The 20th century witnessed profound technological advancements that revolutionized warfare. One of the most impactful changes was the integration of aircraft into military operations. In this article, we explore the ten largest aerial battles in history, showcasing the pivotal moments where airplanes played a decisive role. These battles spanned continents, shaped wars, and showcased the bravery and innovation of aviators. Join us as we delve into the annals of aerial warfare, unearthing the dramatic clashes that forever changed the course of history.
#1 The Battle of Britain
In 1940, the Battle of Britain marked the largest aerial offensive in history, as Nazi Germany sought to conquer the British Isles. Hitler’s previous successes relied on land-based Blitzkrieg tactics, but the challenge of invading an island required a different approach. With no clear strategy for reaching the English coast, the conflict began in the air. Led by Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe launched relentless attacks on British ships in the English Channel. However, the Royal Air Force (RAF) fiercely defended their homeland, preventing the Luftwaffe from gaining air supremacy and forcing them to abandon their invasion plans. The Battle of Britain had a high human cost, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. Sources state that the Luftwaffe lost 1,887 aircraft whilst the RAF only suffered 1,023 losses.
#2 The Battle of the Philippine Sea
During the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Allied forces incurred the loss of 123 aircraft, as they fought valiantly to secure control over the region. In contrast, the Japanese suffered a significant blow, losing three carriers, two oil tankers, and approximately 600 aircraft, including around 400 carriers and 200 land-based planes. The devastating outcome illustrated the resounding effectiveness of the Allied forces’ aerial superiority and highlighted the vulnerability of the Japanese fleet. Notably, this clash marked the largest carrier-to-carrier battle in history, emphasizing the pivotal role of aircraft carriers and their complementing air wings. The American carriers, operating with a combination of fighter, dive-bomber, and torpedo-bomber squadrons, unleashed a devastating onslaught on the Japanese fleet, proving instrumental in securing a resounding victory.
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#3 The Air Battle of El Mansoura
The Air Battle of El Mansoura is one of the largest aerial battles of the Yom Kippur War. The battle took place on October 14, 1973, above the city of El Mansoura near the Nile River Delta, at whose nearby airport the 104th Air Force Regiment of the Egyptian Army was based, which throughout the war was the striking fist of the Egyptian fighter aviation in the conflict with Israeli Air Force fighters. The task of Israel Air Forces was to destroy the 104th Aviation Regiment and take full control of the airspace while preventing it from providing fighter protection to the Egyptian armored units. This air battle lasted 53 minutes, and Israel lost 17 planes while Egypt lost seven planes. Although the Israeli planes did not fully accomplish the assigned task, they did achieve another more important goal, they enabled the Israeli armored units to win the tank battle that was fought at the same time as the air battle at El Mansoura.
#4 The Battle of Saint-Mihiel
The Battle of Saint-Mihiel, which took place from September 12 to 16, 1918, was a key offensive by the Allied forces during the First World War. This battle marked a turning point in flavor of the Allies against the Central Powers. Allied forces, led by the French army and supported by American troops, attacked German positions on the western front near the river Mena, near the French city of Saint-Mihiel. The attack was carried out with a combination of artillery fire, ground attacks and aviation support. In the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in 1918, a large number of aircraft from both sides participated. The exact number of aircraft involved may vary depending on the source, but it is estimated that the Allied air force had around 1,500 aircraft, while the German air force had between 400 and 500 aircraft. During the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in 1918, the Allied forces managed to inflict significant losses on German aviation. According to available data, around 70 to 80 German planes were shot down during the battle.
#5 Attack on Pearl Harbour
At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Air Force of the Imperial Japanese Navy had 660 fighters, 330 carrier bombers, 240 medium bombers and 520 seaplanes. These aircraft were deployed within the Japanese Combined Fleet. Before the beginning of the war in the Pacific, the air force of the Japanese Imperial Navy had perhaps the best fighter plane in the world, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which would represent the shock first of all offensive actions. The attack on Pearl Harbour was a first-class sensation. It was a blow that completely upset the balance of power in the Pacific. Eight US battleships were sunk, and 188 aircraft were destroyed, with the loss of only 29 Japanese aircraft. At the same time as the attack on Pearl Harbour, an air attack on the Philippines was carried out, in which half of the bombers and one-third of the USAAF fighters were destroyed, as well as 50 aircraft of other types.
#6 Operation Mole Cricket 19
At the beginning of the 1980s, the right-wing Menachem Begin was in power in Israel, which advocated a policy of a firm hand towards its Arab neighbours. Using as a reason the Palestinian attempt to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in Great Britain, Israel bombed the strongholds of the PLO in Lebanon and on June 6, 1982, undertook a new invasion of the south of Lebanon. As part of that invasion, Operation Mole Cricket 19 began. It was a military operation carried out by the Israeli army on June 9, 1982. This operation was directed against the air defences of the Syrian army in Lebanon. The objective of Operation Mole Cricket 19 was to neutralise and disable the anti-aircraft system of the Syrian army that posed a threat to Israeli aircraft. The Israeli Air Force launched a massive air strike against Syrian anti-aircraft positions, using quick and surprise strike tactics. Israeli aircraft managed to disable Syrian radars, anti-aircraft guns and missile systems. These attacks were very effective, and Syrian air defences suffered significant losses. This operation allowed them greater control over Lebanon’s airspace and impacted the dynamics of the Lebanon War and the regional balance of power in that period.
#7 The Dieppe raid
The Dieppe raid, also known as Operation Jubilee, took place on August 19, 1942, during World War II. It was an amphibious assault by Allied forces on the French coastal town of Dieppe, which was then under German occupation. Allied forces had 74 squadrons, while the Germans had around 170 aircrafts. Aimed at gathering intelligence and testing strategies for the invasion of Europe, it was a complete failure and resulted in the loss of over 50% of the troops that landed. Lessons learned during the Dieppe attack later influenced Allied amphibious operations. Allied air forces provided air support during the attack and carried out airstrikes on targets in and around Dieppe. During the operation, Allied aircraft were exposed to anti-aircraft fire from German forces and fought against German aircraft.
#8 Air battle over Niš
One can often hear the question in different circles, what would happen if the Americans and Russians clashed directly in the future? However, what the public still knows little about today is that one such conflict has already taken place. And under incredible circumstances – while the USA and the USSR were allies, on November 7, 1944, above Niš. Many researchers classify it as one of the most famous battles in the air. The Niš Incident, or the Air Battle over Niš, is the name given to the armed conflict between the Allied forces, the Red Army and the American Air Force. This incident happened on November 7, 1944, shortly after the liberation of Niš, where the forces of the Red Army and the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia were stationed. Suddenly, the aviation of the United States of America attacked the city of Niš and then attacked the convoy of Red Army vehicles moving along the Niš-Aleksinac road. The consequences of this attack are several dozen dead and wounded soldiers, including civilians. Material damage was also significant. An air battle soon ensued, and three American and three Soviet planes were shot down. The official version of the US military authorities is that there was a mistake and friendly fire.
#9 The Battle of the Coral Sea
In May of 1942, a major naval battle took place in the Coral Sea. The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first battle in naval history fought solely by aircraft. The four-day engagement was a strategic victory for the Allies. The battle was the first major engagement in naval history in which not a single shot was fired by surface ships. It foreshadowed the type of carrier warfare that would mark later Pacific War engagements. The Imperial Japanese Navy lost 43 aircraft and the light aircraft carrier Shoho, while the fleet aircraft carrier Shokaku was damaged. The US Navy lost 69 aircraft, including the aircraft carrier USS Lexington.
#10 The Battle of Midway
Less than a month later, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Midway. Considerable forces were gathered for this operation. Admiral Nagumo‘s strike squadron had four aircraft carriers, two battleships, three cruisers and 11 destroyers. The US Navy deployed three aircraft carriers, eight cruisers and 15 destroyers in two groups. The battle began on June 4th. In 1942, the Japanese air attack on Midway was followed by a larger number of uncoordinated attacks from the US carriers that would eventually be crowned with success. American destroyer bombers managed to approach Admiral Nagumo’s squadron unnoticed and hit three fleet aircraft carriers in one attack. Japanese planes attacked the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier and severely damaged it, only to be sunk by a Japanese submarine two days later. During the Japanese attack on the USS Yorktown, US Navy planes managed to hit the last carrier of Admiral Nagumo. The Imperial Japanese Navy lost four aircraft carriers, 322 aircraft and 3,500 soldiers in just one day. US Navy losses were significantly lower: 1 aircraft carrier, 150 aircraft and 1,307 soldiers.