The fighter aircraft was never more important than it was during the global calamity that began in 1939. However, at this time of need, the fighter types available were pretty limited to say the least. If you were an air force leader choosing a fighter to defend your nation, your choice (if you were lucky and appropriately aligned politically) would be from this pack of misfits and immature thoroughbreds.
Here are the top ten operational fighter available on September 1st 1939.
10. Mitsubishi A5M Cheeky Claude
There may have been a few better land-based fighters in 1939 but if you wanted a carrier fighter then this is it. None of the classics had entered service yet, no Wildcat, no Zero even the Brewster Buffalo didn’t appear till December. If you want a monoplane it’s either this or a Blackburn Skua, and let’s face it, no-one wants a Skua. Manoeuvrable, well armed, fairly fast and long ranged, the A5M was dominant over China and was first carrier aircraft to demonstrably prove to be as good as its land-based contemporaries.
9. Fokker G.1 Dutch Courage
Resembling an unholy union between a P-38 Lightning and a Morris Traveller the G.1 caused a sensation when it was first revealed in Paris. The twin boom design was radical but effective (and influential), and was dubbed La Faucheur (the Reaper) by the French press due to its unheard of armament of eight nose-mounted machine guns. Tasked with policing the Netherlands’ neutrality, the G.1’s first ‘kill’ was an RAF Whitley. When the Germans invaded in May 1940 the G.1 had only five days of action to prove its worth during which it operated effectively, despite being massively outnumbered, in both the ground attack, and air to air role, scoring at least 14 kills. In 1941 two Dutch test pilots escaped to the UK in one which, despite its exciting history was left outside to test the effects of the climate on a wooden airframe and then scrapped in 1945. Bah.
8. Messerschmitt Bf 110C Achtung Zerstorer!
The best twin-engined fighter of 1939 looked like an invincible force when first committed to action. It was fast, powerful, had a massive range and terrific firepower. It was also the first aircraft to be painted to resemble a shark thus exponentially increasing its effectiveness. Unfortunately it was very large for a fighter and lacked manoeuvrability. Having said that, the 110 could outclimb any other European fighter in 1940. Supremely successful over Poland, France, Norway and the low countries, its subsequent mauling when faced with modern, well organised single-engined fighters has diminished its postwar reputation. This is unfair as it was the tactical employment of the aircraft that was at fault rather than the aircraft which was more or less as good as it was possible to be in 1939.
7. Bloch MB.152 lente mais brutale
Despite being the best French fighter available in 1939, the prototype of what would become the MB.152 actually failed to fly, as a result the fact that this aircraft makes it onto the list at all is nothing short of amazing. No one would call it a looker, in fact the whole nose was canted off to one side to counteract propellor torque – an ingenious if mildly hideous solution – and it wasn’t particularly fast but the MB.152 was amazingly resilient (one once returned to base with over 360 bullet holes), and unusually well-armed for a single-seat fighter of this era with two 20-mm cannon.
6. Curtiss P-36/Hawk 75/Mohawk The Quiet American
By far the best American fighter of 1939, and by far the shiniest aircraft on this list, the Hawk 75A scored the first aerial victory on the Western front of the Second World War. Two years later the Curtiss made history again by scoring the first aerial victory for the US over Pearl Harbor. Despite seeing very little service with US forces the Hawk 75 flew successfully over France, scoring a third of all French victories though making up only 12 per cent of the fighter force. Survivors were then used to great effect by Finland. In the RAF Mohawks fought the Japanese until the end of 1944 and Argentina only withdrew theirs in 1954. The Hawk 75 was tough, nimble – notably more manoeuvrable than a Spitfire or Hurricane at high speed, well armed but never quite fast enough.
5. Polikarpov I-16 Stalin’s Fat Falcon
Due to its primary mission being to become the fighter with the greatest number of nicknames in aviation history (Yastrebok: ‘Hawk’, Ishak: ‘Donkey’, Rata: ‘Rat’, Boeing: ‘Boeing’, Mosca: ‘Fly’, Super Mosca: ‘Super Fly’, Dientsjager: ‘Duty Fighter’, Siipiorava: ‘Flying Squirrel’, Abu: ‘Gadfly’), by 1939 the I-16 was no longer at the cutting edge of combat aircraft technology but it was still a force to be reckoned with. Despite looking like a barrel it was easily the most advanced fighter in the World when it entered service in 1934, the aesthetically abrupt I-16 cut a dash over Spain and was master of all aircraft that opposed it – except, tellingly, one. Faster than nearly all contemporary fighters, it was jaw-droppingly manoeuvrable but difficult to fly. Interestingly Mark Hanna, possibly the only Western pilot to fly both the Hurricane and I-16 (though neither in combat) said ‘I had just flown a Hurricane for the first time, a week before the Rata … I felt that you’d be better off fighting in a Rata. At any rate I felt quickly far more comfortable in it. In air combat against early low-powered 109s, I would suspect that the two aircraft were very comparable’. Which leads us neatly on to:
4. Hawker Hurricane I Slow but steady wins the race
The Hurricane was available in large numbers in September 1939 which was its principal advantage over its great rival the Spitfire. Later its relative simplicity and great sturdiness would prove invaluable but when war broke out these were not great concerns and it was simply one of the world’s best fighters. Hurricanes saw the most action of any British type over France and it acquitted itself well before historically proving its worth in the Battle of Britain. Not particularly fast, the Hurricane was very well-armed by the standards of the day, able to withstand battle damage to a greater degree than any other British fighter, though horrifically prone to catching fire in the vicinity of the pilot, in tests at 15000 feet the cockpit went from room temperature to 3000 degrees Celsius in ten seconds when the fuel tank caught fire. It was supremely responsive and easy to fly – a great boon at a time when very few pilots had experienced combat.
3. Macchi MC.200 Saetta Chunky Italian Lightning
Saetta Entering service a mere month before the outbreak of World War Two the Macchi MC 200 was for several years Italy’s premier fighter. Despite its slight rotundity and anachronistic open cockpit the Saetta was an excellent flying machine, being pretty quick with viceless handling and sprightly manoeuvrability. Later it would fly rings around Hurricanes over the Mediterranean. Sadly for the Italians it never had the sort of engine power that was becoming de rigeur by 1939 and its armament was pitiful, so the afore-mentioned Hurricanes largely got away. Despite its shortcomings it established a surprisingly good kill ratio against later designs over Russia, where it operated until early 1943. Fitted with a decent engine it became arguably Italy’s best all-round fighter of the war (the Folgore). Of course all this was academic in 1939 because Italy was neutral and probably should have stayed that way.
2. Supermarine Spitfire I The Usual Suspect
What is surprising about the Spitfire is just how early it was available. When most of the world was still operating biplanes that would not have looked out of place in 1918 (including the RAF) the Spitfire looked sensational and pointed the way to the future. Despite being the fastest aircraft in service anywhere it was still an underdeveloped aircraft in 1939, the rate of climb particularly suffered due to its being fitted with a fixed pitch wooden airscrew. Well armed by contemporary standards, it was considered easy to fly though not as forgiving as the Hurricane. On the downside it was woefully short-ranged and the engine was prone to overheat virtually as soon as it was started. In combat the Spitfire was not able to withstand the same levels of damage as the Hurricane and it could not perform some of the manoeuvres possible with the 109 because the engine would conk out.
1. Messerschmitt Bf 109E Emil the Great
Today Messerschmitt is just a teensy part of the Airbus group, the prime German contractor for the Eurofighter Typhoon, an aircraft that has virtually the same wingspan as the Bf 109 but is ten tonnes heavier and over 1000 mph faster. It is one of the best fighter aircraft in the world in 2015. Back in 1939 the Bf 109E had proved to be the most formidable aircraft of the Spanish civil war and it was the finest fighter in service at the outbreak of World War II.
The best fighter in the World was not without its flaws, Willy Messerschmitt was a noted glider designer before he turned his hand to fighters and aspects of its design were somewhat flimsy for a combat machine, a tail supported by struts was pretty weedy by the late thirties and the occasional catastrophic total structural failure kept the Luftwaffe pilot of 1939 on his toes. Nonetheless in September 1939 it was a more mature combat aircraft than its great opponent and nearest rival, the Spitfire and at the outbreak of war over 2000 Bf 109s had been built as opposed to barely 300 Spitfires. It had been refined with experience garnered in Spain, it was cannon armed and its fuel injection system was better able to cope with combat manoeuvres than the British aircraft. It was fitted with a constant speed airscrew which was a great boost to engine efficiency and pilot workload. In addition it had marginally better range which was to be greatly improved by a drop tank. Within hours of the outbreak of hostilities it was sweeping all aerial opposition aside and appeared unstoppable. It was decidedly more difficult to fly than most of its enemies but Germany entered the war confident (correctly) that its premier fighter aircraft was the world’s finest.
Meet the ten most formidable piston-engined fighters here and the most potent modern fighters here.
Edward Ward is a regular contributor to Hush-Kit, his fine illustrations can be seen here
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