During WWII, air strategies were critical and a major element in all theaters. This combined with anti-air defense generated a large percentage of the industrial production for all the major powers. Germany and Japan were highly dependent on air forces which were closely combined with land and naval forces, minimizing the benefit of strategic bombers. They realized the importance of defending against strategic bombing too late.
Britain and the United States approach was quite the opposite. They put an emphasis on strategic bombing. A minor emphasis included a tactical control of the battlefield via air using a sufficient amount of air defense, which could provide vital assistance to ground troops. Both countries also focused on building a large force of long-range bombers, which allowed them the strategic move of taking the air war to the enemy’s homeland. A powerful naval-air element based on aircraft carriers was developed by Britain and the United States, as well as Japan and played a crucial part in the war at sea.
Below is a brief overview of the Air Forces of WWII.
United States Army Air Force
The United States began building their fleet of long-range bombers by seizing control of those used in the antisubmarine patrols in the Atlantic. The United States did not feel these alone could win the war, but felt without them, they would surely lose.
One of the strong points of the AAF was the extensive technical training it provided. They also were known for promoting officers and enlisted at a faster rate than most. Being a crew member on a fighter or bomber was on a voluntary basis. Other areas, such as the jungles bases in the Southwest Pacific, were mandatory positions.
At the urging of General Marshall, the United States began spending additional monies on planes to secure air supremacy prior to taking the offensive. From 1941-42, Marshall consistently supported Roosevelt’s request to send at least half of the US’s new light bombers and fighters to Britain and the Soviet Union, despite the delay it created in building up US air power.
Strategic bombers would eventually begin clearing the way for the offensive counter-air missions led by escort fighters accompanied by heavy bombers. On tactical missions, fighter-bombers were supported by light and medium bombers.
It was long before the commanders of the American theaters became air power supporters. They began building their strategies around the essential need to gain tactical air supremacy.
This requirement was never more prominent than in the Philippines in 1941 to 1942 when the control of the skies belonged to the Japanese resulting in MacArthur’s defeat. The Japanese planes both outnumbered and outclassed those of the United States. They created havoc on the airfields, forced the cut off of supplies and destroyed MacArthur’s radar. He vowed this would never happen again. He began an island hopping campaign, which was intended to isolate Japan’s stronghold as they leaped past them. The range of the air force would determine the next leap. It was then their task to build an airfield in preparation for the subsequent leap.
Britain’s Royal Air Force
In answer to their own plans for strategic bombing, the British also built long-range bombers. As Germany’s immanent threat increased, the RAF began increasing their squadrons and building airfields. In 1934, the RAF had 42 squadrons with a total of 800 aircraft, but by 1934, they had grown to 157 squadrons with 3,700 aircraft. Though the larger bombers were still not fully developed at this time, the RAFs medium bombers could reach as far as the Germany’s industrial center – the Ruhr.
After the war against Germany broke out in 1939, the RAF began to expand rapidly, including training the Commonwealth nations such as Canada. They were also able to integrate the Polish and other airmen who fortunately escaped from Hitler’s Europe.
The RAF was comprised of three major combat commands in the UK:
- Fighter Command – Operated offensive bombers against the enemy.
- RAF Coastal Command – Protected Allied shipping and attacked enemy shipping.
- Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm – Operated land-based fighters, which defended naval establishments and carrier-based aircraft.
Eventually, the fighter force of the RAF would be further divided:
- Air Defense of Great Britain (ADGB) – Provided protection for the UK
- Second Tactical Air Force – Provided ground offensive support in NW European campaign
The RAFs Bomber Command joined in two basic areas of attack
- Strategic bombing against German war production
- Mining in coastal waters off Germany. This was done in an effort to contain the naval operations of Germany and to prevent their U-boats from operating without any restrictions against Allied shipping.
The RAF also developed navigational aids and tactics, which allowed them to attack the German industries at night. Prior to 1944, Germany’s industrial targets remained out of range, so the RAF bombers would concentrate on various military and transportation targets located in France and Belgium.
Soviet Air Force
Throughout the war, the Soviet aircraft production slowly rose. In 1944, the production peaked at 40,000 aircraft. The majority of the aircraft produced were combat types and the rest were transporters and trainers. In all the Soviets used 7,500 bombers and dropped an estimated 30 million bombs on German targets.
Hitler recognized the need for a strong German Air Force early on. Germany’s growth and technology amplified fears which contributed in 1930 to the British and French being persuaded into appeasement.
In 1939 – 41, the Suka diver bombers performed well for the Luftwaffe. They terrified the enemy infantry units, despite the Luftwaffe’s poor coordination with Germany’s overall strategy. This prevented the necessary size and scope necessary in the war. Germany’s overall military aircraft production lacked in infrastructure for both finished airframes and powerplants – especially when compared to the Soviets or the U.S. The Germans only strategic bomber, the Heinkel He 177, was troublesome at best, deficient in radar technology and no match for Britain’s P-51 Mustang.
In 1944, with the Oil Campaign of WWI, the Luftwaffe’s fuel supply ran out, reducing it to an anti-aircraft flak role and sending many of the men to infantry units.
Because the Luftwaffe did not believe bombing was a worthwhile strategy, they lacked bomber forces. They attempted some strategic bombing in the east, but with only the troublesome He 177 for such a mission, their only success was the destruction of an airbase in the Ukraine.
By the time turbojet-powered combat aircraft were fully introduced in Germany, it was ‘too little, too late’. This seemed to be a problem woven throughout Germany’s aircraft designs and military weapons which surfaced towards the end of the war.
Germany’s lack of coordination with their allies – Italy and Finland – also worked against them. And it wasn’t until late in the war that Germany finally shared its blueprints with their ally - Japan – at which time, it was too late for them to make the necessary improvements on their weapons systems.
Throughout the various theaters of WWII, both the Allies and the Axis had their advantages and disadvantages, but no doubt, the Allies command of the sky both as offense and defense strategies proved to be vital in securing the successful outcome of the war.