- Jan 20, 2010
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.