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In his 1943 "State of the Union" Address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt commented, "in Africa, we are shooting down two enemy planes to every one we lose, and in the Pacific and the Southwest Pacific we are shooting them down four to one."

Studies by Depuy and others have shown that on the ground, one American, British, or Soviet soldier was not the equal of one German soldier. And even with a large superiority in numbers and firepower, Allied forces had difficulty inflicting human casualties on the Germans at a rate much above one to one. The disparity in tank effectiveness was even more skewed in favor of the Germans, as they inflicted tank casualties on the allies at a multiple of their own.

What accounts for the relative U.S. superiority in the air? And is it fair to say that without air superiority, the U.S. and Allies would have had great difficulty beating the Germans? Or are there credible sources or studies that show that the Allies could have won only using overwhelming numbers and firepower on the ground, without superior airpower?

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One should take those studies you mention with more than a grain of salt, I think. – Felix Goldberg Dec 15 '13 at 21:46
up vote 11 down vote accepted

I believe three factors play to the rapidity with which the Allies acquired air superiority over the Axis:

  1. The Battle of Britain - The cream of the Luftwaffe fighter force was crippled in this battle because of suffering all their casualties over enemy territory. A bailed-out RAF or RCAF pilot was usually back at his aerodrome within 48-72 hours. A bailed-out Luftwaffe pilot would spend the next 5 years at Old Fort Henry, Canada, in a POW camp.
  2. Population Base - Fighter combat is very much an individual test of skills and will, especially when compared to ground combat. Reflexes, marksmanship, initiative, creativity and sheer determination at a very high level are required for success, and these combine in only a small proportion of the population. Germany had a population base of roughly 80MM to search through for these skills in combination, while the Allies had a population base several times that to search. Germany's advantage in command and control that played such a decisive role in ground combat simply was irrelevant in most air combats.
  3. Technology - Other than a brief period after the FW-190 came out, the Axis never had a fighter plane that surpassed those of Britain and the U.S. The Japanese had better technology a bit longer with the Zero, but still only until the Mustang came out. Without superior technology to compensate for a lower skill base, the normal attrition of combat was always going to increase the edge possessed by the Allies.
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Good analysis, but you might have also mentioned the Eastern Front. There was some fighting there too... – Felix Goldberg Dec 15 '13 at 22:05
@FelixGoldberg: Actually against the Russians the Germans usually held a slight technology edge in the air, and managed to maintain a rough air-parity over most of the front, until sometime in 1944 as I recall. (Destruction of Army Group Centre perhaps.) – Pieter Geerkens Dec 15 '13 at 22:07
Frankly, I am not too knowledgeable about the air part of the Eastern Front war, but surely it would have been a very big drain on the Luftwaffe's resources? – Felix Goldberg Dec 15 '13 at 22:09
@FelixGoldberg: My case is that the Germans concentrated the Luftwaffe against the Russians because they held a technological parity (maybe slight edge) against them; and mostly abandoned the Western Front because they suffered from a technological deficiency against the U.S. and U.K. This would certainly be the correct strategic decision given those (assumed) facts. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 15 '13 at 22:40
@Michael, that just means that their best were better than the Allies' best, not that they were equally likely to create good pilots. If you've got the top 15 pilots in a war, but I've got everyone from #16-100, I'm probably still going to win. My best pilots aren't as good as your best pilots, but I've got SO MANY "still-pretty-good" pilots that I've got the edge. Pieter's point was that the Allies had a much bigger population, and thus could draw larger numbers of talented pilots to the war effort, despite how they stacked up one-on-one against their German counterparts. – Nerrolken Dec 16 '13 at 18:19

Some factors not already mentioned:

  • American factories and assembly lines worked hard, and turned out huge numbers of planes. A notable one is Willow Run in Michigan, which produced the B-24 Liberator. The Allied GDP outpaced that of the Axis.
  • The American and British air forces alternated attacks against Germany. Americans would go bombing during the daytime, while the British would do so at night. It was called "round the clock bombing"; the intent was that "the devil will get no rest."
  • When enough American aircraft had been committed to bombings, the German ability to produce diminished.
  • Eventually, American and British strikes happened deeper and deeper in Germany, hitting infrastructure. Alongside landings at Normandy, bombing of German targets further intensified.

Air coverage, if not superiority, was essential. But for backup by the RAF, the evacuation at Dunkirk would have been subject to the Luftwaffe.

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