Carrier Aircraft – Which Was Best?
Let’s start with one which definitely wasn’t; the Blackburn Roc. The Roc was developed from the Skua dive-bomber and suffered from a number of problems. It was slow and not particularly agile, and tended to murder its crew by going into a flat spin and refusing to come out. It was so surly about this that an anti-spin parachute was fitted, which could be deployed by a desperate pilot to drag the plane out of its self-imposed death throes. He only had one of these, so a quick return home was advisable once he had deployed it – just in case his aircraft decided on a second attempt at suicide.
The Roc was also a turret fighter, like the Boulton-Paul Defiant. There is a reason why there weren’t many aircraft like this; they sucked. The turret – in theory – allowed all-round firepower and could be a nasty surprise for an enemy pilot who dropped on the tail of his opponent where normal fighters had no guns.
In practice, the turret was not a success. By that we mean ‘no bloody use whatsoever.’ The turret slowed the aircraft and was somewhat hard to aim. The gunner would usually be facing in a different direction to the pilot. He had no idea what the pilot might do next as he tried to manoeuvre his aircraft out of the way of streams of bullets and into a firing position against an enemy who would be performing aerobatics of his own.
So the gunner had to try to predict what might happen next and aim his guns accordingly, all the while fighting off airsickness in a rotating box. Predictably, the Roc under-performed in air-to-air combat. Its combat record reached the dizzy heights of one kill (a Junkers 88, shot from below) and stayed there. As a further damnation, although the Roc was designed as a carrier-based aircraft, the Fleet Air Arm wouldn’t touch it. It was deployed from land stations, from which it sortied repeatedly and achieved nothing except occasionally falling out of the sky in a death-spiral of despair.
The Gloster Gladiator, while really belonging to a previous generation of aircraft, was a much more formidable fighter than the Roc. It had a decent armament of four machineguns, which at least pointed in the right direction, and it was an agile, friendly little aircraft that forgave errors rather than putting to death any pilot who offended its sensibilities.
Gladiators are most famous for taking part in the defence of Malta, but also gave good service in other theatres. Many were flown against the Soviets by the Finns, though not from aircraft carriers because a) this was a land war, and b) Finland has never had an aircraft carrier.
The Gladiator was outclassed in most theatres on land, but at sea it was up against fairly basic aircraft much of the time and could hold its own. As a widely-exported fighter, it was used by several combatant nations and occasionally ended up in action against other Gladiators. The Gladiator is primarily notable for being a fairly credible biplane in an era of fast low-winged monoplane fighters.
Another credible – very credible, bordering on amazing – biplane was the Fairey Swordfish, or ‘Stringbag,’ as it came to be known The nickname by no means an insult; it was a reference to string bags popular at the time, which could be carry pretty much anything.
The Swordfish, like the Gladiator, had the advantage of a low takeoff and landing speed which made carrier operations simpler for crews. It was also rather slow in flight (by which we mean really, really, horribly slow) and could not carry a very large payload. However, the range of unpleasant gifts that it could bestow on the enemy was pretty huge – mines, depth charges, torpedoes, bombs, rockets and rude gestures could all be delivered by the Swordfish. It also carried a couple of machineguns for self-defence. One of them, rather optimistically, pointed forwards.
The Swordfish put its stamp on naval aviation history when a couple of dozen of them trundled into Taranto harbour, home of the Italian navy’s battleship force, and sank half of it for the loss of just two aircraft.
Then there was the Bismarck. Germany deployed what was possibly the most awesome battleship in the Western Hemisphere, and sank Britain’s favourite ship (the Hood). The British, somewhat put out, threw pretty much everything they had at the Bismarck and her consort, the Prinz Eugen, but in the end it was a flight of Swordfish that crippled the battleship’s rudder with a torpedo. This torpedo strike sealed Bismarck’s fate yet allowed the battleship crews to retain their manhoods by being the ones to deliver the killing blow.
The Swordfish was strangely lethal for a collection of bits of wood and fabric. Oh, and it also pioneered the use of airborne surface search radar to locate enemy ships. Not bad for a biplane.
Grumman Wildcat & Hellcat
However slow the British were to adopt them, it had been pretty obvious from the early 1930s that monoplanes were the future of naval aviation. The US Navy received the sadly underpowered Brewster Buffalo to start with, and at the outbreak of war the limitations of this aircraft were graphically demonstrated by Japanese pilots. It wasn’t so much that the Buffalo wasn’t in the same league as the Japanese Zero it faced. It wasn’t even playing the same sport.
Fortunately, the Grumman Wildcat was becoming available, and this was a much better aircraft. Although the Wildcat was still outclassed by the Zero, it stood a chance, and lessons learned with it led to the really rather good Hellcat.
It was a tough and well-protected aircraft. There were occasions when Wildcats absorbed ridiculous amounts of bullets and still managed to crawl home, and even after it had been displaced by the Hellcat, the Wildcat continued to serve as a pretty decent light strike platform. Wildcats also served in the Royal Navy as the Martlet, often aboard small escort carriers.
The Hellcat that followed the Wildcat/Martlet looked similar but was specifically designed with beating the Zero in mind. The Hellcat was just as tough as a Wildcat but also faster and had a longer range. Importantly, for pilots who found themselves in a bad spot, it could outrun a Zero in a dive. While the ability to successfully flee for your life might not be the most glamorous move, a pilot and plane that survive can always come back to the fight later. Heroically fighting to the end tends to have somewhat more permanent results.
The Hellcat was good; good enough to survive into post-war service in the 1950s as a night fighter, but it was not entirely superior to the Zero. The Zero could out-turn a Hellcat and was faster in a climb at some altitudes. Thus Hellcat-versus-Zero engagements were a foretaste of jet fighter tactics, with American pilots encouraged to make ‘one pass and haul ass,’ engaging on their own terms then using superior speed to break contact. ‘Do not dogfight with a Zero’ became the Hellcat pilot’s creed.
Built in land and carrier based versions, the A6M was designed to be fast and manoeuvrable, was well armed with cannon and machineguns, and could carry drop tanks and a light bomb load for strike operations. It was also rather fragile, with no armour or self-sealing fuel tanks. About half the weight of contemporary US naval fighters, the Zero had a low stall speed which translated into extreme agility.
However, the Zero was all about attacking and had little in the way of defence other than its ability to be suddenly travelling in a radically different direction. While this should not be underestimated, the Zero was a bit all-or-nothing, like a naked guy in a sword fight. It either won or died; Zeroes were not known for getting their pilots home after taking serious damage. Later in the war many were expended as kamikaze aircraft, which maybe seemed like a logical progression of the design.
The result of this vulnerability was that good pilots did very well with Zeroes, but there were few opportunities to learn from mistakes. This contributed to the decline in quality of Japanese naval aviation later in the war.
Another factor in that decline was the Vought Corsair, probably the most potent naval fighter of the war and also a very impressive strike platform. With three .50 calibre machineguns in each wing, the Corsair had plenty of firepower and continued the tradition of toughness and high speed pioneered by earlier US naval fighters.
Despite some initial problems, the Corsair proved to be an excellent fighter and although the Hellcat was the aircraft that produced the most aces of the war, the Corsair achieved an impressive enough record of its own, and dropped most of the bombs delivered by US fighters in the Pacific theatre.
The Corsair is also notable for one of the most psychotic episodes in the history of air-to-air warfare. Having intercepted an enemy aircraft at such a high altitude that his guns’ lubricant thickened and jammed, a Corsair pilot decided the big whirling blade on the front of his plane might be useful for something, and so chewed his enemy’s tail section off with it. He was still able to return to base, where he was presumably banned from watching Dick Dastardly cartoons ever again.
Allied Strike Fighters
The US Navy’s TBD Devastator was already obsolete by the time of the Pearl Harbour attack but was forced to hold the line until other designs came through. After some initial successes, Devastators suffered extremely heavy losses at the Battle of Midway and were withdrawn.
The Grumman TBF Avenger also suffered heavy losses at Midway; five of the six aircraft present were downed and even the crew of the surviving aircraft were all killed or wounded. This is perhaps a unique distinction in air warfare – every member of the strike force was killed, wounded or shot down. That alone makes the Avenger notable, but was it any good?
On balance, yes it was. Avengers proved highly effective and were the mainstay of US torpedo bomber forces throughout the war. They were involved in the sinking of the two Japanese battleships Musashi and Yamato as well as numerous lesser warships including the damaged battleship Hiei and the carriers Ryujo and Hiyo. Avengers also sank more than a couple of dozen submarines while serving with the US and Royal Navies. In British service the Avenger was for a time designated the Tarpon before everyone agreed this was a rubbish name for a combat aircraft and reverted to the infinitely more awesome Avenger.
Future US President George Bush (Senior) was shot down while flying an Avenger, but that’s merely interesting rather than awesome. Still, the Avenger is a strong candidate for best carrier-borne aircraft of the Second World War.
British naval fighters were a mixed bag. The Fairey Fulmar was a two-seat aircraft intended for fleet air defence. It was derived from a rather unsuccessful light bomber design, which was considered acceptable since fleet defence fighters were not expected to encounter high-performance fighters. Presumably, the idea that a fleet might venture within range of land-based fighters never occured to the designers.
Fulmars successfully defended warships and convoys from air attack, but their best use was as long-range reconnaissance aircraft. The Fulmar had a second crewmember who assisted with navigation, operated the radio, and could spot enemy vessels or submarines. Although a very modest fighter and eclipsed by better aircraft that came later, the Fulmar shot down more enemy aircraft than any other Fleet Air Arm fighter. It was followed by a custom-designed two-seat naval fighter, the Firefly, which went on to serve in the Korean War.
The success of the Hurricane and Spitfire ensured that navalised versions would appear, operating from ‘proper’ aircraft carriers as well as converted merchantmen. Some Sea Hurricanes were fitted to merchant ships (catapult-armed merchantmen, or CAM ships) as a one-shot weapon against enemy reconnaissance aircraft. Since these could direct a U-boat force onto a convoy’s route, a single fighter could make a real difference to the fate of a convoy. It is not possible to say for certain how many ships were saved from being torpedoed by catapult-launched Sea Hurricanes, but the likely figure is between ‘some’ and ‘really quite a lot.’
Early in the war, as the Spitfire was busy impressing everyone being a glamourpuss, the decision was made not to create a naval version. This might seem somewhat backward, especially since the alternative was the rather more pedestrian Fulmar, but all available Spitfires were needed for the defence of Britain. As the pressure eased, the Sea Spitfire, or Seafire as it came to be known, was introduced. Carrier-borne Spitfires saw action from late 1942 onwards, and were highly active in the Pacific theatre where kamikaze attacks provided plenty for them to shoot at.
So which was the best carrier-borne aircraft of the Second World War? In terms of outright performance there are obvious candidates, but that’s not a fair comparison. The aircraft entering service from 1943 onwards benefited from the sort of rapid development of technology and technique that happens when you’re fighting total war against an equally advanced enemy. It’s not possible to fairly compare the obsolete 1930s-designed planes of the early war to Seafires, Corsairs and Zeroes. What we can do is look at what was done with them and rate that against what common sense says they should have been capable of.
With that in mind we have an honourable mention; the Blackburn Skua.
Remember the Blackburn Roc? Well, its strike counterpart was the Skua. This, too, was a bit of a deathtrap. It also needed the anti-spin parachute and, as originally designed, had no armour. It did eventually get an armoured windscreen for the pilot, but there was no protection for the Telegraphist-Air Gunner who sat behind him. As well as defending the aircraft with a wholly inadequate Lewis gun, the TAG also operated the radio and, according to some sources, had a bag of variously-sized corks with which to plug bullet holes in the unarmoured and non-self-sealing fuel tank that he was conveniently sat next to.
The Skua, being a dive-bomber and not a fighter like the Roc, naturally had forward-firing guns (the Roc didn’t). It also had a rather clever radio direction-finding device to allow it to find its way home, which was a nice touch. There was no radio contact with other planes in the formation though; other than the direction-finding device all the Skua had was a Morse transmitter/receiver which allowed somewhat ponderous contact with carrier or base.
Although the Skua was developed primarily to sink enemy aircraft carriers with a 500lb bomb, it was more commonly used as a naval fighter for lack of anything better. It was the first Royal Navy aircraft with luxuries like an enclosed cockpit, retractable undercarriage, and just a single set of wings. It had folding wings to make carrier operations easier, and would float on water if not too badly shot up. Of course, the usual reason for an aircraft to be in the water was, you know, being shot up, so that was a questionable benefit. But, points for effort.
This was, on the face of it, not a great aircraft. And yet…
In April 1940 two German cruisers, Konigsberg and Koln, were supporting operations at Bergen. The RAF didn’t like that very much and bombed them… slightly… with about thirty 500lb bombs from Wellingtons and Hampdens. ‘Slightly’ because despite the amount of ordnance dropped, the raid caused little more than irritation and inconvenience. No major warship had ever been sunk by air attack, so nobody expected much more than that.
The decision was taken to attack with two squadrons of Skuas, which had been acting as fighters for months and were out of practice. The raid would be made at extreme operational range, at dawn (which meant navigating across the sea at night in aircraft that could not talk to one another) and with just sixteen aircraft who had a single bomb each, to do what a force of bombers had failed to accomplish.
Koln had gone by the time the strike was launched, but Konigsberg was still in the harbour. Fifteen of the Skuas attacked out of the rising sun and knocked out the ship’s electrical power with the first bomb, crippling her air defences. At least three bombs hit the cruiser, with others exploding close by. By the time the Skua force withdrew, Konigsberg was on fire and sinking, and the world’s first destruction of a major warship by aircraft was pretty much ready for the history books.
Some of the planes had flak damage, but there were no losses in this historic operation until one of the Skuas decided to even the odds a little by murdering its crew in the traditional flat-spin manner.
There were faster, more agile and more capable aircraft. Plenty of them, in fact. But it was the humble Skua that showed what could be done by carrier-capable aircraft. A dive-bomber that spawned a useless fighter variant, then went to war as both fighter and bomber, it was outmatched in both roles by pretty much everything it encountered. Regularly asked to do the impossible, the Skua showed the way.
So, the Blackburn Skua as the best carrier aircraft of the Second World War? Well, maybe not. But this obsolete and in many ways rather poor aircraft was one of the most influential or perhaps even most important carrier-capable aircraft of the war. At risk of misquoting a great man; rarely in the field of human conflict has so much been achieved, in so many places, with so little.
The best of them all? We present… the Douglas Dauntless dive bomber. There were moments and places where the war hung in the balance; where one side failing to win made eventual victory for the other far more certain. Places like Malta, Stalingrad, Imphal, the Coral Sea… and Midway.
Had the Battle of Midway been lost, had the US carrier fleet been defeated, the war in the Pacific would have become desperate (at best) for the Allies. Had the Japanese advance not been halted at the battle of the Coral Sea, Australia and New Zealand might well have been overrun. These two battles were decided by air strikes, and the principal Allied aircraft in those strikes was the Dauntless. To some extent, the success at Midway was bought by the sacrifice of the Avenger torpedo bombers, but all the same it was the Dauntless that savaged the Japanese carrier fleet, and it was the Dauntless that sank cruisers, destroyers and transports during the critical fighting for Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands.
The Pacific war was all about sinking ships, and the Dauntless sank more than anything else. More importantly, perhaps, it sank some of the most important ships the enemy had. It was there when it was needed, and it achieved more than might have been expected of it. The Dauntless is rarely listed among the factors that won the Second World War, but it did a really good job of making sure the Allies didn’t lose.