Rolling Thunder: The Story of Jet Combat from World War II to the Gulf War

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From its birth in battle during the last days of World War II to its current aeronautical peak, the jet fighter has always been the king of the sky. Rendall's Rolling Thunder is the celebration of a machine, and a culture, for which "winning is about accepting that there is no such thing as second-best." Rendall's scrupulous history is driven by a strong thesis: jets may depend upon technological advances, but the human edge supplied by their pilots has determined their success or failure in all times and places....
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Overview

From its birth in battle during the last days of World War II to its current aeronautical peak, the jet fighter has always been the king of the sky. Rendall's Rolling Thunder is the celebration of a machine, and a culture, for which "winning is about accepting that there is no such thing as second-best." Rendall's scrupulous history is driven by a strong thesis: jets may depend upon technological advances, but the human edge supplied by their pilots has determined their success or failure in all times and places. Beginning with the dangerously fast but hopelessly outnumbered German Me 262, jets and the men who flew them quickly became potent physical and psychological weapons. Less than a decade later, the two World War II allies most responsible for Germany's defeat would meet as enemies in Korea. Their planes - the American F-86 Saber and Russian MiG-15 - clashed over the Yalu River in what American pilots called "MiG Alley." In Vietnam, American fighter pilots involved in the costly "Rolling Thunder" campaign again proved the value of the American emphasis on individualism as taught in the "Top Gun" school of aeronautics. Recent uses of air power, from the legendary "Instant Thunder" campaign in the Gulf War to the enforcement of No-Fly Zones in Bosnia, have proved that the jet fighter remains as versatile and dangerous as ever. But today, with $100 million mach 3 machines capable of climbing 65,000 feet - twice the height of Everest - in a minute, many have argued that the pilot has become the weak link in the jet fighter's lethal equation. Rendall shows that the argument to remove the pilot from his machine - seemingly complete with NASA's new unmanned X-36 - is as old as the machine that broke the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager's X-1. The ability to balance the grace and brutality of a machine that has evolved into a perfect combination of form and function will remain the unique province of the fighter pilot - the "quintessential warrior of our times."
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In the last months of World War II, air combat saw the introduction of jet-powered fighters; from then on, with continuous improvements to airframe, components, and armament, air warfare's course to the present was set. Rendall, a writer and TV producer who served in the Royal Air Force, presents a thorough, straightforward history of his complex subject's trends and turning points that is well told, immediate, and nicely aimed at an aviation-related readership. Using the Korean, Vietnam, Israeli-Egyptian, Falklands, and Gulf War air actions, Rendall illustrates how having the edge in technology and training has produced battlefield success and speculates on the future of air combat, in which the fighter pilot, ironically, may be relegated to a "virtual" cockpit on the ground. A wide-ranging history; for public libraries and all military and aviation history collections.--Mel D. Lane, Sacramento, CA
Kirkus Reviews
A highly detailed report of the rapid development of jet aircraft, which became the heart of US global power just as Britain's sea power was in the 19th century and before. Rendall, an ex-RAF flier and television producer, shows that modern warfare has changed drastically with constant improvements in technology and the training of the highly specialized pilots. The only jets to see action near the end of WWII were the German ME 262 and the British Meteor. It was the US and the Soviets who perfected the most advanced jet fighters, the F-86 Sabre and the MiG-15, which faced each other during the Cold War. Rendall believes that UN air power stopped the attacking North Korean and Chinese armies in the Korean War. Rockets and space exploration intensified competition between the West and communist countries; the arms race became the space race and created improved nuclear weapons. In Vietnam the US Air Force, trained for long-range strategic nuclear bombing, was at a disadvantage against the tactical Soviet MiG fighters manned by WWII–veteran Soviet pilots. Avoiding the bombing of enemy airfields for fear of killing Soviet ground crews impeded US war efforts despite the heavy bombing of North Vietnam. Rendall argues that when you fight a war, you have to fight to win and not pull your punches. Air superiority requires the finest aircraft and pilots, as illustrated in the Mideast wars, when outnumbered Israelis defeated Arab countries. Learning from the mistakes of Vietnam, according to the author, the US-led Gulf War air offensive, with skilled pilots and top technology, destroyed Saddam Hussein's large army and Soviet equipment while avoiding high casualties. A well-researched warningthat the US and the West must have the best technology and trained personnel to survive in a partially hostile and competitive world in which US air power is once again being tested.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684857800
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 4/6/1999
  • Edition description: 1 AMER ED
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.39 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface
Introduction 1
1 Born in Battle 17
2 A Brave New World 49
3 Jet on Jet 65
4 Cold War Warriors 99
5 Rolling Thunder 127
6 Six Days in June 171
7 Flying Computers 201
8 The Uneasy Peace 229
9 "I Counted Them All Out and I Counted Them All Back" 245
10 Instant Thunder 271
11 Pinball Policemen 293
Select Bibliography 319
Index 323
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Introduction

Introduction

Kleeman and Musczynski were among the best fighter pilots in the world. Both had graduated from the U.S. Navy's Fighter Weapons School at Miramar Naval Air Station near San Diego, California, better known by the sobriquet "Top Gun." The existence of Top Gun is a reminder of the simple rule that success in air warfare, to be able to fight for and maintain air superiority, is founded not only on the latest and most advanced fighters, but also on the best fighter pilots.

Top Gun is also a monument to the ability to forget and relearn that rule between wars as new, theoretical and usually technology-based ideas about aerial combat gain credibility, promising cheaper, more effective and more predictable alternatives to fighter pilots maneuvering and killing each other. It was established during the Vietnam War when it became clear that one of the new central ideas of the 1950s, that guided missiles were about to take over and make the dogfight redundant, were shown to be wrong. U.S. fighter pilots had been unable to establish mastery of the skies over North Vietnam and something had to be done about it. In 1968 America still had fighter pilots with experience going back to the Korean War and the Second World War, and they were able to teach combat skills to the next generation, re-establishing the dog fighting mentality and maintaining the unbroken line of experience that is an important factor in preserving fighter-pilot effectiveness.

That heritage is evident on the wall of Hangar One at Miramar where, following Kleeman's and Musczynski's success, small red silhouettes of Su-22s were added to the lines of similar images of MiG-2Is shot down by Top Gunan and her daughter can hide and be at peace. The war comes through the air; bombs drop at night. Quiet people go out in the mornings and see air fleets passing overhead -- dripping death -- dripping death."

The first military aircraft were not used to bomb women and children but to spy on the enemy, and little thought was given to fighting between aircraft Until both sides in the First World War sought to prevent each other's observation aircraft from crossing the trenches. Both sides realized that they would have to fight for control of the skies, just as they did on the ground and at sea. The French were the first to fit machine-guns to their aircraft, but the Germans produced the first pure-bred fighter, the Fokker Eindecker, the E.I, which had a forward-firing machine-gun fitted with an interrupter gear so that it could be fired through the propeller. The combination of aircraft, gun and pilot became a single, cohesive fighting machine with the pilot at the heart of the combination, the aircraft and the stream of fire which it produced being an extension of his mind and body which could be aimed at his opponent in a single flowing movement, using the whole aircraft as a weapon. The fighter has grown in size and complexity ever since, but that idea, of the pilot, his aircraft and its armament being a single fighting entity, has remained. In the Second World War the British fighter leader, Sqn. Ldr. Wilfrid "Smithy" Duncan Smith, RAF, described his Spitfire as "an integral part and an extension of [his] own sensitivity" and he told the fighter pilots under his command, "You don't just strap yourselves in, you buckle the Spitfire on like girding on armor."

In the same war Lt. Jack Broughton, U SAAF, flew the P-47 Thunderbolt, known to its pilots as "the Jug" and the largest single-engined, propeller-driven aircraft ever to fly, weighing over 9 tons. He later flew F-80 Shooting Stars in Korea and he made his name as a wing commander and fighter leader in Vietnam, flying the largest single-seat jet fighter, the 24-ton Republic F-105 Thunderchief, or "Thud" to its pilots. In his book, Thud Ridge, this pithy fighter pilot's narrative expresses the same idea, without even thinking about it, "The first time I strapped a Jug to me, I thought it was the biggest thing I had ever seen..."

At dawn on 1 August 1915 two British aircraft attacked the German airfield at Douai. Two E.I pilots, Leutnants Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelke, raced for their machines to intercept them. They climbed above the two Royal Flying Corps biplanes, then dived on them. Boelke's gun jammed and he landed to get it fixed, but Immelmann followed the attack through, firing all the way, breaking away only at the last moment. He converted his speed back into height by climbing again, then dived once more, a favorite tactic which was later named after him -- the Immelmann Turn. Once again he fired from above and behind one of the British aircraft, which then went into a shallow glide and landed heavily in a field. Three weeks later Boelke shot down his first RFC machine, and a few days after that a pair of E.IS from Douai shot down an entire flight of nine French bombers.

In the weeks that followed, the idea of the fighter, combined with the aggression, enthusiasm, skill and understanding of air warfare of men like Immelmann and Boelke, gave the German Air Service superiority over that section of the Western Front. T hey were the first real fighter pilots, and Boelke, in particular, came to be regarded later as the true architect of the principles of aerial combat. The German High Command had deployed the Eindeckers in penny numbers, a couple of aircraft attached to each staffel, or squadron, to provide close protection for the reconnaissance aircraft. Boelke suggested a different approach, based on principles which he had developed on the job. He brought the fighters together in specialized fighter squadrons, Jagdstaffeln, literally hunting squadrons, whose job was to range over a particular area, like hunters, giving the leader the freedom to act on his own initiative, seek out the enemy and bring the combined fire power of the squadron to bear on him. He realized that the action would then split up into individual dogfights, but the effect of a surprise first pass, firing all the way, was also psychologically advantageous, putting the enemy off balance. He wanted to control the airspace by aggressive patrolling while the German reconnaissance aircraft did their work protected by his lethal shield.

Boelke had rare gifts of leadership and he also understood the dynamics of running a small fighting unit. In the Jagdstaffeln, he created a community of kindred spirits, a fraternity with its own, very particular esprit de corps, born of a shared experience and understanding of what they were doing-men who lived and breathed combat tactics and thrived in an exclusive, superior, competitive, fighting élite, making them personally all the keener to win in combat. Boelke's Jagdstaffeln were formidable, superior to anything the allies had, and French and British losses mounted in the autumn of 1915, a period known as "the Fokker Scourge."

German superiority was neutralized by the introduction of new French and British fighters, and in 1916 the first massed air battles took place above the battlefields of verdun and the Somme, and with them the culture of fighter pilots as a warrior élite took shape. The advantage swung back and Forth between the two sides as each introduced new fighters and pilots learned the basic rules of air combat. Those who survived battle did so because they learned the rules on the job. They passed on what they could to newcomers, and the principal architect of air combat doctrine, and of much of its attendant culture, was Oswald Boelke. In the summer of 1916 Boelke issued his pilots with a set of eight basic rules, the first expression of a methodical approach to air fighting. They are known as Boelke's Dicta and they have, in modified form, been passed down the generations of fighter pilots ever since.

1. Secure all possible advantages before attacking. One of the biggest advantages in aerial combat, as in most aspects of warfare, is surprise. The idea of the fighter pilot as a "knight of the air," a heroic, chivalrous figure, facing his enemy in a duel, is nonsense. The Successful fighter pilot's favorite tactic is to sneak up on his adversary from behind and shoot him in the back before he knows about it. Eighty years later little has changed: four out of five pilots who are shot down never see their attacker. Coming out of the sun, or cloud, so the enemy can't see you gives a huge advantage, and fighter pilots have always used the sun to help their attack. As recently as 1982, over Lebanon, the Israeli Air Force timed some a ttacks so that they could come out of the sun. An awareness of the elements, especially the wind, can lead to advantage. In the First World War the Germans were at a permanent advantage because the prevailing wind was from the southwest, blowing from the allied lines towards their lines. If they ventured over the allied lines the wind gave them an advantage on the way back to base, while the reverse was true for allied pilots. Fighter pilots use height to gain advantage: height is stored energy which can be converted to speed, which can then be used to maneuver to advantage. Over the years Boelke's Dicta have been given a more modern interpretation and at Top Gun his first dictum has become. "First look, first shot, first kill" and "Lose height, lose the fight".

2. Always carry through an attack once you have started it. Aerial combat is essentially an aggressive business and showing determination to fight gives a vital moral advantage. Breaking off an attack hands the moral advantage to your opponent and it will achieve nothing in any case because if you do break off and try to escape, your target will become your attacker very quickly.

3. Fire only at close range, when your opponent is properly in your sights. When two aircraft are both travelling fast in three dimensions, hitting your opponent is difficult enough; with evasive tactics, it becomes even more difficult. To hit his opponent, the attacker has to allow for deflection, he has to lead for the time taken for his bullets to reach their target and if his aircraft is turning or sideslipping then that motion is imparted to the bullets as they leave the muzzle of the gun. Gravity also acts on the bullets as soon as they are f ired. Some of these problems can be overcome by devices such as setting the gun sights deliberately high to allow for gravity but, even allowing for a perfectly judged shot along the line of sight, the bullets will still not go where they were aimed, with all these variables, the closer you were to your opponent the better, and in the First World War the best range was about twenty yards. James McCudden, one of the RFC's best tactical fighter pilots, also stressed the value of closeness when he was a fighting instructor. In action he sometimes came back to base with gruesome evidence of how close that could be, with the front of his aircraft covered in a thin film of blood. His CO would congratulate him on getting so close.

As fighter speeds have grown and armament has moved from guns to guided missiles, especially the new, long-range "fire and forget" missiles, such as the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Anti Aircraft Missile (AMRAAM), so this dictum has changed. Once locked on, the missile finds its own way to the target using radar and the advantage now lies with the attacker who can fire first at maximum range, often Beyond Visual Range (BVR).

4. Keep your eye on your opponent and never let yourself be deceived by ruses. Boelke often used what he called ruses, such as feigning battle damage and flying towards his own lines, all the time getting into the best position he could and then suddenly turning on his pursuer. Firing at too long a range was another, tempting the victim into taking evasive action, thereby closing the distance between them and letting the attacker get closer to the victim. Another ruse was to put a single aircraft in an obvious and tempting position as a decoy with a whole squadron high above, usually up sun, ready to pounce.

5. Always assail your opponent from behind. No matter how good a pilot's lookout, dead astern is always a blind spot so the attacker has all the advantages of surprise. The rear shot also has the advantage of minimum deflection and maximum time to aim properly. It also gives the target the most problems in turning the tables since he cannot fire back until he has maneuvered to gain some advantage.

Boelke had started his career in a two-seater, the LVG, in which the pilot flew the aircraft and Concentrated on the task in hand, while the observer/gunner kept a lookout for hostile aircraft. In a single-seater, while it was superb for attacking the enemy, he found that he could not keep as good a lookout while concentrating on the attack. His solution was to fly in pairs, a leader and a wingman to guard his tail and keep a lookout. Having a wingman to cover your tail, and covering his when necessary, has been fundamental to aerial combat ever since, with variations in the distance between the two aircraft. Boelke, though he would have marvelled at the technology of the F-14 Tomcat, would have understood the "two ship," "Loose Deuce" dynamics of the formation which Kleeman and Musczynski flew against the Libyans.

Even allowing for all the differences between the Libyan MiGs and their U.S. Navy opponents, the Fitter pilots put themselves at a hopeless disadvantage from the start by shooting from the head-on position with a missile which had to use a heat source, the hot area around the jet efflux, to home onto its target. It also gave the American pilots maximum opportunity to evade the missiles and put them behind. In modern figh ter-pilot jargon, which uses the clock-face system of giving positions in the air with your air craft at the center, the short, sharp way of expressing this rule has become "Check Six."

6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to escape but fly to meet it. Showing aggression gives a moral advantage, but flying to meet any threat is good fighting tactics. Even if your turn is not completed, at least you present the most difficult target, i.e., maximum deflection. From above, your attacker has the advantage of speed, but if you complete the turn and meet him head-on then the closing speed increases and your attacker will have less time to get his shot in. The shot is in any case more difficult because it has become a head-on shot, and once you are past each other you can maneuver to best advantage.

7. Never forget your line of retreat. This rule is more than simply making sure you can get home after the battle, important as that is. It encompasses the idea of spatial awareness, of having an understanding of all the forces that act on shaping the battle -- the relative size and technical sophistication of the two formations, the fuel state, the wind, the cloud, the effect of altitude on the relative performance of your aircraft and your opponents' and the position of enemy ground defenses.

8. Whenever possible attack in formations of four or six and when the fight breaks up take care that several do not go for the same opponent. Attacking in large numbers inflicts maximum damage on the first pass, but once that is over, the fight will break up into individual dogfights. If two go for the same target, effort is wasted, not all enemy aircraft will come under attack and ther e is the danger of collision as two aircraft go for the same firing position. This rule also emphasizes the importance of the high level of awareness each pilot has to have of the whole of the battle, what today is called the "big picture."


On 28 October 1916, while engaging in a dogfight with twelve of his squadron, Boelke fell victim to getting on the wrong side of one of his own dicta when, in the mêlée, he collided with Erwin Boehme and crashed and was killed. His dicta lived on in the squadron and by the end of 1916 its pilots had shot down 211 for the loss of 39 aircraft.

Boelke's place at the helm of the German fighter arm was taken by one of his own pupils, Manfred von Richthofen. Leadership of a fighter squadron calls for very particular qualities, all the aggression, awareness, individualism and coolness needed to do the job while at the same time being able to make the other pilots on the squadron, who have the same qualities, act as one when they need to. Richthofen had those qualities in abundance. When he took over his first squadron, Jasta II, it had been in existence as long as Boelke's Jasta II but had only one enemy aircraft to its credit, and that was unconfirmed. On the day Richthofen took over, to demonstrate his own prowess, he went out alone and doubled the squadron's score by shooting down an allied machine, within days the pilots were shooting down allied aircraft, and the only reason was Richthofen's leadership. Jasta II became one of the most effective squadrons on the front, the basis of Richthofen's famous "Flying Circus." The whole squadron revolved around him, his personality and charisma, which developed into a personal mystique which survives tod ay.

There are many examples of the importance of strong, aggressive leadership in making a fighter squadron effective. In the Second World War the legless fighter pilot, Sqn. Ldr. Douglas Bader, RAF took command of 242 Squadron, which had been badly led in France and the CO left behind, drunk. When it flew back to Britain it had been every man for himself, and it arrived demoralized. Bader, who exemplified the aggressive qualities of the fighter pilot and fighter leader, transmitted them to the men under his command by personal example, flying a dangerous and impromptu routine of low-level aerobatics in front of them on his arrival simply to prove he was not a cripple. He then weeded out those whom he did not feel had the right stuff to be fighter pilots in war, and enthused the rest with his own views of tactics at every opportunity. He had 242 back in shape in weeks and it served with distinction in the Battle of Britain.

In parallel with the tradition of reliance on strong leadership and fighting as a team in aerial combat, there is also the tradition of the ace, the idea are single individual who is right at the top of the tree. Richthofen was not only a leader, he was the highest, scoring fighter pilot on any side in the war -- an ace. He is still a legend eighty years later as a fighter pilot and as a leader, and the two are indivisible -- to lead, the leader has to be the best, an individual.

The First World War was waged by faceless masses on the ground where there was little room for individual achievement. Fighter pilots represented both individual skill and military success; they stood for quality over quantity. In the grim reality of industrialized warfare and mass slaughter which characterized that war, when people were far less restrained about celebrating military success and saw the human virtues which achieved it as positive, the fighter pilot stood out as a rather obvious heroic figure, something tangible in the way of success which soldiers on the ground, as well as civilians, could understand.

The generals needed successes which could be reported in the newspapers, and fighter pilots on both sides quickly became highly visible, national champions in a nationalistic age. An aura rose up around them, a new embodiment of the supreme warrior, a chivalrous "knight of the air," the antithesis of the experience of the trenches. They were singled out as special and invested with glory of which the men on the ground could only dream. Pilots of observation aircraft, whose job was more dangerous and often provided valuable intelligence, could never match the way the fighter pilot captured the public imagination.

It was not just the publicity. One of the lasting themes in the history of aerial combat is that a small number of individual fighter pilots have stood out from the rest, in all wars. In the First World War 5% of fighter pilots accounted for over half the aerial victories, and in the Second World War 5% accounted for 40% of all victories. Inevitably the aces drew most attention and the idea of deliberately singling out the super-successful fighter pilot as a public symbol of martial prowess was first used by the French, who not only decorated their top fighter pilots with medals but singled them out with the sobriquet "ace."

The first was Eugene Gilbert, who shot down his first German on 1 January 1915 and by the summer had shot down a total of five before being sh ot down and killed himself: five became the threshold. Newspapers encouraged the idea, following the aces' exploits daily and giving their scores in little boxes. Men like Georges Guynemer, Charles Nungesser and Rene Fonck quickly took on huge public Status, superstars on a par with the rock stars, top entertainers, supermodels and sportsmen of today.

Germany picked out its top scorers for particular attention too but the German High Command demanded ten victories, each one confirmed by a wreck on the ground, for which the pilot was given the informal title "oberkanone," literally Top Gun. Oberkanone were automatically awarded Germany's highest military honor, the Pour le Mérite, an exquisite, blue-enamelled medal worn round the neck and nicknamed the "Blue Max" now part of the legend and folklore of aerial combat. Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelke were the first two pilots to be awarded the Pour le Mérite and Immelmann went on to be put on display in Berlin with his aircraft beside him, attracting huge crowds. Boelke was only twenty-three but his status grew and grew. One German general let it be known that he thought that the name Boelke was worth three infantry divisions. (It would be interesting to know what that did for the individual infantry soldier's moral, bearing in mind a German division of the time was 10,000 men.)

The myth became bigger than the pilot: the German High Command decided that Boelke was so valuable as a symbol of fighting prowess that he was too valuable to lose, and consequently too valuable to fight) and he was taken out of frontline service. He was personally outraged by the decision and phoned the Kaiser to remonstrate, but the Kaiser was a damant and Boelke did spend some time in 1916 touring the Eastern Front before eventually finding his way back into the air over France.

Britain deprecated the system of singling out individuals. For a time, Lt. Albert Ball, RFC, aged twenty and a moody loner, was the leading scorer in the war, ahead of Boelke, but his name rarely appeared in newspapers until his death and then it was in a much more restrained way. He was a legend inside the RFC, as were James McCudden whose tally was 54 and "Mick" Mannock, the highest-scoring British pilot. Nineteen British fighter pilots were awarded the VC, including Mannock, McCudden and Ball, and by the end of the war, using the five-kills yardstick, the British had by far the largest number of aces, but most were virtually unknown -- 784, to Germany's 363, France's 158 and the United States' 110.

The man who, more than any other, symbolized the idea of the ace and the public accolade that went with it was Richthofen. His death in combat was treated as a national disaster, though it only enhanced the legend: his crashed aircraft was stripped by souvenir-hunters; free passage was granted to German aircraft to fly over the lines unmolested to drop wreaths; a fresh uniform was delivered to put on his body and he virtually lay in state, surrounded by laurel leaves and branches of immortelle, for three days before being transported to a church and buffed, by his enemies, with elaborate military honors.

Whatever the view about the disparity between the treatment received by the top aces, there is no doubt that they were, in a very narrow sense, very special people. They were able, at a glance, to read a situation in the air -- taking in the nature and height of cloud, the strength of wind, the position of sun, the speed, height and direction of any aircraft in the sky, whether they were friendly, likely direction of threats, the angle and height from which they would come, the relative performance of aircraft, likely trajectories of enemy fire -- endlessly computing it all as it changed, while deftly finding the best position from which to make an attack. Today we call it situational awareness, and, with a huge amount of information being fed into the cockpit by data links, radar and voice communication, having a mind capable of building up a clear picture of a changing situation from scraps of information is still a vital part of the fighter pilot's mental equipment.

The qualities have remained very much the same since -- courage, while clearly born in people, also comes from having honed their skills to perfection, feeling and being in control, giving a sense of being on top, infallible, somebody completely at home in combat, actually enjoying it, killers rather than superb pilots. Aces are winners, pilots who rarely, if ever, came off worst in a fight, many of them were hit only seldom by enemy fire in fights while others quite close to them were fiddled. It was a mixture of instinct, experience and luck in the early stages. If a new pilot came up against an expert on his first day he had to be exceptional, or well protected by others, to survive, and the rule on the squadrons was that the value of a fighter pilot doubled for every week he stayed alive. That is the culture which Boelke, Richthofen, Guynemer, Fonck, Nungesser, Ball, McCudden, Mannock and Rickenbacker created and passed down: no mistakes, no doubts, no fear, on top, simply the best.


After the First World War, many of the lessons of the Western Front were slowly forgotten. In 1927, the Italian General Douhet argued that aircraft had changed warfare to the extent that armies and navies would have no time to engage before aircraft would have won the war, that air power, namely bombers, alone could win wars. The emphasis shifted from fighters to bombers. Instead of using aircraft to fight for control over a battlefield, the idea of creating a third, separate force in warfare, distinct from armies and navies, gained ground. It had been made flesh when Britain created a separate air force on 1 April 1918 -- the Royal Air Force, the world's first independent air force. The idea took hold in the two greatest powers, Britain and America, and in the process, the focus shifted further from the fighter to the bomber. In Douhet's mind, the offensive centerpiece was a giant machine, literally a "flying fortress," the aerial version of the tank or the battleship, bristling with guns and carrying bombs, flying in tight formation for protection against any purely defensive fighters. The value of the fighter was downgraded, and as the speeds of fighters rose, so many air power theorists believed that aerial combat between fighters would be impossible; the RAF saw fighters as bomber killers only and evolved superbly choreographed standard forms of attack, giving each fighter pilot a place in the queue to line up behind the bombers for his turn to shoot. The idea that air superiority, fought for by fighters, would have to be achieved first, or that bombers would need fighter escorts, virtually disappeared.

It took the experience of real war to change perceptions. In 1939, neither side was pr epared to unleash its bombers against the heart of nations for fear of similar retaliation. The bomber fleets were sent not against industry and the population but against military targets. On 29 September 1939 RAF Hampdens flew to Wilhelmshafen to bomb the German Navy in port; they had no escorting fighters. The first wave alerted the defenses and failed to hit any of their targets. When the second wave of five aircraft arrived, fast, short-range, defensive fighters, Messerschmidt Bf 109s, were waiting and they shot down all five Hampdens. On 19 December 1939, 22 Wellingtons went back to Wilhelmshafen in perfect weather: the Bf 109s shot down 10 of them and damaged all the others, 2 of them so severely that they crashed on landing. The fighter was a superb bomber killer, but the antidote was not to arm and armor the bomber but to have other fighters to hunt and kill the defending fighters, to fight for air superiority. Since all Britain had was short-range defensive fighters, escorting the bombers was impossible.

In May 1940 the German army swept through Europe, supported by 2,400 conventional bombers, dive bombers, recce aircraft and transports which played a huge part in the success of Blitzkrieg. They did so under an umbrella of nearly 1,500 fighters which made short shrift of the Polish, Danish, Dutch, Belgian, French and the small number of RAF fighters Britain sent to France. To invade Britain, the Germans had to have air superiority first. The stage was set for the Battle of Britain, a strategic battle of survival on the scale of Trafalgar, a battle for control of the skies over southern Britain. Without that control the Germans could not bomb RAF airfields or British cities in daylight, n or could they invade Britain.

The Battle of Britain remains the greatest battle for air superiority ever fought. The first targets for the German bombers were the RAF's airfields, hitting aircraft on the ground. The main targets for the RAF fighters were the German bombers, but to get at them the fighters pilots had to fight their way past the escorting Bf 109 fighters. The 109 pilots had to protect the bombers and break the resistance of RAF Fighter Command. For the first time the Luftwaffe was up against defensive fighters of similar capability, the Hurricane and the Spitfire, flown by pilots with less experience than their German counterparts but fighting close to their airfields and with the aid of radar. The battle lasted two months. The Bf 109 could escort the He 111, Do 17 and Stuka across southern England, but they were operating at the limit of their range and they could not reach London. Away from their fighter protection, the German bomber crews were as vulnerable as the RAF had been over Wilhelmshafen. Losses became unacceptably high and the Luftwaffe essentially had to give up or be slowly cut to pieces over Kent and Sussex.

The RAF won, but by a tiny margin: the Spitfire and the Bf 109 were both superb defensive fighters, with only marginal differences in top speed and rate of turn; the RAF had the advantage of fighting close to their bases and of having radar to tell them from what direction the German attacks were coming. The Luftwaffe had the advantage of numbers, around 1,500 fighters to the RAF's 700, but they were at the limit of their range and Luftwaffe pilots had recent experience of aerial combat in the Spanish Civil War. The RAF fighter pilots rediscovered the importance of dogfighting and learned from the Luftwaffe's more flexible tactics; the Luftwaffe, fresh from victory in poland, the Low Countries and France, learned that, despite its size, a smaller, well-equipped, skilled and determined opponent could deny it command of the air. Both sides learned that the primary role of fighters was fighting for command of the air, and that without it other air, ground and sea operations on any scale were very hazardous. The basics of air warfare, that control of the skies had to be fought for, laid down in 1915 and 1916, had been relearned.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front in 1941, the Luftwaffe spearheaded that attack too. It was a battle of quality versus quantity. The Soviet Il-2 Schturmovik ground attack fighter was produced in huge numbers, 36,000 in total, and it still holds the record for the aircraft produced in greater numbers than any other, testimony to the Soviet doctrine of putting quantity before quality. The Soviet Air Force was huge, around 15,000 aircraft, half of it deployed opposite the Germans, but it was not as technically advanced as the Luftwaffe, nor as well trained. On the first day of the attack the Germans destroyed 1,489 aircraft on the ground and a further 322 in aerial combat for the loss of 2. By the end of the first week the Luftwaffe's score stood at 4,990 a third of the Soviet Air Force, for a total of 179 losses. Experience counted for a great deal and individual Luftwaffe fighter pilots collected huge tallies. The Russian policy of having huge numbers of what were second-rate fighters proved costly.

The Germans failed to reach Moscow and for two years the massive front soaked up men and materials. The Russi ans held the Germans at bay at Kursk where they had a large salient which the Germans planned to attack on 5 July 1943, using 800 bombers against the Soviet tank forces, escorted by 300 fighters. The Russians planned a pre-dawn strike, hitting the Luftwaffe on its airfields with a huge force of ground attack fighters and bombers. The Germans had mobile radar systems which detected the Russian aircraft in plenty of time. It was what has become known as "a target rich environment" for the skilled Luftwaffe fighter pilots, who shot down 120 Russians in the first encounter, a figure which reached 430 by the end of the day, with over 200 more the following day, all for virtually no loss.

From that point on the tide on the Eastern Front turned. The Luftwaffe had to withdraw many of its best units to protect its armies now facing the Allies in Italy and the bomber raids on its homeland. By 1944 it was too thinly stretched and the huge Soviet numerical advantage began to have its effect.

When the Americans came into the war in Europe in 1942, they started flying over Germany unescorted in daylight and suffered heavy losses. The tables began to turn only when the big American fighters, the P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt and the incomparable P-51 Mustang, became available with the endurance to fight the Luftwaffe for control of the skies over Germany, opening the way for the bombers to do their work. When Göring, a veteran of Richthofen's Flying Circus, saw Mustangs protecting daylight bombers over Berlin, he realized the implications, and he is said to have remarked that he knew the war was over. The closing stages of the Second World War represented the high tide of the propeller fighter. The bas ic lessons, forgotten in the 1920s and 1930s, were relearned in the summer of 1940 and put into practice for the rest of the war. The fighter pilot ace reemerged: between 1939 and 1945, on all fronts, including the Eastern Front, 1% of operational fighter pilots on all sides shot down 46% of all aircraft lost in aerial combat; in the West, 5% of pilots made 40% of kills. The value of the highly capable fighter with a highly motivated and well-trained pilot was once again recognized.


In an age, in the West at least, where military experience is limited to professionals and it has become fashionable to reject military values, the ruthless, elitist value system of the fighter pilot, which has been passed down through generations of fighter pilots from another age, is out of kilter with the populism of the 1990s. It survives because it is an essential part of winning in battle, and successful fighter pilots in the West remain highly visible heroes, masters of new technology, individualistic and talented star performers. Western air forces select their fighter pilots for competitiveness, aggressiveness, cunning, mental agility and an indefinable "press on regardless" spirit of determination. An aspiring fighter pilot has to submit himself to years of ruthless selection, much of it at the hands of experienced fighter pilots who weed out those individuals whom they regard as not possessing that elusive combination of qualities which make up the famous Right Stuff Being equal to an opponent is no good in a fighter pilot. He has to be the best and he has to believe he is the best, feel superior, be a winner -- and winners, by definition, belong in élites. It may be that the manned fighter will disappear some time in the next century, just as knights on horseback did, but it would be a mistake to break the traditions of the manned fighter élites until that future is sure. Once that culture is destroyed, breaking the link with 1915 and Boelke, McCudden, Richthofen and Mannock, it will be impossible to replace.

Copyright © 1997 by Ivan Rendall

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2003

    If you ever look up when you hear a plane, you won't look up at anything else while reading this book!

    It's a wonderful book that talks about the whole history of military airpower from WWI to Kosovo. Rendall describes air battles in so much detail you can emagine flying along with the pilots. I learned so much from this book, and it kept my attention all the way through. I recomeend this book for anyone who loves avaition like myself. It was terriffic.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2000

    If you like jets you'll love this.

    Excellent! This book is for anyone that is intrested in jet combat/history.Rolling Thonder is also great for the military avation enthuiast. The auther, Ivan Rendall, provides great detail in every chapter of the book.The Title fits the book great, in that it covers the history of jet combat.

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