Combat Aircraft Versus Armour in WWII

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Modern literature on WWII is replete with accounts of devastating air strikes on tank units. There are many stories about dozens or even hundreds of enemy tanks being destroyed in a single day, thereby destroying or blunting an enemy armoured offensive. These accounts are particularly common in literature relating to later war ground attack aircraft, most commonly the Soviet Ilyushin II, the British Hawker Typhoon, the American Republic P-47, and the German Henschel Hs 129. All these aircraft have the distinction of being called ‘tank-busters’ and all have the reputation for being able to easily destroy any type of tank in WWII. In some cases, authors go so far as to claim an aircraft type was the ‘best antidote’ to certain tank types, eg the Tiger I tank’s nemesis in Normandy was apparently the rocket firing Typhoon.

Did this really happen? Today, many people think about the capabilities of modern combat aircraft when thinking about a WWII aircraft’s ‘tank busting’ ability. However WWII was an age where there were very few guided weapons and aircraft had great difficulty hitting small targets, especially if they were well protected.(1) In fact all the so called ‘tank-busters’ proved relatively ineffective against armoured ground targets (AFVs) or even small, defensively deployed, ground targets. This is despite the very exaggerated claims made by aircrew and much immediate post-war aircraft literature on the effects of air attacks on hard (i.e. armoured or fortified) ground targets. These claims were almost never ratified by corresponding after action ground reports from either the defending or attacking side’s ground forces. The following examples illustrate this occurrence, and are classic examples of how WWII stories and claims have found there way into the history books.

Normandy 1944: the RAF’s and USAF’s Story

Kursk 43: the Soviet Air Force’s (VVS) Story

Kursk 43: the Luftwaffe’s Story

Why Were Tanks Such Difficult Targets for Aircraft During WWII?

(1) The only air launched guided weapons in WWII of any significance were German. The most successful of these were radio controlled anti-shipping missiles.

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Normandy 1944: the RAF’s and USAF’s Story

If there was any campaign in WWII where conditions were perfect for airpower to demonstrate its ability to kill armour, it was in Normandy in the summer of 1944. The Allies had air supremacy (which is much more then just air superiority) and during daylight hours they could attack any target at will, with the single proviso of avoiding very nasty concentrated Flak guns. They had thousands of some of the best and most powerful ground attack aircraft available in WWII. They had virtually unlimited supplies of ammunition, fuel and huge amount of logistical ground support. Air bases were in easy range, targets were concentrated in a small front line area, and the weather could not realistically have been better.

According to the RAF, the Hawker Typhoon was the most effective ground attack and tank killing aircraft in the world in 1944, which may have been true. No fewer than 26 RAF Squadrons were equipped with Typhoons by mid 1944. These aircraft operated round the clock during the Normandy campaign operating in ‘cab rank’ formations, literately flying above the target area in circles, waiting their turn to attack. Official RAF and USAF records claim the destruction of thousands of AFVs in Normandy. There are many examples such as:

  • During Operation Goodwood (18th to 21st July) the 2nd Tactical Air Force and 9th USAAF claimed 257 and 134 tanks, respectively, as destroyed. Of these, 222 were claimed by Typhoon pilots using RPs (Rocket Projectiles).(2)
  • During the German counterattack at Mortain (7th to 10th August) the 2nd Tactical Air Force and 9th USAAF claimed to have destroyed 140 and 112 tanks, respectively.(3)
  • On a single day in August 1944, the RAF Typhoon pilots claimed no less than 135 tanks as destroyed.(4)

So what really happened? Unfortunately for air force pilots, there is a small unit usually entitled Research and Analysis which enters a combat area once it is secured. This is and was common in most armies, and the British Army was no different. The job of The Office of Research and Analysis was to look at the results of the tactics and weapons employed during the battle in order to determine their effectiveness (with the objective of improving future tactics and weapons).

They found that the air force’s claims did not match the reality at all. In the Goodwood area a total of 456 German heavily armoured vehicles were counted, and 301 were examined in detail. They found only 10 could be attributed to Typhoons using RPs (less than 3% of those claimed).(5) Even worse, only 3 out of 87 APC examined could be attributed to air lunched RPs. The story at Mortain was even worse. It turns out that only 177 German tanks and assault guns participated in the attack, which is 75 less tanks than claimed as destroyed! Of these 177 tanks, 46 were lost and only 9 were lost to aircraft attack.(6) This is again around 4% of those claimed. When the results of the various Normandy operations are compiled, it turns out that no more than 100 German tanks were lost in the entire campaign from hits by aircraft launched ordnance.(7) Thus on a single day in August 1944 the RAF claimed 35% more tanks destroyed than the total number of German tanks lost directly to air attack in the entire campaign!

Considering the Germans lost around 1 500 tanks, tank destroyers and assault guns in the Normandy campaign, less than 7% were lost directly to air attack.(8) The greatest contributor to the great myth regarding the ability of WWII aircraft to kill tanks was, and still is, directly the result of the pilot’s massively exaggerated kill claims. The Hawker Typhoon with its cannon and up to eight rockets was (and still is in much literature) hailed as the best weapon to stop the German Tiger I tank, and has been credited with destroying dozens of these tanks in the Normandy campaign. According to the most current definitive work only 13 Tiger tanks were destroyed by direct air attack in the entire campaign.(9) Of these, seven Tigers were lost on 18th July 1944 to massive carpet bombing by high altitude heavy bombers, preceding Operation Goodwood. Thus at most only six Tigers were actually destroyed by fighter bombers in the entire campaign. It turns out the best Tiger stopper was easily the British Army’s 17pdr AT gun, with the Typhoon well down on the list.

Indeed it appears that air attacks on tank formations protected by Flak were more dangerous for the aircraft than the tanks. The 2nd Tactical Air Force lost 829 aircraft in Normandy while the 9th USAAF lost 897.(10) These losses, which ironically exceed total German tank losses in the Normandy campaign, would be almost all fighter-bombers. Altogether 4 101 Allied aircraft and 16 714 aircrew were lost over the battlefield or in support of the Normandy campaign.(11)

(2) P. Moore, Operation Goodwood, July 1944; A Corridor of Death, Helion & Company Ltd, Solihull, UK, 2007, p. 171.
(3) N. Zetterling, Normandy 1944, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc, Winnipeg, Canada, 2000, p. 38.
(4) S. Wilson, Aircraft of WWII, Aerospace Publications Pty ltd, Fyshwick, ACT, Australia, 1998, p.85.
(5) P. Moore, Operation Goodwood, July 1944; A Corridor of Death, Helion & Company Ltd, Solihull, UK, 2007, p. 171.
(6) N. Zetterling, Normandy 1944, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc, Winnipeg, Canada, 2000, pp. 38 and 52.
(7) N. Zetterling, Normandy 1944, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc, Winnipeg, Canada, 2000, p. 38.
(8) N. Zetterling, Normandy 1944, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc, Winnipeg, Canada, 2000, p. 83.
(9) C.W. Wilbeck, Sledgehammers, The Aberjona Press, Bedford, Pennsylvania, 2004, p. 131, table 4.
(10) N. Zetterling, Normandy 1944, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc, Winnipeg, Canada, 2000, p. 38. Note, these losses include losses sustained attacking vital rear areas including railroads and bridges, where the real damage to the German effort in Normandy was done. Nevertheless the majority of Fighter Bomber losses were due to Flak protecting combat units.
(11) S. Badsey, Normandy 1944, Osprey Military, London 1990, p. 85

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Kursk 1943: the Soviet Air Force’s (VVS) Story

According to the Soviets (and in much current literature) the Ilyushin IL-2 ‘Shturmovik’ was the most successful ground attack aircraft in WWII. The most numerous aircraft in WWII (with over 36 136 produced), the Il-2 is claimed to have been responsible for the destruction of huge numbers of German tanks.(12) Let us consider some examples of published ‘results’ for the IL-2 during the battle of Kursk, where it is claimed the IL-2 destroyed many hundreds of German tanks.

  1. On 7th July 1943, in one 20 minute period it has been claimed IL-2s destroyed 70 tanks of the 9th Panzer Division.(13) It actually turns out that close to the start of the battle on 1st July 1943, 9th Panzer Division had only one tank battalion present (the II./Pz Regt 33) with only 83 tanks and assault guns of all types in the Division.(14) 9th Panzer Division doesn’t record any such loss in July (it registers an air-attack referred to as heavy strafing), and 9th Panzer Division continued in action for over three months after this so called ‘devastating attack’, with most of its initial tanks still intact.(15)
  2. During the battle of Kursk, the VVS IL-2s claimed the destruction of no less than 270 tanks (and 2 000 men) in a period of just two hours against the 3rd Panzer Division.(16) On 1st July the 3rd Panzer Division’s 6th Panzer Regiment had only 90 tanks, 180 less than claimed as destroyed!(17) On 11th July (well after the battle) the 3rd Panzer Division still had 41 operational tanks.(18) 3rd Panzer Division continued fighting throughout July, mostly with 48th Panzer Corps. It did not record any extraordinary losses to air attack throughout this period. As with the other panzer divisions at Kursk, the large majority of 3rd Panzer Division’s tank losses were due to dug in Soviet AT guns and tanks.
  3. Perhaps the most extraordinary claim by the VVS’s IL-2s, is that over a period of 4 hours they destroyed 240 tanks and in the process virtually wiped out the 17th Panzer Division. On 1st July the 17th Panzer Division had only one tank battalion (the II./Pz Rgt 39) with a grand total of only 67 tanks.(19) This time only 173 less than claimed destroyed by the VVS! The 17th Panzer Division was not even in the main attack sector for the Kursk battle, but further south with 1st Panzer Army’s 24th Panzer Corps. The 17th Panzer did not register any abnormal losses due to aircraft in the summer of 1943, and retreated westwards with Army Group South later in the year still intact.

In fact total German tank losses in Operation Citadel amounted to 1 612 tanks and assault guns damaged and 323 totally destroyed, the vast majority to Soviet AT guns and AFVs.(20) Where are the many hundreds destroyed by IL-2’s? It appears the RAF and VVS vied for the title for ‘most tank kill over-claims in WWII’.

In addition it is difficult to find any first hand accounts by German Panzer crews on the Eastern Front describing anything more than the occasional loss to direct air attack. The vast majority, around 95%, of tank losses are due to enemy AT guns, tanks, mines, artillery, and infantry assault, or simply abandoned as operational losses. Total German fully tracked AFV losses on the East Front from 1941 to 1945 amounted to approximately 32 800 AFVs. At most 7% were destroyed by direct air attack, which amounts to approximately 2 300 German fully tracked AFV lost to direct air attack, a portion of which would be lost to other aircraft types such as the Petlyakov Pe-2. From 22nd June 1941 to war’s end, 23 600 Il-2 and Il-10 ground attack aircraft were irrecoverably lost.(21) Whatever these aircraft were doing to pay such a high price it wasn’t destroying German tanks. If that was there primary target, then over 10 Il-2s and Il-10s were irrecoverably lost for every German fully tracked AFV that was completely destroyed by direct air attack on the East Front during WWII.

(12) Does not include the similar but much improved Il-10 produced from October 1944, and in action by February 1945.
(13) F. Crosby, The Complete Guide to Fighters and Bombers of WWII, Anness Publishing Ltd: Hermes House, London, 2006, p. 365. Also M. Healy, Kursk 1943, Osprey Military, London, 1993, p. 56.
(14) D. M. Glantz, J.M. House, The Battle of Kursk, Ian Allan Publishing Ltd, Surrey, UK, 1999, p. 349.
(15) T. L. Jentz, Panzer Truppen, The Complete Guide to the Creation and Combat Deployment of Germany’s Tank Force: 1943-1945, Schiffer Military History, Atglen, PA, 1996, pp. 74-101.
(16) F. Crosby, The Complete Guide to Fighters and Bombers of WWII, Anness Publishing Ltd: Hermes House, London, 2006, p. 365.
(17) Ibid, note 14, p. 350.
(18) D. M. Glantz, J.M. House, The Battle of Kursk, Ian Allan Publishing Ltd, Surrey, UK, 1999, p. 353.
(19) T. L. Jentz, Panzer Truppen, The Complete Guide to the Creation and Combat Deployment of Germany’s Tank Force: 1943-1945, Schiffer Military History, Atglen, PA, 1996, p. 80.
(20) D. M. Glantz, J.M. House, The Battle of Kursk, Ian Allan Publishing Ltd, Surrey, UK, 1999, p. 276.
(21) G.F. Krivosheev, Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses un the Twentieth Century, Greenhill Books, London, 1997, pp. 254 and 255. Krivosheev lists only 100 Ground attack aircraft available on 22nd June 41, so these are all IL-2s. PE-2s are listed as bombers, and fighter-bombers are listed as fighters. Krivosheev also claims 11 200 Il-2s were non-combat losses, a figure almost impossible to reconcile with other air forces non-combat losses.

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Kursk 43: the Luftwaffe’s Story

In July 1943 the German Citadel Offensive (battle of Kursk) was supported by several types of apparently highly effective ground attack aircraft, two of which were specialist tank killing machines. The first was the Henschel 129B-1/2. Made in modest numbers (only 870 of all types) it was specifically designed for the anti-tank and close support mission. The second was the Ju87G-1, armed with two 37mm cannon also specifically designed to kill armour. These aircraft, along with Fw-190Fs, were first employed en masse in the Schlachtgeschwader units supporting Operation Citadel.

They are credited with ‘wreaking havoc amongst Soviet armour’ and the destruction of hundreds of Soviet tanks in this battle. On 8th July 1941, Hs 129s are credited with destroying 50
T-34s in the 2nd Guards Tank Corps in less than an hour.(22) There is some evidence that 2nd Guards Tank Corps took heavy casualties on 8th July, but 50 tanks appears to exceed their total losses form all causes.

In fact total Soviet tank losses in operation Citadel amounted to 1 614 tanks totally destroyed, the vast majority to German tanks and assault guns.(23) Further detailed research has shown air power only accounted for 2-5% of Soviet tanks destroyed in the battle of Kursk.(24) This equates to at most around 80 tanks. Again, even if this is a low estimate, where are the hundreds of tanks destroyed by German ground attack aircraft?

(22) M. Healy, Kursk 1943, Osprey Military, London, 1993, p. 66.
(23) D. M. Glantz, J.M. House, The Battle of Kursk, Ian Allan Publishing Ltd, Surrey, UK, 1999, p. 276. According to Glantz and House, these are admitted Soviet tanks totally destroyed but the number is probably higher. In addition a similar number were probably recovered as repairable.
(24) Tank Forces in Defense of the Kursk Bridgehead, Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Volume 7, No 1, March 1994, p. 114.

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Why Were Tanks Such Difficult Targets For Aircraft During WWII?

AFVs, particularly medium or heavy tanks, were probably the most difficult targets for aircraft to attack in WWII. Given the more realistic historical assessments detailed (above) for Normandy and Kursk, objective analysis shows why aircraft attempting to attack armour in WWII faced several major hurdles.

  1. During WWII, aircraft with unguided weapons were relatively inaccurate. To a lesser extent this is the case even today and there is no comparison with modern combat aircraft with guided weapons. Against soft targets this was not as critical because bombs and rockets deployed by WWII aircraft were area weapons. Even so, small soft targets such as entrenched AT guns were difficult for WWII aircraft to destroy. Small pinpoint targets, like a moving tank, were very hard to hit because tanks required a direct hit with an AT weapon or a near miss with a very large air launched weapon to destroy it. Even much larger moving targets such as ships were difficult to hit by modern standards. This inaccuracy stems from the nature of aircraft and the state of guided weapon technology at that time. In practical terms this meant that for an average fighter-bomber conducting a strafing attack, the tank remained in the gun sight for approximately a 10th of a second! Even if the pilot was to point his aircraft straight at the tank, a difficult and dangerous manoeuvre against a heavily protected target like a tank spearhead, he would have had at most a few seconds to aim his cannon, MGs, rockets or bombs.
  2. Land based vehicles could carry enough ammunition to sustain approximately an hour of combat, but aircraft could not. Aircraft carried very limited ammunition for their permanently mounted weapons such as cannon, and obviously carried relatively limited numbers of individual air launched weapons i.e. bombs and rockets. This meant they could only attack the target for a very limited time compared to land based weapon systems. Even late in WWII, aircraft only carried sufficient ammunition for 1-4 passes on the target.
  3. Most aircraft mounted automatic weapons were not designed for sustained fire. Apart from ammunition considerations, these weapons quickly overheated and would likely jam if fired for more than a few seconds at a time. Most often they were fired in shorter bursts suited to air to air combat.
  4. Aircraft mounted weapons spent much less time in service (i.e. actually exerting their lethality), then ground based weapons due to overall aircraft malfunctions. This is in addition to the weapon’s Reliability Factor (RL), which only considers the inherent reliability of the weapon itself.
  5. Aircraft were not suited to carry large calibre and high muzzle velocity AT weapons. This was due to the weight of the weapon with more than a few rounds of ammunition and the very severe recoil stresses placed on the airframe. The largest AT weapons placed on WWII aircraft were the 75mm Pak40L guns on the Henschel Hs 129B-3 and the Junkers Ju 88P-1. Neither aircraft was particularly successful with the ‘monster gun’ really proving too much for the airframes. The Hs 129B-1/2 with 30-37mm AT guns was more successful, while Ju 88P remained one of the few unsuccessful developments of the basic Ju 88 design. It is worth mentioning the relatively successful Ju87G-1, armed with two 37mm BK (Flak 18) AT guns. This modification provided the obsolescent Ju 87 with a new lease of life late in WWII. It is interesting to not the Hs 129B-3 carried only four 75mm rounds while the Ju87G-1 carried only 12 37mm rounds. Good examples of the very limited amount of ammunition carried for aircraft mounted weapon, discussed above.During WWII, the large majority of aircraft attacking tanks with aircraft mounted weapons used 20mm cannon or simply HMGs. These include aircraft such as the Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Typhoon, Hawker Tempest, De Havilland Mosquito, most Ilyushin Il-2s and Il-10s (some had 37mm cannon), Yakovlev Yak-7/9, Petlyakov Pe-2/3bis, Lockheed P38 Lightning, North American P51 Mustang, and the Republic P47 Thunderbolt. The average 20mm cannon with standard ammunition had great difficulty penetrating the 12-15mm top armour on the Pz IV H, and almost no chance against the 16mm top armour on the Panther and the 25mm top armour on the Tiger I, even if they managed to hit them! The reader should also bear in mind that on average the strike angle of cannon shells on the top of AFVs was usually in the region of 30 to 60 degrees, because aircraft could not attack vertically downwards (the Ju 87 Stuka came closest to this ideal attack angle, which also dramatically increases the accuracy of any air launched ordnance). In general 20mm cannon only inflicted superficial damage on even light tanks, with the most severe damage being penetrations through the top engine grill covers and damage to the engines. Unless the battlefield situation dictated that these tanks became operational total losses (eg, abandoned due to retreat), then they were usually quickly repaired and returned to service.The lack of a suitable anti-tank armament meant all these aircraft had to rely on much less accurate air launched weapons (i.e. rockets and bombs) to kill late war German tanks. Late war rockets and heavy bombs were capable of destroying a medium tank, but were considerably less accurate than the already inaccurate fire from cannon and MGs. Against a Panther or Tiger tank, nothing short of a direct hit was going to even have a chance of destroying them.
  6. AFVs and tanks were usually found in forward combat units and ‘spearhead’ attack formations. These units often had light and medium flak units protecting them which consisted of 20-37mm mobile flak guns. Even in 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, German panzer divisions had integral light flak units with the panzer regiments. This made tank targets extremely dangerous to attack compared to most other ground targets. In addition, aircraft attacking tanks were required to attack at low level, well in reach of light flak guns. The flak also meant fighter-bombers were less able to fly using a nice straight attack approach, and were often thrown about by exploding flak shells, further reducing their accuracy. Indeed it seems that air attacks on tanks protected by flak were more dangerous to the aircraft than the tanks. The 1 726 fighter-bombers lost from the 2nd Tactical Air Force and the 9th United States Air Force over Normandy in 1944 is testament to how lethal light flak can be.(25)
  7. Weather and visibility were major considerations for all air operations. This was especially true for aircraft attempting low level attacks against armour without any form of all weather equipment enjoyed by modern day combat aircraft.
(25) N. Zetterling, Normandy 1944, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc, Winnipeg, Canada, 2000, p. 38. The vast majority of these aircraft were destroyed by flak, as the Allies enjoyed air supremacy during the Normandy Campaign.

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