Note: “most important” not “best.” This isn’t a list based on capability, but on accomplishment. The most technologically advanced bomber of World War II was, without doubt, the B-29, yet it wasn’t the most important, simply because it didn’t do as much to influence the outcome of the war as some others. We’re also excluding attack aircraft that were designed primarily for battlefield support. Thus the Ju-87 Stuka, the IL-2 Sturmkovik, the Douglas A-20 Havoc and the magnificent Douglas A-26 Invader are not considered.
No German bombers on the list because it wasn’t a very accomplished or impressive group. The best of the bunch was the Heinkel He-111 and it was nothing more than an under-armed medium bomber that didn’t fare all that well in the Battle of Britain. After that, it was pretty much all downhill. I couldn’t find room on the list for North American’s B-25 Mitchell, Martin’s B-26 Marauder and the Vickers Wellington, all of which don’t usually get their due historically. With that caveat, here we go:
#5: Nakajima B5N “Kate” Torpedo Bomber – Without the Kate, Japan wouldn’t have stood even a slim chance of winning the Pacific War via a lightning strike against the US Navy. Kates were responsible for a lot of the havoc at Pearl Harbor and severely damaged our offensive capabilities early on by playing key roles in sinking the carriers Yorktown, Lexington and Hornet. The pace of wartime development meant that the Kate would grow obsolete rather quickly, but the devastating effectiveness of this bomber, its skilled pilots and the deadly Type 91 torpedo it carried – at a time when our torpedoes sucked – made the Kate a fearsome weapon during a critical, albeit short, time during the start of the Pacific War.
#4: Boeing B-29 Superfortress – A technological leap forward in aircraft design, the B-29 has earned a place in the history of aviation. It was pressurized, had a central fire-control system and could fly faster and higher than most of the Japanese fighters that chased it. But, the rush to get the B-29 into production with all that new technology led to a lot of teething problems – problems that would have otherwise been dealt with in development – most related to the Superfort’s engines. LeMay finally figured out how to use the B-29 effectively against Japan, but even as devastating as those fire-bombing missions were, they were hardly game-changers. Still, it was one impressive aircraft in its day and it’s also the platform that delivered Fat Man and Little Boy, and those two missions were indeed game-changers, in more ways than one.
#3: Avro Lancaster – The workhorse heavy bomber of the RAF. The Lancaster was a follow on to the successful Wellington design, with more size, firepower and capacity. One may argue about how effective the Brits night, area bombing campaign was, but at the very least it kept the Luftwaffe busy round the clock and made it easier (eventually) for the more precise missions of the 8th Air Force to get through. Without the Lancaster, the RAF’s part in the strategic bombing effort would not have been nearly so worrisome for the Nazis. Specially modified Lancasters carried out Guy Gibson’s dam-busting raid and delivered Tallboy and Grand Slam – the earthquake (deep penetrator) bombs that shattered U-boat pens, destroyed railroad viaducts and helped sink the Tirpitz, the Bismark’s sister ship.
#2: Douglas SBD Dauntless – Its pilots said that the “SBD” stood for “slow but deadly,” one indication of the high esteem that those who flew the sturdy dive bomber had for the bird. The Dauntless accounted for more enemy shipping tonnage destroyed in the Pacific theater than any other aircraft. It also – and here’s something you didn’t know – ended up the war with a “plus” air combat ratio. That is: Dauntless’ shot down more enemy aircraft than enemies shot down SBDs. One legendary Dauntless pilot, Stanley “Swede” Vejtasa, was jumped by three Zeros early in the war. He blew them all away. It was Dauntless’ that delivered the killing blows in the Battle of Midway, the decisive naval action of the Pacific War. When it was replaced by the heavier, faster Helldiver at the end of 1944, naval aviators were not happy: they had grown to love the tough old bird and its record justifies that affection.
#1: Consolidated B-24 Liberator/Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress – Consumed by a contrarian mood, I briefly contemplated putting the Dauntless in the top spot, but there could be no justifying such an injustice. Nor would it be right to choose between the B-17 and the B-24. The capabilities of the two aircraft, along with their missions, were much too similar to choose one over the other. The B-17 was sexier and tougher, but the B-24 was faster and packed a (slightly) larger punch in terms of bomb load. How can one choose? Between the two, the 8th Air Force was able to carry the air war deep into the Third Reich. B-17s and B-24s crippled the Nazi transportation network before D-Day, helped to enable Bradley to break-out of hedgerow country during Operation Cobra and blew away Hitler’s oil refining capacity late in the war. It’s not often that legend meets reality, but in the case of these two WWII workhorses, that is indeed the case.