Dogfights in Wartime

 Zero animals were harmed in the writing of this article.

No, dogs were not used as weapons of war in the 1900s. War dogfighting simply refers to aerial battles between aircraft.

Dogfights in Wartime

Why It’s Called a Dogfight

For centuries, “dogfight” has been used as a label for a fight in close quarters. Aerial dogfights are not specific to WWII when aircraft technology really began to take off; there are known records of aerial combat in the Mexican Revolution (1913) and World War I (1918).

So, What is Dogfighting?

Before aircraft had the sophisticated weapon technology they have today, they were primarily used for reconnaissance purposes in wars. If a pilot felt inclined to instigate an attack, or dogfight, on enemy aircraft, they had to get creative. But with limited weight capacity, WWI planes couldn’t carry much in the way of artillery.

Weapons used by pilots in early WWI:

  • An angry hand gesture

  • Bricks

  • Grenades

  • Pistols

  • Sawed-off rifles

  • Rope

Not exactly the best methods of taking down an enemy plane, but pilots worked with what they had.

Mounting Guns to Aircraft

Eventually, light-weight guns, such as the Lewis, were affixed to WWI aircraft. They weren’t without their hiccups, though. A plane had to be aimed at the enemy in order for the pilot or rear passenger of the plane, the gunner, to take aim. Meanwhile, the pilot would be dodging enemy gunfire while trying to take a shot himself. In WWI, pIlots continued to get creative in order to improve their aim, resulting in the following inventions.

Interrupter Gear

In 1913, pilots could use interrupter gear created by Franz Schneider that permitted them to fire a machine gun from the cockpit without hitting the propeller. This aircraft modification relied on timing, literally interrupting the machine-gun fire in order to sync it with the rotation of the propeller. 

Safety Harnesses

In order to increase the mobility of the machine guns on their aircraft, some pilots devised a safety harness that would allow the gunner to stand in his seat and take aim. With the strap securing the gunner into the plane, he could turn his body and aim at enemy planes while the pilot focused on navigating the plane out of danger.

Propeller Plates

If a single-seat aircraft wanted to arm its pilot with a machine gun, the pilot’s best option for successful combat was to have a gun that shot forward through the plane’s propellers. But what happens if a bullet hits the blades when being shot from the cockpit? It was possible for a bullet to ricochet backward, toward the pilot.

To improve the effectiveness of machine-gun fire from aircraft without relying on an interrupter, the French had an idea. In 1915, pilot Rolan Garros and aircraft manufacturer Raymond Saulnier created, manufactured, and installed deflector plates. These triangular, steel plates were added to propeller blades, and were meant to direct bullets away from the pilot in the event they hit the moving propeller.

Deflector plates were a huge success and allowed bullets to be directed forward even if they pinged a propeller blade. Unfortunately, this technology fell into the hands of the Germans after Garros was shot down. As a result, they had a Dutch aircraft manufacturer replicate deflector blades so they could see for themselves how they worked.

Above-Wing Gun Mounts

In 1916, another option for pilots to man a machine gun was via above-wing mounts. With a biplane, there is a wing just in front of and above a pilot’s head. A Lewis gun was mounted on that wing, allowing a single-seater aircraft an unobstructed path to fire at enemy aircraft over the propeller.

With such advancements, dogfights become more commonplace in WWI, turning planes from surveyors to soldiers.

WWII Dogfights

When World War II broke out in the 1930s, there were different opinions on how aircraft should perform in combat. Some countries still wanted an emphasis on maneuverability, while others wanted to improve speed. It was a common belief, however, that aerial combat should involve the ability to prevent attacks, scouting out bombers, and thwarting their missions. To be honest, it seems a pilot would want both speed and evasive maneuver capability in order to survive combat, but to each his own.

Pilots were implementing V-shaped attacks, and some opted to switch to operating with a wingman instead. Strategies for improving formation and flight tactics were developing, as was the artillery used in WWII.

WWII Aircraft Artillery

While the Lewis gun and 37mm cannons played an important role in WWI dogfights, WWII brought the big guns. And cannons. And, eventually, bombs. Here’s a look at some of the guns used in WWII and in subsequent wars to follow.

  • Mk 108 30 mm cannon

  • COW 37 mm automatic cannon

  • T9 anti-aircraft gun (37 mm cannon)

  • Bordkanone BK 37 mm gun pods

  • 37 mm Nudelman cannon

  • 40 mm Vickers S Gun

  • 50 mm BK5 automatic cannon

  • 57 mm AF 6-pounder/Molins gun

  • 75 mm cannon

  • .30 mm machine gun

  • .50 mm machine gun

  • Pak 40 anti-tank gun

  • 88 mm gun

  • 20 mm Vulcan cannon

  • 40 mm Bofor gun

  • M102 105mm howitzer

Improvements to gun safety continued to advance the war efforts, as did improvements to plane technology. Beginning in WWII, planes were rapidly advancing when it came to jet propulsion, weight limits, radar, and more.

Aircraft Through the Ages

Let’s take a look at some of the planes that changed dogfighting tactics over the years. You could say these are the goodest boys of their respective wars.

  • Avro 504 - first with a safety harness for gunners

  • Eindecker Monoplanes - first with interrupter gear

  • Morane Saulnier Monoplane - first with deflector plates

  • Avro DH2 Fighter Plane - biplane with rear engine, providing an unobstructed view for pilot-manned machine guns

  • Chance Vought F4U-4 Corsair - feared by the Japanese for its artillery (guns, bombs, and rockets) and its 1,500-mile range.

  • Focke-Wulf FW 190 D-9 - small but mighty, with heavy armor and artillery.

  • Lockheed P-38J Lightning - one of the greatest dogfighters feared by the Germans.

  • Mitsubishi A6M Zero - fast and furious craft with guns and Type 99 cannons.

  • North American P-51D Mustang - preferred plane thanks to its range, speed, visibility, and maneuverability.

  • Republic P-47D Thunderbolt - a craft that could take a hit while carrying 8 guns and 2,500lbs of bombs.

  • Soviet Yakovlev Yak-3 - considered the best dogfighter the Soviets had, featuring tight maneuverability.

  • Supermarine MKs 24 Spitfire - known for its ability to gain altitude quickly.

Dogfighting changed the role of pilots forever. They went from mere fliers to fighters, developing skills that made many invaluable to the countries they represented during wartime.

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