The most forgotten bomber of World War II?

When the Douglas Aircraft Company came up with the bright idea to develop a medium bomber from their DC-2, they certainly didn’t expect it to hold such a frosty place in history…

Not every aeroplane can be ‘the best’. They can’t all break world records, or bring innovative designs to life, or go down in history as being the leading example of its type. Understandably, many aircraft over the 120-or-so years of aviation history have fallen by the wayside, underwhelming to most and forgotten by many. Remaining in the shadows of the ‘greats’, such as the Spitfires, the B-17 Flying Fortresses and the Avro Vulcans, some aeroplanes just didn’t live up to expectations. The Douglas B-18 Bolo is one of them.

But it wasn’t at first. When the B-18 was initially developed in 1936, the twin-enginedbomber would be a central component to America’s air power during the war. However,by 1940, just one year into World War II, the B-18 was already being considered obsolete. Why? It was thought to be underpowered, to have inadequate defensive armament, and to carry too small a bomb load. In spite of these known shortcomings, though, the medium bomber was considered the suitable stopgap American bomber until more B-17s and B-24s were available. As such, the B-18 was the aeroplane most deployed in large numbers to the Pacific, and at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, many were stationed in Hawaii and the Philippines.

Hawaii Formation
Three B-18 Bolos in formation over Hawaii.

When the attack on Pearl Harbour took place, most of the B-18 Bolos on the ground were destroyed. Many considered this lucky in a way – had these B-18s been the superior B-17s or B-24s, the United States would have lost an unimaginable number of well-equipped, well-performing bombers. As it happened, it was mostly B-18s that were destroyed, meaning that the other aeroplanes continued to role off the production line without their original numbers having taken much of a blow.

Hickham Field, Hawaii
A destroyed hangar, Hickham Field, Hawaii, December 7 1941. To the right, the broken tail section of a B-18 can be seen.

Post-1941, there wasn’t much of a future for the airliner-turned-bomber other than to act as reconnaissance and transport aircraft. It was briefly considered that the Bolo may take part in the infamous Doolittle Raid, America’s retaliation attack on the Japanese following Pearl Harbour. But the aeroplane was pippedto the post for the important role by the B-25 Mitchell. Despite the B-25 having yet to see combat, it was considered better for the mission as more could be carried aboard an aircraft carrier due to its considerably shorter wingspan.

As a result of the Douglas B-18 Bolo being used for little that it was supposed to be, it seems to have gone down in history as perhaps the most pointless bomber design of the war. Even its name of ‘Bolo’ seemed particularly significant when considering the aeroplane’s shortcomings. The word refers to a knife that was historically given to Filipino soldiers who failed to qualify for a firearm. Likewise, the B-18 Bolo seemed to be given to squadrons for menial tasks as it failed to qualify as a bomber. Despite the fact that many seem to have forgotten this somewhat unsuccessful feat of engineering, those who do remember it will recall how the aeroplane went from promising to inauspicious in a matter of years.


All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.