In the early days of global air war, designers, tacticians, and casual observers looked continually higher into the stratosphere for aerial success against the enemy. Oxygen equipment, superchargers, and heated flight togs became the order of the day as operating altitudes increased for bombers and fighters alike. Then the war moved in to close-quarter fighting, and one fact became obvious to men on the ground and men in the air. Wars could be won only through coordinated action on the ground and above the ground even a Norden bombsight would not unite aerial tactics and infantry tactics from five miles up. Once this was realized low-level attack moved into its own, with the ground troops calling on air support in every war theatre.
Today, fighters and fighter-bombers stop front-line troops in their tracks while medium and attack bombers handcuff the enemy's supply forces with skip- and para-bombs, as dive bombers shatter his defensive installations. Meanwhile, cargo planes and gliders move in with men and supplies and the infantry moves forward almost before the low-level planes have turned homeward. That, briefly, is low level operations. For lack of this air-ground coordination, Cassino held out long beyond its allotted time. Because of this cooperation, the Atlantic wall has been dissipated, Paris has been liberated, and the Siegfried line has been desiccated and Allied leaders are convinced that through air-ground operations they can start a battle anywhere, at anytime, and win.
Obviously, the job done by the low-flying airplanes is entirely tactical, for their goal is total destruction while the heavies seek only strategic damage. To succeed at their job, these planes must fly within 500 yards of the ground where a stray hit from small-arms or machine guns can mean loss of control without sufficient altitude and thus, disaster. But the risk is worth while, for airdromes, landing strips, repair sheds, barracks, supply and communications lines, fortifications can be hit from the tree-top levels and from nowhere else. In this, the Allies are using the lessons of the Middle East and Africa, where tactical air warfare was first used against the Germans. Over the deserts, fighters were fitted hurriedly with bombs which they discharged before assuming their natural duties as interceptors. Gunners in fast medium bombers learned to turn their forward guns on ground targets on their final run, then the bombs were dropped to finish the job. In this way, some targets were deliberately avoided because of their potential value to advancing Allied ground forces, while others were devastated completely. It was not uncommon for a B-25 raid to knock out a German power generator while avoiding the adjacent power lines, simply because the latter could be used to beat the enemy while the former required repair parts not available outside of Germany.
It would be difficult at this late date to say what pilots or planes first utilized low-level tactics successfully, but the hardy little Curtiss P-40 was certainly there in the van. The close grouping of its wing guns made it particularly effective in strafing while its general ruggedness lessened the effectiveness of opposing flak. As a dive-bomber, it used exceptional durability in steep pull-outs to real advantage. Conversely, it was not individual performance characteristics but general versatility which recommended the Lockheed P-38 to similar duties in the early days of air-ground cooperation. Subsequently, the North American P-51 acquired dive brakes, Bell P-39s turned their nose cannons against tanks, Martin B-26s and North American B-25s joined the Douglas A-20s to form a low-level team which could not be stopped from the ground or from the air.
The enemy, too, has made good use of low-level attack. Now credited with twenty different operational duties, the Junkers 88 has been the most effective of all low-level German weapons, despite the fact that faster fighters and more durable bombers have been tried on such assignments. In the Pacific, the Japs have utilized the low approach in several effective ways. Torpedo attacks are almost always preceded by deck-strafing, while bombing raids are usually led off by strafing of Allied machine gun installations and antiaircraft batteries. Now the Nips are following the lead of other belligerents by slinging small bombs on their fighters.
So, on every front, in the hands of every warring nation, the low-level plane has taken a high rung position of importance. It has but one limitation. Only the offensive side can use the low-level plane to any advantage. But from here on out, the Japs and Germans can fret over the problems of defense.
This article was originally published in the December, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 7, no 6, pp 26-27, 76.
Air News was published on newsprint in 9½" × 13" format.
The original article includes 30 small photos of various aircraft used in close air support, including the Horsa glider and the C-47.
Photos are credited: USAAF, International, Rudy Arnold, Air News, Hans Groenhof, acme, Bell, Doughlass, Glenn L Martin, Vultee, Curtiss Wright, British Combine, British Information Services, Wide World, European, US Navy