World War II, which ranged from 1939 to 1945, saw major evolutionary landmarks in warplane design. It marked the final decline and disappearance of biplanes in combat, and the rise of the monoplane design which is still used today. The war also saw the dawn of primitive jet fighters, such as the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star which never saw combat, and the infamous German ME-262, which scored over 500 kills against Allied forces. Strategic bombing and firebombing of civilian cities evolved during this period, and the first two and only nuclear attacks in history were carried out by World War II-era bomber aircraft. It was during World War II that the concept of air superiority also evolved, in which nations sought dominance by controlling the skies. The most famous aircraft of World War II include the B-29 and the P-51 Mustang from the United States, Great Britain’s Supermarine Spitfire, the Japanese A6M Zero, the German FW-190 and BF-109, and the Russian tank killer, the Ilyushin-2 Shturmovik.
Aircraft of the United States
The United States Navy and Army Air Force relied on a combination of bombers, fighters and fighter-bombers during World War II. The North American Aviation P-51 Mustang, the Grumman F6F Hellcat, and the Chance Vought F4U-4 Corsair were the top American fighter planes of the war. The Corsair was a carrier-launched fighter and light bomber that the British Royal Navy, United States Navy and Marine Corps deployed in both the Pacific and European arenas of the war. The Corsair achieved an average kill ratio of better than ten to one. The Grumman Hellcat served mainly in the Pacific theater, where it was responsible for three out of every four dogfight victories. The Wildcat was the star of the Battle of Midway, which marked the decline of Japan as a powerful opponent at sea. The P-51 Mustang served as a dogfighter and bomber escort for the Army Air Force and the Royal Air Force, primarily against Germany. P-51’s gained fame not only for their high kill ratios, but also their ability to shoot down a handful of German ME-262 jet fighters and V-1 rockets. These were also the fighters flown by the all-African American Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group. The most famous American bombers of World War II included the Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress and B-29 Superfortress, the Consolidated Vultee B-24 Liberator, and the North American Aviation B-25 Mitchell. The most productive bomber was the B-17G, which dropped roughly 40% of all bombs used throughout the war. The B-29 was a heavy bomber, and two of its type dropped the atomic bombs that ended World War II.
- Centennial of Flight: The B-17 and B-29 in World War II
- Dave’s Warbirds: American Aircraft Of World War II
- Armed Forces History Museum: WWII’s Top Ten Aircraft
- Virginia Tech: North American Aviation P-51 D Mustang (PDF)
Aircraft of Britain
The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy deployed a variety of bombers and fighter craft in their war against the Axis forces. Of the nearly 100 types of aircraft that Great Britain used, the most famous were the Supermarine Spitfire, and the Hawker Aircraft series of fighters, which included the Hawker Hurricane and Hawker Tempest. The first Allied jet fighter to see action was a British plane, the Gloster Meteor. The Meteor’s primary mission was to shoot down German V-1 rockets. The Spitfire was the main fighter of the Royal Air Force, serving in both the Pacific and European theaters of battle. It first became famous during the Battle of Britain, in which Nazi Germany was defeated in its attempt to invade England. The Hawker Hurricane and Tempest fighters operated in both theaters, like the Spitfire, and the Sea Hurricane variant flew from aircraft carriers. The Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster heavy bombers primarily flew strategic aerial bombing missions over German cities such as Berlin, Cologne and Dresden.
Aircraft of the Soviet Union
Some of the last biplanes to serve in World War II were created by the Soviet Air Force. One such aircraft was the I-153 Tchayka, which was discontinued in 1940. The Yakovlev Yak-1 monoplane fighter came into service in 1940 and the Yak-3 in 1943. The Yak-3 proved to be a capable fighter in tactical situations, scoring numerous victories against the German Luftwaffe. The Yak-9 variant was the first Soviet fighter to shoot down a German ME-262 jet fighter. The Yak series of fighters were the most numerous in the history of the war. The most famous Soviet aircraft was the Ilyushin-2 Shturmovik, a two-seat tank hunting aircraft. The Shturmovik became the scourge of German Panzer divisions and was difficult to shoot down due to its heavy armor. German names for this warplane included “the Black Death” and “Iron Gustav”. The Tupolev TU-2 and the Petlyakov PE-2 were the Soviet Union’s most famous bombers, serving primarily in Europe. The TU-2 was a medium bomber known for its long-range, constitution and agility. The PE-2 was a bomber that also doubled as a fighter, often shooting down enemy aircraft such as the formidable Messerschmitt BF-109.
- World War 2 Planes: Soviet Aircraft in World War 2
- The Eastern Front: German & Russian Aircraft
- Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik
Aircraft of Germany
The German Luftwaffe was the backbone of the Axis powers, fielding over 60,000 fighters and 18,000 bombers during the course of the war. The Messerschmitt BF-109 was the backbone of the Luftwaffe, with close to 40,000 units. It served as a fighter and light bomber, and it fought effectively during the day and night. The BF-109 scored more kills overall, than any other type of fighter, with over 2,500 BF-109 pilots scoring more than five kills apiece. The Focke-Wulf FW 190 was another multi-purpose fighter, with over 20,000 in service during World War II. The FW-190 was designed to compete with fighters that were superior to the BF-109, and was favored by Luftwaffe pilots who flew both types of aircraft. The Luftwaffe also deployed bomber aircraft, although not nearly as many as the Allies. Their most prominent bombers were the Junkers “Maid of all Work” JU-88 twin-engine bomber and the JU-87 Stuka dive bomber. German bombers had limited effects on the war, and were completely unsuccessful in their Blitzkrieg assault against England during the Battle of Britain. The JU-87s were particularly vulnerable to fighter aircraft, due to their low-speed and agility. The Heinkel HE-111 was a commercial airliner that was designed to be retooled into a bomber in a short period of time. It participated in the Battle of Britain, but became ineffective as the war dragged on, and was ultimately used as a transport aircraft. The most terrifying and modern aircraft in the war was the German jet fighter, the ME-262 “Schwalbe”. It preyed upon enemy fighters and bombers alike, but lack of fuel and facilities to produce the fighter prevented it from becoming a significant force in the war.
- IPMS Stockholm: World War II German Aircraft in Color
- Military Factory: WW2 German Military Aircraft
- The Military Channel: ME-262 Schwalbe
Aircraft of Japan
The Imperial Japanese Army Air Force and Navy Air Service of World War II concentrated heavily on ground support for its soldiers and long-range airstrikes. The most important fighters of the Imperial forces included the Nakajima KI-84 Hayate and the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. The Zero was the most well-known and numerous fighter in the Japanese military, and could launch from an aircraft carrier as well as an airfield. Its maneuverability and range made it a fearsome opponent in the sky, and it was the primary aircraft involved in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. In the end, many A6M variants were used in kamikaze strikes, where pilots would fly them into warships. When Allied aircraft began to overtake the Zero in air combat superiority, the KI-84 Hayate was built with the intent to cover for the Zero’s weaknesses. Shortages of fuel and materials to build the aircraft prevented the KI-84 from achieving its maximum potential as a fighter. Japanese bombers served most effectively in China during the Second Sino-Japanese war, but were largely ineffective during the rest of the war. The heaviest class of Japanese bomber was the Nakajima KI-49 Donryu “Storm Dragon”, which saw action over Australia. Like the Zero, the KI-49 was eventually deployed in Kamikaze suicide bombing missions. The Nakajima B5N “Kate” bombers were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor, along with Mitsubishi Zero fighter-bombers.
- Century of Flight: Japanese Aircraft of World War Two
- Imperial Japanese Aviation Resource Center
- US Air Force Museum: Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero
- Chuck Hawks: The Super Warbirds of World War II
Aircraft at the Pearl Harbor Attack
The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese warplanes was the event that brought the United States into World War II. The attack lasted for an hour and a half and came in two waves, with the first primarily being headed by Japanese Nakajima B5N “Kate” bombers and Mitsubishi Zeroes acting as bombers. In the next wave the carrier-based Aichi D3A bombers struck along with more B5Ns and A6M Zeroes. The attack ended with the sinking of 4 American battleships, the destruction of almost 200 airplanes, and the deaths of over 2,000 people.
- WW II Pacific, Dec 7, 1941: Aircraft at Pearl Harbor
- US Navy: Pearl Harbor Raid, 7 December 1941 – Japanese Aircraft During and After the Raid
- Friesian School: The Pearl Harbor Strike Force, Kidô Butai
Aircraft During the Battle of Midway
The June 4, 1942 Battle of the Midway Atoll, also known as the Battle of Midway, was a major event in the war between the United States and Japan during World War II. Instead of scoring a crushing defeat for the United States and forcing them into surrendering, Japan lost a critical portion of its fleet and its Navy and Air Force were permanently crippled. The Grumman F4F Wildcat carrier-based fighter, the Douglass Dauntless dive-bomber, and the B-17 bomber participated in the fight. The Japanese Zero was the star of the Japanese air forces in the battle, along with the Aichi D3A and Nakajima B5N. In the end, the Americans won the battle, having lost only one aircraft carrier to Japan’s four, and 150 aircraft lost to Japan’s nearly 250. At a little over 300 dead, America’s casualties were barely over a tenth of Japan’s.
(Featured image: ian_e_abbott)