World War II European Air Campaign--The Luftwaffe (1935-45)

Figure 1.--This German boy wears a Luftwaffe uniform. The lack of insignias suggests that he is a new recruit. He looks very youngb to be in the Luftwaffe, suggesting the photograph was taken late in the War.

The Germans during World War I created a highly effective air arm (1914-18). The airplane was first used in any significant way in World War I. It played a useful, but marginal role. The Allies were able to outproduce the Germans, but both side made important technological strides. The German air ace the Red Baron (von Rictoff) was the most famous pilot of the War. When he was killed, Herman Göring took over command of the the Flying Circus. The German air forces were dissolved after the War, as required by the Treaty of Versailles. Even so the German military continued to develop technology through secret arrangements with foreign countries. German companies built planes in other countries, especially the Netherlands. Glider clubs throughout Germany provided training for future pilots. The operations were expanded when the NAZIs seized control (1933). Soviets and Japanese. Adolt Hiter ordered Göring to formally establish the Luftwaffe (February 26, 1935). The Versailles Treatu was still in force. Great priority was given to building advanced all-metal planes. By the time the Allies attempted to face up to Hitler at Munich (October 1938), Germany had the largest, most modern air force in the world. It was a major reason why the Allies decided to appease Hitler. When World War II finally broke out in Poland (September 1939), the Luftwaffe played a major in the early German victories. , on the eve of the outbreak of World War II, the Luftwaffe had become the most advanced, powerful air force in the world. As such it played a major role in Germany's early successes in the war, and formed a key part of the Blitzkrieg concept, much thanks to the use of the innovative Junkers Ju 87 dive bomber (Sturzkampfflugzeug - "Stuka"). A contingent from the Luftwaffe (The Legion Condor) was sent to support Franco's forces in the Spanish Civil War with planes (notably the Ju 87) and personnel which not provided critical support for Franco, but provided important battle experience for the Luftwaffe that the French Air Force and British Royal Air Force did not have. The Luftwaffe would prove an essential component to Blitkrieg. German artillery, in many cases move by horses, could not keep up with the Panzers. The Luftwaffe could. By the end of the War, the Luftwaffe was decimated. The fundamental weakness was the inability of German industry to create a force large enough to support the many campaigns to which Hitler committed German armed forces.

World War I (1914-18)

The Germans during World War I created a highly effective air arm (1914-18). The airplane was first used in any significant way as ailitary weapon in World War I. It played a useful, but marginal role. Its primary funxtion was reconisance, but close air support and strategic bombing was developing. The Germans were able to secure air superiority for some time--The Focker Curse. The British flew reconisance flights any way so important were the photgraphs. The death toll was enormous. In the end, however, the Germans could not match theAllies' industrial capacity. The Allies were able to out produce the Germans, but both side made important technological strides. The German air ace the Red Baron (Manfred von Richthofen) was the most famous pilot of the War. When he was killed, Herman Göring took over command of the the Flying Circus.

Treaty of Versailles (June 1919)

The German air forces were dissolved after the War, as required by the Treaty of Versailles. The Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I was signed on June 28, 1919, about 7 months after the Armistace stopping the fighting on November 11, 1918. It had a huge impact on the international status of Germany, impacting the country territorially, militarily, and econimically. Germany was made a pariah country and largely blamed for the start of the War. Of major significance, the Germany being punished was the Germany of the Weimar Republic and not Imperial Germany as the Kaiser had abdigated. As a result, the domestic German oposition to the changes, including the territorial changes, came to be directed at the Weimar Republic and not the Imperial Government and German military that had conducted the War. The NAZIs and other right-wing groups were to saddle demoncratic politicans with the "shame of Versailles". Germany under the terms of the Treaty suffered many consequences. The navy and merchant marine was lost. The battleships had to be turned over the the Allies. The battleships ships in fact steamped into the British naval base at Scappa Flow. The German captains, however, rather than turning them over to the British, scuttled them. Germany lost her African and Pacific colonies. Along with territorial losses in Europe were important natural resources. The German Army was reduced to virtual impotence. And the country was sattled with immense retributions. A critical elemement in the treaty was the principle of national self determination promoted by President Wilson. This resulted in the creatiion of a large number of small, weak states in Eastern Europe. It must be said that the the Versailles Treaty was not as onerous as the Treaty of Breast-Litovsk (1918) imposed on the Russians. Still it was undenuably harsh. Many historians see it at the first step toward World War II.

Evasions of the Treaty

The Versailles Treaty prohibited Germany from both army and naval military aviation. There was no ban, however, on civil aviation. The German Government promoted the growth of a civil aviation industry through a vaiety of credits and loan guarantes. This was a policy persued in other countries. Junkers, Heinkel, Dornier, and the Bayerische Motorenwerke (BMW) all were involved in the production of both engines and air frames. Smaller companies also manufactured air frames. German companies also began exporting military planes (1930). Germany exported planes to Nationalist China which was at the time fighting war lords and facing an increasingly beligerant Japan. Germany in 1925 began developing large planes. They were presented as civilian aircraft, but in fact were designed as prototype bombers. This included both JU-52 and the Junkers G-38, the first flying wing type aircraft. Germany by 1930 had an estimated 1,000 planes anout half of which could be converted for military use. [Gumble] German companies also manufactured military aircraft. This was done through foreign subsidaries. The Swedish branch of Junkers, A. B. Flygindustri, built and tested a pioneer two-seater fighter (1931). [Gumble] The military also organized civilian and youth flying clubs to create a reservoir of men with flying skills who could easily be trained for military aviation crews.

NAZIs Seize Power (1933)

The operations were expanded when the NAZIs seized control (1933). The British and French the following year approched Hitler concerning the possibility of extending the Locarno Pact to air armaments (1934). At the time the Versailles Treaty prohibited Germant from havin an airforce. This approch meant that the Allies were clearly not going to enforce that provision. At first Hitler demanded a force half of Britain's air force in an effort to divide the British and French. The NAZI inspired assassination of Dolffuss in Austria resulted in a breakdown in the talks. When they resumed, Hitler began speaking about parity (1935). Then shifted the discussions to a naval pact which the British were willing to negotiatev (1935). [Fest, p. 488.]

Herman Göring (1893-1946)

Herman Göring Goering was the son of a senior army officer. He himself joined the army (1913). When war broke out the next year, Göring was serving in the infantry. After a few months active duty, he was hospitalized, diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis of the knees. When released from the hospital he joined the German Army Air Service. His first dury was as an air observer, but he became a fighter pilot, shooting down his first Allied airplane November 16, 1915). When Manfred von Richthofen, the legendary Red Baron, was shot down Göring was appointed to lead the JG 1 squadron--the famed Flying Circus. Göring By the end of the war chalked up 22 victories and was awarded both the Iron Cross and the Pour le Merite (the highly coveted Blue Max) for bravery. Service as fighter pilots was the most dangerous assignment of the war. Most pilots were killed within a few weeks. To fly for 3 years meant that Göring was both very good and very lucky. He received considerable publicity and thus was well known in Germany after the War. He worked for a while in Holand as a pilot for the Fokker company. While in Holand he became acquainted with and married his wife--Baroness Karen von Fock-Kantzow. Göring returned to Germany (1923) and after attending a NAZI Party rally, became very impressed with Adolf Hitler. He soon became one og Hilter;s cloesest supporters. He was instrumental in Hitler's seizure of power (1933) and in the Night of the Long Knives (1934) which eliminated any threat to Hitler's ;eadership within the NAZI Party. Because of their close assciation and Göring's background as a World War I pilot, Hitler gave him the task of building the new German air force (1935). He was spectacularly successful and the new Lufwaffe played a prominent role in early NAZI successes, most prominetly at Munich (1938). Göring basked in the glory. Hitler made him his deputy and legal heir. Göring became richthrough various activities, including investments in aircraft companies. The Luftwaffe when war broke out (1939) played key roles in the initial NAZI victories: Poland (1939), Norway (1940), and France (1940). His pledge to destroy the British at Dunkirk was his first major failure. This was followed by the Luftwaffee's defeat in the Nattle of Britain (1940). This seriously affected his relationship with Hitler. The Luftwaffe performed brilisntly in the opening phase of Barbarossa (1941), but the Eastern Front was too large to exert the decisive impact that it played in the West. Attempting to regain his lost influence, Göring pledged to supply the Stalingrad pocket without any consulation with his staff (1942). Hitler used this to refuse pleas from Wehrmacht generals to order a breakout. The Luftwaffe airlift proved a disaster and ednded any creditibility and influence Göring had with Hitler. The expanding Allied stategic bombing campaign even widenened the breach.

Luftwaffe Creation (1933-35)

The new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, soon after taking office appointed one of his cloest associates, Herman Göring, as National Commissar for Aviation and former Lufthansa employee, Erhard Milch, to be his deputy. This enabeled Göring and Milch not only to coordinate the programs alread secretly in place by the German military, but to use the vast new sums approved by Hitler for aew German airforce. Soon afterwards, Hitler created the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM - Reich Air Ministry) (March 1933). The RLM was created to developm and produce new aircraft. Its cover was that it was working on civilian aviation. A test site was opened at Rechlin. Hitler looked on Göring with his Worlkd War I experience for expertise in aviation. As a result, Göring had absolute control over all aspects of aviation in the Reich. The NAZIs next seized control of the Deutschen Luftsportverband (DVLA--German Air Sport Association) March 23, 1933). It proceeded to absorb all private and national organizations, while retaining its 'sports' title. The RLM scretly took control of all military aviation organizations (May 15, 1933). While not announced at the time, this was n fact the creatioin of the Luftwaffe. At this time members of the Nationalsozialistisches Fliegerkorps (NSFK--National Socialist Flyers Corps) transferred to the Luftwaffe. As these men were NAZI Party members, this gave the Luftwaff from its very creation, a NAZI core. While the there was considerable support for the NAZIs in the Heer, the other services did not have a NAZI core. Luftwaffe a strong Nazi ideological base in contrast to the other branches of the German military. Göring despite his leadership post, left the development of the new service to Milch and other suborfinates with actual expertise. Führer Adolf Hiter ordered Reichmarshal Herman Göring to formally establish the Luftwaffe (February 26, 1935). The Versailles Treaty was still theoretically in force. Göring announced the existence of the until then secret Luftwaffe (March 10). This must have been carefully coergraphed with Hitler in advance. It is unclear why it was Göring who made the announcement. Of course he was the head of the new Luftwaffe, but an announcement of such significane you would think would be made by Hitler. As a violation of the Versailles Treaty, it could have meant Allied intervention. Presumably because Göring made the announcement, Hitler had some room for maneuver if the Allies threatened to intervene, but they did not. This left Hitler free to make an event more important announcement. Shortly after Göring's announcenent and following the celevbation marking the return of the Saarland to Germany, Hitler announced his the new Luftwaffe to the German public. Sureptitious steps taken by the German military before and after the NAZI takeover made this a less daunting proposition than it might seem. The personnel was lrgely drawn from the Heer. This had the consequence of creating a tctical support mentality in the new Lutwaffe which bwould have significant consequences for World War II. (The American and British sairforces had a more strastehic vission.) Hitler also announced a new military conscription program. Both were flagrant violations of the Versailles Treaty. This would have justified the Allied reoocupation of Germany. Britain and France took no action beyond purfunctoary diplomatic protests. Allied kleaders as erll as the general public had no stomache for it. In fact Britain, bent on appeasing Hitler, proceeded to reward him with a naval treaty.

Hitler and Bombing

Hitler once he set upon rearming Germany had to be cautious. Rearmament was a violation of the Versailles Treaty whichmeant the Allies could have reacted militarily. Before the rearmament had progressed, Germany was vulnerable. Hitler calculated correctly that they would not challenge Germany's rearmament in any meaningful way. Hitler at this stage seems to have been concerned with the potential of Allied bombing before the Luftwaffe had developed an adequate force. He proposed protected areas (1936). [Rumpf, p.36.] As far as we know, no one knows definitively why Hitler made this proposal. Hitler often made decessions without explaining them to subordinates. Of course it made perfect sence to be seen making what might seem like disarmament proposals why secretly building the military. We do not know if the idea was motivated out of any fear of the potential for devestation of aerial bombardment. Given his role in laubching the War, this seems unlikely. A German writer notes that once the War began, he sought to avoild a strategic bombardment campaign and tofight the war using air forces in a tactical role. [Rumpf, p. 36.] It might be said he persued this approach because Germany had no tactical air force. We would question the German author's main contention. It is true that with Britain, Hitler did make some effort to avoid a strategic bombing campaign. From the very beginning, however,Hitler threatened oponents with the bombing of cities. This began with Czechoslovakia (1938). Hitler thretened the bombing of Prague as a foreign policy tool. [Rumpf, p. 37.] And German operations in Poland included the bombing of cities, especially Warsaw (1939). The bombing of Rotterdam ocuured within day of launcing the German Western offensive (1940). So the idea that Hitler sought to avoid the bombing of cities is a very weak argument. Hitler would haved preferred rapid campaigns which achieved victory without bombing cities, but clearly he was ready to bomb cities if he encountered resistance. Some authors point out that it was the British that first turned to strategic bombing. While this is nor true, it was the German'in Poland that began bombing cities without any pretense of targeting military targets. It is true that the Germans at first avoided similar attacks against Britain. Hitler nevere explained this, but almost surely it was because he wanted the British to accept a Vichy-like arragement. It seems likely, however, that even if the British had not persued a strategic bombing campaign, once Russia was disposed of, the Germans would have built a stratehic bombing force to deal with Britain.

Rearnament (1935-39)

Although it was not known at the time, Güring's Luftwaffe had only 4 ½ years to prepare for war. The Luftwaffe was created at a time when aviation technology was undergoing rapid change. The Luftwaffe gave great priority to building advanced all-metal planes. It has been suggested that the Luftwaffe's creation at this time gave it an advantage as its planes were all modern types. One German source, however, that the very short period of preparation was a critical flaw. He writes, "... the disadvantage of a long period of disarmament , during which it was forbidden to build military planes at all, proved greater than the advantages of being able to begin again from scratch. The situation would have been diiferent if it had been possible to build up the Luftwaffe steadily and not under constant pressure, but Giering and his staff were too impatient to wait until the findamental technical and organizational questions had first been satisfactorily answered." [Rumpf, p. 35.]

Decession Makers

Hitler was intensely interested in military matters, but at the time the Luftwaffe was founded was still willing to accept the advise of military professionals on weaponery and tactics. He knew nothing about planes and thus did not interfere with Luftwaffe planners until well after the War began. The most influential individuals in the Luftwaffe were Görong, Udet, and Jeschonnek. All three had been courageous fighter pilots in World War I. None of these had stayed with aviation after the War, unlike the American and British commanders who would wage the air war. The Luftwaffe decession makers were thus men who were largely out of touch with both technical matters and theoretical discussions of air power. The Air Ministry had seven departments, four were staffed with individuals with no background in aviation. And because the Luftwaffe was not created until the NAZIs seized power, it had to look to the Armny to staff the officer corps. Tt is thus not surprising that it developed as a tactical force. There was interest in strategic bombing, but Germany did not vhave the industrial base to build both a tactical and strategic force.

Luftwaffe Organization

Hitler made the Luftwaffe a ministerial level organization. He appointed Herman Göring Reichsminister der Luftfahrt (RLM). The Luftwaffe high command was the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL). The RLM and OKL were were responsible for the direction of research, production and overall maintenance of aircraft. Hitler ordered that the Luftwaffe be established soon after seizing power (1933), although bthis was not made public until 2 years later (1935). The initial organization of the Luftwaffe was similar to the other servicesWithin a few years, however, as the pace of rearmament quickened, Luftwaffe comanders decided on a geographic organization. OKL oversaw the operational units of the RLM. The operational units were Luftflotten (air fleets). Each Luftflotten was assigned responsible for a specific geographic region. Each was a self-contained operational units equipped with the types of aircraft required for the military operations required in its assigned geographic area. Each Luftflotten had administrative sections including supply elements, maintenance staff, administration and legal departments. Germany began the War with four Luftflotten which was responsible for about a quarter of the Reich. Luftdlotten 1-4 covered northeast, nortwest, southeast, and southwest Germany. As military success expanded the area of German control, new Luftflotten were established. Luftflotte 5 was created conduct operations in the north (Norway and Denmark). Luftflotte 6 carried out the campaign in the East. Luftflotte 7 based vin Berlin assumed resoponsibikity for home defense. Each Luftflotte in turn was divided into varying numbers of air districts (Luftgaue) and air corps (Fliegerkorps). The purpose of a Luftgaue was to provide administrative and logistical support to each airfield, whereas the Fliegerkorps controlled all operational matters. The Luftgau headquarters command consisted of one Generalmajor and a staff of 50 to 100 officers. Each Fliegerkorps would have a number of units under its command. These were usually several wings (German: Geschwader), but sometimes also specialized squadrons (Staffeln) and battle groups (Kampfgruppen). The composition of each Luftflotte varied as to fighter, ground support, bomber, recomisance, and other aitcraft. There were also Luftwaffe infantry divisions, including parachutte and glider units. Anti-aircraft (Flak) units were a major part of the Luftwaffe force component. As the War progressed the Luftwaffe began to using a range of other individuals (Hitler Youth members, oldermen, POWs, and others to man the FLAK gins. Parachute units were formed (1938). After the battle of Crete (1941), they were never again used for actual parachutte operations, but were highly disciplined infantry units. The Luftwaffe also began forming infantry units in the East (1942). These units did not have any sunstantive infantry trainings and were norrmally used in defensive roles.

Force Structure

Both Hitler and Göring as the War developed showed a preference for bombers. It is thus a mystery as to why the Luftwaffe entered the War without a strategic bombing force and did not build one during the War. A German historian admits that he does not know with any surity why the Luftwaffe never built a stratehic bombing force. [Rumpf, p. 34.] Apparently the internal working papers of the Luftwaffe were not preserved to permit historians to determine why this happened. There are some obvious factors. First was the limited time Germany had to build the Luftwaffe. Second was Germany's limited industrial capacity. Germany did not have the time and capability to build both a tactical and strategic force. Third, the Wehrmacht officers who staffed the Wehmacht were able to direct available resources into the building of a tactical, ground support force. We do know that Udet played a major role in determiing the Luftwaffe force structure an he was an opponent of heavy bombers. He wrote, "We do not need the expensive heavy bombers; it demands an excessive amount of material by comparison with the two-engined dive bomber." Another important Wehrmacht planner, Walter Webe, was a proponent of heavy bombers. His death in a airplane crash during 1935, removed the most important advocate for heavy bombers at an important stage in the Luftwaffe's development. Udet and Milch succeeded in directing the Luftwaffe toward planes lkike the JU-87 Stuka designed to support ground forces. We have noted that some authors have repoted that a important factor was the importance of numbers of bombers and much larger numbers of two-engine than four-engine bombers could be built. Authors have variously indicated that the numbers were important to variously impress Hitler and for use in propaganda and diplomacy.

Strategic Bombers

The Luftwaffe, for whatever reason, began the War without a strategic bombing force and was unable to build one during the War. Air Marshal Harris writes, "They had, in fact, no strategic bombers at all, since their whole force of over a thousand bombers for army co-operation work, and was only used for attack on cities when not required to support the German Army. Even in daytime it was fitted only to carry out the work of a tactical air force, not strategic attack." [Harris, p. 86.] For a country untent upon a massive campaign of aggression, including other advanced industrial nations, this proved to be a disastrous miscalculation. Luftwaffe Commanders did not dismiss the long-rage heavy bombers out of hand. Rather the decession was to postpone the construction of a strategic bombing force. The strategic vission was that the German ground victories would succeed in extending the area of the Reich and occupied territories to such an extent that German cities would no longer be within the range of Allied bombers. [Rumpf, p. 38.]

Spanish Civil War (1936-39)

The Germans beginning in 1936 were also active in Spain helping Franco establish a Fascist regime. Fighting began in Spain in July 1936. Spanish Generals Francisco Franco and Quiepo de Llano revolted against a new left-wing Republican Government elected in Madrid. Franco appealed for help. Hitler immeduately ordered Luftwaffe transport plans to transport Franco's loyalist troops in Morroco to participate in the fighting. He saw a left-wing government in Madrid as harmful to the Reich, aiding the French policy of encirclement. [Davidson, pp. 57-58.] Both Italy and Germany were soon sending arms and men to the loyalists and provided important air elements. Whole units were deployed to Spain. It was in Spain that the aerial bombardment of cities began. The defenseless Basque village of Guernica was the first European city to be destroyed by the Luftwaffe. The democracies and League of Nations respnded with an arms embargo. Only the Soviets aided the Republic.

Munich (October, 1938)

By the time the Allies attempted to face up to Hitler at Munich (October 1938), Germany had the largest, most modern air force in the world. [McNab] It was a major reason why the Allies decided to appease Hitler. The Czechs may have fought it out with the Germans even without Britain and France. The Czechs had strong border defenses and unlike the Poles were not surounded by the Germas and Soviets. They had high-qulaity weapons, includng tanks. They did not, however, have a substantial mdern airforce. The fear of aerial bombardment was one of the main reasons that the Czechs capitulated.

World War II

The Luftwaffe desite the Versailles restrictions begn the War as the world's most modern air force. They had advanced, all metal aircraft with high performance and superb armament. they were the most adbanced air force in the world. [McNab] Incredibly the British oyal air Force almost began the war wuth biplanes. Isolationist Charles Lindberg was not wrong to be impressed with what he saw. The Luftwaffe began the War with experienced, well-trained air crews and a war-winnng tactical doctrine. While the Luftwaffe was only made public in 1935, the Germans had laid the foundation for it in the 1920s and then rushed into creation by the NZIs. As a reult, it outclassed not only mall countres like Czechoslovakia and Poland as well as Britain and France. The Luftwaffe had fine aircraft, but there early victories in Polnd and the West was more do its Blizkrieg tactical doctrine than any other factor. Hitler believed that Germany cespite its limited popultin and industry could defeat its adversaries by a combnation of technology and ighting spirit. The Luftwaffe's defeat over Britain should had led him to question his judgement. It did not. And the sheer size of the Soviet Union meant that the Luftwaffe would be less effective in the East. Then Hitler added America to Gdermany's enemies. Britain was already outproducing the Germans an when American aircraft was committed to battle, the Germans could not begin to contend with Allied air offenses in the West. At the samr time, Sovit aircraft production camne bck on line. The result was that Allied bombers began to pulverize German cities and the once poweful Lutwaffe could not opose the llied D-Day landings. Late in the Wr the Luftwaffe introduced the ME-262 Swallow, the most advanced figter of the War. It could have been introcuced earlier if Hitler had not nterfered with the jet prigram. By the end of the War, the Allies had swept the Luftwaffe from the skies over Germany. Amazingly even decimated, the Luftwaffe was the most modern air force in the War. They not only produced jet fighters and bombers, but were about to introduce a second generatin of jets which cirrected some of the limitatins of the frst generation.

Poland (September 1939)

When World War II finally broke out in Poland (September 1939), the Luftwaffe played a major in the early German victories. The outgunned Polish Air Force with only a small number of obsolete planes was quiickly overwealmed. The Luftwaffe then provided close air support to the Panzers is a tactical offensive role that was christened Blitzkrieg. The German tactics were totally missed by Allied military analysts. Most saw it as the result of the ineptitude of the Polish armed forces. While the Luftwaffe's primary role was close ground support, it was also used to bomb Polish cities. The major such action was the prolonged bombing of Warsaw without any effort to target Polish military targets.


The Luftwaffe would prove an essential component to Blitkrieg. German artillery, in many cases move by horses, could not keep up with the Panzers. The Luftwaffe could. Military commanders and the public around the world failed to understand what had occurred in Poland and the doctrine around which the Luftwaffe was constructed. Great attention was focussed on the Luftwaffe bombing of civilan populatuion centers, especially Warsaw. This had been the great fear pf the public, bombing of cities. Not well seen was the fact that the Luftwaffe was a tactical force composed of fighters and light and medium bombers. It was built around the tactical concept of Blitzkrieg. The Luftwaffe was created to provide aerial support for rapidly moving panzers and motorized infantry. The fighters established air superority. Light bombers like the Sturzkampfflugzeug (Stuka) Ju-87 dive bombers could be used as highly mobile precession artillery support. Göring explained, "... all other countries split up their air power between their armies and their navies, and planes were regarded as mere auxiliary weapons. For this reason they lacked a weapon with which they could deliver concentrated attacks: an operative air force. But in Germany we had worked from the startalong such limes." This became more apparent in the Western Offensive, but too late to prevent the fall of France (June 1940). Even so, it was not until El Alemaine (July-October 1942) that the British successfully adopted the principles worked out by the Germans before the War. The weakeness of the Luftwaffe as a strategic force became apparent in the Battle of Britain (July-September 1940). Although the Luftwaffe was highly successfuil in Openeration Barbarossa (June 1941), the lack of a strategic bombing force made it impossible to target Soviet arms production.

Western Offensive (May-June 1940)

The Germans proceeded to conquer virtually all of Western Europe. After a few months of the "Phony War", France's turn came. The Germans struck on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgiym, and Luxemburg. The terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the already hard-pressed Dutch Army to surrender. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) rushed north to aid the Dutch. The Germans then struck in the Belgian Ardenes which allowed them to avoid the formidable Maginot Line. The French and Belgians considered the Ardenes impassable to tanks. The Germans managed to easily penetrate the rough terraine, crossed two substantial rivers, and the XIX Panzer Corps rapidly reached the English Channel--cutting the BEF off from the French and rendering the Maginot Line uselss. The Luftwaffe played a key role in the German offensive.

Battle of Britain (July-September 1940)

The inability of the Luftwaffe to control the skies in the Battle of Britain after the tactical mistake of bombing industrial targets in cities instead of British airfields formed a key point in the war. The Battle of Britain was the first major camapign fought in the air. The German initiated their long awaited western campaign in May 1940. Paris fell June 14 and France capitulated June 22. The fall of France meant that Britain stood alone and for a year had to valiantly fight the Germans without allies. American public opinion was decisively isolationist--against involvement in another European war. Most Europeans and Americans thought Britain would soon colapse and further resistance was futile. But the British stirred by Prime Minister Churchill did fight. The Luftwaffe quickly established bases in France and by July 10 launched preliminary strikes in what has come to be called the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe while better trained and outnumbering the RAF was ill prepared for the campaign. They did not appreciate the critical importance of the British home chain radar network. They also had no straegic bomber fleet. The air offensive was to be conducted with two engine bombers that proved highly effective in short range tactical operations, but were not well suited for longer-range strategic bombing. The Battle of Britain began in earnest on July 10 and reached intensive levels on August 13 with Luftwaffe raids on British airfields and aircraft factories. Hitler had assumed that the Luftwaffe could force the British to capitualte. He saw world politics in racial terms and in relatity wanted the British as allies or at least neutrals in his planned invasion of the Soviet Union. Unlike his strategy against the Poles, Dutch, and Belgians, there were no German terror bombing of London and other British cities. The Luftwaffe im its August campaign seriously weakened the RAF and Fighter Command was having increasing difficulty maintaining its forward air bases in Kent. Then off-course German bombers accidentally bomb London on August 23-24. RAF Bomber Command on August 25-26 mounted a small reprisal raid against Berlin. Hitler is furious and orders an immediate change in Luftwaffe tactics. Rather than completing its offensive against the RAF infrastructure, Hitler ordered a "blitz" on British cities which began in earnest on September 7. The Luftwaffe wreaked havoc on civilians in London and major English cities. An estimated 42,000 civilians were killed. Thousands of civilians were killed. Edward R. Murrow broadcasting from London ("London calling ...") described Britain's valiant resistance to rapt American radio audiences, greatly affecting American attitides toward the Hitler and the NAZIs. White British cities burned, the RAF was given a respite, allowing its forward air bases to recover from the damage done in August. As a result the RAF was able to mount increasingly costly attacks on the German bomber fleets. The Lutwaffe eventually is forced to shift to nightime raids. Night bombing made it impossible to hit actually military and industrial targets, only cities could be targetted. The British were battered, but held. It was the first German defeat of the War. The narrow, but decisive victory in the Battle of Britain changed the course of the War. The Luftwaffe eventually ended the major offensive against the British as the German military in 1941 began preparing for Opperation Barbarosa, Hitler's long awaited dream of invading the Soviet Union which at the time was a virtual German ally. As Hitler turned his evil view east toward Russia, a huge unsinkable aircraft carrier with a population willing to make virtually any sacrifice remained in his rear. For the NAZIs, the loss of the Battle of Britain was a crusing blow, not only because of the serious losses, but because it was a struggle involving scientific and technical ingenuity in which the Germans had assumed that they had a commanding lead.

Luftwaffe Terror Bombing

It was the Germans who began bombing civilian populations rather than military targets as a terror tactic calculated to destroy civilian morale. Visionary German military planners in the 1930s built the world's most advanced air force at the time--the Luftwaffe. [Corum] Germany was the first World War II combatant to use bombers to terrorize urban populations. This began even before World War II during the Spanish Civil War. The Luftwaffe experimented with the bombing of Guernica in 1937 and other Spanish cities. The tactic was used extensively used by the Germans when the War was launched beginning with the invasion of Poland. One historian writes, "The bombing of Warsaw early in the war made it clear to the Allies how Hitler intended to fight his war. It was to be Schrecklichkeit ('frightfulness') with no regard for the civilian population." [Snyder]

Operation Barbarossa (June 1941)

Luftwaffe pilots proved devetatingly effective in the oopening weeks of Operation Barbarossa. Pilots wracked up enormous kill rates Red Army pilots with outmoded aircraft had to resort to ramming Luftwaffe planes. The Luftwaffe still dominated the air over the Soviet Union in 1942, but this began to change in 1943. Not only did the Soviets begin to turn out increasing numbers of moder air craft types, but American Lend Lease planes began to reach the Soviets in large numbers. At the same time, the Luftwaffe was forced to deploy substantial forces to defend German cities from the expanding Allied strategic bombing campaign.

Air Defense

Göring claimed that the Luftwaffe would provide an impreganable Air Barrier in the west. He assured Germans that, "If English bombs ever fall on Germany, then you can call me Meyer!" Meyer was an obviously Jewisg name. In fact the Allies at first refrained from launching an air war. Here France because her cities were vulnerable resisted British suggestions. The German Western offensive (May-June 1940) was so successful, that German cities were largely out of range from the planes available to RAF Bomber Command. Only in 1942 did Bomber Command get effective long-range planes like the Lancaster that brought German cities in range. By this time the Germans had constructed a forbiddening degensive line beginning with the Netherlands, Belgium, and Northerm France. They had also begun to develop effective night fighters. The Americans joined the British stategic bombing campaign, bombing by day while the British bombed by night, hoping to overstress the German defenses. The Americans found that only contrary to expectations that the havily armed bombers could not fight through the German defenses without havy losses. German defenses took a terrible toll on Allied bomber formations until 1944 when long-range fighter escorts became available. The Luftwaffe could in most cases carefully consider engagements. Here it was rise to resist the American bombers are allow them to pulverize their cities. The bombers essentially forced the Luftwaff to give battle to protect German cities. The bombers and especially the escorts also took a heavy toll on the Lufwaffe. Here in the skies over Germany the 8th Air Force essentially destoyed the Luftwaffe,


The Luftwaff did not use the term 'aces' like the Allies. The German term was 'Experts'. British and American pilots achieved the elte designation of ace when they achieved their fifth confirmed kill. And few Allied pilots achievedthis destinction. And thse that did rarely wentfar beyondthis number. In shrp cntrast, more than 30 Luftwaffe pilots shot down 50 enemy aircraft or more. [Heaton and Lewis] There of coure were reaons for this. The airforcesfsedby the Germansearlybin the War were poorlyequipped and trained. The Huge Red air Force in particular was ill-prepard nd inckuded a lot of obselete aurcraft. And unlike the allies, Experten were not assigned to trainig programs so they coud saretheir skills and insights. Rather many foughtthe entire 6 years of the War. And of course they had excllent aircraft ans were veery killed.

Pilot Training

One of the reasons that the Luftwaffe performed so well in the early years of the War was a very effective pilot training program. This began early, even before the Luftwaffe was created. A Hitler Youth unit air unit was formed--the Flieger HJ. Boys began learning about how to build gliders and fly them. As a result when the Luftwaffe was created, there was already a sizeable body of young people that had basic familiarity with flying. twaffe was created, older Hitler Youth (HJ) boys were funneled into the military. As part of the Hilter Youth program a boy could select specific services and one of the options was the Flieger HJ which prepared boys for Luftwaffe service. The early German victories were not solely due to better aircraft types and a larger force. The Luftwaffe also had an enormous advantage of well-trained pilots with a well-defined tactical doctrine. There was, however, only one pilot training school. The Luftwaffe like the Wehrmacht was built around a strategic doctrine of campaigns against individual countries which could be quickly overwealmed. No one imagined that the Führer would taken on not onlt the British and French, but without completing the war in the West, the Soviet Union and the United States as well. One pilot training school might have suficed with the British and French, but not when the Soviet Union and the United States was added to Germnany's foes. Successes in the first 2 years of the War did not lead Luftwaffe planners to question this assessment. Hitler by December 1941, however, had involved Germany with an emensely powerful coalition including, America, Britain, and the Soviet Union with enormous indistrial and scientific resources. The German advantage disapated as the War continued. The Americans and British turned out ever larger numbers of competent air crews. The Luftwaffe unlike the Americans kept their aces in combat until they were killed or wounded. This meant in practoice that hard won battle skills were constantly drained from the Luftwaffe. American practice was to bring back the most effective pilots after a tour of duty to train new pilots. Incredibly, the Luftwaffe did not open new pilot schools untill 1944. At first they modified the pilot training program to push more pilots through more quickly. Besides the limited capacity, the Luftwaffe training program failed to make use of the expertise of fighter aces. They were kept on station until they were killed or wounded. This is one reason that German aces racked up higher scores than Allied aces who were rotated. This had predictable results. Not only were cadets lost in the training program, but the new pilots produced had to face effectively trained Allied pilots in increasingly capable aircraft. The Luftwaffe training program by 1944 was severly impaired by increasing shortages of aviation fuel. In the last phase of the War, there were still planes availble, but the Luftwaffe had difficulty finding competent pilots. During the Battle of Brutain, the RAF had to send out pilots with minimal training--many of who did not survive their first few sorties. By the end of the War it was the Luftwaffe that was throwing pilots into battle with minimal training.

Aircraft Construction

Not fully understood during the Battle of Britain was that British aircraft coinstruction actually exceeded that of German construction. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941) and declared war on the United States (December 1941) it meant that Germany was facing enemies that were producing far larger numbers of modern aircraft than Germany was producing.

Occupied Europe

Churchill and Roosevelt in 1940 were concerned that Hitler and the NAZIs would turn the industrial and scientific potential of occupied Europe into an unbearable war machine. While the occupied countries were bled dry for raw materials, food, and labor, as far as we can tell, thevindustrial and scientific potential was not fully utilized. We doknow that the Czech Skoda indusyrial complex was used, we have no information showing that ythevindustrial and scientific potential of France, the Netherlands and other countries to expand Luftwaffe research and production.

Strategic Bombing Campaign

The greatest weakness of the German war plan was the fact that Germany had no domestic oil fields. The Germans relied on Romanian fields and as the War progressed, synthretic fuel plants in the Ruhr which used coal. If Barbarossa had succeeded, Germany would have had the Caucassian oil fields, but after the Soviets counter-attacked at Stalingrad, the Germans were forced to withdraw from the Caucassess. The Allies then targeted the Romanian oil fields at Ploiesti, p[erhaps the most well protected target other than Berlin. The strategic bombing also targeted aircraft production and ball bearings. The cost on Allied air crews was grevious, but there were aklso heavy losses of Luftwaffe fighters. When the Allies introduced long-range figher esorts were added in 1944, Luftwaffe losses became critical. The final defeat of the Luftwaffe came with attacks on the synthetic fuel plants. This destroyed the Luftwaffe as an effective fighting force.

D-Day (June 1944)

The Luftwaffe played almost no role in the D-Day landings or in the subsequentbcampaign leading to the liberation of France. Given that the Germans knew the uincasion was coming and would have a major impact on the War, in is important to note that the Luftwaffe made no effort to resist the invasion. A handful of Luftwaffe aircraft were scrambled, buthad no impacyt on the huge armada of Aliied aircraft. The reason of coursecwas that the Luftwaffe was pulled backn from France inn the effort to protect German cities from the allied strategic bombing campaign. The strategic bombing campaign has become controversial in recentb years. Part of any assessmentb has to include that it forced the Luftwaffe back out of France, without which the D-Day invasion would not have been possible.

Advanced Luftwaffe Weapons

The Luftwaffe in the final years of the War deployed some advanced weapons that would dominate future battlefields, but had only a minor impact on the conduct of World War II. Some of these weapons like the V-1 and ME-262 were actually deployed. The V-1 was essentially defeated. The ME-262 was the most effective fighter of the War, but Hitler's interferemce (demanding it be used as a bomber) and the inability of German industry to produce it in the numbers needed. Others like the Americas bomber never entered production, but had amazingly futuristic design elements. The V-2 was the most advanced weapon of all, but was developed by the Heer and not the Luftwaffe.

Jet Aircraf: ME-262

The Luftwaffe was the first air force in World war II to introduce an effective jet fighter--the Messerschmitt ME 262. The British were also developing a jet. When Army Air Corps Commander Hap Arnold arrived in England (1942), he asked the British if they had considered jet turbines. They answered yes, would you like to see our plane. Arnold was astonished that such a plane existed. Studies commissioned by the Pentagon had found that jets were impractical as a propuldsion device. It was the German Me 262 that was an actual effective weapon during the War. Actually the Luftwaffe jet program had been cut back in 1940 when Hitler thought the War was already won. Even so the German program was more advanced than either the British or the rapidly developed American project. Military anaysts fisagree about the possible impact of the Me-262. Some argue that if it had been aggressively persued and deployed as a fighter, the Luftwaffe could have regained air superority, perghaps even over France thus msking the D-Day landings impossible. Others argue that it was too late and the numbers just too small to have changede the course of the War. In any case, Hitler intervened and severly limited the impact of the MNe-262 by insisting that it be usedc as bomber, thus negating its real effectiveness as a fast, heavily armed fighter.

Rocket Planes: ME-163B Komet

One of the secret German weapons was the Messerschmitt (ME) 163B rocket plane, the first combat rocket plane. The plane was not ready for comat use as the Allies poured into Germany. The Luftwaffe was, however, desperate and pushed by the NAZIs, deployed it against Allied bombers. The ME-163B Komet was the only operational rocket-powered aircraft of World War II. The plane was capable of spectacular performance, it had higher climb rates and speeds than any other plane deployed in the War. It was also the most dangerous. It used highly combustible rocket fuels and was difficult to land. One especially serious problem was the wheels were part of a undercarriage that was jetesoned after takeoff.

Ptimitive cruise missle: V-1

The V-1 was essentially a primitive cruise missle, but without a sophisticated targetting mechanism. The Germans begining June 13 used the V-1 to target London and other British cities after the D-Day landings. V stood foer "vengence", retribution for the Allied bombing of Germany. The Germans launched about 13,000 buzz bombs accross the Channel at England. Only about 2,500 of these hit the intended targets, primarily London. The V-1 could not be accurately targeted. They were lucky to hit a city, but even this was difficult because the Luftwaffe at this stage of the War could not even manage air recognisance over Britain. The British were able to deal with the V-1 offensive in a number of ways. In accurate news reports mislead the Germans in how to target the weapns. Anti-aircraft guns were rushed to the Channel coast. The RAF intensified fighter patrols. The even more deadly V-2 campaign was a Wehrmacht weapon taken over by the SS.

Americas bomber

Hitler and Göring dreamed of bombers that initiate a strategic bombing camapign against the British and Americans. The Allied strategic bombing campaign made a massive construction campaign impossible. The Horton brthers created the futuristic HO-18 with amazingly futuristic design elements. NAZI Germany, however was unable to begin construction of the plane.



Many of the photographs archived on HBC help to illustrate or explain the pages on which they are posted. We have found some interesting images that do not seem to relate to an issue discused on our site. Or in some cases we do not understand what is shown in the image. Perhaps our readers will better understand the image. Here are some of the Luftwaffe images that we have found. Our attitude is that these images provide insights into the Luftwaffe and Luftwaffe operations even if we do not fully understand it at this time.


Hitler used the Luftwaffe to terrorize Britain and France into abandoing Czechoslvakia. He then used the Luftwaffe for a series of victories that gave in control of most of Europe. The Luftwaffe was the most modern airforce in the war and was the first to adopt the effective tactics of close air support. The Luftwaffe deployed the first jet air craft, the first cruise missle, the first guided missles, the first balistic missle, and the first rocket plain. Why then did the Lufwaffe loose control of the skies over Europe and lose the battle with Allied aircraft. Here there are a number of reasons and many relate to Germany's political leadership rather than the Luftwaffe's professional leadership corps. 1) While the Luftwaffe had excellent tactics there strategic doctrine was falty. The force was built to achieve a series of quick victories, not to fight a long war of attrition. The Luftwaffe never deployed long-range heavy bombers in numbes, Two, Germany did not have the industrial capability to outproduce the enemies which Hitler engaged or to provide the Heer the air cover needed. The Luftwaffe was adequate for small-scale battlefields like Poland, Norway, and France. The Soviet Union was very different. The Luftwaffe was just not large enough to provide the needed air cover need over the emense battlefield in the East. And this situation steadily dteriorated as forces had to beshifted west to protect German cities and the Red Sir Force began to rebuild. Three, the German pilot training program had major defects. Germany entered the war with only one pilot training school. Also they did not releave air aces to train new pilots. Four, Germany's political leadership, especially both Reich Marshal Göring and Hitler impaired major operations and set inappropriate goals and priorties. Five, Germany's industrial capacity was poorly utilized for aircraft production.


Davidson, Eugene. The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (Univesity of Missouri: Columbia, 1996), 519p.

Fest, Joachim. Hitler (Vintage:New York, 1974), 844p.

Harris, Arthur T. Bomber Offensive (New York: Macmillan, 1947).

Heaton, Colin D. and Anne-Marie Lewis. The Germn ces Speak II: WW II Throughthe Eyes of Four More of the Luftwaffe's Most Important Commanders (2014), 304p.

McNab, Chris. Hitler's Eagles: The Luftwaff, 1933-45 (2014), 400p.

Rumpf, Hans. Trans. Edwrd Fitzgerald. The Bombing of Germany (Holt, Rinehart and Wilson: New York, 1962), 256p

Snyder, Louis L. Historical Guide to World War II (1982).


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Created: 12:59 AM 6/20/2004
Last updated: 6:28 AM 3/19/2014