By Sam McGowan
Few airplanes can claim the honor of being credited with changing the course of World War II, but the Douglas A-20 Havoc twin-engine light bomber is one that can. No less a source than the official U.S. Air Force history The Army Air Forces in World War II credits the A-20 with turning the Papua, New Guinea, campaign around to the Allies’ favor, thus changing the course of the war in the Southwest Pacific. By the time World War II ended, A-20s had fought in nearly every theater of the war and had worn the colors of many nations.
First flown in 1938, the Douglas Aircraft Company originally produced the light bomber as the DB-7, a twin-engine airplane that had been designed with export to France in mind. When the British purchased the DB-7 for the Royal Air Force, they gave it the designation “Boston” in keeping with the tradition of naming bombers after cities. The Boston was a fast and highly maneuverable airplane and well suited for the ground-attack role. The French used their DB-7s as level bombers, while the British decided to use them for low-level attack. The U.S. Army also selected the A-20 as its primary attack bomber.
Even though some segments of the Army Air Corps were emphasizing high-altitude “precision” bombing in the 1930s, ground attack was one of the service’s major missions. The concept had originated in World War I and continued in the post-war Army. One officer in particular, Captain George C. Kenney, was heavily involved with ground attack during the years between the wars, and A-20s would be a key element in his strategy as commander of the Far East Air Forces.
As the United States geared up for war, the Army ordered 300 DB-7 airplanes for delivery in 1940. The U.S. designation was A-20; the airplane was also given the name “Havoc,” a name that the British had adopted for a later version of their DB-7s. The Havoc featured a glass-enclosed nose for a bombardier but was also equipped with fixed forward-firing .30-caliber machine guns. Other guns were installed in the rear cockpit and in a tunnel where the gunner could fire down and behind the airplane.
The 3rd Attack Group, the Army’s premier ground-attack organization, transitioned to the new light bomber. The unit transferred to Savannah, Georgia, from San Antonio, Texas, in 1940 and immediately received A-20s. When the war broke out, the experienced officers were transferred out of the group to organize and train new units, leaving Lieutenant Bob Strickland as the group commander. All of the squadron commanders were lieutenants as well. After six weeks of waiting, the 3rd Attack Group was ordered overseas in early January 1942 and left by ship for Australia, where Strickland had been told new A-20s would be waiting. However, it wasn’t until July that the group’s airplanes started arriving.
Due to the delay in the delivery of A-20s to the 3rd Attack Group, the first American airmen to fly combat in the Havoc were men from the 15th Bomb Squadron, an A-20 outfit that was sent to England with the Eighth Air Force. When they got there, they were attached to an RAF squadron to gain experience. Originally, the men of the 15th were expecting to fly the night-fighter version of the A-20, a version the Army designated as the P-70. But the RAF wasn’t using their Bostons as night fighters, so the 15th was reassigned to the attack role. The unit trained with RAF Bostons, and on July 4, 1942, six squadron crews joined six RAF Boston crews for a low-level attack on German airfields in Holland.
Not only was it the first American combat mission in Bostons, it was also the first mission flown by the Eighth Air Force. Only two of the American crews actually bombed their assigned targets, and two airplanes were shot down while another was badly damaged. One of the pilots, Captain Charles C. Kegelman, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for attacking a flak tower in his damaged airplane after one propeller was shot away and his right wing was set on fire. The men of the 15th flew another mission on July 12, this time bombing from 8,500 feet and suffering no losses.
The promised A-20s for the 3rd Attack Group had finally arrived in Australia by early August. The 24 airplanes arrived without guns or bomb racks and were immediately united with the man who would make them into formidable weapons.
Captain Paul Irving Gunn, referred to by those who knew him as P.I. More commonly known to the young airmen of the Fifth Air Force as “Pappy,” Gunn was a former U.S. Navy enlisted aviator and machinist’s mate who was running a charter service in the Philippines when war broke out. On March 28, 1942, Gunn was officially relieved of his transport assignment and reassigned to the 3rd Attack Group. In addition to flying combat missions in a B-25, Gunn supervised the group’s mechanics.
When the A-20s arrived in Australia, Gunn was assigned to check them out before they went into combat. He advised Colonel Davies that the airplanes looked good, but they needed some modifications before they went into combat. His main concern was their armament; the .30-caliber machine guns that were supposed to equip them were inadequate. There was a ready supply of .50-caliber machine guns in Australia that had been salvaged from wrecked fighters. Gunn proposed that the light bombers be converted into strafers, an idea he had thought up during the long, low-level transport missions he had flown in the Philippines in the early weeks of the war. When Gunn suggested that he be allowed to modify the A-20s, Davies went along with the idea.
Gunn and a team of mechanics installed a package of four .50-caliber machine guns in the nose of each airplane. Two more were mounted in pods on the sides of the fuselage, giving each six forward-firing heavy machine guns. Gunn was finishing up the project when the new Far East Air Forces commander, Lt. General George C. Kenney, arrived at Charter Towers to visit the 3rd Attack Group. The group had been officially redesignated the 3rd Bombardment Group (Light), but the men preferred the old designation.
The new air boss in the Southwest Pacific was impressed with both the modification and with Gunn, and suggested another modification. In the years before the war, Kenney had been closely involved with the research-and-development branch of the Army Air Corps. In that capacity, he had come up with some developments of his own, including the parachute fragmentation bomb—a small, 27-pound bomb that was suspended under a parachute. A low-flying airplane could drop the bombs on troop concentrations or airfields and have enough time to escape the flying fragments.
Kenney had ordered a supply of these bombs be sent to Australia and by the time he got there, the bombs were in a warehouse on the docks. Gunn quickly recognized that the combined power of the .50-caliber guns and the exploding fragmentation bombs would make a very potent weapon. The parachute fragmentation bombs arrived at Charter Towers the next day.
Gunn completed the modifications of the first airplane a few days after Kenney’s visit and took it on a demonstration flight with Davies as an observer. The concentrated firepower of the six .50-caliber guns literally ripped a swath through the trees in the wooded area they had chosen for the test. Gunn came around and dropped a string of para/frag bombs. The bombs floated lazily to the ground while the low-flying A-20 cleared the area; when they exploded, the fragments turned the trees into splinters. Davies and Gunn knew they had a winner with the modified A-20. Gunn suggested they do the same thing to the B-25s.
On July 12, 1942, Japanese troops landed on the north shore of the Lae Peninsula at Buna, and began advancing southward toward Port Moresby along the Kokoda Track through the rugged Owen-Stanley Mountains. On September 9, Japanese troops captured Ioribaiwa, a village just north of the city, and the Allies began preparing to defend Port Moresby itself. During the first two weeks of September 1942, the situation in the Pacific War was still very much in doubt, but all of that was about to change suddenly and drastically.
On the morning of September 12, the Japanese at Buna were suddenly introduced to a new kind of warfare when a formation of nine modified A-20s from the 8th Bomb Squadron came roaring over the treetops. Each airplane carried 40 of General Kenney’s fragmentation bombs and six .50-caliber machine guns in the nose. Led by Captain Don Hall in Kentucky Red, the nine A-20c came in at treetop height, catching the startled Japanese completely by surprise.
The first wave of three A-20s swooped low over the airfield, strafing the rows of bombers parked alongside the runway, then dropping their fragmentation bombs as they passed over the airfield. At first the Japanese fired back, but after the first four airplanes had made their attack, complete panic ensued on the ground, and the remaining five bombers didn’t even encounter any small-arms fire. From then on, the Japanese were fighting a defensive war.
The overwhelming success of the September 12 attack led General Kenney to order that fighters under his command also be modified to carry the para/frag bombs and to commence low-altitude strafing attacks on Japanese ground forces. Within a month the Japanese supply lines from Buna had been cut and the air forces at Buna and Lae had been rendered ineffective. The Japanese forces that had come to within a few miles of Port Moresby began retreating back up the rugged Kokoda Track toward Buna. The Japanese commander himself, General Horri, fell victim to the A-20s when he was among a group of Japanese who were dumped off of the Kumusi River Bridge when it was knocked down by the bombers.
As more and more A-20s were modified, the crews began training in other tactics. A mainstay of the Fifth Air Force Bomber Command was skip-bombing, a low-altitude attack method used against shipping. A low-flying bomber drops a bomb with a delayed-action fuse while approaching a ship at wave-top heights. The bomb skips across the water like a rock until it impacts the side of the vessel, then sinks below the surface and explodes. Skip-bombing had been developed before the war and had been used by B-17 and B-26 crews with some success. The modification of the A-20s allowed the pilots to strafe a vessel’s decks during the run-in to the target, thus spoiling the aim of the ship’s antiaircraft crews.
The Battle of the Bismarck Sea proved the effectiveness of skip-bombing. In late February 1943, Allied codebreakers discovered that a large convoy of troop ships had set sail from the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul on New Britain with reinforcements for Lae. The convoy was sighted by a Fifth Air Force B-24 on March 1 and was attacked by B-17s the following day; one transport was reported sunk.
The next morning the convoy was attacked again by B-17s and B-25s bombing from medium altitudes. These attacks caused the convoy to scatter, and lowering clouds gave the Japanese a false sense of security. They weren’t prepared for the sight of a dozen each of B-25s and A-20s coming in at wave-top levels with guns blazing and bomb bays open. The B-25-equipped 90th Bomb Squadron, led the attack, but Captain Ed Chudoba of the 89th was right behind with his squadron of modified A-20s. The B-25s poured destruction onto the troop transports as they scored numerous hits with their bombs. Then the A-20s came in to wreak Havoc of their own, as Chudoba laid his bombs into the side of a large cargo ship.
Captain Glen Clark, the leader of the second element, put two bombs into the aft section of a destroyer, blowing a large hole in the stern that quickly filled with water. Other A-20 crews also scored direct hits on the transports and their escorts. The combined attack claimed five ships sunk and six others left burning. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morrison referred to the attack as “the most devastating attack by aircraft on ships of the war.” The A-20/B-25 combination hit the convoy again that afternoon.
The Battle of the Bismarck Sea is the high point of A-20 history, as well as for the B-25. Never before had land-based bombers proven so destructive against naval vessels. The battle was another turning point in the war in the Pacific as the attacks thwarted all Japanese hopes of reinforcing their troops in New Guinea. From that point on, no Japanese ship was safe on the seas of the Southwest Pacific, and the Allies were able to turn their attention toward offensive operations to drive the Japanese out of New Guinea and begin the long march northward toward the Philippines and, ultimately, Japan.
Light bomber squadrons in Europe never played the kind of decisive role that made the A-20 one of the most important weapons in the Fifth Air Force inventory, but they did make a significant contribution. After the July 1942 attacks, the 15th Bomb Squadron received their own A-20s and returned to training with the RAF light bomber groups. After attaining operational status, the squadron flew several medium-level bombing missions across the English Channel to attack targets in France and the Low Countries. The squadron then joined the new Twelfth Air Force in North Africa after Operation Torch.
The light bomber mission in North Africa—and later in the Mediterranean and Europe—was directed primarily at support of ground operations. After a few weeks of combat operations in North Africa, the 15th was sent back to the United States and replaced by the 47th Bomb Group. The 47th Group A-20s operated with fighters in attacks on Axis tactical targets including tanks and troop concentrations, operating as part of the XII Support Command. The 47th Bomb Group was called on for operations against advancing German armored columns during the Battle of Kasserine Pass. Group crews flew 11 missions during the battle, earning a Distinguished Unit Citation.
Although the group had been trained for low-level operations in the United States, General James H. Doolittle, the Twelfth Air Force commander, was an opponent of low-level operations and ordered that the A-20 and B-26 groups under his command operate as light and medium bombers. Bombsights were installed in the airplanes, and enlisted men from within the group were trained as bombardiers to join the formerly two-man crews. In their new role, the 47th Group A-20s joined in attacks against docks, airfields, and railway targets. They continued to function in the light bomber role throughout the Italian campaign, attacking bridges, troop concentrations and airfields in advance of the ground units.
As the Allied build-up in the British Isles continued, A-20s returned to England to serve with the Ninth Air Force, which had moved there to support Allied ground forces during the Normandy Invasion. The 97th Combat Wing was made up of three groups of light bombers, the 409th, 410th and 416th Bombardment Groups (Light). The wing’s A-20s entered combat prior to the Normandy landings as they attacked coastal installations and other targets along the French coast. On D-Day, the A-20s dropped below the clouds to bomb German positions behind the beaches. Once the troops were ashore, the light bombers provided air support for ground troops, bombing enemy troop concentrations, railroads, bridges, and other tactical targets. The A-20s played a major role assisting the Allies during their breakout from the invasion beaches in the summer of 1944. Ninth Air Force and Twelfth Air Force A-20s continued in their tactical role until the end of the war.
A-20s did yeoman service in the European war, but it was in the Pacific that they performed the daring low-level attacks that were appropriate to their name. The 3rd Bombardment Group was joined by the 312th and 417th Bombardment Groups as the Fifth Air Force moved north through New Guinea and then finally into the Philippines. After operating both A-20s and B-25s for several months, the 3rd Attack Group became an all A-20 outfit in early 1944 and was assigned the task of supporting ground troops landing on the beaches at Sadior and in the Admiralties.
Under Colonel John Henebry’s leadership, the 3rd Attack Group became expert in the close air support role. The light and maneuverable A-20s with their heavy firepower were ideal for the kind of low-level flying required to attack enemy troop positions, machine-gun nests, tanks, and artillery emplacements in close proximity to friendly forces.
Skip-bombing was effective against larger ships. On April 5, 1945, a trio of A-20s flown by Colonel Dick Ellis, commander of the 3rd Attack Group, Lt. Col. Charlie Howe, and Major Ken Rosebush went on a long-range anti-shipping mission. Their instructions were to allow the B-25s to strike first, but they became separated from the Mitchells and, even though they should have aborted, struck a small three-ship convoy alone and sank the cargo ship and both of its destroyer escorts. Although Kenney was upset that Ellis had ignored orders and continued on instead of aborting after losing contact with the B-25s, he decorated all of the crews.
Bostons and Havocs also served with other nations, including France, the UK, Australia, and the Soviet Union. France was one of the first operators of the DB-7 Bostons. Free French Forces airmen also flew A-20s. Britain’s Royal Air Force operated both Bostons and Havocs in its light bomber squadrons until mid-1944, when it switched to the DeHavilland Mosquito. The Soviet Union was the largest foreign customer for the Douglas light bomber. After initial deliveries by ship, most of their airplanes were flown overland by Ferrying Command crews to Alaska, where they were picked up by Russian pilots who flew them to the combat zones.
Although it has been almost neglected by the aviation media, the Douglas light bomber was a major contributor to the war effort. While few A-20s survived the war, the concept continued in the more heavily armed A-26 Invader. A few A-26s saw combat in the last weeks of the war, but its primary role was in the postwar military, continuing to serve in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Sam McGowan is a retired pilot and Vietnam veteran. He is the author of numerous works on varied topics related to World War II and resides in Missouri City, Texas.