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Action

On August 22nd, 1939, Hitler addressed his commanders-in-chief at Berchtesgaden with the words:

‘… I have witnessed the miserable worms Chamberlain and Daladier in Munich; they will be too cowardly to attack and will go no further than blockade. Poland will be depopulated and colonised with Germans ö and besides, Gentlemen, in Russia will happen what I have practised in Poland. After Stalin’s death—he is seriously ill—we will crush the Soviet Union.’

These in a nutshell were Hitler’s aims and objects on the verge of World War II. It is recorded that at the end of the meeting ‘Göring leapt on a table and gave bloodthirsty thanks and bloody promises; he jumped around like a savage.’ The Feldmarschall, it seems, would have been better employed in a Shakespearean play than in his task as head of the Luftwaffe.

The eve of war on September 2nd saw the German Air Force in excellent shape for a short-term close-support conflict over land. It was tailored to destroy and move forward with the ground troops. Air superiority was a necessity to this end. The basic equipment, layout, supply organisation and command were almost exactly those which a year later were to be fighting bitterly for supremacy in the skies over England.

By January 16th, 1939, the Luftwaffe had completed the large-scale reorganisation required by a rapid expansion in both the forces and the area covered. Within the High Command Milch’s star was again in the ascendant with his post of Secretary of State supplemented by that of Inspector General. After Kesselring and Stumpff had successively held the office of Chief of Air Staff, the task in February 1939 devolved on General Jeschonnek, an ardent supporter of the high-speed medium bomber and Stuka theories.

New commands had been created to take the place of the Gruppen-kommandos. These emerged as three Luftflotten, or air fleets. They were No. 1 with headquarters at Berlin under General Kesselring, No. 2 at Brunswick under General Felmy and No. 3 at Munich under General Sperrle. There was an additional Air Command in East Prussia subordinate to Luftflotte 1, and in March Luftflotte 4 was inaugurated with headquarters at Vienna. This was commanded by General Loehr, who had come over from the Austrian Air Force after the Anschluss.

Each Luftflotten was a self-contained force with all fighter, bomber and other elements. This was in contrast to the reorganisation of the R.A.F. in 1936 when commands were based on function, i.e. Bomber Command, Fighter Command and so on. It was the integration of all forces in a Luftflotte which led to the great successes in Poland, Belgium and France but which also stultified fighter and bomber operational development along their own specialised lines. It was also the chief reason why adequate fighter defence was not prepared in Germany and not appreciated by the High Command in its dealings with the R.A.F. Luftflotte strength varied according to the task to be undertaken. The basic average was 1,000 aircraft.

Administration and supply for each Luftflotte were carried out by the appropriate Luftgaue (air district) which were extended as more territory was conquered. Within the Luftflotten were the operational complements to the Luftgaue, known as Fliegerkorps, or Fliegerdivisionen. Each air fleet at the outbreak of war contained about two of these ‘air divisions’ and between two and three Luftgau commands.

The flying personnel of the Luftwaffe were separated from the adminstrative and supply N.C.O.s and officers. In the R.A.F. a promotion from squadron commander to the rank of wing commander would often mean becoming O.C. of a station but in the Luftwaffe the station commander was a non-flying man provided by the Luftgau. If a flying unit was based on his airfield its commander had precedence over him. He possessed real control only when the airfield was empty. From the supply and administration aspect this system was useful but it also tended in wartime to cause ill-feeling where an operational station in the thick of the fight was nominally run by a non-flying officer.

In the Fliegerkorps itself, the basic unit was a Gruppe (group) which approximated to the British wing, and mustered about thirty aircraft. The Gruppen were normally combined into a Geschwader of some 90–120 machines which was roughly equivalent in strength, but not in layout, to an R.A.F. Group. Within the Gruppe the prime unit was a Staffel with nine aircraft, this being smaller than the average British fighter squadron which had sixteen machines.

At the outbreak of the war there was no lack of trained air crew in the German Air Force and the reserve situation was satisfactory. This was largely due to Milch’s original policy of concentration on trainer aircraft production and on expanding training bases and facilities. Luftwaffe personnel, excluding those in Flak batteries, totalled nearly 600,000, of which about 15 per cent were aircrew and a further 15 per cent were undergoing training. The schools in 1939 were turning out between 10,000 and 15,000 pilots a year from about 100 schools.

The strength of the Luftwaffe on September 2nd, 1939, as shown in the Quartermaster General’s returns, was 4,204 planes including 552 transport aircraft and sundry army co-operation machines.

Reserves varied from 10 to 25 per cent according to the time the type had been in production. There were plenty of He 111 and Do 17 bombers but there were no Ju 88s because the machine was only just coming off the line in its final version.

In addition to air force equipment, the so-called naval Gruppen had a motley collection of 240 flying-boats, seaplanes and land-based aircraft mainly for reconnaissance.

Although the most up-to-date air force in Europe, the Luftwaffe had too few aircraft reserves to fight a long war. The necessity for short campaigns with a low attrition rate was accentuated by three other factors: shortages of oil, bombs and flak ammunition. Although stocks of oil had been accumulated, they were insufficient for heavy fighting on two fronts such as Poland and France, and the possibility of joint action by Britain and France to aid Poland was accepted by the High Command as a calculated risk.

As it turned out, the Allies made no move against Germany in 1939, and the stocks of oil captured in Poland were sufficient to replace the amount used. The long period of the ‘phony war’ enabled the Luftwaffe to conserve its resources and store current production for the attack in the west.

Unknown to the British and French intelligence authorities, Germany in September 1939 was suffering from an acute lack of bombs. The exact figures are not available but the stocks of all calibres were sufficient only for about three weeks’ sustained operations. In the Polish campaign some 60 per cent of these were expended.

Milch had repeatedly tried to get bomb production a higher priority. On July 1st, 1939, while Hitler was inspecting prototype aircraft at the Rechlin experimental station, he had broached the subject with the Führer, much to the annoyance of Göring. Hitler speciously commented that he had no intention of getting involved in a general war, and that bomb production could wait.

Milch pressed his arguments at dinner at Hitler’s headquarters in Silesia on September 12th and on several occasions between then and early October but with no result.

It was not until October 12th, over a month after war began, that Hitler finally agreed to a full-scale programme for air force munitions. Milch was placed in charge although he suggested it was Udet’s job.

On the same night Milch called a meeting of industrialists, steel, explosives and other experts, in his office at the Air Ministry to plan an emergency programme on munitions. As an interim measure he ordered the production of large quantities of concrete-casing bombs fabricated in moulds. Although several million of these weapons were made between October 1939 and mid-1941, they were not used in any quantity against Britain because nine months conventional bomb programme was sandwiched into six months in good time for the western offensive.

If the Allies had appreciated the position in September and had launched heavy attacks against German military targets the Luftwaffe would have been hard put to it to retaliate.

Apart from these temporary shortcomings, the Luftwaffe went to war with six major defects:

1 An inadequate production programme.

2 No four-engined long-range bombers.

3 Insufficient range for its standard day fighter, the Me 109, and a twin-engined long-range fighter, the Me 110, which was very vulnerable against modern single-engined interceptors.

4 Very little radar equipment; no operational experience in its use, or in radar counter-measures, and a shortage of electronics specialists at all levels.

5 No adequate ground control for fighter aircraft.

6 A shortage of good officers in the middle echelons such as at wing commander and group captain level.

The production programme did not really get under way until Milch took over in 1941 after Udet’s suicide. It was then too late. After the French campaign in May 1940 the industry spent much of its time diversifying in the mistaken belief that the war was over. One well-known aircraft company in 1940 built prefabricated aluminium huts for troops who were supposed to occupy most of Africa, while another made aluminium ships, and extending ladders for the Rhineland vineyards. This material should have gone into aeroplanes, but because of the lack of control of raw materials by Udet’s directorate considerable wastage occurred.

Germany never succeeded in producing a good heavy bomber after the cancellation of the Ju 89 and Do 19 in 1937—the main effort being poured into the Heinkel 177, a mechanical monstrosity which probably killed more crews in accidents than on operations. Its delivery was years late. If a good four-engined bomber had been available in quantity in 1939 to 1940 the Luftwaffe could have been a considerable nuisance to British ports and shipping. Many of the German fighter escort problems during Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain would have been solved.

The Me 110 was supposed to be the Luftwaffe’s best long-range fighter. It was very successful until put up against modern single-seaters like the Spitfire when it became obsolescent except in a night-fighter role. The Me 109 was undoubtedly one of the finest interceptors in the world in September 1939, but its range was far too short. Drop-tanks would have answered the problem but the fighter pilots felt they were dangerous and put them at a disadvantage if ‘jumped’ by the enemy. Contrary to general belief, jettisonable long-range fuel tanks for the Me 109 were produced during the early stages of the war. They were, however, made of plywood and storage in the open during an advance caused the sun to split the wood and the rain to rot the glue. The result was that they were very unreliable and were scrapped.

While German signals troops had reached a very high pitch of efficiency and had gained field experience in Spain, Austria and Czechoslovakia, there was virtually no radar for offence or defence. Little had been done to prepare counter-measures against a possible enemy with electronic detection devices.

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The crew of a Ju 88 study the map before a raid on Poland in 1939

Radar in Germany began in 1934–5 but at the instigation of the Navy, not the Air Force. The requirement was for two sets, one for gun ranging and target search at sea, the other for air surveillance. The Navy posted an engineer officer to the radio firm of Telefunken to produce a development programme. Instead of continuing with Telefunken, however, the Navy turned to a newly formed company, GEMA, for both development and manufacture. This firm had to start from scratch which considerably lengthened the gestation period.

In 1936 the Flak arm and the Air Force became interested in radar. In that year General Martini saw a demonstration of the GEMA surveillance unit, Freya, which worked on a wavelength of 2.4 metres—considerably shorter than the British Chain Home stations. As a result, the Luftwaffe ordered twelve sets. Meanwhile Lorenz A. G., of Stuttgart, entered the field with an anti-aircraft radar for the Army Weapons Division. In 1937 Telefunken again came on the scene with a contract from the Air Ministry for a combined surveillance and anti-aircraft equipment.

Development was slow, because specifications were constantly changing, numerous departments from the ministries interfered, and there was no co-operation between the firms involved.

It was not until July 1939 that the German Air Ministry wireless section sorted out a simpler surveillance specification which Telefunken could meet. A laboratory set of what was to be named ‘Wurzburg’ was then demonstrated to Hitler and Göring at Rechlin. Some idea of the lack of direction at high level or of any effective radar programme can be gained from the fact that the official responsible for the anti-aircraft warning service was not invited to the demonstration.

Telefunken was ordered to modify its set for one-man operation and 800 Würzburgs were ordered. Simultaneously a contract was placed with GEMA for 200 Freyas.

Production was still delayed because of continual modifications and a complete lack of urgency in the ministries. The work of the scientists was excellent. They proved that radar worked, but in their watertight compartments without any co-ordinating body like the British Tizard Committee, they tended to make very sophisticated sets with built-in problems. A simpler approach with drive behind it would have yielded better results.

British radar was far more crude than that of Germany in 1939, but it worked and was proved operationally. These, in electronics, are the only two things that matter. Very advanced ideas are only useful if they are available off the production line when they are wanted.

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An Me 109E being prepared for an exercise just before the war. The unit is 2./JG20

While Britain had a C.H. radar watch twenty-four hours a day round the south and east of the country on September 3rd, 1939, Germany was setting up one or two experimental Freya units on the North Sea coast with a range of seventy-five miles and no indication of altitude.

Throughout the operational installation and development period of German radar, all branches of the service connected with it suffered from an acute shortage of skilled manpower. This was almost entirely due to Göbbels, who had seen fit to ban all amateur radio operators shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. The excuse given was that of countering subversive elements during the anti-Communist purge, but the order was never rescinded.

Until the end of the war Germany was short of good quality radio and radar operators and engineers in complete contrast to Britain, where literally thousands of radio ‘hams’ with first-class working knowledge joined the services and the research establishments.

While communications generally in the Luftwaffe were good, no attempt was made to evolve close ground control of fighters for defence. The basic radar and radio sector system of the R.A.F. did not exist in Germany. Consequently, with the accent on blitzkrieg tactics, fighter operations suffered badly. The discovery of the R.A.F.’s close-knit system in the summer of 1940 came as a distinct shock to the Luftflotten involved, but little was done at High Command level until 1941 when a conference in Russia thrashed out the problem for the first time.

The whole Luftwaffe signals and radar set-up suffered continually from lack of co-operation between departments and open clashes at top level. Milch wanted to absorb signals into the general body of the Luftwaffe and make signals officers into aircrew if necessary for their general training, but this, of course, would never have worked. Martini managed skilfully to keep his autonomy throughout the war though his department was never given the backing and authority it needed. One of the main explanations of this was the complete lack of technical, and particularly electronics, knowledge in the Luftwaffe High Command. Men with sound scientific qualifications were passed over in favour of those with an impressive military career. The hub of the problem could be found in Commander-in-Chief Göring himself, who loathed technicalities of any sort and was totally unable to understand them.

Finally, the abandoning of Milch’s ten-year training plans and the early onset of war left the Luftwaffe with a lack of middle echelon men with really good backgrounds. On the one side there were plenty of brave young men to control Staffeln. On the other there was no shortage of ex-army and World War I air force officers to fill the higher ranks and the acres of offices in the Air Ministry.

The younger men needed years to accumulate the experience for organisation rather than fighting while the upper ranks were often hidebound and lacked air force knowledge. In the middle were a limited number of first-class officers equivalent to R.A.F. wing commanders and group captains. For these there were no adequate replacements. Each one killed or captured meant the loss of a future Geschwader or Luftflotte commander, or of a reliable staff officer.

It was in the Battle of Britain that this became painfully evident. The losses at this level affected the structure of the Luftwaffe for the rest of the war.

Despite all these problems, which could only be manifest with time, the German Air Force was launched against Poland on September 1st, 1939, with high hopes of success. In his order of the day, Göring stated:

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The wreckage of a Polish hangar after the Luftwaffe had passed

‘Born of the spirit of the German airmen in the First World War, inspired by faith in our Führer and Commander-in-Chief—thus stands the German Air Force today, ready to carry out every command of the Führer with lightning speed and undreamed-of might.’

He was not disappointed. In twenty-eight days the campaign in Poland was over. Luftflotten 1 and 4 with a total of 1,538 aircraft destroyed a large part of the Polish Air Force on the ground on the first day of the campaign, gaining complete air supremacy on the second. From September 3rd onwards the Air Force devoted itself to the destruction of the Polish ground forces as the German Army moved forward.

On September 25th came the first large-scale bombing of a major city—Warsaw. On the 27th it capitulated and the myth of the invincible Stuka was born.

This, indeed, was a lightning war. An air force of 400 first-line machines was almost completely destroyed in two days and a country of over thirty-one million occupied in four weeks. Luftwaffe losses were only nineteen aircraft on operations during the whole of the month. So little air opposition was encountered in the later phases of the battle that most fighter units were turned over to ground strafing.

To the Luftwaffe Poland was visible proof of the success of blitzkrieg and the overwhelming superiority of the air arm. To Göring all propaganda claims were vindicated, but in fact the Luftwaffe, although executing a highly efficient attack, learned nothing. The Polish Air Force was inferior in numbers by one to three, largely obsolescent and without any adequate warning system.

Because of the ineptitude and weakness of French and British politicians no air action was taken against Germany from French or British bases. In attacking Poland the Luftwaffe greatly reduced its fighter and bomber forces in the west. The intervention of the R.A.F. and Armée de l’Air could have meant the withdrawal of major fighter units from the east with a consequent easing of the pressure on Polish ground troops and communications.

After September the Luftwaffe deliberately conserved its strength in the west against the forthcoming attack on France and the Low Countries. Only a few units were allowed to engage in air combat and there existed a standing order forbidding the frontier to be crossed. Inactivity on the part of the Armée de l’Air and the R.A.F. Advanced Air Striking Force was a godsend to the German Air Force. Fuel, bomb and munitions stocks were built up, new units formed and a complete organisation arranged for the rapid transfer of supplies and fuel to new western bases in preparation for an advance.

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Bombs falling from a Heinkel 111 over a target in Poland

Hitler’s new objective after Poland was an attack through France and the Low Countries. He was anxious to undertake this as quickly as possible before there was any improvement in the Anglo-French armaments position. It was at first planned that the French invasion should take place in the autumn of 1939 despite vigorous protests from various sections of the Luftwaffe which were still short of supplies.

In a memorandum to his chiefs of staff dated October 9th, 1939, Hitler remarked: ‘The attack is to take place in all circumstances (if at all possible) this autumn.’ Adverse weather conditions through the autumn and winter, however, meant repeated postponement of the date, much to the relief of the General Staff. When the spring appeared the most opportune time to, launch the offensive, planning and preparation were geared to this end.

In the meantime, the High Command had become anxious about its open flank to the north. Norway and Denmark could become a springboard for Allied attacks, thus facing Germany with a war on two fronts. Under conditions of utmost secrecy plans were drawn up for simultaneous surprise attacks on both neutral countries which, if successful, would provide bases for German air and sea warfare against Britain. Already the German High Command envisaged full-scale operations against England. The memorandum of October 9th by Hitler recorded that ‘The German Air Force cannot succeed in efficient operations against the industrial centres of England and her southern and south-west ports until it is no longer compelled to operate offensively from our present small North Sea coast by extremely devious routes involving long flights.’

By the end of March 1940 the Danish-Norwegian campaign had been organised in minute detail and an order was issued to the forces concerned by the commander of Fliergerkorps X, General Geisler, under the heading Operation Weser.

Surprise attacks were to be launched at dawn from the sea on seven Norwegian harbours while German troops at the same time occupied the whole of Denmark and made landings at Copenhagen and on the Danish islands. The Luftwaffe support for Denmark was to consist of massive demonstrations of strength in the hope that Göbbel’s propaganda efforts would prove sufficient to cow the population into surrender.

Five hundred combat aircraft and 500 Ju 52 transports were allocated for the invasion of Norway. The Ju 52s were divided into a force of 160 machines from fully trained units for parachute attacks, and 340 were drawn from training establishments which acted as the air supply train for the whole operation.

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Generaloberst Ernst Udet, Director General of Air Force Equipment from 1939 to 1941

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Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek, Chief of the General Staff of the Air Force, 1939–43

On April 7th, 1940, reconnaissance aircraft surveyed British naval bases and searched the North Sea in case the Royal Navy had wind of the impending attack. All was quiet, and on the following day Göring delivered an after-dinner speech to his commanders outlining the prospects for the campaign and the methods to be used.

Promptly at 5 a.m. on April 9th, the German Army swept into Denmark by sea and land. The country fell within twelve hours. In Norway, as the seaborne forces fought their way ashore, paratroops and airborne infantry occupied the Stavanger and Oslo airfields following the destruction of the small Norwegian Air Force on the ground.

As in Poland, the Air Force was obliterated before it could get into the air, and the surprise of co-ordinated attack disrupted ground defence. By April 10th four airfields were in German hands and were operating Stukas and fighters. Close watch was kept on the North Sea using the four-engined Focke-Wulf 200 for the first time. On the opening day of the attacks, Milch, as Inspector General, flew to Aalborg in Denmark in his converted Do 17. On the 12th Göring appointed him temporarily to command the Luftwaffe in Norway with supervisory powers over ground and naval forces.

By April 15th, when the first British landings took place in northern Norway, the Luftwaffe was firmly established and retained full command of the air despite later gallant efforts by No. 263 Squadron’s Gladiators and many long-range sorties by Bomber Command.

The Allied landings caused the Luftwaffe hurriedly to strengthen its forces in Norway in the second half of April. By the beginning of May there were 710 combat aircraft on the scene, including 360 long-range bombers and 50 dive-bombers.

The main Allied troops were withdrawn from central Norway on May 2nd and 3rd but in the Narvik area fighting continued with very effective operations by Nos. 46 and 263 Squadrons with Hurricanes and Gladiators respectively. Despite the Narvik problem the Luftwaffe was already perfecting its Norwegian communications and airfields and had set up a full air maintenance unit. On April 24th the staff of a new Luftflotte, No. 5, was flown from Hamburg to Oslo to be followed at the end of the month by their commander, Generaloberst Stumpf. The organisation was already in train for the forthcoming air assault on Britain.

The Norwegian campaign finally closed on June 10th when Narvik was reoccupied by German troops. It had been another brilliant blitzkrieg but with some setbacks from Allied intervention. Luftwaffe losses during the period of the main operations, the month of April, totalled 256, although a few of these were incurred over France and Britain.

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Generalleutnant Wever, first Luftwaffe Chief of General Staff. Killed 1936

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General der Nachtrichtenfuhrer Martini, head of Luftwaffe Signals

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Generaloberst Stumpff, commanded Luftflotte 5 in the Battle of Britain

Significant factors were the loss of 54 bombers and 35 Ju 52s on operations, and 25 bombers and 33 transports from causes other than enemy action. Although these losses were not severe in numbers they included many of the best crews trained on radio-beam bombing who belonged to Kampfgruppe 100. This unit was thrown into the Norwegian campaign as an ordinary day-bomber unit when it should have been held in reserve for the assault on Britain where long-range beam sorties were to be the order of the day. KGr. 100 had to be completely re-formed for the Battle of Britain and the night blitz using less competent crews. This had a marked effect on the speed of introduction and efficiency of blind bombing.

While operations progressed in Norway the stage had been set for a much greater drama, the assault on France and the Low Countries. Quietly, many units of Luftflotte 5 had been withdrawn early in May and transferred to Luftflotten 2 and 3 under Generals Kesselring and Stumpff respectively.

Luftflotte 2 with Fliegerkorps I and IV and Fliegerdivision IX were to work with Army Group B under von Bock. Luftflotte 3 co-operated with Army Group A under von Rundstedt and Army Group C which faced the Maginot Line. Under Luftflotte 3 came Fliegerkorps II, V and VIII.

For the attacks on Holland and Belgium and for air supply, 475 Ju 52s and forty-five gliders were amassed. These came under the command of a staff known as Zur Besonderen Verwendung (z.b.V.), or Special Operations Group, under General Putzier. The air-landing operations were directed by General Student, who formed the first battalions of the German paratroops in the autumn of 1938.

In all, the Germans had 3,914 serviceable machines* for the campaign in the west out of their total strength of 5,142. About 3,500 of these were used in the assault. This was the largest number of aircraft ever to be used by the Luftwaffe for a single campaign. The bulk of the force was employed on a front of only 200 miles.

The whole strategic concept of the offensive differed from that in Poland. Instead of encirclement, a huge armoured spearhead was to be thrust forward with maximum concentrated air support.

In order to maintain the flying units as they leapfrogged forward, the German Air Force devised a system whereby special Luftgau staffs were organised prior to the offensive so as to act as spearheads for administration and supply. These mobile staffs were to press on close behind the army ground units to reconnoitre and develop airfields and to improvise supplies to these sites so that combat units could fly from them in the shortest possible time. In general, one of these special staffs was allocated to each Fliegerkorps.

Despite the overall plans for attack having fallen into Allied hands in January through the forced landing of a German communications aircraft in Belgium, the High Command, and Hitler in particular, were convinced that surprise could still be achieved and that the Allies were ill-prepared to meet the proposed blitzkrieg movements. The risks were great but the fruits of victory would be incalculable.

The Führer’s prophecies held good and on May 10th the avalanche descended on Belgium, Holland and France.

* This figure was made up of 1,120 bombers, 343 Stukas, 42 ground attack aircraft, 248 twin-engined fighters, 1,016 single-engined fighters, 591 reconnaissance aircraft, 401 transports and 154 seaplanes

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