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The Army Air Corps were the U.S. military service dedicated to aerial warfare between 1926 and 1941. It coalesced as aviation evolved from a component of ground-based infantry tactics into its own branch of the military. It became the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) on June 20, 1941 to signify greater autonomy from the Army’s command structure. It remained as a combat arm of the Army until 1947, when the Department of the Air Force was established.

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Army Air Corps of the U.S. Military

(See Main Article: Army Air Forces of the U.S. Military)

By the end of 1941 the army air forces had grown substantially but had a long way to go. General Henry H. Arnold commanded a service of twenty-five thousand officers and men, with four thousand aircraft. That year President Franklin Roosevelt called for production of fifty thousand planes, Hermann Göering reportedly laughed at the notion, yet American industry in fact delivered ninety-six thousand to the U.S. services and Allied nations in 1944 alone. At war’s end the army air corps comprised seventy-five thousand planes and 2.5 million men—in four years, a hundred-fold increase in personnel and nearly nineteen-fold in aircraft.

Eighth U.S. Army Air Force

In 1942 the ‘‘Mighty Eighth’’ came to Britain, where it experienced a lengthy, painful gestation period. Its mission of conducting precision daylight bombing of German industry was hampered, as bomber and fighter groups originally assigned to Gen. Ira Eaker’s fledgling force were constantly siphoned off to support the North African and Mediterranean theaters. Additionally, a period of heavy bomber losses threatened morale during 1943, causing doubt whether the daylight air offensive could be sustained. However, by the start of 1944 the Eighth had evolved into a powerful striking arm and was growing stronger. Increasingly capable long-range fighter escorts reduced bomber losses to acceptable levels. It was among the best of the army air corps.

The composition of USAAF units was standardized by 1943. A heavy bombardment group with B-17s or B-24s had four squadrons, each of which typically put up nine planes per mission. Fighter groups had three squadrons, divided into three or four flights of four each. Thus, full-strength bomb groups flew about thirty-six aircraft, while fighter units launched thirty-six to forty-eight planes. The number of planes dispatched on a specific mission depended on maintenance, crew availability, and the nature of the target.

At the time of D-Day the Eighth Air Force numbered forty-one bomb groups, fifteen fighter groups, two special-mission groups, two photo-recon groups, and several independent units. Eighth Bomber Command operated three air divisions: the First, with a dozen B-17 groups; the Third, comprising eleven B-17 Flying Fortress and three B-24 Liberator groups; and the all-Liberator Second Division, with fourteen B-24 groups.

Fighter Command comprised six P-47 Thunderbolt groups, five P-51 Mustang groups, and four still-flying P-38 Lightnings. All the Lightnings were gone within months, replaced by Mustangs. By VE-Day only one Eighth Fighter Command group still flew Thunderbolts.

Bombers of the Mighty Eighth launched 2,362 sorties on 6 June, with merely three Liberators shot down. Most targets were German coastal defenses or transport systems, but poor weather (a widespread undercast) hampered bombing efforts.

Ninth U.S. Army Air Force

The U.S. Army had two army air corps based in Great Britain, with operations after D-Day expected on the continent. The Ninth was the tactical air force, trained and equipped to support Allied ground forces. Originally established and based in northwest Africa, the Ninth moved to England in August 1943 and built up to its June 1944 strength of forty-five groups deployed in eleven combat wings.

The Ninth’s eighteen fighter groups (plus two reconnaissance groups) operated under the Ninth and Nineteenth Tactical Air Commands, with three and two wings, respectively. Probably the most influential tactical air commander was Maj. Gen. Elwood R. Quesada of the Ninth TAC. At the time of D-Day by far the most widely flown fighter was the Republic P-47, which was extremely well suited to the fighter-bomber role. Thirteen groups flew Thunderbolts, while three were equipped with Lockheed P-38s and two with North American’s P-51. A photo group and a tactical reconnaissance group flew ‘‘recce’’ versions of the P-38 and P-51—the F-5 and F-6, respectively.

Eleven tactical bomb groups constituted Ninth Bomber Command, under Brig. Gen. Samuel E. Anderson. He controlled three bomb wings of three or four groups each: eight groups with Martin’s sleek B-26 Marauder and three with Douglas A-20 Havocs. As with the Eighth Air Force, bomb groups comprised four squadrons, fighter groups three.

Of direct importance to Overlord was Ninth Troop Carrier Command, with fourteen Douglas C-47/C-53 groups in three wings. Both types were military versions of the enormously successful DC-3 airliner; the C-47 Skytrain was capable of towing gliders as well as delivering parachutists, while C-53 Skytroopers carried only troops. Seventeen Skytrains were shot down on D-Day.

On 6 June the Ninth Air Force lost only twenty-two combat aircraft from 3,342 sorties: seven P-47s, six B-26s, five A-20s, two P-38s, and two F-6s.

Airborne Units of the Army Air Corps

(See Main Article: Army Airborne Units)

In the fifteenth century Leonardo Da Vinci envisioned airborne soldiers, and in the nineteenth century Napoleon Bonaparte pondered invading Britain with French troops in hot-air balloons. But not until the 1940s did the technology exist to transport large numbers of specially trained soldiers behind enemy lines and deliver them by parachute, glider, or transport aircraft.

German army airborne units included paratroops and glider and transport-lifted infantry, all controlled by the Luftwaffe. Eventually nine parachute divisions were established, but few Fallschirmjaeger (literally ‘‘parachute hunters’’) made combat jumps. Nonetheless, Germany led the way in combat airborne operations, seizing Belgium’s Fort Eben Emael in 1940. The Luftwaffe also made history in the first aerial occupation of an island—the costly Crete operation in 1941. However, Germany’s Pyrrhic victory proved so costly that no Fallschirmjaeger division was again involved in a major airborne operation. Thereafter, the Luftwaffe parachute forces were employed as light infantry in every theater of operation. Two German airborne divisions, the Third and Fifth, responded to the Allied invasion in Normandy but were hampered by inadequate ground transport.

The British army authorized small army airborne units in 1940 but did not form the Parachute Regiment until 1942. That unit served as a training organization, producing seventeen battalions, of which fourteen were committed to combat. The battalions were formed into the First and Sixth Airborne Divisions, the latter involved in Operation Overlord. Both divisions were committed to the Arnhem assault, Operation Market-Garden, in September 1944.

The U.S. Army formed five army airborne units and divisions during World War II, of which three (the Eighty-second, 101st, and Seventeenth) saw combat in the Mediterranean or the European Theater of Operations. The Eleventh served in the Pacific; the Thirteenth went to Europe in 1945 but was not committed to combat.

Apart from isolated uses of airborne battalions, the first Allied army airborne units operation of note occurred during Operation Husky, the Anglo-American invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Subsequent operations on the Italian mainland perfected doctrine and techniques so that by 1944 the United States and Britain could integrate three airborne divisions into the plan for Overlord. By isolating the vulnerable beachheads from German reinforcements during the critical early hours of 6 June, the airborne troopers gained valuable time for the amphibious forces.

Later uses of British and American army airborne units included the Arnhem operation in September 1944 and the Rhine crossing in March 1945.

Airborne operations were considered high-risk undertakings, requiring commitment of large numbers of valuable assets—elite troops and airlift—and incurring the danger of assault troops being isolated and overwhelmed. The latter occurred on a large scale only once, when supporting Allied ground forces were unable to reach British paratroopers at Arnhem, Holland, in September 1944.

Army Airborne Units in D-Day

Because they were by definition light infantry—without armored vehicles or heavy artillery—paratroopers were laden with enormous personal burdens. Many D-Day troopers carried nearly two hundred pounds of equipment, including their main and reserve chutes, life preserver, primary and secondary weapons and ammunition, water and rations, radios or mines, and other gear. It could take as much as five minutes for a trooper to pull on his parachute harness over his other equipment, and if they sat on the ground many men needed help standing up.

Normal parameters for dropping paratroopers were six hundred feet of altitude at ninety miles per hour airspeed. Owing to weather and tactical conditions, however, many troopers were dropped from 300 to 2,100 feet and at speeds as high as 150 miles per hour.

American paratroopers had to make five qualifying jumps to earn their wings, after which they received a hazardous-duty bonus of fifty dollars per month, ‘‘jump pay.’’

The U.S. Eighty-second and 101st Airborne Divisions dropped 13,400 men behind Utah Beach on the west end of the Allied landing areas, while nearly seven thousand men of the British Sixth Division secured bridges behind Sword Beach to the east. The primary objective of the airborne troops was to isolate the beachhead flanks from substantial German reinforcement; the British were more successful than the Americans in doing so. The Sixth Division’s seizure of the Orne River bridges became a classic airborne operation.

The elite of the elite among paratroopers were the pathfinders, who were first on the ground. Preceding the main force by nearly an hour, the pathfinders were responsible for guiding troop-carrier aircraft to the landing zones and for marking the target areas. Specialized navigational equipment included the Eureka/Rebecca radar beacon, which transmitted to the lead aircraft in each C-47 formation, and automatic direction-finder (ADF) radios. Holophane lights were laid in T patterns on the ground to mark each drop zone.

Owing to fog, enemy action, and the confusion common to warfare, in Overlord only one of the eighteen U.S. pathfinder teams arrived at the correct drop zone. One entire eight-man team was dropped into the English Channel.

Because of wide dispersion over the Cotentin Peninsula, only about one-third of the American paratroopers assembled themselves under organized leadership, and many landed in the wrong divisional areas. One battalion commander roamed alone for five days, killing six Germans without finding another American. While some troopers sought cover or got drunk on Calvados wine, many others displayed the initiative expected of elite troops. In Normandy the airborne was especially effective in disrupting German communications.

Glider-borne infantry regiments were part of every airborne division, and though they did not originally receive ‘‘jump pay,’’ these soldiers were still part of an elite organization. Gliders possessed the dual advantages of delivering a more concentrated force to the landing zone and providing certain heavy equipment unavailable to paratroopers—especially light artillery and reconnaissance vehicles. Gliders were usually flown by noncommissioned pilots, who, once on the ground, took up personal weapons and fought as part of the infantry units they had delivered to the target.

Army Air Corps and their British Counterpart

(See Main Article: British WW2 Aircraft)

Avro Lancaster

The Lancaster evolved from the Avro firm’s ill-fated Manchester to become one of the great bombers of World War II. With two Rolls-Royce Vulture engines, the Manchester lacked reliability for combat operations and was abandoned after limited production. However, to retrieve as much of the investment as possible, Avro extended the Manchester’s wings and put four Merlins on its airframe; pilots were delighted with the result.

The Lancaster Mark I could carry a maximum load of fourteen thousand pounds, and though the average operational loadout was much less, the potential was easily recognized. Stable, easy to fly, and capable of 280 mph at altitudes above most other RAF bombers, the ‘‘Lanc’’ was loved by its aircrews.

Though not built in the variety of its Halifax stablemate, the Lancaster nevertheless demonstrated its versatility. The most famous Lancaster mission occurred in 1943, when No. 617 Squadron’s modified Avros made low-level attacks on the Rhine dams using Dr. Barnes Wallis’s revolutionary skip bombs. The same squadron later used Wallis’s awesome eleven-ton ‘‘earthquake’’ bombs. On 6 June 1944 Lancasters participated in saturation bombing of German coastal batteries to suppress opposition on the beaches, as well as in attacks on the Le Havre river bridges.

From 1941 to 1945 some eighty Lancaster squadrons flew 156,000 sorties over Occupied Europe, dropping 681,000 tons of bombs—an average of 4,300 pounds of bombs per sortie. The Lanc’s peak strength occurred in August 1944 with forty-two operational squadrons, including four Royal Canadian Air Force, two Australian, and one Polish manned. Attrition was heavy, especially during the ‘‘Battle of Berlin’’ in early 1944, but production exceeded 7,300 aircraft (87 percent were Mark I and III) from six manufacturers, including Victory Aircraft in Canada.

Bristol Beaufighter

One of the most effective strike aircraft of the war, the Bristol Beaufighter was adapted from the firm’s twin-engine Beaufort bomber. The RAF lacked an effective long-range fighter when the war began, and Bristol—one of Britain’s oldest aircraft companies—jumped to fill the gap.

Beginning with airframe parts of the Beaufort, Bristol redesigned the older aircraft’s fuselage to include a short, pugnacious-looking nose that gave superb forward visibility for the pilot. The observer-navigator sat in a separate cockpit well aft, which proved fortuitous because it afforded ample room for an airborne radar.

The Beaufighter was a powerful aircraft in every respect. It was powered by twin Hercules radial engines, rated at 1,375 horsepower, and it was armed with four 20 mm cannon. The Mark I flew in July 1939 and arrived in squadrons barely a year later. By late summer of 1940, the AI Mark IV radar had been installed, and the Bristol began its successful career as a night fighter. A few American night-fighter squadrons also flew Beaufighters in Britain and the Mediterranean.

Wartime development resulted in several models, including the Merlinpowered Mark II. To enhance its strike capability, the Beaufighter received six machine guns in the wings, but its full potential was not reached until the Mark VI and later. RAF Coastal Command relished the Bristol’s exceptional offensive punch, with rockets and a torpedo for antishipping strikes. The Mark X had upgraded Hercules engines of 1,770 horsepower, pushing its top speed over 300 mph.

The early model Beaufighters were regarded as difficult to fly; they were heavy and had to be landed with power on. Later aerodynamic improvements, such as a larger vertical fin and dihedral in the horizontal stabilizers, did much to tame the type’s bad habits.

Beaufighters were part of the air order of battle for D-Day, particularly useful for attacking German defenses and coastal shipping. The type also was deployed against Japan, and 364 of the total 5,928 were built under license in Australia.

DeHavilland Mosquito

The army air corps: The plywood Mosquito was a serious challenger for the title of most versatile aircraft of World War II. It performed virtually every mission asked of a land-based aircraft: day and night fighter, light bomber and nocturnal intruder, antishipping and photo-reconnaissance aircraft. The ‘‘Mossie’’ accomplished each task with excellent results and was so successful that Germany attempted to build its own Moskito.

Like Bristol’s Beaufighter, the Mosquito was conceived as an in-house project by the DeHavilland Company. In 1938 the lightweight, twin-engine DH-98 was regarded as a fast, unarmed bomber. The molded plywood airframe gave rise to the nickname ‘‘Wooden Wonder,’’ but the RAF was slow to warm to the concept. However, work progressed, and the prototype first flew in November 1940.

Mosquitos were produced in startling variety, with approximately twenty fighter and thirty bomber variants from 1941 onward. Throughout the type’s life it was powered by two Rolls-Royce Merlins rated between 1,230 and 1,700 horsepower. Exceptionally fast, some marks were capable of 425 miles per hour at altitude, and during the V-1 ‘‘Buzz Bomb’’ campaign of 1944–45, Mosquitos were among the most successful aircraft at intercepting and destroying the speedy robot bombs.

Entering squadron service in 1942, Mosquitos proved ideal for the pathfinder mission, marking target areas for multi-engine bombers. They also performed low-level strikes against precision targets, such as Gestapo headquarters in Oslo and the Nazi prison at Amiens.

RAF Coastal Command valued the Mosquito as a partner to the Bristol Beaufighter in the antishipping role. Long-range missions against German-controlled shipping in Scandinavian waters were flown with rockets and heavy cannon armament. Mosquitos also logged combat in the Middle East and the Pacific, while American reconnaissance squadrons flew them in Europe and Africa.

During the Normandy campaign, RAF squadrons committed a monthly average of not quite three hundred Mosquitos. From June through August, seventy were shot down and twenty-eight damaged beyond repair—33 percent of the total available.

Mosquito production approached seven thousand, built in Britain, Canada, and Australia, with the last aircraft delivered in 1948. Mosquito pilots and navigators were proud of their machine, knowing they flew one of the most capable combat aircraft of its generation.

Fairey Swordfish

army air corps

One of the most remarkable military aircraft of all time, the Swordfish was a biplane designed in 1933 and was still in combat in 1945. It was conceived as a carrier-based torpedo plane powered by a Pegasus radial engine of some six hundred horsepower, with a nominal crew of three: pilot, observer, and gunner.

The Mark I entered Royal Navy service in 1936 and appeared little different from most carrier planes of its day—an open-cockpit biplane. Already regarded as obsolete when war began three years later, the ‘‘Stringbag’’ had, however, the priceless advantage of availability. It proved its worth repeatedly over the next few years, including a stunningly successful night torpedo and bombing attack on the Italian fleet in Taranto Harbor in 1940. The example set by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish so impressed the Japanese navy that the Pearl Harbor operation was based in part on the Taranto strike.

In 1941 Swordfish off HMS Ark Royal torpedoed the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic, leading to her destruction by surface forces. That same year Swordfish attacked Italian ships in the Mediterranean battle off Cape Matapan. In 1942 the land-based Swordfish attempted to stop the ‘‘Channel Dash’’ by German battle cruisers and were nearly all destroyed by German fighters.

Perhaps the Swordfish’s greatest contribution during its long service was in the realm of antisubmarine warfare. Flying from escort carriers, late-model aircraft with radar persistently hunted U-boats in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and northern waters. During D-Day, land-based Swordfish conducted antisubmarine patrols in the Channel and its approaches.

Nearly 2,400 of the type were constructed, and one of the many ironies of the Swordfish’s career is that it outlived its intended replacement, Fairey’s closed-cockpit Albacore. Even when the more advanced Barracuda monoplane arrived in fleet squadrons, the ‘‘Stringbag’’ soldiered on, in its own way irreplaceable.

Handley-Page Halifax

The army air corps: The four-engine, twin-tail Halifax bore a general resemblance to its more famous counterpart, the Avro Lancaster, and shared the ‘‘Lanc’s’’ rags-to-riches story. The Lancaster evolved from the Avro Manchester; similarly, the Halifax began life on the drawing board as a twin-engine bomber but was altered to the multi-engine configuration. Originally powered by four 1,280 hp Rolls-Royce Merlins, the Halifax Mark I first flew in October 1939, barely a month after the war began. However, developmental problems delayed its combat debut until March 1941. The original version, as well as the Mark II and V, retained Merlins until increased demand for Lancasters, Spitfires, and Mosquitos mandated an engine change.

The most common Halifax variants were the Mark III, VI, and VII, all powered by Bristol Hercules air-cooled radials of 1,600 to 1,800 horsepower. The later models also had a different silhouette, with the original front turret deleted in favor of a more streamlined nose to improve top speed. The Mark III was rated at 277 mph.

Halifaxes dominated RAF Bomber Command’s No. 4 and 6 Groups but also flew in Coastal Command and Transport Command. Like most British bombers, the Halifax was a single-pilot aircraft, with six other men completing the crew: flight engineer, bombardier (bomb aimer in the RAF), navigator, and gunners. In four years of RAF Bomber Command operations, Halifaxes logged 75,500 sorties with an average bomb load of three thousand pounds.

Extremely versatile, the Handley-Page bomber doubled as a maritime patrol plane, electronic countermeasures platform, paratroop transport, and glider tug. The latter duty was an especially important aspect of the Halifax’s contribution to Overlord. In June 1944 at least twenty Halifax squadrons flew from the UK with Bomber Command while others served in the Mediterranean theater.

Total production was 6,176 aircraft, including some postwar manufacture. The type remained in RAF service until 1952.

Hawker Typhoon

army air corps

The army air corps: The 1938 replacement design for the Hawker Hurricane was the Typhoon, probably the heaviest and potentially the most powerful singleseat fighter proposed until that time. Originally called the Tornado, following a series of engine changes it emerged as the Typhoon in early 1940.However, a difficult development period occupied the next year and a half before engine and airframe problems were resolved.

The first production Typhoon was tested in May 1941 with the 2,200 hp Sabre IIA engine. The new fighter was committed to combat sooner than it should have been, but by late 1942 it was successfully defending British airspace from Luftwaffe hit-and-run raids. Maximum speed was 417 mph at 20,500 feet.

The ‘‘Tiffy’’ earned a hard-won reputation as an excellent tactical support aircraft. Distinctive with its chin-mounted radiator, its rugged airframe was able to withstand considerable battle damage and still return home. The Typhoon’s armament was optimized for ground attack, with four 20 mm cannon and underwing rails for eight rockets as well as two five hundred-pound bombs.

These rugged British planes were ideally suited for the ground-attack role, and Typhoons took a major toll on German armor and transport during the Normandy campaign.

During the Normandy and Falaise campaigns, Typhoons perfected ‘‘cab rank’’ tactics and reported a heavy toll of German transport and armor (one thousand tanks and twelve thousand other vehicles were claimed) but sustained heavy losses. From June through August, 243 Typhoons were lost in action and 173 damaged beyond repair, the heaviest loss rate of any RAF aircraft in the campaign. Hawker produced 3,300 Typhoons before the type was phased out in favor of the bigger, faster Tempest in 1944. Tempests played a limited role in the Normandy campaign, with an average monthly availability of fifty-fifty aircraft.

Short Sunderland

The army air corps: The Short Brothers company gained considerable prewar experience with its ‘‘Empire’’ series of transoceanic airliners, so it was no surprise that the Sunderland became Britain’s premier flying boat of the Second World War. The prototype, first flown in October 1937, was powered by four 1,065 hp Pegasus radial engines. The Mark V, delivered in 1943, used American Pratt and Whitney radials of 1,200 horsepower. With as many as a dozen crewmen, the big boat had enormous range (nearly three thousand miles) and could remain airborne for more than thirteen hours, cruising at about 135 mph.

Most Sunderlands in Great Britain were assigned to RAF Coastal Command general reconnaissance squadrons, conducting patrol and antisubmarine missions. Various marks had different armament, but all included at least bow and tail turrets; a dorsal turret also was added. On rare occasions when aerial opposition was encountered, the seemingly ungainly Sunderland could protect itself against enemy twin-engine aircraft.

Prior to D-Day, Sunderlands covered the Bay of Biscay on a daily basis, suppressing U-boats and tracking coastal convoys. It was tedious, unglamorous work but an important part of the Allied effort.

The Sunderland remained in production until war’s end, by which time 739 had been delivered, and it was kept in service until 1958.

Supermarine Spitfire

The army air corps: No single aircraft has so captured the world’s imagination as the Royal Air Force’s sleekly elegant Spitfire. Tracing its ancestry to a successful line of racers, the Spitfire was designed by Supermarine’s chief engineer, Reginald J. Mitchell, who had produced the Schneider Trophy champions of the 1930s. First flown in March 1936, the prototype was powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin, a liquid-cooled V-12 of one thousand horsepower.

Production Spitfires were delivered in June 1938, and they equipped eleven RAF squadrons when war broke out in September 1939. Over the next year their strength increased; nineteen squadrons were available at the start of the Battle of Britain. The 199 Spitfire Ia models constituted not quite one-third of the RAF’s frontline fighter strength.

By 1944 the most significant types were the Mark IX fighter and the Mark XI, a high-altitude photo-reconnaissance platform. ‘‘PR’’ Spitfires were flown by U.S. Army Air Forces units as well. The Mark IX featured a Merlin 60 engine, two 20 mm cannon, and four .303 caliber machine guns; its top speed was 400 mph at twenty thousand feet. Though considered an interim ‘‘anti Focke-Wulf ’’ design, the Mark IX proved itself versatile and long-lived, accounting for one-quarter of total production of the type.

One unusual aspect of the Spitfire’s career involved training U.S. Navy pilots to fly the British fighter. Realizing that naval gunfire spotting would be an important part of Overlord, cruiser-based aviators were qualified in Spitfires on the theory that it was easier to transition a trained spotter to fighters than to train a fighter pilot in gunfire support. Because the spotters had to fly over hostile territory, the Curtiss SOC biplanes ordinarily used would have been highly vulnerable to German flak.

During the Normandy campaign nearly half of all RAF fighters were Spitfires, which roamed almost at will over northern France, attacking German transport and lines of communications. Despite its potentially vulnerable liquid-cooled engine, the Spitfire was well suited as a tactical support aircraft owing to its speed, armament, and dive-bombing capability. Some 365 Spitfires were shot down from June through August, with nearly three hundred written off—41 percent of the nearly two thousand available.

Later in the war, more powerful Griffin engines were mated to the Spitfire airframe, resulting in even better performance. Additionally, both modified and specially built Supermarines were flown off British aircraft carriers as Seafires, bringing a degree of fighter performance previously unknown to the Royal Navy.

Total Spitfire and Seafire production reached twenty-two thousand units, in at least forty marks.

Westland Lysander

The army air corps: The gull-wing Lysander established a notable record on RAF special operations during World War II. Originally received as Army Co-Operation Command’s first monoplane in 1938, it was powered by a Bristol Mercury or Perseus radial engine of 870 to 905 horsepower. Top speed was rated at 219 miles per hour. Its two-man crew comprised a pilot and observergunner, with room for a passenger in the middle cockpit.

The Lysander was designed to land in confined spaces, affording liaison between army units or the army and air force. With aerodynamically activated slats and flaps, it could be flown down to airspeeds as slow as 65 mph. Though the seemingly ungainly machine carried three machine guns and could drop small bombs, it was seldom used offensively. It was more often employed in liaison and tactical reconnaissance missions as well as target towing and air-sea rescue.

In support of D-Day, Lysanders were often the machine of choice in delivering British, French, and other Allied intelligence operatives and agents into Occupied Europe. Lysanders succored resistance forces as well.

Total production was 1,425 aircraft.

Operation Torch

(See Main Article: Operation Torch—A Torch to Vichy France)

Until late 1942 much of northwestern Africa (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) was under control of the Vichy French government, totaling 125,000 soldiers in the territories, along with 210 tanks, 500 aircraft, and coastal artillery. Victory for the army air corps would mean clearing Axis powers from North Africa, reducing German pressure on Russia and improving Allied naval control of the Mediterranean Sea. The British-American invasion plans of French North Africa was known as Operation Torch.

Operation Torch by, the army air corps, landed on the shores of French Morocco on November 8, 1942, with Ranger (CV-4), Suwanee (ACV-27), Sangamon (ACV26), and Santee (ACV-29) supporting U.S. forces north and south of Casablanca. In all, the four flattops embarked 109 Grumman F4F-4 fighters with sixty-two Douglas SBD-3 and Grumman TBF-1 bombers. Operation Torch was assembled and launched so quickly that many pilots had little opportunity for training. Some had not flown in two weeks—an inordinately long layoff for carrier aviators.

The Casablanca landings were opposed by Vichy French forces allied with Germany. The defenders counted about two hundred aircraft, including American-built Curtiss fighters and Martin bombers.

Things began poorly. On November 8 a flight of seven Santee Wildcats got lost and ran low on fuel. One ditched and five crashlanded ashore with one pilot lost. Ranger’s Fighting Squadron Four lost six planes on its first mission, though Sangamon F4Fs claimed four shootdowns without loss. Later that day eighteen Ranger SBDs attacked harbor facilities including the thirty-five thousand-ton battleship Jean Bart, whose fifteen-inch guns posed a threat to Allied ships. She was partly sunk at her mooring while a submarine was destroyed.

When a French surface force steamed out to engage the U.S. warships, Dauntlesses and Wildcats descended to bomb and strafe. A light cruiser and two destroyers were damaged enough to be run aground to prevent their sinking.

On November 9, Ranger SBDs were back over Casablanca Harbor where Vichy antiaircraft batteries still posed a threat. Dauntlesses hit Jean Bart again, knocking out her remaining AA mounts. Meanwhile, Curtiss P-40s took off from Chenango (ACV-28), flying ashore to newly captured airfields. It was a precursor of other joint ArmyNavy operations throughout the war.

Operation Torch provided a laboratory for carrier aviators to perfect their trade. They flew support missions for ground troops, sank a Vichy submarine at sea, and engaged in air combat. Some of their opponents were combat veterans of the 1939–40 campaign. A Ranger pilot, Lieutenant (jg) Charles A. Shields, bailed out of his riddled F4F, and a Frenchman flying a Hawk buzzed him as he parachuted to earth, “wagging his wingtips and waving and laughing like hell.” Still, the tailhook fighters downed twenty-five Vichymen against five Wildcats lost in dogfights.

Losses were stiff, however, amounting to nearly 25 percent by the time the fighting ended on November 10. Ground fire and operational losses were by far the greatest causes, forcing planners to allot more aircraft to future operations.

The Final Aerial Combat Mission of WW2

(See Main Article: The Last Fighter Pilot: An Account of the Final Combat Mission of World War Two)

The following is an account of Captain Jerry Yellin, who flew the last combat mission of WWII on the morning of August 15, 1945, out of Iwo Jima. From April to August 1945, Yellin and a small group of fellow fighter pilots flew dangerous bombing and strafe missions over Japan. Even days after America dropped the atomic bombs—on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9—the pilots continued to fly. Though Japan had suffered unimaginable devastation, the emperor still refused to surrender.

A full account of Yellin’s war-time experience can be found in the book The Last Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Final Combat Mission of World War II. 

The P-51s’ mission that day started out well.

The army air corps: Cruising above the Pacific under the morning sun, the Americans had approached the Japanese coastline without incident. Jerry wondered how many more missions like this he would have to fly. They’d all thought the war was over, but now, here he was again, heading to strike a stubbornly resistant enemy.

But down below, in the nation they were about to attack, a philosophical battle was raging on whether to surrender or fight on. The “Big Six”—the six military officers running Japan—had been split by a vote of 3-3 on when and how to end the war with honor. In general, hard, passionate divisions of opinion existed among the Japanese military: some of the older officers wanted to surrender to prevent the destruction of Japan, while others wanted to fight on to the death and kill as many Americans as possible.

The previous night, while another 300 American B-29s strafed Japan again, a group of rogue Japanese officers had started a coup against Prime Minister Suzuki and Emperor Hirohito. The officers burned the prime minister’s office and surrounded the Imperial Palace, hoping to kidnap the emperor, all in an effort to prevent Japan’s leadership from thinking about surrendering. For these officers, and for so many of the Japanese people, surrender was not an option. There was glory in death, but only shame in surrender; Japan, for its part, had never been invaded or lost a war in its history.

Fortunately for the rest of the world, the coup did not succeed. A group of senior Japanese officers talked the insurgents off the ledge, convincing them that there was nowhere to go. Bu while the revolt ended, the war did not, and so, with the shoreline of the enemy territory coming into view and Phil Schlamberg, his dear friend and fellow pilot, on his wing, Jerry knew it was time to go back to work.

On Jerry’s order, al the planes in his squadron dropped their external fuel tanks over the ocean, then started their familiar aerial trek over the great, snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji. As of yet, there had been no radio signal with the word “UTAH,” signaling the end of the war.

As the Americans approached the Japanese capital, they began to identify targets. Within minutes, they swooped down over airfields and attacked despite heavy ground fire. Tracer bullets flew up from the Japanese guns as the Severity-Eighth made multiple passes at each target. Phil stayed tight on Jerry’s wing, just as instructed.

After strafing the last airfield, Jerry checked his fuel gauge and saw he was still in good shape. But when one of the pilots radioed that his tank had reached the ninety-gallon mark—the amount a Mustang needed for the return flight—it was time to pull up and begin plotting the course back to Iwo Jima.

Jerry looked over at Phil, who was still on his wing, and give him a thumbs up.

Phil looked back and returned the gesture.

Confidence. Maybe it was working.

The army air corps: With the battle of Tokyo complete, Jerry set his course back out to the ocean and banked to the south. The three other Mustangs in Jerry’s squadron returned with him. A few moments later, as they approached the coast where they would rendezvous with the navigational B-29s, they neared a cloud cover in front of them, often the case when approaching the atmospheric temperature inversions near the coast. With Phil still tight on his wing, Jerry led the four Mustangs into the cloud bank. Flying at an altitude of about 7,000 feet, Jerry focused his eyes on his navigation instruments, as the interior of the white, puffy clouds blocking his view of everything else.

But when the Mustangs emerged on the other side of the clouds, a devastating reality soon surfaced. Phil was gone. Most likely, he had been brought down by antiaircraft bullets fired into the clouds. There was no sign of him.

Jerry was devastated. When he landed at Iwo Jima, meanwhile, he learned something else: the war was over. The emperor had announced Japan’s surrender three hours earlier, while Jerry and his flight were still over Japan. The code word UTAH had been broadcast to U.S. aircraft over the country, but the word had not reached the planes of the Seventy-Eighth until they landed.

It was a surreal feeling as Jerry climbed out of his plane and jumped down to the airfield, standing on a once-bloody Pacific island. Now, suddenly, it was a world at peace. The men of the Seventy-Eighth had a saying, “Alive in ’45.” That had been their goal, and now it was their reality. They were going home, alive.

As Jerry walked away from his plane, another realization hit him: he had just flown the final combat mission of the war, and Phil was the final combat death of the great war. One day, after Jerry had time to collect his emotions and his thoughts, the great historical significance of the mission he’d just flown would sink in. But for now, one thought consumed his mind.

At last, it was time to go home.

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Tuskegee Airmen. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Tuskegee Airmen.

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"Army Air Corps: A History of The Military Service" History on the Net
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April 10, 2024 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/history-army-air-corps>
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