USN WW II Fighters
book review by Fred Lane
Tillman B. and Lawson R.L. US Navy fighters of WW II. MBI Publishing: St Paul. 1998. Paperback 96 pp with index and photographs. US$20.00
This volume preceded the excellent US Navy WW II dive and torpedo bombers. It is an equally gripping and well-written tale by the same pair of highly skilled aviation and naval historians. As the title suggests, the book describes the development and operational records of both successful and unsuccessful USN WW II fighter aircraft.
Starting logically with a brief description of pre-war USN and other fighters, the authors rebut some of the criticism of the much-maligned Brewster Buffalo fighter. It was never an ideal carrier-borne fighter for a number of reasons, including a delicate undercarriage unsuited to landing on a pitching and rolling deck.
Land-based Marines, who were used to receiving cast-offs, also found it wanting because of its lacklustre performance in the air. At Midway, one black day in June 1942, a dozen of 19 aircraft in one USMC Buffalo squadron were destroyed by Japanese carrier aircraft. Nevertheless, when flown by experienced aircrew using better tactics it could achieve considerable success. In Finland, the Brewster Buffalo recorded an impressive 25:1 kill:loss ratio against Russian aircraft (p 60).
The old reliable Grumman ironworks, naturally, dominates the book, because Grumman fighter aircraft dominated USN inventories in WW II. Developed from an original biplane concept, the brilliant Grumman F4F Wildcat (RN Martlet) held the fort until the even better Grumman F6F Hellcat entered the fray in August 1943. No fewer than 5,156 aircraft were claimed shot down by F6Fs alone in the Pacific theatre, versus 3,705 by all the USAF’s fighters in the same theatre. Another 1,006 fell to the USN’s F4F Wildcats (p35).
The other significant WW II USN fighter was the bent wing Vought F4U Corsair. It suffered from slow development associated with a host of early modifications, many of which were required to solve early deck landing problems. Employed initially as a land-based fighter in Guadalcanal from February 1943, it ultimately more than proved its worth and was accepted aboard American carriers towards the end of 1944. The first of the RN’s eventual 13 Corsair squadrons to see action was from HMS Victorious in a strike against Tirpitz in April 1944. Hauling a substantial weapons load, the “Hose-nose” also proved to be an excellent Army Support aircraft in Korea, operating from both carriers and airfields ashore.
The authors also describe a number of other very interesting naval fighters that were in production or in advanced stages of design by the war’s end. The Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat was one . It arrived too late to see combat in WW II, but it won enormous respect for a performance that challenged even the Hawker Sea Fury around the racing pylons in the USA.
Like the Sea Fury, the F8F-1B version mounted four 20 mm cannon, a highly significant upgrade on the .5 inch or smaller machine guns of most of its USN and USAAF predecessors. Both aircraft, however, were quickly overtaken in the 1950s by an entirely new generation of jet-propelled fighters.