Maritime Warfare in the War of the Spanish Succession II




The Battle of Malaga by Isaac Sailmaker.1704.

Shovell’s death was not the only loss to the allies in 1707, for in Spain Galway had been unable to maintain his hold on Madrid, and in April he was heavily defeated by Berwick at the battle of Almanza. Much of the allied position in Spain unravelled, so the need of a fleet – and therefore a fleet base – in the Mediterranean was as great as ever. The allied fleet, now commanded by Leake, arrived in May, and was soon active in supplying the allied army in Catalonia from Italy. In August Leake secured the surrender of Sardinia (part of the Spanish Mediterranean empire) to ‘Charles III’, providing an essential granary for Catalonia, and a usable naval base at Cagliari. There was, however, a much better and nearer one, which Marlborough and the queen’s ministers had been thinking about for some time: Mahón, in Minorca, by far the best harbour in the Western Mediterranean, and only 300 miles from Toulon. Leake arrived from Sardinia on 25 August and landed his marines. Soon afterwards Major-General James Stanhope arrived from Barcelona with troops, and in spite of the great strength of the island’s main fortress, St Philip’s, the conquest was completed in less than a month. Though it was made in the name of ‘Charles III’, the English intended from the beginning to keep the island for themselves.

The capture of Mahon secured the allies’ naval hold on the Western Mediterranean, but too late to affect the course of the war. The French fleet was past intervention, and the naval contribution to the war in Spain was mainly to control the export of grain from North Africa, which was supplied to the allied army in Catalonia and denied to the French. This was the main work of Sir George Byng in 1709, Sir John Norris next year, and Sir John Jennings in 1711, though Norris also attempted some raids on the coast of France.

All the while that the Mediterranean dominated allied naval strategy, war at sea in English waters had largely been confined to the defence of trade. Then the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland inspired another French attempt to exploit Jacobite sentiment. It seemed a good moment to advance the cause of James VIII, with few troops in Scotland, and many people less than fully committed to the Union or to Queen Anne’s government. Captain Thomas Gordon of the Scottish frigate Royal Mary, for example, was zealous in protecting Scottish merchantmen, but enjoyed a comfortable relationship with the Jacobite leader Lady Errol, who sent him a private signal to steer clear of Slains Castle whenever she had visitors from France.

The French plan was for the royal squadron from Dunkirk under the comte de Forbin to sail in midwinter and land James in the Firth of Forth before allied squadrons could intervene. Dunkirk was all but impossible to blockade effectively even in summertime, Forbin was a bold and experienced commander, and the plan seemed to have a good chance of success even after the secret leaked out and the blockade was reinforced. At first all went well. Forbin got clean away on 9 March, with Sir George Byng in pursuit but far astern. Unfortunately Forbin seems to have had no idea of the strategic value of the expedition, and to have treated it with a carelessness verging on frivolity. He made his initial landfall at dawn on the 12th fifty miles too far north, past Stonehaven; a disastrous blunder which has never been explained. It was the evening of the 13th before the French were able to enter the Forth and anchor off Anstruther. Byng anchored near by off May Island later that night, unseen in the darkness. Even then there was time to land James and his troops, and the sacrifice of Forbin’s small squadron would have been well worth it, but when he sighted Byng’s squadron at dawn, he insisted on escaping to the northward. In the ensuing chase one French ship, the Salisbury (an English prize taken in 1703) was captured by her British namesake (built 1707), but the rest escaped, and Forbin refused another chance to land James. Thus the French threw away a good chance to create, at least, an effective diversion to Marlborough’s plans, which after his victory at Oudenarde on 30 June/11 July, developed into an invasion of France.

The naval war in the Caribbean revived in 1705. In April the enterprising Canadian Iberville mounted a destructive raid on Nevis, only to die of yellow fever at Havana on his way to attack Carolina. In May Rear-Admiral Whetstone arrived with an English squadron, reinforced in August by Commodore William Kerr, who later succeeded to the command. Kerr’s squadron was immobilized by sickness and almost starved; he received no victuals from England until July 1707, and could do nothing to intercept the French squadron which du Casse had brought out to collect Spanish silver. Sir John Jennings arrived in December 1706, with the primary mission of persuading the Spanish governors to acknowledge the authority of ‘Charles III’. In this he failed completely, and returned to England in May 1708, shortly followed by Kerr, who only got back by dint of borrowing men from the incoming British squadron. Kerr was then prosecuted in the common law courts, impeached by the House of Lords and dismissed from the Service for neglecting trade and demanding convoy fees.

Kerr’s relief was Commodore Charles Wager, who sailed in April 1707 with a squadron of seven ships of the line. He was followed by du Casse, who sailed from Brest in October, but spent only a short time in the Caribbean, leaving Havana in July 1708 with the Spanish silver from Mexico – but not the South American silver shipped from Porto Bello, which Wager had intercepted on 28 May. Like Benbow, Wager was abandoned by two of his captains, but he pressed home his attack with his own ship unsupported, took one and sank another of the Spanish ships. The Spaniards lost much money, and a good deal of what du Casse took home never reached Spanish hands. Wager returned to England in December 1709, but the British squadron remained on station.

Further north there was desultory action on the Anglo-Spanish frontier throughout this war, with mutual raids from Carolina and Florida. The English twice attacked the Spanish port of Pensacola, and in 1706 a force of Spanish and French privateers raided Charleston. In these waters, moreover, especially North Carolina (‘where there’s scarce any form of government’, as the Governor of Virginia alleged), piracy was still a real problem. Massachusetts expeditions reached the French privateer base of Port Royal, Acadia, in June and August 1707, but were unable to make an impression on the French defences. On 1 October 1710 the Americans finally achieved a success in taking Port Royal (renamed Annapolis Royal), ‘seven years the great pest and trouble of all navigation and trade of your Majesty’s provinces on the coast of America’.

In European waters another distraction was caused by the Great Northern War between the Baltic powers, which broke out in 1702. The belligerents of the Spanish Succession war were not directly involved, but all European navies depended more or less on mast timber and naval stores imported from the Baltic, while Baltic grain exports became progressively more essential both to England and France in the years of dearth from 1708. The Dutch moreover provided almost all the shipping which carried these goods. The Maritime Powers therefore needed to cover their shipping from Swedish and Russian attacks, while in the North Sea there were both French and allied grain convoys to be attacked and defended. In the Baltic the Swedes were the main aggressors, and relations with England were not helped by the old irritant of the ‘salute to the flag’, which provoked a bloody action off Orfordness in July 1704 between Whetstone and the Swedish Captain Gustav von Psilander of the Öland. In 1709 Norris took a squadron as far as the Sound to escort allied trade and intercept French. From 1710 Swedish privateers became more troublesome, but as long as the war against Spain lasted, the allies had no ships to spare to protect their trade within the Baltic.

Inevitably, it was French privateers that presented the main threat to allied trade. The French continued the composite trade war which had been so effective in the previous war, with squadrons of royal warships, either equipped by the crown or chartered to private shipowners, used as the nutcrackers to break open convoy defences and expose the riches within. The commanders of these squadrons were the heroes of the French war on trade. In May 1703 the marquis de Coëtlogon intercepted a Dutch convoy under Captain Roemer Vlacq off Lisbon and sank or captured all five escorts: a notable victory, but a sterile one, for the escort’s sacrifice enabled the entire convoy of over 100 sail to escape. Unfortunately for the French this was too often the pattern. The chevalier de Saint Pol de Hécourt, commanding the Dunkirk squadron, in 1703 took the Ludlow, 34 (i.e. of thirty-four guns), and later the Salisbury, 52, which he took for his own command. He also inflicted heavy losses on the Dutch fishing fleet off Shetland. Next year he took another English ship of the line, the Falmouth, 58. ‘It is to be desired,’ commented a French official, ‘that Monsieur de Saint Pol find fewer men-of-war and rather more Indiamen or rich interlopers, which would suit his poor owners much better.’ Instead he took a Dutch fifty-gun ship, the Wulverhorst, but once again the convoy had escaped by the time the escort was overwhelmed. Saint Pol’s accounts for this loss-making cruise still had not been cleared up in 1718. In the same year 1704, Duguay-Trouin from St Malo took the Coventry, 54, and the Elizabeth, 70. Both English captains were sent to prison, one of them for life. Finally in October 1705 Saint Pol took an English convoy complete, three escorts and eighteen merchantmen, but was killed in the attack.

His successor in command of the Dunkirk squadron was Forbin, a Gascon nobleman with many of the qualities traditionally associated with his country: bold, gallant and skilful; but also vainglorious and grasping. In May 1707 his squadron of eight ships of the line took two seventy-gun ships, the Hampton Court and Grafton with twenty-two ships of their convoy off Beachy Head, though more than half the merchantmen escaped. In the summer Forbin went north into the Arctic. Whetstone formed the escort of an allied convoy to Archangel, which he had left north of the Shetlands (further north than his orders required), before returning to other duties. Forbin intercepted the convoy off the Murman coast of Arctic Russia, but the local escort under Captain Richard Haddock saved it in a fog bank, and Forbin got only some stragglers. Then on 10 October off Ushant, the squadrons of Forbin and Duguay-Trouin by chance together encountered a convoy carrying troops to Lisbon. Between them they had twelve ships of the line against the five of the escort, though Captain John Richards had two three-deckers, the Devonshire, 90, and the Cumberland, 82. Duguay-Trouin did most of the fighting, in which the Devonshire was burned and three more escorts taken. Forbin arrived later and went straight for the convoy, taking ten (out of about 100). He made all the money, and with undamaged ships he returned early to port to claim all the credit.

Against the undoubted successes of French squadrons must be set the many convoys which were successfully defended, or never attacked at all, and even the most celebrated French commanders were not always successful. In 1704 Saint Pol with six warships was frightened off a Virginia convoy of 135 sail under Captain John Evans, who formed a line of battle with his own four escorts and the ten biggest merchantmen. In 1706 Duguay-Trouin intercepted a rich Portuguese Brazil convoy off Lisbon; one escort was taken, but the Portuguese warships saved the whole convoy. His greatest exploit was the sack of Rio de Janeiro in 1711, which did return a profit, but overall Duguay-Trouin’s career cost his investors and himself a great deal of money. His home port, St Malo, prospered in this war because it progressively abandoned privateering in favour of the extremely profitable interloping trade round Cape Horn to the ‘South Sea’, the Pacific coast of Spanish South America. Three ships which returned from Peru in May 1705 declared cargoes worth more than half the entire gross earnings of all the privateers of the port between 1702 and 1713. In 1709 a convoy of seven ships escorted by Captain Michel Chabert came home laden with Spanish silver, of which Louis XIV received over four million pesos, and a quarter of a million found its way back to Philip V.

The French privateering war certainly caused England heavy losses – the contemporary claim of 3,600 merchantmen taken during the war was probably not much exaggerated – but it is not at all clear that it was profitable, either economically or militarily. English foreign trade was more buoyant than in the 1690s, and better able to bear losses. With experience, the organization of trade protection became gradually more effective, and imaginative. In 1709, in response to petitions from the Scottish Burghs, the local escorts on the east coast of Scotland were put under the operational command of the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, who for the rest of the war controlled the convoy system between Newcastle and the Orkneys and across the North Sea. Moreover the efforts of allied privateers, especially from Zealand and the Channel Isles, have to be taken into account.

As in the previous war, the French naval strategy was most effective in English politics. The heavy losses of 1707 caused an outcry in Parliament: ‘Your disasters at sea have been so many, that a man scarce knows where to begin,’ declaimed Lord Haversham in the House of Lords.

Your ships have been taken by your enemies as the Dutch take your herrings, by shoals, upon your own coasts; nay, your Royal Navy itself has not escaped. And these are pregnant misfortunes, and big with innumerable mischiefs; your merchants are beggared, your commerce is broke, your trade is gone, your people and manufactures ruined…

The result was the 1708 Cruizers and Convoys Act, which removed forty-three ships (nearly half of those between the Third and Sixth Rates) from Admiralty control and assigned them to specified home stations. As with the 1694 Act, the effect was probably to reduce the force available for convoy escorts in favour of cruising squadrons of doubtful effectiveness. Effectiveness, however, was not the main issue in Parliament, where Whig opponents of the government aimed to exploit back-bench disquiet to mount a coup against the Admiralty, and indirectly against Marlborough, whose brother Admiral George Churchill was blamed for mismanaging the naval war.

In this case the Whigs profited from the situation, but overall the French war on trade acted in favour of Tory opponents of the Continental war, especially Marlborough’s costly campaigns in Flanders. To aggrandize him, they argued, country gentlemen like themselves paid a heavy burden in Land Tax, too little of which went to protect England’s true interests (notably in seaborne trade), and too much of which ended up in the pockets of City financiers, who profited from the war and paid nothing towards it. Most of the financiers were Whigs in politics, Jews or Nonconformists in religion, and French, Dutch or Portuguese in origin. Associated with them were England’s Dutch allies, who were accused of bleeding England white in their defence, while they withdrew their stipulated quotas from the allied fleets and kept their own ships to escort their own convoys (frequently trading with the enemy). All the xenophobia so deeply rooted in English politics aroused MPs to demand a patriotic, profitable and English war at sea, of the sort which (as they believed) had never failed before. At the same time Tory attachment to the campaigns in Spain was fading, not only because the campaigns themselves were going very badly, but because the Archduke Charles unexpectedly succeeded to the Austrian throne on his elder brother’s death in April 1711, and a re-creation of the sixteenth-century Habsburg empire under Charles VI seemed even less palatable than the Franco-Spanish connection under Philip V.

The Tory government which took power in 1710 gave expression to these discontents. Subsequent historians have constructed a strategic tradition, the ‘Blue-Water policy’, to which the Tories were supposedly attached, but much of this is a modern rationalization of what had more to do with atavistic prejudice than rational calculation, and was to a large extent common ground among politicians of all parties. Mutual self-interest put the Whigs in bed with William III and later Marlborough, but they were not natural friends of kings and captains-general, nor of large armies and campaigns on the Continent; they were simply more realistic, or more prepared to compromise their principles for the sake of power. All English politicians were committed to the myths of English sea power, according to which a truly naval war, against a Catholic enemy, could not fail to succeed. The real distinction tended to be between those in opposition, who were wholeheartedly committed, and those in power, who were forced into some compromises with reality.

Of the leaders of the 1710 Tory administration, Robert Harley was more level-headed than his colleague St John. In March 1711 Harley was stabbed (by a captured French spy who was being questioned by a Privy Council committee), and while he was recovering, St John was largely responsible for mounting a grand amphibious expedition against Quebec. This was a response to New England requests, but it was even more an expression of Tory ideology. The troops were taken from Marlborough’s army in Flanders, and the ships were commanded by an impeccably Tory officer, Rear-Admiral Sir Hovenden Walker. To keep the expedition secret and avoid the ‘tedious forms of our marine management’, as he put it, St John kept both the Admiralty and the Navy Board in the dark, allowing some of the ships to sail with only three months’ victuals aboard in the expectation that they could be resupplied at Boston. When the expedition did arrive there at the end of June, with only a few days’ warning, Walker was surprised to find that it was difficult to supply a force of over 12,000 men (greater than the population of Boston and its surrounding district) with provisions for a whole winter. Eventually they sailed at the end of July with three months’ victuals, effectively gambling that they could conquer Quebec and find it full of food. Walker was worried about this, and further unnerved by the dangers of the St Lawrence without adequate charts or pilots – with reason, for on 23 August the fleet ran on the coast in the dark and seven transports were lost. On paper the force was still formidable, but Walker and his captains had had enough, and hastened to abandon the expedition.

By the time it returned in October, the Tory government was in the process of withdrawing from the war. One month later Marlborough was dismissed from all his offices. At the same time the ministry published Swift’s pamphlet The Conduct of the Allies, an official attack on the Dutch. ‘No nation,’ he proclaimed, ‘was ever so long or so scandalously abused by the folly, the temerity, the corruption, the ambition of its domestic enemies; or treated with so much insolence, injustice and ingratitude by its foreign friends.’ Another pamphleteer ingeniously estimated that the Dutch had made a profit from the war of £12,235,847 5s 5d.60 All this of course was meant to justify the British in abandoning their allies and withdrawing from the war. At the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Britain gained Gibraltar, Minorca, Acadia (renamed Nova Scotia), the whole of Newfoundland and St Kitt’s (hitherto divided), and undisputed possession of Hudson’s Bay. The Spanish Netherlands were transferred to Austria, and as Britain’s reward for betraying her allies, the French repudiated ‘James III’ and agreed to demolish the port and fortifications of Dunkirk. The reputation of ‘perfidious Albion’ was now well established in Europe, and as if to confirm it, Harley skilfully double-crossed the Jacobites, who provided a large part of his support, and engineered the peaceful succession of the Elector of Hanover when Queen Anne died on 1 August 1714.

On most reckonings the material profit to England of almost twenty-five years of costly war against France was meagre. A small number, of territories had been gained, two of them (Minorca and Gibraltar) of real, or at least potential, strategic value. The ambitions of Louis XIV had been checked, and Flanders (always so sensitive for England) safely confided to friendly hands. A Catholic dynasty had been removed, comforting English and Scottish Protestants at the price of a permanent threat to their security. Nothing so effectively destabilized a government as a legitimate pretender to the throne with support at home and abroad, so the price of Protestant liberty was eternal vigilance, and eternal expense. Less obvious than any of these changes, but in the long run most important of all, was the very rapid growth during these years of English foreign trade. The English domestic economy still depended overwhelmingly on agriculture and woollen cloth, but English (and now Scottish) merchants imported, and in large measure re-exported to Europe, greater and greater quantities of sugar and tobacco from the West Indian and American colonies, cotton from India and silk from China. These were long-distance ‘rich trades’, earning large profits but requiring large capital and advanced skills in banking, insurance and the management of shipping. Other shipowners traded in bulk goods with European ports: English cloth, timber and naval stores from the Baltic, salted cod from Newfoundland. All these trades, multiplied by the Navigation Acts, generated shipping and seamen as well as income. They went to build up what has been called a ‘maritime-imperial’ system, based on shipping and overseas trade much more than on extent of territory. Eighteenth-century Englishmen were ‘proud of their empire in the sea’; for them the word ‘empire’ still had the value of the Latin imperium, an abstract noun rather than a geographical expression. ‘Trade,’ as Addison put it, ‘without enlarging the British territories, has given us a kind of additional empire.’ To a greater and greater extent, Britain’s real wealth was generated, and seen to be generated, from a maritime system in which overseas trade created the income which paid for the Navy, merchant shipping trained the seamen which manned it, so that the Navy in turn could protect trade and the country. Much was still to be learned about how best to do both, but few informed observers in 1714 would have disputed Lord Haversham’s judgement that ‘Your trade is the mother and nurse of your seamen; your seamen are the life of your fleet; and your fleet is the security and protection of your trade: and both together are the wealth, strength, security and glory of Britain.’


Focke-Wulf Fw 200 – Long-Range Sea Reconnaissance

Focke-Wulf Fw 200 C Condor

Fw 200, “SG+KS” of I.Gruppe/KG 40.

The Fw 200 Condor frequently operated in close cooperation with roving packs of U-boats. These machines had been refitted with a long ventral gondola beneath the fuselage, where bombs were housed. Having identified an enemy convoy, Condors would attack and cripple merchant vessels, leaving the submarines to finish them off. Within a year Fw 200s accounted for several thousand tons of Allied shipping and were justly feared as the “scourge of the Atlantic.” Eventually, the development of long-range fighters like the Bristol Beaufighter and ship-launched disposable Hawker Hurricanes spelled the end of its maritime roles. The Fw 200s next pioneered antishipping missiles, but success proved elusive, and by 1944 most had been reconverted back into transports.

Each side employed float planes in the Battle of the Atlantic. The RAF’s “Sunderland” could reach Iceland and the Bay of Biscay from U.K. bases. It was countered by a Luftwaffe fleet of reconnaissance squadrons equipped with Bv138s and Bv222s, Do-18s, and He-115s. These spotted for an original force of 18 squadrons of He-111 medium bombers, trained before the war to bomb ships and lay mines. Longer-range German aircraft came on stream as the battle developed, notably the Fw200 or Kondor. Continuing interservice arguments between the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe, which Hitler characteristically declined to resolve, were especially marked by petulant obstruction of cooperation by Göring. That permitted the Kriegsmarine too few of the right planes to properly scout for the U-boat fleet. Other interservice arguments concerned whether to develop an aircraft-delivered torpedo or specialized antiship bomb. The Luftwaffe ignored all Kriegsmarine design advice on the way to developing an ineffective ship bomb on its own. In the meantime, improving air cover and fighter interception of Kondors by fighters launched from escort carriers pushed back the German air threat to Allied shipping.

Kampfgeschwader 40 (40th Bomber Wing) on the Atlantic Coast of France demonstrated particular proficiency in attacks on shipping. The latter unit employed, among other types, the Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, a long-range reconnaissance bomber famously called the “scourge of the Atlantic” by Winston Churchill for its deadly efficiency between 1940 and 1942.

Condor Aircraft based on a feasibility study ordered in 1936 by Lufthansa for a plane capable of crossing the Atlantic; first flew on 27 July 1937. Designed to carry 26 passengers and four crew-members, this cantilevered low-wing four-engine plane first proved its capacity on a series of long-distance flights for publicity. The longest was a 48-hour flight from Berlin to Tokyo. (The plane crash-landed in Manila Bay on the return leg due to pilot error.) The aircraft was used mostly on European medium-range routes. Sixteen civilian Condors were completed by September 1939, and several more were under construction.

Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe was having trouble defining its long-range aircraft needs. The Junkers Ju 89 and Dornier Do 19 aircraft were canceled, and the Heinkel He 177 project was delayed. By October 1939, 12 civilian Condors (six of which were initially scheduled for delivery to Japan) had been taken over by the Luftwaffe for training in long-range sea reconnaissance. Focke-Wulf received an order for the development of a military version, the Fw 200C series, of which 243 were produced until the closing of production in 1943. The C-4, which was built in the largest numbers, sported additional machine guns and a bomb/torpedo bay. Its primary mission in the Luftwaffe became long-range reconnaissance and the spotting of Allied convoys in the Atlantic. Positions were then relayed to submarines and an attack coordinated.



The Dawn of the German Empire Navy


König Wilhelm as completed. She had been laid down for Turkey. 

König Wilhelm

As compared with the second-class vessels upon which Friedrich Carl and Kronprinz had been modelled, the larger British ironclads (the Warriors, Achilles and Minotaurs) displaced between 9300t and 10,900t. In 1866, the opportunity arose for Prussia to acquire a ship of this class, when the impecunious Ottoman authorities put up for sale their Fatih, building at the Thames Iron Works. Prussia bought her on 6 February 1867, initially under the name Wilhelm I. However, this was changed in December to König Wilhelm, the ship being launched under that name the following April. Another potential purchase in the spring of 1867 was of the American Dunderberg which was, however, actually acquired by France as Rochambeau,and would operate against Prussia during the forthcoming Franco-Prussian War.

On completion, König Wilhelm was popularly regarded as the most powerful warship in the world, being compared favourably with HMS Hercules, which was some 1800t smaller and 10m shorter, and has a smaller number of guns. König Wilhelm’s great size was initially a problem, as no dock in Germany was big enough to take her; she thus had to make a run to Britain in August 1869 for her bottom to be cleaned. It subsequently proved possible to dock her (with difficulty) at Wilhelmshaven, but it was not for some time that the development of the German dockyards meant that they could easily take ships of her dimensions. The constraints of existing dry-docks were always an important issue in the development of new generations of ships, a good example being that of French dreadnoughts in the years prior to the First World War, and in designing the final generations of Imperial German capital ships during 1916–18.

König Wilhelm was originally to be armed with 72pdrs (in her case thirty-three), but was actually fitted with eighteen 24cm/20s on the gun-deck and five 21cm/22s. Also as with earlier ships, there were delays in the provision of weapons, and she was still not fully armed in September 1869, seven months after commissioning. Three of the 22cal weapons were mounted in a forecastle armoured battery and the other two in a pair of upper deck armoured batteries in the rear waist at upper deck level. These latter were protected with 152mm plating, the battery-deck itself and belt having 203mm armour, tapering to 152mm fore and aft, on 560mm of teak, itself on the 50mm-thick hull shell.

On commissioning, König Wilhelm became flagship of an evolutionary squadron that also comprised Kronprinz and Friedrich Carl, which undertook exercises with various other ships during August/September 1869. The following May, the same ships, plus Prinz Adalbert, were proceeding on a visit to Great Britain when Friedrich Carl damaged her screw by grounding in the Great Belt and had to be repaired at Kiel, rejoining her squadron-mates at Plymouth. Here they were formally constituted as a training squadron on 1 July, sailing for the Azores. However, with an increase in tensions with France, Prinz Adalbert was recalled to Dartmouth to remain in contact with events. The remainder of the squadron joined her on 13 July and, war being considered imminent, sailed for home, arriving on the 16th – Prinz Adalbert in the tow of Kronprinz, owing to her lack of speed.

War broke out with France on 19 July 1870, ostensibly over a diplomatic slight to the French Emperor Napoleon III in the wake of a dispute over the future occupant of the throne of Spain, but in reality the culmination of pressures arising from the progressive unification of Germany that was felt to threaten French interests. Although on land the French army was a third the size of the forces available to Prussia, the North German Confederation and the southern German states (which formally joined the Confederation November), all of whom allied against France, the French Navy was vastly superior to that of Prussia, and rapidly imposed a blockade of her coasts.

The Prussian Navy’s larger ironclads, Friedrich Carl, Kronprinz and König Wilhelm, were based at Wilhelmshaven from the outset, but Arminius was forced to break through the blockade to the North Sea from Kiel by exploiting her shallow draught to sail through coastal waters, and shook off an attempted interception by three French armoured frigates. Prinz Adalbert and three small gunboats were also available, but the ironclad was unsuitable for seagoing operations and served as the Elbe guardship throughout the war.

The French were unable, in spite of their superior numbers, to make any attack on the Prussian naval bases, and largely contented themselves with taking up a blockading station off Heligoland. The Prussians made a number of sorties into the North Sea, but after the first, in early August 1870, by Arminius, Friedrich Carl, Kronprinz and König Wilhelm, engine problems suffered by the latter three meant that Arminius for a time became the principal combat unit, the ship sortieing over forty times. However, action was limited to a single brief skirmish with the French armoured frigate Gauloise and the armoured corvette Atalante off Heligoland. On 11 September, the three Prussian frigates joined Arminius on another sweep, but no French ships were encountered, as the French Navy withdrew its ships in September, following their army’s defeat at Sedan and the capture of Napoleon III. The war continued, however, into the New Year, and it was proposed that a newly-overhauled Kronprinz should undertake a raid on Cherbourg in early February; however, the armistice, signed on 28 January 1871, came before the attack could take place.

It was on 10 December 1870 that the North German Confederation was renamed the German Reich, with Wilhelm I of Prussia as its Emperor, as formally proclaimed at Versailles on 18 January 1871 during the siege of Paris that marked the last four months of the war. As well as the consolidation of all German states except Austria into one political entity, the war also resulted in the transfer of the most of the province of Alsace, and a quarter of Lorraine, to the German Empire under the direct rule of the Reich Government, not any of the States. The existence of Alsace-Lorraine within the German Empire would remain a running sore in Franco-German relations.


Hansa as completed.


The concept of the armoured corvette Hansa went back to 1861, with a focus on service against shore fortifications, but it was not for some years that she was built, as the first armoured ship to be built in Germany.11 However, when the ship was actually begun in at Danzig Dockyard in November 1868, it was to a Reed design, not dissimilar to HMS Pallas, launched in 1865; like her, Hansa had a wooden hull, but was slightly larger and more heavily armed.

In Pallas and the contemporary, but much bigger, ironhulled HMS Bellerophon, Reed had introduced the central-battery concept, with the armament placed in an armoured box amidships, rather than simply spread along on a gun deck. Hansa had in addition an upper battery arranged for axial fire, much like the British Audacious class (1869/70). Hansa was launched in October 1872, and in August of the following year was towed to Stettin for completion by AG Vulcan, work there finishing in December 1874, before transfer to Kiel on 3 January 1875, for final fitting-out in a floating dock.


Preußen as built.

The Preußen Class

The navy’s first uniform class of capital ships, all built in home yards, was originally intended to follow previous German armourclads in being broadside-armed, the new Austro-Hungarian central-battery ship Custoza12 being regarded as a model. This ship had a double-storey battery, designed to maximise axial fire. However, after the first vessel, Großer Kurfürst, had already been laid down, the design was entirely recast as a turret-ship similar in layout to HMS Monarch, with Coles-type twin turrets on a low hull, but built-up fore and aft for seaworthiness (as carrying a full sailing rig), the deck-lines of the forecastle and poop being extended along the mid-length by hinged bulwarks, as in many other similar vessels of the period. To make up for the lack of ahead fire of the turret-mounted 26cm/22 guns, chase pieces of 17cm/25 calibre were fitted in forecastle and poop.

The turrets were steam-powered and mounted on what would originally have been the battery deck. The faces of the turrets were 260mm thick, the remainder having 210mm armour. The hull armour at the waterline midships was 235mm for a single plate’s width, thinning to 185mm below the waterline and 210mm above, all thinning to 105mm at the ends. All armour was mounted on a wooden backing.

As with Hansa, the inexperience of the yards – Großer Kurfürst was the first product of the new dockyard at Wilhelmshaven and Friedrich der Große the second to be laid down in the yard at Kiel – resulted in extended building times, exacerbated in the case of Großer Kurfürst by the need to alter her design on the stocks. Indeed, the first to be launched and to complete was the privately-built Preußen, a year ahead of the state-built Friedrich der Große.

Luftwaffe Early Years and the Rhineland I




With all of Germany humming after twelve years’ stagnation, the Rhineland Program moved swiftly toward completion. By the end of 1934, with another nine months in hand, approximately half of the four thousand planes ordered by Milch had emerged from the factories and were delivered to the proliferating units activated by Wever. There were forty-one organized formations scattered throughout six Luftkreis (air district) commands, units whose military functions were concealed under innocuous code names. The bomber unit equipped with Dornier 11s at Fassberg, for example, was camouflaged under the name Hanseatic Flying School. The bomber training station at Lechfeld operated its Ju.52s undercover as research planes of the headquarters, German Flight Weather Services. The familiar German Commercial Pilots’ School at Braunschweig hid the activities of the Heinkel 46 reconnaissance outfit. And at Prenzlau, student bomber pilots took refuge as crop dusters, their JU.52s merging with the State Agricultural Pest Control Unit.

The first fighter unit was activated on April 1, 1934; it was known unofficially as Squadron 132, but officially as one of the so-called advertising squadrons that had been parading across German skies for more than a year. The unit designation, 132, was not meant to imply that Germany possessed a hundred-plus squadrons, but was a simplified code; the first digit indicated that the unit was squadron one, the second revealed that it was equipped with fighters, while the third digit showed that the squadron was based within Air District II (Berlin.) Chosen to command was Major Robert Ritter von Greim, a grizzled veteran of the skies over the Western Front, a dead shot with twenty-five kills to his credit, a wearer of the cross of the Pour le Mérite, and, until his return to Germany, one of the organizers of Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese air force.

To meet the immediate needs of the expanding air units for men to perform the less glamorous chores of air base duty, thousands of NCOs and enlisted men were summarily transferred from the Reichswehr and put into new blue uniforms as they became available. Because most of them were volunteers, and because of Seeckt’s policy of quality when he could not have quantity, the airmen, almost without exception, were of high caliber and well qualified to learn quickly the technical aspects of their new career field. It was after August 1,1934, that incoming airmen were presented with a new oath to swear, an oath far more personal than existed during the Weimar period. On that date, President von Hindenburg died and Hitler assumed his title as well as that of chancellor. Instead of swearing loyalty to the Constitution, recruits henceforth chanted, “I swear by God this holy oath, that I will render to Adolf Hitler, Leader of the German nation and people, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, unconditional obedience, and I am ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath.”

The Nazi Party was not mentioned, but soon its symbol began to appear on every naval and military uniform. General von Blomberg, although adamant against allowing Wehrmacht members to join the NSDAP, nonetheless wanted to show his commander in chief that the Wehrmacht was as loyal to him as were the SS and other purely party organizations. He ordered new cloth badges from the quartermaster, a design featuring a straight-winged eagle clutching a small swastika in its claws. These were sewn on the uniform jacket just over the right upper pocket. Goering ordered badges with more sweeping lines, a soaring eagle looking downward, talons clutching the party symbol as though a bird of prey was dragging its victim through the sky. The order was placed in anticipation of the Führer’s next big moves, which were not long in coming.

On February 26,1936, Adolf Hitler signed a decree that established the air force as an independent branch of the armed forces. At last, the shadowy air arm had a name given it by the Führer himself — the Reichsluftwaffe. Nobody liked it, and in general parlance the name was shortened to Luftwaffe (air weapon), which soon became accepted official usage. The new command structure ranked the Luftwaffe equally with the army (Reichsheer) and the navy (Reichsmarine), answerable through Goering to Blomberg and through him to Hitler. On March 1, the decree was implemented. Independence! A dream British military airmen had realized in 1918 after three years of hard political infighting, and a dream their American counterparts had despaired of achieving, and would not realize for another twelve years. On March 10, Goering summoned the correspondent of the friendly London Daily Mail and presented Ward Price with the scoop of the year. Goering told Price he had created a new German air force, but with no intention of threatening the rest of the world; his Luftwaffe, Goering said, was purely defensive. Four days later, Major von Greim’s J.G.132 was christened J.G. Richthofen 2, and squadron mechanics got busy painting the cowlings red and adding black crosses to wings and fuselages of the new Arado 65 and Heinkel 51 biplane fighters. Roaring over German towns in warpaint, the slender, elegant Heinkels looked menacing and businesslike — and from the ground the carefully kept secret that the resurrected Richthofen Circus had no guns could not be discovered. Shortly afterward, yet another fighter wing was created out of the equipment pouring from the factories. The party influence was clearly revealed in the choice of names for J.G.134, known as Jagdgeschwader Horst Wessel For those officers and men who believed the official version of Wessel’s death in February 1930 — that he “died on the barricades in the struggle against Bolshevism” — the name was acceptable, even though Wessel had never been connected with flying in any way. To those who knew the truth, it was something else. Wessel, in fact, was a twenty-three-year-old storm trooper living in a Berlin slum, earning pocket money as a part-time pimp. He was shot to death by another party member, also a pimp, over possession of the chattel, Erna Jänicke.

When Goering made his announcement, the Luftwaffe strength stood at sixteen squadrons; by August 1, five months later, the figure had trebled, and the first-line strength stood at 1,833 aircraft, broken down as follows:

372 bombers (Do.11 and Do.23)

450 auxiliary bombers (Ju.52)

51 dive-bomber trainers (He.50)

251 fighters (Ar.64, Ar.65, He.51)

320 reconnaissance (long-range He.45)

270 reconnaissance (short-range He.46)

119 naval (He.38, Do.16, He.59, Do.18, He.51W)

There was more. On Saturday, March 16, Hitler announced that he had signed a decree reintroducing compulsory military service; conscription would enable the army to field thirty-six divisions, about five hundred thousand troops. On top of the news of the Luftwaffe as a force in being, this latest pronouncement torpedoed the already foundering ship of Versailles, leaking violations at every seam. Reaction to this German truculence on the part of the treaty signatories was pitiful: Great Britain, France, and Italy met at Stresa, under a League of Nations mandate, and spent their time concocting notes of pious outrage and condemnation. France signed a mutual-assistance pact with Russia; Russia signed one with Czechoslovakia; England kept quiet about her own plans for a treaty with Germany that would allow the potential enemy to greatly increase the Reichsmarine — an agreement reached only two months later, and one that included the British approval of German submarine building. Sir John Simon, Whitehall’s new foreign minister, was received by Adolf Hitler in the Reichs Chancellery in Berlin and listened while Hitler, now gracious, now scowling, stressed his desire for peace. Then came the sword thrust. The Luftwaffe, said Hitler, with the surety of a poker player holding a full house, has achieved parity in the air with England. This was not true at the time, but with Berlin’s streets filled with columns of marching men in brand-new blue uniforms, and with the skies overhead alive with the thunder of Luftwaffe formations of bombers and fighters, there was no way to disprove it.

Generalleutnant Wever, as he now was, having seen the Rhineland Program heading toward completion, bent his energies to the Luftwaffe’s second-generation force. Wever assigned highest priority to the development of a basic four-engine strategic bomber design. Through the technical chief, Colonel Wimmer, General Wever pressed development contracts on the Junkers works at Dessau and on Claudius Dornier at his Friedrichshaven plant on Lake Constance. Both Wever and Wimmer were satisfied with the preliminary drawings, and work proceeded to the mock-up stage. In final configuration, both bombers were remarkably similar: broad wings exceeding one hundred feet in length, four engines grouped closely together, deep-bellied fuselages, twin rudders. The Do.19, typically Dornier, was cleaner of line than its competitor, the Ju.89, which (typically Junkers) was brutish and robust. Both featured retractable landing gear housed inside the inboard engine nacelles; both bombers’ noses rode high off the ground.

Wimmer recalled how, in the spring of 1935, he persuaded Goering to accompany him on a visit to Dessau. They marched through the crowded Junkers workshops, shouting to be heard above the crash of hammers, the whine of plane saws, the stutter of riveting guns and the crackle of arc welding equipment. They passed through the great sliding doors leading into a cavernous building where the only sounds were the gentle scraping of sandpaper, the desultory slap-slap-slap of paintbrushes, and the creak of wood being fitted to wood. Goering gazed upward at the full-scale mock-up of the giant Ju.89, its bulk seeming to fill the hangar. Goering turned incredulously to Wimmer and, still shouting, yelled out, “What on earth’s that?”

Wimmer explained that it was the final wooden study of the much-discussed Ural bomber, about which the Minister must surely have been informed. Wimmer remembered that Goering turned suddenly furious and bellowed, “Any such major project as that can only be decided by me personally!” Then Goering stamped out of the building. Wimmer was at a loss, but decided that Goering’s blast was only another temper tantrum, probably forgotten by the time he got back to Berlin. Work on the Ju.89 continued.

Next, Wimmer escorted Blomberg through the Dornier works and explained in detail about the hoped-for capability of the Do.19. The War Minister listened patiently, then asked Wimmer when he thought the Do.19 could become operational. Wimmer replied, “In about four or five years.” Blomberg, along with every other German officer of field rank, believed that the next war could not possibly begin before 1942 or 1943. Therefore, if the strategic bombers, the Ju.89s and/or the Do.19s, were ready for combat by the spring of 1939 or 1940, that would be soon enough. His somewhat abstract comment to Colonel Wimmer in response to the time lag Wimmer mentioned, “Yes, that’s about the size of it,” was interpreted to mean that he was favorably impressed with the Do.19. Work on the big bomber was ordered to proceed.

The dual-purpose Luftwaffe envisioned by Wever required not only a strike force with extended reach, but a tactical sword whose importance lay not in the weight of the blade but in the speed of the stroke. Even before Wever’s installation in the command structure, airmen in the old Fliegerzentrale used to theorize endlessly about the kind of bombers they would someday build. What emerged from these serious daydreams was the concept of bombers so fast they would outrun fighters, obviating the need for heavy defensive armament whose weight — plus that of the men needed to serve the guns — could be better utilized in payload or fuel. It was a concept with which Wever did not argue. Fortunately for the development section of the Luftwaffe’s Technical Office, such a bomber already existed in prototype, a reject found in Lufthansa’s passenger-plane bin.

Late in 1933, Lufthansa presented Dornier with a requirement for a new mail plane capable of hauling six passengers; because the airlines wanted the plane for use on express runs between European cities only, range was not important, but speed was paramount. The most powerful engines then available were BMW Vis, twelve-cylinder, liquid-cooled inlines developing 660 horsepower at takeoff, and around this power plant, with its low frontal area, Dornier designers planned to build the most aerodynamically advanced aircraft in the world. The fuselage was as slim as a pencil, the nose shaped like a bullet. The round-tipped wings, fifty-nine feet long, were set in the shoulder of the fuselage, some distance aft of the flight deck, and faired so smoothly that the wing-body structure seemed to have been poured molten into a mold and allowed to set. The rudder was small and nearly triangular. The wide-track landing gear folded neatly backward into the curve of the engine nacelles, and, as a final triumph over drag, even the small tail wheel retracted into the fuselage where it was so narrow a large man could encircle it with both arms.

Lufthansa took delivery of three prototype Do.17s for evaluation. Test pilots were enthusiastic about control response and general handling, the traffic chiefs agreed that the two hundred-plus miles per hour exceeded performance requirements, and Lufthansa’s flight engineers were keen on the new power plants. But those responsible for passenger ticket sales vetoed the Do.17 on the spot. Because the plane had been designed for speed, and only speed, accommodation for fare-paying passengers was only an afterthought: a tiny cabin for two people was fitted immediately behind the flight deck, making the clients almost part of the crew; but unlike the crew, their visibility was extremely restricted. Room for four others was made just aft of the wing, providing a good view downward — along with the full benefit of the noise of the engines and the propellers. Ingress and egress to the seats required contortions not possible except to the young and the athletic, and women hobbled with the skirts of the time would have refused the attempt. All three prototypes were returned to Dornier.

At this point, Flight Captain Untucht stepped into the picture. Untucht, Lufthansa’s chief pilot and a former test pilot for Dornier, had friends in the Air Ministry, and he suggested that the elegant Do.17, with only a few modifications, would make an ideal quick-dash bomber. The forward passenger box was ripped out and replaced with radio equipment and a seat for the operator. Portholes were eliminated. The fuselage was shortened by twenty-two inches, and the single rudder was replaced by twin rudders to eliminate the plane’s only evil, a tendency to yaw left and right. A sixth prototype, the Do.17V6, was fitted with different engines, twelve-cylinder Hispano-Suiza inlines developing 775 horsepower at takeoff, and, thus modified, the new bomber entered flight trials in the fall of 1935. With the throttles bent all the way forward, the V6 clocked a sizzling 243 miles per hour, faster than Heinkel’s famous He.70 Blitz, and 13 miles per hour faster than Britain’s latest biplane fighter, the Gloster Gauntlet.

The argument was advanced within the Luftwaffe Technical Office that since chance had provided the long-discussed highspeed bomber, production should commence without further modifications; no armament was needed; speed alone was proof against interception. Sagely, the suggestion was vetoed. After all, it was only a question of time before tomorrow’s enemy, whoever that might be, produced faster fighters. The Technical Office ordered guns installed. The Do.17 went through yet two more prototype versions, ending with the V9; then full production began for the Luftwaffe with model Do.17E-1. Armament included a 7.9 millimeter (.30 caliber) machine gun firing downward and another gun mounted on top of the fuselage just aft of the wing. The maximum bomb load was 1,650 pounds, i.e., a pair of 550-pounders and four 110-pound general-purpose bombs. Speed was reduced to 220 miles per hour at sea level, and the thin, low-drag wings accommodated fuel enough for a tactical range of barely 310 miles — enough, however, for a highspeed run and back from the Oder to Warsaw, from the Rhine to Paris, or from Düsseldorf to London. With a quantity order in hand, Dornier produced an innovation in the manufacturing process: the DO.17’s airframe was broken down into component parts for ease in subcontracting, a technique that not only resulted in early dispersal of the German aircraft industry, but made it easier for replacement of damaged airframe parts at group and even squadron level.

The other major contributor to the Luftwaffe’s plowshares-into-swords scheme was Ernst Heinkel. Even before the last of the seventy-two He.70s ordered by the Air Ministry rolled off the line at Warnemünde, its derivative big brother was being assembled in the new plant at Marienehe. Unlike the Do.17, Heinkel’s 111 was laid out on the drawing board as both a bomber and a transport right at the start. In civil dress, the He.111 carried ten passengers — four forward and six aft. In between was an improvised space Lufthansa called a smoking compartment, but which was in reality the bomb bay. The He.111, powered by the BMW VI engines, was a much larger airplane than the Do.17 — the wings, broad and elliptical, spanned fully eighty-two feet — and was nearly a ton and a half heavier unladen. Even so, the first test flight on February 24, 1935, produced a top speed of 217 miles per hour, and a pilot verdict that the handling characteristics were delightful, even superior to those of the famous He.70 Blitz. The Luftwaffe ordered ten He.111s in full military configuration, including three machine-gun positions, a longer fuselage, and a many-windowed plastic nose section for the bombardier. Ballasted for the maximum bomb load of 2,200 pounds, the gross weight of the bomber shot up to more than six tons, and the cruising speed dropped to under 170 miles per hour. Luftwaffe test pilots at the Rechlin proving center complained that the He.111 required excessive stick pressures and, in general, was mulish in flight. All ten were rejected — but Heinkel later sold them at a handsome profit to Chiang Kai-shek.

Now Daimler-Benz came forward with a new engine that not only saved the He.111 program, but boosted the dreams of fighter plane designers, who were frustrated at the meager horsepower available inside Germany. The new power plant, an inverted V, twelve-cylinder inline, boasted 1,000 horsepower at takeoff, and this made all the difference. Powered with the DB 600A engines, the fifth prototype of the new bomber reached 224 miles per hour in trials at Rechlin despite the extra 838 pounds added to the gross weight by the bigger engines. Could Heinkel have all the new Daimler engines he wanted for series production of the He.111? He could not; they, and improved variants already in the works, were earmarked for the fighter program, but the Luftwaffe was so keen on the prospects of the He.111 in that Daimler was asked to provide similar, if slightly downrated, power plants for the new Heinkel bomber. With certain structural modifications — including altering the pure ellipses of the wings to a more straight-line shape in the interests of simplifying and speeding up shopwork — and equipped to mount DB 600C engines offering 880 horsepower, the He111B-1 was ordered into full production.

Heinkel’s production capacity was strained to the limit, but relief was promised with the visit of Colonel Fritz Loeb, a young Luftwaffe officer attached to the Technical Office. Loeb told Heinkel that the air force wanted yet another factory built, one devoted exclusively to the output of He.111s at an initial rate of one hundred a month. Heinkel, already heavily overspent on the new works at Marienehe, asked where the funds were coming from; he had no intention of going into hock with the moneylenders. Loeb told him the Luftwaffe would pay for everything, that money was no problem. Indeed it was not; the Luftwaffe budget was increasing by quantum jumps. Under Special Plan XVI for fiscal 1933-1934, the Luftwaffe was allotted $30 million, of which $10 million was siphoned from funds available to the army and navy. For fiscal 1934-1935, the amount was increased to $52 million, and from 1935 onward, the Luftwaffe had at its disposal $85 million in one budget and a whopping $750 million in a separate black fund financed through interest-bearing notes sold by the government to the Reichsbank. This scheme was concocted by the Reichsbank’s president, financial wizard Hjalmar Schact, who kept the transactions secret in order to avoid inflation at home and loss of confidence in the reichsmark abroad.

Colonel Loeb specified that the new plant must be located near Berlin and made it clear that the factory must be laid out with war in mind. He told Heinkel, “Not in a city — no compact block of buildings, but everything scattered in case of attacks from the air.” Heinkel pointed out that dispersion resulted in production inefficiency with consequent loss of profit margins. “Don’t worry about it,” Loeb said, “it isn’t your money.”

Heinkel’s scouts roamed the countryside near Berlin and came back with the report that the hilly, wooded stretch of heath near Oranienburg seemed ideal. Oranienburg was only eighteen miles north of the heart of Berlin, and an electric tramline connected the two places. The major drawback was the absence of water. Heinkel sent for a diviner, who plodded across the vacant spaces with a forked stick, and shortly afterward reported a strike. Sure enough, ample water was found only six feet beneath the surface. Heinkel consulted Hitler’s architect, young Albert Speer, and plans for the Oranienburg works were completed at the beginning of April 1936. The plant was broken down into eight major workshops, many of them hidden under the trees. Despite the possibility of air raids, Heinkel later boasted of the plant’s “vast areas of glass framed in steel and red-glazed brick.” Deep shelters were dug, however, and the factory ran its own large fire department. New track was laid connecting the complex with the main line running from Berlin to Oranienburg, but rail traffic was necessarily intended for delivery of raw materials, and Heinkel realized that dependence upon the tram for getting workers back and forth from Berlin was only asking for trouble. A workers’ town was built on the site, comprising twelve hundred homes, a school, a town hall, theaters, shops, laundries and a swimming pool. Ground was broken on May 4,1936, and a year to the day later, the first He. 111 bomber taxied out of the assembly shop to the cheers of thousands of workers and invited guests. Oranienburg was the German aviation industry’s showcase, and the Luftwaffe used it to impress — and intimidate — visitors from abroad.

The high-speed medium bomber program was purely a Luftwaffe idea, but the concept of pinpoint bombing of highly selected, individual targets using specially constructed dive-bombers releasing loads along the plane’s near-vertical axis of flight was borrowed from the United States Navy. That the concept was hammered into operational reality over stubborn opposition and at great personal risk to its prophet was due to the fiery dedication of one man: a civilian barnstormer?, Germany’s greatest living ace from the war, Ernst Udet.

Luftwaffe Early Years and the Rhineland II


When the war ended, Udet was twenty-two and unemployable. His only trade was combat flying, his only reward the Blue Max, his only yearning, the sky, and freedom, his only need. He turned down a posting with the Reichswehr, married his wartime girl, Zo Link, and borrowed money to start a small aircraft factory. He built and demonstrated neat biplane sport planes with such evocative names as Hummingbird and Flamingo. His marriage dissolved, then his interest in manufacturing. His partners wanted to move into the four-engine airliner business, and big planes interested Udet not at all. He was a born Bohemian, blessed with wit and a knack for mimicry and caricature with pen and ink. Udet was sociable without being social, and expansive without being garrulous. Parties in his Berlin flat were famous in a time when every kind of behavioral barrier had been let down, and chance callers were always assured of a glass of champagne or brandy, or the two mixed together served in a shell case, the famous concoction dreamed up by a Lafayette Escadrille pilot and known as a Seventy-five. Udet was a drinker without being a drunk, and a raconteur who was never a bore.

Udet, second only to Manfred von Richthofen on the victory list, could have bartered his name and his personality on the marketplace; but Udet was neither politician nor prostitute. He was a pilot, a technological man of his times needing to use his craft — a narrow skill at best — to pay his way in life. Like most bon vivants, Udet was at heart a realist, sensing that heroism in war does not necessarily qualify a man to administer the affairs of commerce. He would not sell his name for promotion, but when approached by twenty-six-year-old Leni Riefenstal, painter and ballerina turned actress and film director, to put his courage and piloting skill to hire in film work, Udet accepted readily. He worked both in Africa and in the Arctic, where his best-known footage was shot for the 1929 feature, The White Hell of Pitz Palü.

Udet, barnstorming in the United States, made friends wherever he went, including wartime air service pilots he had dueled with over the western front more than a decade earlier; among them were Eddie Rickenbacker and Elliott White Springs. Thousands of Americans thrilled to Udet’s seemingly harebrained stunt flying, and only pilots in the crowd realized that what laymen took for madness was but consummate skill pushed to the limit by personal courage.

Among Udet’s admirers was the American pioneer airman, Glenn L. Curtiss, who invited the German to visit the Curtiss-Wright plant in Buffalo, New York, while Udet was touring America in 1933. On September 27, a date that would have fateful repercussions for the Luftwaffe, Curtiss asked Udet if he would like to fly a factory-fresh F2C Hawk, a robust single-seat biplane designed for the U.S. Navy as a carrier-borne dive-bomber. Twenty minutes later Udet and the Hawk were wringing each other out, man versus machine in a brutal contest to see which would come apart first under the punishing G-loads imparted to both frames as Udet hurled the plane at the ground again and again, hauling the stick back sharply against his stomach only seconds before the earth rushed up to claim them. When Udet landed and taxied up to the hangars he was drained and thrilled. Aiming the nose of the plane at one of Curtiss’s factory buildings and howling down at over 250 miles per hour was like riding a shell on its downward plunge to the target. Here was a plane to thrill the crowds and, it occurred to Udet, one with which the German air arm should experiment. Few targets are harder to hit from the air than ships underway on the open ocean, and if the U.S. Navy was working on the idea of the dive-bomber as the solution to the problem, then so should his own people in Berlin. Udet immediately wrote Erhard Milch with a glowing description of the Curtiss Hawk, wondering if there were some way he could bring a pair of them back to Germany. Milch wired back agreement, adding that funds to cover purchase cost were on the way. Curtiss, happy to make the sale at a time of depressed markets at home, received no problem with export licenses from the U.S. government.

Two months later, Udet was at the Rechlin test center with the assembled American Hawks. Gathered on the field whipped by cold December winds, Milch, Goering and others from the Air Ministry watched Udet scream down on them in four successive power dives, pulling out a little closer to the ground each time. Through the fog of near blackout, Udet rolled off the top of the zoom and treated the fighter pilots among the critics below to an exhibition of acrobatics, proving that the thirty-seven-year-old pilot and the new machine could take it. Udet was invited to a conference in Berlin at the beginning of the new year, the only civilian among the galaxy of brass, and the upshot was an order from Goering to develop some kind of vertical bomber. Wever, as chief of staff, was a supporter of the idea because it did not interfere with his ideas of a mixed force: the strategic bombers then being developed by Dornier and Junkers, the medium Do.17s and the He.111s then in the planning stage, and now the Sturzkampfflugzeug — literally, the plunge-battle aircraft. It was not envisioned that the Stuka would be used primarily as a naval attack weapon, but rather as a kind of extreme-range piece of heavy artillery. None of the German bombsights then under development, the Goerz-Visier 219 or the Lofte 7 and 7D, were considered sophisticated enough to achieve acceptable accuracy in horizontal bombing except by the most experienced crews; Stukas, with their inherent accuracy, would solve the problem of putting bombs on small targets in the field: bridges, power stations, fuel and ammo dumps, roads, tanks, enemy airfields. Moreover, Germany’s raw-material reserves were limited and production of Stuka-type aircraft would eat into these strategic reserves sparingly.

The most outspoken opponent of the dive-bomber concept was Major Wolfram von Richthofen, thirty-eight, Manfred’s younger cousin. Wolfram flew his first patrol on the day that Manfred flew his last, and finished the war in 1918 with eight kills. A tall, heavy man with a porcine face and narrow eyes, he based his objections to the Stuka on his wartime experiences as a fighter pilot and upon his studies for a doctorate in engineering after the war. Richthofen believed that it was suicidal for aircraft to operate below three thousand feet in the face of ground fire, and jettisoning a bomb load vertically any higher would nullify the pinpoint accuracy claimed for dive-bombers. Nor did he believe that aircraft could be built that would withstand the cumulative effects of stress absorbed by airframes in day-in, day-out operations. On July 20, 1934, a near disaster at Berlin’s Templehof field seemed to prove his theory correct. Udet had been practicing during the spring and early summer, and was no doubt the most proficient dive-bomber pilot in the world by the time July rolled around. With almost the entire Luftwaffe General Staff watching, Udet rolled the Hawk on its back and plunged for the earth. He hauled the stick back at the last moment, the Hawk began its agonizing pullout — then the tail section fluttered wildly, finally wrenching loose. The Curtiss plummeted straight down, engine running full out. Udet, who had been through all this before, unstrapped and went over the side, hauling on the D-ring as he went. The chute popped just before he slammed into the ground. The Hawk exploded at the far end of the field.

Despite the disintegration of Udet’s plane, the Luftwaffe high command was convinced of the practicality of the Stuka idea, and development orders went out to Arado, Blohm und Voss, Heinkel, and Junkers. To Junkers’s chief designer, Wilhelm Pohlmann, the order seemed almost coincidental; already sketched out on his drawing board was a study for an advanced, all-metal, low-wing dive-bomber based on the K.47 that had been built in Sweden and tested at Lipetsk. The Luftwaffe specified dive brakes, and while templates were being cut for the new plane, brakes were fabricated and fitted to the K.47 and given a thorough testing. The K.47’s twin-ruddered tail offered the gunner a wide field of fire to the rear, and so the twin tail was retained on the new prototye. Fitted with a 600- horsepower Rolls-Royce Kestrel engine, the prototype Stuka, the JU.87V-1 was rolled out of the assembly hangar at Dessau in the early spring of 1935, ready for flight. The Ju.87 was square, angular, awkward, and unwieldy looking — in fact, it was ugly; but it looked strong. Test pilots felt few qualms about putting it through its paces, gradually increasing the steepness of the dive and the G-levels as flight testing progressed. What were its limits? Nobody knew. Determined to find out, one pilot pushed the Ju.87 Past the limits of endurance, and although the wings held, the twin tail tore loose before pullout and the Stuka exploded against the ground. A standard rudder was fitted to the next prototypes, as well as an automatic pullout device connected to the elevators and actuated by the altimeter; blackout at five and six Gs, caused by gravity’s draining of the blood from the brain down to (it seemed) the pilot’s boots, was not to be taken lightly in an airplane at speed close to the ground.

While Junkers was busy pinching out the bugs in the Ju.87 and the others were working hard to catch up, Udet was being drawn into the Luftwaffe’s web. Milch, Wever, and the Luftwaffe’s personnel chief, Hans-Jürgen Stumpff, decided that Udet’s passion for flight was needed more in a rearming Germany than at air shows. He was offered the rank of colonel and a post as inspector of the fighter and dive-bomber forces. Udet hesitated; throwing away his personal freedom after seventeen years was something he must think about. Besides, he was all but oblivious to the precepts of National Socialism, and the Luftwaffe was being bent strongly along those lines. Udet was no political animal, and he admitted it. What would the Führer say? In point of fact, the matter had been cleared all the way up to Hitler, whose admiration for Udet’s record far outweighed his objection to placing politically unoriented officers in key positions. Udet was won over with a simple, clear and honest argument: if he wanted to see Germany equipped with the finest dive-bombers in the world, he could not do so as a civilian — but with the rank and the title offered, nobody could oversee the job better. On June 1, 1935, Ernst Udet was sworn in.

A Berlin tailor outfitted his now portly figure in a new Luftwaffe uniform, in which he appeared only infrequently at his office; paperwork was not for Udet. Most of his hours were spent in the cockpit of his private staff plane, a little Siebel Beetle, rushing from one aircraft factory to another, urging speed in the dive-bomber developmental program. Early in 1936, the Luftwaffe was notified by the four prime contractors that each was ready for the trials to be staged at Rechlin.

Arado missed the boat by submitting a biplane design, and the Ar.81 looked, and was, obsolescent from the beginning. Designers at Blohm und Voss had apparently not read the Luftwaffe specifications, for their Ha.137, a low-wing monoplane, was a single seater, and the Technical Office had distinctly called for a two-place aircraft. Heinkel took off on his already successful He.70 design and fielded the He.118, a slick-looking metal monoplane with retractable gear and powered by the DB 600 engine of 900 horsepower, giving it a top speed of more than 250 miles per hour. It looked to be a sure winner. Then the worked-over Ju.87, the fourth prototype, was unbuttoned for inspection. The Junkers Jumo 210 engine was fitted with a three-bladed, controllable-pitch prop designed by the American firm of Hamilton-Standard and built under license in Germany. The elongated greenhouse provided almost unrestricted visibility for the pilot and rear gunner. The oversize wheels were covered with huge metal spats. The ugly square tail was heavily braced. A heavy crutchlike strut was fastened flat underneath the belly; just before bomb release, the pilot actuated the crutch, which swung down and out so that the falling bomb would clear the arc of the propeller blades. Inboard of each wheel spat was a small round housing with fanlike blades. One of the inspecting officers asked Udet, “What’s that?” Udet said, “You’ll see!”

The flights of the Arado and the Blohm und Voss were quickly dispensed with. Then the Junkers test crew got aboard, were quickly airborne, and began diving. To the shattering roar of the Jumo engine and the three-bladed prop was added an unearthly scream, boring into the eardrums with almost unbearable intensity. The Ju.87 pulled out of its dive so close to the field the watchers instinctively ducked. Again and again Rechlin vibrated to the banshee wail of the assaulting Stuka. When the Ju.87 wheeled around to shoot its landing, only Udet and the Junkers engineers were smiling: what Udet had done on one of his many trips to Dessau was to suggest attaching sirens to the underside of the Ju.87 as an experiment in psychological warfare. He called them “trumpets of Jericho,” and they had had their effect.

It was a tough act for the sleek He.118 to follow. Unknown to Ernst Heinkel, the new test pilot named Heinrich had an aversion to power dives, although he was reliable in every other way. The He.118 took off, reached altitude, then tentatively dropped its nose toward the ground. Heinrich swept gracefully down in gentle swoops, his flight parabola resembling that of a glider with a throttled-down engine. Dive he would not, and the trials at Rechlin ended with the Ju.87 as the obvious choice. Heinkel unleashed his Swabian temper on his test pilot, but cooled down when Udet walked over and said, “Heinkel, I won’t make up my mind at the moment. I must dive your damned plane myself. I’ll come out to Marienehe.”

Udet showed up unexpectedly at Marienehe some weeks later on a day when Heinkel was busy giving the red-carpet treatment to an American visitor, Charles Augustus Lindbergh. Milch had rung through from Berlin, telling Heinkel “to show Lindbergh everything.” In halting English, Heinkel answered the Lone Eagle’s penetrating technical questions about all of the plant’s latest designs. Lindbergh had already toured the other German aviation factories, and it struck Heinkel that the American flyer “knew more about the Luftwaffe than anyone in the world.” While they were inspecting the third-floor workshops, Udet was aloft preparing to put the He.118 through its paces. Heinkel and Lindbergh missed witnessing what happened next.

Udet hauled the light bomber up to ten thousand feet in the clear blue early summer sky and unhesitatingly rammed the stick forward. The goo-horsepower engine wound up tight, and Udet’s ears were pierced with a high-frequency scream. Too high. Udet, forgetful of Heinkel’s warning, had neglected to check the pitch setting on the controllable prop. The He.118 bucked and vibrated, plunging straight for the deck out of control. Udet fought to get his bulky frame clear of the cramped cockpit. He got half out, battered by the slipstream, but one foot was wedged against the rudder pedal and the airframe. The prop wound up past its limits and flew off into space. The tail assembly tore loose and fluttered away through space. Udet wrenched his socked foot from the jammed oxford and flew backwards out of the cockpit. His chute cracked open while his body was moving downward at more than 200 miles per hour, and he crashed heavily against the earth in a cornfield. Unconscious, Udet did not hear the explosion as the He.118 tore itself to pieces not far away.

Udet, bruised and sore but otherwise uninjured, spent a few days in a Rostock hospital, managing to stay pleasantly tight on champagne smuggled in by friends. Heinkel’s hopes for the He.118 were buried in the wreckage of prototype, branded by Udet as no more than “a damned deathtrap.” The contract for the Stuka was let to Junkers, and shortly afterward, the first of nearly five thousand production models began rolling off the lines at Dessau.

On the day following Lindbergh’s visit to Marienehe, a formal reception was held in the U.S. Embassy in Berlin for the American pioneer aviator who, if he held second place at all in the affections of an air-minded public at home, ranked next to Eddie Rickenbacker. Almost every Luftwaffe pilot and command officer of note was present, and so were the leading designers. The American military attaché, Truman Smith, hoped Lindbergh would not make a pacifistic speech, for the state of the world deeply troubled Lindbergh, and what he had seen of the Luftwaffe impressed and disturbed him. Goering, as usual, turned up late for the reception, and breezily handed Lindbergh a small leather case holding a decoration. “From the Führer!” boomed Goering. Ernst Heinkel, standing nearby, observed that “Lindbergh looked mockingly at Goering, shook his head, and put the decoration in his pocket without bothering to look at it.”

Lindbergh made no embarrassing speeches, but before he left Berlin he did field a prophecy. He said to Heinkel, “It must never come to an air war between Germany, England, and America. Only the Russians would profit by it.”

The era of the biplane fighter was ending even while He.51s and improved Arado 68s were coming out of the factories in fulfillment of the quotas established under the Rhineland Program. In the summer of 1934, the Air Ministry invited tenders from the aviation industry for a new fighter, specifying that the speed required must be no less than 280 miles per hour. This would require adroit approaches to aerodynamics and the keenest scrutiny to every weight-saving trick known to the engineers; at the time the various designers bent over their boards to begin initial design studies, there was no engine available for the competition that exceeded 700 horsepower. Two of the manufacturers were handicapped from the start. Arado was told their entry could assume any configuration the designers could dream up — but they could not submit a plane with a retractable undercarriage, which was not yet considered foolproof. Focke-Wulf at Bremen was instructed to produce a high-wing monoplane based on its successful FW.56. Heinkel was told he could build what he liked, and so was the newcomer, Willy Messerschmitt, of the Bayerischeflugzeugwerke at Augsburg. BFW was given free rein because Messerschmitt was considered to stand little chance, and those in the know inside the Air Ministry considered it astounding that the tall, scowling, heavy-jawed, ruthless-looking builder should be a contender at all. Messerschmitt and Milch had disliked each other on sight, and during the years Milch was running Lufthansa, Messerschmitt succeeded in selling the airlines very few passenger craft, Messerschmitt’s entire stock in trade. In 1935, Messerschmitt was thirty-seven and had been involved with aviation design for twenty years. Messerschmitt and his mentor, Friedrich Harth, built and flew a glider in 1916 that stayed aloft for two and a half minutes, and after the war the team was a familiar sight on the Wasserküppe. Between 1925 and 1928, Messerschmitt built a number of light airliners, biplanes, and sport machines, but it was in the summer of 1928 that he made his move to enter the ranks of major German industrialists. As the son of a Frankfurt wine merchant, he had no resources of his own, but as the son-in-law of the wealthy Strohmeyer-Raulino family, he was able to secure backing to buy the shares of the BFW company owned by the Bavarian government. The company failed in 1931, but Messerschmitt saved it by selling personal possessions and lining up contracts with a Rumanian firm to build his designs under license.

Luftwaffe Early Years and the Rhineland III


Messerschmitt Bf 109 B in Spain.

Messerschmitt’s fortunes changed dramatically when he sold one of his trim-looking M.23 racing monoplanes to Hitler’s favorite deputy, Rudolph Hess. Money was soon made available to restructure BFW as a going firm, but Milch frustrated Messerschmitt’s hopes by consigning the Augsburg works to building Heinkel’s He.45 reconnaissance planes. And even in this Messerschmitt faced a ridiculous situation: Heinkel liked Messerschmitt as little as did Milch, and when BFW technicians appeared at Warnemünde to inspect the aircraft they were to manufacture, Heinkel refused them entrance to the factory. The absurd stalemate was sorted out, but Messerschmitt was not a man content with realizing other men’s designs; he found buyers in Rumania for a new airliner and set to work. It was at this juncture that the Luftwaffe’s Technical Office, in the form of Wilhelm Wimmer, offered Messerschmitt a clear shot at the German fighter competition.

The odds against him were considered high because, of the twenty-four different designs Messerschmitt had created, only one had been militarily oriented, and that one a lusterless stab at a biplane bomber back in 1928. But both Wimmer and Hess, an avid amateur pilot, knew that Messerschmitt had a new thoroughbred in stable, the finest plane of its kind in Europe, and little imagination was required to visualize its quick evolution into the kind of fighter the Luftwaffe needed. The design in question, a four-place, low-wing, all-metal craft — the first Messerschmitt had ever built — known as the Bf.108, had been created to satisfy the need for a light, high-speed touring plane, and, more specifically, to equip German teams competing in the annual European Challenge de Tourism Internationale. Although power was limited to 220 horsepower, the 108’s exceptionally clean lines and light weight provided a speed of just under 200 miles per hour and a range of just over 600 miles. Independently operating Handley-Page slats mounted on the outer portion of the wing leading edges provided adventuresome pilots with unprecedented control at low speeds and at unusual flight attitudes. With, for instance, the nose up and the wings vertically banked, the slats popped outward (at from 63 to 68 miles per hour) to impart lift, retarding stall until the last moment — and giving the pilot advance warning before the craft stalled absolutely. The 108 had a roll rate of sixty-four degrees per second and was vigorously acrobatic.

Using the tourer as a design base, Messerschmitt and his designers created a slimmer, more angular version with a narrow cockpit for one man, a shorter wing and fuselage, and room in the nose for guns. Engineers mounted the British Kestrel V engine, the Bf.109 was test flown in September 1935, and three weeks later, Messerschmitt pronounced it ready for competition.

Designer Kurt Tank’s Focke-Wulf 159 high-wing monoplane was the most beautiful plane entered in the final trials at Travemünde. It was about twenty years ahead of its time in light-plane design, but it was not a fighter. Eliminated. The handsome, gull-winged Arado 80 looked promising, but the mandatory fixed gear produced excess drag with a consequent loss in required speed. Eliminated. This left the Bf.109 and Heinkel’s entry, the He.112, another gull-wing, low-wing monoplane with retractable gear and the only open cockpit among the four entrants — a concession to those World War I pilots in the Luftwaffe high command who did not believe a fighter pilot could see unless his head was exposed to the blast of propwash. Heinkel’s problem with the 112 stemmed from his design chief, Heinrich Hertel, an inveterate tinkerer cursed with the typical German industrial disease of overengineering. Is the airframe strong enough here? Better add another brace and some more rivets. This former does not look right. Tear it out, strengthen it, replace it. The oleo struts for the gear are too long. Take them out, shorten by seven centimeters, and put them back. But this means the wheel wells in the wings will have to be moved inboard. We’d better …

The result was a heavy fighter made up of 2,885 individual parts, and no fewer than 26,864 rivets. In his obsession for last-minute alterations, Hertel had no time left over to install mechanically operated hydraulic retraction gear, and the Luftwaffe engineer who carried out the test wore a blister on his hand cranking the gear up manually. Heinkel watched as the engineer “climbed out of the machine covered with sweat and cursing roundly.”

The test pilot who flew the 109 reported that the plane was fast and responsive in the air, but ill-mannered on the ground. To lessen the strain on the wings and to avoid clutter between the ribs, Messerschmitt had the gear struts attached to the fuselage instead, which resulted in splaying out the wheels and reducing the track. This made ground handling tricky, and when the 109 was on takeoff roll, it exhibited a maddening tendency to swerve abruptly to the left before becoming airborne. The pilot said you had to keep pressure on right rudder at the moment the stick came back to raise the tail, otherwise ground looping was inevitable. The 112 was tighter in the turns, but at 292 miles per hour, the Messerschmitt was faster. The competition ended in a Mexican standoff, and Udet threw up his hands and ordered ten each from Heinkel and Messerschmitt for the final acceptance tests.

Heinkel’s subsequent prototypes were cleaned up aero-dynamically, equipped with automatic retraction gear, fitted with an enclosed canopy, and emerged with elliptical wings four feet shorter than the original. Powered with a different engine, the Jumo 210-D rated at 690 horsepower, the He.112V4 weighed in at 4,894 pounds loaded, but speed shot up to 317 miles per hour. Messerschmitt’s fourth prototype boasted stronger landing gear, slightly improved ground manners, and a Jumo engine that did nothing for its maximum speed. Udet flew the He.112 himself, and admitted that he liked the fighter’s superior rate of climb and sturdier gear, but the final approval was going to the competition. He explained why: the Bf.109 was already earmarked to receive the new DB 600 engine that would push it to past 340 miles per hour, its straight-line wings were easier and cheaper to manufacture, and, besides, Messerschmitt’s Augsburg plant was ready to roll in series production, while Heinkel was burdened with bomber contracts and handicapped by Heinrich Hertel’s manic production techniques. Puffing on a cigar, Udet suggested to Heinkel, “Palm your crate off on the Turks or the Japs or the Rumanians. They’ll lap it up.”

Heinkel was bitterly disappointed, and especially so because he lost the order to Messerschmitt, whom he considered an upstart as far as military aircraft were concerned. Heinkel also admitted that in “turning down the He.112, Udet had hit my deepest striving — to build the fastest possible airplane.” Heinkel was far from ready to admit defeat in the fighter field, and would resurface dramatically two years later.

The Luftwaffe was called on to play a major role in a Hitlerian gamble for high stakes when it was barely a year old, still raw with unassimilated growth, and with its supporting industries only beginning to tool up for modern weapons. On February 12, 1936, Adolf Hitler summoned to the chancellery General Werner Thomas Ludwig von Fritsch, commander in chief of the army, and told him he had decided to reoccupy the demilitarized Rhineland. General von Fritsch hesitated, saying that he agreed in principle with the Führer that the Rhineland had the greatest strategic significance in case of war with the West, but pointed out that the Wehrmacht was still in the throes of organization and was far too weak to deal with an estimated 110 divisions the French could mobilize. Hitler said he wanted the Rhineland, but he did not yet want war; the operation was to be a major bluff, probing the willingness of the Locarno Treaty signatories to back up their convictions by force of arms. General Alfred Jodi described the atmosphere prevailing inside the General Staff as “like that of the roulette table when a player stakes his fortunes on a single number.”

The operation was mounted with frantic haste. The directive for Operation Winterübung, Winter Exercise, was drawn by General von Blomberg only sixteen days after the Führer’s decision, and was not released until March 5, just forty-eight hours before the army was ordered to cross the Rhine. The Luftwaffe was alerted, and General Wever began shuffling his scattered units around like pawns on a chessboard. Two understrength fighter wings, JG 132 and JG 134, were pulled from their bases and sent south. A bomber wing, KG 4, was ordered to stand by, its unwieldy Ju.52s fuelled to the limit for a possible mission to Paris. The few fully operational tactical training schools were stripped of instructors and planes, hastily formed into impromptu squadrons, and moved to bases all up and down the Rhine. On the cold, wet dawn of March 7, three small battalions of German infantry, about three thousand men in all, armed with nothing more than rifles, carbines, and machine guns, crossed the Rhine and occupied Aachen, Saarbrucken and Tier. The helmeted men, their capes dripping with rain, were greeted with cheers by Germans who had not seen friendly troops in more than a decade. Overhead buzzed the Heinkel and Arado fighters of the Richthofen and Horst Wessel squadrons. The pilots kept glancing toward France, expecting to see massed formations of the Armée de l’Air. The German airmen were understandably apprehensive: not one fighter could give combat; those who had ammunition lacked guns, and those who had guns lacked the synchronization gear necessary for firing through the prop. If French planes appeared, they would have to be rammed.

Tension in the Reichs chancellery, in Army High Command, and inside the Air Ministry had never been so high. Hitler paced the carpet, and General von Blomberg’s aides noted that the Rubber Lion had developed a facial twitch. Luftwaffe staff officers hovered over the telephones, half expecting the next call or the next would bring word of crushing French reaction, wiping out the Rhine bridgeheads and massacring the carefully hoarded — and quite harmless — fighter aircraft. French Intelligence, usually among the world’s best, grossly miscalculated German armed strength inside the Rhineland at 265,000 troops. The British more realistically believed Hitler had sent in 35,000 men, nearly four divisions, and they erroneously accepted Hitler’s boast made a year earlier that the Luftwaffe had achieved air parity with the RAF. Reaction was not what Hitler and the others feared; the French prepared for defense by manning fully the subterranean Maginot Line and mobilizing thirteen divisions, and the British pleaded for calm. And outside of anguished cries in the Chamber of Deputies, calm indeed prevailed. Hitler had gotten away with it. Neither the British nor the French public believed that the Rhineland, characterized by Lord Lothian as “after all, Germany’s back garden,” or the principle that lay behind its occupation, was worth fighting over. Hitler later admitted to Blomberg that he “hoped he would not have to go through another such ordeal for at least ten years.”

The Luftwaffe’s rapid deployment revealed the luster and fine-toothed gearing imparted to the Air General Staff by Walther Wever during his thirty months in office. His gift of motivating men to reach for the best within themselves — to feel shame at any lesser effort — created an electric air of striving for total efficiency; nobody wanted to let Wever down. When the general planned war games in conjunction with the army, his staff performed prodigies of planning in order to make good Wever’s promises. If Colonel Heinz Guderian expected a simulated bombing attack in front of his 2nd Panzer Division at 0845 hours, he could be sure of the arrival of the JU.52S at the required time. If a corps artillery commander needed air spotters to call strikes for his new Krupp guns, he could be sure the He.45s would be buzzing over the range at the time the shoot was scheduled to begin. Wever created not only an efficient staff but, what is rarer, a harmonious one. And since Wever had originally distinguished himself in staff operations of the army, both in combat and during the difficult days of the hundred-thousand-man peacetime Reichswehr, no one in the Wehrmacht felt that he was dealing with an air specialist blind to the requirements of other branches. In recalling Wever’s crusade for a strategic strike force, one of his operations deputies, General Paul Deichmann, noted Wever’s state of mind during the first large-scale war game carried out by the Luftwaffe late in 1934.

“During the course of the war game the bomber units were employed deep in the heart of enemy territory. At that time, most of these units were equipped with provisionally armed JU.52s, which were completely inferior to the French fighters [in use at the time]. Officers in charge of the maneuver suggested to General Wever that he assume a loss of 80 per cent of the bomber force, but Wever refused brusquely with the words, That would deprive me of my confidence in strategic air operations!’ Although the maneuver leaders pointed out that the percentage of losses would presumably be that high only until the Luftwaffe had more modern bombers at its disposal, Wever insisted upon a lower percentage.”

Hitler’s Rhineland adventure directed Wever’s thoughts to the west and to the north. Although Wever remained convinced that Russia was Germany’s greatest potential enemy, he could not discount the possibility of England’s springing to the aid of France, the traditional enemy. It was all very well for Hitler to proclaim his desire for friendship with the British, but it is the function of the General Staff to base its plans for the future upon pragmatic considerations and not upon political desires, no matter how fervent. There was no question of the ability of the German naval building program, then accelerating, to provide the Reich with parity at sea with the Royal Navy. Wever believed that strategic bombers could play a decisive role not only in laying waste Britain’s industries, concentrated as they were on an island only five hundred miles in length, but in maritime operations designed to deny the British economy raw materials, and the people, food. Bombers with a radius of action of even twelve hundred miles could range from Germany far out over the North Atlantic as far as Iceland; the central Atlantic approaches to the ports of France could be covered and so, too, could the entire Mediterranean, almost as far as Suez. With the medium bombers and the Stukas and the chosen German fighter now coming off the production lines, Wever pressed for completion of strategic bomber planning.

The Ju.89 prototype rolled out for flight tests. The wings spanned an inch under 115 feet, and the deep-bellied fuselage could hold 2,600 pounds of bombs. The great drawback of the Ju.89 was of power; the only engines available were 620- horsepower Jumos, enough only for a maximum range of 1,240 miles and a top speed of 192 miles per hour. The Do.19, harnessed to the same power plants, was 15 miles per hour slower, but had a range of 1,800 miles — still not enough for the demands Wever intended to impose later on. Wever had not expected greater performance figures for either bomber, and believing that in the next air war God would be on the side of the greatest horsepower, ordered further testing to be carried out, pending availability of newer, more powerful engines. He was not to live long enough to see his dream realized.

Although Wever’s rank entitled him to a courier plane with stand-by crew, he insisted on piloting his own flights to various corners of Germany. He had less than two hundred hours in his logbook, but chose the fastest plane of its type for his personal aircraft, the single-engine, three-ton He.70 Blitz. On June 3, 1936, Wever and his flight engineer climbed into the Blitz and flew from Berlin to Dresden, where Wever was scheduled to give a talk to the cadets at the new Air War Academy. Wever finished his business at the Luftkriegsakademie, then ordered his driver to hurry him back to the airfield; he was due back in Berlin to attend the funeral of General Karl von Litzman, hero of the war on the Eastern Front in 1914, and Wever was never known to be late. Wever slipped his flight suit on over his dress uniform and looked around for his flight engineer. Where had he gone to? Wever guessed he had gone into Dresden on some errand. He paced the tarmac, shooting glances at his watch, impatient to be off. His mind on the 105-mile flight back to Berlin, Wever failed to make the customary walk-around preflight check of the He.70, an airplane he had only recently acquired and with whose eccentricities he was not thoroughly familiar.

Finally the flight engineer hurried across the runway, apologized for the delay, and without further ado the two men got back into the airplane, strapped in, and started the engine. Observers on the ground watched the Heinkel move down the concrete strip, gathering speed. The tail lifted, then the wheels left the runway and Wever got the nose up in takeoff attitude. One wing dipped slightly, and instead of being picked up with a quick movement of the ailerons, the wing dropped lower still, lost its grip on the air, and the heavy He.70 plunged into the ground with the engine running full bore at takeoff rpm. The Blitz, heavy with fuel, exploded on impact, killing Wever and his tardy flight engineer instantly. Enough of the wreckage was left to determine the cause of the crash: failure to disengage the aileron lock prior to takeoff, a matter of a simple hand movement.

According to the Luftwaffe intelligence chief, Major Josef “Beppo” Schmid, who was in the Air Ministry in Berlin when the news was telephoned through, Goering “broke down and wept like a child.”

And well he might have: with Wever were buried the Luftwaffe’s chances of winning a war spread beyond the narrow frontiers of continental Europe.

The Agony of Breslau





Breslau WW II Wrocław (Breslau) 1945. City of ruins.


NS-Gauleiter Karl Hanke (1903-1945). During the waning months of World War II, as the Soviet Red Army advanced into Silesia and encircled Breslau (Festung Breslau), Hanke was named by Hitler to be the city’s “Battle Commander” (Kampfkommandant). Hanke oversaw, with fanaticism, the futile and militarily useless defense of the city during the Battle of Breslau. Goebbels, dictating for his diary, repeatedly expressed his admiration of Hanke during the spring of 1945. During the 82-day siege, Soviet forces inflicted approximately 30,000 civilian and military casualties and took more than 40,000 prisoners, while suffering 60,000 total casualties. On 6 May, the day before Germany’s surrender, General Hermann Niehoff surrendered the besieged Breslau (the Soviet army already having reached Berlin). Hanke had flown out the previous day in a small Fieseler Storch plane kept in reserve for him. Breslau was the last major city in Germany to surrender. Due to the Soviet forces aerial and artillery bombardment of the city, along with the self-destruction by the SS and Nazi Party, “80 to 90 percent” of Breslau had been destroyed.

On 20 January 1945, the Gauleiter of Lower Silesia, Karl Hanke, finally gave the order to evacuate his capital, Breslau, completing its transformation into a ‘fortress’. Ten-year-old Jürgen Illmer and his mother were lucky enough to find places on a train out of Breslau and reach the relative safety of Saxony. At Leipzig, they were helped through the chaotic crush on the platforms by groups of Hitler Youths and Red Cross nurses. Glancing across the tracks as he got off his train to take shelter from an air raid, Jürgen saw an open goods train filled with motionless, snow-covered figures in striped clothing. He wondered if they had frozen to death. As the air raid siren sounded and the Germans went down to the shelter under the great station hall, the conversation turned to the prisoners they had all seen. When someone suggested that they might be Jews, a woman replied coldly, ‘They weren’t Jews. They have all been shot in Poland already.’ She was wrong. One of the prisoners on the train may have been Thomas Gève. He too was left with memories of Leipzig; how the prisoners called out, begging for water from the German Red Cross nurses whose hospital train stood at the next platform. The nurses ignored them.

On 21 January Breslau’s aged prelate, Cardinal Bertram, departed for Jauernig in Moravian Silesia, while the most valuable items in the city’s churches were shipped out to Kamenz in Saxony. The wounded recovering in the city’s military hospitals were moved too, alongside the tax office, municipal administration, the radio station and the post, telegraph and rail authorities. Over 150,000 civilians remained. The next day Gauleiter Hanke called ‘on the men of Breslau to join the defence front of our Fortress Breslau’, vowing that ‘the Fortress will be defended to the end’. Its defenders consisted of 45,000 troops, ranging from raw recruits to battle-hardened paratroopers and Waffen SS veterans. To the west of the city, the Wehrmacht fought bitterly to drive the Soviets back across the Oder at Steinau for another two weeks. On 9–11 February, Kanth, Liegnitz and Haynau fell and on 15 February the Red Army captured the Sudeten mountain passes, cutting Breslau off from the west. The next day, the city came under siege, with the attacking Soviets swiftly occupying the outer suburbs before grinding to a halt as the defenders made them fight for every building and street crossing. From 15 February, the Luftwaffe began an airlift which lasted 76 days and some 2,000 flights, bringing in 1,670 tonnes of supplies – mainly ammunition – and evacuating 6,600 wounded.

Alfred Bauditz was one of the civilians who stayed in Breslau, equipped with a horse and cart and tasked with clearing buildings that interfered with the line of fire. In late January he used the cart to bring his wife, 14-year-old daughter Leonie and 9-year-old son Winfried out of the city to Malkwitz, where two of his brothers owned farms. On 9 February, Malkwitz was occupied and all the inhabitants were questioned one by one by a Soviet officer who spoke fluent German and took down their personal details. Despite the Germans’ fears of rape and murder, the Red Army men behaved correctly. Leonie’s ordeal began when the next armoured unit arrived. Most of the thirty Soviet soldiers were friendly, but two terrorised the women. Despite hiding in a barn at night and having her hair cut short and going about dressed as a boy by day, Leonie was discovered and raped multiple times. For a while a well-spoken Soviet lieutenant protected her and her mother, but when his unit left, the women and girls were drafted into a work brigade and sent out to thresh grain and shell peas on different farms – a seemingly inescapable routine of fieldwork, laundry, cooking duties and forced sex.

On 5 March General Hermann Niehoff was sent to the capital of Lower Silesia, Breslau, to renew the fighting spirit of the defenders. Niehoff deployed thousands of forced workers to turn the principal Kaiserstrasse into an alternative airstrip so that the Luftwaffe could continue to supply the inner city once the suburbs fell. They razed the churches and grand university buildings under continual strafing attacks by the Red Air Force, and the Luftwaffe continued its perilous daily flights into Breslau. The German armoured divisions in the city used Goliaths, the miniature remote-controlled tanks they had deployed to reconquer Warsaw, but this time to destroy buildings occupied by the advancing Soviets. While the less reliable and experienced German troops were held in reserve to plug gaps in the line, the elite units of paratroopers and Waffen SS continued to mount counter-attacks, halting the Red Army’s advance in the southern suburbs: a single apartment block on the corner of the Höfchenplatz and Opitzstrasse was fought over for eight days.

In Breslau itself, a delegation of Protestant and Catholic clergy called on General Niehoff on 4 May, asking him: ‘Is continuing the defence of Breslau something which you could justify to God?’ Niehoff took heed and quietly set about negotiating a ceasefire, despite the pressure from Dönitz to hold out – transmitted by both the new Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht, Field Marshal Schörner, and Gauleiter Hanke, the new head of the SS. In his proclamation to his troops on 5 May, Niehoff pointed out that ‘Hitler is dead, Berlin has fallen. The Allies of East and West have shaken hands in the heart of Germany. Thus the conditions for a continuation of the struggle for Breslau no longer exist. Every further sacrifice is a crime.’ With a gesture to Simonides’ epitaph to the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, he concluded, ‘We have done our duty, as the law demanded.’ The next day, the Germans handed over their positions.

After taking the city of Breslau, Soviet soldiers deliberately set the buildings in the ancient town centre alight, burning to the ground the priceless book collection of the university library as well as the city museum and several churches. Both the robbery and the destruction would continue for many months, growing more sophisticated with time, eventually taking the official form of “reparations.”

Some were touched personally. Robert Bialek, one of the few active, underground communists in the then-German city of Breslau, arrived home after his first, celebratory encounter with the Soviet commandants who had occupied the city — as a communist, he wanted to offer them his help — to discover that his wife had been raped. This, for him, was the beginning of the end: “The brutish instincts of two common Russian soldiers had brought the world crashing down about my head, as no Nazi tortures nor the subtlest persuasion had ever done.” He wished, he wrote, “that I had been buried, like so many of my friends, under the ruins of the town.”