WW II Diary: To Rule the Sky

Cru­cial WW II Air Bat­tles

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Bar­rett Till­man

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)

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