Relatively lightly armed and constructed entirely of wood, the Mosquito was quite unlike the rest of the RAF bomber fleet. Barely escaping design committee, the Mosquito was regarded as easy to fly, and featured a pressurized cockpit with a high service ceiling. Most of all, however, the Mosquito was fast. With advanced Merlin engines, a Mosquito could outpace the German Bf109 and most other Axis fighters.
Although the bomb load of the Mosquito was limited, its great speed, combined with sophisticated instrumentation, allowed it to deliver ordnance with more precision than most other bombers. During the war, the RAF used Mosquitoes for various precision attacks against high value targets, including German government installations and V weapon launching sites. As pathfinders, Mosquitoes flew point on bomber formations, leading night time bombing raids that might otherwise have missed their targets. Mosquitos also served in a diversionary role, distracting German night fighters from the streams of Halifaxes and Lancasters striking urban areas.
De Havilland produced over 7000 Mosquitoes for the RAF and other allied air forces. Examples persisted in post-war service with countries as varied as Israel, the Republic of China, Yugoslavia, and the Dominican Republic
The workhorse of the RAF in World War II, the Lancaster carried out the greater part of the British portion of the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO). Led by Arthur Harris, Bomber Command believed that area bombing raids, targeted against German civilians, conducted at night, would destroy German morale and economic capacity and bring the war to a close. Accordingly, the Lancaster was less heavily armed than its American contemporaries, as it depended less on self-defense in order to carry out its mission.
The first Lancasters entered service in 1942. The Lancaster could carry a much heavier bomb load than the B-17 or the B-24, while operating at similar speeds and at a slightly longer range. The Lancaster also enjoyed a payload advantage over the Handley Page Halifax. From 1942 until 1945, the Lancaster would anchor the British half of the CBO, eventually resulting in the destruction of most of urban Germany and the death of several hundred thousand German civilians.
There are reasons to be skeptical of the inclusion of the Lancaster. The Combined Bomber Offensive was a strategic dead-end, serving up expensive four-engine bombers as a feast for smaller, cheaper German fighters. Battles were fought under conditions deeply advantageous to the Germans, as damaged German planes could land, and shot down German pilots rescued and returned to service. Overall, the enormous Western investment in strategic bombing was probably one of the greatest grand strategic miscalculations of the Second World War. Nevertheless, this list needs a bomber from the most identifiable bomber offensive in history, and the Lancaster was the best of the bunch.
Over 7000 Lancasters were built, with the last retiring in the early 1960s after Canadian service as recon and maritime patrol aircraft.
Boeing B-52 Stratofortress:
The disastrous experience of B-29 Superfortresses over North Korea in 1950 demonstrated that the United States would require a new strategic bomber, and soon. Unfortunately, the first two generations of bombers chosen by the USAF were almost uniformly duds; the hopeless B-36, the short-legged B-47, the dangerous-to-its-own-pilots B-58, and the obsolete-before-it-flew XB-70. The vast bulk of these bombers quickly went from wastes of taxpayer money to wastes of space at the Boneyard. None of the over 2500 early Cold War bombers ever dropped a bomb in anger.
The exception was the B-52.The BUFF was originally intended for high altitude penetration bombing into the Soviet Union. It replaced the B-36 and the B-47, the former too slow and vulnerable to continue in the nuclear strike mission, and the latter too short-legged to reach the USSR from U.S. bases. Slated for replacement by the B-58 and the B-70, the B-52 survived because it was versatile enough to shift to low altitude penetration after the increasing sophistication of Soviet SAMs made the high altitude mission suicidal.
And this versatility has been the real story of the B-52. The BUFF was first committed to conventional strike missions in service of Operation Arc Light during the Vietnam War. In Operation Linebacker II, the vulnerability of the B-52 to air defenses was made manifest when nine Stratofortresses were lost in the first days of the campaign. But the B-52 persisted. In the Gulf War, B-52s carried out saturation bombing campaigns against the forward positions of the Iraqi Army, softening and demoralizing the Iraqis for the eventual ground campaign. In the War on Terror, the B-52 has acted in a close air support role, delivering precision-guided ordnance against small concentrations of Iraqi and Taliban insurgents.
Most recently, the B-52 showed its diplomatic chops when two BUFFs were dispatched to violate China’s newly declared Air Defense Zone. The BUFF was perfect for this mission; the Chinese could not pretend not to notice two enormous bombers travelling at slow speed through the ADIZ.
742 B-52s were delivered between 1954 and 1963. Seventy-eight remain in service, having undergone multiple upgrades over the decades that promise to extend their lives into the 2030s, or potentially beyond. In a family of short-lived airframes, the B-52 has demonstrated remarkable endurance and longevity.
Over the last century, nations have invested tremendous resources in bomber aircraft. More often than not, this investment has failed to bear strategic fruit. The very best aircraft have been those that could not only conduct their primary mission effectively, but that were also sufficiently flexible to perform other tasks that might be asked of them. Current air forces have, with some exceptions, effectively done away with the distinctions between fighters and bombers, instead relying on multi-role fighter-bombers for both missions. The last big, manned bomber may be the American LRS-B, assuming that project ever gets off the ground.
Grumman A-6 Intruder, MQ-1 Predator, Caproni Ca.3, Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear,” Avro Vulcan, Tupolev Tu-22M “Backfire.”
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
What are the five greatest fighter aircraft of all time?
Like the same question asked of tanks, cars, or rock and roll guitarists, the answer invariably depends on parameters. For example, there are few sets of consistent parameters that would include both the T-34 and the King Tiger among the greatest of all tanks. I know which one I’d like to be driving in a fight, but I also appreciate that this isn’t the most appropriate way to approach the question. Similarly, while I’d love to drive a Porsche 959 to work every morning, I’d be hesitant to list it ahead of the Toyota Corolla on a “best of” compilation.
Nations buy fighter aircraft to resolve national strategic problems, and the aircraft should accordingly be evaluated on their ability to solve or ameliorate these problems. Thus, the motivating question is this: how well did this aircraft help solve the strategic problems of the nations that built or bought it? This question leads to the following points of evaluation:
Fighting characteristics: How did this plane stack up against the competition, including not just other fighters but also bombers and ground installations?
Reliability: Could people count on this aircraft to fight when it needed to, or did it spend more time under repair than in the air?
Cost: What did the organization and the nation have to pay in terms of blood and treasure to make this aircraft fly?
These are the parameters; here are my answers:
In the early era of military aviation, technological innovation moved at such speed that state of the art aircraft became obsolete deathtraps within a year. Engineers in France, Britain, Germany and Italy worked constantly to outpace their competitors, producing new aircraft every year to throw into the fight. The development of operational tactics trailed technology, although the input of the best flyers played an important role in how designers put new aircraft together.
In this context, picking a dominant fighter from the era is difficult. Nevertheless, the Spad S.XIII stands out in terms of its fighting characteristics and ease of production. Based in significant part on the advice of French aviators such as Georges Guynemer, the XIII lacked the maneuverability of some of its contemporaries, but could outpace most of them and performed very well in either a climb or a dive. It was simple enough to produce that nearly 8,500 such aircraft eventually entered service. Significant early reliability problems were worked out by the end of the war, and in any case were overwhelmed by the XIII’s fighting ability.
The S.XIII filled out not only French fighter squadrons, but also the air services of Allied countries. American ace Eddie Rickenbacker scored twenty of his kills flying an XIII, many over the most advanced German fighters of the day, including the Fokker D.VII.