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Nazi Luftwaffe

Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the Nazi Luftwaffe
Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the Nazi Luftwaffe

The Nazi 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 Nazi 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 Nazi 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 Nazi 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 Nazi 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 Nazi 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 Nazi 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.

Origin of Nazi Luftwaffe

The origins of the Nazi Luftwaffe were born just months after Adolf Hitler came to power. Hermann Göring, a World War I ace with 22 victories and the holder of the Orden Pour le Merite, became National Commissar for aviation with former Lufthansa employee Erhard Milch as his deputy. In March 1933 the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM - Reich Air Ministry) was established. The RLM was in charge of development and production of aircraft, and soon afterwards the test site at Rechlin became its testing ground. Göring's control over all aspects of aviation became absolute. On 25 March 1933 the Deutschen Luftsportverband (DVLA) (German Air Sport Association) absorbed all private and national organizations, whilst retaining its 'sports' title. The merging of all military aviation organizations in the RLM took place on 15 May 1933, which became the Nazi Luftwaffe's official 'birthday'. Many members of the Nationalsozialistisches Fliegerkorps (National Socialist Flyers Corps - NSFK) transferred to Nazi Luftwaffe. As all such prior NSFK members were also Nazi Party members; this gave the new Nazi Luftwaffe a strong Nazi ideological base in contrast to the other branches of the German military. Göring played little further part in the development of the Nazi Luftwaffe until 1936, and Milch became the de facto minister until 1937.

Lauftwaffe: Preparing for war: 1933-1939

Many of the aircraft that served throughout the war were developed prior to it, such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 single-engine fighter, the Junkers Ju 87 dive bomber, and the Heinkel He 111 medium bomber, Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engined heavy fighter and the versatile Junkers Ju 88. The twin-engined Messerschmitt Bf 110 was supposed to fulfill the role of an escort fighter, but it could not compete in aerial combat against modern single-engined fighters, as was shown during the Battle of Britain. As a result the Bf 110 units focussed on fighter-bomber and recon operations but with a much greater success it served as night fighter.

The Wever years

In December 1934, Chief of the Nazi Luftwaffe General Staff Walther Wever sought to mold the Nazi Luftwaffe's battle doctrine into a strategic plan. At this time Wever conducted war games (simulated against the French) in a bid to establish his theory of a strategic bombing force that would, he thought, prove decisive by winning the war through the destruction of enemy industry, even though these exercises also included tactical strikes against enemy ground forces and communications. In 1935 "Luftwaffe Regulation 16: The Conduct of the Air War" was drawn up. In the proposal, it concluded "The mission of the Nazi Luftwaffe is to serve these goals".

Wever recognized the importance of a strategic bomber force and sought to incorporate it into a war strategy. He believed that 'tactical' aircraft should only be used as a step to developing a strategic air force. In May 1934, Wever initiated a seven year project for the Ural Bomber, the bomber that would take the Nazi Luftwaffe's bombing campaign into the heart of the Soviet Union. In 1935 this led to the Dornier Do 19 and Junkers Ju 89 prototypes, although both were underpowered. In April 1936, Wever ordered a requirement for 'Bomber A' which would have a range of 6,700 kilometres with a 900 kilogram bomb load.

A change of direction

Wever's participation in the construction of the Nazi Luftwaffe came to an abrupt end on 3 June 1936 when he was killed along with his engineer in a Heinkel He 70 Blitz. His successors, Ernst Udet and Albert Kesselring, changed the operational doctrine of the Nazi Luftwaffe into one fit for a tactical air force, and one of close and direct ground support. Udet was a proponent of the dive-bomber, but not a technical expert. Despite this he was appointed to head the Reich's Air Ministry Technical Office (Technisches Amt), and helped change the Nazi Luftwaffe's tactical direction towards producing fast medium bombers that were to destroy enemy air power in the battle zone rather than through industrial bombing of its aviation production.

The development of aircraft was now confined to the production of twin-engined medium bombers that required much less material and manpower than Wever's 'Ural Bombers'. German industry could build two medium bombers for three heavy bombers and the RLM would not gamble on developing a heavy bomber which would also take time. Göring remarked, "the fuhrer will not ask how big the bombers there are, but only how many there are". The premature death of one of the Nazi Luftwaffe's finest officers, one that left the Nazi Luftwaffe without a strategic air force during World War II, eventually proved fatal to the German war effort.

Between March 1934 and April 1936 the Nazi Luftwaffe underwent huge expansion, from 77 aircraft to 2,700. Up until 1935 the flak arm had been under the army's operational control; however, as Göring assumed full command of the air arm, it came under Nazi Luftwaffe operational control.

The Messerschmitt Bf 109, Heinkel He 111, Junkers Ju 87 Stuka and the Dornier Do 17 all first saw active service in the Condor Legion against Soviet-supplied aircraft. The Nazi Luftwaffe also quickly realized that the days of the biplane fighter were finished, the Heinkel He 51 fighter being switched to service as a trainer. Particularly impressive were the Heinkel and Dornier, which fulfilled the Nazi Luftwaffe's requirements for bombers that were faster than fighters. Despite the participation of these aircraft (mainly from 1938 onward), it was the venerable Junkers Ju 52 (which soon became the backbone of the Transportgruppen) that made the main contribution to the Legion's bombing campaign. Hitler remarked: "Franco ought to erect a monument to the glory of the Junkers Ju 52. It is the aircraft which the Spanish revolution has to thank for its victory".

Final preparations

The Nazi Luftwaffe Balkenkreuz (beam cross) was carried on the upper and lower wings and the fuselages of practically all German military aircraft between 1935 and 1945. It was essentially the national marking used by the German Air Service in the last year of World War I.
The Nazi Luftwaffe Balkenkreuz (beam cross) was carried on the upper and lower wings and the fuselages of practically all German military aircraft between 1935 and 1945. It was essentially the national marking used by the German Air Service in the last year of World War I.

By the summer of 1939, the Nazi Luftwaffe had nine Jagdgeschwader mostly equipped with Messerschmitt Bf 109E, four 'Zerstörergeschwader equipped with the Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighter, eleven Kampfgeschwader equipped with mainly the Heinkel He 111 and the Dornier Do 17Z, and four Sturzkampfgeschwader. The Junkers Ju 88 had encountered design difficulties, as a result only 12 were available when hostilities commenced. The Nazi Luftwaffe's strength at this time stood at nearly 4,000. Of this number 1,100 were single-engined fighters, 400 twin-engined heavy fighters, 1,100 medium bombers and 290 Stuka aircraft. The remainder consisted of 500 transport and 300 reconnaissance machines. However, even by the spring of 1940, the Nazi Luftwaffe still had not mobilised fully. Despite the shortage of raw-materials Generalluftzeugmesiter Ernst Udet, had increased production through introducing a 10 hour working day for aviation industries and rationalising of production. During this period 30 Kampfstaffeln and 16 Jagdstaffeln were produced. A further five Zerstorergruppen were created (JGr 101, 102,126,152 and 176), all equipped with the Bf 110. The Nazi Luftwaffe also greatly expanded its aircrew training programs by 42 percent, to 63 flying schools. These facilities were moved to eastern Germany, away from possible Allied threats. The number of aircrew reached 4,727, an increase of 31 percent. However, the rush to complete this rapid expansion scheme resulted in the deaths of 997 personnel and another 700 wounded. 946 aircraft were also destroyed in these accidents. The number of aircrew completing their training was up to 3,941, The Nazi Luftwaffe's entire strength was now 2.2 million personnel

Operational history of the Lauftwaffe

The Nazi Luftwaffe's Condor Legion experimented with new doctrine and aircraft during the Spanish Civil War. It helped the Nationlists under Francisco Franco to defeat the Republican forces. Over 20,000 German airman gained combat experience that would give the Nazi Luftwaffe an important advantage going into the Second World War.

When the Second World War began the Nazi Luftwaffe was one of most technologically advanced Air Forces in the world. During the Polish Campaign that triggered the war, it established superiority quickly. It supported German Army (Heer) operations and tactical battles which ended the campaign in five weeks. The Nazi Luftwaffe's performance however, was not as its command, the Oberkommando der Nazi Luftwaffe, had hoped for. The Heinkel He 111 equipped units had not been able to "out run" the Polish fighter defences and the Poles had inflicted a considerable loss rate. The Messerschmitt Bf 110 had proved capable in its assigned role of air superiority fighter and the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka had garnered legendary status as an precision dive-bomber.

In the spring of 1940, the Nazi Luftwaffe assisted the Kriegsmarine and Heer in the daring invasion of Denmark and Norway, Operation Weserübung. Flying in reinforcements and winning air superiority, the Nazi Luftwaffe contributed decisively to the German conquest and expulsion of the Western Allies from Scandinavia. In the summer of 1940 the Nazi Luftwaffe contributed to the unexpected success in the Battle of France. It helped destroy three Allied Air Forces and secure the defeat of France in just over six weeks. However, during the Battle of Dunkirk it experienced its first failure. Despite intense bombing it could not deliver Goring's promise to destroy the British Expeditionary Force, which escaped to continue the war.

During the Battle of Britain, the Nazi Luftwaffe experienced its first defeat. Despite causing severe damage to the Royal Air Force's infrastructure and Brtish cities during the subsequent Blitz, it failed to achieve the air superiority Hitler demanded for Operation Sealion. The invasion was cancelled in December 1940, when Hitler ordered preparations to be made for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. The following spring the Nazi Luftwaffe helped its Axis partner, Italy secure victory in the Balkans Campaign and continued to supprt the Italians in the Mediterranean, Middle East and African theatres until May 1945.

In June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Nazi Luftwaffe achieved huge operational successes, destroying thousands of Soviet aircraft. But it failed to destroy the Red Air Force. Due to a lack of Strategic bombers, the Nazi Luftwaffe could not stike at Soviet production centres regularly or with the needed force. As the war dragged on the Nazi Luftwaffe was erroded in strength. The defeats at the Battle of Stalingrad and Battle of Kursk ensured the gradual decline of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Meanwhile, the Nazi Luftwaffe continued to defend German-occupied Europe against the growing offensive power of RAF Bomber Command and the United States Army Air Forces. The Defense of the Reich campaign gradually destroyed the Nazi Luftwaffe's fighter arm. Despite using advanced Jet and rocket propelled aircraft, it was overwhelmed by Allied numbers and a lack of trained pilots and fuel. A last ditch attempt, known as "Operation Bodenplatte", to win air superiority on 1 January 1945 failed. Afterwards the Nazi Luftwaffe had ceased to be an effective fighting force.

Omissions and failures of the Lauftwaffe

Mistakes in command

The failure of the Nazi Luftwaffe in the "Defense of the Reich" campaign was a result of a number of factors. The build up of the Jagdwaffe was too rapid and its quality suffered. It was not put under a unified command until 1943, which also affected performance. Of the nine Jagdgeschwader in existence in 1939, no further units were built until 1942, and the years of 1940-1941 were wasted. The Oberkommando der Nazi Luftwaffe failed to construct a strategy, instead its command style was reactionary, and its measures not as effective without thorough planning. This was particularly apparent with the Sturmbock units which were armed with heavy 20 mm and 30 mm cannon to destroy heavy bombers. This increase in weight effected the performance of the Fw 190 and Bf 109 at a time when the two aircraft were meeting large numbers of equal if not superior Allied types

Mistakes in development and equipment

The greatest failure in terms of technological development was not to develop a long-range bomber and capable long-range fighters during this period leaving the Nazi Luftwaffe unable to conduct a meaningful strategic bombing campaign throughout the war. However this does not take into the account that the Blitzkrieg concept was defined and refined by Germany's economic situation which suffered from limited resources - mainly raw materials like oil and aluminium - which did not provide for much beyond a short decisive war. Thus the Lufwaffe reliance on a tactical medium range and short range dive-bombers was a rational option under these circumstances.

The RLM lacked a technical-tactical department, that would combine the two elements for better efficiency. As a result all fighter and bomber development was oriented toward short range aircraft, as they could be produced in greater numbers, rather than quality long range aircraft, something that put the Nazi Luftwaffe at a disadvantage as early as the Battle of Britain. Types that were obsolete were kept in production for far too long, in particular the Ju 87 Stuka, and the Bf 109. Production was also slow, not reaching total output until 1944. Production of fighters was not given priority until 1944. Adolf Galland said this should have occurred at least a year earlier. Galland also points to the mistakes made in the development of the Me 262 jet. Hitler had insisted it be used as a fighter-bomber. It could have entered service in 1943 when the outcome of the air-war was still in doubt.

Mistakes in pilot selection and training

Pilot Qualification badge
Pilot Qualification badge

The bomber arm was given preference and received the "better" pilots. Later fighter pilot leaders were few in numbers as a result of this. As with the late shift to fighter production, the Nazi Luftwaffe pilot schools did not give the fighter pilot schools preference soon enough. The Nazi Luftwaffe, the OKW argued was still an offensive weapon, and its primary focus was on producing bomber pilots. This attitude prevailed until the second half of 1943

Mistakes in leadership

At the beginning of the war commanders were replaced with younger commanders too quickly. These younger commanders had to learn "in the field" rather than entering a post fully qualified. Training of formation leaders was not systematical until 1943, which was far too late, with the Nazi Luftwaffe already stretched. The Nazi Luftwaffe thus lacked a cadre of Staff officers to setup, man and pass on experience

Luftwaffe organization

Luftwaffe commanders

Throughout the history of the Third Reich, the Nazi Luftwaffe had only two commanders-in-chief. The first was Hermann Göring, the second was Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim as the second (and last) commander-in-chief of the Nazi Luftwaffe, concomitant with his promotion to Generalfeldmarschall, the last German officer in World War II to be promoted to the highest rank. Other officers promoted to the second-highest military rank in Germany were Albert Kesselring, Hugo Sperrle, Erhard Milch, and Wolfram von Richthofen.

Göring was prosecuted at the Nuremberg Trials after the war. He was sentenced to death by Hanging. He appealed to the court requesting to be shot as a soldier instead of being hanged like a common criminal. The court refused. However Göring defied the sentence and committed suicide by taking Potassium Cyanide.

Sperrle was prosecuted at the OKW Trial, one of the last twelve of the Nuremberg Trials after the war. He was acquitted on all 4 counts of all charges. He died in Munich in 1953.

Organization and chain of command

At the start of the war the Nazi Luftwaffe had four Luftflotten ("air fleets"), each responsible for roughly a quarter of Germany. As the war progressed more air fleets were created as the areas under German rule expanded. Luftflotte 5 was created in 1940 to direct operations in Norway and Denmark, and other Luftflotten were created as necessary. Each Luftflotte would contain several Fliegerkorps with specialized tasks. Each Fliegerkorps would have attached to it a number of units, usually several Geschwader, but also independent Staffeln and Kampfgruppen

Collar tabs of a major in the Nazi Luftwaffe (1935-1945).
Collar tabs of a major in the Nazi Luftwaffe (1935-1945).

Each Geschwader had about 100 to 120 aircraft under its command, although these numbers tended to fluctuate greatly. Each Geschwader had a particular task (such as fighter, bomber, or transport) and were mostly equipped with aircraft appropriate for that task, although other types of aircraft were often attached.

A Geschwader was commanded by a Geschwaderkommodore, with the rank of either Major, Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) or Oberst (Colonel). Other "staff" officers within the unit with administrative duties included the adjutant, technical officer, and operations officer, who were usually (though not always) experienced aircrew or pilots still flying on operations. Other specialist staff were navigation, signals and intelligence personnel. A Stabschwarm (headquarters flight) was attached to each Geschwader.

Jagdgeschwader (Fighter wings) (JG) was a fighter Geschwader (literally "hunting wing"), typically equipped with Bf 109 or Fw 190 aircraft flying in the fighter or fighter-bomber roles. It consisted of groups (Gruppen), which in turn consisted of Jagdstaffel (fighter squadrons). Hence, Fighter Wing 1 was JG 1, its first group was I./JG 1 and its first squadron was 1./JG 1. JG 1 was operating the Heinkel He 162 at the end of the war. In the final two months, JG 1 lost 22 of them, mostly in crashes, resulting in ten pilots being killed and another six injured.

Each Gruppe was commanded by a Kommandeur, and a Staffel by a Staffelkapitãn. However, these were appointments, not ranks, within the Nazi Luftwaffe. Usually, the Kommodore would hold the rank of Oberstleutnant (lieutenant colonel) or, exceptionally, an Oberst (colonel). Even a Leutnant (second lieutenant) could find himself commanding a Staffel.

Similarly, a bomber wing was a Kampfgeschwader (KG), a night fighter wing was a Nachtjagdgeschwader (NJG), a dive-bomber wing was a Stukageschwader (StG), and units equivalent to those in RAF Coastal Command, with specific responsibilities for coastal patrols and search and rescue duties, were Küstenfliegergruppen (Kü.Fl. Gr.). Specialist bomber groups were known as Kampfgruppen (KGr).

Luftwaffe ground forces

One of the unique characteristics of the Nazi Luftwaffe (as opposed to other independent air forces) was the possession of an organic paratrooper force called Fallschirmjäger. These were established in 1938. They saw action in their proper role during 1940-1941, most notably in the capture of the Belgian army fortress at Eben-Emael and the Battle of the Netherlands in May 1940, and during the invasion of Crete in May 1941. However, more than 4,000 Fallschirmjäger were killed during the Crete operation. Aterwards, these forces were only used for smaller-scale operations, such as the successful rescue of Benito Mussolini, the then-deposed dictator of Italy, in 1943. Fallschirmjäger formations were used as standard foot infantry in all theatres of the war. During 1942 surplus Nazi Luftwaffe personnel was used to form the Nazi Luftwaffe Field Divisions. From 1943, the Nazi Luftwaffe also had an armoured paratroop division called Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring, which was expanded to a Panzerkorps in 1944.

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