A light and nimble fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was the first carrier-based fighter capable of besting its land-based opponents and was Japan’s main fighter of WWII. The Zero’s design sacrificed protection for speed, maneuverability, and long-range, on the theory that superior speed and maneuverability were protections in their own right, with long-range an added bonus. The A6M came as a shock to Allied pilots when first encountered because it could outmaneuver every airplane it faced at the time.
A better dogfighter than anything the Allies had at the start of the Pacific War, the Zero’s superior performance, especially in the hands of Japan’s elite naval aviators, exceeded anything the Allies had hitherto expected from the Japanese. In the war’s early days, Japanese naval aviators flying Zeroes achieved a 12:1 kill ratio.
To counter the Zero’s advantages, American pilots adopted teamwork tactics such as the “Thach Weave” which required pilot pairs to work in tandem, or the “Boom and Zoom”, in which American pilots engaged the Zero only in diving attacks, as the acceleration of their heavier planes in a dive allowed them to flee if the diving attack failed.
While holding considerable advantages in maneuverability and speed, the Zero’s lack of protection for either the pilot or the fuel tanks proved a steadily mounting disadvantage as the war progressed, since the heavier and more rugged American fighters could absorb considerable punishment from Zeroes, while a single machine gun burst from the American plane could disintegrate a Zero.
By 1943, attrition had thinned the ranks of Japan’s elite aviators, and the Japanese Navy’s training pipeline could not produce enough replacements of similar caliber. As a result, there were fewer and fewer Japanese pilots capable of extracting the most out of Zero’s advantages while minimizing its disadvantages. Which was bad news for the Japanese, as the quality of American aviators was increasing, due to wartime experience as well as an extensive training program that produced capable aviators at a rate Japan could not match. That was exacerbated by the introduction of new American fighters, such as the F4U Corsair and the F6F Hellcat, that were a significant improvement over their predecessors, and proved more than a match for the Zero, with greater firepower, armor, speed, and similar maneuverability.
By 1944 the Zero was obsolescent and rapidly becoming obsolete, but it remained in front line service because the Japanese faced production difficulties in fielding a replacement. From its heyday at war’s beginning when it ruled the skies of the Pacific while flown by elite pilots, A6Ms were reduced by war’s end to flying kamikaze missions under the controls of barely trained novices.
A graceful aircraft whose wide elliptical wings, curves, and rounded components flowed smoothly into each other in an elegant whole, the Supermarine Spitfire was a masterpiece of aerodynamic engineering, and perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing airplane of WWII. It was considered remarkably easy to handle, and that, combined with its physical appeal and superb performance, turned it into a legend.
Moreover, the Spitfire was remarkably durable. As Spitfire pilot John Vader wrote: “Spitfires have hit the ground, touched the sea, bashed through trees, cut telegraph and high tension wires, collided in the air, been shot to pieces, had rudders and parts of wings fall off, and have yet made safe landings, with or without wheels.”
Designed as a high-performance short-range interceptor to supplement the Royal Air Force Fighter Command’s mainstay, the Hawker Hurricane, the Spitfire combined lethality with beauty and toughness and proved a superb defensive fighter in the Battle of Britain, July to October, 1940. During that dark summer, the Spitfire emerged as the iconic symbol of British defiance as that country stood alone against the German juggernaut.
Although the RAF had more Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain than it did Spitfires, the Spitfire’s superior performance resulted in a lower attrition rate and a higher kill to loss ratio. As a result, during German raids on Britain, Spitfire squadrons were generally tasked with engaging Luftwaffe fighters and keeping them occupied, while flights of Hurricanes dove in to savage the now undefended German bombers.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to the Spitfire came during that fray, when Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering, growing frustrated by the inability to crush British resistance, berated a gathering of his exhausted and weary fighter commanders, taking them to task for failing to defeat the enemy despite a numerical superiority over the RAF. When he reportedly asked just what more he could do to speed up victory, one of them replied bitterly: “Give me a squadron of Spitfires!” After the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire began to replace the Hurricane as the backbone of the RAF’s Fighter Command for the remainder of the war.
The plane’s design proved sufficiently rugged and adaptable to permit the use of increasingly powerful engines as the war progressed. That led to a steady increase in the Spitfire’s performance and capabilities throughout the conflict. Aside from machine guns, different versions were equipped with cannons, rockets, or bombs. In addition to its primary role as interceptor, the Spitfire successfully served in other roles, such as fighter-bomber, reconnaissance, and trainer. It was the most produced British aircraft of the war, with over 20,000 manufactured during the conflict.
A low wing fighter powered by a BWW air-cooled radial engine, the Focke-Wulf FW-190 was first ordered in 1937, intended as insurance against possible shortages in the liquid-cooled Daimler engines that powered the Luftwaffe’s mainstay fighter, the Bf 109. As things turned out, once it was introduced in late 1941, the backup quickly stole the show. The FW-190 proved more rugged than the 109, as its huge radial engine, mounted up front, acting as extra shielding for the pilot, and could absorb far more damage than the Bf 109’s liquid-cooled engine and still function. It also proved superior to the 109 in most tasks, except high altitude dog fighting. Thus, the Focke-Wulf ended up replacing the Messerschmitt as Germany’s main fighter, with over 20,000 produced by war’s end.
Maneuverable, and heavily armed with a standard configuration of four 20mm cannon plus two machine guns, the FW-190 proved an excellent airplane, and during the middle war years, was the best air to air fighter, asserting an ascendancy over enemy fighters that lasted until the Spitfire IX restored parity in July 1942.
However, the Spitfire lacked the range to penetrate deep into Reich territory. Thus, when US Bomber Command entered the fray and began conducting daylight raids into Germany, the FW-190s’ heavy armaments rendered it well suited for the role of bomber destroyer. Wading into the bomber formations, FW-190s inflicted heavy losses and established an ascendancy over German skies that lasted until long-range fighter escorts finally became available to shepherd US bombers in 1944.
In addition to fighter duties, the FW-190 platform was well suited to other roles, such as reconnaissance, ground attack, fast light bomber capable of carrying a respectable 4000 bomb load, and when equipped with 37mm cannons, an exceptional tank buster. The FW-190s supremacy over Germany’s skies was first challenged by the appearance of P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolts, whose range was extended by the use of drop tanks, enabling them to escort American bombers to those targets in Germany that fell within their enhanced range, and at least part of the way to those targets deeper inside Germany that lay beyond.
The FW-190’s radial engine could not hope to match the turbo supercharged engines of those American fighters at high altitudes, and so FW-190s were forced to retreat deeper into Germany, effectively abandoning those parts within Allied escort fighter range. Alternatively, FW-190s would shadow the bomber formations and wait until the escorting Thunderbolts or Lightning reached their maximum range and had to turn back, before pouncing on the now undefended bombers.
The appearance of the P-51 Mustang, which had the range to escort US bombers to targets anywhere inside German-held territory, put the FW-190 at a permanent disadvantage and ended its ascendancy as a bomber destroyer. The introduction of the liquid-cooled FW-190D variant in September of 1944 restored some degree of parity, but by then it was too late. German factories did not produce enough FW-190Ds to go around, and by the time they came out, the Luftwaffe had suffered severe pilot attrition, so there was a shortage of experienced flyers capable of taking full advantage of the FW-190D’s capabilities.
With its distinctive twin booms on either side of a central pod containing the cockpit and armaments, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning is one of the most recognizable airplanes of WWII. It was also the only successful twin-engine fighter of the war, with over 10,000 produced during the conflict.
The Lightning’s prototype was the world’s fastest airplane when it was first introduced in 1939, and it remained one of the fastest climbers until the war’s end. Operationally deployed in 1941, the P-38 saw service in both the European and Pacific theaters but excelled more in the Pacific, where its long-range capabilities were well suited to the vast distances characteristic of that theater.
The placement of the Lightning’s machine guns on the plane’s nose was unusual among American fighters of WWII, which relied on wing-mounted machine guns instead. While wing-mounted guns were calibrated to shoot at crisscrossing trajectories of between 100 to 250 yards, the Lightning’s straight-ahead gun arrangement gave it a significantly longer useful range: P-38s were able to reliably deliver effectively and aimed concentrated machine-gun fire at a range of up to 1000 yards. America’s top two aces of World War II, Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire, both flew P-38s.
The P-38’s most famous mission was Operation Vengeance, which highlighted its excellence as a long-range fighter, and resulted in the death of Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. When American codebreakers intercepted and deciphered Japanese signals that he was scheduled to fly from Rabaul to the island of Bougainville on April 18, 1943, a flight of 16 Lightnings was dispatched from Guadalcanal on a 600-mile roundabout trip to intercept and shoot down Yamamoto’s airplane, followed by a 400-mile straight-line return flight to Guadalcanal. At the time, only P-38s were capable of making such a 1000 mile round trip.
Skimming the ocean at less than 50 feet above the waves in order to avoid detection, the operation worked like precision clockwork. The P-38s arrived at Bougainville and climbed to altitude just as Yamamoto’s plane and its escorts arrived over the island, reaching the planned interception point within one minute of the admiral. The Lightning fell upon the Japanese, and Yamamoto’s plane was shot down, along with another transport plane plus two escorting Zeroes, for the loss of one P-38.
Lightnings remained America’s primary long-range fighter until the arrival of the P-51 Mustang. Versatile, the P-38 was used not only in the long-range fighter role but also served effectively in reconnaissance, dive-bombing and level bombing, as well as ground attack.
A lightened upgrade of previous Yakovlev fighters, the Yak-9 was initially deployed in October of 1942, and saw its first combat soon thereafter during the Battle of Stalingrad. Standard armament was a nose-mounted 20mm cannon, plus one or two heavy machine guns. It was used mainly to support ground troops by shielding them from German air attacks, and strafing enemy troops when feasible.
In contrast to what came before, Soviet pilots considered the Yak-9 to be the equal of the German Bf 109 and FW-190 fighters, especially at lower altitudes where the light Yak-9, although inferior to the Germans in armaments, proved their superior in speed and maneuverability and rate of climb, thus allowing it to excel in low-level dogfighting. It also proved remarkably durable, able to absorb significant damage and punishment and still make it back home.
The light fighter’s markedly improved performance over that of its predecessors was instrumental in restoring Soviet pilots’ confidence after the catastrophic losses they had suffered in the first year of the war, caused by poor training and tactics, but more importantly, by inferior airplanes that were no match for the modern fighters flown by the Luftwaffe.
The restoration of its fighter pilots’ confidence in their equipment finally allowed the Red Air Force to begin clawing its way back up and gradually stabilize the situation on the Eastern Front, as the Soviet air arm slowly replaced the marked aerial inferiority exhibited against the Germans with aerial parity, then superiority, and by war’s end, supremacy. After its successful introduction over the skies of Stalingrad, the Yak-9 gradually became the Soviet Union’s main fighter of the war, and by 1944, there were more Yak-9s in service than all other Soviet fighters combined.
As with other fighters that did particularly well in the war, the Yak-9’s success was due in no small to the versatility of its basic design, allowing for steady improvements as the war progressed, and for utilization in a variety of roles. In addition to a defensive fighter, the adaptable Yak-9s were also put to uses such as reconnaissance, long-range bomber escorts, nighttime fighters, armed with 37mm or 45mm cannons and used as tank busters, general ground attacks, and when equipped with bomb loads of up to 1000 pounds, the planes could also serve as light bombers. The Yakovlev Yak-9 was the most produced fighter in the history of the Red Air Force, with over 16,000 rolling out of Soviet factories.
Nicknamed “The Jug” and exceptionally huge by the standards of WWII, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was the heaviest fighter of the conflict. Clocking in at 8 tons when fully loaded in its ground attack role, and 10,000 pounds empty, it was 50 percent heavier than the P-51 Mustang, and nearly twice as heavy as the Spitfire. Notwithstanding its weight, the P-47 was fast, capable of matching the Mustang’s 440 m.p.h. top speed, with one late war variant reaching 473 m.p.h. However, it had shorter range, at 800 miles, than the Mustang’s nearly 1600 miles.
Ironically, the P-47 had initially been conceived of as a light interceptor, but between proposal and prototype, requirements and minds changed, and a heavy fighter emerged. Initial designs called for a small fighter with a liquid-cooled engine, but when the Army raised concerns, designers turned to an air-cooled, and exceptionally powerful for its day, engine. The powerful engine meant the plane no longer needed to be small, and so its size grew, resulting in a heavy fighter with a respectable range.
While the increased weight reduced the P-47’s rate of climb, that only mattered for an interceptor, and by 1943 when Thunderbolts first saw combat, there was no significant enemy bomber threat that urgently required a fighter with interceptor characteristics. Moreover, the extra weight had its own benefits, increasing the P-47’s durability, and making it faster in the dive – a great asset that enabled Thunderbolts to overtake fleeing enemy fighters, or to break off contact and flee themselves if necessary.
Deployed to Europe in 1942 and seeing its first combat in 1943, the Thunderbolt was utilized primarily in bomber escort duties, and gained a reputation for ruggedness because its robust airframe and the air-cooled radial engine allowed it to absorb significant combat damage and still bring plane and pilot back home.
The P-47 was gradually phased out from its bomber escort role as the longer-ranged P-51 Mustangs began to arrive. The Thunderbolt then found a new niche as a ground attack fighter, in which role it excelled, wreaking havoc on airfields, locomotives, and road traffic. Indeed, when fully loaded in its fighter-bomber configuration, a single P-47 could deliver about half the payload of a B-17 heavy bomber. And when equipped with rockets, a salvo from a P-47 was equivalent to a battery of 155 mm howitzers.
The Thunderbolt was the most used American fighter of the war, with nearly 16,000 manufactured. During its production run, improvements were made, with each modification adding to the P-47’s speed, power, range, and maneuverability. During the final year and a half of the war, P-47s comprised nearly half of all US fighters in groups posted overseas. P-47s flew over half a million sorties, during which they shot down about 4000 enemy airplanes from the skies and destroyed another 3000 on the ground, as well as 6000 armored vehicles, 9000 locomotives, and 86,000 trucks.
Early in the Pacific War, American naval aviators were shocked upon discovering that their standard fighter, the F4F Wildcat, was outclassed in many ways by the faster, more maneuverable, and longer-ranged Japanese Zero. Ameliorative operational procedures and tactics were adopted to counter the Zero’s advantages and play up to the Wildcat’s strengths, but it was clear that such measures were a stopgap, and that what was really needed was a new and improved fighter
Grumman, which had been working on a successor to the F4F prior to America’s entry into the war, sped things up after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and took what became the F6F Hellcat from the experimental stage to operational employment in a mere 18 months. Featuring foldable wings for easier storage in less space, thus allowing aircraft carriers to carry a greater number of fighters, the F6F was faster, more powerful, more maneuverable, and longer-ranged than its predecessor, and outclassed the enemy’s Zeroes in every way except maneuverability at low speed. The Hellcat saw its first combat in August of 1943 and proved so successful that, by 1944, it had become the Navy’s standard carrier-based fighter.
12,275 Hellcats were produced during the war, and they were the main platform which the US Navy used to clear the Pacific skies of enemy planes. A versatile and rugged aircraft, F6Fs spearheaded America’s advance across the Pacific, conducting fighter sweeps over enemy airfields, flying combat air patrols to shield the forces below from aerial attack, and performing ground attacks in support of soldiers and Marines.
Standard armament was six .50 caliber machines, but some planes substituted a pair of 20mm canon for two of the machine guns. F6Fs could also carry a pair of 1000 pound bombs, but its most destructive load for ground attacks were half a dozen 5-inch rockets, whose salvoes exceeded a destroyer’s broadside.
Although it did not enter service until the final two years of the conflict, the F6F downed 5156 enemy aircraft. Nicknamed “The Ace Maker” for the seeming ease with which its pilots achieved that status, with 307 Hellcat pilots becoming aces during the war, the plane achieved an enviable 19:1 kill ratio, and accounted for 75 percent of the US Navy’s air to air victories.
The North American P-51 Mustang was perhaps the only airplane to seriously rival the Spitfire for the title of most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing fighter of WWII. When it came to performance, however, the Mustang had no serious rival for the title of best fighter of the war, embodying as it did the pinnacle of propeller-driven fighter technology, and proving itself a credible match against even the revolutionary Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.
The Mustang was initially designed for the RAF, and the plane that was manufactured in accordance with the British buyers’ specifications, and delivered in October of 1941, was mediocre. Equipped with an underpowered engine, those early Mustangs could not compete on an equal footing with German fighters at high altitudes. As such, the RAF’s Fighter Command saw no use for the plane, and it was relegated to tactical reconnaissance and ground attack duties.
It was not until 1943, after the US Eighth Air Force joined the bombing campaign against Germany and suffered horrendous losses during raids deep into Reich territory beyond the range of fighter escorts, that the Mustang got a second look. The front-line American fighters at the time, the P-38s and P-47s, had shortcomings as bomber escorts – most important of which was the lack of sufficient range to accompany the bombers all the way to targets deep into Germany. After evaluation, it was determined that the Mustang, if modified to carry additional fuel internally and fitted with external fuel tanks, would have the necessary range to escort the bombers anywhere in the European Theater of Operations.
That fixed half of the problem: transforming the Mustang into a fighter capable of escorting American bombers all the way to targets deep inside Germany. Fixing the other half of the problem – improving the Mustang’s performance so it could beat back German fighters and actually protect the bombers it would now escort – transformed the Mustang into a legend.
What had kept the Mustang mediocre was a mediocre engine that performed poorly at high altitudes. Equipped with that stock engine, the initial Mustangs had a top speed of 390 miles per hour, and an effective ceiling of 15,000 feet – any higher, and their performance suffered. Then a British test pilot had the bright idea of replacing the Mustang’s stock engine with the Rolls Royce engine used in the Spitfire IX, and the results were immediate and dramatic, allowing the Mustang to realize its potential, and transforming it from mediocrity to the war’s best fighter. From a 390 m.p.h. top speed, the Rolls Royce engined Mustang zoomed to 440 m.p.h. (with later models reaching 490 m.p.h.), and from an effective ceiling of 15,000 feet, the improved Mustang soared to 42,000 feet.
The test results were passed on to the Americans, and converted Mustangs, equipped with the Rolls Royce engine and now designated the P-51B, began rolling out of factories in June of 1943, and by late 1943, P-51s were in place and ready for action in Europe. When they entered action in 1944, the P-51s broke the Luftwaffe’s back.
The Bf 109s had good engines, capable of performing well at the high altitudes in which the bombers flew. But to actually down the rugged B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, the 109s needed to be fitted with heavy armaments. The problem was that putting heavy armaments on the Bf 109s’ light airframe negatively impacted their performance, making them that much more vulnerable to the bombers’ escorting P-51s, which were unencumbered by heavy armaments, and armed and optimized instead for the task of killing fighters.
The FW-190s had it even worse than the 109s when they tried to penetrate the protective screen of P-51s in order to get at the bombers. While the 109s at least had engines that were suited for high altitude dogfighting, the FW-190s did not have even that, and their radial engines were no match for the Mustangs’ Rolls Royce engines at high altitudes. Between that, and the dilemma of needing heavy armaments in order to shoot down heavy bombers, even as those heavy armaments reduced their ability to take on enemy fighters not similarly encumbered, the FW-190s found themselves at a severe disadvantage against the P-51s.
After months of heavy losses to the Mustangs, and unsustainable attrition that bled the German fighter arm white, the Luftwaffe effectively ceded the skies over Germany to the P-51 escorted bombers, shadowing the formations but mostly shying away from contact, pouncing instead on stragglers suffering mechanical malfunctions or damaged by flak.
The P-51s begrudged the Germans even that, and would not allow the once-proud Luftwaffe to skulk and scavenge in peace. If the German fighters would not come up to fight them, then they would go down to find and fight the German fighters.
Appointed to command of the Eighth Air Force, Jimmy Doolittle, of Tokyo raid fame, was not content with simply protecting the bombers. Instead, he sought to achieve aerial supremacy over German skies. To do that, he changed the orders that had required escorting fighters to stick with the bombers at all times, and freed them to sweep far ahead of the formations to engage any Germans they could find.
Additionally, once the bombers had hit their targets and began their return trip, the P-51s were free to leave the formations and “hit the deck” on their way back home, descending from their high altitudes and engaging any planes they came across, strafing German airfields, attacking trains or road traffic, engaging any targets of opportunity they spotted, and otherwise provoking and daring the Luftwaffe to come out and do something about it. In the runup to the D-Day landings, some P-51 groups were released from bomber escort duties altogether and unleashed on German airfields instead. Such aggressive tactics finally crippled the Luftwaffe.
The P-51s proved such a success, and were such a marked improvement over the P-38s and P-47s, that by the end of 1944, 14 out of the Eighth Air Force’s 15 fighter groups had switched from Lightning and Thunderbolts to Mustangs. Perhaps the greatest compliment to the Mustangs came from the Luftwaffe’s chief, Hermann Goering, who reportedly said “I knew the jig was up” when he saw P-51s over Berlin.
Even the arrival of futuristic German airplanes late in the war failed to wrest aerial supremacy from the P-51s. The most formidable of those planes, the Messerschmitt Me 262, was kept in check by a shortage of both fuel and experienced pilots, as well as by the expedients of attacking their airfields and strafing them on the ground, or keeping fighter air patrols near their airfields, and catching them at their most vulnerable when they were taking off or landing.
Flying at 540 miles per hour, and armed with four 30 mm cannon, the Messerschmitt Me 262 was faster and better armed than any other fighter in WWII. Its arrival ushered the dawn of the jet age and revolutionized aerial warfare, but it came too late to stave off Germany’s defeat.
First flown in 1942, technical difficulties, coupled with inadequate support or understanding of its potential by high-ranking German leaders, delayed the Me 262’s deployment until 1944. E.g.; Goering thought the war would be won with the planes Germany already possessed, rendering the investment in projects such as the Me 262 superfluous, while Hitler gummed up the works by supporting the development of the jet as a fast bomber rather than an interceptor.
The Me 262 first saw combat with an experimental trial unit in July of 1944, but it was not until November of 1944 that the jet fighter first attacked one of the bomber formations that by then were roaming Germany’s skies at will. Results were mixed, with two escorting P-51s shot down but no bombers, for the loss of one jet fighter and the death of its pilot, an irreplaceable Luftwaffe ace with over 250 kills.
The first Me 262 wing was formed in January of 1945, by which point Allied armies were already on German home soil in both the Eastern and Western fronts. The Me 262 units’ effectiveness was hampered by organizational flaws, a dearth of experienced pilots capable of taking full advantage of the plane’s capabilities, lack of fuel for adequate training, and frequent Allied attacks on their airfields.
It was not until March of 1945 that a glimpse of what might have been was seen when Luftwaffe general Adolf Galland formed a Me 262 unit comprised of elite and highly experienced pilots. Mounting coordinated large-scale jet attacks on the bomber formations, the results were impressive if too little and too late. In the first such attack, 37 Me 262s took on a formation of over 1000 bombers, protected by over 600 fighter escorts, and shot down twelve bombers and one fighter, for the loss of only 3 jets.
While such a 4:1 kill ratio was impressive, it was a pinprick, and Germany went down to total defeat a few weeks later. But if more Me 262s had been available a year earlier, and had been organized into units staffed with experienced pilots rather than novices as was too often the case, a 4:1 kill rate could have seriously complicated matters for the Allies, and the course of the war, if not its final outcome, might have gone differently.
The Allies, aware of the Me 262’s disruptive potential, devoted considerable resources to contain it. Allied fighters were at a severe disadvantage in taking on the jets at high altitude, as they were significantly faster than any piston-driven plane. However, the Me 262s were vulnerable at takeoff and landing, and parked on their airfields they were sitting ducks. So Allied fighters patrolled the vicinity of Me 262 airfields to try and catch them taking off or landing, and bombed them with mounting frequency. Shooting them down might have been difficult, but destroying them on the ground and wrecking the infrastructure needed to send them up in the first place was well within Allied capabilities.