Battles' Baptism Proves Our Planes Best

by Hanson W Baldwin
"Best qualified civilian military expert"
Hanson Baldwin knows what he writes about. Not only has he recently visited Army and Navy fronts throughout the world, but he was an honor graduate of the Naval Academy and served three years on a battleship. He joined NY Times in 1929 and today is America's outstanding military and naval analyst.

Hanson Baldwin's interesting selection, of the best planes for 1942, including all combatants, caused a furious discussion in the Skyways office and will probably start one across the country. There is no doubt but that it is carefully considered, but also that it is completely and individually Baldwin.
Obviously, the Bell P-38 and the Curtiss SB2C-1 would have earned consideration if more of them had a chance to battle but we wonder why, for instance, he did not mention, the Mustang (P-51) which has earned enthusiastic praise in England. We also wonder why he included the ancient Nazi "workhorse," the Ju-52.
However, the choice of the distinguished correspondent and authoritative analyst is based on his recent service at the front and therefore has a distinct advantage over stay-at-home judgment … but it's still open to argument. Want to get in on it?
The Editors

American air power came of age in 1942, and in many of the far-flung theatres of action, air superiority — with all the advantages that implies — was being won, slowly but surely, by the United Nations.

In the first year of the American war effort, the aircraft carrier displaced the battleship as the capital ship of today; sea power became a compound word— the plane-ship team; American aircraft production increased from more than 2,000 to more than 5,000 planes monthly; most American planes — particularly the Army's bombers and the Navy's carrier-based planes — proved, in general, equal or superior to the best of the enemy's; military air transport spanned the seas, girdled the globe and became a major factor in logistics; and Germany and Axis dominated territory were subjected to the most severe aerial bombardment in the history of war as the Douhet theory of "pure air war" received its second great test.

Probably the most promising and hopeful of the year's developments was the increase in strength — qualitatively and quantitatively — of the United Nations' air forces relative to the Axis air forces. Yet, a large measure of our own air strength is still potential, while the Axis probably has reached its maximum potential and is struggling, against great losses, to maintain — rather than to increase — its strength.

We are on the up grade; the enemy is probably on the down. There lies the hope for the future.

And in many theatres — though not in all — it was air power that was instrumental in stemming the surging Axis tide of conquest. Planes smashing at Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's supply lines were a major factor in stopping his Egyptian drive short of Alexandria; planes operated from carriers in the Battle of Midway destroyed Japanese ambitions of defeating the United States by seizure of Hawaii; planes operating from land bases rather effectively neutralized the Japanese base on Kiska in the Aleutians. But in Russia, it was the Soviet Army, rather than Soviet air power — the Soviet Army and the sheer factors of mass and space that prevented the Germans from eliminating Russia from the war.

Air power learned many lessons during the year. Not the least of them was air power's dependence upon the ground. Pilots gained new respect for ships and commenced to understand the meaning of logistics. Not even in the "pure air war" being waged between Germany and England was it possible for air power alone to supply its needs. The imperative need for ground troops to protect the bases of air power (nowhere better exemplified than in the fight for an airfield on Guadalcanal) and ships to supply bombs and gasoline and all the many needs of the plane, became clear during the year's course of the struggle for the world.

By far the most important of the air developments this year was Britain's seizure of the initiative in the air war over Western Europe and her start of four-figure bombing raids against the Reich. For the first time in this war, Germany was clearly suffering major punishment in a defensive struggle — and the worst was yet to come. A considerable underestimation of the logistical problems of supporting four-figure raids led to over-optimistic predictions last Spring of their frequency possibilities. It is probable, too, there was some natural tendency to exaggerate the, effects they might have. The four-figure raids of the year were actually few and far between, but interspersed between them were many heavy raids delivered by hundreds of planes. The weight of bombs dropped upon Germany climbed upward month by month and far exceeded the weight of bombs dropped on any one country in the history of flight. The effect upon German morale, German transportation and communications, and German production was a cumulative one. There was no possibility of judging — from outside Germany — just how important a factor in the course of the war this continuous bombardment was — but that it was a considerable factor, there could be no doubt. And that it was forcing Germany to fight a many-front war in the air, with a resultant diversion for Russia, there also was no doubt.

The character of the air war in Western Europe approximates more closely the type of war envisaged by Douhet, and other early air theorists, than that in any other theatre. But as yet, the Douhet theory has been incompletely tested. The number of bombers available to pound German cities and industries and communications has been limited (one reason for the infrequency of. the four-figure raids) due to the dispersion — frequently a necessary dispersion — of our air effort to other theatres and because of high operational losses in these other theatres. In the eyes of the airman, there have not been enough bombers to test Douhet effectively; the question is whether there ever will be, or can be, enough.

At the end of the year, the heavy raids upon the Reich undoubtedly had started — but probably only started the "softening-up" process of the enemy which is essential to final victory. However, Germany was in no sense helpless. Indeed, she still remained formidably strong. The Dieppe raid with its high air losses for the British, who had a clear-cut quantitative superiority, showed some measure of the German air strength. And except at night — when darkness, speed and the elusive quality of the plane provided protection— bombardment targets of American and British planes in Western Europe were either mainly in coastal areas, or were within range of United Nations' fighters based on the British Isles. Some hope, however, that United Nations' planes would be able to extend their daylight precision bombing raids far beyond the range of their accompanying fighters was offered by the performance of the American Boeing Flying Fortress. This ship — with its high speed, great strength, high altitude and tremendous battery of ten or more guns — gave tentative promise of upsetting some of the lessons learned as the result of the experience of the first two years of war, viz: bombers alone can not successfully defend themselves against fighters, and hence must be accompanied on daylight raids by fighter escorts.

In Russia and North Africa, the character of the war in the air was shaped by the surface forces involved in the fighting. Planes were used primarily for the ground support of armies and to interrupt or interfere with the enemy's supply lines. It was when they were so used — and not on diverse, independent missions — that the greatest success was achieved. Against Malta, in an air blitz possibly unequaled in continuity, the Germans tried the same sort of neutralizing tactics we tried against the Japanese on Kiska — though with far less success. In the Pacific, as in Russia and North Africa, the air war was keyed to surface forces, and it was when these forces were used in conjunction — the one to support the other — that the greatest success was achieved. The carrier-based plane was the spearhead of the operations of both sides, and the torpedo and the bomb replaced, during the year, the shell as the primary naval arm. As a result of the lessons of the first months of war, the Army revised its concepts of the efficacy of high-level attack upon maneuverable targets and commenced to study the technique of mast-head or "skip" bombing — first used by the Germans against the British Mediterranean Fleet off Crete.

There were — during 1942 — three distinct types of air wars, in each of which the tactics and technique vary. The nearest approximation to "pure air war" in which the plane is used strategically against large area targets such as cities, communication centers and great industries, is that being fought over Western Europe. In Russia and North Africa, planes are used primarily for the close or distant support of ground troops; in the Pacific, planes and ships are used in close or distant support, one of the other. There are variations of these three principal types of air war in other theatres throughout the world.

The importance of quality — as well as quantity — in the war in the air was nowhere better demonstrated during the year than at Guadalcanal, where American planes, constantly outnumbered, shot down four or five enemy planes for every one we lost in combat. The combat results — here and elsewhere — were encouraging omens for the future, and provided enough tests of US planes to be able to evaluate with some degree of accuracy our own, and other makes. Judging by this test— the test of combat — this observer has attempted to list some of the best planes (in different categories) that actually operated on fighting fronts during the year They might, indeed, be termed the best in the world.

The list does not include such plane as the P-47, the Curtiss Commando and many other types now flight-tested and ready for the baptism of battle or service Selections have been made solely on the basis of combat or service tests; some newer and better planes, not mentioned in this list, may actually have been flown in combat or service during 1942, but those listed have borne the burden of the war effort From the result of tests in quantity — not in small numbers — they have show themselves to be about the best in their class.

That the United Nations — and the United States in particular — should have produced so many types worthy of inclusion in any listing of "best planes of the year" augurs well for the future. For the planes now coming from our factories in quantity — planes like the Curtiss Commando, the P-47 pursuit, the Vought-Sikorsky naval fighter — will, in time, far outperform those types which have already shown themselves to be better than anything the Axis has.

The year 1943 should be, therefore, a year in which American air power achieves its promise. Both in quantity and in quality, the United Nations, during 1943, should be able to outmatch the Axis. Yet, the struggle cannot be an easy one. The great output of American factories will be funneled down by distance, by operational losses and by the dispersion of our forces, so that we shall probably never have as many planes as we actually want on any one front.

But the initiative which we have already seized by our offensive in the Solomons, our landings in North Africa and our air attacks upon Western Europe, should pass more and more into our hands. The bombardment of Europe, from bases in Britain and North Africa, will probably become the greatest aerial effort in history. The roar of bursting bombs may well herald, in the Mediterranean area, the establishment of a second front in Europe during the year. In the Pacific, our growing strength in carriers should enable us to continue the slow and bloody business of "island-stepping," while our growing strength in transport planes should help us to build up a larger air force in China.

What happens tomorrow depends more upon us than upon the enemy. We must play our cards well, and air power — queen of battles — must be developed to its maximum potential by the United Nations.

This article was originally published in the January, 1943, issue of Skyways magazine, vol 2, no 1, pp 24, 30-31, 52.
The original article includes a portrait of the author and 5 photos.
1 photo credited to International News; 1 credited as Official USA photo; others not credited.

The article included a table of Mr Baldwin's choices:

TypeHanson Baldwin's ChoiceCountry
Bombers
AttackDouglas A-20A, B, C HavocUnited States
DiveDouglas SBD-3A Dauntless
Junkers Ju-88A
United States
Germany
Heavy (4-engined)
  Day Boeing Flying Fortress B-17E and FUnited States
  NightAvro LancasterGreat Britain
MediumNorth American B-25 Mitchell
Dornier 217E
Martin B-26B Marauder
United States
Germany
United States
Fighters
AccompanyingMesserschmitt 110Germany
InterceptorSupermarine Spitfire VGreat Britain
NavalGrumman F4F Wildcat or MartletUnited States
NightBristol Beaufighter
Douglas A-20 (modified Havoc or Boston)  
Great Britain
United States
Miscellaneous
Float PlaneMitsubishi 00 Zero (equipped with floats)Japan
Patrol Plane (Flying Boat)  Consolidated PBY-5 CatalinaUnited States
Torpedo PlaneGrumman AvengerUnited States
TransportDouglas C-54 (DC-4)
Consolidated C-87 (B-24)
Savoia Marchetti SM 82 Canguru
Junkers Ju-52
United States
United States
Italy
Germany

Notes: