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The Reason It Took so Long for the Air Force to Beat Nazi Germany's Planes

November 3, 2019 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IILuftwaffeNazi GermanyThird ReichAmerica

The Reason It Took so Long for the Air Force to Beat Nazi Germany's Planes

Two long years of learning modern war.

Key point: There was a lot to be learned before America could turn the tide for good.

The popular conception of the struggle in the air over northern Europe during World War II is of squadrons of sleek fighters racing over the German heartland to protect contrailed streams of lumbering bombers stretching beyond sight. This is as it was during the second half of America’s air war against Germany, but it was as far from the truth as it is possible to get at the start of that great aerial crusade. It took until late 1943—nearly two years after the United States entered World War II—before the United Kingdom-based Eighth Air Force mounted strategically significant bombing missions against targets in occupied northern Europe. The fault for this lay partly in the availability and slow development of the equipment, but it is also a fact that the two men at the top of the Eighth Air Force command structure stubbornly clung to old and discredited theories that stunted the effectiveness of the strategic-bombing effort and cost thousands of their countrymen their freedom or their lives.


In the beginning, the fighter was a short-legged creature whose role of protecting the bombers was eclipsed by its role of guarding friendly territory and installations. The difference, which is crucial, was the product of technology—range and the power of aircraft engines—and intellect. Until late 1943, surprisingly late in the war, the use of the fighter as an offensive weapon was stunted by the defensive mind-set of the “pursuit” acolytes of the interwar decades.

The pursuit airplane had evolved over the fixed battlefields of Western Europe during World War I. Pursuit aircraft had been developed to prevent enemy reconnaissance airplanes from overflying friendly lines and to protect friendly observation airplanes from enemy pursuits while the observers overflew enemy lines. The pursuit was conceived as a tactical and a defensive weapon, and it was limited to these roles both by conception and by the technologies of the day.

The Army Air Corps

Between the world wars, the development of American pursuit aircraft was hobbled by budgetary restrictions that for many years slowed or obviated altogether the creation of new technologies or even methodical experimentation with new tactics. The U.S. Marine Corps did advance the use of the single-engine pursuit as a nascent close-support weapon to bolster the infantry, but the interests of various intra-Army constituencies prevented similar advances in what had come to be called the Army Air Corps. To the degree that it developed at all, the Air Corps saw increasingly heavy and longer ranged bombers in its future. And, as the limited available research-and-development dollars were expended on speedier bombers, the pursuits of the day were increasingly outranged and outrun.

Inevitably, American bombers of the late 1930s were designed to be “self-defending” because they could fly much farther and at least somewhat faster than could the pursuits of the day. The pursuits, which were being developed at a much slower pace, were relegated to a point-defense role—guarding cities, industrial targets, and air bases. When World War II began, the Air Corps—shortly to be renamed the Army Air Forces—was divided into two distinct combat arms, fighters and bombers. And, by virtue of the fighter’s stunted development, there appeared little chance that the two would spend much time working together.

As soon as the Army Air Corps was pulled into World War II it became focused on the defense of American coastal cities, several Caribbean islands, bases in Greenland and Iceland, and on the strategically indispensable Panama Canal. There were few airplanes of any type to devote to these defensive missions, and those that were deployed defensively also had to serve as on-the-job trainers for hundreds of the raw young pilots emerging from the Air Forces’ burgeoning flight schools.

Through the first half of 1942, all of the very few pilots and airplanes that could be spared from the defense of the U.S. coasts and sea lanes were rushed to defend Australia and the South Pacific. Dozens of precious airplanes and pilots were lost in the pathetic defense of Java, in the Netherlands East Indies, and many more were lost in the early defensive battles around Port Moresby, New Guinea, but Army Air Forces’ training commands were able to catch up with combat and training losses as well as with the heavy burden imposed by the formation of new fighter, bomber, and other-type groups. And better fighters with a higher probability of survival began to reach operational air groups.

Committing to American Air Power

Fortunately, the United States could afford to be a bit late off the mark in her war against Germany. German efforts in 1940 to bring Great Britain to her knees all had failed miserably and, by the end of 1941, the bulk of Germany’s air and land forces were mired in a frightful war of attrition deep inside Russia. The British had the situation in northern Europe reasonably well in hand, though they would have collapsed had not vast infusions of weapons and supplies from the United States sustained them. British forces in Egypt and Libya were teetering on the edge of defeat, but there was little the United States would be able to do for many months to influence the outcome—assuming the British held on that long.

So, while the Army Air Forces devoted the bulk of its limited expendable resources to defensive measures against Japan, new air groups were created, and new and better combat aircraft began rolling off newly created assembly lines. Finally, in the spring of 1942, it was decided in high Army Air Forces’ circles to commit American air power to northern Europe. At first, the commitment would be little more than a meager show of force masking an advanced combat-training program overseen by the Royal Air Force (RAF). Only later, when training bases and factories in the United States had caught up with the planning, would the U.S. Army Air Forces take on a strategic air campaign against the German industrial heartland.

Brigadier General Ira Eaker arrived in England on February 20, 1942 to establish the headquarters of the new VIII Bomber Command. He opened his headquarters at High Wycombe, England on February 23, 1942, but the VIII Bomber Command had no combat airplanes to its name; they would not be available for several months. Rather, it fell to Eaker to argue with his British hosts in favor of an independent role for the forthcoming Army Air Forces in Europe. The RAF and the British government wanted America’s commitment to the air war in Europe to be subordinate to or an adjunct of the British Theatre air war. The Americans, however, felt they deserved an independent role, and it was Eaker’s job to win the British over to this viewpoint.

The American notion was strongly bolstered—in argument, at least—by the fact that the Army Air Forces had developed over many years a theoretical strategic air doctrine that was quite different from the RAF’s experience-based strategic doctrine. The Americans favored and had equipped their bomber force to wage a precision daylight-bombing campaign against industrial targets hundreds of miles inside enemy territory. The RAF was the only other air force in the world that had developed long-range, four-engine, heavy bombers, but its doctrine—the result of bloody experiences early in the war—favored “area” bombing at night. Doctrinal arguments aside, the British victims of the Nazi Blitz of 1940-1941 were less squeamish than their American Allies about bombing German civilians. Besides, the RAF had few long-range heavy bombers to its name, and thus felt it needed to co-opt the promised infusion of American heavies.

For the time being, Eaker’s arguments with the RAF hierarchy were moot. There would be no American air-combat units in the United Kingdom for several months, and then there would not be enough of them to make a dent in Hitler’s Fortress Europa for many more months.

A Symbolic Commitment between Allies

The first VIII Bomber Command unit to arrive in England—on May 10, 1942—was the 97th Heavy Bombardment Group, which was equipped with Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bombers. This was a symbolic commitment, for the 97th had been activated in February 1942 and thus had not had time to be adequately trained to fly combat missions over heavily defended European targets. It would be months before the 97th saw any live action.

Around the time the 97th Heavy Bombardment Group became the first nominal combat unit to join Eaker’s VIII Bomber Command, Brig. Gen. Frank “Monk” Hunter arrived in England to establish the headquarters of his VIII Fighter Command, also at High Wycombe. Unlike Eaker, Hunter, a rather flamboyant World War I ace, quickly came to terms with British beliefs and aspirations regarding the employment of forthcoming American fighter groups. The RAF had opted for powerful, short-range, point-defense fighters that could defend friendly air bases and attack nearby enemy air bases, and its doctrine appeared to have proven itself during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Hunter, who had spent most of his career arguing the point-defense case for the U.S. Army’s fighters, was eager to augment the British fighter plan.