Bombers were the ultimate long range heavy weapons of World War 2, a role they still have. They provided the mean to bypass the enemy's army and Navy and natural barriers, and deliver massive firepower directly to its heart, striking its industry, vital resources, key military targets, and population centers, in order to significantly erode its strength in the battlefield and defeat it.
In addition to their main strategic role, World War 2 bombers also provided tactical air support and sometimes even close air support in the battlefield itself. These tactical attack roles were gradually taken by dedicated attack aircraft and by powerful fighter-bombers which evolved during the war and are now the dominant elements of modern air forces.
Bombers also provided a modern mean to utilize a national industrial and technological advantage to balance the enemy's numerical advantage. Far more than tanks and warships, bombers provided the best mean to concentrate great firepower in the hands of a small number of warriors, allowing a nation to rely more on its industry and less on millions of soldiers, and therefore pay the price of war with more money and less blood.
Because of these reasons, Great Britain and the United States produced the most advanced bombers and the largest bomber forces of World War 2. The effectiveness of their bombers was very limited during the first years of the war by conservatism and technological difficulties, and by the fierce opposition of the enemy's air defense, but with gradual technological and tactical improvements, mainly the use of long range fighters escort by day and improved navigation by night, and with increasing numbers and stronger bombers, they eventually became a mighty and unstoppable force which crushed the enemy's war potential and contributed greatly to its defeat.
Here is a list of the main types of land-based World War 2 bombers, with the approximate quantity produced of each type .
Bombers are twin-engined unless otherwise noted.
A comparison between the operational order of battle of the British bomber command in July 1941 and at the end of 1943 can show how much it grew in strength and aircraft quality during the war :
- Wellington (11400) - long range medium bomber carrying 2 tons of bombs. Produced before and during the war, bombed Germany until October 1943. For comparison, the Mosquito carried 1.8 tons to Berlin at twice the speed of the Wellington.
- Lancaster (7300) - 4-engine long range heavy night bomber. The main British bomber in the second half of World War 2, carried up to 10 tons of bombs, including a huge 10 ton bomb, or the special dam buster bomb, but typically carried up to 6 tons of bombs to a range which covered all of Germany. Had 3 turrets with 8 machine guns. Lancasters flew over 150,000 sorties, and almost half of them were lost in action, together with over 21,000 airmen.
- Halifax (6100) - 4-engine long range heavy night bomber since 1941, carried 5.4 tons of bombs. Similar to the later Lancaster, which had greater bomb load and range. The first bomber equipped with the H2S navigation-targeting RADAR.
- Mosquito (7700) - a very fast long range medium bomber which carried a 1.8 ton bomb and successfully relied on its high speed and agility instead of guns and gunners for self-protection. Although its loss rate was lowest of all allied bombers and its bombing precision the highest, British decision makers remained firm in their conservative belief that the main bomber must have gun turrets, so instead of becoming the main bomber type, the excellent Mosquito's advantages were used mainly in support of the main force of the slow heavy bombers, and less than 1/4 of the Mosquitoes produced were of bomber types. The other Mosquitoes excelled in multiple other combat roles. (read the full Mosquito essay).
In July 1941 Bomber Command had 732 operational bombers. There were 253 Wellington, 40 Halifax, and 24 Stirling bombers, but the other 415 bombers were of types which were phased out by 1943. Of this force, only the Halifax remained in the main force by the end of 1943.
At the end of 1943, Bomber command was a totally different force, much more powerful both in numbers and in the higher quality of its new bombers. It had 1249 operational long range bombers. 1008 were of new types (573 Lancaster, 363 Halifax, 72 Mosquito) and the other 241 were older types (208 Stirling, 33 Wellington) and were used for secondary missions. (source: Royal Air Force)
- B-24 Liberator (19200) - 4-engine very long range heavy bomber since mid 1941, carrying up to 6 tons of bombs. It was the allied bomber with the longest range during most of the war, and was used accordingly in all war fronts, both in very long range bombing missions, such as attacking Nazi Germany's only natural source of oil, in Ploesti, Romania, and by very long range anti-submarine patrols all over the Atlantic Ocean, which greatly contributed to defeating the German submarines. In the anti-shipping role it was operated in large numbers by the Coastal Command of the Royal Air Force.
- B-17 Flying Fortress (12700) - the world's first 4-engine long range heavy bomber (1935), its excellent basic design enabled the production of ever improved types, and it fought everywhere until the end of World War 2. Built with the concept that a day bomber should be able to self-protect from enemy fighters, the common B-17G type had 8 gun positions with 13 heavy machine guns, arranged to cover all directions. It had a crew of 10 and was equipped with advanced electronics, and could carry over 5 tons of bombs, but mostly carried much less, depending on the mission's range, and as little as just 1.8 tons in missions to Berlin, which is what the British Mosquito bomber carried to Berlin with much greater precision, less losses, a crew of just 2, and no guns, thanks to its high speed which made the Mosquito much harder to intercept.
- B-25 Mitchell (9800) - the main American medium bomber since 1940, carrying up to 1.8 tons of bombs and properly protected with multiple guns, armor, and self-sealing fuel tanks. It had a formidable dedicated attack version which excelled in anti-shipping missions, carrying a mighty 75mm gun in the nose, plus up to eight forward firing heavy machine guns, plus a torpedo or bombs. The B-25's most daring and famous mission was the Doolittle Raid in April 1942, the first bombing of Japan, in which 16 modified B-25s took off from the deck of an aircraft carrier in the North Pacific, bombed Tokyo in total surprise, and landed in China. This much needed moral-boosting "impossible" mission, after the Japanese attack in Pearl Harbor and the rapid Japanese conquest of South East Asia, shocked Japan and resulted in abandoning plans to attack Australia or India in favor of attacking Midway and transferring four Japanese fighter squadrons from the war front to home defense.
- B-29 Super Fortress (4000) - big 4-engine very long range heavy bomber designed to reach Japan from Pacific island bases. It had 5 gun turrets and could carry up to 9 tons of bombs internally or even two 10-ton bombs under its wings, but typically it carried 4-5 tons in the long range missions to Japan. It bombed Japan since June 1944, initially with high altitude day missions, but since the strong winds greatly reduced precision, a new tactic was adopted in which the guns were removed and the bombers flew night missions at low altitude and higher speed, and destroyed Japan's cities one by one with massive attacks which created huge fire storms. Two B-29s ended World War 2 with a new weapon which created the ultimate city-destroying fire storm, the atomic bomb.
- Junkers 88 (15700) - a medium range medium bomber during the entire war, carrying up to 3 tons of bombs. Also excelled as a night fighter and in other roles.
- Heinkel 111 (7300) - a medium range medium bomber. Although it was already becoming obsolete when World War 2 started, it remained in production and in service until the end of the war.
- Junkers 87 Stuka (5700) - a single-engine dedicated precision dive bomber for tactical support during the entire war, carrying up to 1.8 ton bomb. It was the airborne element of the German Blitzkrieg tactic. (read the full Stuka dive bomber essay).
- Dornier 217 (1900) - medium range heavy bomber since mid 1941, it carried 4 tons of bombs and since 1943 was the world's first guided weapons bomber, carrying two radio-guided 1400kg bombs or two radio-guided Hs-293 air-to-ground missiles.
- Arado 234 Blitz (210) - In late 1944 it was the world's first jet bomber. An advanced single-seat light bomber, at 460mph it was almost impossible to intercept, but it came much too late to affect the war.
- Petlyakov 2 (11400) - The best Russian bomber in World War 2, it was something between the British Mosquito and the German Stuka. It was a fast and agile medium range light dive bomber, carrying up to 1.2 ton of bombs.
- Ilyushin 4 (10000) - Russia's main long range bomber. It bombed Berlin, East Germany, and the vast German-occupied territory in Eastern Europe and Russia, but it carried only 1-1.5 tons of bombs, or three torpedoes, and it suffered heavy losses by enemy fighters because of its very poor defensive weapons.
- Tupolev SB2 (6600) - a pre-war light day bomber, since 1943 it was used as night bomber to reduce its heavy losses.
- Mitsubishi G4M Betty (2400) - long range light bomber, operated by the Japanese Navy during the entire war, carrying one ton of bombs, or a big 800kg torpedo. Like other Japanese aircraft, its long range was achieved by lack of armor, which made it very vulnerable. Late types had improved armor. Just before the end of the war the G4M was modified to carry the Okha Kamikaze missile, with a suicide pilot and a powerful 1.2 ton warhead. Once released, the Okha had a range of 20 to 50 miles, depending on its release altitude, and a final dive speed of 600mph, but with strong American air superiority, most Okha-carrying bombers were intercepted before reaching release range.
- Mitsubishi Ki-21 Sally (2000) - long range light bomber, operated by the Japanese army Air Force over South East Asia during the entire war, carrying one ton of bombs. It was poorly protected, but where it operated it usually faced thinner fighter opposition than other bombers.
- Savoya-Marchetti 79 (1300) - 3-engine light day bomber and torpedo bomber, carrying up to 1.2 ton of bombs or two torpedoes. It was used mainly as a torpedo bomber.
De Havilland Mosquito
World War 2 RADAR
Stuka dive bomber
De Havilland Mosquito
German Secret Weapons