The following article on World War 2 planes is an excerpt from Barrett Tillman’ D-Day Encyclopedia. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

World War 2 Planes: Aircraft

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress


The Flying Fortress embodied the cherished American concept of precision daylight bombardment and was amongst the deadliest of World War 2 planes. Developed during the mid- to late 1930s, the B-17 entered service in 1938, but production was limited by peacetime budgets. However, with four Wright radial engines, a four-thousand-pound bomb load, and a powerful battery of machine guns, the Flying Fortress seemed to live up to its name. Limited Royal Air Force use began in April 1941, but Bomber Command doctrine did not match the Fortress’s potential. Subsequently most British B-17s were flown by RAF Coastal Command.

For the U.S. Army Air Forces, the B-17 was a first-to-last warrior. A flight of B-17Es was caught in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941; G models remained operational on VJ-Day. B-17s of the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces delivered 45.8 percent of the USAAF bomb tonnage against Germany while sustaining 47.1 percent of the bomber losses—4,688 destroyed in combat. Twenty-three B-17 groups were operational in England by June 1944.

Combat experience over Europe demonstrated a need for additional armament, leading to the B-17G. With a remotely controlled two-gun turret under the nose, the G variant’s armament was increased to a dozen .50 caliber guns for its ten-man crew: pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, radioman, and five gunners including the flight engineer. Bomb bay capacity also was increased over the original model, reaching a total of 9,600 pounds for shorter-range missions. Top speed was 287 mph at twenty-five thousand feet.

The Army Air Forces accepted 12,692 Fortresses from 1940 to 1945, built by Boeing, Douglas, and Vega. Stable and easy to fly for a multi-engine aircraft, the ‘‘Fort’’ had the best safety record of any USAAF bomber of the era. In 1944 a typical B-17G cost $204,370.

Consolidated B-24 Liberator

Big and slab-sided, the Liberator was derided by Fortress pilots as ‘‘the box the B-17 came in.’’ However, it was faster and longer ranged of many World War 2 planes, in addition to becoming the most-produced American aircraft of World War II: 18,190 Liberators were accepted between 1940 and August 1945. At the time of Operation Overlord the Eighth Air Force had seventeen Liberator groups.

The army ordered the XB-24 prototype in March 1939, calling for a 310 mph top speed; the first flight occurred just before year’s end. Powered by four Pratt and Whitney R1830 radial engines, the new bomber was clocked at 273 mph. Initial deliveries went to Britain as long-range transports and maritime patrol planes. The type entered USAAF service in the summer of 1941.

Like the B-17, the Liberator was found vulnerable to head-on attacks by German fighters, so armament was increased. In mid-1943 the B-24G, H, and J models were built with powered turrets at the nose and tail, raising total armament to ten .50 caliber guns. By the fall of 1944 some Eighth Air Force B-24 groups had reequipped with B-17s because of the Boeing’s greater service ceiling. The Liberator’s high-aspect-ratio wing enabled greater speed but reduced altitude.

Of 446 Liberators launched to attack Omaha Beach on D-Day, 329 actually dropped their bomb loads, through a near-solid undercast. Poor visibility and concern about harming friendly forces caused all their bombs to strike well inland.

The B-24 finished the European war with statistics nearly identical to those of its Boeing rival and stablemate. Both bombers flew slightly more than sixty-two sorties per combat loss, and both delivered an average of about four thousand pounds of bombs per sortie. Because the B-17 flew more sorties against Germany (291,500 for the Boeing versus 226,700 for the Consolidated), the Fortress accounted for more bombs dropped. Even so, the Liberator delivered 452,500 tons of bombs on the Third Reich and its occupied nations, or one-third of the theater total for American bombers.

A B-24J cost the taxpayers $215,516 in 1944. The U.S. Navy flew B-24s as the PB4Y-1 patrol bomber; a dedicated naval version was the single-tail PB4Y-2 Privateer.

Douglas A-20 Havoc

The Douglas Havoc, or Boston, led a checkered career before proving itself in combat among World War 2 planes against all three Axis Powers. A ‘‘holdover’’ project taken over by Douglas Aircraft when it absorbed Northrop’s plant at El Segundo, California, the twin-engine bomber became the DB-7 (DB for Douglas Bomber). First flown in October 1938, it demonstrated unusual speed with its two 1,100 hp Pratt and Whitney radial engines—314 mph.

Foreign customers were courted by Douglas; prewar French contracts amounted to a hundred aircraft. However, France’s capitulation in May 1940 led to diversion of the DB-7s to North Africa, where the RAF absorbed them as Boston Mark Is. Subsequent DB-7s and A-20 variants became Mark IIs through Mark Vs.

The AAF’s A-20s, called Havocs, were powered by Wright R-2600s, the same engine used in the North American B-25. A typical loadout was two thousand pounds of bombs.

In Western Europe, three RAF squadrons and a Free French unit flew Bostons alongside three Ninth Air Force Havoc groups. Other users were Australia, South Africa, Free France, the Netherlands, and especially the Soviet Union, which received about three thousand Bostons and Havocs. The A-20 family was popular with its crews, as several models were capable of more than 300 mph at tactical altitudes, usually below sixteen thousand feet. The type also was widely used in the Pacific theater, where it excelled at low-level attack.

From first delivery in 1940, Douglas and Boeing produced 7,385 Havocs and Bostons. Eight U.S. variants were procured, including the A-20G and P-70 night fighters, with solid ‘‘gun’’ noses. The average cost of an AAF Havoc was $100,800 in 1944, the year production ended. Its successor was the Douglas A-26 Invader, which entered combat in late 1944.

Douglas C-47 Skytrain

Arguably the most important of World War 2 planes in history, the Douglas DC-3 airliner revolutionized the commercial aviation industry when it appeared in 1935. By 1940 its military potential was obvious, and the Army Air Corps issued a contract to Douglas that year. With a simplified interior, strengthened fuselage, and wide cargo doors, the Skytrain could carry twenty-seven troops, up to twenty-four casualty litters, or five tons of cargo. Two reliable Pratt and Whitney radial engines of 1,200 horsepower each gave the C-47 the altitude performance to cross some of the world’s highest mountain ranges.

Total USAAF acceptances of transports based on the DC-3 was 10,343 during the war years, with nearly half delivered in 1944. During that year a typical Skytrain cost $88,578. The army total included some four hundred civilian airliners impressed into service with various numerical designations (C-48 to C-84); some of the subvariants were named ‘‘Skytroopers.’’ RAF use of the type was extensive, under the name ‘‘Dakota.’’ C-47s are well depicted in the movie Band of Brothers.

After the war, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower listed the C-47 as one of the major reasons for victory in Europe. Certainly its contribution to Overlord was significant, as more than nine hundred Skytroopers and Skytrains provided most of the airlift for American and British paratroopers, in addition to towing glider aircraft. Seventeen C-47s were shot down on 5–6 June.

The ‘‘Gooney Bird’’ was so adaptable that the U.S. Air Force still retained a thousand C-47s in 1961. Some of those were converted to ‘‘gunships’’ with heavy machine-gun and cannon armament during the Vietnam War.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

When it appeared in 1939, the P-38 was one of the most sophisticated of World War 2 planes in existence. It was the first American production aircraft capable of 400 mph and introduced a generation of engineers and pilots to the phenomenon of compressibility in the pre-supersonic era.

The prototype P-38, flown in January 1939, was powered by twin Allison liquid-cooled engines driving counter-rotating propellers, which negated the torque developed by high-performance aircraft. Apart from its twin-boom configuration, the innovative Lockheed was the first U.S. fighter with tricycle landing gear.

In August 1941, following service trials, the first production P-38Ds were delivered to the Army Air Forces. Subsequently, armament was standardized with four .50 caliber machine guns and a 20 mm cannon all concentrated in the nose, eliminating the synchronization required to fire through a propellerarc. Though flown in every AAF theater of operation, the Lightning excelled in the Pacific, where its exceptional range was of most value. The high-altitude environment of the European theater led to a succession of engine problems, eventually leading to the type’s dismissal from the Eighth Air Force and limited use in the Ninth. The most common wartime models were the P-38J (nearly three thousand aircraft) and P-38L (almost four thousand). The latter was capable of 390 mph at fifteen thousand feet. The photo-reconnaissance models were designated F-4s (modified P-38Es) and F-5s (derived from later variants).

When Eighth Air Force commander James H. Doolittle slipped across the English Channel for a look at Overlord’s progress, he chose to fly a P-38, because it was the most distinctive aircraft in the theater and therefore less likely to be fired upon by Allied forces. Between them, the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces operated seven P-38 groups plus an F-5 photo-reconnaissance unit.

A P-38L delivered in 1944 cost $97,147, including government-furnished equipment. When production ended with the Japanese surrender in August 1945, 9,923 Lightnings had been delivered.

Martin B-26 Marauder

us glider aircraft

The Martin Marauder was known by other names—most notably the ‘‘Flying Prostitute,’’ because its relatively small wings evidenced ‘‘no visible means of support.’’ However, despite an early reputation as a killer of its own crews, the B-26 established one of the best combat records of any medium bomber of the war and a better safety record than any AAF fighter. After an initial period of difficulties at McDill Field, Florida, Marauder crews rebutted the early legend of ‘‘one a day in Tampa Bay,’’ a cynical comment on the B-26’s accident rate.

The first USAAF Marauders based in Britain were assigned to the Eighth Air Force, flying their initial missions in May 1943. As the tactically oriented Ninth Air Force took form, the original Marauder groups were transferred from the Eighth and formed part of IX Bomber Command. The RAF, Free French, and South African air forces all flew Marauders in the Mediterranean theater from 1941 onward.

Possessed of unusual speed, the B-26B was capable of 315 mph at 14,500 feet, and its 260 mph cruise speed made it difficult for interceptors to manage more than one pass. The Marauder’s rugged airframe and highly reliable Pratt and Whitney engines were part of the reason that, in the European theater, the ‘‘widow maker’’ established a combat loss rate half those of the B-17 and B-24. The Ninth Air Force committed eight B-26 groups to Overlord, concentrating on tactical targets such as railroads and other communications networks. The effect on the outcome of the campaign was enormous, especially in the days following 6 June.

With 5,157 Marauders delivered from 1941 to 1945, a B-26 cost $192,427 in 1944.

North American B-25 Mitchell

Most famous for its use in the Pacific—especially Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle’s April 1942 raid on Japan—the Mitchell nevertheless was used in nearly every theater of operation. The twin-engine medium bomber entered service in early 1941, powered by two 1,700 hp Wright R2600s. Though the USAAF did not deploy B-25s to Britain, the RAF received 712 Mitchells, assigned to at least seven squadrons beginning in 1942, with combat operations commencing in January 1943. The American ETO medium-bomb groups were equipped with B-26s or A-20s, reportedly because of concern about the B-25’s ability to stand up to the intense flak over Western Europe. Top speed of the Mitchell II was rated at 284 mph at fifteen thousand feet.

Despite the U.S. policy, British Mitchells were employed in mediumlevel missions against transport and communications targets in France. B-25s were widely distributed among other Allied air forces, including those of Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Brazil, China, and the Soviet Union. Additionally, the U.S. Marine Corps flew the type, as the PBJ.

North American delivered 9,816 army bombers between 1941 and 1945, with the 1944 cost averaging $142,194, or fifty thousand dollars less than a Martin Marauder.

North American P-51 Mustang

Widely considered the finest fighter of World War 2 planes, the Mustang owed its origin and its name to the Royal Air Force. The British aviation-purchasing commission approached North American Aviation in May 1940, seeking a quick solution to the RAF’s shortage of modern fighters. NAA responded in record time, flying the prototype barely five months later. Powered with an Allison engine, the Mustang I possessed excellent performance at the low and medium altitudes at which it was employed as a reconnaissance aircraft.

The U.S. Army Air Forces were impressed with the type and adapted it as the Apache. Both P-51A fighter and A-36 dive-bomber versions were procured before a 1,500 hp Rolls-Royce Merlin was mated to the airframe, resulting in an astonishing speed increase of 50 mph, ultimately reaching 435 mph. At that point a legend was born, and the P-51B turned into a world-beater. Entering combat with the Ninth Air Force in late 1943, the Mustang immediately proved its value with long range and superior high-altitude performance—ideal for escorting daylight bomber formations deep into Germany. With four .50 caliber machine guns, the P-51B and C began taking a toll of Luftwaffe interceptors deep in German airspace.

On D-Day the U.S. air forces in Britain had seven P-51 groups plus a tactical reconnaissance group with F-6 Mustangs. The definitive wartime variant, the P-51D, with its bubble canopy and six guns, cost $51,572 in 1944. Wartime acceptances totaled 14,501 between 1941 and 1945.

Piper L-4 Grasshopper

The famous Piper Cub went to war as the L-4, by far the most widely used USAAF liaison aircraft of World War II. After successfully completing army trials in 1941, it was accepted as the O-59 observation aircraft. When the army changed aircraft designations, the Cub was briefly called the L-59 before settling on the final ‘‘Love Four’’ title. Military Cubs shared the generic name ‘‘Grasshopper’’ with the Taylorcraft L-2 and Aeronca L-3.

The Grasshopper experienced its first combat during Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, flying artillery spotting missions from a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.

Wartime need was so great that a hundred civilian Cubs were ‘‘drafted’’ as primary trainers for prospective glider aircraft pilots. As part of the same program, some 250 Cub airframes were modified as TG-8 glider trainers.

Grasshoppers proved invaluable in artillery spotting, and each U.S. infantry division was allotted ten for that purpose. However, they also conducted courier flights and low-level reconnaissance when conditions permitted. The lightly built, fabric-covered flying machines with their Continental 65 hp engines were never intended to sustain much battle damage.

The army accepted 5,600 L-4s from 1941 to 1945.

Republic P-47 Thunderbolt

Developed from a succession of prewar Seversky and Kartveli designs, the Republic P-47 was conceived and built as a high-altitude interceptor compared. Its awesome battery of eight .50 caliber machine guns was meant to destroy hostile bombers; ironically, however, the Thunderbolt would make much of its reputation as a low-level attack aircraft.

The XP-47B logged its maiden flight in May 1941, powered by Pratt and Whitney’s superb 2,000 hp R2800 radial engine mated to a turbo supercharger. Squadron deliveries commenced in November 1942, and the ‘‘Jug’’ entered combat with the Eighth Air Force in April 1943. Therefore P-47s fought the Luftwaffe seven months before the first P-51 Mustangs began operating over Occupied Europe.

Thunderbolts were by far the most numerous U.S. fighters over Normandy on 6 June, with nineteen groups of the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces. The Thunderbolt’s powerful radial engine, rugged airframe, and exceptional armament made it ideal for the rigors of tactical air operations against the highly competent German armed forces. ‘‘Jugs’’ frequently returned to base with battle damage that would have destroyed other fighters.

The P-47D was clocked at 429 mph at twenty-nine thousand feet. In 1944, when nearly half of all Thunderbolts were built, a representative D model cost $85,578, or thirty-four thousand dollars more than a Mustang. Total Thunderbolt acceptances were 15,585 from 1941 to 1945. Other users included the RAF, the Free French air arm, and (in limited numbers) the Soviet air force.

Stinson L-5 Sentinel

The popular Voyager three-seat private aircraft became the L-5, which was procured by the army in 1942. it was originally designated the O-62 but received the ‘‘Liaison’’ title when that category of aircraft was established. With an empty weight of 1,550 pounds the L-5 was twice as heavy as the Piper L-4 and had a powerful Lycoming 165 hp engine. The army accepted 3,590 L-5s from 1942 to 1945 and used the type extensively during the Korean War as well.

World War 2 Planes: Gliders

Waco CG-4

With five airborne divisions, the U.S. Army needed large quantities of glider aircraft amongst its World War 2 planes in addition to transport aircraft for paratroopers. The need was met by Waco Aircraft Company’s CG-4 (Cargo Glider Model 4), which was accepted in 1941. The CG-4A was a large aircraft, with a wingspan of eighty three feet eight inches, and a hinged nose to permit the cockpit portion to be raised for easy vehicle loading. Standard loads were thirteen troops, a jeep with crew, or a 75 mm pack howitzer and crew.

The Waco could be towed at 125 mph, usually by a Douglas C-47. When within range of its objective, the glider’s tow line was released and the twoman crew made the approach to the landing zone. Its steel tube fuselage proved stronger than those of most British glider aircraft, which were made of wood.

CG-4s were introduced to combat in the Sicilian invasion of July 1943 and were also widely employed in Overlord and in Anvil-Dragoon, the invasion of southern France in August 1944. In far smaller numbers they also saw action against Japan. Some twelve thousand were built throughout the war, with 750 provided to Britain’s Glider Pilot Regiment. In keeping with RAF practice of ‘‘H’’ names for gliders, the Waco was dubbed the ‘‘Hadrian.’’

This and other World War 2 planes were crucial to eventual Allied victory by providing air support, and aerial defense and offense.

This article is part of our larger resource on the history of aviation in World War Two. Click here to read more about WW2 aviation.

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


This article on World War 2 planes is from the book D-Day Encyclopedia, © 2014 by Barrett Tillman. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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