World War II Aviation Industries

Ford tri-motor
Figure 1.--The Ford Tri-motor was the world's first real passenger aircraft. Here we see an air show where the Ford Tri-motor attracted considerable interest, probably in the early 1930s. An indication of the importance of civil aircraft was that before the War, the United States shifted to more modern types like the Douglas DC-3. The military version (C-47) made a major contribution to the Allied war effort. The Luftwaffe used a knockoff of the Ford Tri-motor throughout the War.

The airplane had been invented in America by two bicycle mechanics, the Wright Brothers (1903). At the time of World War I, however, the United States did not have modern combst aircraft. When America entered the War (1917), it had to use British and French planes. In the inter-war period, several countries developed important aircraft industries: America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union. A key to building modern aircraft was aluminum. Thus a country's potential to build aircraft was the size of its aluminum industry. Aluminum production not only required bauxite, but vast quantities of electrical power. Some World War II planes were built with plywood (the British Mosquito and the German FW-190), but most were built with aluminum. Until the NAZI-take over in 1933, national aviation industries primarily depended on civilian demand. And here the largest civil aviation industry was in the United States. Pasenger aircraft were needed by a country the United States where as smaller countries had no great need for aircraft in domestic transport. Aircraft had played only a minor role in World War I. This was to be very different in World War II and the aviation industries of the beligerant countries had a major impact on the War. And this time the American aviation industry played a major role. The Allied aviation industries (especially America, Britain, and Canada) worked very closely. The Axis aviation industries did not coordinate efforts nor did the Germans utilize the potetial of the aviation industries of the occupied countries.


The aviation industry in the United States was a relatively small part of American industrial production before World War II. One source ranks it at only 41st in a list of major industies. The leading industry being the automobile industry. Even so, the American aviation industry was the largest in the world, in part because of demand from the growing demand for passanger aircraft. Europeans had little need for domestic aviation. America with substantial distances between cities did. President Roosevelt's decession to arm America as Europe moved toward war helped to further expand the industry. President Roosevelt gave ariority to air power in American defense planning. One of the results of that program was the Boeing B-17 which was designed to protect America from invasion. It proved ineffective against enemy fleets, but was along with the B-24 the mainstay of the American strategic air campaign against Germany. The British and French reacted slowly to German rearmament. This changed dramatically as Hitler began using the powerful Luftwaffe, first in Spain and then to threten the Czechs and their British and French allies. The British and French unable to restore the inballance in air fleets rapidly through domestic production, began to place orders for military aircraft in the United States (1938). This provided an inportant pre-War stimulus to the American aviation industry. The United States produced 6,000 air planes in 1939. Germany also developed a major aircraft industry as part of its rearmament program. The difference between the two countries is that America had a substantial capacity to increse airplane production. Germany had only a limited capacity to expand production. One reason America was able to expand aircraft production was its vast automotive industry. After America entered te War, a part of the automotive industry was diverted to aircraft production. American aircraft production expanded to an extent never imagined by the Germans and Japanese and to levels that surprised many Americans. And the industry produced many new many advanced aircraft types during the War. As a result the aircraft the U.S. Air Forces were using at the end of the War were different than those at the beginning of the War. This was in sharp contrast to the Axis air forces. Curtiss, Grumman, Lockheed, and North American Aviation focused on fighters. Boeing focused on bombers.


Britain since the initial American Wright Brothersl Flyers played a major role in the development of aviation. The British built some of the most effective World War I aircraft, including the Sopwith Camel, the Sopwith Triplane, the SE-5A and the Bristol Fighter. At the end of WorldcWar vI the British possessed the world's largest air force (more e than 22,000 planes) and was preparing a strategic bombing campaign against Germany. After World War I, a number of British companies were active in aviation. The British produced a series of sleek and fast seaplane racers which dominated international competitions (1920s). The great Empire Flying Boats came into service. Aviation experts experiments with air-to-air fuelling. De Havilland produced sleek airliners like the Albatross. Researchers experimented with radar. British women fliers (Amy Johnson and Jean Batten) competed witb America's Amelia Aerheart. Britain at the time that Hitler seized power in Germany (1933) had the largest aviation indistry in Europe. This made commercial since given the far-flung Empire. The rapid NAZI rearmament program suceeded in gaining air superority only because the British failed to respomd it imr. The British had the capacity not onlt to match the Germans, but actually to outproduce them. Only Britain's abhorence of war and desire to avoid large military expenditures enabled the NAZI to gain the dvantage that nearly resulted in Britain's defeat in World War II. As late as the Munich Crisis, Prime Minister Chamberlain was concinced that he could avoid war by reasining with Hitler (1938). Once Britain began to rearm, it rapidly closed the gap and by the time of the Battle of Britain, the British aviation industry was outproducing the Germans. The Royal Air Force eaked out a narrow victory in the Battle of Britain (1940). The problem for the British was not the availability of aircraft, but the fact that they did not have an adequate number of trained pilots to fly them. The Supermarine Spitfire arrived just in time to participate in the Battle of Britain. Few of the Spitfire pilots had much experiemce when they entered combat agsinst the experience Luftwaffe pilots. The British unlike the Germans had the indistrial capacity to produce both a tactical and strategic air force. Great Britain’s Vickers, Avro, Bristol, and De Havilland began building bombers in large numbers. Hawker and Supermarine concentrated on fighters. The British produced one of the great bombrs of the war--the Avro Lancaster. Royal Air Force Bomber command played a major role in the strategic air campign against Germany. Other important British World War II aircraft included the Spitfire, Hurricane, Typhoon, Tempest, Beaufighter, Sunderland, and Mosquito.


France was one of the pioneers in aviation. There were several imprtant aviation companies, but the industrywas dominated by several small companies emphazsizing cradtmanship rather than industrial methods. The companies included Latécoère, Morane-Saulnier Amiot, several smaller concerns. The most imprtant was the Société des Avions Marcel Bloch, founded by Marcel Bloch who had invented a type of aircraft propeller used by the French Army during World War I. Bloch with the rise of Hitler began to see the coming crisis. He joined with Henry Potez to purchase the Société Aérienne Bordelaise (SAB), subsequently renamed Société Aéronautique du Sud-Ouest (1935). The French Government nationalized the arms industry, including the aviation industry, before World War II (1936). Pierre Cot, Secretary of the French Air Force, decided that national security was too important for the production of war planes to be left in the hands of private companies. (This argument is often used by those critical of socilism and not just in national security circumstances, but compare the history of Government controlled French avaiation to privtely operation American avition from 1936-40). The Government was authorized to seize any firm they thought important. France's nationalized aviation industry became the Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques du Sud Ouest (SNCASO). The Government asked Marcel Bloch serve as the Minister for Air. The nationalization did not significantly improve production and some observers suggest it actually set back production schedules. The Government set up six large state-owned aircraft manufacturing companies. Budgets were, however, no where near what Hitler was pouring into the Luftwaffe. One limitation was the huge amounts of funds devoted to the Maginot Line. In addition France was a democratic Gobernment with its financing open to public scrutiny. Hitler with his brilliant financeer, Hjalmar Schacht, managed to hide the huge sums being borowed and spent for rearmament. The French Armée de l’ Air (FAA) entered World War II with high standards of training and some good aircraft, but a glaring weakness in communications. It would not be the quality and number of French planes that would lead to disaster. It would the incompetence of French military commanders. The FAA's effectiveness was limited by illconceived tactical support doctrine and was in the middle of an expansion and requipment program when the Germans launched their Western Offensive (May 1940). The French air commanders had dispersed their forces so that they were not vulnerable to a surprise Luftwaffe attack. This also meant that the French could not bring their considerable aur assetts to beat on the battle front to attack the German forces concentrated in the rdennes nd driving through the Meuse. The result was a German break through and within days they had reached the Channel. France never recovered. During the German occupation France's aviation industry was virtually disbanded. The Germans made some attempt to use theFrench aviation industry, but the results were unproductive. Rather the Germans decided to deport French workers to the Reuch, but rarely were skills used effectively. This was one example of whyproductivity dcclined in the NAZI Grosraum. The issue of deportation was an ongong conflict between Speer and Saukel. The French aviation factories, and many others, lay idle for most of the War. Vichy officials arrested former Air Minister Marcel Bloch and jailed him (October 1940). Bloch not only was Jewish, but refused to collaboration with the German aviation industry of Bordeaux-Aéronautique. His wife, also Jewish, was interned near Paris. The Germans subsequently deported him to the Buchenwald concentration camp (1944). He was liberated when the Allies liberated the Camp (April 1945).


Germany did not have Europe's dominant aviation industry before the NAZI takeover (1933). The three major European powers (France, Germany, and Britain) all had small and roughly comparable aircraft industries in the early 1930s. Germany was restricted by the Versailles Treaty from having military aircraft. At first the aviation industry in general was resticted. The Allies eased those constraints (1921-22). As a result, ab aircract industry building light-aircraft industry grew. The remaining restrictions on civilian aircraft were eliminated (1926). The restrictions on military aircraft remained. Several companies developed sizeable operations: Arado, Dornier, Focke-Wulf, Junkers, and Heinkel. Germany's emphasis on commercial air transpott helped these companies develop. The German military evaded the Vesaailles restrictions partially through contracts in other countrues, esprecially the Netherlands. With the NAZI take over, huge expenditures began for military aircraft. This was first done in secret. After Adolf Hitler abd the NAZIs seized power (1933), sizable funds began to be channeled into the development of military aircraft at the existing civilian aircradt companies. German aircraft companies obtained 84 million Reichsmarks for civilian projects (1927-31). The NAZIs pumped 980 million marks in aircraft projects, mostly military projects (1936 alone). Göring and Hitler made the new Luftwaffe public (1935). The lavish German spending soon made the German aircraft industry the most advanced in the world by the time that the Munich crisis occurred (1938). Luftwaffe planners had to make a major decesion at an early stage. Germany's limited industrial capacity meant that they could not build a sizeable tactical and strategic air force. The Luftwaffe planners, mostly officers frawn from the Wehrmacht, decided to build a tactical force to support ground operations. The massive expenditures enabled NAZI Germany to get a major lead on France and Britain by the time World War II broke out (1939). Many of most important Luftwaffe aircraft types were developed prior to the War (Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter, the Junkers Ju 87 dive bomber, and the Heinkel He 111 medium bomber, Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engined heavy fighter and the Junkers Ju 88. Dornier also built bombers. Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf focused on fighters. The German aircraft industry proved much less successful in introducing improved types. Two exceptions were the FW-190 fighter and the innovative Me-262 jet fighter. The German aircraft industry's failure was in part due to its limited capacity, but also due to the Luftwaffe's mismanagement. They sponsored so many projects that they squandered scarce resources and delayed the introduction of new aircraft types. Hitler personally delayed the production of jet aircraft so that the Me-262 arrived to late to affect the outcome of the air war.


Italy had some inovative aeronautical engineers, but the country's aviation industry was limited by the small demand for civil aviation and the country's overal limited industrial capacity. Itly exported aircraft and technology to severl European countries during the pre-World War II era, including several countries that would join the Axis. Many of these countries wanted German aircraft, but the German Air Ministry was primarily interested in finding a market for obsolete aircraft type than preparing future allies for war. [Corum] The Italian Regia Aeronautica was reasonably trained, but forced to fight the war with obsolescent equipment. The German military after the NAZIs seized power saw Fascist Italy as a potential ally in any future war. Senior German officers met with Italian officers to discuss the benefits of standardizing equipment (1933-34). The Italians showed little interest and the German military did not persue the possibility of such cooperation [Corum] Italy despite entering ito the Axis alliance had made no effort to coordinate military operations or kndustry and scientific research with the Germans. When Italy etered the War (June 1940) Italian militry equipment incliding aircraft and communication were incompatible with the German equipment and communications systems. [Corum] Given that Italy was NAZI Germany's principal ally, this lack of coordiation in the pre-War era is difficult go understand.


The Japanese through the 1920s equipped both the Imperal Army and Navy with largely obsolescent foreign aircraft. Some were purchased abroad and imported. Others were built in Japan under manufacturing licenses. The Japanese aviation industry largely developed through constructing foreign-designed aircraft types under license. Their aviation industry was technically inferior to European and American industries. This began to change in the 1930s. The Japanese with the rize of the NAZIs began to import large numbers of German aircraft. This exposed them to advanced aviation technology as did building aircradt under license. The Japanese aviation industry was almost entirely military oriented as the country had a very small civilian aviation industry. Japanese aircraft designers began designing their own aircradt in the early 1930s. Mitsubishi and Nakajima were the primary compsnies. This shift as it was for military airctaft was done in secret and was not well preceived in Europe and the United States. Thus the effectiveness of Japanese aircraft such as the Mitsubishi A6M Reisen (or Zero) fighter which came in profuction (1940) came as a shock to the United States and Britain in the early months of the war. The Zero was an orignal Japanese design. Interestingly many sources continue to claim even today the Japanese copied it. The Japanese Army and Navy at the beginning of the War were superbly trained, but fought the War after the first year with increaingly outdated planes. Japan's industrial base did not have the capacity to produce aircraft in the numbers needed for a protracted war with the United states or to build improved aircraft types. The effectiveness of the Zero and Oscar fighters was largely premissed on their light weight. Thus spectacular performance could be gained by relatively small engines, in the case of the Zero 900 HP. The planes were light weight largely because of dispensing with defensive armor. Building large numbers of heavier planes with higher-powered engines would have required a greater indistrial capacity than Japan possessed. The Japanese approached worked well in 1942, but proved disatrous in 1943 when Japan's cadre of superbly trained polots had been depleted and more modern aircraft types (Lightings, Hellcats, and Corsairs) reached the American pilots. The Corsair for exanple had 3,600 HP. Not only did Japan begin to lose aircraft in large numbers, but also large numbers of poorly trained pilot.

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union under Stalin developed a major aviation industry. From the beginning it was oriented toward military aviation. And as a result, at the beginning of World War II it had the world's largest airforce. The Luftwaffe, however, dominated the skies over the great battles of Operation Brbarossa. Much of the Red Air Force was caught on the ground because Stalin was afraid of provoking Hitler. But two other reasons that the Red air Force was in effective were the arrest of many senior Red Air Force commanders as a large number of obsolete aircraft types. The question that needs to be asked is why the Soviet's had aircraft that were largely obselete when the NAZIs invaded (1941). One reason was the arrest of several top designers during the purges of the 1930s. So in the critical years while the Germans were developing modern aircraft, top Soviet designers languished in the Gulag. Those designers who were not arrested were unwilling to take chabces with innovative designs. We suspect that another part of tghis is related to why Soviet industry proved so inefficent in comparison to Westen industry. Another factor was Stalin's purges which desimated the leadership of the Red Air Force. This meant that the Red Air Force was poorly led when the Luftwaffecattacked. As a result, modern aircraft was high on the list of needs requested through Lend Lease. The Soviets produced planes from American designs using American-furnished tooling in factories evacuated to the east of the Ural Mountains. The Soviets had many competent designers and as a result of the War they were allowed greater freedom to innovate. Fighters from the Yakovlev and Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) design bureaus prived to be highly effective and were reaching the front in large numbers (1944). They were mass-produced in part because of large quantities of aluminum supplied by Anerica through Lend Lease.

Other Countries

The above countries are the ones with the major aviation industries. Other countries had smaller industries, a few of which played a limited role in the War. We have bery limited information on these countrie, but will add details as it becomes available. Notably Canada, a country with only a minimal aviation industry before the War, produced 10,000 modern aircraft to support the Allied war effort. In contrast Germany brought almost al of Europe under its sway, either through alliances or conquest. Even so, the considerable industrial capacity of German dominated Europe, does not seem to have been mobilized to supprt the Luftwaffe and German air war. Some of the countries involved (France and Italy) had substantial aviation industries. Other countries had smaller indistries, but combined the industrial potential of the Axis and occupied countries was substantial.


Corum, James S. "The Luftwaffe and its Allied Air Forces in World War II: Parallel War and the Failure of Strategic and Economic Cooperation," Air Power History (June 22, 2004). Corum argues that "the actual and potential force of Germany's allies was ignored or misused by the Luftwaffe throughout the war. Indeed, one of the primary causes for German defeat, and specifically Germany's defeat in the air, was due to the Third Reich's inability to effectively lead a coalition war."


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Created: 3:24 AM 9/3/2007
Last updated: 10:17 PM 6/3/2016