Monday, December 20, 2010

Comparing naval aircraft of World War II

As another instalment on the problems of comparing apples and oranges, I thought it would be a useful to make sense of some of the ludicrous claims made about naval aircraft during the Second World War.

All navies entered 1939 with a combination of biplane and monoplane machines, all of which were behind the performances of equivalent land-based fighters and bombers. By December 1941, when the Japanese and American Navy’s joined the war, things had moved on a bit for all combatants, but not nearly as far as most books would have you believe. Bad historians for instance - scathing about the British still using biplane torpedo bombers, and the Japanese still using fixed undercarriage dive bombers - often claim that the Americans had already moved too far more advanced aircraft. The magnificent Avenger torpedo bomber, is often mentioned, regardless of the fact that the first half dozen were not in action until the Battle of Midway, and that they did not appear in any numbers until 1943. By that time of course, both Britain and Japan had their own new torpedo bombers entering front-line service.

So it would be sensible to make some comparisons between what was available to whom at what time.

By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, most 1939 aircraft were obsolete. Britain had already retired the Blackburn Skua dive bomber, despite it’s having equivalent performance to the Japanese Val dive bomber, and superior performance to the American Devastator torpedo bomber, that were both still in service. So Pearl Harbor was carried out by a combination of quite effective modern aircraft like the famous Zero fighter, reasonable torpedo bombers like Kate, and elderly but still competent dive bombers like the Val. They were faced by American carriers largely armed with reasonable dive bombers like the Dauntless, elderly and inadequate torpedo bombers like the Devastator, and relatively recent but very uncompetitive fighters like the Buffalo – which was in the process of being replaced by the workmanlike but uninspiring Wildcat. At the same time British were working with the reliable but uninspiring Sea Hurricane fighter (and were also starting to use Wildcat’s), the powerful but slow Fulmar fighter reconnaissance plane, and the latest version of the venerable Swordfish torpedo bomber, the Albacore biplane. All of these aircraft had a serious limitations which had already been recognised. All of them (except the Dauntless for some reason) had replacements already in the pipeline.

Aircraft being phased out since 1939

Despite the claims that the United States Navy developed the best and most advanced interwar aircraft, the tubby little Grumman F3F biplane fighter [264 mph, 1 x .5 and 1 x .303 mg, 980 miles range] that had served until 1941 had been by far the least adequate carrier-borne fighter of 1939. Its performance was comparable to the Gloster Gladiator [257mph, 4 x .303 mg, 440 miles range] which was almost completely fazed out by the British in 1940 (but which served valiantly against the Italian airforce when 4 crated examples were found in storage on Malta). It’s inadequacy for front line carrier operations can be assessed by the fact that naval airmen were expected to rejoice when the inadequate F2A Brewster Buffalo [321mph, 4 x .50 mg, 1000 miles range – sounds better than it actually was], turned up in mid 1940. (When the British received some Buffalo’s at the same time, they found that even removing the heavy naval equipment like landing gear and life rafts left them inadequate as land fighters for European service, and ironically sent them to the Far East instead.)

The Japanese fighter of 1939, the Mitsubishi A5M ‘Claude’ [280mph, 2x x7.7mm mg, 750 miles range] also had no great performance characteristics to recommend it for the Second World War, and was being phased out of front line operations by December1941.

The Japanese Torpedo bomber was the Yokosuka B4Y 'Jean' [171mph, 1 x 7.7mm mg, 1,600 lb torpedo or bombs, 978 miles range]. The most complimentary thing that can be said about it was that it was no worse than the American Devastator or British Swordfish, but at least it was due to be phased out by December 1941, whereas the Devastator would still be the main American torpedo bomber until after Midway. (In fact the Jean continued to serve on smaller carriers until 1943, and some served at the Battle of Midway.)

The British torpedo bomber was the Fairey Swordfish [138mph, 2 x .303mg, 1,600lbs torpedo or bombs - later rockets, 1,030 miles range]. A slow but reliable biplane, with more lift and range than the Devastator, and more combat survivability than the Jean. (It frequently astounded even the crews how much damage a Swordfish could absorb and keep flying. Ragged anti-aircraft holes in the wings and tail and fuselage, lines of tracer holes across various surfaces, broken struts, cut control cables, the Swordfish would absorb them all and make it home.) Nevertheless the Swordfish was quickly proved to be a deathtrap for daylight operations against an enemy with fighter cover, and was scheduled for replacement by a more modern torpedo bomber for combat ops. Yet, amazingly, the Swordfish was the only allied pre-war naval carrier aircraft still in production when the war ended.

There are three reasons for this feat. The first is that the British were early adaptors of night operations, and performed successful Swordfish strikes (such as the amazingly successful strike at the Port of Taranto which crippled or sunk several major warships – becoming the Japanese model for Pearl Harbor), and successful night attacks at sea once the second innovation came in. This was the development of airborne radar, which was first operational on Swordfish operating on British carriers six months before Pearl Harbor. The British were to hold this unique ability to use radar for carrier aircraft operations for a couple of years before the Americans deployed similar concepts in 1943. They were to hold their unique advantage of night-time strikes also. (Both the Japanese and Americans lost many pilots over the next few years in strikes that failed to get home before dark!) So the Swordfish could soldier on under the cover of night, and continued to be useful as a strike aircraft long after its use in daytime had been demonstrated to be suicidal by the easy slaughter of those attempting to attack the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during the Channel Dash in 1941.

The third, and unexpected reason, why the Swordfish was still in production at the end of the war, was that it’s unrivalled flying characteristics made it the only aircraft capable of surviving operations from small escort carriers operating in the Arctic Circle in bad weather. Whereas more modern, higher speed aircraft, like the Hurricane and Wildcat and Avenger could work from escort carriers in calmer seas, none of those would even consider operations under the sort of conditions that a Swordfish could easily manage. So the venerable old bus continued to serve successfully purely as an Anti-Submarine role until the final days of the war. This was not because there weren’t many better aircraft available, but simply because no other aircraft available could do the job as well. An example of a World War Two aircraft still having a (slightly reduced) role, long after being technically obsolete - see the many inadequate fighters that lived on as very successful night fighters. (Though the fact that ‘modern’ B-52’s are scheduled to still be operational 80 or 90 years after their initial deployment shows that new roles are always possible for reliable old aircraft, even when their technology is fifty years out of date.)

Another British multi-role aircraft was not so fortunate. The Blackburn Skua [225mph, 4x .303, one 500ln bomb, 760 miles range] had been discarded as a dual purpose fighter/dive bomber because it was not a good enough fighter, and the Armoured Carriers the British favoured for European operations had smaller air-groups that made a dedicated dive bomber too much of an investment. (British carriers had already moved to 40/60 fighter/ torpedo bomber mix by 1941, whereas the inexperienced Japanese and Americans were still trying to use 20/40/40 fighters/ dive/ torpedo bombers. Though it should be noted that because the British had dropped a type, the total number of fighters and torpedo bombers were more comparable than one might expect despite the smaller air-groups.) In some ways this was a shame, because the Skua had been a very good dive bomber (16 of them easily accounting for the German cruiser Konigsberg in April 1940), and had a superior ability to that later noted by the Japanese Val dive bomber, to defend itself as a limited fighter after having dropped its bombs. (In fact it was an excellent bomber killer, and only failed to stack up against modern German fighters.) As a dedicated bomber, the Skua would have been right at home amongst the Devastators, Kate's and Val's in the Pacific battles of 1942.

Aircraft still soldiering on in December 1941

The most obsolete first line strike aircraft in any carrier force in 1942 was the American Douglas Devastator torpedo bomber [206mph, 2 x.303 mg. 1,000lb’s of torpedo or bombs, range 716 miles]. Despite – or because of - being the first monoplane on any carrier air-wing (1937!), it had never been a very good aircraft. Fully loaded with a torpedo (a much lighter torpedo than used by anyone else), it had a hard time getting off the deck, and a much reduced speed and range. In fact it’s attack speed was actually slower than a Swordfish, and it lacked the Swordfishes maneouvrability or capacity to take damage. Used in daylight (the only way it could be used), it was an absolute death-trap if there were any airborne opposition at all. In fact the role played by the Devastators at the Battle of Midway was as kamikaze decoy targets to draw the Japanese fighter forces out of place. A point made even clearer by the fact that the few Devastators which had managed to attack at Coral Sea had usually seen their torpedo’s fail to work anyway. (The American carrier fleet would not get a successful airborne torpedo until mid 1943!)

The next most obsolete was the Japanese Aichi D3A Val dive-bomber [266mph, 3 x 7.7 mg, 1 x 500lb and 2 x 60lb bombs, 970 miles range] which had also entered service in the mid 30’s. It was a fixed landing gear dive-bomber modeled on the famous Junkers Ju 87 [183mph, 1 x 7.7mm mg, 1,000lb bomb, 621 miles range], and was just as good a dive bomber… if there was no opposition. Unlike the J87 (and like the Skua) the Val also had the ability to defend itself as a second rate fighter once the bombs had been dropped. Still the Val relied for success on clear skies, and achieved excellent results under those conditions at Ceylon (cruisers Devonshire and Cornwall and unarmed old carrier Hermes) and Coral Sea (carrier Lexington). Under even moderate air pressure at Trincomalee and Midway the performance fell of markedly, and later in the war the phrase that comes to mind is ‘Great Mariana’s Turkey Shoot’. Nonetheless they had to soldier on because their replacement aircraft was too fast for the smaller carriers that were to become the majority of the Japanese carrier fleet after Midway.

The next in line for obsolescence was the British replacement for the Swordfish, the Fairey Albacore [161mph, 3 x .303 mg, 1,610lb torpedo or 2,000lb’s bombs, range 930 miles], which was merely an improved biplane, and looked quite odd against the monoplanes being introduced by everyone else. However the Albacore was one of those compromises forced on a nation fighting on too many fronts to modernize everything at once: an interim design while awaiting the monoplane replacement due in 1943.

In spite of being a slow death-trap by day, the Albacore proved a more than capable stopgap, for the reasons raised by the Swordfish. The Albacore was not actually expected to mount a strike against an enemy fleet by day, but to use it’s radar guided strikes to find and destroy by night. Here it was undoubtedly successful, as it would be another two years before even the Americans worked out how to mount night-time fighter defences from their carriers, and the Japanese never got that far. The Albacore was to continue to operate successfully by day under adequate fighter cover in the Mediterranean, making excellent use of it’s reliability, stability, good payload, and resistance to damage. But as a front line carrier strike aircraft against enemy fleets with aircover, it was only good for night ops, and would have been slaughtered almost as easily as the Devestator had it come up against serious daytime opposition. The reason why the British specialized on night actions like Taranto and Matapan for naval air attacks, was A) because day time was close to suicidal if there was any possibility of enemy fighter cover, and B) because night was the environment that gave them an advantage over everyone else. That was why at Ceylon the Japanese advanced their airpower by day and retreated at night, and the British advanced their radar equipped battleships and strike aircraft by night and retreated by day. (As a result neither could get a decisive victory without a strong and unlikely element of luck.)

Also in the ‘thank God a replacement is starting to happen’ class is the American Brewster Buffalo [321mph, 2 x .50 mg, 1,000 miles range] fighter. This poor excuse for a fighter was unsuitable for the European theatre even in a land based mode, with much of the heavy naval equipment like landing gear and life-rafts removed. The RAF and RAAF units in Malaya had been forced to strip out armour and equipment, fit lighter guns, and reduce ammunition and fuel loads, in an attempt to make it more competitive, but nothing really worked. Given that the land based Marine squadron at Midway was easily slaughtered, the even slower navalised versions still on the carriers were even more of a deathtrap than the Devastators. (At least the job of the Devastators was to avoid enemy fighters, not take them on!)

[Note that the Buffalo did have considerable success for Finnish units fighting against the Russians. There were three reasons for this. First, Finnish engineers fixed the engines to make them work better. Second, the cold weather made for much better performance than the tropics. Third excellent Finnish pilots were fighting very poor Russian conscripts, who stuck to useless standard formations despite the Finns picking them off one by one. This last suggests that the Buffalo might have actually done better later in the war against less experienced Japanese pilots.]

The right aircraft for the right time – and their weaknesses

Some aircraft at the time of Pearl Harbour were recent innovations, and quite good for their time. But even these had their weaknesses.

The famous Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter [331mph, 2 x 20mm, 2 x 7.7mm mg, 1,190 miles range] was light, reasonably fast, maneouvrable, and long ranged. It was a shock to the Allies because in level flight it could practically run rings around most American fighters. In a dogfight it could turn inside even the British Hurricane, which was considered exceptional an exceptional dogfighter. It built up an enviable and terrifying reputation. On the negative side, it was un-armoured, had no self-sealing fuel tanks, and a tendency to fall apart or burst into flames from just one or two little hits that any Western plane would most likely shrug off. Its very lightness also meant that it was unable to match Allied aircraft in dives, and this was the way to beat it. Allied pilots quickly learned to dive through formations for best effect. Allied pilots also became good at working together in pairs and fours in defensive weaves. It would be too much to claim that the Zero was the best naval fighter of the period, because no sensible Western pilot would be caught – pardon the expression - dead in such an unsafe fighter. Still it had a frightening impact on Allied morale until techniques to deal with its weaknesses were developed.

The American Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter [331mph, 4 x 0.5 mg, 840 miles range] had been in operation with British carrier forces since mid 1941, and was becoming the main American carrier fighter at the time Pearl Harbour. By the time of Midway the majority of the American fighters present were Wildcat’s, and the British fleet at Ceylon several months earlier had used them as well. The next model [6 x .5 mg, but 320 mph and 770 miles range] of these rugged little fighters were not as fast or manoeuvrable as the Zero, but they were heavier and much tougher. They could dive through the Zero’s and absorb much greater damage in dogfights. These were the backbone of the force that broke the IJN’s naval airpower in the crucial middle years of the war, and they did this because of their durability and good tactics, rather than because of any superiority as aircraft.

As well as Wildcat’s (which they called ‘Martlet’s), the British fleet at Ceylon had the tried and tested Hawker Hurricane fighter (the mainstay and highest scoring fighter of the Battle of Britain), in it’s new Sea Hurricane IIC mode [342mph, 4 x 20mm cannon, range 460 miles – 970 with drop tanks]. This excellent fighter was getting a bit long in the tooth for land operations, but was still performing competitively in Egypt, Russia and Burma against Italian, German and Japanese opposition. The heavy 4 cannon armament was particularly useful for shattering opponents with just a few rounds, and would become the standard for most British and American fighters later in the war. It’s arrival on carriers gave the British a dog-fighter superior to either the American alternatives, and one for which the tactic of diving through formations (which American pilots were still adapting from the experiences of Chennault’s Flying Tiger’s in China), was well established and practiced. The great disadvantage of the Hurricane was that it was extremely short ranged for naval operations on just internal tanks, limiting it largely to a defensive interceptors role. On the other hand the British had enormous experience with vectoring radar controlled fighters against attackers from the most useful angles. Whereas the American and Japanese fighters tended to attack head on for most of the war, which led to a single pass at best; the British fighters would come out of the sun diving across the line of attack and hopefully hitting a couple of fighters before taking on two or three of the bombers several thousand feet below. Against durable German planes this had been moderately effective. Against vulnerable Japanese aircraft it proved brutally efficient. (Indeed, as late as 1945 the British Pacific Fleet carriers needed far smaller Combat-Air-Patrols than American carriers because of these tactics learned in the Mediterranean before America entered the war.)

In lieu of not using Dive-bombers, the British had an alternative type not used by the Japanese or Americans. A fighter/reconnaissance aircraft. The Fairey Fulmar [272mph, 8 x .303 mg and 1 x .303, 830 miles range] was a two seat fighter based on a much improved version of the Fairey Battle bomber (which had been the fastest bomber in the world pre-war). This concept was originally to allow an additional navigator to support the pilot during long flights over water, and led to a slower and less manoeuvrable fighter than most of its opposition. However it was also an incredibly rugged and stable carrier aircraft, with far fewer flying accidents than most other naval fighters. It’s size and durability also allowed it to carry much more fuel, and to take on a heavier bomb-load, than other fighters of its time, and the second seat was soon equipped with radar (something far to bulky for most fighters until very late in the war). The Fulmar therefore became an excellent long range recconnaissance/strike aircraft to back up its fighter role.

Suprisingly, the Fulmar was also quite successful as a fighter. Despite being slower and much less of a dogfighter than German or Italian opponents, it was remarkably successful at defending fleet operations against continuous large waves of Axis attackers in the Mediterranean. The secret was that successful naval attacks need relatively unobstructed approaches to get good accuracy and results. Even a limited number of fighters can break up the effectiveness of such attacks if well handled. Carriers like the Ark Royal or Furious could only keep 4 to 6 Fulmars at a time in the air against the constant waves of attackers from Sicily and Italy during convoys to Malta, but those few fighters could use the radar vectoring and dive through tactics described above to disrupt Axis attacks to the point of greatly reducing their effectiveness. Fulmars regularly shot down superior numbers of Axis bombers and fighters during their Mediteranean operations (scoring the highest number of kills of all Fleet Air Arm fighters!), and most Royal Navy aces achieved some or all of their scores flying Fulmars.

Moving on to bombers. Apart from the Fulmar, which usually had more important tasks, the British were stuck with the ‘soldiering on’ Albacore. But the Japanese and Americans had some more modern toys.

The Japanese Nakajima B5N Kate [235mph, 1 x 7.7mmm mg, 1760lb’s torpedo or bombs,1,075 miles range] torpedo bomber had been introduced in 1941, and was the mainstay of the early years of the wartime Japanese carrier operations. It had good range, was reliable, and had a good payload. But it still lacked armour or self sealing fuel tanks. As a result it was desperately vulnerable to daytime operations against reasonable fighter opposition.

Almost exactly the same could be said for the American Douglas Dauntless dive bomber [255mp, 2 x .5 and 2 x .3 mg, 1,200lb’s bombs, 1,115 miles range]. Arrived at the same time, same strengths, similar weaknesses. Like all American aircraft it could absorb considerably more damage than any Japanese plane, but like all daylight attack aircraft, its top speed made it a sitting duck against organized fighter defenses. The greatest success of the Dauntless was at Midway, where the sacrificial run of the Devastator torpedo bombers fortuitously arrived just far enough in advance to pull the entire Japanese fighter cover away and allow the Dauntless’ exactly the sort of unopposed attacks that the theoretically inferior Japanese Val dive bombers had enjoyed at Ceylon and Coral Sea. The increased success of the Dauntless later in the war was in direct parallel to the increased ability of American fighters to clear a path. By the time of the sinking of the Yamato in 1945, Dauntless’ always had almost completely unopposed runs. (Perhaps that is why it continued in operation when every other contemporary aircraft had been replaced?)

Planes in the pipeline

The replacement for the Val was en-route, but not to be in service much before 1943. It was far faster and therefore more effective Yokosuku D4Y Judy [360mph, 3 x 7.7mm mg, 1,100lb’s bombs, 790 miles range], but suffered the durability weaknesses of all Japanese aircraft. Nonetheless, had it been available for the crucial battles of 1942, there is little doubt that American losses would have been far greater. It was much faster than The Dauntless, and carried a heavier bomb, though for a shorter range. Unfortunately it was so fast that it could not be used on the smaller carriers that dominated Japanese operations after the Midway losses. Restricted to the few big fleet carriers left, this just meant that mixed carrier groups had aircraft of mixed performances, leading to more dispersion of attacks. The vast majority of these aircraft produced finished up operating from land bases.

Similarly the replacement for the Albacore was en route, but the Fairey Barracuda [245mph, 2 x .303 mg, 1,600lb torpedo or bombs, 1,150 miles range] was put back once alternatives became available. The Barracuda was slower than most other naval strike aircraft from later in the war, but was a reasonably flexible and durable aircraft. Not only could it operate efficiently as either a torpedo or dive bomber (it did so to devastating effect against the Tirpitz in 1944), or with rockets, it could use rocket assisted take-offs to operate from the smaller escort carriers unsuitable to most more modern aircraft. It’s main fault was experienced during the raids on the Netherlands East Indies, where its cold weather optomised engine had greatly reduced performance in the heat, particularly attempting to climb over mountain ranges. For Pacific operations it was usually replaced with Avengers, and it served out its operational life in the Atlantic.

Which brings us to the Grumman TBF Avenger [271mph, 2 x .5 and 1 x .3 mg, 2,000lb’s torpedo or bombs, 1,450 miles range], fairly regarded as the best torpedo bomber of the war. An excellent and very durable aircraft, with enough space to be the first American naval aircraft mount radar (some two years after the British Swordfish did so). An excellent aircraft quite capable of delivering torpedos or reasonable bomb-loads, and later adapted for depth charge/radar attacks on submarines. Unlike most other aircraft of this period, the ASW versions at least remained in service well after the wars ends.

On the other hand the Avenger’s have also been oversold. Yes they were fast and efficient for their types, but that did not save them against reasonable opposition. At Midway, the half dozen available suffered five losses, a higher percentage of losses than the obsolete Devestator’s they were replacing! In fact anywhere they met fighters in daylight, they were almost as vulnerable as any other bomber of the war lacking suitable fighter cover. There is certainly no suggestion that their greater speed and ruggedness gave them any sort of immunity if an enemy fighter got on their tail. They too were equipped for radar directed night attacks by 1944, though by that time American air superiority usually allowed them to operate with relative impunity, with their main danger being from the anti-aircraft firepower of the ships they were attacking.

Later in the war

The upgrade of the Wildcat was the Grumman F6F Hellcat [375mph, 6 x .5 mg, 1,590 miles range]. Faster, tougher, much longer ranged, and more maneouvrable, when it arrived in late 1943 it gave the Americans a distinct edge over the Japanese. (Though the British using it found the Germans a tougher opponent.) Hellcat’s were nonetheless being outclassed by other Allied aircraft by the end of the war.

Also in 1943, the British deployed the Fairey Firefly [316mph, 4 x 20mm cannon, 2,000lb bombs or rockets, 1,300 miles range], a much improved Fulmar fighter/reconnaissance plane. Long ranged, fairly fast, extremely rugged, and with an impressive range of abilities. It was radar equipped, and allowed strike leaders (which other nations still had to put in torpedo bombers) to be in faster and more survivable aircraft. Despite being a two seat fighter, its unique air brakes made it a superb dog fighter easily capable of facing Japanese fighters. It could act as a dive bomber, or use its rockets and cannon to pound targets while covering other attacking aircraft. (8 rockets – sometimes 16 on later versions – gave it a broadside like a heavy cruiser.) It proved devastating in the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Pacific campaigns, and served in a variety of roles for many years after the war.

In early 1944 the British tried out a new aircraft the Americans had deployed with the Marines, but considered too dangerous to use on carriers. The Vought F4U Corsair [417mph, 6 x .5 mg, 1,015 miles range] proved a magnificent success, and in late 1944 the Americans started deploying them to carriers too. The Japanese had no answer, not least because they were running out of large carriers and of pilots. It would often carry bombs or rockets later in the war, and could match most Japanese fighters even without ditching them. The British homemade upgrade, the Hawker Sea Fury [460mh, 4 x 20mm cannon, 2,000 lb rockets or bombs, 700 miles range], like the equivalent American upgrade the Grumman F8F Bearcat [421mph, 4 x 20mm cannon, 2,000lb rockets or bombs, 1,105 miles range], started appearing too late to see service (but both performed exceptionally well in the Korean war).

Towards the end of the war the British were also bringing into service a new torpedo/fighter hybrid, the Blackburn B-37 Firebrand II [340mph, 4 x 20mm cannon, 1,850lb torpedo or 2,000lb’s bombs, 740 miles range]. Fighter aircraft had become so big and powerful, that even a torpedo was simply a slightly bigger bomb. The Firebrand was faster than any other torpedo aircraft (or indeed most of the older fighters still in operation), and a reasonably capable fighter in it’s own right once it had dropped it’s torpedo: making it pretty much the first Allied torpedo plane of the war potentially capable of operating in daylight without massive fighter escort… though it would still have needed fighter cover until after the torpedo strike. Results looked promising, but the war ended before they were used in combat. Both Britain and America were starting to look at a new generation of jet aircraft instead, and the British Sea Vampire was actually tested in carrier landings in late 1945, with the American FH1 Phantom being operational by 1947.


You will note from the above that no nation had a dominant lead in naval aircraft at any time. The British possibly had the most advanced dive bombers in 1939 (Skua) and again 1945 (Firefly), and the Japanese and Americans the best torpedo bombers in 1941 (Kate) and 1942 (Avenger) respectively (though the Firebrand might have taken the title in 1945 if the war had lasted a bit longer). The British had the only night strike aircraft for the middle of the war (Swordfish and Albemarle), and the Americans the best by 1944 - the Avenger. The Japanese had the best fighter of 1941-2, the Zero; and the Americans had the best fighters in 1943 (Hellcat) and 1944 (Corsair- but note the British had used it in this role since 1943); but the British Sea Fury was the best by the end of the war. The British had uniquely effective fighter/reconnaissance planes in 1941 (Fulmar – but it suffered from being their only fighter too) and again in 1945 (Firefly – used in partnership with Sea Spitfires and Corsairs), while the Americans had such air superiority that they could use some fighters mainly as strike aircraft (Corsair again).

By contrast each nation had plenty of ‘worst’ category too. The Swordfish was a terrible day torpedo bomber by 1941, and the Devestator even worse by 1942. The Val was an obsolete dive bomber by 1942, and arguably the Dauntless only escaped the same fate through massive fighter cover later in the war. The Fulmar was an inadequate fighter pulling above its weight in 1941, as was the Wildcat in 1942 and the Zero by 1943. (The Buffalo was just inexcusable even when introduced in 1940.) The Albacore was only saved from being useless through being refitted for night operations from 1941, and the Kate and even Avenger were hopelessly vulnerable to daytime fighter opposition even when they were the best torpedo bombers available.

In other words don’t fall for the line that a particular aircraft was ‘the best naval such-and-such of the war’. All have their time and their place. Arguably the Albacore biplane was a more dangerous torpedo bomber in 1942 because of its ability to find and destroy targets by using radar at night: in comparison to the much better Kate, or infinitely better Avengers, of the same period, which had to survive opposition fighters in daylight to stand a chance. It is not the really the fastest or sexiest aircraft that is the best, but is the model that can carry out its job most effectively. It should also be the model that gives the crew the best chance of survival. That is what really makes an aircraft ‘the best’ for its time.


  1. Excellent article - arrived at via Jim Belshaw's recommend for your later posts about generals, which are also very interesting.

    I have passed it on to my brother in law who currently serves in the Navy, as his father - my father in law - served in the later parts of WWII in the Swordfish, as written about in "War In A Stringbag" if I remember correctly. He was also the last flight operations officer for HMAS Melbourne, having transferred from RN to RAN as so many did in the 60-70's.

    Thanks for a most interesting article.


  2. Glad you enjoyed the naval aircraft post. I was surprised myself when I looked at how far what 'everyone knows' is from reality.

    Frankly most of these articles start form reading an off the cuff comment that assumes everyone agrees about something, and thinking 'surely that is a bit simplistic?'

    Bringing a bit of analysis to bear on assumptions and pre-conceived notions - whether it is which naval aircraft were best, or why people assume Republics are a good thing - is just a matter of digging in the statistics a bit to see if what 'everyone knows' bears any investigation. Sometimes it does, in which case I rarely post on it. But when it doesn't, I do enjoy pointing out the ridiculous.

  3. Wow, I like the concept of the article, but the methodology is just...I can't even think of a word to describe it.

    First of all, what's the point of comparing carrier operations and the planes required for it between long range operations in the Pacific and the short range operations in the Med and Atlantic?

    To take one point as an example, looking at night time operations, it's easy to be more successful sending 100 mile strikes in the Med than the significantly longer operations in the Pacific. In fact, the pathetic range of the British planes works as an advantage in littoral operations in the Med.

    Sure, maybe the British CAG could have success in the Med/Atlantic, but surely you recognize that the need for 1000+ mile ranges for the USN CAG had an impact on the performance of the planes?

    As well, you are ignoring the basic timelines. The Swordfish was terrible because it was a plane operating several years into the war. The Buffalo barely operated in US service even towards the end of the first year of US operations. The US CAG two years into the war had very good planes optimized for the requirements of Pacific operations. Were they perfect? Of course not, but I venture to say it was better than the CAG employed by the British at the same point which can be charitably characterized as a dog's breakfast...

  4. Some of that repeats my points. Particularly the Swordfish was retired as a front line strike aircraft before the Buffalo was retired as a front line fighter, which was one year into the war for the Americans, but three years into the war for the British. (And the British had several of the better US aircraft - Wildcat and Corsair in particular - in service months before the Americans, so their CAG was usually in advance of the Americans... But their techniques at mass strikes were certainly behind during the middle bit of the war.)

    Range is interesting too. Check those figures again.

    All in all I am happy to stimulate debate, but it is pretty idle speculation really, because each navy was fighting different enemies in different areas, and with forces optomised to different conditions. (My favourite example being how well the Buffalo worked for the Finns in cold weather conditions.)

  5. So "Nigel"....the Dauntless would have been shot from the skies at Midway if it wasn't for the Devastators sacrifice? Dauntless were also used off the USS Ranger at Italy and did their jobs well, in fact the Dauntless went from strength to strength. The pilots still were able to "cope" quite well with its supposed obsolesence but using the aircraft to its utmost, the dive brakes made for a dive bomber that sank a great amount of a plane that sank more tonnage than the Dauntless, it did its job well, and yes it had great fighter cover to do the job it was designed for. Any dive bomber would be vulnerable without fighter cover, the JU-87 was shot from the skies without cover, the SB2C was easy a dive-bomber that wasn't easy prey for fighters....

    I noticed in just about all your "blogs" here are a comparison or doing your level best to explain why a British this or that is better or more effective than American this or that, are Brits really that insecure? Are the peoples of the Commonwealth that insecure that you try to denigrate everything American?...It would probably be better to just go with events and outcomes rather than waste all the time trying to downplay anything and everything America had or did during the war....but even during the Falklands Ol' Maggie had to call on Ol' Ronny (Reagen) for a shipment of fuel and a load of Sidewinders and a few heliocopters because that container ship was sunk by that Argie pilot in a 60's era Mirage that launched that French made exocet missile...just relax Nigel, we're still you're friends...and always will be, so there's no reason to continue your duplicity....face it, the UK will always be America's little step-brother, but in this case, a very liked step-brother...ok?...(smile)

  6. Bristol Beaufighter

    Sorry Kurt it was a Dassault-Breguet Super √Čtendard which entered service with the French air force in 1978 which is 4 years before and Argentinian one sunk the Atlantic Conveyor. So not a 60s Mirage but a state of the art naval bomber attacking a container ship which they thought was an aircraft carrier. Not sure how you got the idea the US provided helicopters. Sidwinders yes but not helicopters. Also a number of Stingers may have fallen off the back of a truck into the hands of the Boys. You forgot to mention the offer of a US carrier.

    Like many of your facts they are slightly off.

  7. Came here off of the carrier debate, so this is entering a little late, but...

    First, (for whatever responding 15 months later matters) I should say I don't particularly think responding to a bias for Commonwealth forces with naked American jingoism particularly helps much of anything. (And I'd also have to ask how a former colony becoming a competitive rival then staunch ally makes for an "older step-brother"... If anything, we're a child that's moved out and made a competing start-up that has become quite successful.)


    Anyway, to return to Mr. Davies...

    I think you go a bit hard on the (admittedly poorly-named) Devastator. The devastators at Midway were put in what was basically the worst possible conditions in which they could fight (barring, possibly, having been launched into a hurricane or something even more suicidal). They were launched at extreme range without fighter cover (or rather, by the time they got to the target, their cover had run out of fuel, and wasn't with them any longer,) against a virtually unmolested CAP that was patrolling for torpedo bombers, and were armed with torpedoes that were defective, to boot. It's not a design flaw of the devastator itself that the torpedoes loaded onto them were duds.

    Since the torpedo bombers were launched basically as soon as the carriers came within extreme range for the aircraft, then even a longer-ranged aircraft would have been running on absolute vapors and been incapable of spending the fuel evading the Zeros that were eating the poor torpedo bomber crews for breakfast. (Although notably, the range did help in a strategic sense, as it made sure that American waves of carriers could attack before Adm. Naguma knew the American carriers were even there. Hence, a much shorter-ranged aircraft would have been a liability.)

    That isn't to say that the devastator was a fantastic aircraft, but that the complaints leveled against it were overblown, and that honestly, no torpedo bomber in that situation would have been anything but an airmail delivery straight to the gun sights of Japanese CAP. (If anything, the swordfish would have been shredded even more ruthlessly, because Midway wasn't a battle of the American's time and choosing, so a night battle to take advantage of the swordfish's one strength would not have been an option.)

    1. Hmmm. Devestator's did badly, but so did Avengers - wiped out in fact. They were much better aircraft, but still helpless against undistracted fighters. So yes, the Dauntless' were lucky the Jap fighter coverage had all gone away chasing the torpedo combers, giving them clear and unopposed attacks.

      Also don't know where you got the idea this wasn't a battle of US choosing. They broke the code, and they put on an ambush, and it worked. If the British had broken the code and put on an ambush, it is hard to believe that their superior use of radar both for defines and attack would have worked less. (Luck of course was THE vital thing at Midway, so perhaps luck would work differently?)

      By the way, the British armoured carrier strike aircraft at this stage was not the Swordfish (you are a year out of date there). The Albacore looked similar, but bigger and with enclosed cockpit. It was a lot more rugged than the Devestator, but would probably have been swept from the skies in a daylight attack like the Devestators and Avengers were (unless it had the luck of all the Jap fighters wandering off elsewhere like the Dauntless' did.)

      But at night... have another look at the battle of Taranto to see what outdated looking planes can do if the enemy can't intercept them at night!

      During the Indian Ocean raid in April 1942 Somerville used radio intercepts to have his fast carriers patrolling across the expected Jap line of advance for 3 days around their stated time of arrival. He had radar equipped scouts up, and night strikes ready to go. He advanced to attack position at night, and pulled back in daytime. (Whereas the Japs advanced in day and pulled back at night...)

      Unfortunately the radio intercepts specified April 1, and the Japs had supply problems and arrived 3 days late when he had gone home.

      Japs arrived on schedule at Midway didn't they? And Midway is a slightly smaller target to patrol than Ceylon.

    2. The Allies may have (partially) broken JN-25, but that hardly means they got to pick the time or place that the battle of Midway took place. They only even managed to tease out what was being attacked by supplying false information to the Japanese to see if there was a response. I'm not sure the Americans really knew how many ships were taking part in the Japanese operation, either. (On paper, the Japanese were significantly more powerful.) It was a Japanese offensive, the Americans just had enough forewarning to prepare for the attack on one of their bases. The Japanese were reaching out to attack an island during the day, and were planning on having those carriers fade back behind their battleships when they got the Americans to take the carriers as "bait". Hence, they only would have been exposed during the day time. (As you say, they pulled their carriers back at night, when they couldn't fly the planes.) (If you're comparing it to the Battle of Ceylon, then trying to fight the Japanese at night, but missing them, led to the bombing of Colombo that also happened to take out several British ships, including a carrier, because the main carrier force wasn't around to fight back.)

      The carriers that made up the bulk of Japanese air power were, ridiculous as it may seem in hindsight, not the main force, and no matter how much less used to fighting aircraft at night as they might have been, it seems fairly incredible to believe a few carriers could sink 7 battleships, 9 cruisers, and over a dozen destroyers before those ships could catch up to and destroy the attacking carriers, especially since the battleships and cruisers weren't nearly as combustable as the carriers. (Although the carriers were at least fast enough to outrun the battleships, any Japanese cruiser could catch them.) (Looking it up, the American carriers had a slight advantage over the British carriers in speed - 32.5 knots vs. 30.5 knots - that could have made a difference if we were comparing how they would perform in a Battle Off Samar-style pursuit.) If nothing else, the carriers just plain didn't carry enough torpedoes to sink that kind of tonnage.

      Generally speaking, trying to rely exclusively on night battles because you couldn't stand up to your enemy during the day really didn't work out too well for the Japanese when they tried it, either. It's a risky stunt to pull, and World War 2 basically had every risk attempted anywhere near regularly wind up causing a fiasco somewhere along the line. The British basically "won" at Ceylon in a strategic sense mostly by virtue of the Japanese being in their "overreaching hubris" stages of expansion, and by not being completely annihilated in a surprise attack that wasn't a surprise, the British at least prevented an invasion of India. Major ports in Ceylon/Sri Lanka were bombed, and several British ships were lost with no loss of Japanese ships, and fairly moderate Japanese plane losses. (Although you could cite lack of Japanese capacity to keep up with attrition as leading to a strategic downfall, the British weren't really in a position to fight attritionally in the Indian Ocean, either.) Even with advanced warning, the British weren't capable of using a night-attack-only strategy to inflict serious losses on the Japanese, and if they were capable of losing track of them, they may well have run into a situation where they were surprised by the Japanese during the day, as well, so I wouldn't see this as qualifying to show how advantageous such a strategy would be.

      Also, technically, the task force attacking Midway was delayed by a day due to problems getting the Japanese fleet together, although I think the Americans were aware of this. (The invasion of the Aleutian Islands was supposed to have taken place simultaneously with the attack on Midway.)

    3. Oh, and looking back at this, there's one more thing I forgot to discuss...

      Regarding the role of luck in Midway, it actually only played such a large role because of the specific choices of both sides leading up to the battle.

      America was "Lucky" to knock out three carriers for practically one bomb apiece, but that was more a result of how cripplingly flawed the Japanese conversion carriers were in the first place. Again, if American carriers were capable of surviving multiple bombings, but a lone 1000-lb bomb and a near-miss could knock out every form of damage control on a carrier, then yes, there's some luck, but it's like playing a game of flipping a coin where you only win if it comes up heads 5 times, but I win as soon as it comes up tails once. The odds were more stacked in America's favor than it at-first looked.

      This was also a result of the tactical victory but strategic loss for the Japanese at Coral Sea. (although you actually brought that up in the carrier blog post comments thread, so I'm cross-pollenating this argument a little...) Like Ceylon, even a minor tactical victory for Japan was actually a strategic loss, since it meant they couldn't achieve their expansionist objectives, and they once more suffered attrition they could not afford. The actually decent Japanese carriers Shoukaku and Zuikaku were put temporarily out of action thanks to the Japanese philosophy of never moving squadrons off a carrier. The unmolested Zuikaku, which was a Japanese carrier that actually would have survived a punch could have participated if the Japanese had any actual reserves of pilots, or at least just transferred Shoukaku's planes to Zuikaku while Shoukaku was undergoing repairs. While Shoukaku was being repaired, the much more heavily damaged Yorktown was given a duct-tape-and-bubblegum jerry rigging to be put back in the field, and Saratoga dumped all her leftover planes onto Yorktown so that she could be thrown back into the fight, while Saratoga sailed back to America for a fresh batch of planes and pilots. The fact that America could have numeric parity with Japan at all was a difference in doctrine. In terms of the British being in a similar position, they likely would have been less likely to be able to field whatever their equivalent to Yorktown would have been, as the armored carriers would also have taken longer to repair.

      To go back to the completely-unprepared-for-an-attritional-war Japanese doctrine, this also meant that the Japanese had put all their eggs into one basket, and then made sure it was the most rickety, combustable basket in their fleet. Because they never transferred pilots from one carrier to another, it meant that their best carriers (the newest ones) had the greenest pilots, and the most combustable and malfunction-prone carriers had their best pilots.

      Also critical to note was that Japanese carriers could probably have taken a torpedo that actually worked much better than they took a bomb. The principle reason all their carriers went down was that they had unsecured aircraft munitions and fuel in the hangars that were completely unarmored. (Just one of many reasons a single bomb could set the whole thing up like a match.) It would have taken a great deal of torpedo bombers getting shredded by Zeros to sink one carrier, but it only took 3 dive bombers making a single run from an unexpected angle to sink Akagi. (Even the final dive-bombing run against Hiryuu, with CAP up and taking the dive bombers down only swatted 3 bombers away out of 12, and it still would only take one bomb to start a fire Hiryuu couldn't put out.)

      The most heavily cited luck on the American side would be the two squadrons of Dauntlesses that sank Akagi and Kaga at the same time as a separate flight of bombers struck Souryuu.

    4. The thing about this is, however, the only reason they had to rely upon luck to achieve a concentration of firepower was because of the extremely unusual decision by Admiral Spruance to just sortie every plane they could to fly in a disorganized trickle, finding their own way to the target, rather than launching in a wave meant to overwhelm the enemy defenses, the way almost anyone else would, and how basically all carrier doctrine would say they should.

      A less-cited, but probably more consequential "lucky break" for the Americans was the malfunctioning of Japanese reconnaissance planes. However, even this "luck" was the result of bad decisions - the Japanese had all but stopped manufacturing their torpedo bomber, dive-bomber, and reconnaissance aircraft parts, and their aircraft had, as a consequence, been "ridden hard and put away wet". Japanese reconnaissance failed in exactly the one place where the Americans were hiding, but they had made decisions that made such an event far more likely.

      At the same time, the Americans didn't have a terribly good idea of where the Japanese were, and were launching from extreme range, which is probably another part of the reason why they were undetected in the first place. Japanese counter-attacks were wave-based. British attacks almost certainly would have been, as you frequently argue, well-organized and wave-based, but that also would have required getting much closer, and possibly within range of Japanese recon, which may well have given up the initial strike advantage, and made those "fateful five minutes" much more a battle of attrition.

      In short, "luck" was such a factor because both sides were pushing their luck to the extreme and making blind guesses. "Luck" favored the Americans in the end because they had taken less extreme risks, and had less severely compromised design and organizational philosophies than their opponents.

      In a hypothetical "three British armored carriers at Midway" battle, I'm sort of talking out of my rear, but I'd still rate the British as possible victors, but not using dive-bombers would have been a real liability for them. (It's arguable they might have only been able to field 2 carriers in a similar situation, as they may well have left a carrier behind for repairs, like Hermes was at Ceylon, rather than kicking her back onto the front like Yorktown was.)

      Although there were some (quickly being pummeled) land-based aircraft at Midway, they were obsolete. Generally, this would have meant that British forces were outnumbered. Being a daytime battle, they would have had to have closed in to a range where they could have launched a fighter escort for those torpedo bombers, as it would have been suicide not to. They couldn't have waited for night, as they didn't know where the Japanese would be, or have them within range, except during the Japanese attack on the island, itself. (Otherwise, it would have likely been a Ceylon-like miss where the British carriers just wouldn't have found their targets to ambush them.) This would have had a good chance to have pulled the British in close enough that they would have been spotted by the Japanese. If we assume this was a battle where both sides were aware of one another at the same time before flights were being launched, rather than a total surprise, it would be an open question of how much of the British CAP would have been pulled off to cover the attacking torpedo bombers. The British could risk depleting defensive CAP to ensure some quick hits and even the odds against enemy carriers, but that would risk getting heavily torpedoed in return. Meanwhile, if they didn't attack aggressively, and just relied upon their damage control crews to just plain grin and bear it, they would have likely lost air supremacy to attrition, and lost the battle.

    5. It would ultimately come down to how many torpedoes the British could put in the water before getting shot down at daytime, though, and I really couldn't make a solid guess at that.

      The thing is, Midway was a battle of "luck" because the all offense, no defense strategy of the Japanese favored insane aggression and initiative used against them. The best strategy may well have been splitting your carriers up, hoping one of them ate all the Japanese attacks, while your other carriers could eliminate the threat. Basically, America's poor strategic decisions, organization, and training by most standards actually turned out to be factors that had some ironic benefit to the Americans, or at least were not as damaging as they otherwise would have been, while every bad decision the Japanese ever made with their carriers came back to haunt them at Midway.

  8. (With apologies again for character limits...)

    As for the Hellcat vs. Hurricane debate, you laud how well the Hurricane did because of the tactics used by its aircrews. Then, you say that the Hellcat only performed so well because of its "durability and tactics", and not "because of any superiority as aircraft". Which is it? If the tactics of their crews to make the best use of their plane's strengths doesn't count, why do you keep talking about it? Generally speaking, I'd say you're right about counting how well the tactics the pilots could employ to maximize their own plane's strengths should matter in judging the success of that aircraft, it's just that you seem to conveniently stop caring about that fact as soon as it comes to an American plane generally seen as being very successful because of them. Likewise, I have to ask since when did the durability of an aircraft stop counting as part of it's overall package? It's not like armor's free, you know - you were just praising the ruggedness of British aircraft, and lambasting the Japanese for their "all maneuverability, no armor - if you get hit, you deserve to die, deadweight!" philosophy.

    The superior maneuverability of the Zero fighter was a direct result of their stripping out every conceivable safety feature and scrap of armor. (Like a car, the lighter you are, the more you can get out of even a very small engine.) If the Americans (or British, for that matter,) had gone for a similar methodology of building their planes from plywood and tinfoil, they could have made a plane with nominal range, maneuverability, and speed specs superior to anything else in the war, too, since they were putting stronger engines into their planes than the Japanese were. (You'd have just had a similar spontaneous combustion issue to the Japanese... although the Americans, ironically, were the ones, besides maybe the Russians, who could most afford to adopt the "all maneuverability - if you get shot anyway, you deserve to die," philosophy, since they were the ones most capable of training plenty of spares to throw into their meatgrinders.)

    As for divebombers, I'd have to say you're discounting its key metric of success, which is how accurate it was as a bomber, and whether it was capable of delivering a large enough payload to do real damage to the target. As you yourself say, there's no point talking about it's bomb-carrying dogfighting capacity, as they're all inferior when loaded down, (except maybe the Corsair, but I generally don't like counting late-war developments that came too late to make much actual difference,) and dependent upon air superiority fighters to give them cover, hence there's little point in judging them on that metric. The Dauntless did a fantastic job in its role, and its service record backs that up. (Nobody knocks the Lancaster for not being good in a dogfight.)

  9. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  10. “British carriers had already moved to 40/60 fighter/torpedo bomber mix by 1941, whereas the inexperienced Japanese and Americans were still trying to use 20/40/40 fighters/dive/torpedo bombers.”
    Makes a number of dubious/false claims/assumptions:
    That the relative number of each aircraft type is of at least as much importance as its absolute number.
    That there is an “ideal” proportion that is independent of mission, geography, enemy capabilities, and capabilities of the aircraft available.
    That dive-bombers were not sufficiently useful to affect the comparison, although the Axis dive-bombers, unlike their torpedo planes, inflicted some damage on British armoured carriers, and, after the Avenger, the Dauntless had the second best record of the war for aircraft sinking of both warships and merchant shipping.
    That the British consistently used the 60/40 fighter/ torpedo bomber mix after 1940, while in practice convoy distant cover often had a much higher ratio of fighters, and at least the raid on Kirkenes and Petsamo had a higher ratio of torpedo bombers.
    That the aircraft complement is best summarized by simple types and not by mission: i.e, recon/scout, fleet defense, attack escort, convoy escort, waterline attack, superstructure attack, defense suppression, merchant shipping attack, amphibious operations ground support and air defense, anti-submarine operations, attacks on port facilities, attacks on air bases, rocket delivery system, etc.
    That “the inexperienced Japanese and Americans were still trying to use 20/40/40 fighters/dive/torpedo bombers.” The Japanese and Americans did NOT use or intend to use a 20/40/40 ratio of fighters/dive/torpedo bombers early in the war, and did not blindly choose their force mix. For a decade before the war they had naval war exercises once or twice a year, and their decisions on the proper mix was based on the results of those exercises, general operational experience, early reports from combat in Europe, and, in the case of the Japanese, some minor operations against China and French Indochina.
    The preferred American aircraft mix
    The Yorktown class was designed in 1935 to handle four squadrons of eighteen aircraft each: 1 fighter, 1 torpedo bomber, 1 attack specific dive-bomber, and 1 dual attack/scout dive-bomber, giving a 18/36/18 mix. Experience showed that a single fighter squadron was stressed providing air cover for a full day, and in war exercises 9 aircraft each for fleet defense and bomber escort seemed small, and the torpedo bomber was much more vulnerable than the dive-bomber. As a result, by 1940 the Yorktown class was often operating an extra half fighter squadron and sometimes an extra full squadron, and often operating less than a full torpedo bomber squadron. As the final design of the Essex class assumed two fighter squadrons, two dive-bomber squadrons, and one torpedo bomber squadron, a nominal 36/36/18 mix. I think it is clear that by 1942 the USN preferred a 40% minimum bomber percentage. However, after Pearl Harbor the Wildcat was ramping up production, and it took a while to provide enough trained Wildcat squadrons to meet preferred TOE. Still at Coral Seas the USN had a 38/70/25 mix, and at Midway they used a 79/109/49 mix.
    The preferred Japanese mix
    The Japanese wanted as strong a first strike as possible, so they didn’t want any attack aircraft initially involved in scouting. They therefore relied on non-carrier seaplanes and subs. They had no reason other than assumed combat effectiveness/vulnerability to prefer torpedo bombers over dive bombers. Judging from their TOE in their early campaigns they tended to field all three types in comparable numbers: Pearl Harbor, 135/134/144; Indian Ocean Raid, 105/114/123; Coral Seas, 58/42/45; and Midway, 91/72/81.

    1. The statement "That the British consistently used the 60/40 fighter/ torpedo bomber mix after 1940" whould of course be "That the British consistently used the 40/60 fighter/ torpedo bomber mix after 1940"

    2. Interesting. Do you know if the 33% fighters you quote at Coral and 33% you quote at Midway was by design or 'best available', or would they have theoretically preferred more or less fighters in the mix?

  11. The discussion of the Douglas SBD Dauntless is at often in error and more often misleading.

    1. The claim “All of them (except the Dauntless for some reason) had replacements already in the pipeline.” Is wrong in that the Dauntless had the replacement Helldiver in the pipeline. The Helldiver, as with the Ju 187, Fairey Barracuda, and Nakajima B6N had teething problems that delayed its introduction.
    2. The statement “Almost exactly the same could be said for the American Douglas Dauntless dive bomber….” Refers to the statement “(the B5N Kate) was desperately vulnerable to daytime operations against reasonable fighter opposition,” and implies that other torpedo/dive bombers were much less vulnerable. In practice any low speed aircraft that has to maintain a straight approach for more than a few seconds was more vulnerable to both fighters and AAA than aircraft with higher speeds and maneuverability. As torpedo bombers were more constrained in speed and maneuver during an attack than dive bombers, they tended to be more vulnerable than dive bombers. See for example the Channel Dash, the raid on the Kirkenes and Petsamo, and convoy PQ 18.
    3. That statement also implies that the Dauntless suffered heavy losses due to enemy fighters. Several sources[1] claim that it had the lowest attrition rate of any US carrier aircraft. The Dauntless was rugged not only in taking punishment, but also in giving it. The Dauntless had more and/or heavier caliber guns to defend itself than Aichi D3A, Ju 87D, Skua, Barracuda, Nakajima B5N, and Fairley Albacore. As a result it may be one of the few bombers with a plus score against enemy aircraft.[2]
    4. The summary “[255mph, 2 x .5 and 2 x .3 mg, 1,200lb’s bombs, 1,115 miles range]” implies that its bomb load was 1,200 lbs. All the references I have give a bomb load of 2,250 lbs.
    5. The claim “The increased success of the Dauntless later in the war was in direct parallel to the increased ability of American fighters to clear a path.” Implies poor success early in the war. I consider sinking six carriers, and a variety of cruisers, destroyers, subs, and troopships in its first year of combat to be a great success. By the late war it was relegated to a subsidiary role.
    6. The statement “By the time of the sinking of the Yamato in 1945, Dauntless’ always had almost completely unopposed runs.” Suggests that the Dauntless was used in the sinking of the Yamamoto. The US stopped using the Dauntless to attack Japanese warships in mid-1944, replacing it with the Helldiver. The Yamamoto was sunk in April 1945.
    7. The rhetorical question “Perhaps that is why it continued in operation when every other contemporary aircraft had been replaced?,” is a strawman. By the end of the war the Dauntless was being used in limited roles such as ground support, and ASW where its limitations were unimportant. That is similar to its contemporary the Fairley Swordfish, and better than the Ju 87.
    8. The claim that the Yakusuku D4Y Judy “was much faster than The Dauntless, and carried a heavier bomb..” is wrong in that the D4y carried about half the bomb load of the Dauntless.

    [1] Spencer C Tucker, “World War II at Se: An Encyclopedia,” Vol. I p. 13. ABC-CLIO, 2012.
    [2] Tillman, Barrett “The Dauntless Dive Bomber of World War Two”. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1976.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Checking further into the Devastator specs it looks like there are three bomb loads consistently listed, 1200 lb, 1500 lbs, and 2250 lbs. When the model version is given the first three models (SBD-1, SBD-2, SBD-3) are listed with a bomb load of 1200 lbs, a 1000 lbs loud under the fuselage, and two 100 lbs bombs, one under each wing. The heavier bomb loads are those of the SBD-5 and SBD-6 models (with the 20% more powerful engine), with a 1600 lb bomb under the fuselage, and up to 650 lbs under the wings, though some list the SBD-5 as having a 1500 lb bomb load. I have not yet found a bomb load for the SBD-4.

    2. Yes, I was giving figures at the time they first saw action, not after modifications. I was also in fact giving the figures quoted by one of the pilots who flew the things at Midway, which he notes bear little resemblance to what is quoted in most books.
      I do note that some of the sources I have read claim there were still Dauntless in action at the end of the war, but I am happy to find out they were in secondary roles only.

  13. "So Pearl Harbor was carried out by a combination of quite effective modern aircraft like the famous Zero fighter, reasonable torpedo bombers like Kate, and elderly but still competent dive bombers like the Val. They were faced by American carriers largely armed with reasonable dive bombers like the Dauntless, elderly and inadequate torpedo bombers like the Devastator, and relatively recent but very uncompetitive fighters like the Buffalo – which was in the process of being replaced by the workmanlike but uninspiring Wildcat."

    Reads as if you thought American carriers were at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack, and that carrier bourne Dauntlesses, Devastors, and Buffaloes all participated in the defense. The only carrier at all close to Pearl Harbor at that time was the Enterprise which returned to Pearl that night. The Enerprise's fighter complement was all F4F Wildcats at that time. None of its Devastators or Wildcats participated in the battle. The Enterprise did send out a practice scouting squadron VS-6 of Dauntlesses, that was intended to refuel at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, and as a result they got caught up in the fight, suffered losses of six aircraft and eight crewmen, and claimed to shoot down one Japanese aircraft. One of the Dauntlesses searched for the carriers to the south, failed as they were to the north. The main fighter defense at Pearl Harbor were USAAF P-36s and P-40s. The Marine aircraft at Ewa were all destroyed on the ground. The Navy aircraft were essentially flying boats, or warehoused replacements with no assigned pilots.

    The text also implies that F2A Buffaloes saw carrier actions. By that time the F2A Buffalo was already almost completely phased out of American carrier service and never saw carrier based action. The closest a carrier bourne squadron came to seeing action was when the USS Saratoga attempted a relief for Wake Island carrying a squadron intended to be based on Wake turned back a day away from Wake. The only US Navy Buffaloes that saw action were a marine squadron based on Midway, that among other incidents, participated in that battle.

  14. "The next most obsolete was the Japanese Aichi D3A Val dive-bomber [266mph, 3 x 7.7 mg, 1 x 500lb and 2 x 60lb bombs, 970 miles range] which had also entered service in the mid 30’s. It was a fixed landing gear dive-bomber modeled on the famous Junkers Ju 87 [183mph, 1 x 7.7mm mg, 1,000lb bomb, 621 miles range], and was just as good a dive bomber… if there was no opposition. Unlike the J87 (and like the Skua) the Val also had the ability to defend itself as a second rate fighter once the bombs had been dropped." Has a number of errors.
    1. The specification that led to the D3a appeared in min 1936, and development was spread over the late 1930s. It only entered service in 1940 not in the mid 1930s.
    2. Its bomb loads were either 1 250 kg (551 lb not 500 lb) or 2 60 kg (132 lb not 60 lb) bombs.
    3. A number of ranges are given depending on model and perhaps bomb load, but 950 mi is the longest range I have found.
    4. Work on the D3A started well before the first successful Ju-87 design was fielded and I can find no support that the Stuka was an inspiration for the D3A design. Do you have a citation for your claim?
    5. The specs you give for the Ju-87 aren't those of any model that I can identify. All appear to have had 3-4 7.92 mm guns, even the 87A had longer range (though not by much), the 1000 lb bomb load is about that of the 87B which had longer range.
    6. The Ju-87 typically had as many or more guns the the D3A of comparable quantity so it was of similar quality as a defensive fighter.

    1. Good point, I shouldn't have said 'modelled on' and made it sound as if they were copies, when I meant to imply 'looking like'. But it is fascinating to note how similar the concepts were.

      Your idea that the Ju-87 might have been as effective a defensive fighter assumes that it was fighting the artificially weaker naval fighters (heavier and slower) rather than higher performance land based fighters. I think if you look at statistics of planes shot down by the two designs, you might find that the D3A did better at looking after itself (in 1941-1942) than the Ju-87 did (in 1940)!

  15. Reading your essay I get no feel for how the role of the aircraft would affect their evaluation of the different aspects of the aircraft's performance, and as a result why, for example, the RN and FAA consistently preferred the Wildcat over the Sea Hurricane. Let me examine some of the factors affecting this evaluation.

    The best known aircraft requirements involve landings. An aircraft carrier deck provides a short runway, where an overshoot or an excursion to the side can result in the loss of the aircraft, and often its pilot, in the drink. As a result most aircraft need a tailhook, strong landing gear with minimal if any bounce, and a low stall speed. They also benefit from a good view of the deck, and a relatively rugged body. All of this adds weight that hurts performance. As combat sorties were rare compared to scouting, aircover, and ASW sorties, it was common for non-combat operational losses to greatly exceed combat losses.

    Ships are very vulnerable to different types of bombs. As a result it is very desirable to have the ships out of reach or at the extreme operating range of the enemy's attack aircraft. This in turn means that it is desirable to have attack aircraft and fighter escorts with very long operating range.

    Carrier takeoffs and landings also require changes in direction at high speed and are very stressful on the ground and air crews. The changes in speed and direction are difficult to coordinate with nearby ships, and rapidly use up the ship’s fuel. It is therefore desirable to maximize the time between takeoffs and landings, by having fleet defense fighters with long endurance.

    Crashes at sea are particularly dangerous. In a low altitude loss of power, landing gear and air uptakes can catch in the water flipping the aircraft over killing the pilot. Even if the pilot can parachute out he might face a difficult death from drowning after an exhausting swim if he lacks a life raft, or from exposure, starvation, or thirst if he has a raft. Reliability is even more critical than for land based aircraft.

    Carriers were short on space for crew quarters, aircraft stowage, spare parts, fuel, and munitions. Crew quarters were in very short supply as increasingly sophisticated radar and communications, placed a demand for ship board operators, an increasing number of AAA guns bought an increase in gun crews, and increasingly sophisticated aircraft brought an increase in maintenance crews. Aircraft with smaller relatively maintenance were preferred, but only iff the impact on performance was acceptable. Another minor gain was an increased emphasis on aircraft with smaller aircrews: with one man fighters preferred over two man dive bombers, which in turn were preferred over three man torpedo bombers. Aircraft size needed to be minimized to maximize the number of aircraft, and allow the use of elevators/lifts for hangar maintenance/stowage. This in turn usually resulted in the adoption of folding wings, in spite of their weight gain and resulting performance loss.

    Attacks on the fleet tended to be below 5000 ft, and air combat tended to also be below that level. While performance at altitudes well above 5000 ft was desirable for scouting, situational awareness, and boom and zoom attacks, performance above about 20000 ft was a low priority compared to the high altitude combat typical of Western Europe. As a result, to both simplify maintenance and reduce the weight of already heavy aircraft, carrier aircraft engines typically had simpler superchargers than was typical of the engines use in air combat over Westrn Europe. Carrier aircraft therefore had their peak speed at lower altitudes than the land based aircraft in use over Western Europe. But as this loss of high altitude speed had a negligible impact on their primary missions, proper comparison of their performance with non-carrier aircraft should examine the speed profile over an altitude range below about 20000 ft, and not focus solely on the peak speed.

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  17. Given the above how might a knowledgeable observer rate the different aircraft of the war.?One writer on aircraft that I considered to have been particularly knowledgeable had the following ranking for carrier fighters:

    1. Grumman Hellcat.
    2. Mitsubishi Zeke.
    3. Grumman Wildcat.
    4. Chance Vought Corsair
    5. Hawker Sea Hurricane.
    6. Supermarine Seafire

    I would probably move the Corsair above the Wildcat.

    FWIW his ranking for WW II fighters as a whole was:
    1. Supermarine Spitfire and Fw 190 tie for first place.
    2. Grumman Hellcat.
    3. North American Mustang IV.
    4. Mitsubishi Zeke.
    5. Hawker Tempest V.
    6. Kawanishi George

    1. Interesting, but again, it comes down to 'what was available when?'

      The Corsair WAS a better fighter than the Wildcat or Hellcat. But the Wildcat held the line at the vital point, and the Hellcat swept the opposition away. It virtually didn't matter how good the Corsair was at the point, the ramming opposition really could have been finished off without it.

      That point appears to be made by ranking the Hurricane above the Seafire. The Seafire was badly prepared and badly used for the early operations, and got an unfair rep. By the end of the war off Japan its casualties were remarkably low, and it was in fact a far better fighter.

      by contrast the hurricane wasn't the plane that actually held the line for the Fleet Air Arm. The much maligned Fulmar held the line, did remarkably well against huge numbers of Italian and German fighters (including his no 1 - FW190's), and were the aircraft most navy 'aces' got their kills on!

      The Fulmar was the most successful naval fighter until late 1941... but that's not saying much, as it would have been the Zero if the Japs had entered earlier...

      I think the Wildcat was pretty good for its time, and I would probably prefer to be flying it - with good tactics - against a Zero. Hellcat made that a no brainer even before the Corsair, but apparently the Firefly could outmanoeuvre most of them despite its huge size and combat loads..

      No real answer there.

      Land planes... for what? Spitfire is a light weight, short range, interceptor and Mustang a long range air superiority. Tempest was was good at ground attack as air superiority, while the Hellcat that was so good at sea might have struggled on land.

      Basically you should ask 'if you have this particular mission, which one would you want?"

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