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World War II, air war

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See also: World War II, air war, German European offensive
See also: Battle of Britain
See also: World War II, air war, Mediterranean and European tactical operations
See also: World War II, air war, Russian front
See also: World War II, air war, Allied offensive counter-air campaign
See also: World War II, air war, Southwest Pacific
See also: World War II, air war, European Theater strategic operations
See also: World War II, air war, Pacific Theater strategic operations
See also: Battle of the Atlantic

It is difficult to assign a firm starting date to the beginning of the Second World War, but air power featured prominently on several candidate dates:

All sides were operating under largely theoretical models of air warfare. The Italian theorist, Giulio Douhet , has created a perception that strategic bombing alone could win wars. [1] The Americans were sublimely confident that the B-17 bomber could reach targets, protected by its own weapons, and bomb, using the Norden bombsight, with "pickle barrel" accuracy.

Ju-87, the Junkers 87 (Stuka) Dive Bomber; 5800 were built
Me-109, the Messerschmitt 109 Fighter; 30,000 were made

Japanese aviation pioneers, at the Misty Lagoon in Kasumiga-ura, were confident, and with reason, that they had developed the finest naval aviators in the world. Unfortunately for them, they had given little consideration how their lengthy training program could scale to the demands of a major war.

Even though the Pacific and Atlantic were widely separated, the British had resources strained between the theaters from 1939 on, and the United States changing its supply relationship from Lend-Lease as an ostensible neutral before December 7, 1941.

Germany's position also changed as a strong land power fought Southern European, Mediterranean, and North African campaigns.

No power on either side had, even on the drawing boards, anything, bomber or missile, that could have delivered more than a nuisance transoceanic attack. The only, and very minor, air attacks on the United States came from Japanese balloons and submarine-launched floatplanes. German submarine warfare against the United States (Operation Drumbeat), in the early part of the war, however, was significant.

To bomb Germany, it was necessary to have an unsinkable airfield in Britain, or possibly North Africa. In a very few cases, the Soviets allowed Anglo-American bombers to hit eastern targets, land, refuel, and fly back either to home bases or another attack on the way home.

In like manner, before Japan could be attacked, advanced airfields were needed. Basing in China, even using the very-long-range B-29 Superfortress, did not work out. It became the job of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to seize islands, in the central Pacific, to threaten Japan.

Doctrine and technology

Some issues were clearly strategic, and some clearly tactical.

The issue of establishing air superiority and air supremacy, however, depends on the context. Air superiority, rather than supremacy, over fast-moving ground forces might be all that was needed. The strategic bombing command was more dependent on suppressing defensive fighters, but there would always be anti-aircraft artillery and thus losses.

The Allies won battlefield air supremacy in the Pacific in 1943, and in Europe in 1944. That meant that Allied supplies and reinforcements would get through to the battlefront, but not the enemy's. It meant the Allies could concentrate their strike forces wherever they pleased, and overwhelm the enemy with a preponderance of firepower. There was a specific campaign, within the overall strategic offensive, for suppression of enemy air defenses, or, specifically, Luftwaffe fighters.

See also: World War II, air war, Allied offensive counter-air campaign

Aircrew generation

While the Japanese began the war with a superb set of naval aviators, trained at the Misty Lagoon experimental air station, their practice, perhaps from the warrior tradition, was to keep the pilots in action until they died. The U.S. position, at least for naval aviation, was a strict rotation between sea deployments and shore duty, the latter including training replacements, personal training, and participating in doctrinal development. The U.S. strategic bombing campaign against Europe did this in principle, but relatively few crews survived the 25 missions of a rotation.

Other countries had other variants. In some countries, it seemed to be a matter of personal choice if one stayed in combat or helped build the next generation. Even where there was a policy of using skills outside combat, individuals, Guy Gibson being an excellent example, insisted on returning to combat, where they might die before passing on their knowledge.


Airfield construction

"Bare base" construction was not unique to the U.S.; all sides might need either to build airfields where none had existed, or rebuild a base that had been abandoned by a retreating enemy.

U.S. Army Air Force chief "Hap" Arnold correctly anticipated that he would have to build forward airfields in inhospitable places. Working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, he created Aviation Engineer Battalions that by 1945 included 118,000 men. Runways, hangers, radar stations, power generators, barracks, gasoline storage tanks and ordnance dumps had to be built hurriedly on tiny coral islands, mud flats, featureless deserts, dense jungles, or exposed locations still under enemy artillery fire. The heavy construction gear had to be imported, along with the engineers, blueprints, steel-mesh landing mats, prefabricated hangars, aviation fuel, bombs and ammunition, and all necessary supplies. As soon as one project was finished the battalion would load up its gear and move forward to the next challenge, while headquarters inked in a new airfield on the maps.

The engineers opened an entirely new airfield in North Africa every other day for seven straight months. Once when heavy rains along the coast reduced the capacity of old airfields, two companies of Airborne Engineers loaded miniaturized gear into 56 transports, flew a thousand miles to a dry Sahara location, started blasting away, and were ready for the first B-17 24 hours later. Often engineers had to repair and use a captured enemy airfield. The German fields were well-built all-weather operations; by contrast the Japanese installations were ramshackle affairs with poor siting, poor drainage, scant protection, and narrow, bumpy runways. Engineering was a low priority for the offense-minded Japanese, who chronically lacked adequate equipment and imagination.[2]

With respect to the Japanese, some of their island bases, built before the war, had excellent airfields, although they were not effective in building new fields — and they did capture many when on the offensive. On a few islands, local commanders did improve aircraft shelters and general survivability, as they correctly perceived the danger of coming raids or invasions.

Petroleum, oil and lubricants; other components

Fuel, in particular, is essential to air operations; a shining new airplane with empty tanks is useless. Originally, the Allied strategic bombing programs spread their effort over multiple industries, never sufficiently disrupting any given one sufficiently to break the system.

There was criticism, especially of "panacea" targeting, by some air leaders, especially Arthur Harris. Such targets included ball bearings (e.g., Schweinfurt) and oil. Especially toward the end of the war, there was strong intelligence, such as ULTRA intercepts, that a given side was almost out of some resource. The sensitivity of the intelligence source, however, preventing sharing the conclusive data with operational commanders and their targeting staffs. [3]

It is easy to assume that both sides knew then as much as they know now. Much of our vulnerability analyses came from the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey interviews, which certainly gave insights not available at the time. [4] [5]


A debate continues, even today, about the appropriate use of air power to support land forces. While deep strategic attacks on such targets as fuel production have an obvious relationship, although not a quick one, to land warfare, there is a more fundamental dispute between close air support (CAS) and battlefield air interdiction (BAI). Perhaps oversimplifying, CAS uses air support to assist ground troops in their immediate combat, as a form of "flying artillery". BAI, however, focuses farther behind enemy lines than the immediate front.

CAS might attack the tank or artillery piece that is actively attacking friendly troops. BAI, alternatively, might crater a road or destroy a bridge over which the ammunition for the tank or artillery piece is being moved, and over which would come more tanks and artillery. There is no perfect balance, but there are many subjective arguments. Soldiers like to have all the help possible when under fire. Airmen like to do things that they consider more likely to be decisive.

Air-ground communications

Given that the Second World War is under discussion, the reader must be aware that there might not be radio communications between the ground troops and the aircraft, and it might be difficult for the aircraft crew, especially of a fast or high-altitude aircraft, to pick out the targets. Even more than today, fratricide is a real concern when CAS comes "danger close".

Some forces, especially the United States Marine Corps, emphasize the air-ground team. The airmen, in this approach, also are infantrymen who understand the needs and perspective of the ground forces. There was much more joint air-ground training, and a given air unit might have a long-term relationship with a given ground unit, improving their mutual communications.

Still, there was no equivalent to today's precision target marking and weapon guidance. Whenever air support was planned, fratricide, and ineffectiveness against the enemy, had to be considered. If an aircraft only has machine guns, it may not be able to damage a tank.

Weapons selection

In WWII, sometimes the best munition to use on a given target was not available, or had not been invented. While it is not specifically an air warfare issue, the effects of long-range naval bombardment was often overestimated, even though explosions seemed to cover a line of bunkers. The problem was a matter of physics: naval guns shoot in relatively flat trajectories, which do not tend to hit underground targets. The most effective naval gunfire support came when the ships came in closely, and could see and hit targets from a much more horizontal perspective.


The U.K. and U.S. built long-range heavy bombers; Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union did not.

Strategic bombing also sometimes had a mismatch between weapon and target. Depending on the nature of the target, the optimal weapon may need to have a certain minimum amount of explosive power, or penetrating ability, to defeat especially sturdy, or buried, targets. The inaccuracy of bombing techniques, however, argued in terms of larger numbers of smaller bombs, to give a better chance that one would hit.


Hitler was insistent on bombers having tactical capability, which meant dive bombing at the time, a maneuver impossible for any heavy bomber of the time. His aircraft had limited effect on Britain for a variety of reasons, but low payload certainly was among them

Manned bombers

The most basic reason that Germany achieved little in strategic bombing was that they never produced quantities of an appropriate heavy bomber. Early in the war, they had excellent tactical aviation, but when they first faced an integrated air defense system, their essentially medium bombers did not have the numbers or bombload to do major damage to Great Britain.

Failure of German secret weapons

Hitler tried to sustain morale by promising that "secret weapons" would turn the war around. He did indeed have the weapons. The first of 9,300 V-1 flying bombs hit London in mid- June, 1944, and together with 1,300 V-2 rockets caused 8,000 civilian deaths and 23,000 injuries. Although they did not seriously undercut British morale or munitions production, they bothered the British government a great deal--Germany now had its own unanswered weapons system. Using proximity fuzes, British anti-aircraft artillery gunners (many of them women) learned how to shoot down the 400 mph V-1s; nothing could stop the supersonic V-2s. The British government, in near panic, demanded that upwards of 40% of bomber sorties be targeted against the launch sites, and got its way in "Operation CROSSBOW." The attacks were futile, and the diversion represented a major success for Hitler. In early 1943 the strategic bombers were directed against U- boat pens, which were easy to reach and which represented a major strategic threat to Allied logistics. However, the pens were very solidly built--it took 7,000 flying hours to destroy one sub there, about the same effort that it took to destroy one-third of Cologne. The antisubmarine campaign thus was a victory for Hitler.[6]

Every raid against a V-1 or V-2 launch site was one less raid against the Third Reich. On the whole, however, the secret weapons were still another case of too little too late. The Luftwaffe ran the V-1 program, which used a jet engine, but it diverted scarce engineering talent and manufacturing capacity that were urgently needed to improve German radar, air defense, and jet fighters. The German Army ran the V-2 program. The rockets were a technological triumph, and bothered the British leadership even more than the V-1s. But they were so inaccurate they rarely could hit militarily significant targets.

Strategic air defense

Furthermore, the program used up scarce technical resources that could have gone into the development of air defense weapons like proximity fuzes and "Waterfall," a deadly ground-to-air rocket. The secret weapon of greatest threat to the Allies was the jet plane that could outfly Allied fighters and shoot down bombers. The Messerschmitt ME-262 prototype flew in 1939, but was never given high priority until too late. Hitler never understood air power; his personal interference repeatedly delayed the jets. First he proclaimed they would not be necessary, then insisted they be redesigned as bombers to make retaliation raids against London. The Luftwaffe would have been a much more deadly threat if it built ten thousand jets; it only made one thousand and they rarely flew combat missions.

Intelligence and targeting

Through much of the war in Europe, neither side made terribly good judgments in selecting the most critical targets. During the Battle of Britain, Germany might have prevailed had they continued suppression of enemy air defense, but they did not understand the significance of that target. British targeting was principally countervalue; the head of Bomber Command resisted attacking the oil industry as a "panacea"; in fairness, Harris was not privy to ULTRA communications intelligence and did not know that there was hard evidence that oil became a center of gravity. U.S. targeting of critical industries, such as Schweinfurt, suffered heavy losses in repeated daylight raids, using surprisingly ineffective bombs.

Navigation and bomb delivery

Navigation was most challenging at night, when the British and Germans flew their strategic bombers. German crews were not trained in celestial navigation, so were completely dependent on external radionavigation systems, as in the Battle of the Beams. While the British did have such training, their heavy bombers' bombsights were sufficiently accurate only to hit areas of cities, and they also welcomed radionavigation systems such as Gee and OBOE. [7] Gee was soon countered by German electronic warfare, and OBOE could only steer a single aircraft at a time. Much like the later TACAN, the aircraft not only received a signal, but sent signals back to ground stations.

OBOE use, therefore, was principally for Pathfinder aircraft, which would then drop colored flares. The followup bombers would then drop their bombs using the flares as a visual reference, so the main force drop added its own errors to the errors implicit in the drop of unguided flares.

British H2S ground-mapping radar was a major advance in accuracy, assuming the target had distinctive geography; it was most effective when coastlines, either sea or inland water, gave a sharp delineation. Both H2S and OBOE, although using different technologies, were active systems and could be used by the German defense to track the bomber.

The U.S. Norden bombsight was much vaunted as a daylight precision bombing system, with dramatic prewar claims of being able to hit a "pickle barrel", which, unless the pickles were impossibly large, is a challenge to modern precision-guided munitions. Realistically, daylight bombing against a defended target was more accurate than night area bombing, but still unable to accurately targets smaller than railyards or refineries.

Against Japan, with much less air defense than Germany, the Norden might have done a better job, except that extremely fast high-alitude winds over Japan negated the steady course the B-29 bombers could take. Eventually, the primary U.S. bomber offensive against Japan became to medium-altitude area bombing at night.

Weapons selection

Given the difficulty of placing bombs precisely, there was a tendency to use a large number of small bombs. Barnes Wallis, among others, argued for the greater efficacy of combined size and precision. Before he gained approval to produce his large ground-penetrating bombs, the British accepted his specialized bombs to attack German dams in Operation Chastise, for which 617 Squadron, the "Dam Busters", were formed; the squadron continued as one of the few WWII units to achieve anything approximating precision bombing, within the limits of unguided bombs.

There were experiments with primitive guided missiles, such as the U.S. Aphrodite and Weary Willie television-guided bombers, and the German Ju-88/Me-108 Huckepack combination [8] and Mistel [9] combinations of a manned fighter attached to an unmanned bomber that was used as an early guided missile.

There was also a continuing debate over the appropriate ratios between blast and incendiary effect, especially after the firestorm effect was first seen. Machine tools, such as in the critical ball bearing factories, proved surprisingly resistant to blast that destroyed the buildings that housed them; postwar analysis showed that incendiaries that set their lubricants on fire and warped their metal was far more effective.

Germany put a significant part of its manufacturing, late in the war, deep underground, which was largely immune to other than the deep-penetrating TALLBOY bombs, designed by Wallis, delivered by RAF 617 Squadron.

Early Japanese campaigns, 1937-1941

Japan fought alone here, but largely against not fully mobilized foes, and against which Germany and Japan had not declared war.

Early European campaigns, 1939-1941

Germany had bluffed its way into the Sudetenland and especially Czechoslovakia, which could have resisted. There was a fear, however, brought on by German experience in the Spanish Civil War.

The success of the Luftwaffe's Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers in the blitzkriegs that shattered Poland in 1939 and France in 1940, proved to civilians that air power would dominate the battlefield, leaving the infantry far behind.

Military professionals could not ignore the effectiveness of the Stuka, but also observed that France and Poland had minimal effective air defense. Other than in the United Kingdom, the idea of an integrated air defense system (IADS) had not emerged; most militaries had a conflict between the advocates of anti-aircraft artillery and fighter aircraft for defense, not recognizing that they could be complementary, when under a common system of command and control; a system that had a common operational picture of the battle in progress.

Polish campaign

Luftwaffe aircraft closely supported the advance of the Army mechanized units, most notably with dive bombers, but also with light observation aircraft, such as Fieseler Storch, that rapidly corrected the aim of artillery, and gave commanders a literal overview of the battle.

Analysts in other countries also observed that Poland did not have effective air defense, and had other doctrinal problems, such as trying to protect too large an area. These observations, along with those from the next German campaigns in the West, began to unify in the Battle of Britain, and subsequent Allied doctrine.

France and the low countries; Dunkirk

German air-ground coordination was also evident in the next campaign, as well as the value of air assault by parachute and gliders. It was noted that the continental air defenses were not well organized.

While German aircraft inflicted heavy losses at the Battle of Dunkirk, and soldiers awaiting evacuation, while under attack, bitterly asked "Where was the Royal Air Force", the RAF had been operating more effectively than other air defenses in the field, meeting the German attacks before they reached the battlefield.

Battle of Britain

See also: Battle of Britain
British Hawker Hurricane fighter

While Britain was not fully mobilized, and had some obsolete equipment, they had innovative technologists and commanders. Britain did not invent radar, but it was the first to make it the core of an integrated air defense system (IADS), which gave them the supreme advantage, in command and control, of being able to concentrate resources at the key point. Air superiority or supremacy was a prerequisite to Operation Sea Lion, the German amphibious invasion of Britain. The Liftwaffe had to destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF) needed to survive. To use the Mahanian term, as long as the RAF was a fleet in being, they deterred the invasion.

German amphibious warfare tactics and capabilities were primitive, and the German Army and Navy believed an invasion could succeed only if the German Air Force could guarantee the Royal Navy would not be able to attack the landing force. To do so, the Royal Air Force had to be defeated.To achieve this, the Luftwaffe battled British air defense after the fall of France, from August to September.

Churchill's tribute to the Royal Air Force is eloquent:

Never, in the course of human events, have so many, owed so much, to so few.


German strategy and policies

Hitler had a shrewd sense of political timing, but, as a military leader, he had a poor tolerance for frustration, and kept opening new campaigns that might, somehow, turn the tide. While the plans for an invasion of the British Isles was no longer under consideration, there were still air, and limited sea activity, against those islands.

More importantly, the Luftwaffe was part of the Battle of the Atlantic, and also operations against the convoys to Russia, after Germany had rather drastically renounced its friendship treaty with the Soviet Union with the starting of Operation Barbarossa fighting in June 1941.

In December 1941, as he was beginning to experience the Russian winter, while there might have been a chance of neutrality against the United States, to Churchill's relief, he declared war on the United States. That act, through its changing Lend-Lease to direct support of an ally, had quick effects on the Western balance of power.

U.S. strategy and policies

Before the Battle of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt gave command of the Navy to an aviator, Admiral Ernest King, with a mandate for an aviation-oriented war in the Pacific. FDR allowed King to build up land-based naval and Marine aviation, and seize control of the long-range bombers used in antisubmarine patrols in the Atlantic. Roosevelt basically agreed with Robert Lovett, the civilian Assistant Secretary of War for Air, who argued, "While I don't go so far as to claim that air power alone will win the war, I do claim the war will not be won without it."[10]

Roosevelt rejected proposals for complete independence for the Air Corps, because the old-line generals and the entire Navy were vehemently opposed. In the compromise that was reached everyone understood that after the war the aviators would get their independence. Meanwhile, their status was upgraded from "Army Air Corps" to "Army Air Forces" (AAF) in June, 1941, and they seized almost complete freedom in terms of internal administration. Thus the AAF set up its own medical service independent of the Surgeon General, its own WAC units, and its own logistics system. It had full control over the design and procurement of airplanes and related electronic gear and ordnance. Its purchasing agents controlled 15% of the nation's Gross National Product. Together with naval aviation, it recryuted the best young men in the nation. General Hap Arnold headed the AAF. One of the first military men to fly, and the youngest colonel in World War I, he selected for the most important combat commands men who were ten years younger than their Army counterparts, including Ira Eaker (b. 1896), Jimmy Doolittle (b. 1896), Hoyt Vandenberg (b. 1899), Elwood "Pete" Queseda (b. 1904), and, youngest of them all, Curtis LeMay (b. 1906). Although a West Pointer himself, Arnold did not automatically turn to Academy men for top positions. Since he operated without theater commanders, Arnold could and did move his generals around, and speedily removed underachievers.

Aware of the need for engineering expertise, he went outside the military and formed close liaisons with top engineers like rocket specialist Theodore von Karmen at Cal Tech. Arnold was given seats on the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US-British Combined Chiefs of Staff. Arnold, however, was officially Deputy Chief of [Army] Staff, so on committees he deferred to his boss, General Marshall. Thus Marshall made all the basic strategic decisions, which were worked out by his "War Plans Division" (WPD, later renamed the Operations Division). WPD's section leaders were infantrymen or engineers, with a handful of aviators in token positions.

The AAF had its own planning division, whose advice was largely ignored by WPD. Airmen were also underrepresented in the planning divisions of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and of the Combined Chiefs. Aviators were largely shut out of the decision-making and planning process because they lacked seniority in a highly rank-conscious system. The freeze intensified demands for independence, and fueled a spirit of "proving" the superiority of air power doctrine. Because of the young, pragmatic leadership at top, and the universal glamor accorded aviators, morale in the AAF was strikingly higher than anywhere else (except perhaps Navy aviation.)

The AAF provided extensive technical training, promoted officers and enlisted faster, provided comfortable barracks and good food, and was safe. The only dangerous jobs were voluntary ones as crew of fighters and bombers--or involuntary ones at jungle bases in the Southwest Pacific. Marshall, an infantryman uninterested in aviation before 1939, became a partial convert to air power and allowed the aviators more autonomy. He authorized vast spending on planes, and insisted that American forces had to have air supremacy before taking the offensive. However, he repeatedly overruled Arnold by agreeing with Roosevelt's requests in 1941-42 to send half of the new light bombers and fighters to the British and Soviets, thereby delaying the buildup of American air power.

The Army's major theater commands were given to infantrymen Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Neither had paid much attention to aviation before the war (though Ike learned to fly).

Offensive counter-air, to clear the way for strategic bombers and an eventually decisive cross-channel invasion, was a strategic mission led by escort fighters partnered with heavy bombers. The tactical mission, however, was the province of fighter-bombers, assisted by light and medium bombers.

Operations against the British Isles, 1941

Britain still faced starvation if the Battle of the Atlantic could not be won, and there was a long road ahead to defeating the Nazis and any possible invasion in the future.

Operations against Allied convoys

In 1941, the primary threat against North Atlantic convoys was from submarines, against which available Allied aircraft could not cover completely, due to limited range.

German aircraft were much more of a threat on the convoys to Russia. Long-range reconnaissance aircraft, circling the convoys out of their anti-aircraft artillery range, guided in attack aircraft, submarines, and surface ships.

In both areas, an extreme measure was taken to counter the reconnaissance aircraft: Catapult Armed Merchantmen, which could launch, but not recover, a British fighter. The fighter pilot would either have to parachute or make a water landing, and hope for recovery. CAM fighters did manage to drive off some Fw-200 maritime patrol aircraft, and even attack German submarines.

Invasion of Russia

Operation Barbarossa opened in June 1941, with striking initial German succcesses. In the air, the inferiority of many of their aircraft was still somewhat better than their pilot quality. The purges of military leadership during the Great Terror heavily impacted command and control in all services.

Barbarossa proper ran from June 22 to December 31, 1941), but the Russian front remained savage.

Initial Japanese attacks, 1941


Fundamental to understanding the situation of the Luftwaffe from 1942 onwards is that they were fighting on multiple fronts. While they reached maximum size of 1.9 million airmen in 1942, the density of those forces was not neecessarily high.

Meanwhile, U.S. theater commanders had become air power enthusiasts, and built their strategies around the need for tactical air supremacy. MacArthur had been badly defeated in the Philippines in 1941-42 primarily because the Japanese controlled the sky. His planes were outnumbered and outclassed, his airfields shot up, his radar destroyed, his supply lines cut. His infantry never had a chance. MacArthur vowed never again. His island hopping campaign was based on the strategy of isolating Japanese strongholds while leaping past them. Each leap was determined by the range of his air force, and the first task on securing an objective was to build an airfield to prepare for the next leap.[11]

Eastern Front, Germany and Soviet Union

Operation Barbarossa ended with 1941, and new plans begun.

North Africa

Operation TORCH ran from the Allied invasion on November 8, 1942, to November 11, 1942. Aside from direct combat, British ULTRA led to attacks on Axis convoys and aircraft, only when a cover explanation could be leaked about how the Allies had known where to strike.

Operations against Allied convoys

German air reconnaissance against North Atlantic and Russian convoys increased, with CAM fighters still the main defense. Some of the worst convoy losses took place in this period, such as PQ17 to Murmansk: 36 ships at the start, with 2 survivors. PQ17 was an exceptionally bad case, as an incorrect report of German heavy ships had caused the Admiralty to order the convoy, and its escort, to scatter.

Japanese operations until Midway

Until the Battle of Midway, Japanese aviation seemed unstoppable. There was one known bright light for the Allies, and one whose brightness was not understood until after the war.

Unknown to the allies were the strategic repercussions of the April 1942 Doolittle Raid. It was intended primarily for U.S. home front morale, achieving no significant military damage, and costing the lives of an estimated 250,000 Chinese lives from Japanese retalaition, caused an uproar in the Japanese Army and Navy commands. It should always be remembered that the Japanese never achieved a reasonable level of cooperation between their major services, but both believed they had lost face in letting the Emperor be threatened. As a consequence, the Army returned fighter groups to Japan, groups needed elsewhere. Even more significantly, the Naval command believed it had to extend its eastern defense perimeter, and they focused on Midway as the next base.

In the Battle of the Coral Sea, fought between May 4-8, 1942, there was an insight into the new way of war, in which the opposing fleets never saw one another; it was an air exchange. While the Americans had greater losses and arguably a tactical loss, it was a strategic victory, as it was the first time the Japanese cancelled a planned offensive.

Japanese 1942 operations after Midway

Western Europe


In some areas, such as the most intense part of the Battle of the Atlantic, the Germans enjoyed fleeting success. Japan was also still recovering from Midway.

Unknown to the Germans, the Allies, during early 1943, decided that defeating the German submarine arm was a critical priority. The foundation of the change in fortunes had been laid in January when the British and US leaders conferred at the Casablanca Conference. As a classic example of the fog of war, a Spanish-speaking German agent discovered the upcoming meeting, which could have been attacked by the Axis. Unfortunately for them, "Casablanca", read as two words, is also the Spanish for "White House". German intelligence concluded the meeting would be held in the U.S. presidential residence in Washington, D.C., far beyond their range.[12]

At Casablanca, it was decided that the defeat of the U-boat must become the Allies' top priority.[13]

Eastern Front

Grueling operations wasted the Luftwafe away on the eastern front after 1942.

Mediterranean Theater

In the Mediterranean, the Luftwaffe tried to defeat the invasions of Sicily and Italy with tactical bombing. They failed because the Allied air forces systematically destroyed most of their air fields. The Germans ferociously opposed the American landing at Anzio in February, 1944, but the Luftwaffe was outnumbered 5 to 1 and so totally outclassed in equipment and skill that it inflicted little damage. Italian air space belonged to the Allies, and the Luftwaffe's strategic capability was nil. The Luftwaffe threw everything it had against the Salerno beachhead, but was outgunned ten to one, and then lost the vital airfields at Foggia.

Foggia became the major base of the 15th Air Force. Its 2,000 heavy bombers hit Germany from the south while the 4,000 heavies of the 8th Air Force used bases in Britain, along with 1,300 RAF heavies. While bad weather in the north often canceled raids, sunny Italian skies allowed for more action. After that it had only one success in Italy, a devastating raid on the American supply depot at Bari, in December, 1943. Only 30 out of 100 bombers got through, but one found an ammunition ship, which had been secretly carrying a stock of chemical weapons for retaliatory use should the Germans use theirs.

Battle of the Atlantic

Allied sinkings were the worst between March and May 1943. Weather and convoy routing, from December 1942 to February 1943, did not favor the Germans, although the Germans still sank 119 ships (723,451 tons). Things became better in March, with new German submarines entering combat, a three-week break in ULTRA in March, and the killing grounds of the "mid-ocean gap", where there was no Allied air cover.

At a followup to the Casablanca Conference, an American, British, and Canadian Atlantic convoy contest, held in Washington between March 1 and March 12th, it was decided:[14]

  • 20 B-24 Liberator aircraft, of very long range, were to go to the Royal Canadian Air Force, at its base in Newfoundland. From that base, those aircraft could reach the gap.
  • Escort carrier groups were to be introduced to provide further protection for convoys.
  • New convoy cycles were to be created
  • SIGINT, in the form of the High Frequency Direction finding ('Huff-Duff') network was to be increased.


European theater

In early 1944, the Allies continued to bomb Germany, while carefully attacking targets in France that could interfere with the invasion, planned for June. For every raid against a real invasion-related target, there were at least two against other targets. If possible, the other raids would help with the strategic deception plan, Operation BODYGUARD, which had several sub-operations: the most important, FORTITUDE SOUTH, proved to be a successful attempt to convince Hitler that the main invasion would come at the Pas de Calais, not Normandy.

Strategic operations

An around-the-clock campaign attacked Germany, with British bombers at night and U.S. aircraft during the day. The aircraft, tactics, and doctrines were different; there is argument how complementary they were in achieving strategic effect.

Germany lost most of its fighter planes to Mustangs in 1944 while trying to defend against massive American and British air raids. When its gasoline supply ran dry in 1944, it was reduced to anti-aircraft artillery, for which the German term was "flak", and many of its men were sent to infantry units.

Me-109, the Messerschmitt 109 Fighter; 30,000 were made

Ironically, the Germans had an aircraft, the Me-262, that was far superior to the P-51. The first British jet appeared a month later; the first US jet was ready in late 1945. However, Hitler sent the ME-262 back to the drawing boards for reconfiguration as a bomber, and it never played a major role in the war. Hitler saw airplanes only as offensive weapons, and his interference prevented the Luftwaffe from acquiring and using enough fighter planes to stop the Allied bombers.

Hitler instead emphasized ant-aircraft defenses, such as the flak batteries that surrounded all major German cities and war plants, and which consumed a large fraction of all German munitions production in the last year of the war.[15]

Mediterranean/North African theaters

Strategic Bombing

See also: World War II, air war, European Theater strategic operations
See also: World War II, air war, Pacific Theater strategic operations

Neither Germany nor Japan nor the Soviets built a strategic bomber force. The Germans had some theoretical ideas about a submarine-launched ballistic missile, but it never got to the stage of a prototype; they put a great deal of effort, misplaced in hindsight, into "Vengeance weapons": the V-1 and V-2 missiles, the never-implmented V-3, and more exotic weapons still on the drawing boards.


British and American strategic bombing advocates had different paradigms of what is, today, called strategic strike. This resulted in different aircraft designs, training, targeting, and operational techniques. The Royal Air Force (RAF) had its own strategic bombing campaign, so a division of labor was agreed on whereby the RAF flew missions at night with Vickers Wellington bombers, which carried more bombs but had much less defensive capability than the B-17. The better-protected U.S. bombers flew daytime missions.

The Pacific operation was essentially American. While there was a generally shared doctrinal concept, the problems of conducting effective strategic bombing was different: the supporting actor award went to the amphibious warriors of the United States Navy, United States Marine Corps, and United States Army, who captured and rebuilt the airfields needed to reach the Japanese home islands.

Had the war in Europe lasted longer, although some claim the nuclear weapons were saved, for "racial" reasons, against Japan, had the weapons been ready and there was not the same confidence in ground victory, they would have been used. For that reason, the article World War II, Air War, nuclear warfare deals first with the concept of nuclear warfare as then understood and the Manhattan Project to develop them. It deals with the decision to use them on Japan, and the mechanics of that operation, because Japan was the only available target when the first bombs were available.


The Russians never spent significant development on long-range aviation. Perhaps their outstanding design was the Il-2 Stormovik, a heavily armored, heavily armoed ground support and antitank aircraft, which was an inspiration for the much later U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II.


Destroying Germany's Oil and Transportation

Besides knocking out the Luftwaffe, the second most striking achievement of the strategic bombing campaign was the destruction of the German oil supply. Oil was essential for U-boats and tanks, while very high quality aviation gasoline was essential for piston planes.[16] Germany had few wells, and depended on imports from Russia (before 1941) and Nazi ally Romania, and on synthetic oil plants that used chemical processes to turn coal into oil. Heedless of the risk of Allied bombing, the Germans had carelessly concentrated 80% of synthetic oil production in just 20 plants. These became a top priority for the AAF and RAF in 1944, and were targets for 210,000 tons of bombs. The oil plants were very hard to hit, but also hard to repair. As graph #1 shows, the bombings dried up the oil supply in the summer of 1944. An extreme oil emergency followed, which grew worse month by month.

Germany's supply of aviation gasoline 1940-45

The third notable achievement of the bombing campaign was the degradation of the German transportation system--its railroads and canals (there was little truck traffic.) In the two months before and after D-Day the American Liberators (B-24), Flying Fortresses and British Lancasters hammered away at the French railroad system. Underground Resistance fighters sabotaged some 350 locomotives and 15,000 freight cars every month. Critical bridges and tunnels were cut by bombing or sabotage. Berlin responded by sending in 60,000 German railway workers, but even they took two or three days to reopen a line after heavy raids on switching yards. The system deteriorated quickly, and it proved incapable of carrying reinforcements and supplies to oppose the Normandy invasion. To that extent the assignment of strategic bombers to the tactical job of interdiction was successful. When Bomber Command hit German cities, it inevitably hit some railroad yards. The AAF made railroad yards a high priority, and gave considerable attention as well to bridges, moving trains, ferries, and other choke points. The "transportation policy" of targeting the railroad system came in for intense debate among Allied strategists. It was argued that enemy had the densest and best operated railway system in the world, and one with a great deal of slack. The Nazis systematically looted rolling stock from conquered nations, so they always had plenty of locomotives and freight cars. Furthermore, most traffic was "civilian," and urgent troop train traffic would always get through. The critics exaggerated the resilience of the German system. As wave after wave of bombers blasted away, repairs took longer and longer. Delays became longer and more frustrating. Yes, the troop trains usually got through, but the "civilian" traffic that did not get through comprised food, uniforms, medical equipment, horses, fodder, tanks, fuel, howitzers, flak shells and machine guns for the front lines, and coal, steel, spare parts, subassemblies, and critical components for munitions factories. By January, 1945, the transportation system was cracking in dozens of places, and front-line units had more luck trying to capture Allied weapons than waiting for fresh supplies of their own.

Effect of the air war

Airmen did not win the war singlehandedly, as their more optimistic prewar visionaries suggested, but the war could not have been won at least in the same way, without them.


Due to the nature of the terrain and fighting, air support was much more vital in Europe and North Africa than in island fighting. In the larger land masses of the Southwest Pacific, Kenney's forces were invaluable.

Air support was still evolving, for both sides, in North Africa. Air-ground-sea coordination were lacking, as when many transports carrying U.S. paratroopers were shot down by allied ships in the invasion of Sicily. The preliminary air bombing at Normandy was ineffective, largely from the bombers dropping their bombs too late for fear of hitting the landing force.

Once inland, however, Allied fighter-bombers seemed everywhere, and it was difficult for the Germans to move in daylight.


Germany and Japan were burned out and lost the war in large part because of strategic bombing. Targeting became somewhat more accurate in 1944, but the real solution to inaccurate bombs was more of them. The AAF dropped 3.5 million bombs (500,000 tons) against Japan, and 8 million (1.6 million tons) against Germany.

The RAF expended about the same tonnage against Germany; Navy and Marine bombs against Japan are not included, nor are the two atomic bombs. While it can be calculated that strategic bombing cost the US and Britain more money than it cost Germany, that calculation is irrelevant. The Allies had plenty of money. The cost of the US tactical and strategic air war against Germany was 18,400 planes lost in combat, 51,000 dead, 30,000 POWs, and 13,000 wounded. Against Japan, the AAF lost 4,500 planes, 16,000 dead, 6,000 POWs, and 5,000 wounded; Marine Aviation lost 1,600 killed, 1,100 wounded. Naval aviation lost several thousand dead.

One fourth of the German war economy was neutralized because of direct bomb damage, the resulting delays, shortages and roundabout solutions, and the spending on anti-aircraft, civil defense, repair, and removal of factories to safer locations. The raids were so large and so often repeated that in city after city the repair system broke down. In 1944 the bombing prevented the full mobilization of the German economic potential. Speer and his staff were brilliant in improvising solutions and work-arounds, but their challenge became more difficulty every week as one backup system after another broke down. By March, 1945, most of Germany's factories, railroads and telephones had stopped working; troops, tanks, trains and trucks were immobilized. With all their great cities crumbling into rubble, with the awareness the Allies had a weapons system they could not answer, Germans suddenly realized they were going to lose the war. In February, 1945, General Marshall overruled the ethical objections of Air Force commanders and ordered a terror attack on Berlin. It was designed to help the Soviet advance and to convince the Nazis their cause was hopeless; 2,900 died (both sides exaggerated the total to 25,000 for propaganda purposes.) Josef Goebbels, Hitler's bloodthirsty propaganda minister, was disconsolate when his beautiful ministry buildings were totally burned out: "The air war has now turned into a crazy orgy. We are totally defenseless against it. The Reich will gradually be turned into a complete desert." By July, 1945, Japan was almost totally shut down. The American and British airmen had achieved the goals of strategic bombing--but neither Berlin nor Tokyo would surrender.


  1. Shiner, John F. (January-February 1986), "Reflections on Douhet: the classic approach", Air University Review
  2. Craven, p. 250,253
  3. Target: Hitler's Oil;details to be filled in
  4. USSBS-ETO; add cite
  5. USSBS-PTO; add cite
  6. Webster & Franklin, 4:24
  7. , Navigational technological advances, RAF Bomber Command Website
  8. Kay, Antony L. & Paul Couper (2004), Junkers Aircraft and Engines, 1913-1945: 1913-1945, Naval Institute Press, ISBN 0851779859, p. 130
  9. National Defense Industrial Association (1999), Feasibility of Third World Advanced Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat, vol. Volume II, Emerging Cruise Missile Threat, pp. 40-43
  10. Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1997) p. 203 online
  11. .. Quesada 41 (1948): our doctrine = "attainment of...air supremacy as a prerequisite for a major surface campaign"
  12. Kahn, David (second edition, 1996), The Codebreakers: the story of secret writing, Scribners
  13. Imperial War Museum, Campaign >> January 1943 - May 1943, Battle of the Atlantic
  14. Imperial War Museum, Campaign >> January 1943 - May 1943, Battle of the Atlantic
  15. Overy, Air War 121
  16. Jet planes ran on cheap kerosene, and rockets used plain alcohol; the railroad system used coal, which was in abundant supply.
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