War Machine, Volume 4

Night Fighters of World War 1 1 World War II saw the development ofnight fighting from avery imprecise hit-or-miss art using rudimentary equipment in hastily converted aircraft to a refined science using highly-developed tactics in purpose-built aircraft equipped with sophisticated radar and weapons. When World War II started in September 1939 no air force was equip­ped with aircraft specifically designed for the night fighting role. Only the UK had woken up to the fact that with the raison d'etre of the modern air force being offensive bombing operations such aircraft would be urgently needed most air forces made dousing night flying day infighters, conjunction with ground searchlights. While the RAF was conducting experiments with rudimentary airborne radar in a handful of obsoles­cent Bristol Blenheims the Bristol aircraft company was hard at work developing the Bristol Beaufighter the worlds first dedicated night- fighter to carry radar produced entirely on their own initiative. This entered service during the Battle of Britain and first saw combat in the German night Blitz of 1940-1. From these small beginnings began an entirely new science of air­craft interception that has continued to advance ever since the science of locating the enemy on ground radar guiding the fighter towards its target by means of ground controllers and eventually using airborne radar closing to within range of the fighter's own weapons for the kill, Although more within the scope of the bombers' operations the night- fighter crew shad to contend with a growing parallel science of coun­termeasures as the bomber's equipment began to include the means to blind the ground radar and to provide warning of the approach of a night-fighter. Although the British advanced relatively quickly with successively improved Beaufighters and de Havilland Mosquitoes (as well as discard­ing the outmoded Blenheims Boulton Paul Defiants and Hawker Hurri­canes) and unquestionably led the world in night-fighting techniques and technology (until the arrival in service of the American-developed centimetric AI Mk X) German ingenuity produced highly efficient night- Two Northrop P-61 BlackWidows sweep over the Pacific near Saipan, in the Marianas Islands late in January 1945. The Black Widow enjoyed particular success as a night infighter thePacific where its long range and firepower could be effectively used. fighter adaptations of the Messerschmitt Bf 110 and Junkers Ju 88 these two aircraft together with the excellent Heinkel He 219 provided the backbone of the Reichs night-fighter defence between 1942 and 1945. Not surprisingly with so many RAF heavy bombers operating almost nightly over Europe during this period there came onto the scene numerous Luftwaffe night-fighter pilots whose individual victory scores far eclipsed any achievements of their Allied counterparts it being fairly commonplace for German pilots to destroy four or more Avro Lancasters and Handley Page Halifaxes on single sorties once they had entered the g^eat bomber stream their victory bag-was limited only by their use of arnmijinition and fuel. Moreover the development of the upward-firing cannon (not to mention fairly efficient airborne radar) enabled the Germans to destroy RAF bombers in such away that the British 'didn't know what had hit them'. Elsewhere with concerted night operations conducted on a much lesser scale until the onset of the great American night offensive against Japan in 1944 night fighting demanded less attention to sophisticated equipment and tactics than in Europe although these were quickly introduced when the Boeing B-29 started operations. By and large, during the first two years of the Pacific War neither Japan nor the United States engaged insignificant night bombing and accordingly did little until 1943 to introduce specialist night-fighters the Douglas P-70 (though widely employed) being unequivocally a makeshift adaptation of alight bomber. Of all night fighters of World War II the Northrop P-61 Black Widow was the most carefully planned from the outset for this challenging task. It had radar a pilot two gunners and devastating firepower. I? BF T V tj LlJ --7 i\r m-*i'' 2 jS k
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