11

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
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    Wikipedia: Luftwaffe, Omissions and Failures. Personally, I would also mention lack of fuel, especially high-octane fuel that could be used in supercharged aircraft engines, and the resulting inferior performance at high altitude (where most air combat on the Western Front was performed). – DevSolar Jun 20 '17 at 13:47
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    Another point to add -- US fighter aircraft were comparatively lightly armed, as they were facing off against twin-engined tactical bombers and other fighters, where .50cal MG's did the job quite nicely. German fighters, on the other hand, were encumbered with heavy and slow-firing cannons, as they had to shoot down four-engined strategic bombers (western front) and heavily-armored ground attack aircraft (eastern front). This gave US fighters a distinct advantage in fighter-on-fighter dogfights. – DevSolar Jun 26 '17 at 9:38
  • If two sides are inflicting losses on each other in a one-to-one ratio, and one side has a lot more manpower than the other, the side with less manpower will run out of soldiers first and lose. – Sean Oct 11 at 22:29
  • @ Sean Indeed. As I heard once, "They've got more soldiers than we've got bullets!" – BlokeDownThePub Nov 4 at 19:55
24

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 F6 Hellcat 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
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    Good answer; I've got to disagree about #2 though: if you look at the list of the top WWII aces, in the order of the number of planes they brought you'll notice that the list is heavily dominated by Luftwaffe. There were over 100 Luftwaffe pilots who achieved over 100 victories each, including some with 300++ kills. None of the Allied pilots came even close. – Michael Dec 16 '13 at 17:51
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    @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
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    @AlexanderWinn, my understanding of Pieter's comment #2 was that for fighter pilot core one would need a few very good men rather than a bunch of not-so-good ones. And there is certainly some truth in that: many Luftwaffe aces killed over 100 allied planes each, meaning that one of the top Luftwaffe aces contributed more to the war than 100 not-so-good pilots. The difference between air combat (as well as sniper duel on the ground) is that individual worth by far outweighs the numbers. Stalin's famous "quantity is a quality too" applies to most of ground combat, but not so much to air fight. – Michael Dec 16 '13 at 18:40
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    @Michael, that's a difference in philosophy, rather than a difference in skill. German top aces were left in combat, to continue racking up the kill count. American and British top aces were rotated back to the home front, to train up the next class of fighter pilots. Net result: Germany (and the USSR, and Japan) had a small number of elite pilots and a large number of adequate-at-best pilots; the United States and British Empire had a large number of reasonably good pilots. – Mark Aug 4 '16 at 1:08
7

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.

  • +1 for mentioning the quantity of planes produced, which is lost from the otherwise great accepted and most upvoted answer. – Pere Aug 29 '18 at 11:43
5

The Allies, especially the US after converting it's huge auto industry to aircraft production, were able to produce huge numbers of aircraft, and trained crew to operate those aircraft, while Germany was not. Germany did make astounding numbers of aircraft considering the state of their industry, but they were not able to supply those aircraft with trained pilots.

Nor were the Germans able to improve their designs as rapidly. US/UK manufacturing and project management methods allowed changes to be incorporated reliably and rapidly, while changes to German production took far longer to implement. The B17 went from the C model to the vastly improved G model, and the P51 went from the early B to the penultimate D model, in less than two years. Both were produced in vast numbers, in their improved form.

Not being harassed by a bombing campaign was a major factor there - German factories were under constant attack, while US factories were unmolested, and by 1943, UK factories were relatively free of air attack.

The Germans held the edge in high tech with their jet fighters, but were never able to produce them (or more correctly, never able to produce the engines) in such numbers to make a major difference. The lack of rare metals to produce reliable gas turbines was also a factor - the average life of a Jumo 004 was in the 20-25 hour range.

The US oil campaign proved to be very successful - towards the end of the war, lack of fuel became a major problem for both Luftwaffe and motorized ground forces as well. Much of the strategy of the Germans Ardennes offensive was based on capturing Allied fuel supplies... which did not factor in how easily a fuel dump could be set on fire.

To a degree, Allied training methods were better. Their philosophy was to send their most experienced pilots home to train new pilots, while Germany (like Japan) kept their aces in combat until they died. This accounts for the very high number of 'kills' of the best German aces, 200 to 300 kills, while the best Allied pilots rarely got more than 20 or 30. They went home to pass their expertise along to a great number of new pilots.

The result of that policy was lower overall kills for the individual pilots, but a higher overall level of experience on the part of new pilots, so they were more effective and suffered fewer losses. By early 1945, most new German pilots didn't last more than one or two missions, while most new Allied pilots survived the war.

  • I think the plan in the Ardennes was to capture the fuel and use it for the second phase - the drive on to Antwerp. It was a means to an end, they weren't intending to cart it back to Germany. – BlokeDownThePub Nov 4 at 20:02
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I feel it was really a critical mass issue, which was lost around the start of 1943, mostly in the east. Looking back at losses, air forces don't stand up so well when stretched for resources. Germany had the massive eastern front to deal with as well as constant harassment from the British.

-Too many experienced pilots were lost, which reduced the effectiveness of each plane, putting extra pressure on the inadequate production and development of planes.

Early in the war, the Germans had many advantages. The Bf 109 was one of the best fighters of the war. Particularly at the beginning it outclassed everything but the Spitfire. Fighting in the Spanish civil war gave the Luftwaffe experience, then a constant string of victories made them almost unstoppable. The fall started with the Battle of Britain. Hitler only reluctantly decided to attack after Churchill refused his peace offering. It was a massive loss of air power for nothing in return. It delayed and hindered Barbarossa, Hitler's real goal.

Then came the Soviets - who had a lot of aircraft, but initially almost all of them were lost on the ground. Germans had the air virtually to themselves, but a combination of massive manpower, production and development of great planes slowly ground down the Germans. A lot of air power was lost around Stalingrad, particularly ground support aircraft, allowing soviet artillery to get a leg up. By the time of the Soviet counter-offensive numerical superiority was lost, partly due to the movement of aircraft to defend North Africa from the allied landings. If there was a tipping point it was around this time, mostly on the eastern front. Hitler had thrown everything at the Soviets and lost. The Soviets were producing more planes than Germany even in 1941, and this disparity nearly doubled by the next year. What's more, these planes were equal and sometimes better than the German planes. The US and Britain were also drawing critical resources away from the east and giving direct support of lend-lease materials and resources to the soviets.

By the time the allies were pushing through Europe, the US had collected many victories in the pacific, the arena of carriers and planes. By D-Day, Germany had only 600 fighters left, essentially nothing. The US had massively increased production of planes and had developed some of the best single engine fighters of the war. German resources were far too overstretched to really have had any chance of standing up to the allies at this stage, even with the 262.

1

During 1943 it was inaccurate to claim air superiority on behalf of the Allies. The American Eighth Air Force strategic bombers were being (on occasion literally) decimated during the daylight strategic raids over Germany. Other than the short range Spitfire the Bf-109 and FW-190 were the superior planes and capable of operation AT 20,000’ and higher. American P-38s, P-39s, P-40s and P-51As were not in the same league. Only when the high altitude Packard Merlin Powered P-51 B was introduced at the beginning of 1944 did the tide change. The P-51Bs had the range and altitude performance to escort the bombers. The escorts were permitted to leave the bombers to engage German fighters as per a directive from Jimmy Doolittle. The Luftwaffe weakness was not planes but pilots (and fuel). The experience of the average German pilot was marginal when pressed into combat. By D-day the Allies established air superiority in Eastern Europe.

The Soviets also greatly improved their planes and pilot skill. However, the American planes that were inappropriate in Western Europe were much better suited for conditions in the Soviet Union in that most combat there was at low altitudes.
Still the Luftwaffe developed the best interceptor of the war with the ME-262 jet. But it was too little too late.

Once the Zero’s weakness was identified it became less of a threat. While it had great maneuverability at medium to low speeds, it lost its aileron command at high speed. When confronted with high speed vertical tactics it as much less of a factor.

0

One of the main reasons was from the planes themselves. The Germans had three fighters at the outbreak of war; the Me-109, the Focke-Wolfe-190, and Me-110. The Japanese had one good fighter that was considered invincible (all the others were unreliable), the Zero. And they stuck with those throughout the war. The Allies, on the other hand, had numerous fighters of varying abilities, giving the Axis pilots a constant mix of different planes up against them they have to learn about the hard way. Another factor that affected the air superiority was the (untouchable) manpower and manufacturing resources of the U.S. By the end of the war, a small percentage of the remaining German pilots were fully trained and experienced, and up against them were thousands of better trained, better equipped, and more experienced Allied pilots. By the end of the war the Luftwaffe was almost non-existent.

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    This answer would be better with sources. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 3 '16 at 0:28
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    When did the "outbreak of the war" move from September 1939 to August 1941 (first operational appearance of the FW-190, over France)? – Pieter Geerkens Aug 4 '16 at 4:17
  • was the FW190 in existence at the outset ? – bigbadmouse Jun 10 at 7:51
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    It was (as it was designed in the 1930's), but it the Luftwaffe didn't start equipping front-line units with them until late 1941. What is interesting is that although German designers had created quite a few different aircraft designs throughout the war, the Germans preferred to just upgrade the fighters that they had, partly because it was easier to modify their production facilities than to completely change them for a new aircraft. So at the end of the war the Germans had produced about 10 different FW 190 'A' models, 4 different 'D' series models, on top of the 'F' and 'G' versions. – Quinn Jun 11 at 17:11
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All factors have been mentionned by different OPs, but I will present you a summary of how the Axis aviation went from victory to defeat:

Step one: get tactical defeats

The battle of Britain, the battle of Midway, are some examples of tactical defeats of the Axis aviation. They were lost against an opponent that was not threatened by an other mean (no ground or naval offensive possible), thus the fact that the Germans/Japanese lost more aircraft was a criteria of tactical and strategic defeat. However, the losses were huge but not decisive for the timeframe of the war.

Step two: get points of attrition

The year 1942 was a year of attrition fight of all fronts, and this year leads to a turning point because of these battles. For the aviation, the fight on Malta, on Guadalcanal or Stalingrad were points of attrition were heavy losses on both sides allowed the capacity of production and training of the Allied states (and mainly USA and USSR) to express themselves. In 1941, there was also some of these battles of attrition like in North and East Africa between the Italian and the British air forces.

Step three: loose the battle of bombings

During all these battles, the Axis air forces did not inflicted major destructions to strategic objectives because they lacked heavy bombers (as mentionned by another answer). The British and Americans did not. And they stroke hevaily the Italian and German industries, leading them to fail in replacing many parts of their forces. Add the specific lack of oil and oil with high octane degree for Axis forces in both Europe and Asia theaters, and the air forces are particulary leveled down by these bombings. Note that Japan suffered mostly of the submarine war, because bombings on its territory started later.

Step four: Don't have a major technological upper-hand

Despite major advances in rocket motors, neither actor of WW2 had a real uper hand in technology. Some advantages were even in the Allied side with the building of four motor-bombers and the disposal of very good classic engines (like the British Merlin). On other factors, as mentionned by other answers, the Americans and the British had medium armed fighters that were well adapted to their opponents, while the Axis hat to developed specific twin engined fighters to fight the heavy bombers.

Step five: be also beaten on other fields

The Axis might have work around these events with great naval and land victories. But it did not obtain these victories, partly because of its unhability to gain the air superiority, partly because on land and sea, the Allies were also good challengers.

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