World War II

The Second World War

Perhaps no six-year period saw such rapid progress in the development of the aircraft as 1939 to 1945.  At the outbreak of war in September 1939, the air forces of many nations were still using biplanes as front-line fighters, but by 1945, at least three of the combatants had developed jet fighters capable of speeds approaching 500 miles per hour, and fleets of bombers had devastated cities on both sides.  In Britain alone, it would take at least two years of war before supposedly obsolete biplanes such as the Gloster Gladiator and Fairey Swordfish were fully phased out.  The Gladiator was instrumental in the defense of the British-held island of Malta in the Mediterranean, and the Swordfish torpedo bomber turned out to be a vital weapon in the hunt for and ultimate destruction of the German battleship Bismarck in the Spring of 1941.

Hybrid aircraft employing both biplane and monoplane technology, such as the Hawker Hurricane, helped breach the gap between the fighters of the First World War, and those that would be dominant in the second.  Aircraft with fixed landing gear such as Germany’s Ju87 Stuka dive bomber, and Japan’s Ki-27 Nate fighter were used with devastating effect at the beginning of the war, but in time were too slow to cope with the new breed of Allied fighters.  Progress also pushed aside the parasol fighters of the 1930’s, the last of which, Poland’s PZL P.24, was still a front-line fighter in the Greek Air Force in 1941, and gave a surprisingly good account of itself against the Messerschmitt Bf109 when Germany invaded Greece in April of that year.

The war served as a catalyst for the development of piston-engined aircraft to the pinnacle of their performance, then pushed aircraft design to the point that the appearance of the jet foretold the end of the world’s propeller-driven air forces.  The speed with which the technology developed was breathtaking; the Japanese Zero, which dominated Pacific skies for the first 18 months after Pearl Harbor, met its match with the appearance of the Grumman F6F Hellcat, and later the P-38 Lightning. The story of the Zero indicated that speed and firepower were not enough; a winning fighter needed armor protection, self-sealing fuel tanks, range, maneuverability, and the ability to take a beating.  The Hellcat in particular had all these factors in its favor.  But before war’s end, Germany’s Messerschmitt Me 262 had already signaled that the days of the superiority of the Hellcat and Lightning were numbered. 

The range and destructive power of aircraft also took giant leaps as a result of the war.  Although conventional military wisdom in the 1930’s deemed it impossible that a flimsy aircraft could pose a threat to any large naval vessel, the British aerial torpedo attack on Italian battleships docked at Taranto in 1940, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 discredited that idea forever.  In 1939, there was no aircraft capable of delivering more than a few hundred pounds of explosives and causing relatively limited damage, yet the war ended when a B-29 bomber delivered a single bomb that all but leveled two Japanese cities. 

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