Carrier Aircraft Used During WW2
Contributor: Bob Bryant
Over 700 different aircraft models were used during World War II. At least 135 of these models were developed for naval use, including about 50 fighters and 38 bombers. Only about 25 carrier-launched aircraft models were used extensively for combat operations. Of these, nine were introduced during the war years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, four by the United States Navy (USN), three by the Royal Navy (RN), and two by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). The table linked at the bottom of this article lists the principal carrier-launched fighters and bombers used during World War II. They are listed within each aircraft type in chronological order of their introduction to combat zones. Allied reporting names such as "Val" and "Kate" are included for IJN aircraft. Neither the German Kriegsmarine nor the Italian Regia Marina had carriers or carrier-launched planes during the war, but the land-based fighters of the German Luftwaffe and Italy's Regia Aeronautica (RA) menaced Allied ships and planes. Some of these Axis aircraft are included in the table for comparison with the Allied fighters that met them in combat.
Relative aircraft capabilities were not the only factors that contributed to success or failure for carrier aircraft in combat. Attack coordination and tactics, along with pilot skill, determination, and willingness to self-sacrifice were at least as important and perhaps more so. For example, both the new, high-performing Grumman TBF Avenger and the obsolete Douglas TBD Devastator were slaughtered as they tried to deliver their torpedoes at Midway without fighter protection. But their pilots' dogged pressing of their attacks in the face of almost hopeless odds created opportunities for the dive bomber pilots that, by luck as well as by determination, arrived in a timely manner to sink four IJN carriers. The effectiveness of the special attacks ("kamikaze") late in the war using mostly outdated aircraft can also be attributed to pilot determination and self-sacrifice. Nonetheless, other things being equal, faster, more maneuverable aircraft with longer ranges and better armament contributed to successful combat outcomes.
Carrier Aircraft Types, Functions, and Features
Carrier Aircraft Types.
The types of aircraft usually launched from aircraft carriers were fighters, torpedo bombers, and dive-bombers. Floatplanes were also launched from some carriers but were typically catapulted from cruisers and battleships. Land-based aircraft types were frequently launched from carriers during delivery to forward bases, such as when Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighters flew from carriers to newly captured land-bases during the Allied invasion of North Africa. Sometimes land-based aircraft were launched from carriers for special operations such as the USN Doolittle Raid, when B-25 high altitude bombers were launched for a raid on Tokyo. Some carrier aircraft served in dual roles, such as fighter-bomber and bomber-reconnaissance aircraft.
Carrier Aircraft functions.
- Torpedo and dive bombers attacked enemy warships, transports, merchant ships, and land installations.
- Fighters accompanied bombers on attack missions, protecting them during interceptions by enemy fighters. Fighters maintained overhead in Combat Air Patrols (CAP) protected their carriers and other warships in the fleet by intercepting enemy bombers and by attacking submarines.
- Fighters and bombers were also widely used for reconnaissance and sometimes used for mine laying or for spotting to assist bombardment by warships.
Carrier Aircraft features.
- Size of aircrew. With few exceptions, fighters had a single crewmember, the pilot, while dive-bombers had two and torpedo bombers had three crewmembers. The RN valued a second crewmember in fighters for navigation, and provided for them in the Blackburn Roc, Fairey Fulmar, and the Fairey Firefly.
- Armament. Fighters and bombers typically had two to four machine guns, sometimes six. These were mostly 7.7mm or 7.62mm (.303in), but the heavier 12.7mm (.50in) were on some UK and US aircraft. The IJN Zero fighter was armed with the more destructive 20mm (.79in) cannon instead of machine guns. Later in the war, UK and US fighters also had 20mm cannon in addition to or instead of machine guns. By 1943, six Allied models were also capable of firing 12.7cm (5in) rockets. Bombers also carried bombs or a torpedo, the maximum possible weight for which generally increased with new introductions during the war. Most fighters could carry a small bomb load.
- Self-sealing fuel tank. Self-sealing fuel tanks retarded or eliminated the flow of fuel from a tank that has been holed during combat. This was typically accomplished by incorporating a material that swelled when coming into contact with fuel. Many RN and USN carrier aircraft used this technology, but it involved adding weight and the IJN was reluctant to sacrifice range and maneuverability for the improved survivability.
- Protective armor. Like self-sealing fuel tanks, protective armor for the aircrew improved survivability at the cost of performance. The RN and USN armored their carrier aircraft, but the IJN typically did not.
- Number of wings. Carrier aircraft introduced after 1937 were all monoplanes except for the biplane RN Fairey Albacore torpedo bomber. The biplane RN Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber, introduced in 1936, was used in combat through the entire war.
- Folding wings. Monoplane carrier aircraft introduced after 1936 almost all had folding wings to reduce the space taken up in hangers. . Exceptions included the Mitsubishi A5M "Claude" fighter and the Douglas SBD Dauntless and Yokosuka D4Y "Judy" dive bombers.
- Cockpit. Some early aircraft had open cockpits, but newer introductions typically had enclosed cockpits.
- Undercarriage. Most of the carrier aircraft introduced after 1937 had retractable landing gear to reduce drag. The two exceptions, introduced in 1940, were the RN Fairy Albacore torpedo bomber and the IJN Aichi D3A2 "Val" dive bomber.
Naval aircraft introduced before Pearl Harbor (1937-1941)
Chinese land-based aircraft vs. Japanese carrier aircraft
During the short First Battle of Shanghai (Japanese: "Shanghai Incident") in 1932, Japanese carrier-launched fighters and bombers and water-launched floatplanes attacked areas in and around the city. In one engagement, a group of three Mitsubishi B1M torpedo bombers and three Nakajima A1N fighters were attacked by a lone Boeing 218 fighter flown by an American test pilot. The Boeing was shot down, thereby achieving for the IJN its first aerial victory of the war. The following month, Japanese fighters were unsuccessfully opposed by Chinese Curtiss Hawk fighters, some of which were also shot down.
Over the next five years, IJN introduced improved fighters including the Nakajima A2N in 1932, the first purely Japanese-designed fighter. In 1936, the Nakajima A4N entered service. The following year, the Mitsubishi A5M "Claude" became the world's first low-wing, carrier-launched monoplane. It was highly maneuverable and the direct predecessor of the famed Mitsubishi A6M Zero introduced three years later.
At the time the Second Sino-Japanese War began in July 1937, IJN had about 200 fighters and bombers and 62 floatplanes available to attack. The Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) had force concentrations in China's north and agreed that IJN would be responsible for aerial operations over central China. Three aircraft carriers with a total of 136 up-to-date fighters and bombers were sent to the coast off Shanghai. The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) was just emerging from a loose confederation of aircraft and airmen controlled by individual Chinese warlords. It was a hodgepodge of about 300 land-based fighters, mostly supplied by the US, UK, and Italy, with which to intercept Japanese fighters and bombers. Russia also began supplying China aircraft after the Sino-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was agreed to in August 1937.
The Curtiss Model 68 Hawk III biplane, built both in the US and China, was used by ROCAF as a bomber as well as the primary fighter during the early part of the war. It took the brunt of the Japanese attacks during the defense of Shanghai and Nanjing (Postal Map: Nanking), helping to make flying aces of several Chinese pilots. Shortly after the conflict began, a Chinese Air Force fighter pilot intercepted a land-based Japanese bomber group from Taiwan (known in some western literature by the unofficial Portuguese nickname "Formosa") and shot down a Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber. This was the first aerial combat victory for the Chinese. In addition to Curtiss Hawk IIIs, the ROCAF opposed Japanese attacks with some older Curtis Hawk II, Boeing P-26 "Peashooter", Gloster Gladiator, and Fiat CR.32 fighters. After attrition had taken its toll of these aircraft, they were replaced by Soviet Polikarpov I-15 biplane fighters and later by Polikarpov I-16 aircraft, the world's first low-wing monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear used in combat. It also had 20mm cannons, making it one of the most heavily armed fighters for the period.
For the next three years, IJN and ROCAF pilots fought above Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing (Postal Map: Nanking), Wuhan and elsewhere as Japan sought unsuccessfully to subdue China. Sometimes carrier air groups were sent temporarily to land bases in China. Both air forces suffered defeats and enjoyed victories. Losing ground, the Chinese shifted their capital westward and inland until establishing it at Chongqing (Postal Map: Chungking) in central China. By 1941, Japan held large portions of northern and coastal China but had been weakened by the battles for inland central China. In mid-September 1941, as the IJN began to focus on the possibility of a wider war in the Pacific, it turned over responsibility for the air war over China to the IJA. Continued resistance by China's National Revolutionary Army led to a war of attrition that tied down large numbers of Japanese troops until the end of World War II in 1945.
United States vs. Japanese carrier aircraft.
The design of Japanese carrier aircraft was consistent with their overall strategy of emphasizing the offense in order to win a short war before America's overwhelmingly superior production capacity could be brought to bear. Expecting to face a numerically superior fleet, Japan's strategy envisioned using aircraft to help neutralize this advantage by gradual attrition as the enemy fleet approached Japan. This required aircraft with extended ranges and striking power, which in turn meant having them lighter and faster but with less protection. Accordingly, Japan's Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, Nakajima B5N "Kate" torpedo bomber, and Aichi D3A "Val" dive bomber were all lightly-built with weight minimized by not providing cockpit armor to protect pilots or self-sealing fuel tanks to enable them to continue fighting after taking some hits. As a result of having greater range for its aircraft, the IJN would, during 1942, attack from 250 to 300 miles away compared to the USN that would only do so from 200 miles away.
Fighters. At the time of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan had both the world's best fighter and best torpedo bomber. In addition, their aircraft were flown by the world's most extensively trained and experienced airmen, in part due to their engagement since 1937 in the war in China. Japan's Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter was highly maneuverable and could out-turn and out-climb the USN Grumman Wildcat F4F fighter. Also, when enemy planes were approaching for an attack, it was important for fighters to get off their decks and reach an advantageous altitude quickly. The Zero could climb at 3,000 fps (feet per second) and the Wildcat only 2,300 fps. Experienced pilots in the fast, highly maneuverable Zeros were initially very successful against the lower performing Allied aircraft. Over the course of 1942, however, pilots in Wildcats developed tactics such as the "high-side pass" and the "Thach Weave." Exploiting these tactics coupled with greater aircraft survivability due to armor and self-sealing tanks, American pilots neutralized the Zero's advantages. Although better USN fighters were introduced later, the Wildcat served throughout the war. Over the course of 1942, Japan's substantial losses of her experienced pilots also contributed to the American pilots gaining an upper hand in fighter combat.
Torpedo bombers. The Nakajima B5N "Kate" torpedo bomber was superior to the obsolete USN Douglas TBD Devastator in speed, rate of climb, and range. Kate's torpedoes contributed to sinking USN fleet carriers Lexington (Coral Sea), Yorktown (Midway), and Hornet (Santa Cruz Islands), all during 1942. Devastator torpedoes contributed to sinking the IJN carrier Shoho at the Coral Sea, but Zero fighters slaughtered the Devastators at Midway where they attacked without fighter protection. Only four of the 41 Devastators launched returned to their carriers.
Dive bombers. The US had a superior dive bomber in the Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless compared to Japan's Aichi D3A2 "Val". Bombs from the Dauntless sank all four of the Japanese carriers lost at Midway. Nonetheless, the "Vals" served throughout the war and sank more Allied warships than any other Axis aircraft. This included sinking the HMS Hermes, the first carrier to be sunk by carrier aircraft.
United Kingdom vs. German and Italian land-based aircraft.
Fighters. When war broke out in 1939 in the Atlantic Theater, the RN had only recently reacquired responsibility for carrier-launched aircraft. For the previous two decades, the Royal Air Force (RAF) had responsibility for all air operations, and development of improved carrier-launched aircraft had been neglected in favor of land-based fighters and bombers. As a result, the RN entered the war with mostly relatively slow, limited range biplane fighters and bombers that were little improved over World War I models. They were inferior to American and Japanese carrier aircraft. At the time of Britain's evacuation from Norway, her Gloster Sea Gladiator fighters, Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, and Blackburn Skua fighter-bombers were also inferior compared to German aircraft. Nonetheless, the Sea Gladiators did succeed in shooting down a couple Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters during the Norwegian campaign in early 1940. They were also operational during the Battle of Britain that autumn, but it was the land-based Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes and their pilots that provided the principal aerial defense for the UK. Sea Gladiators also assisted during the defense of Malta, where one shot down an Italian bomber. Gladiators were removed from front-line service around Britain by 1941. The more modern, monoplane Blackburn Roc was able to shoot down a Junkers Ju 88 fighter-bomber attacking a convoy in 1940. However, the Roc was no match for German Messerschmitt Bf 109 or Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters and could not even perform as well as Britain's own Blackburn Skua. Considered one of the worst fighters of the war, the Roc was, by late 1940, taken out of front line service and consigned to training, target towing, and rescue duties. A more modern monoplane fighter, the Fairey Fulmar, was introduced in 1940 to replace the obsolete Sea Gladiator. It was a two-seat design and was large and less nimble than the Axis fighters it opposed. Nonetheless, while protecting convoys to Malta, the Gladiators shot down ten Italian bombers and six Axis fighters. During the war, they provided air cover for the raids on Taranto and Petsamo, protected convoys to Russia, and supported invasions of North Africa and Italy. Fulmars shadowed the German battleship Bismarck enabling Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers to catch up with her. The UK upgraded their naval fighter squadrons in 1941 by adapting the highly successful, land-based Hawker Hurricane to carrier use. The Hawker Sea Hurricane performed well both while protecting the Malta convoys and, operating from escort carriers, many Atlantic convoys.
Dive bombers. The monoplane Blackburn Skua two-man fighter-dive bomber was introduced in late 1938. It sank the German cruiser KÃ¶nigsbergsaw during the German invasion of Norway. This was the first major warship sunk by a dive bomber in combat. Skuas provided air cover during the Dunkirk evacuation and served in the Mediterranean. Like the Roc, however, they fared poorly against the Messerschmitt Bf 109, and were withdrawn from front line service during 1941.
Torpedo bombers. The Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber, affectionately referred to as "Stringbag" by her aircrews, was introduced in 1936. It was an archaic-looking biplane with cloth-covered wings, open cockpit and fixed landing gear. It had been designed as a scout plane but emerged as the standard naval attack aircraft, serving as both a dive-bomber and torpedo bomber. In the first airborne torpedo attack of the war, Swordfish damaged a German destroyer at Trondheim. Later, Swordfish famously crippled a French battleship during the Attack on Mers-el-KÃ©bir, disabled three Italian battleships during the Battle of Taranto, and chased the German battleship Bismark through gale-force storms across the Atlantic, ultimately landing the torpedo that doomed her. Swordfish dropped depth charges and laid mines as well. The Fairey Albacore was introduced in 1940 to replace the Swordfish, but the venerable Swordfish continued to serve in anti-submarine and bombardment spotting assignments throughout the war. In the final accounting, the Stringbag destroyed more tonnage of Axis shipping than any other Allied aircraft.
Naval aircraft introduced after Pearl Harbor (1942-1943)
Over the course of the war, new aircraft introductions tended to be heavier with more powerful engines. They had greater speed, a faster rate of climb, and greater range than their predecessors. In 1944, the IJN would initiate an attack from 350 to 400 miles, 100 miles further away than they would in 1942. The RN would send out its Swordfish from 250 to about 300 and the USN from 250 miles out. However, "wing loading" (the mass of an aircraft divided by the surface area of its wing) also tended to increase, suggesting poorer maneuverability for these larger planes.
United States aircraft.
Fighters. The Corsair fighter-bomber introduced in 1942 had almost twice the horsepower of the Wildcat, was faster, had greater range, faster rate of climb, and was capable of carrying a 4,000 lbs. load of bombs and rockets. It was judged to be relatively difficult to land on a carrier, however, and was initially released by the USN only for use by land-based Marine units. The Hellcat fighter-bomber introduced in 1943 was also faster than the Wildcat, had greater range, a rate of climb comparable to the Zero, and was capable of carrying a 4,000 lbs. load of bombs, torpedoes, or rockets. Both the Corsair and the Hellcat aircraft were faster than the Zero and, having armor protection and self-sealing fuel tanks, could take much more punishment. With the Corsair initially relegated to land-based use, the Hellcat became the mainstay of the USN Fast Carrier Task Groups of 1944-45. She became the most successful fighter of the war, with her pilots shooting down over 5,000 enemy aircraft at a 19:1 ratio of victories to losses. The Corsair was added to USN carrier squadrons after the British refined the aircraft and landing procedures for it.
Torpedo bombers. After their devastating torpedo bomber losses at Midway, the USN quickly replaced the Devastator with the faster Grumman TBF Avenger. It also had twice the range of the Devastator, in part because the Avenger's torpedo was carried inside the plane, reducing drag. Like the Devastator, it had attacked the Japanese fleet at Midway without fighter protection, and only one of the six attacking planes returned to its base at the Naval Air Station on Midway. The Avenger ultimately became the most effective and widely used torpedo bomber of the war and functioned even more often as a level bomber than as a torpedo bomber. Avengers operated from both fleet carriers and escort carriers and were highly effective submarine killers in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. They shared credit for sinking the Japanese super-battleships IJN Yamato and Musashi.
Dive bombers. The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bomber introduced in 1942 was faster than the Dauntless but regarded as difficult to handle. Making necessary improvements delayed its first use in combat until late 1943. By this time, the Allies were moving away from an aircraft type dedicated to dive bombing. Air-to-ground rockets had been introduced that offered accuracy that formerly had been the primary advantage of the dive bomber over level bombers. Such rockets could be fired from the other types of carrier aircraft and were ultimately carried by Hellcat fighters, Corsair fighter-bombers, and Avenger and Swordfish torpedo bombers as well as Helldiver dive bombers. Nonetheless, the Helldiver was widely used and participated in battles over the Marianas, Philippines, Taiwan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa and sank more tonnage of Japanese shipping than any other aircraft during the war. It shared credit with Avengers for sinking the Yamato.
United Kingdom aircraft.
Fighters. In 1942, the British introduced another naval fighter by adapting a highly successful land-based aircraft, the Spitfire, to carrier use. The Supermarine Seafire was faster than its predecessors and began replacing Hawker Sea Hurricanes for front-line service. In light wind, however, it was subject to crash landings. Also having its air inlets on the underside of the fuselage made ditching more dangerous for the pilot, as was also the case with the Hurricane. The Seafire's range was limited, but could be extended using drop tanks. Seafires supported the Allied invasions of North Africa, Sicily, mainland Italy, and southern France. Temporarily assigned to land bases, they also supported the invasion of Normandy. In the Pacific as part of the British Pacific Fleet, Seafires were used for CAP. Overall, the adaptations of land aircraft for carrier use had inferior performance compared to US purpose-built carrier aircraft. Introduced late in the war, the UK purpose-built Fairey Firefly exhibited superior performance and had greater firepower than its predecessor, the Fairey Fulmer. It was conceived as early as 1938, but prolonged development delayed its combat use until mid-1944, by which time its performance had been eclipsed by both Axis and Allied fighters. The Firefly participated in operations against the German battleship Tirpitz in Norway in July 1944. During operations against the Japanese oil refineries at Sumatra in early 1945, a Firefly shot down a Nakajima Ki-43 ("Oscar") fighter. Fireflies also supported carrier-based actions against Japanese shipping and against positions in the Caroline and Japanese home islands. Less than 800 were produced during the war years.
Bombers. The Fairey Barracuda torpedo bomber/dive bomber was introduced in early 1943 and was the only RN aircraft designed to withstand the stresses of dive bombing since the retirement of the Skua.
As the war progressed, the RN increasingly used American-made, purpose-built Hellcats, Corsairs, and Avengers for carrier operations in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
Fighters. The Zero was among the world's best fighters at the time of the raid on Pearl Harbor. It was little improved over the war, while the Allies introduced more powerful planes with better protection. Over time, the Zero lost its competitive advantage due to the Allies' development of higher performance aircraft as well as improved tactics. IJN introduced a land-based fighter, the Kawanishi N1K1-J, in 1944 that had the power, maneuverability, and ruggedness to compete with the late-war Allied fighters. An improved version of the carrier-launched Zero, the Mitsubishi A6M6, included self-sealing fuel tanks, armor plate protection for the pilot, and a more powerful engine, but the additions made it heavier and less nimble. Only one prototype was built before the war ended. Beginning about October 1944, with its diminished value as a fighter, the Zero became the first aircraft to be used as a special attack aircraft and was used more than any other aircraft for this purpose.
Torpedo bombers. The Nakajima B6N "Jill" torpedo bomber incorporated considerable improvements over the Nakajima B5N "Kate" in speed and range but its introduction was delayed by development and production problems. By the time the Jill was introduced, the Allied thrust up the Solomon Islands caused IJN leadership, in late 1943, to transfer many carrier aircraft from their first line carriers to land-based service out of Rabaul. With the Allies having firmly established air superiority in the area, only a fraction of these planes made it back to their carriers two weeks later. In the following year, carrier-based Jills suffered huge losses at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. With so few IJN carriers remaining afloat after the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Jills again became mostly land-based and by early 1945 were engaged as special attack aircraft.
Dive bombers. IJN plans to upgrade their "Val" dive bomber, like plans upgrading the "Kate", were frustrated by development and production delays. The Yokosuka D4Y3 "Judy" dive bomber was introduced in mid-1942 and intended to replace the slower "Val" by the end of that year, but the Val was kept in service until 1944. The Judy could outrun the USN Wildcat but, by the time the Judy came into wide use, the even faster USN Hellcat had been introduced. Many Judys were among the several hundred IJN planes lost during the Battle of the Philippine Sea in mid-1944. Nonetheless, it was bombs from a Judy, then operating from a land-base in the Philippines, that sank the carrier USN Princeton during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. A bomb from another Judy almost sank USN Franklin in March 1945.
Special attack aircraft. Use of "kamikazes" began with the Leyte Gulf battle, and the D4Y3 "Judy" served in that role, damaging several Allied fleet and escort carriers. As the Allies approached Japan in early 1945, the IJN introduced the Yokosuka D4Y4, specifically for use as a special attack aircraft. Operating from land-bases, this version caused damage to several Allied carriers. The non-special attack D4Y3 continued in use. By the end of the war, all six of the monoplane IJN aircraft models used extensively during the war had also been engaged as special attack aircraft.
Carrier Aircraft Specifications
Please see: Principal Carrier Aircraft Used During WW2
Bresnahan, Jim (2011). Refighting the Pacific War
Celander, Lars (2018). How Carriers Fought.
Hata, Ikuhiko & Yasuho Izawa (2011), Japanese Naval Air Force Fighter Units And Their Aces 1932-1945
Laurie, Stanley (2011). Remembering-- with advantages.
Lockhart, Lt. Col. Stuart R. (31 July 2018). "Naval Aviation Development in World War II- U.S. Navy Versus Royal Navy Experience". The Sextant.
Mawdsley, Evan (2019). The War For The Seas- A Maritime History of World War II.
Parshall, Jonathan & Anthony Tully (2005). Shattered Swords- The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway.
Pike, Francis (2019). Hirohito's War- The Pacific War 1941-1945.
Symonds, Craig (2018). World War II At Sea.
Last Major Update: Jan 2021
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General Douglas MacArthur at Leyte, 17 Oct 1944