There were many different opinions about the best method of projecting air power, in this episode we touch on some of the choices that the Luftwaffe would make.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 83 - Germany Prepares for War Part 6 - The Luftwaffe. This week a big thank you goes out to Anita, Hollis, Aleksander, Pieter, Goran, and Karl for choosing to support this podcast by becoming a member. You can become a member to gain access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special member episodes released every month, head on over to historyofthesecondwar.com/members to find out more. One of the major features of the Second World War was the influence that air power would have both on the plans developed by nations during the 1930s and then the actual events of the war after 1939. Air power had an important role during the First World War, but it was also something very new at that time, and all of the changes that occurred after 1914 were at a breakneck pace as every nation tried to adjust to the realities of a new type of combat. During the interwar years everybody would be allowed to take a bit of a breather, and to really consider what the future of air power would be. Technology would mature, and the best ways to use that technology would be the topic of countless conversations all over the world. This entire topic will be something that we discuss in a few months, starting in episode 93 when there will be an entire series focused strictly on air power and its applications. But during this episode I felt that we needed to discuss just a bit about the Luftwaffe during the 1930s, to go along with our other episodes in this series. The Luftwaffe was created in 1935, and the announcement of its creation would represent a major push back against the restrictions from the Versailles Treaty. Just like every other branch of the German military it would have to deal with the fact that it had to rapidly expand, and also adjust to the new realities of warfare as it began to expand in the last half of the 1930s. We will also be discussing how the Luftwaffe planned to fight a war, and what they were planning to do to help the German military on their path to victory. One thing to keep in mind, which we discussed in previous episodes, is that the Luftwaffe would be constrained by the same material shortages as every other arm of the German military. This made their large construction programs unobtainable in the last years before the war, which meant that the Luftwaffe that entered the war in 1939 was not the one that was planned from the previous years. With all of that said, let’d jump in.
As I mentioned earlier, the Treaty of Versailles banned any form of German military aviation, but there were two efforts that were used to get around this ban. The first involved Russia and the Treaty of Rapallo. In the years after the First World War both Germany and Russia were sort of in the position of outcast nations, but they had relatively good relations with one another once the Russian Civil War began to wind down and the Russian Communists shifted away from their policy of worldwide revolution. This allowed for close cooperation both economically and militarily between the two nations, something that both nations felt that they needed. In the realm of air power this resulted in the creation of training facilities in Russia, a similar arrangement would also be made for Germany to train troops in armored combat. The German military leaders highly valued this arrangement as it allowed them to more freely test ideas and train future combat leaders, while the Russians valued it as a way of working with and learning from German officers. The second effort to get around the restrictions came in the form of civilian aviation during the 1920s and 1930s. The German military would work closely with Lufthansa, or the airline that was renamed to Lufthansa in 1933, and many civilian pilots employed by Lufthansa had previously trained in what were referred to as gliding clubs, were future pilots were trained in unpowered aircraft. During this period there was a lot of overlap between civilian and military aviation, especially when it came to aircraft that were roughly similar to bombers. In Germany Lufthansa would even use what would become Luftwaffe bombing aircraft, for example the Junkers Ju-52 and the Heinkel He-111 would both be flown by Lufthansa in the 1930s. This provided great experience for everyone involved, from the pilots to the ground crew, without running afoul of the Versailles restrictions. Then when the first expansion plans for the Luftwaffe were put in place in 1933 they had the relatively modest goals of creating 26 squadrons of aircraft, with 10 of those being bombers. Then in 1935 this was expanded to double the total number of squadrons, but even more heavily weighted towards bombers. Along with these expansion plans the groundwork was rapidly being laid for future expansion, with thousands of training aircraft ordered and the number of workers in aircraft industries quickly expanded.
I reference bomber numbers because it is hard to overstate how important many nations in the 1930s felt their ability to launch bombing campaigns against an enemy was to their ability to win a future conflict. There were many individuals, and they were often leaders within their nation’s air forces, who believed that aerial bombing would be a quick and easy to way to end the next war, without having to resort to the kind of slog that had been experienced during the Great War. In Germany the push for the creation of a force of bombers capable of striking strategic targets was led by Generalleutenant Walter Wever. Wever was the Chief of Staff for the Luftwaffe and played a crucial role in the early rearmament programs, if only because he was able to work quite well with most of the important individuals within the Luftwaffe. Unlike some other strategic bombing advocates in other nations, Wever did still believe that a strong fighter force was required, understanding that it was unlikely that Germany would be able to build a strategic strike force capable of destroying an enemy’s bombers quickly enough to prevent retaliation. Wever also believed that a strategic bombing campaign should not be seen as a first strike option, and should only be used when it was proven that it was the only way to achieve victory. If any strategic bombing campaign was going to be launched, then the Luftwaffe was going to need a bomber capable of reaching the targets with large bomb loads, and during the mid 1930s there were two bombers that were being designed for this purpose, the Dornier Do-19 and the Junker Ju-89, both of these would have been four engine bombers that would have fulfilled a similar role to that of the American B-17 or British Lancaster. The Germans were having engine problems though, a problem that almost every four engine bomber program had to contend with, and by June 1936 they still had not been able to create an engine that was powerful enough, and reliable enough, to power the new bomber designs. they probably would have eventually solved these engine problems, but then in June 1936 Wever was killed in a flying accident. Wever’s death would change the course of the Luftwaffe, not because he was some kind of genius or had some kind of revolutionary view of air power, but instead simply because it allowed for a group of officers to come to power, and a group with a very different view of the correct way to use air power. They were led by Albert Kesselring, who would be Wever’s direct successor, and his views would shrink the horizon of how the Luftwaffe would focus its resources. Instead of creating a strategic bombing fleet Kesselring and others believed that the Luftwaffe should focus on medium bombers that were designed to strike operational targets, with the class example of such a target being rail stations behind enemy lines, things that could have a direct and immediate impact on enemy military formations. These medium bombers could be double engine aircraft, easing the strain on Germany’s engine manufacturing capabilities and allowing for more engine production capacity to be available for the variety of other aircraft that were also necessary to prepare the Luftwaffe for war. Throughout the 1930s there would be several different companies building different medium bombers for use by the Luftwaffe, with Heinkel, Dornier, and Junkers all being given construction contracts. In early 1937 12 aircraft of their most recent bombers, four each of the He-111, Do-17, and Ju-86 would be sent to Spain, the first of many that would make their way to participate in the Spanish Civil War. Spain would prove to be an important area where information and experience was gained both in the usage of aircraft, as well as in evaluations of the aircraft and any adjustments or changes that needed to be made.
In general these aircraft were quite good, with the He-111 and Do-17 considered two of the best medium bombers in the world. The He-111 had first flown in February 1935, although that first prototype and the eventual production models had many differences as there were many adjustments made during the testing process. That production model would have a top speed of 430 kilometers per hour, a ceiling of 6,700 meters, and an internal bomb capacity of 2,000 kilograms. Almost 100 He-111s would then see service in Spain, where it was preferred by many squadrons over the other available options. It was then planned to begin steady replacement during 1940 with a newer aircraft, a process that did not occur due to the war and related production challenges. Instead the He-111 would go on to become a wartime workhorse for the Luftwaffe, with a whole host of different variants. I generally feel that having a large number of aircraft variants, especially variants based around wildly different purposes like the He-111 reflects very positively on the aircraft design, and the He-111 would be altered to perform everything from transporting paratroopers to launching flying bombs. But initial plans were for replacement, and specifically the Luftwaffe’s medium bombers were going to be replaced by the Junker Ju-88. The Junkers burst onto the world state in March 1939 when it set a new world air speed record for its class of aircraft, with an average speed of 517 kilometers per hour over a 1,000 kilometer circuit. In general the initial prototypes of the Ju-88 were thought incredibly highly of among Luftwaffe leadership, and the hope was that they could immediately move into mass production to be ready as quickly as possible. There would instead be several changes to the design that had to occur before the Ju-88 could be ready for production, both those that were required as was the case with any prototype, but then there were also some changes that were really just the Luftwaffe fiddling with the design requirements. The most famous part of that meddling was that it had to have dive bombing capabilities due to the focus that the Luftwaffe as a whole put on dive bombing. This required a stronger frame and wings, which reduced speed and bomb capacity. The speed and bomb capacity of the aircraft was then reduced further by the fact that the initial prototypes were completely unarmed, under the theory that they would be able to use their high top speed to just run away from any danger, an idea that would not survive into the production models. Eventually the aircraft would lose about 65 kilometers per hour off of its top speed, which still made it fast, but not as blindingly fast as its initial designs. The real issue though, was trying to ramp up production capacity, and it meant that when the war started the Luftwaffe would have a grand total of just 12 Ju-88s in front line squadrons during the invasion of Poland. Despite its small numbers at the start of the war it would then go on to become the most produced multi-engine German aircraft, with over 15,000 built before the end of the war.
Medium Bombers were not the only aircraft in the Luftwaffe’s arsenal, and you cannot discuss the Luftwaffe without discussing the emphasis that the service put on dive bombing. The genesis of the German dive bombers would actually be in the United States, where the German pilot Ernst Udet would tour in the early 1930s as a stunt pilot. In his travels he would be impressed by the Curtiss Hawk II, which was a fighter that the Curtiss company was hoping to export to other nations, but which also had some impressive dive bombing capabilities. Two example of the aircraft would be purchased and brought to Germany, which Udet planed to use in his aerobatic displayed. The capabilities that he was able to display would result in the creation of the Henschel Hs-123 which was a combination fighter and bomber. It would then make its debut at an air show in Berlin, where Udet would fly the aircraft. Even before the Henschel was shown to the public work had started at Junkers on what would eventually be called the Ju-87, or the Stuka as basically everybody knows it as. The Ju-87 was able to carry a bomb and then release it from a near vertical dive with remarkable accuracy. Dive bombing at this time was very attractive for one simple reason, dive bombers were actually able to hit specific targets. One of the primary challenges faced by bombers during the interwar period was actually hitting anything, be it ground or naval targets. It was just very challenging to drop bombs on a target when speed, elevation, wind conditions, and a whole host of other factors had to be taken into account, problems that just grew larger as aircraft continued to fly faster and at higher altitudes. Dive bombers solved many of these problems, due to the nature of the dive making it easier for the pilot to release the bomb at the proper moment and on target, with the lower elevation and angle of release reducing the factors that could cause a bomb to miss. The accuracy possible from aircraft like the Stuka allowed for a far more effective level of air support to ground operations as well, and the Stuka and other aircraft would be focused on this role by the Luftwaffe. This was a formula that was tested Spain, and would prove to be successful and it would strengthen the already existing belief among Luftwaffe leadership that air power was capable of supporting ground operations in a meaningful way. Then during the opening campaigns of the war one of the distinguishing factors of the German campaigns would be the effectiveness of operations between the Luftwaffe and ground forces, which was in stark contrast to the coordination issues experienced by other armies. I will also just note here that during those early campaigns, while the Stuka gets all the press, it was not the only aircraft used for such close support operations, and there were large numbers of both fighters and other bombers dedicated to close air support tasks, they just did not get all the press.
In the area of fighter aircraft the Luftwaffe would heavily rely on the Messerschmitt Bf-109, without a doubt the most famous German fighter of the war. The 109 would first fly in November 1936, just a month before it also made a trip to Spain. When it arrived it was a breath of fresh air for the squadrons it was given to, after they had been working against clearly superior Russian fighters in the months before the 109 arrived. There would be a few revisions based on the experiences in Spain, with those newer revisions also being sent to assist the Nationalists. During the early campaigns of the Second World War the strengths of the Bf 109 would allow it to have a very high success rate over other air forces. One advantage that it had was speed, which could be used to devastating effect, as described here by Chris McNab from his book Hitler’s Eagles: “During the early stages of World War II, the Bf 109E enjoyed a superior altitude performance to all the fighters it came up against, so the favoured tactic of the Jagdwaffe was to get above their opponents and attempt to bounce them, if possible using the sun to mask their approach. After a single firing pass, the Jagdflieger would use the speed gained in their diving attack to climb back up into a position from which to perform any repeat attacks. With enemy fighters usually being slower and more maneuverable, German pilots tried to avoid turning dogfights wherever possible.” While the aircraft was very capable, it was always seen during the 1930s as a secondary and supportive aircraft that existed primarily as a tool to facilitate open airspace for the bombers to complete their missions. During the early stages of the war this often manifested in removing any and all enemy aerial assets from the skies, which made the close air support much easier to properly stage and execute. Later in the war, once enemy air forces were stronger, the German fighters played a much large role in defensive operations over Germany. The Bf 109 would eventually go on to become the most produced fighter aircraft in history, which really says something about the qualities of its mid 1930s design. There were certainly better fighters during the war, but updates and changes at least kept the 109 somewhat competitive.
Most of the mainstays of the Luftwaffe in September 1939 were those mid 1930s designs that had several years of design, development, and testing before the start of the war. There were all kinds of problems experienced by German industry in the last years before the war, a topic that we covered in some detail in the first three episodes of this series, so I won’t spend too much time on them for the moment, but specifically for the Luftwaffe the outcome was that in 1938 the number of aircraft produced actually dropped year over year, at the time when the nations that the Luftwaffe would inevitably be facing were rapidly ramping up their own production. to give an idea of how out of touch German planning and German execution was by this stage, after the Munich agreement was signed Hitler wanted the Luftwaffe to expand its numbers by a factor of five by 1942. This would only have been possible if Germany was able to produce 85% of the entire world’s production of aviation fuel, otherwise planes would have been sitting on runways with nothing in the tanks. Oh, and it would also have cost more than the entire of German rearmament spending between 1933 and 1939. Along with just the general challenges of production in Germany during this period, some decision were made that would prove to handicap the Luftwaffe in future campaigns. One of these was a very narrow focus on front line strength for squadrons, instead of providing the necessary number of spare parts. Spare parts required production capacity, just like the aircraft did, but shifting any production capacity from full aircraft to parts would just leave production numbers even further behind. This would leave the Luftwaffe ill prepared for long campaigns where the endurance not just of individual pilots and aircraft would be tested, but also the entire logistical apparatus of the Luftwaffe. These issues would not really present themselves in the first few campaigns of the war though. During the attack on Poland the Luftwaffe would drop their first bombs of the campaign at 4:45AM on September 1, 1939. The general course of the Polish campaign is a topic much too large for this episode, but in general the Luftwaffe would acquit itself quite well. Not everything went perfectly, and there were instances where the heavily outnumbered Polish air force actually did quite well against German attacks, especially in any instance where Polish fighters were able to find unescorted German bombers. Beyond these instances the close air support provided by the Luftwaffe would work quite well, and it would be a system that would repeat itself several times over the following years.
The final section of this episode is almost like an appendix, because while reading Hitler’s Eagles by Chris McNab he walks through two specific topics that I thought I would include here, I found them interesting and because I did, and because I can realistically talk about anything in these episodes, we are going to dive a bit into the organization of the Luftwaffe units and then the training that pilots and aircrew received. Of note, I have done a lot of translation of various names of commands, groups, and units here, they have German names that I would just butcher the pronunciation of, so I have translated them for clarity. Before going through how the Luftwaffe was structured, I should note that just like in every other military arm, the number of administrative and support personnel drastically outnumbered the number of front line combat personnel, or flight personnel in the case of the Luftwaffe. McNab puts the number at around 50,000 flight personnel in the Luftwaffe in 1939, out of a total number of over a million. At the very top of the Luftwaffe was the Air Force High Command, or OKL. One step down were the air fleets, of which there were initially 4, although later there would be an additional 3 to bring the number up to 7. Each Air Fleet had several air districts and flying corps. The Air Districts were built around providing administrative and logistical support in specific geographic areas, they would also be in charge of organizing airfields in their areas. The Flying Corps were then in control of all operational matters, and the preparation and deployment of resources. Below the Flying Core were the combat commands of Staff flights, which commanded 3 or 4 groups, with over 30 aircraft in each group. Groups were then broken down into Staffeln of 9 aircraft. Completely separating the administrative aspects of the Luftwaffe from the operational elements allowed for more flexibility, because in theory any combat unit could be sent to any airfield without having to worry about logistics. When they arrived in an area they would then take control of their airfield and all of the staff were considered to be under their command.
Next up lets talk about training. The training for new flight personnel was a multi stage process, the first of which saw the pilot candidates given basic flight theory and aeronautics information, they were then tested on that information to check for general aptitude. Those that were found to have that aptitude would then move on to the A-Schule where they would get experience in some very basic flying in dual control aircraft. The goal of A-Schule was to get the candidate prepared for solo flights, so it covered all the basics of take off, flight, and landing as well as how to deal with problems like stalls. During this same time the candidate would also be given a lot of information on aviation theory, and they would learn topics like meteorology, navigation, communication and all of the technical types of subjects that they would need to know as pilots. The candidates would then move onto B-Schule, where they would gain experience in much higher performance aircraft, which were eventually just older types of combat aircraft. During the B-Schule they would gain the experience necessary to be given their pilot’s license and pilot’s badge, during peacetime it took from 10 to 13 months for a candidate to progress from initial intake to gaining this license. It was at this point in the process where the new pilots were generally categorized into the types of aircraft that they would be destined to pilot in combat. For pilots that would move into multi-engine aircraft they would then go through a lengthy C-Schule which was designed to teach all of the navigation and equipment skills that might be necessary for their future flying, like navigation by radio direction finding. In any case they would eventually move into training on the specific type of aircraft that they would use during their service. The total training time for many bombing pilots would be about 20 months, which meant that they had much more formal training than any other group. When the war started this all shifted somewhat. Much of the theoretical information provided during the later parts of A-Schule was truncated and instead shifted to be included in other areas. This allowed for a quicker initial training, even if in general it meant that the pilots moved into B-schule without as good of a theoretical base. There would be additional adjustments to the process later in the war as the need for pilots continued to increase and losses mounted