Aviation's War Communique No 12

Second front opening gives several clues to the part American aircraft may be playing in future battles, not only in Africa but on the continent.

A second front has been opened; opened with perhaps as beautiful a bit of coordination as has ever been seen in military history.

The occupation of North Africa was more than coordination in time — getting all the units ashore on schedule under air protection — for it marked the perfect blending of all the elements of modern war: men, material and diplomacy.

That last element overshadowed even the part played by air power. In fact, pre-occupation diplomacy reduced to a minimum the need for fighter and bomber aircraft and at the same time provided adequate bases for the hard fighting which lies ahead. All fighting men — air, land and sea — owe a tremendous debt to one of the greatest international poker players, Secretary of State Cordell Hull.

Several clues to air power's coming role were revealed by the occupation, however. One straw in the wind was the obvious and the expected. Four-engine bombers participated under the direction of Brig Gen James Doolittle, who took over as co-pilot of one of them when the regular co-pilot was wounded in a brush with French fighter planes. American attack planes, perhaps including some medium altitude fighters, were on the job, as is shown by reports of airport and ground troop strafing. More significant, though, was the fact that land-based American fighter planes were flown into action from England, a distance of at least 1,400 mi. That fact alone can easily mean that Hermann Goering will, more and more, be figuratively running rapidly in several directions at once, getting no place fast. And no less important is the fact that paratroopers "hit the silk" after having been flown direct from bases in England.

This is heartening when we remember that Germany alone started the war with the only air force in the world capable of modern fighting. All the other belligerents had nucleus forces, but Germany alone seemed to have a clear concept of aviation reality. The rest had to learn and build at the same time. Whether the British were smart or lucky in having the basic design of a fighter, the Spitfire, which would take the lead in saving their country from invasion, and possibly the world from a period of Nazi domination, provides plenty of fire-side argument material.

But the world learned quickly from the Nazis. Russia, America, England, Japan — all have fighting aviation as good as Germany's. Therein lies a lesson warlike people should learn — but won' t. The lesson is that if they aim a blitzkrieg at their neighbor, they should make sure to knock him cold, otherwise he will get up and blitz back. Aviation builds fast, and its technique is as fluid as the wind.

Since our last report on the globe-girdling battle of aircraft, the United Nations have obtained unquestioned air superiority on all fronts. That means Africa, Russia, the Southwest Pacific, and the English Channel. It is the realization of objectives which have been discussed here before. Months ago, the United States alone passed the entire Axis in the production of airplanes. That, plus the output of the British commonwealth, certainly seemed as if it should soon overwhelm the enemy. But, as was pointed out, the enemy was fighting from inside his stockade, so to speak, with all his factories and his military camps and his homes compact on his own soil. The Allies were scouting, stabbing and running around the edges, so it took a lot of airplanes to make a few in many different places.

But a woodpecker can fill any knothole with nuts if you give him time. The Russian and the Chinese Armies, and the American and British Navies have provided that time. Our flow of planes has filled up those many spots, and we are now coming out in force and hitting the enemy. He is hitting back, but the labored production of Japan and Germany can be no match in the long pull for the strength of the Allies with three-fourths of the world' s man-hours and resources.

We are told on good authority that chances are the Axis will never again have control of the air for very long, over any considerable area, in this war. Hanson Baldwin, of the New York Times, one of the "typewriter strategists" who takes his machine right out on the line, says that our Navy has not yet learned how to coordinate its surface attack and its airplane attack. We have had some bad defeats in the Pacific lately, and one might assume Mr Baldwin has told one of the reasons. If so, the enemy there may be said to have air superiority over us at times.

At home, in the production of airplanes, the country has had a temporary setback. Everyone is impressed with the work the aircraft manufacturers are doing — with their rapid development of mass production shortcuts; with their ingenious subassembly schemes; with their quick adaptation to materials substitutes; their flexible sideshows for handling design changes while the production line rolls right along. Mr Roosevelt gave the impression that he marveled at the aircraft factories. In only two or three cases, since the war drive started, has the airplane industry been found at fault. Its enthusiasm, its sacrifice of its own competitive interests, all have won admiration.

But the job of taking inventory of the materials, particularly metals, and apportioning them to the various categories of war equipment appeared to be too much. Those who have tried to take over the little woman's job at breakfast time and get the coffee and the toast and the scrambled eggs all ready at the same time know the problem. The War Production Board's eggs were cold before the coffee boiled, and the toast burned up.

So, for four months, the output of airplanes has been running along on a nearly level basis. Recently it fell off. Production was better than it looked, however, because the ratio of smaller planes declined in relation to heavy bombers, which don't count up so fast. Actually, the tonnage and the dollar value of the planes did increase somewhat, but not enough.

The country is not meeting its plane schedule, but that is only part of the story. The military men have decided that the airplane program should undergo some changes. They want more armor, more and bigger guns, more ammunition, longer range, more power. The job is just as much harder as if they called for thousands of more airplanes.

The War Production Board is allocating the aluminum and the copper and the steel and the manpower to do the job. The Army and Navy will get what they want, but no exciting stories about vast numbers of planes can be expected f or a while. That number yardstick for measuring air power is going out. That can be seen from reports of Boeing B-17s and Consolidated B-24s going out to fight off swarms of enemy planes, drop their bombs accurately and effectively, and get back home. A swarm of barnyard chickens is no match for a fighting cock. The thing to look for is victories against the enemy, destruction of his ships and his military and manufacturing works.

The air cargo program has been increased again. There is no official information on the extent of the increase, however. The plan a few months hack was to turn out hundreds. There are no exciting new planes in the cargo class for the immediate future, although several very big ones are nearing the experimental stage. Mostly, they are the tested types everyone knows about.

Most interesting recent development in cargo is an order placed by the Army for the production of 1,200 wood cargo planes by Andrew J Higgins, the New Orleans builder of combat boats. The Higgins plane is not a new design; it is the Curtiss-Wright C-76, plywood, two-engine transport, roughly the size of the Douglas DC-3. Curtiss-Wright has already tested this plane, and it has been accepted by the Army.

With many aircraft plants slowed down for lack of materials, it is easy to wonder why an order is given to still another plant, which has no airplane experience. There are many partial answers, and one of them is salesmanship. Higgins is a man of imagination and audacity who believes he can do most anything he tries. It was he who devised an assembly line for the construction of. Liberty ships, and sold it to the Maritime Commission. It probably would have worked, but there wasn't enough steel plate, and the project was stopped. Higgins has been building torpedo and other kinds of attack boats for the Navy, out of plywood. He makes them so tough they can be run onto a stony beach full tilt without breaking up. He amazed the Navy by building a troop-landing boat that slithers right out on land. It was probably the President himself who let Higgins have the order. Mr Roosevelt inspected Higgins' abandoned assembly-line shipyard; he looked at a sample of Higgins' basket-weave plywood. FDR likes people who are not afflicted with inferiority complexes.

A few notes to add to background: B-17s have been bombing and strafing from mast-top levels, though it was originally a high altitude bomber. We are finding out that hitting ships from high up is very difficult, because they are learning to turn while the bombs are falling … New Zealand's Army is under United States command and its flyers are fighting with the United States forces in the Solomons … The biggest aircraft assembly base on any front is in Africa; British and American planes stream out of it to Near East bases … Russia does not believe that air power alone can win the war, and is very critical of British and American hopes to avoid ground battle by destruction of the enemy from overhead … One of the biggest surprises in recent air war was Britain's big Lancaster bomber raid on Europe in broad daylight without losses; that was supposed to be exclusive for B-17s and B-24s … Biggest loss of the B-17s in Europe so far was three in one day — Axis planes have left their skeletons on Malta's rocks and in adjacent waters … Counting up the wood airplanes now in the war — trainers, transports, Britain's Mosquito, its half-wood Hurricane, Russia's first-line wood fighters, and the prospect of a wood Spitfire — one begins to wonder what we are going to do with all that aluminum our plants will turn out next year.

This article was originally published in the December, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 12, pp 94-95, 323.
The original article includes photos of paratroops in the air and on the ground, and an artist's conception of a deHavilland Mosquito. Photos credited to Press Association; Mosquito image is not credited.