World War II saw the rapid development of many propeller driven fighter planes. Every major nation that was involved in the conflict had their version of a marquee fighter, but there were a few that stood head and shoulders above the competition. Let’s take a look at some of the finest, and most successful, fighter aircraft of the Second World War. Here are the Top Ten World War II fighters.
The Republic P47 Thunderbolt was a dominant force in the skies over Western Europe during the Second World War. The Jug, as it was affectionately known, was first used as a bomber escort but it was replaced by the more impressive P51 Mustang in 1943. All but one fighter squadron changed to the Mustang and the rest of the Army Air Force’s Thunderbolts moved on to more general roles.
The armament on the P47 was impressive. It had a bristling set of eight .50 caliber machineguns and it could carry 2,500lbs of bombs or 10 unguided rockets. This impressive arsenal meant that it was effective against enemy aircraft and devastating against ground targets. After D-Day, P47 pilots set their sights on German transport links and they battered trucks, trains and light armor.
Many pilots that were new to the aircraft were not impressed with it, at first, because it was so big and sluggish. It didn’t climb well and it didn’t maneuver well at low altitudes but once they became used to it, and found out what its best attributes were, many pilots fell in love with it.
The Gloster Gladiator came into service for the RAF in 1937. It was a biplane, in an era when most new fighters had only a single wing design, and it became apparent very quickly that it was not going to be a match for the German Luftwaffe.
Most Gladiators were sent to the Mediterranean theater and it is there that they made their name. In numerous battles against the Regia Aeronautica, Gloster Gladiators proved more than a match for Italian pilots. In a short spell of fighting over the island of Malta, British Gladiators successfully held off Italian bombers before help arrived in the form of Hawker Hurricanes. The Gladiator was also effective in North Africa, the Middle East, and over Greece.
The pilots of the aircraft enjoyed a superb amount of maneuverability over their opponents because of the biplane design and its lightweight construction. By the end of the war all of the serving Gladiators had moved to non combat roles but by then its legend had been created.
Often overlooked when considering the best fighters of World War II, the Curtis P40 Warhawk deserves much more affection. During Japan’s occupation of China, United States Army Air Force, United States Navy, and United States Marine Corps pilots flew for the Chinese under the banner of the 1st American Volunteer group, or 1 AVG. They flew intercept missions against Japanese bombers and more than held their own in dogfights with Japanese fighters, including Mitsubishi Zeros.
They were effective against early Japanese fighters, but they were not well matched against the Germans so they didn’t see much combat in the European theater. America had P51s and P47s that were doing a fine job in Europe, so the Warhawk was given the responsibility of defending the Far East, Africa, and the Mediterranean. The Soviet Union also used large numbers of Warhawks against the Germans, on the Eastern front, and they claimed that it performed well against enemy fighters. By the end of the war, over 15 different nations used the aircraft in many different roles from fighters through to ground attack and reconnaissance.
The Mitsubishi A6M Zero is arguably the most well known Japanese fighter of World War II and it is instantly recognizable, in the movies, by its all white color and large red Japanese roundels. The Imperial Navy used the carrier based fighter in huge numbers during the war in the Pacific theater and American pilots respected it. It could out-turn any of its opponents and Allied pilots had to use an array of dogfighting tactics in order to defeat it. The Zero was lighter and more maneuverable than anything that it came up against, and during the early stages of the war, it was rarely outclassed.
After Allied pilots learned how to defeat the Zero with better tactics, the gradual loss of experienced Japanese pilots meant that the Zero was rarely used to its full potential. By the end of the war, better American aircraft made short work of the lightly armored Japanese fighter. It had its day in the sun but it left a legacy that still remains to this day.
The US Navy’s F6F Hellcat was the most dominant fighter in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. It replaced the similar looking Wildcat and went on to account for over half of all the air-to-air kills, for the US, in the Pacific. While it was no match for the Mitsubishi Zero in terms of dogfighting, its superior power, climb rate, and ruggedness meant that it could use “boom and zoom” tactics to great effect. Hellcats would swoop down on their foes and blast away at them with its six .50 caliber Browning machineguns before speeding away in preparation for another run. Superior tactics, combined with a progressive lack of good Japanese pilots, meant that Hellcat pilots soon found themselves winning the battle for air superiority, over the ships and islands, on the way to mainland Japan.
While the bloody air war in Europe raged on with Me 109s, Spitfires, Thunderbolts, and more, the Pacific air war was being won by brave navy pilots flying Wildcats, Dauntless bombers, and the powerful Hellcat.
5. FW 190
The Focke-Wulf FW 190 was one of the most deadly German fighters of World War II. It saw combat everywhere that the Luftwaffe went and it was second only to the Me 109 in terms of operational numbers and operational effectiveness. For a long time, it was the most technically superior fighter in the world and the RAF had to quickly redevelop their Spitfire in order to regain air superiority over it.
When the United States Army Air Force started their bombing campaign over Germany, Luftwaffe pilots quickly found that their Me 109s were insufficiently armed and armored to deal decisive blows against them. Instead, FW 190s were sent up to intercept the bombers. The Focke-Wulf had a dazzling array of different armaments but the basic set-up included two .312 inch (7.92mm) machineguns in front of the pilot, two .312 inch (7.92mm) machineguns in the wing, and a further two 20mm machineguns also housed in the wing. These allowed the FW 190 pilot to obliterate American bombers until the Allies won the air superiority battle and forced the heavier and less maneuverable FW 190s onto the defensive.
Many German pilots preferred the Focke-Wulf to the more numerous Me 109 and even Allied pilots marveled at its design and performance when they flew captured examples.
The Battle of Britain cemented the Hawker Hurricane’s place in British history, and although the Supermarine Spitfire is more famous in popular culture, it is the Hurricane that deserves more of the credit. In 1940, Hitler threw all of his aerial might against Britain in order to soften the British up before his planned invasion. Wave upon wave of German bombers attacked British airfields and cities and the brave RAF pilots were sent to drive them from the skies.
Although the more superior Spitfire claimed many German fighters, the Hurricane claimed the lion’s share of victories. There were more Hurricanes than Spitfires and they were more rugged. The British tactic was to let the Spitfire pilots engage German fighters while the Hurricane took on the bombers. This method of engagement meant that the high performance fighter was well matched against the Luftwaffe’s high performance fighter and the Hurricane was left to do the dirty work.
The Hurricane went on to serve in all theaters of the war and it served with distinction. In the history of the RAF only one other fighter is held in higher regard.
USAAF bomber formations were suffering very high loss rates over Europe before the introduction of the North American P51 Mustang in 1943. Previously, P47s and other aircraft had been used to escort the bombers but they could not make the whole trip from England all the way through to Germany and back. There was a gap in range which meant that the bombers would have to fly alone for some distance. During this time they were prey to experienced and effective German fighter pilots and losses became almost too much to bear.
The long range of the Mustang gave the Americans a fighter that could escort the bombers all the way through on their sorties and it could also hold its own against the Luftwaffe. The P51 was a superb fighter but the German Me 109s and FW 190s were a worthy match in the hands of skilled and experienced pilots. It wasn’t until General James Doolittle changed tactics and hunted down the Luftwaffe pilots while they were preparing to engage the American bombers that the Americans gained air superiority.
There are many P51 Mustangs flying today and it is still one of the most aesthetically pleasing aircraft ever made. If it looks right, it is right and the Mustang looks right.
2. Me 109
Of all of the fighters that the Nazis produced, the Messerschmitt Me109 was bar far the most feared. It was used effectively by Luftwaffe pilots during the Spanish Civil War and valuable combat experience was gained in that conflict long before the Germans went to war with Europe and the rest of the world.
The airframe was long and slender and most of the main armament was housed in the fuselage. This meant that the aerodynamics were superior to most of the enemy fighters that it went up against early in the European war. The Me 109 was designed to be a high speed fighter so that it could intercept bombers and perform well in dogfights. Both of these design aims were tested to the extreme during World War II.
In the Battle of Britain, Me 109s were the main competitor against British Spitfires and Hurricanes. It was superior to the Hurricane and equally matched by the Spitfire. Any differences in performance and effectiveness were, however, negated by tactical concerns such as fuel, tactics, and pilot skill. This made the aerial war over England a duel to the death for members of both air forces.
When America engaged in daylight bombing over Germany, Me 109s were sent up to repel them. Focke-Wulf FW 190s were excellent fighters but their heavy armament made them easy prey once the Americans brought Mustangs as escorts. This left the Me 109 to engage the fighters while FW 190s engaged the bombers. Once said to have been the planned replacement for the Me 109, the FW 190 was to end up being protected by the older fighter.
The Me 109 saw service both before and after World War II and it proved its self to be a formidable opponent to anyone that went up against it. It still remains the most numerous fighter of the conflict in terms of numbers built.
The Supermarine Spitfire could be the most iconic fighter aircraft of the Second World War. Its elliptical wing design is instantly recognizable as it scythes through the air and the big RAF roundels complete the legendary look. The Hawker Hurricane was the most numerous and successful Allied fighter during the Battle of Britain, but it was the Spitfire that was brought into the hearts and minds of the British people.
After the Battle of Britain, it was manufactured to be the mainstay of the RAF’s fighter force. It saw service in all theatres and with many allied nations. Even the Soviet Union ordered the aircraft but they saw limited action. In total, more than 30 countries used the Spitfire before it was withdrawn from service.
What made the aircraft special was its superb speed. Later variants of the fighter used more and more powerful engines until the Spitfire became capable of approaching Mach 1. These speeds were never employed in a tactical sense, because of dangers to the airframe, but the pilots of the legendary aircraft did enjoy superb performance.
It was also armed to the teeth with machineguns and cannons, something which put it on equal terms with the Messerschmitt Me 109s and Focke-Wulf FW 190s, and engagements between these aircraft became symbolic of dogfighting during the war. Even as the war was coming to an end, developments in engines, weapons, and high quality fuels gave the Spitfire more roles. As the Germans got more desperate, they began to fire rocket powered V1 bombs at London. Upgraded Spitfires were used to chase the rockets and shoot them down. Some even managed to fly alongside the V1s and tip them over with their wings. D-Day saw Spitfires armed with cannons and rockets performing ground attack missions alongside Hawker Typhoons and American P47 Thunderbolts.
Of all the fighter planes of World War II, the Spitfire is arguably the most well known. It is famous in Britain and it is a favorite on the air display circuit. There were many technological advances that kept aircraft evolution moving at a fast pace while the world waged total war, but the Spitfire’s upgrades and updates kept it a world beater until the end of the war and for a long time afterwards. It is worthy of the number one spot on this list.