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World War II Fixed-wing Aircraft: Propeller Planes--Fighters

Figure 1.--Hitler knew he could not match his adversaries in terms of numbers, so his war plans focused on quality. This included modern aircraft, tanks, and ships. The problem for Hitler was that even with spectacular victories in less tha a year his forces began to be confronted by military weaponry every bit as capable as German equioment. And these two aircraft, the British Hawker Hurricain and the Supermarine Spitfire dealt the over confidenbt Germans their first reverse of the war.

Both the Germans and Allies built excelent fighters. Military historians argue over the respective merits of the different fighters. Among the top-line fighters, the difference was likely to be the training and experiebce of the pilots. And here the Axis countries had the advantage at the onset of the War, but the Allies approach to pilot training proved to be the most effective. The Germans led the way in building sleek-all metal fighters. The ME-109 was their mainstay. Britain almost entered the war with Royal Air Force squadrons of biplanes. (The Royal Navy did begin the War with carrier biplanes--the reputable Fairey Swordfish .) The ME-109 was engaged by the British Spitfires while the Hurricans went after the bombets. Industry was a central factor in the air war. The Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero was a major factor in the first year of the Pacific War, bur was effective primarily because it had no armor protection for the pilot. Japan unlike the United States did not have the industrial capacity to build the larger engines to drive the heavily armored planes which the Americans built in huge numbers. While the Zero cut a blazing path across the Pacific, by the end of the first year of war when improved American fighters began to arrive, many of Japan's experienced pilots had been lost. Both fighters and bombers were mostly propeller driven. And the War brought about the development of propeller technology to the limits. The P-51 Mustang was a combination of an American airframe and the British Rolls Royce engine. It is considered by many to be the premier propeller fighter of the War. It was not possible to develop a fighter faster than the P-51 Mustang or the F4U Corsair simply because the propeller itself was an obstacle to air flow. This meant that it was not physically possible to break the sound barrier with a propeller plane, although in steep dives the planes approached the sound barrier.


World War II authors have written at length on the relative merits of the various World War II fighters. The specifications and capabilities of the various fighters are readily available as are details on aerial combat. There is a general consensus that the American P-51 Mustang is the supreme propeller fighter of the War. It drove the Luftwaffe from the skies over the Reich and did so in flying from distance basss in Briain (1944). The P-51 suceeded in doing what German ME-109 failed to do over Britain (1940). The task of comparing fighters is, however, more complicated than it may seem at first glance. A fgters effectiveness involve a complicated interplay of air frame, engine, and weaponry. Thus the calculation is not a simple matter. Air combat capabilities are one thing, but range and alditude or other important factors. A fighter's capabilities are of no importance of the plane can not reach the battlefield. And a plane's capabilities vary, depending on the alditude where the combat is being fought. Another factor to be considered is time. Huge advances in aeornautics and related fields were made during the war. So the ranking of fighters obviously shifted over time. Interestingly, only two importnt fighters were in use the whole course of the War, the ME-109 wich came into service before the War and the Supmarine Spitfire which arrived just at the beginning of the War. Of course both were upgraded during the War. The huge mistke the Axis mase in launching the War can be see in that both the Germans and Japanese were still using aircraft types with which they began the War while the Americans had introduced an entirely new generation of several powerful fighters. In addition to capabilities, the performance of these fighters also dependended on the tactical doctrine of the competing airforces and training. Here the French fighters should have done better in the Battle for France (1940) if the French Armée de l'Air had been as completently led as the Luftwaffe.

Individual Fighters

American Curtis P-36 Hawk

The United States entered World War II with largely obsolete fighter aircraft. This may be because the Army Air Corps's focus was on strategic bombing. Curtis was one of the major American aircraft comapnies, but failed to produce an effective fighter. This is the Curtiss P-36 Hawk. The British called it the Mowhawk. It was a contemporary of both the Hawker Hurricane and Messerschmitt ME-109, but lacked their performance. It was one of a new generation of fighter aircraft, sleek monoplanes. Like the ME-109, it was largely of metal construction. Unlike the Hurricane and ME-109, the Hawk was powered by a radial engine which is why it looks like a Gruman F4F Wildcat. It was introduced in 1938, but was obsolete by the time Hitler launced World War II. It is basically important only as the predecessor of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. Large numbers were exported.

American Lockeed P-38 Lightening

The Lockeed P-38 Lightening was the only successful twin-engine fighter of World war II. The other twin-engine fighter, the ME-110, proved a disappointment. The United States had the P-38 in its inventory when the Japanese launched the Pacific War (December 1941). It was deployed to Britain, but its performance was not, however, up to that of the German ME-109, although this was somewhat compnsated by its devestating fire power. Some were used for photo reconisance by removing the guns and armor. It was in the Pacific that the P-38 earned its laurels. It was P-38s that shot down Admiral Yamamoto's Betty bomber on a long-distant mission. And in the vast Pacific, range was critical. Only the P-38 had the range to accompany bombers on distant raids targeting Japanese bases where the bombers were met with with Japanese Zeros protecting the bases. Without radar, the Japanese pilots got very little warning of an American raid. This deprived the Zeros of their greatest advantage, attacking by suyrprise. The P-38s tore up the lightly armored Zeros. he P-38s played a key fole in the Solomons and New Guinea (1942-43). They escorted the bombers hammering the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul. Aviation icon Charles Lindbergh working for Lockeed developed a way to extend its range. This made possible a substantially increased range and opened up new targets. One of these new targets was Japnese oil fields in Borneo (October 1944). And with its long range, the P-38s could reach Leyte from bases in New Guinea. The P-38s did not attempt to dog fight with the Zeros, but would make repeated passess. It was P-38 polots that ran up the highest kills rate of Japanese planes and destroyed more Japanese planes than any other fighter. This was in part because by the time more advanced American fighters reached the Pacific (Corsairs and P-51 Mustangs) reached the Pacific, the P-38s and the bombers they escorted has substrantially degraded Japanese air power in the Pacific.

American Bell P-39 Air Cobra

The Bell Air Cobra was to be the Army Air Corps front-line fighter. It was intoduced before Pearl Harbor (1941). It proved a disappoinment, although nearly 10,000 were built. It faired badly againse Japanese Zeros, however, in the South Pacific (1942). Thus it saw only limited use with the U.S. Army Air Corps. It not only proved disappointing to the Americans, but also to most of the foreign air forces that purchased it. The British sent the Air Cobras they received on to the Soviets. The Soviets were, however, impressed with it, especilly after upgrading the cannon. Most of the American aircraft deliveries to the Soviets under Lend Lease were thus Air Cobras. And in the intenive fighting on the Eastern Front, the Soviets racked up more kills with Air Cobras than any other Allied fighter type used on the Eastern Front. On the Eastern Front, high-alditude battles with high performance aircraft was much less important than low-alditude ground support performance. The Air Cobra was not primarily used as a ground-attack aircraft. It was not a tank-buster. Its job was to seek German aircraft which it did effectively. The air battles over the Reich forced the Germans to withdraw much of their air power West. Thus the Red Air Force was able to focus on its primary mission--ground support. It had a cannon that packed a real punch and multiple machine guns. The initial armament was a 37mm cannon mounted in the nose along with 2 x 50 cal mgs and 4 x 30 cals. This was later changed to a 37mm canon and and four 50 cal mg. It was very maneuverable and fast at low aklditudes. An often over lkooked factor, maintenance was not difficult. The relatively low-speed, low-altitude characteristic of most air combat on the Soviet Front was ideal for the P-39's attributes: sturdy construction, reliable radio gear, and more than adequate firepower. Soviet pilots report holding their on with their Air Cobras even with the German fighters when encountered. The Red Army came up with group aerial fighting tactics for the Air Cobra fighters and earned scored a surprising number of aerial victories over the German aircraft types they encountered. An advantage here was that bu 1943, the Red Air Force was able to mount attacks in which the outnunbered ghe Luftwaffe andthis steadikly increased as the War went on. . Soviet P-39s could easily deal with the Junkers Ju 87 Stukas or even faster German twin-engine bombers. They even took on German fuifgters on a equal footing and in some areas surpassed, early and mid-war Messerschmitt Bf 109s. A factor here was the declining skill of the replacement pilots arriving at the front. The common Red Army name for the Air Cobras was Kobrushka ('little cobra') or Kobrastochka, an affectionate mix Kobra and Lastochka (swallow), 'dear little cobra'.

American Curtis P-40 Tomahawk

The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk was the primier American fighter at the onsetof World War II. It was a single-engined, single-seat, all-metal fighter and ground-attack aircraft that first flew just before the War (1938). The P-40 design was a basically an upgrade of the Curtiss P-36 Hawk. This significantly reduced development time and enabled the need quick entry into production and operational service. The P-40 Warhawk was used by most Allied powers during World War I. It was the third most-produced American fighter of World War II, after the P-47 and P-51. Nearly 14,000 were built. It proved a disappointment in encounters with Axis aircraft. The Americans were surprised with the speed ana manueverability of the Japanese Zero. The P-40 was a robust aircraft, but did not have the speed or munerability of the More nimble Zero. It was the aircraft used by the Flying Tigers in Burma and China. And the Flying Tiger commander, Claire Chaneault, devloped successful tactics in dealing with the Zeros. Unfortunately. U.S. Army commanders did not take advantage of the Tiger's early experience. The P-40 did not have a two-speed supercharger. This meant it could not take on the Luftwaffe fighters (Messerschmitt Me-109 or the Focke-Wulf FW-190) in high-altitude combat over northern Europe. The P-40 was used in the theaters before the more advanced fighters like the P-47 and P-51 became available (1941-44). The P-40 played an important role with Allied air operations in three theaters: North Africa, the Southwest Pacific, and China. It also played a role in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Alaska. and Italy. Here combat at high altitudes was not a major factor and the attributes of the P0-40, especially its robust construction was a major advantage.

American Republic P-47 Thunderbolt

The P-47 Thunderbolt was the most important plane built by Republic Aircraft in World War II. Test flights began before Pearl Harbor (May 1941). It was was designed as a large, high-performance fighter/bomber, utilizing the powerful large Pratt and Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine. This massive engine give it noy only excellent performance, but a large load-carrying capability. The P-47 was delivered to the Army Air Corps building up in Britain (June 1942). The P-47 was an excellent aircraft from the beginning, but a series of improvemets added power, maneuverability, and range. The Thunderboldt was not a sleek fighter, it fact it became know as 'the Jug'. The massve engine, hwevr, gave it the caability of taking on the Germn fighters. As the war progressed, the Thunderbolt gained a reputation as a reliable, powerful, and extremely plane. Again and again pilots returned safely after sustaining incredible damage. What the Allies needed in 1942 and '43 was an escort fighter with an extended range. This the P-47 was not capable of, although refinemts gradually did extend the range. It was only after D-Day when the P-47 came int its own. It massive size and huge engine gave it the ability to carry an enormous load of ordinance to support the ground troops. The P-47 thus excelled in the ground-attack role. P-47 pilots strafed and bombed German positions as the Allied ground troops pressed ahead toward the Reich. But despite this role, the P-47 was capable of taking on the German fighters. The Germns had used the Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers to spport their ground troop, but the Stuka was vulnerable to fighters and could only be used in areas where the Germans had air superiority. The P-47s were capable of delivering enormous payloads against German ground positions and taking on any German fighters which might appear, although this became less and less common as the War progressed.

American North American P-51 Mustang

The P-51 Mustang was a combination of an American air frame and the British Rolls Royce engine. Nothing could so exemplify the importance and effectiveness of the Anglo-American World War II alliance than the Mustang. It is considered by many to be the premier propeller fighter of the War and as close to perfection as was possible with propeller aircraft. It was not only faster than the ME-109 and FW-190, but could out turn them. And by the time the P-51 went into combat over northern Europe (December 1943), the hard pressed Luftwaffe had lost many of of its veteran pilots and was replacing them with poorly trained new recruits. It was a recipe for disaster. Well trained German pilots could take on the P-51s, albeit at a disadvantage. The Luftwaffe by 1944, however, had fewer and fewer experienced fighter pilots. The P-51 not only had the superb Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, but had several innovations making it a supremely deadly instrument. The P-51 wings had an innovative form, thickest at mid-wing which helped to create laminar flow, a factor in its long range and speed. Variable pitch propellers also help reduce the drag of the propellers at high speed. And the bubble canopy in te final variants gave the pilots unrestricted vision. Luftwaffe Chief Herman Göring said after the War that when he first saw the P-51s over Berlin, he knew that the War was lost.

American Brewster F2A Buffalo

The Brewster F2A Buffalo was one of the early all-metal figters produced in the United States. It was introduced (April 1939), just before the outbreak of World War II. By that time it was already seriously outperforned by Brutish, German, and Japanese fighters. It was produced because America at the time was giving priority to figters. The focus was on bombers. In addition, the British and other countries desperately needed aircraft as theur own production was not sufficent for their own defensive needs. It was created primarily for the use as a Navy carrier fighter. Brewster Aeronautical Corporation produced the plane, competing with Grunman to be the main U.S., Navy carrier fighter. They introduced the arestor tail hook. The early versions of the Buffalo and Wildcat vied for supremecy. The Buffalo came very close to be selected, but modifications of the F2A added weight and serious reduced performance. Brewster had issues, but the Navy has to share responsibility. The Navy insisted on changes which added weight (equipment changes), but not compensating with a more powerful engine. This reduced speed and manuverability. This led to disaster when facing Japanese fuigters such as the defense of Sungapore (January 1942) and Midway (June 1942). Several countries in desperate need of aircraft placed orders, including Belgium, Britain, Finland, and the Netherlands placed orders. The largest order came from Britain. The RAF understood that the Buffalo was uncompetitive with German fighters, but thought, in a clossal intelligence failure, might be adequate against Japanese aircraft. The Singapore air defense was based primarily on the Buffalo. They shot down some Japanese aircraft, but proved incapable of competing wih Japanese fighters. The Buffalo did have one success. The Finnish Air Force acquired some Buffalos during Winter War (1939-40), but too late to be employed. They were used with some access againse the Red Air Force diring the Continuation War (1941-44). The Finns did not need the heavy Navy equipment and they had a slightly more powerful engine. It was a much lighter aircraft than the U.S. Navy version. Amazingly, the Finns came ton love their Bufalos. They claim 32 Red Air Force kills for every Buffalo lost. 【Neulen】 Other sources provide somewaht lower fgures of about 25 to 1, still extrodinarily high by any standards. There were 36 Finnish Buffalo aces. 【Stenman and Thomas, p. 85.】 Of course with Finnland fighting on the NAZI side in the Coninuation War, there would be no more deliveries from America. As a result, the Finns attempted to buld their own Buffalo--a wooden version called the VL Humu.

American Gruman F4F Wildcat

The Gruman F4F Wildcat was the top of the line Navy fighter on American carriers when the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor. The Navy had finally given up on the obsolete Brewster Buffalo, although the Marines still had a few of them. The Wildcat was not obsolete. but it was at first badly outclassed by the nimble, but poorly armored Japanese Zero. This was not only because of the Zero's capabilities (speed, mnanuerability and range), but also because of the more exprienced Japanese pilots. American aircrews had to make do with the Wildcat for more than a year after Pearl Harbor (December 1941) before the more powerful F46 Hellcat began reaching the fleet. The Pacific fleet would have to fight the critical Battles of Midway and Gudalcanal with Wildcats. American pilots developed tactics to deal with the Zero, but many pilots lost their lives because of the limitations of the Wildcat. And they were not at first taking advantage of its strengths. The Wildcats in the Solomona achieved an astonishingly high kill ratio against the Zero’s. While the Zero was a sports car. The a Wildcat was essentially a tank with wings. Once American pilots figured out how to fly and fight to the Cat’s advantages they did very well. Its one great advantage over the Zero was its ruggedness. Self-sealing fuel tanks were also imortant. One of the unansered questions of World War II is why the Japanese failed to take advantage of their air superiority to sink the poorly protected American carriers in the first year of the War. We were confused about the designation for American naval aircradt. A HBC reader has provided an explanation. "The 1st F in the F4F and F6F does stand for Fighter. But I was never sure about the rest. As I suspected, the number in both aircraft meant the design number by the manufacturer. The last letter was more of a mystery. I have learnrd that the last letter designates who manufactured the plane which in World War II was often different from who designed it. This letter was assigned by the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which oversaw these matters. Here is something I found on a Forum. 'The “M” in the designation means that it was built by the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors – and therefore the airplane in question is properly identified as an “Eastern” or “General Motors” Wildcat, not a “Grumman” at all. There is no such thing as a “Grumman FM-2″ – or a “Grumman TBM” for that matter. If Grumman had built it, it would be an F4F (i.e. according the US Navy designation system in use at the time – prior to 1962 that is – a Fighter 4th Design Built by Grumman.) All Grumman-built aircraft were coded “F” for some obscure reason: the F3F Flying Barrel, the F4F Wildcat, the F6F Hellcat, the F7F Tigercat, the F8F Bearcat, etc. Similarly, an Avenger actually built by Grumman was a TBF, but a TBM was an Avenger built by Eastern Aircraft. FAA regulations and conventions focus on who actually “built” the aircraft in question in terms of determining its proper identification. It does not matter who originally designed it or built that design, or who 'currently' owns the rights to that design (the type certificate.)"

American Vought F4U Corsair

The Chance Vought F4U Corsair is perhaps the most destinctive and and certainly one of the most potent of the World War II fighters. Vought desugners began working on a new advanced fighter for the Navy before the War (1938). The first prototype was delivered to the Navy (1940). Pearl Harbor and a need for a top of the line fighter to deal with the Mitsubishi Zero accelerated production. The Japanese couldbuild large numbers of light-weight figters, but they were incapable of building heavily armored fighters with massive engines. Thus the Japanese quickly lost air superority after the first yeats of the War. The Corsair was one of thenew Anericans planes that turned the balsnce of power in the air. After The Corsair included many advanced features and had a top speed greater than any existing Navy aircraft. There were a variety of technical problems that had to be resolved before the Corsair could enter service. Carrier suitability was a major development issue and the long front fuselage as well as the way it set upward on the ground created problems for carrier operations which is what the Navy desperately needed in 1942. As a result, the F4F Hellcat was designed for carrier use and adopted as Navy's primary carrier fighter. The Navy worked on carrier operations. The Corsair was thus at first used primarily as a ground support fighter bomber, appearing in the Solomons (late-1942). It eventually became the most capable carrier-capable fighter-bomber of World War II. Many Japanese pilots came to see it as the most dangerous American fighter of the War. Hellcats downed more Japanese planes, largely because they were the Navy's primary carrier fightr. The Corsair earned an 11:1 kill ratio against the Japanese. It not only was the Navy's most formidable air superiority fighter, but it powerful engines enabled it to carry a massive weapons load for supporting the Marines and Army troops as they moved up the Slt in the Solomons. After the disaterous suisidal Banzai charges on Guadalcanal, the Japanese adopted a new tactic, digging in entrenched positions. Ground support was thus essential for the success of the Pacific Fleets' island hopping operations. As a result, the first Corsair squadrons were Marine units in the Sollomons, but as carrier operations were developed, he Navy also formed Corsair squadrons. Vought built 12,571 F4U Corsairs in 16 separate models. Demand for the Corsairs quickly overwhelmed Vought's limited manufacturing capacity. The planes were also built by Goodyear and Brewster. As a result of its advanced capabilities, the Navy continued using the Corsair almost a decade after the War, including in Korea.

American Gruman F6F Hellcat

Superficially the F6F Hellcat looks much like the Wildcat. Prerhaps because of this and its very plain lines, the Hellcat is not as instantly recognizanle and sometimes does not get the credit it deserves. It capabilities were night and day removed from that of the plane it replaced. The Hellcat had been on the drawing boards at Grumman before Pearl Harbor. The Navy did not know, however, how badly the Wildcat was outclassed by the Japanese Zero. This soon became apparent and Grunman rushed the Hellcat development forward. Leroy Grumman, and his two top engineers, Leon Swirbul and Bill Schwendler, worked on the Hellcat. It soon established itself as the Navy's carrier-based fighter answer to the Zero. The Navy had to, however, to fight the Zeros with Wildcats during 1942 and some of 1943. And some Marine air groups did not even have Wildcats. The Matines on Midway had badly outclassed Brewster Bufalos. The Wildcast shocked the Japanese pilots used to the sluggish performance of the Wildcats. The Hellcat was much bigger than the Wildcat. It had higher performance, more fuel and range, and a larger ammunition load. Huge wings gave in unprecendented maueverabulity. The Hellcat soon became known as the 'Ace maker'. Radial engines meant it did not have the sleek appearance of some fighters and it was also called the 'Aluminum Tank'. Its six Browning .50 caliber machine guns gave it massive fire power. And the Hellcat could absorb hits and still allow the pilot to get back to his carrier. Grunman itseld became known as the Grunman Iron Works. The Hellcat in the hands of even a relatively inexperienced pilot was an effective weapon, in the hands of an experienced flyer it was a formidable weapon that savaged poorly armored Japanese aircraft, incliding the widely feared Zero. The Hellcat became the Navy's front-line fighter for the new Esser-class carriers that began reaching the Pacific Fleet (1943). The Hellcat and the Essex-class carriers gave the Navy aur dominance as it began the drive west in the Central Pacific. Thpikots loved it as it handeled so well and had a powerful engine to engage the Japanese. Navy air ace stated, "I love this airplane so much, that if it could cook, I'd marry it." The capababilities of the Hellcat and the steady loss of experienced air crews resulted in phenomenal kill rates throughout the remainder of the Pacific War.

British Hawker Hurricane

Britain almost entered the war with Royal Air Force squadrons of biplanes. (The Royal Navy did begin the War with carrier biplanes--the reputable Fairey Swordfish .) The Hawker Huricane was not a modern fighter in the class of the ME-109 or the Spitfire. In fact it was essentially World War I tecnology, a biplane adapted for operation with only one set of wings. It was based on a biplane fuselage that was already being built and was made out of plywood and fabric in contrast to the sleek all-metal ME-109. . It was outclassed in almost every way by the Me-109. It did have two important advantages for the RAF. First it proved realtively easy to build in numbers, so little retooling was needed. And while it was outclassed by the Me-109, its performance was good enough to be effective in the hands of an experienced pilot. And thankfully it had one very important advantage over the Me-109, a tighter turning radius. This was crucial in a dog fight and a great advantage in that the Me-109s had fuel limitations which meant that they coul not afford to engage in lengthy dog fights with the British fighters. Hawker was a much more established company than Supermarine. Göring announced his Lufwaffe (1935). The Britsh response was the 'Subcoomittee on Air Parity', indicative of the mentality at the time. Earlier British Governments had insisted in a fleet at leat the size of the two largest navies of other countries. . Despite the name of the Committee, some real action was finally taken. The Colonial Secretary, Phillio Cunliffe-Lister was put in charge instead of the lethargic Air Secretary Lord Londonderry. He urged immediate production once the prototypes were approved. When Balldwin became prime minister, Cunliffe-Lister was appointed air minister, soon to become Viscount Swinton. The Hawker Hurricane soon had its first successful flight (November 6, 1935). Which meant that when Hitler launched the War (September 1939), Britain had some Hurricane squadrons and Spitfire squadrons were just coming on line. In the Battle of France, the British lost a lot of Hurricanes, but notbly, mot were lost on the ground. In the Battle of Britain, Fighter Command tended to engage the Me-109s fighter escorts with Spitfires when available while the Hurricans were more than capable of going after the slow moving bombers.

British Supermarine Spitfire

Mitchell at Supermarine recovering from cancer went back to work (summer 34). He came up with a whole new plane--the type 300. Top speed 265 mph. The Air Ministry with Dowding's support decided to separate it from F7/30 and fund it as an experimental plane. Supermarine had worked with Rolls Royce, The RR Goshawk had powered the planes that had won the Schnider trophies. They had now created a new engine, the PV-12 27 liter power plant they were hoping to get 1,000 hp out of it. They might boost the Type 300 up to 300 mph, This was the birth of the World War II work horse, the Merlin engine. It was an entirely private venture on Rolls Royce part. The Air Ministry issued specifications F10/35 (1935). This asked for at least 310 mph , no less than ??, but preferably 8 machine guns. Mitchell had now had decided on the destinctive thin eliptical wings. Hawker Sidney Camm was working on specufications F/36/34. The Spitfire was much later (March 5, 1937). It achieved 335 mph and then with some minor changes 348. The HH was slower, but still a respectabke 310 mph. Hawker got Huurican production going very quickly. Spitfire production was adusaster. The process was more complicated and Supermarine a much smaller compsny. Not one Spitfire was produced in 1937. Supermarine outsourced 80 percent of production. The first prodyction plane rolled out (May 1938). Lord Swinton was forced to resign, but he had come up ith the idea of Shadow Factories and hoped to involve Lord Nuffield. Nuffield's Morris Factory was the largest mass production facility in Britain. The two, however, fell out, but after Swinton's departure, Nuffield began buildng a huge facility at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham for aircraft production. A a new factory, however, meant more delays. Supermarine was now working out is production problems, and solving the subcontracting problems. Woolston was finally working at full cpacity (Summer 1939). The RAF had 24 Spitfires of the original 310 plane order.

British Swordfish

French Morane-Saulnier

The French Morane-Saulnier 406 was introduced (1938). It was the Armée de l’Aire's most important fighter at the onset of World War II. The other important fighter was the Potez 630. The Fench also had Anerican Curtis P-36s. The MS 406 had many modern fetures, a low-wing monoplane, an enclosed cockpit, and a retractable undercarriage. It was France's first modern fighter. It was sturdy and highly manoeuvrable, underpowered and weakly armed. It was outperformed by the Me-109 during the Battle of France (1940). Hitler was right that Germany held amilitary edge in 1939-40, but the Allies were rearming and castching up fast. The German edge was not one of Teutonic technological superority, but one of vast appropriations pired into the military after Hitler seized power (1933). A more modern Armée de l’Aire could have made a difference in 1940, but the fall of France was in large measure about tactics more than equipment. The Armée de l’Aire tactical doctrine was defense and not prepared to deal with the German onslaught. There was little cooperation between the Armée de l’Aire and the Army to develoop a ground support role. The Luftwaffe suffered substbil losdsdes in France, but Luftwaffe pilots were generally dismissive of the French fighters (Morane, Bloch, and Potez).

French Dewoitine

The French Armée de l’Aire is basically dismissed in World II histories, giving the idea that the German victiory in the West was based on technological superiority. As with tanks, this was not the case. The French D.520 was a high performance fighter and comparable to the British Spitfire and German Me-109. 【Roblinn】 And like the Spitfire, it was just beginning to reach French squadrons at the time the German's invaded (May 1940). The German lead should not be seen as a huge technological lead, but primarily the result of Hitler decision to lunch a war abnd huge apporopriatiins directed to he Luftwaffe at a time ght ghe Britain and Frabnce were primarily interested in avoiding nother war. The other problem with the Armée de l’Aire was tactics. The Luftwaffe's strategy was to destroy oposing air forces on the ground in initial offensive opertions which they did in Poland (September 1939) And the Netherlands (May 1940). This is what the Luftwaffe attempted to do with Adler Tag (August 1940), but the British had radar. It is what they succeeded with, destroying the Red Air Force (June 1941). The French sollution was to disperse the Armée de l’Aire wehich mean they could not seriously oppose the Germns over the Ardennes when they struck in the Ardennes (May 1940). In sharp contrast to the Luftwaffe there was very limited cooperation between the French Armée de l’Aire and Army. As a result of the German success on the ground, the Armée de l’Aire was basically out of the War. The interesting matter is that the Germans made no real effort to incoporate the substantial French aviation industry in their war econmy. And the limited efforts they eventually made were a disaster because the workers did not cooperate.

German Me/BF-109

The Germans led the way in building sleek-all metal fighters. The Me-109 was the Luftwaffe's principal fighter. The Poles did not have a modern airforce (1939). In the battle for France, the Me-109 was mot only an excellent fighter, but the French air tacics were a disaster. They disperrsed their urctadt, so when the Germans struck in he Ardennes, they had complete air dominance. Only with te Battle of Britain, did the Germans encounter a force with both a well thoughout tactical doctrine and modern aircraft, both the RAF's Huricane and Spitfires. And the 109's chief weakness, a range of only about 100 miles. The 109 was the Luftwaffe's mainstay and they used it throughout the War. A reader writes, "The Germans waited too long to start making or even designing more modern aircraft except for the Me-262. The FW-190 was a late 1930s design that first saw action in 1941 when Germany was still on the offensive in most theatres of war. So they stayed with the 109 and 190 instead of allowing for other designs to compete to show any better performances. Only when things began to become desperate did Hitler allow new design works to start but too little too late." They were contantly updating it so the Me-109s at the end of the War were substantially upgraded. Even so it was out-classed by he American P-51s unless being flown by an experiened pilot which were becoming more and more rre late in the War.

German Me-110

Göring had great hopes for the Me-110 designed as a long-range fighter escort, It performed so poorly that it required its own escorts. While not designed as a night fighter, it became one because it was almost useless in day time operations. The Germans had over a dozen varieties of the 110 and then they tried major changes that produced the 210, 310 and 410 but all of these were mostly for use in attacking the British bomber streams relentlessly pounding the Reich night after night.

German FW-190

The Focke-Wulf FW-190 has been described as the best fighter of World War II. That is going too far, but it certainly was near the top. At the time that the FW-190 was introduced (late-1941), the Third Reuch's glory days were gone. Thus the primary campaign in which the plane wold be employed was defending the Reich from the Allied strategic bombing campaign which would begin in eranest (1942). Along with the Me-109, the FW-190 formed the backbone of the German World War II fighter force. It was more effecive than the 190 as a ground support platform. The twin-row BMW 801 radial engine which was the primary power pack was what gave the 190 the larger pay loads than the 109. By the time of the War that the 190 appeared, Germany was losing command of the air and the German ground forces was figting wihhout air support.

Italian Fiat G-55

Italy's World War II military performnce is commonly derided by World War II historians. The poor performance of Italian soldiers is actually an understandabvle respnse to how they were retrated by the country's politicl and military leaders as wll as their German allies. In the fieldof aviation, the Italians produced some excellent aircraft, including whzt Germznt lscked, a four engine strategic bomber. The problem for Itly and the reason it was absurd for Italy to enter he war, the lack of a sizeable msnufscturing base. Italy actually peaked too soon. Its aircraft in the mid-1930s were some of the best in existence. When the allies began preparing for war, however, Italy could not keep up. There were potent fighters, the best of hich appeared just before Italy surendered to the Allies (September 1944). This was the Fiat G-55 Centaur, but only 350 were built, including some after the War. To put it intoprspectiv, the Germqns produced 35,000 Me-109s. A team of Lufwaffe experts judged it the best Axis fighter, perhaps the best of any country. Kurt Tank who designed the FW-190 was impressed by the G-55. He looked at the Turin plant where it was being built and found that Fiat took three times as long to build one as the Me-109. While the G-55 was an excellent fighter, it was not three times better. Of course German aircraft factories were hardly models of efficency. This was part of the gebnius of the Arsenalm of Democracy. Modifying designs fir mass production. For examole Packard built the Rolls Royce Mrlin engine for the P-51 Mustang. hen they got the RR designs, they were horified and redeigned the engine for mass production without loss of performance. .

Japanese Mitsubishi Zero

The Zero was one of Japan's secret wepons at the onset of the Pacific War. The Zero was introduced in China. Western military sources were, however, unaware of the Zero's capabilities. The Americans and British were stunned. They did not think the Japanese was capable of making a world-class fighter, let alone one which out-flew their fighters. The Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero was vitrtually made for the huge distances of the Pacific War. And the Zero was a major element in the first year of the Pacific War, but the phenomenal range of the Zero was effective primarily because it had no armor protection for the pilot. The light-weight gave the Zero its speed, maneuverability, and range. Japan unlike the United States did not have the industrial capacity to build the larger engines to drive the heavily armored planes which the Americans built in huge numbers. The lack of armor was not the only secret to the Zero. Its highly innovative single-piece constuction helped to reduce weight. While the Zero cut a blazing path across the Pacific, by the end of the first year of war when improved American fighters began to arrive, many of Japan's experienced pilots had been lost. The Zero was in many ways self-defeating. The Zero was not Japan;s only secreat eapon, another was marvlously trained pilots. And the lack of armor showed Japan's total failure to recognize or inability to protect this invaluable resource. The American pilots gradually worked out tactics to defeat the Zero with slower, less manuerable planes. Clare Chanaullt first worked out the tactics at the very onset of the War. American Army and Air Force commanders still did not believe the Zero was a threat. The Zero was still largely a mystery to U.S. Navy pilots when the encounteted it in the Coral Sea (May 7, 1942). Navy pilots were not sure what the Zero was. It was not until the Solomon's campaign that American pilots encounteted the Zero in numbers and began to report about it. Flyers in the Solomons also worked out the needed tactics. Another factor was the discovery of an intact Zero in the Aleutin Islands. As part of the Midway Plan, Japanese aircraft attacked Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. One Zero fighter was damaged. It was flown by 19-year-old Flight Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga from the carrier Ryujo. He had to crash land on Akutan. The A6M2 Model 21 was one of the most up-to-date models. It was later discoverd virtually intact and studied. American flight evaluations of the restored aircraft were conductted (September-October 1942). The Americans North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego were able to learn the performance capabilities and limitations of the Zero. The Navy test pilots found that the Zero had superior maneuverability only at the generally lower speeds used in dogfighting. At low speeds the Zero could indeed make tight turns and had excellent aileron control. As the plane accelerate beyond 200 knots, the ailerons woukd freeze. Rolling maneuvers at low speeds were thus slow and required substantial force on the control stick. The Zero rolled to the left much easier than to the right. In addition its engine tended to cut out under negative acceleration, such as nosing into a dive, as as a result of the float-type carburetor. Army pilots als test flew the Xero. This information proved invaluable to the new air groups being formed to do battle with the Japanese in the Pacific. Suggested flight tactics were worked out fir each major fighter in the American inventory. 【Rearden】

Soviet Yakovlev Yak 1

The Yakovlev Yak 1 was the Soviet Union's primary World War II fighter. It first appeared (early-1940) before the German invasion (June 1941). It had a composite structure and wooden wings. This was importabt because aluminum required enormous quantities of electricity to produce and was not available in the quantity needed for aircraft production. After the German Barbarossa invasion (June 1941), American Lend Lease provide huge quantities of aluminum needed for aircraft production. The Yaks were was extremely manoeuvrable aircraft, fast and well armed and like most Soviet planes and equipment, easy to maintain in the field and highly reliable. It was the basis for subsequent aircraft developments from the Yakovlev bureau, most importantly during the War, the Yak 3, 7, and 9. The Soviets built some 37,000 Yaks during the War. (There are some differences depending on the sources.) Designer Alexander Yakovlev was awarded the Order of Lenin (Орден Ленина). The Soviets might have done better in air combat with the Germans, but their training program was inferior. Many young pilots were put in the air with limited training. The Red Air Force tactical doctrine was also inferior to the Germns. Here Stalin's Purges were ptobably a factor.


Training and experience was also hugely important. The Luftwaffe's edge in training and experience was a key factor in its early victories as it was fr the Japanese naval pilots. By the same token, the German and Japanese failuers in 1944 relate not only to their loss of the technoloical superiority of their fighters, but to the fact that they were increasingly using young, poorly trained pilots. Numbers were another edge. Neither the Germans or the Japanese could compete with the numbers of planes that the Allies could put into the air. Some of this was explained by a fascinating passage in the memoirs of a Luftwaffe ace. "But now the leading Thunderboldt is a perfect target in my sights. A single burst of flame from my guns is all that is needed. It bursts into flames and goes down spinning like a dead leaf into the depth below. It is my second kill today. Than there is a second hammering noise in my crate. I turn round. There is a Thunderboldt hard on my tail, and two others are coming down to join it. I push the stickright forward with both hands, diving for cover in the clouds. Too late: my engine on fire." 【Knokes】 Here numbers were obviously important. But the Germans were still using the veneable ME-109. But what might not be so apprent was that the Germans and Japanese kept their veteran pilots in service rather than use them as trainers. And by this time of the War, the Luftwaffe was having to put young, poorly trained pilots into combat.


Knoke, Heinz. I Flew for the Führer: The Memoir of a Luftwaffe Fighter Pilot (2014), 192p. Knoke recorded 33 confirmed Allied kills and unlike many Luftwaffe aces, all in the West. Unlike many Luftwaffe aces, he managed to survive the War.

Neulen, Hans Werner. In the Skies of Europe (Ramsbury, Marlborough, UK: The Crowood Press, 2000).

Rearden, Jim. "Koga's Zero Fighter".

Stenman, Kari and Andrew Thomas. Brewster F2A Buffalo Aces of World War 2 Aircraft of the Aces series. (Botley, Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2010)..


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Created: 3:56 AM 4/9/2011
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