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WW2 aircraft incorporated the revolution in avionics occurring in the early 20th century. They were also critical for Allied victory.

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WW2 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.


WW2 Aircraft of the Luftwaffe

Five years after introducing the world to the blitzkrieg, in concert with fast-moving panzers, the German air force was being hunted to destruction. In 1939 the Luftwaffe was the world’s strongest air force with modern equipment, well-trained aircrews, and combat experience from the Spanish Civil War. However, from its secretive birth in the early 1930s, it was doctrinally a tactical air arm mainly intended to support the German army. Long-range strategic bombers were largely shunned in favor of single- and twin-engine bombers and attack aircraft capable of functioning as ‘‘flying artillery.’’ The concept worked extremely well in Poland, France, Belgium, and elsewhere in 1939–40. It also achieved sensational success in the early phase of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia in 1941 (German Air Force ww2). However, during the Battle of Britain and subsequently in Russia, Germany paid for its lack of multi-engine bombers capable of destroying enemy industry.

The dominant figure in the Luftwaffe was Reichmarshall Hermann Göering. A noted World War I pilot and leader, he was also an early political supporter of Adolf Hitler and therefore gained full control of German aviation when the Nazis came to power. However, Göering proved out of his depth as a commander in chief, and his air force suffered under his often irrational leadership. Göering demanded control of everything connected with aviation, and got it: antiaircraft defenses, paratroops, POW camps for Allied airmen, even a Luftwaffe forestry service. Ten percent of the Luftwaffe’s strength was committed to ground units, including the superbly equipped Hermann Göering Panzer Division, which fought with distinction in Africa, Italy, and Russia. Some Allied generals frankly considered it the best unit in any army of World War II.

Like the Anglo-American air forces, the Luftwaffe was built around the basic unit of the squadron (Staffel), equipped with nine or more aircraft. Three or four Staffeln constituted a group (Gruppe), with three or more Gruppen per Geschwader, or wing. German organization was more specialized than that of the RAF or USAAF, as there were Gruppen and Geschwadern not only of fighters, bombers, transport, and reconnaissance units of but dive-bomber, ground attack (mainly anti-armor), and maritime patrol aircraft.

Nomenclature can be confusing when comparing the Luftwaffe to the USAAF and RAF. Although the squadron label was common to all three, what the Germans and Americans called a ‘‘group’’ was an RAF ‘‘wing,’’ while an RAF ‘‘group’’ was essentially a Luftwaffe or USAAF ‘‘wing’’—an assembly of squadrons under one command. The American wing (RAF group) largely served an administrative function, whereas in the Luftwaffe and RAF it was a tactical organization.

Above the wing level, the Germans also maintained Fligerkorps (flying corps) and Luftflotte (air fleet) commands. The Allies had no direct equivalent of a Fliegerkorps, which often was a specialized organization built for a specific purpose. For instance, Fliegerkorps X in the Mediterranean specialized in attacks against Allied shipping, flying Ju-87 Stukas and other aircraft suitable for that mission.

Luftflotten were roughly equivalent to the American numbered air forces but nowhere near as large. They were self-contained air fleets (as the name implies) with organic bomber, fighter, and other groups or wings. However, they seldom engaged in the closely coordinated types of missions common to the U.S. Eighth, Ninth, or Fifteenth Air Forces.

By 1944 the Luftwaffe had been driven from North Africa and the Mediterranean but still fought in Russia, Italy, and western Europe. Spread thin and sustaining horrific losses (as much as 25 percent of fighter pilots per month), Göering’s forces had been worn down by the relentless AngloAmerican Combined Bombing Offensive. The British bombed by night, the Americans by day—the latter escorted by long-range fighters. Though Germany worked successive miracles of production, the experience level of Luftwaffe pilots had entered an unrecoverable spiral.

In preparation for Overlord, Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL) announced that ten combat wings would be committed to the invasion front. However, because of growing Allied air superiority over France and Western Europe, and the increasing need to defend the Reich itself, few aircraft were immediately made available.

Luftflotte Three, responsible for the Channel front, probably had fewer than two hundred fighters and perhaps 125 bombers on 6 June, and few of those were within range of Normandy. The various German sources on that unit’s strength are extremely contradictory, giving figures ranging from about three hundred to more than eight hundred planes. Col. Josef Priller’s postwar history cites 183 fighters in France; that number seems more reliable than most, as Priller had been a wing commander who reputedly led the only two planes that attacked any of the beaches in daylight.

Most Luftwaffe sorties were flown against the invasion forces after dark, but few of the promised reserves materialized from the Reich. Luftwaffe bombers made almost nightly attacks on the Allied fleet and port facilities from 6 June onward, but they accomplished little in exchange for their heavy losses.

The U.S. Army Air Forces chief, Gen. Henry Arnold, wrote his wife that the Luftwaffe had had an opportunity to attack four thousand ships—a target unprecedented in history. Accounts vary, but reputedly only 115 to 150 sorties were flown against the Allied naval forces that night. German aircraft losses on D-Day have been cited as thirty-nine shot down and eight lost operationally.

The Luftwaffe fought as long as fuel and ammunition remained, and it produced some unpleasant surprises in 1944–45. The most significant development was the first generation of jet- and rocket-powered combat aircraft, built by Messerschmitt and Arado. But it was a case of too little too late, and the qualitative superiority of the Me-163, Me-262, and Ar-234 proved irrelevant in the face of overwhelming Allied numbers.


Strategy of WW2 Aircraft

On November 11, 1943, US Army Air Forces Commander Hap Arnold was on his way overseas once again, this time to a series of high-level summit conferences, and for his first visit to the Mediterranean Theater since the Allies landed in Italy. He was going to talk with the masterminds of the war effort on WW2 air strategy.

During the fast-paced, five-week journey, he accompanied President Roosevelt to his only wartime conference with Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek (the leader of the Republic of China), code-named Sextant, and to the first of two “Big Three” conferences between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, code-named Eureka. Because the Soviet Union was not then at war with Japan, Stalin refused to attend the meeting with Chiang in Cairo, so the Anglo-American leaders flew to meet Stalin in Tehran.

For Roosevelt and Churchill, the objective now with conferences was not so much planning strategy, but managing the momentum of previously initiated strategy. In the European Theater of Operations, it was the momentum building toward Operation Overlord, the long-awaited cross-channel invasion. Because of the “Germany first” doctrine, this was the most important initiative of all.

Though it would not be officially created until early 1944, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had already agreed to Arnold’s proposal for the creation of a new organization called the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF) that would be the coordinator of the Eighth and Fifteenth. It would bring more unified command to WW2 air strategy.

Roosevelt and Churchill sat down with Chiang Kai-shek and his entourage on November 23. In his diary, Arnold calls it a “historic meeting,” but in his memoirs, it is merely a “meeting.” His dislike for Chiang, his supplicants, and his narrow-mindedness is palpable in both. Reflecting upon Sextant in his memoirs, he wrote, “Sometimes I wondered why we were saving China, for the dissensions among their warlords [Chiang’s bickering generals] gave us few clues.”

However, saving China was the immediate goal of the actions in the China-Burma-India Theater, and the supply routes into China were an important topic of conversation, although Chiang’s parochial and intransigent position was essentially unchanged since Arnold had met with him in Chungking. An agreement was reached on the tonnage that Arnold committed the USAAF to deliver across the Hump. He noted in his diary that this was unilaterally rewritten by the Chinese two days after Sextant adjourned, committing him to “2,000 tons [monthly] more than I could possibly carry.” He rewrote the rewrite and sent it back. Chiang did not quibble.

In retrospect, the Cairo Communiqué (or Cairo Declaration) that concluded the meeting could have been written without the conference, but it did serve to summarize the aims of the United States, Britain, and China with regard to the war against Japan. “The Three Great Allies expressed their resolve to bring unrelenting pressure against their brutal enemies by sea, land, and air,” read the document.

The communiqué concluded with a reaffirmation of that controversial declaration of the Casablanca Conference, stating that the “three Allies . . . will continue to persevere in the serious and prolonged operations necessary to procure the unconditional surrender of Japan.”

Though Arnold made no mention of it in his diary for security reasons, an important element of the discussions of waging war against the Japanese from China included the still-unrealized strategic air campaign against Japan itself, and the B-29 Superfortress, which would make this a reality, thus consolidating WW2 air strategy.

Assuming that the B-29s would be operational by the spring of 1944, the biggest obstacle to these strategic bombing missions was the tremendous distances involved. To put this predicament into perspective, Schweinfurt, which was the signature challenge for the Eighth, was 450 miles from England, while Japan was three thousand miles from the nearest Allied base that could be supplied by sea.

When eying a map of the Pacific, the planners could see that the ideal bases for the bombers would be on Guam and the Mariana Islands (such as Saipan and Tinian). They were about 1,500 miles from Tokyo and could be supplied easily by large cargo ships. But these potential bases were held by the Japanese and unlikely to be recaptured until late in 1944. Therefore, the only potential near-term basing scenario would be deep inside China.

The American commanders in China, Stilwell and Chennault, contributed ideas about where in China the bombers could be based, and from this, K. B. Wolfe developed a plan, approved by Arnold in October 1943 and code-named Operation Matterhorn. On November 20, Arnold activated the XX Bomber Command, with Wolfe as commander, to operate the Superfortress fleet against Japan from fields at Chengtu (now transliterated as Chengdu) beginning in June 1944.

“The operations from China against Japan were not simple,” Arnold says in his memoirs. “After hauling their own gasoline and bombs from India, the B-29s would have to go back to India and refuel, taking on as much gasoline as they could, and return to China, where they would bomb up and take off for Japan. The distance from the Assam region to the Chengtu area was about 1,200 miles; from China to the nearest point of bombing in Japan, about 1,600 miles. So, when the airplanes finally got back to their bases in India, they had covered a distance of about 5,600 miles, and had carried some 3,500 gallons of gasoline into China.”

President Roosevelt signed off on the plan at Cairo. It was now up to Wolfe to deliver the Superfortresses and up to Chiang to build airfields of adequate size for the huge bombers.

Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff departed from Cairo on November 27 for their meeting with Stalin in Tehran. Iran had been picked as a conference site because of its proximity to the Soviet Union and Stalin’s wariness of traveling too far from home while his armies were still locked in fierce combat with the Germans across a vast front.

The leading agenda item on the Big Three portion of the Eureka Conference, as it had been when Churchill and Harriman had met with Stalin on previous occasions, was the Soviet leader’s impatience with his Anglo-American allies for not yet having opened a “second front” against the Germans. By this, he meant the cross-channel invasion of northern France, not the invasion of Italy that they had conducted two months earlier. For their part, Roosevelt and Churchill assured him that they were working toward this goal for the spring of 1944.

Although Arnold noted that “neither [Stalin] nor his generals seemed able to comprehend the necessity for strategic bombing or a more cohesive WW2 air strategy,” Stalin had obviously been following the Eighth Air Force campaign against the Reich with great interest. He went so far as to inquire about obtaining some American four-engine bombers for his own air force.

“He asked me for improved airplanes and he asked me for heavy bombers,” Arnold wrote. “I told him if he wanted heavy bombers he would have to send his engineers and maintenance and combat crews to the United States to go through our schools, or we could send the necessary personnel to instruct his men in Russia. He thought over these two suggestions for a while and finally agreed that something like that must be arranged.”

It never was.

Arnold reminded Stalin that the USAAF had been trying without success to obtain Soviet cooperation for “shuttle bombing” missions. Under this concept, Eighth Air Force bombers taking off from England could bomb targets deeper inside of the Reich if they could land and be refueled in the Soviet Union. As Arnold points out, the Soviets did agree at Tehran to allow shuttle missions, but they did not begin until June 1944, and they were terminated in September. “For a while, the Russians were glad to have us,” Arnold recalled in his memoirs. There was need for a better coordinated WW2 air strategy among the allies.

They permitted their people to come around and talk with our soldiers and officers, see what we were doing, and how we were doing it. It created a cordial relationship. But when our radios and our magazines—Life, Time, the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Look, PM, and such periodicals—started coming into our various squad rooms, dayrooms, and clubs, and their people had an opportunity to see the kind of life we lived in the United States, apparently the Russian leaders didn’t like it. Orders were given that there would be no more fraternization between the Russians and the Americans at the shuttle bombing bases. Almost as quickly as it had started, all contact with the Americans stopped.

“Looking back on the Teheran Conference, I think everyone who had carefully thought out our over-all strategy for beating the Germans must have been in accord with Stalin’s idea of how to win the war,” Arnold wrote in his memoirs. “In simple words, as taken from my notes, this was: ‘Hit Germany hard. Synchronize the operations of Allied troops on the two fronts, east and west. Then hit the Germans from both sides where it hurts most. Hit her where the distance to Berlin is shortest. Don’t waste time, men or equipment on secondary fronts.’ The prescription matched the planning of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States, wherein we adopted the principle set by the President, of beating Germany first and then turning to Japan.”

However, when it came to fighting Japan, Stalin was immovable. Roosevelt and Churchill tried at length to cajole him into a commitment to enter the war against Japan, but he flatly refused. As Arnold observed, “Regarding Japan, my impression was that Stalin had made up his mind and was not going to change it. Under no circumstances would he be drawn into a two-front war.”

Though he was as disparaging about the Soviets in general as he was about the British in general, Arnold was quite taken with their “fearless, brilliant” leader. In his diary, he also betrayed a sense of wonder—absent in his accounts of other summit conferences—about his having been at what he perceived as a crossroads of history.

Implementation of WW2 Air Strategy in Europe

On December 8, as the Combined Chiefs adjourned, Hap Arnold flew to Italy, with a brief stop in Sicily, where he had some important news for his longtime friend, General Tooey Spaatz, now commanding the Twelfth Air Force. It had previously been decided that the new U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF) would be headquartered in England, with its staff drawn from the existing bureaucracy of the Eighth Air Force. As suggested in Arnold’s diary, it was at this point that it was confirmed that Spaatz would command the USSTAF—as Arnold had recommended, and Eisenhower had agreed—effective on the first of January, 1944.

Accompanied by Spaatz, Arnold visited the sprawling complex of airfields being built for the Fifteenth Air Force between Bari and Foggia, on the heel of the Italian boot, northeast of Naples.

At Foggia on December 8, Arnold was met by his son Hank, who was temporarily detached from his duties as an artillery officer with the 45th Infantry Division to serve as his father’s aide for the next few days. Together, they visited the Foggia-Bari area and traveled to Naples. Here, they looked at pre-invasion damage done by Allied bombers and post-invasion damage done by German bombers.

Arnold held meetings with Spaatz, Doolittle, and Cannon, then called on General Mark Clark, commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, the umbrella organization for all American ground operations in Italy, as well as British General Harold Alexander, commander of the Allied 15th Army Group, the command umbrella above the American Fifth and British Eighth Armies in Italy.

In 1918, Hap Arnold had gone to Europe hoping to see the battlefronts of World War I from the air, but instead, he viewed the front from the eye level of an infantry soldier. In December 1943, he found himself within earshot of the front lines of World War II for the first time.

Bomb holes, mine holes, railroad ties cut in two by German heavy ploughs pulled by locomotives. Villages and towns demolished, partly demolished. Destruction and devastation everywhere, mud and more mud. Trees cut down by explosives to block the road. Hospitals, field and evacuation, ambulances, operating room, removing bomb and shell splinters from the soldier’s head, pulling a mangled hand together, tying a body together after a shell fragment tore loose a hip and almost all of a buttock, wounds in the abdomen, holes in back and abdomen the size of a football, blood, transfusions. . . . Hands, legs, shoulders separately and together in plaster casts to rebuild broken and shattered bodies. Nurses doing their part, working overtime, smiling. Patients gritting their teeth and saying: “I’m feeling fine.”

Stepping out of the hospital, he watched artillery barking at the Germans on a hill just beyond. Aircraft fighting overhead. Whistling shells going overhead with their loud bangs as they explode. Bombs and shells bursting on the German positions a scant 1,800 yards away. Men crouching behind walls in the mud, tents under bushes and trees. Wet feet, shoes muddy and wet, never dry; trench feet. More whistling shells and their deafening explosives and our guns barking. [Antiaircraft] guns opening up [on] Fw 190s and [Bf] 109s overhead. Spitfires coming into the fight, bridges out, infantrymen crouching behind any kind of cover. German observers watching our movement up the road from the hill beyond. A tank blown to bits from running over a mine, five bodies lying in small pieces on the ground. Civilians, men and women, clinging to desolated and despoiled houses, and mud, mud, mud. The Germans over on the hill watching us, perhaps wondering who could be so foolish to come up there.

Later in the day, Arnold held a press conference at which he called Germany “groggy” after the weight of the Combined Bomber Offensive, although he knew that the offensive was barely under way. The Associated Press reported that Arnold “predicted today, in a tour of the Italian front that Germany would be unable to offer much resistance to the Allies’ assault from the west when it came.” The New York Times asked him about USAAF strategic operations in the Mediterranean and reported his reply as confirming that “the airfields now available in southern Italy and other Mediterranean bases are enough for the total bombing of southern Germany and the Balkans.”

Though the spin, clearly designed for morale purposes, was positive—and hopeful—Arnold knew that the strategic campaign was still on the uphill side of the curve. The Schweinfurt missions were not isolated among the total scope of operations in illustrating the difficulty that the USAAF still faced in their portion of the Combined Bomber Offensive.

WW2 Air Strategy Within the USAAF

The USAAF was now a massive organization, including 2,372,292 personnel and 64,232 aircraft by the end of 1943. Most important for Arnold was that he now had 3,528 Flying Fortresses and 3,490 B-24 Liberators, not to mention 3,181 medium bombers (B-25s and B-26s), 5,100 P-47 Thunderbolts, and 1,165 P-51 Mustangs.

Now operating 10,456 transport aircraft, the USAAF maintained an infrastructure of bases and depots on six continents. The Air Transport Command, meanwhile, was now the largest “airline” the world had yet seen, flying a busy passenger and freight schedule that crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific and routinely circumnavigated the globe. Most of its routes were clear of Axis interference.

On December 17, 1943, Orville Wright traveled to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of his first heavier-than-air flight and to present the Collier Trophy for the “outstanding contribution to aviation during the past year.” The recipient was Henry Harley Arnold, whom Wright himself had taught to fly at Huffman Prairie, Ohio, thirty-two years before. Hap Arnold’s “outstanding contribution to aviation during the past year” was building the USAAF into the largest air force in the world.


WW2 Aircraft: The B-17

In 1934, the Air Corps visionaries, led by Billy Mitchell disciples Hap Arnold and Tooey Spaatz under the command of Major Generals Frank Andrews and Oscar Westover, were able to secure just enough money (with the help of a few friends in Congress) to start the development of a new, modern, multi-engine bomber. They hoped this new bomber would put the U.S. on par with Europe. They set out the following requirements in a competition for airplane manufacturers: the new bomber had to be able to fly at 10,000 feet at speeds of 200 miles per hour with a range of 2,000 miles, meaning the bomber would have to stay aloft for ten hours without refueling. No plane in the United States had that capability at the time.

Three companies entered the competition. The Martin Company offered up the B-12, an updated model of the plane used in the Air Mail debacle. Douglas came up with the new two-engine DB-1. And in Seattle, the much smaller Boeing Company, facing bankruptcy, decided to gamble everything and put its best designers and researchers into the effort. The company filed its proposal for the new bomber on August 8, 1934, a month before LeMay headed for Hawaii.


Under the leadership of the brilliant design team of E. Gifford Emory and Edward Curtis Wells, the first prototype of the B-17 Flying Fortress came out of the factory at Boeing Field, amazingly only eleven months later in July of 1935. Taking a plan from draft paper to an actual airplane in less than a year is unheard of, even today with the benefits of computers and advanced technology. The teams of engineers at Boeing were using paper, pencils, and slide rules.

The B-17 Flying Fortress went far beyond the requirements of the competition, and jumped light years ahead of every other airplane in the world.

It was the first all-metal bomber with an enclosed cockpit, powered by four 750 horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines. Its sleek lines, futuristic design, and capabilities of flying much higher and faster—235 miles an hour—carrying more bombs, dazzled the procurement officers, who decided immediately after the first flight on July 28, 1935, that the Air Corps should buy sixty-five B-17 Flying Fortresses. The Boeing plane far outstripped the much smaller and less powerful Douglas and Martins planes. During that first flight, a reporter from the Seattle Times, Richard Williams, saw the five 30inch 7.62 mm machine guns facing out from the plane in all directions and dubbed it a “flying fortress.” Boeing saw the value in the name and quickly copyrighted it.

If ever a plane was built that was air-worthy, it was the B-17 Flying Fortress. While it was more advanced than any other plane, its brilliance lay in a much simpler design and parts. It was easier to build, sturdier to fly, and required less maintenance than any other plane at the time. The new bomber could take a profound battering from enemy anti-aircraft guns and fighters as well as from wind, heat, cold—almost anything—and it would bring back its crews when other planes would have gone down. The B-17 Flying Fortress was a marvel. But it had a disastrous beginning.

On its second flight, the test pilots forgot to disengage the gust lock, a brake that holds the plane in place when it is parked on the ground—a forgivable mistake considering it was only the second time the crew had ever flown it. But even simple mistakes by test pilots are unforgiving. The plane went into a stall just after takeoff and crashed, killing everyone on board. Boeing and the B-17 Flying Fortress were immediately out of the competition. The Air Corps gave the contract to the Douglas Air Craft company for 133 of its twin engine B-18 Bolos. That should have been the end of the B-17.

But the Air Corps officers who had seen the B-17 Flying Fortress could not let it go. They persuaded their congressional friends not to abandon the Boeing project. Generals Andrews and Westover managed to keep Boeing in the game with a limited contract to produce thirteen more B-17s. It was hardly what Boeing had hoped for, but it kept the bomber and the company alive. In the meantime, Boeing’s engineers redesigned the B-17 Flying Fortress with even more powerful engines and added other improvements. The crash also spurred the institution of the “check list,” still used today by all pilots to prevent potential problems before takeoff.

The planes were delivered to Langley Field on March 1, 1937, where they quickly became the hot ticket in the Air Corps. It was the plane everyone wanted to fly. Scuttlebutt about the new bomber traveled as far away as Hawaii, where LeMay heard about it. It would become the predominant plane in the Air Corps after Douglas ran into manufacturing problems and its plane was stalled on the assembly line. Despite that humble initial order of thirteen planes, more than 12,000 B-17s would be built by the end of World War II.

Over seven decades after World War II, pilots still talk about the B-17 Flying Fortresses with a particular fondness. They even insist that the plane had a special smell unlike any other. Later, some crew members credited the B-17 with bringing them through the war alive, as if it were a living, breathing being. “Flying the B-17 was unlike flying any other plane. It was a joy,” recalled Jacob Smart, who commanded a squadron of B-17s during the war. Jim Pattillo flew both B-17s and B-29s in World War II. “The B-29 was a complicated precision instrument,” Pattillo remembers, “but the B-17 was as easy as getting into the family car.” General Arnold placed this particular plane in the pantheon of all aircraft: “It had only one predecessor of equal importance in air history”—the Wright brothers’ plane.

At this time the Army Air Corps came into the possession of a device that, along with the B-17 Flying Fortress, would revolutionize bombing— the Norden bombsight. It would prove to be one of the great inventions and greatest secrets of World War II. The U.S. did not even share the bombsight with the British for fear that it might fall into enemy hands. It was developed by an eccentric Dutch engineer, Carl Norden, who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1904. Norden developed the bombsight for the Air Corps while he worked for the Sperry Corporation.

A bomb does not fall in a straight line from a moving plane. It follows a parabolic trajectory as the various forces of physics— speed, gravity, and inertia—carry it on its long journey to the ground. The bombsight computed all these factors to guide the bomb to its target. It used a series of gears, gyroscopes, and ball bearings that the bombardier would look through over a target. By inputting the speed and altitude, the bombsight could calculate the trajectory of a bomb. The bombardier even controlled the flight of the plane through the site during the time over the target. The U.S. would eventually buy 90,000 bombsights from Norden at a cost of $1.5 billion between 1933 and 1945.

As the pilots, navigators, and bombardiers were grappling with this new technology, the classes U.S. Army Air Corps officer Curtis LeMay attended reminded him of the school he had set up in Hawaii—the instructors did not know much more than the students.


By 1937, the military push by Germany and Japan finally caught the attention of the War Department. But because of the isolationists’ strong hold in Congress, the Air Corps, along with the rest of the U.S. military, had to go about a buildup in surreptitious ways. The Air Corps understood that it needed to impress the public with the importance of funding its planes and technology. So it set up three air exercises in the late 1930s. By today’s standards, they sound simplistic. Back then, they were not.

The first demonstration was really a continuation of a long, simmering rivalry between the Navy and the Air Corps. It was called Joint Air Exercise Number Four, but it became known as the Utah Exercise. It was a competition of sorts. The Navy continued to hold on to its jurisdiction over open water as Washington saw the Air Corps only as a defensive arm of the military. So in theory, the Air Corps existed in case an army invaded the continental United States, which was unlikely. The Army itself saw the main thrust of any future air war only as support for ground troops, but there were those within the Air Corps who wanted to show that the B17 had significantly changed the paradigm.

The rules of the exercise were simple. The Air Corps was given twenty-four hours to locate a battleship, the USS Utah, which would be sailing somewhere off the coast of California between Los Angeles and San Francisco—roughly 120,000 square miles— and hit it with water bombs. The Air Corps could not conduct its own reconnaissance. It had to rely on position reports from the Navy. Eight B-17 Flying Fortresses would be used in the drill, along with a larger number of B-10s and B-18s. The Navy was betting its ships were invulnerable to airplanes, and the Air Corps was saying it could destroy ships from the air. Bob Olds, the commander of the Air Corps fleet, chose LeMay as his chief navigator. The B-17s flew across the country in August 1937 and set up their headquarters at the Oakland airport.

At noon on August 12, the Navy sent its position report to the airport, which radioed it to the B-17s already over the Pacific. LeMay quickly made the calculations and determined that they were actually quite close to the ship. The lead pilot, Major Caleb V. Haynes, brought down the planes through the clouds, but to their surprise, they saw only open water. They set up a search—spreading out the planes and looking for the ship—but they were unable to locate the Utah before dark, when the exercise ended for the day. Olds furiously asked LeMay why they had not found the ship. “I don’t know, Sir,” LeMay responded honestly. “I think we got to where they were supposed to be.” After a few more calculations and a celestial reading, LeMay was convinced that he had been right. “We weren’t very far off. Maybe two or three miles.” Olds asked why he was so sure. “If it’s right,” LeMay responded, showing his charts, “here’s where we are now. And we’re headed straight to San Francisco.” Olds was not happy and grumbled that they still had tomorrow. But he added, “I want the Utah. You’d better find it for me. You were selected to fly lead navigator because I thought you were the best in the group.”

LeMay could not have felt good about any of this, yet he remained convinced that he was right. He was so confident about it that he calculated exactly when they would hit San Francisco on their course homeward. When the time came, LeMay left his seat at the navigator’s table and came back up to the cockpit where Haynes and Olds sat in the pilot and co-pilot seats. As they came over in the dark, there, as LeMay had predicted, were the lights of the city.

“By God, you were right,” Olds said. “Then why didn’t we find the Utah?”

“Maybe,” suggested LeMay, “they gave us the wrong position.”

Because of heavy fog, the planes had to bypass Oakland and fly on to Sacramento where they spent the night. LeMay slept under the wing of the plane in the hangar. Early the next morning, Olds, who spent most of the night on the phone, came over to LeMay and woke him. “The Navy now admits they were one degree off on the position they sent us,” he said. “One degree! That’s sixty miles. No wonder we couldn’t find the son-of-a-bitch. Come on, let’s have a cup of coffee.”

Like the day before, Olds did not wait at the hangar for the Navy to radio in its position. As soon as it was light, he took off so the planes would be out at sea when they received the coordinates. When the information came in, LeMay made his calculations. Then he came back to Olds and Haynes with the bad news. There was no way they could get to the ship before the noon deadline. He figured out that they would be about sixty miles away when the clock struck twelve. Olds was furious. The air seemed to have been sucked out of the plane—everyone on board just sagged. With nothing else to do, Olds ordered the planes to fan out, make sure they were in sight of one another, and fly towards the coordinates anyway. He hoped that the planes could at least locate the Utah, even if it was after the deadline.

Then, with about ten minutes left before the deadline, a huge battleship came into sight. They were not completely sure it was the right battleship, so they looked for markings. The sailors on board appeared to be just loitering on the deck and not in any great worry of an imminent attack. When they saw the correct flag, the bombardier asked permission to drop the water bombs the plane was carrying. Olds gave him the OK, and in the ensuing “attack,” the B-17 Flying Fortresses scored three direct hits and several near misses.

As dejected as the men onboard the planes had been just minutes before, they were equally jubilant after the ship was hit. The airmen watched the sailors scurrying around in a frenzy. Then the planes headed back to the coast as LeMay charted a course, this time to March Field in Riverside. Along the way, LeMay figured out why they were able to hit the Utah before the deadline. Once again, the Navy had sent out misinformation. For the second day in a row they were off by one degree, which would account for the sixty-mile differential. But this time, the one degree mistake was in their favor. The euphoria of the air crews was short lived, however. An order came out immediately after landing that the entire exercise would remain classified—there would be no publicity whatsoever. The Navy had its way in Washington. The story would stay within the military. The Navy then attacked Olds and the bombers with what now sounds like the weakest possible argument. It said that since the planes came in suddenly out of the clouds, the ship did not have time to perform any evasive maneuvers. “The exercise doesn’t prove a thing,” the Navy said. Rather than explain that planes coming in out of nowhere was precisely the problem that ships would face in the future, Olds had another suggestion. He challenged the Navy to one more test on the following day: let the B-17s target the ship from a higher altitude at a prescribed time, allowing the Utah to take any evasive action it desired. Boxed into a corner, the Navy agreed. The following day, the B-17s came in at 8,000 feet on what turned out to be a picture-perfect clear day in the Pacific. The ship took evasive action, but to no avail. It was hit again. And again the entire event was kept from the general public.

Following the Utah exercise, the Air Corps realized that, in order to help the American public understand the growing importance of air power, it needed to come up with a public relations campaign. In January 1938, the U.S. State Department announced that as a gesture of goodwill, the B-17 Flying Fortresses of the Air Corps would fly to Argentina for the inauguration of the country’s new president. Franklin Roosevelt was sending a message to Berlin and Tokyo: the United States had the most advanced, state-of-the-art bomber in the world with a capacity to fly long distances.

The flight to South America was an unqualified success. It received a great deal of press coverage, and the people of South America were excited to get anywhere near the planes. The event did not go unnoticed in the Axis capitals. The B-17 Flying Fortresses had flown fifteen hours over oceans without refueling on their flight from Miami to Lima. Berlin was now in range of England.


WW2 Aircraft: British Gliders

Airspeed Horsa

Britain’s primary combat glider, the Airspeed Horsa, shared the American CG-4’s general configuration and service history. Like the U.S. Waco, the Horsa was first flown in 1941. Also like the CG-4, it had a hinged nose to facilitate loading troops and small vehicles. With a two-man crew and capacity of twenty-five troops, it was capable of heavier loads than the Waco, partly due to its larger size (8,370 pounds empty and eighty-eightfoot wingspan). Tow speeds are listed between 100 and 150 mph.

Horsas were committed to combat in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and, like the Waco, figured prominently at Normandy and Operation Market-Garden, the Holland operation of September 1944. Some 355 gliders were involved in the British airborne phase of Overlord, with a hundred pilots killed or injured.

Total Horsa production was 3,655 aircraft.

General Aircraft Hamilcar

Recognizing the need for armored support of airborne forces, the British Air Ministry requested a large glider that could deliver a seven-ton light tank or forty troops. Named for the Carthaginian general, the Hamilcar entered service in 1942 and usually carried a Tetrach tank. With a 110-foot wingspan and thirty-six-thousand-pound gross weight, it was the largest and heaviest glider built by any of the Allied powers. Of some four hundred Hamilcars produced, seventy were employed in Normandy. Others were flown in the Arnhem operation three months later.


WW2 Aircraft: The Dam Busters

The Dam Busters — officially No. 617 Squadron — were an RAF squadron who gain the name for their actions in World War Two during Operation Chastise against the German dams. The squadron was formed specifically to attack three major dams that provided power and water to the Ruhr industrial region of Germany. Breaking the dams would cripple the industrial might of the Nazi War machine. During the Second World War the Dam Busters carried out nearly 1,600 operational sorties, losing nly 32 aircraft.

Nearly as famous as the squadron were the weapon they used. In the spring of 1943 a new weapon appeared which promised to succeed where conventional bombs—and the hopeless spherical “roly-poly” mine—had signally failed. Its creator was Barnes Wallis whose bouncing bomb was dropped by the Dam busters on their spectacular raid of May 16–17. The new invention, code-named “Highball,” was based on the same principle. It was cylinder-shaped, weighed half a ton, and contained a 500-lb. charge.

Their most famous operation was Operation Chastise, an attack on German dams, carried out on May 16-17, 1943. Their “bouncing bombs” breached the Mohne and Edersee Dams, flooding the Ruhr valley and villages in the Eder valley. In the wake of the flooding, two hydroelectric power plants were destroyed, along with factories and mines. Over 1,600 civilians drowned: approxmiately 1,000 Soviety forced-laborers and 600 Germans. German war-time production was severely hampered until September.

The squadron chose a badge that depicted the bursting of a dam and a motto Apres moi le deluge (After me, the Flood).

The squadron continued in precision bombing raids throughout the war. But they needed a better bomb than their bouncer. Thus came in another revolutionary weapon: Tallboy.

Tallboy — The Preferred Weapon of the Dam Busters

The Tallboy was the latest invention of Barnes Wallis, a creative engineer, and in the words of his friend and biographer J. E. Morpurgo “saw creative engineering as an art and himself as a sort of poet.” In the crucible of wartime, his prodigious talent and energy had produced some remarkable and valuable inventions.

The idea for the Tallboy dated back to 1940 but Wallis had only been put to work on developing it in the summer of 1943, when it was discovered that the Germans were close to deploying flying bombs and long-range ballistic missiles—the V1s and V2s. The only defense available was to bomb the sites where they were being developed or stored. A mass raid by nearly six hundred aircraft dropped 1,937 tons of bombs on the V2 missile research center at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast on August 17, 1943. This was a huge attack, but forty aircraft were lost and the program was set back by only two months. The blunt instruments that were all Bomber Command had available could not do the job. Something more precise and deadly was required.

Wallis had foreseen the need for a bomb for use against “targets . . . of the most massive nature . . . practically invulnerable to attack by existing aerial methods.” It was axiomatic that the bigger the bomb, the greater its destructive potential, but in the first years of the war, aircraft lacked the lifting power to carry monster weapons. With the arrival of the Lancaster, capacity increased. Tallboy was not just a very big bomb; it was designed to bury itself in the ground and explode, producing an earthquake effect. Shockwaves ripple more powerfully through earth— and water—than they do through air. Thus, a Tallboy did not have to score a direct hit to destroy its target.

To achieve the penetration needed for the best results, the bomb had to be dropped from high altitudes. It needed to be tough and aerodynamically efficient to withstand the impact. Wallis’s bomb was made of molybdenum steel, sufficiently strong and light to carry a high proportion of explosive—5,000 pounds of Torpex in an all-up weight of 12,000 pounds It was twenty-one feet long, tapering to a point that was as sharp as a pencil and fitted comfortably into the Lancaster’s thirtythree-foot bomb bay. According to its inventor, “previously bombs had just [been] made [of] thin steel casings which dropped from the sky. But I gave this bomb [a] perfect aerodynamic shape and arranged the fins so they would impart to it an increasingly rapid spin. As the bomb attained a high velocity it actually passed through the speed of sound and penetrated the ground to a depth of about a hundred feet.”

The loss of accuracy that grew with increased altitude was offset by the use of the Stabilized Automatic Bomb Sight (SABS). With conventional sights, the bomb aimer had to guide the pilot up to the moment of release. The delay between instruction and adjustment left an inevitable margin of error. The SABS was the most sophisticated aiming device to date. Shortly before arrival at the objective the navigator passed data on airspeed, altitude, and wind direction to the bomb aimer, lying in the nose of the aircraft, to be fed into the instrument’s computer. He then peered through the lens of the sight, speaking into the captain’s earphones, calling “left, right, steady” as needed until the target lay at the tip of a lit-up sword symbol reflected on a sheet of glass. As the target grew closer he held it in place, sliding down the blade of the sword, with two control wheels. These activated an instrument mounted in front of the pilot—the Bombing Direction Indicator. A needle on the face then told him the slight adjustments needed to keep the aircraft on track. Then, at the optimum moment, the bomb was released automatically. An experienced aimer could drop a bomb from 20,000 feet with an average margin of error of only eighty yards. To do so, of course, he needed to have clear sight of the target. Over cloud—or smokescreen— the SABS was useless.

The Dam Busters and the Sinking of German Battleships

Throughout the summer of 1944, 617 Squadron had been using both Tallboy and the SABS in specially modified Lancasters against V weapons sites buried deep under concrete in the Pas-de-Calais. In the month of August, prior to the summons to prepare for a “special job” they had repeatedly and successfully bombed the previously invulnerable submarine pens at the Biscay ports of Brest, Lorient, and La Pallice.

Using the Tallboy, their most notable attack was the sinking of the German warship Tirpitz. The ship reguarily threatened Allied Arctic convoys in northern Norway. After being damaged by British midget submarines and attacks from the Fleet Air Arm, the No. 9 and No. 617 Squadroms were deployed to finish Tirpitz off with Tallboy bombs. The two squadrons harrassed her throughout 1944 and finally sunk her on November 12 when aircraft scored two direct hits in quick succession. All three RAF attacks on Tirpitz were led by Wing Commander J.B. “Willy” Tait.


WW2 Aircraft: F6F Hellcat

In 1943, the United States deployed numerous new aircraft carriers in the Pacific Theatre, including a number of Essex-class aircraft carriers, known for their long range and ability to hold nearly 100 aircraft. With new ships came new aircraft. The TBF Avenger bomber, deployed aboard carriers since Guadalcanal, remained for “the duration.” Big, long-ranged, and versatile, with its three-man crew it excelled at torpedo and bombing attack plus scouting and antisubmarine patrol.

But the real jewel of the new aircraft was the Grumman F6F Hellcat, reporting aboard in 1943. The F6Fs largely destroyed Japanese airpower in the last two years of the war.

Here’s a bit more background about the plane. In the summer of 1943 the long-serving F4F Wildcat was replaced by Grumman’s bigger, faster, longer-ranged F6F Hellcat. Combined with radio and shipboard radar, Hellcats would make fast carriers nearly invulnerable to conventional air attack. F6Fs largely destroyed Japanese airpower, credited with nearly as many enemy aircraft as Army fighters in the Pacific and China theaters combined. From early 1944 onward, Hellcats also became the finest naval night fighter of the war.

Beginning in late 1943 the Douglas Dauntless slowly was replaced by the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. Though faster than the SBD, the ’2C was no better as a bomber and suffered a painfully lengthy gestation. It entered combat during two carrier strikes on Rabaul, New Britain, in November but would not fully replace the Dauntless until July the following year.


The Doolittle Raid — America’s Retaliation

Though the U.S. Army and Navy had a long rivalry for funding and missions, the pressure of wartime welded them into a highly effective team for the First Special Aviation Project. History still knows it as the Doolittle Raid, America’s retaliation against homeland Japan for the Pearl Harbor attack.

Planning the Doolittle Raid

Ironically, the concept originated with a submariner, Captain Francis Low. While touring Virginia bases in January 1942, he saw a ship’s outline on a bombing range and conceived the notion of launching Army bombers from an aircraft carrier. He sold the concept to Admiral Ernest King, chief of naval operations, who in turn approached General Henry Arnold of the Army Air Forces. Carrier aircraft lacked the range to attack Japan and allow the ships to escape, but Army medium bombers could strike from much farther out.

Arnold tossed the project to his ace troubleshooter, Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle. A rare combination of hot hands and cool intellect, Jimmy Doolittle had won every air race worth entering and had earned an aeronautics Ph.D. He determined that the North American B-25 Mitchell was best suited for taking off from a carrier deck, hitting enemy cities, and escaping to safety in China.

Doolittle selected crews from the most experienced B-25 unit and oversaw training on the East Coast. Coached by veteran carrier aviators, the Army fliers mastered the technique of short-field takeoffs in combat-loaded bombers.

Sixteen Mitchells with spare crews flew cross-country, receiving modifications for the mission. Then they alit at Naval Air Station (NAS) Alameda and were loaded aboard USS Hornet (CV-8), America’s newest carrier. North of Midway Hornet’s unit rendezvoused with her sister Enterprise. Only then did the aircrews learn, “This task force is headed for Tokyo.”

Executing the Doolittle Raid

The original plan called for launching the B-25s 450 miles offshore, but on April 18 the Americans were sighted by Japanese picket boats. Consequently, Doolittle’s men began taking off two hundred miles farther east than expected, cutting deeply into their fuel reserves over China. Short of cancelling, there was no other option.

While the two carriers made a clean getaway, Doolittle led fifteen other Mitchells operating singly against objectives in the Tokyo urban area. One plane diverted to Russia, critically short of fuel, but most of the others successfully bombed their targets despite Japanese interceptors.

Thirteen hours after launch, however, the returning B-25s ran out of fuel over the China coast. The crews bailed out, seeking help from friendly Chinese. Three fliers perished that night, and eight were captured by the Japanese. Four died in enemy hands; the others survived their ordeal to return in 1945.

The Doolittle Raid galvanized the nation. He received the Medal of Honor and was promoted to brigadier general, en route to commanding three air forces in the Mediterranean and European Theaters.


WW2 Aircraft Strategy in the Pacific Theater

The “Germany first” policy had made the Pacific a secondary theater in the conference rooms of Anglo-American military planners, but to people on the street in the United States, it was just the opposite. It was Japan that had attacked Pearl Harbor, and it seemed to many that the war against Japan should come first.

As the planners anxiously awaited the start of the land war in Northwest Africa, the United States was already fighting a land war in the Pacific. American soldiers had fought, died, and lost at Bataan. American Marines had fought, died, and lost at Wake Island. Even as most Americans were blissfully unaware of Operation Torch, the headlines they were reading every day told of the hard, close combat in Guadalcanal, where the Marines had landed in August, and in New Guinea, where American and Australian troops were fighting desperately to halt the vigorous Japanese advance toward Australia. In June, the Japanese had even occupied American territory—the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian chain, which were part of Alaska.

In June 1942, U.S. Navy airpower sank four Japanese aircraft carriers and a cruiser at the Battle of Midway. For US Army Air Forces Commander Hap Arnold and his staff, this remarkable victory only made it harder to justify their crusade to concentrate strategic airpower in Britain.

So far as public opinion was concerned, the buildup in Europe didn’t seem to be accomplishing very much. When Americans looked across the Atlantic, they saw small results from small USAAF air raids against an enemy against which American ground troops were not yet engaged.

If Arnold and the strategic thinkers saw the big-picture implications of the “Germany first” policy, people who read the headlines perceived that the war was being fought, and fought desperately, by the soldiers and Marines in the South West Pacific Area. The SWPA was the swath of the Pacific Theater centering on New Guinea that stretched from Australia to the Philippines, and from Java to the Solomon Islands—including Guadalcanal, the date line of the most attention-grabbing news stories. Nevertheless, in keeping with the prevailing strategic paradigm, Arnold had gone so far as to recommend against sending the nine groups earmarked for the SWPA. In a July 29 memo to Chief of Staff General George Marshall, he asserted that in the SWPA, “the initiative still rests with the enemy, and suitable objectives may not be available for effective full scale operations. It should also be noted this theater cannot, at this time, safely and properly sustain operations of an Air Force augmented over nine additional Groups because of the dangerous concentration which would result from limited base areas and base facilities.”

USAAF Coordinates Pacific Air Forces

A turn of events came at a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting two months later on September 16, 1942. The chief of naval operations practically begged the commanding general of the USAAF for more airplanes!

“There was quite a flare-up at the Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting, when Admiral [Ernest] King asked for more planes for the South Pacific,” Arnold wrote. “I said planes were not what they needed; landing fields were the determining factor; not planes. All they could do with the planes, in excess of 80 or 100, was to let them sit on the few landing fields they then had. With no training, the pilots would get stale, while in England they could be used against the Germans every day.”

“We must keep the South West Pacific saturated,” King insisted. “What is the saturation point?” Arnold asked. “Certainly, not several hundred planes sitting on airdromes so far in the rear [in Australia] that they cannot be used. They will not do us any good, and may do us some harm.”

The tension, even in Arnold’s measured recollections, is palpable. “I was not surprised when General Marshall said he thought it was a good time for me to go to the South West Pacific and have a look around,” Arnold recalled of the aftermath of the “flare-up” meeting. Marshall diplomatically told Arnold that “the most immediate way I could help Torch and the Eighth Air Force was to turn my back on both and go to the Pacific.”

Flying aboard a Consolidated C-87—the transport variant of the B-24 Liberator—Arnold and his staff reached Hawaii on September 20. Here, they were joined for the next leg of their trip by General Delos Emmons, formerly of GHQ Air Force, who had been in Hawaii for the past year. As Arnold wrote, Emmons had just returned from the South Pacific, “where he had spent considerable time with General Harmon, Admiral Ghormley, and General MacArthur. I was somewhat depressed after hearing Emmons’ report on MacArthur’s estimate of the situation. MacArthur, at the time, he thought, seemed not to be in too good health; and blamed our Air Force commanders for failure of the Air in the Philippine Islands.”

When he met Nimitz at Pearl Harbor, Arnold found him to be “far more optimistic” than Emmons. He wrote that “Emmons was convinced that Guadalcanal could not be held; Nimitz was just as sure it could be. Nimitz’ idea was that the Japanese shipping losses were so great they could not keep up such operations indefinitely.” As Arnold recorded in his diary for September 21, Nimitz believed that the Japanese “are getting worried. . . . The Japanese losses [from Midway through Guadalcanal] had been terrific…. The Japanese planes and pilots are both of inferior quality, and the war could be won in the Pacific.”

Arnold left Ghormley’s headquarters with the impression that the Navy “did not have a logistic setup efficient enough to insure success. The Marines were very tired and would grab at anything as a possible aid—something to restore their confidence…. Talk among the Navy staff officers indicated that conditions in New Guinea were very, very bad…. The Japanese would take over all of New Guinea soon. It looked to me as if everybody on that South Pacific Front had a bad case of jitters.” Arnold later described Ghormley as “suffering mentally, physically and nervously.” A month after Arnold’s visit, Nimitz replaced Ghormley with Vice Admiral William Halsey Jr.

Arnold took exception when Admiral McCain asked for USAAF Flying Fortresses for long-range reconnaissance missions, writing that this was “amazing to me, in view of the propaganda we had heard prior to the war, that the big PBYs, the Navy flying boats, were the airplanes the Navy was [originally] going to use for reconnaissance and on long-range patrols. Here they were asking for our long-range bombers to do their work for them.”

The maximum range of the twin-engine PBY was actually greater than that of the Flying Fortress, but the patrol bombers had relatively minimal bomb-carrying capacity. In his diary entry for September 23, Arnold noted that McCain “finally admitted the possibility of using PBYs.”

“Everyone just happened to be thinking of B-17s and P-38s,” Arnold observed about the Navy’s desire for the most up-to-date USAAF aircraft. “When I went into the question of using P-38s out of Noumea, I was confronted with the fact that they had no way to get them from the ships on which they arrived to flying fields. They were too big to get over the roads, and there were no docks near the airfields.”

As with Admiral King’s pleas at the Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting on September 16, Billy Mitchell would have laughed at the admirals lusting for USAAF aircraft.

Pacific Air Forces Battle for Air Supremacy

Everyone with whom Arnold had met—Army, Navy, and USAAF— was disdainful of the “Germany first” paradigm, and argued eloquently for a realignment of priorities. They saw no reason why the grand strategy should put so much emphasis on Operation Torch to the detriment of the desperate campaign to stop the Japanese onslaught.

They were equally derisive of the USAAF plan to use long-range bombers in a strategic air offensive against Germany. Nimitz had told Arnold pointedly that “the bombardment of Germany was of no use.”

Hap Arnold complained both about the “uninformed pressures” of “American popular opinion” back home and about the parochialism of the admirals in the South West Pacific. In his diary entry of September 16, the day of the “flare-up” at the Joint Chiefs meeting, he paraphrased Frederick the Great, writing that “small minds want to defend everything. Intelligent men concentrate on the main issue, parry the heavy blows and tolerate small evils to avoid a greater one. He who wants to defend everything saves nothing.”

Of course, it can also be said that those, like Arnold, who had become adherents to the “Germany first” policy were no less parochial than the Pacific commanders. Indeed, in September 1942, based on the best available information, Australia was in greater danger of a Japanese invasion than Britain was from Nazi Germany, and Operation Torch might have seemed far more parochial than the fighting in the SOPAC.

On September 25, Arnold sat down with MacArthur, an outspoken, charismatic figure who was lionized on the home front and respected—if not universally loved—in the field. Like the admirals with whom Arnold had been meeting, he was not shy about sharing his perspective on the war in the Pacific and on global strategy. If anything, he was more forceful in expressing his views because it was the nature of his personality to be sure that his convictions were fact, not merely opinion.

Unlike many who met MacArthur for the first time, Arnold was not overawed by the colorful general’s larger-than-life presence. Indeed, Arnold had known him for nearly two decades. They were not close friends, but they knew each other reasonably well.

MacArthur told Arnold flat out that the aim of the Japanese was to “control the Pacific Ocean . . . move into the Aleutians and be ready for a general move into Alaska.”

As had the others with whom Arnold had met, he dismissed the “Germany first” doctrine out of hand, stating that Britain was merely a “besieged citadel,” and that “it would be very difficult to establish a Second Front from England, [the] movements into North Africa would be a waste of effort, [and] a sufficient number of air bases could never be established in England to provide air cover for a Second Front.”

MacArthur recommended that the Allies should “build up Australia as a reservoir of supplies, troops, and planes, and use them in any direction against the Japanese.”

Far from being swayed by MacArthur, Arnold felt a sympathy that bordered on pity.

“Thinking it over, MacArthur’s two hour talk gives me the impression of a brilliant mind, obsessed by a plan he can’t carry out; frustrated, dramatic to the extreme, much more nervous than when I formerly knew him, hands twitch and tremble, shell-shocked,” Arnold wrote in his diary that night.

He then traveled to the Allied stronghold of Port Moresby on New Guinea’s southeast coast, where Arnold was greeted by Australian Generals Thomas Blarney and S. F. Roswell, and USAAF Brigadier General Ken Walker.

Arnold sat down to breakfast with Walker and General Ennis Whitehead, Kenney’s deputy. The discussions focused on the air-crews of the 19th Bombardment Group. Among other missions, they were carrying out raids against the big Japanese bastion at Rabaul, the center of enemy power in the region.

In his diary, Arnold described the 19th Bombardment Group men as including “war-weary pilots, experienced but indifferent [who had] been in war since the Philippines . . . too many stars; know all the answers.”

This description, along with Walker’s maverick reputation, was illustrative of the status of the USAAF in a theater at the ends of the earth, making do with limited equipment and informal organization, thousands of miles from a USAAF headquarters ruled by the “Germany first” doctrine.

In his diary, Arnold jotted down some observations about the strategic situation in the SWPA: “If we don’t take the offensive soon, the Japanese will drive us out [of New Guinea]. We have enough troops to do it…. Taking the offensive, we can secure bases at Buna, Lae, Salamaua, and operate strongly against Rabaul. If we don’t take the offensive, we will lose Port Moresby, the south side of New Guinea, and open up the north shore of Australia to attack and possible occupation by the Japs.”

Having seen his men at war, on the front lines, for the first time, Arnold was greatly heartened by what he had found: “The youngsters who were actually doing the fighting, actually meeting the Japanese in combat, were not the people who were jittery. They had no doubts about their ability to lick the Japanese and they were positive of the action that could and must be taken.”

In his memoirs, Arnold extolled the virtues of his Fifth Air Force commander and his men, writing that “Kenney had certainly developed into a real leader and he had one of the finest groups of pilots and combat crews I have ever seen. Many of those who were nervous and worn out, and who had wanted to go home when he first got there, had withdrawn their requests and now wanted to stay.”

Arnold may have remained wedded to the idea that Germany was the Allies’ first priority, but he was gaining useful insight into, and appreciation for, the work being done by Allied soldiers and airmen facing Japan. As for the naval war, it was another matter.

Arnold noted that the US Navy for years had been thinking toward a state of readiness to lick the Japanese. They knew they could do it with little, if any, trouble!—“with one hand tied behind them.” Pearl Harbor came as a distinct shock to all of us, but to our Navy more than anyone. It upset years of their planning. It was only natural for them to figure on regaining their position in the sun. They must do everything possible to make the Pacific campaign not only the first-priority war theater, but also to make it a Navy war theater, run by the Navy.

“I was more convinced than ever that there must be unity of command in our Pacific operations if we were to get economy and maximum effectiveness,” Arnold wrote.

Arnold’s questions about where the war was to be won and with what plan were about to have an unexpected answer. Within a week of Hap Arnold’s return to Washington, the Japanese succeeded in reinforcing their forces on Guadalcanal with a contingent of three thousand troops. Aware of both the impending Operation Torch and  the  midterm elections, a  startled  Franklin

Roosevelt reacted by ordering a renewed emphasis on the Pacific. The “Germany first” doctrine may have remained as the key strategic policy among military leaders, but in the president’s perception, it was first among equals.

In an October 24 memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president wrote that “my anxiety about the Southwest Pacific is to make sure that every possible weapon gets into the area to hold Guadalcanal, and that, having held in this crisis, munitions, planes, and crews are on the way to take advantage of our success. We will soon find ourselves engaged on two active fronts [Southwest Pacific and Northwest Africa], and we must have adequate air support in both places, even though it means delay in our commitments, particularly, to England.”

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.


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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