The Ju 87 was not that capable of protecting itself. Although it had forward firing machine-guns and another machine-gun on a flexible mount in the rear of the cockpit, it was simply too slow to engage in aerial combat.
The crew had to learn a great deal about the aircraft in order to be competent. When the aircraft was engaged in a dive bombing attack the pilot would begin to respond when the target disappeared under his left wing root. At that point he would close the engine cooling vents. He would then set the propeller to a course pitch and would also have to open the air brakes and make a left turn into a dive at an angle. The pilots had red lines painted onto the panels of the canopy side of the aircraft. This would enable the pilot to judge whether he had the dive bombing angle correct. He would then also have to judge exactly when to release the bomb. The whole process needed a pilot and a rear gunner who trusted one another entirely. The dive bombing attack must have been terrifying, not just for the target but also for the two crewmembers of the aircraft.
The Ju 87B was much more of a front-line aircraft. Initially they were constructed by Junkers in Dessau but later at the Weser plant, near Berlin. The Ju 87B was used extensively during the Polish campaign. There were 322 deployed by the nine Stukagruppen.
Stukas were perfectly capable of operating in even the most extreme conditions. Providing the aircraft had a relatively clear surface to take-off and land it was possible for the Stuka with its fixed landing gear to land in even the most difficult conditions.
If the conditions of the first winter in the east were bad enough, once the Stukas had been committed to Russia in 1941 they would face one of the harshest sequences of winters for many years. Regardless of the prevailing weather, the cold and the snow, they would have to continue to support ground units.
The German aircraft, including the Stuka units, were operating on open fields, which were now covered in ice. The preheating units for the aircraft’s engines had fallen way behind the advance and now could not move up. The fighting capacity of the Stuka units began to decline, as they ran out of spare parts or became unable to get the aircraft running. Sometimes the ground crew had to resort to heating up the engines over open fires. They were also forced to fly in Stuka parts in Ju 52s. By comparison the Russians, perfectly aware of the harsh conditions of their own winter, carefully kept their aircraft in heated hangars. Despite this the Russian Air Force was largely uncommitted. The Stuka units were perilously short of ammunition, parts and fuel. Even when the Ju 87s did get up into the sky the snow-covered ground and heavy skies made it incredibly difficult to fly. They could communicate with a ground station via a radio phone, but this was their only means of communication.
During the poor weather conditions in Russia the only real alternative was to follow visible landmarks on the ground, such as railway lines. It was not uncommon if the Stukas failed to find this navigational aid and they would become lost. Snow flurries could cause the aircraft to get irretrievably lost. The winter of1941/1942 was one of the coldest in recorded history. It was an incredibly lucky situation for the Russians, as it effectively stopped the Germans in their tracks, who were completely caught out by the appalling conditions. The weather finally began to improve slightly by January 1942, although still incredibly bad. Stuka attacks were brought in via radio phone by front-line air liaison officers. They were short sorties, particularly when Russians began to launch counterattacks and Stukas were used to try and hold off the armoured spearheads. The Stukas would take-off, attack, land, load and attack again. In some cases Russian troops had broken through to the very edges of the airfields that the Stukas were using.
III Group of Sturzkampfgeschwader 77, had been created from elements of the second group of the unit in July 1940. They were equipped with Ju 87Bs until the spring of 1943. At this stage they were issued with Ju 87Ds. From May 1941, or perhaps earlier, the group was stationed on the Eastern Front. At around the time that Erich Heine was lost his group could muster thirty-two Ju87s, of which just over half were fully operational.
The first commander of III Group was Helmut Bode. He commanded the unit between July 1940 and August 1942. Georg Jakob took over in August 1942, remaining with the unit until the beginning of December. The unit did not receive a new commander until 1 January 1943. Franz Kieslich remained with the unit until the middle of October 1943.
Clearly the loss of each aircraft would mean the loss of a trained or at least partially-trained crew. One of the many reasons that the Luftwaffe became increasingly ineffective during the course of the war was a failure to train significant numbers of quality pilots and crews. The Luftwaffe tended to focus on short-term requirements and significantly failed to have a steady stream of new aircrew. At the same time they also failed to re-train experienced aircrews to use new aircraft.
When the war began in September 1939 the Luftwaffe fell into the easy trap of believing that the war would be relatively short-lived. They did not overly concern themselves with training significant numbers of replacement pilots and crew. This led to a lack of sufficient training squadrons and a distinct lack of instructors. The failure to have sufficient training aircraft was a major problem. There were large numbers of non-combat aircraft available at the beginning of the war. In fact 57 per cent were front line aircraft and 43 per cent were noncombat aircraft. By the end of 1943 and into the beginning of 1944 this ratio had completely changed. Combat aircraft now comprised of 88 per cent of the Luftwaffe aircraft and just 12 per cent were noncombat aircraft.
Systematically, to deal with short-term aircraft shortages, training squadrons were stripped of their aircraft. There was also the major problem of having insufficient aviation fuel to afford to allow crews to carry on training.
The stark fact for German aircrew was that they were never rotated in and out of combat. The US, for example, would take out experienced aircrew after they had achieved a mission target (in terms of number of missions) or achieved a certain level of kills. For German aircrew their end of a combat tour would only come as a result of their being killed, wounded to a sufficient extent that they needed convalescence, or capture by the enemy. As the war continued, due to the training deficiencies, the Germans were capable of producing sufficient aircraft, but each new pilot or aircrew was inexperienced to the extent that they never remained alive long enough to make good combat losses.
Even though German aircraft factories were efficient and still capable of producing huge numbers of aircraft, also late into the war they had seriously fallen behind the Allies. To put this into perspective, in 1944 the US alone produced 100,000 aircraft, whilst Germany managed to produce 11,000.
On the Eastern Front, even though the Luftwaffe was spectacularly successful at the beginning of operations in June 1941, they lacked the ability to carry out long-range bombing. This meant that the Luftwaffe could not strike against Russian aircraft factories further east. Even if they could have done so in a limited way the aircraft could not carry a sufficient bomb load to wreck the production facilities. After the initial attempts to clear the skies of Russian aircraft the Luftwaffe switched its role somewhat to that of close air support and intercepting incoming streams of Russian aircraft. They were also responsible for trying to stop the Russian troops from falling back. As time went on the attrition on the Luftwaffe began to bite.
To deal with the shortage of at least partially-trained crew training programmes were cut short. In addition to this were all the logistical nightmares of having to support Luftwaffe units that had outstripped their supply lines.
By the end of 1941 Luftwaffe operational aircraft had dropped to an all-time low in the east. Less than a third of bombers were available and only just over half of all fighters. By the middle of 1942 the Russians were beginning to produce high volume, higher quality aircraft, whilst the Luftwaffe struggled to maintain its established front-line strength. On the Eastern Front, by spring 1942, the Germans could probably muster around 2,700 aircraft. Production at home was increasing, but it still meant that they could not keep pace with losses. In the Crimea in May 1942, during the attacks on Sevastopol, the Luftwaffe was flying around 1,000 sorties each day. This was an incredible feat given the fact that most Luftwaffe aircraft were operating in the most primitive of circumstances. They were taking off and landing on hastily prepared airstrips. At this stage of the war just to keep pace with losses the Luftwaffe in the east needed a minimum of 250 new aircraft every month. Clearly a number of these losses had also meant the loss of the crew.
The Stuka dive bomber is one of the most iconic images of World War II, hanging like hungry vultures over the battlefields they feature in every newsreel and have come to symbolise the Nazi war machine. Never was a metaphor more apt, on the surface the Goebbels propaganda machine was able to project an aura of invincibility, they were sleek, modern and numerous. Like the horse drawn Wehrmacht however, they were actually available in relatively small numbers, spread over too many fronts and in reality they were slow, unwieldy and unsuited to the magnitude of the task.
Although it was already obsolescent by 1941, the Stuka was to prove to be one of the most versatile machines of the war. Used as a night bomber, torpedo launcher, trainer, long-range reconnaissance aircraft, tank-buster and a host of other specialist tasks, it was at its most fearsome as a dive bomber. Screeching out of the sky, with its morale-sapping siren at full blast like some furious bird of prey, the Stuka’s airbrakes still allowed it to slow to a speed which enabled its bomb load to be delivered with almost pinpoint accuracy. With a virtually unopposed mobile flying artillery of this calibre, it was no surprise that it was initially so successful.
The Junkers JU 87’s principal designer was Hermann Pohlmann; he held the opinion that any dive-bomber design needed to be simple and robust. His vision led to the omission of many obvious technical innovations which were being introduced at the time. One of the most obvious examples is the decision not to incorporate retractable undercarriage which was discarded in favour of an older design feature, fixed undercarriage which was to produce one of the Stuka’s distinctive features; its fixed and “spatted” undercarriage. Pohlmann continued to carry on developing and adding to his ideas and those of early pioneer Karl Plauth. Plauth was killed in a flying accident in November 1927 but his ideas lived on. After Plauth’s death, Pohlmann continued the development of the Junkers dive bomber. Plauth’s ideas were incorporated into the Ju A 48 which first underwent testing on 29 September 1928. The military version of the Ju A 48 was designated the Ju K 47.
When the Nazis came to power, the design for a new dive bomber was given priority. Despite initial competition from the Henschel Hs 123, the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) – German for the “Aviation Ministry” – turned to the designs of Herman Pohlmann of Junkers and co-designer of the K 47, Karl Plauth. During the trials with the K 47 in 1932, the double vertical tail stabilisers were introduced to give the rear gunner a better field of fire. The main, and what was to be the most distinctive, feature of the Ju 87 was its double-spar inverted gull wings. The gull wing was first seen on a glider when the Weltensegler flew in 1921. Its wings were externally braced and featured swept-back wingtips. After the aircraft broke up, killing its pilot, the design feature stayed out of popular use. The gull wing made a resurgence in 1930 with Alexander Lippisch’s record breaking Fafnir. Lippisch used the configuration for its increased wingtip clearance and the ill-founded belief it improved stability in turns. The gull wing design was next adapted on Seaplanes.
During the early 1930s, as engine power increased, so did the need for large propellers that could effectively convert power to thrust. The traditional gull wing design with its raised central point allowed designers to ensure adequate propeller tip clearance over the water by placing the engines on the highest point of the wing. The alternative was placing the engine on a pylon. Possibly the first flying-boat to utilise the gull wing configuration was the Short Knuckleduster, which flew in 1933. The Dornier Do 26, a high-speed airliner and transport platform, of which 6 aircraft were built, flew in 1938. The configuration was also used on the US Navy’s PBM Mariner and P5M Marlin maritime patrol aircraft. The emergence of long range, land-based jets in the 1950s and the subsequent demise of the seaplane prevented widespread use of the gull wing, although it was still used in some post-war designs, like Beriev Be-12 Chaika (the name means `the gull’ in Russian). The gull wing design found its way into landplanes in the late 1920s, with Polish inventor Zygmunt Pulawski designing the PZL P. 1 in 1928. The arrangement he devised is occasionally known as the “Pulawski Wing” or the “Polish wing”. The gull wing was used to improve visibility in a high wing arrangement, because such wing could be thinnest by the fuselage, and in theory should limit pilot’s view no more than A-pillars of a windscreen in a car body. It was used in fighter aircraft like PZL P. 11 and Polikarpov I-15. Where the Stuka diverted from its predecessors was in the introduction of the inverted gull wing.
The inverted gull wing was developed at the same time and for much the same reason as its incorporation into seaplanes. More powerful engines generally require larger propellers, but clearance between the propeller tip and ground must be maintained. Long landing gear legs are heavy, bulky, and weaker than their shorter counterparts. The Vought F4U Corsair, designed from the onset as a carrier-based fighter, not only had the largest propeller of any U. S. fighter, but was also expected to face rough landings aboard a pitching carrier deck. The inverted gull wing allowed the landing gear to be short, tough, and to retract straight back, improving internal wing space. Another reason for having an inverted gull wing is to facilitate a large external bomb load as was the case with the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka.
After Plauth’s death, Pohlmann continued the development of the Junkers dive bomber. The Ju A 48 registration D-ITOR, was originally fitted with a BMW 132 engine, producing some 450 kW (600 hp). The machine was also fitted with dive brakes for dive testing. The aircraft was given a good evaluation and “exhibited very good flying characteristics”.
Ernst Udet took an immediate liking to the concept of dive-bombing after flying the US Curtiss Hawk II. When he invited Walther Wever and Robert Ritter von Greim to watch Udet perform a trial flight in May 1934 at the Jüterbog artillery range, it raised doubts about the capability of the dive bomber. Udet began his dive at 1,000 m (3,280 ft.) and released his 1 kg (2 lb.) bombs at 100 m (330 ft.), barely recovering and pulling out of the dive. The Chief of the Air Weapons Command Bureau, Walther Wever, and the Secretary of State for Aviation, Erhard Milch, feared that such high-level nerves and skill could not be expected of “average pilots” in the Luftwaffe. Nevertheless, development continued at Junkers, Udet’s “growing love affair” with the dive bomber pushed it to the forefront of German aviation development. Udet went so far as to advocate that all medium bombers have dive-bombing capabilities.