It was late morning on a summer Friday in Berlin—July 31, 1936—and the train stations were crowded with holiday goers getting an early start on their weekends. At the small Lehrter Station, a caravan of buses abruptly pulled up. Ninety young men, all wearing civilian suits and carrying identical cheap suit cases, filed out and boarded a special train bearing the banner Reisegesellschaft Union, “The Union Travel Society.”
Arriving in Hamburg later that day, the group waited until nightfall, then made its way to the harbor and quietly boarded the steamship Usaramo. At midnight the ship weighed anchor and slipped out to sea, destination Cádiz, Spain.
Along with its complement of ersatz travel enthusiasts, Usaramo carried 773 crates of bombs and the disassembled components of six He 51 fighters and ten Ju 52 transport airplanes. Within days the Luftwaffe had entered the fighting in the Spanish civil war, coming to the aid of Francisco Franco’s Fascist rebellion and forging the blitzkrieg tactics that would in a few short years be visited upon Poland and France at the start of World War II.
The Luftwaffe had launched its Spanish operation in a feat of staff work little short of miraculous. On July 25 Hitler informed air force chief Hermann Göring that he had decided to intervene secretly in Spain; within two days “Special Staff W” had sprung into existence, issuing a blizzard of orders to get pilots, aircraft, and supplies moving. A few days later Usaramo was on its way, and another ten Ju 52s, hustled directly from the Junkers factory, were ferrying the first of 20,000 Moroccan troops across the straits of Gibraltar to aid Franco in the first military airlift in history.
The W in Special Staff W stood for Wilberg, and to those who knew Lt. Gen. Helmut Wilberg, his extraordinary performance on this occasion was nothing short of typical. Wilberg was the Luftwaffe’s master planner, organizer, strategist, and thinker. Just the year before, he had completed a comprehensive manual that embodied the most far-reaching and flexi ble vision of warfare of any air force in the world at the time.
Wilberg’s 1935 study, Conduct of the Aerial War, took a breathtakingly broad view of air power. Rejecting pat answers and doctrinaire pronouncements about the superiority of offense or defense, bomber or fighter, strategic or tactical bombing, Wilberg emphasized that for tune would always favor the side that commanded the details. Superior technol ogy, battle-tested tactics, superb logistics, and surprise were the keys to victory.
In other nations, senior air officers such as Italy’s Giulio Douhet and America’s Billy Mitchell chased futuristic dreams of invincible bombers rendering land armies obsolete as they soared over the battlefield to strike directly at the enemy’s “nerve centers.” Wilberg meticulously analyzed the real lessons of real wars.
One of die Alten Adler, the “old eagles,” Wilberg had learned to fly in 1910 and was a commander during the great air battles over Flanders in 1917. Barely a year after the armistice, he had become the senior air officer on the German army’s “shadow” general staff (kept alive within the innocuously named Troops’ Office). In that role he dramatically stood all the old stereo types about Prussian rigidity on their head. Everything was open for discussion, and the committees he directed were told to ask even the most embarrassing questions: What problems arose during the war that Germany’s military leaders had failed to anticipate? Which of their solutions were wrong? What was left unsolved?
The Luftwaffe’s experiments in Spain affirmed Wilberg’s vision in spades. The German air force milked its experiences for every practical lesson, developing rapid techniques for spotting and obliterating enemy antiaircraft positions; drop ping the tight V formation of three fighters used in World War I in favor of the much more flexible and lethal pair formation (still used today by the world’s air forces); devising recognition signals to prevent friendly-fire accidents; optimizing munitions loads for different targets.
Had Wilberg’s mother not been Jewish, he would almost surely have been named the Luftwaffe’s chief of staff. As it was, his ancestry should have deprived him even of German citizenship under the Nazi racial laws. But he was too valuable an officer to lose; Göring, who had once boasted,“Who is or is not a Jew is up to me to decide,” obtained a certificate personally signed by Hitler “Aryanizing” Wilberg.
And had Wilberg not been killed in November 1941 when his Me 108 crashed, he might be far better known today as a pioneering visionary of air power, instead of a mere footnote to the bizarre contradictions of the Third Reich.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.