If one had to fight a conflict World War II style, with World War II weaponry, they’d want the best the 1939-45 Era had to offer. Much of the war’s early weaponry was outclassed entirely when it ended. So, a lot will be left out of this and the following posts. For this first post, we’ll begin with air power.
In World War II a successful air force was both a strategic, and tactical force. Capable of hitting the enemy’s heart, but also of supporting the troops with aerial ground support.
Strategic Air Superiority
For strategic long-range air superiority; the P-51 Mustang. An aircraft designed for no other purpose than to sweep enemy planes from the sky, all the way to the capital city if need be.
The P-51 Mustang outclassed every other piston engine fighter by 1945 in performance, maneuverability, endurance and speed. P-51 Mustang beats out Germany’s Me-262 fighter jet, because the latter was practically useless at mid & low altitudes, and had a shorter operating range.
The strategic bomber of choice would be, the B-29 Superfortress. An advanced aircraft for the 1940’s, B-29’s carried the heaviest bomb loads at the longest ranges, and was a pressurized aircraft insulating aircrew from the harsh elements of high-altitude flight.
For strategic night bombing and heavy precision strikes, Britain’s Avro Lancaster was made to order. Its ability to carry large, odd-shaped, specialized bombs was second to none.
Lancasters carried what was then very advanced electronic warfare gadgetry; airborne navigation radar, air defense radar, radar detection and jamming equipment, radar controlled gun turrets, and other electronic ‘goodies’ such as a microphone in an engine nacelle for broadcasting engine noise over German fighter control radio.
Lancasters were successfully employed in difficult missions like dam busting and in sinking the German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord.
Nighttime interdiction was also an important role. For these missions you need range, precision, and stealth. Nothing surpasses Britain’s de Havilland Mosquito for this role. Made entirely of wood, (yes, wood), Mosquito was light, swift, maneuverable, and all but invisible to enemy radar.
Mosquito’s were armed with machine guns, cannon, wing mounted bombs or rockets, as well as a small internal bomb bay to carry extra ordinance or auxiliary fuel tanks. Mosquito’s stalked enemy airfields strafing, bombing, or shooting down enemy night fighters as they took off, or landed.
Mosquito’s were adept at surgical strikes and were used in such attacks on three Gestapo headquarters in occupied Europe. Their finest hour in this role was Operation Jericho, successfully destroying the walls, guards barracks, and breaching buildings of Amiens Prison in occupied France; enabling 258 prisoners to escape, including 79 French Resistance fighters.
Mosquito’s also proved effective in close air support, naval interdiction, tactical bombing, target location/marking and photo-reconnaissance.
Tactical/Close Air Support
For a prime medium/tactical bomber: the B-25 Mitchell. A versatile aircraft able to take heavy damage and make it home, and very modifiable. B-25’s proved useful in tactical air support, battlefield logistics interdiction, naval interdiction, and occasionally short-range strategic air strikes.
For their size, B-25’s were well armed for air-to-air defense, including a top turret usually only found on heavy bombers. The B-25H ‘gunship’ variant had several machine guns and a 75mm cannon mounted in the nose for naval strikes.
For direct close air support of ground troops; the P-47 Thunderbolt. The ‘father’ of today’s A-10 Thunderbolt II. Built as a fighter aircraft, the P-47 was found to be a formidable ground attack platform. And, as the war progressed, equipped with armor-piercing 20mm cannon, bomb racks and rockets.
Like the A-10 of today, the P-47 was also armored and could take a great deal of ground fire with both plane and pilot, making it home in one piece. During the attempted German counter-attack against Patton’s Third Army breakout from Normandy in 1944, P-47’s participated in the destruction of over 500 German tanks, tank destroyers and self-propelled artillery in the Battle of the Falaise Pocket.
Protecting friendly tactical aircraft from enemy fighters over a battlefield, taking down enemy tactical aircraft attacking your troops, or providing airfield/homeland air defense, required a short-range fighter for localized air superiority.
Though superseded in many aspects by succeeding Allied and Axis piston engine fighters, no fighter could stand air-guard like the victor of the Battle of Britain; the Supermarine Spitfire. And, equipped with Griffon engines later in the war, Spitfires were by 1945 edging up to P-51 Mustang speeds and more than a match for Axis counterparts.
Air Transport & Airborne Assault
For general transport and airborne paratrooper assault, there simply was no contemporary to the C-47 Skytrain. Every Allied air force used it during World War II, as did the Soviet Union, and ironically Imperial Japan (see below).
Germany’s Ju-52 Tante, though a good aircraft, couldn’t carry as many troops (17 vs 28) only flew half as far as the C-47’s 1,600 mile range, and had a ceiling of 15,000 feet, where the C-47’s was 26,000.
Germany did build the Me-323 Gigant, (Giant) an enormous sized military glider fitted with six engines. Gigant could carry 130 combat troops, or a couple of armored vehicles. But, it was woefully slow, lumbering, could only climb to 13,000 feet, and doomed in contested air space.
Before America’s entry into World War II, Japanese industry had acquired the license to domestically produce their own version of the C-47. Identical in nearly every way, it was known as the L2D. And, was used for general military transport.
Though they did employ paratroopers in World War II, Japan never explored paratroop assaults on a large-scale. Between 1940 & 45, just under 500 L2D’s were produced by Japan and spread across their entire Asia/Pacific empire, flying general non-combat transport missions.
There was no purpose-built spy plane, as such in World War II. Aircraft of all types were pressed into service for clandestine missions depending on the range, purposes and equipment required. However, more often than not, fighter planes and fast medium bombers were employed in these tasks. Usually retaining their standard armament in case they were engaged by enemy fighters.
Light scout and staff aircraft were often employed to insert and extract spies behind enemy lines for their ability to operate from short, unprepared or makeshift airfields.