VIEWED in the perspective of history, the year 1941 will probably be judged to have reserved its most important event, vitally affecting the fortune of war by air, land and sea, until near its close.[i] That event was the entry of the United States into the conflict as a full belligerent. The casus belli was itself an act of air warfare -- as treacherous an act, and as effective for the moment, as Germany's blow at Poland on September 1, 1939. Japan's sudden stroke from the air at the American naval and air forces at Pearl Harbor on December 7 was a crime. It was also a blunder. The losses inflicted, grievous as they were, were perhaps the lowest price necessary for bringing the vast American nation as a grimly determined unit into the struggle for freedom. The tremendous tidings from the west in the fateful days from December 7 to 11 were dimmed for British ears by the shattering reverberation of the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse on December 10 -- again an epochal event of the war in the air. But it was not that disaster which even then mattered most. The far greater event was the crossing by the United States of the last interval between peace and war.

The year 1941 had already been notable in the annals of air warfare. The one before had had as its outstanding feature the defeat of the Luftwaffe by the Royal Air Force over and around Great Britain in the months of August and September. The next phase of the war in the air opened with another triumph. It was won far from the scene of the first, in the northeastern corner of Africa and over the eastern Mediterranean. There, in the period from November 1940 to February 1941, the British, South African, Australian and Rhodesian airmen practically drove the Italian airmen out of the sky. Never has any air force of an important Power been so roughly handled as was the Regia Aeronautica. Alike in personnel and matériel the British and Dominion Air Forces were definitely superior to the Italian, and this was the more remarkable because, so far as equipment went, it was the second string of the Royal Air Force that was entered for the contest. The British fighter machines then in the Middle East were Gladiators, and though they were practically obsolescent they quickly mastered the Italian fighters, most of which were Fiat CR.42's, with some Macchi C.200's and Fiat G.50's. During the winter, Hurricane fighters were received, and at a later date Curtiss Tomahawks. Both proved even more clearly the masters of the Italian fighters than the Gladiators had been. The best British fighter, the Spitfire, was not used in the Middle East.

That was the first round in the contest for supremacy in the sky of North Africa. The second was fought when General Auchinleck's forces invaded Libya on November 18, 1941. By then the Italian air force had been stiffened by detachments of the Luftwaffe, and the British and Imperial airmen had a much stiffer time of it than they had had during General Wavell's invasion. There was hard fighting in the air, but the Tomahawks, Hurricanes and Beaufighters operating with the British troops soon showed that they had little to fear from the opposing Me.109 and Macchi C.200 and C.202 fighters; and the Curtiss Kittyhawks which came into action in the opening days of 1942 at once established their mastery also. "The Royal Air Force are definitely on top," the Cairo correspondent of The Times reported on December 6. The communiqués issued by British General Headquarters referred repeatedly during December to the powerful support given by the air to the ground forces. As the British columns advanced, tangible evidence of the effect of the bombing and machine-gun attacks was afforded in the shape of wrecked lorries and aircraft littering the route and the landing grounds. More than once the official reports referred to the devastation caused by the low-flying aircraft among the retreating Axis forces. In their operations the Imperial troops were also assisted materially by such raids as those of January 5 on Castel Vetrano aerodrome in Sicily, where some 44 German and Italian aircraft were destroyed and many others damaged by Blenheims in the afternoon and then by Wellingtons after nightfall.

The eclipse of the Regia Aeronautica at the beginning of 1941 was the more clearly displayed in the light of the better showing made by the Luftwaffe when it, too, appeared in the Mediterranean. The Germans gained a notable success on January 10, 1941. They sent their dive-bombers, recently arrived in Sicily, to attack a British convoy in the Sicilian Channel, with the result that the cruiser Southampton was so damaged that she had to be sunk by the other British warships. The aircraft carrier Illustrious only narrowly escaped a similar fate. Though crippled, she reached Malta, and there, as she lay in the Grand Harbor while makeshift repairs were being effected, she was repeatedly attacked by the German dive-bombers. She survived the onslaught and was able, after a few days, to make her way to Alexandria under her own power. Thence she was taken to the United States, where the major repairs that were necessary were carried out, and she was ready for service again in August 1941.

The German air force did not have matters all its own way. Of about 150 German aircraft based on Sicily at this time, nearly 90 were destroyed, some in the air, by British fighters, by the defenses of Malta and by naval gunfire, and some on the ground, by British bombing attack. Nevertheless, the continued presence of a German contingent made the part of the Mediterranean between Tunisia and Sicily unhealthy for British convoys. They were still able to pass through the Sicilian Channel, but only under powerful escort. The British fleet's own aircraft, on the other hand, enabled it a little later to bring off a brilliant stroke in the central Mediterranean.

This occurred towards the end of March 1941, when an Italian naval force was sighted to the east of Cape Passero in Sicily. It was pursued by British warships, but might have escaped -- as Italian warships had done more than once before -- if naval aircraft had not slowed up its speed by scoring direct hits with torpedoes upon the largest of the Italian vessels, a battleship of the Littorio class. Blenheim bombers of the Middle East Command of the RAF also obtained hits. Aircraft thus played an important part in the practical annihilation of the Italian formation which the British naval ships thereupon carried out.

Two months later, at the end of May, the Fleet Air Arm had a similar success. Aircraft from the carrier Victorious and Ark Royal scored hits with torpedoes upon the fleeing Bismarck, and the second of these attacks, delivered on the evening of May 26, had the effect of reducing the speed of the German battleship and allowed the heavy ships of the Royal Navy to bring her to battle and to sink her on the morning of May 27. The pursuit of the Bismarck furnished evidence also of the great value of longrange flying boats in the tracking and shadowing of elusive enemy warships. It was a Catalina, built in California by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, which found the Bismarck on the morning of May 26, and another Catalina which shadowed her when the first had to turn back to its base.

Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe had been accomplishing a remarkable feat of arms in the Mediterranean. This was the capture of Crete in the teeth of the British command of seas lying between the island and Greece. Already in Greece the German dive-bombers had inflicted serious losses both on the British aircraft at their bases at Larissa and elsewhere, and on the warships which evacuated the expeditionary force after the collapse of the Graeco-British resistance in Macedonia; two destroyers and four transports were sunk as the result of air action in the evacuation. They followed up these successes by simply blasting the British garrison off Crete. It was the concentrated attack from the air rather than the landing of air-borne troops that led to the capture of the island. The parachute troops played an unimportant part in the whole operation; and the landing of soldiers from troop-carrying aircraft which made crash-landings became possible only because the dive-bombers had already done their work.

It was a very notable achievement. One must not forget, however, that it was accomplished in circumstances in which air defense was almost non-existent. The arrangements for protecting the aerodrome at Maleme were far from satisfactory. An attempt was made to cope with the German bombers by flying Blenheim fighters and Hurricanes, equipped with extra fuel tanks, from Egypt. It was a makeshift arrangement and failed completely to save the situation. The British Navy lost three cruisers and six destroyers in connection with the defense and evacuation of Crete. All were victims of air attack.

How vastly different the position would have been if the air attack on the island could have been met by fighter aircraft operating from adequate local bases is shown by the successful defense of Malta against incessant attacks by both Italian and German bombers. "The brilliant defense of the island by the Hurricanes" was given place of honor in the message of congratulation which Sir Archibald Sinclair, Secretary of State for Air, sent to Air Vice-Marshal H. P. Lloyd, commanding the Royal Air Force there, on August 20, 1941. Mention was made in the same message of the fine work done by the Beaufighters in attacking enemy bases, by the Wellington bombers in their "steady and deadly slogging," by the (American) Marylands in their "daring and dexterous reconnaissances," by the Blenheims of the Royal Air Force and the Swordfishes of the Fleet Air Arm in their "tremendous onslaught" on Axis shipping. "You are draining the enemy's strength in the Mediterranean," the message said. Air Vice-Marshal Lloyd in his reply said that "the hunting is certainly good, and hounds are in excellent fettle."

The German raids on that other and more important island, Great Britain, had meanwhile diminished in volume. In the early part of the year the towns of South Wales, of Merseyside and of Clydeside were the chief sufferers, while London, too, had one or two unpleasant experiences. However, the combined casualties in January and February 1941 amounted only to about 5,350 civilians killed and seriously injured, as compared with a monthly average of 13,000 during the period September 1-December 31, 1940. In March there was a marked increase in the figures, which rose to nearly 10,000, largely as the result of two heavy raids on Clydeside on successive nights. Merseyside, Bristol, Hull, London and Plymouth also suffered. The battle of the Atlantic had started and the British ports were therefore a main objective. The toll of life and limb rose again in April, when the total amounted to about 13,000 -- mostly in Bristol, Coventry, Birmingham, Belfast, London and Plymouth (raided on five nights). May opened with severe attacks on Merseyside and Clydeside. London had one of its heaviest raids on the tenth. The experience gained during the incendiary attack of the preceding December 29, when a considerable section of the City of London was burnt out, enabled the fire-fighters to cope more adequately with the attacks of April and May. The casualty list for May amounted to approximately 10,500.

June witnessed a substantial diminution in the weight of the onslaught, and the succeeding months saw a still further reduction. This was due mainly to the shifting of the chief theatre of air warfare from the west to the east. Germany was preparing for the treacherous blow which she struck at Russia on June 22. The improvement in the British defenses probably contributed, to a minor extent, to the slackening of the German attack. During May, 156 German bombers were destroyed at night, and it is fairly certain that many more, though not claimed as losses, never reached home. In April, which was the next best month, 87 had been destroyed. Thus the toll of the night-raiders for two months was nearly 250 aircraft. In one night (May 10-11) the number destroyed was 33, all but two of them by night-fighters. Two-seater twin-engined fighters had been brought into use for defense at night, and these, with the Hurricane single-seater single-engined fighters, soon proved their worth. One was the Defiant, which had first been employed as a day-fighter in the operations preceding the evacuation of Dunkirk at the end of May 1940, when it had destroyed 37 German aircraft on a single day. Its signal success on that occasion was due to the element of surprise; the German airmen had not expected to encounter a fighter whose armament could be swivelled on the beam. Its four-gun retractable turret was an innovation in fighter aircraft. Afterwards, the absence of a forward-firing gun made it a less formidable opponent for enemy pilots who had been warned of its limitations, and it was restricted mainly to night-fighting. The other and still more dangerous night-fighter was the Bristol-Beaufighter, which was a modification of the Beaufort, the torpedo-bomber used with great success against enemy shipping by the Coastal Command of the Royal Air Force. The Beaufighter has more powerful engines (Hercules) than the Beaufort (Taurus), and an extremely formidable armament, which consists of four 20 mm. shell-firing guns under the fuselage and six Browning machine guns in the wing.

Another twin-engined aircraft also proved a distinct acquisition to the RAF for defense at night. This was the American Douglas DB-7 medium bomber, which, as adapted for night-fighting, was renamed the Havoc. Its specialty is the "picketing" of enemy aerodromes at night. Its long endurance enables it to "sit over" the enemy bombers' base and to attack them when they try to land or take off. It secured many victims in this way in the spring of 1941 -- certainly more than the Junkers 88, used by the Germans for a like purpose, obtained in England.

Both the night-fighter pilots and the anti-aircraft gunners were indebted to the operators of the radiolocators for a substantial part of their successes. Radiolocation is a means of ascertaining the presence and locality of aircraft by utilizing the reflection of electro-magnetic waves from solids (conductors or insulators) upon which the waves make impact; the great value of the new system is that it is not dependent on emission of waves from the body to be located. The waves go out from and return to the operator. The necessity still remains, of course, for the pilot or the gunner on the ground to be informed of the location of the object -- the enemy aircraft -- and then to hit it, and that is not easy in moonless and cloudy nights.

Meanwhile the British counter-offensive had been proceeding and in June it took on a new intensity. Daylight raids, by Blenheim and Fortress bombers, were interspersed among the nightly attacks carried on by the Bomber Command. The daylight sorties were shared in by the fighters of the Royal Air Force, which accompanied the Blenheims in their raids upon objectives in the occupied countries across the English Channel and the southern waters of the North Sea, and also conducted independent sweeps over northern France and the Low Countries. The Blenheims usually carried out their raids at extremely low altitudes; in those directed against shipping at Rotterdam, for instance, on July 16 and August 28, the pilots flew at roof-top, or mast-top, level. The former of these two raids was particularly profitable. Seventeen ships, totalling nearly 100,000 tons, were sunk or put out of action for a long time, and five more, totalling 40,000 to 50,000 tons, were damaged. This was the return obtained for the cost of four Blenheims lost.

The inauguration of the daylight offensive did not slow up the tempo of the Bomber Command's other operational program -- the attacking of Germany's industries and communications on every possible night. On the contrary, the night-raiding increased in intensity after the invasion of Russia, the object being to compel the German High Command to retain in the homeland fighters which might otherwise have been used in the east, as well as to interrupt the communications essential for the reinforcement of the German armies in Russia. The bombers used were the Wellingtons, Hampdens and Whitleys. Hitherto these had been the instruments of the long-range offensive of the Royal Air Force; now, with their performance improved, they could carry both larger and more destructive loads, weight for weight, than in 1940. To these fine bombers, all twin-engined, there were added another twin-engined one, the Avro Manchester, and two four-engined bombers, the Short Stirling and the Handley Page Halifax. All these were employed in the raids of the summer and autumn of 1941. The damage which they were able to inflict upon their targets was immensely greater than that caused in the raids of the preceding year. This was the result not so much of the heavier weights carried as of the greater blasting power of the heavier bombs dropped. The effect, it was officially stated, was five times as devastating as that of the bombs of similar size previously dropped.

The new and more powerful bombs were dropped for the first time on the night of March 31, 1941, at Emden. A pilot who had taken part in thirty raids stated next day that he had never seen such an explosion -- it was like "a gigantic arc-welding flash, blinding white." A little later great devastation was caused by the new bombs in Hamburg and Mannheim. At Hamburg a blast damaged an area of 75,000 square yards, and industrial buildings covering a space of 20,000 square yards were completely demolished. At Mannheim one area of devastation covered four-and-a-half acres. The German propaganda service, apparently to reassure the populace, stated that the British had taken to dropping land-mines because they were short of bombs.

There was evidence in the summer that the Germans had strengthened very considerably the anti-aircraft defenses at all their important centres. Bomber crews reported a great increase in the numbers of searchlights and of guns. Night-fighters were also more active and numerous. On some nights the losses of British bombers were substantial. Weather conditions were responsible in part for the increased casualties in one or two instances, as, for example, on the night of June 27, when twelve aircraft were missing after a raid on Bremen and other towns in northwest Germany. The raids of the nights of August 12 and 14 cost the Bomber Command thirteen and twelve aircraft respectively, and that of the night of September 7 cost twenty aircraft, but these were all very heavy raids and the percentage of loss was never as high as that suffered by the Luftwaffe in some of its raids on Britain during May (more than ten percent on some nights). On the night of November 7 there were 37 British bombers missing after raids which embraced Berlin, Cologne and Mannheim. This serious loss was due mainly to the very bad weather which the raiders encountered on their homeward flight. Again the percentage of loss, though substantial, was not catastrophic.

The second German air fleet which, commanded by Field Marshal Kesselring, had been stationed in northern France, was transferred to the eastern theatre of war when Russia was invaded, and squadrons from Field Marshal Sperrle's third air fleet appear also to have been moved to the east. At any rate the offensive against Britain was reduced to almost negligible proportions during the remainder of the year. On some nights, though the weather was not such as to deter the raiders, none came at all, and on many others only one or two made a fleeting appearance. For that respite the people of Britain had to thank the gallant airmen of the Soviet Union. Before the German attack on Russia there had been a tendency to underrate, one might almost say to disparage, the value of the Red Air Force. Apparently that tendency was shared by the heads of the German Army and air service. Their assertion in the early days of the fighting in the east that Russian resistance in the air had already been shattered by the all-conquering Luftwaffe reflected, one may surmise, the Higher Command's initial conception of the Russian strength in the air rather than the stern actuality. In one week of war, it was claimed, 4,107 Soviet aircraft had been destroyed; in eight weeks that figure had risen to 11,250; and by the beginning of December, according to Hitler's speech to the Reichstag on December 11, 1941, to 17,323. This last figure could safely be halved to arrive at something near the truth. It is impossible, however, to give any close estimate of the real losses. The published figures, which were clearly exaggerated for the purpose of propaganda, included admittedly a large proportion of aircraft destroyed on the ground, and precise information on this point cannot have been available to the attackers. No doubt many were so disabled; the dive-bombers -- the Junkers 87's on one side and the Stormoviks on the other -- put a large number of machines out of action on the landing grounds and aerodromes. The Stormovik was one of the Soviet air force's surprises, and another was the M.I.G.3 fighter, which took a heavy toll of the Luftwaffe. The Hurricanes of the British Air Force contributed their quota also. The Russians probably lost the more heavily, since their opponents had the great advantage of initiative and surprise. They still had a formidable air force in being at the end of the year, however, and in some areas were superior to the Germans. There is no doubt that in 1941 the Luftwaffe received in the east a hammering at least as damaging as that to which it had been subjected in the west in 1940. The effect of it was to be discerned in Mr. Churchill's statement in London on November 10, 1941, that the British Air Force was now "at least equal in size and numbers, not to speak of quality, to the German air power."

The resistance put up by the Red Air Force was, indeed, an extraordinarily fine performance in the circumstances. It must have suffered severely in the first stage of the Blitzkrieg in the east; but it never cracked, and it came back at the assailant, resilient and full of offensive capacity. The effective defense of Moscow was proof that the Germans were far from having the complete ascendancy in the air which they claimed; if that claim had been true, the city would have been dealt with as mercilessly as were Warsaw, Rotterdam and Belgrade. In Russia, as in the west and in the Balkans, the Luftwaffe played a very important part in the successes achieved by the German mechanized forces, but it never dominated the air in the east, and at the end of the year Russia's air fleet was helping her armies roll the Germans back along almost all the immense battle front. It was not only shooting down German aircraft but destroying hundreds of tanks and thousands of lorries as well as other equipment on the ground.

As on land, so on sea the intensity of the German attempt to smash or starve Britain into surrender diminished to some extent during the summer. The battle of the Atlantic continued, but the rate of sinking of British and Allied shipping decreased, especially in July and August. While a variety of causes contributed to the improvement, including the patrolling by American naval forces of the waters between Greenland and Iceland, the recurrent visits of the Royal Air Force to certain bases of vital importance on the German plan of blockade had an undoubted effect upon the situation. At Brest lay two powerful warships, the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst, and from the end of May a third, the Prinz Eugen. Had these vessels been free to operate they might well have turned the vital war upon maritime commerce in Germany's favor. They were prevented from doing so by the Royal Air Force. The repeated attacks from the air upon the berths which they occupied and the ships themselves, while not putting them completely out of action, rendered them unfit for service at the time when the battle of the Atlantic was at its height. When the Scharnhorst slipped out of Brest and took refuge at La Pallice, further south in the Bay of Biscay, she was attacked there by Stirling bombers on July 23, while the Gneisenau was attacked at Brest by Fortress bombers. The attacks were renewed on the same night and on the next day and had the effect of immobilizing the two warships for a further period. Other raids on the docks at Brest, where they and the Prinz Eugen were lying, were made at later periods. There were three within 36 hours on December 18-19, including a daylight raid by Stirling, Halifax and Manchester bombers, escorted by fighters. Another daylight raid was carried out on December 30 by Halifaxes, again escorted by fighters.

Raids on the bases used by the U-boats and on the yards in which they were constructed or repaired was a further contribution made by the Bomber Command to the defense of Britain's Atlantic life line. Meanwhile, that Command and the Coastal Command, and in the autumn the Fighter Command also, were waging war with great success upon Germany's shipping in the North Sea and the English Channel, while in the Mediterranean the bombers of the Royal Air Force of the Middle East Command and the torpedo carrying aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm were inflicting heavy losses upon Italian shipping and making the reinforcement and supply of the Axis forces in Libya increasingly difficult. The Beauforts of the Coastal Command and the Swordfishes of the Fleet Air Arm accomplished some particularly brilliant exploits with their torpedoes in the North Sea and the Mediterranean respectively.

The air warfare of 1941 was conducted, it is to be noted, with machines which were still of prewar design. The experience gained since the outbreak of hostilities was utilized to the extent that various improvements and modifications were embodied in existing types, but the need for rapid and large-scale construction precluded a breakaway to new lines from the models which had been in service at the beginning of the war. Both fighters and bombers were equipped with engines which had been "boosted up," and with more formidable armament, but they were substantially the old machines rejuvenated. It was only in 1941 that the change-over to the production of machines of wartime design was begun in the factories; and only in 1942 will the new models be seen in service in the squadrons. Even the Hawker Typhoon fighter, which is a type not yet available in quantity, was designed before the outbreak of war.

In the air fighting of 1940 the British Spitfire and Hurricane established their claim to be the two best fighter aircraft in action. The improved versions of both these fighters again showed in 1941 that they had the whip-hand of the (also improved) German fighters. The Heinkel 113, the diminutive fighter on which, it seems, German hopes of securing ascendancy in air combat had been placed, was apparently a disappointment. It was not encountered in numbers, and the German fighters seen in action were almost wholly Messerschmitt 109's and 110's. The Me.109F, the improved edition of the fighter so roughly handled by the pilots of the Fighter Command in 1940, differed from its predecessor mainly in having a higher ceiling and a greater rapidity of fire. Its armament was not, however, so formidable as that of the Spitfire Mark V and Hurricane Mark II, in which again the Royal Air Force could claim to possess the two best fighters in service. The shattering effect of the new Spitfire's cannons was to be seen in the frequent references in the British pilots' reports to enemy fighters blowing up or disintegrating in the air. The firepower of the new Hurricane has been found to be no less overwhelming; it has as alternative armament either four 20 mm. cannon or twelve machine guns, as compared with the two 20 mm. cannon and four machine guns in each of the new Spitfires. Hurricanes carrying two 250 pound bombs also came into use in the autumn of 1941.

In 1942 the weight and range of the British air offensive will be greatly increased and the losses sustained by both sides will be heavier than in the past. They will be made good, one can confidently predict, more easily by Britain than by Germany. The enormous production of the British and American factories (the latter had not in 1941 nearly approached the peak of their output), and the increasing flow of flying personnel trained under the Empire Air Training scheme, should together result by the autumn of 1942 in the assembly in Britain and the Middle East of an air strength so massive that Germany and Italy will not be able to muster an adequate defensive force against it. The first momentous American move in the struggle against totalitarian aggression -- adoption of the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941 -- has now been followed by the next logical step, the entry of the United States into the war as a full belligerent. With this the eventual defeat of the three Axis Powers becomes certain even though it may still be deferred. We know from President Roosevelt's own words that the change of the United States to full belligerency will not cause its aid to the Allies to flag. His message to Congress of January 6, 1942, announcing a program of production of 60,000 aircraft in 1942 and 125,000 in 1943, was in effect a further assurance to that end. Given the continuance of that aid, virtual command of the air in western Europe and in the eastern Mediterranean should have passed to Britain by the close of 1942. And in the Far East, the powerful air arm of the United States Navy, working in partnership with the British and Australian Air Forces, should have established an ascendancy over Japan's naval and military air arms.

[i]Editor's Note: See "The War in the Air: First Phase" and "The War in the Air: Second Phase," by J. M. Spaight, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 1940 and January 1941 respectively.

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  • J. M. SPAIGHT, Principal Assistant Secretary in the British Air Ministry, 1930-1934; author of many works on aviation and legal subjects since 1911, among them "Aircraft in War," "The Battle of Britain" and other works
  • More By J. M. Spaight