There is an old military adage that when war comes you fight with the forces you have. World War II was no exception. Despite amazing aviation progress during the war, outdated biplanes still fought valiantly. In some cases, they were swept from the skies by more modern fighters. In other cases, they made valuable contributions in the fight against Nazi oppression.
Here are nine biplanes that fought during World War II:
1. Fairey Swordfish. When it comes to dash and daring, the wood and canvas Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber led the pack of World War II biplanes. The British bomber achieved glory in daring and devastating surprise torpedo attacks against the Italian Navy at Taranto. But, the Fairey Swordfish achieved fame by successfully attacking the German battleship Bismarck. A Swordfish launched the torpedo that jammed the ill-fated battleship’s rudder and made her a sitting duck for allied battleships.
2. Fairey Albacore. The Fairey Albacore was to replace the Swordfish during the middle of the war. It was faster and had an enclosed cockpit. However, heavy controls and a less reliable engine made it less popular with pilots than the venerable Swordfish.
3. Polikarpov PO-2 “Sewing Machine”. The Russians made more biplanes than any other power during World War II and they used them effectively for night bombing of German troops. The PO-2 flew over German lines at night and dropped bombs to harass the Nazi troops and keep them from getting much needed rest.
4. Fiat C.R. 42 Falco. The Fiat C.R.42 Falco was an open biplane with fixed landing gear and a top speed of 267 miles per hour. While it was totally outclassed in Europe, the biplane fought well in North Africa against similarly outdated allied warplanes. According to “Weapons of World War II,” when Italy fell to the Allies, the German “Luftwaffe took possession of 112 Falcons, and employed them primarily for night raids and anti-partisan missions.” They were so successful that the Luftwaffe ordered 150 more produced just for night flying.
5. Henschel HS 123. The Germans timed their production efforts just right to have a modern air force at the start of World War II. However, they still had plenty of obsolete biplanes. The Henschel HS 123 was a tough dive bomber and ground attack aircraft. Capable of 211 miles per hour and carrying nearly 1000 pounds of bombs, the aircraft distinguished itself on the Eastern front until early 1944.
6. Henschel HS 126. Many unheralded planes were put to use in an observation and reconnaissance role during World War 2. The lightly armed Henschel HS-126 biplane had a single forward firing machine gun and another on a swivel behind the cockpit for the observer to use. It also carried a single 110 pound bomb or five 22 pound bombs. Capable of 193 miles per hour, it served the Germans well in the early years of the war.
7. Hawker Fury. Capable of 223 miles per hour, the Hawker Fury was once the pride of the RAF. It was Britain’s primary air defense during the 1930s. As a European fighter during World War II, the obsolete Hawker Fury was useless. However, in the battle for North Africa, it fought well against other second-line aircraft. It spent most of the war in Europe as a training aircraft for British pilots.
8. Hawker Hart. The Hawker Hart was a single-engined biplane bomber that was the mainstay of the RAF during the 1930s. When it was deployed in 1930, it’s 184 mile per hour top speed made it the fastest aircraft in the RAF. The Hart’s speed even prompted the development of a whole new generation of fighters. Although the light bomber was past its prime by World War II, the aircraft contributed to the war effort in Africa as a light bomber, observations, and communications plane where it was ably flown by the Royal Air Force and the South African Air Force.
9. Gloster S.S. 37 Gladiator. According to Weapons of World War II,” the Gloster Gladiator was the last fighter biplane in the Royal Air Force.” It was only capable of 257 miles per hour and was armed with six .30-caliber machine guns. The Gladiator was hard-pressed to be helpful in the defense of Norway. According to Walter Boyne’s Clash of Wings, “at Oslo, seven Gloster Gladiators repeatedly attacked the incoming German aircraft at terrible odds, flights of two diving down to engage as many as seventy aircraft at a time, and scoring a few victories.” However, the Gladiator and naval Sea Gladiator fought on in the Mediterranean. The Gladiators went on to be particularly vital in the defense of Malta.
The bravery of biplane pilots in World War II was immense. But, all too often, their futile deaths in lopsided air combat against modern aircraft illustrated the need for modern military equipment.
Boyne, Walter J. “Clash of Wings”, Simon & Schuster, 1994
Ludeke, Alexander. “Weapons of World War II”, Parragon Press, Bath, UK, 2007.
HistoryofWar.org, “Hawker Hart”
“WW2 Aircraft,” MilitaryFactory.com
‘Hawker Fury (I & II),” MilitaryFactory.com