World War II Aviation

Although it cannot be said that airpower won World War II, it is fair to state that airpower made possible and accelerated the Allies’ victory over the Axis powers. If airpower had been removed entirely from the equation, it is possible that the end result might have been exactly the same; given the difference in resources between the Allies and the Axis, however, it is fairly certain that the war would have lasted much longer with much greater loss of life. Airpower proved to be the great advantage of the Allies.

Summary of the Air War: Timing, Technology, Scale

One of the ironies is that the Axis nations chose airpower as a tool for aggression, but the Allied nations made better and far more extensive use of airpower to achieve final victory. The reason for this turnabout was that airpower in World War II turned entirely on three major issues: timing, technology, and scale. The Allies were able to exploit these issues to a far greater degree.

In the beginning, the Axis powers made excellent use of timing and technology. The timing of the war was almost solely of their choosing, and they chose to strike when their air forces were at the peak of modernization, equipped with first-rate aircraft in numbers deemed necessary for victory. Italy has been left out of this equation because its military services were totally unprepared for modern warfare in equipment, training, and morale. It was Italy’s misfortune to have a leader, Benito Mussolini, who was so greedy for the spoils of war that he ignored Italy’s blatant military deficiencies. In doing so, he sacrificed many brave and capable soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

Democratic Allied powers, because they were democracies, found themselves in a typical position: unprepared for war because politicians had refused to risk electoral defeat by voting to raise taxes necessary for defense. In the Soviet Union-an accidental Ally as a result of the German invasion-the situation was different. Great sums had been spent on the military, including the Soviet air force, but the armed forces were paralyzed with fear as a result of Stalin’s insane purges. They left the military bereft of leadership, with the great majority of senior officers executed, the remainder afraid to take any action for fear of arrest and a quick death.

Germany and Japan were thus able to prepare first-class air forces, equipped with the most modern equipment and sufficiently strong to win almost all of their initial objectives. Both nations considered an air force of 3,000-5,000 aircraft, flown by well-trained, well-motivated crews, to be sufficient for their purposes. When Germany initiated the war on 1 September 1939, and when Japan entered the war on 7 December 1941, both nations had bent timing and technology to their will.

However, neither nation had any concept of the scale of effort that airpower required. As a result, their production would soon lag behind that of the Allies. When they finally perceived the scale of the task at hand, they were in no position to achieve it.

Only two nations did. The Soviet Union was one, and it formulated airpower projections in the same way it created divisions and employed infantry, artillery, and tanks: on a grand scale-far beyond the concepts of either the German or the Japanese leaders. In fact, even when properly informed of the scale of the Soviet effort, German leaders refused to believe it.

Even more remarkable was the Soviet ability to relocate the aircraft industry from European Russia to behind the Urals. There they not only instituted mass production in amazingly short order but also introduced new and more effective types of aircraft. It was a magnificent effort, totally beyond the comprehension of the Nazi leaders, Adolf Hitler in particular. In terms of industrial miracles, the Soviet effort corresponded fully to the renaissance of the U. S. aviation industry during the war.

The United States was the other nation to correctly estimate the scale of effort that would be required. The fact that it did so was improbable, as was the method by which grandiose estimates were made and accepted.

The United States, nurtured in its isolation by two oceans and still resenting the events in Europe and Asia following World War I, had let its armed forces be reduced to a bare minimum. In January 1939, the U. S. air forces had a nominal strength of some 1,700 aircraft, 1,000 officers, and 18,000 enlisted personnel. Most of the aircraft were obsolescent, and none were equivalent to their European and Asian counterparts. Only one year later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would call on Congress to permit the building of 50,000 aircraft per year. It seemed an impossible assignment, but it was the clarion call that brought forth the plan conceived by four brilliant young officers: Lieutenant Colonels Harold Lee George and Kenneth N. Walker and Majors Haywood S. Hansell and Laurence S. Kuter. These four men-all future general officers-created the plan for U. S. airpower in World War II during nine hectic days in August 1941. Their audacious plan-AWPD-1-would prove to be uncannily accurate in concept and fulfillment.

In large part this was due to the permissive and aggressive leadership of the U. S. air forces, personified by Major General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold and Brigadier General Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, backed up by the president of the United States. In stark contrast, the Luftwaffe was under the command of a dissolute dilettante: Reichsmarschall Herman Goering, who had selected a fellow dilettante, Generaloberst Ernst Udet, to supervise the technical development of the service. The chief of state, Hitler, was too preoccupied with the army to do more than treat the Luftwaffe with benign neglect.

AWPD-1 was subsequently modified, but not to a significant extent. The final plan called for 207 groups of aircraft, 68,416 operational aircraft (including 3,740 Consolidated B- 36 bombers, a design that was still on the drafting boards). The officer force was to be expanded to 179,398 while enlisted personnel would number almost 2 million. Monthly attrition was estimated at 2,133 aircraft-more than existed in the entire USAAF at the time. Also included were requirements for training, factories, targets, sorties, fuel, bombs, and all the other materiel that an air force of almost 70,000 aircraft would require.

At any other previous moment in history, the tender of such an extravagant plan would have been considered insane. It would have been rejected forthwith, and the careers of the men who made it would have been over. But the planners’ timing was impeccable. As grand as it was, their plan was accepted on its merits and implemented with blinding speed. In 1939 in the United States, annual aircraft production of all types had barely reached 3,000, mostly small, simple aircraft. By 1944, the United States was producing aircraft at the rate of 100,000 per year, including some of the largest and most sophisticated aircraft in history. When the war ended, the United States Army Air Forces possessed some 70,000 operational aircraft and had suffered almost exactly the predicted rate of attrition.

In stark contrast, the Axis powers had based their plans on a series of short wars quickly won by the superior technology and numbers of their aircraft working in cooperation with land and naval forces. A production level of 3,000-5,000 aircraft per year was considered adequate in both nations. When the war grew long, both Germany and Japan made valiant and determined efforts to expand aircraft production. Both succeeded to a remarkable degree, with Germany manufacturing some 40,000 aircraft in 1944, at the height of the Allied bombing raids. In the same year, Japan manufactured 24,000 aircraft, approximately six times its 1939 figure. If the leaders of the two nations had the foresight to make such an effort in 1939 and 1940 rather than in 1943 and 1944, the war might have taken a very different turn.

However, timing now worked against them. They were locked into manufacturing aircraft types that had begun the war and were largely obsolete by 1943. Both nations would introduce new and improved models, including such radical advances as the Messerschmitt Me 262 and Arado Ar 234 jets. These would prove too little, too late.

The Allies reflected the mirror image. Although the Allied forces suffered early defeats in every theater, they endured and were then able to begin large-scale production of more modern types. Thus, in Great Britain the late-model Supermarine Spitfire was supplemented by Hawker Typhoon and Tempest aircraft, and the RAF bomber force moved quickly from twin-engine bombers to the superb four-engine Avro Lancaster and the sensational twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito multirole fighter-bomber. In the United States, production saw multiple modified versions of the Boeing B-17 and Consolidated B-24 bombers, complemented by the introduction of the B-29-the best bomber of the war. Fighter production was originally concentrated on the obsolescent Curtiss P-40, soon replaced by the Lockheed P-38, Republic P-47, and the best U. S. fighter of the war, the North American P-51.

The forced draft of the war effort stoked the fires of technology in all the combatant countries, especially Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. Such technological advances as airborne radar, electronic counterwarfare methods, pressurized cabins, advanced fire-control systems, and jet engines were found in all three countries. Germany, in desperation, leaped ahead in some areas, including rocket and missile technology. Japan lagged behind in almost all areas, for its economy was incapable of expanding production while also conducting extensive research in new disciplines. The Soviet Union lagged as well, but primarily because it was concentrating on the basic weapons necessary to defeat Nazi Germany in the ground war. When the time came-particularly after the acquisition of German engineering data-Soviet technology moved rapidly ahead.

By 1944, timing and technology had turned against the aggressor nations on a scale the likes of which the world had never seen. Japan and Germany reacted like typical militaristic dictatorships: They allowed the discrepancy between their forfeited airpower and the overwhelming airpower to be made up by the blood of their people-soldiers as well as civilians. Axis leaders knew there was no way to win this war, their powerful opponents now fully armed and growing stronger every day, yet they forced their populations to fight on to the very end. In Germany that end came when Allied forces met their Soviet counterparts on the River Elbe. In Japan that end came with the union of the B-29 and the atomic bomb. This combination represented, for the first time, absolute airpower, and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally forced even the Japanese militarists to realize the war was lost.

The following contains year-by-year summaries of air warfare in World War II:


The Luftwaffe paved the way for Germany’s victory over Poland, demonstrating blitzkrieg tactics in which aircraft and armor cooperated to penetrate enemy positions. The Allies remained cautious and inactive on the Western Front: The few bombing raids that they did conduct met with failure, and a great deal of effort was expended on utterly pointless leaflet drops. The Germans were careful not to antagonize the Allies at first, in the hope that the war could be ended quickly. In November, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. The Finns resisted valiantly, and their small air force took a heavy toll of Soviet aircraft. In Asia, the Japanese air forces continued to operate over China with little opposition.


By February, after having suffered heavy losses, the Soviet Union exhausted the Finns and a peace was concluded. In April, Germany used airpower to overwhelm Denmark and Norway, offsetting German inferiority at sea. On 10 May, Germany invaded the Low Countries, its Luftwaffe again spearheading the attacks in the Battle for France. The inadequate Allied air forces caused the Germans some casualties, but they were defeated in the air and on the ground. Luxemburg, Belgium, and Holland were quickly overrun. In late May, the Royal Air Force succeeded in preventing the Luftwaffe from interfering with the evacuation at Dunkirk. This was the first defeat the German air force had suffered. By 21 June, France had surrendered. Great Britain upped the ante in the air war, sending bombers to attack targets in Germany, particularly in the Rhineland.

After his lightning victories, Adolf Hitler offered Great Britain peace-but at too great a price. The United Kingdom was now led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a longtime supporter of airpower and a man who was determined never to surrender. He was exactly the right man for the job, for he brought the United Kingdom back from the brink of despair and set about building a bombing force that he hoped would punish Germany.

In the meantime, Germany attempted to establish air superiority over England in the Battle of Britain. It was here that timing and technology first began to work against the Germans, for the aircraft (Messerschmitt Bf 109s, Heinkel He 111s, Dornier Do 217s, and Junkers Ju 87s and Ju 88s) that had been perfect for a continental campaign were now too few in numbers and technologically inadequate for a strategic bombing campaign. Timing and technology worked instead for Great Britain, whose factories were churning out hundreds of Hurricanes and Spitfires and whose radar system formed the core of an integrated command-and-control system that would enable the RAF to decisively defeat the Luftwaffe. Defeated in the Battle of Britain, Germany realized that invasion was impossible and turned to nighttime bombing of British cities even as the Nazis reorganized their forces for an invasion of the Soviet Union. Events in Europe had served to alert the United States that it was necessary to increase production capacity, and Allied investment in the U. S. aviation industry aided this effort. Large orders for combat aircraft were placed by England and France (with smaller orders being placed by other countries), which prompted an expansion of the U. S. aviation industry-critically important in the coming years. Japan began the occupation of French Indochina in an effort to move closer to the vital oil and mineral resources of Southeast Asia. On 28 October, Italy invaded Greece from its Albanian bases. The invasion was inadequately prepared, and the Greeks proved to be tough adversaries who promptly forced the Italians back beyond the Albanian frontiers. Great Britain sent troops and aircraft to Greece, beginning a relatively small but politically important air battle there.


German bombing of the United Kingdom continued through May 1941 but on a reduced scale. In Africa, very limited British forces were able to maul Italian armies in Libya and in Eritrea and Ethiopia. The defeats in Libya would cause Hitler to send the Afrika Korps, with limited but very effective air components, to rescue the Italians. This would begin the long, bitter North African campaign. In eastern Africa, there were dogfights between biplane opponents, with Gloster Gladiators contesting Fiat Falcos in a World War I-type atmosphere. Air attacks on Malta began to build in intensity. The United States moved closer to open warfare by announcing its Lend-Lease plan, whereby it would provide arms to Great Britain on a massive scale. On 6 April, Germany began its Balkan campaign, which was massively successful and ended with the evacuation of Greece by British forces and the occupation of Crete. It had the effect, however, of delaying the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which many observers feel was critical to the outcome of the 1941 campaign. On 22 June, German launched Operation BARBAROSSA, its invasion of the Soviet Union. The Soviet air force was virtually destroyed on the ground, but once again the scale of German air effort was hopelessly inadequate, and despite overwhelming success, the fighting ground down in the winter snows. The Soviet Union began a massive relocation effort that saw no less than 1,523 factories moved beyond the Urals.

On 7 December, imperial Japan began a whirlwind air campaign with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. Japanese airpower would soon seem to be invincible as it swept through Southeast Asia, sinking HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse in passing. It would be dominant for the next six months of the war. Germany declared war on the United States on 11 December.


The Japanese forces, employing relatively small but highly effective elements of airpower, conquered some 20 million square miles of territory, including the Philippines, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and Burma, along with critical Pacific islands such as Wake and Guam, by March 1942. The only ray of hope came in the famed 18 April Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, the first of many. In Europe, the RAF became increasingly aggressive with daylight fighter and bomber sweeps over occupied territories. In March, RAF Bomber Command began its new offensive, intensifying the nighttime bombing of Germany. The United States would join Great Britain in the Combined Bomber Offensive, which would grow from modest beginnings to an overwhelming force over the next three years. In the Atlantic, German U-boats began a war against shipping that would become known as the Battle of the Atlantic; they would succeed for more than a year because of inadequate Allied airpower.

The war in the Pacific took a sudden and surprising turn in favor of the Allies following the Battle of Midway in early June. On August 7, the United States would invade Guadalcanal, beginning a bloody six-month battle that would literally turn on the possession of a single facility-Henderson Field. In Russia, German advances continued to the south toward Stalingrad and the Caucasus. In Africa, Germany would suffer a major defeat at El Alamein in October, then be confounded by the massive U. S. invasion of North Africa on 8 November. Allied airpower in every theater was causing the tide of war to shift.


The fortunes of war turned irreversibly against the Axis powers in 1943, beginning with the catastrophic German losses in the Battle of Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe could still attain local air superiority at specific spots along the Eastern Front, but the Soviet opposition was gaining both in numbers and tactics. The effectiveness of Soviet airpower and the decline in the Luftwaffe’s strength was demonstrated in the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history. Germany also suffered defeat in the Battle of the Atlantic, where the combination of land- and carrier-based aircraft shut down all areas of operation by the U-boats and, in cooperation with surface ships, caused prohibitive losses. The Germans were also defeated in North Africa, which was followed by defeats throughout the entire Mediterranean Theater with the loss of Sicily and the invasion of Italy. At the same time, the Combined Bomber Offensive grew in intensity and effectiveness over Europe, exemplified by the destruction of Hamburg. The Luftwaffe was still capable of dealing out tremendous punishment, however, as in the air battles over Regensburg, Schweinfurt, and Berlin.

In the Pacific, the defeat at Guadalcanal forced the Japanese on the defensive throughout the theater as Allied forces followed a two-axis strategy. The first was a step-by-step advance toward the Philippines by the forces of General Douglas MacArthur, the second an island-hopping advance under the direction of Admiral Chester Nimitz. The island-hopping campaign was characterized by bitter battles such as Tarawa.


Allied airpower came into its own in Europe with the introduction of long-range escort fighters and a new philosophy that was aimed at destroying the Luftwaffe. By March 1944, the Luftwaffe had been soundly beaten; although it was occasionally able to muster strength for savage attacks, it was never again able to secure daytime air superiority. However, in the same month the Luftwaffe did defeat the RAF in its nighttime-bombing campaign against Berlin. The combined USAAF/RAF forces focused on preparing the European continent for an invasion; the 6 June 1944 D-Day operation was so successful that it was virtually unopposed by the Luftwaffe. The air battle over Germany intensified and was regarded as a “second front” by no less an observer than Albert Speer even before the D-Day landings.

In the Pacific, the airpower of the U. S. Army and Navy proved superior to the Japanese at every point. The Japanese were now desperately short of trained pilots, so much that their remaining aircraft carriers were sometimes forced to sortie as mere decoys without any aircraft aboard. They incurred massive defeats in the Marshall Islands and the Philippines and were forced to resort to kamikaze suicide tactics.

In the last days of 1944, the Germans took advantage of bad weather, which hampered Allied air operations, to launch their final offensive of the war in the West-the Battle of the Bulge. As soon as the weather cleared a bit, however, Allied airpower reasserted itself.


Airpower played itself out in Europe; useful targets disappeared by April, and the Germans surrendered in May. In the Pacific, true airpower came into being for the first time in the B-29 fire-bombing of Japan, which reduced major cities to ashes. The Japanese militarists still refused to surrender until the application of absolute airpower in the form of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is worth noting that the final application of airpower in both the European and Pacific theaters was compassionate, with the dropping of food, clothing, and medical supplies to POWs still held in the defeated enemies’ camps.

References Boyne, Walter J. Clash of Titans: World War II at Sea. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. ______. Clash of Wings: World War II in the Air. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Goralski, Robert. World War II Almanac, 1931-1945. New York: Bonanza, 1981.

Leave a Reply