Fighter Planes

Bombers were not the only offensive planes used by Allied and Axis forces during World War II. Equally effective were fighter planes, which were used to defend bombers and attack other planes, ships at sea, and ground troops.

Fighters played an extremely important role in defending Great Britain during the Battle of Britain. Hermann Goering was confident his Luftwaffe would be able to make short work of the Royal Air Force, but the British Hurricane and Spitfire fighters quickly proved that Great Britain was not about to roll over. The planes were extremely successful in defending the British coast, and the RAF downed considerably more planes than it lost.

Fig 11-3 Pilots pleased over their victory during the Marshall Islands attack grin across the tale of an F6F Hellcat on board the USS Lexington, after shooting down seventeen out of twenty Japanese planes heading for Tarawa.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (80-G-470985)

The Hurricane became part of the RAF's air arsenal in December 1937. The Spitfire followed in 1939 and quickly became one of the foremost Allied fighter planes of the war; it was even used during the Normandy invasion to direct gunfire from nearby warships.

The U.S. military was racially segregated during the war, with African-American servicemen serving in special units. The most famous was the Ninety-ninth Pursuit Squadron, the first African-American combat unit in the Army Air Forces. The unit was established in Tuskegee, Alabama. The so-called Tuskegee Airmen completed more than 500 missions in its first year of action. More than eighty members were decorated.

Fighter Plane Evolution

The United States also produced a wide variety of fighter planes during the war. The first fighter aircraft to see combat was the P-36, which was produced primarily for use by foreign air forces, though a few were flown by the U.S. Army at the start of the war. A variant of the P-36 was the Hawk 75, which was first flown in 1937. It, too, was primarily sold to other nations. (A handful of captured Hawk 75s were flown by the Germans after the fall of France.)

The P-47 Thunderbolt was the most widely flown American fighter of the war. In fact, in 1944 and 1945, the Thunderbolt was flown by more than 40 percent of all army air force fighter groups overseas. The plane was widely used in both Europe and the Pacific and was surpassed in performance only by the P-51 Mustang, which was considered the most reliable and effective land-based fighter of the war. Because of its long-distance and defensive capabilities, the Mustang allowed U.S. heavy bombers to fly over Europe during daylight rather than under the cloak of night.

Other effective American fighter planes included the P-38 Lightning, which had the longest range and greatest performance of any American fighter at the beginning of the war; the P-39 Airacobra; the P-40 Warhawk; the P-61 Black Widow, which was the first American plane developed specifically as a night fighter; and the P-80 Shooting Star, the first U.S. jet-propelled combat aircraft. Though the Shooting Star came out of development too late to see service in World War II, it was one of the first U.S. jet aircraft put into combat in the Korean War.

Probably the most feared Japanese fighter plane was the A6M Zero, which created havoc in the Pacific for the first two years of the war. Developed by Jiro Horikoshi, the Zero was the first plane to prove that a carrier-based aircraft could hold its own against land-based fighters. The Zero, which reached speeds of more than 300 miles per hour, was used in the attack on Pearl Harbor and in almost all Japanese naval air battles after that. It wasn't until the introduction of the Navy's F6F Hellcat in 1943 that an Allied fighter could defeat the Zero under all combat conditions.

The Dreaded Kamikaze

Allied naval personnel serving in the Pacific faced numerous hazards every day, but few were more dreaded than the Japanese naval suicide squads known as kamikaze.

The Japanese navy began organized suicide attacks against Allied forces on October 25, 1944, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, though individual Japanese pilots had routinely aimed their planes at U.S. ships when their craft was damaged and they had no hope of returning safely to base.

The idea of organized crash-dive attacks was conceived of by Captain Motoharu Okamura, commander of the 341st Air Group, who felt such a program was the only way to prevent a U.S. advance on the Japanese mainland. “Provide me with 300 planes, and I will turn the tide of the war,” Okamura told Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi in June 1944.

The first Japanese Zero to fall into American hands was found in the Aleutian Islands, where it had crashed, killing its pilot. The plane was repaired by American technicians, who marveled at its unique design, and made its first flight with U.S. markings in October 1942.

The Japanese called the suicide squads “kamikaze” after the super-strong “divine winds” that were said to have destroyed Mongol fleets sailing to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281. The first kamikaze attacks in October 1944 were flown by twenty-four volunteers of the Japanese navy's 201st Air Group on Leyte. Using A6M Zero fighters, the pilots focused their efforts on U.S. escort carriers that had engaged Japanese warships in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The first U.S. ship to be hit was the escort carrier St. Lo, which went up in flames after being struck by a Zero filled with explosives. The carrier went down in less than half an hour, taking 100 members of its crew with it. Two other escort carriers were damaged by kamikazes on October 25 but stayed afloat.

After that, the Japanese sent more than 1,250 aircraft on organized kamikaze attacks against U.S. forces during the battles for the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. The suicide squads sank 26 combat ships and damaged nearly 300 more. The largest U.S. ships sunk were 3 escort carriers, 13 destroyers, and a destroyer escort. Several U.S. aircraft carriers were damaged by suicide attacks, but none was sunk. An estimated 3,000 Allied personnel (primarily American and British) were killed in kamikaze attacks, and another 6,000 were wounded.

The Japanese also used small, piloted suicide submarines (actually torpedoes) called kaiten, which sank a U.S. tanker and a destroyer escort, and damaged several other ships. Overall, however, the kaiten program was a failure.

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