Bombers

The development of high-speed offensive bombers really took off in the 1930s. All sides of the war made extensive use of bombers in terrifying air assaults.

Allied Bombers

One of the most influential bombers to come out of that era was the B-17 Flying Fortress, which was widely used by the Allies in both the European and Pacific theaters throughout the war. The B-17 was popular because it had a formidable defensive gun armament (hence the name Flying Fortress) and could also sustain considerable damage and still make it home.

Fig 11-1 The Avengers flying in formation, September 1942.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (80-G-417475)

Equally important in the overall war effort was the B-24 Liberator, a heavy bomber produced in greater numbers than any other U.S. military aircraft. The B-24 was used primarily as a long-range bomber and saw service as such in Europe, the Pacific, and North Africa. However, it was also used as an antisubmarine plane, for reconnaissance, and to haul cargo.

The Memphis Belle was the first U.S. bomber to successfully complete twenty-five missions over Europe, and as a result it became one of the best-known aircraft of the war. The Memphis Belle, a B-17 Flying Fortress, was named by Captain Robert Morgan for Margaret Polk of Memphis, Tennessee. In addition to their bombing runs, the crew shot down eight German fighters.

The B-29 Superfortress was the next step in the evolution of American-designed heavy bombers and was by far the most advanced bomber to see action in the war. The B-29 was used extensively in bombing raids against Japanese industrial and urban targets during the latter months of the war. In addition, the B-29 was the first U.S. bomber with a radar bombing system, which replaced the popular Norden bombsight for precision bombing.

The B-32 Dominator was created just in case the B-29 failed to live up to expectations. Also a heavy bomber, it saw limited action (only fifteen actually flew in combat in the Pacific before the end of the war) because the B-29 proved to be so reliable and effective. However, the B-32 was a very solid plane with tremendous defensive capabilities. In one incident in August 1945, two B-32s on a photo mission over Tokyo were attacked by fourteen Japanese fighters. One Dominator was damaged in the ensuing battle, but both managed to return safely to their base in Okinawa.

Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima, was a B-29.

The B-36 Peacemaker was a long-distance bomber designed to attack European targets from bases in North America. The plane was also considered for duty in the Pacific as a result of problems with the B-29 and B-32. However, the first B-36 didn't roll off the assembly line until August 1946 — a year after the end of the war and nearly five years after the prototype was first ordered.

Even more distinctive in concept was the B-35 Flying Wing, a long-range bomber that, as its name implies, looked like a flying wing. The plane was conceived of as a transatlantic bomber, and the order for a prototype was received by Northrop in 1941. The first B-35s took to the air in June 1946, too late to participate in the war.

Who painted the noses of fighter planes during the war?

The job usually went to the crewman with the most talent. Lacking that, crews would often offer to pay others to do the job, though usually it was done for free. The farther from headquarters a crew was based, the more daring it made its nose art. Air crews were encouraged to keep their nose art inoffensive when close to home.

Medium-range Allied bombers included the B-25 Mitchell (which was flown by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle and his raiders during their famous attack on Tokyo in April 1942) and the B-26 Marauder (which Allied pilots disliked because of its high accident rate and difficulty in bailing out).

Axis Bombers

Germany and Japan also had very effective medium-and long-range bombers, as well as other craft. In the German Luftwaffe, the Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber was most commonly used for air support and tactical bombing. Thousands of the planes were produced over the course of the war, and the Ju 87 participated in all early blitzkrieg attacks, as well as almost every major battle in which air support was needed. The plane carried bombs under the wings and fuselage and was unique in its use of an autopilot if the pilot blacked out during a dive. The use of sirens on the undercarriage made its natural scream even more terrifying to enemy troops.

Germany, like the Allies, experimented with a number of intriguing war plane prototypes. The Ju 390, a transatlantic bomber, was originally conceived of for strategic bombing missions against the United States from bases in Europe. In January 1944, the Ju 390 was tested with a mission that took it across the Atlantic to within twelve miles of New York City and back again. The plane was never mass-produced and did not see action during the war.

The Ju 88 was one of Germany's most commonly used medium-range bombers. In fact, the plane was so popular because of its versatility that more Ju 88s were produced than any other German bomber. Like the Ju 87, it participated in nearly all German aerial campaigns and inflicted tremendous damage on enemy targets.

The most effective dive-bomber used by the Japanese was the D3A Val, which inflicted tremendous damage during the attack on Pearl Harbor. A workhorse of the Japanese air force, the plane saw action throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans. By mid-1944, however, the Val had largely been replaced by the A6M Zero fighter-bomber and to a lesser degree by the D4Y Suisei (Comet) bomber (code-named “Judy” by the Allies). The D4Y Suisei was most commonly used for kamikaze attacks against Allied ships.

Torpedo Bombers

One of the weapons most feared by seamen during wartime was the torpedo bomber, which was used by both sides against surface ships. The primary U.S. torpedo bomber at the start of the war was the TBD Devastator. Though capable of inflicting tremendous damage on enemy ships, the Devastator was slow and extremely vulnerable to attack by other planes. Devastators helped sink the Japanese light carrier Shoho at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 but proved useless during the Battle of Midway the following month; all three flights of U.S. Devastators were destroyed by Japanese defenses without hitting a single Japanese carrier. However, aerial torpedoes helped sink the Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi.

Captain Robert Morgan, the pilot of the Memphis Belle, also flew the first B-29 Superfortress to bomb Japan.

In May 1943 Allied aircraft started using the acoustic antisubmarine torpedo known as Fido, which homed in on the sound of a submarine's propeller. Similar devices were used by German submarines against Allied surface ships. Torpedo bombers were used throughout the war, but dive-bombers eventually took over as the navy's primary striking force.

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