Power of the Skies: How Air Superiority Determined the Outcome of the Second World War 1/2

A painting of USAF B-17s.
A painting of USAF B-17s.
German forces advancing into Poland during the first week of September, 1939.
German forces advancing into Poland during the first week of September, 1939.

As Nazi boots marched across the border of Poland on September 1, 1939, it would mark the beginning of the most devastating conflict in history. It was not just men that crossed into Poland, as they were accompanied by a multitude of motorized vehicles and tanks, and also the sound of airplanes soaring above them. The Second World War would see a drastic change in warfare, as the Nazi’s were the first to practice “lightening war”, as they stunned the world and took over all of Western Europe. The same could be said for the Empire of Japan in the pacific, as they were conquering islands and rapidly increasing their sphere of influence in the early 1930’s. Technologies from the First World War were greatly developed in the inter-war years, and would see increased utilization in the battlefield of World War II. The airplane was at the forefront of this development and production, and would see widespread use across all continents, as it soon would be the most sought asset, and the rivaling nations of the world would seek to develop their air dominance and superiority.

Colonel William "Billy" Mitchell, an early advocate of air power who is often credited with the creation of the US Air Force and was court-martialled because of his controversial view of air importance against established military policies.
Colonel William "Billy" Mitchell, an early advocate of air power who is often credited with the creation of the US Air Force and was court-martialled because of his controversial view of air importance against established military policies.

The power struggle over air superiority in both Europe and the Pacific would be determined by a series of major battles and diverse doctrines. As an advocate for the importance of airplane technology and use, former Colonel Billy Mitchell stated in the 1920’s that, “This is the day of the airplane and the submarine. In these two forces will be the strength in the next war.” 1 In the case of the submarine, the benefits and expectations paled in comparison to that of the airplane. Evidence of this was exemplified in the Japanese surprise air attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that would pull the country into the war. The attack on Pearl Harbor was completely unprecedented as an air attack was the least expected method, “Despite precautions, no one really dreamed of an air attack. Warships, yes; sabotage and possibly an invasion force, yes, but air attack? No one gave it much credence.” 2

A formation of American P-40s.
A formation of American P-40s.

The Allies actually had far superior technology and resources, but these factors did not contribute until the war had progressed. When the war started, the Germans and the Japanese possessed superior airplane models, but the developed technology and the industrial prowess possessed by the Allies would change the fate of the war in their favor. The fighter (or fighter-bomber) was an important asset to all air forces because of its immense adaptability, being used in such roles as interceptors, dive bombers, escorts, tank busters…etc.3The fighter-bomber would be a vital resource in its many roles, as it not only provided tactical support on land and in the air, but also proved to be useful at sea as well.This was exemplified in the fact that more than half of the surface ships and U-boats sunk by the Allies were accounted for by strikes from the air. 4

A formation of B-29 Superfortresses performing an area bombing raid.
A formation of B-29 Superfortresses performing an area bombing raid.

Fighters were an essential element to all air forces, but there was an important development of tactics that were unique to the Second World War; the creation and practice of strategic bombing. The inter-war theorists who advocated an independent role for bombers included the Italian Giulio Douhet, the Briton Lord Trenchard, and the American Billy Mitchell. They all believed that it would be possible to make direct, major, and independent air attacks upon the enemy which would eventually force the enemy into submission, and cause them to plead for peace.5 Air forces are divided into two strike forces, tactical and strategic. The tactical air force supports ground forces by attacking enemy troops and other battlefield lifelines, such as bridges, roads and supply lines, which prevents logistics from reaching the front lines of the engagement. Opposed to the tactical air force, strategic bombing is aimed at the enemy’s vitals, which include cities, war industries, and natural resources, which dampens the production of logistics.6 Strategic bombing was a technique utilized by both the Axis and the Allies, but it was greatly improved and exploitedby the Allies, who were able to use it to its fullest capabilities after they had established air superiority. The application of strategic bombing was only viable if the strikes were simultaneous and repeated against a small number of indispensable sectors of the economy, but only after air superiority had been won. 7

A painting of the USS Enterprise with a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero in the foreground.
A painting of the USS Enterprise with a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero in the foreground.

The obvious importance of air superiority would raise the status of the aircraft carrier in the realm of the navy and would mark the downfall of the battleship. It was once the reigning king of the seas, but following the Second World War the battleship would have a diminished role in navy doctrine. In the course of the war, the air craft carrier was constructed and deployed primarily by three countries: Great Britain, The United States, and Japan. The aircraft carrier was essentially a floating airfield, as its many variations included escort, light and fleet carriers that could carry from a few dozen to a hundred planes.8 The days of the battleship would be numbered, as Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamato observed when asked about new battleship production, “These [battleships]…will be as useful…as a samurai sword.9

Air superiority was the decisive factor that would determine the outcome of the Second World War.

An Account of Allied Bombing in World War II (1945)

A Nazi propaganda poster calling for support of the Luftwaffe, Germany's air force.
A Nazi propaganda poster calling for support of the Luftwaffe, Germany's air force.

World War II would be decided decisively by a series of engagements and diverse tactics. The Axis powers were the first force to discover, increase and utilize the potential of their air forces, the Germans being the first to establish their air force, commonly known as the Luftwaffe. Domination of the air was showcased as a feature of Germany’s blitzkrieg conquest of Europe, and later by Japan’s coordinated carrier attacks directed towards the United States Navy in the Pacific. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, its lightning blitzkrieg tactics relied heavily on motorized transportation and tactical bombing from its Luftwaffe. After weeks of fighting, the Germans were finally able to break Poland; with the surrender of Warsaw being brought about by doing in practice what in March of 1939 the Germans had threatened to do to Prague – a ruthless and indiscriminate bomb attack on the civilian population.10

Emperor Hirohito of Japan (front row, 9th from left) with officers of the Imperial Navy, on board the battleship Musashi in June 1943.
Emperor Hirohito of Japan (front row, 9th from left) with officers of the Imperial Navy, on board the battleship Musashi in June 1943.

While The Third Reich was focused on building up its air power for its ground forces, Imperial Japan was concentrated on its navy, as they were the first to fully develop their carrier force which was used as they conquered most of the islands in the Pacific. Just before the war, there was a rift between the battleship admirals and the younger air-power admirals within the ranks of the Imperial Japanese Navy. A popular theory of the battleship admirals was the “Great All-Out War” theory, which promoted the application of either side massing large fleets together in the primary use of engaging each other head on. Despite battleship admirals favoring this approach, air-power admirals recognized the British success at Taranto in 1940.11 The British success at Taranto consisted of British aircraft sinking the pride of the Italian fleet which presaged the future of naval warfare. As a result, Admiral Isoroku Yamamato trained young officers for air war. The Japanese pioneered the technique of massing all of the fleet’s large carriers into a single cohesive unit, known to be the Kido Butai. This technique, combined with the excellent aircraft and superb aircrews of the carriers themselves, had created an evolution in naval warfare. The Imperial Japanese navy had made itself into a force to be reckoned with.12

Douglas Dauntless dive bombers on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise during the Battle of Midway on June 5,1942.
Douglas Dauntless dive bombers on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise during the Battle of Midway on June 5,1942.

In the years 1942 to 1943, the United States would begin to change the tide of the war in the pacific with its limited carrier forces. Starting with the battle of the Coral Sea, and leading up to the Battle of Midway, the United States started to claw its way back from the devastating loses that it had sustained at Pearl Harbor, and was beginning to have a chain of naval victories. Prior to Midway, the Japanese had the advantage of a numerically superior carrier force, but after Midway, this advantage had been lost due to the heavy losses it had endured.13 Midway would represent a turning point in the war, when the Japanese would no longer expand from the positions they held in 1942.

The Battle Of Midway Genuine Footage

A British firefighting team trying to control a fire in London during the Battle of Britain, September 1940.
A British firefighting team trying to control a fire in London during the Battle of Britain, September 1940.

While the Battle of Midway was a turning point in the war of the Pacific in favor of the United States, the Battle of Britain would be a turning point for the war in Europe that would also favor the Allies. German air power started to decline in its effectiveness and would never recover from its losses during the Battle of Britain. This was because of multiple factors, but the ones that stand out the most are the fact that they both badly miscalculated the nature and productivity of the British, American, and Soviet airplane industry, and that there was immense drain on their ability and resources by fighting on several fronts. Because of this, the German air force, which had entered the war in 1939 as the strongest on earth, was pushed into the defensive by the Allies. 14 As the war continued, the Luftwaffe would turn to rocket technologies in desperation, developing the radio controlled V-1 rocket, and its successor the V-2 ballistic missile. Though there was much development and resources devoted to these weapons, they were ineffective in the course of the war, being easily shot down by allied planes.

LSTs (Landing ship, tank) landing supplies on the beaches of Normandy on the morning of June 6,1944.
LSTs (Landing ship, tank) landing supplies on the beaches of Normandy on the morning of June 6,1944.

What was more important than the tactical victories over the V-1 and V-2 rockets was that the American daylight air campaign (and the RAF night raiders) broke the back of the Luftwaffe. The Allies managed to pound the Luftwaffe and the resources that supported it into submission with a vigorous air campaign. The Luftwaffe lost control of the air in the spring of 1944 not only because it was overwhelmed by superior numbers but because it was out flown and outfought by American fighters.15 So much was the damage that Goering’s air force was hardly to be seen over France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The air superiority prior to and on the day of the Normandy invasion was so absolute, that General Dwight D. Eisenhower (Allied Supreme Commander of D-Day Forces) could confidentially tell his forces the night before, “If you see fighting aircraft over you, they will be ours.”16

The Miraculous, But Ineffective V-2 Rocket

The German city of Cologne after over 250 bombing raids, some consisting of 1,000 RAF bombers.
The German city of Cologne after over 250 bombing raids, some consisting of 1,000 RAF bombers.

Throughout the majority of the war, the roles of the British and United States air forces were limited to tactical supportive missions and to a lesser extent strategic bombing. During the beginning of the war, and up until the Normandy invasions of 1944, the British could only launch strikes from their own homeland, and it took until 1943 for the United States to have a viable base of operations in Northern Africa after the successful amphibious invasion Operation Torch. The Royal Air Force learned that the only offensive role it could play was to bomb Germany and parts of German-controlled Europe. For the majority of the war, bombing Germany was not only the sole way for the British to strike directly at the Germans, but it was also the one significant way in which Britain and the United States could directly assist the Soviet Union. 17

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Comments 2 comments

WindMaestro profile image

WindMaestro 4 years ago from Rhode Island, United States Author

I actually talk a little bit about that in my next installment, which I shall have up today or tomorrow. Please come back for more. :)


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

Great hub! I also know that a powerful air fleet had a huge psychological effect on a ground forces. Soldiers much more willingly attacked feeling a strong support of aviation. Voted up!

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