Film Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old movie poster.jpg

Utilizing the latest in film restoration and colorization techniques, renowned directed Sir Peter Jackson has brought to life the films of World War I battlefields.

By Seth Marshall

            In the past 5-6 years, a number of films have sprung forth which focus on the First World War, presumably to exploit the fact that the centennial era of that colossal conflict was at hand. Many of these films, some set in fact, others not, succeeded or failed to various degrees. Few have successfully related the origins, events, and consequences of World War I. That war was so huge, so all-encompassing and it’s effects so far-reaching that it is difficult for singular films to fully express its entirety. More effective films have aimed a level below- to describe how a specific nation or people experienced the war. In 2018, Sir Peter Jackson, the well-known director who filmed The Lord of the Rings trilogy during the late 1990s and early 2000s, released his tribute to the First World War, They Shall Not Grow Old. At long last, this author has seen the film and now dedicates some writing space to a review.

            It is worth noting for the outset to American audiences that this film is not about the Americans. It is about the British Expeditionary Force, and how they experienced that war. If you, an American, wish to know about the American experience, I would highly recommend that you watch PBS’ series The Great War, or perhaps read The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and their Forgotten World War, by Richard Rubin. Mr. Rubin’s book in particular is a fantastic portrait of American involvement in the war, and features as its centerpiece interviews with the last remaining American veterans of the First World War. Rubin made this interviews during the early- to mid-2000s, when hundreds then dozens were still living.

            I digress. What Peter Jackson has done with his latest film, They Shall Not Grow Old, is to bridge our present with the world of the First World War. Never have I seen with such striking clarity life in the trenches. Using a variety of modern film techniques, Jackson stabilized jerky pictures, he cleaned up frames to increase fidelity, employed one of the best colorization teams in the world, and even went so far as to bring on criminal investigators who specialized in literally reading lips- in doing so, he was able to determine what the soldiers being filmed were saying, and then had English actors speak the dialogue to lend additional authenticity. Through over 90 minutes of film, not once does a narrator appear on screen. Jackson tells his story entirely through the effects of these old films and through the actual words of veterans from the war. Using recordings made by the Imperial War Museum and the BBC during the 1950s and 1960s for anniversaries, Jackson is able to use the words of these veterans to produce his narrative.

            Viewers should watch the film with the expectation that it will inform them on all aspects of the First World War, or even that it presents a timeline of events, battles, or campaigns. Jackson himself comments on this in a special feature, saying that the war was far too large and complex to cram into 90-120 minutes. For example, the air war, the war at sea, the home front, cultural and societal issues, just to name a few, are not discussed. Instead of a large history of the First World War, Jackson instead chose to produce a microhistory of how the typical British soldier experienced the war, and he showcases it with brilliant film restoration. As the director commented in a special feature, They Shall Not Grow Old is a film made by a non-historian for non-historian. In spite of this, Jackson has created a fantastic micro-history of life as the British soldiers experienced it in the trenches. Jackson’s interest in the war is profound- he owns a collection of First World War aircraft, uniforms, and weapons. Amazingly, his own collection was used during the production- uniforms and pieces of kit were examined and compared with their black & white equals on-screen, then the colors from the real-life examples were used by the colorization team to improve the realism of the revitalized film. Jackson’s weapons, including guns and artillery, were used to provide accurate sounds of the battlefield.

            Many documentaries and TV specials in the past 10-15 years had used colorization as a tool to try and bring to life (at least for contemporary audiences) old wars anew. More often than not, these efforts are done quickly and cheaply, often without care for cleaning up footage matching sounds, and often without even using available interviews from those who were there. These films may tell a historical narrative, but they lack the kind of craftsmanship which Jackson has demonstrated with They Shall Not Grow Old. This film is something special- it’s quite rare to see such attention to detail. I can only hope that with the methods used in this film, Jackson or perhaps others will go on to make more outstanding productions. For the reader, I strongly recommend seeing this film. Its merits are such that even an American audience would be impressed at its presentation.

 

Tools of War: The Messerschmitt Me-109

A restored Bf-109G-6. Photo source: Wikipedia.

A restored Bf-109G-6. Photo source: Wikipedia.

In the mid-1930s, the Messerschmidt firm produced the Me-109, at the time one of the most advanced fighters in service anywhere in the world. Ten years later in 1945, the Me-109 remained in service with the Luftwaffe and had become the most prolific fighter ever built by any air force in military history, and was the aircraft flown by many of the Luftwaffe’s successful aces.

By Seth Marshall

            There were many iconic fighter aircraft which emerged from the Second World War- the North American P-51 Mustang, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, and the Yakovlev Yak-9. Among this list must be included the Messerschmitt Me-109, which would become the most-produced fighter in the history of military aviation. First flown in 1935, the aircraft would remain in production in Germany until the end of the war in 1945, and post-war variants would continue to be built for years in both Spain and Czechoslovakia. The Luftwaffe’s most successful aces flew the small fighter, accumulating hundreds of aerial victories. In spite of this history, the Me-109 had its beginnings in a small passenger aircraft.

                The Messerschmitt company had been around in some form since 1916, though it operated under other names prior to the late 1930s. In 1927, Willi Messerschmitt joined the company, at the time called Bayerische Flugzeugwerke Allgemeine Gesellschaft (BFW) as its chief designer. Unfortunately, several early designs failed miserably, and by 1931 the company was in bankruptcy. Two years later, the company was revived and work began on a low-wing monoplane design capable of carrying four passengers and equipped with retractable landing gear. The design was completed and first flown in 1934 as the Bf-108 Taifun, and attracted attention at international flying events.[1] Before the Bf-108 had made its first flight, the Messerschmitt firm learned that a specification was about to be issued for a new fighter aircraft by the Reichsluftfarhtministerium (RLM). Among the competitors, aside from BFW, were Arado, Focke-Wulf and Heinkel, all of which were more established companies.[2] The new aircraft was to be powered by a Junkers Jumo 210 engine and be capable of reaching at least 280 mph.[3] However, from the outset of the project, there was little to suggest that BFW would win the contract, since Erhard Milch, the head of the RLM, had a bitter rivalry with Messerschmitt. Still work progressed- the design team, lead by Messerschmitt, used many of the features which had been in place on the Bf-108. The new fighter, in addition to possessing the low wing and retractable landing gear which its predecessor had, featured an enclosed cockpit, all-metal construction, flush rivets, leading-edge wing slats, and trailing-edge wing flaps.[4]

One of the prototype Bf-109s exhibiting the large radiator beneath the nose, characteristic of early 109s. Photo source: Wikipedia.

One of the prototype Bf-109s exhibiting the large radiator beneath the nose, characteristic of early 109s. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Wilhelm ‘Willi’ Emil Messerschmitt was born in 1898 in Frankfurt am Main. He got his start designing gliders in World War I and started his own aircraft firm in the 1920s. His 1934 design of the 109 was his culminating achievement in aircraft design. He would die in 1978 at the age of 80. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Wilhelm ‘Willi’ Emil Messerschmitt was born in 1898 in Frankfurt am Main. He got his start designing gliders in World War I and started his own aircraft firm in the 1920s. His 1934 design of the 109 was his culminating achievement in aircraft design. He would die in 1978 at the age of 80. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The Focke-Wulf FW 159, the nearest competitor to the Bf-109. The design was ill-fated- after a crash in 1935, the type lost a competition with the Bf 109. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The Focke-Wulf FW 159, the nearest competitor to the Bf-109. The design was ill-fated- after a crash in 1935, the type lost a competition with the Bf 109. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                The prototype Bf-109 (known as the Bf-109V-1) was completed in August 1935. Owing to a shortage of Junkers Jumo engines at the time, the first Bf-109 was fitted with a Rolls-Royce Kestrel engine, the same engine which powered the Stuka. The first flight of the new aircraft occurred September at Rechlin, the RLM’s testing center. Shortly after the first flight, a second prototype was built with the Junkers engine and strengthened landing gear. Flight testing revealed an aircraft which performed above the standards outlined in the RLM specification, but it did suffer from high wing-loading, which limited its maneuverability at lower altitudes. The new fighter proved much more promising than two of its competitors, the Arado Ar-80 and Focke-Wulf FW-159. Ten pre-production versions, designated Bf-109B-0s, were immediately ordered.[5]  At the same time, ten examples of the remaining competing aircraft, the Heinkel He 112 were ordered.[6] This order was later followed with thirty production models, the first of which were delivered in February 1937. These production variants had a 680-hp Jumo 210D engine, two machine guns, and a two-bladed propeller.[7]

                At the same time that the Bf-109B was being developed, the Spanish Civil War broke out. In November, the Condor Legion was formed from volunteers from the Luftwaffe and dispatched to Spain in support of Francisco Franco’s Nationalists. However, the Soviet Union had also dispatched their own pilots and aircraft to support Republican forces, and Condor Legion pilots quickly discovered that their Heinkel He-51 biplane fighters were entirely outclassed by Soviet-supplied Polikarpov I-15 biplane and I-16 monoplane fighters. As a stopgap measure, the fourth prototype Bf-109 was rushed to Spain, quickly followed by the first three Bf-109B-1s in early 1937.  The newer B-1s could reach 292 mph and had a ceiling of 30,000ft.[8] The first Bf-109 unit to be formed was the second Staffel of Jagdgruppe 88 (2.J/88), commanded by Gunther Lutzow.[9] The pilots of 2.J/88 found that the arrangement of the new fighter’s landing gear caused accidents on take-off and landing- this was an issue which would never be solved during the Bf-109’s operational life. However, it was found that by using the rudder to compensate for the fighter’s flaws offered a fix, and preparations continued for combat missions. The first operation occurred on July 8, 1937 over the Brunete salient.[10] The first kills scored by the aircraft were made one the first mission- Leutnant Rolf Pingel and Unteroffizier Guido Hӧness each shot down a Soviet-suppplied Tupolev SB-2 bomber. On July 12th,  Hӧness shot down two Aero A-101s, Pingel shot down another SB-2 and an I-16, while Feldwebels Peter Boddem and Adolf Buhl each shot down a I-16. The same day, Hӧness was shot down and killed, becoming the first Bf-109 pilot to be killed in combat.[11] In time, the Condor Legion was equipped with some 20 Bf-109s.[12] Legion pilots began developing tactics which would prove to be crucial to early Luftwaffe successes in World War II. Spearheaded by Werner Mӧlders, Legion pilots began flying in formations known as the Rotte, Schwarm, and Staffel.[13] The Rotte was the most basic fighter formation, composed of two aircraft , with the wingman positioned at a 45-degree angle to the rear of the leader. While the lead aircraft would look out for enemy aircraft ahead, the wingman would keep a watch for enemy aircraft to the rear.[14] The Schwarm was two Rotte put together, with one Rotte arrayed slightly ahead other and staggered the opposite direction. The Schwarm would eventually be adapted by both the RAF and the USAAF during the war. These formations, larger and more spaced out than previous ones in air forces and allowed for greater flexibility in operations.[15] These tactics proved their success over Spain- between July and August 1938, Condor Legion fighters shot down 29 Republican aircraft.[16]

One of the first 109s dispatched to Spain, wearing its Kondor Legion markings. Photo source: Wikipedia.

One of the first 109s dispatched to Spain, wearing its Kondor Legion markings. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                As combat over Spain continued, Messerschmitt proceeded with further development of the fighter. In the spring of 1938, the Bf-109C-1 arrived in Spain, equipped with a fuel-injected Jumo 210Ga engine and four machine guns. A later modification included a fifth machine gun mounted in the engine, firing through the propeller hub. In August 1938, the first Bf-109Ds began to arrive in Spain- these new aircraft combined the carburetor-equipped Jumo 210Da engine of the B-1 with the four-gun armament of the C-1.[17] A series of updates would result in the Bf-109E-1- the Jumo engine was replaced with fuel-injected 1,100hp Daimler-Benz DB 601A engines, which caused the deletion of the large radiator at the front of the aircraft and installation of small radiators beneath both wings.[18]  The new engine gave a top speed of 354 mph and a combat radius of approximately 365 miles.[19] Four machine guns were now standard- two MG 17 7.92mm machine guns in the nose, and one in each wing. The two-bladed propeller was replaced with a three-bladed variable pitch propeller.[20] All of these changes improved the 109’s performance- when the new “Emil” began reaching units in the late summer of 1939, it was arguably the best fighter aircraft in the world.

A Bf-109 undergoing maintentenace during late 1939 or early 1940. Judging by its appearance, this is a Bf-109E-1. Photo source: Wikipedia.

A Bf-109 undergoing maintentenace during late 1939 or early 1940. Judging by its appearance, this is a Bf-109E-1. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the Luftwaffe had on hand 946 operational Bf-109s of all types. The 109 quickly proved itself superior to anything the Polish Air Force had- its most modern aircraft was the PZL P. 11, a parasol-wing fighter which was at one time in the mid-1930s considered one of the most modern fighters. Now, however, it was hopelessly outclassed by the Bf-109. Months later, the 109 again demonstrated its superiority against Denmark, then against the Low Countries and France. The Dutch Air Force had the Fokker D. XXI, a low-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear, while the French had the Dewoitine D.520 and the Morane-Saulnier M.S.406, both of which were low-wing monoplanes with retractable landing gear. Both the Fokker and Morane-Saulnier were outclassed by the 109- only the Dewoitine offered a relatively even chance against the 109, but it carried fewer weapons and was considered a difficult aircraft to fly. However, near the end of the French campaign, when the BEF was evacuating from Dunkirk, 109 pilots began encountering Royal Air Force (RAF) units flying Spitfires. The Spitfire was to be the first truly formidable opponent that Luftwaffe fighter pilots would encounter. A number of Messerschmitts were lost over Dunkirk at the hands of Spitfires, and more Luftwaffe aircraft were shot down because the airfields which 109s were flying from were still in eastern France and western Germany, which seriously limited the amount of time the fighters could spend above the beaches.[21] The Dunkirk evacuation ended on June 4th, and three weeks later France fell. The Bf-109’s next challenge would come over the English Channel and southern England.

                At the start of the Battle of Britain, Luftflotte 2 and 3 reported having a combined total of 809 single-engine fighters available, with 656 serviceable- the vast majority of these were Bf-109E-1s and Bf-109E-4s (a new version which substituted each machine gun in the wings with a 20mm cannon). Luftflotte 5 reported that of the 84 single-engine fighters in its inventory, 69 were serviceable.[22] Facing this force was the RAF’s Fighter Command, which on July 10th reported having 902 single-engine fighters, of which 570 were operational- this figure included 344 Hurricanes and 226 Spitfires.[23] Both of these aircraft represented significant opposition to the supremacy of the 109.

A Rotte of Bf-109E-4s from JG 52, possibly patrolling over the English Channel, probably during the summer of 1940. Painting by Robert Taylor.

A Rotte of Bf-109E-4s from JG 52, possibly patrolling over the English Channel, probably during the summer of 1940. Painting by Robert Taylor.

The Hurricane, which first flew in 1935, was armed with eight .303 caliber machine guns, featured metal wings and a fuselage which featured canvas stretched over a metal-tube frame. The Hurricane Mk II, which was the primary variant in service at the time, was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin which could push the aircraft to a maximum speed of 335mph and reach a maximum altitude of 41,000 feet.[24] The Hurricane unsuccessfully fought against the Luftwaffe in France- Hurricane pilots were able to inflict losses but were overwhelmed and sustained tremendous losses. Nonetheless, the aircraft was considered relatively simple to fly and more forgiving than its sleeker cousin, the Spitfire. The Spitfire first flew in the spring of 1936 and featured a monocoque construction (all-metal stressed skin, providing a sleeker and more aerodynamic profile). Spitfires were also powered by the Merlin engine- in the Mk 1, the primary variant during the Battle of Britain, the maximum speed attainable was 355mph. Like the Hurricane, it was armed with eight .303 caliber machine guns.[25] Both of these aircraft could outturn the Bf-109- in the case of the Spitfire, it could keep up with the German fighter. The 109 had the advantage of being able to out-climb and out-dive the RAF fighters, and it packed greater firepower.[26]

There were other factors which contributed to this clash of fighters. For instance, the 109 was at a range disadvantage- with a combat range of about 400 miles, 109 pilots only had time for about 20 minutes of combat over England before having to turn towards home.[27] Additionally, the British had constructed the world’s first integrated air defense system, with rings of radar stations and observer posts feeding reports on formations’ numbers, altitude, and heading to a series of command posts, which would then relay information to intercept stations, who in turn would guide RAF fighter formations to intercept the Germans. And unlike their German counterparts, if an RAF pilot was shot down and bailed out, he would quickly be returned to his unit to return to battle. Against these clear RAF advantages, the Germans had months, in some cases years, of experience in their aircraft under combat conditions. They could also draw on more tactically viable formations than the British.

Still, when German dive bombers began attacking Channel convoys in July, RAF pilots were usually able to inflict some losses on the 109s. On July 25th, Bf-109s from II. and III./JG 26, I. and II./JG 51 and III./JG 52 escorted a large formation of Stukas to attack shipping in the Channel- they were attacked by 20 fighters from 54, 65 and 610 Squadrons, which were able to shoot down two Stukas and two 109s- in turn, the Germans shot down five fighters.[28] On August 8th, JG 27 lost 10 Bf-109s with four pilots killed, claiming to have shot down 13 RAF fighters.[29] In some cases, the Luftwaffe pilots were able to turn the tables on the RAF. On July 19th, twenty 109s attacked 9 Bolton-Paul Defiants from 141 Squadron. The Defiant, an odd two-crew aircraft with a four-gun turret mounted behind the cockpit and no forward-firing armament, was proved to be ill-suited to daylight missions against the Luftwaffe- five Defiants were shot down and sixth crash-landed, while a single Bf-109 was lost in return.[30] On July 28th, Adolf Galland was leading a fighter sweep with Bf-109s from III./JG 26 when he attacked 12 Spitfires from 74 Squadron. The Spitfires had been expecting to find a large bomber formation- Galland’s attack from above cost the RAF three Spitfires, with no 109s lost.[31] Galland would go on to become one of the first Luftwaffe aces to surpass 100 kills, and would eventually become a General and Inspector of Fighters. In spite of some successes, the Luftwaffe fighter pilots sustained a steady rate of attrition which only worsened in August and September. On September 2nd, one of the most intense days during the battle, 21 Bf-109s were shot down and another four returned with serious damage.[32] Bf-109 units sustained heavy losses through the battle. During the entire month of September, JG 27 lost 27 aircraft- the authorized strength of a Geschwader was 94 planes.[33],[34] Fighter missions did not stop with the beginning of the Blitz or with the cancellation of Operational Sea Lion. In a foolish attempt to keep up the pressure on the British while the bombers were shifted to nighttime missions, many fighter units were ordered to fly fighter-bomber sorties over England, carrying one bomb on a centerline rack. The first of these missions occurred on October 2nd.[35] Ill-suited for these raids, the 109s were unwieldy and vulnerable with their bomb loads, and pilots often dropped their bombs when attacked by RAF fighters. Still, the fighter-bomber offensive continued until the end of October.

When the battle was finally declared over at the end of October 1940, Bf-109 pilots had met their first setback. They had claimed 1,752 aircraft shot down in exchange for 534 109s lost-however, actual RAF losses were significantly lower- approximately 1,050 were believed to have been shot down by all Luftwaffe fighters (including both Bf-109s and Bf-110s).[36]

Hans Joachim-Marseille was one of the more remarkable pilots in the Luftwaffe who scored the bulk of his 158 victories while flying over Africa. He began his combat career during the Battle of Britain, where he developed a penchant for insubordination. Reassigned to Africa in April 1941, he quickly began accumulating aerial victories. He was only 23 at the time of his death in September 1942, when died trying to bail out of his disabled aircraft- he impacted the tail surface of the aircraft, likely knocking him unconscious or killing him- he then fell to earth. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Hans Joachim-Marseille was one of the more remarkable pilots in the Luftwaffe who scored the bulk of his 158 victories while flying over Africa. He began his combat career during the Battle of Britain, where he developed a penchant for insubordination. Reassigned to Africa in April 1941, he quickly began accumulating aerial victories. He was only 23 at the time of his death in September 1942, when died trying to bail out of his disabled aircraft- he impacted the tail surface of the aircraft, likely knocking him unconscious or killing him- he then fell to earth. Photo source: Wikipedia.

One of several foreign air forces that the Bf-109 served with was the Finnish Air Force- this Bf-109G-2 is warming up its engine in preparation for a mission. Photo source: Wikipedia.

One of several foreign air forces that the Bf-109 served with was the Finnish Air Force- this Bf-109G-2 is warming up its engine in preparation for a mission. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Ilmari Juutilainen was the highest-scoring Finnish Air Force ace during the Second World War. Scoring his first several victories in a Fokker, then 36 kills in a Brewster Buffalo, Juutilainen would go on to shoot down 58 aircraft in a Bf-109. He died in 1999 at the age of 85. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Ilmari Juutilainen was the highest-scoring Finnish Air Force ace during the Second World War. Scoring his first several victories in a Fokker, then 36 kills in a Brewster Buffalo, Juutilainen would go on to shoot down 58 aircraft in a Bf-109. He died in 1999 at the age of 85. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Despite losses, Luftwaffe operations would continue along the English Channel with varying degrees of intensity through the fall of 1940 and into the spring of 1941, until most units were transferred to the eastern front or to Africa. During this time, a new version of the Bf-109 was developed and introduced into service-the Bf-109F. This new 109 featured several structural changes which strengthened the airframe and streamlined the shape- the nose and wingtips were rounded to improve aerodynamic performance. An improved engine, the 1350-horsepower Daimler-Benz 601E was provided, and the armament was shifted to two-cowling mounted 7.9mm machine guns and one 20mm cannon firing through the propeller shaft.[37] Coming into service in large numbers beginning in late 1940 and early 1941, the Bf-109F-1 and Bf-109F-4 would see extensive service in North Africa and during Operation Barbarossa beginning in June 1941.

When the invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941, the Luftwaffe had on hand over 480 fighters and fighter-bombers to fly sorties- many of these aircraft flew between five to eight sorties on the first day alone.[38] For 109 pilots, their goal was the destruction of the Red Air Force in the air and on the ground, and escorting bombers to their targets. After nearly two years at war plus the experiences gained in Spain, Luftwaffe fighter pilots were seasoned and well-experienced flyers; many of them were aces with scores of kills to their credit already. The pilots of the Red Air Force during the opening stages of the war were more often than not relatively new and unexperienced pilots who suffered terribly at the hands of their German adversaries. On the first day of the campaign, Soviet bombers from the 40th High-Speed Bomber Aviation Regiment attempted to bomb German airfields in East Prussia- Me-109 pilots intercepted them and shot down 20 without loss.[39] Even large Soviet raids were met with disaster- on July 5th, a large bomber formation set out to bomb German airfields- when they were detected by German raider, 140 Me 109s from JG 52 and JG 3 took off and intercepted them- the Germans claimed to have shot down 120 Soviet aircraft.[40] On July 9th, 27 Soviet bombers attacked an airfield where JG 3 was stationed- commanded by Major Gunther Lutzow, JG 3 scrambled and attacked the 27 bombers- in 15 minutes, all of the bombers had been massacred.[41]

These months were perhaps the apex of the Bf-109’s career, during which the highest kill rates were achieved. Through the summer and early fall of 1941, Jagdgruppe kill scores skyrocketed. On August 30th, JG 3 claimed its 1,000th kill on the eastern front.[42] Between June and November 1941, JG 54 claimed 1,123 aircraft shot down.[43] However, by late summer 1941, the same aspect of the war which was proving increasingly difficult to overcome was also plaguing Luftwaffe units- there was simply too much airspace to cover with too few aircraft. An example of this was the case of JG 3- on July 28th, JG 3 move to an airfield at Belaya Tserkov to provide air support above the Ulman pocket- of its 125 Bf-109s, on half were flyable.[44] Additionally, while the Germans were steadily racking up incredible amounts of kills, they were also suffering from attrition. While JG 54 had claimed over 1100 aircraft shot down from June-November, they had lost 37 out of their 112 pilots killed or missing during the same period.[45] In the wake of the failure of Operation Taifun to take Moscow and the subsequent retreat, some units were transferred to other fronts, particularly Africa, to support operations in other theaters. By then, Bf-109 units had suffered tremendous casualties and losses in aircraft.

1942 saw the development and introduction of the most numerous variant of the Bf-109- the ‘Gustav’ (Bf-109G). This aircraft was first rolled off production lines in March 1942. Armament for the Bf-109G-1 consisted of a single 20mm MG 151 cannon firing through the propeller hub, and two 7.9mm MG 17 machine guns mounted in the cowling. Notably, the first ‘Gustav’ variant was also the first 109 to feature a pressurized cockpit. Multiple versions of the Gustav were ultimately produced, with different armaments and engines. In the end, over 24,000 Gustavs were built.[46] The Gustav 109 would be the first which American bomber pilots would face in large numbers in the skies above Western Europe.

Bf-109G-6s under construction- the G-6 variant was the most numerous of the Gustavs. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Bf-109G-6s under construction- the G-6 variant was the most numerous of the Gustavs. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The arrival of American bombers in large numbers starting in August 1942 was not something that the Luftwaffe was prepared for. At first, only JG 2 and JG 26 were in place to defend the Reich.[47] The reason for this was simple- the RAF had been mounting night bombing raids ever since its disastrous experiment with daylight bombing in October 1939. As a result, it was thought that two Jagdgruppen would be sufficient to parry RAF fighter sweeps along the English Channel. However, by the end of August 1942, the USAAF had 3 Bomb Groups from the 8th Air Force in England, numbering 119 B-17s. These heavy bombers were much different that what the Luftwaffe had previously faced. When the RAF mounted its few daylight raids, the best it could muster was the relatively lightly armed Vickers Wellington, which had just two machine gun turrets armed with .303 caliber machine guns. The B-17 had three turrets with twin .50 caliber machine guns, and another seven .50 calibers in single mounts, making for a far heavier volume of fire for Bf-109 pilots to hazard. At first, Luftwaffe pilots attempted to attack from the rear of the heavy bombers, which they called Viermots (in reference to their four motors). The B-17s had been designed with this in mind, and had a tail turret as well as other guns which could cover the rear sector. By the end of the year however, Luftwaffe pilots had realized that the B-17s were vulnerable to head-on attacks. Based on early experiences, Luftwaffe Inspector of Fighters Adolf Galland issued this document to his pilots:

“A. The attack from the rear against a four-engined bomber formation promises little success and almost always brings losses. If an attack from the rear must be carried out though, it should be done from above or below, and the fuel tanks and engines should be the aiming points.

B. The attack from the side can be effective, but it requires thorough training and good gunnery.

C. The attack from the front, front high, or front low, all with low speed, is the most effective of all. Flying ability, good aiming and closing up to the shortest possible ranges are the prerequisites for success.

Basically, the strongest weapon is the massed and repeated attack by an entire fighter formation. In such cases, the defensive fire can be weakened and the bomber formation broken up.”[48]

A formation of fighters would fly on a parallel track to the bombers, overtake them by several kilometers, then turn in front of the bomber box and attack head-on. It was determined that it would take some 20 hits from a MG 151 cannon to bring down a B-17. However, tail attacks remained in use by Luftwaffe pilots who were newer and not skilled enough to attack from the front.[49] Generally, once the fighters had turned for their attacks, they closed to 800-400 meters before opening fire.[50]

A Bf-109G from JG 27, armed with MG 151 cannons to combat heavy bombers. Photo source: Wikipedia.

A Bf-109G from JG 27, armed with MG 151 cannons to combat heavy bombers. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                The increasing number of bomber raids on German territory by heavy bombers resulted in modifications to Bf-109Gs to make them more effective against the heavies. Many had one 20mm cannon mounted in a pod under each wing. These cannons negated the 109’s abilities in a dogfight with Allied fighters, but they proved effective against the bombers. Later, Bf-109Gs began carrying aerial rockets, which could be fired a longer ranges. These weapons were modified from the ground-based Nebelwerfer rocket- their accuracy was poor in general, but they had the potential to achieve the secondary objective of breaking up a formation, which in turn opened bombers up to more fighter attacks. Through 1943 and into 1944, more fighter units were pulled away from the Eastern Front to take up the mission of homeland defense.
                German pilots gained a certain respect for the bomber formations and their massed defensive fire. Franz Stigler, a Bf-109 pilot with JG 27 in the Mediterranean, shot down 28 Allied aircraft, including 5 heavy bombers:

“The B-17s took a lot more punishment. It was terrifying. I saw them in cases with their tail fins torn in half, elevators missing, tail gun sections literally shot to pieces, ripped away, but still they flew. We found them a lot harder to bring down the Liberators. The Liberators sometimes went up in flames right in front of you. Attacking bombers became a very mechanical, impersonal kind of warfare- one machine against another. That’s why I always tried to count the parachutes. If you saw eight, nine or ten chutes come out safely, then you knew it was okay, you felt better about it. When you flew through a formation, the B-17s couldn’t miss you. If they did something was wrong. I never came back from attacking bombers without a hole somewhere in my aircraft.”[51]

As a measure of how effective the gunners on the bombers could be against the fighters, on one of the infamous Schweinfurt missions when the 8th Air Force lost 60 bombers shot down, the Luftwaffe lost 31 fighters shot down, 12 damaged so badly that they were written off, and 24 damaged. This figure represented 3.4-4% of the fighter strength in Western Europe.[52]

                Meanwhile on the Eastern Front, fighter units continued to rack up against the Red Air Force but losing a steady amount of aircraft and pilots. Still, the most successful fighter pilots in history flew many if not all of their missions along this front. Erich Hartmann, who entered the Luftwaffe at just 20 years old, eventually scored 352 victories while flying the Bf-109. All but seven of those victories were made against Soviet aircraft. Gerhard Barkhorn, another Bf-109 pilot, shot down 301 aircraft during the war. Over 100 Luftwaffe pilots would be credited with 100 or more aerial victories- most of these pilots flew the Bf-109 at least for part of their flying career- many flew only the 109. Other Axis countries flew the Bf-109 with success as well. Finland operated many Bf-109Gs, as did Romania, Hungary, and Italy. The most successful non-Luftwaffe Bf-109 pilot was Finnish pilot Eino Ilmari Juutilanainen, who scored many of his 94 victories flying the 109.[53]

Erich Hartmann, nicknamed ‘Bubi’ for his youthful appearance, was the highest-scoring Bf-109 pilot of the war and the highest-scoring fighter ace in military history with 352 kills. What was perhaps most impressive about this figure is that he did not begin flying combat missions until November 1942. After being held as a prisoner by the Russians until 1955, Hartmann would later go on to serve as an officer in the postwar Luftwaffe. He died in 1991 at age 70. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Erich Hartmann, nicknamed ‘Bubi’ for his youthful appearance, was the highest-scoring Bf-109 pilot of the war and the highest-scoring fighter ace in military history with 352 kills. What was perhaps most impressive about this figure is that he did not begin flying combat missions until November 1942. After being held as a prisoner by the Russians until 1955, Hartmann would later go on to serve as an officer in the postwar Luftwaffe. He died in 1991 at age 70. Photo source: Wikipedia.

                By spring 1944, the Bf-109’s days of air dominance on any front were gone. In the West, the US Army Air Forces had introduced the P-51 Mustang, a fighter with superior performance and the range to escort the heavy bombers all the way to the target. Luftwaffe losses drastically increased during the first six months of 1944- by the time of D-Day, air superiority had been claimed by the Allies. In the East, the Red Air Force vastly outnumbered the hopelessly overwhelmed and overstretched Luftwaffe. Still, Bf-109 production continued, even though many factories were now targeted by bombers- in fact, production reached its peak in 1944 with 14,212 109s built.[54] The final production version of the fighter was the Bf-109K. It was powered by a 1,550-horsepower Daimler-Benz 605 engine, and was armed with one 30mm cannon firing through the propeller hub, and two 15mm MG151 cannons mounted in the cowling. This final 109 version could reach a top speed of 452 mph.[55] The Bf-109K was destined to see its first combat during Operation Bodenplatte, a final disastrous attempt by the Luftwaffe to destroy Allied aircraft on continental Europe on New Year’s Day, 1945. When the war had finally ended in Europe in May 1945 and production had finally come to an end, over 33,000 had been built.[56]

                Despite the end of the war though, the 109’s career had not ended. Many 109s had been delivered to Spain, where they continued to serve after the war. The Hispano Aviacon company began installing their own 1300-horsepower engines into Bf-109G fuselages, then began building its own whole aircraft. The final version of the Hispano HA-1112 (its designation) was equipped, rather ironically, with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine- the same engine which had powered the 109’s former foes, the Spitfire and P-51 Mustang. The Spanish aircraft served well into the 1960s. Czechoslavkia was another country which produced its own version of the 109 following the war. Originally intended to built aircraft for the Luftwaffe, the S-199 and CS-199 (as they were referred to by the Czech Air Force) were equipped with a Junkers Jumo engine and unwieldy paddle-bladed propeller, which gave the aircraft very difficult handling characteristics. In 1948, a small number of these aircraft were sold to the fledgling nation of Israel, where they were immediately pressed into service in spite of the problems. Lou Lenart, a former US Marine Corsair pilot flying for the Israelis, said of the S-199, it was “probably the worst aircraft that I have ever had the misfortune to fly… you had that monstrous propeller and you had torque and no rudder trim."[57] In spite of this, the S-199s served for a year before being replaced by Spitfires. The Czech Air Force would continue to fly them until the late 1950s.[58]

                The Bf-109 was the most prolific fighter aircraft ever produced. Despite the age of the design, it continued to serve in every area of the European and Mediterranean theaters. For Allied pilots, it became a respected and at times feared opponent, the mount of the Luftwaffe’s experten.  In the area of military aviation, it remains one the greatest fighter designs produced.

A restored Bf-109E-4, pictured at the 2008 Thunder Over Michigan Airshow. Photo source: Author.

A restored Bf-109E-4, pictured at the 2008 Thunder Over Michigan Airshow. Photo source: Author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources

1.       Bergstrom, Christer. Battle of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited. Casemate Publishers & Book Distributors, LLC, 2015.

2.       Brookes, Andrew. Air War Over Russia. Ian Allan Publishing, 2003.

3.       Corum, James S. The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940. University Press of Kansas, 1997.

4.       Forsyth, Robert. Luftwaffe Viermot Aces 1942-45. OSPREY Publishing, 2011.

5.       Gunston, Bill. The Illustrated Directory of Fighting Aircraft of World War II. Greenwich, 2005.

6.       Guttman, Jon. “Messerschmitt Me-109.” HistoryNet, HistoryNet, 2006, www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109.htm.

7.       McNab, Chris. Order of Battle: German Luftwaffe in World War II. Amber Books, 2009.

8.       Sherman, Stephen. “Messerschmitt Bf 109.” Messerschmitt Bf 109 (Me 109) - History and Pictures of German WW2 Fighter Plane, Acepilots.com, July 2003, acepilots.com/german/bf109.html.

9.       Wood, Derek, and Derek D. Dempster. The Narrow Margin: the Battle of Britain & the Rise of Air Power, 1930-1949. Penn & Sword Military Classics, 2003.


[1] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109.htm 1/1/2019

[2] http://acepilots.com/german/bf109.html 10/15/18

[3] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109.htm

[4] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109.htm

[5] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109.htm

[6] P.10- The Narrow Margin: The Battle of Britain & The Rise of Air Power, 1930-1949

[7] http://acepilots.com/german/bf109.html

[8] P.192- The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940

[9] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109.htm

[10] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109.htm

[11] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109.htm

[12] P.202- The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940

[13] P.207- The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940

[14] P.12- Order of Battle: German Luftwaffe in World War II

[15] P.44- The Battle of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited

[16] P.207- The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940

[17] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109.htm

[18] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109.htm

[19] P.218- The Illustrated Directory of Fighting Aircraft of World War II

[20] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109.htm

[21] P.38- Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe, 1933-1945

[22] P.138- The Narrow Margin: The Battle of Britain & the Rise of Air Power 1930-1949

[23] Battle of Britain- Fighter Command- Operational Aircraft and Crews, 26 October 1945. www.nationalarchives.gov.uk 

[24] P.42-44- The Illustrated Directory of Fighting Aircraft of World War II

[25] P.54- The Illustrated Directory of Fighting Aircraft of World War II

[26] P.273- The Narrow Margin: The Battle of Britain & the Rise of Air Power 1930-1949

[27] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109.htm

[28] P.85-86- The Battle of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited

[29] P.93- The Battle of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited

[30] P.137-The Narrow Margin: The Battle of Britain & The Rise of Air Power 1930-1949

[31] P.88-89- The Battle of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited

[32] P.164- The Battle of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited

[33] P.245-The Battle of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited

[34] P.14- Order of Battle: German Luftwaffe in World War II

[35] P.247- The Battle of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited

[36] P.281-282- The Battle of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited

[37] http://acepilots.com/german/bf109.html

[38] P.24- Air War Over Russia

[39] P.36- Air War Over Russia

[40] P.182- The Defeat of the Luftwaffe: The Eastern Front 1941-45, Strategy for Disaster

[41] P.36- Air War Over Russia

[42] P.52-Air War Over Russia

[43] P.62- Air War Over Russia

[44] P.50- Air War Over Russia

[45] P.62- Air War Over Russia

[46] http://acepilots.com/german/bf109.html

[47] P.7- Luftwaffe Viermot Aces, 1942-45

[48] P.14- Luftwaffe Viermot Aces, 1942-45

[49] P.15 Luftwaffe Viermot Aces, 1942-45

[50] P.24- Luftwaffe Viermot Aces, 1942-45

 

[51] P.30- Luftwaffe Viermot Aces, 1942-1945

[52] P.26- Luftwaffe Viermot Aces, 1942-45

[53] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109

[54] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109

[55] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109

[56] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109

[57] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109

[58] http://www.historynet.com/messerschmitt-me-109 

Tools of War: The Stuka

One of the best-known images of a Stuka, preparing to pull out if its dive after releasing  its bombs. Source: Wikipedia.

One of the best-known images of a Stuka, preparing to pull out if its dive after releasing its bombs. Source: Wikipedia.

The Blitzkrieg was particularly noted by two technological innovations which petrified both Allied soldier and civilian alike. One was the armored spearheads led by the panzers, which cut miles into Allied lines and separated units from one another. And then, most terrifyingly, were the squadrons of Stukas, which dived down upon the retreating Allies and sowed chaos with their wailing sirens.

By Seth Marshall

            In the second half of the First World War, the importance of ground attack and close air support became increasingly important roles for air forces to provide to armies on the ground. By 1918, dedicated ground attack squadrons had been formed in the Luftstreitskrafte, and numerous designs had been put into production whose sole purpose was attacking ground targets in support of advancing troops.  In the interwar years, some air forces, particularly the US Army Air Corps and the Royal Air Force both placed more emphasis on the development of doctrine, tactics, and aircraft which would fulfill the role of the strategic bomber. The Luftwaffe however placed a greater importance on aircraft which would provide direct support to advancing troops on the ground. The Junkers Ju 87 was developed in the 1930s to fulfill this role.

                In 1933, Walter Wever was appointed the Commanding General of the Luftwaffe. Among the objectives listed by Wever as being the purpose of the as-yet unannounced air force was this:

“3. To support the operations of the army formations, independent of railways- i.e. armored forces and motorized forces, by impeding the enemy advance and participating directly in ground operations.”[1]

To this end, it was decided that a dive bomber would be bested suited to meet the needs of a modern German army. Dive bombing was a practice which had begun to be put into use during the late 1920s- US Marines had used dive bombing with success in operations in South American in 1928. Dive bombing, which involved diving at a steep angle from a high altitude, was seen as the best means of attaining accurate bombing results against fixed targets, and to a more limited extent against moving targets. The requirement for a dive bomber was issued by Wever’s staff in 1933.[2] Development of a new dive bomber was driven by Ernst Udet, a successful fighter pilot during the First World War who had been impressed enough by an dive bombing demonstration by Curtiss Goshawk Helldivers in the US to buy his own two aircraft. He then carried out a demonstration of his own in Germany, resulting in the dive bomber requirement.[3] Despite concerns from another World War I fighter pilot, Major Wolfram Freiherr von Richtofen (the cousin of the Red Baron), Wever ordered that development of the new dive bomber continue on. The new aircraft would have to be capable of withstanding a dive at 360 miles an hour and have dive brakes to enable a steep pull-out at lower altitudes. It was to be called a Sturzkampfflugzeug (diving combat plane), abbreviated simply to “Stuka”.

            By April 1935, four firms were at work on prototypes- Arado, Blohm and Voss, Heinkel, and Junkers. Among the competing designs included Arado’s Ar 81 biplane, Blohm & Voss’ Ha 137, Heinkel’s He 118 and the Junkers Ju 87.[4] The Ju 87 was designed by a team led by Hermann Pohlmannn. Initially, the aircraft was designed with twin tailfins rather than the single tail structure seen in production models, and was powered by a Rolls-Royce Kestrel engine.[5] The first prototype aircraft made its first flight in October 1935. Junkers previous experience with foreign dive bombers proved useful- it surpassed the performance of its competition. However, the development program was not without its problems. In early 1936, the twin-tail design lost control and crashed, killing pilot Willy Neuenhofen and an observer in the rear seat. Subsequently the design was modified to incorporate a single tail fin. Further prototypes would include a sloped nose to improve visibility, a more powerful Jumo 210Ca engine with 675 horsepower, a larger rudder, and revised covers over the landing gear (known as “pants”). The final prototype, the V-4, was put into preproduction as the Ju-87A-0. The last competitor to the Ju 87, the He-118, broke up during a test flight with Ernst Udet at the controls- Udet was forced to bail out.[6] The failure of the Heinkel and success of the Junkers during flight testing ended the competition in favor of the Ju 87.

            While flight testing on the Ju 87 was carried out, Luftwaffe commanders were developing doctrine to use the new aircraft in conjunction with army units. Wever ordered the creation of numerous air-ground liaison positions- officers and communications teams were sent forward on the ground with army units to provide better coordination between aircraft overhead and their ground counterparts. These officers were called Fliegerverbindungsoffizier – frequently shortened to “Flivo”. Flivos frequently collocated their motorized command posts with corps or division headquarters. To help ease the communications between army and air force, Flivos were usually Ju 87 Staffelkapitans- squadron commanders. Overall command of tactical air support was placed under a more senior officer at a local Luftwaffe command- the Nahkampffuhrer, or Close Air Support Leader.[7] Wever also encouraged Luftwaffe units to conduct combined arms training with local army units, and to establish direct communication with the army without first confirming the decision with Luftwaffe High Command, in order to streamline the process. In this way, he hoped that the army would have a better understanding of the air force’s roles and capabilities.[8]

            Many of these practices were put to use during the Spanish Civil War, which would be the Ju 87’s first use in combat. Three Ju 87A-1s were sent to support the Kondor Legion, Germany’s expeditionary forces fighting on the side of Franco’s nationalists and were put to use in ground support and anti-shipping missions.[9] The Stuka’s first mission over Spain came on February 17, 1938.[10] Around the same time, the Luftwaffe began replacing the Ju-87A series, of which some 200 had been built, with the Ju-87B-1. The B-1 Stuka had been improved with Jumo 211Da engine which provided nearly 1200 horsepower. A second 7.92mm MG 17 machine gun was added to the left wing, providing two forward-facing machine guns. The fuselage was strengthened and the tailfin enlarged even further, and the fairings over the landing gear were streamlined. The Ju-87B-1 was capable of carrying one 1,100lbs (500 kg) bomb on the center mount or a 550lbs (250kg) on the center mount and four 110lbs (50kg) bombs on wing racks. The rear gunner retained a 7.92mm MG 15 machine gun mounted in a flexible position to defend the aircraft.[11] The B-1 had a maximum speed of 242mph, a ceiling of over 26,000ft, and a maximum range with a full load of 373 miles.[12] Five Ju 87B-1s were sent to Spain to join the three earlier models. The Kondor Legion appreciated the work of the Stukas, which often flew between two to four missions a day. One Stuka was lost in combat during the Spanish Civil War.[13]

One of the early model Ju-87s flying above Spain. The large fairings and more slender fuselage of the early Stukas is evident in this picture. Source: Wikipedia.

One of the early model Ju-87s flying above Spain. The large fairings and more slender fuselage of the early Stukas is evident in this picture. Source: Wikipedia.

            Despite the highly useful experiences gained in Spain with the Kondor Legion, the Luftwaffe’s policies on tactical air operations and coordination with the army for operations was not made doctrine until further combat experience had been gained during the first two years of World War II. Additionally, while Stukas had been successful in Spain, dive bombers and crewmen to man them were in short supply leading up to the war. In August 1938, the Luftwaffe had 300 authorized slots for dive-bomber crewmen- just 80 were occupied.[14] However, Stuka unit strength was ramped up in the following year. By the time that Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the Luftwaffe had 366 Ju-87s organized into nine Sturzkampfgeschwader (dive bomber wing).  Stuka units were composed of three groups with a headquarters unit. Earlier in 1939, the Luftwaffe’s second Chief of Staff, Hans Jeschonnek, decided to consolidate more than half of that force into a specialized task group called the Nahkampfdivision (close combat division), with the objective of providing close air support to ground units. Curiously, a previous critic of the Stuka, Wolfram von Richthofen was placed in command.[15] Each Stukagruppe (Stuka group) had three Staffeln (squadrons) and one Stab (headquarters flight)- each Gruppe consisted usually of about 40 aircraft, which individual squadrons equipped with about twelve aircraft each.[16] During the final years of the interwar period, the Luftwaffe continued to develop its tactical air power doctrine. Flivos, detached on a temporary basis from their squadrons, began taking part in Wehrmacht exercises in 1937.[17]

            As stated previously, when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, over 350 Stukas were in service with the Luftwaffe. Among the Stuka units which participated in the Poland campaign were I./StG 2, III./StG 51, I./StG 76 and I./ and II./StG 77, which were part of Luftflotte 4.[18] At the outset, the Stuka proved itself as a highly valuable asset in conducting a successful Blitzkrieg. In the opening days of the war, Stukas sank most of the ships in the Polish Navy, annihilated train yards, and attacking enemy units blocking the advance of German infantry and tanks.[19] Stukas encountered relatively little resistance in the air- the Polish Air Force was outnumbered and generally equipped with outdated aircraft which were swept aside by escorting fighters. Eight months after the end of the Polish campaign, Stukas were again a key component in the air campaign, this time against France and the Low Countries. 380 Stukas were concentrated into Fliegerkorps VIII, under the command of Richthofen.[20] By this time, B-model Stukas had been equipped with a prop-driven siren fitted to the landing gear, known as the “Trumpets of Jericho.”[21] The wailing sirens of diving Stukas terrorized Allied troops, bombing them repeatedly as they retreated to Dunkirk. German ground units repeatedly called on the Stukas, with some units flying as many as nine sorties per day. As panzer units outpaced their support elements, the Stukas were increasingly used as a sort of aerial artillery. During the first four days of the invasion of the West, only four Stukas were shot down.[22] At Dunkirk, Stukas were among the principle antagonists which continuously rained bombs down on the BEF as it evacuated, sinking numerous ships in the process. As had been the case in Poland, the success of the Stuka was due in part to the success of Luftwaffe fighter units providing effective escort to the dive bombers. However, the ominous presence of RAF fighters lingered above Dunkirk, providing a glimpse at what was to come during the late summer of 1940. Through June and July, Stukas were primarily engaged in targeted Channel convoys. During July 3-4, 90 Stukas of StG 2 attacked a convoy traveling through the Channel, sinking three ships totaling 10,000 tons without loss.[23] Stukas attacking  shipping operated with escort, but RAF fighters began making their presence known in July. On July 25, a group of Me 109s escorting Stukas were attacked by about 20 Spitfires from three different squadrons- five of the attackers were shot down, but not before two Me 109s and two Stukas were also destroyed.[24] Things became much worse for Stuka crews in August.

The plan, side, and front views of the Ju-87B-2, perhaps the most recognizable Stuka. This was the aircraft which was at the forefront of the Blitzkrieg in Poland, the Low Countries, France, and southern England. Source: Wikipedia.

The plan, side, and front views of the Ju-87B-2, perhaps the most recognizable Stuka. This was the aircraft which was at the forefront of the Blitzkrieg in Poland, the Low Countries, France, and southern England. Source: Wikipedia.

            August 1940 brought a change in targets for the Stukas. Shifting away from Channel convoys, Stukas would now focus on radar stations and military targets inland. In August 1940, the Luftwaffe’s Stuka strength consisted of II./StG 1 and IV./StLG.1 in Luftflotte 2, II Fliegerkorps, while in Luftflotte 3’s VIII Fliegerkorps, the bulk of Stuka units were concentrated- Stab, I., and II./StG 1, Stab, I./, and II./StG 2, and Stab., I./, II./StG 77.[25] At the start of the Battle of Britain, 280 Stukas were serviceable in the Luftwaffe. In August, that figure dropped dramatically. On August 8th, 10 Stukas were shot down by RAF fighters.[26] Five days later, on August 13, thirteen Spitfires from No. 609 Squadron attacked a group of Stukas escorted by Me 109s headed to bomb the RAF airfield at Middle Wallop. “On the way the Spitfires dive through five Me 109s, breaking them up, Pilot Officer D.M. Crook sending one spinning down into a field of fire. The whole Stuka formation broke up with nine falling in flames or with the crews dead… the remaining Ju 87s missed their target, Middle Wallop, and scattered their bombs over three counties.”[27]  The losses would continue on August 15th, with seven shot down, and on the 16th with nine more Stukas lost. A pilot from 5./StG 2 who survived an attack by RAF fighters gave this account:

“The enemy fighters came out of nowhere. The cockard-marked aircraft dive almost vertically against us and we make sharp evasive maneuvers and close our formation even tighter in order to allow the radio operators/rear gunners to give more concentrated fire. They form a dense barrage, which the attackers must pass through. Amidst the cacophony of clattering machine guns, I suddenly hear a shrill cry. “Fighters below!” I turn around quickly and see Spitfires in a steep climb. And what is even worse: I see that my radio operator is badly wounded. His machine gun is unattended. He clenches his teeth, trying to control himself. Through the internal communication, he informs me about each attacking Spitfire. And the attacks seem to never end… This time the Tommies are numerically superior. One after the other breaks through our formation and disappears downwards. Large flames emerge from its hit tank. Shortly afterwards two parachutes blossom in the sky… More automatically than consciously, I control the rudders and we begin the descent towards the airfield. The diving has a calming effect on us. We focus only on our target. From 4,000 meters altitude our aircraft bolt at lightning speed towards the target. The Spitfires have no chance to follow suit. Only now do we discover that the anti-aircraft fire is not moderate at all, but this doesn’t bother us now. We are caught by the strange magic of flying in a steep dive. Our bombs explode in a series of bright flashes. Thick smoke is rising from several hangars. Apparently a fuel storage has also been hit… When we fly back at low altitude above the sea, our Staffel is positioned in the rear of the formation. And suddenly the planes with the peacock eyes under the wings are among us again! The British seem to be completely consumed by combat excitement. A Spitfire that manages to approach quite close to me despite all my evasive maneuvers recovers from a dive too late, hits the water surface and is torn to pieces. But several others have taken its place. Two Spitfires take turns to attack me. The pilots of both these planes seem to have realized that my radio operator is “neutralized.” I try every trick in the book to get rid of my pursuers. Sharp turns is the only thing left available to me. As I perform these desperate turns, I involuntarily touch the mercilessly chased and my aircraft becomes severely damaged. I also am hit… Eventually our own fighters arrive and put an end to the wild fight. Despite the enemy’s numerical superiority, some of our fighter pilots managed to fight their way out and rush to our aid. And the Spitfires, which by that time must have used up most of their ammunition, leave. Finally we can breathe!”[28]

In an effort to stem the losses, Reichsmarschall Herman Goering ordered that every Stukagruppe would be escorted by three fighter Gruppen; one would fly in advance of the bombers to attempt to draw out the RAF fighters, one would fly alongside the Stukas, and the third would provide top cover by flying several thousand feet above.[29] Even with this new policy, losses continued to pile up. On August 16th, two formations of Stuka targeted the RAF sector airfield at Tangmere and the Ventnor radar station. Stukas from Stab and III./StG 1 were successful in their attack on Ventnor radar station knocking it out for a week.[30] The Stukas heading for Tangmere, from I. and III./StG 2, had some success by damaging or destroying a small number of Hurricanes, Blenheims, and a Miles Magister training aircraft. They paid heavily for this small victory- nine Stukas were shot down, another six heavily damaged.[31] The final straw came on August 18th- 85 Stukas from StG 77 headed across the Channel with an escort of 200 Me-109s. Spitfires from No. 234 Squadron attacked the escorting Me-109s, while RAF fighters from other squadrons hit the Stukas. The losses were staggering- StG 77 had 16 Stukas shot down, while another two aircraft crashed on their return to France. Several Me-109s were lost as well.[32] During the whole month of August, 62 Stukas were destroyed.[33] It had become abundantly clear that the in a combat environment where air superiority had not been secured, the Stuka was more of a liability. On August 19th, Goering ordered the transfer of Fliegerkorps VIII out of the combat zone, ostensibly to save the remaining Stukas for the coming invasion of England. With 220 of the 280 Stukas in the Luftwaffe a part of this unit, the withdrawal of Fliegerkorps VIII effectively ended the aircraft’s participation in the battle.[34]

            Despite the obvious obsolescence of the Stuka, development of a replacement dive bomber was not a priority for the Luftwaffe. Instead, Stukas continued to be used in other theaters.

In the Mediterranean, Stuka units continued to demonstrate the dive-bomber’s prowess in the anti-shipping role. The first two Stukagruppen arrived in the theater in 1940 and scored their first success on January 10, 1941 when they scored six hits on the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. Despite serious damage, the carrier was able to limp to Malta, where the Stukas still attempted to sink her. The admiral in command of the carrier, Admiral Cunningham, described the attack of the dive bombers: “I can still see clearly a German bomber diving through that terrific curtain of steel, followed by a Fulmar [Royal Navy fighter]. The bomber dropped his bomb and proceeded to sneak his way out through the harbor entry only a few inches above the water. He was so low that he had to rise to clear the breakwater, which is only some 15 high.”[35] In May 1941, Stukas operated in support of the invasion of Crete in their old role of flying artillery. In operations around Crete, Stukas sank several Royal Navy warships attempting to evacuate troops- the destroyers Juno, Greyhound, Kashmir, Kelly and the cruiser Gloucester were all sunk around the island, while the destroyer Fiji was damaged.[36] However, the Stuka’s success in the Mediterranean corresponded with the lack of enemy fighter opposition, just as it had in Western Europe. Even in the invasion of Crete, 8 Stukas were lost during a three-day period from May 22-May 24.[37] The Stuka’s success in North Africa and the Mediterranean began winding down after numerous aircraft were lost during the siege of Tobruk in late 1941, and the type’s decline in the area only worsened with ever increasing numbers of Allied fighters.[38]

This Ju-87B-2 was captured by British forces in North Africa in 1941. Photo source: Wikipedia.

This Ju-87B-2 was captured by British forces in North Africa in 1941. Photo source: Wikipedia.

This Ju-87 has been damaged in a crash-landing and of parts. With Allied air power becoming ever more powerful, the Stuka found itself  in increasingly hostile skies, in which it could not long survive.

This Ju-87 has been damaged in a crash-landing and of parts. With Allied air power becoming ever more powerful, the Stuka found itself in increasingly hostile skies, in which it could not long survive.

            When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Stuka was yet again called upon to fulfill the close air support role. At the start of Operation Barbarossa, the Luftflotte had three air fleets, Luftflotten 1, 2, and 4, positioned against the Soviet Union. These Luftflotten had among them 900 dive bombers, including 270 Stukas.[39][40] These dive bombers were heavily used during the opening phases of the invasion to achieve the breaches through which the Wehrmacht’s forces would drive. On the first day of the invasion, it was not uncommon for crews to fly 7-8 missions.[41] As the panzers moved forward, it was a common practice for Stukas to fly above the tanks and wait for targets of opportunity that could be seen from the air or were reported up by the Flivo.[42] Even when the dive bombers were not directly overhead, it generally did not take more than two hours from the time the Flivo made a request for air support to when the Stukas had dropped their bombs.[43] With Soviet fighters either being destroyed on the ground or swept from the air by German fighters, Stukas found success again early in the invasion. From June 24-25, Stukas and level bombers attacked Soviet armored concentrations in the Kuznica-Odelsk-Grodno-Dabrowa region, destroying 105 tanks in the process.[44] In September, Stukas returned to the anti-ship role by attacking Soviet warships in Kronstadt, diving from 15,000 ft at a 70-80 degree before releasing at 1,000 ft to avoid as much anti-aircraft fire as possible. One pilot, Hans-Ulrich Rudel, was able to drop a 1,000kg bomb on the battleship Marat on September 22, blowing the battleship’s bow off and causing it to sink.[45]

            Despite the Stuka’s success in the opening months of Barbarossa, the Luftwaffe quickly found itself becoming stretched thin as the lines lengthened with the advance of the panzers. Initially eager to help their counterparts on the ground, the staff of Luftflotte 4 found that they could not answer every request made by the ground troops; “In view of the manifold tasks of the Air Fleet, the troops must not count on the same type of support that they have grown accustomed to in previous campaigns. Officers and men must be aware that the Luftwaffe may support the operations of Army Group South only in the immediate Schwerpunkt (center of gravity) of the attack. The tendency to call in a Stuka attack at the first sign of enemy resistance must from now on be resisted at all costs.”[46] To help better meet the Wehrmacht’s missions, at the end of the summer of 1941 the posts of Close Air Support Commanders North and South were created.[47]

The Red Air Force’s fragility in the early months of the war gave new life to the Stuka’s combat career. Here a flight of Ju-87Ds fly in tight formation low over a Russian town. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The Red Air Force’s fragility in the early months of the war gave new life to the Stuka’s combat career. Here a flight of Ju-87Ds fly in tight formation low over a Russian town. Photo source: Wikipedia.

As the Russian campaign dragged on, Stukas were forced to weather Russia’s extreme temperatures during winter. This whitewashed Stuka, stained with exhaust and oil from extensive use, would have often required burning an open fire beneath the engine to warm it enough to start. Photo: Wikipedia.

As the Russian campaign dragged on, Stukas were forced to weather Russia’s extreme temperatures during winter. This whitewashed Stuka, stained with exhaust and oil from extensive use, would have often required burning an open fire beneath the engine to warm it enough to start. Photo: Wikipedia.

            By this time, the most-produced version of the Ju 87, the Ju 87D, was arriving at frontline units. This Stuka had the most-powerful engine yet fitted to the type, a 1400-horsepower Junkers Jumo 211J, allowing the Ju 87D to carry up to 1200kg of ordnance. Range was extended by expanding the internal tanks to carry 800L of fuel, with the option of carry 300L wing tanks. Ultimately, 3,639 examples of the Ju 87 would be built.[48] Even with the improvements, the limited number of Stukas at the front could never fully meet the needs of the Wehrmacht, no matter what the state of their maintenance or absence of Soviet fighters. The overtaxed Stukagruppen flew several sorties per day for every aircraft- typical of these units was StG 77, which by July 1942 had flown 30,000 sorties along the Eastern Front.[49] Numerous Stuka pilots amassed sortie totals of over 1,000 mission during the whole of the war on the Eastern Front.[50]

During the Battle of Stalingrad, Stukas were called upon to perform especially-close air support, a necessity of the nature of the close combat taking place in the city. On November 1st, Richthofen, who by now commanded a Luftflotte, remarked in his diary that the Stukas were dropping their bombs within hand-grenade range.[51] For missions against the Soviet positions in buildings such as the infamous tractor factory, Luftwaffe armorers loaded the dive bombers with one armor-piercing 500kg bomb one the centerline mount and a 250kg bomb on each wing.[52] The commander of one Stuka group, Major Hozzel remarked, “We could not risk making a dive-bombing attack from 4,000 meters altitude of the wide area of bomb dispersion. We had to fly a slant range attack, releasing the bombs directly over the roofs. We had to push the bombs into the target like loaves of bread into an oven, with one plane succeeding the other.”[53] Stukas also again performed anti-shipping missions at Stalingrad, strafing and bombing boats bringing Soviet infantry across the Volga River.

The most produced version of the Stuka was the Ju-87D, featuring a more powerful engine. Photo source: Bundesarchiv.

The most produced version of the Stuka was the Ju-87D, featuring a more powerful engine. Photo source: Bundesarchiv.

Another heavily-used Ju-87D taxies back after landing following a mission. Photo source: Bundesarchiv.

Another heavily-used Ju-87D taxies back after landing following a mission. Photo source: Bundesarchiv.

Based on the experiences thus far in the war against the Soviets, the Luftwaffe made further modifications to the Stuka to increase its deadliness alternatively against infantry and tanks. SD-1 and SD-2 containers carrying either 180 2kg or 360 1kg fragmentation devices were developed to be fitted to the underside of the wings to be dropped over troop concentrations and soft-skinned vehicles.[54] Additionally, a final version of the Stuka was developed, the Ju 87G-2. This aircraft completely discarded the role of dive bomber in favor of the anti-tank role. Two 600lbs 37mm cannon pods were attached, one on either wing. These cannons fired tungsten-core shells, specially designed to punch through tank armor. Ju 87G-2s became known as Kanonenvogel (cannon bird) or Panzerknacker (tank cracker).[55] A special unit formed around these Stukas and cannon-armed Henschel Hs-129B in early 1943, called the Versuchskommmando fur Panzerbekampfung (anti-tank command). By the time that the Wehrmacht was ready to launch Operation Citadel (the Battle of Kursk), the two Luftwaffe task forces which would support Wehrmacht operations, the 1st Air Division and 8th German Air Corps, had four and six groups of Ju 87s respectively at the start of July 1943.[56] On the first day of the offensive, Stuka dive bombers were used to attempt to punch a hole in Soviet defenses-

“As they approached high over Butovo, the German dive-bombers began crashing their bombs into the Soviet first line of defense. Then another Staffel came in, and another, then a fourth an fifth and in no time at all 2,500 bombs had been dropped on a strip of ground just two miles long and 500 yards deep. At 1500 the Stukas finished and the German artillery took over.”[57]

The cannon-toting Stukas went to work against the Soviet armor formations, but had limited effects on halting their progress. By this stage in the war, Soviet fighters were attacking German aircraft in ever-increasing numbers, and large numbers of Soviet anti-aircraft guns were making life extremely hazardous for the Stuka pilots- these factors had serious impact on the number of Stukas in operation. By the end of July, the 8th German Air Corps alone had lost 55 Stukas in combat, and another 24 in non-combat accidents.[58]

The Ju-87G-2, with its two 37mm cannons, was pressed into service to stop the flood of Soviet tanks. The armor piercing rounds, with a core of tungsten, were particularly effective. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The Ju-87G-2, with its two 37mm cannons, was pressed into service to stop the flood of Soviet tanks. The armor piercing rounds, with a core of tungsten, were particularly effective. Photo source: Wikipedia.

The serious losses at Kursk spelled the beginning of the end of the use of the Stuka in large numbers. The Luftwaffe began retiring Ju 87s from front-line duties and replacing them with Focke-Wulf FW-190F fighter-bombers, which were faster, could carry a diverse load of ordnance ranging from bombs, rockets and cannons, and could defend themselves more adeptly than the Stukas. On October 18th, the Luftwaffe formally abandoned the previous distinctions it had made between different types of attack units- dive-bombers (Stukagruppen), fighter-bombers (Schlachtgruppen) and anti-tank units (Panzerjagerstaffeln) were reorganized into Schlachtgeschwader.[59] Many Stukas were relegated to training squadrons or to night attack squadrons (Nachtschlachtgruppen) in the face of overwhelming Allied air power. In December 1943, Fliegerkorps IV ended operations as a close air support force and became an exclusively strategic bombing force, further reflecting the Luftwaffe’s recognition that the Stuka was completely inadequate in the face of the Allied air forces facing it on every front.[60] In 1944, the replacement of Stukas with fighter-bombers increased as the German Air Ministry made fighter production the top priority for aircraft construction. By June 1944, of the 19 Schlachtgruppen along the Eastern Front, half were flying FW-190s.[61] As a result, Junkers and its affiliates ceased production of the Ju 87 in September 1944, with a final number of 5,709 aircraft built.[62]

Despite the relegation of most Stukas to duties away from the frontline, the Stuka soldiered on in a limited role during daylight operations. Pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel eventually rose to command a unit equipped with Ju 87G-2s which specialized in attacking tanks. Rudel became the most well-known Stuka pilot of the war- by the end of the war, he had claimed the destruction of 519 tanks, nine aircraft, and several warships. He flew over 2,000 missions along the Eastern Front and was awarded the Knights Cross to the Iron Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds.[63] He was shot down 30 times during the war and wounded 8 times, the most serious of which occurred in February 1945, when his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire which forced the amputation of one of his legs.[64] Surprisingly, Rudel resumed flying in April.[65] An ardent Nazi, Rudel fled to South America after the war and died in 1982. His unit was likely the last to be operating the anti-tank Stukas during the war. One of the Stuka’s last notable combat missions came in March 1945, when Stukas from Nachtschlachtgruppe 2 attacked the American bridgehead at Ludendorff bridge.[66]

One of only two remaining complete Stukas in existence, a Ju-87B-2 which was captured in North Africa in 1943. Today, the aircraft is on display in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. Photo source: Wikipedia.

One of only two remaining complete Stukas in existence, a Ju-87B-2 which was captured in North Africa in 1943. Today, the aircraft is on display in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. Photo source: Wikipedia.

Owing to the extreme attrition experienced by Luftwaffe units, only two Stukas remain intact today. One is a Ju 87R-2 Trop, a long-range version of the Ju 87B-2, was found by British forces abandoned in Libya in 1941. After being placed on display for American war bond drives, the aircraft was permanently installed in the Museum of Science of Industry in Chicago- in a fitting move, the museum installed a Spitfire positioned directly behind the Stuka. The second Ju 87 was originally built as a Ju 87D-5 but modified to the Ju 87G-2 standard. The aircraft was captured at the end of the war and placed on display at the RAF Museum at Hendon.[67]

            The Stuka was one of the most effective aerial weapons in the early part of World War II. It remains an important aircraft in the history of military aviation as one of the first aircraft designed for close air support to be placed into production. Equally important was the system developed to ensure that the pilots flying the Stukas coordinated effectively with Wehrmacht troops on the ground, a system which was later duplicated by the British and Americans. However, the Stuka’s most lasting legacy is that of a terror weapon- a wailing siren screaming down from the sky which would be forever remembered by Allied soldiers.

 


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