From the very start with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the war was characterized by intense fighter combat, unprecedented in any conflict before it. The German Luftwaffe’s Messerschmtt Bf-109s quickly achieved air superiority, which lasted through the Battle of France in 1940. Although France’s P-36 Hawks – purchased as the conflict got under way -- gave an excellent account of themselves, there were too few available to stop the Messerschmitt juggernaut.

This was followed by a classic air battle, the Battle of Britain, the first major campaign waged almost entirely by air forces. During the nearly four month campaign the British lost over 1,500 aircraft, to the Germans’ 1,900, as the new Spitfires and older Hawker Hurricanes proved themselves a match for the Bf-109s. Three squadrons – known as Eagle Squadrons -- of American volunteers took part in the air battles, losing over 100 flyers before they were incorporated into the U.S. military following Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 , attack on Pearl Harbor.

The failure of the Luftwaffe to defeat the Royal Air Force and establish air superiority in the fall of 1940 meant that Hitler’s plans for the invasion of Britain had to be abandoned.

Still, the Nazis managed to destroy almost 2,000 Soviet aircraft – mostly on the ground -- in the first days of their surprise attack on the Soviet Union in July 1941. While the Germans continued to rely on fighters such as the Bf-109 or the new Focke Wulf Fw 190, the soviets countered with their Yakovlev Yak fighters, which – with nearly 35,000 produced – became the most-built fighter class of all time.

At the end of 1941, the Allies were joined by the United States after Japanese Zero fighters spearheaded the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. After a series of defeats in the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). But by June 1942, the tide started turning against the Japanese at the Battle of Midway when U.S. naval aircraft were able to sink four Japanese heavy carriers for the loss of only one, the USS Yorktown. Fighter aircraft, such as the Japanese Zeros or the U.S. Wildcats played a key role in the battle, escorting torpedo and dive bombers in attacks against the two fleets, whose ships never saw each other.

As the United States geared up its military machine, Japan’s was hard-pressed to make up losses in aircraft and experienced pilots.

At the same time, the tide was turning on the Eastern Front, in North Africa and in Italy.

The top ace of the war was the Luftwaffe’s Erich Hartman, a Bf-109 pilot who was credited with shooting down 352 Soviet and American aircraft, while Japan’s Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, who flew the Mitsubishi Zero, claimed nearly 90 victories. On the Allied side, the Soviet Union’s Ivan Kozhedub was the top scorer with claimed 64 victories. The highest-scoring U.S. ace was Richard Ira Bong, who is credited with shooting down at least 40 Japanese aircraft.

Other famous aircraft of the war included the F6F Hellcat, Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang, arguably the best all-round fighter of WWII. The war also saw the widespread use of airborne radar, self-sealing fuel tanks, armor protection, heavy machine-gun and cannon armament.

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