Although World War I was the first major war that involved aircraft, it was during World War II that aircraft took on one of the most important roles of war. Some battles were fought almost entirely in the air.
North American P-51 Mustangs Source: US Air Force
Major Battles in the Air
The first major attacks in World War II were made by German aircraft in the takeover of countries such as Denmark, Poland, and the Netherlands. Later, Germany would attempt to destroy England's Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. During this battle, German planes dropped thousands of bombs on England for over three months straight. The Allies later countered with a major air attack on D-Day during the Invasion of Normandy. They launched around 14,000 sorties (airplane attacks) in one day.
There were also major air battles in the Pacific during World War II. The first major attack was when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Later, aircraft played major roles in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway, and the Battle of Guadalcanal. The final blow in the war was also struck by aircraft when atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Types of Planes
There were three major types of planes used in World War II including fighters, bombers, and transport planes.
Japanese Zero Source: Naval History and Heritage Command
Fighter planes are designed for air-to-air combat. They are fast and agile. During World War II fighter planes were used to gain air superiority over a battlefield. They would try to shoot down the enemy's bomber planes and also protect their own bombers. Fighter planes were armed with high powered machine guns and cannons.
Spitfire by Adrian Pingstone
Some of the more famous fighter planes during World War II included the German Messerschmitt Bf 109, the British Spitfire, the Japanese Zero, and the U.S. P51 Mustang.
Bombers were larger planes that were designed to carry and drop bombs on enemy targets. There were different sizes of bomber planes including light, medium, and heavy. Light bombers took out smaller targets like armored vehicles. Some light bombers could also take off and land from an aircraft carrier. The heavy bombers could fly long distances and were used to take out larger targets such as cities and large military complexes. Bombers often had machine gun turrets including a tail gunner that would help to fight off enemy fighter planes.
B-29 Bomber by Unknown
Famous bomber planes of World War II include the German Heinkel He 111 (medium bomber), the British Avro 863 Lancaster (heavy bomber), the U.S. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (heavy bomber), and the U.S. Boeing B-29 Superfortress (heavy bomber).
Transport planes were important during the war. They carried troops and supplies to different areas around the world. Many of these planes were civilian aircraft and passenger planes that were adapted to be used by the air force. Transport planes included the U.S. Douglas C-47 Skytrain and the U.S. C54 Skymaster.
Air Forces of World War II
Germany - The German air force was called the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe played a major role in helping Germany to take control of much of western Europe at the start of the war.
Britain - The British air force was the Royal Air Force (or the RAF). They used radar to help hold off the Germans in the Battle of Britain.
United States - The United States air force was called the Army Air Forces (or the AAF). The U.S. built up their air force after they were initially defeated by Japan's superior air power at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines.
Soviet Union - The air force of the Soviet Union was called the Soviet Air Force. By the end of the war, the Soviet Union had produced over 36,000 of the Ilyushin II-10 ground-attack fighter.
Interesting Facts about the Aircraft of World War II
The Japanese used a tactic called Kamikaze where they would purposely crash a plane into an enemy ship to sink it. The Soviet Union used a similar tactic to bring down German aircraft.
Airplanes also played an important role in the war at sea through the use of aircraft carriers.
Around 12,000 heavy bombers were shot down during the war.
The United States manufactured around 276,000 aircraft during the war.