World War II

Military operations that included transportation of troops, supplies, and equipment; support of land and naval forces by bombardment and aerial observation; direct combat between fighter planes; and bombing of strategic communication, factories, and population centers including the atomic bombs that ended the war.


World War II began with the 1939 German bombing of major cities in Poland and the rapid destruction of the Polish air fleet by the Nazi air force, called the Luftwaffe. The 1940 German victories over Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France were greatly assisted by air support. The Battle of Britain in August and September of 1940 dramatically ended with the Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command’s defeat of the Luftwaffe. Later German strategic air bombing efforts, designed to destroy factories and civilian morale, were curtailed from completing their objectives by technically advanced Allied warcraft.

As the European front of the war developed, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt repeatedly proclaimed the neutrality of the United States, thus satisfying the public opinion of the majority of Americans. U.S. neutrality laws forbidding arms sales to warring nations were quickly changed by Congress to assist the aerial warfare efforts of Britain and France.

The U.S. entry into World War II began with the Japanese carrier-borne aircraft attacks on Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, which quickly destroyed or disabled many U.S. land-based combat aircraft in the Pacific. At the time of the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor bombing, the U.S. Army Air Force possessed only 1,100 combat-ready planes. Historians of aviation often note that no motivating force speeds up aircraft development and technology more rapidly than war. By 1944, the U.S. Army Air Force had nearly 80,000 planes in sixteen separate air forces stationed around the world.

Aircraft Development

On August 27, 1939, four days before the outbreak of World War II, the Heinkel He-178 took off from Germany’s Marienhe Airport. The monumental first successful flight of this slender research turbojet aircraft began a new era in aerial warfare and is generally credited to two men: Hans von Ohain of Germany and Sir Frank Whittle of Great Britain. Desperate to curtail Allied bombing offensives, Germany then rapidly developed the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet, considered a “Nazi wonder-weapon.” Following its maiden flight in July, 1942, the Me-262 was regularly utilized by German engineers as a flying laboratory for the testing of new weapons. Among the more successful weapons utilized on the Me-262 were 550-pound bombs installed on the aircraft’s wing racks and a row of twelve R4M rockets fitted directly upon each wing. These attached rockets were able to fire in rapid succession and could saturate a target the size of a B-17. In their rush to enhance the capabilities of the Me-262, German scientists initially attempted to attach a 50-millimeter nose cannon, which produced a flash that blinded the pilot when fired. Engineers also experimented with attaching a 2,200-pound bomb in tow, which made the plane functionally unstable during flight.

Allied bomber crews flying over Germany during the summer of 1944 were stunned by their encounters with the Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet, a jet fighter much faster than the jet-propelled Me-262. The Komet carried a revolutionary 3,750-pound thrust rocket motor, which enabled travel at nearly 600 miles per hour. Called the “powdered egg” by Luftwaffe test pilots, the Komet had a limited radius of action of only 25 miles. It would exhaust its 437-gallon fuel supply within seven minutes of takeoff. The Komet’s great effectiveness was due to its ability to climb vertically at 11,810 feet per minute, thus rising quickly above Allied planes. The Komet could then nose over and dive-attack Allied bomber formations and efficiently utilize its twin 30-millimeter cannons. After the war, historians noted that only a handful of the 279 Komets manufactured during the war actually saw combat, but the fact that the Komets claimed nine monumental victories over Allied forces should not be minimized. The most serious flaw of the Komet was its required fuel mixture of methyl alcohol and concentrated hydrogen peroxide, which proved so volatile that several prototypes exploded on the runway during takeoff. Some Komets suffered engine failures that rapidly filled the cockpit with acrid fumes, literally blinding the crew and dousing them with corrosive chemicals from ruptured fuel lines that rapidly dissolved any exposed flesh. Military analysts later reflected that the Komet was probably ten years ahead of its time. Despite the flaws consequent to its escalated development, the Komet remained known as the most dangerous warplane in the sky during World War II.

In the summer of 1944, Germany first flew the Blitz, a twin-engine Arado 234B bomber capable of a maximum speed of 461 miles per hour and an elevation of 33,000 feet. Other features attempted on the Blitz included a dramatically reduced weight and drag, a trolley that was jettisoned after takeoff, skids that allowed grass landings, rocket boosters enabling takeoffs from short runways, a pressurized cabin, four engines, and one of the first crew ejection seats. Although the Blitz was considerably more advanced than any Allied bomber, its implementation came too late to significantly assist Third Reich bombardment strategy.

Major Wolfgang Schenk, a top Luftwaffe pilot, established the Edelweiss Bomber Group of Me-262’s, which were originally designed as fighters but later manufactured as fighter-bombers by a late change in orders directly from Adolf Hitler. Schenk’s unit of fifteen planes, stationed in Orléans, France, however, was too small to deter significantly the advancing Allies and was pulled back to Germany for the final unsuccessful Nazi defense.

Frantically trying to rapidly manufacture a miracle jet that might turn the tide late in the war, Nazi engineers designed three revolutionary planes later considered to be amazingly ahead of their time. The German Gotha 229 Flying Wing, originally designed as a glider, was modified as a high-speed fighter by the attachment of turbojets to its drag-resistant body. One experimental Gotha was clocked at 497 miles per hour while still in its development stage as the war ended.

The German Junkers Ju-287 was designed with forward-swept wings mounted over swept-back wings to delay the onset of air compressibility and establish stability at low speeds. The first Junkers was built in 1944 from sections of other planes, including the nose wheels of a downed U.S. Consolidated B-24. The Junkers made seventeen test flights before it was captured in 1945 by Soviet troops, who experimented extensively with the plane themselves for three years before moving to later designs. Soviet engineers attached tufts of wool to the fuselage and forward-swept wings of the Junkers to study its airflow. The planned design of the first jet attempted with variable-sweep wings, the Messerschmitt P-1101, was probably never flown, but the swing-wing design was later developed on the U.S. F-14 and F-111 fighters of the 1970’s, the B-1 bomber of the 1980’s, and an entire generation of Soviet fighters.

The first fighting jets had only minimal influence on the outcome of World War II, but they clearly set the stage for the rapid, future evolution of jet warplanes. Great Britain, the United States, and Japan rapidly followed Germany by developing and flying jet fighters before the conclusion of the war. Britain’s first jet fighters consisted of seven Gloster Meteors, which joined the RAF in July, 1944, after four years of development. With an airspeed of 490 miles per hour, the Gloster Meteors were effective in intercepting German bombers that were daily attacking London at speeds of 400 miles per hour. However, they proved ineffective at downing enemy planes due to faulty guns. The first combat victory for an Allied jet occurred on August 4, 1944, when pilot T. D. Dean’s gun failed as he maneuvered alongside the attached missile of a German bomber. Dean then slid beside a wingtip beneath a bomb wing before banking sharply to unbalance and crash the German aircraft.

Other Technological Developments

British air-defense systems were greatly assisted by the development of radar. The development of German night-fighter systems was not prompted until after British night bombers began large-scale raids on Germany, most notably the one-thousand-plane raid over Cologne in May, 1942. Radar enhanced the ability of U.S. bombers to avoid detection and simultaneously to carry out early morning attacks on prominent Nazi industrial and military targets. These Combined Bomber Offensives notably included the Ploesti, Romania, mission of August 1, 1943. The Ploesti raid utilized B-24’s of the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force, originally based in Italy but launched from Africa, to bomb the Romanian oil refineries that were Germany’s largest supplier of fuel. This costly mission, known as the “graveyard of the Fifteenth,” was quickly followed by the Regensburg-Schweinfurt mission of August 17, the first large-scale U.S. attack on Germany launched from English bases. American losses in these offensives were considerable until 1944, when long-range P-47 and P-51 escort fighters enabled the attack of strategic sites deep within German-occupied territories with relative safety. The Allies were then able to establish clear air superiority and hit considerably more German planes and aircraft facilities. A notable example of this timely Allied air supremacy was D day, June 6, 1944, when Allied air forces restricted Germany to only a few Luftwaffe sorties against land invasion forces.

Newer designs of wings and other structural improvements greatly increased the speed and maneuverability of combat jets. By the end of the war, one of the most advanced fighters was the British Spitfire, which achieved a top airspeed of 350 miles per hour and an elevation of 40,000 feet. The United States and Soviet Union both developed jet bombers that could fly nonstop from their homelands deep into enemy territory anywhere in the world in only a few hours.

Surfaces that deflected radar beams and materials that absorb radar energy and made planes much more difficult to detect, later known as stealth technology, were initially developed during World War II. Modern supersonic wings, which are thinner and flatter for increased speed and range, began to be made with heat-resistant materials. Materials such as titanium later began replacing aluminum, which melts at high speeds, using ideas initiated during World War II.

Other notable German aerial warfare developments included the V-1 buzz bomb, a pilotless jet-propelled plane carrying 2,000 pounds of explosives, which flew against England in June, 1944. The V-2, a true guided missile capable of carrying 1,650 pounds of explosives over 200 miles, was launched in September, 1944. These technologies arrived too late to have an impact on the final outcome of the war, but their designs set the stage for future military warcraft.

Notable Battles and Flying Groups

Air battles in the Pacific most notably included the June, 1942, Battle of Midway, a crucial victory for the U.S. carrier-based navy. Battles for the Gilbert Islands, the Marshall Islands, and the Mariana Islands were also monumental, as they later provided bases for air attacks upon Japan. Because Japan failed to develop a strong home air defense, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress caught the nation unprepared in late 1944 to detect bombers and coordinate army and navy maneuvers. On March 9, 1945, a massive raid on Tokyo, Japan, torched approximately 25 percent of the city’s buildings. On August 6, 1945, the U.S. B-29 Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, three days later a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, after which Japan surrendered.

The skills of the Flying Tigers, a United States Volunteer Group, were displayed in the China-Burma-India theater, following the Japanese conquest of Burma, later known as Myanmar. Supply flights from India to China over the Himalayas became as critical as combat flights, with bases in China later used to launch critical bombing operations against Japan.

Casualties and Costs

Advances in air warfare strongly contributed to making World War II the costliest military conflict in history, in terms of both human casualties and resources. An estimated 15 million to 20 million military personnel were killed in action, along with approximately 25 million civilians. Military deaths for the Axis powers have been estimated at 3.5 million Germans, 1.5 million Japanese, and 200,000 Italians. Of the Allies, the Soviets lost an estimated 7.5 million military personnel, and China lost an estimated 2.2 million combatants from July, 1937, until the war’s end. Britain lost 300,000; the United States lost 292,000; and France lost 210,000. In terms of civilian casualties, the Soviet Union lost 10 million; China 6 million; France 400,000; Britain 65,000; and the United States 6,000. Of the Axis powers, Germany lost 500,000 civilians; Japan lost 600,000; and Italy lost 145,000. Approximately 6 million Jews, most from Eastern Europe, died in Nazi death camps. Total expenditures for war materials is estimated at $1.154 trillion, with the United States spending $300 billion and Germany $231 billion.

Long-Term Effects

The Japanese surrender in 1945, which did not require a land invasion, indicated to many that future military encounters would ultimately be determined by the combatant that controlled the battlefield in the air. The tactical use of fighting aircraft continued to escalate immediately following World War II, with essentially all world governments developing military planes by the early 1950’s in response to the Cold War. Military air force strategies have since displayed disturbing trends, from the use of aircraft to prevent enemy movements and destroy enemy communications and supply lines to the doctrine of massive retaliation, whereby a country would not necessarily confine air strikes to local hostilities but would consider bombardment of civilian centers within enemy homelands.

Notable battles in which the ultimate victor was determined by warcraft technology begun during World War II included those of the Korean War, in which American propeller-equipped planes were initially very effective. Later Korean air combats employing the F-80 and F-86 against the Russian-built MiG-15 were notably the first aerial combats between opposing modern jet fighters. After spending the Korean War dodging the best in Soviet fighter technology in what became known as “MiG Alley,” the United States developed the world’s first supersonic fighting jet, the F-100 Super Sabre, in 1953.

Another example was the 1967 Six-Day War between Israeli and Palestinian forces, which was essentially decided within the first three hours when Arab forces lost 452 aircraft. Ground warfare was also transformed forever by World War II aircraft developments. The widespread use of helicopters mounted with jet engines enabled enhanced speed and lift capacity to transport troops and supplies efficiently.


  • Badsey, Stephen. Modern Air Power: Fighters. New York: Gallery Books, 1990. An authoritative text that traces the development of jet fighters since 1945, illustrated with many stunning photos of the fighting jets that have often been the determining factor in modern battles.
  • Christy, Joe. American Aviation: An Illustrated History. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1987. An excellent review text on U.S. aviation history, with interesting insights into the past and potential future of air warfare.
  • Condon, John Pomeroy. Corsairs and Flattops: Marine Carrier Air Warfare, 1944-1945. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1997. A book detailing the history of the Marine pilots and crews who pioneered carrier-based air support of amphibious landings in the final push to defeat Japan in the battles for Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Indochina, the Philippines, and Tokyo.
  • Cooksley, Peter G., and Bruce Robertson. Air Warfare: The Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Conflict. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1998. A chronology of significant events, inventions, and aeronautic milestones in armed flight.
  • Wells, Mark K. Courage and Air Warfare: The Allied Aircrew Experience in the Second World War. London, England: Frank Cass, 2000. An investigation into the unique nature of aerial warcraft, with firsthand reflections by combat fliers of its physical and mental hardships.

Air Force, U.S.

Aircraft carriers

Battle of Britain

Black Sheep Squadron


Jimmy Doolittle

Enola Gay

Fighter pilots

Flying Tigers

Gulf War

Korean War


Marine pilots, U.S.

Messerschmitt aircraft

Military flight

Billy Mitchell

Navy pilots, U.S.

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bombing


Hanna Reitsch

Eddie Rickenbacker


Royal Air Force


Vietnam War

World War II: The European Theater

World War II: The Pacific Theater

The Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, caused the United States to enterWorldWar II. Air power was particularly important in the Pacific theater, which largely encompassed widely separated islands that were most easily reached by plane.

(Digital Stock)