World War II officially started on September 1, 1939, and it was the first time that planes were predominantly used for warfare. Air forces from all major participants used planes that were unique to their culture and their advancements in science. It was one of the most innovative times in the history of aviation and modern society is still reaping the benefits of those advancements. These are 10 interesting facts about World War II planes and the people who flew them.
10. The Battle of Britain
On June 17, 1940, France signed an armistice with the Nazis. As the Nazis set their sights on England, the British had two choices. They could negotiate with the Nazis or go to war. Of course, Churchill chose to give the Nazis the stiff upper lip, resulting in the Battle of Britain.
When the Battle started on July 10, the English were severely outnumbered. They only had 640 planes and Germany’s Luftwaffe had 2,000 planes.
The battle lasted for 112 days and both sides sustained heavy losses. 1,023 British planes were lost and 1,887 Luftwaffe planes were destroyed. Out of the 3,000 British crewmen, 544 died, while 2,500 Nazi crewmen died.
The Battle of Britain was the first all-air battle in history. The British were the victors and it was a major turning point in World War II.
9. The British Plane So Good that the Nazis Wanted Them
The backbone of the Royal Air Force during World War II was the Supermarine Spitfire. It debuted in 1936, and it wasn’t just used continually throughout the war, but all the way into the 1950s. While it was a favorite plane of British airmen, it didn’t roll off the production line as a great war plane.
Instead, improvements were made after pilots survived dogfights and explained to the engineers what was wrong with them. Luckily, due to the Spitfires’ design, alterations were fairly easy to do. This allowed the engineers to improve on the planes throughout the entire war.
Besides being able to alter the planes, what separated the Spitfires from the Luftwaffe planes was its maneuverability.
The Spitfires are credited with holding off the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, even though they were completely outnumbered.
Supposedly, after Nazi General Adolf Galland realized that they weren’t going to be able to take over Britain, he was asked what he needed to win the war. He apparently said that he wanted an outfit of Spitfires.
8. Japan Ruled the Skies During the Early Years of the War with Zeros
Being able to attack land opponents from the sky is a huge advantage because a squadron can swoop in, destroy their target, and then the pilots fly safely back to their base. It can cause a lot of damage without expending too many resources. The first plane to be able to consistently perform successful attacks on ground units was the Mitsubishi A6M. The Japanese called the planes Zeros, while Americans called them Zekes.
The plane was first tested in 1939 and for many years it was the dominant fighter plane when it came to aerial combat because of its maneuverability. It wasn’t until 1943 that the Allied forces developed planes capable of defeating the Zeros.
Another big advantage that the Zeros had was a second fuel tank. If they were going on long range flights, they could fill both tanks and once one of the tanks was empty, the pilot could release the gas tank and let it fall to the ground or water below.
The range and the maneuverability helped Japan invade much of the South Pacific before they were defeated by American-led Allies forces.
7. Japan’s Deadliest Pilot
Hiroyoshi Nishizawa started his aviation training in 1936 and he graduated in 1939. He was a sickly man, but when he flew, his fellow pilots called him The Devil. He was a very skilled pilot, especially when he was flying a Zero. Even when he was facing more advanced planes from the American Navy, Nishizawa was thought to be invincible when he was piloting.
He was considered Japan’s top ace pilot, but how many planes he shot down is a bit unclear. The Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service recorded their kills for a unit and not individual pilots. Nishizawa claimed he shot down 102 planes, but it was probably closer to 36.
On October 25, 1944, Nishizawa had a premonition that his death was imminent, so he begged to be allowed to go on a kamikaze mission. His commander wouldn’t let him because he was such talented a pilot.
The next day, Nishizawa boarded a bomber in Mabalacat, which is in the Philippines. He was a passenger heading to the island of Luzon to pick up some replacement planes. En route, the bomber was attacked by two American Hellcats. The plane went down with Nishizawa, Japan’s Ace of Aces, sitting helplessly as a passenger.
6. Some Spitfires Were Equipped to Carry Beer
After D-Day in June 1944, British forces kept pushing inland in Normandy. After several long days of doing this, many soldiers, understandably, really just wanted to have a beer.
Back in England, the Henty and Constable Brewery heard about the men’s wishes and offered them free beer. Volunteers with the Royal Air Force had old fuel tanks steam-cleaned and filled with beer. They then flew them to the men in Normandy. Even though the beer had a funny taste because they were in stored in used fuel tanks, the men were happy to have it.
They eventually fixed the problem by converting the planes to carry barrels under the wings.
5. The Eagle Squadrons
World War II started in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Before that, Germany had annexed Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia. The war waged for over two years in Europe and the Nazis eventually came to occupy Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Greece, Norway, and the Netherlands. They also tried to invade Russia and England. During these invasions, the Nazis would commit atrocious war crimes against the people of that country; especially Jewish people and other people they didn’t consider to be part of their master race.
During that time, the United States stayed neutral. The country was very divided about getting involved in the war. Some Americans thought it was best to take an isolationist stance and stay out of the European wars, while interventionists wanted to go to war with the Axis forces.
The United States stayed out of the war until December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese forces.
However, not all Americans were content to sit on the sidelines. Instead, eight American men went to Canada to join the Royal Air Force. One of these men was 29-year-old Billy Fiske. When Fiske was 16, he was the driver of the American Olympic bobsled team in 1928. They won gold, making Fiske the youngest person to receive a gold medal in the Winter Olympics, which is a title he would hold until 1992. Fiske and his team returned to the Olympics in 1932 and again, they took home the gold. He declined to participate in the 1936 Olympics in Germany.
Fiske and the other seven men were sent to England, where they were given minimal training, and then all eight men flew in the Battle of Britain. On August 10, 1940, Fiske was killed when a German gunner hit his gas tank.
Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, more Americans joined the Royal Air Force, enough to form three squadrons, which were called the Eagle Squadrons. By joining the Royal Air Force, the men broke strict neutrality laws and risked losing their citizenship and being imprisoned.
4. The Japanese Developed Specialized Kamikaze Planes
For several different reasons, the Japanese thought that having their pilots fly into enemy ships was an effective way to wage battle. Sure, they would lose a man, but they were hoping that it would intimidate the American Navy because it showed what lengths they were willing to go to wage war.
The problem facing the Japanese was that their planes were good for aerial combat, but weren’t very good against the American Navy. Mainly, they had a tendency to burst into flames when they were hit by machine gun fire.
So they developed the Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka, also known as the “Cherry Blossom.” Ohkas were drivable missiles that were flown to the battle by Mitsubishi G4M bombers.
Since the Ohkas were flown to the battles, pilots needed less training, which was a definite asset for kamikaze pilots. It would have taken weeks to train a kamikaze pilot and they’d only really fly one mission.
The pilots were possibly given Philopon, which is an amphetamine, and then they were sealed into the Ohka. Once the bomber got close to the target, it would release the Ohka, which could glide up to 20 miles. As the Ohka got near the target, the pilot would hit the rocket booster, which would allow them to fly past enemy gunfire and slam into the ships.
It turned out that kamikaze pilots were completely ineffective and it was considered one of the worst strategies in World War II.
3. Sonderkommando Elbe
The most well known use of suicide pilots in World War II are the Japanese kamikaze pilots, but they weren’t the only ones to use them. There were two Nazi suicide squads. One was called the Leonidas Squadron, led by a woman named Hanna Reitsch, who was a Nazi test pilot. The Nazis even developed their own drivable missile, the Fieseler Fi 103R. The project was scrapped before any member of the Leonidas Squadron could give their life for the country in a suicide mission.
The other squad was called Sonderkommando Elbe, and it wasn’t exactly a suicide squad. Instead, they were supposed to fly their planes into American bombers and just before they crashed into them, they were to parachute to safety, which sounds a lot easier than it was.
Unlike the Leonidas Squardon, this squad took to the air. On April 7, 1945, Sonderkommando Elbe aircrafts, manned by volunteers, attacked American B-17s and B-24s. The bombers were being escorted by P-51 Mustangs and they attacked many of the Nazi planes. Less than two dozen bombers were rammed and only eight were destroyed. Only four of the Sonderkommando Elbe pilots survived the jump after ramming their planes.
Since the attack was such a disaster, it was never employed again by the Nazis.
2. The Most Expensive Project of World War II
The biggest plane in the American arsenal, making it the largest plane used in World War II, was Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress. The B-29s, which were only used in the Pacific Theater, were nearly 100 feet long and had a wingspan of 140 feet. It could also carry up to 20,000 pounds of explosives and, of course, they were used to drop the only two atomic bombs ever used in warfare. Many of them were also used in the single deadliest bombing in the war, which was the fire bombing of Tokyo. Half the city was destroyed and over 100,000 people were killed.
Besides being the biggest plane flown in World War II, the B-29 was also the most expensive project of the War, costing $3 billion. In comparison, the Manhattan Project only cost $2 billion.
1. The Night Witches
The 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces was one of the most feared squadrons of World War II. It also was comprised entirely of women.
They flew Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, which were made from plywood and canvas. They were mostly used for crop dusting and training. The 588th used them to bomb advancing Nazi troops. They did stealth missions at night and as they approached their target, they would stall their engines so the enemy wouldn’t hear them coming. The men who survived the bombings said that the planes made a “woosh” when they flew over. It reminded them of the sound that a witch would make flying on her broom, which is how the 588th got their nickname, Nachthexen, which translates to “Night Witches.”
Over four years, the Night Witches flew 30,000 missions, dropping 23,000 tons of bombs on Nazi forces. They were so feared that any Nazi who shot one of them down would be automatically rewarded an Iron Cross.