In late 1938 the supreme command of the German Navy (Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine) began to examine the application of air power to naval operations, although, since the Third Reich confidently expected at this stage to avoid a war with Britain, planning would have been for a worst-case scenario, rather than to meet a specific expectation. Initially therefore the main task of the air units assigned to the Kriegsmarine was coastal reconnaissance.
Using improved and better aircraft, including land-based types such as the Ju 88 that exhibited far better performance characteristics than the then current maritime types, more effective methods of maritime warfare were explored. Different plans worked out by the Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine attempted to achieve closer aerial co-operation with vessels of the German navy. Air power could, for example, potentially be harnessed to provide timely reconnaissance to allow surface raiders to reach the Atlantic without detection and, if necessary, provide air intervention. It could also be used to provide targets for U-boats, although in the vast expanse of the Atlantic this was often less than useful; it could be used to carry out direct attacks on enemy surface assets; and it could be used in mine laying to inhibit enemy movements. Nevertheless, in early 1940 co-operation with Kriegsmarine surface vessels and U-boats was almost non-existent.
Early in WWII, attacks on British ground targets were prohibited by the German Supreme Command. Permission to resume these attacks was finally granted by the German naval staff, following which He 59s were used to lay naval mines in the Downs, Thames Estuary and off Sheerness. After experiencing a number of technical difficulties, the operations then declined. Important targets, such as Liverpool and Belfast, were out of range for the slow He 59. Subsequently, aircrew flying the He 111 carried out mine laying operations.
Operating at night, the aircraft available at this time, such as the He 59 and Do 18, would have been fairly adequate in laying mines in shipping lanes or harbour approaches. However, until the He 115 entered service in late 1939, there were no suitable torpedo bombers and the German air torpedoes then available were not of a suitably reliable standard. Meanwhile magnetic mines, although initially successful, were recovered by the British, enabling them to devise countermeasures against these devices. Despite this, it seemed nevertheless to be possible to attack smaller enemy vessels by day or at dawn. Unfortunately, the inventory of then available twin-engined maritime aircraft of the German Marineflieger under the command of the Führer der Luftstreitkräfte (the A.O.C.’s Fleet Air Arm) was too short in range to be able to action orders for missions over all the seas bordering Europe.
Additionally, the aircrafts’ reconnaissance capabilities did not allow many missions a day due to a limited number of experienced, fully trained crews; also the navigation systems for these kinds of mission were still under development.
The obsolescent twin-engined He 59 floatplanes and reconnaissance aircraft such as the He 60 and the Do 18 flying boat did not seem to be sufficiently powerful to play an important role quickly enough in the modern conflict emerging over the seas of Western Europe.
In 1939 it was suggested that fourteen carrier-borne units be raised, so-called Trägerstaffeln, to be used for the sole German aircraft carrier then under development, the Graf Zeppelin.
Additionally, a new schedule spoke about establishing not less than fifty units (Staffeln) including seven reconnaissance units stationed on big Kriegsmarine vessels (so-called Bordfliegerstaffeln) to be built up by 1942. Of the remaining units, sixteen should belong to the German coastal command structure consisting of sea reconnaissance units equipped with flying boats and float planes, the others being equipped with land-based long-range combat aircraft.
Six offensive units, called Fernkampfstaffeln (Land) (land-based long-range combat units), were estimated to be sufficient to attack enemy forces all over the North Sea and Baltic Sea over the following few years; in fact these units did achieve some good results.
On 24 November 1938, Kapitän zur See Fricke of the German Seekriegsleitung (Supreme Command of the Navy) and Oberst (Colonel) H.G. Jeschonnek (General Staff of the Luftwaffe) discussed the need for the growth of the Luftwaffe over the coming years. Besides attacking the Soviet Union, both believed that potential future enemies could be France and Great Britain. In order to eliminate the powerful British Navy and destroy merchant ships arming the British Isles, both agreed that some thirteen Luftwaffe Geschwader would be needed. A further thirty Geschwader should attack harbours, airfields and industrial targets all over England. This projection was in fact optimistic. As of 1940, only fourteen Kampfgeschwader were ranged against England, totalling forty-two Gruppen, plus nine Gruppen of Stukas and two coastal Gruppen. Because Germany believed that England could be assisted by the USA, it became obvious that well protected convoys would be used to support the besieged British Isles. However, it seems that both German officers thought that it was inevitable that the Luftwaffe would be successful. Only later would it become apparent that there was a great need for long-range land-based combat aircraft operating over both the North Sea and the Atlantic.
One of the units urgently needed was Kampfgeschwader (KG) 40. This combat unit was under the command of X. Fliegerkorps led by Generalleutnant Flans Geisler who had joined the Kriegsmarine on 1 April and who had become the Führer der Luftstreitkräfte of the Kriegsmarine on 1 October 1935. From 3 October 1939 he became responsible for X. Fliegerkorps, a position he held until August 1942. Because the tactical range of the Do 17, Fie 111 and Ju 88 were all poor for the maritime missions he had in mind, General Geisler had no opportunity to carry out offensive raids west of England and Ireland. However, the large four-engined Fw 200, a former transport aircraft of Deutsche Lufthansa, did offer sufficient range (but rather poor performance) to conduct a maritime air offensive far away from Germany. Besides this aircraft, only the Ju 90, of which only two had been available in 1939, seemed also to represent a step in the right direction.
Major Edgar Petersen, the leader of the first Gruppe of KG 40, which was established on 1 November 1939 near Bremen, flying the He 111 E, suggested using modified Fw 200s to carry out long-range raids. From this idea, a limited number of Fw 200 B-ls, some constructed for the fleet of Deutsche Lufthansa, were subsequently handed over to the Luftwaffe as Fw 200 C-s.
Following attempts to build a Fw 200 for the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Fw 200 V10, an armed long-range version of the aircraft, was constructed. Later, the Fw 200 VI1 followed as a prototype for a long-range maritime bomber. From 1 April 1940, the first Staffel of KG 40 was the initial unit to receive this new combat aircraft, designated the Fw 200 C-1 “Condor”. Most of the personnel of this Staffel were taken from all-weather flying schools all over the Reich. After a few flights, the unit was used for transportation duties between Germany and Norway; taking off from Lüneburg, three Fw 200s of KG 40 headed for Narvik in Norway to support the German mountain soldiers of General Dietl. Simultaneously, bombs fell on British vessels on which personnel and material were being brought to Norway and the British positions in that theatre of the war. After the Wehrmacht had won the war in Northern Europe, the Fw 200 C “Condors”, based at Gardemoen in Norway, flew armed reconnaissance missions over Scotland, the northern isles and over the North Atlantic. On 12 June 1940, after mine-laying missions along the British east coast, I./KG 40 was transferred to Bordeaux in France. During the summer of 1940, the crews flew reconnaissance missions up to 24 degrees west. Normally, their long-range aircraft started late in the evening and then headed for Iceland, after that turning southeast and later landing at Stavanger or Gardemoen in Norway. After two days of repairs they then moved back to Bordeaux. Because a vast area was controlled from the air, these missions were potentially very useful for the C-in-C of the German submarine service, Konteradmiral Karl Dönitz. However, Dönitz’s U-boats were usually too distant to be able to act upon any information gathered.
I./KG 40 also had to assist other German forces attacking the city of Liverpool in August 1940 with bombers of Luftflotten 2 and 3. After the failure of that mission, Kampfgruppe 40 continued with its missions over the Irish Sea, the Northern Channel and the area west of Ireland. Between September 1940 and August 1941, I./KG 40 succeeded in the destruction of many merchant ships on their way from and to the British Isles since most of these ships were unarmed and moved without any protection whatsoever from the Royal Navy.
Up to 31 December 1940, I./KG 40 alone sank more than 800,000 tonnes of civil shipping around England without itself suffering many losses. Over a short period of time, between January and March 1941, nearly ninety merchant vessels with a total tonnage of 390,000 tonnes were claimed to have been destroyed in combat. On 26 October 1940, the 42,000 tonne Empress of Britain was set on fire by Hauptmann (Captain) Bernhard Jope, belonging to 2./KG 40. Taken in tow, it was torpedoed and sunk two days later by a U-boat. Additionally, Hauptmann Fliegel and Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Buchholz, both later missing in action over the Atlantic, achieved great successes. Hauptmann Daser and Oberleutnant Verlohr, similarly successful, were decorated with the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) for their exploits.
Throughout this period, the “Condor” crews mounted their attacks at very low-level, typically releasing a stick of four SC 250 bombs hundreds of metres from the target ship. Often, one of the bombs would hit the ship’s side above, sometimes just below, the waterline. Thus the ship’s structure collapsed, breaking apart and sinking immediately, frequently within a few minutes of the initial explosion.
In December 1940, the number of forces being used against maritime targets was enlarged; Kampfgeschwader 40 received a staff unit, the Geschwaderstab, and further operational groups, II.- and III./KG 40 were added.
The main focus of the U-boat and air operations during 1941 and early 1942 lay on the convoy routes from the USA, the South Atlantic and those around Gibraltar. The greatest weight of operations during this time lay with those forces under the command of the Fliegerführer Atlantik, Gustav Harlinghausen. In 1939, Harlinghausen was one of the pioneers of attacking ships with bombs. In the Norwegian campaign he was Chief of Staff of Fliegerkorps X. From March 1943 his anti-shipping forces comprised some 20 “Condors”, 24 He 115s and a mixture of Ju 88, Bf 110 and other aircraft used for reconnaissance duties over the sea. Altogether 83 aircraft belonged to Fliegerführer Atlantik at that time. Subsequently, the number of aircraft available for armed reconnaissance missions increased to more than 150, most of them Fw 200s and Ju 88s.
However, from mid-1941, unsustainable losses during low-level attacks forced KG 40 to level bomb from high altitude. These losses were due to the fact that the British Admiralty assembled their merchant ships to form convoys, well escorted by frigates and destroyers of the Royal Navy and Allied maritime powers. Furthermore, the convoys were protected by AA-cruisers and ship-borne barrage balloons to hinder German bomber crews attempting to mount a low-level attack.
Additionally, some of the merchant ships were equipped with Hawker Hurricane fighters mounted on and launched from catapults. On 3 August 1941, the first Fw 200 “Condor” was shot down by a Hurricane pilot who had taken off from such a merchantman.
Despite far better defences, the German flyers were still achieving successes. On 1 March 1941, Major Edgar Petersen took over command of the whole of KG 40. By this time the number of losses had grown steadily. Additionally, from summer 1941 onward, the Royal Navy fielded escort carriers to protect the Allied convoys on all their routes. Due to the increased defensive capability of the enemy forces therefore, the German Führungsstab ordered the Luftwaffe units based in France to fly horizontal attacks from a greater ceiling using the Lotfe 7 bombsight instead of the more common low-level raids. Also, it was suggested to introduce an air-launched torpedo using a limited number of KG 40’s bombers to deliver this new weapon, thereby achieving, it was hoped, even greater success in action over the Atlantic. Because the LT F5 torpedo was not very reliable in operation however, all attempts to sink further British ships using it failed.
On 1 September 1941, Major Petersen left KG 40, becoming the new leader of the Erprobungsstelle der Luftwaffe at Rechlin. The new commanding officer of KG 40 was to be Oberst (Colonel) Dr. Pasewaldt.
Since the air defence capability of enlarged Allied convoys grew increasingly effective, German aircrews hoped to receive the more powerful and well protected He 177A as soon as possible. From July 1942, I./KG 40 handed over its remaining Fw 200s to III./KG 40 while Staffel by Staffel, KG 40 received its first He 177As. Due to many technical problems, the operational career of this new, more powerful combat aircraft was rather limited.
The second Gruppe of KG 40 was re-equipped with Do 217 bombers from 1 May 1941 and achieved combat status again in August of that year over the western approaches. Their Staffeln were then sent to Grossetto for aerial torpedo training and exercise duties. In spite of this, II./KG 40 was then placed under the command of Angriffsführer England in March 1943, to be used for level bombing raids over England. In June 1943 the unit was renamed V./KG 2 and left KG 40 entirely. In September 1943, the He 177 A-equipped I./KG 50 was redesignated II./KG 40 at Burg, near Magdeburg, Germany. Assigned to Luftflotte 3, it arrived in Bordeaux on 25 October.
At Bordeaux the crews were trained to operate the rocket-powered Hs 293 A-1 missile, one of which was carried under each wing. Meanwhile, II./KG 100 was using the Do 217 / Hs 293 combination over the Bay of Biscay from August 1943.
After suffering heavy losses during the invasion struggle in June and July 1944, the new second Gruppe was withdrawn to Gardemoen in Norway. The third Gruppe of KG 40 was mainly used over the Mediterranean Sea and operated from various bases in France. After the battle of France was lost the few remaining aircraft of KG 40 were flown to Norway.
In order to intercept Allied convoys headed for Murmansk and Alchelansk in the northern part of Russia, the Luftwaffe operated from newly constructed airfields on the Norwegian-Finnish border. Early in 1942, sixty long-range bombers, thirty dive-bombers and fifteen He 115 floatplanes were based there. However, in spite of bad sailing conditions and several successful attacks, they were unable to stop the convoys from entering Russian waters, and a well prepared AA defence network prevented the Luftwaffe bomber forces from destroying the infrastructure of the two major harbours.
That the German Luftwaffe was unable to sink more ships on their way to Russia was due largely to the convoys’ close protection and the number of aircraft used. The convoys also turned as far north as possible, making it difficult for the Luftwaffe to follow them throughout their entire journey. Only the attack mounted against PQ 17 was very successful; more than seventy long-range reconnaissance aircraft (BV 138s, FW 200s and Ju 88s) together with nearly one hundred other combat aircraft (mainly Ju 88 A-4s) and the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine succeeded in destroying several ships.
On 10 July 1944, the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe decided to bring I./KG 40 back to full combat strength and to commence delivery of the Me 262 A-1a jet fighter. Flowever, after all attempts to prosecute an offensive air war against the Allies in late 1944 failed, its personnel were dispersed among other units.
The first elements of a fifth Gruppe of the then famous Kampfgeschwader 40 were established in July 1942 near Bordeaux in France. The crews of a few Ju 88 C-6 Zerstörer (destroyer) aircraft became responsible for protecting all German-held areas over the Bay of Biscay against enemy fighters, including well-armed de Flavilland Mosquito and Bristol Beaufighter aircraft belonging to the Royal Air Force and British Coastal Command respectively.
From January 1943 the number of these destroyer aircraft available was increasing steadily. This enabled V./KG 40 to fill the lines of three Staffeln which operated under the command of Luftflotte 3. In August 1943 an additional (fourth) Staffel was established, but only a few weeks later this unit left KG 40, their crews being transferred to other destroyer units.
Operational maritime patrol Junker Ju 290 A-3 used by FAGr 5 on the ground.
Besides KG 40, Fernaufklärungsgruppe (FAGr.) 5 assisted German submarine forces by flying reconnaissance missions over the Atlantic Ocean. This unit was commanded by Major Fischer and was established on 20 May 1943 after German sinkings of Allied ships had become fewer and fewer. However, more than three units were needed to train and supply the first crews flying the Ju 290 A-3s and A-4s that were used to mount widespread reconnaissance operations over the Atlantic. After a few training missions carried out from Achmer, the aircraft, being fitted with FuG 200 Hohenthwiel anti-shipping radar and an increased defensive armament, were sent to Mont de Marsan in France.
In July 1944, Fernaufklärungsgruppe 5 was equipped with its largest number of Ju 290s; a total of seventeen aircraft was used in two Staffeln, but only eight of them survived to September 1944 when a huge Allied invasion forced the commander of FAGr. 5 to withdraw his unit back to the Reich. There the former reconnaissance aircraft were handed over to both KG 200 and Deutsche Lufthansa.
During a total of 191 missions, FAGr. 5’s crews had spent more than 2,438 hours flying over the Atlantic. Their reconnaissance flights covered a distance of 640,750 kilometres, though many of these ended without any enemy contact. Only twenty Allied convoys were found, fourteen with the eyes of Ju 290 aircrew and no more than six with the help of FuG 200 radar installations carried aboard the aircraft. Acting in unison, the German submarines, Fw 200s and He 177s only succeeded in sinking eight destroyers and three (perhaps a few more) merchant vessels; this was due in large measure to splendid air defensive tactics employed by Allied fighting ships, fighter aircraft and AA-guns mounted on the merchantmen.
Ju-88H-1 long range bomber/recce aircraft.
The Ju 88 H-1 long-range reconnaissance aircraft played a limited role during the struggle. When it was first suggested establishing a few units using this lengthened variant of the Ju 88, only a limited number of ten aircraft (two prototypes [Ju 88 V89 and -V90] and an additional eight series aircraft) had been completed. After the first successful flight of a Ju 88 H-1 Atlantikaufklärer (Atlantic reconnaissance) aircraft on 2 November 1943, it was proposed to build a series of Ju 88 H-2 Atlantikzerstörer (Atlantic destroyer) aircraft, fitted with up to six 20 mm MG 151/20 guns and constructed using parts from the Ju 88 G-4 and Ju 88 S-5 aircraft. Because the flight characteristics of the H-1 and the H-2 were so different, the complete series was stopped. Of the first H series produced, most were handed over to Fernaufklärungsgruppe 123. During May 1944, five of them operated over the Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay to escort German vessels heading for the French coast. However, due to overwhelming air superiority of Allied fighter units, most of the Ju 88 Hs were lost, and by September 1944 all Ju 88 Hs had disappeared from the German order of battle.
Several other aircraft had been suggested to continue air reconnaissance duties despite the enemy’s strength. Besides the Ar 234, which was designed, amongst other things, to carry out reconnaissance duties over England and the seas around, a radical version of the Do 335, called the Do 635, was tabled by the Supreme Luftwaffe command. After development was handed over to Junkers, a conversion based on two joined Do 335 A fuselages was proposed but due to Germany’s final defeat in the war only a mock-up was ever finished. Final production of the twin Do 335 failed along with that of another four-engined long-range aircraft, the Me 264. Only a few Ju 188 D-2s fitted with FuG 200 radar were used for further reconnaissance missions, and these only occurred over the North Sea, since the Atlantic Ocean was out of range of German aircraft (flying from Germany, Denmark and Norway) by early 1945. After the production of the Ju 388 was cancelled early in February 1945, a few further missions were carried out by the less powerful Ju 88s, Ju 188s and jet-powered Ar 234 B-2bs. A few remaining aircraft were captured by advancing Allied units up to May 1945 in the northern part of Germany, as well as in Denmark and Norway.