The Second World War produced many incredible machines. As the world’s industrial powers focused their energies on war, weapons and vehicles emerged like never before, including several fascinating planes. What was the role of planes in World War 2?
Airplanes were an integral and versatile instrument in warfare during World War II. The Allied and Axis Power militaries used planes as bombers, fighters, reconnaissance planes, and transport planes, designing multiple models for each of these purposes.
So, if you’re ready to look at some of the fascinating aircraft produced during World War II and learn how the Allied and Axis Power militaries used them, keep reading!
What Type of Planes Did They Use in WW2?
World War II plane types included fighters, bombers, transports, or reconnaissance aircraft. These aircraft often filled multiple roles and took on many shapes and sizes.
Fighter planes engage in air-to-air combat against bombers, other fighters, or reconnaissance aircraft. When fighters engage other fighters, we call this a “dogfight.” These planes require speed, maneuverability, and firepower to defeat other fighter planes and maintain air superiority.
The main fighter types during WWII included light fighters, heavy fighters, interceptors, and night fighters.
Light fighters were the most numerous, balancing performance and cost-effectiveness. Their superior maneuverability, low profile, and sheer numbers proved vital advantages in the air.
Examples include the British Hurricane and Spitfire, the American P-40 Warhawk and P-51 Mustang, the Soviet Yakovlev Yak-3, the German Messerschmitt 109 and Focke-Wulf 190, and the Japanese A6M Zero.
Designers intended heavy fighters to fly longer distances than light fighters to serve as bomber escorts or bomber destroyers. They typically were twin-engine aircraft such as the German Messerschmitt BF 110 and the American P-38 Lightning.
Apart from the P-38 Lightning, heavy fighters saw little success, and light fighters largely superseded them.
Interceptors were either light or heavy fighters that specialized in defending against enemy attack aircraft or reconnaissance planes. Interceptors, like the British Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane, were particularly important in confronting German fighters and bombers during the Battle of Britain.
The night fighter was, as its name suggests, a fighter modified for use in periods of poor visibility. The Royal Air Force first used night fighters in World War I, and they changed very little until World War II when the Royal Air Force introduced night fighters with radar.
Engineers often converted heavy fighters or medium-to-light bombers into night fighters like the British Bristol Beaufighter and de Havilland Mosquito or the American Douglas A-20 Havoc and P-38.
Bombers functioned in air-to-land assaults by dropping bombs on enemy targets. Different types included light, medium, and heavy bombers, as well as attack aircraft like dive bombers and fighter-bombers.
Heavy bombers could fly long distances and deliver heavy payloads on strategic targets like docks or factories. Moreover, they had heavy armor and gunners at several stations throughout the aircraft to protect them from enemy fire.
Heavy bombers could carry over four tons of bombs, compared to medium bombers, which carried over two tons, and light bombers, which generally carried no more than one ton of bombs. These bombers usually flew in large formations and maintained a level flight path as they dropped their bombs.
Famous WWII heavy bombers included the American B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator, British Lancaster, and German Heinkel He 177.
Another example of a heavy bomber would be the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. This American four-propellor bomber is perhaps best known as the plane that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This heavy bomber was also one of the largest planes of World War II, and it helped bring about the end of the war in Japan.
Attack aircraft or strike aircraft differ from bombers in that they carry out precision strikes instead of mass bombing. Their primary role is to provide close air support to nearby friendly units on the ground. We refer to them as ground-attack aircraft when they are not naval aircraft.
Attack aircraft included light bombers, dive bombers, and fighter-bombers.
In contrast to a typical bomber, a dive bomber is a plane that would descend at a steep angle to deploy its bombs.
One example of a dive bomber is the German Junkers JU-87, which could perform 90-degree dives. This plane, also called the Stuka, had automatic dive brakes that helped if the pilot passed out from the extreme g-forces.
The German manufacturer Junkers Aircraft and Motor Works produced the Stuka and other aircraft for the Luftwaffe (the German air force). The Junkers 87-B was known for the distinct screaming sound it produced when flying earthbound, having a distinct psychological effect on anyone nearby.
Other successful dive bombers included the American Douglas SBD Dauntless and the Japanese Aichi D3A Val.
Fighter-bombers were fighters that also functioned as light bombers or attack aircraft, carrying bombs and/or rockets in addition to heavy cannons. Many heavy or light fighters also functioned as fighter-bombers, while some light-to-medium bombers also filled those roles.
For instance, the Germans modified Messerschmitt BF 109s, BF110s, and Focke-Wolfe 190s as fighter-bombers during the Battle of Britain as their Stuka dive-bombers suffered heavy losses. Similarly, Allied forces converted Spitfires, P-38s, and P-51s into fighter-bombers.
The P-47 Thunderbolt was an American fighter aircraft, but its load capacity of over one ton qualified it as a light bomber, making it an excellent ground-attack aircraft. Other specialized ground-attack aircraft included the British de Havilland Mosquito and Hawker Typhoon and the Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik.
Notably, the US Vought F4U Corsair was a carrier-based fighter-bomber that served well in the Pacific Theater for the US Navy and Marine Corps. Its inverted gull wings and large propeller made it very distinct (source).
Military transport aircraft airlifted military personnel or equipment. During WWII, militaries often converted civilian transport aircraft for military roles. American examples included the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, the Curtiss-Wright C-46 Commando, and the Douglas C-54 Skymaster (source).
The Douglas developed the C-47 Skytrain from the DC-3 civilian airliner. C-47s dropped thousands of paratroopers behind enemy lines on the morning of D-Day, June 6th, 1944.
Other examples of transport aircraft include the British de Havilland Flamingo and German Junkers JU 52.
The Second World War led to significant growth in air reconnaissance in the United States and Britain. American photo-reconnaissance aircraft used the “F” designation for “foto” instead of fighter, which is what that designation means today. At this time, the designation for a fighter was “P” for pursuit aircraft.
For instance, the photo-reconnaissance version of the American P-38 Lightning was the F-4, which had four K-17 cameras instead of machine guns in the aircraft’s nose.
Similarly, the German Junkers Ju 188 was a reworked version of the Junkers 88.
How Were Planes Used in WW2?
The Allies and Axis Powers used reconnaissance planes to gain information about the enemy, bombers to attack strategic targets, fighters to fend off enemy air attacks or escort allies, and attack aircraft to support ground forces.
The use of reconnaissance planes helped identify key strategic targets for heavy bombing raids that would destroy the enemy’s manufacturing capability. By damaging large factories, railroads, and various forms of infrastructure, it was possible to cripple the enemy’s capacity to supply war material for its armies.
Meanwhile, the slower and heavier bombers required protection from faster and lighter aircraft that would attempt to shoot down bombers or reconnaissance aircraft. Also, these fighter aircraft would often engage with one another in dogfights.
Attack aircraft would support ground troops by attacking tanks and other ground targets like pillboxes and machinegun emplacements using bombs, rockets, and heavy machine guns.
Carrier-based aircraft fulfilled similar roles, though some models carried torpedoes to attack enemy carriers and other ships.
Transport ships carried men and materials to and from the battlefield. Paratroopers played an essential role in World War II, particularly during the D-Day invasions.
What Was the Most Popular Plane in WW2?
The most popular type of plane was the fighter plane, and among the fighter planes, none was more popular than the P-51 Mustang. When the Allies combined the American P-51 with the British Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the resulting P-51D became the best piston-engined aircraft of WWII (source).
North American Aviation P-51 Mustang
The Mustang was a highly effective long-range fighter that even maintained usage through the Korean War. When the British replaced its original Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled engine with a Rolls-Royce Merlin, the boost in performance allowed the Mustang to reduce bomber losses from German fighters.
The British had initially requested North American Aviation to produce the older model Curtiss P-40 for the war, but North American Aviation proposed to make an all-new plane instead. The resulting Mustang would become one of the most iconic planes of the war.
Its use by both the RAF and the United States helped secure air superiority for the Allies. The P-51D model had six .50 caliber wing-mounted machine guns (source). Serving as a long-range fighter and fighter-bomber, only the Grumman F6F shot down more aircraft (source).
Lockheed P-38 Lightning
The American Lockheed P-38 Lightning had one of the most distinctive looks of any World War II fighter, with its twin booms and its central nacelle. Initially designed as a high-altitude interceptor, the P-38 was a versatile plan that could also operate as a fighter-bomber or photo reconnaissance plane.
As a fighter, it shot down more Japanese aircraft than any other plane in the Pacific Theater, and, in recon, it took around 90 percent of the aerial film in the European Theater (source). P-38 had one 20mm cannon and five .50 caliber machine guns located in its nose, providing concentrated firepower.
Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
The American P-47 Thunderbolt was the largest single-engine fighter produced during World War II. It weighed 10,000 pounds empty and, once fully loaded, could weigh more than 17,000 pounds (source).
The P-47 had eight .50 caliber machine guns, heavy armor, and a powerful 2,000-horsepower radial engine. Despite its size, it still had a top speed of 426 miles per hour and was an agile dogfighter, though it excelled at ground attack.
The British Royal Airforce’s most produced aircraft of World War II was the Supermarine Spitfire, which they frequently upgraded with better weapons and engines. RAF squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires helped win the critical Battle of Britain, making the Spitfire became an icon of British resilience (source).
Early Spitfires had an armament of eight .303 caliber machine guns, and later versions had four .20 caliber machine guns. Its higher speed at altitude made it a formidable opponent for the German BF 109.
Messerschmitt BF 109
Nazi Germany’s most important fighter aircraft was the Messerschmitt BF 109, designed by Willy Messerschmitt. Compared to the RAF Spitfire, it was faster at high altitudes and could dive more rapidly. However, its primary weaknesses were its limited range and small ammunition supply.
Focke-Wulf FW 190
The FW 190 possessed a heavy armament of two 7.9mm machine guns on the engine cowling and four 20mm cannons on the wings, meaning it excelled in dogfights and as a bomber destroyer.
The FW 190 D-9 was a development of the widely-used Fw 190 A, improving upon its predecessor’s climb, dive, and speed level through its Junkers 213A 12-cylinder engine. This high-performance interceptor proved to be a formidable match for the P-51D (source).
Messerschmitt Me 262
The German Messerschmitt Me 262 was the first operational fighter craft in the world to have jet engines, though the British Gloster Meteor actually entered into service before it (source). Entering the war in late 1944, it first operated as part of a fighter-bomber squadron and as an interceptor in March of 1945 (source).
The ME 262 could reach 525 mph and had four 30mm cannons, making it a truly dangerous bomber destroyer.
Mitsubishi A6M Zero
The Mitsubishi A6M “Zero,” for Navy Type 0, was a carrier-based aircraft designed by Jiro Horikoshi for the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Zero was notable for being incredibly lightweight and maneuverable.
The Zero had two 7.7mm machine guns above the engine and two 20mm cannons in the wings. Since American fighter aircraft had more powerful engines than the Zero, they preferred to attack from high altitude and avoid dogfights.
The Soviet Yak-3, designed by Aleksandr Sergeyevich Yakovlev’s Design Bureau, was a very light yet powerful aircraft. It carried a heavy armament of one 20mm cannon and two 7.62mm machine guns mounted on the engine, along with two wing-mounted machine guns (source).
The Yak-3 was slightly more maneuverable than the Yak-9, the Soviet Union’s most-produced fighter aircraft of World War II. Nevertheless, both proved effective against German fighters.
How Many Planes Were Made in WW2?
The major Allied and Axis Powers combined produced around 809,693 aircraft during World War II (source). However, the United States produced the most by far, producing over 300,000 planes and 95,000 in a single year (source)!
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The Second Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries saw great scientific development and the emergence of standardization and mass production. This also led to the development of mechanized warfare during both world wars with the mass production of tanks and aircraft (source).
The factories that in peacetime produced consumer goods could, in wartime, efficiently produce war machines (source).
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, President Roosevelt created the War Production Board to convert peacetime factories for war usage as well as preserve certain metals for the war effort.
The United States already led the world in industrial production, but that number doubled over the four years of American involvement in the war. Ultimately, the United States produced almost two-thirds of the Allied equipment (source). This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
The production of war material continued after World War II, resulting in an arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. For more on this, read “Reasons for the End of the Cold War.”
Aircraft played an incredibly significant role in World War II as Allied air superiority led to the defeat of the Axis Powers. Both the Allies and Axis militaries used planes as bombers, transports, fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft.