Transport Aircraft WWII

Aircraft the primary purpose of which is to transport personnel and supplies. Although fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft played major roles in World War I, the technology of the time did not allow aircraft to play a meaningful role in transporting troops and supplies. By the early 1930s, however, improvements in aircraft design and, more important, aircraft engines had resulted in the emergence of civil aircraft, such as the Douglas DC-3, for commercial passenger service. Military planners were quick to note these developments, which raised the prospect of rapidly deploying large numbers of men and a large amount of supplies to the battle zone, including behind enemy lines. By the outbreak of World War II, most of the powers that would become involved in the war had either already developed military variants of these civil aircraft or had introduced specially designed military transport aircraft.

Two main types of transport aircraft were used during the war: large multiengine, land-based aircraft or flying boats designed to move many troops or supplies (some of these also served in bombing and reconnaissance roles); and assault or transport gliders designed to be towed, then released, so they could glide silently to a landing behind enemy lines.

Similarly, the structure of the maintenance, supply, distribution, and data systems that support military forces needs to adjust to the operating patterns and performance of the supported force. Air forces operate from long distances, often from sanctuaries well outside the area of operations; the ability to connect regularly and efficiently to a centralized logistical system on virtually an hourly basis changes the materials and the skills required at each location for the conduct of operations. Armies and navies, in contrast, are typically not so well connected to global air transportation nets and thus require different and more extensive sets of on hand machinery, materials, and skills to manufacture and repair critical parts.

Global air transportation is the least heralded element in air warfare. Unrecognized by the early air warfare thinkers-who wrote extensively about bomber, pursuit, and observation tasks-military airlift evolved from an appreciation for the growing utility of civil aviation fleets; civilian aircraft were embraced to do similar tasks in a military situation. From the World War II regional experience of flying the Hump, to the Berlin Airlift, to Operation NICKEL GRASS (the strategic resupply of Israeli forces in 1973), to the deployment and redeployment of warfighting and peacekeeping forces around the world, air transportation fleets have become the sine qua non of conflict management. The Berlin Airlift is, arguably, the twentieth century’s premier example of military art at its highest level of accomplishment-no “combat” casualties, yet the allied powers achieved their strategic goals, preserved the political status of, and access to, Berlin, and set the tone for the next fifty years of European political and military history. Many nations have found the political and economic tools to integrate military and civilian air transportation into global strategic lift capability.

The following are the most significant aircraft employed primarily for transport by both sides during World War II.


Designed originally in 1930 as a three-engine passenger carrier for Deutsche Lufthansa, the Junkers Ju-52/3m served as the primary transport aircraft of the German army in World War II. Including the approximately 200 civil models constructed prior to the war, a total of 4,800 Ju-52/3ms were built by the end of 1944. It made its military debut as a bomber and troop transport during the Spanish Civil War. Successive versions of the Ju-52/3m incorporated more-powerful engines that provided greater load capacity (approximately twice its empty weight of 12,600-14,300 lb) and interchangeable wheel, ski, or float landing gear that allowed it to operate in a variety of conditions. In addition to its transport duties, it served as a bomber, air ambulance, glider tug, and paratrooper transport.

Intended as a replacement for the Ju-52/3m, the Junkers Ju-252 Herkules relied on the same three-engine configuration as the Ju-52/3m but featured improved interior and exterior designs and more powerful engines, which not only made it faster and capable of bearing heavier loads but also gave it a range as much as twice that of the Ju-52/3m. Unfortunately for Germany, shortages of resources and manpower forced the Luftwaffe to limit production of the all-metal Ju-252 to just 15 aircraft. A mixed-wood and tube-steel version, the Ju- 352 entered service in 1944, but it came too late in the war to make a difference. Just 45 of the Ju-352s were constructed.

Originally designed for Deutsche Lufthansa to serve as a trans-Atlantic flying boat, the six-engine Blohm und Voss Bv- 222 Viking was the largest flying boat, and the largest aircraft of any kind, to serve in World War II. Although only 13 were produced, the Bv-222, which could carry up to 110 troops in addition to its 11-man crew, played an important role in transporting troops in the Mediterranean and North African Campaigns.

Germany employed three types of gliders as transports during World War II: the DFS-230, the Gotha Go-242, and the Messerschmitt Me-321 Gigant. Entering service in 1938, the DFS 230 could carry 8 airborne troops and proved to be the standard assault glider used by the Germany army during the war, with approximately 1,500 being constructed. Introduced in late 1941, the Gotha Go-242 could carry up to 23 airborne troops or the equivalent weight in supplies. As one of the largest aircraft of the war, the Messerschmitt Me- 321 Gigant was capable of carrying up to 120 troops, 21,500 lb of freight, or 60 wounded soldiers. The Go-242 and Me-321 served primarily on the Eastern Front to bring food and supplies to German soldiers. Powered versions, the Go-244 and Me-323, were also developed for transport service.

Great Britain

Although the twin-engine Bristol Bombay was designed as a troop transport carrier in 1931, the economic conditions of the Great Depression delayed production until early 1939. While only 51 were produced, the Bristol Bombay, which was capable of carrying up to 24 troops or a payload of 7,200 lb, saw significant action for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the first half of the war, ferrying troops and supplies across the English Channel in 1940, evacuating British forces from Crete in 1941, and dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines in North Africa.

Originally intended as a bomber, the Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle was instead converted to transport service. A total of 310 were used as transports for special operations, such as dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines. An additional 247 served as the standard tug for the Airspeed Horsa assault glider, seeing action in the invasion of Sicily in 1943 and the D day landings in June 1944. At least 10 were shipped to the Soviet Union.

Great Britain produced two primary transport gliders during the war: the Airspeed Horsa and the General Aircraft Hamilcar. The Horsa came in two varieties: the Mk. 1, which was configured for carrying up to 25 troops; and the Mk. 2, which could carry up to 7,000 lb of freight and featured a hinged nose section for easier loading and unloading. Approximately 3,800 of the Horsa gliders were constructed. The Hamilcar was the largest Allied glider of the war and was capable of carrying a payload of 17,500 lb. It first saw action in the D day landings and proved immensely significant because it could provide heavy equipment, such as the British Tetrarch Mk. IV tank, to airborne troops operating behind enemy lines.

Other British aircraft used in a transport role included those that also served as bombers or reconnaissance aircraft such as the Handley Page Halifax, the Short Stirling, and Vickers Warwick.


Although Italy relied on several aircraft for transport duties, such as the Caproni CA 309-316, the Piaggio P. 108, and the Savoia-Marchetti S. M. 81 Pipistrello, their primary role was as bombers or reconnaissance aircraft. The Savoia-Marchetti S. M. 75 and the Savoia-Marchetti S. M. 82 Canguru were exceptions. The S. M. 75 had originally been designed for passenger service for Ala Littoria in 1937. Requisitioned for military service when Italy entered the war in June 1940, the S. M. 75 could carry up to 30 troops and saw action throughout the Mediterranean until the end of the war. A total of 98 were constructed. The three-engine S. M. 82 proved to be one of the best heavy transports available to the Axis powers. It was capable of carrying up to 40 fully equipped troops or almost 9,000 lb of freight. Of approximately 400 S. M. 82s constructed between 1941 and 1943, at least 50 entered service with the Luftwaffe in the Baltic area of the Eastern Front. Those that survived the war continued in service with the Italian air force into the 1950s.


Although Japan employed a variety of multipurpose aircraft, such as the Nakajima G5N Shinzan and the Tachikawa Ki-54, for transporting troops and supplies, it relied primarily on four main transport aircraft during World War II: the Kawanishi H6K flying boat, the Kawanishi H8K flying boat, the Kawasaki Ki-56, and the Mitsubishi Ki-57.

When Japan entered the war, the four-engine Kawanishi H6K served as the navy’s primary long-range flying boat. Although used at first primarily for long-range reconnaissance, it was soon relegated to transport duty because of its vulnerability to Allied fighters. Capable of carrying up to 18 troops in addition to its crew, the H6K remained in production until 1943. Of the 217 constructed, 139 were designed exclusively for transport.

The four-engine Kawanishi H8K entered service in early 1942 and gradually replaced the Kawanishi H6K. While it also served in a variety of roles, its transport version, the H8K2- L, of which 36 were built, could carry up to 64 passengers. With a cruising speed of 185 mph and a range of up to 4,460 miles, it was well-suited for the Pacific Theater, and its heavy armament afforded better protection than the H6K.

Ironically, Japan’s primary light transport aircraft, the twin-engine Kawasaki Ki-56, was a military version of a license-built American plane, the Lockheed 14 Electra. It was capable of carrying a payload of up to 5,290 lb or 14 passengers and had a range of approximately 3,300 miles. A total of 121 were constructed between 1941 and 1943.

Originally intended for passenger service with Nippon Koku KK, the twin-engine Mitsubishi Ki-57 was quickly adapted for service with both the Japanese army and navy beginning in 1940. After Japan entered the war, the original production series, of which 101 were built, was modified by adding more powerful engines. Between 1942 and early 1945, 406 of the new version (Ki-57-II) were constructed. These were capable of carrying a crew of 4 and up to 11 passengers or a cargo of approximately 7,000 lb to a range of up to 1,835 miles.

Soviet Union

While the Soviet Union relied heavily on American aircraft, such as license-built Douglas C-47 Skytrains, for transport purposes, the four-engine Tupolev TB-3 (ANT-6), originally designed in the early 1930s as a heavy bomber, had been converted primarily for troop and freight transport by the time the Soviet Union entered World War II. Later versions fitted with four 1,200 hp engines were capable of carrying more than 12,000 lb of cargo. In addition to carrying airborne troops and supplies, it also served as a glider tug. Some were even modified to carry a tank or truck between their undercarriage legs.

United States

Of all the powers in World War II, the United States had by far the largest number and variety of transport aircraft, in part because it was conducting simultaneous campaigns in the European and Pacific Theaters.

Without question, the twin-engine Douglas C-47 Skytrain was the most famous transport aircraft of World War II. As the DC-3, it had revolutionized civil air travel before the war. Once the United States entered the war, the Skytrain went into full-scale military production; 10,665 were produced by war’s end, including 4,878 in 1944 alone. Of its variants, the C-47 Skytrain (known as the Dakota in British service), accounted for more than 9,000 of the total produced, approximately 1,800 of which were loaned to Great Britain through Lend-Lease. An additional 2,500 were constructed on license by the Soviet Union as the Lisunov Li-2. Even the Japanese built 485 as the Nakajima L2D through a 1938 license. With a range of 1,500 miles and capable of carrying 28 troops or a cargo of 10,000 lb, it saw service in every theater of the war.

The four-engine Consolidated Liberator Transport C-87 was a transport version of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber. A total of 287 C-87s were produced and served with the U. S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and the RAF as a transport and a tanker. As a transport, it was capable of carrying up to 25 passengers and up to 10,000 lb of freight. As a tanker, it could carry up to 2,400 gallons of fuel, which proved useful in a variety of theaters, but especially in support of Boeing B- 29 Superfortresses operating in China.

Originally designed in 1936 as the CW-20 (a 36-passenger pressured airliner), the twin-engine Curtiss C-46 Commando entered service in 1942 after undergoing extensive modifications for military service. These included the installation of a large cargo door, a strengthened floor, and folding troop seats. It was capable of carrying up to 50 troops, 33 wounded soldiers, and up to 10,000 lb of cargo. These characteristics, combined with its excellent climbing ability, made it ideally suited for flying over the Himalayas (“the Hump”) from India to China. A total of 3,341 were produced.

As with the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, the Douglas C-54 Skymaster was originally designed for passenger airliner service as the DC-4. After Pearl Harbor, the U. S. military quickly adopted it, with the first C-54 Skymaster entering service in February 1942. With a maximum range of 3,900 miles, Skymasters flew almost 80,000 trans-Atlantic flights during the course of the war with a loss of just three aircraft. It was capable of carrying 50 troops or 28,000 lb of cargo. It would remain in service until 1974 and is famous for its role in the Berlin Airlift of 1948.

The Waco CG-4A Hadrian proved to be one of the most effective transport gliders produced in the war. Designed for mass production, the Hadrian featured fabric-covered wooden wings and a steel tube fuselage, which was easily replicated by the 15 firms involved in constructing the 13,910 Hadrians produced during the war. Its most notable feature was a hinged nose section that raised upward and allowed cargo to be loaded directly into the cabin. It was capable of carrying 15 troops or 3,800 lb of cargo, which could include a jeep or 75 mm howitzer and its crew. It proved effective in landings in Sicily, the D day invasion, and the Rhine crossings, and it would have been an integral part of an Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland had the atomic bomb not ended the war.

Other successful U. S. transport aircraft of the war included the following three aircraft: the twin-engine Lockheed Lodestar, of which 625 were produced, was a military version of the civil Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra; the twin-engine Beechcraft C-45 Expeditor, of which 1,391 were built, was a military version of the civil Beechcraft Model 18 light transport; and the Martin PBM Mariner Flying Boat, of which 1,405 were produced, served in a variety of roles besides transport, including antisubmarine warfare, air-sea rescue, and maritime patrol.

U. S. Airlift Operations

The first U. S. airlift operations began during World War I using four British-designed de Havilland DH-4 biplanes to drop supplies to the beleaguered Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forest. One aircraft was successful, and the crew, consisting of Lieutenants Harold Goettler and Erwin Bleckley, were posthumously awarded of Medals of Honor for their actions on 6 October 1918.

Airlift operations within the U. S. military began in the mid-1920s. The aircraft primarily supported operations of combat and headquarters units. The first transport aircraft for the U. S. Army Air Service, built in 1919, was the Martin T-1, based on the MB-1 bomber. Its fuselage was redesigned to enclose the cockpit and provide accommodations for up to 10 passengers.

For the brief period 15 May-29 August 1919, the Army flew mail for the U. S. Postal Service. First in this long series of aircraft was the Douglas C-1, an enlarged version of the famed World Cruisers that made the first round-the-world flight in 1924. Transport aircraft were procured in small quantities of one to 10 from the C-1 through the C-31, indicating the low priority of such aircraft to the service (the General Aircraft [American Fokker] C-14 was the exception, with 20 being procured). It was not until the advent of the Douglas C-32 (the military version of the commercial DC-2) that airlift became a serious issue with the military.

In fiscal year 1942, the Army procured 24 C-32s as troop transports, 18 C-33s for freighters, and a pair of C-34s as VIP transports. That year was also the start of orders for 3,144 Curtiss C-46 Commandos, capable of carrying 50 troops. A total of 9,583 Douglas C-47 Skytrains (the military version of the commercial DC-3) were also produced for the Army as well as the Navy and Allied nations. Both the C-46 and C-47 saw service during World War II and Korea. The C-47 soldiered on through the Vietnam War.

Management of such a large transport force was a major undertaking. First, the operations were divided between strategic and tactical airlift. Strategic operations initially began with ferrying Lend-Lease aircraft to England. This mission was performed by the Air Corps Ferrying Command, established on 29 May 1941. By 7 December 1941, the command had delivered some 1,300 aircraft to the Allied forces around the world. Ferrying Command was redesignated Air Transport Command (ATC) on 20 June 1942, and although it continued its role in ferrying aircraft, it was primarily tasked with providing all strategic airlift for the War Department, delivering personnel and materiel critical to the war effort throughout the world. At its peak, ATC had more than 3,700 aircraft supported by more than 300,000 personnel.

The first ATC was activated on 1 May 1942. The command was designated the I Troop Carrier Command in July 1942. This organization was a major command that reported directly to Headquarters Army Air Forces and was responsible for training troop carrier units and personnel within the United States for parachute troops, airborne infantry, and glider units. The I Troop Carrier Command was disbanded on 5 November 1945. Theater operations were conducted by the IX Troop Carrier Command, activated in England on 16 October 1943.

The Naval Air Transport Service (NATS) was formed on 12 December 1941. Though much smaller than the Army’s ATC, NATS was equipped with 429 aircraft supported by 26,000 personnel. Its mission was to provide a global air transportation network between naval establishments and naval areas of operation.

Among the Allied powers, airline operations all but stopped save for direct military support roles. Britain’s Imperial Airways (which became BOAC in mid-1940) ceased civil operation and came under military command. Headquarters were relocated west to Bristol; landplane and seaplane bases moved farther west as well. Imperial maintained civilian service between London and Paris until the German occupation of the latter in June 1940. Flying-boat services to Africa and the Horseshoe Route around the Indian Ocean to Australia and New Zealand began in mid-1940 and operated until Japanese advances in early 1942. Then Australia’s QANTAS flew Catalina seaplanes from Ceylon to Perth, a distance of 3,500 miles; these “double sunrise” flights made up the longest nonstop air route of the war and took 27-30 hours with a 1,200-pound payload. To the extent their equipment escaped loss through battle or occupation, KLM, Sabena, Air France, and QANTAS (among others) used their surviving airliners or were forced to use “interim types” (converted bombers) as further development of promising airliners had to be cancelled for the duration.

References Jarrett, Philip, ed. Aircraft of the Second World War. London: Putnam, 1997. Munson, Kenneth. Bombers, Patrol, and Transport Aircraft, 1939-45. Poole, UK: Blandford Press, 2002. Wilson, Stewart. Aircraft of WWII. Fyshwick, Australia: Aerospace Publications, 1998.

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