It’s been awhile. Sorry about that, there was a little matter of a dissertation, a book, and an anthology. For those who are new to the blog, I regularly talk about air warfare as a category, starting with 1914 and moving up through World War II so far. Last time I talked about daylight bombing, the US Army Air Force had just had its head stove in over Schweinfurt, Adolf Galland was enjoying an apocryphal stogie and actress, and things were looking bleak for the concept of daylight bombing raids in January 1944.
Spoiler alert, the Americans turned things around. Within six months, the Jagdwaffe would be trapped in a corner getting the living crap pummelled out of it, the Allies would launch an invasion of Continental Europe that saw the Germans able to put less than ten (some sources say only two) sorties over the six beaches, and Wehrmacht soldiers would make up bitter jokes about the Luftwaffe’s camouflage (“If it’s green, it’s British. If it’s silver, it’s American. If it’s invisible, it’s one of ours.”) How did this happen? Well, that’s pretty simple…it’s a story of Biplanes, Barndoors, and Badasses. Except, in order to avoid giving people concussions, I’m going to do this as a three-part series of posts.
Biplanes (a.k.a., Aircrews)
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, didn’t you start the World War II series off by making fun of the British for still flying biplanes? How the hell are we almost 4.5 years into World War II and suddenly this is a plus?” Okay, fine, maybe you’re not thinking that because it’s been like forever since I made that post, but it’d be a good question. The answer is that biplanes, specifically over 10,000 Stearman 75s, were the primary trainers for United States’ armed forces. Know what you can do with over 10,000 biplanes? Start the process that would lead to just shy of 200,000 pilots being trained between January 1941 to August 1945. While not all of these would fly for the 8th and 9th Air Force, enough of them did that by January 1944 the USAAF’s pilot strength in the UK had actually almost doubled compared to January 1943.
Even worse for Galland specifically and Germany in general was that these pilots were not random rubes that had been dragged off the street and thrown in a cockpit after a few hours (but enough about Japan’s training). America’s training program was rigorous, with pilots going through multiple stages of navigation, blind flying training, aerial gunnery and, especially with fighter pilots, tactics training. By January 1944, the first generation of American fighter had already started transitioning back to the States to impart their hard won knowledge to the next generation of fledglings expected to do battle with the Axis. These trainees, in turn, were taken under the wing of experienced hands like Gabby Gabreski, Robert S. Johnson, Don Blakeslee, and various other aces who had taken their licks in 1943 and were ready to return the favor to the Jagdwaffe once the notoriously bad European winter weather cleared. With over 300 hours of flight training before his initial combat mission, an American ETO pilot was highly-trained, highly-motivated, and very proficient in the general operations of his aircraft.
By contrast, the Jagdwaffe, despite its victories, was like a sharpened blade being ground down by constant abuse. By virtue of the constant pressure being applied on the Eastern Front, Mediterranean, and RAF tactical forces in Northwestern Europe, the Germans were never really able to rotate any aces back to provide instruction. Even worse, fuel shortages curtailed the German flight program to almost half the number of hours it had been prior to 1943, which was in turn half of the new American pilots’ 300 hours. New Jagdflieger were expected to receive their blind navigation training mostly with their gaining units, a process largely akin to teaching someone to drive a at the Daytona 500. While being shot at by random crowd members.
Unsurprisingly, this ended poorly in the first half of 1944. Losses due to “operational” (i.e., non-combat) crashes began to steadily climb as the calendar flipped from January to February. Already at depleted numbers thanks to the sheer odds involved in charging heavy bombers spewing thousands of rounds of ball ammo, squadrons began to struggle to keep their formations at 100% due to Hans the Neophyte pranging his Fw 190 or Me-109 during basic operations. The fighters themselves, due to the wear and tear of extended use, were also starting to perform like tired race horses. Although new models were being introduced, they were still mostly modifications of the same airframes rather than new designs. The inability to field fighters of the next generation, coupled with poor pilot quality, would come back to haunt the Jagdwaffe, as American technological advancement was not standing still.