WW II Fighter Planes of the Major Powers
By Chuck Hawks
A companion piece to my "The Best Fighters of WW II," with which it unavoidability shares some overlap, this article gives me a chance to look at some of the premier fighter planes used in the Second World War by nationality. Included herein are aircraft from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. To be included, a fighter must have actually seen air to air combat during WW II against enemy fighters and bombers.
Please remember that aircraft specifications taken from different sources tend to vary, depending on load and test conditions and, in any case, vary from individual plane to plane. For the specifications below, The Fighter Aircraft Pocketbook by Roy Cross and The Complete Book of Fighters by William Green and Gordon Swanborough were my primary sources of data.
With the exception of the Dewoitine D.520, which isn't modeled on Warbirds, I have spent considerable simulator time flying all of these aircraft against other Warbirds aces online. Although a poor dogfighter, the Me 262A jet was the supreme bomber killer of the war and its high speed made it possible to intercept high flying bombers and out run the piston engine fighters that might be escorting the bombers. The Me 262 pilot could pick and choose his engagements.
For fighter vs. fighter engagements, the Ki-84, Yak-3, C.205, Spit XIV and P-51 covered in this article are all proven winners, depending on the specific circumstances. The Ki-84, Yak-3 and C.205, other things being equal, could usually out turn the Spit XIV and P-51. All around visibility was good in all but the C.205. All five climbed well and were good in the vertical; the Spit XIV being particularly outstanding. The C.205 and Ki-84 were dominant medium altitude fighters. The Mk. XIV and P-51 were faster and generally had a performance edge over the other three contenders at high altitude. They could also dive at high speed and recover. This means they could boom and zoom the competition if they had, or could create, an altitude advantage and their speed advantage usually allowed them to disengage when necessary. Conversely, the Yak-3 was designed to achieve air control directly over the battlefield and was very hard to beat at low altitude.
Which of these was the most effective air superiority fighter? Opinions vary, as they all performed very well within their intended design parameters. Victory usually depended on how effectively a pilot could exploit his airplane's advantages, keep his energy up and maintain situational awareness. When flown by an experienced pilot, none of these fighters could be taken lightly!
Dewoitine D 520
At the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, most French fighter squadrons were equipped with outmoded aircraft that were not a match for the British Spitfire and German Bf 109 fighters. Perhaps the best of the French fighters to see service was the then new Dewoitine D 520, which equipped only one French fighter group with 26 aircraft in May 1940, when the German blitzkrieg began to overwhelm France. Only 430 D 520's had been built for the Armee de l'Air (with 403 having been officially accepted) by 22 June 1940, at the time of the French surrender. A further 478 aircraft were built by Vichy France with German permission, many of these being supplied to German allies.
Specifications D 520
The D 520 was essentially the French equivalent of the Spitfire and Bf 109, being an all metal monoplane with stressed skin construction, a monocoque fuselage and a mono spar wing. Like its rivals, it handled well and was powered by a V-12, liquid cooled motor driving a three-bladed propeller. The supercharged Hispano-Suiza 12Y 45 engine produced 930 HP at take-off and was good for a maximum speed of about 330 MPH at 13,120'. This made the D 520 comparable to the Hurricane Mk. I and A6M2 Zero in top speed, but slower than the BF 109E and Spitfire Mk. I. The D 520 was adequately armed for its time, with a cowl mounted 20mm cannon (60 rounds) and four wing mounted 7.5mm machine guns.
Given the opportunity, the D 520 would have undoubtedly been improved with uprated engines and other refinements, as were the Spitfire and Bf 109 throughout the war. One D 521 was built, this being a D 520 powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Another proposed variation was the D 524, a D 520 powered by an H-S 12Z engine developing 1200 HP, but the fall of France ended this project. Armament of the D 521 and D 524 was to have been 2-20mm cannons and 2-7.5mm machine guns, all wing mounted, with a top speed around 350 MPH, indicating that the D 520, like the Spitfire and Bf 109, had room for future development, had France managed to stay in the war.
Messerschmitt Me 262 Swallow
The Luftwaffe fielded several advanced fighters during WW II, including the "long nose" FW 190D and Bf 109K, but their ultimate achievement was the famous Me 262 jet interceptor that first appeared in operational service in November 1944. This was not, by any means, the greatest dogfighter of the war, but it was probably the most feared and effective bomber destroyer and very difficult for any Allied fighter to counter. Its impressive 75-100 MPH speed advantage over even the fastest Allied fighters gave the Me 262 an insurmountable advantage over Allied pistol engine fighters, allowing it to engage or disengage at will. Some 1300 Me 262's were produced before the end of the war.
Specifications Me 262A-1
The first operational jet fighter in the world, the Me 262A-1 fighter was a sensation. The sad fact for Germany is that it could have entered service about a year earlier had Hitler not interfered by insisting that this fighter airplane be redesigned as a bomber and had the program received the accelerated priority it deserved.
The Me 262 introduced swept-back wings and jet propulsion to WW II fighter planes. It was powered by two Junkers Jumo 004 B2 axial flow jet engines that developed 1,985 pounds of static thrust each and was exceptionally well armed with four 30mm nose-mounted cannons, giving it the heaviest armament among contemporary fighters. Me 262 fighters could also carry 24-2" R4M air-to-air rockets with which to attack bombers. Top speed was 472 MPH at SL and 528 MPH at 22,965 feet. The initial climb rate was 3,937 ft./min. and the service ceiling was 39,370 feet.
The Me 262 handled predictably and was easy to fly. However, it could be out maneuvered by most other WW II fighters, its engines were unreliable and its range was only 500 miles at 32,800 feet at full power. At that altitude, the thrust of its Junkers Jumo 004 B2 axial flow jet engines was only about 770 pounds. With so little thrust, acceleration was poor, so the pilot had to keep his speed up at all times or he could fall victim to a slower, but more maneuverable, propeller driven fighter. Tricycle landing gear, good flaps and excellent all-around visibility, especially over the nose, made the Me 262 relatively easy to land, despite its high landing speed.
Less than 1,300 total Me.262 jets were produced before the end of the war and many of these were not fighter variants. Bomber, ground attack, reconnaissance and two-seat trainer versions were also produced, in addition to the Me 262 interceptors that Germany so desperately needed in 1944-1945 to defeat the Allied daylight strategic bombing campaign.
Macchi C.205 Veltro
The Italian aircraft industry seemed to receive less credit than they deserved during WW II. There were several interesting and advanced Italian warplanes and one of the best WW II fighters was the Macchi C.205V Veltro.
A more advanced version of the C.202, the C.205 was improved in almost every way. It was faster, being powered by an imported or license built DB 650A inverted V-12 engine that was rated at 1475 HP, turned a three-bladed propeller and provided a top speed around 400 MPH. It was also much better armed, carrying two 20mm cannons and two 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine guns, which made it the equal of the best contemporary air superiority fighters.
The C.205 was a match for any Allied fighter, including the better known Spitfire and P-51, which it could usually out turn. It was one of those well balanced fighters that could generally out run more maneuverable fighters and out maneuver faster fighters, making it a threat to all. However, a C.205 pilot did not want to get caught low and slow. (Generally true of any high performance fighter.)
Pilot visibility was an issue, as the cockpit hood used heavy framing that impeded the pilot's view at various points, especially in the forward/upward direction. Sporadic engine supply from Germany and limited domestic production caused bottlenecks that kept the numbers of C.205's relatively low, a total of around 812 being produced.
Nakajima Ki-84 Hayate
Practically everyone has heard of the IJN's A6M Zero fighter, but relatively few are aware of later and very potent Japanese fighters, including the Navy's N1K1 Shiden and J2M3 Raiden and the Army's Ki-61 and Ki-84 (Allied code name Frank). Of these, the Ki-61 was probably the best dog fighter and the Ki-84 was perhaps the best all-around air superiority fighter. Series delivery of the latter began in April 1944.
The Ki-84 was another of those balanced designs that did everything well, combining long range with the ability to out run more maneuverable fighters and out turn faster fighters. It used an advanced, low drag, airframe and was powered by a close-cowled Nakajima Ha-45 (type 4) 18 cylinder radial engine of almost 2000 HP that provided a top speed around 390 MPH through a four-bladed propeller. The canopy provided good, all around pilot visibility. Unlike early Japanese fighters, pilot armor, a bullet proof windscreen panel and self-sealing fuel tanks were included.
Armament was provided by two 20mm cannons and two 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine guns and a respectable ammo supply. 3382 Ki-84's were built before the end of the war, including variations with four 20mm cannon or 30mm cannon replacing the standard two 20mm cannon. Late in the war, shortages of aluminum prompted the replacement of some metal parts with wooden parts, including the wing tips and rear fuselage.
After the war the USAF extensively tested a captured Ki-84 and found that, when well maintained and supplied with American 100+ octane aviation gas (unavailable in Japan during the war), it was faster than the P-51D and P-47D in level flight and it could out turn both under most conditions. This example was eventually returned to Japan and today resides in an aviation museum there. Speed builds very quickly in a power dive and the pilot had to be careful not to exceed the airframe's never exceed speed, which could result in shedding the wings.
Supermarine Spitfire Mk. XIV
The Mark XIV was intended primarily as a high altitude fighter, in which role it excelled. (There was also a low altitude version with clipped wing tips.) It was based on the Mk. VIII airframe fitted with the Rolls-Royce Griffin 65 motor. The Griffin liquid-cooled V-12 was specifically designed to mount in airframes designed for the earlier and less powerful Merlin engine. It featured two-stage, two-speed supercharging and developed 2,035 HP at 7,000 feet. To use the extra power, a five-bladed Rotol propeller was fitted and to keep the engine cool, larger under wing radiators were used. A larger vertical fin compensated for the longer nose required by the Griffin motor and a bubble canopy replaced the Malcolm hood for improved visibility aft. The result was an exceptionally clean and beautiful fighter, even by Spitfire standards.
Specifications Spitfire F Mk. XIV
An additional fuel tank (placed behind the pilot) was added to the Mk. XIV to increase range, perhaps inspired by a similar installation in the P-51. However, as far as I know, the extra fuel tank did not result in the stability problems that affected the Mustang.
Top speed was around 440 MPH at 25,000 feet (357 MPH at SL) and best climb was 4,700 ft./min. at 7,000 feet. The normal range was 460 miles cruising at 20,000 feet. The typical armament was two 20mm cannons and two .50 caliber machine guns, all mounted in the wings, which gave the Mk. XIV good punch, equal to the C.205 and Ki-84 and better than most Bf 109 fighter variants. The ammo supply was reasonable, better than early Spitfires.
The Mark XIV was not the equal of the popular Merlin powered Mk. IX in a turn and burn dog fight or if caught low and slow, but it had improved range, speed, climb and high altitude performance. It was superior to the Mk. IX (and most everything else) as a boom and zoom fighter. Some 957 Mk. XIV's were built before the similar Mk. XVIII replaced it in series production.
North American P-51D Mustang
North American's super fighter of WW II was their Mustang airframe mated with a licensed, Packard built version of the R-R Merlin liquid-cooled, V-12 motor turning a four bladed propeller. The USAAF actually had three mass produced, war winning fighters, the P-38, P-47 and P-51, but it is the latter that gets the most acclaim and the definitive version of the Mustang was the P-51D. The P-51D carried six .50 caliber machine guns (three per wing), instead of the four .50's mounted in the B model and also had a bubble canopy that provided the pilot an excellent all-around view.
The P-51D is one of those fighters that simply looks "right." Its extended range when equipped with drop tanks allowed it to escort the American four-engine bombers all the way to Berlin and other prime targets in Germany. This ultimately broke the back of the Luftwaffe's daylight fighter defense and allowed the Allies to achieve daylight air superiority over Germany itself. True, the definitive version of the P-38, the P-38L, had the range and performance to achieve the same basic result if it had been deployed over Germany in similar numbers, but it was the P-51 that actually did it.
The Mustang's six .50 caliber machine guns are an effective armament against other fighters, roughly equal in effectiveness to the two 20mm cannons and two .50 caliber machine guns carried by the Spit XIV, Ki-84 and C.205. Against bombers, the P-51's heavy machine guns were less effective than cannons, but fortunately the Axis powers never deployed the heavily armed, four engine heavy bombers favored by the UK and USA. One advantage of the .50 machine guns compared to cannons is that the ammo takes less space, allowing more rounds to be carried.
In the Pacific, Mustangs accompanied B-29 SuperFortresses to Japan. The P-51's combination of long range, high performance and numerical superiority (the latter thanks to the miracle of American mass production) made it a war winning weapon. Many consider it the best all-around fighter ever built. The Mustang was retained in service long after the end of the war and a total of 7956 P-51D's, the most numerous of all Mustang variants, were built in the U.S.
Yakovlev Yak-3 (II)
The Yak-3 (I-30) designation was first given to a 1941 Yakovlev fighter derived from the Yak-1 (I-26). This prototype was not produced and the Yak-3 (II) designation was revived for a later, much improved, lightweight fighter in 1944. The production Yak-3 was a very successful air superiority fighter contemporary of the Yak-9 all-around fighter. Series production had ended by 1946 with some 4848 built, but was resumed in very small quantities around the beginning of the 21st Century to meet a demand for Yak-3's for warbirds collections.
Specifications Yak-3 (II)
Many top Soviet aces flew the Yak series of fighters, which started with the rather primitive Yak-1 and evolved into the Yak-3 air superiority and Yak-9 general purpose fighters. The Yak-9 was produced in greater numbers than any other Allied fighter of WW II, but it is the contemporary Yak-3 that was regarded as the best dogfighter on the ETO Eastern Front.
A program to develop the smallest and lightest fighter possible around the proposed 1,600+ hp M-107, liquid cooled, V-12 engine was begun in 1941 by the Yakovlev design bureau and named the Yak-3 (I-30). However, due to delays in engine development and shifts in Soviet priorities, this program was dropped before the winter of 1941.
The Yak-3 designation was subsequently reassigned to a new project and the very different Yak-3 (II) low altitude air superiority fighter entered service in mid-1944. Compared to the earlier Yak-1M, the new Yak-3 incorporated reduced drag, an all-around vision canopy, a structurally improved airframe and a new wing of reduced span and area. In the event, the intended M-107 motor was not available in time, so the 1,300 hp M-105 was substituted, driving a three-bladed propeller. Nevertheless, the Yak-3 was about 30 mph faster than the contemporary (and heavier) Yak-9.
The Yak-3's greatest assets were its good speed coupled with a tight turning radius. It was a highly maneuverable fighter that offered excellent performance below about 20,000 feet and it could turn inside of a Bf 109 or FW 190A. At one point the German fighter command issued a directive instructing their fighter pilots not to dogfight with Yak fighters lacking an air scoop under the engine. (The absence of this front scoop being the key Yak-3 recognition feature.) The Yak-3 was not a particularly difficult fighter to fly, but it required a skilled pilot to take full advantage of its fighting potential. In such hands, it became a highly respected air superiority fighter in the same general class as the Ki-84 and C.205. The Yak-3 is not as heavily armed as the best contemporary fighters and doesn't carry a great deal of ammo, so successful Yak-3 pilots needed to be skilled at air-to-air gunnery.
Copyright 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.