With the demise of the heavy bomber, the German Air Ministry became obsessed by what can only be termed ‘Stuka madness’.
The Junkers Company, established in Sweden as A. B. Flygindustrie, built the first dive-bomber or Stuka, the K 47, in 1928 and continued test work for some years in co-operation with von Seeckt’s staff in the Reichswehr.
After Hitler’s rise to power two biplane dive-bomber prototypes were tested and abandoned, although a third, the Henschel 123, was produced and entered service. The Ministry were at first dubious about the whole concept, largely on the grounds of aircraft structural strength, but in 1934 Junkers in Germany designed a successor to the K 47, designated Ju 87. The prototype of this flew late in 1935, but because of lack of a suitable home-built engine a British Rolls-Royce Kestrel motor was purchased and installed. The aircraft crashed due to tail flutter. Further much modified prototypes were built and sent for test at the Rechlin experimental base.
In the meantime Ernst Udet, Germany’s most famed stunt flyer and World War I colleague of Göring, in 1933 purchased two American Curtiss Hawk dive-bombers with money put up by the embryo German Air Force. Udet became completely converted to the Stuka concept. His lobbying began to take effect in the Ministry.
Göring, anxious to fill the many vacant chairs in the Leipzigerstrasse, drew in all his 1914 to 1918 conferences. As a result, Udet, in January 1936, received a commission as Colonel and Inspector of Fighter and Stuka Pilots. He pressed his dive-bomber views and gave personal demonstrations, while three firms, Heinkel, Arado and Hamburger Flugzeaugbau (Blöhm and Voss), completed prototypes in addition to Junkers.
After four months as Colonel Inspector, Udet was transferred as head of the Air Ministry technical branch in a general reshuffle which tok place after Wever’s death. In his new post Udet was in a position to push the dive-bomber programme through and convince Colonel von Richthofen, the chief sceptic, that the system would work.
During competitive dive-bomber trials at Rechlin on the Baltic in June the field was whittled down to the Ju 87 in its new Jumo-engined form and the streamlined Heinkel 118. On June 27th Udet, through pilot error, crashed the 118; the Ju 87 was awarded the production contract and became the Luftwaffe’s standard dive-bomber.
The summer and winter of 1936 saw Rechlin carrying out an exhaustive evaluation of a series of prototypes which, in developed form, were to be the backbone of the Luftwaffe’s air fleets for the Battle of Britain four years later. The machines were the Me 109 fighter, the He 111 and Do 17 medium bombers, and the Ju 88 high-speed light-medium bomber.
The Heinkel 111 was designed from the outset as a medium bomber, although a civil transport was the first to be announced after the military prototype flew early in 1935. Dornier, who had previously concentrated mainly on flying-boats, produced in 1934 a high-speed six-seat mailplane for Lufthansa. The airline found the type uneconomic. It was only the intervention of an Air Ministry department head that led to a redesign for bombing duties. In 1935 the military version of the Do 17 flew. Its extremely slender fuselage earned it the nickname ‘Flying Pencil’. Both the He 111 and the Do 17 were awarded pre-production or ‘O’ contracts.
The first Ju 88 light bomber was being designed and built in the summer of 1935, the co-designers being Evers, a German, and Alfred Gassner, an American citizen. Both men had been employed in the U.S. aircraft industry and applied American techniques to their work. The Ju 88 did not, however, fly until 1936.
Fighters had a much lower priority than bombers as the whole Air Ministry pressure was on offence. In 1934 a design contract for a high-speed single-seat fighter monoplane was placed with Heinkel, Focke-Wulf, Arado, and with Messeschmitt’s firm, Bayerische Fleugzeugwerke. Messerschmitt’s chances of getting any production orders seemed remote as he had consistently quarrelled with Milch and others in the Air Ministry and, indeed, had been warned that his machine was on a development contract basis only.
Many radical ideas were incorporated into the Messerschmitt design, the Me 109, including automatic wing-slots, a small, light airframe and enclosed cockpit. As in the case of the Ju 87, Junkers could not supply the Jumo engine on time and what was to become one of the world’s most famous interceptors took to the air in September 1935 powered by the ever-faithful 695 h.p. British Rolls-Royce Kestrel imported from Derby.
The Rechlin fighter trials son cut the competition down to a straight fight between the Me 109 and the He 112. As a final decision could not be made, both firms were awarded contracts for ten machines.
Having settled on the development of two bombers, a dive-bomber, two fighters, several army co-operation types and others, the German Air Ministry began planning for industry expansion to a war-production footing and changeover, in late 1937, from production of obsolete types to massive output of the new machines.
Milch, the tough and brilliant organiser, was not destined to supervise the new expansion programme. For some time Göring had been suspicious of Milch’s ability and his closeness to Hitler who often asked for the Secretary of State’s advice. Milch’s enemies in the Leipzigerstrasse lost no opportunity to foster the idea that he was thinking of usurping Göring’s throne, while Göring’s many rivals in the Nazi Party hinted openly that the real Air Force commander-in-chief was Milch.
Göring, who had little or no direct hand in the evolution of the Luftwaffe, began to consult and promote others and gradually to divest Milch of his powers, including control of the air staff, the personnel office and the technical department. Göring appointed Udet director of the technical department in charge of production, giving him the rank of Generalmajor.
Göring was not interested in whether Udet was the best man for the job. All he wanted was a trustworthy replacement for Milch. Udet was a first-class pilot, full of humour and the life and soul of any party, but he was no organiser and loathed paperwork. His days were spent flying and visiting factories while lesser lights endeavoured to clear his in-trays as best they could. The German industry, with its deadly rivalries and undercurrents which matched those in the Air Ministry, needed an iron hand to control it. Instead it was presented with a most acceptable velvet glove. By 1939 Udet, far from relinquishing the reins to a more suitable man, had been appointed Luftwaffe Director-General of Equipment in the rank of Generaloberst.
Milch protested bitterly to Göring over his loss of control and demanded the right to return to his own job with Lufthansa. He feared he would continue to be held responsible for any blunders that Göring might make. Göring flatly refused and told him: ‘You are not to retire, I will tell you when that is required.’ As a parting shot Göring warned his Secretary of State not to feign illness but suggested that he was free to commit suicide if he wished.
Such then were developments when an event occurred which was to have a deep and lasting effect on Luftwaffe tactics, equipment and organisation. In 1936 civil war broke out in Spain and the High Command was presented with a heaven-sent opportunity to operate and train the new air force under modern battle conditions.
Initially, Germany sent eighty-five volunteer air and ground crew to Spain with twenty Ju 52 bomber-transports and six He 51 escort fighters. The Ju 52s’ first task, under the guise of a new airline, Hisma AG, was to transport 10,000 Moorish troops from Tetuan to Seville. The Ju 52s gave valuable service but the He 51s were found to be markedly inferior to American and Russian interceptors employed by the Republicans.
Large-scale assistance to General Franco with up-to-date equipment was the obvious answer. In November 1936 the Legion Condor came into being with General-major Sperrle in command and Lieutenant-Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen as chief of staff. Volunteers were called for, and shortly afterwards a contingent of 370 pilots in civilian clothes sailed for Spain on the liner Usaramo, ostensibly on a ‘strength through joy’ cruise with the code-name ‘Union’.
When first set up, the Condor Legion had fifty Ju 52s and about fifty fighters, mainly the obsolescent He 51. Its efforts for the first seven or eight months were por. It lacked accuracy and co-ordination, the only landmark being the destruction of fortified positions on the northern front by close support He 51s.
This particular Staffel (squadron), 3./J 88, was commanded by Lieutenant Adolf Galland. The aircraft each carried four 10 kg. bombs and petrol bombs, these being dropped without the use of bomb-sights from 500 feet. Flying in close V formation all pilots delivered their load when the formation leader nodded his head. Crude as such efforts were, they showed remarkable success and were to lead to the sustained close support operations which smashed the defences of Poland and France in 1939 and 1940. Von Richthofen continued through 1938 to develop close-support techniques in Spain, using ground radio control of formations.
In the summer of 1937 the situation of the Condor Legion changed completely with the arrival of early production Me 109s, He 111s and Do 17s to be followed a few months later by the Ju 87. With these aircraft air superiority was achieved. It was found that the new medium bombers could outpace opposing fighters. They suffered few losses although unescorted. The effect of this was to lull the Luftwaffe into a sense of false security until July and August 1940 provided a rude awakening.
As the Spanish war progressed, the High Command established a routine, posting the best officers to Spain and then replacing them, sending the ‘veterans’ to training bases as instructors. Modifications to aircraft and equipment were made in the field and heavier armament such as the 20 m.m. cannon was tested on fighters.
While the bomber formations were building up a false reputation for invulnerability, the fighter arm was learning tactics which placed them in advance of any other European air force, including the R.A.F.
The whole question of fighter employment was analysed by Lieutenant Werner Mölders who succeeded Galland as commander of 3./J 88. His first step was to stop the close-formation flying of units of three aircraft and to organise lose formations based on an element of two, the Rotte, and of four, the Schwarm. The formations were also flown with elements at varying heights to give mutual cover and vision. Mölders detailed his experiences in Spain in a lengthy report to the General Staff in 1939. German fighter tactics were henceforward based on this document.
Also from the Spanish campaign the Luftwaffe learned the value of unit mobility and of an efficient signals network for tactical work. By September 1939 every squadron had one or two Ju 52 transports for carrying supplies and personnel. During large scale high intensity operations such as the invasion of France extra Ju 52s acted as radio or D/F stations.
While the Luftwaffe was being built up on the Blitzkrieg theory for a European land-war, the industry in Germany had changed over to the mass production of new types of aircraft. This entailed complete retooling and reorganisation of most factories with consequent dislocation and a marked fall in output in late 1937 and early 1938.
Obsolescent types in 1937 still contributed to a total production of 5,606 aircraft of which 2,651 were combat aircraft. The monthly average for the year was 467 per month. In 1938 the total production fell by nearly 400 to 5,235 with a monthly average down to 436 although combat types represented 3,350 units.
To provide the necessary forces for a European war production of at least 700 aircraft per month was required. This total was achieved only in the autumn of 1939. The average monthly output was 691 for the whole year. Total production rose to 8,295 in 1939 but this was still not god enough. The proportion of fighters was to low.
After retooling, the industry should have been driven really hard by the German Air Ministry, but the responsible officer, General Udet, was quite unable to do anything about it. The industry, as was shown later in the war, was quite capable of producing nearly five times as many aircraft as it did in 1939, and this under heavy air attack.
In 1938 to 1939 to many modifications were introduced on combat aircraft, the industry manpower figures did not rise and many able young men were called up for national service. As there was no centralised economic and war potential planning with reserved occupations and direction of labour, the manufacturers did largely what they liked with far-reaching consequences from the Battle of Britain onwards. Even in 1940 the industry succeeded in turning out only 10,826 aircraft whereas Britain doubled its production in that year and outstripped Germany by over 4,000 aircraft.
The actual strength of the Luftwaffe in the Munich crisis period and after was over-estimated by other European countries and this belief was fostered by the German Propaganda Ministry. In fact, on August 1st, 1938, four months after the occupation of Austria, the total strength of the German Air Force was 2,929 aircraft, of which only 1,669 were serviceable. There were serviceable only 453 fighters, 582 bombers and 159 dive-bombers—hardly sufficient to embark upon a world war.
The breathing space provided by the notorious Munich Agreement was as vital to the Luftwaffe as it was to the R.A.F. Air crew training was extended to bases in Austria, fresh recruits were drawn in from the Austrian population and Austrian aircraft engineers were transferred to a new Messerschmitt factory at Wiener Neustadt. By September 1939 this was turning out Me 109 fighters at the rate of about sixteen per month. In March 1939 Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and took over a fresh batch of airfields and production facilities which were very speedily put to good use. There was, however, little recruiting fodder for the Luftwaffe from the Czech Air Force, and many of the best pilots made their way to France and Britain to become the German Air Force’s bitter opponents.