Aircraft of the World Wars

A spitfire streaked through the sky, its pilot looking for an enemy. Suddenly, a red tri-plane appeared out of nowhere, and shot a missile, taking out the plane’s wing. As the spitfire plummeted to the ground, the pilot wondered why he had tried to take on the Red Baron. Suddenly he collided with a biplane bomber, taking it with him to a fiery end… Wait a moment. Wasn’t the Red Baron long before spitfires? And were there any biplane bombers? Did they really have missiles back then?

Are you sure this story is accurate? Any of these questions can be answered by looking into history. Studying the airplanes of the World Wars will reveal their function, effectiveness, and inform about the pilots who flew them. The aircraft for World War I (WWI), and their purpose, greatly differed from those in World War II (WWII). Their value was defined by the author R. G. Grant, who said, “The principle role of aircraft in World War I was to support the armies in the trenches. ” Basically, the army on the ground was viewed as the primary fighting force of the war, not airplanes.

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Neither the Allies nor the Axis powers could see how they could do any good. As always, the troop movements on the ground were considered the most important part of the army (Grant 68). No one really thought that airplanes would work as weapons, either. Many saw them as more of an annoyance than anything else. During some experimental observation tests, someone said that the airplanes were unnecessarily frightening the cavalry’s horses. Some relatively small bombing tests had been made, but airplane’s uses at the start of the war were still limited to reconnaissance and scouting (“Aviation”).

A problem that came for many countries at the start of the war was gathering a sufficient number of airplanes to put to use. Germany was able to muster the most at 282, which was a lot for back in that time period. Austria-Hungry had the least, at only 40. Numbers of airplanes would diminish greatly over the course of the war, and quite a few countries would find themselves scrambling to build the precious machines as fast as possible (Almond 11). As the war progressed, a couple of main types of airplanes were revealed. The first were the monoplanes, or planes with a single horizontal wing.

At this time, they were not preferred, due to less maneuverability. Many of these mono-wing planes at the time used a system of wing warping to steer, which involved cables spreading from a shaft above the cockpit to spots where they were anchored to the wing. By adjusting the joystick, the cables would warp and twist the wing, steering the airplane (Grant 92-93) Second were biplanes and tri-planes, those with one or two extra wings. These outclassed the mono-wing planes. An extra wing or two added more lift, which is essential for maintaining an edge against any aerial combatant.

Without the feel of so much weight, these airplanes had increased maneuverability, and could almost literally fly circles around monoplanes. Tri-planes, though agile, were not produced in the same quantity as biplanes and monoplanes, due to the extra wing adding cost and effort to the construction (Grant 80). Other than scouting, WWI airplanes had two main functions. The first is the fighter plane, the second the bomber. The fighter planes did not have a large role at the beginning of the war, as all they did was act as protection for the scout planes.

The pilots had to use handheld guns to shoot at enemies. This was quite ineffectual, as there was little hope for the pilots to hit anything. Soon, though, the planes took part in larger roles, going into battle in tight formations as part of large tactical air battles (Grant 72-73). The first official fighter plane was invented by Roland Garros, a pilot for the Allies and a Frenchman. He took a pair of machine guns and mounted them on top of the nose of the plane, behind the main propeller. He plated the propeller blades with metal, so that if any bullets would hit them they would cause no damage.

This was the first official plane that had been made specifically for fighting, but it is estimated that one in ten of the bullets would bounce off the propellers (Grant 73). Using his contraption, Garros shot down six German planes before he was forced down behind enemy lines. He was unable to burn his plane before he was captured, and the secret to his design was discovered (“World”). Hitler asked Anthony Fokker, a Dutch engineer, to duplicate Garros’ devise. Instead of doing so, Fokker invented a special gear which would interrupt the machine-gun fire every time that one of the propeller blades was in the path of fire.

This allowed the machine gun to fire continuously without ever hitting the blades. He affixed the new guns to a biplane which he had constructed, and sent them to battle (Grant 73). With the new firing technique, the Allied pilots were literally driven from the skies in what was called the “Fokker Scourge”. There was no way for them to match the accuracy of the German planes, and the Allied air power ground to a halt (Almond 11). Bombing raids were forced to stop, because there was no way to reach the destination unscathed. Planes were shot down in droves, unable to fight back with enough speed (“World”).

In order to retaliate, Allied engineers mounted a machine gun on the top wing of a racing biplane. The new fighter easily surpassed the Fokker plane in speed and maneuverability, and now the German planes were the ones outmatched. They were soon defeated with ease (Grant 73). But for these fighter pilots, there was nothing easy about going into battle. The planes would start out in squadrons, searching the sky for enemy fighters while maintaining strict formation. Whichever side saw the other one first would gain altitude, and then attack from above.

The planes would then break into unorganized chaos. Guns would jam and run out of ammo. Wings would buckle, sending the plane spiraling to the ground. Planes would take incredibly tight turns, sometimes missing other planes by inches, or even hitting them, sending both crafts out of control. A number of pilots would witness a comrade’s plane burst into fire, or clearly see the face of the enemy before sending a hail of bullets into the cockpit. There was nothing easy about it (Grant 87). Only the top pilots survived these frenzied battles.

Those who did were given the term “Flying Ace” due to their skill and prowess in air combat. The first Ace was Roland Garros, so appointed for inventing and using the first fighter plane effectively. The most famous Ace of the war was Baron Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron. He was well known for his numerous victories, numbered around 80, and his classic red tri-plane. Pilots such as these were what inspired aviators for years to come (“Aces”). Bombers, unlike the fighters, were viewed as more of a sensible form of fighting.

The actual idea for dropping bombs from airplanes long preceded any notion of air combat, and seemed like the best use for planes, other than scouting. However, the first planes used for bombing, like the fighters, were not meant for it. There was no telling which plane would be dropping a bomb, because any of them might have bombs in the cockpit, ready to be dropped by hand (“Bombers”). Soon, however, the value of bombing was realized. Manufacturers equipped massive biplanes with bomb-racks, bombsights, and new release systems for increased accuracy.

Little by little the effect of bombing missions increased as the war continued. At first almost nothing could be hit, and the bombing attempts were fruitless. Still, the bombers could hit where the ground forces could not reach, making it imperative to use bombs as much as possible. Bombs and planes were constructed for the best accuracy possible, and before long the shells were hitting with relative precision (“Bombers”). Though the bombs could not weaken population or disrupt industrial production, they still worked if they hit their target.

A primary type of bomb was flechette, with feathers for guidance, like a shuttle-cock. Secondly were incendiary, to set things on fire. Lastly were shrapnel, which explode in tiny bits of metal to cause serious injury (Grant 79). As the war drew to a conclusion, the Axis powers had most of its air force defeated. Over all, the airplanes did not have a very big literal effect, but more of a mental one. If a side had air power, they could instill fear into the enemy. Once the Fokker scourge was conquered, the Allies continued to beat back any remaining German planes.

The Axis just became outclassed and outgunned, and soon the war was over. Germany had to sign a treaty neither to build up its army, nor rebuild its air force (Colon “End of the German”). In the time period between the wars many countries had some small skirmishes in which to test planes, and all the countries had worked hard to make the best air force possible. New planes, engines, and radar technology became crucial to every air force. Hitler began to build up the army, and then, without warning, attacked Poland. This broke all treaties from WWI and began a new era of aviation (“Rehearsals”).

The new airplanes of the Second World War were drastically different than those of the first one. Fighters were now sleek, fast, and mostly mono-wing. The biplanes were now considered lumbering and slow, and could not match the new machines. A very important new innovation was the use of retractable landing gear, to increase aerodynamics. The pilots would now sit inside a closed cockpit, no longer exposed to the elements. Most of the fighters were very lightweight and maneuverable, responding quickly to the pilot’s control (Grant 177-178, 181).

Unlike the first war, the fighters were made specifically for air-to-air fighting. They had a range of uses, one of which was ground attacks to support troops. This was considered to be the worst job by the pilots, because they had to use a method of strafing, which meant flying right at the target on the ground, firing, then pulling away to avoid enemy shots. The main job, however, was to battle simply for superiority in the sky. They also had to work as bomber escorts, to insure protection, and to fly night reconnaissance missions.

Such a wide assortment of tasks was very tough to master, even for the very best of pilots (Grant 202). A new tactic issued for the pilots to master was taking off from boats to attack by sea. There had been a few attempts before the war, but none used it seriously until the fighting started. The planes now could be dropped off much closer to a target than before, reserving fuel, and allow for direct communication to headquarters. The only problem was the fickleness of ocean weather (Almond 18). There were many different types of fighters, made by a variety of companies, for a plethora of tasks.

Possibly the most famous fighter of the war was the spitfire, known for its speed and fire-power. This kind of plane was characteristic of most fighters, with machine guns on each wing, and the classic single propeller engine (Grant 202-203). Germany tried to make a jet fighter, which would have been successful had Hitler not ordered it to be altered. He wanted it to be converted to a bomber, an endeavor which failed miserably (Almond 21). If the upgrade of the fighter from WWI was like going from a rock to a hammer, then the bombers were like going from an axe to a chain-saw.

Everything about the planes was bigger, better, and faster. They were massive, yet agile and maneuverable. Bombers were not biplanes anymore, but had a single horizontal wing. Most bombers had two large engines and propellers, one on each wing. This made up easily for anything lost from the removal of the second wing (Grant 256). There were many types of bombers, some similar, others not so much. Two of the most famous bombers of the war were the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, known for its sturdiness, and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, famous for dropping the first atomic bombs.

These two bombers were perhaps the most well known, but there are hundreds more which could be equally credited for some great achievement (Grant 256-257). A large factor in the bomber’s success was fear. As Stanley Baldwin, a British politician, said, “I think it is well also for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on Earth that can protect him… the bombers will always get through. ” Fear of enemy bombardment could keep a whole country in a panic. The bombing missions soon turned into a sort of trade off. One side would attack, the other side counter attack, and so on.

Both sides suffered heavy damage and loss of morale during the constant enemy attacks (“Bombing”). Each bomber plane had a wide range of airborne defenses. The primary was the fighter escort, but each bomber also had machine guns for defense. One gun was located under the nose of the plane, called a ‘chin turret’, along with a second turret above the cockpit. Then there were two side guns, one on each side, and another at the tail, at the base of the rudder. A third turret could even be attached to the bottom of the plane, about halfway along the full length.

It was shaped like a bubble, and one had to curl into a ball in order to fit inside (Grant 248-249). Each bomber had to be equipped with a full crew. First of all was the pilot, responsible for getting the plane to the target. With him was the navigator, who had to make sure the pilot was going to the right place. The navigator received orders from the radio-man, who was in contact with the base the whole time. Gunners had to be at each station, ready for an enemy attack. Bombardiers, those controlling the bomb drops, had to wait until the perfect moment to score a hit. Lastly were the paratroopers.

Not really part of the crew, they had the hardest job; to get to the ground alive and accomplish the mission (Grant 209, 242). Bombing raids were required to have precise timing and accuracy. The aircraft would take off very early, after the crew was briefed in a meeting. Following a long flight, the fighter escorts sometimes had to leave due to fuel shortages, after which the enemy would strike. Some planes would attack the slower bombers head on, breaking the cockpit glass. The bombers had to maneuver through the anti-aircraft gun fire, survive the fighters, and then drop the bombs with precision.

Few made the trips without getting some sort of damage, making the return home treacherous. Though hectic, bombing probably did the most towards the war effort, by disrupting the enemy industry (“Bombing”). Over all, scouts, fighters, and bombers all had a massive effect on the war. However, not all the tactics used by each side had a favorable result. An example of this would be the Japanese Kamikaze method, also known as the ‘Divine Wind’. This was basically suicide bombing. It used up pilots, both good and poor, and did little against the enemy.

If a plane did get to its target, it would make a mess, but only if it made it. Once the Allies were wise to this attack, the kamikaze pilots were shot down in droves, never reaching their goal. It was very pointless (Grant 233). WWII showed the first successful and practical use of the airplanes for war. Germany was able to keep Great Britain at bay for months in what was known as the Blitz. This never would have been possible in the First World War. Nevertheless, the Blitz began to slow, due to the constant losses of German planes. Having the battle take plane over one’s home ground made the British fight all the harder.

The big and slow German bombers were no match for the smaller and faster British fighters. They soon defeated the Blitz, and launched counter attacks which devastated the German air force. Planes were truly being used as valuable weapons of war (“Battle”). The Luftwaffe, the German air force, crumbled under the Allied attacks. Germany tried to use the new jet fighter, yet the attempts failed. WWII was essentially ended the two days that a B-27 Superfortress dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This final act showed the full value of airplanes when it came to battle, and to delivering a final blow successfully.

Without the skill of the pilots in flight, there is no telling what the outcome of the war would have been (Colon, “The End of the Luftwaffe”). It is obvious now that the tale in the first paragraph was fantasy. But one cannot be sure unless they take the time to look it up. It becomes obvious, though, that the pilots of the wars were brave men, who risked their lives in order to do what they love. They, and the planes which they used, will be remembered for years to come as men and machines who worked together as though they were one. If history were rewritten without the airplane, we would never know the bravery with which some men acted to pursue their dreams.

Works Cited

  1. “Aces of WW1, The. ” Century of Flight. <http://www. century-of-flight. net/new%20site/frames/WW1%20aces_frame. htm
  2. Almond, Peter. Story of Flight. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2002. 8-22.
  3. “Aviation at the Start of the First World War. ” Century of Flight. 2006. <http://www. century-of-flight. net/Aviation%20history/airplane%20at%20war/Aviation%20at%20the%20Start%20of%20the%20First%20World%20War. htm>.

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Aircraft of the World Wars. (2016, Oct 15). Retrieved from