The Great Bombers of World War II

Lancaster, B-17, B-24, B-29, B-25, He 111, JU 88, Mitsubishi G4M2 Type 1 ("Betty"), Stormovic, Dauntless, Mosquito, A-26, Avenger and Stuka

By Chuck Hawks

Bombers are "A combat aircraft designed to carry and drop bombs" according to the American Heritage Dictionary. They are the quintessential air to ground (or sea) delivery system. Despite the title of this little piece, no one can definitively name the "greatest" bombers of the Second World War. However, the types covered in this article do meet some important criteria that suggest that they are worthy of inclusion. The bombers below were produced in large numbers, served their respective air or naval forces as a standard type for an extended period of time and had a significant impact on the war.

I have divided the great bombers of WW II into general categories (heavy, medium and light). Within each category the aircraft are listed alphabetically by manufacturer. The data and specifications used in this article are courtesy of Jane's Fighting Aircraft of World War II. Aircraft specifications are always approximate, so other sources may vary.

Heavy Bombers

These are the long range strategic bombers and during WW II they were all four-engined machines. The USA and UK excelled in the production and use of heavy bombers, demonstrating their superior understanding of the potential of strategic air power in total war. It was the heavy bomber that smashed the cities and industrial centers of Japan and Germany and ultimately heavy bombers ended the war by dropping two atomic bombs on Japan.

Japan, Italy and Germany failed to produce strategic heavy bombers in significant numbers (only about 200 German He 177A heavy bombers, for example, entered service during the war). The USSR developed the four-engine Tupelov TB-7, but accomplished little with the type. The heavies that made the cut are the definitive American and British types.

Avro 683 Lancaster (UK)

The Lancaster was Britain's war winning bomber. While the American B-17 and B-24 heavies targeted German military targets, transportation centers and industries the Lancaster pulverized German population centers by night area bombing.

Germany unleashed total air warfare (albeit on a small scale) using Zeppelins and Gotha bombers during WW I. In the Second World War, beginning with the Blitz, Hitler and Goering sent the Luftwaffe against London and other British population centers. The Battle of Britain revealed the inadequacies of Luftwaffe bombers as strategic weapons and graphically demonstrated to the British that a long range, high capacity, well defended bomber was required for successful strategic total warfare. The Lancaster was just such a bomber.

Avro's 683 was developed from the twin-engined Manchester bomber and began reaching RAF Bomber Command squadrons early in 1942. It was an all-metal, mid-wing monoplane capable of carrying an internal load of up to 18,000 pounds. The normal crew was seven airmen. With modifications to the bomb bay the Lancaster could carry single 12,000 and 22,000 pound bombs, the only bomber in the world to do so. In addition to being built in large numbers in the UK, Lancasters were also produced in Canada and Australia.

The Lancaster I was powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlin XX 1,280 h.p. water-cooled, V-12 engines. The Lancaster II substituted Bristol Hercules VI radial air-cooled engines. The Lancaster III and the Canadian built Lancaster X were powered by Packard built (under license) Merlin V-12 engines.

Normal defensive armament was ten Browning .303 caliber machine guns in four power operated turrets. There was one turret in the nose, two amidships and one in the tail. The tail turret carried four guns, all the others two guns. The Lancaster's vitals and crew positions were protected by armor plate and bullet-proof glass.

The Lancaster's empty weight was 37,000 pounds and the normal loaded weight about 68,000 pounds. Wingspan was 102', maximum speed 275 M.P.H. and maximum range approximately 3,000 miles. The service ceiling was 28,000'.

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (USA)

The prototype of the famous B-17 first flew on July 28, 1935. In June of 1939 the type went into regular service as the B-17B. The B-17 was used in both the Pacific and Europe, but proved to be best suited for the ETO. Its greatest fame came from operating with the 8th Air Force stationed in the UK, from where it undertook long range, daylight bombing missions against German military and industrial targets. The B-17 lacked the range and bomb load of the B-24 Liberator, but was somewhat better armed and proved to be even more resistant to battle damage. The Fortress was a key element in winning the air war over Europe and the destruction of the Luftwaffe.

The definitive B-17G was a low-wing, all-metal monoplane powered by four 1,200 h.p. Wright R-1820-97 air-cooled, turbocharged, 9-cylinder radial engines. It had a wingspan of 103' 9" and a length of 74' 9". The normal crew was ten men. Empty weight was 32,720 pounds, normal loaded weight was 49,500 pounds and maximum weight was 60,000 pounds. Normal range with maximum bomb load and normal fuel was 1,100 miles. The maximum speed was 295 M.P.H. and the service ceiling was 35,000'. The B-17's ability to operate at very high altitudes created a significant tactical problem for Axis interceptors.

The B-17G's defensive armament consisted of thirteen heavy .50 caliber machine guns. Eight of these were distributed in pairs in power operated chin, dorsal, ventral and tail positions, plus single manually trained guns on each side of the fuselage in cheek and waist positions and a single manually trained gun fired upward from the top of the fuselage by the radio operator. The internal bomb load was 6,000 pounds.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress (USA)

The B-29 was the definitive heavy bomber of WW II. It originated with a USAAF specification for a heavy bomber to replace the B-17. The prototype XB-29 first flew on 21 September 1942 and the bomber entered service in December 1943. On 15 June 1944 the B-29 first bombed Japan from bases in China. From that point on Japanese cities and industries were increasingly targeted, primarily by B-29's stationed on Guam and in the Mariana Islands. The B-29 was not used in the ETO as the B-17 and B-24 were deemed sufficient to finish the job by the time of the B-29's introduction.

The B-29 was a mid-wing, cantilever monoplane with a crew of ten to fourteen men. It was powered by four 2,200 h.p., twin turbocharged Wright R-3350-23 air-cooled radial engines. Its fuselage was pressurized and this saved its crews from the extreme discomfort of high altitude operation experienced by B-17 and B-24 crews. The result was a marked increase in crew efficiency.

The B-29's service ceiling in excess of 35,000' caused great problems for Japanese interceptor fighters, as did its defensive armament of four centerline, remotely controlled, power operated turrets (two above and two below the fuselage). Each turret was fitted with two .50 caliber heavy machine guns. The remotely controlled tail gun position deployed one 20mm cannon and two .50 caliber machine guns. These guns were aimed from a total of five sighting positions that allowed fire from all guns that would bear to be concentrated on a single target. The result was devastating and B-29 losses to Japanese fighters were light.

The B-29 ended the Second World War by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but its fighting career was not over. The B-29 was again pressed into action during the Korean War, where it smashed industrial targets in North Korea. By the early 1950's, however, the enemy's daylight interceptor fighters were MiG 15 jets and B-29 losses quickly became prohibitive. After a couple of weeks of costly daylight raids, B-29's operated against North Korean targets only at night.

The B-29's wingspan was 141' 3", length 99', and loaded weight 135,000 pounds. The bomber's maximum speed was over 350 M.P.H. and its range in excess of 4100 miles. Up to 20,000 pounds of bombs could be carried internally in the B-29's two bomb bays.

Consolidated Vultee B-24 Liberator (USA)

The Liberator long range bomber prototype first flew on December 29, 1939. It went into production in the Fall of 1940 and stayed in production until May 1945, after some 19,000 examples had been built. These aircraft were produced by Consolidated Vultee (Later Convair) in the San Diego and Ft. Worth plants), North American, Douglas and Ford. In addition to being one of the primary heavy bombers of the USAAF, the Liberator heavy bomber was sold to the RAF and used by the U.S. Navy as a long-range patrol bomber. In the latter capacity it finally closed the "black hole" in the North Atlantic where German U-boats had previously operated free from interference from Allied land based aircraft.

The Liberator was one of the two American heavy bomber types (the other being the B-17) that formed the backbone of the USAAF strategic bomber offensive in the ETO. It was also widely used in the Pacific Theater, where its extra range made it superior to the B-17.

The twin tailed B-24 was a high-wing, cantilever monoplane of all-metal construction flown by a crew of ten men. It was produced in many variations and wartime improvements were incorporated. The B-24J had a wingspan of 110', length of 67' 2" and a fully loaded weight of over 60,000 pounds. Maximum speed was 297 M.P.H., powered by four 1,200 h.p. Pratt & Whitney Twin-Wasp air-cooled supercharged and turbocharged radial engines. The normal range was 1,540 miles with maximum internal bomb load.

The defensive armament consisted of ten .50 caliber heavy machine guns. These were distributed in pairs in power driven nose, dorsal, ventral and tail turrets plus manually trained single guns firing from waist positions in each side of the aft fuselage. There were twin bomb bays in the center fuselage beneath the wings that allowed for a maximum internal bomb load of 8,000 pounds.

Medium Bombers

All of the major combatants in WW II developed and used twin-engined medium bombers in large numbers. Medium bombers served in both the strategic (as used by Germany during the London Blitz) and tactical (as when Japanese G4M2's sank the Repulse and Prince of Wales off Singapore) roles and were used in all theatres of the war. The types listed below are among the best and most significant of the WW II medium bombers.

Heinkel He 111 (Germany)

The He 111 dates to 1935. It first saw action with the German Condor Legion in Spain, where it supported Franco's forces in the Spanish Civil War. It went on to serve the Luftwaffe on all fronts throughout the Second World War and was a mainstay of the German bomber force during the Battle of Britain. In addition to its usual level bomber role the He 111 was also employed in the anti-shipping role as a torpedo bomber and occasionally served the Luftwaffe as a transport and as a glider tug.

The He 111 was produced in large numbers. The most numerous production series was the He 111H, a low-wing cantilever monoplane powered by two Jumo 211 1300 h.p. engines. The well known H-6 variant had a 74' 3" wingspan, 54' 6" length and an empty weight of 17,000 pounds. Normal loaded weight was 25,000 pounds and the maximum weight was 31,000 pounds. The internal bomb load was 4,400 pounds. Top speed was 250 M.P.H., the service ceiling was 27,500' and the range with maximum fuel was 1,750 miles.

Defensive armament varied considerably depending on the specific sub-type, and there were many field modifications. The later models generally carried a single 13mm heavy machine gun in the nose, two 7.9mm (.32") machine guns in a bay beneath the fuselage (one firing forward and one firing aft), a 7.9mm machine gun firing laterally from each side of the fuselage and a single 13mm heavy machine gun firing aft from a dorsal position atop the fuselage. There was no tail gun position, a weakness of most German bombers. One he other hand, the He 111 crew members were all stationed in the front half of the fuselage, which simplified crew communications.

Junkers JU 88 (Germany)

Perhaps the most versatile bomber of WW II, the Ju 88 "Wonder Bomber" first entered service in 1938 and remained in production throughout the war. It served variously as a level bomber, dive bomber, torpedo bomber, ground attack aircraft, trainer, long range reconnaissance plane and even as a radar equipped night fighter, a role in which it was quite successful.

Naturally, the Ju 88 was produced in a myriad of models to accomplish all of these tasks. The Ju 88A-1 was the initial production version, a medium bomber. The Ju 88A series ended with the Ju 88A-17. The Ju 88B series were experimental models with radial engines. The Ju 88C series were day and night fighters. The Ju 88D series were long range reconnaissance types. The Ju 88G series were night fighters. The Ju 88H was intended to be an improved bomber series, but was ultimately used as the radio controlled flying bomb component of composite aircraft late in the war. The Ju 88P was a ground attack aircraft that carried a 75mm cannon. The Ju 88S series were extended range bombers in which bomb load was sacrificed for extra fuel tanks. The Ju 88T series were reconnaissance aircraft.

All Ju 88's were twin engine, low wing cantilever monoplanes. The Ju 88A-4 series were perhaps representative of the type. These were powered by two liquid-cooled Junkers Jumo 211J inverted V-12 engines that produced 1,300 h.p. each. Wing span was 65' 10", length was 47' 1", normal load weight 26,700 pounds, maximum take off weight was 31,000 pounds. There was an internal bomb bay and a total of four hard points under the inner wings for ordinance or extra fuel tanks. Maximum bomb load (internal + external) was 6,600 pounds. The top speed was 295 M.P.H. and the service ceiling was 27,000'. The range with max bomb load was 650 miles; with maximum fuel the range was 1,900 miles.

Typical defensive armament was one forward firing 7.9mm machine gun operated by the pilot, one or two nose mounted 7.9mm machine guns operated by the bombardier, one 7.9mm or 13mm machine gun in upper rear firing position, and twin 7.9mm machine guns in blister providing the lower rear firing position. There was no tail gun.

The Ju 88 medium bombers carried a four man crew (pilot, bombardier, top gunner and navigator/lower gunner) in the front part of the fuselage forward of the main wing spar. This allowed direct voice communication between crew members, who fought the aircraft as a team.

Mitsubishi G4M2 Type 1, Model 22 (Japan)

This is the Japanese Navy twin-engine, land based, medium bomber that was code named "Betty" by the Allies. It was a long range, high speed medium bomber and reconnaissance aircraft that served throughout the war. Late in the war Type 1 bombers were modified to carry Oka ("Baka bomb") suicide piloted rocket bombs.

The Type 1 boasted excellent performance. Its top speed was 325 M.P.H. and its service ceiling was 30,800'. Power was provided by two 1,500 h.p. Mitsubishi Kasei 21 engines. These were fourteen cylinder, twin row, supercharged, air-cooled radials.

Particularly in the early stages of the Pacific War when the Japanese maintained aerial superiority it was a force to be reckoned with. It was Type 1 bombers, for example, that sank the British capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse at sea off Singapore in the early days of the Pacific War to signal the end of the Super Dreadnought as the arbiter of sea power.

The G4M2 was 65' 7" long and had an 81' 10.5" wingspan. Its empty weight was 17,600 pounds and its normal loaded weight was 27,500 pounds. The maximum loaded weight was 33,100 pounds. It was flown by a crew of 6 or 7 men. It could carry one 1,760 pound torpedo or up to 4,840 pounds of bombs in a bomb bay beneath the wings. There were no conventional bomb bay doors. When loaded this bomb bay was left open at the bottom with a deflector at the rear of the bay to reduce turbulence. When the Type 1 was configured for reconnaissance missions or the bomb bay was otherwise not in use a fairing was fitted that closed the opening.

Defensive armament was provided by one 7.7mm (.303") machine gun in a power operated ball turret in the glazed nose, one 20mm cannon in an upper power operated turret, a manually trained 7.7mm machine gun in waist positions on either side of the fuselage, and a manually trained 20mm cannon on a slide mount in the tail. There is no ventral gun position, which proved to be a weak point that could be exploited by enemy fighters attacking from below.

There was also a later version of the Betty known as the Model 24 with bulged bomb bay doors and a heavier defensive armament. In this model the 7.7mm waist guns were replaced by 20mm cannons.

North American B-25 Mitchell (USA)

The B-25 was the definitive American medium bomber and a most successful and useful design. It was used successfully in all theatres of the war. Mitchell's (the aircraft was named for U.S. military aviation pioneer Billy Mitchell) were operated by the USAAF, USN and RAF during WW II, among others.

The prototype XB-25 first flew on 19 Aug 1940. It was a twin-engined, all-metal, mid-wing cantilever monoplane with characteristic twin vertical stabilizers. Mitchell's were produced in many variations including medium bomber, ground attack, trainer (TB-25) and long range photo reconnaissance versions, the latter being designated the F-10. The USN designation for the Mitchell was PBJ-1.

Power for the B-25J precision bomber model was provided by two Wright Cyclone R-2600-13 double row radial engines with two-speed superchargers (1750 h.p. each). The normal crew was six and all crew positions were protected by armor plate. Wing span was 67' 7", length 53' 5.75", empty weight 21,100 pounds and loaded weight 33,500 pounds. Maximum speed was 303 M.P.H. and the service ceiling was 24,200'. Maximum internal bomb load was 6,000 pounds (or a single 2,150 pound torpedo) plus up to 2,400 pounds of bombs on external racks. Depth charges could also be carried by aircraft engaged in maritime roles.

Defensive armament usually included one fixed and one trainable .50 caliber machine gun in the glazed nose, a power operated dorsal turret with two .50 caliber heavy machine guns, waist positions on both sides of the fuselage with a .50 machine gun in each and a tail gun position with two .50 caliber machine guns. That is a total of eight heavy machine guns, making the B-25J a very heavily defended medium bomber. The B-25C/D versions had a power operated ventral turret instead of the waist and tail gun positions, but this was dropped when the latter were added.

Light, Dive and Torpedo Bombers

These are the "jacks of all trades" of the bomber world. Some were twin engined and some were single engined. They were employed from land bases and also aircraft carriers. Some were pressed into service as night fighters and/or served as specialized ground attack aircraft. The Stormovic, for example, was the scourge of German armored vehicles on the Eastern Front. In some instances, such as the Stuka during the Battle of France and the Dauntless during the Battle of Midway, they were instrumental in securing great victories that altered the course of the war.

Iliuchin IL-2 Stormovic (USSR)

Sergei Iliuchin's Stormovic was an attack bomber specifically designed to provide close support to the Red Army and it proved to be the battle winner on the Eastern Front. It was probably the finest aircraft of its type for its intended purpose of the Second World War. Stalin personally gave the Stormovic production priority over all other Soviet aircraft and tens of thousands were produced during the war.

The IL-2 was a two seat, single engined, low-wing cantilever monoplane. The front of the fuselage was of metal construction while the rear fuselage was made of wood. The control surfaces were fabric covered. Power was provided by a 1,300 h.p. M-38 liqui- cooled V-12 engine that was optimized for low level operation. Armament included two fixed, forward firing 23mm cannons and two .303 machine guns in the leading edges of the wings controlled by the pilot and an aft facing .303 machine gun placed at the rear of the canopy for the gunner. For special missions a pair of 37mm cannon could be carried externally in a removable gun pod. Normal bomb load was eight ground attack fragmentation rockets, fired from four launch rails located under each wing. The Stormovic had a 47' 10" wingspan and an overall length of 38'. Its top speed was about 280 M.P.H.

The underside of the engine as well as the bottom, sides and back of the crew compartment was heavily armored to protect against ground fire. In effect the crew sat in an armored "bath tub." It was a hard airplane to knock down, especially with light AA fire from the ground, but its relatively slow speed made it easy prey for enemy fighters. Thus the Stormovic formations required fighter escort when operating in the vicinity of German fighters. The need to protect the Stormovic explains why most Red Air Force fighters were optimized for low to mid altitude operation.

Douglas SDB Dauntless (USA)

The U.S. Navy's Dauntless carrier based scout bomber went into production in June of 1940 and remained in production until July, 1944, by which time some 5,936 had been built. By the end of 1944 the Dauntless was being replaced as a front line scout/dive bomber by the newer SBF Helldiver, but it remained in service until the end of the war. Some versions of the SBD were equipped for long range photo reconnaissance.

The SBD proved to be an excellent scout/dive bomber and it was instrumental in winning the Pacific War. It was Dauntless dive bombers that sank four Japanese attack carriers during the battle of Midway, the turning point of the Pacific War. SBD's also formed the dive bomber component of the famed "Cactus Air Force" during the long and bitter battle of attrition for possession of Guadalcanal Island. For the first two years of the war the SDB was the only American dive bomber. It was operated from U.S. aircraft carriers at sea and from land bases by the U.S. Marine Corps. The Dauntless was also procured by the USAAF, where it was known as the A-24.

There were six sub-types of Dauntless, SBD-1 through SDB-6. The Dauntless was a two seat, low-wing cantilever monoplane. The definitive SBD-6 was Duralumin framed with a flush riveted aluminum skin and fabric covered rudder and elevator control surfaces. The crew sat (pilot in front and the gunner behind) beneath a continuous transparent canopy protected by armor and a bullet-proof windscreen. Power was provided by a single Wright R-1820-66 Cyclone air-cooled, 9-cylinder radial engine that developed 1,350 h.p. at takeoff. Wingspan was 41' and length 32'. Empty weight was 6,535 pounds and fully loaded for dive bombing missions the Dauntless weighed 9,519 pounds. Maximum speed was 255 M.P.H. and the service ceiling was 25,200'. Range in scout bomber configuration was 773 miles.

Armament included two .50 caliber Browning heavy machine guns firing through the engine cowl for the pilot and a pair of .30 caliber machine guns in a flexible mount for the rear gunner. A swinging bomb cradle beneath the fuselage could accommodate a single 1,000 pound or 500 pound bomb. In addition, a 100 pound bomb could be carried on the single hard points located below each wing. Typical payload for dive bombing (and especially anti-ship) missions would be one 1,000 pound and two 100 pound bombs. Typical payload for scout bomber missions would be one 500 pound and two 100 pound bombs with an increased fuel load for greater range.

De Havilland D.H. 98 Mosquito (UK)

The Mosquito served in all theatres of the war. It was another of those extremely versatile aircraft that was eventually produced in light bomber, fighter-bomber, day fighter, night fighter, night intruder, trainer and reconnaissance versions. There was the Mk. 33 Sea Mosquito naval version with folding wings and arrestor gear for use from Royal Navy aircraft carriers and even a British Airways civil version that operated from Britain to Sweden during the war. As a reconnaissance aircraft the Mosquito became the RAF's most valuable source of aerial intelligence and as a night ground attack intruder it was the scourge of Nazi occupied Europe.

De Havilland built the fuselage and wings of the Mosquito largely of plywood and spruce with a plywood skin in an effort to reduce the consumption of strategic materials such as aluminum. Never the less, the Mosquito turned out to be one of the most successful warplanes of the Second World War and arguably the best light bomber (in historical context) ever produced.

The prototype Mosquito first flew on 25 November 1940 and the type was first delivered to the RAF in July, 1941. Over its production life it was built in a myriad of Marks (numerically up to at least the Mk. 42) and in Canada and Australia as well as in the UK.

The Mosquito was a mid-wing cantilever monoplane with a crew of two that was powered by two liquid-cooled Rolls Royce Merlin V-12 engines. The crew sat side by side in the cabin and bomber versions had a Plexiglas nose for bomb aiming. (Fighter versions had a solid nose with armor protection.) The Mosquito carried no defensive armament, relying on its speed to evade enemy fighters.

The representative Mark XVI bomber could carry a single 4,000 pound bomb in its extended internal bomb bay (up from 3,000 pounds in earlier versions) and two external 50 gallon drop tanks under the wings. Alternatively, a bomb load of four 500 pound bombs and two 100 gallon drop tanks could be accommodated. Wingspan was 54' 2"; length was 44' 6". The maximum take-off weight was 25,000 pounds. Its top speed was over 400 M.P.H., the service ceiling was in excess of 36,000 feet and its range was over 1500 miles. The Mk. XVI featured a pressurized (at 2 lbs./sq. in.) and heated cabin, which enhanced crew comfort and performance.

Douglas A-26 Invader (USA)

The A-26 proved to be a very successful light bomber and attack aircraft that served the USAF in WW II, Korea, and finally in Vietnam. This versatile aircraft was more or less America's counterpart to the British Mosquito and German Ju-88. Like those aircraft the A-26 performed level bomber, ground attack and night fighter missions. It was also used by the USN as the JD-1 target tug. The prototype XA-26 first flew on 10 July 1942 and the A-26B production version first went into action during November, 1944 with the USAAF 9th Air Force in Europe.

The A-26 was a twin-engined, all-metal, mid-wing cantilever design. Two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-71 air-cooled, 18-cylinder, supercharged, radial engines provided 2,000 h.p. each. These were fed gas and oil from self-sealing tanks. The top speed was 345 M.P.H. Dimensions included a 70' wing span and a length of 50' 9". Normal loaded weight was 27,000 pounds and maximum weight was 32,000 pounds.

The A-26B had a closed-in nose in which was mounted six .50 heavy machine guns, or sometimes a large cannon. In addition, eight .50 caliber heavy machine guns could be mounted under the wings in "gun package" pairs, two under each wing. There was an internal bomb bay with hydraulically operated doors and external bomb racks under the wings.

The A-26C had a glazed nose with two forward firing .50 caliber Browning heavy machine guns and a bombardier position. This model served as the lead aircraft for level bomber missions. Otherwise the two models were very similar.

Defensive armament for both the B and C models included remote controlled, power operated dorsal and ventral turrets with two .50 machine guns each. The upper turret could be locked to fire forward and was then controlled by the pilot.

Grumman TBF Avenger (USA)

The Grumman designed Avenger was perhaps the most successful carrier borne torpedo bomber of the war. It was used extensively by the USN and the British Royal Navy. Grumman built Avengers were called TBF's, while Avengers built under license by General Motors were called TBM's. All Avengers built after December, 1943 came from the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors.

The U.S. Navy took delivery of the XTBF-1 prototype in 1941. The TBF-1 three seat torpedo bomber went into production that same year and entered fleet service early in 1942. Unlike earlier American, British and Japanese torpedo bombers, the Avenger carried its torpedo in an enclosed bomb bay with hydraulically operated doors controlled by the pilot or the bombardier.

The Avenger was a mid-wing cantilever monoplane usually powered by a supercharged 1,700 h.p. Wright R-2600-8 air-cooled, 14 cylinder, radial engine. In addition to internal fuel, there was provision for carrying an auxiliary 58 gallon drop tank under each wing and a droppable long range ferry tank of 275 gallons in the bomb bay.

The bomb bay could accommodate one USN short air torpedo, one 2000 pound bomb, one 1000 bomb, four 500 pound bombs or an equivalent load of smaller bombs. The forward firing armament controlled by the pilot included one .30 caliber machine gun in the engine cowl and two .50 caliber heavy machine guns in the wings. In addition there was a power driven turret at the aft end of the canopy containing one .50 caliber heavy machine gun operated by the radio operator/gunner and a ventral .30 caliber machine gun in a housing aft of the bomb bay fired by the bombardier.

Dimensions included a wing span of 54' 2" (19' when folded) and length of 40' 1/8". The normal loaded weight was 15,536 pounds. Maximum speed was 278 M.P.H. and the service ceiling was 22,600'. The normal range was 905 miles.

The final version of the Avenger was the TBM-4. This version had a strengthened airframe and was powered by a Wright R-2622-20 engine. One decorated Avenger pilot was George Bush, who later became the 41st President of the United States.

Junkers Ju 87 Stuka (Germany)

Due to its gull wings and fixed landing gear the Stuka was one of the most recognizable aircraft of the war. It was a purpose built dive bomber and was later modified for the ground attack role. Ju 87's were built in a number of variations, including the Ju 87G ground attack series that carried two Flak 18 (3.7") guns under the wings and lacked dive brakes. There was a dual control trainer version and a naval version, the Ju 87C, that was modified for operation from the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, which was never completed. The Stuka first entered service before the beginning of WW II and saw action in Spain during the Civil War.

Stuka units normally operated in close cooperation with the German Army and were instrumental in the early blitzkrieg victories over Poland, Belgium, Holland and France. Its ability to deliver bombs accurately on target (always the greatest problem for level bombers) had a profound effect on subsequent German bomber design, most of which were required to have dive bombing capability.

The Battle of Britain revealed the basic flaw in the Stuka concept: although highly maneuverable it lacked the speed to escape from enemy fighters or the defensive fire power to keep them at bay. Furthermore, it cruised at a speed so low that it was nearly impossible for German fighters to escort properly. High losses forced the withdrawal of the type from the Battle of Britain, although it continued to serve effectively in North Africa as well as in the anti-shipping role in the Atlantic, North Sea and Mediterranean Sea.

The Stuka became a mainstay of German close air support on the Eastern Front after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, and it was particularly effective in the early part of that campaign when the Luftwaffe maintained air superiority. Later on, as the Red Air Force began to wrest control of the air from the Luftwaffe, Stuka losses rose and the Ju 87 was finally forced out of production in 1944. It was largely replaced in the ground attack role by special versions of the Fw 190 fighter.

Perhaps the best known and most widely used Stuka was the Ju 87D series (D-1 through D-8). These were two-seat, low-wing cantilever monoplanes powered by a single Junkers Jumo 211J, liquid-cooled V-12 that developed 1,300 h.p. Dive brakes were fitted below the front wing spar outboard of the fixed landing gear. Tandem seating was provided under a long, continuous Plexiglas canopy for the two man crew with the pilot in the front seat and the gunner in the rear seat. Wing span was 45' 4" and length was 36' 6". Normal weight was 12,600 pounds and maximum take-off weight was 14,500 pounds. Maximum speed was 255 M.P.H. and the service ceiling was 24,000'. The range with a full bomb load (3,960 pounds) was 620 miles; with maximum fuel the range could be extended to 1,200 miles.

Armament included two 20mm cannon in the wings controlled by the pilot and twin 7.9mm machine guns in a flexible mount firing from the rear of the canopy and operated by the gunner. For strafing missions a gun pack containing six 7.9mm machine guns could be mounted under each wing. A single 550, 1,100, or 3,960 pound bomb could be carried under the fuselage on a swinging cradle. Four 110 pound, two 550 pound or two 1,100 pound bombs could be carried beneath the wings for a total bomb weight of up to 3,960 pounds.


These, then, are my choices as the greatest bombers of World War II. Fourteen aircraft from five nations that were not only widely produced and employed, but which also had a significant impact on the course of the war.

Back to Naval & Military History

Copyright 2007, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.