Boeing Frontiers
June 2003
Volume 02, Issue 02
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Historical Perspective

Century of Flight


Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress The events of World War II dominated the decade of the 1940s. In every theater of the war air power became a decisive force, providing firepower for ground and naval forces and crippling enemy supply lines and war factories.

At sea, aircraft carriers eclipsed the battleship, and for the first time in history naval battles were fought without opposing ships seeing each other.

During World War I, the airplane's effect on the ground war was nominal. In sharp contrast, during World War II the airplane would prove to be an integral part of the ground war.

As the war began with Germany's invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, German "Blitzkrieg" or "Lightning War" tactics exhibited the devastating potential of airpower. German dive bombers coordinated with mobile ground forces to make concentrated attacks that penetrated deep into enemy territory. These shock tactics were very successful in the rapid conquest of Poland, Holland, Belgium and France.

The place of the airplane in ground warfare was so important that the Allied timetable for invading Nazi-held Europe depended on achieving air superiority to prevent German aircraft from interfering with the D-Day landings. This would be accomplished through the Allied strategic air campaign to destroy Germany's war factories and air force.

The war's first strategic air campaign was the "Battle of Britain." Beginning in June 1940, the German Air Force or "Luftwaffe" attempted to cripple the Royal Air Force as a prelude to the invasion of England. Flying at night, RAF bombers began their own strategic air campaign against Hitler's Reich. By November, the small force of RAF fighter pilots had saved England, prompting the famous quote from Winston Churchill: "Never in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few."

In November 1941, a handful of British carrier planes also damaged several Italian ships in Italy's Taranto harbor, delivering a major psychological blow to Axis naval forces in the Mediterranean.

Japan followed the British example and on Dec. 7, 1941, launched its own carrier strike on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack left five U.S. battleships sunk or damaged and brought the United States into the war.

Six months later, the badly outnumbered remnants of the U.S. Pacific Fleet faced the Japanese fleet near Midway Island. The entire battle was fought from the air; by the end of the day U.S. naval aviators had sunk four of Japan's aircraft carriers, turning the tide in the Pacific War.

Starting in January 1943, American bombers joined the campaign, flying into Germany by day. The Luftwaffe was forced to redirect its planes from support of German ground forces to the defense of the German homeland.

The Allied bombers attacked aircraft factories and petroleum supplies. This, along with the attrition that resulted from the constant air battles over France and Germany, left the Luftwaffe with just 80 airplanes available to face the thousands of Allied planes over Normandy on June 6, 1944.

In the Pacific, as U.S. carriers drove back the Japanese navy, B-29 Superfortresses conducted a strategic bombing campaign that crippled Japan's war-making ability. In August 1945, just as airpower had opened hostilities, it also brought the global war to an end. Two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; within days Imperial Japan surrendered unconditionally.

Throughout the war, quality of pilots and planes accounted for much, but in the end it was quantity that played a major role in victory.

U.S. workers building the "Arsenal of Democracy" had vastly out-produced the Axis, building a total of 296,000 aircraft during the war. In 1944 alone, America produced 95,272 aircraft, two-and-a-half times more than Germany's production of 39,807 for the same year, and more than Japan's entire war production of 65,300 aircraft.

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on aviation in the 1940s. The first part will focus on the rapid evolution of air power into a decisive force at all levels of combat during World War II. The second will chronicle the rapid technological advances in aircraft and rockets.


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