Posted 17 June 2010 - 11:45 PM
Hmm...I never agreed with the idea of there actually being a "best" plane at anything. Although some had better performance than others, that didn't necessarily dictate the actual success rate it achieved, and the rate PER A/C and the TOTAL contribution the type made were largely dependent on how they were deployed, and who was in charge, etc.
That said, I also wish there were more choices. You never heard ME say this, but it seems like the P-51 ought to be on the list too! I probably wouldn't vote for it, but it still ought to be there if the P-38 and P-47 are. And there's no doubt it made an effective fighter-bomber, just not the best. I've never been a real fan of the Mustang, but that's more because it's such an obvious choice and I never like to "go with the crowd" than because it doesn't have merit. I've came to my OWN independent conclusion that the P-51 WAS indeed the best all-around fighter of the war. It may not have been THE best at everything, but it scored well up the list in just about every imaginable category. If the USAAF or even the Allies as a whole had been forced to depend on one fighter type alone, I think the Mustang is the only plane that actually COULD do all of the jobs there was to do. It was a compromise, but not one that sacrificed much in any one category. So I have to give the P-51 credit for that.
But, as for the poll and the best FB of the war, my vote goes to the P-47 without much hesitation. There wasn't much it was lacking in that role, and it is undoubtedly where it really shines. The air-cooled engine was much ruggeder than a liquid cooled engine, the airframe was very strong, and I suspect that all that ductwork inside the fuselage was part of why it was so resistant to enemy fire. It was very thin metal, but it was enough to slow a bullet or detonate a cannon shell before it reached anything vital, and we've all most likely heard tales of the mighty R-2800 and it's adamant refusal to die, even after suffering catastrophic damage that would have wrecked any liquid cooled engine in moments.
It's huge size and power meant that it was very capable in terms of hauling heavy weapon and fuel loads, kind of like how modern fighters evolved bigger and bigger with every generation (in most cases) to give them larger fuel fractions and more ordnance options. If a lightweight Spitfire (late-model) could carry a 500lb bomb that was 1/10th of it's own empty weight, it makes sense that a plane twice it's weight (but with the same size pilot and radio, etc) could easily carry twice the bomb load, and often more. The landing gear and structure were already stressed to cope with the heavy weight of the plane itself, so a pair of 500lb-er's hanging under the plane didn't stress the plane or effect performance as much as a single bomb would a smaller plane.
The gun armament, in my own opinion, was ideal for ground strafing. There is still heated debate over whether the .50cal or 20mm was king of WWII aircraft guns, but for your general-purpose ground strafing, I think the .50 was the ideal gun. For air combat, the explosive cannon shells were usually superior, since it was essential to do the maximum damage to the enemy plane in the shortest time. But a ground target is relatively stationary, so it is much easier to line up an hit it with a good burst...and with eight .50cals, it put a lot of lead on target, spread evenly over a large area. I don't remember exactly, but I think the AN/M2 fired at like 700-800RPM, which is something like 13 rounds a second. Times that by 8 guns, you get 104 rounds per one-second-burst. I remember being bored one day, and just for the hell of it I drew a cluster of 104 "bullet holes" (one dot=one hole). Quite impressive for one second of fire, especially when you consider that they are 700-grain API rounds, not "powerful" 150-grain .30-06 bullets. Considering the whallop my M1903A3 gives the target (and my shoulder!), I'd rather not be on the receiving end of a P-47 strafing run. Although, to be honest I wouldn't want to be strafed by a Spitfire Mk II with "only" .303 Brownings, either!
Anyway, the .50cal is capable of dealing with MOST ground targets, especially in that kind of volume. An experienced pilot could even destroy armored targets, shooting from the right angles, or by using the "ricochet into the belly" trick. In some ways bigger planes like the B-25 and A-26 armed with the eight-gun solid noses were even more effective, since there was no convergence issues, but it seems like it could be useful to a pilot to be able to choose the tightness of his pattern...shoot from the zeroed-in range, and get a nice tight pattern, or from a bit closer and get a "shotgun effect". It only takes one .50cal bullet to kill or maim an infantryman, so if your hitting a dispersed target, you might as well spread out the hits a little. No sense in putting all 104 rounds into a single man! The 20mm was certainly effective as a strafing weapon, and the British used it to good effect in their Mk IIC "Hurri-bombers" in North Africa, destroying lots of enemy armor, and the blast effect and fragments were good on "soft" targets too. But for shooting-up enemy supply columns, or hitting ground positions, the .50cal seems a better weapon, with a better ammo supply.
And the P-47 could fight back as a fighter, too. Sure, so could the P-38, but the Mosquito was too big, more like a small bomber, and the Typhoon was only good at lower altitudes. It is useful to have a FB that can go up and fight as a fighter at 30,000ft, or blast enemy ground forces. The P-38 was at even more of a disadvantage at low altitudes than the Thunderbolt, and it's four-.50cal, one 20mm gun mix was better at "sniping" or cutting up enemy fighters. The "brute-force" eight-gun approach was more effective for shooting up a supply convoy.
In any case, those are the reasons that I vote for the P-47, although like most of these debates it's kind of pointless. It's not that the P-47 was far more capable than any other the others, just that it had the fewest DIS-advantages in the low-level mission. It seemed to fit the role like it was made for it. Even though it probably didn't NEED to lug around that whole turbo-charger system 95% of the time, it was nice to know that it could fight as a FIGHTER-bomber, all the way from 50ft up to 35,000ft, not just a bomber that could also fly fast and strafe targets on the ground.
That's my 2 bucks on the subject, anyway. I'd rather fly the P-38 myself, but there's no real reason for that, just that I like the P-38 a lot. If I had to rate them all, in an arbitrary kind of way, I'd say:
#1.) The P-47D (or better yet, 'P-47N') Thunderbolt, radial, rugged, big, powerful, heavy .50cal armament. Excellent performance at high level, decent at low levels. Probably more fighter than bomber, but it is always spoken of with respect as an attack plane. Like the P-38, it was no joke as a fighter, but it really shone as a FB.
#2.) The Hawker Typhoon (or Tempest), inline H-24 liquid-cooled engine, vulnerable, unreliable but powerful. Large airplane, good weapons-load, heavy 4-gun 20mm armament with large ammo supply. Exceptional low-altitude performance, but lacking at higher levels. Lacking in range as well.
#3.) The P-38 Lightning, #3 on the list, even though it would be my second choice after the Thunder-Jug. No, it doesn't make much sense, but there ya have it! Twin-engines for safety, good load-carrying capacity (approx. 1/2 again what the others could handle...2x 2,000lb bombs!) Very long-range, excellent high-level performance. "Buzz-saw" armament with both HMG's and a 20mm cannon. At a disadvantage against enemy fighters at low levels, more so than the P-47 or Typhoon. It's unfortunate that the P-38 seems caught in a corner compared to the other US types...it was an excellent fighter, AND an excellent FB, but it is overshadowed by the P-51 and the P-47. Kind of odd how both of the US's turbo-charged types ended up being the FB-kings, while the supercharged Mustang is remembered as the high-altitude wonderkind.
#4.) Tough call, but I'm going to take the Mosquito as #4 over the Corsair...the Mosquito was more bomber than fighter, while the Corsair really shined the most at air combat. Since this isn't about the best FIGHTER or the best BOMBER, but the the best FIGHTER-BOMBER, I think this is the right choice. As a fighter, the Mossie was lacking (except the NF versions), but as a fast-bomber it was one of the most important planes of the entire war. It was a terror to enemy shipping, and it had heavier armament than the Typhoon even, with 4x 20mm's and 4x .303 MG's (although I'd prefer 4x .50cals, like the P-61...like a P-47 with 4 of the HMG's replaced with cannon!). And the .303 Browning wasn't a BAD gun...it seems odd to us Americans with our big ol' .50's, but there are certain targets that don't need such powerful guns, and the .303's are far lighter and hold more ammo. For tough targets, use the cannon, and for ground strafing "soft" targets, I suppose a .303 works almost as well as a .50 does, as long as the cannon's are there if you need 'em. The Mossie had a decent bomb load (although it seems as if it could have carried more, being as big as it is), and for attack-versatility it was outstanding...bombs, torpedoes, rockets, depth charges, 6-pounder cannons, cameras, flares, you name it, the Mossie carried it. Although that's not JUST the FB version, so that might be a bit unfair.
#5.) The F4U Corsair...a perfectly good plane, capable as a FB, but it was more important as a fighter than a FB. It had lot's of speed but could be tricky to fly, especially the earlier ones. Obviously, it gained a lot of capability by the time the last versions were made (like the F4U-7, etc), but it's only fair to stick with the WWII ones. As a fighter it was very capable, but it was just that...a fighter with attack capabilities. I suppose on paper the Corsair is a better choice as a fighter-bomber than the Thunderbolt...they used the same engine, both were rugged as hell, and the fact that the whole P-47 was designed as a high-altitude fighter around a big-ass turbocharger seems to lean towards the F4U as a better attack plane. Part of the reason that everyone votes for the P-47 may be that it is most famous as a FB...but part of the reason it was devoted to ground attack by the end of the war is that the Army had other more capable planes to use as fighters, so they took the less capable ones like the P-38 and P-47 and used them as attack planes. (Not a LOT less capable, so please don't kill me, P-38 and -47 fans!) But the Navy/Marines in the Pacific had only the Hellcat and Corsair, plus they were limited by the small space on carriers and the supply difficulties of working off of small, remote air strips. So it was a lot wiser to use a single type that could do both missions equally well, since they couldn't easily use one type as a fighter and one as a FB. But as an attack plane, the six .50cals's just didn't have the punch of the eight the P-47 carried. I imagine that it seemed pretty much the same to those on the receiving end, but that's 130% of the Corsairs volume of fire from the P-47.
#6.) Other...there were many, many types of craft used in WWII, and most of them made a valuable contribution, even the "outdated" ones in many cases. Like the Swordfish that wrecked the Italian Navy at Taranto and crippled the Bismarck, or the obsolete TBD Devastators that were massacred at Midway, but were directly responsible for the final victory by drawing the defending Zeroes off. There were many old and uncommon types that no-one speaks much about, but performed great feats, and there were ultra-capable planes that didn't actually do much in the long run. I know it's not as a FB, but to me the F4F Wildcat probably deserves more credit than the Hellcat does. It was facing a superior opponent, yet held on and even won at times for well over a year. The Hellcat might "have the numbers" on paper, but it's less impressive to see it racking up victories by the hundreds over inferior Japanese types than it is to see a few Wildcats holding their own against the whole IJN.
In any case, the whole debate is always interesting, but rarely has much to do with any actual measure of merit. That's why I choose my favorite planes for all sorts of reasons, absolute performance being way down on the list of important things. Let's say the Spitfire Mk II was totally obsolete by the end of the war, with it's carburetor and RCMG's. It was much slower than 1945 fighters, and lacked the protection or power, but it will always be THE classic Spitfire to me, as the one that helped win the Battle of Britain. Of course, the Hurricane holds a similar place in my heart...it was obsolete by the time the war started, and yet somehow made very valuable contributions. I always saw the Wildcat as the USN's Hurricane, in a way. Except we didn't have a USN Spitfire equivalent to help out! But if nothing else, the Hurricane should be remembered both for it's gallant fight in 1941, and for the fact that Hurricanes destroyed more enemy planes than ALL OTHER English types combined. And that includes the Spitfire!