the Luftwaffe had to return to bases all over northern France. The fact that the Spitfires and Hurricanes could return home, refuel, and be back in the air within half an hour tipped the otherwise unfavourable numerical balance back in Britain's favour. The vulnerability of German bombers such as the Heinkel He 111, Junkers Ju 88, and Dornier Do 17, with their liquid-cooled engines, relatively slow speed, and lack of defensive armament, also played a part.
Just as important, however, was the network linking radar stations to command centres that plotted the position of German aircraft and guided British fighter pilots towards their targets by radio. Electronic weaponry had emerged as a major factor in air warfare.
The high losses resulting from early attempts to bomb targets in Germany convinced the leaders of RAF Bomber Command to discontinue daylight precision attacks on specific targets in favour of night attacks.
The RAF rapidly realized the need for heavy bombers to replace the twin-engined Wellington and obsolete Hampden, and by 1943 three new four-engined bombers were in service: the underpowered, slow, Stirling, the workman-like Halifax, and the outstanding Lancaster. However, despite up-to-date aircraft, the technology of bombsights and navigation was sadly lacking, and the night attacks tended to drop bombs over wide areas of Germany's cities instead of precision targeting.
The USAAF, established in 1941, began a daylight precision bombing campaign from Great Britain against Germany with Boeing B-17 and Consolidated B-24 aircraft, equipped with the Norden predicting bombsight, in 1943. The American aircraft sacrificed bomb load in favour of heavy defensive armament-twelve 0.5-inch machine-guns aboard the B-17. However, despite their accurate name, the Flying Fortresses suffered appalling losses: over 8,000 of the 15,000 sent to Europe were shot down by enemy fire, and another 1,000 were destroyed in training accidents.
The appearance of long-range escort fighters like the Republic P-47, North American P-51, and Lockheed P-38 helped turn the tide of the great daylight air battles fought high over Germany in favour of the USAAF. At night, new electronic navigation aids, such as the beam-following Oboe and H2S radar-mapping, guided the RAF's bombers more accurately to their targets-where the precision-bombing Pathfinder force had laid flare markers to ensure that the huge numbers of bombs dropped from up to 1,000 aircraft did the most damage. During 1944 and early 1945, the USAAF struck Germany during the day, while the RAF attacked at night. One by one, Germany's cities were reduced to rubble.
Tactical air power also played a major role. Allied air forces, equipped with ever-improving versions of the Spitfire, the speedy P-51 Mustang, and new heavy fighters like the Hawker Typhoon and Tornado, had swept German aircraft from the skies over the Normandy beaches prior to the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. They would maintain battlefield air superiority for the remainder of the conflict. Bombers like the Martin B-26, and fighter aircraft doing double duty as ground attack machines, battered the German defenders in front of the advancing Allied armies.
In the Pacific, an entirely new kind of air war was being fought. Its reliance on carriers set the tone for naval warfare and aviation for the rest of the century. Japan opened the Pacific war with air attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and other United States and British bases in the Pacific on December 7 and 8, 1941.
The real turning point of the Pacific war came on June 4, 1942, when American carrier-based aircraft sank four Japanese carriers and a heavy cruiser in the waters north-west of Midway Island.
For the next three years, Allied forces pushed the enemy back across the Pacific. Japan entered the war with the world's finest torpedo bomber (Nakajima B5N2 Type 97) and long-range fighter aircraft (Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 0). By 1944 the arrival of Grumman F6F Hellcats and Chance Vought F4U Corsairs had tipped the technological balance in favour of US naval aviators.
The final phase of the war in the Pacific was under way by 1944, when Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers began to attack targets in Japan from bases in China. The capture of the islands of Saipan and Tinian enabled the B-29s to range even farther over the Japanese islands. When high-altitude precision-bombing techniques yielded disappointing results, Army Air Force planners sent the B-29s in low and at night to conduct area fire raids of the sort pioneered by the RAF. The results were devastating-more than 83,000 residents of Tokyo lost their lives during a single raid on the night of March 10, 1945. The dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was quickly followed by the Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945 (see Nuclear Weapons).
Two critical technical developments revolutionized aviation after World War II. The turbojet engine was developed almost simultaneously by the German engineer Hans von Ohain and the English engineer Frank Whittle (see Jet Propulsion). On August 27, 1939, the German Heinkel He 178 became the first purely jet-powered aircraft to fly. The German Messerschmitt Me 262, the first operational jet, entered service in the autumn of 1944. In Britain, the twin-engined Gloster Meteor began operational flying in the closing months of the war. Its speed was sufficient to allow it to catch and shoot down Germany's V-1 "Doodlebugs"-the first cruise missiles.