TOP FIVE: Aerial Battles

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MHM looks at five of the costliest aerial battles in history.


Air-battle-of-St.-Mihiel_optWHERE/WHEN: France, 12-16 September 1918
OUTCOME: Allied victory over Germany

The Saint-Mihiel salient was a large bulge of the German frontline into France, which was formed in 1914 when German forces positioned themselves in preparation for an attack on Verdun. Although Verdun itself did not fall, the Germans continued to hold the area for the next four years.

The air battle of Saint-Mihiel was by far the largest air battle of the First World War, and the largest of its kind the world had ever seen. Some 500 German aircra took on 1,481 Allied planes in the most appalling flying conditions.


Battle-of-the-Philippine-Sea_optWHERE/WHEN: The Philippine Sea, 19-20 June 1944
OUTCOME: US victory over Japan

Dubbed ‘The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’ by American aviators for the severely disproportionate loss-ratio inflicted on Japanese aircraft by American pilots and anti-aircraft gunners, this battle involved almost 1,700 planes – 1,000 US and 700 Japanese. It was one of the most decisive battles of the Second World War. The outcome is generally attributed to American improvements in pilot- and crew-training and tactics, technology, and ship and aircraft design.


Battle-of-Britain_optWHERE/WHEN: United Kingdom, 10 July-31 October 1940
OUTCOME: British victory over Germany

The Battle of Britain was an air campaign waged by the Luftwaffe against the United Kingdom during the summer and autumn of 1940. It was the first major campaign to be fought entirely by air forces, and was also the largest and most sustained aerial bombing campaign to that date. Britain’s victory prevented Germany from gaining air superiority, forcing Hitler to postpone and eventually cancel Operation Sea Lion, an amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain.


Battle-of-Kursk_optWHERE/WHEN: Soviet Union, 5 July-23 August 1943
OUTCOME: Soviet victory over Germany

The Battle of Kursk was an unsuccessful German assault on the Soviet salient around the city of Kursk, in western Russia, during WWII. It involved nearly 5,000 aircraft, and smashed all records for the costliest single day of aerial warfare. If the Germans had broken through the Russian lines and scored a decisive victory over the Red Army, it is perfectly possible that they might have turned the tide of war back in their direction.


BLACK-FRIDAY_optWHERE/WHEN: Norway, 9 February 1945
OUTCOME: German victory over the Allies

This was an unsuccessful attack made on German destroyer Z33 and its escorting vessels, carried out by a force of Allied Bristol Beaufighter aircraft. There were times during the battle when more than 50 aircraft were engaged in a swirling battle over the ships. The Allies suffered heavy casualties during the operation, which was subsequently labelled ‘Black Friday’ by the surviving Allied aircrew.

This article appeared in issue 53 of Military History Monthly.


  1. Why hasn’t the Nuremberg Raid 30/31 March 1944 been mentioned? Over 700 aircraft were involved and RAF Bomber Command lost 106 heavy bombers. More aircrew were killed in one night than the entire Battle of Britain.

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