Aircraft which can be counted upon to play a decisive part in shattering Germany's tank might are rolling out of Allied factories in ever-increasing numbers.
The Nazis planned that their Panzers and the Luftwaffe should provide the greatest weapon of organized destruction ever known; that they should be the spearhead of Hitler's bid for victory.
Now, with the huge American production added to the all-out British effort the Allied reply is coming into being. Allied airpower is being set to not only gain mastery of the air but to smash the tank from the field.
The Air Arm has three weapons against the tank; the dive bomber favored by the Germans, but shown to be vulnerable to strong aircraft and anti-aircraft defense; the armor-piercing shell of the cannon fighter; and the attack bomber.
The RAF are successfully developing and using both the cannon fighter and the attack fighter against German tank formations in Libya.
The tank is highly mobile and to oppose and destroy it, even greater mobility must be combined with fire power. The obvious way to get these is by using the airplane. The present cannon equipment of the Hurricane is 20-mm calibre, which is not heavy enough to pierce the main armor of any but light tanks, but they are quite adequate for flank attacks designed to shatter the suspension systems and tracks which will immobilize the tanks tor later attention by artillery or bombers.
Some time ago the Bell Aircraft Company of America, showed great foresight by designing the Airacobra specifically to mount the 37-mm cannon firing a 1½-lb shell capable of penetrating 1½ in of armor plate at an angle not less than 22°. These aircraft are known as "tank busters" and they and their British counterparts are rolling out of the factories in ever-increasing quantities.
Essential duties of an air force are to provide information on the enemy's movement and to act as long-range and super-accurate artillery. All other operations are secondary to these.
The fighter came into being as a logical reply to the aircraft sent out by the enemy to destroy the early observation craft, and later it was called upon to act as bodyguard for bombing forces.
In its capacity as long range artillery, the Air Arm has been used in different forms and for varying technical purposes by both the Allies and the Axis. Germany regarded the airplane primarily as highly mobile support for her Army, particularly for the armored divisions, and so produced in great quantities the Junkers 87 dive bomber and the Me-109 fighter the latter to defend the bomber from attack by hostile fighters.
Cooperation between the Luftwaffe and the Army was well organized and when the tanks were unable to overcome an obstacle, the dive bombers were called up in sufficient quantities to blast away the opposing position. These tactics served the Nazis well in the European battles of 1939 and 1940, when fighter opposition was insignificant. The Nazis also used the dive bomber to create panic among refugees, mercilessly machine-gunning and bombing them on the roads and so impeding Allied troop movements.
The success of the dive bomber, however, was not repeated, much to the Nazis' surprise, when the same technique was applied to the attack on Britain. Then, a small but highly efficient Fighter Force shot the Junkers 87s out of the sky. This Junkers was then exposed as being limited, in its effectiveness and the most vulnerable of any type of bomber except when local mastery of the air had previously been established by the supporting fighter squadrons.
The next type of bomber tried by the Germans were the small, fast Me-109s and -110s which were essentially fighters equipped to carry a small bomb load, and by virtue of their speed and fighting power they stood a better chance of getting back to base in safety.
Up to this time Britain had been on the defensive, using her night bombers for strategical purposes only. Now, we begin to hear of fighter sweeps across occupied territory where Hurricanes and Spitfires shoot up enemy bases, or troop and transport concentrations. This phase is being succeeded by sweeps of day bombers which, guarded by high-flying fighters, are making low-level attacks with very satisfactory results.
The need for unescorted aircraft which can carry bombs, be fast enough to escape with a whole skin, and be well enough armed to fight its way out if necessary is being satisfied with the Hurribomber the old Hurricane equipped to carry two 280-lb bombs and a full load of machine-gun ammunition at a speed in excess of 300 mph.
Far better technical use is being made of this airplane than the Nazis had achieved in their use of the fighter-bomber Messerschmitt which flew high and dropped bombs indiscriminately on large targets.
Hurricanes, on the other hand, seldom fly an inch higher than is necessary to clear the French cliffs, trees, houses or power cables in their path. They use every dip in the land, twist in and out of factory chimneys, brush trees with their wingtips, and with the full 1250 hp roaring from their engines, appear as from nowhere over their targets; bombs are released with delayed action fuses to allow the plane to escape the blast and the Hurricane is away home again with another factory or power station left blazing.
The fighter-bomber is being used also against German tanks in Libya in company with the cannon Hurricane another of the now numerous varieties of this remarkable machine.
Just as the tank has proved itself to be the spearhead of the modern army, it has also been made very clear that it cannot be decisive alone. If tanks do not receive support from their air force, and if that air force is not capable of protecting them from enemy air attack, they can be starved out of fuel and immobilized by bomb or by cannon fire.
This article was originally printed in the June, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 6, pp 191, 250.
The original article includes 2 photos: bombing up a Hurribomber, and Hurribomber in flight.
Photos are not credited.