American Airplanes On the European Battlefronts

By Myles V Cave
Aviation's British Correspondent

Initial skepticism turns to unstinted praise and constructive comment as Yankee warplanes prove themselves in the RAF

An inherent national pride in the belief that a country's own products are the best is usually responsible for the condemnation of similar foreign products, especially in a field where competition is keen and where tangible and directly competitive facts, figures and performances are available.

So it is with airplanes, as the parent companies producing aircraft, on account of the high degree of specialization involved, tend to collect themselves into small isolated groups of experts. This occurs in every country in the world with the probable exception of Russia.

Thus, when it was authoritatively stated that American warplanes were being considered by the British government there was a good deal of derogatory criticism from all sides. It was argued, and to a degree quite correctly, that Great Britain knew much more about military aircraft than the US.

In the early days of the war the correctness of this argument was shown by the superiority of British fighters and light bombers over anything else produced in any country while amongst the heavy long range bombers the superiority of US types was unchallenged, although they were not in service in Europe. In the first months, however, no one visualized that such types would be required and the early planning policy of the Air Ministry provided for only a small number of such aircraft.

In criticizing the types of fighters, and light bombers available in the US in 1939 the critics forgot the ability of American aviation to learn and to bring the results of this education to rapid fruition, despite expansion on an unprecedented scale. With the arrival of increasing numbers of American types it has been interesting to watch the situation change among both aviation experts and the general public. With the RAF flying personnel the position has been different as, apart from early misgivings, there has been nothing but praise and admiration as the machines came into service and the squadrons began building up operational experience with them.

Criticism — perhaps competitive rivalry is a better definition — still persists, but experience shows that these are friendly and usually constructive. From them, a live organization, through an intelligent representative, can learn a whole lot that will influence the design of future types.

American Planes Popular

A point of interest that has contributed a lot towards making our people American-airplane-minded is that, apart from Hurricanes and Spitfires, US types have had a very good press in this country and there has always been an abundance of good illustrations available. With the general public the great gesture of Lease-Lend has undoubtedly been a popularizing influence.

The Flying Fortress was recently "glamorized" in every newspaper for days and there were photographs showing the big Boeing from every conceivable angle so that its popularity, as a news subject, threatened to outshine even meteors like Ann Sheridan.

Right now the Airacobra and the P-38 Lightning are in the spotlight in a big way and since the press has published quite fantastic speeds for them, RAF fighter squadrons literally cannot wait tn be equipped with them. It is probable that the new Sabre-equipped Typhoon will be faster than either of them, but so far few people have heard of it, let alone figured on its potentialities.

American aeronautical engineers have been at a disadvantage over Europe on military types because the necessity of keeping level in the great European aircraft competition that has been continuing now for many years, did not strike home sufficiently strongly, situated as they were 3,000-6,000 miles away from the scene. Once the requirements under actual war conditions became appreciated the time lag in producing airplanes to operate under arduous battle conditions was negligible and has been the source of unstinting praise in high quarters here.

Nevertheless it is suggested that companies whose thoughts are fully occupied with production problems should pause and consider the advisability of sending a senior engineer over from time to time to make a first-hand technical investigation of how things are actually working out under service conditions. Most corporations have their own service organizations over here but, right now, these engineers are very harassed folk and have little time to report on and investigate the finer points of design technique. A further difficulty is caused by the necessity of maintaining very strict control on technical information sent out of the country; information which would willingly be given on personal contact.

Panzer-Busters Ready

The fighter strength of the RAF is unquestionably very strong indeed and now that Spitfires and Hurricanes, powered by 100 octane Merlins, equipped with either four 20-mm cannons or twelve .303 machine guns, are in service, fighter effectiveness has been still further increased. Early 1942 will see the inclusion of Airacobras, Lightnings and Mustangs (North American, NA-73) so that should an offensive be launched in the spring the German High Command will have to face a really formidable array of "panzer busters." The last few months have produced a great increase in bomber strength and many new types of heavy bombers have come into use, much to Nazi discomfort. British Stirlings, Halifaxes and Manchesters — all powered by a total of more than 4,000 hp— have paid several destructive visits to German targets, Berlin included.

Being built up in the background, behind this bomber force are, what may be termed, the new-technique aircraft. These are made up of the American "heavies" such as the Liberator and the Fortress specially equipped for substratosphere flying. Very soon these US contributions will be accompanying the British types in what will prove to be the largest scale bombing offensives ever carried out.

The numbers of these ships that have arrived here is unknown and, because of the lack of operational publicity, many people are wondering why they have not been used before. No news regarding the Liberator is being released at present but the older types of Fortresses are being used to train crews and to make researches into sub-stratosphere bombing conditions. Fortresses have made several minor raids, mainly over northern French ports, and bombs have been dropped from around 35,000 ft. The Air Ministry consider these raids have been of great educational value while results, both from aircraft performance and results obtained angles, have been entirely satisfactory.

The RAF are content to take this new style bombing slowly rather than risk valuable air crews and airplanes on an unknown venture. Meanwhile the training of specially selected crews with the necessary technical and medical qualifications is going ahead. Such a policy as this can be criticized on the grounds that it is retarding the major bombing effort but it can be said that the results, when they do come, will be much greater and much more nearly 100 percent.

Boeings To Libya

A number of the later types of Fortress have been sent to Libya where they are devastating enemy positions with great effect. The employment of these machines in the desert is interesting as their huge range is not required and it would seem that Bomber Command figure they can use a smaller number of bombers by using a type that carries a greater load. It also gives them a valuable build up of experience with this aircraft under actual fighting conditions. All this indicates that the Fortress is destined to play the leading role in future heavy bombing attacks on Germany.

The early Boeings have been criticized here over their light armament, crews saying that there is not sufficient defense equipment for a ship of its size. At the present time this seems hardly a relevant criticism because the operational ceiling is too great for existing German fighters while at these altitudes anti-aircraft fire is ineffective.

As time progresses the Nazis are bound to improve on the effective altitude of their fighters, but by that time the more heavily armed B-17E and even later versions, will be available. These, no doubt, will bristle with large-calibre machine guns and shell cannon which will keep potential attackers at a safe distance.

There is little information of German sub-stratosphere developments but there can be no doubt that they are working very hard in this field. It is fortunate for the allied cause that such knowledge cannot be acquired overnight. Despite rumors of a new high ceiling fighter and Dornier bomber; also the existence, prior to the outbreak of war, of designs for a Messerschmitt Me-110 incorporating a pressure cabin, it seems likely that the Germans have a long and difficult way to go before they have a type suitable for production.

British substratosphere developments are also little advertised but it seems improbable that it will be left entirely to America to supply this type to meet all allied requirements. Rather than develop entirely new airplanes for these altitudes it is a reasonable forecast that research will be carried out on such types as the Stirling, introducing it as a high altitude bomber when technical perfection has been achieved.

Us Leads In Strato Flying

From these remarks it can be seen that the US is way ahead of other nations on substratosphere flying — a point that may well be of importance when large scale commercial flying is again resumed.

It is difficult at present to obtain any news of either British or American airplanes operating in Russia. So far the Ministry of Information has released no news of what American types, if any, have reached the Soviet. The Air Ministry has stated that some "hundreds of Hurricanes" are in the northern sector of the battle front. This is interesting in that although the Merlin motor is glycol-cooled it is doing great work in the severe Russian winter. Up to the present time it has generally been accepted that the radial was more suited to such climatic conditions and despite the nonfreezing qualities of glycol it is natural to assume that American airplanes, radial equipped, would have been better suited for the Russian winter, especially in view of American experience under similar conditions.

The European winter has already been responsible for considerable curtailment in the long distance bombing program not only on account of unsuitable weather but because in some cases, equipment is inadequate to overcome the severe conditions encountered. It is probable that sub-stratosphere bombers could overcome winter storms by climbing through them and flying above them but icing troubles would still be prevalent. On a recent Berlin raid, in which by far the largest force yet sent over took part, the highest percentage of casualties over any raid was recorded. The Air Ministry stated that this loss — approximately 8 percent of the total sent — was not due to German defenses but to an unexpected weather change that was entirely unforeseen by the meteorologists. From careful inquiries it appears that these casualties were not the result of storms but to a sudden change to very severe cold which caused icing-up, not only externally but inside the cabins, affecting such things as instruments and radio.

Icing Problems

This is a very important lesson and shows the inadequacy of cabin heating in even medium altitude bombers as well as the need for improvement in the anti-icing arrangements for external parts. British heating systems are usually operated from one motor and, in most cases, are inferior to the set-up used on American aircraft. On multi-engined ships a system drawing heat from two or more engines seems necessary with the ability to cut out one or more sources of heat as necessary. As operational heights become greater this problem gets increasingly important and any improvements that can be found will be of value in postwar commercial flying.

It might be supposed that the rapid development of higher powered engines would initially result in frequent failures, or at least seriously complicate repair and maintenance problems. Devastating results in the early days of 100-octane fuel can be recalled, but this problem and many others have been successfully overcome and wartime motors are amazingly trouble free even under extreme conditions.

Up to the moment the Rolls-Royce Merlin is, without doubt, the most outstanding motor of the war. This engine has been used with equal success in both bombing and fighting aircraft under conditions varying from the desert to the Russian winter. When it first appeared the Merlin was rated at around 800 hp, while the latest version, using 100-octane fuel, is probably giving something approaching double this figure.

Us Radials Popular

American radials, the Wasp and the Cyclone are giving a good account of themselves and are deservedly popular, though there have been difficulties, mostly caused by inadequate spares supplies. Then, too, original servicing set-ups were responsible for initial troubles which naturally caused a certain prejudice. A great many of these difficulties were due to lack of understanding of a foreign product, but instruction, technical representation and servicing facilities have greatly improved. Still further engineers are required, however, if the job is to be done really well. In this connection, American firms will be interested to hear that Maj Gen Brett, as a result of his observations both here and in Libya, has said that maintenance and service are one of America's biggest jobs and that American companies will have to devote a whole lot more attention to it.

The RAF are doing all they can to help and are arranging for a number of their more skilled maintenance mechanics to visit US plants to undergo a short but concentrated course of instruction. US firms will doubtless appreciate the importance of these visitors upon whose knowledge and competence depends the reputation and prestige of their products.

Still greater power outputs from engines are continually being called for and the performance of existing aircraft will need to be bettered as the war develops. Still further increases in output are scheduled by engine builders and many people here are speculating on the announcement of 2500/3000-hp motors from both Pratt & Whitney and Wright.

Possible future developments on engines here are obscure due to the strict secrecy control but, as a forecast, it seems reasonable to suppose that a good deal of attention is being paid to direct injection in view of German success in this direction. It would not be surprising therefore to see Bristol announce a new radial in 1942, probably an 18-cyl with sleeve valves and having an output of around 2220/2500 hp. While this engine would probably appear at first with normal carburetion, direct injection might be incorporated later.

A great deal of interest is centered around the new Napier Sabre about which little is known except that it is a 24-cyl liquid cooled, sleeve valve motor of H section employing twin crankshafts, two speed supercharger and using 100-octane fuel. Aviation, in August, forecast the power output of the Sabre as being in the region of 2,000 hp but it is most probable that this estimate is very conservative indeed and that when figures are released the power will prove to be several jumps ahead of all other motors in production.

Little has been heard of the Allison engine to the present time but early in the New Year this further US contribution to freedom will, no doubt, rank as highly in reputation as its American predecessors of the last war.

This article was originally published in the March, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 3, pp 54-55, 208-209, 212.
The original article includes photos of a P-38, C-46s, a Boston and a B-17C seen from 9 o'clock low.
Photos are not credited.
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