Facts contained in the following article were prepared exclusively for Flying by Congressman Harter, who recently completed a survey of the performance of American warplanes on various battle fronts. A member of the House Military Affairs Committee, Congressman Harter has consistently shown a deep interest in aeronautical matters. He is chairman of the special subcommittee on aviation of the House Military Affairs Committee. Mr Harter is a native of Ohio. Ed.
The searing test of battle has been applied to American fighting planes, and the magnificent results point squarely to the eventual annihilation of the boasted air power of the Axis.
Our planes can fight. Not only can they fight, but plane for plane, they have demonstrated in the hands of pilots of half a dozen nationalities and under the most extreme variations of climatic conditions that they can outfight anything the Axis has been able to throw into the air against them.
That, of course, is not to say that victory for the United Nations will be swift or easy. Quality we have in our military aircraft, but the finest plane in the world cannot prevail against an enemy overwhelmingly superior in numbers. Production in great quantities is part of the answer, but only part. We are achieving quantity production to a degree that leaves little doubt that President Roosevelt's announced production goals, so staggering as to seem fantastic when the figures were disclosed, will be met substantially on the schedule he laid down.
But planes rolling by the hundreds and the thousands from the assembly lines of American factories can win control of the air for the United Nations only when they are delivered, in fighting condition, at the battle fronts. That is the crux of our problem. Delivery in fighting condition means not only delivery of the planes but the creation of bases from which they can operate, with crews, ammunition, fuel and supplies flowing in a steady stream to "keep 'em flying."
That, of course, is a principal reason why victory can be neither swift nor easy for us in this global war for the preservation of the kind of civilization without which life would be meaningless for us. Our heavy bombers can be flown from the factory to the fighting lines, but everything else replacement parts, equipment, fuel, food, antiaircraft guns, ground troops and above all the pursuit, interceptor and attack planes must move by sea to the southwest Pacific, to North Africa, to India, the Middle East, Britain and Russia.
The difficulties of this problem are understood by our Army and Navy commands, by the civilian officials of our Government and by our allies. The problem is being met and will be solved. So, remembering it only as a precaution against reading into reports on the battle performances of American planes an over-optimistic hope for immediate triumph over our enemies, we can consider the record of those performances and take great pride in it.
In the Battle of Britain, in Hawaii, in Gen Douglas MacArthur's glorious defense of the Philippines, in the paralyzing cold of a Russian winter and the vicious heat and dust of the shifting maneuvers of Libya, over the jungles of the Indies and above the pagodas of Burma, American fighting planes have always performed both consistently and brilliantly.
Already they have wrought havoc among the legions of the enemy. If the record were closed now, the German, Italian and Japanese losses of ships, planes and men already inflicted would be impressive testimony of the worth of American aircraft. But the record is not closed, and the warlords of Berlin, of Rome and of Tokyo know in their hearts that what already has been done is only a token, an "earnest" of the final payment of retribution for them.
Take, as our first example, the Curtiss P-40. This shark-nosed vessel of wrath has been doubted, adored, damned, praised, ridiculed and lauded more than any other plane we have, to the great confusion, no doubt, of the public. John Q Doe picks up the Podunk Bugle and reads that Lieut Gen Henry H Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, rates the P-40 as little better than an advanced trainer, and then discovers in the columns of the Squeedunk Clarion that British pilots in North Africa hold the P-40 to be the best fighter they possess. Small wonder that he is confused!
The answer, of course, is that the P-40 is six different planes, with the later models so superior in speed and firepower as to bear little relation to the earlier models in anything but the designation by our Army as a P-40.
General Arnold's remark in a speech last October at West Point has been widely misinterpreted by critics of the Army Air Forces as condemning the whole P-40 series. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The obvious meaning of his reference was that the first model of the P-40, constituting less than six per cent of the total production of the series, was merely the forerunner of the much better, faster, higher-performing and harder shooting versions which have proved their worth in battle on every front of the war.
The British, who give their military aircraft names instead of numbers, differentiate between the earlier and later models of the P-40 by calling the former the Tomahawk, while christening the later airplanes of the series Kittyhawks, recognizing that the later ones represent such radical improvement as to constitute in fact a new airplane. The early P-40, powered with the first model of the Allison engine and armed with only two .50-caliber machine guns and two .30-caliber wing guns, did not have adequate fire-power and was not, in actuality, a modern warplane. Its successors, up to the P-40D and P-40E with improved Allisons, and the P-40F with the first American-built Rolls-Royce engines, have represented constant and rapid improvement, and these later models concentrate the fire of six .50-caliber machine guns on their targets. This improvement has been achieved without interruption of production, with output of the older models tapering off as production of the newer versions was stepped up.
The British version of this airplane has had a distinguished record in the Middle East, where the Australian and South African pilots who have flown it against German and Italian forces prefer it to the celebrated British Hurricane. The reasons for this preference are not difficult to discover if one is aware of performance reports. A few months ago, for instance, a flight of twelve Tomahawks notice that these are earlier models of the P-40 tangled with a mixed German and Italian force of more than 60 planes. These "advanced trainers," if you please, fighting odds of better than five-to-one, destroyed 36 of the enemy planes.
The great maneuverability and the high diving speeds of the Tomahawks were given credit by the pilots for the astonishingly successful result of this combat, and the pilots' reports also spoke warmly of the devastating effect of the Tomahawks' two .50-caliber machine guns.
More recently only a few weeks ago, in fact four of these Tomahawks, which are standard fighter equipment for the British forces in the Middle East, engaged a German squadron of 30 planes, made up of Junkers Ju-88s and Messerschmitt Me-109s. In the first phase of the vicious battle which followed, 12 German planes were destroyed, the British losing two of the Tomahawks. As the conflict developed in a second phase, the two remaining Tomahawks put eight more German planes out of action. Junkers and Messerschmitts, dread names in the Luftwaffe, lost 20 of their number when they were attacked by four outdated P-40's!
In the Near East also, the more recent models of the P-40 have had their baptism of fire. An official report from an American military attache said that in two engagements, a squadron of Kittyhawks destroyed 13 enemy p1anes, including two Me-109F's, with a loss of only one P-40D, and an official British report of the same date, January 16 of this year, had this to say:
"Pilots in the squadrons equipped with the Kittyhawks consider this plane superior to Germany's famous fighter, the Me-109F and superior to all other RAF planes in the Middle East."
If further evidence of the sterling worth of this American pursuit plane is needed there is plenty of evidence at hand. Some of it comes from Russia, where in January, during a single day's combat, four Tomahawks are reported to have shot down eight Messerschmitts and scattered others which were supporting the German drive before Leningrad.
Still more comes from Burma, where the American Volunteer Group which has been fighting so effectively for China offers eloquent proof of the value, not only of the P-40, but of another American plane, the Brewster Buffalo.
Defending Rangoon and the Burma Road, this group bagged 90 out of 100 Japanese planes which they intercepted between December 7 and February 1, with a loss ratio of about one to 10.
The volunteer pilots of this force, now a part of the combined war strength of the United Nations, have acted as fighter escorts for British bombers and have carried out extensive protective and raiding missions against the Japanese. Between December 20 and February 1, as reports to the Military Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives disclose, they destroyed 96 Japanese bombers and fighters with a loss of only 23 of their own aircraft, a ratio of better than four to one, in spite of the fact that their equipment in these engagements was Tomahawks the older version of the P-40 and in spite of the fact that in virtually every encounter, they were greatly outnumbered by the Japanese.
An engagement which took place on January 23 is undeniable evidence of the superiority of American fighting planes. The AVG, flying 23 planes including both Tomahawks and Brewster Buffaloes, took on two large Japanese forces at Kanyutkwin, about 130 miles from Rangoon. Their toll was three Japanese bombers and nine fighters certainly destroyed, two more bombers and 10 more fighters probably destroyed, with the loss of only two Buffaloes and one Tomahawk.
Even at Pearl Harbor, where the sneak attack by the Japanese caught most of our planes on the ground, some of the Army's P-40s, similar to the Tomahawks, got into the air and gave a splendid account of themselves. Lieut Kenneth M Taylor and Lieut George S Welch, engaging a formation of Japanese planes, each shot down two, and Lieut Welch later attacked two Japanese planes and shot down both.
If the P-40 seems to get the preponderance of attention in reports from the battle fronts, it is because this airplane was developed earlier and was for many months the only one of the Army's four, standard pursuit craft of which production was large enough to deliver appreciable quantities to the fighting theaters.
Since we had no modern pursuit planes in full production at the start of the emergency, it was necessary to start quantity production at once of at least one type to provide ourselves and our allies with a plane that could be sent into battle at once without waiting for a "superplane" to appear on the scene.
Production efforts were concentrated, therefore, on the P-40, with improvements to be made as output went along as speedily as possible. Delivery of the original order of P-40s began in May, 1940, and was completed in October the same year.
Meantime, delivery of the P-40B and the P-40C, the Tomahawk, already had started in September, 1940, and continued through August the following year. Delivery of the P-40D and the P-40E, the Kittyhawk, began in June last year and still is continuing. These models have the improved Allison with higher hp, and are armed with six .50-caliber machine guns.
With Kittyhawks still coming off the assembly lines, delivery of the latest of the P-40 series, the P-40F, using the American-built Rolls-Royce engine, already has started. The British, incidentally, have tentatively given the name Warhawk to this latest of the Hawk series manufactured by Curtiss.
While production efforts have been concentrated on these planes, the development and production of other pursuits has not been allowed to lag, and the P-39, the Bell Airacobra, not only now is coming from the factory at a satisfactory rate, but is demonstrating its superiority to the Spitfire and the Messerschmitt in the medium-altitude field.
American planes excel not only in the medium-altitude field, but in the high-altitude class also. The P-38, Lockheed's twin-engined pursuit plane, leads both the Spitfire and the Hurricane in high-altitude combat conditions, whether pitted against pursuit planes or against bombers. And the newest of all Army pursuit craft, the Republic P-47 in which the Army adopted once again the air-cooled radial engine instead of the in-line liquid-cooled power plants of the P-38, P-39 and P-40, is a high-altitude fighter without a peer. The characteristics and performance of this plane cannot be disclosed, but it violates no confidences and no military restrictions to say that it is the most suitable aircraft of its type in the world.
Not only have American pursuit planes proved their worth in combat with the enemy, but American bombers also have performed brilliantly. The British, who scorned the United States Army's great four-engined Boeing Flying Fortresses (even after the war was hideously underway) as "flying targets," are more than glad now to get as many of them as they can. The ease with which these great planes accomplish their distant bombing missions in Germany and Italy and elsewhere on the continent of Europe has left no shade of doubt in anyone's mind over there as to their worth. The British also are delighted with our medium or attack bombers, such as Martin's sleek and deadly B-26, North American's fast B-25, and the Douglas Havoc, so versatile that the British use it not only for bombing missions, but as a night fighter.
It is in the Pacific theater, however, that American pilots, as well as Dutch and British and Filipino flyers, have guided the Flying Fortress to its most spectacular achievements, not only spreading destruction in the Japanese navy and among Nipponese ground forces, but demonstrating the huge bomber's ability, without fighter escort, to take care of itself against Japanese pursuit craft.
On January 26, for instance, during the great battle of Macassar Straits, the Army reported that seven of its Flying Fortresses, after sinking a transport and leaving another in flames, were attacked by a formation of Japanese fighters.
The clipped, unembroidered phrases of the official communique tell the story with admirable brevity
"Five enemy planes were shot down. All of our bombers returned to their base undamaged."
Three days later, when heavy Army bombers attacked Japanese shipping in Balikpapan on Macassar Straits, Japanese fighting planes again sought to intercept them. The bombers shot down two of the Japanese fighters and damaged a third. Undamaged, the five four-engined giants returned to their base. Still more astonishing was the victory of four bombers intercepted by Japanese fighters, again when the objective was enemy shipping at Balikpapan. One of the bombers was lost, but nine of the enemy fighters were shot down!
In most of the encounters over the Netherlands Indies, the American pilots, whether of pursuit planes or of bombers, have faced greatly superior numbers of the Japanese, but almost without exception have proved equal to the task imposed on them by any individual combat. The tragic truth, of course, is that many of these victories have been Pyrrhic ones because we have not been able to deliver enough planes in that theater to keep our fighters constantly in the air, or to give our forces anything like an equal show of numbers.
But in individual encounters, the P-40, as well as the Boeing Flying Fortress, has performed wonders in the struggle for possession of the Indies. On February 9, the War Department reported that a formation of 16 Army P-40s intercepted 25 Japanese heavy bombers escorted by two fighter planes over Surabaja, the great Dutch naval base on the island of Java. The P-40s destroyed five enemy bombers and one of the fighters. One of the American planes was shot down, but the pilot parachuted to safety.
In another encounter, seven Army P-40s intercepted a formation of nine enemy bombers accompanied by 14 fighting planes. The Americans shot down one of the bombers and one of the fighters, damaged four other bombers and two fighters, and forced the entire formation to turn back. If the United Nations could hurl enough planes into the air to treat every Japanese bombing formation in this manner, there would be a much easier task ahead of us, but the simple arithmetic of ships available, cargo space, convoy speeds and the huge distances to be traversed a cargo ship can make, on the average, only three round trips a year between the United States and the Netherlands Indies remind us that a hard and bitter struggle still lies ahead.
The Army's new dive-bomber, the Douglas A-24, also saw its first officially reported action in the Indies, participating seven strong in a running fight with the Japanese invasion fleet attacking Java in the last week of February.
They damaged seriously a Japanese cruiser, but two of the planes were shot down, along with two of their escort of 16 P-40's.
The official Army summary of airplane combat losses issued on February 27, underscores the individual reports on performance of American warplanes. From December 7, 1941, to February 27, 1942, our Army Air Forces and antiaircraft artillery shot down a total of 245 Japanese planes, losing in that time 48 of our own planes, a ratio of five to one. While antiaircraft scores are included in these figures, the ratio remains roughly the same for strictly aerial encounters, and the summary did not include losses of planes on the ground. Our planes, during the same period, were believed to have sunk 19 ships of the Japanese navy and to have damaged seriously 31 others.
The Americans flying American-built planes with the AVG, although not officially a part of the United States Army, were credited for the same period with a score of 165 Japanese planes against a loss of 31 of their own aircraft, or better than five to one. These figures were not included in the Army Air Forces' figures.
Both P-40's and four-engined bombers, of course, played an important part in the early stages of the struggle in the Philippines. Although the bombers are no longer there, those that were not destroyed having been flown to the Indies, General MacArthur still has some of his P-40s at his disposal, and they still are turning in a good account of themselves.
In sum, the United States now is producing planes that are at least the equal and in some cases the superior of any produced anywhere in the world. There is no question that in some classes, particularly the heavy bombers, we lead the world, and when the newest Army pursuit, the P-47, comes into quantity production, we will have for a time, at least, an edge in ceiling and performance over all the world's fighter aircraft.
This article was originally published in the May, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 30, no 5, pp 30-32, 68, 70, 73.
The original article includes photos of SBD, Brewster Buffaloes, SOC, P-40F, Havoc, B-17E.
Photos are not credited.
A PDF of this article is available.