A Lesson of History: The Luftwaffe and Barbarossa

By Major Lonnie O. Ratley III

Barbarossa (” red beard”), surname of Frederick I of Germany ( 1123-1190). It is said that he never died but is still sleeping in Kyffhauserberg in Thuringia. There he sits at a stone table with his six knights, waiting “fulness of time,” when he will come form his cave to rescue Germany form Bondage and give her the foremost place of all the world. His beard has grown through the table-slab but must wind itself thrice around the table before his second advent.1

Also, Barbarossa was the code name for Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union starting on 22 June 1941. At 0340 on that date, the combined air assets of four Luftwaffe air fleets struck a devastating blow to the Red Air Force—a blow from which, in many respects, it has not recovered to this day. The Luftwaffe used 1280 operationally ready combat aircraft for the first series of air strikes in the war against the Soviet Union.2 With these air assets the Luftwaffe destroyed more than 2000 Soviet aircraft on the first day of the campaign in approximately 18 hours of combat,3 against their own loss of 35.4 In terms of the number of enemy aircraft destroyed versus the number of friendly aircraft lost, the initial Luftwaffe attack against Russia is the most successful operation in the history of air power. Of the 35 German aircraft lost, approximately 15 were noncombat related. The problem was the malfunctioning of fragmentation bomblettes that occasionally detonated while still in aircraft bomb bays or upon landing. If one takes only the losses of German aircraft to Soviet defenses, the ratio of German aircraft losses to Russian aircraft losses is approximately one to one hundred (1:100).

The first Luftwaffe strikes were conducted between 0305 and 0315 in concert with the German Army’s ground attack. Twenty to thirty aircrews had been previously handpicked to deliver special fragmentation bombs (SD-2, 2 kg bomblettes and SD-10, 10 kg bomblettes) against key Soviet airfields, a flight of three aircraft being assigned to each field. The purpose of these early attacks was to cause disruption and confusion as well as to preclude dispersion of Soviet planes until the main blow was struck approximately 25 minutes later.5

There was considerable controversy between the German Army and the Luftwaffe over the timing of the first air attacks. The army position was firm: the ground commanders wanted to attack at first light to achieve the maximum amount of tactical surprise and avoid the problems of control in a night attack. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, was tasked with destroying the Red air forces, so that the army could operate without fear of Russian air attacks and so the Luftwaffe could provide air support for the attacking German ground forces. If the army attacked first, then the Soviet Air Force units would be alerted and would most probably retire to airfields beyond the reach of the Luftwaffe.6 The resultant compromise was the decision to select a few special crews for missions with times on target of 0315, the same time as the beginning of the army attack in the area of Army Group Center.7

Luftwaffe Targeting Priorities

The initial mission of the Luftwaffe for the opening stage of Barbarossa was straightforward and specific: destroy the Red Air Force and its ground organization.8 After completion of this task, the Luftwaffe was to concentrate on support of the advancing German ground forces.9 These two missions can best be respectively defined as the first mission and the main mission of the Luftwaffe.10 The Luftwaffe had to fulfill the first mission (elimination of the Red Air Force) prior to concentrating on the main mission, support of the German Army.

Regarding the first mission of the Luftwaffe in Barbarossa, destruction of the Red Air Force and its ground organization, the following priorities were planned:

• Destruction of modern aircraft and the Red Air Force ground organization.

• Destruction of production facilities for aircraft and aircraft engines.

• Destruction of aircraft with “M” (modern) engines.

• Destruction of other aircraft.11

Bombing of the Russian aircraft industry was not possible at the start of Barbarossa because the Luftwaffe had no bombers with sufficient range and payload to reach the Russian factories.12 The highly successful attacks of the first few days against the Red Air Force were not an end in themselves. The Red Air Force had to be eliminated so that the German Army could move without fear of Russian air interference and so that the Luftwaffe could concentrate on supporting German Army operations.

In order to develop a clearer perspective of Barbarossa’s concept, one must have an understanding of the strategic geography of Germany. Germany was, even in 1941, a relatively small country. Germany was resource poor with no natural defensive borders. These factors— size, lack of natural borders, and insufficient resources—dictated the traditional Prussian-German military strategy; wars had to be short as there were not enough natural resources to support a war of attrition. The armed forces had to concentrate on quality and efficiency as the population base could not support expendable human resources. Finally, as space was at a premium, the military strategy had to concentrate on destroying the enemy forces; there was no room for long-drawn-out strategic maneuvering. All of these factors drove the Germans to develop the theory of the Vernichtungsschlacht or battle of destruction, the classic strategy that would quickly seek a decisive battle with the enemy to knock the opponent out of the war. Under these circumstances the concept of Auftragstaktik or mission tactics was a natural guiding principle of German military operations at all levels of command.13 Essentially Auftragstaktik meant allowing decisions to be made at the lowest possible level in the chain of command. Furthermore, Germany had to make optimum use of its leaders as Germany could count on being outnumbered by its opponents. In Auftragstaktik, the higher echelon assigned the objective to the lower echelon. The lower echelon determined how the objective was to be taken. Orders were short, simple, easily understood, and often only verbal. A commander at any level, from squad leader to field marshal, was a real commander, not merely a telephone exchange or copying machine passing on the directives of higher headquarters to subordinate units.

The concept of Schwerpunkt or point of critical emphasis must also be understood, as Barbarossa’s initial success was, in large part, due to careful selection of Schwerpunkte.14

Barbarossa, in its original form, was not a unique German military operation, just a good one.15 It was one in a long series of successful operations, having been preceded by Königgrätz, Sedan, the Schlieffen Plan of 1914, and the Manstein Plan in 1940.

The Luftwaffe’s military style was similar to that of the German Army. Auftragstaktik was a principle used as much by the Luftwaffe as it was in the German Army. The Schwerpunkt concept also manifested itself in the strong emphasis that the German Air Force placed on dive bombing as opposed to level carpet or area bombing. The Luftwaffe was flexible, aggressive, and tactically oriented. The failure of the German bombing campaign against Great Britain and its associated lessons were clear to the German military leadership prior to the start of Barbarossa.

The German air campaign in Barbarossa provides an excellent example of the Luftwaffe’s operational style. Lower echelons—the squadron level and even flight level—decided the tactics, weapons, and size of formations to use in destroying the targets designated by higher echelons. Interference from higher headquarters was, in general, kept to a minimum, and aircrew opinions were highly regarded.

Selection of targets for the Luftwaffe was a logical application of traditional German strategy: namely, destroy in short order the enemy’s ability to conduct warfare by destroying the enemy’s military forces. The Luftwaffe was told to plan for a short war, and in Barbarossa, as originally planned, strategic targets for aircraft were irrelevant. The general concept of the operation was the destruction of the mass of the Red Army in the western part of the U.S.S.R. Strategic targets—factories, power plants, population centers—had no bearing on the outcome of a blitz or lightning campaign of short duration. The Luftwaffe in Barbarossa was totally committed to tactical support of the German Army. In the words of Field Marshal Kesselring: “I instructed my air force and flak generals to consider the wishes of the Army as my orders.16

Target Planning

Major Rudolf Loytved-Hardegg was officially assigned to Air Fleet One as Chief of Intelligence in March 1941.17 He was tasked with determining the order of battle of the Red Air Force and later the targeting of the Russian aircraft and ground installations. The units that came under his control for intelligence gathering consisted of two radio intercept sites, a long-range reconnaissance squadron (Lufthansa)18 and a long-range reconnaissance squadron (regular Luftwaffe), and finally, access to Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler’s security service organization for screening émigrés from the Soviet Union.

The Luftwaffe High Command directed Loytved-Hardegg to investigate the following special points of interest:

• Is it true that 9000 Soviet aircraft are still in the western part of the U.S.S.R.?

• Were these 9000 aircraft supplemented with modern aircraft?

•Where were the industrial plants producing modern aircraft and modern engines?

It is noteworthy that the collection of intelligence data for targeting the highly successful Luftwaffe operation during the first critical days of Barbarossa was handled by a major with a staff of three officers. The same staff also designated all Luftwaffe targets opposite the German Army Groups North and Center. The success of the Luftwaffe strikes makes a convincing argument for small, competent planning staffs.

Two incidents that occurred during this intelligence-gathering phase are particularly significant. The first involved a Luftwaffe long-range reconnaissance mission in a newly developed special reconnaissance aircraft, the Junkers Ju 86P, which was capable of reaching altitudes of 34,000 feet. On a mission deep into Russian territory, one Ju 86P was forced down by a Russian interceptor. This concerned Major Loytved-Hardegg, as the general impression in early 1941 had been that the Russians had no modern aircraft capable of intercepting German aircraft above 30,000 feet.

Another incident involved a recently emigrated engineer of German ancestry who had been allowed to leave the Soviet Union under the terms of the recently negotiated Russo-German Nonaggression Pact (1939). The engineer was screened because of his employment in an aircraft factory. The émigré was quickly identified as an expert in alloy technology. His engineering work in a Russian aircraft engine factory had produced such excellent results that the Russians paid him in gold. Loytved-Hardegg was astounded that a man of such talent had been released by the Russians and that Russia had such highly skilled personnel in their aircraft industry. These two incidents led Loytved-Hardegg to be more concerned about the technical capability of the Russians. Loytved-Hardegg was of the opinion that the Russians were not as backward and unsophisticated in certain technical fields vital to war production as many people in Germany and the West had been led to believe.

Loytved-Hardegg estimated that there were approximately 15,000 aircraft in the Red Air Force, of which 350 were considered by the Germans to be modern aircraft. The Loytved-Hardegg intelligence organization determined that there were about 2000 airfields in western U.S.S.R. This information, when presented to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, was not well received.19 According to Loytved-Hardegg, Göring did not pass this information on to the Armed Forces High Command—it was not conceivable to Göring that a “primitive” people such as the Russians could have this many aircraft.

Loytved-Hardegg’s reservations never had a chance of altering Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union. Although he was persona1ly apprehensive about the chances of success, Loytved-Hardegg worked thoroughly and, as subsequent events proved, effectively in selecting targets for the Luftwaffe. The targeting priorities established by Loytved-Hardegg for the first day of Barbarossa were the following:

• New aircraft with associated ground organization.

• Production facilities for modern aircraft and modern aircraft engines.

• Aircraft with modern engines.

• Other aircraft.

• Red Air Force ground organization.

• Support of the Army.

The second of the priorities was impossible to fulfill as the factories were beyond the range of German bombers available at that time.

Approximately 2000 Soviet airfields within a 250 kilometer belt from the western border of the U.S.S.R. were known to the Germans at the start of Barbarossa.2° Of these airfields, four in the north and seven opposite German Army Group Center had modern aircraft. Each occupied airfield had an average of 30 aircraft.

Major Loytved-Hardegg’s organization prepared sealed target folders for each Luftwaffe group commander involved in Barbarossa. The group commanders passed the appropriate target information on to the individual squadron commanders, who in turn passed the data to their aircrews. Security was therefore compartmentalized. Many aircrews had only eight hours notice before they took off for their missioris.21 It was felt that more effect could be achieved by surprise rather than by detailed planning, which would entail probable security leaks. Extensive aircrew mission planning was also considered less critical as most of the crews were experienced and their training had emphasized flexibility. The principle of Auftragstaktik provided the Luftwaffe with the capability of flexible tactics and maximum utilization of aircrew skills. The Luftwaffe leadership did not consider the very short notification as any great liability.

After all the analysis was completed, targeting for the Luftwaffe was finalized. It is noteworthy that specific targets for missions after the disruptive and first-wave Luftwaffe attacks were not assigned.22 The Luftwaffe waited for reports of bombing effects from returning aircrews and reconnaissance pilots before assigning subsequent air strikes—as some targets would need to be struck again, while others had been completely destroyed or were not worth striking at all. The final target list for the first wave of Luftwaffe air attacks in Barbarossa was as follows: 31 airfields, 3 suspected higher staff quarters, 2 barracks, 2 artillery positions, 1 bunker position, 1 petroleum, oil and lubricants depot, and the port facilities at Sevastopol.23 The success of the Luftwaffe attacks was to astound both the Germans had the Russians.


A total of 868 aircraft—637 strike aircraft (Stukas, bombers, destroyers) and 231 fighters (Me 109s)—took part in the first wave against the previously mentioned targets.24 Results from air strikes against targets other than aircraft are not available, for an exact accounting was not made at the time of the attack. However, aircraft loses, friendly and enemy, are known. Preliminary Soviet aircraft losses from first Luftwaffe strikes totaled (conservatively) 222 destroyed in the air and 890 on the ground.25 German aircraft losses for the first wave were as follows: 2 Me 109s, 1 Me 110, 1 Ju 87, 8 Ju 88s, and 6 He 111s. This total of 18 German aircraft is somewhat misleading as a number of the losses were caused by weapon malfunctions with the SD-2 and SD-b fragmentation bombs.26

Retired Luftwaffe Colonel Robert Poetter has given a personal account of the first mission flown by his unit in support of Army Group North.27 At that time Poetter was a major commanding the I Group of Bomber Wing 76, equipped with Ju 88As. His unit was stationed at Jesau south of Königsberg. Poetter’s target was the Russian Kadania airfield in Lithuania. Poetter had learned about Barbarossa and his group’s mission the day before from his commander, Lieutenant General Foester, at a meeting of all wing and group commanders in I Air Corps.

Poetter had complete freedom of action relative to the tactics to use in destroying the Red Air Force aircraft and ground organization at the Kadania airfield. Using the target folders prepared by Major Loytved-Hardegg, Colonel Poetter’s group planned a high-level entry (4000 meters altitude), with a low-level attack and low-level departure. The munitions used by the group’s attacking Ju 88As were the SD-2 fragmentation bomblettes. Each Ju 88 was loaded with a total of 360 individual. SD-2s. The airfield target area had been divided, into three sections, each one allocated to one of the three squadrons in I Group of Bomber Wing 76.

The mission started with 0210 takeoff and ended landing at 0403. After approaching the Kadania airfield at higher altitude and sighting the targets, the Ju 88s dove to low (treetop) altitude and made one pass with the SD-2s. Colonel Poetter recalls seeing about 30 Russian aircraft at the field. The Luftwaffe group lost only one aircraft, a Ju 88 which flew into an airborne SD-2 that had been released from another Ju 88.

Poetter related that a bomber unit to which he had previously been assigned, working at that time (22 June 1941) with Army Group South, was severely restricted, by the air corps commander, as to the type of tactics to use in the first day’s attacks with the SD-2s. Not only the target but the exact ingress, egress, and tactics were specified. In contrast to the relatively low loss rate for Poetter’s group in the north, the other group’s losses were extremely high using the rigidly specified tactics.28 The losses suffered by the unit in the south were due mainly to small caliber fire; as ingress, egress, and attack were all conducted at low level. Target identification was very difficult, and exposure time to small caliber antiaircraft artillery (AAA) was longer. Poetter feels that one of the major reasons for his group’s success, working under General Foester, was that Foester allowed his commanders to determine the tactics that they felt were best and did not dictate the manner in which operations were to be carried out. In Poetter’s words: “We were told what we had to do, but not how to do it.”

The enormity of the Luftwaffe success for the first few days of the campaign, and especially the first day, was dramatic. That first day the Germans traded 35 aircraft for approximately 2000 Russian aircraft. Russian aircraft losses then tapered off after the first few days of combat, illustrating the effect of surprise on enemy loses early in the campaign. It is noteworthy that the operational readiness rate of the Luftwaffe at the start of Barbarossa was only 70 percent.29 Had the Luftwaffe taken more time and devoted less energy to eleventh-hour unit movements toward the east to participate in the campaign, they could have pushed the operational readiness rate much closer to 100 percent. However, a determination was made that surprise was a more valuable factor than mere numbers of attacking aircraft. The fact that only 868 combat strike aircraft, of 1280 available for operations, were used in the first wave of attacks supports this position. Commenting in his diary, on the success of the Luftwaffe, General Otto Hoffmann von Waldu states that 80 percent of the success of the attack was due to surprise.30

As a result of the tremendous number of enemy aircraft destroyed during the first few days of Barbarossa, the Russians suffered a severe loss of self-confidence in their ability. Although tactics in general tended to be quite regimented, the Red Air Force was the largest in the world in 1941, and the U.S.S.R. had an equally large aircraft industry to support its air force.31 At that time the Red Air Force was a power with which any potential aggressor had to reckon. The soldiers and airmen of the Soviet Union had been constantly bombarded with propaganda about the invincibility of the Red Army,32 so one can imagine the tremendous shock that swept through the Red Air Force when the magnitude of the initial Luftwaffe successes against the U.S.S.R. became known: from the world’s largest air force to one that could not even maintain local air superiority— all in one day. Throughout the war the Red Air Force improved, but man for man and machine for machine, it was never a match for the Luftwaffe. German close air support aircraft would often work without benefit of air cover for protection from Soviet fighters,33 even when they became engaged with enemy aircraft.

The rigidity of Russian air tactics at the start of Barbarossa was almost unbelievable. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein described an incident at a bridge on the Duna River which had been captured intact by the Germans. On that occasion wave after wave of Russian bombers attacked the bridge at low altitude. At the end of the day, 64 attacking Russian aircraft had been destroyed by German fighters and flak.34 In the Red Air Force, blind obedience to the flight leader was the norm. General Lovtved-Hardegg stated that only the flight leader in Russian bomber formations actually knew what the target was, and he was also the only crew member with an aeronautical chart.35

It must be reiterated that Barbarossa was supposed to be a short campaign. The Luftwaffe actions supported this concept. The Luftwaffe gained air superiority, but it did not eradicate the Red Air Force. The Luftwaffe was able to provide extensive support for German Army operations as early as the first day of the campaign, and this support grew daily. Then the Luftwaffe mission shifted quickly to interdiction and close air support, the latter being most prominent during all of 1941. The German Army, with Luftwaffe support for ground operations, was able to operate without fear of effective Red Air Force interference.

The Luftwaffe in Barbarossa

Perhaps without realizing it at the time, the Luftwaffe air attack plan for the start of Barbarossa was probably the most efficient possible considering the air assets available to the Germans in 1941. Had the Germans opted for a strategic bombing effort against Russian industry—as opposed to concentrating on tactical air support—the highly successful first phase of Barbarossa might have miscarried.

At the time the Germans had no effective strategic air force so they concentrated on two tasks: the first mission and the main mission. The first mission was the destruction of the Soviet air forces and the main mission the support of the attacking German Army with all means possible. The main mission emphasized continuous air attacks against enemy defenses, especially in breaking down Soviet fortified positions and hindering the forward movement of Russian reserves by air attacks on highways and railroads. The continuous tactical air support of the spearheads of the attacking German Army had priority.36

The Luftwaffe became more and more involved in its mission as the German front moved eastward. Initially there was some discussion of air assets being “saved for the final push against Great Britain after the Russian situation had been ‘cleaned up’.”37 However, as the Luftwaffe settled into a long, drawn-out war on the Eastern Front, such optimistic speculation was silenced.

Regarding the targeting of C3, basically it can be stated that this targeting was not a policy of the Luftwaffe in the early stages of Barbarossa. However, the Luftwaffe did target three higher staff headquarters for the initial first wave attacks on 22 June 1941. Several factors may have contributed to the Luftwaffe decision regarding C3. Basically, the Russian communications system, their transportation net, and their command structure were primitive by German standards. Lack of sophisticated communications even manifested itself in the air with the Red Air Force. For example, only the flight leader in a Russian bomber formation had navigation aids and target information.38 None of the four former Luftwaffe officers interviewed here,39 all of whom were involved in operations during the first four weeks of Barbarossa, can remember a Luftwaffe air attack against a higher headquarters or communication center.40 Yet, all of them recall being very heavily engaged in attacks against airfields, railroads, railroad stations, and transportation chokepoints.41

Many C3 targets were destroyed, but they tended to be destroyed as by-products of larger operations whose goal was the physical destruction of enemy military forces. Regarding communications, Colonel Poetter said they would often avoid destroying an enemy (lower echelon) command post as they could use transmissions from that command post for timely intelligence data.42 Conversely, there was heavy emphasis on precluding the withdrawal of Red Army forces deep into the interior of the U.S.S.R., as well as hindering the reinforcement of front-line Soviet forces with manpower and materiel reserves.

Of all the documents researched for this study, there was only one mention of C3 targeting. The VIII Air Corps targets included interruption of enemy communications and elimination of enemy command structure by elimination of known battlefield command posts.43 These targets followed the listings ordering the destruction of enemy air forces and support of forward armored units. General Loytved-Hardegg said that they would have attacked C3 targets had they known where they were, but the primitive nature of the Soviet C3 system in 1941 precluded this option.44

Lessons Learned—German Viewpoint

There were three main reasons for the success of Barbarossa: surprise, Schwerpunkt, and Auftragstaktik.45 To these factors stated by General Graf von Kielmansegg, Colonel Freiherr von Beust added the factor of flexibility.46 Considering the equipment available and the resources allocated to the Luftwaffe, its contribution to Barbarossa can be considered near optimum use of available assets. In retrospect there were, of course, mistakes made by the Luftwaffe. One such mistake was that aircraft were held back for the future offensive against Britain in anticipation of the Russian campaign’s being successfully concluded.47 The Russian offensive was never concluded. However, the decision to hold back aircraft was made at the highest political level in Germany at that time and bears no relationship to the tremendous Luftwaffe success in Barbarossa’s first phase. Another key problem was raised by General Loytved-Hardegg; he felt that staff agencies were often redundant, e.g., Air Fleet staffs, Air Corps staffs, and Wing staffs. These staffs tended to duplicate one another and often precluded timely action.48

The overall lessons learned from Luftwaffe support of the first stage of Barbarossa can be summarized as follows:

• The Luftwaffe was a tactical air force in effect subordinated to the Army.

• As a general rule, in the Luftwaffe responsibility for attainment of missions was delegated to the lowest possible level.

• Luftwaffe unit commanders were trained in the traditional German manner, and their actions reflected that training.

• The Luftwaffe effectively eliminated the Red Air Force for the planned duration of Barbarossa.

• After the elimination of the Red Air Force, the Luftwaffe concentrated its efforts on close air support and interdiction in support of Army operations.

• Effective strategic air operations were nonexistent during Barbarossa.

• Air reconnaissance was highly valued by the German Army; approximately 25 percent of the German combat aircraft were assigned to reconnaissance.

Lessons Learned—Soviet Application

What did the Russians learn from Barbarossa relative to air power? First of all, had the Russians used their rather large 1941 military machine with some competence and finesse they would not have suffered the massive defeat they did in the summer of that year, nor would they have lost twenty million Russians killed over the following four years trying to recover what they had lost to the Germans in four months. The fact is that the Russians did not use their assets wisely or effectively during the first part of Barbarossa, and they paid a very high price for the incompetence of their governmental leaders. Stalin himself has been heavily criticized by his fellow Russians for the purges of the thirties which eliminated many of Russia’s more competent military leaders, Marshal Mikhail N. Tukhachevski being among the most prominent. Stalin was personally unconvinced that the Germans would actually attack Russia. He had been warned repeatedly by his own intelligence organizations as well as by foreign powers of the impending German attack,49 yet Stalin chose not to heed the warnings. The Soviet dictator’s one-man style of leadership permeated the Red Army and Air Force and was in part responsible for the needless loss of personnel and aircraft. Sycophantic leaders dominated the upper echelons of the Red Army in 1941.

The Russians were surprised by the Germans, and this caused the Soviets severe losses that were compounded by Russia’s lack of an effective communications net. For example, at 0130 on 22 June, approximately two hours before the first German attacks, Stalin was finally convinced of a German invasion, and he ordered the alert of the army and dispersal of the Red Air Force units assigned in the western border areas of the U.S.S.R. Unfortunately for the Russians, this vital order was delayed along the Russian communications chain and did not reach the appropriate units until after the German attack.50

Lessons from the Russian’s point of view, then, can be summarized as follows:

• Being surprised costs one dearly.

• Incompetent military leadership selected because of political loyalty alone precludes effective combat operations.

• Attacking first and seizing the initiative pays tremendous dividends.

• Lack of effective communication hinders the control and effectiveness of military forces.

In a blitz campaign the exchange ratios are very high in favor of the attacker and then go down rapidly with the passing of time as the effect of surprise wears off. If the attacker maintains the initiative and his momentum, the campaign is concluded before this favorable exchange ratio starts to drop off. The campaign against the Red Air Force is a case in point. The air battle was essentially won by the Luftwaffe in the first two days, after which the Luftwaffe had air superiority and operated essentially unhindered in its support of the army for the duration of the planned time for the Barbarossa campaign.

The key questions now are: How will the Soviets be expected to conduct a blitz of their own aimed at the West European states? How has Russia’s experience with the Luftwaffe in Barbarossa affected their thinking? If the Soviets follow the lessons learned from the Luftwaffe, then in a general conventional attack against Western Europe, they can be expected to do the following:

• Sacrifice total numbers available and instead opt for a surprise attack in the form of a lightning first strike.

• Attempt to eliminate the opposition air forces at the start of combat operations.

• Concentrate on destruction as opposed to disruption; i.e., disruption would only be a means to an end, which would be the destruction of enemy forces.

• Heavily commit air forces to aid in the support of ground operations.

• Improve the efficiency of their own communications.

If the Soviets attack NATO, will the results of Soviet Air Forces have the same effect as did the Luftwaffe’s attacks against the Russians in the summer of 1941? Clearly the answer is no. To assume that the Russians could expect the same aircraft combat exchange ratio of 100:1, demonstrated by the Germans in 1941, is unreasonable. Large numbers of NATO combat aircraft are parked in blast-hardened shelters. A significant portion of NATO’s air forces is in a constant alert status. NATO’s early warning radar net is highly efficient and could be expected to preclude a complete surprise air attack against NATO airfields. In spite of all these differing conditions that have enhanced the defensive, a massive Soviet surprise attack could seriously, or even critically, hamper NATO’s ability to defend Western Europe.

The Soviets do not need a 100:1 exchange ratio of aircraft, as the Warsaw Pact air forces already substantially outnumber the NATO air forces. At an exchange ratio of 1:1, the attacking Warsaw Pact would have many aircraft left over to support their ground operations. It can be further assumed that if the Soviets follow the lessons learned from the Luftwaffe in Barbarossa, the Russians will attempt to destroy as many NATO aircraft as possible at the start of the campaign.

One might consider himself in the position of the Warsaw Pact air force commander and pose this question: How can I best support the ground forces in this attack on NATO? Two factors immediately come to mind. The Warsaw Pact ground forces want protection from NATO air attacks and protection of Warsaw Pact logistics support from NATO aircraft conducting interdiction missions. These factors require air superiority, and the least expensive method for attaining air superiority is to destroy the enemy’s air force on the ground. It must be remembered, however, that the Germans in Barbarossa did target three suspected higher staff headquarters for attack in the first wave of attacking Luftwaffe aircraft. It was apparently felt at that time that these staff headquarters were of such importance that a few sorties could be spared from the primary mission of obtaining air superiority.

One significant difference between the Luftwaffe case in 1941 and that in Europe today is that the Germans in 1941 did not know where all of the Russian airfields were. The Germans attempted to pinpoint the Russian airfields, but they were not certain of their locations. Conversely, it can be assumed that the Soviets today know the exact locations of all NATO airfields. It would appear to be a logical and tempting option for the Warsaw Pact air commander to allocate all of his combat aircraft assets for immediate and simultaneous air attacks against all of the NATO airfields at the start of combat operations.

Another option would be to allocate a portion of the attacking Warsaw Pact aircraft to key C3 targets, while the vast majority of combat aircraft would be dedicated to destroying NATO’s air forces. This second option would parallel the Luftwaffe attack in June of 1941.

LUFTWAFFE operations during the opening stages of Barbarossa were enormously successful and fulfilled the Luftwaffe’s role in the overall design of the original German plan for the destruction of the Red Army. The ultimate result of the German decision to. attack the Soviet Union was the total destruction of the Third Reich. It can be argued, however, that the German political initiatives after 1940 were not on par with the competence of German military operations. Furthermore, one of the primary reasons for the defeat of Germany in World War II was the failure of the German leadership to view military operations as “continuation of politics by other means” oriented toward political objectives. Notwithstanding these limitations, from a purely military perspective the Luftwaffe campaign against the Red Air Force and the subsequent support of the German Army during Barbarossa were successful by any measure.

Ramstein AB, Germany


1. As abridged from E. Cobham Brewer, The Reader’s Handbook: Famous Names in Fiction, Allusions, References, Proverbs, Plots: Stories and Poems (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1899), p. 88.

2. Bundesarchiv—Militararchiv Freiburg, Federal Republic of Germany, “Der Luftwaffenaufmarsh 1941 gegen Russland,” from Gen, Qu. 6 Abteilung.

3. Cajus Bekker, The Luftwaffe War Diaries (New York, 1975), p. 317.

4. Bundesarchiv, “Auszug aus den Lageberichten,” OBd.L. (Ic).

5. Bekker, p. 311.

6. Ibid., p. 312.

7. The special crews were selected for their abilities at blind flying and navigation as they would have to proceed to their targets at high altitude and before first light to avoid detection by the Russians. See Bekker, The Luftwaffe War Diaries.

8. Interview with Brigadier General Rudolf Loytved-Hardegg, Luftwaffe retired, Nürnberg, Federal Republic of Germany, 18 January 1980.

9. Major General Herbert J. Rieckhoff, Luftwaffe retired, “Geheimnisse um die Luftwaffe der Sowjetunion,” Flug Wehr und Technik, Nr 8, August 1948, p. 182.

10. Bundesarchiv (Lw 118/4 4a) “Der Feldzug gegen Sowjetrussland,” Major General (signature illegible) retired, March 1953.

11. This is a translation of the original German document which did not specify the tasks of VIII Air Corps. Other accounts are more specific; for example, see: “General Kommand VIII Fliegerkorps,’ Oberst v. Heinernann.

12. Ibid. Also see Paul-Werner Hozzel’s Recollections and Experience of a Stuka Pilot, 1931-45 (Columbus, Ohio: Battelle, 1978).

13. Germany’s historical position was that of the bulwark of Western Europe, behind which Western culture was able to flourish and expand. Germany was Europe’s forward defense against alien invasion. This role was dutifully fulfilled, in turn by the Teutonic knights, electors of Brandenburg-Prussia, kings of Prussia, and German emperors. This tradition was also very much alive in the Third Reich. It is no wonder, then, that Germany’s “best and brightest” flocked to the officer corps. In a country with easily accessible borders, small size, and limited resources, national survival depended on having efficient and effective armed forces.

14. A Schrwerpunkt is a point where the success of the operation comes into critical focus. In the French campaign of May-June l940, the Schwerpunkt was at Sedan on the Meuse River on 13 May 1940. At that point the success or failure of the entire campaign was decided. Had Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Balck’s First Rifle Regiment not secured the west bank of the Meuse, then the entire campaign would have been in serious jeopardy. As it was, the successful crossing and subsequent Panzer drive o the French coast assured the defeat of the Anglo-French forces.

15. The Germans were on the offensive, and it can be logically assumed that without the delays and vacillations of the civilian leadership at that time the German Army would have successfully terminated the war with Russia based on a continuation of the offensive from Smolensk toward Moscow in early August 1941.

16. Kenneth Macksey, Kesselring: The Making of the Luftwaffe (New York, 1978), p. 83.

17. Interview with Loytved-Hardegg. (All of this information is based on the Loytved-Hardegg interview, unless otherwise stated.)

18. Photo intelligence was gathered from Lufthansa civil aircraft which made scheduled flights over the Soviet Union.

19. Reichsmarschall Göring had a tremendous effect on the buildup of the Luftwaffe and was often instrumental in securing priorities (raw materials and personnel) for the Luftwaffe solely as a function of his position within the National Socialist hierarchy. Conversely, Göring tended to use his position as head of the Luftwaffe to influence political decisions, or more often to secure the favor of Hitler, which had disastrous consequences, as evidenced in Göring’s boast that the Luftwaffe alone could eliminate the BEF at Dunkirk in 1940. One of the most painful consequences of having a major political figure head the Luftwaffe was the ill-fated attempt to support by air transport the surrounded German Sixth Army at Stalingrad

20. Interview, Loytved-Hardegg.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Bundesarchiv, “Auszug aus den Lageberichten OBd.L. Ic,” Lage Ost, 22.6.41-28.6.41, p. 3, “Angriff der ersten Welle.”

24. It must be pointed out that the entire strength of the Luftwaffe was not employed against the U.S.S.R. at the start of Barbarossa. In fact, only 61 percent of the Luftwaffe’s strength was on the Eastern Front at the start of the campaign. See previously cited Lageberichten.

25. Lageberichten.

26. The SD weapons were essentially bomblettes carried inside of a canister, similar to numerous cluster-type munitions used by air forces today. However, frequently the SD bomblettes would not all release from the canister after having been armed. Occasionally a bomblette would detonate inside of the canister, or would fall out and detonate upon landing, or while taxiing after landing These inadvertent detonations would destroy, or severely damage, the aircraft carrying the bomblettes. This was an especially acute prob1em for aircraft like the Ju 88 and He 111, which carried the SD canisters in an internal bomb bay. Shortly after the start of Barbarossa, the SD-type munitions were banned for all aircraft that had to carry them internally—as opposed to external bomb racks as in the case with the Stuka.

27. Interview with Colonel Robert Poetter, Luftwaffe retired, Kronburg, Federal Republic of Germany, 23 January 1980. In his interview Colonel Poetter made extensive use of his personal pilot’s log book, which he kept throughout the war.

28. Ibid.

29. Lageberichten.

30. Bundesarchiv, General Otto Hoffmann von Waldau, Luftwaffe retired, “Tagebuch Man ‘39 – 10.4.42 Chief des Luftwaffen-fuehrungstabes.”

31. Richard C. Lukas, Eagles East: The Army Air Forces and the Soviet Union 1911-1915 (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1970), p. 6.

32. Alexander Werth, Russia at War, 1941-1945 (New York, 1964), p. l42.

33. Interview with Brigadier General Paul-Werner Hozzel, Luftwaffe retired, Karlsruhe, Federal Republic of Germany, January 1980.

34. Erich von Manstein, Lost Victories (Chicago, 1958).

35. Interview, Loytved-Hardegg.

36. Lieutenant General Paul Deichmann, Luftwaffe retired, German Air Force Operations in Support of the Army (New York, 1968), p. 160.

37. Interview, Poetter.

38. Interview with Colonel Hans-Henning Freiherr von Beust, Luftwaffe retired, München, Federal Republic of Germany, 22 January 1980.

39. Three were flying operational missions; one was on Air Fleet I staff.

40. Interviews, Loytved.Hardegg, Beust, Poetter, and Rudel.

41. Ibid.

42. Interview, Poetter.

43. Bunderarchiv, “General Kommando VIII Fliegerkorps” “Angriffe gegen Russland” (erste Einsatze), Colonel Lothar von Heinemann, Luftwaffe retired, Federal Republic of Germany.

44. Interview, Loytved-Hardegg.

45. Interview with General Johann-Adolf Graf von Keilmansegg, Bundeswehr retired, Bad Kronzingen, Federal Republic of Germany, 19 January 1980.

46. Interview, Beust.

47. Interview, Poetter.

48. Interview, Loytved-Hardegg..

49. Vladimir Petrov, June 22, 1911: Soviet Historians and the German Invasion, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968), Introduction.

50. Bekker, p. 312.


Major Lonnie O. Ratley III (B.A., Florida State University; M.P.A., Golden Gate University; MA., Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California), is Air Operations Staff Officer, Directorate of Plans, Headquarters United States Air Forces in Europe, Ramstein AB, Germany. His previous assignments include duty as an aircraft commander in F-105, A-7, and F-4 operational fighter squadrons. Major Ratley is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and Defense Language Institute, where he specialized in German.