14 Important Fighter Aircraft of World War Two

Alex Browne

5 mins

19 Jan 2015

Image credit: Imperial War Museums

From the outset of World War Two fighter and bomber aircraft were clearly differentiated, with the former often used to protect the latter.

1. Messerschmitt Bf 109

Messerschmitt Bf 109G-10 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The museum’s Bf 109G-10 is painted to represent an aircraft from Jagdgeschwader 300, a unit that defended Germany against Allied bombers during WWII. Credit: US Air Force / Commons.

The German Messerschmitt Bf 109 was perhaps the finest fighter of its day, even if less heavily armed than the Spitfire, and set the benchmark for German fighters throughout the war.

2. Supermarine Spitfire

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The defence of the British Isles in the early part of the war was of paramount importance and depended heavily upon domination in the skies. Britain’s iconic Supermarine Spitfires were ably assisted by Hawker Hurricanes.

This duo prevailed in the Battle of Britain, shooting down German aircraft in great numbers before they could cause damage to the mainland.

3. Bristol Beaufighter

Bristol Beaufighter AL-61A in the air. Credit: Photograph album belonging to Mr Lowry / Commons.

The Bristol Beaufighter was the first dedicated night-fighter of the war.

Having already recognised the role that bombing was to play in future war, the British were able to deploy this radar-navigated aircraft with increasing success in the latter stages of the Battle of Britain.

4. de Havilland Mosquito

De Havilland of the 654th Bomb Squadron, 25th Bombardment Group, at RAF Watton England. Credit: National Archives / Commons.

The Beaufighter was ultimately replaced by the de Havilland Mosquito, which offered bomber support over Europe as well as defence for the British Isles.

As the war progressed, fighter aircraft became increasingly multipurpose and able to combine mobility with precision bombing capability.

The development of fighter bombers also provided assistance to ground troops, with their forward reconnaissance particularly useful to informing artillery strikes.

5. Focke-Wulf Fw 190

A captured Focke-Wulf Fw 190A in replicated Luftwaffe insignia. Credit: US Air Force / Commons.

The Bf 190 was joined from 1941 by the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, which provided the Germans with a second world-class fighter.

These aircraft were continually re-equipped as the war progressed and provided the option of conducting swift ground attacks.

6. Hawker Hurricane Mk II

Hawker Hurricane at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Credit: US Air Force / Commons.

In response to their need for a single-engine fighter with a greater offensive threat, the RAF developed the Hawker Hurricane Mk II. This was produced in great quantities and proved highly reliable.

This craft held either eight machine guns or four 20 mm canons on its wings, whilst extra armour plating added protection during low-altitude attacks. Crucially, the Mk II could carry two 500 lb bombs.

It was later fitted with 40 mm canons as well as rockets, making it an effective tank-buster, and was central to victory in North Africa.

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7. Lockheed P-38

Lockheed P-38 Lightnings in formation. Credit: US Air Force / Commons.

The Americans developed the greatest array of fighter bombers, with its classic Lockheed P-38 fighter being modified throughout the war.

8.  Curtis P-40 Warhawk – Kittyhawk

Curtiss P-40E Warhawk at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Credit: US Air Force / Commons.

The Curtis P-40 Warhawk, known to the RAF as the Kittyhawk, carried six machine guns and seven bombs and helped to secure Allied victory in North Africa.

9. Republic P47 Thunderbolt

A view of the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt. Credit: US Air Force / Commons.

In the second part of the war, the Republic P47 Thunderbolt was re-designed and became a fighter bomber rather than just an escort to the larger aircraft.

This proved a key to fulfilling more offensive tactics as the Germans were pushed back. The P47 was bolstered with a much larger engine and eight machine guns rather than the original two.

It could carry three bombs or ten rockets and was able to take severe punishment thanks to its heavyweight armour.

10. Hawker Typhoon

Hawker Typhoon IB EK183. Credit: Charlie Daniels / Commons.

From autumn 1942 the American P47 was accompanied in the sky by the British Hawker Typhoon, which was powered by a new engine and offered exceptional performance in low level ground attacks.

Carrying two bombs or eight armour-piercing rockets, the Typhoons made light work of German tanks alongside the American Thunderbolts and were vital to helping the Allies break out of France following D-day.

11. P51-D Mustang

The North American P-51D Mustang. Credit: US Air Force / Commons.

The P51-D Mustang provided perhaps the most important contribution to the American air threat and is commonly regarded as the finest fighter of the war.

Powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, it offered B-51 bombers the protection they needed to take out German targets on long-range missions from Britain to Berlin and back.

12. Yakolev Yak

The Yakovlev Yak-3 was a World War II Soviet fighter aircraft. Robust and easy to maintain, it was much liked by pilots and ground crew alike. Credit: Bernard Spragg / Commons.

The squeeze on Germany from the east was also heavily reliant on fighters and fighter bombers.

The Yakolev Yak series of fighters proved to be the USSR’s most versatile and some 37,000 were produced over the course of the war, being used in multifarious roles.

13. Soviet Ilyushin Il-2

An Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik ground attack aircraft. Credit: Commons.

The Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 single-seat fighter bomber was covered in thick armour and capable of carrying an array of weapons, including two canons, two machine guns and four rocket powered bombs on each wing.

Two further tank busting canons could be added for low level raids. Their pilots confidently referred to the Ilyushin Il-2 as a ‘flying tank’.

14. Mitsubishi A6M Zero

Mitsubishi A6M Zero ‘Zeke’. These aircraft flew with the Allied Technical Air Intelligence Unit South East Asia (ATAIU-SEA). Credit: SDASM Archives / Commons.

The A6M is seen by many as the symbol of Japanese air power during World War Two. With a maximum speed of 331 mph and the ability to climb to 6,000 metres in 7 minutes and 27 seconds, it possessed an ascendancy over any other fighter type in the Pacific.

It was usually referred to by its pilots as the “Reisen” (zero fighter), “0” being the last digit of the Imperial year 2600, or 1940, the year it entered service.

It was the most produced Japanese aircraft during the war and was one of the key planes to attack Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941.