How the Americans Help Change Aerial Warfare from WW2
Updated: Jan 15
From throwing rocks to machine guns to missiles, the aerial warfare has changed a lot. But have you wondered who took part in this significant change of things?
Planes, whether traveling 12 seconds at first trial, or orbiting the earth at 28,000 km/h, they are all exciting machines. Join me to see the exciting history of aerial warfare in one of the biggest military air forces, and how they changed the world.
When you look at Star Wars in the theatres and lasers shooting all across, or see advanced invisible jet fighters with missiles on the news. Do you think about people on miserably slow, wood and fabric built biplanes? Or do you think the conflicts happening in the air depend on your sheer skill and not advanced technologies?
The idea of military aviation never really caught on with America until the Battle of Britain, when America realized that the most advanced fighters it had, were sent to Britain as, ironically, advanced trainers. That made President Franklin D.Roosevelt realize that America needed something to defend itself against possible enemies, and sure enough, the enemies were coming.
Roosevelt had supplied the aircraft industry with approximately one billion dollars to set a standard of producing 50,000 military aircrafts each year. One small problem, however; America had less competent aircraft designs and thoughts in their heads. At the start of the war, their fighters were less powerful. In cases of armament and engines, the bombers carried fewer bombs. The fighters had less powerful guns. A good performance was something to be dreamed of. That affected the navy and marine fighters the most as they needed to take on agile Japanese rivals that weren't nearly as maneuverable, and that struck America hard.
On the Attack of Pearl Harbor, no fighters were nearly capable of taking on Japanese fighters. About 400 of them took off to defend the Harbor, yet only half of them returned. This attack put America to shame, and everyone was riled up because of it. America was forced to join the war, and this action would put Japan to shame as well when the people of the United States would prove how powerful they can be.
The air forces soon started developing planes that they hoped would be superior to Japan, another small problem was that America had a significantly different idea and thought process of designing planes compared to Japan. Japan’s goes something like this: “What? You want me to give some protection for the pilot’s sake? No! I can’t design more powerful engines to be fitted on the aircraft so I must strip it down to minimum weight, self-sealing fuel tanks? No! Bulletproof glass that could stop bullets? No! Armor plates to stop bullets as well? NO!!! Oh, good maneuverability from those stripped-down weights? SURE!!!” That should prove the point of what kind of things Japan took into consideration when they were designing a new aircraft.
Because engines were insufficient, the weight of the aircraft had to be controlled within a range that can make the aircraft both fast and maneuverable. They succeeded in one of those things, maneuverability. They sure were agile compared to American planes, unfortunately, they weren’t as fast due to the lack of horsepowers. Though American planes couldn’t dogfight as well, they could still outrun their Japanese opponents.
Now, America’s thought process when designing aircraft goes something like this: “If the pilot dies, the aircraft dies, I can produce strong engines that produce almost half the horsepower of what those Japan toys could do, so I will either make everything heavy and long-range because my bombers are too slow to protect themselves. Or very agile but still heavy because my pilots aren’t trained as much and they can’t take on experienced opponents.” You get my point.
America focused much more on things that weren't as necessary as saying a radiator for the engine. Their planes were much much heavier, they were also more focused on the range for the Army Air Force. Planes had bigger engines, they had more guns and ammo, they even had more payloads. That developed into a situation where something like a fighter plane could carry almost the same amount of payload as its weight. For a great example, the single-engined fighter-bomber/escort P-47 Thunderbolt has an empty weight of 4.5 tons, and it achieved a takeoff weight of nearly 8 tons!
Guns needed a stable gun platform, and what a gun platform is, it’s very simple; something to let the weapons be mounted and utilized on. Americans weren’t exactly experts of plane designs, but they slowly improved during the interwar period. Most main fighters to enter service later in the war were all designed around the start of WW2. America didn’t want the war to happen on the actual American land, so they developed long-range bombers to be deployed on ally bases all over the world.
America had very successful bomber designs such as the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator, or the B-29 Superfortress. The small downside of having long-range bombers is that they lack protection. In a sense, yes, bomber crews can simply fit more guns or cover the whole plane with bullet proof materials. But it still wouldn’t prevent interceptors shredding through them instantly. No matter what, bombers needed fighter escorts to help them, and that’s the other problem.
America couldn’t figure out a good long-range fighter. The “fighters” that met the range standard were either too heavy and simply not capable of taking on single-engined enemies, or had to push their limits and sacrifice their performance. On many occasions in the early periods of the war, fighters had to return to the base usually a quarter or more through the trip, leaving the bombers vulnerable to enemy attack. Inline engines used on the main fighters lacked a good supercharger, which would give them a better high altitude performance. However, inline engines were more fuel-efficient compared to gigantic radial engines. It’s simple, the bigger the engine, the more fuel you need, the more fuel tanks you need, and the bigger the plane will be.
Naval planes weren’t in the air intake dilemma as they didn’t need high altitude fighters, most conflicts would happen at low-mid altitude. The army needed a quick and effective solution to fix this issue. At first, the army tried using the P-40 Warhawk, but that had a dismal range of only 1100 km, half of what the bombers could do. So they turned to the P-38 Lightning. The Lightning had enough range with external drop tanks but was less maneuverable compared to the planes in the Pacific Theatre.
Because American planes carried way more ammo and guns, the maneuverability was compromised by a huge amount. Take this simple comparison, one of the most advanced fighters in the Soviet Union was the Yak 3, which had no more than 500 shells, one cannon, and two machine guns. American planes on the other side, the P-47 Thunderbolt, N-variant had eight M2 Brownings and a staggering amount of 4000 shells! You can see how ridiculous it is. Soviet engineers would often describe lend-lease provided aircraft as not as effective as Soviet planes on the Eastern front line.
“Already in the first minutes of the flight, I realized that this is not a fighter! Stable, with a comfortable spacious cockpit, comfortable, but not a fighter. “Thunderbolt” had unsatisfactory maneuverability in the horizontal and especially in the vertical plane. The plane accelerated slowly – the inertia of the heavy machine was affected. The Thunderbolt was perfect for a simple en-route flight without harsh maneuvers. This is not enough for a fighter.”
American aircraft designers wanted the best for the pilot, and the missions it would carry, not how effective they would be. Compared to Soviet, British, German, and Japanese designs, climb rate, roll rate, acceleration, maneuverability weren’t the major goal to design a successful aircraft. Range, speed, weapon, that’s what was important. Because America didn’t want to develop too many specific aircraft for different roles, so every fighter would be flexible for every situation. The lighter ones could dogfight the Axis powers, while the heavies can carry bombs to do small bombing missions, or even utilize rockets and guns to ground strike.
Bombers were a bit different, but mainly the same. Focused on the missions that it would perform. Every four-engined heavy bomber would have a bomb load of at least four tons, the most powerful one, however, B-29 Superfortress could carry ten tons on maximum. Bombers were basically gunships, every bomber would have at least ten heavy M2 Browning machine guns for self-defense. The turrets weren’t as effective as actual escorting fighters, but they gave the bombers a chance to fight back. Almost no bombers were pressurized, so aircrew would suffer a considerable amount at preferable bombing altitudes. Bomber aircrews would get frostbites, their jackets simply couldn’t cope with the amount of coldness being forced into the chilling souls. Hypothermia was a common thing and there wasn’t an effective way to prevent it. Bombers contributed the most to the battles in the air, and they shouldn’t be forgotten for doing their parts to the war.
On the subject of bombers, in the Pacific Theatre, most bombers were escorted by, well, naval aircraft. But they could only escort at low altitudes and short ranges. Planes served in the Marines and Navy lacked a good supercharger, but that wasn’t much needed since the air intake was still considerably generous. Naval aircraft usually have a strong radial engine along with a turbocharger, which could increase the amount of power at low altitudes, but also shrink the high altitude performance.
America’s engines are separated into two categories, radial air-cooled engines, and inline liquid-cooled engines. The big difference between those two types is, well, pretty obvious. One of them is cooled with air, the other one is cooled with engine coolants. Radial engines are usually bigger in size, so air can cool all the pistons down more efficiently. And that’s an advantage. Due to the size, and the fact that it needs a large opening for air to come in. This meant that more cylinders can be fitted into the engine, usually, only 12 cylinders can be fitted into one single liquid-cooled engine. How much can a radial engine fit? The widely used Pratt & Whitney R-28000 Double Wasp can fit 18 cylinders, and produce over 2000 horsepowers. Radial engines would also be lighter without a radiator and giant plumbings used on liquid-cooled engines. They have a better power output for such a size, a better weight-to-power ratio, and could crash land without wrecking the whole engine into scrapyard-rejections. However, this didn’t mean that all fighters took advantage of this.
Most fighters in the army air force still used liquid-cooled engines for a few reasons, one of them is that these 12 cylinders V-12s would run at half the temperature compared to a radial engine, thus being more efficient and could run at a higher RPM than radial engines. Because there are no gigantic openings in the front of the engine, drag could also be limited as inline engines are long and thin. They could be designed as an arrow shape, giving the plane less drag. Inline engines are also way smaller than radial engines, which gives them the advantage of size; a smaller inline engine can produce as much horsepower as an enormous radial engine with some elbow grease though. However, Americans didn’t really prefer inline engines more than the traditional air-cooled ones, they spared most of their focus on the radial engines. The problem was that the most used inline engine, Allison V-1710, fitted on the P-51, the P-38, the P-40, and the P-39. They lacked a good supercharger which would give them a better air supply at high altitudes, thus providing improved bomber-escorting capabilities.
Something as important as an engine is fitted on every combat plane, too; armament, guns, rockets, and bombs. In the early days of aviation, people didn’t even realize guns could be used on a plane, and not joking, they threw rocks. They either threw rocks at each other because planes had dismal power plants or just nodded and flew off. This changed when a French airman fired his pistol at another pilot. In the early days of WW2, Americans used M1919 Browning machine guns, 0.30 caliber. It’s a rather light armament, but Americans choose quantity over quality. Usually on the small, light, and early aircraft, an M1919 Browning along with an M2 Browning, the M2 has a caliber of 0.50 inch, about 12.7mm. The 0.30 inch, 7mm M1919 soon was outdated and only fitted occasionally on bomber defensive turrets. The M2 however, the bullet is powerful enough to be somewhat equal to 20mm cannons such as the German MG151 or the British Hispano Mk series.
Usually, fighters are fitted with six of these M2 heavy machine guns. There would also be detachable gun pods, providing an extra 4 guns. The air force didn’t want too many different guns, so until the end of the war, the normal quick-firing guns had only three types to choose from; the 7mm, the 12.7mm, and the 20mm license-produced Britain’s Hispano cannon. All fighters had the similar armament except the F6f-5N, a night fighter variant of the Hellcat, fitted with two cannons and replaced two machine guns. The P-38, fitted with four machine guns, and a cannon. The P-39, was a special plane as it was the only one that used a powerful, nose-mounted 37mm cannon. The others had either one cannon or just all heavy machine guns.
The reason why America wanted a ton of machine guns was simple. Six M2 Brownings, an average American pilot would’ve preferred a lot of heavy machine guns rather than the armament used by Germans and the Soviets. The Germans and the Soviets shared the same idea of quality over quantity, they utilized strong, single cannons with one or two machine guns as assists. America wanted heavy firepower, even though the M2 Brownings didn’t do instant damage as much as cannons, they had other special traits that cannons lacked. The heavy machine guns could fire at a faster rate, the range would also be longer, the velocity would be higher, and more ammo could be carried to allow a higher fault tolerance. American pilots were much less experienced compared to the Axis and Soviets. The Soviets had a lot of experience fighting on the east front with the Germans, the Americans were one year behind on-air skills and they surely suffered from that. A big chunk of pilots liked using strong, accurate cannons. They were more skillful at targeting and because they could hit more shots, fewer shells could be carried, thus less weight and better maneuverability.
On the other hand, Japanese planes had weak engines, but they had little weight to work around, so they were faster and more nimble. Meanwhile, in America, everyone was focusing on how to get a longer range because bombers were too fragile and lonely to the blood-thirsting Japanese interceptors, they tried something simple, increasing the size of a plane. Let’s keep using the P-47 as the example here, the plane had an engine that could produce over 2000 horsepower, and a range of 3100 kilometers with external drop tanks. That led to every plane in the Army being very heavy and focused on the range rather than fighting capabilities. It was very different for the Marines and Navy, though...
The Navy and Marines needed something that was both fast, and powerful to take on enemies head-on, so they created the F4F Wildcat, a carrier-based monoplane fighter that could outrun Japanese A6M Zeros and Ki43&44s. The Marines mainly shared fighters with the Navy as one of the best planes on the Pacific Theatre, F4U Corsair, wasn’t exactly reliable enough to be put into battle just yet. So they turned to the Navy. Not until 1943 when the F6F Hellcat entered service, the Wildcat served faithfully as a soldier in the Pacific airspace. One small trouble they had was that it still wasn’t maneuverable enough, so the Thach Weave was invented by John S. Thach to deal with Japanese rivals. It consisted of something very simple as at least 2 pilots, one being chased by the enemy, the wingman and the defender will fly onto the other pilot’s flight path, forming a weave, and the wingman could just get the window to shoot at the enemy once the weave is formed. It was simple and effective.
Keeping the focus on the subject of tactics, the one simple tactic, dogfighting was also commonly deployed by more experienced pilots, the later F6F Hellcat was more effective using this tactic as it was as maneuverable as the A6M Zero. It relied completely on the pilot, every maneuver they made, every turn, every scissor, every dive or pitch, it mattered to the result. It was a difficult strategy to use as if the plane is at a high speed, it would increase the g-force that could affect the pilot. At nine G, a man dies from the amount of gravity being forced into the human body. Usually, in a dogfight, the amount of force can easily be taken up to eight G, at that, a pilot would pass out in mere seconds. Other tactics such as the yo-yo, a strategy that consists of rolling with the nose low into the turn, and dropping into a turn. By using some energy that was stored in the vertical plane, the attacker can quickly decrease range and improve the angle of the attack, cutting the corner on the enemy's turn. The pilot then pulls back on the stick, climbing back to the defender's height and taking a shot, which can prevent overshoot by slowing down the speed.
Another useful tactic would be the high side gun pass, better known as Boom N Zoom. Because American planes couldn’t turn or climb or scissor as well as Japanese planes, they could use an altitude advantage and simply dive on the opponent, usually, a fighter is equipped with six M2 Brownings or even eight, so that could easily shred through the fragile Japanese enemies. Scissors are easy to perform, too. It consists of a pilot trying to reverse and turn onto the tail of the enemy, the more reversals and the more speed the pilot loses, the easier it is to get to the enemy’s six o’clock direction, it’ll form a weave pattern as the tactic is being deployed.
Moving on to the bomber side of things, I believe that bombers are a key factor in winning a war, any kind of war. It’s pretty simple, a key factor to win a war on land battles is infantry. Infantry needs armored vehicles to support, but they all need the same thing, supplies. Bombers could cut off supply lines to stop an army, they could bomb fuel supplies. That could stop tanks and armored vehicles, and that’s a key component for infantry as it determines whether an invasion could be successful. One famous example would be the Battle of the Bulge, in 40 days, the allies bombed Nazi Germany’s main oil supply base; a Romanian oil farm that lead to many German tanks being immobilized due to fuel shortages when Soviet Union forces entered by feet.
This simple tactic could devastate an army and simply de-function them. Bombing can also be used on destroying logistics such as factories to produce weapons, aircraft, tanks, or airfields to stop aircraft from taking off. Sometimes even naval repair factories used to, well, repair ships. Another example would be the Attack on Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, the Japanese forces weren't exactly bright in this operation, they only sank ships. They only dealt minimal damage as none of the actual repair facilities were destroyed, so the ships were ready and back to battle soon after the attack.
On the topic of bomb raids, it could do something extremely simple, maybe not destructive, or even deadly. Take the instance of the bombing of Berlin from the RAF in late 1940, it wasn’t much, it didn’t kill many people nor did it destroy military equipment. One thing it did do, however,was make Adolf Hitler very very angry. Even though it wasn’t a huge raid, Hitler was still furious by the attack from the British. It buried the faith in the people of Berlin, and improved morale in England as people were exhausted by the Battle of Britain. The bombing of cities could also be targeted for killing civilians and housings, it was mainly used to disrupt their normal activities and cause terror in people’s lives. This particular purpose crossed the legal line many times, it was controversial as civilians didn’t need to suffer as a victim in the war, especially massive amounts of civilians with bombs and incendiaries.
Berlin bomb raids, in the late years of the war the allies had gained so much air superiority, that the biggest bomb raid held against Berlin by the Americans was so ridiculous, that over 1600 American aircraft took part, and only 36 of them were shot down by the exhausted German ground & air forces. It was devastating to the people of Berlin, in total, 23000 tons of explosives were dropped on the broken-down city, and a total of 363 bomb raids were held against Hitler’s capital. Thousands and thousands of lives were taken, people were left homeless.
Another great purpose of strategic bombing is to cut off factories, factories that produced the weapons to protect the country. Factories meant the backbone of a country’s military. If a production line is cut, a certain combat vehicle might be delayed in combat as spare parts for repairments, or even just basic components. During Operation Barbarossa, many Soviet factories were destroyed by dive bombers. That delayed the production of Soviet machines to fight against German infantry, thus slowing down the Soviet Union’s defenses. During the 4 years of war that America participated in, a total of nearly 1.5 million tons of bombs were dropped, and over 30,000 aircraft were claimed to be destroyed by those bombs. America helped destroy the morale of the people of Germany and wrecked every spark of faith in the people of Japan in the last year of the war, with two gigantic atom bombs.
The Fat Man, and the Little Boy, took a total of 129,000–226,000 lives in the land of Japan. Many people found it controversial how the Americans decided to use such destructive weapons on Japan’s major two cities. It took an absurd amount of lives, and those two bombs would make the area almost unlivable for decades, and affect human developments in the area such as brain damage, birth defects, cancer increases. The two bombs had a destructive effect on Japan, and it was absolutely like a disaster, people’s remains were burnt to dust, houses were burnt down to ashes, and the morale of the people of Japan was thrown onto the ground and stomped into pieces. It did end the war, so in one way, a big loss of death prevented even more deaths...
Speaking of the Pacific and bombing, other sorts of bombing were also widely used, torpedoes and dive-bombing. The one specialized torpedo bomber that the Navy used was the TBF Avenger, it could carry a 2000 pounds torpedo that would be devastating to Japanese naval ships, the Avenger sank some special opponents such as the Battleship Hiei, the Yamato, one of the most fearsome and largest battleships during the war, and the Musashi, those battleships were all sank under contributions by the only torpedo bomber, TBF Avenger. The torpedoes were less common as they required more skill than bombs, you would have to be at a slower speed and lower altitude, but it did its job. It helped sink and/or harass ships and submarines and protected the Navy from dangerous enemies.
The other tactic, dive-bombing is an interesting way to utilize explosives, it’s quite a challenge for a normal human being as you can reach an actual 90-degree dive, suffering through intense g-forces that make you puke. However, it was a very effective tactic in the hands of experienced pilots, you could achieve a much higher accuracy if you dive to a low yet safe altitude and time the drop of the bomb well compared to using traditional bombsights. The advantages are that it’s much more accurate, it’s usually performed on naval aircraft as carriers didn’t have enough space for heavier bomb loads for take-off compared on land, dive-bombing was usually performed by the SBD Dauntless and the SB2C Helldiver in the early and middle of the war as they were proven to be effective against Japanese forces, but in the later years, fighters took on a good amount of the work as they were more powerful and could carry more bombs. Dive bombing proved to be a faithful serving tactic until more advanced radar and laser-guided weapons came along.
That should wrap up bombing, onto the part of scouting, pathfinding, observation, and mapping. Scouting was either taken on by old and somewhat obsolete planes that had been replaced by more advanced successors, or a group of models nicknamed “Grasshoppers”, small engined, light, and agile observing planes used to observe battlegrounds and gain information to plan the next moves. On the naval side, it’s usually done by floatplanes that could either be launched from the ships or airfields, they were simple, slow, but reliable and served well as the eye of the battle. On the mapping side, because of how limited technology was in the mapping area of things, planes such as the P-38 Lightning, P-51 Mustang, B-25 Mitchell, and B-17 Flying Fortress would be used as they had excellent high altitude performances and long ranges so would be safer for reconnaissance, photography and mapping purposes. The aerial survey was a big part of the bomb attacks and infantry as maps lead the operations.
Another important factor is transportation, transporting equipment, vehicles and airborne infantry groups were very important if it was difficult to transport by safer ground troops. Airborne transported vehicles and equipment could speed up the process of an invasion as it could break up defense lines. Airborne infantry troops were usually transported by gliders such as the C-46, the C-47, and the CG-4. They could transport above 10 troops, a jeep, or even small and ultra-light tanks designed for airborne transport. Transporting equipment can help ground troops, take the example of the African campaign. The genius army leader, Erwin Rommel, surrounded British and American forces and exhausted their resources. And here’s where air transporting equipment would shine, aircraft could drop supplies that would help along with the surrounded forces, giving them more of a chance.
At last, an aircraft would be useless without a pilot, and what does a pilot need? A trainer! They need two kinds of trainers, a mentor to guide them, and an aircraft to get them comfortable with aircraft. A trainer aircraft is usually an old model that has been proven obsolete in combat or purposely made trainers such as the T-6 Texan, the BT-13 Valiant, and the once main fighter F2A Buffalo. Trainer aircrafts shared the same characteristics as normal combat vehicles; an engine, a propeller, a place to sit. They were the basics of a pilot as they taught them how to be a pilot and drive blood-thirsting war machines. Trainers can’t be ignored, they contributed to 2.4 million airmen during the war and have to be honored for that remarkable contribution.
One extra thing to be mentioned, the P-59 Airacomet, the very first jet fighter in the American air force, the engines were based and developed from the British when they donated a jet engine to the Americans. It had a rather disappointing top speed of 665 km/h compared to the German Wunderwaffe, Me 262 Schwalbe which could achieve 900 km/h, but it paved the way for turbojets in America for the future and held the record for the first American jet to enter service.
In conclusion, America contributed the most to the war with the bombing capabilities and amazing air powers to strike upon the Third Reich, it helped win the war by destroying two cities in Japan, and it surely paved the way for military aviation for the world.
So what does this tell us?
Next time you hop onto an X-Wing with Luke, think of what the Americans did 80 years ago.