Warfare History Network
How Hitler's Air Force Beat America's Best for Years (Until This Happened)
The popular conception of the struggle in the air over northern Europe during World War II is of squadrons of sleek fighters racing over the German heartland to protect contrailed streams of lumbering bombers stretching beyond sight. This is as it was during the second half of America’s air war against Germany, but it was as far from the truth as it is possible to get at the start of that great aerial crusade. It took until late 1943—nearly two years after the United States entered World War II—before the United Kingdom-based Eighth Air Force mounted strategically significant bombing missions against targets in occupied northern Europe. The fault for this lay partly in the availability and slow development of the equipment, but it is also a fact that the two men at the top of the Eighth Air Force command structure stubbornly clung to old and discredited theories that stunted the effectiveness of the strategic-bombing effort and cost thousands of their countrymen their freedom or their lives.
In the beginning, the fighter was a short-legged creature whose role of protecting the bombers was eclipsed by its role of guarding friendly territory and installations. The difference, which is crucial, was the product of technology—range and the power of aircraft engines—and intellect. Until late 1943, surprisingly late in the war, the use of the fighter as an offensive weapon was stunted by the defensive mind-set of the “pursuit” acolytes of the interwar decades.
The pursuit airplane had evolved over the fixed battlefields of Western Europe during World War I. Pursuit aircraft had been developed to prevent enemy reconnaissance airplanes from overflying friendly lines and to protect friendly observation airplanes from enemy pursuits while the observers overflew enemy lines. The pursuit was conceived as a tactical and a defensive weapon, and it was limited to these roles both by conception and by the technologies of the day.
The Army Air Corps
Between the world wars, the development of American pursuit aircraft was hobbled by budgetary restrictions that for many years slowed or obviated altogether the creation of new technologies or even methodical experimentation with new tactics. The U.S. Marine Corps did advance the use of the single-engine pursuit as a nascent close-support weapon to bolster the infantry, but the interests of various intra-Army constituencies prevented similar advances in what had come to be called the Army Air Corps. To the degree that it developed at all, the Air Corps saw increasingly heavy and longer ranged bombers in its future. And, as the limited available research-and-development dollars were expended on speedier bombers, the pursuits of the day were increasingly outranged and outrun.