*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- technology air campaigns weapons

World War II Technology: Air Weapons

World War II aircraft
Figure 1.--Several high-performance fighters saw service in World War II, the German ME-109, Folke Wolfe 190, and ME-262 Schwalbe, the British Spitfire, and the American Vought F4U Corsair. Only one of these iconic fighters, however was capable of long-distance operation--the American P51 Mustang. The British and Americans took heavy casualties during the 1943 arround-the-clock bombing of German targets. The clmax of the air war came when the P-51s began accompanying the bombers to their targets into the Reich. Luftwaffe Chief G�ring after the War said he knew the War was lost when he saw the P-51s over Berlin. The plan took propeller driven fighter aircraft as it could go. It was an example of Anglo-American cooperation. The American airframe was a mediocre fighter until combined with the British Allison Rolls Royce engines. Here Scouts at the Franklin Institute in Detroit after the War inspect a vintage P-51.

The Germans developed some excellent aircraft, especially the ME-109 fighter which was in service throught the War. Other planes were developed, but only the FW-190 fighter proved successful before jets were introduced. The French had competiive aircraft planes, but they were not used effectively by French commanders. British Hawker Huricans and Spitfires early in the War exposed weaknesses in the Luftwaffe. The British like the French also used their aircraft poorly, but fortunately the Channel bought the time the British needed to adjust air combast tactics. Radar and electronic beaming was to have a major impact on the air war. The Red Air Force deployed a new generation of aircraft when factories beyond the Urals came on line (1943). The Stermovick tank buster is the best known Soviet aircraft. American Lend Lease not only provided the Soviets aircraft, but the aluminium needed by aircraft plants. The Germans introduced jet aircraft. As Hitler delayed the program, they did not become operational until the final year of the War. The Messerschmitt ME-262 Schwalbe ("Swallow") was the first operational jet-powered aircraft and the most advanced aircraft of the War. It was introduced, however, too late to affect the outcome. America and Britain were also working on jets, but the Germans had a substantial lead. Allied inteligence helped to reduce the impact of the pilotless ram jets (V-1s). The German secret balistic missle weapn (V-2), while a technological marvel, had no real impact on the War. The Japanese Zero made a major impact at the beginning of the Pacific War, but the Japanese unlike the Americans were unable to bring more advanced aircraft into service. American before the War began working on strategic bombers. The Boeing B-17 is the iconic American bomber of the War. American commanders though it was well armed enough to fight its way into the Reich. This proved to be wrong. Unesorted B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators s took heavy casualties. The tide in the air was only turned when the P-51 Mustang was introduced to escort the bonbers. The British used the legendary Avro Lancaster to bomb at night, probably the most effective bomber of the War, until the B-29 Super Fortresses came into service. The B-29 was motly used in the Pacific.

Aircraft Types

World War II in the air was primarily fought with propeller-driven fixed-wing aircraft. There were several types of fixed-wing plsnes: fighters, bombers, reconisance, and cargo planes. All of the imporant air battles were fought primarily with fixed-wing propeller-driven aircraft. Both the Germnans and Allies built excelent fighters. The Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero was a major factor in thee early years of the Pascific War, bur was effective primsarily because it had no armpr protection and Japan unlike the United States did not have the idustrial capacity to build the larger engines to drive the heavier planes the Americans built in huge numbers. The Germans did not, however, have the idustrial capacity to build heavy bombers. The Americas and the British build the iconic B-17 Flying Fotresss and the Lacaster as well as other types in huge numbers. And the Americans at the end of the war introduced the B-29 Super Fortress. Both fighters and bombers were mostly propeller drivem. And the War brought about the development of propeller technology to the limits. 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 soud barrier. The Germans of course developed jet aircraft and the ME 262 Schwalbe proved to be an effective fighter. The British and Americans were also working on jets, but were far behind the Germans. Thanks to Hitler and the Allied stratehic bombing campaign, the Germans were unable to turn their technological achievements into a real battlefield advantage. The Germans also developed ram jets (V-1), balistical missles (V-2), guided missles, and rocket planes. None proved to be an important factor in the War, although they became major weapons system after the War. Ironically, one Word War I technology developed by the Germans, lighter than air craft, proved to be a valuable Allied assett in the Battle for the Atlantic.


The two basic types of of bomb ordinance in World war II were conoventional and unconventionl bombs. Several different types of conventional bombs were used in World war II. The most imprtant most important were high explosive and incenderary bombs. The various air force commnders tended to prefer high-explosive bombs apparently because the big bang was the most impressive. In fact, as the war progressed, it was incenderaies tht proved to be he most destructive ordinance in the stratgic bombing cmpaign. This was especially the case with Japan's wood and paper cities. Hitting specific targets like war factories proved to be very difficult with World War II technology. Massive fires on the other hand destroyed countless factories cutting the hear out of war industries. There were other specialized bombs like armor piercing bombs, needed by aircraft attacking heavily armored naval vessels. The difference between high-explosive bombs and armor piercing bombs played in the devestating Japanese defeat at Midway. Napalm (gellied gasoline) bombs were extenively used by the U.S. Marine Air Aviation in the Pacific. Smokes bombs were used to a limited extent. The other basic type of bombs are unconventionl bombs. Here the best known are the two atomic bombs droppoed on Japan which ended the War. They are, however, nont the only uncomvdentional bombs. Japan develoved bomps to disperse both chenical and bilogical agents and used both in China.


Torpedoes are generally associate with submarines and other naval vessels. And this was generally the case duting the War. For the first year of the Pacific War beginning at Pearl Harbor the Imperil Navy's First Air Fleet had a very effecive aerial torpedo striking force. The Long Lance torpedo was the primary attack weapon of the First Air Fleet. Much of the damage done at Pearl Harbor was due to torpedoes. The Americans in contrast had torpedo planes that were death traps and topedoes that did not work. After Midway, however, the torpedo declined in importance as a naval aerial weapon. The American Daunless dive bombers cut the hear out of the First Air Fleet. This and the subsequent disppation of the highly competent Jpanese aviators meant that Jpan could not longer send out waves of attacking torpedo bombers. In ddition, the arrivl of the Essex-class carriers nd their F4^ Hellcat fighters mean ht very few Japanese torpedo attackets could get through the air umbrella. The Americans eventually deployed effective torpedo bombrs with torpedoes that actually worked, but from the beginning, five numbers were the primary attack weapon of the Pacific Fleet. The British alsonused aeril torpedoes, but as their ficus was on the German U-boat threat, they played a limited role. It was a Britih torpedo, hiwever, thst plsyed a key role in the demise of the Bismarck

Guns and Other Armament

There were two types of guns associated with the air war. The first type of guns wer the plane armament, the guns with which aircraft were armed. Fighters were armed wuth both heavy machine guns and light cannons. The ME-109 had a cannon in its nose. American and British fighters were armed with machine guns. The machine guns would be suplmented by rockets in the later phase of the War. This helped make planes armed with machine guns effective tank killers. Mombers came with machine guns for protection. This was why the B-17 was called the Folying Fortress. They were not, however, adequate to fight thgriough fighter defenses. For this long range escorts were needed. The Americans in the final year of the War deployed guns on the new B-29s that were radar guided. The second type of guns were anti-aircraft guns. This included both machine guns and cannons. Just as there was a rapid evolution of aircraft during the war so did anti-aircraft weapns rapidly evolve. The finest anti-aircraft weapon was probably the German-88 which interestingly appeared very early in the War. The Germans because of the strength of the Luftwaffe found they had little need for anti-aircaft weaopons in the firt years of the War. They soon found that the 88 was a very effective tank killer abd was widely used for this purpoe in both the East and the West. It was the German who first worked out how important anti-tank artilleru was in mobil tank warfare. As the War progressed, however, the Germans were fiorced to fivert more and more of their artillery to anti-aircraft gun prduction and huge numbers of gunswere deployed in Flack belts around the major cities. Vast quantities of amunition was also used for this purpose. On the Allied side there was less need for ati-aircraft guns in the later phase of the War although the guns shot down a number of V-2s. More important were the Bofor anti-aircraft guns deployed in the Pacific. These guns and proximnity fuses played an important role in carrier warfare and beating back the Kamikazees.


Germany launched World War II with the world's most effective airforce--the Luftwaffe. Not only did they have the most effective aircraft, but they had the best trained airmen and tactics. Germany's early victories were in part atributable to the Luftwaffe. Japan 2 years later launched the Pacific War with the most effective fighter and air combat tactics. (Unlike Germany they had, however, a retively small cohart of well-trained pilots.) The advantages that accured from air power were a major factors in the spectacular victories Germany and Japan achieved in the early phases of the War. Several factors boded ill for both Germany and Japan even as they were achieving spectacular victories. The British showed during the Battle of Britain that the Luftwaffe was not invincible and that the Allies were building effective aircraft types as well and in increasing numbers. A little noted fact is that at the time of the Battle of Britain that the British were out producing Germny in aircraft. German war plans were to defeat numerically superior opponents with better tactics and technology. The loss of te Battle of Britain should have led Hitler and Göring to reassess this presmise. Hitler decided, however, to widen the War. And when the Germans widened the War to include the Soviet Union and the United States, German aircraft production became a small fraction of Allied production. The Allies unlike the Germans had the capability to build not only tactical air forces, but also strategic airforces enabling them to launch a massive air assault on both Germany and Japan. The United States not only massively increased production, but develooped new advanced aircraft types. The Germans and Japanese were still relying on 1930s early-1940s air-craft types at the end of the War. The Germans of course developed the first jet aircraft, but thanks to Hitler and the Luftwaffe development system had little impact on the War. The Allies also developed much more effective air crew training programs. Here availbility of fuel was factor.


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Created: 8:40 PM 12/19/2009
Last updated: 7:54 AM 2/25/2013