A Year-By-Year Look At The Air War Starting With 1942


Russian Yak-1 Fighter Plane

1942: Eastern Front

As the calendar turned to 1942, the Russians could be grateful that they hadn’t suffered the same fate as other European countries in 1941. They managed to survive the German Blitzkrieg when Hitler broke their Non-Aggression Pact in June 1941. In December 1941, the Wehrmacht reached the outskirts of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad but could not advance any further. Once the frigid winter set in operations began to slow down. The Germans had anticipated a four-month campaign to topple the Russian government. It is possible the Germans underestimated the sheer vastness of Russia, and a later start of the campaign than planned. Informed by his spy network that the Japanese had no intention of attacking Russia through Manchuria in the east, the Russians moved crack, well equipped troops from Siberia to defend the capital. In early January 1942, this massive Russian Army counter-attacked in force, eventually driving the Germans back nearly 100 miles from Moscow. In the battle for Moscow the Luftwaffe and Russian Air Force battled in the skies above the capital. During the bombing campaign the Germans would find that the city was heavily defended on the ground and in the air. And the German would also find that the Luftwaffe didn’t have the range to fly beyond Moscow therefore, they failed to detect the Russian buildup in the east. The Russian pilots the Germans engaged in and around Moscow were some of the best available.


588th Russian Women Pilots

In their 3-pronged attack the previous year, German forces were divided into 3 main forces. Army Group North mission was to take Leningrad, Army Group Center, take Moscow, and Army Group South, take Kiev, in the Ukraine. Each Army Group was assigned a Luftwaffe Air Group to spearhead and support ground forces. There was a vast difference between the two Air Forces. The Luftwaffe possessed two of the best fighters of the war, Messerschmitt Bf 109, and Focke-Wolfe 190, both were battle-tested. Pilots who had gone toe-to-toe with the British in the Battle of Britain. They also had one of the early war’s dive-bomber, the JU 87 Stuka, along with their dominant twin-engine bombers, the Junkers Ju-88, Dornier Do-217, and Heinkel He-111 were the workhorses of the Luftwaffe.


JU 87 Stuka Dive Bombers Over Russia

The previous year, the Russians conducted one of the most remarkable feats of relocation, when they moved entire industries and millions of people east beyond the Ural Mountains. Out of necessity, in 1942, the Russian Air Force was forced to re-invent itself after the disastrous loses in 1941. The Russians lost an astounding 20,000 aircraft the previous year. It is true that many of the aircraft were obsolete or lost on the ground in the opening days of the war. They also had suffered a crisis in senior leadership as a result of Stalin’s vengeful purges in the 1930’s. By late 1941 the names of Russian aircraft designers were taking their place in the pantheon of great designers and their planes; Yakolev and its Yak series of fighters, Lavochkin and its LaGG fighters, Artem I. Mikoyan, and Mikhail I. Gurevich (MIG). In March 1942 the Russian Air Force received a new commander, Aleksandr Novikov, whose mission was to reorganize his forces into air armies, making it easier to coordinate air operations. New tactics were developed, and some were borrowed from the Luftwaffe.


Alexander Alexandrovich Novikov, Chief Air Marshall

At the conclusion of winter 1942, the Germans renewed their attacks. Concerned about their consumption and need for oil, they shifted forces to the Caucasus in hopes of taking this oil rich region. In addition, they intensified their attack on Stalingrad. Over the next several months the fight there descended into some of the savage warfare in history. As they had demonstrated in the past, In November 1942, the Russians managed to bring up a sizable number of divisions to counter-attack and later encircle the German 6th Army that was besieging Stalingrad. The new Russian fighters, the LaGG 5 made its debut in the Stalingrad battle. German ace, Gunter Rall said of the LaGG 5 “the La 5 was a great plane.” At lower altitude, the La 5 could out-turn a Messerschmitt 109, and out-climb a Focke-Wulf 190. 1942 would conclude with the Battle of Stalingrad leaning in flavor of the Russians, as the Germans were on the verge of defeat.

1942: Western Front:

On December 22, 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived in Washington, DC to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a short two weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Dating back to the early days of World War II, Churchill had intensely lobbied Roosevelt to enter the war to defeat the Axis menace. Both leaders were aware that Americans citizens were firmly against American entering another European war. The best Roosevelt could offer was military weapons assistance, which was done in abundance. Now, Churchill had the prize he had always wanted; the U.S. was fully engaged.The two leaders held firm their Newfoundland agreement of several months before that a “Germany First” policy would be pursued. Although, Americans were seething at the Japanese sneak attack, a strategy to contain the Japanese would be the second option.


Roosevelt and Churchill Confer With The Press in December 1941 At The Whitehouse

Despite the euphoria of America’s entry into the war, the outlook for 1942 looked very bleak. Germany had a lock on the European continent, the Germans had taken a sizable portion of western Russia, Rommel's Afrika Korps was on the loose in North Africa, and the Japanese were dominating in Asia and the Pacific.

The first arrival of U.S. troops and airmen in England now meant that that any hope Germany had of invading the British Isle was gone. While there was little danger of an invasion, the German menace was the German U-Boat fleet rampaging in the Atlantic that was a threat to the lifeline to and from the U.S. The arrival of the Army Air Force 8th Air Force drastically increased the Allies airpower. The American’s arrival added a new array of mission-ready aircraft. In particular, four and twin-engine bombers to supplement their bomber fleet. While the British had two of the best fighters in the war, the Supermarine Spitfire, and Hawker Hurricane, that had little enthusiasm for fighters the U.S. had available; the P-40 Warhawk. However, the British loved the Grumman F4F Wildcat, a single-wing, single-engine all metal fighter that was the top-line fighter for the U.S. Navy and Marines in 1942. The British renamed the British version the Martlet.


British Supermarine Spitfire

The most immediate need for the Allies was securing the Atlantic Ocean passage of men and material. In 1942 the Germans held the upper hand with their deadly U-Boat menace that was sinking ships on a regular basis. Confronted with a two-ocean war, naval assets were stretched to the limit. What was needed were air assets that could cover convoys attempting to make the hazardous journey. The type of aircraft needed were either land based, or aircraft deployed from ships. In 1942, the best land options were the islands Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland in the Atlantic. Two options were the British Sunderland and the U.S. Consolidated Catalina for convoy coverage were considered. However, the best option proved to be long range bombers, in particular, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, when equipped with addition tanks had a range of 3,000 miles. A successful way to carry fighter aircraft would come later in the war to combat the menace of long-range German Condor, that worked in tandem with the U-Boat Fleet.


German U-Boat 576 And Crew

The first U.S. mission with American pilots was flown on July 4th, 1942, against targets in occupied Holland. The planes involved were the A-20 Boston (the U.S. version is the Havoc), under the command of the RAF. There was a loss of one RAF and two U,S. crews. The first of many Boeing B-17s to come in the future, began arriving in mid-June. The first raid was conducted on August 17, 1942, when 12 planes attacked the railroad marshaling yards in Rouen, France. The first bomber off the air-strip in was flown by a youthful Maj. Paul Tibbets, who three years later would pilot the B 29 Super¬fortress Enola Gay in its historic mission. All planes safely returned to base. As the U.S. grew in force, a difference in tactics developed within the Allies. The British, with several years of experience knew the danger involved with daylight precision target bombing without fighter escorts. The U.S. was eager to put their tactics of precision daylight bombing to the test with their heavy bombers, bristling multiple 50 caliber machine-guns, and bunched together in defensive box formations. The coming months would tell-the-tale.

Mediterranean/North Africa

Of the three members of the Axis Tripartite Pact, Italy would eventually prove to be the weakest member militarily. In June 1940 when it appeared that the German Blitzkrieg was about to succeed, an opportunistic Italian dictator , Duce del Fascismo Benito Mussolini declared war on the besieged English and French. Mussolini saw this opportunity to take territory from the Allies in the Mediterranean and North Africa. As a far back as April 1939, Mussolini began his conquest in the Balkans by annexing his neighbor, Albania. In Mussolini’s mind this would his bridge to the eastern Mediterranean, namely Greece. While his Axis partner, Hitler was conquering territory in Western Europe, Mussolini needed a victory of his own to keep pace with Hitler. On October 28, 1940, the Italians crossed the Albania, Greece border.

The Greeks did not have a strong army, and very little in the way of an Air Force. However, what they did have was a proud tradition, and the backing of the British . From the beginning, the Italians performed poorly in the fighting in the mountainous terrain. With help of the British, the Greeks were on the verge of defeating the Italians. Mussolini reached out to the Germans for assistance, Hitler saw the risk of the British landing troops in Greece, this would certainly put his southern flank in jeopardy. The Germans began amassing crack troops on the Bulgarian border with Greece. They attacked in Blitzkrieg fashion in April 1941, and quickly overwhelmed Greeks. Not only did the Germans take Greece, but they also attacked the Island of Crete and drove the British out.


A Cashed Italian Fiat CR 42 Biplane Fighter

In June 1940, Mussolini made his move in North Africa when his forces attacked the British in Egypt from their base in Libya. The Italians held and overwhelming advantage in numbers of troops; 220,000 to 36,000. In December 1940, the British counter-attacked and nearly wiped-out the Italians. On the verge of victory, the British paused the campaign to divert assets to the Greeks in their war with Germany. Once again, the Germans would come to the aide of their Italian partners. In February 1941, a newly formed German Army, the Afrika Korps, led by brilliant General Erwin Rommel, who was one the best tank commanders in the German Army. Within 6 weeks of landing Rommel was on the move; pushing the British back into Egypt.

At the beginning of 1942, Rommel reorganized and began his most famous drive in the North African campaign. The one city that both sides fought over feverishly was the port city of Tobruk. Tobruk was the only deep-water port in Eastern Libya, and vital in the march to advance into Alexandria and the Suez. In June 1942, Rommel once again targeted Tobruk. His forces quick overwhelmed the city, forcing the surrender of 34,000 British soldiers and their equipment on June 21. The defeat at Tobruk was a low point for the British, Churchill, determined to right the ship made changes at the top that eventually placed Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery in command of the Eighth Army. Rommel drove the British back into Egypt but were halted at the First Battle of El Alamein. Montgomery used this time build his forces until he felt he had a decided advantage. Now that the Americans were in the war, supplies began to flow into the battlefield from America.


U.S. Air Transport Command plane Flies Over The Pyramids At Giza

In October, Montgomery unleashed an overwhelming attack at the Second Battle of El Alamein, driving Rommel all the way back to Tripoli and beyond. The real hammer blow occurred when the Anglo-Americans landed in force in Vichi held Algeria, under the guise of Operation Torch in November. Armada’s from America and England. The British force landed at Oran and Algiera, while the American force landed at Casablanca in Morocco. This force now put the Afrika Korps in a vice to the east and west. It was very difficult for the Afrika Korps to be re-supplied by way of the Mediterranean Sea.


Fiat G 55 Fighter Plane

The air war in North Africa was reminiscent of the Battle of Britain in 1940 when the Luftwaffe and RAF battled. Now, the Italian and American air forces joined the battle. The Americans utilized their complete inventory that was available in 1942. The most numerous fighters were the Curtiss Wright P-40, used by the Americans and the British. The four-engine heavy bombers; B-17, B-24 engaged the enemy. The fleet of twin-engine bombers did the same. The Grumman F4F Wildcat had served the desert since 1941 when 30 destined for Greece were diverted to North Africa after Greece fell. One new American aircraft in particular showed great promise, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a twin-engine monster that had great range and firepower, it would wreak havoc. As the junior partner to the Germans, the Italian Air Force played a minor role. The Italian had several good aircraft but many planes in the fleet were obsolescent. One of the most numerous Italian fighters was the Macchi C.200 Saetta. Powered by a radial engine, the 200 was Italy’s first all metal fighter aircraft that saw action in the Mediterranean, Russia, Greece and North Africa. A better version of the Macchi, the C. 202 Folgore would come next, it replaced the radial engine with a license built German Daimler-Benz DB 601, which transformed the aircraft. The Macchi C.205 Veltro, along with the Reggiane Re.2005 and Fiat G.55, the Macchi C.205 was one of the three "Serie 5" Italian fighters built around the powerful Daimler-Benz DB 605 engine. Rommel would still fight on as 1942 drew to a close, but it was apparent that the arrival of the Americans would soon tip the balance in the favor of the Allies


When looking at the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor in January 1942, seeing the twisted, burned remains of some of the finest warships in the world, it was hard to see anything encouraging. As bad as the picture was, there was a silver lining. America’s navy avoided losing their aircraft carriers that were not in the harbor when the attack occurred. The ships that were damaged in the harbor, and not out at the open sea, where recovery would have been impossible. Circumstances would now force a new battle strategy with aircraft carriers becoming the tip of the spear that would strike back at Japan.


Pearl Harbor 1941

At the beginning of 1942 there would be further loses, as the Japanese steamrolled throughout Asia and the Pacific. The Japanese brought the same destruction to the British, French, Australians, Dutch, Chinese and others in their Asian and Pacific possessions and countries. As incredible as it seems, the U. S. suffered another devastating loss when the very next the day when the Japanese nearly destroyed all the air assets in the Philippines, a precursor to an all-out land invasion. While U.S. and Filipino pilots flew valiantly, they were simply overwhelmed. The battle in the Philippines gave the U.S. an extended look at the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane. Japanese Naval and Army forces based in Formosa (current day Taiwan) began landing troops. Their swift action forced the U.S. forces to retreat to Batan. Without any hope of a relief column, or re-supply the U.S. forces were doomed. It was only a matter of time before they surrendered. Understanding the circumstances, President Roosevelt ordered American commander, Douglas McArthur to evacuate from the Philippines to Australia to direct the fight back from there.


A6M Zero Japanese Fighter

In February 1942 the “Impregnable Fortress” of Singapore surrenders to the Japanese. Over 80,000 British troops surrendered. Churchill would later say it was the “worst disaster” and “largest capitulation” in British history. The Australian city of Darwin was struck by a Japanese aircraft flotilla based at Kendari in the Celebes, and aircraft carriers based in the Timor Sea. This would be the first of many raids, although the danger lessened when 3 squadrons of U.S. fighters arrived in March. The Dutch also suffered a devasting defeat, first in the Battle of The Java Sea, and later the capitulation of the Dutch East Indies.

The Allies felt it imperative that China be in the fight for a variety of reasons. Now that the Japanese had control of the region, supplying China with the war materials they needed was an issue. Supplying China by sea was nearly impossible. It would have to done by air or land route. The British possession of Burma was the natural choice. Supplies staged in India were flown to China, while the majority would travel by the Burmese Burma road. The Japanese were aware of this threat and immediately set out to sever this crucial lifeline. The Japanese launched their attack on Burma December 13, 1941, from bases in Indochina. The Japanese quickly gained air, land and sea control pushing British, Indian and other forces westward out of Burma. Now the Japanese were intent on cutting the Burma Road wherever possible. Before the start of the war, the Americans commissioned a secret group of pilots and support staff to protect China/Burma airspace, and train Chinese pilots. The American Volunteer Group (AVG) was led by retired Army Air Officer, Claire Lee Chennault , who began working with the Chinese in 1937. In 1940 Chennault began purchasing P-40’s, and recruiting pilots from the armed services, a total of 100. Later named the “Flying Tigers” they had their first mission on December 20, 1941, where they downed 4 Japanese bombers. They would go onto down 297 Japanese planes with the loss of 14.


AVG Flying Tigers

The goal of the Japanese had been to create an impregnable ring around the Home Islands. They assumed that the Allies did not have the capacity to mount an attack in 1942. They were wrong. President Roosevelt had insisted to his military leaders to plan an attack on the Japanese Home Islands, to uplift the morale of the American people. A submarine captain. Francis S. Low thought of the idea of launching Mitchell B-25 medium bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier. Renowned air racer, Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, USAAF, was chosen to lead the mission. In April 1942 task force 16, which include the carrier, USS Hornet, with 16 B-25’s on board. They would later rendezvous with Task Force 18, under Admiral Halsey and proceed to the east coast of Japan.

The plan called for the Task Force to launch within 500 miles from Japan. However, they were discovered by a Japanese craft. The Task Force sank the craft,(5 Japanese prisoners were pulled from the water) but the Japanese craft managed to send a message before sinking. The Task Force was 170 miles short of its goal. The order was given to launch the bombers. Despite the risk of running short of fuel, Doolittle and his raiders took to the sky and completed one of the remarkable raids of the war. All 16 bombers hit their targets and then proceeded to China. Short on fuel 15 crashed landed on the coast, while one landed in Russian city of Vladivostok, and the crew was interned.


Lt.Colonel Jimmy Doolittle And The Raiders

For the Americans this was just the beginning. Over the next several months they would see more needed success in turning back the Japanese. This would begin with the Battle of the Coral Sea, this would be the first time in history that capital ship did not sight each other in battle. The battle was considered a tie, although, the Americans turned back the Japanese invasion force. The Battle of Midway in June would go down as one of the greatest victories in U.S. history. The U.S. had broken the Japanese code before Pearl Harbor, now they were aware of Japan’s next move, the invasion of the island Midway in an attempt to force the U.S. into a decisive confrontation with its carriers. After some initial setbacks in the battle, the U.S. rebounded and sank four first-class Japanese carriers.


USS Enterprise

To conclude 1942, the U.S. discovered that the Japanese were constructing an airbase on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Island chain. The Americans performed their first amphibious landing of the war. They attacked Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida on the morning of August 7,1942. After fierce fighting on Tulagi, and Florida they were seized. The U.S. captured the airfield and immediately began finishing the construction. The Japanese retreated into the jungle. Determined not to surrender the islands, the Japanese counter attacked. The fighting in and around Guadalcanal descended into some of the most vicious fighting in the war at sea, in the air, and on the island. By the end of the year the Japanese had resigned to the fact they could not retake Guadalcanal.

As the year 1942 drew to a close, the Allies in unison had survived a difficult year, and were now at the beginning of the turning point.

Evolution Of World War 2 Fighter Aircraft

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