Douglas A-20 Havoc in USAAF service

The Douglas A-20 Havoc may not be one of the best known bombers of the Second World War, but it was used by seven Bombardment Groups, fought in the south west Pacific, took part in the invasions of North Africa, Italy, France and Germany, and remained in service until the end of the war. It operated as a very effective low level attack aircraft in the Pacific, and as a medium level bomber over Europe


By December 1941 the 58th Bombardment Squadron, based at Hickham Field, Hawaii, was in the process of converting from the B-18 to the A-20. On 7 December two of the squadron’s A-20s were destroyed on the ground, in what was technically the US combat debut of the A-20. The 58th Bombardment Squadron would never take it’s A-20s into combat, and by the time it reached the front had become the 531st Fighter-Bomber Squadron, equipped with the A-24.

Douglas A-20 Attacks Freighter
Douglas A-20
Attacks Freighter

The first unit to take the A-20 into combat in the Pacific was the 3rd Bombardment Group. In the summer of 1942 it received enough A-20s to equip the 89th Bombardment Squadron and part of the 8th Bombardment Squadron. These aircraft arrived without guns or bomb racks, and so Major Paul “Pappy” Gunn, who installed four .50in machine guns in the nose of the A-20As, which at best had four .30in forward firing guns. In August 1942 the modified aircraft went into combat, attacking the Japanese airbase at Lae. This was the first of a long series of low level strafing attacks on the Japanese that would become the specialty of the A-20 in the Pacific, and would lead to the development of the solid nosed A-20G.

The 3rd BG also pioneered the use of “parafrags” – small fragmentation bombs with time delay fuses dropped by parachute. These small bombs were very effective against Japanese bases and against flat bottomed barges.

The 3rd Bombardment Group remained the only A-20 unit in the Pacific until the start of 1944. Only then did the group completely equip with the A-20, while the 312th Bombardment Group began to convert from the P-40, while the 417th Bombardment Group became the last group to get the A-20. At its peak in September 1944 the 5th Air Force had a total of 370 A-20s.

The three groups operated together in the final stages of the campaign in New Guinea and on the way to the Philippines. Late in 1944 they moved onto Leyte, from where they took part in the campaign against the defenders of Luzon. On 7 January 1945 they took part in a long range attack on Clark Field, before moving on bases on Luzon. From there they attacked Japanese factories and butane plants on Formosa.

In August 1945 the A-20 groups moved to Okinawa, from where they took part in the first attack on the Japanese home islands on 9 August 1945. By that point the 3rd Bombardment Group had converted to the A-26, while the 312th was in the process of converting to the Consolidated B-32, a massive four engined bomber. Only the 417th BG kept it’s A-20s to the end of the war. They then began to convert to the A-26 Invader, but the war ended before they could take the new aircraft into combat.


The A-20 made a brief combat debut in Europe in the summer of 1942. On 29 June 1942 one RAF Boston was flown by a crew from the 15th Bomb Squadron during a raid on a railway marshalling yard in France. The 15th flew the first mission in its own right on 4 July 1942, when six aircraft attacked German airfields in Holland. Worryingly two aircraft were lost to ground fire, but only two more missions were flow before the squadron moved to North Africa to join the 12th Air Force.

The A-20 did not reappear in Britain until early in 1944, when the 409th, 410th and 416th Bombardment Groups joined the 9th Air Force in preparation for the invasion of Europe. Tactics had changed since 1942, and these groups now operated a mix of solid nosed B-20Gs and B-20Hs, led by the clear nosed A-20Js and A-20Ks, in medium level attacks. They concentrated on invasion targets – coastal positions, airfields and German communications – and played an important part in the campaign to prevent the German troops in Normandy

In the aftermath of D-Day the A-20s were used to support General Patton’s 3rd Army during its advance across France, as well as taking part in the battle of the Falaise Pocket (where the 416th BG won a Distinguished Unit Citation). All three groups then moved to France, from where they took part in the attacks on the German Siegfried Line, while the 416th took part in Operation Market Garden.

In November 1944 the 416th began to convert to the Douglas A-26 Invader, and was soon followed by the 409th. This left the 410th as the only A-20 group during the battle of the Bulge. The group won the Distinguished Unit Citation for making five attacks on German troop concentrations on 23-26 December 1944, helping to break the momentum of the German attack. 

The 410th continued to operate the A-20 into April 1945. During this period it made a number of night attacks in combination with B-26 Marauders and A-26 Invaders, with the B-26s dropping flare to light up the target, the A-26 dropping target markers and the A-20 dropping the bombs. The 410th then began to convert to the A-26 itself, but the war ended before the new aircraft entered combat.

North Africa and Italy

After its brief period operating from England, the 15th Bombardment Squadron joined the 12th Air Force to take part in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. It was joined by the four squadrons of the 47th Bombardment Group, and all five squadrons would take part in the entire campaign in North Africa.

The five A-20 squadrons were used to attack Axis supply lines, airfields and troop concentrations. At first they used the same low level tactics as in the Pacific, but German anti-aircraft fire was much more effective than its Japanese equivalent, and losses were unacceptably high. The squadrons were forced to move to less accurate but safer medium level operations, 

They were forced back into low level attacks when Rommel attacked at the Kasserine Pass, threatening to break through the American lines. The A-20s of the 47th BG made eleven low level attacks on the German armour on 22 February, losing only one aircraft and winning a Distinguished Unit Citation for their actions.

The 15th Bombardment Squadron was disbanded at the end of 1943, but the 47th Bombardment Group used it’s A-20s during the Italian campaign, starting with attacks on Pantelleria and Lampedusa in June 1943 and the invasion of Sicily before moving onto the Italian mainland. The A-20s remained in used until the spring of 1945, when the group began to convert to the A-26, but the war ended before the new aircraft entered combat.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 September 2008), Douglas A-20 Havoc in USAAF service ,

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