Bombers are the essence of strategic airpower. While fighters have often been important to air forces, it was the promise of the heavy bomber than won and kept independence for the United States Air Force and the Royal Air Force. At different points in time, air forces in the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and Italy have treated bomber design and construction as a virtually all-consuming obsession, setting fighter and attack aviation aside.
However, even the best bombers are effective over only limited timespans. The unlucky state-of-the-art bombers of the early 1930s met disaster when put into service against the pursuit aircraft of the late 1930s. The B-29s that ruled the skies over Japan in 1945 were cut to pieces above North Korea in 1950. The B-36 Peacemaker, obsolete before it was even built, left service in a decade. Most of the early Cold War bombers were expensive failures, eventually to be superseded by ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
States procure bombers, like all weapons, to serve strategic purposes. This list employs the following metrics of evaluation:
· Did the bomber serve the strategic purpose envisioned by its developers?
· Was the bomber a sufficiently flexible platform to perform other missions, and to persist in service?
· How did the bomber compare with its contemporaries in terms of price, capability, and effectiveness?
And with that, the five best bombers of all time:
Handley Page Type O 400
The first strategic bombing raids of World War I were carried out by German zeppelins, enormous lighter than aircraft that could travel at higher altitudes than the interceptors of the day, and deliver payloads against London and other targets. Over time, the capabilities of interceptors and anti-aircraft artillery grew, driving the Zeppelins to other missions. Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and others began working on bombers capable of delivering heavy loads over long distance, a trail blazed (oddly enough) by the Russian Sikorsky Ilya Muromets.
Even the modest capabilities of the early bombers excited the airpower theorists of the day, who imagined the idea of fleets of bombers striking enemy cities and enemy industry. The Italians developed the Caproni family of bombers, which operated in the service of most Allied countries at one time or another. German Gotha bombers would eventually terrorize London again, catalyzing the Smuts Report and the creation of the world’s first air force.
Faster and capable of carrying more bombs than either the Gotha IVs or the Caproni Ca.3, the Type O 400 had a wingspan nearly as large as the Avro Lancaster. With a maximum speed of 97 miles per hour with a payload of up to 2000 lbs, O 400s were the mainstay of Hugh Trenchard’s Independent Air Force near the end of the war, a unit which struck German airfields and logistics concentration well behind German lines. These raids helped lay the foundation of interwar airpower theory, which (at least in the US and the UK) envisioned self-protecting bombers striking enemy targets en masse.
Roughly 600 Type O bombers were produced during World War I, with the last retiring in 1922. Small numbers served in the Chinese, Australian, and American armed forces.
Junkers Ju 88
The Junkers Ju-88 was one of the most versatile aircraft of World War II. Although it spent most of its career as a medium bomber, it moonlighted as a close attack aircraft, a naval attack aircraft, a reconnaissance plane, and a night fighter. Effective and relatively cheap, the Luftwaffe used the Ju 88 to good effect in most theaters of war, but especially on the Eastern Front and in the Mediterranean.
Designed with dive bomber capability, the Ju 88 served in relatively small numbers in the invasion of Poland, the invasion of Norway, and the Battle of France. The Ju-88 was not well suited to the strategic bombing role into which it was forced during the Battle of Britain, especially in its early variants. It lacked the armament to sufficiently defend itself, and the payload to cause much destruction to British industry and infrastructure. The measure of an excellent bomber, however, goes well beyond its effectiveness at any particular mission. Ju 88s were devastating in Operation Barbarossa, tearing apart Soviet tank formations and destroying much of the Soviet Air Forces on the ground. Later variants were built as or converted into night fighters, attacking Royal Air Force bomber formations on the way to their targets.
In spite of heavy Allied bombing of the German aviation industry, Germany built over 15,000 Ju 88s between 1939 and 1945. They operated in several Axis air forces.
De Havilland Mosquito
The de Havilland Mosquito was a remarkable little aircraft, capable of a wide variety of different missions. Not unlike the Ju 88, the Mosquito operated in bomber, fighter, night fighter, attack, and reconnaissance roles. The RAF was better positioned than the Luftwaffe to utilized the specific qualities of the Mosquito, and avoid forcing it into missions in could not perform.