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A Look Back: North American B-25 Mitchell

Some aircraft cross borders easily. Not only are they widely used in their country of origin but they are also popular with air forces in other countries.


February 24, 2011
By By Raymond Canon

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Some aircraft cross borders easily. Not only are they widely used in their country of origin but they are also popular with air forces in other countries. Quite often, it’s due to their versatility, or ruggedness, or both – and they are still in use long after production lines have shut down.

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The North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber was one such aircraft. Designed and put into production even before the United States entered World War II in December 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Mitchell soon demonstrated its versatility and was kept in production for four years.

Such were its capabilities that the B-25 became the first medium bomber ever to fly from an aircraft carrier on a mission. In doing so, it made history in more ways than one. In 1942, the war in the Pacific was not going well for the Allies, particularly the U.S. In order to provide a boost for morale – as well as prove to the Japanese mainland they were not immune from attack – the American Air Force trained carefully selected aircrew to fly the B-25B from the deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet.

Under the leadership of Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, 16 B-25s did just that and became the first American (or Allied) aircraft to bomb the Japanese mainland. It caught the Japanese completely by surprise. The lift in morale was far greater than the amount of damage done; the purpose had thus been achieved. The aircraft were to land in China, a few did not. As a result, some aircrews either died or were executed in Japan.

Apart from its aircraft carrier accomplishment, the characteristics of the Mitchell made it useful for a variety of roles. It could be deployed not only as a medium bomber, but also for a ground attack, submarine hunter, trainer, photo reconnaissance or utility transport. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps used some of the close to 10,000 that were produced during the war. The most unique version was the inclusion of a 75-millimetre cannon in the nose that would surely have blown enemy aircraft out of the sky with one shot. However, due to the amount of time to load, aim and fire a shell, the targets were all on the surface.

The RCAF was one of the numerous air forces that included the B-25 among its inventory. About 60 planes were diverted from RAF orders toward the end of the war but many more were bought after 1945. However, a number of RAF Squadrons flying the B-25 did so with Canadian crews. After the planes were transferred to auxiliary squadrons, they were cheaper to acquire than if they had been purchased earlier – and they could be used for a variety of purposes. The last B-25s were retired in 1963 after being used for navigational training.

Given the many configurations of the B-25, it is difficult to provide a precise set of specs (though the “B-25 J” is featured below. This also makes it difficult to provide exact numbers on production, uses and transferred aircraft. Some planes even ended up in the late 1940s in the hands of the Chinese Communist regime. Whether they actually fought each other, as was the case on the Swiss and German Me-109s during World War II, is problematical, given that aircrew frequently misidentified aircraft they were fighting against.

The B-25 has one other distinction; it is the only American military aircraft named after a person. Gen. Billy Mitchell was a pioneer in American military history and one of his namesakes can be seen at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at Hamilton Int. Airport.