November 28, 2011

Which Fighter Is Best? Part I: Introduction

If you stick two or more WWII otaku in a room, supply them with beer and pretzels and a suitable collection of Avalon Hill games, close the door and walk away, three things will happen:

1) the beer will disappear;
2) a game will be played (probably not Source of the Nile, however);
3) an argument will break out.

Unless the argument is about the rules of the game being played ("Of course a T-34/85 can move in a lake hex... the rules don't say it can't!"), it will invariably be one about "which is best".  Best tank, best rifle, best navy, best game, best way to carry dice (Crown Royal bag), best infantry, the topics one can choose from are endless.

Except amongst the grognards I know, the discussion always veers to "best fighter."  There would never be any structure to these arguments, devolving quickly to people championing their favorite plane, sometimes (depending on the amount of beer consumed) quite heatedly.  Almost always the answer would end up being the P-51 Mustang, because, well, look at it

But is it really the best fighter of World War II?

There will be some ground rules involved with this discussion.  Rule #1 is that the plane had to be in squadron service during WWII and actually see some combat.  This means none of the more obscure planes that fought for the Germans, like the Dornier Pfeil, will be allowed.

...which is a shame, because it's probably my favorite WWII fighter.
The second rule is simple: the contest is limited to piston-engine planes only.  That means no ME-262, no Gloster Meteor, no P-80 Shooting Star.  Third, fighters will be studied in two separate time periods: EARLY and LATE.  "Early" will be from the start of the war until (roughly) 1943.  "Late" is from (roughly) 1943 until the end of the war.  This means that, for example, the F4F Wildcat won't be going up against the F6F Hellcat... what's the point of doing that comparison when we already know the answer?

Finally, there will only be a few planes studied in each time period.  The Americans will get two planes in each time period: US Navy and US Army Air Force.  This is because of the differences in the requirements for the two services created two radically different design philosophies that nevertheless led to excellent aircraft types.  The RAF gets one entry in each period.  Japan gets one in each period, as does Germany.  The Soviet Union will get one entry in the "Late" contest only.  Planes can NOT be entered in both "Early" and "Late" contests... which means you won't see the Spitfire twice, for example!

So now that we've got the ground rules laid, we're ready to actually begin the contest.  "Part II: The Early Fighters" will come along tomorrow.  Speculation on the planes to be chosen is welcomed... and might actually make a difference in my choices!

Posted by: Wonderduck at 09:48 PM | Comments (36) | Add Comment
Post contains 494 words, total size 3 kb.


"Early" American is the F4F and the P-38.

"Late" American is the F4U and the P-51.

But I wish there were a place for the P-47. It's underrated.

"Early" Japan is obviously the A6M "Zeke". "Late" Japan would be Ki-61 "Tony".

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 28, 2011 10:42 PM (+rSRq)

2 Oh, and you need a separate article about night fighters.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 28, 2011 10:53 PM (+rSRq)

3 That's a... twin-engine... tractor/pusher configuration... fighter?

*blink* Well, crap, now I've gotta go research that thing.

(Oh, and this may be relevant to your interests:

Posted by: GreyDuck at November 28, 2011 11:03 PM (eHm8o)


That configuration wasn't unique. There were a couple like that.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 28, 2011 11:12 PM (+rSRq)

5 GD, excellent solution!

Steven, what other plane used the Pfeil's layout?  There were, obviously, a lot of pusher configuration planes, but very few t/p military aircraft that I'm aware of.

Posted by: Wonderduck at November 28, 2011 11:23 PM (2YMZG)

6 Another dividing line (which I admit is outside your parameters) is by the mission performed by the aircraft.  A plane which is a great short-range interceptor might not be good if employed on offensive fighter sweep, bomber escort, or ground attack missions...

Posted by: Siergen at November 28, 2011 11:32 PM (OSPjN)

7 Piaggio P.50, sort of.

During the P-38 design, Kelly Johnson considered a push-pull configuration.

The Fokker D XXIII had a push-pull configuration, but only one prototype was built.

The Russian "Moskalev SAM-13" was another.

Now the configurations of those others are not exactly the same as the Do 335, but it shows that the idea of a pusher-puller configuration was in the air, though no one ever really made it work well.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 28, 2011 11:42 PM (+rSRq)

8 Spitfire or Hurricane? (grin, duck, flee for life)

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at November 28, 2011 11:53 PM (pWQz4)


That's not controversial. The Spitfire was unquestionably better than the Hurricane, even early in the war. Later versions of the Spitfire were even better.

The main reason the Hurricane was important during the Battle of Britain is that the UK had twice as many Hurricanes as Spitfires. So the Spitfires tried to keep the 109's busy, so that the Hurricanes could attack the German bombers.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 28, 2011 11:55 PM (+rSRq)

10 Any room for the Messerschmitt Bf-109 E or even the K?

How about the Focke-Wulf 190 D?

Posted by: Geirr at November 29, 2011 12:41 AM (vC/2p)

11 Not a fighter, but I've always been in love with the B-25 Mitchell.  I mean, with up to 18 forward-facing .50's (If you aim the turrets forward) it's the 1940's equivalent of a disintegrator beam.

And who else could field a 75mm Howitzer until the AC130 gunship?

Posted by: Mauser at November 29, 2011 03:53 AM (cZPoz)

12 Mine are very close to SDB's.

Can I add the P-40, as used in China by the American Volunteer Group?

It's an American plane flown by Americans in the Chinese theater of the war against Japanese. And it had the most amazing paint-job ever seen on a WWII aircraft.

But I don't know where it would fit. And I'm not sure it compares, in performance terms, to the other planes in the war.

Posted by: karrde at November 29, 2011 07:35 AM (YjM//)

13 @#8+#9: Avatar, Steven, remember the rules... "planes won't appear in both Early and Late contests."  I even specifically mention the Spitfire; we might be seeing the Hurricane anyway!

@#7 Steven: So, no planes with a pusher/tractor config that flew more than prototypes.

@#11: Maybe I'll do a "medium bomber" thing.  Not likely, but maybe.

Posted by: Wonderduck at November 29, 2011 07:47 AM (2YMZG)


Early period, FW-190 and the Spitfire.

Late period, P-51 and the Corsair.

Imo, the P-51 is the best fighter of WWII period.  It's range plus combat performance was unmatched.

I refuse to list any Japanese fighter as 'best' because they sacrifice pilot safety for performance.  They were deathtraps.


Posted by: TBlakely at November 29, 2011 08:47 AM (GAYHS)

15 FW-190 took a long time to reach the front service. It's a late-war plane for all practical purposes.

A. Yakovlev wrote in his memoir that during the infamous visit of 1940, Kurt Tank got drunk and bragged how he developed an airplane that could reach 700 km/h. When asked about it next morning, he said that the arplane has just suffered an accident and cannot be demonstrated. Hur hur hur.

Posted by: Author at November 29, 2011 12:20 PM (G2mwb)

16 I, too, think that P-47 was underrated. However, being underrated it still wasn't the best. The biggest downside, IMHO, was how one had to be Robert S. Johnson to get results with it. P-39 was well-liked in Russia and produced a few aces. And Yak-3 of course was an amazing sports car of a fighter, too. Neither of those was as good as P-51.

Posted by: Author at November 29, 2011 12:24 PM (G2mwb)


Gotta take the Jug and P-38, followed by the Bearcat and the Corsair.  I'm a big believer in ruggedness married to firepower.  11/11 I talked to a guy who had flown both the Jug and the Pony.  Claimed the Jug was the toughest bird in the air and the 51 was a sweetheart to fly...


Besides, those 12 hour missions in a 51 would bloody MURDER my 'roids...


You know how to open those cans-o'-worms, doncha Duck?

Posted by: The Old Man at November 29, 2011 12:53 PM (TcNy+)

18 I do, as a matter of fact.  Alas, the F8F Bearcat never made it into WWII, so it can't be considered.  Ditto the F7F Tigercat.

Posted by: Wonderduck at November 29, 2011 01:29 PM (OS+Cr)


Early British is always the Spitfire - though as others have pointed out, the Spitfire may have been less cost effective than the Hurricane (For example, from production and servicing standpoints, you could build ~566 Hurricanes for 20,000 man-hours versus ~290 Spitfires for 24,000 man-hours.).  Late war British was the Tempest (Although the fighter/fighter-bomber versions of the Mosquito almost won out.).


Posted by: cxt217 at November 29, 2011 03:35 PM (VVfk8)

Not a fighter, but I've always been in love with the B-25 Mitchell. I mean, with up to 18 forward-facing .50's (If you aim the turrets forward) it's the 1940's equivalent of a disintegrator beam.

The strafer version of the B-25 wasn't the original configuration. It was actually a hack developed in Australia. They'd been given B-25's, but they were useless for the kind of war being fought in New Guinea. So the general in charge of air resources there let one of his guys, one Pappy Gunn, and he decided to completely change the mission.

He's the one who got rid of the bombardier, loaded a pile of machine guns in the nose, and so on. The result was so successful that North American sent a group of engineers to Australia (no easy trip at the time) to see what he'd done.

Then they came back to the US and deliberately designed a strafer version of the B-25 to manufacture.

It's one of the cooler stories of the war. But the B-25 strafer isn't a fighter, so it isn't relevant to this thread. (Alas.)

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 29, 2011 03:54 PM (+rSRq)

21 I recall reading Saburo Sakai's autobiography where at the close of the war he was assigned to a squadron with one of the late-war Japanese fighters that wasn't a deathtrap (resealable tanks, etc.) and that he took down a B-29 with it.  I'd say Shinden, but that doesn't seem right somehow.

Mauser: For ground attack, though I love the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik, nothing beats the Hs129 B3 as far as sheer audacity and coolness of potential - a purpose built single-seat twin-prop ground attack aircraft mounting a 75mm AT gun. (

Posted by: Civilis at November 29, 2011 05:24 PM (oFqV0)

22 Mauser, many years ago I saw a Canadian Warbird Heritage B-25 at the Oshkosh fly-in that was piloted by someone who know how to make the most of it.  He was flinging that thing around close to the ground like it was a fighter;  I was very impressed.  I just wish I'd had a movie camera handy - I doubt I'll ever see one flown like that again...

Posted by: Siergen at November 29, 2011 05:39 PM (OSPjN)

23 Early War:

USN - F4F, since there's really no other choice. That is to say, "None".
USAAF - P-47
RAF - Spitfire
Luftwaffe - FW-190A (Easily the best early war fighter, given that "early war" goes into 1943. If the 190 is chosen for late war, then Me-109E, since the Emil was arguably the best WWII fighter until the FW-190 entered service.)
Japan - Zero-sen

Late War:

RAF - P-51 (First used in British service and the Merlin makes it British -- yes, it's a stretch. 8-) )
Luftwaffe - FW-190D
Japan - None
USSR - None

So, for the argue-off, do we consider the best available variant, regardless of date of entry (for those aircraft that spanned both periods) or only the best available by the end of the period. If the former, then aircraft with wide capability variance might arguably be better entered as separate aircraft in each period. (FW-190A and D and Spitfire Mk. whatever come to mind.)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth at November 29, 2011 07:01 PM (xdhJI)

24 Russians never thought much about the combat effectiveness of He.129. It was considered a paper tiger. It arrived late in the war, when Russian air cover was much better, fighters were heavily armed and flown better. The 129 did not do much against Russian tanks.

As far as B-25 with 75mm, Jack Ogilvie wrote this:

"Yes I remember those flights very well, I think I was on all of them.
They were not bomb runs,those were B-25's that were fitted with 75 mm
cannons and they were trying to knock out some flak boats that were in
the harbor at Leghorn. They had a gun emplacement on a point going in to
the harbor that had two 105's and several 88's. They were the most crack
shot's I ever saw. They had a gung ho full colonel that was in charge of
the Squadron and he had us come to the briefing. His plan was to go in
with three flights of four planes and to go in four at a time stacked
one behind the other on the deck,we were to be circling above them. I
tried to talk them out of it and he got mad as hell. When we started in
and were maybe a mile out those 105s shot four rounds and knocked down
four planes-the rest scattered and aborted the mission. The colonel had
another meeting and ranted and raved and threatened court-martials for
cowardice. He said he was going to do the same thing the next day and
would lead the flight. He did and the first round was a direct hit on
his plane. As far as I know they were never used again."

The story of cannon-armed B-25 stuck with me because it was such a disappointment. Americans were supposed to fight smart, not like this. Of course I did not know about the "Flight to Nowhere" back then.

Posted by: Author at November 29, 2011 07:48 PM (G2mwb)

25 There are idiots in every branch of every military in the world.

Keep the comments coming, folks!  You've already forced me to reconsider one of the planes for the "Early" fighters... which is forcing me to postpone the entry until tomorrow.

Posted by: Wonderduck at November 29, 2011 07:53 PM (2YMZG)


Civilis, the Shinden never saw combat. The first test flight was three days before Hiroshima. There were only three test flights altogether, totaling about 45 minutes of air time.

It was probably the Ki-61, which did have self-sealing fuel tanks.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 30, 2011 12:41 AM (+rSRq)

27 SDB: IIRC, the Australian modified B-25's had the extra gun mounts in the wings, which was never an official configuration, and the engineers didn't think the structure could support it properly, so they came up with the nose mount, in both 4 and 8 gun flavors.  Plus there were nacelles around the fuselage for guns, which required steel reinforcement plates on the skin to protect from the muzzle blast.

They were also successful at "Skip Bombing", which is a trip to see film of.

There's a lot of stuff on YouTube.

Posted by: Mauser at November 30, 2011 06:38 AM (cZPoz)

28 Well, the book "Fire in the Sky" says that the original Australian B-25 strafers mounted the extra machine guns on the outside of the nose of the plane.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 30, 2011 10:13 AM (+rSRq)


US: Late B-25, the triple threat: "We bombs em, we strafes em, and we falls on em."

USSR: Early P-39

Posted by: DonM at November 30, 2011 12:13 PM (L6j+c)


Fighters, guys.  Fighters. 

Posted by: Wonderduck at November 30, 2011 12:59 PM (OS+Cr)

Fighters, guys. Fighters.
Them's fight'n words...

Posted by: Siergen at November 30, 2011 07:34 PM (TR6md)

32 I suppose the P-47 doesn't really rate "best". But what other fighter plane has an enemy destroyer to its credit?

Those two guys from the Tuskegee Airmen were flying P-47's when they sank a destroyer in the Adriatic. (The TV movie had them flying P-51's, but that squadron didn't get P-51's until later.)

This was after Italy surrendered, and the destroyer in question was originally Italian but was reflagged and recrewed by Germany.

I've watched that gun-camera film several times, and I've come to the conclusion that one of the machine gun rounds set off the warhead on a torpedo. Of course, that would then set off all the others in the rack, and the resulting explosion was more than sufficient to blow the ship in half.

I don't know of any other case like that in the war.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 30, 2011 11:35 PM (+rSRq)

33 Come to think of it, late war fighters which were carrying rockets or bombs might well have bagged destroyers. But that P-47 was using its machine guns.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 30, 2011 11:36 PM (+rSRq)

34 Hmmm, the P-38 Lightning qualifies for BOTH periods.

Posted by: Mauser at December 01, 2011 03:25 AM (cZPoz)

35 US Late war (1944-on):
The Seahawk without floats!

Posted by: brickmuppet at December 03, 2011 03:21 PM (EJaOX)

36 Hey! I just found another push-pull airplane. Even better, it's got a canard!

Rutan Model 40

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 25, 2012 05:59 PM (+rSRq)

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