WW II Diary: To Rule the Sky
Crucial WW II Air Battles
Crucial WW II Air Battles
In 1963, World War I flier and pulp magazine writer Arch Whitehouse published Decisive Air Battles of the First World War. It was a nonsensical title based on a completely false premise. There were no “decisive air battles” in the Great War, and there have not been many since.
In WW I, airplanes (and balloons) excelled at reconnaissance and artillery observation—significant factors on the Western Front. But there were far too few aircraft of limited capability to exert anything approaching the “decisive” contribution that Whitehouse’s volume promoted.
Two decades passed, and the military aviation millennium arrived with a crescendo that reverberates 70 years later. Bombers evolved from twin-engine biplanes into four-engine super fortresses of continental reach. The 120mph Great War fighters shed their upper wings and emerged as 400mph monoplanes. Aircraft carriers, which barely existed in 1918, displaced battleships as the oceanic champions of the Atlantic and Pacific.
Not only technology but also industrial and organizational progress accelerated in a stunning metamorphosis between 1939 and 1945. The airy armadas envisioned by theorists General Douhet and Lord Trenchard were supported by vast production, training, and maintenance networks that spanned the globe.
Campaigns, Not Battles
A battle is typically a single event focused in time and place that often produces a world-changing result: Marathon, Tours, Hastings, Waterloo. Yet for all its reach and striking power, aviation fought and won few victories in what we can reasonably call “battles.” Far more often, aerial victories were campaigns. The 1940 Battle of Britain lasted four months; the 1942 Battle of Guadalcanal, six. The battle for control of Malta’s skies lasted two and a half years. The Air Battle of Northern Europe (a U.S. Army moniker) lasted two.
The few aerial battles that fit the historic definition include all five carrier engagements in the Pacific during 1942 and 1944. Coral Sea, Midway, and Philippine Sea were two-day affairs. Eastern Solomons and Santa Cruz, part of the Guadalcanal campaign, were fought and concluded in one.
Thus, here is our evaluation of WW II’s most significant aerial engagements, however they are defined.
B-17Gs of the 381st Bomb Group practicing formation. The United States was the only WW II combatant that developed strategic, as opposed to tactical, long-range bombing capabilities before the war. The effort paid big dividends and played a major role in winning the war. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)