This is one of those discussions I’ve found myself in many times over the years. Its a favorite topic among war gamers, model builders and amateur historians. So as someone who fits all three categories, its come up before(!).
Join me after the jump for what I hope will be an entertaining, if utterly pointless essay.
I’ll start with the obvious, there is really no way to answer either part of this question (best/worst). But I think it can be an interesting exercise when we establish certain criteria. For one, I’m not really interested in experimental types that never saw real service. Don’t get me wrong, some of those subjects can be fascinating as “what ifs” and have a high “gee whiz” factor; but I don’t think we can meaningfully evaluate an aircraft that was never operational.
Now I have to admit, for whatever perverse reason, I find the “worst” side of this discussion far more interesting. I’ll start by saying its pretty rare for a grossly deficient aircraft to actually enter service. No government, and no manufacturer actually wants to put aircrew into a defective death trap. Some suppliers may be found to be incompetent or corrupt, but I don’t believe we can find many examples of anything as complex and expensive as an aircraft making it all the way through a testing, trials and order process that was without any virtue. At least that’s always my starting assumption.
One thing I’ve often seen come up in war gaming circles is labeling some very obsolete type as “hopeless”, “worthless” or “worst ever”. I try to resist this. Every country had older aircraft still on inventory that weren’t really intended for combat operations any more. A good example of this could be the P-26 Peashooter. In playing a game like “Pacific War” there are a couple of fighter squadrons equipped with the type (72nd Pursuit Squadron in Hawaii and 6th Interceptor Squadron of the Philippine Army Air Corps), and its easy for a gamer to say “this plane is worthless, its the worst plane in the entire war!” But the type was ten years old! No one considered it a front line fighter. In both Hawaii and the Philippines it was due for replacement, and it wound up on combat missions only in extreme emergencies. It flew night patrols over Hawaii until more modern aircraft were available; and Capt Jesus Villamor in the Philippines scored two kills, including a Zero, with a P-26.
But the pace of change in the decade before the war ensured that many older types remained in service, especially with smaller air forces, all around the world. From Bristol Bulldog to Martin B-10 these are aircraft that no one ever considered a good weapon in the 1940s. And that extreme obsolescence, or the fact they may be a total disaster in a particular setting or war game does not make them very interesting candidates in a “worst aircraft” discussion, at least not to me.
But what does interest me is the mostly modern types, machines that were state of the art, or nearly were, at some point during the war, that proved to be more dangerous to the operator than to the target. Most of these would be called failed concepts. The designer tried something different that utterly failed.
A few times on this site I’ve mentioned the failed “heavy fighter” concept. In the mid to late 1930s many air forces entertained the idea. It was generally accepted that in order to achieve the long range needed to provide bomber escort, two engines would be required. A single engine aircraft simply couldn’t carry enough fuel without being dangerously overloaded. So several countries; Germany, Great Britain, Japan and the Soviet Union among them, ordered large two engine aircraft to provide the needed long range escort. Most of these planes were not complete dogs, they were typically fast and had heavy firepower; but they were all severely deficient in terms of maneuverability vs single engine fighters. Even to the point the Germans wound up having to provide fighter escort to their heavy Bf110 fighters!
The Germans were the first to have to face utter disillusionment with their “elite” heavy fighter squadrons. But I’m not going to put any heavy fighters on my “worst” list either. Because all the heavy fighters I can think of proved to be very successful in other roles. The Germans discovered the Bf110 made an excellent high speed light bomber, night fighter and bomber destroyer. Even to the point that when production of the type was terminated late in 1941, it had to be resumed because nothing else was adequate for some of its roles.
Similarly the Japanese Ki-45 Nick proved to be excellent as a light attack aircraft, and later as a B-29 destroyer.
Perhaps the Me210, the aircraft that was supposed to replace the Bf110, but was in turn replaced by an improved Bf110, is deserving of a worst aircraft award? Its handling characteristics were so bad it was quickly withdrawn from service. But the design was “fixed”. The Me410 delivered on the promise of the Me210, and was little enough changed it ordinarily would have just been considered an improved Me210 model. But for PR/marketing reasons the designation was changed. So its hard for me to regard the Me210 as a truly unique type, its merely the unsuccessful early version of the Me410.
The most deficient of the category might have been Bristol Blenheim. This had been a high speed light bomber of the mid 1930s, but by the time World War Two started it wasn’t particularly fast any more. Very unfortunately for the British, they had equipped several squadrons with an ill-advised fighter variant of the bomber. But when it proved to be the only fighter type on inventory that could carry an early airborne radar system it was found to be of at least marginal usefulness as a night fighter. It was still too slow, but not completely hopeless.
“Heavy Observation” or “Army Co-Operation” was another questionable category. The Germans produced a few marginally useful types like the Hs126 or the Fw189. These were observation planes that carried some light firepower and ordinance that could cause some minor mayhem while taking pictures. But the type required local air superiority to be of any use. The British Westland Lysander took heavy casualties over France; but found a role later that took advantage of its extraordinary short/unimproved field capabilities. It flew agents in and out of enemy territory at night. The US equivalents, the North American O-47 and Curtis O-52 Owl were wisely never used in combat. The mission type was better fulfilled by fighters or attack/light bombers.
Several countries did enter World War II with types they never wanted to use operationally. I believe the Sukhoi Su-2 is in this category; it was a Soviet light tactical aircraft that was replaced by the famous Il-2 Sturmovik just as fast as could be managed. But the Fairey Battle is the most notorious of this sort. It was a light bomber with none of the normal light bomber virtues like speed or maneuverability. It was really meant to be used more like a medium bomber; that is, level flight, higher altitude, with fighter protection. The RAF accepted the type from a penny pinching government in the late 1930s with the idea it would help them to expand, and get more pilots and bombardiers trained and proficient for when they had enough truly war ready aircraft to go around. The situation became tragic when the RAF needed to help France, and a decision was made to put mostly less valuable squadrons in harm’s way. Battle squadrons were shot to pieces for little effect. I have to consider this another of the “worst” aircraft of the War; that judgement is only softened a little because everyone knew it was inadequate for the task.
A category that did lead to truly awful aircraft was the “turret fighter”. This was an entirely British fiasco. The idea was a fighter plane that carried two specialists each devoting their full attention to what they did best. A pilot to fly, and a gunner to shoot. But this ran in to a similar problem as the “Heavy Fighters”; a separate gunner and a power turret added considerable weight to a fighter plane. The true origin for this concept may lie entirely on the Boulton Paul Company. They designed a power turret for the RAF’s bombers. The turret was effective and fairly light weight. To be fair, the two man fighter had seen some success in World War I. And the British envisioned large formations of German bombers, without escort, flying over London. So as a pure bomber destroyer the idea may have some merit. Perhaps the pilot could have chosen an attack angle, like from below, that avoided the greatest concentration of defensive fire. But in practice it was counter productive. Unlike other fighters, the pilot and gunner functions being separate, meant that the two couldn’t always intuit what the other was up to. The airplane itself, the Defiant, was also unremarkable; stable, docile, predictable. These are not normally ideal traits for a fighter. Especially not when the plane is also slower than enemy fighters. Apparently Defiants scored some early kills when attacked by Messerschmitts that mistook them for a conventional fighter, and attacked from the rear only to get shot up by a ready gunner. But once the Germans saw the trick, the plane was easy prey.
But I think one of my favorite candidates for worst aircraft of World War II is the Blackburn Roc. Because if the Royal Air Force had a turret fighter, the Royal Navy wanted one too. Boulton Paul offered a navalized Defiant; but the Royal Navy decided a derivitive of their newest dive bomber from Blackburn (the Skua) was a better idea. Never mind that the Sea Defiant, weighted down with full carrier gear (arresting gear, catapult hard points, life raft) was still 85 knots faster than a modified dive bomber; apparently someone really liked the symmetry of having an escort fighter for those Skuas that would never out run them. To be fair, it was recognized early enough that a fighter with a top speed of just over 200 kts would not do well. But nonetheless, Rocs were used on Royal Navy aircraft carriers and flew combat missions until mid 1940.
There are a couple other categories I want to look at more briefly. Several countries put armed trainers in to combat. In most cases, this was seen as an expedient of some sort. North American’s famous Texan was particularly appealing in this category; as a rugged, easy to fly aircraft with 600 HP it was certainly capable for some sorts of missions. It was developed into a single seat fighter (P-64 and NA-50) and a two seat attack bomber (A-27). These were intended for smaller countries with smaller budgets, but many wound up repossessed by the US government due to questionable politics of their original purchasers. The Australians manufactured the type under license, and due to concerns over the availability of British types they had traditionally flown, they developed their own “fighter” from the Texan. The CAC Wirraway was basically a Texan with 2 .303 MGs in the nose and bomb racks for up to a 1000 lb load. If we consider it a fighter as the Aussies called it, it is barely better than the Roc. But it was used as a light tactical and support type aircraft. It did adequately in that job.
There were other attempts at cheap fighters that didn’t do too well. The French company Caudron built the C.714 with a 500 hp engine, 4 light machine guns, and a top speed of under 300 mph. The American Companies Vultee and Curtiss tried similar projects (P-66 Vanguard and CW-21 Demon) that saw some action with smaller air forces, but failed to distinguish themselves. Late in the war the Germans tried with the single engine jet Heinkel He162 Salamander; but now I’m getting into that whole category of German desperation projects (including the Me163 Komet) that were typically more dangerous to the user than the target, and I’m not interested in exploring all that at this time. But pretty much every attempt at a cheap fighter belongs on a “worst” list.
I also could mention a special category of “Worst”; worst manufacturer of World War II. Readers who have been with me for a while can guess where this is going! I previously posted on the Brewster Buffalo which had as bad a combat record as any type in the war. But the performance of Finnish Buffalos confuses the matter considerably. I have to conclude that the Buffalo, as a type, is not really a good candidate for the “worst” aircraft of World War II. In spite of the whole chapter devoted to the Buffalo in Bill Yenne’s entertaining book “The World’s Worst Aircraft“, I can’t agree. In the hands of experienced pilots, with dedicated maintenance personnel, the Buffalo performed more than capably. But Brewster, as a manufacturer, is the stuff of legend. They had three major contracts in World War Two; the aforementioned Buffalo, their own SB2A Buccaneer, and the well proven Corsair (Vought designed, but known as a F3A when built by Brewster).
The Buffalo was a good enough design. but later versions, especially the F2A-3, were maintenance nightmares. They had a bad reputation for engine and landing gear failures in particular. The SB2A was a contemporary of the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, and was ordered as a hedge, in case the Helldiver proved unable to do its job. Those who are familiar with the Helldiver story and the type’s problems will appreciate the full magnitude of this, but the Navy always felt the Buccaneer was a less appealing alternative. It was built in limited numbers and flown by the US and Great Britain as a trainer; but was mostly used as a maintenance trainer (think about it, that’s a good one!).
But the last straw for Brewster was their attempt at building the Corsair. Brewster built Corsairs were so deficient the Navy quickly decided they would only be used as trainers. They were poorly built and constantly in need of repairs. Apparently, on more than one occasion, “complete” Brewster Corsairs were discovered to have tools and loose parts left behind somewhere in the interior of the aircraft. The other major manufacturer of the Corsair, Goodyear, put out a product than many pilots felt was superior to the Vought built aircraft. But the Brewster Corsair was not liked. Eventually, the Navy canceled all orders with the company. And several Brewster executives finished out the war in jail.
I do have to admit I’m not familiar enough with all the minor types that saw some limited service to confidently call this essay thorough. And every country tried to assign older and deficient types to secondary theaters; no doubt, many aircraft were never “exposed” for their failings because they were wisely limited in their use. I also must admit to not knowing as much about minor types of the Soviet Union or Italy, someone may have strong opinions about the I-153, ANT-6 or SM.84!
It did make me laugh a little to see my leading candidates for worst aircraft all seem to be British. I’m not sure what bias may be at play there? But I’ll stick with Blackburn Roc, Boulton Paul Defiant and Fairey Battle as the worst types to see much use in World War II. I’ll also label “Light Fighter” the worst category (I figure since both “Turret Fighters” already made the list it was redundant to list that category!) and Brewster as the worst manufacturer.
Next Tuesday I expect to post “The Best” side of this essay.
This is the sort of subject that just screams for other opinions. I would love to hear from readers on this; what would you call the worst aircraft of World War II? (I look forward to a good
The Best Airplane of World War II
Up Next: Fairey Swordfish