In his 1943 "State of the Union" Address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt commented, "in Africa, we are shooting down two enemy planes to every one we lose, and in the Pacific and the Southwest Pacific we are shooting them down four to one."
Studies by Depuy and others have shown that on the ground, one American, British, or Soviet soldier was not the equal of one German soldier. And even with a large superiority in numbers and firepower, Allied forces had difficulty inflicting human casualties on the Germans at a rate much above one to one. The disparity in tank effectiveness was even more skewed in favor of the Germans, as they inflicted tank casualties on the allies at a multiple of their own.
What accounts for the relative U.S. superiority in the air? And is it fair to say that without air superiority, the U.S. and Allies would have had great difficulty beating the Germans? Or are there credible sources or studies that show that the Allies could have won only using overwhelming numbers and firepower on the ground, without superior airpower?
I believe three factors play to the rapidity with which the Allies acquired air superiority over the Axis:
- The Battle of Britain - The cream of the Luftwaffe fighter force was crippled in this battle because of suffering all their casualties over enemy territory. A bailed-out RAF or RCAF pilot was usually back at his aerodrome within 48-72 hours. A bailed-out Luftwaffe pilot would spend the next 5 years at Old Fort Henry, Canada, in a POW camp.
- Population Base - Fighter combat is very much an individual test of skills and will, especially when compared to ground combat. Reflexes, marksmanship, initiative, creativity and sheer determination at a very high level are required for success, and these combine in only a small proportion of the population. Germany had a population base of roughly 80MM to search through for these skills in combination, while the Allies had a population base several times that to search. Germany's advantage in command and control that played such a decisive role in ground combat simply was irrelevant in most air combats.
- Technology - Other than a brief period after the FW-190 came out, the Axis never had a fighter plane that surpassed those of Britain and the U.S. The Japanese had better technology a bit longer with the Zero, but still only until the F6 Hellcat came out. Without superior technology to compensate for a lower skill base, the normal attrition of combat was always going to increase the edge possessed by the Allies.
Some factors not already mentioned:
- American factories and assembly lines worked hard, and turned out huge numbers of planes. A notable one is Willow Run in Michigan, which produced the B-24 Liberator. The Allied GDP outpaced that of the Axis.
- The American and British air forces alternated attacks against Germany. Americans would go bombing during the daytime, while the British would do so at night. It was called "round the clock bombing"; the intent was that "the devil will get no rest."
- When enough American aircraft had been committed to bombings, the German ability to produce diminished.
- Eventually, American and British strikes happened deeper and deeper in Germany, hitting infrastructure. Alongside landings at Normandy, bombing of German targets further intensified.
Air coverage, if not superiority, was essential. But for backup by the RAF, the evacuation at Dunkirk would have been subject to the Luftwaffe.
The Allies, especially the US after converting it's huge auto industry to aircraft production, were able to produce huge numbers of aircraft, and trained crew to operate those aircraft, while Germany was not. Germany did make astounding numbers of aircraft considering the state of their industry, but they were not able to supply those aircraft with trained pilots.
Nor were the Germans able to improve their designs as rapidly. US/UK manufacturing and project management methods allowed changes to be incorporated reliably and rapidly, while changes to German production took far longer to implement. The B17 went from the C model to the vastly improved G model, and the P51 went from the early B to the penultimate D model, in less than two years. Both were produced in vast numbers, in their improved form.
Not being harassed by a bombing campaign was a major factor there - German factories were under constant attack, while US factories were unmolested, and by 1943, UK factories were relatively free of air attack.
The Germans held the edge in high tech with their jet fighters, but were never able to produce them (or more correctly, never able to produce the engines) in such numbers to make a major difference. The lack of rare metals to produce reliable gas turbines was also a factor - the average life of a Jumo 004 was in the 20-25 hour range.
The US oil campaign proved to be very successful - towards the end of the war, lack of fuel became a major problem for both Luftwaffe and motorized ground forces as well. Much of the strategy of the Germans Ardennes offensive was based on capturing Allied fuel supplies… which did not factor in how easily a fuel dump could be set on fire.
To a degree, Allied training methods were better. Their philosophy was to send their most experienced pilots home to train new pilots, while Germany (like Japan) kept their aces in combat until they died. This accounts for the very high number of 'kills' of the best German aces, 200 to 300 kills, while the best Allied pilots rarely got more than 20 or 30. They went home to pass their expertise along to a great number of new pilots.
The result of that policy was lower overall kills for the individual pilots, but a higher overall level of experience on the part of new pilots, so they were more effective and suffered fewer losses. By early 1945, most new German pilots didn't last more than one or two missions, while most new Allied pilots survived the war.
I feel it was really a critical mass issue, which was lost around the start of 1943, mostly in the east. Looking back at losses, air forces don't stand up so well when stretched for resources. Germany had the massive eastern front to deal with as well as constant harassment from the British.
-Too many experienced pilots were lost, which reduced the effectiveness of each plane, putting extra pressure on the inadequate production and development of planes.
Early in the war, the Germans had many advantages. The Bf 109 was one of the best fighters of the war. Particularly at the beginning it outclassed everything but the Spitfire. Fighting in the Spanish civil war gave the Luftwaffe experience, then a constant string of victories made them almost unstoppable. The fall started with the Battle of Britain. Hitler only reluctantly decided to attack after Churchill refused his peace offering. It was a massive loss of air power for nothing in return. It delayed and hindered Barbarossa, Hitler's real goal.
Then came the Soviets - who had a lot of aircraft, but initially almost all of them were lost on the ground. Germans had the air virtually to themselves, but a combination of massive manpower, production and development of great planes slowly ground down the Germans. A lot of air power was lost around Stalingrad, particularly ground support aircraft, allowing soviet artillery to get a leg up. By the time of the Soviet counter-offensive numerical superiority was lost, partly due to the movement of aircraft to defend North Africa from the allied landings. If there was a tipping point it was around this time, mostly on the eastern front. Hitler had thrown everything at the Soviets and lost. The Soviets were producing more planes than Germany even in 1941, and this disparity nearly doubled by the next year. What's more, these planes were equal and sometimes better than the German planes. The US and Britain were also drawing critical resources away from the east and giving direct support of lend-lease materials and resources to the soviets.
By the time the allies were pushing through Europe, the US had collected many victories in the pacific, the arena of carriers and planes. By D-Day, Germany had only 600 fighters left, essentially nothing. The US had massively increased production of planes and had developed some of the best single engine fighters of the war. German resources were far too overstretched to really have had any chance of standing up to the allies at this stage, even with the 262.
During 1943 it was inaccurate to claim air superiority on behalf of the Allies. The American Eighth Air Force strategic bombers were being (on occasion literally) decimated during the daylight strategic raids over Germany. Other than the short range Spitfire the Bf-109 and FW-190 were the superior planes and capable of operation AT 20,000' and higher. American P-38s, P-39s, P-40s and P-51As were not in the same league. Only when the high altitude Packard Merlin Powered P-51 B was introduced at the beginning of 1944 did the tide change. The P-51Bs had the range and altitude performance to escort the bombers. The escorts were permitted to leave the bombers to engage German fighters as per a directive from Jimmy Doolittle. The Luftwaffe weakness was not planes but pilots (and fuel). The experience of the average German pilot was marginal when pressed into combat. By D-day the Allies established air superiority in Eastern Europe.
The Soviets also greatly improved their planes and pilot skill. However, the American planes that were inappropriate in Western Europe were much better suited for conditions in the Soviet Union in that most combat there was at low altitudes.
Still the Luftwaffe developed the best interceptor of the war with the ME-262 jet. But it was too little too late.
Once the Zero's weakness was identified it became less of a threat. While it had great maneuverability at medium to low speeds, it lost its aileron command at high speed. When confronted with high speed vertical tactics it as much less of a factor.
One of the main reasons was from the planes themselves. The Germans had three fighters at the outbreak of war; the Me-109, the Focke-Wolfe-190, and Me-110. The Japanese had one good fighter that was considered invincible (all the others were unreliable), the Zero. And they stuck with those throughout the war. The Allies, on the other hand, had numerous fighters of varying abilities, giving the Axis pilots a constant mix of different planes up against them they have to learn about the hard way. Another factor that affected the air superiority was the (untouchable) manpower and manufacturing resources of the U.S. By the end of the war, a small percentage of the remaining German pilots were fully trained and experienced, and up against them were thousands of better trained, better equipped, and more experienced Allied pilots. By the end of the war the Luftwaffe was almost non-existent.
All factors have been mentionned by different OPs, but I will present you a summary of how the Axis aviation went from victory to defeat:
Step one: get tactical defeats
The battle of Britain, the battle of Midway, are some examples of tactical defeats of the Axis aviation. They were lost against an opponent that was not threatened by an other mean (no ground or naval offensive possible), thus the fact that the Germans/Japanese lost more aircraft was a criteria of tactical and strategic defeat. However, the losses were huge but not decisive for the timeframe of the war.
Step two: get points of attrition
The year 1942 was a year of attrition fight of all fronts, and this year leads to a turning point because of these battles. For the aviation, the fight on Malta, on Guadalcanal or Stalingrad were points of attrition were heavy losses on both sides allowed the capacity of production and training of the Allied states (and mainly USA and USSR) to express themselves. In 1941, there was also some of these battles of attrition like in North and East Africa between the Italian and the British air forces.
Step three: loose the battle of bombings
During all these battles, the Axis air forces did not inflicted major destructions to strategic objectives because they lacked heavy bombers (as mentionned by another answer). The British and Americans did not. And they stroke hevaily the Italian and German industries, leading them to fail in replacing many parts of their forces. Add the specific lack of oil and oil with high octane degree for Axis forces in both Europe and Asia theaters, and the air forces are particulary leveled down by these bombings. Note that Japan suffered mostly of the submarine war, because bombings on its territory started later.
Step four: Don't have a major technological upper-hand
Despite major advances in rocket motors, neither actor of WW2 had a real uper hand in technology. Some advantages were even in the Allied side with the building of four motor-bombers and the disposal of very good classic engines (like the British Merlin). On other factors, as mentionned by other answers, the Americans and the British had medium armed fighters that were well adapted to their opponents, while the Axis hat to developed specific twin engined fighters to fight the heavy bombers.
Step five: be also beaten on other fields
The Axis might have work around these events with great naval and land victories. But it did not obtain these victories, partly because of its unhability to gain the air superiority, partly because on land and sea, the Allies were also good challengers.
A Quick Guide To The Air War Over North Africa In The Second World War
When fighting commenced in North Africa in June 1940, the Royal Air Force's (RAF) Air Headquarters Egypt immediately mounted bombing missions against Italian targets in Libya and helped repel the Italian offensive into Egypt.
The RAF was initially under-strength and equipped with the obsolete Gladiator and Blenheim aircrafts until modern aircraft began to arrive in Egypt. In 1941, as Greece came under attack from Germany, units were diverted to Greece and, in Libya, German air and ground forces pushed the weakened British back.
During the Desert Campaigns of 1941-1942, the RAF provided essential battlefield support to the often-beleaguered ground forces, attacking enemy armour and supply lines despite extremely difficult operating conditions.
In October 1941, to achieve closer air-ground co-operation, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, commanding RAF Middle East, oversaw the formation of the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF). Its Commander, Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham, developed a mobile, highly effective tactical air force, which in August 1942 began to receive modern fighters capable of competing with the German air force for air superiority.
By November, the WDAF comprised 29 British, Australian and South African squadrons which, augmented by other Allied units, were able to offer overwhelming air support to the 8th Army's offensive at El Alamein.
How Allied Air Attacks Evolved During World War II
RAF ground crews refuel and reload bombs onto an Avro Lancaster at Mepal, Cambridgeshire, for a night raid on Krefeld, Germany. The British launched their bombing campaign against Germany early in the war, and after suffering devastating losses in daytime raids, effectively switched to night attacks in urban areas.
Brian Todd Carey
In October 1943, the U.S. Eighth Air Force’s losses became critical, forcing a reappraisal of the American daylight bombing Strategy.
O n October 14, 1943, the air war over Europe reached a critical turning point. On that Thursday, the United States Eighth Air Force mounted Mission No. 115 against the city of Schweinfurt, the center of the German ball bearing industry.
Sixteen bomber groups from the 1st and 3rd Air divisions would participate in the strike. In all, 291 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses took off from bases in England and headed east toward the German border. As the bombers formed up over the Channel, short-range British Supermarine Spitfire fighters climbed to escort the heavies to the Continent. There, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts took over, escorting the flying armada to the German border. But insufficient range prevented the Thunderbolts from keeping the bombers company all the way to the target. Turning back somewhere around Aachen, just inside the German border, the P-47s left the unescorted bombers to a catastrophic fate.
Out of 291 bombers dispatched, 257 actually entered German airspace. Sixty were shot down, just over 20 percent of the total number. Two hundred twenty-nine B-17s reached Schweinfurt and dropped their bombs. Only 197 returned to England. Of those, five planes were abandoned or crashed on landing, while 17 others landed so damaged that they had to be written off. Altogether, 82 of the 291 original bombers that left England were lost, more than 28 percent of the entire force assigned to the raid.
Moreover, the Schweinfurt Raid was the climax of a week of strikes against German industrial targets. Between October 8 and 14, 1943, the Eighth Air Force flew 1,342 heavy bomber sorties, losing a total of 152 bombers (11.3 percent), with another 6 percent receiving heavy damage. During the entire month of October, the Eighth lost a total of 214 heavy bombers, almost 10 percent of the total number dispatched. Lost and damaged planes constituted more than half the sorties flown during the month. At that rate of attrition, an entirely new bomber force would be required every three months in order to maintain the Allied bomber offensive.
After the prohibitive losses sustained in October 1943, the Eighth Air Force suspended deep bomber strikes into German territory. Two premises of daylight strategic bombing—that bombers would be able to get through enemy defenses and back without escorts, and that destroying the enemy’s industrial base would cripple its war effort—appeared to be greatly mistaken. American air leaders, recognizing the inability of unescorted heavy bombers to get through and bomb German industry without excessive losses, questioned the very foundation of American air strategy. But why did American air leaders initially believe their heavy bombers would always get through, and what were the consequences of the American strategic doctrine when applied in the skies over the Third Reich? How has American air doctrine changed as a result?
The airplane, initially used during World War I in a reconnaissance role to locate enemy troop and artillery movements and concentrations, evolved throughout the conflict to perform all of the roles identified with modern air power—including strategic bombing. Although it was an immature weapons system during the Great War, the airplane’s enormous potential fueled the imaginations of interwar air theorists, foremost among them Italy’s Giulio Douhet.
Assuming that population and industrial centers would be vulnerable to fleets of heavy bombers, Douhet advocated attacking an enemy nation’s urban areas and factories with explosives, incendiaries and poisonous gas—with no distinction being made between combatant and noncombatant. Douhet believed that the impact of strategic bombing would simultaneously demoralize an enemy’s civilian population and destroy its capacity to wage war.
During the 1920s, Douhet’s theories and those of air power advocate Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell gained champions within the U.S. Army Air Corps, and strategic bombing doctrine began to be reflected in its field manuals. Chief among this new generation of bomber advocates in the late 1930s was the leader of the Army Air Corps, General Henry “Hap” Arnold. As the commander in chief of the American air service, General Arnold surrounded himself with “bomber men,” disciples of daylight strategic precision bombing. According to Arnold and his top commanders, the primary purpose of air power in Europe during the coming conflicts would be strategic bombing. Strategic bombing was the only major contribution the airmen could make to the war effort that was largely independent of the Army and Navy. If air power was to show its capabilities as an equal partner to ground and naval forces, it would be done through the successes of strategic bombing.
Because of the prohibitive cost of creating a bomber fleet on a “Douhetian” scale in the interwar fiscal environment, the U.S. Army Air Corps Tactical School advocated only the precision bombing of an enemy nation’s vital centers–its factories, power sources, transportation and raw materials. Advocates believed this goal could be achieved through the use of the new, fast, long-range “precision bombers” coming into service late in the 1930s, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator.
Powered by four turbocharged engines, the B-17s and B-24s were, at the time of their test flights in the mid-1930s, faster than most of the world’s operational interceptors. ‘If the superior speed of the bomber was such to make interception improbable, or at worst, infrequent, then no provision need be made for escort fighters to accompany the bombers on their long range missions,’ said one modern analyst of the 1930s air doctrine. Moreover, the new heavy bombers flew above 20,000 feet, too high to be reached by most ground-based antiaircraft.
The Air Corps bomber men believed the American heavy bombers would fly high and fast into enemy territory, eluding interceptors and antiaircraft defenses. Once above the target area, these “self-defending” American bombers would utilize the world’s most sophisticated bombsight—the Norden—which allowed for such factors as speed, course, wind direction and distance to target. Under favorable conditions, trained aircrews were able to place their payloads within a few hundred feet of their target from over 15,000 feet, prompting an Army Air Forces spokesman to boast that the aircrews could “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel at 25,000 feet.” But for the Norden bombsight to work well, American pilots had to deliver their payloads during daylight hours, in good weather and in level flight.
By 1940, with U.S. involvement in the European war imminent, American air commanders put their faith in the heavy bombers’ ability to get through to bomb Adolf Hitler’s Germany into submission. These leaders built an air doctrine around untested assumptions—that their bomber armadas could penetrate enemy territory without the aid of fighter escort and accurately strike German industrial targets.
In June 1941, the U.S. Army Air Corps was redesignated the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and submitted a blueprint for the defeat of the Axis powers should the United States be drawn into the war. Convinced of the effectiveness of strategic bombing, the Army Air Forces asked for and received permission to build a huge bomber force on truly a Douhetian scale. But building such an armada would take time planes needed to be assembled, air and ground crews trained, and an air force, the Eighth, had to be positioned in England.
The British initiated their own strategic bombing campaign against Germany in late 1939. Initially, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) Bomber Command attempted daylight strikes against the Reich, but those strikes proved disastrous, and the British soon turned to night attacks against urban centers. Throughout 1940 and 1941, the RAF continued to build up its small bomber force, and in May 1942, it conducted the first of many “thousand bomber raids” against German military, industrial and civilian targets. British Handley Page Halifax, Avro Lancaster, and Vickers Wellington bombers waded through the night skies to burn Germany’s cities with incendiary payloads.
British bomber raids were conducted at night to minimize aircraft losses, but the accuracy of the nocturnal strikes left much to be desired. Bomber Command was forced to carpet-bomb urban areas, a strategy that razed parts of German cities but did not effectively target Hitler’s industrial complex. The British reasoned that carpet-bombing would destroy civilian morale. These night attacks continued for the remainder of the war, complementing the USAAF’s daylight precision-bombing campaign by forcing Hitler to use essential resources in an attempt to save German cities from firebombing.
The newly formed Eighth Air Force, under the command of one of Arnold’s premier bomber men, Maj. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, joined the RAF Bomber Command in England in the summer of 1942. When Eaker joined the Eighth Air Force, he had only a handful of B-17s in the European theater. Over the next year, the Eighth Air Force leadership struggled to build a bomber force capable of inflicting serious damage on the Germans. Once in place, the Eighth Air Force pursued a policy of high-altitude daylight precision bombing against specific target systems—aircraft factories, electric power, transportation and oil supplies—in an attempt to destroy Germany’s ability to wage war.
The Allied strategic campaign in 1942 was very limited and too modest to produce conclusive evidence on its effectiveness. This was a period of apprenticeship, as bomber commanders learned tactics, trained crews and built up a ground organization. In anticipation of the invasion of North Africa—Operation Torch—units originally assigned to the Eighth Air Force were instead sent to the Mediterranean. In addition, the Eighth Air Force changed target priorities because the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff demanded that it bomb U-boat pens and construction yards. Since most of their early targets were in France and within U.S. fighter range, the Eighth Air Force bombers had fighter support on many of their raids, and the Luftwaffe had not yet been trained to attack mass formations of B-17s.
Yet even in its limited early operations in 1942, the Eighth Air Force lost up to seven percent of its bombers on some unescorted raids, a rate of loss that previously had led the RAF to abandon daylight operations. Such high attrition rates meant the average bomber crew could expect to survive only 14 or 15 unescorted missions. The standard tour at that time was 25 missions. If more than half the missions turned out to be unescorted, the chances of surviving an entire tour were slim.
Still, German fighters and flak continued to decimate American heavy bombers during daylight raids. General Eaker continued to believe in his bombers’ ability to get through without fighter escort and bomb the Third Reich into submission. Eaker’s optimism was based in part on the outrageous claims made by his aerial gunners and poor intelligence concerning the makeup of the Luftwaffe’s defenses. The Eighth Air Force gunners claimed a 6-to-1 kill ratio against enemy fighters over France and the Low Countries, a vastly exaggerated figure.
Moreover, Eaker believed erroneously that the Germans had created a relatively narrow coastal fighter belt from Hamburg to Brittany. Once the bombers had punched through this fighter belt, he reasoned, there would be clear airspace the rest of the way to and from the targets. With American bomber strength continuously growing, Eaker believed his bombers would be able to get through without long-range escort.
But the Germans had not created a coastal fighter belt. Instead, the Luftwaffe had established five defensive zones, each roughly 25 miles deep, providing fighter coverage more than 100 miles inland from the coast. Instead of punching their way through a single linear defense, Allied bombers had to contend with a sophisticated defense-in-depth, which provided constant attacks against bombers going to and from their targets.
The integration of American and British bombing strategies was formalized in January 1943 at the Casablanca Conference in a directive that laid the basis for a “combined bomber offensive” in preparation for the invasion of Europe and the opening of the second front. Put into effect in June 1943, Operation Pointblank, as the combined bomber offensive was eventually called, appeared critical to any successful invasion and ground campaign, since the limited Allied ground forces would require clear air superiority and would benefit from a weakened Wehrmacht.
Operation Pointblank put German fighter strength at the top of the target list, in a category all its own. This directive, in effect, ordered the Eighth Air Force to destroy the German aviation industry and secure air superiority over the continent, but how air superiority was to be achieved was debatable. With every passing month, more Flying Fortresses and Liberators entered the pipeline, and General Eaker continued to believe his rapidly increasing flock of “self-protecting” bombers would be able to successfully reach, bomb and return from targets over the Reich itself.
Stripped of some of its bombers and fighters due to the North African Campaign, Operation Pointblank opened with attacks on targets in Western Europe. Eaker placed highest priority on attacks on the German aircraft industry, especially fighter assembly plants, engine factories, and ball bearing manufacturers. Petroleum targets and transportation systems dropped down the priority list, while submarine targets remained close to the top. Frustrated by erratic weather (which limited daylight raids to about 10 a month) and crew and aircraft shortages, the Eighth Air Force did not mount a very impressive effort until the summer of 1943. The ever intensifying campaign did, however, help divert about half the Luftwaffe’s fighter force to anti-bomber operations. When Eaker received additional B-17 groups, he ordered major missions deep into Germany against important industrial targets, since the airfield bombings were not appreciably reducing German fighter strength.
On August 17, 1943, the Eighth Air Force launched its deepest raid against the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt and aircraft production factories at Regensburg. The bombs destroyed some of the factory complexes, but the Luftwaffe destroyed or damaged much of the bomber force. The raids cost the Eighth Air Force 60 out of 315 bombers and usually the 10 crewmen in each bomber. After more raids against Luftwaffe airfields, the Eighth Air Force made another massive effort the next month. On September 6, Eaker sent 262 bombers against Stuttgart. Of those, 45 fell to fighters and flak. Although the Americans had proved that, weather permitting, they could put some of their bombs on target, their losses in unescorted raids suggested that the Eighth Air Force might not find planes and crews to replace its losses and maintain efficiency and morale.
Undaunted, Eaker reorganized his bomber force for another maximum effort into Germany in October 1943. Reinforced with bombers redeployed from North Africa, the Eighth Air Force once again flew unescorted into the heart of industrial Germany. The results were again disastrous. Losses in the second week of “Black October” climbed until the second major strike against the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt capped the slaughter. On October 14, “Black Thursday,” a force of 291 B-17s flew into Germany and lost 60 aircraft. Of the survivors, another 138 bombers suffered damage or casualties.
Throughout the summer and fall, Eighth Air Force bomber crews were experiencing a monthly attrition rate of 30 percent, while Luftwaffe pilots died at a rate less than half that of the Americans. Of the 35 aircrews that arrived in England with the 100th Bomb Group at the end of May 1943, only 14 percent of the men made it through the 25 missions required for rotation. The rest were dead, wounded, missing, psychological cases or prisoners of war. The message was clear: Bombers could not survive beyond the range of fighter escort. After Black Week, Eaker called off further penetrations and pondered his dilemma. The American daylight bombing campaign against Germany had reached a crisis point.
The changes eventually made to Operation Pointblank in 1944 came from several sources. Major General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle replaced Eaker as the Eighth Air Force commander on January 6, 1944. Doolittle’s experience as commander of the Northwest African Strategic Air Force during Operation Torch had convinced him of the critical importance of fighter escorts to the success of bombardment. With a fighter-escort advocate at the helm of the Eighth Air Force, the doctrine of air superiority took on greater importance. Not only would bombers continue to strike key aircraft industries, but increasing numbers of American fighter escorts would aggressively attack the Luftwaffe as the Germans rose to attack heavy bomber formations. The American fighters would also dive below 20,000 feet in search of enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground.
Building on engineering projects in 1943, the Eighth Air Force mounted wing and belly tanks on its Lockheed P-38 Lightning and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters. The USAAF also discovered that by placing a British Rolls Royce Merlin engine in the North American P-51 Mustang, originally designed as a ground attack fighter-bomber, they could create the optimal long-range escort fighter for air-to-air duels with the Luftwaffe over German territory. In the meantime, the Eighth Air Force had redesigned its bomber formations for more accurate bombing and mutual self-protection.
Perhaps most significantly, Doolittle instituted a phased escort system that provided fighter coverage in relays. No longer tied to the bomber formations in fuel-wasting close support, Allied fighters were allowed by the relay system to push into enemy airspace at speed and rendezvous with bombers. Using this system, RAF Spitfires were responsible for areas over the English Channel and the North Sea to a distance of about 100 miles. American P-47 Thunderbolts then took over, providing escort for the next 150 to 200 miles. Then P-38 Lightnings took responsibility for another 100 to 150 miles, extending fighter coverage to about 450 miles. With the arrival of the first P-51Bs in England in the late fall of 1943 and the rapid development and refitting of wing and belly tanks, American bombers would enjoy escort cover to 600 miles, a range sufficient to reach Berlin.
In October 1943, the USAAF activated the Fifteenth Air Force, a strategic bomber force flying from Italy that could reach targets in south-central Germany and oil-refining targets in Eastern Europe. The activation of the Fifteenth forced the Germans to defend against two major bomber threats during daylight. Moreover, American aircraft production was finally meeting USAAF needs, and the USAAF training establishment was producing increasing numbers of bomber crews and fighter pilots. In December 1943, the Eighth Air Force mounted its first 600-plane raid. On January 1, 1944, the U.S. Strategic Air Forces, under the command of Lt. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, came into existence to coordinate the Eighth and Fifteenth air forces’ raids.
By early 1944, the newly formed U.S. Strategic Air Forces was hastening the destruction of the Luftwaffe in the air and on the ground, as well as carrying out the selective destruction of German industrial power. Spaatz abandoned his predecessor’s belief that the heavy bombers would always get through and championed the use of fighter escorts for bombers attacking deep into German territory.
The U.S. Strategic Air Forces, coordinating Eighth and Fifteenth air forces’ raids, resulted in a new peak in the American bombing effort. Testing all its reforms in early February 1944, the Eighth Air Force mounted a third Schweinfurt raid and lost only 11 out of 231 bombers, while three other raids sent 600 bombers against Germany with minimal losses. The USAAF mounted some 3,800 daylight sorties over the Reich during the so-called “Big Week” of February 22-25, while more than 2,300 night sorties were flown by RAF Bomber Command. Although Big Week cost the Eighth 300 planes (mostly bombers) lost or written off, nearly 10,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the German aircraft industry and ball bearing plants, a greater tonnage than the Eighth had dropped on all targets in 1943. As many as 1,000 complete or nearly complete German aircraft had been destroyed.
With fighters that could fly beyond the Rhine, protect bomber formations and sweep ahead to engage the Luftwaffe interceptors, the Eighth Air Force formations reversed the loss ratio with the German fighter force. American bomber losses fell below 10 percent of each raiding force, while German pilot losses mounted. In February 1944 alone, the Luftwaffe lost 33 percent of its single-engine fighters and 20 percent of its fighter pilots, including several fliers who were credited with more than 100 victories. In the first four months of 1944 it had lost 1,684 fighter pilots. Their replacements would be unskilled youths thrust into combat against experienced American pilots.
Compounding Germany’s troubles, the Americans had begun to introduce new fighters into the European theater in the fall of 1943, which continued throughout the war. They included Thunderbolts, Mustangs and Lightnings, which were joined by British Spitfires and Hawker Tempests. During the first six months of 1944, the air battle over occupied Europe continued with unabated ferocity. A primary goal of Operation Pointblank was fulfilled when, on June 6, 1944, the Luftwaffe failed to menace Operation Overlord, the Normandy invasion, and the Allies enjoyed air superiority over the battlefield for the rest of the war. The success of Operation Overlord was in no small part due to the air war waged over the Continent between January and June 1944.
Meanwhile, the remnants of the Luftwaffe battled the RAF and USAAF as the round-the-clock pounding of German cities and industry continued. Allied heavy bombers over the Reich now served as both bait and hunter, compelling the Luftwaffe to climb above 20,000 feet to meet the oncoming bombers and their deadly escorts in order to defend important industrial and population centers. The German planes then became targets for the well-trained Mustang and Thunderbolt pilots.
By the time Operation Pointblank ended, it had achieved its primary objective, securing air superiority over the cities, factories and battlefields of Western Europe in preparation for Overlord. Operation Pointblank had succeeded, but not in the way Allied planners had initially intended or expected. Round-the-clock bombing had not smashed the Luftwaffe into oblivion, nor had it destroyed German aircraft production. Instead, by simultaneously striking at aircraft factories and bombing industrial and military targets deep inside Germany, the combined bomber offensive forced the Luftwaffe to send its fighters to meet the ever-increasing flow of bombers over the Reich. Once in the air, they were assailed by Allied fighter escorts. In this war of attrition, the Luftwaffe lost its greatest asset—its experienced pilots. Without skilled pilots to meet the Allied threat, the rise in German aircraft production meant nothing.
The American doctrine of strategic daylight precision bombing failed because it rested on three premises that would be tested in World War II. The first premise centered on a belief of Arnold and his bomber disciples that their heavy bombers would ‘always get through’ without escort and destroy or neutralize enemy industry. The B-17s and B-24s were not able to adequately fight their way in and establish local command of the air. Instead, the Luftwaffe exploited the weaknesses of the flying armadas, inflicting heavy losses on the bombers—losses so extreme that, after Black Week, strategic bombing was suspended until the emergence of a new air strategy.
Second, supporters of strategic daylight precision bombing believed erroneously that the civilian population was the weak link in a nation’s defense. It was thought that bringing the horrors of war directly to the factories, power plants and railroads in the cities would cause the citizens of an enemy nation to compel their government to sue for peace. In practice, neither the morale nor the will of the bombed populations approached collapse.
The third premise was the belief that strategic bombing could eliminate an enemy’s ability to wage war by destroying its industrial base. German industrial output was not stopped by Allied strategic bombing. Legions of laborers ensured adequate manpower, while the largest machine-tool industry in the world compensated for the damage done to machinery. Germany had sufficient industrial capacity to absorb the first years of Allied strategic bombing. Dispersal of industry, ongoing repair and expansion compensated for additional bombing losses. In spite of the Allied strategic bombing campaign, the German economy continued to expand until late in the war.
As the American strategic campaign entered its second year, it faced an experienced and determined foe in the Luftwaffe. By 1943, when American bombers began to invade the airspace of the Reich proper, the Luftwaffe fighter command began to make a major effort against them. American losses from both England and North Africa mounted inexorably from August to October, culminating in the Eighth Air Force’s so-called “Black Week.” The week as a whole cost the Eighth Air Force a quarter of its airmen in England. After Black Week, the Americans effectively suspended daylight raids over the Reich until February 1944.
With U.S. bombers experiencing greater and greater attrition rates, American air commanders desperately sought a solution to their failing strategic-bombing campaign. A solution came with a change of emphasis in air doctrine. The changes produced a revision of Operation Pointblank and a doctrine that emphasized destroying the Luftwaffe in a war of attrition in order to gain air superiority for the coming D-Day invasion in the summer of 1944. The revised Operation Pointblank gave the Allies air superiority for D-Day and virtual command of the air for the push toward Berlin.
Operation Pointblank was a success. Local air superiority belonged to the Allies for the opening of the second front. The war for air superiority over Western Europe had been won, but not by “self-defending” heavy bombers. It had been won by a combination of fighters actively hunting down and killing Germany’s air force and Allied bombers damaging the industrial and logistical infrastructure that supported the German military machine’s ability to make war. In this two-pronged strategy, both bombers and fighters had a crucial, symbiotic role. American air commanders, like their ground counterparts before them, finally realized the truth of German strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s statement—that victory in war comes, first and foremost, through the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces. Operation Pointblank proved that American air power’s first mission should always be the establishment of air superiority through the destruction of the enemy’s air force.
Brian Todd Carey is an assistant professor at the American Military University of Virginia. This feature originally appeared in the November 1998 issue of World War II. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of World War II.
This Is the Battle That Decided World War II (Not What You Think)
While the tactical result of the battle was stunning – the U.S. sunk four Japanese fleet carriers Hiryu, Soryu, Kaga and Akagi, a heavy cruiser and destroyed 248 enemy aircraft – it is the perilous backdrop of America’s war fortunes in 1942 that make Midway’s tide-turning outcomes all the more significant.
Thursday, June 6 th saw the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion at Normandy, the amphibious assault phase of Operation Neptune, or what we commonly remember as D-Day. U.S. troops who landed at Normandy – particularly at Omaha Beach – waded ashore amidst a storm of chaos, a blizzard of machine gun fire, and a hail of plunging mortars. Despite great confusion and casualties, at the squad level and below, the men at Omaha rallied and pressed forth with tenacity and nerve to breach sand-berms and barricades, neutralize enemy positions, and salvage their sectors. Losses at Omaha were immense – but American resolve helped establish a foothold on the coast of France – and “the rest,” they say, “is history.”
(This appeared earlier in June 2019.)
Without doubt, the enormous importance of D-Day as a logistical and operational undertaking – and the gallantry of Allied forces that June morning is unquestioned. It rightfully exemplifies American character, courage, and commitment. However, it is important to note that as far as the battle’s strategic significance is concerned, a strong case can be made that other battles of World War II are more critical than D-Day.
The Battle of Midway in 1942 is one.
Today – June 7 th – is the 77th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, an engagement that not only follows one calendar day after D-Day but is a battle that is consistently considered to be a critical turning point for America in World War II. Midway was likely the most strategically significant battle for the U.S. in the Pacific Theater. Not only did U.S. Naval forces halt Japan’s dynamic and multi-pronged advancement across the Pacific at Midway, but the battle occurred in midyear 1942 when victory for the Allies was far from certain.
While the tactical result of the battle was stunning – the U.S. sunk four Japanese fleet carriers Hiryu, Soryu, Kaga and Akagi, a heavy cruiser and destroyed 248 enemy aircraft – it is the perilous backdrop of America’s war fortunes in 1942 that make Midway’s tide-turning outcomes all the more significant.
Recall that Midway occurred only six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor – a period when America’s military and industrial capabilities were a far cry from the potent war-machine they would be by 1944 and ’45. Aside from Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s gutsy bombing raid in April, demoralizing defeats had largely characterized the Allied combat experience in early 1942 – from Wake Island, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines in Asia, to the disastrous Raid on Dieppe in France. Other engagements – such as the Battle of the Coral Sea – were more akin to arguably draws than outright victories. Midway halted that trend with a shocking blow.
Midway is also crucial because of when it occurred in the context of Allied Grand Strategy for the war. Although both Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to a "Europe First" approach to defeating the Axis Powers, in mid-1942, it was in the Pacific Theater where the U.S. was executing significant offensive operations with joint forces and combined arms. It was at Midway where the U.S. demonstrated effective combat capability very early on – inflicting severe damage on a motivated and experienced enemy. Conversely, American efforts in the European Theater in 1942 primarily consisted of naval blockade and convoy protection in the Atlantic and continued material support to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t be until Operation Torch in late 1942 where the Allies – led by the U.S. – opened a genuine "Second Front" on Europe’s doorstep.
It is important to remember that by the time Overlord was launched in mid-1944, the noose around the neck of Nazi Germany had been steadily tightening. Italy’s role as an Axis power had been significantly reduced (having surrendered in 1943), the Wehrmacht had lost North Africa and suffered catastrophic defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk, the Red Army was sweeping back across Eastern Europe, Rome was liberated, and the Allies had primarily established air superiority over the continent. By 1944, the Allies were combat-hardened, and American war production was at peak levels. This all stood in stark contrast to 1942, when America and her allies remained largely on the defensive, and in many cases, in retreat.
So – with these points in mind, why is there not a greater appreciation for Midway every June? Its strategic importance in blunting the Japanese and the way the lopsided American victory lifted our morale at a tough period in the war, all argue for greater acknowledgment and understanding of the battle. And yet, Midway doesn’t seem to capture the same level of attention or interest that D-Day does every year.
The fact that Midway’s anniversary falls one day after D-Day may be part of the reason – it is overshadowed. It may also be that the story of American ground troops at Normandy, braving the horrors on the beach to secure a toehold in Europe, is something that resonates more personally with people on the most basic and emotional levels. We understand it better because of its mortal qualities. We’re more affected by – and thus seem to appreciate more – the visceral aspects of combat, the grit and grind and human tragedy of war. Perhaps Midway is less captivating in this regard.
The point of all of this is not – to diminish the heroism and experiences of anyone who landed ashore in France on June 6th. Nor is it to suggest that the contributions of those who did their duty in one theater at one time are greater or lesser than the contributions of those in another theater at a different time. Those who gave their all in World War II did so regardless of place, objectives, or the overarching status of the conflict.
The point of all of this is – that we have an obligation to develop a greater recognition of Midway and its strategic importance in the way that we recognize D-Day and its significance as exemplifying American valor and the American combat experience in Europe. There is an imperative to recognize the significance – from the personal to the academic – of all of these campaigns.
Looking ahead, 2019 marks the 75 th anniversaries of several major battles of the Second World War – from Saipan and Peleliu to Anzio, Operation Market Garden, and the Hurtgen Forest. 1944 also saw the Battle of the Philippine Sea – known as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” – and the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which is considered the biggest naval engagement of WWII and possibly the largest in world history.
As we commemorate each of these upcoming anniversaries, we have a golden and timely – but limited – opportunity to gain a new appreciation for the importance of these events and to understand the role that our fellow Americans played in them.
Connor Martin is a U.S. Marine veteran and policy analyst in Washington DC.
This article by Connor Martin originally appeared at Real Clear Defense. This article first appeared in 2019.
In 1960, Castro nationalized all U.S.-owned businesses, including oil refineries, factories and casinos. This prompted the United States to end diplomatic relations and impose a trade embargo that still stands today. Meanwhile, in April 1961, about 1,400 Cuban exiles trained and funded by the CIA landed near the Bay of Pigs with the intent of overthrowing Castro. Their plans ended in disaster, however, partially because a first wave of bombers missed their targets and a second air strike was called off. Ultimately, more than 100 exiles were killed and nearly everyone else was captured. In December 1962, Castro freed them in exchange for medical supplies and baby food worth about $52 million.
Castro publicly declared himself a Marxist-Leninist in late 1961. Ostracized by the United States, Cuba was becoming increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union for economic and military support. In October 1962, the United States discovered that nuclear missiles had been stationed there, just 90 miles from Florida, setting off fears of a World War III. After a 13-day standoff, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the nukes against the wishes of Castro, who was left out of the negotiations. In return, U.S. President John F. Kennedy publicly consented not to reinvade Cuba and privately consented to take American nuclear weapons out of Turkey.
In the interwar years, reconnaissance languished as a mission type and tended to be overshadowed by routine aerial mapping. This was despite the growth (in the United States and Britain) of a doctrine of strategic bombardment as the decisive weapon of war. Experience would soon prove that bombing was completely ineffective unless accompanied by intensive aerial reconnaissance. In the 1930s, gradual technical progress in the leading air nations led to advances particularly in photogrammetry and cartography, but failed to be translated into a capable operational reconnaissance capability. The various parties went into the new war with mostly the same cameras and procedures they had used when exiting the last one. Stereoscopic imaging using overlapping exposures was refined and standardized for mapping.  Color photography from the air was introduced in 1935 in the United States, but did not find widespread application.  Experiments with flash bomb photography at night were carried out pre-war, but did not lead to an operational capability until later in the war.  In the United States, apart from the case of small army-cooperation observation planes, the emphasis was almost completely on aerial mapping conducted by long-range bombers. In Germany, the Army Chief, Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, noted that in the next war, whoever had the best air reconnaissance would win – and thereby won himself a perfunctory mention in almost all subsequent works on the topic.  Yet in all countries, initial doctrines were focused on battlefield observation, which assumed a relatively static front, as it had been in the previous war. 
Strategic reconnaissance in its embryonic form began with the flights carried out over Germany by Australian businessman Sidney Cotton just before the outbreak of war in Europe. On behalf of first French and then British intelligence, Cotton outfitted civilian Lockheed Electras with hidden cameras and was able to snap useful footage during business trips. Cotton pioneered (for the British) the trimetrogon mount and the important innovation of heated cameras, fogging being the bane of high-altitude photography.  However, a multi-lens trimetrogon had been used in the 1919 U.S. Bagley mapping camera, and Germany had heated optics during the Great War. 
Sidney Cotton's work found only grudging approval with the Royal Air Force, but eventually his work was incorporated into No. 1 Photographic Development Unit (PDU) at RAF Heston and then RAF Benson, a unit from which most later British air reconnaissance developed. (It soon was renamed 1 PRU, R for reconnaissance.)  Key to the RAF's intellectual ascendancy in reconnaissance was the establishment of the Central Interpretation Unit (CIU) at RAF Medmenham. Priority tasks of this unit were to prepare target folders and to chart Axis air defenses. In short order, it began to evaluate the effectiveness of bombing.  See Photo interpretation.
At first Britain used a handful of hastily modified Spitfires (PR 1) and some medium twins (Bristol Blenheims) for photographic reconnaissance, supplemented by in-action footage shot from regular bombing aircraft. At this time the RAF still used the vintage F8 and F24 cameras, later adding the larger F52. The F24 became especially useful in night photography.  [ page needed ] Thanks to bomb damage assessment (BDA) the complete failure of precision daylight bombing soon became apparent, the vast majority of bombers not even coming close to their targets. This resulted in heavier demands on reconnaissance for before-and-after photography and the documented poor results (as well as heavy losses) led to a shift to night-time area bombing. 
Britain was far behind Germany in optics, and at one time 1 PRU took two Zeiss Ikon cameras with 60 cm lenses from a lost Ju 88 and used them for high-altitude photography. 
By 1941, the RAF had a capable reconnaissance arm (1 PRU) centered at RAF Benson, supported by a nascent infrastructure in interpretation and analysis. The Combined/Joint Intelligence Committee (CIC) ensured centralized tasking for critical objectives. The RAF led this field by far, and in 1941 several American observers from both the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) and the U.S. Navy were sent to England to investigate RAF reconnaissance methods.  [ page needed ]
Unlike the case in the previous war, French reconnaissance was now comparatively ineffective on all levels, and entirely lacked a strategic perspective. Most aircraft allocated to the mission type were obsolete. Large numbers of open-cockpit Mureaux 115/117 and light twin Potez 630 series were assigned to Army cooperation according to observation doctrines from the previous war. However, the new and scarce Bloch 174 twin distinguished itself by its high performance. Noted writer and reconnaissance pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flew this aircraft before the fall of France. 
The Istituto Geografico Militare acquired aerial photographs to sustain its war effort against Ethiopia in the mid 1930s. The aerial photographs over Ethiopia in 1935-1941 consist of 8281 assemblages on hardboard tiles, each holding a label, one nadir-pointing photograph flanked by two low-oblique photographs and one high-oblique photograph. The four photos were exposed simultaneously and were taken across the flight line. A high-oblique photograph is presented alternatively at left and at right. There is approx. 60% overlap between subsequent sets of APs. One of Ermenegildo Santoni’s glass plate multi-cameras was used, with focal length of 178 mm and with a flight height of 4000-4500 metres above sea level, which resulted in an approximate scale of 1:11,500 for the central photograph and 1:16,000 to 1:18,000 for the low-oblique photos. The surveyors oriented themselves with maps of Ethiopia at 1:400,000 scale, compiled in 1934. The flights present a dense coverage of Northern Ethiopia, where they were acquired in the context of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Several flights preceded the later advance of the Italian army southwards to the capital Addis Ababa. As of 1936, the aerial photographs were used to prepare topographic maps at 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 scales.  
Despite a considerable technological and numerical head start, Germany gradually neglected aerial reconnaissance, at least relative to Britain. The reason, grounded in history and geography, was that Germany had no strategic bombing doctrine and viewed air power as an auxiliary of land armies. Numerous Aufklärungs (up-clearing, i.e. reconnaissance) units were established for marine and ground support purposes, but while this was effective in the tactical sense, the intellectual investment in interpretation, analysis, and strategic estimation lagged. From the German perspective, this was defensible considering that about 90% of the action lay in large land-battles in the East, and an expensive long-range air capability would have been unlikely to effectively change the outcome.  [ page needed ]
Leading up to the war, the United States developed an indigenous high-quality optics capability led by Bausch & Lomb of Rochester, N.Y. however this company had been allied to Germany's Zeiss-Jena. Nonetheless, the American reconnaissance expert, then-captain George William Goddard, said that he much coveted German technical leadership, specifically as represented by Carl Zeiss Jena optical works, and he was pleased to briefly occupy that facility at the end of the war. But the German Air Force, expecting a quick victory, did not build an integrated reconnaissance and interpretation capability as a core national security asset like the Anglo Allies did. 
Before 22 June 1941, German reconnaissance was far predominant in frequency with many daily sorties throughout the region. Leading up to the invasion of France, concentration was on ports, forts, railways and airports, using mostly Dornier Do 17Ps and Heinkel He 111Hs, already vulnerable types, and rapid conversion to Junkers Ju 88D, later Ju 88H followed. Losses were on the order of 5–10%. A regular daily weather reconnaissance was kept up over the North Sea. Maritime reconnaissance from France and Norway reached well west of Ireland to the coast of Greenland using Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor and various multi-engine seaplanes. 
Germany used the LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin airship for signals intelligence sorties targeting RAF radar stations in 1939.
German units were divided into Fernaufklärer (long-distance), Nahaufklärer (tactical, subordinate to Army command), Nachtaufklärer (night photography), and maritime and special units. Command structure and unit designations changed incessantly. Each staffel (squadron, roughly) had a Bildgruppe of interpreters, who would telephone urgent intelligence to nearby headquarters. Film and analyses would go to Fliegerkorps (higher-level) staff later eventually top-level staff at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) headquarters at Zossen near Berlin would receive the products for filing and possibly strategic integration.  [ page needed ]
Germany emphasized tactical reconnaissance and invested considerably in both modified aircraft – primarily Ju 88s and Junkers Ju 188s – and in dedicated types such as the asymmetric Blohm & Voss BV 141 (20 built) and the twin-boom Focke-Wul Fw 189 Uhu (nearly 900 produced). This Nahaufklärung was primarily successful on the Eastern Front where immediate results were desired, and these units were directly under Army field command. For special demanding tasks a high-altitude photographic reconnaissance aircraft, the pressurized Junkers Ju 86P was available in very small numbers, but it could not survive after 1943. Also pressurized, the Junkers Ju 388L could reach 45,000 ft (14,000 m) and much higher airspeeds than the Ju 86P but only 50 examples were built late in the war and few saw operational service. Fighters, often with dual oblique cameras in the rear fuselage, were pressed into service for reconnaissance where their speed was necessary, and performed well in this role. Overall, however German reconnaissance against well-defended England was relatively ineffective.  [ page needed ]
Prior to Operation Barbarossa, the German attack on the USSR, the Luftwaffe did carry out an extensive pre-strike aerial observation of European Russia. This was possible partly because Soviet air opposition was weak, and because of the Soviet leadership's conviction that Germany would not attack. The Luftwaffe maintained air superiority in the East until late in the war, but simply could not bring enough resources to bear for air power to be decisive.  [ page needed ]
Axis partners, Italy and Japan, successfully performed long-distance reconnaissance prior to meeting stiffening opposition in 1942. Japanese aircraft reconnoitered the Philippines prior to 7 December 1941.  [ page needed ]
The Soviet Union had no advanced reconnaissance resources, but emphasized visual observation and reporting over the battle space. Open-cockpit biplanes such as the Polikarpov Po-2 were very useful for this, especially at night. The Soviets had virtually no interest in long-range air power or strategic reconnaissance, and had no advanced optics capabilities. However, they learned a lot about the discipline from the Americans when the U.S. Army Air Forces operated from three Ukrainian bases in 1944 (Operation Frantic). This operation included a photo-reconnaissance detachment which shared all results with the USSR. At the same time, Americans learned that Soviet photoreconnaissance capabilities were embryonic. 
Japanese reconnaissance was characterized by institutional rivalry between the Army and the Navy. The latter standardized on the Yokosuka D4Y Suisei ("Judy") and Nakajima C6N ("Myrt") multi-seat aircraft. The Army, which encountered little air opposition in China, used a variety of aircraft types and cameras.
Italy entered the war in 1940 with a very large number of obsolete observation aircraft, mostly open-cockpit biplanes assigned directly to Army commands. Initially, some strategic surveillance was carried out by three-engined bombers, and Italian aircraft ranged from Nigeria to Abyssinia to Bahrein (one flew to Japan and back). Italian reconnaissance could not survive in contested airspace.
Neutral countries seemingly remained in the World War I mindset of trench observation. While aerial photography was allocated to tactically inferior aircraft, and aerial mapping advanced considerably, there was no concept of strategic reconnaissance and little thought given to analysis and interpretation. Surprisingly, this was even the case in the United States, where the Air Corps had staked its future on the doctrine of strategic bombing. Up to 1940, the USAAC’s interest in reconnaissance was centered in one small office at Wright Field, Ohio, headed by the controversial Captain George William Goddard. He was responsible for most of the technical advantages adopted by the USAAC during the early war years. The extensive O-series of aircraft, such as the Douglas O-38 and its descendants, were typically low and slow and used for direct Army liaison, artillery spotting, and observation. The OA series of observation amphibians were mostly Army variants of better known Navy types, such as the Consolidated PBY Catalina. These were in practice more utility aircraft than dedicated reconnaissance platforms. In December 1941, complacency and inadequate leadership led to the failure to detect the Japanese task force north of Hawaii from the air.  Also, the Americans labored under the handicap that much equipment was assigned to Britain as fast as it could be produced.
By 1941, prompted by the British experience, Americans began to understand the need for a much expanded air reconnaissance concept. The F-series, which denoted photographic reconnaissance, was then led by the F-3A, a modified Douglas A-20 Havoc light bomber. Thanks in large part to the advocacy of the Director of Photographic Intelligence, the also very controversial Colonel Minton Kaye, a run of 100 Lockheed P-38 Lightnings were set aside for modification to F-4 standard, incorporating the trigonometric mount that both Kaye and Cotton had pioneered prior to the war. Despite the promising performance of the F-4, there were so many technical problems with the early versions that the model was largely rejected by its crews when it did reach combat zones. The RAF rejected the P-38, as well. 
The first U.S. operational reconnaissance experience was gained in the Australian theater. The top name to emerge was that of Colonel Karl Polifka, an extremely aggressive pilot who developed many of the tactics that would later become standard. Operating from Port Moresby to Rabaul, his F-4-equipped 8th PR squadron encountered serious problems reducing it at one time to one aircraft, but the valuable experience gained was shared by Polifka when he returned to the U.S. in 1943. 
When the United States and Britain invaded French North Africa in November 1942, the hastily improvised reconnaissance capability was quickly checked by reality. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's son, Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, led the American reconnaissance assets and in February joined with RAF units in the multinational Northwest African Photographic Reconnaissance Wing (NAPRW). At that point the Wing had found the F-4 unsatisfactory, the F-9 or Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress unable to survive over enemy territory, and the new British de Havilland Mosquito to be the most promising reconnaissance platform. British squadrons in the Mediterranean took over the slack left by the Americans. Numerous other technical and tactical problems virtually brought American reconnaissance to a halt but it rebounded swiftly, and by the time of the invasion of Sicily in July (Operation Husky), a very credible joint capability existed, the NAPRW comprising South African, Free French, and New Zealand units as well as RAF and USAAC units. By that time, new F-5 models of the Lightning were becoming available, and they were found to be far more reliable and capable.  However, this period marked the beginning of a year-long struggle by the USAAF, led especially by Colonel Roosevelt, to acquire the Mosquito and to also develop a brand new reconnaissance aircraft – a quest that would result in the ill-fated and scandal-ridden Hughes XF-11.  [ page needed ]
The RAF continued to display leadership in the field, and now took on the role of on-the-job mentor to the Americans. Supermarine Spitfires and Mosquitos were found to be the best reconnaissance platforms, as everyone now realized that speed, range, and altitude were essential to survival and good photographs. Second-line photographic aircraft (such as Douglas Bostons, Bristol Blenheims, Martin Marylands) were relegated to less contested skies. The RAF turned Medmenham into the Allied Central Interpretation Unit (ACIU), inviting the Americans to participate on a joint basis, and continued to spin off new squadrons with high-performance reconnaissance aircraft based both in the British Isles and in the Mediterranean. Other RAF units operated in the Far East, often with slightly less capable aircraft such as Hawker Hurricanes and North American B-25 Mitchells.
A very large fraction of RAF reconnaissance was consumed in tracking German capital ships. This endeavor even included stationing photo detachments at Vaenga air field on the Kola Peninsula. When the British returned home, their reconnaissance aircraft were given to the Soviets.  [ page needed ]
During this period Wing Commander Adrian Warburton built a reputation as a daring and productive reconnaissance pilot and Wing Commander D. W. Steventon undertook many important missions, inc. some of the first overflights of the German experimental site of Peenemünde Army Research Center on the Baltic coast.  The interpreters at ACIU gained recognition for their expertise, F/O Constance Babington Smith, MBE and Sarah (Churchill) Oliver being among the noted names.  A scientific approach to reconnaissance developed, topped by the involvement of the Prime Minister when particularly notable results were discussed, such as the discovery of German jet fighters in test. The RAF also early developed the standard three-phase interpretation procedure: first phase required immediate response (such as advancing columns of armor sighted) second phase required 24- hour handling (such as concentrations of landing crafts in ports) and third phase was for long-term analysis (such as industrial targets like coal gasification plants). Also, the distinction between strategic and tactical reconnaissance became clear, and sub-specialties like weather reconnaissance, radar photography, and bomb-damage assessment (BDA) became current. Both sides developed programs of regular weather reconnaissance in the Atlantic. In addition, the technique widely known as “dicing” – extreme low-altitude photography at high speed – came to be adopted by the Allies for special work.  Colonel Roosevelt pioneered night photography over Sicily. Flash bombs had to set off at very precise timing in order to capture the image, and in time the Edgerton D-2 Flash System came into wide use, this involving capacitor discharge at precise intervals.  Also, infrared film began to be used at the end of the war.  It was generally agreed that the Mosquito, designated F-8 by the Americans, was the best platform – apart from its performance, it offered the use of another operator in the glazed nose, which made both navigation and the very delicate selection of camera controls to match speed and altitude easier than in the single-seat F-5 Lightnings. Nonetheless, the Americans began to standardize on F-5s and F-6 Mustangs in order to promote an indigenous capability and break away from the RAF's tutelage.  [ page needed ]
By the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, the U.S. 8th and 9th Air Forces had an immense reconnaissance wing in Colonel Roosevelt's 325th Reconnaissance Wing. It commanded two groups, the 25th Bombardment Group at RAF Watton and the 7th PRG at RAF Mount Farm (other units supported tactical reconnaissance for the 9th Air Force). The seven squadrons of the 325th provided routine weather recon, pathfinder-services, BDA, chaff and other electronic services, radar photography and night missions, as well as special operations in support of inserted agents. In Italy, the Mediterranean Allied Photographic Reconnaissance Wing under Colonel Polifka provided similar services, and using staging bases in the Ukraine these units together could provide full, regular coverage of the shrinking Axis territory.
The RAF maintained a similar large number of reconnaissance squadrons, dominated by Spitfires and Mosquitos however, in the Far East and the Middle East, less capable types tended to be allocated to reconnaissance and army cooperation. For example, in Iraq during the 1941 Nazi coup, the RAF relied on Hawker Audax biplanes. What had begun with one PRU in 1940 eventually amounted to several dozen squadrons worldwide.
Because of a singular devotion to victory through strategic bombing, the USAAF placed extraordinary emphasis on reconnaissance. As an example, the need to destroy German petroleum, oil and lubricants facilities required careful monitoring to decide not only what to hit, but when and how much – and then when to hit them again. This led to an emphasis on long-term surveillance, and also to centralized analysis correlating photography with other sources (such as agents on the ground). Although the RAF usually preferred area bombing, it promoted a similar reconnaissance emphasis, for example in the celebrated discovery, coverage, and analysis of the Peenemunde rocket range which culminated in the Operation Hydra raid in august 1943. The Axis had no comparable strategic capability and most Axis air resources were consumed in support of massive ground battles.
In general, Western reconnaissance aircraft were unarmed, not only to maximize performance, but to emphasize the objective of bringing back pictures, not engaging the enemy. They also usually flew singly or in widely spread pairs. In special circumstances it was necessary to bring along fighter escorts this phenomenon arose again in the last months when the hitherto sovereign Mosquito began to be picked off by Messerschmitt Me 262 jets. Selected heavy bombers carried film cameras and cameramen. The 8th Air Force’s 8th Combat Camera Unit thus documented much of the air war, and these films are much more frequently shown today than are the static images of regular reconnaissance.
D-Day constituted the single biggest photo-reconnaissance job in history. One who was there reported that at the ACIU, 1,700 officers and enlistees studied 85,000 images daily. There were 12,000 Allied aircraft in the air over the region that day.  If the invasion was counted as a major reconnaissance success, the German Ardennes offensive (Battle of the Bulge) in December was a major failure. Post-battle investigation maintained that the problem lay not in obtaining airborne evidence, but in integrating the numerous disparate data points into a coherent picture. Also, by then the Germans had learned to move by night and under cover of seasonal bad weather when possible. These countermeasures, also including going underground and exploiting snow cover, came to represent some of the limitations of overhead reconnaissance even in conditions of overwhelming air superiority. 
German reconnaissance languished in the west because radar-aided air defenses there made survival unlikely. Apart from the ubiquitous Ju 88s, the Heinkel He 177s proved valuable as a reconnaissance platform but that type was extremely troubled mechanically. In effect, the Luftwaffe was unable to carry out regular surveillance of critical targets like the British Isles prior to the invasion of June 1944 indeed, one German aircraft was “allowed” to overfly Dover in order to report on a fake invasion build-up there.  (However, Brugioni maintains that Germany did conduct sufficient flights to estimate the time and place of the invasion.)  [ page needed ]
After this, a few jets became available: Arado Ar 234 allocated to Sonderkommandos, but although they were uninterceptable the results brought back seems to have added little value to the German war effort. A version of the very advanced Dornier Do 335 Pfeil was assigned to reconnaissance duties. Reconnaissance was more successful in the East, and the Germans did carry out large-scale photographic mapping, some of which would later benefit the western Allies. The Luftwaffe also successfully deployed night photography with flash bombs, as amply documented by the BDA of the annihilating German attack on the USAAF in the Ukrainian SSR in June 1944. 
At sea, Germany had a considerable early lead in long-range aircraft, chiefly represented by the Fw 200 Condor. This was a converted airliner unsuitable for the rigors of combat. As a Fernaufklärer, the large Junkers Ju 290 had the necessary range, but it was produced in low numbers and was very vulnerable. Seeaufklärer and Kustenflieger groups used seaplanes of many different types with considerable success in coastal areas, especially from Norway. By 1942–43 the Condor menace was subsiding, and German long-range aircraft had great difficulty surviving in the Atlantic. They were much more effective in Northern Norway against the Arctic convoys. Germany adopted armed reconnaissance as an expediency at these long ranges.  [ page needed ]
Finally, the industrial centers arrayed against the Axis – in the United States and the Urals and Siberia – were simply out of reach of strategic reconnaissance. As always it was at the tactical level that the Germans excelled, and short-range aircraft were able to hold their own in the East until fuel, pilots, and even aircraft became depleted. Experts generally hold that the top German leadership failed to understand airpower, and Hitler has been especially blamed for lacking the strategic perspective that the West Allies adopted.  But since the industrial mismatch was insurmountable, it is doubtful what difference a greater German emphasis on strategic reconnaissance and commensurate bombardment would have made.
The Allies were slow to allocate very long-ranged aircraft to maritime duties. They needed long-range maritime surveillance to hunt submarines just as the Luftwaffe needed it to hunt convoys. Stung by catastrophic losses, in April 1943 the United States finally allocated sufficient numbers of VLR (very long range) aircraft to suppress submarines. This was an important factor in defeating the U-boat offensive that spring. Maritime versions of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator served effectively in this maritime patrol role.  [ page needed ]
The Soviet Union had virtually no in-depth reconnaissance capability and relied overwhelmingly on human intelligence. By the time of the brief U.S.-Soviet shuttle bombing program in the summer of 1944, the Americans noted that Soviet reconnaissance did not venture far past the front, and that photographic technology was far inferior. At Poltava, the U.S. reconnaissance detachment shared all imagery as well as tactics and technology with their Soviet counterparts, enabling the latter to comprehend American operations and develop an indigenous capability. Besides, for strategic intelligence the Soviets had thoroughly infiltrated both Allied and Axis governments at the most sensitive levels. 
In the Pacific, long range was at a premium, and both fleet and army aircraft soon reflected an overwhelming American advantage. The U.S. Navy, prompted by the intelligence failure at Pearl Harbor, invested in long-range patrol aircraft like the ubiquitous PBY Catalina. However, from early on the Allies had a tremendous unseen advantage in signals intelligence and cryptography, being able to read Axis codes. This led to economies in reconnaissance.
Surprising considering her small industrial base, Japan built very high-quality reconnaissance aircraft. These included several platforms such as the unarmed Mitsubishi Ki-46 "Dinah" known as the "Japanese Mosquito"(?) and the extreme-long-range Kawanishi H8K "Emily", widely considered the best flying boat of the war. These aircraft reached as far as Ceylon. The Navy's standard Nakajima C6N "Myrt" was also an extremely capable reconnaissance platform from 1944 on. But it does not appear that Japan had the overall industrial capability nor made the intellectual investment necessary to run a competitive reconnaissance branch. From 1943, the Japanese were virtually always on the defensive, while new long-range, high-altitude U.S. aircraft climaxing with the Boeing B-29 Superfortress (F-13 in the reconnaissance role) provided overwhelming American coverage of the Home Islands from mid-1944.
Aircraft usually carried several different camera configurations in one bay. A common installation was the trimetrogon: one vertical, and one oblique to each side. Often one aircraft carried several different camera-lens configurations for special purposes. The British found that a rearwards-facing camera could overcome some of the jitter from sideways movement, and that very low-level photography (called dicing) benefitted from an almost side-ways camera view. Most surveillance was conducted from extremely high altitudes, requiring long-focus optics, as reflected in “Goddard’s Law”: In photo-reconnaissance there is no substitute for focal length.  [ page needed ]
In the United States, the primary aerial cameras were the K-series and naval F-series produced by Fairchild. Inventor Sherman Fairchild had developed the K-3 in 1919 based on experience from the Great War. His work would dominate the field for decades, including in the form of foreign copies. Initially many cameras still used German Zeiss and Schneider optics. The U.S. K-17 (9x9 inch image) with several different lenses was especially ubiquitous. For mapping, a six-inch lens was standard. The less common K-18 (9x18) was used for high altitude. K-19s were used at night, and the small K-20s (4x5) for low-level obliques. Although standardized on 9X9 inch plates, several similar camera types came into use. The period saw a rapid development of longer focal lengths in order to enable high-resolution high-altitude photography. 12, 24, 36 and ultimately 60-inch lenses came into use. The Americans also produced and used British cameras (F24 as K24). The old James Bagley T-1 mapping camera and its multi-lens descendants were still used strictly for aerial mapping. The Navy used variants of the Fairchild series. 
In Britain, the small F24 (5x5 image) and the derivative but much larger F52 (8.5x7) aerial cameras dominated, the former being used mostly for night photography with the aid of flash bombs. Up to 40-inch lenses were fitted. These cameras had shutter-in-focal-plane, whereas U.S. cameras standardized on shutter-between-lenses, claiming this reduced distortion. 
Exposures typically required the use of a cockpit-mounted intervalometer, set by reference to speed, altitude, and interval so that the pilot or observer could obtain the correct exposures by keying a switch. Great flight precision was needed especially for exposures for stereography and cartography in general.
While German optics were superior, experts noted that standard German reconnaissance cameras, though excellent, were heavy and not optimized for aerial use. Leica seemed to be the main camera manufacturer while optics production was concentrated at ISCO Göttingen (Schneider) and Zeiss. The bulky Rb30 (Reihenbild) and its variants were in common use. This required at least two men for handling and produced 12x12 (32 cm) images. It was supplemented by smaller hand-held cameras, Hk13 (Handkamera) and Hk19, which also could be fitted into the rear fuselage of single-engine fighters. In general, the focal length in cm was indicated by the first number and the plate size by the second, thus Rb50/30. As an example, the Do 17P carried Rb 20/30 + Rb 50/30 or Rb 20/18 + Rb 50/18 cameras as well as defensive guns. The cameras were controlled remotely by the crew from the cockpit. Other configurations arose as needed. 
Japanese cameras were a mixture of domestic and imported/copied types. The Navy often used copies of the American Fairchild K-8 and K-20, and also a copy of the U.S. Navy's F-8. The Army used small, usually handheld Type 96, 99 (K-20), and 100. Konica and Nikon were the main manufactures. Some German cameras were also used. As Japanese reconnaissance aircraft were multi-seat, the rear observer usually operated the cameras. Japan trained only a relative handful of officers as photo interpreters.  [ page needed ]
Because of their initial disregard for reconnaissance, all belligerents shared in the failure to develop and field a dedicated, survivable air reconnaissance platform, although they belatedly recognized the need therefore. As a result, nearly all recon aircraft were converted combat aircraft, and the proposed dedicated U.S. types (F-11 and F-12) were canceled after the peace. Soon after the war, the CIA did develop such a dedicated aircraft, the U-2. From 1945 aerial reconnaissance became a critical, high-priority component of national security in both the U.S. and Britain.
The results obtained from reconnaissance were controversial. Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) generally revealed less damage than bombers estimated, and even the BDA was found to be inflated after ground truth could be established. The tendency to overestimate both threat and damage was endemic to the field. 
Questions arose over why German reconnaissance had been ineffective. Babington Smith noted that the Zossen image library was soon discovered in a barn in Bad Reichenhall near Berchtesgaden, and that the square-foot sized photographs were impressive. But interrogations revealed that the interpreters were poorly trained, did not use stereoscopes, and “it was a horrible warning as to what photographic intelligence can become if it is based on the wrong concepts, and staffed almost entirely by uninspired plodders.” 
The failure of the Axis to measure up in reconnaissance cannot be ascribed to technical deficiency or indifference. Despite many efforts in this direction, it also cannot be wholly ascribed to top-level stupidity, since the Axis had no monopoly on this either. As in many other aspects of the war, it instead highlighted that reconnaissance must be viewed and developed holistically, as a national (or multinational) capability integrating many advanced resources, scientific, industrial, and intellectual it also requires a centralized management tying it in with other intelligence specialties and related disciplines like targeting. In these matters, once aroused, the Anglo powers together had the required heft and persistence the opposition simply was not nearly as strong or as mentally adjusted to a protracted global conflict. 
One of the top objectives of Allied occupation was the center of optical excellence in Jena Colonel Goddard said that U.S. bombers had orders to spare Jena. In June 1945 the Americans under Goddard evacuated most of the top scientific staff to the West however, Soviet troops moved the physical plant to the USSR, enslaving the remaining high-value workers there. 
As soon as the war ended, the USAAF in Europe used existing resources in an all-out effort to map Europe from the air before diplomatic considerations would make it difficult. Similar efforts were made elsewhere. The United States got access to a limited amount of German coverage of the European part of the Soviet Union, and soon began a costly and technically ambitious program to obtain pictures of the rest.
From 1946, the focus was no longer just on photography, but on signals intelligence and especially on new air sampling methods to detect and analyze nuclear fall-out. The extremely close operating relationship between the RAF and the USAAF (USAF from 1947) would survive the war, and the tactics, technology, terminology and in general the shared intellectual infrastructure in aerial surveillance and analysis would transition into the Cold War, becoming embodied in the National Reconnaissance Office by 1960. By then, no other country, including the Soviet Union, had national technical means for reconnaissance remotely rivaling those the RAF-USAF founded during the war.  [ page needed ]
How America's Spunky P-51 Mustang Helped in World War II
Key point: The P-51 fought well and was able to hold its own against Imperial Japan. Yet this vaunted aircraft had very humble beginnings.
If a single airplane has captured the public imagination more than any other, it is undoubtedly the North American P-51 Mustang fighter. In the minds of many, including the young fighter pilots who flew it during the final year of combat in Europe, it was the P-51 that allowed the Allies to attain complete air superiority over Europe.
Many of the accolades bestowed upon the Mustang are not quite in tune with the facts, however. The airplane truly did develop into an outstanding fighter—but it did not start out that way. Oddly enough, the design of the Mustang came about completely by accident and was more the result of corporate pride than military necessity. Its subsequent development also was more accidental than by design. The U.S. Army never even wanted the airplane, and the British were not happy with it when they got theirs.
North America Makes Their Own Fighter
Before America entered the war, the British Purchasing Commission placed orders for a variety of American-produced military aircraft, including Curtiss fighters powered by Allison engines, which had been designated as the P-40 Tomahawk by the U.S. Army Air Corps. Curtiss lacked the facilities to meet the British orders and made an offer to North American Aircraft to have them manufacture some planes under license. North American’s president, West Virginian James S. “Dutch” Kindelberger, was not happy with the offer. He proposed instead that his company produce an entirely new fighter that would be built around the same Allison V-1710 engine that powered the P-40. Kindelberger believed his company could produce an aerodynamically superior airplane that could utilize new mass production methods that were just coming into use in the American aircraft industry.
The British asked for a preliminary design study. North American promised that a prototype would be ready to fly in an amazing four months! The North American management convinced Curtiss to furnish them data from the design of their P-40, thus cutting several months of preliminary design from the new fighter project. The company promised the British that they would begin deliveries in January 1941 and would produce 50 airplanes a month through the end of 1941. The British gave the airplane its name—Mustang—apparently adopting the name of the wild ponies that roamed the American West, although no reason for the choice is known. To cut down on production time, North American elected to use a non-turbocharged version of the Allison V-1710 engine, a move that would reduce the airplane’s high-altitude performance.
A Design Ruined by an Underpowered Engine
When the first Mustangs arrived in England, Royal Air Force test pilots quickly discovered that although the new fighter was very agile and fast its performance began to degrade at altitudes above 15,000 feet as the normally aspirated Allison engines lost power. Consequently, the RAF decided to assign the Mustangs to its Army Cooperation Command, which had previously used the light and maneuverable Westland Lysander as its primary aircraft.
The Mustangs were equipped with cameras and assigned to the tactical reconnaissance role, in which the airplane continued for the duration of the war. The first operational use of the RAF Mustangs was in support of the disastrous Dieppe raid in August 1942. It was also in the support role that the U.S. Army Air Corps assigned its first Mustangs, a batch of 57 airplanes that was diverted from the British production immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Perhaps prompted by the RAF’s use of the Mustang in the Cooperation Command, the U.S. Army decided to adapt the Mustang as a dive-bomber. At the time, the Army’s standard dive-bomber was the Douglas Dauntless, which the Army designated as the A-24. Unfortunately, their lack of defensive capabilities led to heavy losses among the A-24s in the Southwest Pacific in early 1942, a factor that no doubt influenced the decision to seek a more maneuverable and better armed design for dive-bombing.
Dive brakes and hard points to carry bombs up to 1,000 pounds were added to the basic design to convert the plane into a dive-bomber, which was designated as the A-36. The 27th and 86th Bombardment Groups (Light) were equipped with A-36s and sent into combat in North Africa in the spring of 1943. RAF Mustangs also saw combat duty in North Africa, although the primary tactical fighters used by the British in North Africa were Curtiss Kittyhawks and Hawker Hurricanes. The 311th Bombardment Group, also equipped with A-36s, was sent to China. Over time, the U.S. Army came to believe that the value of the dive- bomber had been overestimated, and even though more than 300 A-36s were built, they were all eventually replaced either by fighters or light and medium bombers. Dive-bombing would remain popular in the Navy and Marine Corps, but the Army abandoned the practice.
Transforming the Mustang With the Rolls Royce Merlin Engine
With the decision to assign its new Mustangs to the Cooperation Command, the Royal Air Force elected to continue the development of the already famous Supermarine Spitfire as its primary interceptor. Still, some of the RAF test pilots believed that with a high-altitude engine the Mustang would be suitable for air-to-air combat at the altitudes where combat usually took place in European skies. The turbocharged Rolls Royce Merlin was the ideal candidate, but the entire production of the Merlin-61 was slated for Spitfires.
To increase Merlin production, Rolls Royce contracted with the Packard automobile company in the United States to produce their engines under license. Although famous for its luxury automobiles, Packard had designed and produced the Liberty engine that came into use during the Great War, and which powered U.S.-built aircraft into the 1920s. The first flight by a Merlin-powered British Mustang took place in October 1942. A month later a Mustang powered by a Packard-built Merlin had been produced for the U.S. Army, and it took to the air for the first time.
With the Merlin engine, the Mustang was transformed. Comparisons between Mustangs and Spitfires revealed that the North American design had significantly greater range, while the Mustang’s high-altitude performance had been greatly improved. It was a combination that came about at the right time, as the U.S. Army Air Forces’ experience in Europe had demonstrated the need for a high-performance, long-range fighter.
Converted For Escort Missions
Throughout 1942 and most of 1943, the Mustang fighters sat out the war, although the A-36 and RAF Cooperation versions were seeing combat, particularly in North Africa. But events in Europe were leading toward the further development of the Mustang into the airplane that is so often referred to as the best Allied fighter of the war. By the summer of 1942, the U.S. Eighth Air Force had been waging a steadily mounting strategic bombing campaign against Axis targets in France and the other occupied countries from bases in England. In early 1943, the daylight bombing campaign expanded into German airspace. The B-17 groups that constituted the bulk of VIII Bomber Command strength at the time began taking very heavy losses from German fighter attacks. The Eighth Air Force leadership had gone to war believing that their four-engine Flying Fortresses were properly named, but soon found otherwise when the B-17s began encountering Luftwaffe fighters. Especially heavy losses in the late summer and early fall of 1943 led to the cancellation of further daylight deep- penetration raids into Germany until a long-range escort fighter could be developed.
Throughout 1943, the primary escort fighters available in Europe were RAF Spitfires and USAAF Lockheed P-38 Lightnings and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. While the P-38 had the range to go all the way to Berlin, the P-47s were limited owing to the higher fuel consumption of their radial engines, and there were not enough available P-38s for the job. All of the P-38s in England had been transferred to North Africa early in the year and were not replaced until late summer, leaving Spitfires as the only escorts available until April, when the first P-47s became operational in the theater. It was not until September that P-38s returned to English skies. Meanwhile, the bombers were left without escorts once they reached the operational range of the Spitfires.
The USAAF engineers at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, began looking around for a suitable escort fighter that could be mass-produced in a hurry, and their attention soon settled on the Mustang. The adoption of the Merlin engine had solved the Mustang’s high-altitude performance problems, and the Mustang had been shown to be highly maneuverable, with some restrictions, mainly owing to weight and balance considerations.
Increasing the airplane’s effective range was the primary problem. The Air Corps engineering facilities at Wright Field began working on modifications to increase the Mustang’s fuel capacity and thus increase its effective combat range. Additional fuselage tanks were added to complement the droppable external fuel tanks that had been previously developed for other types.
Donald Blakeslee: Advocate For Mustangs as Escort Fighters
Ironically, the decision to adopt the Mustang as the primary escort fighter did not come immediately after the adoption of the Merlin engine. Initially, the Merlin-powered P-51Bs were allocated to the tactical air forces that were being formed to support ground forces in Europe. The first P-51-equipped fighter group to see combat in Europe was the 354th Fighter Group, which arrived in England in October 1943 and was immediately assigned to the newly organized Ninth Air Force. The Ninth had previously been assigned to the Mediterranean, but the Allied victory in North Africa led to the unit’s transfer to England to become a tactical air force, with the mission of supporting the Allied ground forces when the invasion of Western Europe took place in mid-1944. Since the Ninth was scheduled to include a large number of fighter groups, the Eighth Air Force pressed for Ninth fighters to be temporarily assigned as bomber escorts.
In November 1943, Lt. Col. Donald Blakeslee, deputy commander of the 4th Fighter Group and one of the most experienced American fighter pilots in Europe, was sent to fly with the 354th Fighter Group. Blakeslee was a former RAF Eagle Squadron Spitfire pilot who had been flying Thunderbolts, and his lack of love for the P-47 was no secret. Whether he engineered the assignment to the 354th or was selected to evaluate the group’s P-51Bs is unclear his enthusiasm for the highly maneuverable airplane is not. The main advantage of the new P-51 was the reduced fuel consumption of the Merlin engine compared with the radial engine P-47, which was then the primary escort fighter. The first Mustangs to arrive in England were fitted only with 184-gallon wing tanks, but the reduced fuel consumption of the Merlin engines increased their range substantially over similarly equipped P-47s. Plans were under way for the installation of an additional 85 gallons in a fuselage tank, while the hard points under the wings allowed an additional 150 gallons when two 75-gallon drop tanks were carried. Blakeslee believed the Mustang was the solution to the long-range escort problem, but all of the Mustangs were slated to go to the Ninth Air Force.
In the winter of 1943, Allied military planners in Europe were preparing for the invasion of Western Europe, followed by an advance toward Germany. Experiences in North Africa and New Guinea had revealed that air power served as what would come to be known as a “force multiplier,” an element that could aid ground commanders in the age-old endeavor of capturing territory.
The Ninth Air Force was a tactical unit, with the primary mission of supporting the theater commander, and a massive effort was under way to build up its force of fighter-bombers and light and medium bombers to support the ground forces. Once the troops were ashore in France, the war in Europe would turn from what had primarily been an air war against the Luftwaffe to a ground war, with the objective being the ultimate capture of Berlin and the defeat of Germany. The new Mustangs were seen as an ideal weapon for securing and maintaining air superiority over the battlefield and for taking the war to the enemy rear areas.
The Eighth Air Force Receives Their Mustangs
At this point military politics reared its ugly head, as Blakeslee and the leaders of VIII Fighter Command began maneuvering to have the Mustangs transferred to the Eighth. They saw the Eighth Air Force mission as strategic bombardment and recognized that if this mission was to succeed it was important to have a long-range escort fighter that could go with the bombers to their targets deep in Germany and fight at high altitude. Much of Western Europe was still in German hands at the time, and aerial bombardment of strategic targets was still seen as the primary mission for the air forces.
Their arguments fell on receptive minds in the Army Air Forces headquarters in England and won out. Preparations were begun to equip nearly all of the VIII Fighter Command squadrons with new Mustangs. In the meantime, IX Fighter Command P-51s (and other fighters) flew under the operational control of the Eighth Air Force and were used in the escort role. Three P-51 groups were scheduled to go to Ninth, but a compromise led to the assignment of one of these groups to the Eighth in return for the transfer of the recently arrived 358th Fighter Group and its P-47s to Ninth Air Force. VIII Fighter Command received the Mustang-equipped 357th and began making plans to convert all of its P-47 and P-38 groups to Mustangs.
There was one exception—the 56th Fighter Group was the first group to fly P-47s, and it remained with the Thunderbolt until the end of the war. The 56th, which had been nicknamed the Wolfpack because of the group’s reputation for hunting Germans like a pack of wolves, was the highest scoring American fighter group in the European Theater. The 56th finished the war with a total of 674 enemy aircraft claimed in the air and 311 on the ground. By contrast, Blakeslee’s 4th Fighter Group, which was the first Eighth group to convert to P-51s and was the longest in combat of any American fighter group in Europe, finished the war with 583 air-to-air kills and 469 strafing claims.
Although the 4th—which flew Spitfires and P-47s before making the transition to P-51s—was credited with a few more total aircraft destroyed, the P-47-equipped 56th was credited with almost 100 more air-to-air kills. So much for the oft-stated assertion that the fabulous P-51 was the “superior” fighter! The third highest scoring group, however, flew only Mustangs. The 357th Fighter Group was the first P-51 group in VIII Fighter Command. The group put in claims for 609 air-to-air kills and 106 destroyed on the ground.
Did the P-51 Win Allied Air Superiority Over Europe?
Many writers mistakenly advance the proposition that it was the appearance of the Mustang as an escort fighter that signaled the gaining of Allied air superiority in the skies over Europe. In fact, this was not the case. The advantage of the P-51 was that the later models had the range to go deeper into Germany than the P-47s, but the longer range Mustangs did not make their appearance in England until mid-spring of 1944. By this time the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe was already beginning to decline owing to a number of factors. Not the least of these was the interruption of petroleum supplies from refineries in Eastern Europe, prompted in large part by the advance of Soviet forces into the oil-rich Balkans, and the air campaign on transportation, including railroads and bridges. The first U.S. Army Mustangs used in Europe lacked the additional fuel tanks that gave the later models the range to go deep into Germany.
There was also another reason for the decline of the Luftwaffe. Throughout 1942 and 1943 German fighter pilots had pretty much steered clear of the Allied fighters, waiting just beyond their effective range and then going after the bombers as soon as their escorts reached their fuel limits and turned back. By the spring of 1944, the VIII Fighter Command had managed to extend the range of the P-38s and P-47s significantly through the addition of suitable external fuel tanks, and the escorts were able to go much deeper into German territory with the bombers. In fact, the twin-engine P-38s were able to accompany them all the way to Berlin. With the increased range of the fighters, VIII Fighter Command authorized them to drop down on the deck and attack the Luftwaffe airfields to destroy the German fighters on the ground as well as in the air. By the time P-51s were available in Europe in large numbers, the Allies were already gaining air superiority.
The modifications to the Mustangs to turn them into long-range fighters were not without problems. When the 85-gallon internal fuel tanks were added, test pilots discovered that full tanks affected the airplane’s control during combat maneuvers. To take advantage of the increased range, VIII Fighter Command was forced to fuel the fighters so that the tanks would have no more than 35 gallons in them when they reached the areas of likely combat. Since external tanks caused drag and were normally burned off first so they could be dropped, the stability problem reduced the effective range of the Mustangs. The stability problem was not the only problem with the Mustangs. They also experienced a lack of heating at high altitude, which had plagued the twin-engine P-38s during their early months in combat.
It is commonly believed that once the P-51s arrived in the European Theater, the P-47s were assigned solely to the fighter-bomber role while the Mustangs flew only escort. Such is not the case. With the appearance of the Mustangs, VIII Fighter Command adopted a strategy of assigning the more experienced P-47 groups to patrol the areas where the Luftwaffe fighters were most likely to hit the bomber stream while the longer legged P-38s and P-51s went all the way to the targets.
Mustangs as Ground Attack Aircraft
Mustangs were also used as fighter-bombers, especially after the Luftwaffe’s fighter squadrons were practically grounded because of lack of gasoline and oil. Thunderbolts and Lightnings continued flying escort missions until Mustangs replaced them in most VIII Fighter Command squadrons in the latter part of 1944. But the conversion did not take place until comparatively late in the war as more Mustangs became available. Thunderbolts and Lightnings continued to be the primary escort fighters in Europe until mid-1944. Ironically, at about the same time that Mustangs started appearing in European skies in large numbers, the air war moved down, as providing close air support for ground troops became the primary Army Air Forces mission.
While the Mustang became the primary escort fighter with VIII Fighter Command, P-51s were not absent from the tactical air commands of the Ninth Air Force. Brig. Gen. O.P. Weyland’s XIX Tactical Air Command included one group of Mustangs when it went operational on July 31, 1944, to support General George S. Patton’s Third Army, and other Mustang groups transferred in and out as operational needs changed. The Mustang faced a major drawback when it came to low-altitude attack. The liquid-cooled Merlin engines made the P-51s more vulnerable to ground fire than the radial-engine P-47s, so they were often assigned to fly fighter cover over the battlefield to protect against German aircraft.
Thunderbolts were equipped with two more machine guns than Mustangs and were thus more suited for attacks on German armor and other ground targets. Still, the P-51s flew their share of ground attack missions, using their six .50-caliber machine guns to strafe and fire rockets and drop bombs and napalm. Eighth Air Force Mustangs often transferred to Ninth Air Force control, particularly during the battle to regain the Allied initiative during the German Ardennes offensive in the winter of 1944-1945.
The Red Tails of the Tuskegee Airmen
Mustang-equipped groups entered combat with the Fifteenth Air Force from Italian bases in the late spring of 1944 when three groups that had been flying P-40s received P-51s. The 52nd Fighter Group of the Twelfth Air Force traded in Spitfires for Mustangs as well. A fourth Fifteenth Air Force group that received P-51s was the controversial 332nd Fighter Group, an all-black unit popularly associated with the Tuskegee Airmen, that had most recently flown P-47s. Group pilots painted their airplane tails red, making them easily identifiable to both friend and foe. Group members would later claim that they “never lost a bomber” while flying escort missions, although the qualifications for such a claim are somewhat murky.
Standardizing the P-51
With the appearance and acceptance of the Merlin-powered Mustangs, the Army Air Forces began making plans to eliminate production of other types in an effort to standardize maintenance and supply roles. But all of the combat commanders were not as enthusiastic about the Mustang as was VIII Fighter Command’s Brig. Gen. William Kepner. When notified by Headquarters, U.S. Army Air Forces that his command’s P-38s and P-47s were slated to be replaced by P-51s, Far East Air Forces commander Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney flatly said “No!” Early in the war, Kenney had told General Henry H. Arnold that he really did not care what kind of airplanes he received in his theater, but as the war continued he developed a preference for the twin-engine P-38.
Kenney commanded a theater that included a great expanse of water, and he felt that the second engine on the P-38 gave his pilots a chance at returning home that the P-51 failed to offer. Furthermore, Fifth and Thirteenth Air Force P-38s in the Pacific had been doing a pretty good job of shooting down Japanese airplanes since they made their combat debut at the end of 1942. By mid-1944, Far East Air Forces P-38s were flying 700-mile missions, distances far greater than any encountered in Europe. The P-38 remained the fighter of choice in Far East Air Forces until the end of the war.
In spite of General Kenney’s initial refusal to accept Mustangs as replacements in his veteran fighter squadrons, some newly arriving units were equipped with the P-51. In early 1945, the 460th Fighter Squadron joined the P-47- equipped 348th Fighter Group with P-51s, and the rest of the group began making the transition to the more maneuverable fighter. The first Mustangs in the Southwest Pacific were actually F-6D reconnaissance airplanes that began operations in late 1944 with the 82nd Reconnaissance Squadron.
How Hitler’s Atlantic Assault Brought South American into World War II
Brazil and Mexico were the only Latin American nations to fight the Axis powers abroad in World War II, though several countries also had encounters with Axis submarines.
Here's What You Need to Remember: The primary killer of Axis submarines off the Brazilian coast would be U.S. Navy patrol planes flying out of Brazilian air bases. U.S. Navy Catalina seaplanes sank U-164 off the state of Ceará on January 6, 1943 the Italian submarine Archimede in April and U-590 and U-662 in July off of the Amazon Estuary.
We often think of the Battle of the Atlantic primarily as the conflict pitting Axis submarines against American and British convoys in the North Atlantic. However, the Kriegsmarine’s submarines also ravaged shipping off the coast of South America. A spate of attacks on Brazil’s then-neutral shipping proved to be ill judged, however, as Brazil’s entry into World War II as a U.S. ally led to the defeat of the U-boat campaign in the South Atlantic in just twelve months.
In fact, the Brazilian government’s alliance with the United States was far from a given. A Brazilian military study in the 1930s observed the growing instability in Europe and concluded that though Brazil might naturally side again with the countries of the World War I Entente—which Brazil had supported in World War I—Rio de Janeiro (then the capital of Brazil) needed to take care not to provoke hostilities with its pro-fascist neighbor, Argentina. Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas embarked the Amazonian nation on a path of rapid industrialization during the 1930s and eventually transitioned his government to an outright dictatorship in 1937, complete with fascistic flourishes. Brazil also traded energetically with both Nazi Germany and the United States throughout the thirties, and flirted diplomatically with Berlin. But ironically, Vargas’s repressive intolerance of competing political parties extended to the Brazilian Nazi Party, ultimately souring possible alliance with Germany.
The Roosevelt administration was quick to jump into the breach in the early 1940s with offers of economic and military assistance—and trade in essential war materials, including rubber and various rare minerals. Pan-American Airlines was also granted construction rights for airfields across Brazil—which, following an informal agreement in 1941, became part of a network of U.S. military air and naval bases extending across the Brazilian coast. The would serve to protect the increasing flow of merchant shipping both between North and South America—as well as between the Americas and war zones in Africa and Europe.
On January 28, 1942, Rio cut off diplomatic relations with Germany—but did not declare war. In the early months of the U.S. entry into World War II, German U-boats were experiencing the so-called “Happy Time” as they reaped a fearsome a toll of U.S. shipping. The U.S. Navy was lagging behind in instituting the technology and convoy tactics necessary to fight back against Germany’s undersea marauders. The unrestricted targeting of merchant shipping was extended to Brazilian vessels in the South Atlantic, sinking eight in the first half of 1942.
Hitler was displeased by Brazil’s de facto alliance with the United States, and in June 1942 he dispatched a force of ten submarines to the South Atlantic to exact punishment. Their campaign reached its peak between August 15 and 17, when the submarine U-507 sank five Brazilian ships off the coast of Bahia, killing more than six hundred crew and passengers. Victims included a transport full of religious pilgrims and the Brazilian troopship Baependy, loaded with more than 250 soldiers. Public outcry against U-507’s rampage was such that the Brazilian government declared war on Germany five days later on August 22. By then, a total of thirty-six Brazilian ships had already been torpedoed.
Vargas placed the Brazilian surface fleet—then organized as the Naval North East Force (FNN) under Adm. Soares Dutra—under command of the U.S. Navy’s Fourth Fleet. (Vargas was so fond of the U.S. fleet’s commander, Vice Admiral Jonas Ingram, that he dubbed him “Sea Lord.”)
At the time, the Marinha do Brasil consisted largely of obsolete ships. The nominal prides of the Brazilian fleet were its two cruisers and two battleships, São Paulo and Minas Geraes, all constructed between 1909 and 1910. These vessels were famously involved in a mutiny by Afro-Brazilian sailors and former slaves protesting their brutal treatment in 1910, known as the Revolt of the Lash. More than thirty years later, the arthritic battleships were anchored off the Brazilian ports of Recife and Salvador to serve as floating coastal batteries, while the cruisers were deployed to convoy escort duties.
There were also four Italian submarines, a few river monitors used as static coastal defenses, and six domestically built Pará-class destroyers dating back to the early 1900s, armed with just two four-inch guns and two torpedo tubes each. A dozen Brazilian-built minelayers and corvettes served as more recent—and practical—additions.
The U.S. Navy would swiftly bulk up this force with Lend-Lease vessels. In September the Brazilian Navy received the first of eight 450-ton PC-461-class submarine chasers. In 1944 these were joined by eight Cannon-class destroyer escorts.
Maritime patrol planes of the Brazilian Air Force appear to have scored the only confirmed kills. Even before the declaration of war, they had been cooperating with American aircraft in antisubmarine patrols. A Brazilian B-25 bomber had damaged the Italian submarine Barbarigo in June 1942.
German and Italian submarines continued to reap a steady toll of Brazilian shipping after the declaration of war. Brazilian bombers twice attacked and failed to sink German submarines in August 1942. Nearly a year later, on July 31, two large Brazilian patrol planes—a PBY Catalina seaplane and a Hudson bomber—joined a U.S. Navy Mariner aircraft in hunting down U-199 a short distance off of Rio de Janeiro. The Catalina sank the German vessel with two depth charges—and then dropped a life preserver to help the dozen German sailors that escaped their boat alive.
In fact, the primary killer of Axis submarines off the Brazilian coast would be U.S. Navy patrol planes flying out of Brazilian air bases. U.S. Navy Catalina seaplanes sank U-164 off the state of Ceará on January 6, 1943 the Italian submarine Archimede in April and U-590 and U-662 in July off of the Amazon Estuary. Larger Mariner patrol bombers of U.S. Navy squadron VP-74 destroyed U-128, U-161 and U-513 between May and September 1943, while PV-1 Ventura and B-24 Liberators destroyed U-604 in June, U-598 off Natal in July, and U-591 off Pernambuco the same month. These losses led the Kriegsmarine to largely abandon the submarine campaign off the Brazilian coast by the end of 1943, though more limited U-boat incursions into the South Atlantic continued until the end of World War II.
Altogether, Brazilian Navy vessels embarked on 3,500 convoy escort missions over the course of World War II and engaged German submarines on sixty-six separate occasions—though whether they sank any in action is less clear. A single Brazilian auxiliary ship, the Vital de Oliveira, was torpedoed, while the corvette Camaquã was lost in an accident. Interestingly, the Brazil small submarine flotilla based at Recife was also commended by a U.S. admiral—for serving as mock opponents in U.S. antisubmarine training exercises.
In 1944, Brazil dispatched an entire division of U.S.-equipped ground troops to battle in Italy as part of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, as well as a wing of P-47 Thunderbolt fighters. Both the ground troops and fighter squadrons saw intense combat and sustained heavy losses. The escort force accompanying the troop ships included a Brazilian navy cruiser and submarine chasers.
Tragically, the Brazilian Navy suffered its worst loss of the war after the defeat of Nazi Germany. On July 4, while searching the Atlantic as a rescue ship, the crew of cruiser Bahia engaged in antiaircraft gunnery practice, taking shots at a towed kite. The guns lacked guardrails, and a twenty-millimeter shell accidentally struck the depth charges on the warship’s bow. The resulting detonation sank the cruiser in three minutes. The surviving crew endured starvation and shark attack for four days before being rescued by a passing freighter. There were only a few dozen survivors out of a crew of 383.
Brazil and Mexico were the only Latin American nations to fight the Axis powers abroad in World War II, though several countries also had encounters with Axis submarines. Brazil’s greatest contribution came in the form of its natural resources and strategically located air and naval bases however, it also threw its small fleet into the ship-intensive task of escorting vital transoceanic convoys. More than a thousand Brazilians lost their lives in the naval war for the South Atlantic—but their sacrifice probably saved many more by hastening the Allied powers’ victory at sea and the transfer of troops and war materials to Europe and Africa.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article is being republished due to reader interest.
World War II (Pearson MC)
A.It instituted a 'peacetime draft' to strengthen the nation's armed forces in case of attack.
B.It allowed for the deployment of U.S. forces when U.S. mercantile interests were threatened.
C.It prevented Americans from making loans or sending aid to belligerents or nations at war.
A. established totalitarian regimes in many European countries following World War I
B. created bitterness and resentment among the nations who signed the agreement
C. was an attempt by the Allies to appease fascist dictatorships in Europe following World War I
A. through massive propaganda campaigns
B. as a result of his collective farming policies
C. in response to his brutal purges in the Communist Party
A. It suffered from widespread economic instability.
B. It was controlled by a charismatic dictator.
C. It demanded strict obedience on the part its subjects.
B. the Treaty of Versailles
C. the German constitution
A. through international pressure and intimidation
B. through a direct attack on the Allied nations
C. by economic boycotts and sanctions
A. Japanese policy toward China
B. British policy toward Germany
C. United States policy toward South America
A. support of the United States
B. backgrounds as military leaders
C. willingness to include opposition leaders in their government
A. Hitler became chancellor Spanish Civil War began Munich Pact was signed
B. Munich Pact was signed Hitler became chancellor Spanish Civil War began
C. Spanish Civil War beganMunich Pact was signed Hitler became chancellor
A.Germany was able to take over much of Europe by 1940.
B.The United States was convinced to remain neutral.
C.The German economy was strained, and Hitler began his forced labor camps.
A. It allowed Germany to attack Poland with having to fight on two fronts.
B. It granted Germany a testing ground for new technology.
C. It gave Germany new territory as the Soviets tried to appease Hitler.
A. Isolationists thought aid would bring us into war interventionists thought aid would keep us out of the war.
B. Interventionists thought aid would bring us into war isolationists thought aid would keep us out of the war.
C. Isolationists thought aid would help end the Depression interventionists thought aid would prolong the Depression.
A. a pact signed by Great Britain and the United States that endorsed certain principles for building a lasting peace and establishing free governments in the world
B. a pact signed by Great Britain, France, and the United States agreeing to declare war on Germany and divide its lands after the war
C. a pact signed by Great Britain and the United States agreeing to avoid entangling alliances with the Soviet Union
A.It stated the United States would only accept an unconditional surrender of Germany.
B.It showed the United States clearly supported the Allies.
C.It endorsed national self-determination for the post-war world.
A. Roosevelt placed an embargo on Japan.
B. Interventionists finally agreed with the isolationist position.
C. Americans suffered heavy losses at Pearl Harbor.
A. gain control of the Hawaiian Islands.
B. destroy ships and planes that threatened their expansion efforts.
C. make certain that the United States would stay neutral.
A. WACs worked in factories that produced weapons for the war effort.
B. WACs coordinated recruiting efforts for all of the armed services.
C. WACs sponsored fund raisers to purchase government war bonds.
A. He personally directed the military buildup of troops and supplies.
B. He motivated Americans and established agencies to direct mobilization.
C. He created the American Red Cross to assist soldiers and their families.
A. new Geneva Convention agreements about prisoners.
B. a victory by Filipino soldiers over the Japanese.
C. the brutal nature of the war in the Pacific.
A. Many Americans felt he was simply trying to postpone the inevitable war in Europe.
B. Many Americans feared that he was bringing the country closer to another war in Europe.
C. Many Americans favored a strong interventionist foreign policy regarding the situation in Europe and Asia.
A. the Allied naval forces
C. the British Royal Air Force
A. Japanese attacks on U.S. ships trading with China.
B. the refusal of the U.S. to trade any natural resources with Japan.
C. American attempts to take over Japanese-controlled territory.
A. the federal government seized control of factories in order to increase war production.
B. the economy failed to improve.
C. the military did not expand quickly until after the creation of the draft.
Through World War I
Powered aircraft were first used in war in 1911, by the Italians against the Turks near Tripoli, but it was not until the Great War of 1914–18 that their use became widespread. At first, aircraft were unarmed and employed for reconnaissance, serving basically as extensions of the eyes of the ground commander. Soon, however, the need to deny such reconnaissance to the enemy led to air-to-air combat in which each side tried to gain superiority in the air. Fighter planes were armed with fixed, forward-firing machine guns that allowed the pilot to aim his entire aircraft at the enemy, and the effective range of these weapons (no more than about 200 yards) meant that the first aerial combat took place at very short range.
By the second year of the war fighter tactics emerged on all sides emphasizing basic concepts that, with modification, remained applicable through the jet age. First was the surprise attack from the very beginning of aerial warfare in World War I, “jumping” or “bouncing” unsuspecting victims accounted for more kills than did the spectacular aerobatics of dogfighting. Because a pilot’s only warning system was the naked eye, attacking fighters, whenever possible, approached from the rear or dove out of the sun, where they could not be seen. The German ace Max Immelmann, in exploiting the superior abilities of his Fokker Eindeker to climb and dive quickly, helped expand aerial combat from the horizontal into the vertical dimension. Immelmann developed what became known as the Immelmann turn, in which an attacking fighter dove past the enemy craft, pulled sharply up into a vertical climb until it was above the target again, then turned hard to the side and down so that it could dive a second time. Fighters operated at least in pairs, flying 50 to 60 yards apart, so that the wingman could protect the leader’s rear. Flying speed averaged 100 miles per hour, and communication was by hand signaling, rocking the wings, and firing coloured flares.
The next role to emerge for military aircraft was ground attack, in which planes, by strafing with machine guns and dropping rudimentary bombs, aided an advance on the ground, helped cover a retreat, or simply harassed the enemy. By the late stages of the war, ground-attack aircraft had forced almost all large-scale troop movements to be carried out at night or in bad weather.
By war’s end a fourth vision of air power arose—that of an independent air force attacking the enemy far from the front lines, the purpose being to destroy essential elements of the enemy’s war capability by bombing factories, transportation and supply networks, and even centres of government. This role, never effectively implemented in World War I, was spurred largely by the German air attacks on London. Carried out at first by zeppelin airships, the bombing was later done by aircraft such as the Gotha bomber, which, by flying at night and often as high as 20,000 feet (forcing the crew to breathe bottled oxygen through a tube in the mouth), operated beyond the ceiling of many defensive fighters.
Thus, the basic roles that aircraft would play in modern war were presaged in World War I: reconnaissance, air superiority, tactical ground support, and strategic bombing.
What led to American air superiority over the Axis in World War II - History
The old port town of Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, was bustling. It was December 2, 1943. The British had taken Puglia’s capital in September, and though the front now lay just 150 miles to the north, the medieval city, with its massive cliffs cradling the sea, had escaped the fighting almost unscathed.
Only a few miles outside of town, lines of women and children begged for black-market food, but here shop windows were full of fruit, cakes and bread. Young couples strolled arm in arm. Even ice cream vendors were doing a brisk trade.
Bari was a Mediterranean service hub, supplying the 500,000 Allied troops engaged in driving the Germans out of Italy. Grand waterfront buildings were recently designated the headquarters of the United States Fifteenth Air Force. The liberating Tommies had already chased the Nazis from the skies over Italy, and the British, who controlled the port, were so confident they had won the air war that Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham announced that Bari was all but immune from attack. “I would regard it as a personal affront and insult if the Luftwaffe should attempt any significant action in this area,” he said that day at a press conference.
Four days earlier, the American Liberty ship John Harvey had pulled in with a convoy of nine other merchantmen, and some 30 Allied ships were crammed into the harbor, packed against the seawall and along the pier. Their holds were laden with everything from food and medical gear to engines, corrugated steel for landing strips, and 50-gallon drums of aviation fuel. Visible on the upper decks were tanks, armored personnel carriers, jeeps and ambulances. Bright lights winked atop huge cranes that hoisted baled equipment up and out.
At 7:35 p.m.—a blinding flash followed by a terrific bang.
The ancient port’s single antiaircraft battery opened fire. Then came an earsplitting explosion, then another, and another. German Junkers Ju-88s flew in low over the town, dropping bombs short of the harbor. Smoke and flames rose from the city’s winding streets.
As incendiaries rained down on the harbor, turning night into day, gunners aboard the anchored ships scrambled to shoot down the enemy—too late. The attacking German airplanes fled into the night. The raid lasted less than 20 minutes.
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Soon a tremendous roar came from the harbor. An exploding ammunition tanker sent a huge rolling mass of flames a thousand feet high. A reporter for Time magazine noted a “fiery panorama.” Eight ships were already “burning fiercely,” he wrote, and the “entire center of the harbor was covered with burning oil.”
A ruptured bulk-fuel pipeline sent thousands of gallons gushing into the harbor, where it ignited into a gigantic sheet of flame, engulfing the entire north side of the port. Flames leapt from ship to ship. Crews worked frantically to free ships before raging fires forced them to jump overboard and swim for it.
The attack on Bari, which the press called “a little Pearl Harbor,” shook the complacency of the Allied forces, who had been convinced of their air superiority in Italy. All told, the Nazis sunk 17 Allied ships and destroyed more than 31,000 tons of valuable cargo. More than 1,000 American and British servicemen were killed, and almost as many wounded, along with hundreds of civilians.
In the crucial days that followed, the task of treating gravely injured sailors would be made even more difficult by wartime secrecy. It would be almost 30 years before the world would learn the truth about what really took place that night, and even today few are aware of the surprising role of the disaster and its impact on the lives of ordinary Americans.
Lt. Col. Stewart Francis Alexander, asleep in his quarters at Allied Force Headquarters in Algiers, was awake at the first harsh jangle of the telephone. There appeared to be a developing medical crisis in Bari. Too many men were dying, too quickly, of unexplained causes. The symptoms were unlike anything military physicians had seen before, and they had begun to suspect that the Germans had used an unknown poison gas. There was an urgent request for assistance. Alexander, a medical officer attached to the staff of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower at AFHQ, had received special training in chemical warfare. He was being dispatched immediately to the scene.
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This article is a selection from the September 2020 issue of Smithsonian magazineLt. Col. Stewart Alexander, a physician and cardiologist turned chemical weapons expert, who led the investigation into the Bari disaster. (Stewart F. Alexander Papers)
Alexander looked young for a combat physician. Five-foot-eight and skinny, he was 29, and only the hair thinning at his temples lent him an air of authority. He was popular with the troops, though some patients kidded that his gentle bedside manner was best suited to a pediatrician. But he had been through the brutal invasion of North Africa under Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, and despite a quiet modesty Alexander had proven himself determined and resourceful.
He could have sat out the war in a stateside hospital or research laboratory, but the desire to serve ran deep. He was descended from self-made immigrants, part of a wave of Eastern European Jews who, fleeing famine and persecution, journeyed to the United States in the 1880s and s and were forever grateful for the opportunity afforded them in their new home. Alexander’s father was an old-fashioned family practitioner in Park Ridge, New Jersey, and Alexander’s one ambition was to follow in his footsteps. After excelling at the Staunton Military Academy, in Virginia, he entered Dartmouth College at age 15. A standout in his science courses, he was allowed to advance directly to medical school in his senior year, graduating at the top of his class in 1935. After completing Dartmouth’s two-year program, he earned his medical degree from Columbia University, and did his residency training in New York. Then Alexander returned home, where he proudly hung his shingle next to his father’s. They enjoyed their shared dream of practicing medicine together for only a few months.
In the spring of 1940, Alexander notified the draft board that he was “available any time.” He was called up in November and spent time with the 16th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Gunpowder Military Reservation, in Maryland, not far from Edgewood Arsenal, home of the Chemical Warfare Service, or CWS. Before long, he contacted CWS with an innovative new design for spectacles that fit within the facepiece of a gas mask. (He was granted a patent on the spectacles, but he turned the rights over to the Army.)
Dugway Proving Ground, in Utah, where the U.S. Army tested chemical weapons during World War II. (David Maisel / INSTITUTE)
Transferred to Edgewood, Alexander underwent a crash course in poison gases, consulting specialists and experimenting on animals to evaluate toxic agents and forms of treatment he even investigated agents’ medicinal potential. After Pearl Harbor, he taught Army medical personnel how to treat chemical casualties. He was promoted to director of the Medical Division of CWS’s Research Laboratory at age 27, and when General Patton embarked in October 1942 with 35,000 troops to attack the coast of Morocco, the first time U.S. ground forces would face Axis armies, Alexander accompanied him as the Consultant in Chemical Warfare Medicine to the Western Task Force.
Now, at 5 p.m. on December 7, 1943, five days after the attack on Bari, Alexander’s plane touched down at the city airfield. Waiting for him on the tarmac was the district’s senior British Royal Army Medical Corps officer and a group of hospital directors. “Their agitation was immediately apparent,” Alexander recalled, “and I was taken to the hospital at once.”
The 98th British General Hospital, located in a large complex of brick buildings 15 minutes from the harbor, had been spared. Built on the monumental scale beloved by the Fascists, the Bari Polyclinic housed sizable medical wards, a surgical block and laboratories.
“With every fresh explosion, the building creaked and rattled, rocking like a ship in a storm,” E. M. Somers Cocks, a nurse from New Zealand, recalled of the attack. “Doors were wrenched off hinges, windows were shattered, and the bricked-up windows scattered their bricks like hail.” A concussion blast knocked out the power, plunging the hospital into darkness. They were still sweeping up glass when the wounded began to arrive—hundreds of bloodied sailors suffering from shock, burns and exposure. Almost all of them were covered in thick, black crude oil. The litter-bearers brought up the rear, carrying the grievously injured. These were sailors who had jumped from blazing ships, or swum through pools of flaming oil, and were horribly burned.
Left, Bari, on Italy’s southeastern coast, in November 1943. The British had captured the strategic port city two months earlier. Right, a rescue boat searches for survivors in Bari Harbor after the December 1943 attack. Fuel from damaged freighters and a ruptured pipeline flooded the harbor. (George Kaye / Alexander Turnbull Library / National Library of New Zealand U.S. Army Signal Corps / National Archives)
With so many patients needing urgent attention, there was no time to get many sailors out of their soiled clothes, so the ward matrons did what they could. The “immersion” cases received a shot of morphine, blankets to keep them warm and strong, hot, sweet tea. Then they were left to rest. A British nurse, Gwladys Rees, remembered trying to fix an intravenous line by the light of a match while the wind blew through shattered windows. “We worked by the dim glow of hurricane lamps, long into the night and early morning,” she recalled. “Intravenous bottles were dripping from every third bed, and the corridors were crammed with patients for whom we could find no accommodation.”
The first "unusual" indication, the doctors informed Alexander, was that casualties did not present typical symptoms or respond to treatment in the typical manner. Many patients, despite a thready pulse and low blood pressure, did not appear to be in clinical shock. Instead of being restless or anxious, they were apathetic—some even said they felt “rather well”—and their extremities were warm rather than cold.
After dawn, nurses observed that a few of the men complained of being thirsty, even though orderlies had just gone around with the drinks cart. Suddenly there were so many men clamoring for water the whole ward was in an uproar. Patients were yelling about the intense heat, tearing off their clothing, and, in their frenzy, trying to rip off their bandages.
Overnight, the majority of immersion cases had developed red and inflamed skin, with blisters “as big as balloons and heavy with fluid,” Rees recalled. This, together with widespread nausea and vomiting, led doctors to think the cause might be poisonous fumes, possibly from the fuel oil and explosives. “We began to realize that most of our patients had been contaminated by something beyond all imagination,” she said.
Six hours after the attack, patients who had managed to fall asleep awoke complaining of eye pain. They said their eyes felt “gritty, as though sand particles had gotten in,” Alexander wrote in his report. Within 24 hours, the wards were full of men with eyes swollen shut. As the staff’s unease deepened, British naval headquarters sent a notification that there was a “possibility of blister gas exposure” among the casualties. The hundreds of burn patients with unusual symptoms were to be classified “Dermatitis N.Y.D.”—not yet diagnosed—pending further instructions.
Given the crush of casualties that first night, nonurgent cases who had appeared in “good condition” were sent away, sometimes in their wet uniforms. The next morning many returned, clearly needing treatment. Nurses tried to clean them up, scrubbing the black scum from patients’ skin with kerosene, but many took a turn for the worse. “We did everything humanly possible, but it was no good,” Rees said. “It was horrible to see these boys, so young and in so much obvious pain. We couldn’t even give them strong sedatives, since we weren’t quite sure how they would react with whatever had poisoned them.”
The first unexplained death occurred 18 hours after the attack. Within two days, there were 14. Alexander noted the startling downward spiral. “Individuals that appeared in rather good condition in a matter of minutes would become moribund and die,” the doctors told him. The British doctors were mystified. The symptoms did not correspond to case histories of mustard gas poisoning from World War I, or to manuals issued by the Chemical Warfare Service. If the toxic agent was mustard—named for its unpleasant garlicky odor—respiratory complications should have been more prominent.
A World War II-era poster, with an apparent caricature of Mussolini, to help U.S. troops identify mustard gas, a weapon named for its unpleasant odor. (Otis Historical Archives / National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Several days later, patients with no previous respiratory problems became congested and developed very sore throats, making it hard to swallow. These patients died not as a result of broncho-pneumonia, as might have been expected, but from cardio-circulatory failure.
Alexander walked the crowded wards. He examined patients, gently lifting blankets to study their wounds. With extraordinary delicacy, he probed the strange patches of thickened red skin. He spoke with each patient in turn, asking how he had come by his injuries. Which ship was he on? How did he come to be rescued? Did he receive first aid at the docks? What about at the hospital? One sailor after another told of being caught in the firestorm, of the pandemonium, of somehow making it to the hospital. There they had waited for as long as 12 and even 24 hours before receiving treatment.
Drawing back the covers from one patient, Alexander studied the burns on an otherwise healthy body. The sailor said he had been aboard a PT boat in the harbor when the German bombers flew over. He heard a loud boom as a nearby ship blew up, and the boat was hightailing it back to shore when he felt a spray of oily liquid land on his neck and run down his chest and back. Alexander observed the outline of raw, raised skin, shiny with ointment, delineating where he had been sprayed, as if the splash had been imprinted on his flesh. The burns Alexander had seen on other patients were varied, but already he could distinguish between chemical burns and those caused by fire and heat: “Certain patterns were present depending on how the individual had been exposed.”
It appeared to Alexander that sailors who had been thrown overboard and completely immersed in the harbor were burned extensively, while those in boats had comparatively superficial burns wherever the toxic soup had hit them. Several men who had sat in the solution, possibly in lifeboats, had only local burns of the buttocks and groin. A few lucky souls who took it upon themselves to wipe off the oily mixture that first night sustained only minor injuries.
As he made his rounds, it was increasingly clear to Alexander that most of these patients had been exposed to a chemical agent. His sense of smell supported his hypothesis. Entering the hospital, he had noticed something different from the usual cloying mix of sweat, urine and disinfectant. “Traces of an odor implanted in my mind said mustard gas,” he later recalled.
He knew that the three most common blister agents were sulfur mustard, lewisite and nitrogen mustard. Although generally referred to as “gas,” all three agents were liquids at room temperature. And all three produced skin injuries resembling burns and serious eye injuries. Particularly worrying was the new, pure-grade nitrogen mustard developed by the Germans, which Alexander had studied the previous year, at Edgewood, after two classified samples were smuggled out of Germany. Its effects were reportedly more rapid than sulfur mustard, and it could penetrate intact skin and cause systemic poisoning. Practically colorless and odorless, apart from a faint fishy smell, it was not easily detected in the field. The Germans were also known to use mixtures of blister agents, so any combination was a real possibility.
Declassified photographs of test subjects in U.S. military trials who were exposed to toxic agents such as nitrogen mustard during the war. (Courtesy Naval Research Laboratory)
It had been five days since the initial exposure, and if there was any chance of saving the hundreds of Allied sailors lying in hospitals all over Bari, plus countless Italian civilians, he would need to act swiftly.
He decided to put the question directly to the commanding officer of the 98th General Hospital, Col. Wellington J. Laird. “I feel these men may have been exposed to mustard in some manner, Colonel,” Alexander said tentatively. “Do you have any idea how this might have happened?”
As the chemical warfare consultant to, Alexander was cleared to the “highest degree.” He knew the Allies had begun secretly stockpiling poison gas in the Mediterranean, in case Germany, with its back against the wall, resorted to all-out chemical warfare. But he was skeptical that the Allies would have shipped mustard shells into a busy port like Bari and allowed the toxic cargo to sit there as a prime target for an enemy strike. Still Alexander couldn’t rule it out. Tactfully, he tried again. “Have you checked with the port authorities?” he asked Laird. “Could the ships in the harbor have been carrying mustard?”
Laird replied, “I have, and they tell me they have no such information available.”
The burden of proof rested on him. He ordered a series of tests for the patients who were still alive, and insisted on “careful and complete autopsies” on patients who had died under mysterious circumstances. He ordered samples of the harbor waters collected and analyzed. He borrowed personnel from displaced hospital units and put them to work gathering data, performing lab tests on tissue samples and compiling pathology reports.
Suspecting that Laird had dodged his question, Alexander visited Navy House, the British admiralty’s local headquarters. Weary after the long day, he was blunt: Was there mustard gas in Bari Harbor? This was again “absolutely denied.”
Alexander left unconvinced. What he needed was proof. But this was not the familiar menace he had studied at Edgewood. This was a new horror, “mustard gas poisoning though in a different guise than that recognized from WWI,” he wrote later.
At first light, Stewart Alexander headed for the harbor. He picked his way through mounds of rubble and surveyed the twisted skeletal remains of the Allied convoys. Out on the mole, men were working like ants, removing jagged chunks of concrete and scrap metal. The port, which had been closed for five days and swept for mines, had partially reopened that morning. A number of burned-out vessels had already been towed out to sea and sunk or blown apart. A coal barge still smoldered on a quay close by, and the fly ash stung his nostrils.
The dark oil-slimed water in the harbor basin looked sinister. One sailor had recalled that the floating oil had been a foot thick on the surface of the water after the raid. It was a mixture of high-octane gasoline and fuel from two dozen Allied ships and, Alexander suspected, mustard gas or a derivative, possibly dropped by the Germans among the incendiary bombs. Alexander wondered what other agents might have been thrown into the mix. The Germans possessed phosphorus and magnesium bombs, both of which would have caused deep chemical burns and eye injuries. Another possibility was that an Allied cargo ship had been carrying white phosphorus shells and smoke pots—designed to mask approaches and unnerve the enemy—which were released when the vessel was hit.
If it was an aerial gas attack, determining which ships were hit and in what order would help him understand which crews suffered the most direct exposure. Even men not on the water would have inhaled significant doses of the noxious vapor as it spread across the harbor—some of it sinking, some burning, some mixing with the tons of oil floating on the surface, and some evaporating and mingling with the clouds of smoke and flame. German planes could have dropped time-fused mustard bombs that would burst open approximately 200 feet above the water or, in a low-altitude “spray attack,” could have released liquid mustard from tanks that would then have been transformed by the slipstream into tiny droplets resembling a vapor. Alexander reasoned that in either case the attack would have contaminated all the ships in the inner harbor, including the crippled vessels that remained afloat, and drenched all the men on the docks below.
Yet Alexander had found no evidence of mustard contamination in his survey of the dock area. And the Royal Navy personnel he interviewed appeared shocked at the suggestion that poison gas might have been released in the air raid. “Mustard?” one British officer repeated in surprise, shaking his head. “That’s impossible. There’s no mustard here.”
When he spoke with British port authorities, they continued to “state categorically that there was no mustard in the area.” Undeterred, Alexander described in detail the ghastly burns he had seen at the hospital, and he insisted there was no way those injuries could have been sustained by anything except chemical exposure. Of the 534 men admitted to the Allied hospitals following the attack, 281 were suffering from symptoms consistent with mustard poisoning. That day, 45 had died. These were just the documented cases. Many more fatalities could be expected if they did not receive proper treatment urgently. The vast majority of the victims were British—their own countrymen.
The authorities began to waver. They allowed that if mustard gas was present in the harbor, “it could only have come from the German planes.” Alexander considered the ramifications of the charge that Hitler, in a desperate gamble, had risked a gas offensive. But coming as it did after a string of firm denials of so much as a whiff of mustard in Bari, it seemed to Alexander too neat an explanation.
For days he pored over the clinical records. “Reading the reports,” he wrote, “is to take a journey into the nightmare of the effects of chemical contamination.”
From his training, Alexander knew that agents such as mustard are toxic in vapor or liquid form when they reach the eyes, nose, lungs or gastrointestinal tract. But the chemicals can also be absorbed by the skin. And any toxic agent in contact primarily with the epidermis would, therefore, result in delayed clinical signs—as was the case with the baffling Bari victims.
These were the symptoms he bore in mind as he studied the case of Seaman Philip Henry Stone, a patient who had abruptly died after asking for a drink. The doctors had pointed to him as an example of one of the inexplicable “early deaths.” The pathologist noted “a generalized dusky erythema,” or reddened skin, on the chest, abdomen and thighs, and many blisters on the face, ears, arms, back and external genitalia. “The lips were dull black in color,” he wrote.
During the autopsy, the pathologist also found that the esophagus displayed a “curious black longitudinal streaking,” probably due to dead cells and tissue. The lungs, a mottled blackish-red color, were congested, the bronchi were filled with pus, and the trachea engorged with fluid. The stomach showed the same black areas, and there were necrotic areas near the opening, most likely caused by swallowing a diluted solution of mustard mixed with oil.
After studying the reports, Alexander concluded that many sailors who sustained blast injuries would not have succumbed to the hemorrhages were it not for other complications: “The serious consequences of imposing the mustard vapor injury upon a lung partially damaged or bruised by blast is at once apparent.”
Alexander was still trying to decide how best to proceed, given the official resistance to his diagnosis, when he received stunning news. A diver he had ordered to search the harbor floor had found fractured gas shells. Tests performed on-site revealed traces of mustard. Ordnance officers from the U.S. Air Force identified the casings as belonging to a 100-pound M47A2 mustard gas bomb. German mustard gas bombs were always marked with the distinctive Gelb Kreuz, or yellow cross. This bomb was definitely American.
Alexander’s instincts were right—an Allied ship, later identified as the John Harvey, had been carrying a cargo of mustard gas. The secret shipment had most likely been destined for a chemical stockpile at Foggia, 75 miles away, in order to improve the U.S. capability to retaliate against a German chemical attack.
As Alexander knew from his training, the M47 bomb was made of simple sheet metal, designed to hold white phosphorus or liquid sulfur mustard. Although the M47A2 model was coated inside with an oil to protect it from corrosion caused by the agent, the bombs were still fragile. They would have been blown to pieces in the German bombardment, releasing lethal mustard into the atmosphere and the oily harbor water.
Alexander found it hard to believe that this was the first time British officials were learning of the chemical weapons. The circumstances of the accident would need further investigating, as would the extent to which the military authorities had covered up the escaped gas. By failing to alert hospital staff to the risk of contamination, they had greatly added to the number of fatalities. At that moment, however, Alexander’s patients took precedence. Now that his suspicions were confirmed, he could advise the staff at Allied hospitals on proper treatment for mustard exposure and try to reduce the number of deaths.
Instead of bringing matters to a close, however, Alexander’s discovery that mustard gas had come from the Allies’ own supply had made a difficult job that much more complicated. The British port officials’ attempts to obfuscate rankled, but that paled in comparison to their effort to shift responsibility to the Luftwaffe. It was not a harmless fabrication. Alexander shuddered to think about the “grave political implications.” He later recalled thinking, “If they were going to accuse the Germans of dropping mustard when the Germans had not. ”
Earlier that year, President Roosevelt had issued a stern warning that any Axis use of chemical weapons would be followed by the “fullest possible retaliation.” The significance of “any error in interpreting the factor of and source of mustard gas in Bari,” Alexander recalled, “was horrendous.” If the Allied leaders drew the faulty conclusion that the enemy had deployed chemical weapons, it could trigger widespread chemical warfare.
Adding to his anxiety, the daily death toll from mustard contamination, which had started to decline, suddenly spiked, demonstrating the secondary effects of pneumonia on patients already weakened by chemical exposure. There seemed no way to predict how many more men would die.
Nine days after the bombing, Alexander gave his initial findings to AFHQ in Algiers. “The burns in the hospitals in this area labeled ‘dermatitis N.Y.D.’ are due to mustard gas,” he asserted. “They are unusual types and varieties because most of them are due to mustard which has been mixed into the surface oil in the harbour.”
A survivor of the Bari attack. Widespread symptoms of contamination quickly led Stewart Alexander to deduce that poison gas had become mixed in the harbor water. (Stewart F. Alexander Papers)
Alexander felt growing urgency that his diagnosis be recognized at the highest levels. Some British medical personnel appeared to be waiting for an official stamp of approval before implementing his treatment strategies. More important, there could be no misunderstanding the source of the mustard. He sent high-priority cables to both the American president and the British prime minister, informing them of the nature of the casualties at Bari and the almost certain origin of the gas on an American Liberty ship. Roosevelt appeared to accept his findings, and responded: “Please keep me fully informed.”
Churchill, however, sent a terse reply: He did not believe there was mustard gas in Bari.
Alexander was speechless. He admired Churchill, and he speculated that the British leader’s overriding concern was that the Allies “not acknowledge we had poison gas in that theater of operation because if the Germans retaliated they would be dropping poison gas on England.” There was no questioning the wisdom of this command decision, but Churchill’s opposition undermined Alexander’s credibility and ability to do his job.
Alexander sent a second telegram. He cited his findings at much greater length, stating “beyond any doubt” that these casualties were due to mustard exposure. He was informed that Churchill maintained that “the symptoms do not sound like mustard gas,” which Churchill had witnessed firsthand during World War I. His instructions were the same: “The doctor should reexamine his patients.”
Flummoxed, and unsure how a “lowly, lonely American medical officer” was supposed to respond, Alexander appealed to the liaison officer for advice. The man advised him: One did not argue with the prime minister.
After a sleepless night, Alexander returned early to the hospital determined to prove there had been no mistake about his diagnosis. Churchill was a brilliant man, with an uncanny instinct for the salient fact, and he had put his finger on the most important question about the Bari victims: Why were the toxic effects so much more serious than any other recorded in military history? Far more patients were dying of mustard symptoms at Bari than on the battlefields of WWI, when the fatality rate had been around 2 percent. The death rate in Bari was more than six times higher—and climbing.
The difference, he believed, was the amount of mustard absorbed through the skin from the unprecedented, intimate and lengthy contact as a result of being immersed in the oily harbor water, and then left to sit in soaked uniforms. “In this group of cases,” Alexander postulated, “the individuals, to all intents and purposes, were dipped into a solution of mustard-in-oil, and then wrapped in blankets, given warm tea, and allowed a prolonged period for absorption.”
Alexander’s medical inquiry into mustard’s effects on the victims was just beginning. As he sat reviewing the case sheets and pathology reports, one recurring observation leapt out at him: the devastating effects on the patients’ white blood cells. He flipped through a stack of records. There it was again and again—the white blood cell counts fell off sharply. In patients who recovered, white blood cell concentrations corrected by the second or third day but in some cases, the white blood cell count dropped precipitously beginning on the third or fourth day. He noted that lymphocytes, the white blood cells found in the lymph organs and of importance to the immune system, “were the first to disappear.” What he was looking at made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Alexander had seen these exact results before, but never in human beings.
In March 1942, the authorities at Edgewood, having received the nitrogen mustard compounds smuggled out of Germany, turned the samples over to Alexander to investigate their impacts on the body. Alexander and his colleagues immediately began detailed experimental protocols on animals. The first studies, which recorded the effects of exposure on the skin, eyes and respiratory tracts of rabbits, showed results that were completely in line with exposure to sulfur mustard in the past and with what was expected from a highly toxic agent of this kind.
Next, they set up an experiment to determine the effects on the blood and blood-forming organs. Twenty healthy rabbits were exposed to lethal doses of the agent. To the research team’s astonishment, the white blood cell count of the rabbits dropped to zero or points very close to zero. No one at the lab had ever seen such rapid destruction of white blood cells and the accompanying deterioration of lymph nodes and bone marrow. The researchers consulted the literature and found no reports of the same kind of reduction of white cells in the blood, known as leucopenia, or anything that had the same effect. Alexander’s first thought was that they must have a “bad batch of rabbits.” But when they repeated the experiment with a new group, the results were the same.
The first chemotherapy based on nitrogen mustard was approved in 1949. Several chemotherapeutic drugs based on Alexander’s research remain in wide use today. (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Alexander ordered the tests repeated with other lab animals to rule out the possibility of poor stock or species sensitivity. They tried guinea pigs, rats, mice and goats. Each time, they achieved the same dramatic effects: sudden, severe leucopenia, severe lymphopenia, lymph node depletion and marrow depression. After exposure, the white blood cell counts rapidly disappeared, and the lymph nodes were almost completely dissolved, left as “shrunken little shells” of what they had been.
While still at Edgewood, Alexander was fascinated by the idea that mustard interfered with the body’s mechanism for producing blood cells, especially white blood cells. Because of the dramatic and reproducible effects, he could not help but wonder about the possibility of using the compounds directly, or in modified forms, on human beings with diseases of the blood. If nitrogen mustard attacked white blood cells, perhaps it could be used to control leukemia, the most common type of cancer in children, with its unrestrained white blood cell growth, by using different dosages to destroy some but not all excess cells without annihilating patients. But when Alexander proposed an ambitious set of experiments into mustard’s medicinal properties, he was told first by his chief, and then, on appeal, by the National Research Council, that this was not the remit of the Edgewood laboratory. There was not enough time or money to pursue collateral lines of investigation that did not facilitate the national defense. He was ordered to put the project aside and return to his work on mustard casualty management, treatment and decontamination. Chasing miracle cures would have to wait until after the war.
Now, sitting in an Allied military hospital 6,000 miles away, not even two years later, Alexander held in his hands incontrovertible evidence: “mustard gas did, in truth, selectively destroy blood cells and blood-forming organs,” he wrote. Doctors and medical researchers had never before encountered such an extraordinary level of sulfur mustard toxicity, which, when it mixed with the oil dumped into Bari Harbor, approximated the damage done by the experimental nitrogen mustard compounds—and allowed its systemic effects to be seen clearly for the first time. It had taken a freak accident, and the massive exposures of wartime, to verify in people the phenomenon demonstrated in laboratory rabbits. “It all added up to the same conditions I had seen in my prewar animal work,” Alexander later recalled. “Blood cells disappeared, and lymph nodes just melted away.” He remembered thinking, “If nitrogen mustard could do this, what could it do for a person with leukemia or lymphosarcoma?”
Alexander could not save the worst of the Bari mustard gas casualties, he knew, but perhaps he could make their deaths count for something. A one-in-a-million chance had landed him, one of the few doctors in the world who had studied mustard’s curative potential, in the middle of a disaster with a morgue full of case studies. It was an unthinkably rare chance to perform a pioneering investigation into the toxin’s biological effects on the human body—the kind that would be impossible with living volunteers.
He ran down the hall, yelling for more blood tests. He made sure special care was taken in preparing specimen samples to send to Edgewood for microscopic examination, and improvised a fixative solution, hoping the tissue specimens would withstand the long journey. The hematological analysis would not be as complete as he would like. The heavy burden carried by Allied combat hospitals, and the limited facilities, would prevent them from conducting important tests, including studies of bone marrow and blood chemistry. Alexander would need to be scrupulous in gathering as much data as possible, and in badgering lab technicians to do what he felt was necessary. This time, he wanted to make absolutely sure that his insight into the systemic effects of mustard was entered into the medical record, with an eye toward seeing whether the substance could be used not to destroy, but to heal.
On December 27, 1943, Lt. Col. Stewart Alexander submitted his preliminary report on his ten-day investigation of the Bari Harbor catastrophe. It was immediately classified. Eisenhower and Churchill acted in concert to keep the findings secret so there was no chance Hitler could use the incident as an excuse to launch a gas offensive. Any mention of mustard gas was stricken from the official record, and the medical staff of the British hospitals in Bari were instructed to alter the patients’ charts. Alexander’s diagnosis of toxic exposure was deleted and replaced with the generic terminology for combat casualties—burns, lung complications, all other injuries and deaths “due to enemy action.”
The feared German chemical attack never came. The Wehr-macht was deterred by logistical constraints, combined with Allied air superiority and the threat of massive retaliatory strikes. Ironically, the Germans had known all along about the source of the poison gas in the harbor. Nazi spies in the port had suspected that the Allies might be concealing mustard bombs among the munitions they were stockpiling in Italy. After the air strike, they sent down their own diver, an Italian frogman loyal to the Fascists, who recovered a fragment of an M47 bomb casing, which confirmed the chemical weapons were American.
British officials never acknowledged Alexander’s Bari report, but it garnered high praise from Eisenhower’s senior medical advisers. They lauded the exceptional job Alexander had done under challenging conditions, but told him that a commendation was withheld for fear of “offending the Prime Minister.” Nevertheless, Col. Cornelius P. “Dusty” Rhoads, chief of the Medical Division of the Chemical Warfare Service, hailed Alexander’s meticulous investigation as so complete, and of such immense value to medicine, that it represented almost “a landmark in the history of mustard poisoning.”
Rhoads was eager to explore the toxic agent’s therapeutic potential. Like Alexander, he believed the Bari data pointed the way toward a promising new chemical targeting white blood cells that could be used as a weapon in the fight against cancer. Rhoads, who in civilian life was head of New York’s Memorial Hospital for the Treatment of Cancer and Allied Diseases, seized on the wealth of new information provided by the Bari victims as a breakthrough. His ambitious plans for Memorial Hospital now converged with Alexander’s report and crystallized into a single mission—to exploit military research into poison gas to find a chemical that could selectively kill cancer cells.
Cornelius “Dusty” Rhoads, center, former medical chief of the Chemical Warfare Service and director of the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. (Courtesy Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center)
Armed with the Bari report, and the results of a top-secret Yale University trial that demonstrated for the first time that a regimen of intravenous nitrogen mustard—in tiny, carefully calibrated doses—could result in human tumor regression, Rhoads went in search of funding to develop this experimental treatment, known today as chemotherapy. He persuaded Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the chairman of General Motors, along with the company’s wizard engineer, Charles F. Kettering, to endow a new institute that would bring together leading scientists and physicians to make a concentrated attack on cancer. On Tuesday, August 7, 1945, the day the world learned that an atom bomb had been dropped on Japan, they announced their plans for the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. World War II was over, but the war on cancer had just been launched.
The official secrecy surrounding the Bari disaster continued for decades. The military refused to acknowledge the chronic effects of mustard exposure on hundreds of surviving sailors, naval personnel and civilians, resulting in years of suffering, controversy and lawsuits for medical compensation in both the United States and Britain. In 1961, Alexander volunteered to help the National Academy of Sciences conduct a study of the American survivors, but the project stalled when identifying victims of contamination proved too difficult. “All the records said ‘burns due to enemy action,’” recalled Alexander.
Alexander was discharged from the Chemical Warfare Service in June 1945, and returned home with a chest full of medals and battle ribbons, as well as a new bride, Lt. Col. Bernice “Bunny” Wilbur, the highest-ranking Army nurse in the Mediterranean Theater. He turned down Rhoads’ offer to work at the fledgling Sloan Kettering Institute. Instead, he kept his promise to his father to continue their family practice in Park Ridge, New Jersey, where he became a much beloved physician and cardiologist, and where he raised two daughters with Bunny. He served for 18 years as director of the Bergen Pines County Hospital, and taught at the medical schools of Columbia and New York University. He never boasted of his wartime exploits, but he always took quiet pride in his unique contribution to medicine, and did not mind that while many textbooks eventually traced the modern age of chemotherapy to the Bari disaster, the details of his investigation remained enshrouded in secrecy. He died on December 6, 1991, of a malignant melanoma—skin cancer—but not before the U.S. Army belatedly commended him, three years earlier, for his actions during the Bari episode. “Without his early diagnosis and rapid initiation of appropriate and aggressive treatment, many more lives would have been lost and the severity of injuries would have been much greater,” the commendation read. “His service to the military and civilians injured during this catastrophe reflects the finest measure of a soldier and physician.”
Adapted from The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster That Launched the War on Cancer, by Jennet Conant. Copyright © 2020 by Jennet Conant. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.