Three main types of reconnaissance and auxiliary aircraft were used during World War II: land-based aircraft, floatplanes, or flying boats designed to conduct reconnaissance missions; army cooperation aircraft designed for multipurpose roles such as liaison or tactical support; and training aircraft designed to train pilots and crewmen for service.
In addition to aircraft specially designed for reconnaissance or auxiliary service, numerous bombers and fighters were either converted to take on these roles or were relegated to these purposes after becoming obsolete in their intended roles. Such aircraft include the following: France's Bloch 131 and Latécoère Laté 298; Germany's Arado Ar 234 Blitz, Junkers Ju-86, Ju-88, and Ju-188 and the Messerschmitt Me-210; Great Britain's De Havilland Mosquito, Fairey Swordfish, Supermarine Spitfire, and Vickers Wellington; Italy's Cant Z. 506 Airone and Savoia-Marchetti S.M.79; Japan's Yokosuka D4Y Suisei; Poland's PZL P.23 Karas; the Soviet Union's Petlyakov Pe-2; and the U.S. Lockheed Hudson, Martin Maryland, and North American P-51 Mustang.
The following text describes the most significant aircraft employed primarily for reconnaissance and auxiliary purposes by both sides during the war.
Entering service in September 1940, the twin-engine, three-seat Focke-Wulf Fw-189 Uhu served as the primary tactical reconnaissance aircraft of the German army, especially on the Eastern Front. Although its maximum range of 584 miles limited it to tactical reconnaissance, its rugged construction enabled it to absorb a heavy amount of punishment from antiaircraft fire, and its armament of three to four 7.9 mm machine guns afforded protection from Soviet fighters. These qualities also allowed it to provide close support for German troops on the ground. A total of 894 were produced.
Introduced in August 1939, the single-engine, two-seat Arado Ar. 196 proved to be one of the most versatile reconnaissance seaplanes in the German navy's arsenal. Designed as a catapult-launched aircraft, it was carried onboard Germany's major capital ships to provide reconnaissance at sea. It also conducted coastal and maritime patrol, antisubmarine hunting, and convoy escort operations in the North Sea, the English Channel, and the Bay of Biscay while operating out of coastal bases. A total of 546 were produced.
Germany relied on three primary flying boats for reconnaissance and auxiliary purposes during World War II. Originally designed for passenger service by Hamburger Flugzeugbau, the three-engine, six-seat Blohm und Voss Bv-138, of which 279 were constructed, entered military service in late 1940. With a maximum range of 2,500 miles, the Bv-138 was capable of remaining aloft for up to 18 hours, enabling it to conduct long-range patrols in the North Atlantic, where it reported the positions of Allied convoys to German U-boats. Designed prior to the war as a trans-Atlantic mail carrier, the twin-engine, four- or five-seat Dornier Do-18, of which 152 were constructed, was quickly adopted for military use when Germany began its rearmament program and was used primarily in the Baltic and North Sea for maritime patrol and air-sea rescue operations. Larger, faster, and possessing greater range than the Do-18, the three-engine, six-seat Dornier Do-24, of which 294 were constructed, entered service in 1937. In addition to maritime patrol and air-sea rescue operations, it also served as a transport and troop evacuation aircraft.
The two-seat Fieseler Fi-156 Storch and Henschel Hs-126 were small light aircraft that served effectively as army cooperation and utility aircraft. Noted for its short takeoff and landing (STOL) capabilities—it required just 213 ft for takeoff and just 61 ft for landing roll—the Fi-156 Storch (Stork) served as a liaison and staff transport, air ambulance, and tactical reconnaissance aircraft. It was also used in the daring German rescue of Benito Mussolini in September 1943. A total of 2,834 were produced by war's end. The Hs-126 had proved its usefulness in the Kondor Legion in the Spanish Civil War in tactical reconnaissance, as an artillery spotter, and for strafing enemy positions. It continued in these roles in the early stages of World War II until it was withdrawn from frontline service by early 1943. A total of 803 were produced.
Introduced in 1939, the two-seat Arado Ar-96 served as the Luftwaffe's primary trainer throughout the war. Its unarmed version served as a basic trainer, while its armed version (with a single 7.9 mm machine gun) served as an advanced trainer. It also performed other auxiliary roles, such as liaison transport, glider towing, and reconnaissance. A total of 11,546 were produced.
Designed in 1935, the twin-engine Avro Anson entered service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1936 as an armed coastal patrol aircraft. While it continued in that role until 1941, it was as an air crew trainer that it made its primary contribution to the British war effort, training navigators, radio operators, and air gun operators. One variant, the Mk.X, was used for transporting freight or up to eight passengers. A total of 10,996 were produced until 1952, and it remained in service until 1968.
The four-engine Short Sunderland was a maritime patrol and antisubmarine flying boat with a maximum range of 2,690 miles. Nicknamed the "Flying Porcupine" because it came equipped with eight .303 caliber machine guns, the Sunderland was more than capable of defending itself. In addition to its reconnaissance and antisubmarine roles, it was also used for transport and air-sea rescue operations and played an important role in successfully evacuating forces from Norway, Greece, and Crete. A total of 749 were constructed and it remained in service with the RAF until 1959.
First introduced in 1935 by Australia, where it was known as the Seagull V and intended as a maritime patrol and antisubmarine aircraft, the single-engine Supermarine Walrus entered British service in 1936 as an amphibious biplane used for search and air-sea rescue operations. Capable of operating in rough seas, it successfully rescued as many as 5,000 downed pilots around Britain and another 2,500 in the Mediterranean. A total of 771 Walrus aircraft were constructed.
Introduced originally as a passenger liner (the D.H.89 Dragon Rapide), the twin-engine De Havilland Dominie served primarily as a radio and navigator trainer and as a communications aircraft. With the outbreak of the war, civilian versions were pressed into military service in an effort to supply the British Expeditionary Force in France. A total of 730 of all varieties were constructed.
The De Havilland Tiger Moth, a single-engine, open-air-cockpit biplane, served as one of the primary trainers for Allied pilots who flew in World War II. In addition to the 8,796 trainers produced, 420 radio-operated, wooden-constructed versions, known as queen bee drones, were manufactured to serve as antiaircraft gunnery targets.
Introduced in 1934, the single-engine, four- to five-seat Cant Z. 501 Gabbiano served as Italy's only flying boat during World War II. Intended as an armed reconnaissance/ maritime patrol aircraft, the wooden-constructed Gabbiano had set numerous long-distance records in the mid-1930s. With Italy's entry into the war, however, they quickly proved to be extremely vulnerable to enemy fire, so they were relegated primarily to coastal patrol service. By the time Italy surrendered in September 1943, only 40 remained out of the 445 that had been produced.
Introduced in 1941, the twin-engine Fiat R.S. 14 was originally designed as a coastal reconnaissance floatplane Although its performance soon proved to be far better than that of the Cant Z.506 and Savoia-Marchetti SM.79, allowing it to be used as a torpedo-bomber, it came too late in the war to allow mass production. As a result, only 187 were produced.
In addition to transporting troops and supplies, the four-engine Kawanishi H6K and four-engine Kawanishi H8K flying boats also served important roles as long-range reconnaissance aircraft, with the former having a maximum range of 4,210 miles and the latter having a maximum range of 4,460 miles.
Japan relied on three primary reconnaissance floatplanes during the war. The three-seat Aichi E13A, of which 1,418 were produced, was Japan's most widely used floatplane of the war. Entering service in early 1941, it was employed for the reconnaissance leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it participated in every major campaign in the Pacific Theater, performing not only reconnaissance but also air-sea rescue, liaison transport, and coastal patrol operations. Introduced in January 1944 as a replacement for the E13A, the two-seat Aichi E16A Zuiun offered far greater performance capabilities but came too late in the war to make a significant difference, primarily because Japan's worsening industrial position limited production to just 256 aircraft. Based on a 1936 design that underwent several modifications, the two-seat Mitsubishi F1M biplane, of which 1,118 were produced, proved to be one of the most versatile reconnaissance aircraft in Japan's arsenal. Operating from both ship and water bases, it served in a variety roles throughout the Pacific, including coastal patrol, convoy escort, antisubmarine, and air-sea rescue duties, and it was even capable of serving as a dive-bomber and interceptor.
The three-seat Nakajima C6N Saiun, of which 463 were produced, was one of the few World War II reconnaissance aircraft specifically designed for operating from carriers. With a maximum speed of 379 mph, a maximum range of 3,300 miles, and service ceiling of 34,236 ft, the C6N proved virtually immune from Allied interception. Unfortunately for Japan, it did not become available for service until the Mariana Islands Campaign in the summer of 1944.
The twin-engine, two-seat Mitsubishi Ki-46, of which 1,742 were produced, served as Japan's primary strategic reconnaissance aircraft of the war. Entering service in March 1941, the Ki-46 was one of the top-performing aircraft of its type in the war with a service ceiling of 35,170 ft, a range of 2,485 miles, and a maximum speed of 375 mph.
Although the two-seat Tachikawa Ki-36 served as an effective army cooperation aircraft against the Chinese when it entered service in November 1938, it proved to be vulnerable against better-equipped Allied forces after the outbreak of war in the Pacific. The Ki-55 was an advanced trainer version that became available in 1940. Both were later used as suicide aircraft toward the end of the war. A total of 2,723 of both types were constructed.
When it entered service in 1928, the two- to three-seat Polikarpov U-2/Po2 biplane was intended as a basic trainer. By the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, approximately 13,000 had already been constructed for both military and civil use. The U-2/Po2 performed a wide variety of roles besides training, such as tactical reconnaissance, air ambulance, night artillery spotting, and close ground support. One version, the U-2GN, was equipped with loudspeakers and used for propaganda purposes. Production continued in the Soviet Union until 1948 and in Poland until 1953; more than 33,000 were ultimately produced.
The five-seat Beriev MBR-2 (Be-2) flying boat was first introduced in 1931 for coastal patrol service. Incorporating a wooden hull and metal wings and utilizing a single pusher engine, it proved to be one of the most versatile flying boats of its time. In addition to its reconnaissance role, it was used in air-sea rescue, light transport service, and minelaying operations. More than 1,500 of all varieties were produced.
The single-seat Lockheed F-4 and F-5 Lightning were modified versions of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, which had cameras and clear panels installed in place of its guns in the nose section. First deployed in the Pacific in early 1942, they proved to be one of the most widely used photoreconnaissance aircraft of the war. Of the 1,400 employed during the war, 500 were new and the remaining were converted from existing stocks of P-38s.
Designed to operate from land or catapulted from a ship, the two-seat Vought OS2U Kingfisher, of which 1,519 were produced, first entered service in August 1940 and served as the U.S. Navy's primary observation aircraft in every theater of the war. In addition to its reconnaissance duties, it performed air-sea rescue, antisubmarine patrol, and liaison transport missions.
Entering service in 1936, the twin-engine, seven- to nine-crew Consolidated PB2Y Catalina proved to be the most widely used flying boat of World War II; a total of 3,290 were produced in the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union. With a maximum range of 3,100 miles, the Catalina served on all fronts of the war primarily for long-range maritime reconnaissance. Other duties included air-sea rescue, minelaying, and transport.
The two- to three-seat Grumman J2F Duck, of which 641 were produced, was an amphibious biplane that entered service in 1936 with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard as a coastal patrol aircraft. After Pearl Harbor, the Duck was pressed into a variety roles in both the European and Pacific Theaters, including air-sea rescue, target towing, coastal patrol, and maritime reconnaissance.
Utilizing a three-tiered system of training—primary, basic, and advanced—for its pilots, the United States relied on training aircraft that corresponded to each level. The two-seat Boeing-Stearman Kaydet, of which approximately 10,000 were constructed, was an open-air biplane that served the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and U.S. Navy as a primary trainer throughout the war. The two-seat Vultee Valiant, of which a total of 11,525 were produced, served as the most important basic trainer for the USAAF and the U.S. Navy. Finally, the two-seat North American AT-6 Texan/Harvard, of which over 17,500 were produced in the United States and Canada, served as the most important Allied advanced trainer of World War II.
Other prominent American auxiliary aircraft included the Cessna AT-17/UC-78 Bobcat, which was used as an advanced trainer and light utility transport; the Piper L-4 Grasshopper, which was used as an artillery spotter, trainer, and liaison transport; and the Beechcraft Kansan, a military version of the Beechcraft Model 18 that served as a navigation, bombing, and gunnery trainer. Justin D. Murphy
Jarrett, Philip, ed. Aircraft of the Second World War. London: Putnam, 1997.; Munson, Kenneth. Bombers, Patrol, and Transport Aircraft, 1939–45. Poole, UK: Blandford Press, 1975.; Wilson, Stewart. Aircraft of WWII. Fyshwick, Australia: Aerospace Publications, 1998.
Justin D. Murphy