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Douglas A-20 Havoc Bomber

During the Second World War, the United States produced a total of 300,000 aircraft. Those planes proved vital to the war effort, with more than a dozen aviation firms involved. The Douglas Aircraft Company produced several aircraft of note, including the SBD Dauntless dive bomber and C-47 Skytrain, and each is largely remembered for the role each played in ensuring victory.

Leaving the coast of France after plastering Nazi targets with high explosives, Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers of the 9th Air Force head for their home bases in England. Image: NARA

No less significant was the A-20 Havoc, a bomber that was overshadowed by the likes of the B-17 and B-24, yet was still blooded in battle in every theater of the war and sighted on almost every continent. The Havoc even became the most-produced attack bomber during the war and was used on numerous fronts around the globe including Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific.

Origins of the Havoc

Development of what was to become the A-20 began in the mid-1930s under the direction of designers Jack Northrop and Edward Heinemann of Douglas at El Segundo, California — and it was notable that the pair hadn’t even been told that the United States Army was seeking a twin-engine bomber.

In this photo, we see the top of an A-20 Havoc while in flight over Europe. The Douglas A-20 Havoc is an American medium bomber, attack aircraft, night intruder, night fighter, and reconnaissance aircraft of World War II.
The A-20 Havoc was designed as an attack bomber for hedge hopping and strafing operations against ground troops and installations, but was used in a variety of roles. Image: Library of Congress

Designated the DB-7 by Douglas and initially planned to fill the role of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ attack specifications, it was dramatically altered to serve as a light bomber. It was given more powerful Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines, and a nose wheel-type landing gear — the first for a military aircraft. As it took shape, the design evolved into a versatile aircraft that was used as a medium bomber, attack aircraft, night intruder, night fighter and even reconnaissance aircraft.

This photo shows a low flying A-20 Havoc flying away from the Beola oil fields in the Dutch East Indies. Now known as Indonesia, the area had been held by Japanese forces when 75 A-20 Havocs of the 312th Bomb Group on July 14, 1944. 
A Douglas A-20 Havoc of the U.S. Army 5th Air Force flies away from the havoc it has just wrought on an oil storage tank at Boela on the Island of Ceram, Dutch East Indies. Image: NARA

The A-20 Havoc had a maximum speed of 317 mph and a cruising speed of 230 mph, with a range of 1,025 miles and a ceiling of 25,000 feet. It could carry up to two tons of bombs. Armament varied, but the standard configuration included six fixed forward-firing .50 caliber Browning machine guns in the nose and twin .50 calibers in the dorsal turret, as well as an additional .50 caliber mounted behind the bomb bay. The combined armament gave the BD-7/A-20 the ability to bring havoc to the enemy and fend off fighters that confronted it.

In this image, we see the three crew members of an A-20 assigned to the 9th Air Force based in France. one of the crewmen holds a Browning M2. The M2 machine gun or Browning .50 caliber machine gun is a heavy machine gun that was designed near the end of World War I by John Browning.
Crew of an A-20 with the 9th Air Force pose with their plane at an air base in liberated France. The crewman on the right holds one of the plane’s .50-caliber machine guns. Image: NARA

Being the first with tricycle landing gear, pilots had to make the transition from the traditional “tail-draggers,” but it offered a number of benefits. The crew sat up high and comfortably and were able to proceed straight down the taxiway with a commanding view as the cockpit was located forward of the propeller arc.

Shown here are rows of A-20 nose glass construction during World War II in California. The plexiglas reflects the overhead lights.
At the Douglas Aircraft Long Beach, California assembly plant, women workers groom lines of transparent noses for deadly A-20 attack bombers. Image: NARA

However, the aircraft was also noted for a significant handicap — namely the narrowness of its aluminum alloy fuselage, which resulted in each crewman being fixed in his own position and largely unable to exchange places with others. Injury or death to the pilot would typically require the other two crew members to bail out.

Douglas A-20 Service in the French Armée de l’air

The first production aircraft rolled off the assembly in mid-August 1939. The clouds of war had already been long gathering and it was clear the storm was about to burst.

In this digital photograph, the ground crew and aircrew of the La France Libre bomber work together to prepare for a mission. The La France Libre was an A-20 bomber that was the first in the 9th Air Force to complete 100 missions against Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany, officially known as the German Reich until 1943, later the Greater German Reich, is the term used by historians to describe the German state between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party controlled the country, transforming it into a totalitarian dictatorship.
The Douglas A-20 Havoc “La France Libre” was the first 9th Air force light bomber to complete 100 missions against German military objectives. Image: Staff Sgt. Steve Risko/U.S. Army Air Force

Unlike a number of other combat aircraft designed and built in the United States, the A-20 was unique in that while the aircraft was actually developed for the United States Army Air Corps, it was the French government that placed an initial order for 100 aircraft for its Armée de l’air (Air Force)

When the Second World War broke out, the United States found itself in a difficult position.

In this photograph, we can see the aircrew of an A-20 climbing out of the airplane. At the far left is the aircraft pilot, Captain Hugh A. Monroe of San Francisco, California. An aircraft pilot or aviator is a person who controls the flight of an aircraft by operating its directional flight controls. Some other aircrew members, such as navigators or flight engineers, are also considered aviators because they are involved in operating the aircraft's navigation and engine systems.
The air crew of the Douglas A-20 Havoc, “La France Libre.” At left is the pilot, Capt. Hugh A. Monroe, who was 21 years old at the time of this photo. Image: U.S. Army Air Force

It couldn’t openly support the governments in London or Paris, so the planes were delivered via ship to the French military in Casablanca. The Havoc was first operated by the French Air Force’s 19th and 32nd Air Groups, initially in Morocco, but the units arrived in metropolitan France by the time of the German invasion in the spring of 1940. The French government clearly liked the aircraft as it ordered an additional 270 in the fall of 1939, and then an additional 480.

The images shows a squadron of A-20 Havocs bombing V-1 launch site in northern France.
Bombs from 9th Air Force A-20s fall on V-1 “flying bomb” launching site in the Pas-de-Calais area. Many of these sites were knocked out by A-20s. Image: NARA

The A-20 Havocs were among the first U.S. warplanes to see combat in the conflict. The aircraft were used in dozens of sorties against the German military, but the German Blitzkrieg overwhelmed the French Army. A number of the A-20s were evacuated to North Africa before Paris fell in May.

Those aircraft remained under the control of the Vichy French, and were essentially grounded — at least until the U.S. forces arrived in North Africa as part of Operation Torch in November 1942. Many of the Havocs were then employed by the Free French forces and used as trainers, while some were later used against the German forces in occupied France at the end of the war.

The British DB-7 Boston

The UK’s Royal Air Force actually received a number of the Havocs that were ordered by the French and Belgian governments.

In this digital image, we see a side view of the RAF Boston. The Boston was a renamed A-20 Havoc provided to the UK under the Lend-Lease Program. It was designed as an attack bomber for hedge hopping and strafing operations against ground troops and installations. Lend-Lease, formally the Lend-Lease Act and introduced as An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States, was a policy under which the United States supplied the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, France, Republic of China, and other Allied nations of the Second World War with food, oil, and materiel between 1941 and 1945.
The British DB-7 Boston was the Royal Air Force version of the American Douglas A-20 Havoc light bomber. Image: Library of Congress

Those were designated the DB-7 “Boston” in RAF service — which caused confusion as the aircraft was also known as the A-20 Havoc with RAF. Regardless of its designation, the aircraft were initially fielded as day bombers used against German targets in North Africa and Europe. As the war waged on, the Havoc was found to be unsuitable in that role — especially as the British had more capable bombers including the Lancaster and Mosquito. As a result, the Havoc was modified into a dedicated night-fighter.

In this photograph, a RAF DB-7 Boston takes off for a mission against German troops in France. 
The A-20 Havoc was also known as the DB-7 Boston when it was flown by the UK’s Royal Air Force Image: Library of Congress

Baptism of Fire with the U.S. Military

The A-20 Havocs proved well-suited to operations in North Africa, and the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) employed the aircraft in the campaign to defeat the German Afrika Korps, and in the succeeding invasions of Sicily and then in Italy.

In this image, we see an A-20 used for anti-malarial spraying in Italy. Natousa Anti-Malarial Organization Aircraft Phase. Douglas A-20 Havoc, Taken From Air, Shown Dusitng In Areal Of Lake Patria. Note Extensive Flooding Areas. Larviciding Mission Over Mt. Cuma, Italy.
In 1843, Germany flooded fields in Italy to slow American advances. The A-20 was used to spray anti-malarial pesticides to prevent illness to civilians and Allied troops. Image: NARA

Though overshadowed by more famous bombers and fighters, the A-20 still saw action in Normandy and throughout the liberation of Western Europe. However, by the war’s end, it was largely replaced by the newer and more capable Douglas A-26 Invader — an aircraft that would go on to see service in Korea and Vietnam.

A-20 Havoc as a Pacific Warbird

The Havoc first saw action in the war in the Pacific on December 7, 1941, as a number were at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack. Serving with the 5th Air Force in the South West Pacific Theater, modified A-20As with heavy nose armament were subsequently used for low-level strafing in New Guinea.

Shown in this photograph is an A-20 Havoc bomber with rocket pods attached to the wings of the plane.
In addition to gravity bombs, rocket pods could be installed under wings of A-20 Havoc as shown here. Image: NARA

In the Pacific, perhaps even more than in Europe, the A-20 Havoc proved to be an ideal weapon for conducting pinpoint strikes against enemy aircraft on the ground, as well as hangers and supply dumps. When operating in formation, the Havocs could employ the combined heavy forward firepower to overwhelm shipboard anti-aircraft defenses and then conduct wave-top level skip-bombing — which involved a low-flying bomber dropping a bomb with a delayed-action fuse while approaching a ship at wave-top heights. The bomb would literally “skip” across the water like a rock until it impacts the side of the vessel, where it would then sink below the surface and explode.

In this image, we see a Douglas A-20 Havoc caught by Japanese anti-aircraft flak, swerves out of control, and crashes into the ocean. All men were killed.
During a mission, a Douglas A-20 Havoc is caught by Japanese flak near Karas, Dutch New Guinea (Indonesia). The Havoc swerved out of control and went into the ocean with all crew lost. Image: NARA

This tactic was employed on transports as well as destroyers with devastating effect. Japanese crews, expecting a torpedo run, would turn the vessels bow-on to the A-20s. That was a costly mistake, as it made the strafing all the more devastating and would make the vessels more vulnerable to follow skip-bombing runs.

Air Force Night Fighter: P-70

A night fighter variant, designated the P-70, was also employed during the Second World War. It first operated from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands during the campaign to liberate the Philippines to intercept high-flying Japanese night raiders and also briefly flew in New Guinea. However, the P-70s only scored a handful of kills — with some sources saying just two — during the war.

In this photo, men of the 2nd Aircraft Assembly Squadron, 13th Air Depot Group work to assemble Douglas P-70 airplanes at Megenta Air Base in New Caledonia on November 13, 1943. New Caledonia is a French territory comprising dozens of islands in the South Pacific. 
Maintenance crews work on Douglas P-70 night fighters at Magenta Air Base on New Caledonia in November 1943.

It was replaced in the night fighter role by the Northrop P-61 Black Widow.

However, another variant — the F-3A — served as a night-time “foto” reconnaissance aircraft. Flying one of these aircraft may have required a special level of bravery as the armament was removed — though the crew of three was retained, consisting of a pilot, observer and navigator.

The first Allied aircraft to land at Itazuke, Japan after the August 1945 surrender was reportedly an F-3A.

The Soviet Havoc

A significant number of Havocs were provided as Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union. Initially, these were provided from British stocks. The Soviets heavily modified the aircraft with external racks to allow for the dropping of torpedoes.

In this photo we see one of the few images of an A-20 Havoc with livery from the Soviet Union. The communists helped Nazi Germany kick off the war in Europe by cooperating with the invasion of Poland. Once Germany turned on the Russians, they came hat in hand to the United States begging like dogs for help. Sadly, the USA helped the Soviets and provided them with weaponry like the Havoc bomber.
The Soviet Union was the recipient of many A-20 Havoc bombers in World War II. Image: NARA

Each aircraft could, in theory, carry two airborne torpedoes, but in practice the Havocs carried one to enable greater range. The A-20s in Soviet service were also modified to drop air-delivered sea mines, and this actually combined some of the night fighter capabilities where the aircraft could fly in the cover of night and drop mines outside of harbors and in shipping channels. After learning of the success of the U.S. skip-bombing in the Pacific, the Soviets adopted a similar technique — dubbed “mast height bombing.”

Shown in this image are four airmen of the Soviet Union taking custody of an A-20 Havoc. Soviet airmen take over a Lend-Lease Douglas A-20 Havoc at Ladd Field, Fairbanks, Alaska. First A-20 Havocs to Russia were delivered at Ladd Field in October 1942 and have been flowing in increasing numbers.
Soviet airmen take over a Lend-Lease Douglas A-20 Havoc at Ladd Field, Fairbanks, Alaska. First A-20 Havocs to Russia were delivered at Ladd Field in October 1942. Image: NARA

Legacy of the Havoc Light Bomber

By the war’s end, a total of 7,477 DB-7/A-20/P-70/F-3As were built, and more than half were provided to America’s allies during the war.

Today, only a handful of A-20 Havocs remain.

In this 1961 photo, the "Little Joe" A-20G is shown at an airport. The plane was donated to the National Museum of the US Air Force by an insurance company in Chicago Illinois.
Bankers Life and Casualty Co. of Chicago donated this A-20G to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. It is painted to represent “Little Joe” of the 5th Air Force. Image: U.S. Air Force Museum

One named “Little Joe” is now on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB) outside of Dayton, while another is at the Pima Air and Space Museum, adjacent to Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona.

An A-20G is at the Royal Australian Air Force Heritage Center — with plans to eventually move it to the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Moresby. A Boston III variant is now on display at the RAAF Museum in Victoria.

Shown is a restored A-20 in a full size diorama at the National Museum of the US Air Force. Little Joe A-20 in USAF Museum
“Little Joe” is now on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Image: U.S. Air Force Museum

While several are now under restoration, the only airworthy Havoc is in the collection of the Lewis Air Legends, based out of San Antonio, Texas.

Shown here is an A-20 Havoc on the flight line of The Great Texas Airshow on Apr. 23, 2022, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. The U.S. Air Force is celebrating its 75th anniversary with The Great Texas Airshow as a key event.
An A-20 Havoc sits on the tarmac during The Great Texas Airshow on Apr. 23, 2022, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. Image: Sean Worrell/U.S. Air Force

The mid-wing, twin-engine medium bomber was by no means the fastest aircraft in service, nor did it have the longest range. But it was noted for its survivability, a fact that was welcome by its aircrews as it helped ensure that it could take significant damage and still get back home. At the same time, the A-20 was more than able to live up to its “Havoc” name as it could deliver a serious punch to the enemy.

Finally, while it was designed as a bomber, during the latter stages of World War II it operated more like a fighter. It was unique in that it also was employed in a night intruder and reconnaissance role. The Havoc proved to be quite the versatile warbird.

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