Intercepting bombers at night was a desperate and demanding mission. For the night fighter pilot the stakes were extremely high: if the bombers get through they will kill your countrymen and destroy your cities. Guided (if you were lucky) by primitive radar and armed with weapons that often temporarily blind you, the night fighter pilot faced vast dark skies full of formations of aircraft armed with dozens, or even hundreds, of guns looking to shoot him down. In World War II, carrying the heavy armament and radar required for the mission, while remaining fast enough to catch intruders required the power of two engines.
The chaos and deliberately distorted reportage of ‘kills’ in wartime make the actual combat effectiveness of World War II hard to ascertain. There were more than ten night fighters worthy of inclusion: the Heinkel He 219 has a brilliant reputation, especially its reputation against the “untouchable” de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bombers”. One source* mentions that “In the next ten days the three Heinkel He 219A-0 pre-production aircraft [shot] down a total of 20 RAF aircraft, including six of the previously invincible Mosquitos. But no Mosquito losses were recorded in this period by the RAF and there is no record of any He 219 pilot claiming a Mosquito at this time, yet the myth of the He 219’s hammering of Mosquitos persists. The 219 was definitely a good night fighter though it was very heavy (the empty weight was greater than that of a fully loaded Mosquito), and its wing loading was very high for the period, though it was very well armed. With only 300 built however its historical importance was not enough to get it a top 10 placing. Likewise the Messerschmitt 262 certainly deserves a honourable mention.
10. Kawasaki Ki-45 Toryu
Ki-45s were used as bomber escorts during the 1942 attacks on the Chinese city of Guilan where they were severally mauled by the P-40s of the Flying Tigers. Ki-45s met resistance in Hanoi later that year with the same devastating result. Realising this twin-engined heavy fighter was no match for fast agile single-engine opponents, it found gainful employment in the roles of ground attack, anti-shipping and fleet defence but it was in the interception role that the Ki-45 found its niche. The heavy armament of 37- and 20-mm cannon proved to be effective against the B-29 Superfortress raids which started in 1944. The Ki-45 KAId, was developed specifically as a night fighter, and it was intended to equip them with centimetric radar (though this never happened). The aircraft took part in night defence of the Home Islands with air wings from the autumn of 1944 to the war’s end. They obtained notable successes, and one Ki-45 sentai claimed 150 victories, including eight USAAF B-29 Superfortresses during their combat debut.
The first aircraft in the world designed from the outset to carry radar, the Black Widow was the largest fighter of the war. Despite being the size of a medium bomber (the P-61A’s wingspan was five inches less than a B-25J and its empty weight about 3000 lb greater) its performance was good, particularly climb rate. The P-61 pioneered the use of spoilers as its primary means of lateral control and it was surprisingly agile. It was therefore reasonable to assume the Black Widow should have had a spectacular career but it never quite lived up to its potential. The SCR-720 radar, the most radical design aspect of the aircraft, gave little trouble in service but there were other teething issues: canopies imploded and the turret caused protracted problems. Furthermore the P-61 arrived just as Axis air activity was winding down, targets were scarce and most German fighters and bombers by this stage of the war were faster than the enormous Northrop. Ultimately the P-61’s greatest contribution to the European campaign was probably as a ground attack aircraft. Nonetheless three P-61 pilots and two radar operators became ‘aces’ with five or more victories.
But probably the greatest problem the P-61 struggled to overcome was that it wasn’t the aircraft the Air Force wanted. That aircraft was the Mosquito, but due to the demand from the RAF none could be spared for the US until very late in the war. Despite more than one fly-off ‘proving’ the P-61 was the better aircraft, possessing better speed, rate of climb and manoeuvrability, doubts lingered amongst senior US personnel. Colonel Winston Kratz, director of night fighter training in the USAAF, who organised one of the fly-offs went so far as to suggest his own conspiracy theory concerning the RAF aircrew flying the Mosquito on test: “I’m absolutely sure to this day that the British were lying like troopers. I honestly believe the P-61 was not as fast as the Mosquito, which the British needed because by that time it was the one airplane that could get into Berlin and back without getting shot down…The P-61 was not a superior night fighter. It was not a poor night fighter. It was a good night fighter. It did not have enough speed.”
The Beaufighter was the best Allied night fighter until the advent of the Mosquito and operated at the time when the Luftwaffe was most active against the British Isles. On the 23rd of July 1940 a Bristol Blenheim (from which the Beaufighter was derived via the Beaufort torpedo bomber) had achieved the first ever successful interception using the revolutionary technology of airborne radar. Whilst incredibly significant, the Blenheim was an ineffectual fighter, slower than many of the aircraft it was intended to intercept. Luckily within less than two months of that first interception Beaufighters began operating with airborne radar, although it would take until November for the first radar-assisted Beaufighter ‘kill’. Compared to the aircraft it replaced the Beaufighter was in a different league. Although no one would ever describe it as particularly fast, especially when compared to the superlative Mosquito that would largely replace it, the Beaufighter had the performance necessary to deal with all German bombers.
The Messerschmitt Bf 110 ‘Zerstörer’ (‘Destroyer’) was truly a jack of all trades, but it was as a night fighter it did best. It was the mount of Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, the most successful night fighter pilot in history and he scored all off his 121 of his kills in it, including nine Lancasters on one night.
Initially built as a long-range escort fighter for Germany’s bombers, it saw moderate success in Poland, Norway, and Denmark—where it flew in a permissive environment and against poorly equipped opponents. However, its lack of manoeuvrability and poor tactics worked against in in the Battle of Britain. Forced to fly as a close escort to Luftwaffe bombers; the large, lumbering Zerstörer was easy prey for the RAF’s Hurricanes and Spitfires.
In Africa and Russia; its speed, cannon armament, and ability to sling bombs also allowed it to perform well in the ground-attack role. But in the night fighting role that the Zerstörer truly came into its own. As a heavy fighter, it had space the accommodate a FuG 202 Lichtenstein radar as well as a dedicated radar operator. The radar had a rather modest range by today’s standards: a mere four kilometres. Nevertheless, with ground controllers vectoring night fighter units to within half a kilometre of enemy bomber formations, the set was good enough to accurately fix the bombers and allow the fighters to creep up on them from the rear.
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Another plus in favour of the Zerstörer was its firepower. The front-firing 20-mm and 30 mm-cannon were powerful enough to damage or destroy Allied bombers within a few short bursts. Later variants, equipped with an upward-firing ‘Schräge Musik’ autocannon fitted in the rear cockpit, proved lethal. The RAF’s Lancaster and Halifax bombers—which lacked belly turrets—were particularly vulnerable. As the war wore on, however, the Bf-110 found its capability diminishing. In 1943, the US Eighth Air Force commenced daylight raids on Germany. The shift to daylight bombing, coupled with the B-17’s rearward and bottom-facing turrets neutralised the Zerstörer’s main advantage: stealth. No longer could night fighter units be relied upon to successfully shoot down Allied bombers while limiting their own losses. By 1944, as the USAAF began escorting its bombers with P-51 Mustangs, the writing was on the wall for the Bf 110. As with the Battle of Britain, the aircraft struggled against nimble, single-engine fighters, and the fleet suffered heavy losses. It was phased out of production by mid-1944.
(Incidentally Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, survived a mass of dangerous mission only to die from a fractured skull caused by a car crash in 1950 when his Mercedes was hit by a truck near Bordeaux.)
4. Douglas F3D Skyknight
Despite being saddled with possibly the worst nickname ever given to an aircraft: ‘Drut’ (the ‘sophisticated’ nature of which becomes clear when read backwards), the F3D was arguably the finest early jet to serve with the US Navy and the best night-fighter of the early ‘fifties. Because of the massive fire control equipment of the time, which required the use of three different radars, the Skyknight was a decidedly large and not exactly sleek aircraft but what it lacked in looks it more than made up in capability. The fire control system was extremely sophisticated for its era and proved effective, despite being a product of maintenance heavy pre-transistor valve technology.
Marine Corps F3Ds were deployed to Korea barely a year after the aircraft entered service and during the conflict scored more air-to-air victories than any other Naval type, despite there never being more than 24 aircraft in theatre. Much larger and considerably slower than its principal opponent, the vaunted MiG-15, somewhat surprisingly the hefty F3D could out-turn the Soviet fighter. More importantly its powerful electronics allowed it to locate and destroy other fighters by night whereas its opponents could only be guided towards targets by ground based radar. Over Korea the Skyknight became the first jet aircraft to intercept another jet at night as well as recording the first air-to-air victory achieved solely by radar, without visual contact between the aircraft and its target.
The F3D found itself increasingly outclassed as a fighter but the Skyknight was still in the frontline when the US found itself committed to war in Vietnam. Now designated the EF-10, with all its contemporaries long since retired, the Skyknight not only continued combat operations but again made history when it conducted the first Marine corps airborne radar jamming mission in 1965.
The Skyknights worked hard until they were eventually retired during 1970, a remarkable longevity of service for an aircraft of the F3D’s vintage. Even then its usefulness had not expired, the capacious fuselage and benign flying characteristics lent themselves to a swathe of experimental purposes and the Skyknight flew on into the 1980s.
3. Sopwith Camel ‘Comic’
2. Junkers Ju 88
Likely the most useful aircraft Germany ever produced, the Ju 88 excelled in every role it undertook. Its operational career in its design role as a bomber was winding down when it enjoyed a renaissance as the Reich’s most important night fighter of the late war period. Despite its bomber origins, the Ju 88 was a faster night fighter than the Messerschmitt Bf 110 and was notable for its manoeuvrability. Its greatest asset over the Messerschmitt fighter though was probably its endurance. With the forward bomb bay utilised for ammunition storage, the rear bay was used to carry fuel. The Ju 88G had an internal fuel capacity of over 2000 litres and boasted a prodigious loiter time, reassuring for crews – some earlier Wilde Sau night fighters had crashed due to running out of fuel before they could land. Early night fighter variants were something of a lash-up, retaining the bomb aimer’s gondola, which contributed to drag but by the end of 1943 Junkers were mass producing the purpose-built Ju 88G. Initially fitted with 1700 hp BMW radials, the Ju 88G-1 dispensed with the gondola and sported Ju 188 tail surfaces for improved handling. Standard armament was four 20-mm cannon in an under fuselage pod and some aircraft were fitted with two more cannon in a Schräge Musik installation. Crews had an array of sensors to home in on targets, most Ju 88Gs sporting FuG 220 Lichtenstein SN-2, the standard Luftwaffe intercept radar as well as FuG 227 Flensburg which detected signals from bombers employing the Monica tail warning radar, and FuG 350 Naxos Z which could detect H2S signals at ranges as great as 35 km. Most formidable of all to actually achieve anything like widespread service was the Ju 88G-6 which combined 1750 hp Jumo 213A V12 engines for a sparkling performance (though still some 50 mph less than the contemporary Mosquito NF Mk.30). A few were fitted with the outstanding FuG 240 Berlin radar, derived from captured British cavity magnetron technology. Probably the most formidable German night fighter, like many other brilliant Axis aircraft it was all a case of too little, too late.
- de Havilland Mosquito
The oft used expression “if it looks right it flies right” is a fallacy, but a fallacy that the Mosquito does its best to validate. Of course the looks are only the starting point; the combination of twin Merlins, good handling, slippery aerodynamics, and a composite structure that would only become the vogue decades later when everyone else discovered carbon fibre made for an aircraft with very few peers throughout the 1940s. It should come as no surprise then that the Mossie, conceived as an unarmed bomber but rapidly morphing into a multi-role combat aircraft, became a night fighter. The first deliveries of the NF Mk II, the first night fighter variant to see service, began in January 1942. The first nocturnal kill came in June, the first of over 600 before the end of the war. Truth be told it was actually the first two with Wing Commander Smith having a brace of successful interceptions on the one night. The Mosquito’s then radical construction readily lent itself to adaptation.
A crucial advantage during a period when the nascent science of airborne radar was leaping forward, a time when the war for technical supremacy as well as tactical was becoming ever more crucial. New improved sets could be accommodated, and the cockpit adapted to suit, with relative ease. True, the thimble-nosed NF.XVII was pug ugly but that is a minor consideration. More important was the deadly armament carried throughout. Four 20mm Hispano-Suiza cannon kicking their staccato war cry through the airframe as bomber after bomber would come to meet their fate over England’s sleeping towns and cities. When the Luftwaffe retreated back across the Channel the Mosquito had the range to go hunting in foreign skies. Intruder sweeps, loitering around enemy airfields waiting to pounce on returning aircraft, even dawdling about pretending to be a four engined heavy. The faithful Mosquito carried her crews in relative comfort as they went looking for trouble, and had the capability to keep them safe when they found it. Few aircraft achieved so much, or stir the soul, like the Mosquito. In the rarefied world of those who seek their prey in the night sky no other aircraft even comes close.
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*That’s from wiki but my own copy of Bill Gunston’s ‘The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Combat Aircraft of World War II’ (Salamander Books 1978) states:“The first six night sorties resulted in the claimed destruction of 20 RAF bombers, six of them the previously almost immune Mosquitoes!”