Germany’s airmen battled the Allies for control of the skies.
Nazi Germany’s stunning, panzer tipped blitzkrieg campaigns that overran Poland in September 1939 and France in May-June 1940 owed much to the tactical air support and fighter cover provided by the Luftwaffe, the World War II German military’s air arm. Ju 87 “Stuka” dive-bombers acted as “flying artillery” for the fast-moving ground mechanized units, while swarms of Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters swept Allied aircraft from the skies. After France fell and British forces were driven from the Continent, the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940 reigned as the world’s strongest, most battle-experienced air force. Yet four and a half years later, it was a beaten remnant, battered into exhaustion by the Allies’ overwhelming air armadas.
Built around a core of experienced pilots and ground crewmen, many of whom were Condor Legion veterans of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War aerial combat, the Luftwaffe began World War II with 3,100 aircraft of all types (fighters, bombers, reconnaissance, transport). The Luftwaffe’s early dominance, however, began to wane with the British Royal Air Force’s victory in the July-October 1940 Battle of Britain.
During 1941, Luftwaffe personnel and aircraft resources were stretched to the breaking point with simultaneous campaigns in North Africa and Russia. The vast distances, primitive conditions and incredible weather extremes along the over 1,000-mile-long East Front proved particularly daunting – as did the resurgent Soviet Red Air Force with its steadily increasing numbers of aircraft and greatly improving pilot skill.
The Air Battle of Germany, the 1943-45 U.S.-British strategic bombing campaign, proved a two-pronged assault on the Luftwaffe – thousands of Luftwaffe fighter planes were lost attacking Allied bombers in the skies over Germany, while German aircraft factories were heavily damaged or destroyed on the ground. Indeed, the Luftwaffe lost the air war in the aircraft factories. From 1939-45, Germany manufactured 118,000 planes; in that same period, its major Allied opponents (United States, USSR and Britain) produced 615,000. America alone built 325,000 planes, nearly three times as many as Germany.
Moreover, the Allied bomber offensive diverted over a million Luftwaffe personnel to crew anti-aircraft defense batteries. Other unnecessary drains on Luftwaffe air war resources were the mostly ineffective ground combat units and, arguably, fallschirmjäger (paratrooper and glider troops) units created by Luftwaffe commander Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. Despite early war successes (notably the May 1940 capture of Fort EbenEmael) and the solid combat record forged by the Hermann Göring Paratroop-Panzer Division, fallschirmjäger units were not used as paratroopers after the 1941 invasion of Crete and they added nothing to the Luftwaffe’s primary mission of winning the air war.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Armchair General.