The German Luftwaffe was one of the strongest, doctrinally advanced, and battle-experienced air forces in the world when World War II started in Europe in September 1939. Officially unveiled in 1935, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, its purpose was to support Adolf Hitler's Blitzkrieg across Europe. The aircraft that were to serve in the Luftwaffe were of a new age and far superior to that of most other nations in the 1930s. Types like the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka and Messerschmitt Bf 109 came to symbolize German aerial might.
The Luftwaffe became an essential component in the "Blitzkrieg" battle plan. Operating as a tactical close support air force, it helped the German armies to conquer the bulk of the European continent in a series of short and decisive campaigns in the first nine months of the war, experiencing its first defeat during the Battle of Britain in 1940 as it could not adapt into a strategic role, lacking heavy bombers with which to conduct a strategic bombing campaign against the British Isles.
Despite this setback the Luftwaffe remained formidable and in June 1941 embarked on Adolf Hitler's quest for an empire in eastern Europe by invading the USSR, with much initial success. However, the Luftwaffe's striking victories in the Soviet Union were brought to a halt in the Russian winter of 1942-1943. From then on, it was forced onto the strategic defensive contesting the ever increasing numbers of Soviet aircraft, whilst defending the German homeland and German occupied Europe from the growing Allied air forces pounding all aspects of German industry.
Having failed to achieve victory in the Soviet Union in 1941 or 1942, the Luftwaffe was drawn into a war of attrition which extended to North Africa and the Channel Front. The entry of the United States into the war and the resurgence of the Royal Air Force's (RAF) offensive power created the Home Front, known as Defense of the Reich operations. The Luftwaffe's strength was slowly eroded and by mid 1944 had virtually disappeared from the skies of Western Europe leaving the German Army to fight without air support. It continued to fight into the last days of the war with revolutionary new aircraft, such as the Messerschmitt Me 262, Messerschmitt Me 163 and the Heinkel He 162, even though the war was already hopelessly lost.
Rise of the Luftwaffe
Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty Germany was forbidden to own military aircraft. The design and manufacture of civil aircraft was permitted and important figures such as Hugo Junkers, Ernst Heinkel and Willy Messerschmitt continued to work in the industry.
After Adolf Hitler came to power he made it clear that he was unwilling to keep to the terms of the peace treaties and in 1935 Hermann Goering announced the establishment of the Luftwaffe in March, 1935. Over the next few years Goering, the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, ordered the production of a large number of fighter planes such as the Messerschmitt Bf109, the Messerschmitt 110, Junkers Stuka, Heinkel He111 and the Dornier D017 bomber.
By 1938 Germany was producing 1,100 aeroplanes a year. During the invasion of Poland the Luftwaffe used 1,750 bombers and 1,200 fighters.
Confidence in the Luftwaffe was undermined during the Battle of Britain. The Heinkel He111 and the Dornier D017 were not sufficiently armed to resist attacks by British fighter planes. The Junkers Stuka, which had been used successfully in the invasion of Poland and France, turned out to be too slow when faced with the Spitfire and Hurricane.
Luftwaffe at War
The Luftwaffe had considerable success during Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Like in earlier attacks on Poland, Denmark and Holland, it did well against poorly defended targets. German pilots easily dealt with the Soviet airforce and aces such as Erich Hartmann was credited with 352 victories.
On the death of Oberst Moelders on 22nd November 1941, Adolf Galland succeeded him as General of the Fighter Arm. The following year Galland became Germany's youngest general. He also commanded the German fighters that opposed the Allied landings in Sicily in July 1943.
In 1943 Adolf Galland began to argue that the Luftwaffe needed to change to a more defensive strategy. Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering disagreed and after a series of arguments Galland was sacked as General of the Fighter Arm in December 1944. Galland returned to front-line duty and and after shooting down two more Allied aircraft on 26th April 1945 he brought his score to 103.
Germany continued to increase production of aircraft during the Second World War. There were 10,800 built in 1940; 11,800 in 1941, 15,600 in 1942, 25,500 in 1943 and 39,800 in 1944.
In 1944 Germany began producing jet aeroplanes. This included the Messerschmitt Me 262, the Arado Ar 234 and the Heinkel He 162. Although outstanding aircraft they appeared too late to have any impact on the outcome of the war.
Battles and Missions
- Battle of Britain
- Trench Warfare
- Eastern Front
- Western Front
Fall of the Luftwaffe
The Luftwaffe had started the Second World War with approximately 3,000 combat aircraft of all types. In mid 1944, it had approximately the same number of fighter aircraft defending its European conquests. This more than anything else showed just how everything had stagnated and eventually rotted away for the Germans. In contrast, the US Army Air Force numbered approximately 100,000 aircraft of all types and this did not count the British RAF and Russian VVS.
This airborne steamroller swept away all Luftwaffe opposition and crushed Germany’s armies and cities one after the other. In many instances, Luftwaffe pilots in the Eastern Front would be facing unfavorable odds of 1 against 50. This pathetic situation was further revealed in June 1944 when only a pair of German fighters challenged the aerial armada of the Allies that supported the D-Day landings. By 1945, even after the last gasp Bodenplatte aerial operation in support of the German Ardennes counter-offensive nothing stood in the way of the Allied onslaught. Heroic individual German pilots and a handful of elite jet squadrons could not undo the gross negligence and incompetence of Hitller, Goering and their countless sycophants.