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The Hawks with Stump Claws
Literature, movies and video games have contributed to the formation and spreading of historical misconceptions and generated a distorted view on tactical air strikes, not so much to the way they were conducted, but rather their effectiveness in eliminating armored, moving targets. In order to better understand the core issue at hand, combat reports, military studies and their respective evaluations allow an insight into the efficiency of destroying AFVs (Tanks in particular) from the Air.The pilots of every nation partaking in the battles of WW2 (particularly in the ETO, European Theatre of Operations) grossly exaggerated the effects and accuracy of their sorties. This paved the way for an inflated view, commonly accepted and still present today. It is noteworthy that certain combat performances varied (faction wide), which made the successes of airstrikes situational, influenced by factors such as sub-optimal weather conditions or air superiority.
The main problem for Close Air Support pilots when engaging enemy armor were the inadequacies of the weaponry mounted on their airplanes, especially their low accuracy. Ergo, strikes would result in the tanks being partially destroyed or superficially damaged (occasionally blown off the road) and, after successful retrieval, sent back to the repair shops. Multiple pilots would sometimes engage the same target (every so often, an already destroyed or burned out vehicle), leading to an even greater disparity between actual losses and claimed tank “kills”. Identifying targets would cause another problem, e.g. the pilot’s ability to distinguish between tanks and APCs.
ETO, Normandy 1944
The Allies possessed air supremacy, coupled with a substantial ammunition, fuel and overall logistical advantage. Airbases were plentiful and accessible, the enemy concentrated in a relatively confined area. The main workhorses of the CAS squadrons were the American Thunderbolt and the British Typhoon.
P-47 Thunderbolt of the 404th Fighter Group in flight over Belgium, March 1945
The P-47 was a robust fighter with a solid high altitude performance dedicated for heavy bomber escort duty. It went through a long list of improvements with later versions being up-armoured and geared up for close air support.
The Hawker Typhoon was initially developed as a high altitude interceptor and as a replacement for the Hawker Hurricane, but several flaws caused the RAF to employ it as a fighter bomber. Armed with four 20mm Hispano cannons (which could only do serious damage to the engine compartment of a tank) it could carry two 500 lbs (227 kg) or 1000 lbs (454 kg) bombs or alternatively, eight unguided type RP-3 rockets.
These recoilless projectiles consisted of a propellant filled steel tube with an armour piercing (or high explosive) shell screwed into the warhead. Four fins stabilized the rocket’s trajectory. The range and armor piercing capabilities were sufficient for anti-armor duties, but a trial conducted by the RAF under best possible conditions revealed the low precision of unguided rockets: In two attack runs, four typhoons fired all of their 64 rockets on a stationary, pre-painted Panther and only three managed to hit the marked tank.
A Hawker Typhoon armed with rockets and 20 mm cannons
All bark, no bite
In August 1944, the RAF claimed to have destroyed 135 tanks in the Goodwood area (Battle for Caen). In order to analyze the weapons and tactics employed and to evaluate the damage that was done on given targets, a small team of researchers was usually dispatched to the corresponding battleground, a common practice in most armies of that time. The British “Office of Research and Analysis” conclusion was eye-opening and contradicted the RAF pilots’ overenthusiastic display: Of the 300 examined vehicles, only 10 were actually hit and damaged by the Typhoon’s RP-3 rockets.
Mortain is another candidate of such over-claiming, between the 7th and 10th August, the 2nd Tactical Air Force of the 9th USAAF claimed to have destroyed 120-140 tanks, yet of the 46 Axis tanks lost, only 9 of them could be attributed to aircraft. In fact, in the entire Normandy campaign, the Germans lost no more than 100 tanks to Allied sorties. 13 Tiger tanks were affected, however seven of them lost to massive high altitude bombing on the 18 th of July and only 6 of the German heavy tanks could be attributed to the low altitude air raids of the Allied pilots.
A salvo of RP-3 rockets, as seen from the gun camera of a Hawker Typhon, heads towards some German petrol wagons
Another noteworthy case would be Falaise: The tactical and operational conditions in the pocket constrained the German units to “forced march” during daytime. This, along with optimal weather conditions, amplified the RAF’s and USAAF’s chances of success, which resulted merely in a minimal increase of destroyed tanks. In retrospect , traversing open fields did not necessarily result in a high tank loss ratio.
Ironically, low altitude attacks could become very dangerous for the attacking aircraft, especially if the strafed tank formations were protected by a serious amount of Flak/AA guns. The 2nd Tactical Air Force lost 829 aircraft and the 9th Fleet lost 897 throughout the whole Normandy campaign, the majority of the casualties being close support fighter-bombers.
Field Marshall Rommel contributed to a further solidification of these myths. In one of his memoirs, he stated:
“ For the first and most serious danger which now threatened us -was from the air. This being so, we could no longer rest our defence on the motorised forces used in a mobile role, since these forces were too vulnerable to air attack. We had instead to try to resist the enemy in field positions which had to be constructed for defence against the most modern weapons of war”
His personal experience may have clouded his view. On the 17th July 1944 a low attacking plane strafed his limousine and injured Rommel near Sainte-Foy-de-Montgommery.
The Luftwaffe’s tactical capabilities were initially rather limited. The infamous Junkers Ju 87 dive bomber, easily recognizable by its inverted gull wings, was suitable for this task. The final version, the Ju-87G, dubbed the Kanonenvogel (“Cannon bird”), carried twin 37 mm cannons (later a 75mm gun was installed).
A Ju-87G and a HS-129, the German dedicated tank busters
The Henschel Hs 129 B1 and B2, twin engine aircraft marked an attempt to create a dedicated tank buster, mounted with a 75mm board cannon. The results were unsatisfactory. Paired with the Henschel’s and Ju87’s particularly high vulnerability to AA fire, the Luftwaffe switched to the”Jabo” (“Jagdbomber”, fighter bomber) version of the FW190 single seat, single engine fighter, the F-8 and FW190 G.
A German FW190 pilot explains how low-altitude attacks against tanks were performed:
“Against the enemy tanks and armoured vehicles we usually made skip-bombing attacks, running at speeds of around 485km/h at between 4 and 10 metres above the ground and releasing the bomb just as the tank disappeared beneath our engine cowling. The 250kg bombs used during these attacks would either skip off the ground and into the tank or else smash straight into the tank.
The bombs were fused with a one-second delay to give us time to get clear before they went off. It was a very accurate form of attack and we used it often against tanks caught in open country.”
The OKH (“Oberkommando des Heeres”, German High Command) was aware of the notoriously exaggerated claims their combat units would report and applied a correction system (i.e. 30-50% for ground units and usually 50% for the Air Forces). Inflated numbers and errors could result in a misjudgment of enemy forces.
The VVS at Kursk 1943
The VVS (Военно-воздушные силы, Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily) could rely on the Ilyushin 2 “Sturmovik” for air strikes. A sturdy, single engine, heavily armoured, low wing, two seater (pilot, rear gunner) monoplane, it was dubbed “flying tank” by the troops. Outfitted with two 23mm (or 37mm guns on the Il-2M3) guns, it could carry up to eight RS-82 or four RS 132 rockets. Soviet literature described it as the most effective ground attack plane of World War II. Another option was to outfit the Sturmovik with special designated anti-tank bombs, so called PTABs.
An Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, Fall 1942, Ukraine
The PTAB (Russian ПТАБ, which stands for Противотанковая Авиабомба, “Antitank Aviation Bomb”) was a hollow charge bomb filled with 1.5 kg of explosives, capable of penetrating up to 70 mm of armour.
The effectiveness of these bombs proved to be limited. West of Belgorod, the Soviet Air Force claimed to have destroyed over 270 tanks of the 3rd Panzer Division on one single day. The 6th Regiment of the 3rd Panzer Division possessed 90 tanks in total (on the 1st of July). Ten days later, on the 11th of July, 41 operational tanks were reported, a difference of 49 tanks. Similar statements appear about the bombing run on the 17 th Panzer Division, which had only one tank battalion with 67 tanks committed to the fighting in the Belgorod-Kharkov area (the only unit not assigned to a defensive role). Here, the VVS stated to have destroyed 240 tanks in just a few hours. German combat reports show a larger concern about concentrated AT positions (and minefields), which caused the majority of AFV losses during Operation Citadel. Air strikes were usually described as “a mere nuisance”.
Between the 5th and 14th July, the 2nd Air Army dropped 69,000 PTABs alongside 7448 RS-82 rockets during the defensive phase of the Battle of Kursk. The Soviet Air forces claimed to have disabled 3147 tanks and assault guns in the same period (actual losses amounted to 849 tanks for the whole month of July). If we accept the Soviet numbers this would still indicate that PTABs had to be dropped in large clusters to cause any significant damage.
Further Examples of “overclaiming”
At Kursk, the Soviet 1st Tank Army lost 648 tanks with 82 breakdowns. German aircraft destroyed only 11 of their tanks.
In the Ardennes offensive, the Germans lost 101 tanks from the 16th December of 1944 to the 16th January of 1945, (39 were abandoned), of these only 6 to Allied sorties.
Consequently, given reports and combat analysis indicate that air strikes were responsible for 2-7% of all tank losses during WWII. It should be pointed out that the Western Allies were probably the most successful at this task. However, it must be also stressed out that the effectiveness of such attacks depended on the circumstances and quantity of planes involved in the respective size of the front. To illustrate the dimensions, it is wise to compare the amount of aircraft available for ground support in proportion to the area and enemy units it had to cover and engage.
During Operation Barbarossa, the Luftwaffe had at its disposal one airplane for every 2500 enemies. Each German plane had to cover an area of 500km² (195 sqmi). In Normandy, the Allied Expeditionary Air Force could field one plane for every 100 enemy soldiers. On average, there was one Allied aircraft for every 1km² (0,39 sqmi).
It should be emphasized that during WWII, tactical air-ground support was still in its infancy. Hitting small, well armoured or shifting targets tended to be a difficult task, especially if the attacking plane had only a brink amount of time to aim at the target. Even today for helicopters or “tank busting” aircraft (A10, Su-24, F-16, AH-64, Hind), it can be relatively difficult, despite the availability of guided weapon systems.
World War II aircraft could only carry a limited amount of air to ground bombs or missiles and on sustained fire, the main guns were prone to overheating. Machine guns had trouble penetrating more than 10 mm of top armor. On the other hand, autocannons proved to be rather unreliable, further increasing the plane’s weight, impacting flight characteristics.
Generally speaking, the true nature of tactical, close support aircraft was primarily recon, attacking stationary targets and the ability to wreak havoc on the rear echelons and supply lines. The disruptive effect would ultimately influence the unit’s behavior (abandoning offensives or moving through woods), decision making, tactics and morale. After all, it was the destruction of bridges and railroads that had the biggest impact on the German Army in France, adding substantially to the already disastrous logistical situation and pre-existing shortages of fuel.
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