Quickfire World War II combat aircraft Q&A with author James Holland

The Spitfire was…

…my first love.  I had been interested in the Second World War as a boy, then it all rather went out the window in my teens.  Then, in my late twenties, I was playing cricket and while I was batting a roaring, pirouetting vision appeared far over mid-wicket.  Turning to the umpire, I said, ‘What is that??’ And he replied solemnly, ‘That’s a Spitfire.’  It was a massive Damascene moment.  The following weekend was Flying Legends at Duxford, so I took myself off, drooled over the warbirds and especially Spitfires and bought a first edition of David Crook’s ‘Spitfire Pilot’ about his time in 609 Squadron in the Battle of Britain.  It was the kickstart of my enduring fascination with the war and, as it turned out, my career.  I absolutely love the Spitfire – who doesn’t? – and have loved watching them, flying in one, writing about them and getting a little thrill every time I see one.  As I’ve got older and learned more, I’ve learned a bit about some shortcomings but there’s no denying what a fabulous aircraft it was and remains.  I love the Mk I because it was there in 1940 and it’s what David Crook flew, I love the Mk V because it was flying in Malta in 1942 and I wrote my first history book on the subject, I love the Mk VIII because they were sent to Bengal and Burma in 1943 and turned things around there, I love the Mk IX because it was the fighter pilot’s favourite, and I love the Mk XIV because it was Griffon-powered and simply amazing.  But I love them all, really.

The P-51 Mustang was…

“…the most decisive aircraft ever built – or, at least, I think it can be quite convincingly argued.  The Merlin-powered P-51B onwards transformed the air war, allowing daylight bombing deep into Nazi Germany, which in turn meant hammering their aircraft industry.  This materially helped the Allies win air superiority over all of North-West Europe, a non-negotiable pre-requisite for any Allied invasion on D-Day.  This was because to destroy the enemy’s lines of communications – bridges, railway marshalling yards, locomotives, roads and so  on – they had to attack low-level and the only way that could be done was by having skies clear of marauding Luftwaffe fighters.  It was achieved just a few months after the Merlin-powered Mustang’s arrival into the fray.  And what an aircraft!  The look of it, the speed of it, the ridiculous range, the rate of roll, of dive and frankly, its modernity.  I absolutely LOVE the Mustang.”

The RAF was ____________ compared to the Luftwaffe?

The RAF was vastly superior compared to the Luftwaffe for much of the war.  OK, so Bomber Command was a bit rubbish early on, and the RAF didn’t have enough aircraft in 1939-40, but the RAF gave the Luftwaffe a bloody nose over Dunkirk, then comprehensively won the Battle of Britain, which was one of the main turning points in the entire war.  By not defeating Britain in 1940, Hitler was forced, through lack of resources, to turn to the Soviet Union far earlier than he had planned – and with catastrophic consequences.  In the summer of 1940, the RAF – and I include Bomber and Coastal Commands as well as Fighter Command in this – were the first line of defence, not the last as is so often portrayed, but they were none the less the ones who destroyed Hitler’s hopes for a swift end to the war – and without a swift end it was very unlikely Nazi Germany could ever win.  The RAF made mistakes – the disastrous rhubarbs over France in 1941, the abject failure to send Spitfires to Malta and the Middle East in 1941, for eg – but by 1942, the RAF was pioneering new methods of tactical air power – doctrine still used to this day, incidentally – and growing air power in all its many facets into a war-winning a decisive weapon.  As the RAF grew in size, stature, performance and capability, so the Luftwaffe diminished.  One can argue the toss about the morality of such overwhelming air power – and of strategic bombing – but no-one can deny its impact or that it saved lives of Allied servicemen.

A cliche or oft-repeated quote that drives me mad…

“…that Hurricanes shot down more aircraft in the Battle of Britain than Spitfires.  Yes, of course, because there loads more of them and for the most part they were going for bombers, which were a bigger target, slower and easier to shoot down.  It doesn’t mean the Hurricane was better, though.”

World War II would have been very different without…

“…the Battle of Britain.”

What was the most important aerial contribution to the war? 

“I’m going to top and tail this.  Probably the Battle of Britain to begin with because of reasons listed above, but I’ve always thought the single most important theatre of the war was the Atlantic – without it, Britain, Canada and the USA would not have been able to prosecute the war against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers, and without the closing of the air gap, it would have taken longer to defeat the U-boats.  One can’t underestimate the importance of the Very Long Range Liberators flying anti-shipping patrols across the Atlantic.  Then finally, the war would have very probably gone on into 1946, had the B-29s not dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan.  Not sure which is the most important – probably, because of what followed, the Battle of Britain, but all three really very, very significant.”

The biggest myth about WW2 aviation is…

…that the Battle of Britain was a close run thing, won by a narrow margin.  It really wasn’t.  The Luftwaffe were whipped and whipped badly.  I can produce all number of stats to prove my point but perhaps this isn’t the place.

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The most overrated warplane of the conflict was the…

…the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.  I’ve never really understood why it prompts such hushed gasps of awe when people talk about it.  Sure, it had range, but it wasn’t brilliant in a dive and although manoeuvrable, wasn’t particularly so at high speed.  Sleek and refined, it did have a phenomenal rate of turn, and shocked the Allies when it first appeared against them in 1941-42 but then flat-lined.  The Spitfire, the Mustang and other US Navy fighters were dramatically developed and improved or replaced, but the Zero rather stuck where it was and that’s no good.  In the Second World War, the ability for combatant nations to rapidly progress technologically was vital.  I’ve also started to think the Zero flattered to deceive in the early years, despite obvious plus points.  The reason was largely down to the quality of the Japanese naval pilots.  If anyone has read Samurai! By Saburo Sakai, they’ll get what I’m driving at here.  His training was immense – physically, technically, mentally.  Those pilots were the best of the best, to quote from Top Gun.  I was talking to some of the Red Arrows the other day and was struck by the similarity of the intensity of their training compared with that of the IJN fighter pilots at the early part of the war.  And, of course, that gave them a massive edge and sheer pilot skill overcame many of the Zero’s shortcomings and so helped put it on a pedestal I’m not sure it quite deserves.   Inevitably, though, as the war progressed, training standards fell off for the Japanese while the Zero stood still.

And the most underrated? 

“What about the Heinkel 112?  This was developed in the early 1930s in tandem with the legendary Messerschmitt 109, but was shelved in favour of the twin-engine Me 110, partly because Willi Messerschmitt was an appalling arse-licking Nazi and partly because Göring simply liked the look of it and named it the ‘Zerstörer’ (the Destroyer).  But the He 112 V9 was properly classy and in 1937 could fly faster than the Bf109.  It had elliptical wings very like those of the Spitfire, a wide undercarriage with inward retraction, which gave it a firm platform and would have saved the lives of countless trainee fighter pilots who died horribly on landing and take-off in their 109s, it had decent rate of climb, was highly manoeuvrable, a bubble canopy and low-back fuselage and looked absolutely stunning.  Perhaps more importantly, it had phenomenal range – nearly 700 miles, which was extraordinary for a single-engine fighter at that time.  It’s fascinating to ponder what might have been in 1940, for example, had the Luftwaffe had a stack of these instead of the Messerschmitts.  I would also tentatively suggest that its innate design was so good it had plenty of room for development, which is more than can be said for the Me109.  I remember talking to Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown about it and he much preferred it to the 109.  Thank goodness Göring was such a rubbish commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe!

Do you think there is any national bias in how we talk about aircraft from different countries?

“I like to think I’m impeccably impartial and one can’t argue that the Axis forces lost, but anyone reading the above answers might think I was a teeny bit biased towards the RAF…”

Which aircraft is most like you and why?

“Maybe the Hawker Typhoon.  It operates quickly, is like a bull in a china shop, and leaves carnage in its wake.”

Hawker Typhoon

Tell me something I don’t know about WW2 aviation? 

“By the summer of 1942, Air Vice Marshal Arthur ‘Mary’ Coningham, an Aussie-born New Zealander, and his British sidekick, Air Commodore Tommy Elmhirst, had developed the RAF Middle East’s Desert Air Force into a very slick fighting machine.  Coningham had the vision and ideas, supported by his RAF Middle East C-in-C, (then) Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, while Elmhirst had the operational skill, reworking the structural organisation brilliantly.  The RAF had begun the war with little concept of a tactical air support – that is, operating to provide close air support to ground troops – so Coningham and Co really were pioneers and the Desert Air Force developed purely for that role.  When increased US Army Air Forces joined the British war effort in North Africa, mainly from November 1942 onwards, they soon decided to pool resources and create the first specific Allied NorthWest African Tactical Air Force.  Coningham was appointed its first commander, and Brigadier-General Larry Kuter, an American, its deputy.  Elmhirst remained in an administrative role.  These were exciting times as Allied air forces in theatre swelled and they gradually and increasingly successfully turned the screws on both the Italian and German air forces over Tunisia, and senior commanders both got on and worked well together, conscious they were paving the way for new techniques in air power.  Coningham and Kuter were especially tight.  Later, Kuter returned to Washington and post-war was responsible for writing the tactical doctrine of the new US Air Force.  Much of this doctrine remains in place today – but its origins can be directly traced back to the heat and sand of the Western Desert of 1942.”

James Holland FRHistS is an author and broadcaster who specialises in the history of World War II. He is the co-host of the We Have Ways of Making You Talk podcast

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6 comments

  1. jim

    Many or almost all historians always fail to mention that hitler didn’t want war with France and UK for fear they could destroy the Ruhr industrial region and that the little corporal wanted war against the USSR but to do so he had to wade messily through Poland.
    Another thing, after defeating France, Germany momentarily eased up inexplicably allowing RAF a vital respite to prepare for the fateful BOB.
    Thirdly, even without the heinkel 112, the Me bf 109F was actually already available and would have assured germans of victory but somehow the germans screwed up.

  2. Highoctane

    “which in turn meant hammering their aircraft industry.” Ehm, this coming from someone who write “history books”. Maybe he can check what the rate in 1943 was and how many planes were built in April 1945.

    Actually, they hammered something else to quicken the end of the war. Easy to check.

    • Duker

      Good point. Maybe if you change ‘aircraft industry’ – which was hammered but the Germans devised workarounds- to the Luftwaffe fighter force especially pilots. That would have the same role for the Mustang, taking on the Luftwaffe fighters over Germany during the day. At first the Luftwaffe gave the USAAC a hammering but the tables turned ? Towards the end lack of fuel made a big difference.

    • TheLastHistorian

      Yup, the CBO, targeting aviation industry but never destroying it, was merely the bait to lure the Luftwaffe’s experienced but hugely overworked pilots up to die to the hordes of escort fighters. Strange that James would make such a cliche’d remark given he, in this very interview, gets annoyed at the ‘Hurricanes shot down more Luftwaffe planes than Spitfires’ one

  3. Osberto

    Since Vickers-Armstrongs made such a mess of mass-producing the Spitfire in the pre-war and early war years it is a very good job that we did have enough of the Hurricanes. I’ve never heard anyone say Hurricanes were better, but thank God they were there.

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