Aviation's War Communique No 11

Amazing record being established by United States heavy bombers shows our strategists and designers were right from the beginning — to the delight of the British and chagrin of the Nazis. But, while United Nations' airpower gains strength at encouraging rate, we still have a long way to go to win the war.

Maj Gen Ira C Eaker, chief of the United States Bomber Command in Britain, says German industry can be destroyed from the air. The House Military Affairs Committee, after investigation, says American airplanes are far superior to those of the enemy. The battleship admiralty of England launches two more iron sea horses while navies fight in the air almost exclusively. Goering, in an epochal speech, admits that his Luftwaffe is powerless just now to resist the blows of Allied air power, but he still promises to even the score when Russia is in the bag.

There you have a few scenes in the fast-moving world air war drama of recent weeks. There were still other vital developments. The United States launched a new aircraft carrier Lexington to replace her predecessor, and with this launching came news that the Yorktown also had gone down after killing many times her weight in enemy planes and ships, including three Japanese carriers sunk and one damaged, which was later sunk.

The Army occupied the Andreanof Islands, only 150 mi from bases seized last summer in the Aleutians, and went to work on the enemy with B-17s, B-24s, P-38s, P-39s, and P-40s. It was the beginning of a drive to push the Nipponese off the island causeway, which we may want to use as our own road to Tokyo when the time comes.

Probably the most inspiring to airmen and pro-airmen was the continued story of the combat performance of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and, more recently, the Consolidated B-24 Liberators. Many are surprised, including the British who had made up their minds that heavy night bombing was the key to the iron gate of Europe. Not the least surprised were the Nazis. Your correspondents have a well-founded report that a German radio message was intercepted which said that the Luftwaffe was at a loss for means to stop the Fortresses.

Details of B-17 exploits are widely reported in the news, but not generally emphasized is the fact that Boeing engineers have been "heavy" designers since the company's beginning. You may recall that the first postwar fleet of transport planes to operate in this country were the Boeing 40 series of single-engine passenger-cargo ships. They managed to be heavy and as rugged as a hickory wagon, yet they got over the mountains with a good load — more than double what previous planes of about the same power (425 hp) had carried. They never wore out, and neither did the twin-engine 247's that came after them. Incidentally, it was the "40" series that proved out the aircooled engine for "dependable" operation, as the Pratt & Whitney people say on their name plate. All that wordage is to give background for the reason why the enemy is astonished to find he can shoot the Fortress to pieces, but the pieces don't fall apart.

The B-17s — together with B-24s — have made (at this writing) well over 100 sorties over Europe with little loss and are threatening some of the prime concepts of air war. It has been supposed that multi-engine load-lifting combat planes could not survive in daylight against darting fighter gadflies. But the air warriors are beginning to wonder.

The hardest of all engineers' jobs is to build adequate fighter planes. The fighter plane must compromise every one of its functions, and yet it must approach the impossible in every one of them. (See "Factors Controlling Aircraft Design and Combat Performance"). So the designers, seeing the high-flying B-17 going it alone and knocking the fighters down in the bargain, are wondering if, just perhaps, they might some day be told to skip the superduper fighter and concentrate on pure destruction. That's not a prediction; it's only an idea lurking in a few heads.

A Fortress has more guns than you have fingers and thumbs; it is ruggedly armored in the right spots; still, it's fast and agile, and can fly very high. It escapes most of the ground fire. It faces mainly air attack. But think what the attacker is up against. A fair formation of B-17's would have a hundred or more guns, with an awful lot of them able to play in any direction. The attackers can figure on getting hit just about as they would by drops of water in a rain storm.

High Level Bombing Gains

This is not meant to sound optimistic. The Germans know a lot about high level bombing by now, and they will try to catch up with our lead as fast as they can. It will be hard for them, because, in that particular line, we are ten years in front. Incidentally, when Boeing submitted this bomber, only two or three Army men approved of the idea, and one of them was Gen Frank Andrews, formerly chief of the Air Corps, and now in command of the Caribbean war zone. The British now say that Boeing "made a daring experiment" and on that point you may want to agree with them.

The performance of the B-17 leads to a word about the performance of American planes in general. There have been a lot of words on that subject lately, for better or worse. Some people think the criticism, sometimes uninformed, sometimes prejudiced, was nevertheless a good whip cracker for the fuddy-duddies. Others think all the talk unnecessarily demoralized the people, who are paying more billions now for airplanes than the total of the national debt just before the war. Especially it dampened the fighting spirits of some of our pilots, who thought they were getting let down by the boss men.

Anyway, Congress took an interest in all the noise, and the House Military Affairs Committee called in plenty of aircraft and military men who know what's going on and why, and got the whole story. The committeemen heard all about the mistakes that have gone under the bridge, and skipped them. Much detail of interest is included in the report but in the end the committee came to an especially interesting conclusion — precisely the same one that has been stated many times by officers and others responsible for the hitting power of our airplanes.

The committee said: "In the final analysis, it is the box score that counts. It is idle to compare the speed, performance and maneuverability of one plane against another when engaged in war. These in actual combat are academic questions. It is only common sense to say that our planes and our pilots are performing exceptionally well when they are knocking down two or three enemy planes to every one of ours that is lost." It is too bad that all the work of our various planes cannot be reported in this space, but they have to take their turns as they pop into the news. One other, which may show up in heroics some time soon, is the Martin B-26 medium bomber. As you know, it has already served to a nicety as a torpedo plane against the enemy in the Pacific, and perhaps elsewhere. Now it's been up to other new departures, which cannot be told as yet. The enemy doesn't like this plane at all. But don't believe that you will hear about all the air developments, not even all the important ones.

New Fighters In Action

You should hear more, before long, about our newest fighter planes, which are arriving at the front. The Lockheed P-38 interceptor is frequently reported; a number of the Republic P-47 Thunderbolts are understood to be in action by now, but nothing has been reported on the Navy's Vought-Sikorsky shipboard fighter, the F4U. All of these planes have 2,000 hp, equaling the world's best. They have what their designers think is the best possible combination of all the features a fighter should have. We have still other new planes, going toward production, not yet heard of.

But not all the air war news is good. Adm Thomas C Hart, former commander of the United States Asiatic Fleet, said in a Saturday Evening Post article that our aviation made strategic mistakes when the Jap war started, and that our fighter planes missed their chance at Pearl Harbor and Luzon. He said our submarines bagged as many enemy ships as all other forces combined. He also explained how the British lost their two battleships to Jap air attack. The commander knew the risk, but if he had got through he could have knocked off Jap merchant ships carrying the attack on Malay, at a devastating rate. The attempt, the Admiral says, was justified.

Not especially cheerful is the fact that, though they are hard-pressed for manpower and materials, the Germans have been able to retool their plants and bring out four new airplanes. These are an Me-109G with a liquid-cooled, 1,700-hp engine; an improved model quickly following the original FW-190; a new bomber, Heinkel 177, intended to challenge our high-level bombing; and a Junkers 86P. It is noteworthy that the new Messerschmitt has more armor, three cannon and two machine guns, but is not so fast as the original.

The air phases of the war seem to be going better for the United Nations than the surface operations. The score board does not show that we are yet winning the war at any point. But the President and a good many other people are pretty mad at second-string government executives who have been shouting that we are losing the war. Such statements are not only demoralizing, they are unsound. It is true that China and Russia and the British are still taking hard punishment. But when you consider that equipment is the means of warfare, and that the Allied arsenal, the United States, is getting stronger, you can hardly say our side is losing. On the other hand, Germany has passed the peak of war strength in manpower, and its productive power will get no better in the face of internal disruption. The Japanese live by the sea, and it is only a question of time till strong enemies all around the Nipponese archipelago will cut off their lifelines with a preponderance of warships and air power. Talk about losing the war will not help to condition the American war spirit, which is still too big around the paunch and too narrow in the chest and biceps.

Nazis May Hit West Again

If the Germans can manage to tie the Soviet Union up this winter and hold it with a limited force, the Luftwaffe will come back and make a supreme effort to penetrate Allied control of the air over the Channel and Western Europe. Safest guess, based on some expert opinion, is that the Nazis cannot hog-tie the Russians, and that even if the Luftwaffe comes back, it can punish England but cannot get the necessary control for an attempt at invasion.

Gen Eaker started a hubbub when he said Germany could be destroyed from overhead. Eaker is an airman of great skill and imagination. He has had much experience with the press, and his statement was no slip of the tongue. He knew well enough what would be done with it. British air officers commented unofficially that they didn't think bombing alone would do the job. High authority in this country didn't say anything.

Air Power Held Underrated

It is plain, regardless of anybody' s statements, that our program of tanks and munitions for an Army of 10,000,000 men is not now headed for pure air war. We can all argue, but strategy is in the hands of the men we have hired for the job. No one doubts they are doing what they believe to be right, and time alone can show whether they are or not. Aviation appears to be the backbone of the war everywhere except in Russia. Plenty of airmen believe that aviation would give the decision there if either side had enough of it. The Army and the Navy both still regard air force as an auxiliary to ground and sea operations, while pro-air power men think they can show you, action by action, that surface operations are already subsidiary to aviation and the commanders can see it, or won't. The Navy, which had been strongly criticized for sending Adm John H Towers, its able chief of aeronautics, to sea with a fancy title, and for not having any airmen on its general board, set its accusers back a bit by appointing seven old-time air captains to be aviation admirals.

This article was originally published in the November, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 11, pp 92-93, 275-276.
The original article includes a photo of a P-40, an aerial photo of an airstrike on a Japanese cruiser, and a photo of B-17E waist gunners at work.
P-40 photo credited to International News; other photos not credited.