Aircraft of the Second World War at Sea
British Fighters
By Steve Cabral
May 2019

The Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed during the last year of World War One. In 1936 the RAF was divided into four Commands: Fighter (which included Army Cooperation and the Observer Corps), Bomber, Coastal (which was responsible for all land-based maritime aircraft and flying boat stations), and Training. At sea the RAF controlled the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) and this created an antagonism between Navy and Air Force only slightly less caustic than that between Germany's Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. The RAF purchased vast amounts of aircraft from the United States before the Americans entered the war and received still more via Lend-Lease. The Coastal Command, FAA and Western Desert Force in particular benefited from U.S. planes. Interestingly Spitfire, Beaufighter and Mosquitos were "reverse lend-leased" to U.S. Army Air Force units.

The RAF did not develop an aerial Search and Rescue (SAR) program before the war. Instead they relied on fast launches and passing ships to rescue aviators in the English Channel, with no possibility of rescues far from home. In 1941 an effective SAR was finally organized.

Fighter Command

Fighter Command was primarily concerned with the defense of Britain from attack. The bombing of Guernica convinced many that the Germans would attack British cities. The limited number of pilots also forced Fighter Command to keep planes in England once losses in France and Norway reached critical proportions. The lack of an effective long-range fighter hindered Fighter Command in supporting Bomber Command in attacks on German targets. After the Battle of Britain ended Fighter Command was primarily interested in home defense and sweeps against German fighters over the English Channel. Daylight bombing was rare but "Circus" missions involving Hurricanes and Stirlings were occasionally flown in 1941 over Europe in daytime. As new aircraft came on line fighter bomber missions over Europe became common and the Beaufighter and Mosquito fighter-bombers were effective U-boat attackers.

Bomber Command

RAF’s Bomber Command was primarily concerned with attacking the German surface fleet and conducting night strategic bombing once the threat of invasion ended. From the battle of Heligoland Bight 18 December 1939 to the sinking of Tirpitz on 12 November 1944 the German surface fleet was targeted for destruction. Bomber Command limited itself to bombing U-boat pens and shipyards and did not conduct ASW attacks directly.

Coastal Command

Coastal Command suffered as the weak sister of the RAF. Equipped with hand-me-downs and "flying junks," the force was in poor shape in 1939. The primary ASW plane, the Avro Anson, was equipped with a 100 lb bomb — the RAF did not acquire epth charges until 1941. This bomb tended to skip off the ocean so one Anson was destroyed when its own bomb bounced into it. Still another Anson scored a direct hit on a sub: the explosion broke four light bulbs and worse, it was a Royal Navy sub. Purchased from the United States just before the war began, Lockheed Hudson recon bombers were a superior aircraft to the Anson and were equipped for ASW in 1940. Britain’s large flying boat the Sunderland was effective in both recon and ASW roles. It killed the first German sub of the war by aerial bombing in January 1940. Lend-lease B-24’s were the most effective sub killers of the war. PBYs were also effective lend-lease recon and ASW planes.  Eventually Whitleys, Wellingtons, Hampdens, Halifaxes, Beauforts, Beaufighters and Mosquitos came into Coastal Command service.

Fleet Air Arm

FAA was equipped with mostly obsolescent planes when the war began. Biplanes like the Sea Gladiator, Swordfish and Albacore served alongside low-performance monoplanes like the Skua and Fulmar. Eventually, "navalized" versions of the Hurricane and Spitfire were developed and American carrier planes became available during the war. The F4F was a very effective U-Boat suppresser; it is credited with 21 kills though it actually sank none. Instead it used the .50 caliber machine guns to suppress the U-Boat crew while a carrier bomber finished the sub off. One interesting development was the CAM fighter, a Hurricane and catapult added to a merchant ship. Upon air attack they were launched to intercept and proved very effective, especially against FW.200 bombers.


As in Germany fighters, tended not to be assigned maritime duties except in the FAA but instead escorted such missions when in range. During the course of the war British fighters tended more towards land-based fighter-bomber missions and less to air superiority than the USAAF or the Luftwaffe due to the short range of their aircraft. Britain instead developed a host of specialized fighter-bombers such as the Mosquito, Beaufighter, Typhoon and Tempest.


Gloster Gladiator: An outdated biplane of the 1930s, this plane accompanied the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1939, fought in Norway in 1940 and engaged Italian Cr-42 biplanes in the Western Desert. One squadron was stationed near Plymouth in the Battle of Britain.

Boulton-Paul Defiant: This was a single-engined aircraft with no forward guns, just a rearward-facing turret with four machine guns. Once the Luftwaffe got a bloody nose over Dunkirk from this plane they developed tactics that neutralized the lumbering heap. It was transferred to night interceptor duty where it performed well.


Hawker Hurricane: The Hurricane I was Britain’s primary fighter in 1939-40. Armed with eight .303 machine guns, it was used for air superiority and bomber interceptor role in those years. The Hurricane II and later marks were fighter-bombers.

Supermarine Spitfire: One of the finest fighter planes in history, the Spitfire I started in 1937 as a monopolane equipped with a two-bladed wooden propeller. After 77 planes were built a metal three-bladed propeller was introduced in the Spitfire Ia. At the end of the Battle of Britain the Mark II was introduced, the "a" version with eight machine guns and the "b" version with four machine guns and two cannon. When the Bf-109F proved superior in early 1941 the Mk V was introduced, it was built in greater numbers than any other Spit. The Mk V was the first version sent overseas, initially to Malta in March 1942 then Egypt by August 1942. The FW.190 made short work of the Mk V, causing its replacement the Mk VIII to have overseas service only including reverse lend-lease to the USA. The Mk IX was introduced in late 1942 to counter the FW.190 and had a four-blade propeller. The Mk XIV was the last major version to see combat. The Mk XVI was a fighter-bomber version. Unlike the Bf-109 the Spit resisted drop tanks and bombs for some perverse aerodynamic reasons. The other Marks were either dead ends, photo-recon or super-specialized aircraft. The Mk 24 was the final version, it served 1946-52.


Fairey Fulmar: A two-seat carrier fighter, it was based on the Fairey Battle a light army bomber that was quickly wiped out over France in 1940. The English expected their carriers to encounter unescorted bombers and so went with a large fighter for their carrier force. It had eight forward machine guns and one rearward, and could carry two 100- or 250-pound bombs. It was able to do recon, a feat most fighter planes could not match. It had some success in the Med, but none as a fighter near Northern Europe.

Westland Whirlwind: A twin-engine fighter with the sleek looks of a jet and four 20mm cannons, it proved useless as a fighter. It had a range of but 300 miles, no different from single-engined fighters, and poor engines as Merlins were reserved for Spitfires. Only two squadrons used plane, as fighter-bombers the pilots called Whirlibombers.


Bristol Beaufighter: Derived from the Beaufort, the Beaufighter was designed and entered service in October 1940 as a heavy night-fighter with radar. It accounted for half of all night air victories in the Blitz. The USAAF operated four nightfighter squadrons until December 1944. Armament was four 20mm cannon and four machine guns.

Gloster Meteor: A single-engined jet fighter first flown in March 1943 and entered service as the only operational Allied jet in July 1944, killing a V-1 cruise missile on its first day. Armed with four 20mm cannon, it only flew CAP in WW II as the British didn’t want one captured by the Germans. It had a top speed of 415 miles per hour compared to 540 mph of Me 262 German jets, 426 mph of the FW.190D or 440 mph of the Bf109K. It was found though that Meteors had high speed at low altitude, unlike the high-altitude piston-engined fighters that generally performed poorly and slower at low altitudes. This made the Meteor perfect for anti-V-1 work. Later Meteors flew unsuccessully against MiG 15 jets in Korea. It was produced until 1954.


DeHavilland Vampire: First flown in September 1943 this single-engined jet fighter entered service in June 1946. Armed with four 20mm cannons, it could carry eight rockets or two 1000 lb bombs. The Sea Vampire was the FAA version.

Saunders-Roe SR.A/1: SRA-1 was inspired by the two successful Japanese floatplane fighters Rufe (A6M2-N) and Rex (N1K1), and exceeded design expectations. The jet engine eliminated the high float needed for propeller planes and it proved excellent at its intended role. A single-engined fighter ordered in 1944, SRA-1 was completed in 1947; only three were made. The aircraft carrier had outdated the floatplane fighter concept. The plane was armed with four 20mm cannon and could reach 512 mph.

Brewster F2-A: The Brewster Buffalo was the U.S. Navy’s first monoplane for carriers. It met with defeat and high losses wherever it entered combat with the exception of Finland, where it held its own against Soviet fighters killing at a 26:1 ratio. The Brewster Buffalo Mk I was purchased by the RAF for Far East service in October 1939 and sent to Singapore. Able to hold their own against Army Ki-27 and Ki-43 fighters, they were wiped out once Navy A6M2 Zeroes arrived. About 100 were lost in combat, 20 more in accidents. Ten survived by February 1942.


Curtiss P-40: This was the U.S. front-line aircraft in 1941-42. An early version was ordered by the French as the Hawk 81-A1; they already had the older Curtiss P-36 as the Hawk 75 and were pleased with them. When France surrendered Britain took the order as the Tomahawk I armed with four .303 machine guns and two .50 machine guns. It was found unsuitable for Europe and after the Invasion threat ended sent to North Africa, where Gladiator-equipped units were converted to the Curtiss fighter. An armored version, the P-40B, became Tomahawk II in RAF service. Before the P-40D was built Britain ordered 560 as the Kittyhawk I, it had four .50 machine guns. The United States wasn’t satisfied with the D and with the E (and all subsequent versions) model six .50 machine guns were introduced; Britain’s were Kittyhawk IA. Extensive numbers went to Commonwealth countries. The P-40F had a Rolls-Royce engine installed and it and the P-40L were Kittyhawk II in the RAF. P-40 K and M were Kittyhawk III and P-40N was Kittyhawk IV. The P-40 was called "the best second-best fighter in the world." It wasn’t a world-class fighter, but skillful users got the job done.


Grumman F4F: The stubby Wildcat was the U.S. Navy’s premier fighter in 1940-43; when the F6F entered service the Wildcat was assigned to escort carriers and stayed in production by GM as the FM-1. Britain received the F4F-3 in 1940 and designated it the Martlet I, other versions were Mark II-III. The F4F-4 was the Martlet IV. The FM-1 became the Martlet V and the specialized FM-2 with new engine and tail for CVE use was the Wildcat VI. In FAA service these planes strafed submarines to suppress AA fire and allow other planes to then sink the sub.

Grumman F6F: The USN’s premier fighter, the F6F-3, went to the RAF as the Gannet I but was quickly changed to Hellcat F1. The F6F-5 was Hellcat F II and the F6F-5N was the Hellcat NF II. The plane served in the Mediterranean, the Far East and off Norway from early 1943 onward.

Vought F4U Corsair: One of the deadliest USN fighters, it was still in production when the Korean War broke out. It had such severe handling characteristics that the Navy restricted it to land-based Navy and Marine squadrons. Britain introduced it to carrier duty before the USN. Britain designated her planes Corsair I-IV; they corresponded to the F4U-1, F4U-1A, FG-1D, F3A-1D. The latter two were Goodyear— and Brewster-built versions of F4U-1D. The first carrier-based operations were against the battleship Tirpitz in April 1944. The plane saw service in the Mediterranean and Far East from HMS Illustrious, Victorious and Formidable, which operated Corsairs.

Wirraway: This Australian-built fighter was a derivative of the U.S. trainer North American NA-16 Harvard. It was designed such that the two-seater could double as a fighter and was used in defense of Port Moresby. Needless to say, it was completely outclassed and outnumbered. In December 1942 a Wirraway got its first Zero kill.

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