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Wings - World War II

At the end of this block of study, you should be able to:

5.85 Define air superiority, strategic bombing, interdiction, and close air support.
5.86 Give an example of the four functions of air power in World War II.

World War II (1939-1945) began on September 1, 1939, when German forces invaded Poland. America entered the war on December 7, 1941, when Japanese naval air forces bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. From the beginning of the war, airplanes played a major role.

The Germans used a tactic called blitzkrieg (lightning war) - a smashing military assault intended to overwhelm an enemy in a single military action. This tactic was usually delivered by land and air forces together. Using this tactic, the Germans were able to defeat France and Poland in less than a month and Belgium and Holland in less than a week.

The Japanese used carrier-based air power when they attacked Pearl Harbor. The attack destroyed 188 airplanes, sank or severely damaged 14 ships, and killed 2,403 service members.

Rather than discuss the entire history of World War II, this section will give examples of how air power was used during the war. Primarily the four combat functions were:

1. Air superiority—when an Air force has greater combat effectiveness than the opposing air force, especially if the superiority permits the conduct of air operations without prohibitive interference from the opposing air force.

2. Strategic bombing - bombing of a selected target or targets vital to the war-making capacity of a nation, e.g., oil centers, factories, cities, etc.

3. Interdiction—the prevention or destruction of, or interference with, enemy movements, communications, lines of communications which makes it difficult for the enemy to move from one place to another.

4. Close air support (CAS) air attacks against enemy ground forces so close to friendly forces as to require detailed coordination between The friendly air and ground forces.


Early in the war, Hitler decided to invade England. However, before sending his troops across the English Channel he realized he must have superiority of the air. Without air superiority, the German assault forces would have been subjected to repeated aerial attacks resulting in their defeat.

The aerial Battle of Britain began in mid-1940. During the early part of the battle, it appeared the British would lose; however, the stout defense of the British, coupled with German tactical errors, enabled the British to win. By December 1940, the battle was over. Britain retained air superiority and, as a result, Hitler called off the invasion.

On June 22, 1941, Germany launched a massive surprise attack against the Soviet Union. One of the first objectives of the attack was to destroy the Russian Air Force. On the first day alone, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) destroyed 1,811 Russian aircraft for a loss of only 32. It took a year for the Russians to recover, and during that time, German ground forces made great advances into Russia without for the most part, any interference from the Russian Air Force.


During the last year of the war, the British and Americans decided oil targets would be the priority strategic bombing target. Up to this time, strategic bombing was not achieving the desired effects on the Germans' ability to wage war. In fact, production of aircraft and armored vehicles increased during some of the Allies' heaviest months of bombing. The decision to make oil centers the priority target produced several results. It cut aircraft fuel production to 10,000 tons per month. The Luftwaffe needed, at a minimum, 160,000 tons of fuel; without it, training flights ceased and only critical targets were defended. In addition, production of ammunition and synthetic rubber was reduced. The last major German offensive in the West, the Battle of the Bulge, was lost in large part because of the lack of fuel for the armored forces.


The Japanese needed to reinforce their land forces in New Guinea. In early 1943, they decided to send several thousand troops from their major base of Rabaul to Lae, New Guinea, by ship convoy. The convoy was discovered, and over a two-day period, American and Australian aircraft bombed and strafed the Japanese ships. Twelve of the 16 ships were sunk, and of the 6,000 Japanese troops only 800 reached New Guinea.

On June 6, 1944, the Allies invaded the beaches of Normandy, France. The Allies, in planning for the invasion, realized they would be greatly outnumbered during the early days of the operation. However, by using interdiction, they realized they could isolate part of the battlefield and prevent German supplies and reinforcements from reaching the main battle area. As a result of the planning, air power was used to destroy bridges over the Seine and Lorie Rivers. It was also used against vehicle convoys and railroads. As a result, many reserves never arrived in the battle area and other forces had to make such long detours their combat effectiveness was reduced.


During the early months of World War II, Henderson Air Field on Guadalcanal was a very important airstrip. After seizing the field from the Japanese, outnumbered U.S. Marines had to defend the strip from repeated attacks by Japanese troops. One attack led by Col. Kusuhichi Watanabe almost succeeded in breaching American lines. However, with help from some Army P-400s (these were export versions of the P-39) providing close air support, the attackers were annihilated. The Japanese lost 708 soldiers while Marine losses were 59.

A month after the D-Day invasion, Allied forces had pushed several miles into France. One heavily defended city was Saint-Lo. Two American infantry divisions were given the task of taking the city. For several days, American gains were only 200 to 500 yards per day. Fighter-bombers were called in to provide close air support. The aircraft hit enemy strong points, troop concentrations, gun positions, field fortifications, and self-propelled guns These attacks helped the infantry to capture the city and also reduced their casualties.

World War II taught the world many lessons about aviation. It proved the airplane was a major weapon of war. The airplane also proved to be an efficient vehicle for hauling cargo and passengers; but, most importantly, it changed the concept of security for all nations of the world.


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Updated: 12 March, 2004