A History of the Army Air Corps

A History of the Army Air Corps

The Army Air Corps were the U.S. military service dedicated to aerial warfare between 1926 and 1941. It coalesced as aviation evolved from a component of ground-based infantry tactics into its own branch of the military. It became the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) on June 20, 1941 to signify greater autonomy from the Army's command structure. It remained as a combat arm of the Army until 1947, when the Department of the Air Force was established.

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Army Air Corps of the U.S. Military

By the end of 1941 the army air forces had grown substantially but had a long way to go. General Henry H. Arnold commanded a service of twenty-five thousand officers and men, with four thousand aircraft. That year President Franklin Roosevelt called for production of fifty thousand planes, Hermann Göering reportedly laughed at the notion, yet American industry in fact delivered ninety-six thousand to the U.S. services and Allied nations in 1944 alone. At war's end the army air corps comprised seventy-five thousand planes and 2.5 million men-in four years, a hundred-fold increase in personnel and nearly nineteen-fold in aircraft.

Eighth U.S. Army Air Force

In 1942 the"Mighty Eighth"came to Britain, where it experienced a lengthy, painful gestation period. Its mission of conducting precision daylight bombing of German industry was hampered, as bomber and fighter groups originally assigned to Gen. Ira Eaker's fledgling force were constantly siphoned off to support the North African and Mediterranean theaters. Additionally, a period of heavy bomber losses threatened morale during 1943, causing doubt whether the daylight air offensive could be sustained. However, by the start of 1944 the Eighth had evolved into a powerful striking arm and was growing stronger. Increasingly capable long-range fighter escorts reduced bomber losses to acceptable levels. It was among the best of the army air corps.

The composition of USAAF units was standardized by 1943. A heavy bombardment group with B-17s or B-24s had four squadrons, each of which typically put up nine planes per mission. Fighter groups had three squadrons, divided into three or four flights of four each. Thus, full-strength bomb groups flew about thirty-six aircraft, while fighter units launched thirty-six to forty-eight planes. The number of planes dispatched on a specific mission depended on maintenance, crew availability, and the nature of the target.

At the time of D-Day the Eighth Air Force numbered forty-one bomb groups, fifteen fighter groups, two special-mission groups, two photo-recon groups, and several independent units. Eighth Bomber Command operated three air divisions: the First, with a dozen B-17 groups; the Third, comprising eleven B-17 Flying Fortress and three B-24 Liberator groups; and the all-Liberator Second Division, with fourteen B-24 groups.

Fighter Command comprised six P-47 Thunderbolt groups, five P-51 Mustang groups, and four still-flying P-38 Lightnings. All the Lightnings were gone within months, replaced by Mustangs. By VE-Day only one Eighth Fighter Command group still flew Thunderbolts.

Bombers of the Mighty Eighth launched 2,362 sorties on 6 June, with merely three Liberators shot down. Most targets were German coastal defenses or transport systems, but poor weather (a widespread undercast) hampered bombing efforts.

Ninth U.S. Army Air Force

The U.S. Army had two army air corps based in Great Britain, with operations after D-Day expected on the continent. The Ninth was the tactical air force, trained and equipped to support Allied ground forces. Originally established and based in northwest Africa, the Ninth moved to England in August 1943 and built up to its June 1944 strength of forty-five groups deployed in eleven combat wings.

The Ninth's eighteen fighter groups (plus two reconnaissance groups) operated under the Ninth and Nineteenth Tactical Air Commands, with three and two wings, respectively. Probably the most influential tactical air commander was Maj. Gen. Elwood R. Quesada of the Ninth TAC. At the time of D-Day by far the most widely flown fighter was the Republic P-47, which was extremely well suited to the fighter-bomber role. Thirteen groups flew Thunderbolts, while three were equipped with Lockheed P-38s and two with North American's P-51. A photo group and a tactical reconnaissance group flew"recce"versions of the P-38 and P-51-the F-5 and F-6, respectively.

Eleven tactical bomb groups constituted Ninth Bomber Command, under Brig. Gen. Samuel E. Anderson. He controlled three bomb wings of three or four groups each: eight groups with Martin's sleek B-26 Marauder and three with Douglas A-20 Havocs. As with the Eighth Air Force, bomb groups comprised four squadrons, fighter groups three.

Of direct importance to Overlord was Ninth Troop Carrier Command, with fourteen Douglas C-47/C-53 groups in three wings. Both types were military versions of the enormously successful DC-3 airliner; the C-47 Skytrain was capable of towing gliders as well as delivering parachutists, while C-53 Skytroopers carried only troops. Seventeen Skytrains were shot down on D-Day.

On 6 June the Ninth Air Force lost only twenty-two combat aircraft from 3,342 sorties: seven P-47s, six B-26s, five A-20s, two P-38s, and two F-6s.

Airborne Units of the Army Air Corps

In the fifteenth century Leonardo Da Vinci envisioned airborne soldiers, and in the nineteenth century Napoleon Bonaparte pondered invading Britain with French troops in hot-air balloons. But not until the 1940s did the technology exist to transport large numbers of specially trained soldiers behind enemy lines and deliver them by parachute, glider, or transport aircraft.

German army airborne units included paratroops and glider and transport-lifted infantry, all controlled by the Luftwaffe. Eventually nine parachute divisions were established, but few Fallschirmjaeger (literally"parachute hunters") made combat jumps. Nonetheless, Germany led the way in combat airborne operations, seizing Belgium's Fort Eben Emael in 1940. The Luftwaffe also made history in the first aerial occupation of an island-the costly Crete operation in 1941. However, Germany's Pyrrhic victory proved so costly that no Fallschirmjaeger division was again involved in a major airborne operation. Thereafter, the Luftwaffe parachute forces were employed as light infantry in every theater of operation. Two German airborne divisions, the Third and Fifth, responded to the Allied invasion in Normandy but were hampered by inadequate ground transport.

The British army authorized small army airborne units in 1940 but did not form the Parachute Regiment until 1942. That unit served as a training organization, producing seventeen battalions, of which fourteen were committed to combat. The battalions were formed into the First and Sixth Airborne Divisions, the latter involved in Operation Overlord. Both divisions were committed to the Arnhem assault, Operation Market-Garden, in September 1944.

The U.S. Army formed five army airborne units and divisions during World War II, of which three (the Eighty-second, 101st, and Seventeenth) saw combat in the Mediterranean or the European Theater of Operations. The Eleventh served in the Pacific; the Thirteenth went to Europe in 1945 but was not committed to combat.

Apart from isolated uses of airborne battalions, the first Allied army airborne units operation of note occurred during Operation Husky, the Anglo-American invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Subsequent operations on the Italian mainland perfected doctrine and techniques so that by 1944 the United States and Britain could integrate three airborne divisions into the plan for Overlord. By isolating the vulnerable beachheads from German reinforcements during the critical early hours of 6 June, the airborne troopers gained valuable time for the amphibious forces.

Later uses of British and American army airborne units included the Arnhem operation in September 1944 and the Rhine crossing in March 1945.

Airborne operations were considered high-risk undertakings, requiring commitment of large numbers of valuable assets-elite troops and airlift-and incurring the danger of assault troops being isolated and overwhelmed. The latter occurred on a large scale only once, when supporting Allied ground forces were unable to reach British paratroopers at Arnhem, Holland, in September 1944.

Army Airborne Units in D-Day

Because they were by definition light infantry-without armored vehicles or heavy artillery-paratroopers were laden with enormous personal burdens. Many D-Day troopers carried nearly two hundred pounds of equipment, including their main and reserve chutes, life preserver, primary and secondary weapons and ammunition, water and rations, radios or mines, and other gear. It could take as much as five minutes for a trooper to pull on his parachute harness over his other equipment, and if they sat on the ground many men needed help standing up.

Normal parameters for dropping paratroopers were six hundred feet of altitude at ninety miles per hour airspeed. Owing to weather and tactical conditions, however, many troopers were dropped from 300 to 2,100 feet and at speeds as high as 150 miles per hour.

American paratroopers had to make five qualifying jumps to earn their wings, after which they received a hazardous-duty bonus of fifty dollars per month,"jump pay."

The U.S. Eighty-second and 101st Airborne Divisions dropped 13,400 men behind Utah Beach on the west end of the Allied landing areas, while nearly seven thousand men of the British Sixth Division secured bridges behind Sword Beach to the east. The primary objective of the airborne troops was to isolate the beachhead flanks from substantial German reinforcement; the British were more successful than the Americans in doing so. The Sixth Division's seizure of the Orne River bridges became a classic airborne operation.

The elite of the elite among paratroopers were the pathfinders, who were first on the ground. Preceding the main force by nearly an hour, the pathfinders were responsible for guiding troop-carrier aircraft to the landing zones and for marking the target areas. Specialized navigational equipment included the Eureka/Rebecca radar beacon, which transmitted to the lead aircraft in each C-47 formation, and automatic direction-finder (ADF) radios. Holophane lights were laid in T patterns on the ground to mark each drop zone.

Owing to fog, enemy action, and the confusion common to warfare, in Overlord only one of the eighteen U.S. pathfinder teams arrived at the correct drop zone. One entire eight-man team was dropped into the English Channel.

Because of wide dispersion over the Cotentin Peninsula, only about one-third of the American paratroopers assembled themselves under organized leadership, and many landed in the wrong divisional areas. One battalion commander roamed alone for five days, killing six Germans without finding another American. While some troopers sought cover or got drunk on Calvados wine, many others displayed the initiative expected of elite troops. In Normandy the airborne was especially effective in disrupting German communications.

Glider-borne infantry regiments were part of every airborne division, and though they did not originally receive"jump pay,"these soldiers were still part of an elite organization. Gliders possessed the dual advantages of delivering a more concentrated force to the landing zone and providing certain heavy equipment unavailable to paratroopers-especially light artillery and reconnaissance vehicles. Gliders were usually flown by noncommissioned pilots, who, once on the ground, took up personal weapons and fought as part of the infantry units they had delivered to the target.

Army Air Corps and their British Counterpart

Avro Lancaster

The Lancaster evolved from the Avro firm's ill-fated Manchester to become one of the great bombers of World War II. With two Rolls-Royce Vulture engines, the Manchester lacked reliability for combat operations and was abandoned after limited production. However, to retrieve as much of the investment as possible, Avro extended the Manchester's wings and put four Merlins on its airframe; pilots were delighted with the result.

The Lancaster Mark I could carry a maximum load of fourteen thousand pounds, and though the average operational loadout was much less, the potential was easily recognized. Stable, easy to fly, and capable of 280 mph at altitudes above most other RAF bombers, the"Lanc"was loved by its aircrews.

Though not built in the variety of its Halifax stablemate, the Lancaster nevertheless demonstrated its versatility. The most famous Lancaster mission occurred in 1943, when No. 617 Squadron's modified Avros made low-level attacks on the Rhine dams using Dr. Barnes Wallis's revolutionary skip bombs. The same squadron later used Wallis's awesome eleven-ton "earthquake"bombs. On 6 June 1944 Lancasters participated in saturation bombing of German coastal batteries to suppress opposition on the beaches, as well as in attacks on the Le Havre river bridges.

From 1941 to 1945 some eighty Lancaster squadrons flew 156,000 sorties over Occupied Europe, dropping 681,000 tons of bombs-an average of 4,300 pounds of bombs per sortie. The Lanc's peak strength occurred in August 1944 with forty-two operational squadrons, including four Royal Canadian Air Force, two Australian, and one Polish manned. Attrition was heavy, especially during the"Battle of Berlin"in early 1944, but production exceeded 7,300 aircraft (87 percent were Mark I and III) from six manufacturers, including Victory Aircraft in Canada.

Bristol Beaufighter

One of the most effective strike aircraft of the war, the Bristol Beaufighter was adapted from the firm's twin-engine Beaufort bomber. The RAF lacked an effective long-range fighter when the war began, and Bristol-one of Britain's oldest aircraft companies-jumped to fill the gap.

Beginning with airframe parts of the Beaufort, Bristol redesigned the older aircraft's fuselage to include a short, pugnacious-looking nose that gave superb forward visibility for the pilot. The observer-navigator sat in a separate cockpit well aft, which proved fortuitous because it afforded ample room for an airborne radar.

The Beaufighter was a powerful aircraft in every respect. It was powered by twin Hercules radial engines, rated at 1,375 horsepower, and it was armed with four 20 mm cannon. The Mark I flew in July 1939 and arrived in squadrons barely a year later. By late summer of 1940, the AI Mark IV radar had been installed, and the Bristol began its successful career as a night fighter. A few American night-fighter squadrons also flew Beaufighters in Britain and the Mediterranean.

Wartime development resulted in several models, including the Merlinpowered Mark II. To enhance its strike capability, the Beaufighter received six machine guns in the wings, but its full potential was not reached until the Mark VI and later. RAF Coastal Command relished the Bristol's exceptional offensive punch, with rockets and a torpedo for antishipping strikes. The Mark X had upgraded Hercules engines of 1,770 horsepower, pushing its top speed over 300 mph.

The early model Beaufighters were regarded as difficult to fly; they were heavy and had to be landed with power on. Later aerodynamic improvements, such as a larger vertical fin and dihedral in the horizontal stabilizers, did much to tame the type's bad habits.

Beaufighters were part of the air order of battle for D-Day, particularly useful for attacking German defenses and coastal shipping. The type also was deployed against Japan, and 364 of the total 5,928 were built under license in Australia.

DeHavilland Mosquito

The plywood Mosquito was a serious challenger for the title of most versatile aircraft of World War II. It performed virtually every mission asked of a land-based aircraft: day and night fighter, light bomber and nocturnal intruder, antishipping and photo-reconnaissance aircraft. The"Mossie" accomplished each task with excellent results and was so successful that Germany attempted to build its own Moskito.

Like Bristol's Beaufighter, the Mosquito was conceived as an in-house project by the DeHavilland Company. In 1938 the lightweight, twin-engine DH-98 was regarded as a fast, unarmed bomber. The molded plywood airframe gave rise to the nickname"Wooden Wonder,"but the RAF was slow to warm to the concept. However, work progressed, and the prototype first flew in November 1940.

Mosquitos were produced in startling variety, with approximately twenty fighter and thirty bomber variants from 1941 onward. Throughout the type's life it was powered by two Rolls-Royce Merlins rated between 1,230 and 1,700 horsepower. Exceptionally fast, some marks were capable of 425 miles per hour at altitude, and during the V-1"Buzz Bomb"campaign of 1944-45, Mosquitos were among the most successful aircraft at intercepting and destroying the speedy robot bombs.

Entering squadron service in 1942, Mosquitos proved ideal for the pathfinder mission, marking target areas for multi-engine bombers. They also performed low-level strikes against precision targets, such as Gestapo headquarters in Oslo and the Nazi prison at Amiens.

RAF Coastal Command valued the Mosquito as a partner to the Bristol Beaufighter in the antishipping role. Long-range missions against German-controlled shipping in Scandinavian waters were flown with rockets and heavy cannon armament. Mosquitos also logged combat in the Middle East and the Pacific, while American reconnaissance squadrons flew them in Europe and Africa.

During the Normandy campaign, RAF squadrons committed a monthly average of not quite three hundred Mosquitos. From June through August, seventy were shot down and twenty-eight damaged beyond repair-33 percent of the total available.

Mosquito production approached seven thousand, built in Britain, Canada, and Australia, with the last aircraft delivered in 1948. Mosquito pilots and navigators were proud of their machine, knowing they flew one of the most capable combat aircraft of its generation.

Fairey Swordfish

One of the most remarkable military aircraft of all time, the Swordfish was a biplane designed in 1933 and was still in combat in 1945. It was conceived as a carrier-based torpedo plane powered by a Pegasus radial engine of some six hundred horsepower, with a nominal crew of three: pilot, observer, and gunner.

The Mark I entered Royal Navy service in 1936 and appeared little different from most carrier planes of its day-an open-cockpit biplane. Already regarded as obsolete when war began three years later, the"Stringbag" had, however, the priceless advantage of availability. It proved its worth repeatedly over the next few years, including a stunningly successful night torpedo and bombing attack on the Italian fleet in Taranto Harbor in 1940. The example set by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish so impressed the Japanese navy that the Pearl Harbor operation was based in part on the Taranto strike.

In 1941 Swordfish off HMS Ark Royal torpedoed the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic, leading to her destruction by surface forces. That same year Swordfish attacked Italian ships in the Mediterranean battle off Cape Matapan. In 1942 the land-based Swordfish attempted to stop the"Channel Dash"by German battle cruisers and were nearly all destroyed by German fighters.

Perhaps the Swordfish's greatest contribution during its long service was in the realm of antisubmarine warfare. Flying from escort carriers, late-model aircraft with radar persistently hunted U-boats in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and northern waters. During D-Day, land-based Swordfish conducted antisubmarine patrols in the Channel and its approaches.

Nearly 2,400 of the type were constructed, and one of the many ironies of the Swordfish's career is that it outlived its intended replacement, Fairey's closed-cockpit Albacore. Even when the more advanced Barracuda monoplane arrived in fleet squadrons, the"Stringbag"soldiered on, in its own way irreplaceable.

Handley-Page Halifax

The four-engine, twin-tail Halifax bore a general resemblance to its more famous counterpart, the Avro Lancaster, and shared the"Lanc's" rags-to-riches story. The Lancaster evolved from the Avro Manchester; similarly, the Halifax began life on the drawing board as a twin-engine bomber but was altered to the multi-engine configuration. Originally powered by four 1,280 hp Rolls-Royce Merlins, the Halifax Mark I first flew in October 1939, barely a month after the war began. However, developmental problems delayed its combat debut until March 1941. The original version, as well as the Mark II and V, retained Merlins until increased demand for Lancasters, Spitfires, and Mosquitos mandated an engine change.

The most common Halifax variants were the Mark III, VI, and VII, all powered by Bristol Hercules air-cooled radials of 1,600 to 1,800 horsepower. The later models also had a different silhouette, with the original front turret deleted in favor of a more streamlined nose to improve top speed. The Mark III was rated at 277 mph.

Halifaxes dominated RAF Bomber Command's No. 4 and 6 Groups but also flew in Coastal Command and Transport Command. Like most British bombers, the Halifax was a single-pilot aircraft, with six other men completing the crew: flight engineer, bombardier (bomb aimer in the RAF), navigator, and gunners. In four years of RAF Bomber Command operations, Halifaxes logged 75,500 sorties with an average bomb load of three thousand pounds.

Extremely versatile, the Handley-Page bomber doubled as a maritime patrol plane, electronic countermeasures platform, paratroop transport, and glider tug. The latter duty was an especially important aspect of the Halifax's contribution to Overlord. In June 1944 at least twenty Halifax squadrons flew from the UK with Bomber Command while others served in the Mediterranean theater.

Total production was 6,176 aircraft, including some postwar manufacture. The type remained in RAF service until 1952.

Hawker Typhoon