A popular misconception I have noticed is that ground attack aircraft were used successfully as “tank-busters” of “tank-killers”, and that aircraft were seemingly the largest threat to tanks. I know some of you don’t think this, but I think a good portion of you might. I will focus my attention on the AT abilities of the Hawker Typhoon and the P-47 Thunderbolt against German armor. I will also quickly go over examples from the Eastern Front.
In NW Europe the Typhoon and the P-47 are regarded as an effective weapon against German Armor. CAS pilots claimed hundreds of panzers dead due to their bombs, rockets, and cannons. The problem is that this just isn’t true.
The weapons employed by these aircraft are just not good at knocking out tanks. The 20 mm cannon of the Typhoon did not have the ability to punch through German armor. Even the weak roof armor was near impenetrable due to the angle of attack and range. It is likely that some panzers were disabled by 20 mm fire, but just a handful. The .50 cals of the P-47 and other American aircraft do not have legitimate chance of killing a panzer. It has been claimed that P-47 pilots would have the .50 cal. armor-piercing bullets penetrate the underside of vehicles after ricocheting off the road. That is just BS to put it frankly.
*Hitting those external fuel tanks didn’t KO tanks, but it did make them run out of fuel faster. Also how do you tell if what you’re shooting at is a Tiger and not a half-track?
These aircraft also carried rockets and bombs. Both of these were much more devastating when they hit armor. However that is the problem; they had to hit their target. Both bombs and rockets were utterly abysmal in terms of accuracy. A trial conducted by the RAF had fired 64 rockets from 4 Tiffies(2 flights) at a stationary Panther painted white. A total of 3 hits were recorded giving the rockets a 4.69% accuracy rating in the most perfect of circumstances. Near misses did no damage to the tank. In real combat the Panzers would have some some camouflage, some flak protection(which downed hundreds of Allied fighter-bombers over NW Europe and greatly reduced accuracy of bombs and rockets), and crews that would know to seek cover when they realize they are being shot at. Bombs were even worse in regards to accuracy. It had been concluded that overall it took 800 rockets or 3500 bombs to hit a tank sized target in battle conditions.
Now, regardless that aircraft weaponry was near useless against tanks, the RaF and USAAC both claimed hundreds of panzers. Some documented cases show that these claims are horribly exaggerated. Near La Baleine, France Typhoons conducted 99 sorties on a German Armored Column consisting of ~50 tanks. The pilots claimed to have KO’d 17 of the tanks. The British Army’s No. 2 ORS investigated the area and found that there was a total of 9 tanks, 2 of which were actually destroyed by rockets or just 11% of the original claim. Around Mortain the US and British pilots claimed to have destroyed/probably destroyed a total of 120 tanks. The actual number of destroyed AFVs in the area is close to 45 tanks, only 9 seemed to be victims of airstrikes or 7% of the original claim. At the Falaise Gap the Fighter-Bombers claimed 3x more tanks(391) than the Germans actually lost(133). The number of tanks lost to aircraft seemed to be 15 in the Falaise area or 4% of the original claim. Things didn’t go much better in the Ardennes with air units claiming 66 tanks in an area which under inspection was found that only 1 of 101 tanks were knocked out by air and another 6 likely knocked out by air. As this has shown, these claims about tanks getting decimated by aircraft doesn’t really hold any water.
Now the fighter-bombers did take their toll on German armor. Aircraft were particularly good at destroying motor transports and disrupted the logistics of the Germans. Taking out fuel trucks, infantry, depots, etc. can not be ignored in indirectly destroying German armor. The psychological impact on fighter-bombers on German tanks seemed to be quite high as well. German crews claimed to be terrified of Typhoons and P-47s and would bail-out at the first sign of an aircraft attack. German divisional histories emphasized the role of fighter-bombers in engagements(even if they did no significant damage). There is some skepticism towards these histories as they do not accurately describe what happened to the tanks lost to aircraft or the high number of tanks found abandoned.
Now lets talk about the Luftwaffe and the VVS(Soviet Air Force) over Kursk. The German cases are usually poorly documented, but one involving IV/9th Ground Assault Wing(commanded by Bruno Meyer) on July 8th, 1943 is a well documented about the Luftwaffe claims and the actual casualties sustained by the Soviets. The Hs-129 B-2s of the Luftwaffe were the planes involved. These planes were armed with the Mk 103 which actually was potentially deadly for tanks unlike most aircraft cannons but did not have a lot of ammunition either. The Hs-129s attacked a group of tanks belonging to 26th Tank Brigade of the II Guards Tank Corps. The pilots claimed 40-50 tanks destroyed out of 60 seen, a devastating attack. The problem is that 26th Tank Brigade lost 7 to 11 tanks in total on the date in question, a further problem is that they engaged German ground units that could have done the casualties. Whatever the case may be, the German figure of 40-50 tanks destroyed is off. Now, does this apply to Rudel who claimed ~500 tanks destroyed? Likely. I have serious doubts that Rudel has even killed more tanks than Carius and Knispel to be honest.
The IL-2 Sturmovik’s performance has also been overrated as a “tank-buster”. Lets look at some examples from Kursk again. The VVS claimed to have knocked out ~270 tanks of 3rd Panzer Division within 2 hrs. 3rd Panzer Division only had 90 tanks and the division fought against Soviet AT guns and AFVs which likely caused the majority of the divisions casualties(~49 tanks) during Kursk. IL-2s also claimed to have taken out 240 German tanks of 17th Panzer Division which had a total of 67 tanks. 17th Panzer did not record any abnormal losses coming from the air during Kursk. The IL-2′s AT weapons were not that good at killing tanks much like most of these “tank-busters”. The 23 mm cannon was lucky to penetrate and the rockets used by the IL-2 lacked the power of the Western Allied rockets. the PTAB bombs likely were the most effective weapon when used in mass(280 per IL-2), but they still lack the accuracy to be efficient.
In closing, I hope that my attempt to inform/convince you has worked. The “tank-busting” aircraft of WWII didn’t “bust” enough tanks to cause a real difference. CAS aircraft from all nations proved that their roles during WWII were against soft targets and large strategic points(bridges, buildings, etc.). The tankers, AT men, and artillery men are the ones who killed enemy tanks and to say that they didn’t and that it was these planes is just wrong.
Air Power at the Battlefront: Allied Close Air Support in Europe 1943-45 by Dr. Ian Gooderson
Air Power in the Age of Total War by John Buckley
Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, from Kitty Hawk to Iraq by Stephen Budiansky
C. Lawrence & N. Zetterling @ The Dupuy Institute Forum link
operationbarbarossa.net who have listed their sources. They go more in depth than I have here.