The Imperial German Army Air Service was founded in 1910 with the name Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches, most often shortened to Fliegertruppe. It was renamed Luftstreitkräfte on 8 October 1916. The air war on the Western Front received the most attention in the annals of the earliest accounts of military aviation, since it produced aces such as Manfred von Richthofen and Ernst Udet, Oswald Boelcke, and Max Immelmann. After the defeat of Germany, the service was dissolved on 8 May 1920 under the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, which also mandated the destruction of all German military aircraft.
Since the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany to have an air force, German pilots trained in secret. Initially, civil aviation schools within Germany were used, yet only light trainers could be used in order to maintain the façade that the trainees were going to fly with civil airlines such as Deutsche Luft Hansa. To train its pilots on the latest combat aircraft, Germany solicited the help of the Soviet Union, which was also isolated in Europe. A secret training airfield was established at Lipetsk in 1924 and operated for approximately nine years using mostly Dutch and Soviet, but also some German, training aircraft before being closed in 1933. This base was officially known as 4th squadron of the 40th wing of the Red Army. Hundreds of Luftwaffe pilots and technical personnel visited, studied and were trained at Soviet air force schools in several locations in Central Russia. Roessing, Blume, Fosse, Teetsemann, Heini, Makratzki, Blumendaat, and many other future Luftwaffe aces were trained in Russia in joint Russian-German schools that were set up under the patronage of Ernst August Köstring.
The first steps towards the Luftwaffe's formation were undertaken just months after Adolf Hitler came to power. Hermann Göring, a World War I ace, became National Kommissar for aviation with former Luft Hansa director Erhard Milch as his deputy. In April 1933 the Reich Aviation Ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium or RLM) was established. The RLM was in charge of development and production of aircraft. Göring's control over all aspects of aviation became absolute. On 25 March 1933 the German Air Sports Association absorbed all private and national organizations, while retaining its 'sports' title. On 15 May 1933, all military aviation organizations in the RLM were merged, forming the Luftwaffe; its official 'birthday'. The National Socialist Flyers Corps (Nationalsozialistisches Fliegerkorps or NSFK) was formed in 1937 to give pre-military flying training to male youths, and to engage adult sport aviators in the Nazi movement. Military-age members of the NSFK were drafted into the Luftwaffe. As all such prior NSFK members were also Nazi Party members, this gave the new Luftwaffe a strong Nazi ideological base in contrast to the other branches of the Wehrmacht (the Heer (Army) and Kriegsmarine (Navy)). Göring played a leading role in the buildup of the Luftwaffe in 1933–36, but had little further involvement in the development of the force after 1936, and Milch became the "de facto" minister until 1937.
The absence of Göring in planning and production matters was fortunate. Göring had little knowledge of current aviation, had last flown in 1922, and had not kept himself informed of latest events. Göring also displayed a lack of understanding of doctrine and technical issues in aerial warfare which he left to others more competent. The Commander-in-Chief left the organisation and building of the Luftwaffe, after 1936, to Erhard Milch. However Göring, as a part of Hitler's inner circle, provided access to financial resources and materiel for rearming and equipping the Luftwaffe.
Another prominent figure in German air power construction this time was Helmuth Wilberg. Wilberg later played a large role in the development of German air doctrine. Having headed the Reichswehr air staff for eight years in the 1920s, Wilberg had considerable experience and was ideal for a senior staff position. Göring considered making Wilberg Chief of Staff (CS). However, it was revealed Wilberg had a Jewish mother. For that reason Göring could not have him as CS. Not wishing his talent to go to waste, Göring ensured the racial laws of the Third Reich did not apply to him. Wilberg remained in the air staff, and under Walther Wever helped draw up the Luftwaffe's principle doctrinal texts, "The Conduct of the Aerial War" and "Regulation 16".
Preparing for war: 1933–39
The Wever years, 1933–36
The German officer Corps was keen to develop strategic bombing capabilities against its enemies. However, economic and geopolitical considerations had to take priority. The German air power theorists continued to develop strategic theories, but emphasis was given to army support, as Germany was a continental power and expected to face ground operations following any declaration of hostilities.
For these reasons, between 1933 and 1934, the Luftwaffe's leadership was primarily concerned with tactical and operational methods. In aerial terms, the army concept of Truppenführung was an operational concept, as well as a tactical doctrine. In World War I, the Fliegertruppe's initial, 1914–15 era Feldflieger Abteilung observation/reconnaissance air units, each with six two-seater aircraft apiece, had been attached to specific army formations and acted as support. Dive bomber units were considered essential to Truppenführung, attacking enemy headquarters and lines of communications. Luftwaffe "Regulation 10: The Bomber" (Dienstvorschrift 10: Das Kampfflugzeug), published in 1934, advocated air superiority and approaches to ground attack tactics without dealing with operational matters. Until 1935, the 1926 manual "Directives for the Conduct of the Operational Air War" continued to act as the main guide for German air operations. The manual directed OKL to focus on limited operations (not strategic operations): the protection of specific areas and support of the army in combat.
With an effective tactical-operational concept, the German air power theorists needed a strategic doctrine and organisation. Robert Knauss, a serviceman (not pilot) in the Luftstreitkräfte during World War I, and later an experienced pilot with Lufthansa, was a prominent theorist of air power. Knauss promoted the Giulio Douhet theory that air power could win wars alone by destroying enemy industry and breaking enemy morale by "terrorizing the population" of major cities. This advocated attacks on civilians. The General Staff blocked the entry of Douhet's theory into doctrine, fearing revenge strikes against German civilians and cities.
In December 1934, Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff Walther Wever sought to mould the Luftwaffe's battle doctrine into a strategic plan. At this time, Wever conducted war games (simulated against France) in a bid to establish his theory of a strategic bombing force that would, he thought, prove decisive by winning the war through the destruction of enemy industry, even though these exercises also included tactical strikes against enemy ground forces and communications. In 1935, "Luftwaffe Regulation 16: The Conduct of the Air War" was drawn up. In the proposal, it concluded, "The mission of the Luftwaffe is to serve these goals."
Corum states that under this doctrine, the Luftwaffe leadership rejected the practice of "terror bombing" (see Luftwaffe strategic bombing doctrine). According to Corum terror bombing was deemed to be "counter-productive", increasing rather than destroying the enemy's will to resist. Such bombing campaigns were regarded as diversion from the Luftwaffe's main operations; destruction of the enemy armed forces.
Nevertheless, Wever recognised the importance of strategic bombing. In newly introduced doctrine, The Conduct of the Aerial Air War in 1935, Wever rejected the theory of Douhet and outlined five key points to air strategy:
- To destroy the enemy air force by bombing its bases and aircraft factories, and defeating enemy air forces attacking German targets.
- To prevent the movement of large enemy ground forces to the decisive areas by destroying railways and roads, particularly bridges and tunnels, which are indispensable for the movement and supply of forces
- To support the operations of the army formations, independent of railways, i.e, armoured forces and motorised forces, by impeding the enemy advance and participating directly in ground operations.
- To support naval operations by attacking naval bases, protecting Germany's naval bases and participating directly in naval battles
- To paralyse the enemy armed forces by stopping production in the armaments factories.
Wever began planning for a strategic bomber force and sought to incorporate strategic bombing into a war strategy. He believed that tactical aircraft should only be used as a step to developing a strategic air force. In May 1934, Wever initiated a seven-year project to develop the so-called "Ural bomber", which could strike as far as into the heart of the Soviet Union. In 1935, this design competition led to the Dornier Do 19 and Junkers Ju 89 prototypes, although both were underpowered. In April 1936, Wever issue requirements for the 'Bomber A' design competition: a range of 6,700 km (4,163 mi) with a 900 kg (1,984 lb) bomb load. However Wever's vision of a "Ural" bomber was never realised, and his emphasis on strategic aerial operations was lost. The only design submittal for Wever's 'Bomber A' that reached production was Heinkel's Projekt 1041, which culminated in the production and frontline service as Germany's only operational heavy bomber, the Heinkel He 177, on 5 November 1937, the date on which it received its RLM airframe number.
In 1935, the military functions of the RLM were grouped into Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL; "Air Force High Command").
Following the untimely death of Walther Wever in early June 1936 in an aviation-related accident, by the late 1930s the Luftwaffe had no clear purpose. The air force was not subordinated to the army support role, and it was not given any particular strategic mission. German doctrine fell between the two concepts. The Luftwaffe was to be an organization capable of carrying out broad and general support tasks rather than any specific mission. Mainly, this path was chosen to encourage a more flexible use of air power and offer the ground forces the right conditions for a decisive victory. In fact, on the outbreak of war, only 15% of the Luftwaffe's aircraft were devoted to ground support operations, counter to the long-held myth that the Luftwaffe was designed for only tactical and operational missions.
A change of direction, 1936–37
Wever's participation in the construction of the Luftwaffe came to an abrupt end on 3 June 1936 when he was killed along with his engineer in a Heinkel He 70 Blitz, ironically on the very day that his "Bomber A" heavy bomber design competition was announced. After Wever's death Göring began taking more of an interest in the appointment of Luftwaffe staff officers. Göring appointed his successor Albert Kesselring as Chief of Staff and Ernst Udet to head the Reich's Air Ministry Technical Office (Technisches Amt), although he was not a technical expert. Despite this Udet helped change the Luftwaffe's tactical direction towards fast medium bombers to destroy enemy air power in the battle zone rather than through industrial bombing of its aviation production.
Kesselring and Udet did not get on. During Kesselring's time as CS, 1936–1937, a power struggle developed between the two as Udet attempted to extend his own power within the Luftwaffe. Kesselring also had to contend with Göring appointing "yes men" to positions of importance. Udet realised his limitations, and his failures in the production and development of German aircraft would have serious long term consequences.
. Along with Albert Kesselring, Udet was responsible for establishing the design trend of German aircraft. Udet's focus was on tactical army support air forces
The failure of the Luftwaffe to progress further towards attaining a strategic bombing force was attributable to several reasons. Many in the Luftwaffe command believed medium bombers to be sufficient power to launch strategic bombing operations against Germany's most likely enemies; France, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. The United Kingdom presented greater problems. General der Flieger Hellmuth Felmy, commander of Luftflotte 2 in 1939, was charged with devising a plan for an air war over the British Isles. Felmy was convinced that Britain could be defeated through morale bombing. Felmy noted the alleged panic that had broken out in London during the Munich crisis, evidence he believed of British weakness. A second reason was technical. German designers had never solved the issues of the Heinkel He 177A's design difficulties, brought on by the requirement from its inception on 5 November 1937 to have moderate dive bombing capabilities in a 30-meter wingspan aircraft. Moreover, Germany did not possess the economic resources to match the later British and American effort of 1943–1944, particularly in large-scale mass production of high power output aircraft engines (with output of over least 1,500 kW (2,000 hp). In addition, OKL had not foreseen the industrial and military effort strategic bombing would require. By 1939 the Luftwaffe was not much better prepared than its enemies to conduct a strategic bombing campaign, with fatal results during the Battle of Britain.
The German rearmament program faced difficulties acquiring raw materials. Germany imported most of its essential materials for rebuilding the Luftwaffe, in particular rubber and aluminium. Petroleum imports were particularly vulnerable to blockade. Germany pushed for synthetic fuel plants, but still failed to meet demands. In 1937 Germany imported more fuel than it had at the start of the decade. By the summer 1938 only 25% of requirements could be covered. In steel materials, industry was operating at barely 83% of capacity, and by November 1938 Göring reported the economic situation was serious. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), the overall command for all German military forces, ordered reductions in raw materials and steel used for armament production. The figures for reduction were substantial: 30% steel, 20% copper, 47% aluminium, and 14% rubber. Under such circumstances, it was not possible for Milch, Udet, or Kesselring to produce a formidable strategic bombing force even had they wanted to do so.
The development of aircraft was now confined to the production of twin-engined medium bombers that required much less material, manpower and aviation production capacity than Wever's "Ural Bomber". German industry could build two medium bombers for one heavy bomber and the RLM would not gamble on developing a heavy bomber which would also take time. Göring remarked, "the Führer will not ask how big the bombers there are, but only how many there are." The premature death of Wever, one of the Luftwaffe's finest officers, left the Luftwaffe without a strategic air force during World War II, which eventually proved fatal to the German war effort.
The lack of strategic capability should have been apparent much earlier. The Sudeten Crisis highlighted German unpreparedness to conduct a strategic air war (although the British and French were in a much weaker position), and Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe be expanded to five times its earlier size. OKL badly neglected the need for transport aircraft; even in 1943, transport units were described as Kampfgeschwadern zur besonderen Verwendung ("Bomber Units on Special Duties", KGzbV). and only grouping them together into dedicated cargo and personnel transport wings (Transportgeschwader) during that year. In March 1938, as the Anschluss was taking place, Göring ordered Felmy to investigate the prospect of air raids against Britain. Felmy concluded it was not possible until bases in Belgium and the Netherlands were obtained and the Luftwaffe had heavy bombers. It mattered little, as war was avoided by the Munich Agreement, and the need for long-range aircraft did not arise.
These failures were not exposed until wartime. In the meantime German designs of mid-1930s origin such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109, Heinkel He 111, Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, and Dornier Do 17, performed very well. All first saw active service in the Condor Legion against Soviet-supplied aircraft. The Luftwaffe also quickly realized the days of the biplane fighter were finished, the Heinkel He 51 being switched to service as a trainer. Particularly impressive were the Heinkel and Dornier, which fulfilled the Luftwaffe's requirements for bombers that were faster than 1930s-era fighters, many of which were biplanes or strut-braced monoplanes.
Despite the participation of these aircraft (mainly from 1938 onward), it was the venerable Junkers Ju 52 (which soon became the backbone of the Transportgruppen) that made the main contribution. During the Spanish Civil War Hitler remarked, "Franco ought to erect a monument to the glory of the Junkers Ju 52. It is the aircraft which the Spanish revolution has to thank for its victory."
Poor accuracy from level bombers in 1937 led the Luftwaffe to grasp the benefits of dive-bombing. The latter could achieve far better accuracy against tactical ground targets than heavier conventional bombers. Range was not a key criterion for this mission. It was not always feasible for the Army to move heavy artillery over recently captured territory to bombard fortifications or support ground forces, and dive bombers could do the job more quickly. Dive bombers, often single-engine two-man machines, could achieve better results than larger six or seven-man aircraft, at a tenth of the cost and four times the accuracy. This led to Udet championing the dive bomber, particularly the Junkers Ju 87.
Udet's "love affair" with dive bombing seriously affected the long-term development of the Luftwaffe, especially after General Wever's death. The tactical strike aircraft programs were meant to serve as interim solutions until the next generation of aircraft arrived. In 1936 the Junkers Ju 52 was the backbone of the German bomber fleet. This led to a rush on the part of the RLM to produce the Junkers Ju 86, Heinkel He 111, and Dornier Do 17 before a proper evaluation was made. The Ju 86 was poor while the He 111 showed most promise. The Spanish Civil War convinced Udet (along with limited output from the German munitions industry) that wastage was not acceptable in munition terms. Udet sought to build dive bombing into the Junkers Ju 88 and conveyed the same idea, initiated specifically by OKL for the Heinkel He 177, approved in early November 1937. In the case of the Ju 88, 50,000 modifications had to be made. The weight was increased from seven to twelve tons. This resulted in a speed loss of 200 km/h. Udet merely conveyed OKL's own dive bombing capability request to Ernst Heinkel concerning the He 177, who vehemently opposed such an idea, which ruined its development as a heavy bomber. Göring was not able to rescind the dive bombing requirement for the He 177A until September 1942.
By the summer of 1939, the Luftwaffe had ready for combat nine Jagdgeschwader ("fighter wings") mostly equipped with the Messerschmitt Bf 109E, four 'Zerstörergeschwader ("destroyer wings") equipped with the Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighter, 11 Kampfgeschwader (bomber wings) equipped mainly with the Heinkel He 111 and the Dornier Do 17Z, and four Sturzkampfgeschwader ("dive bomber wings") primarily armed with the iconic Junkers Ju 87B Stuka. The Luftwaffe was just starting to accept the Junkers Ju 88A for service, as it had encountered design difficulties, with only a dozen aircraft of the type considered combat-ready. The Luftwaffe's strength at this time stood at 373,000 personnel (208,000 flying troops, 107,000 in the Flak Corps and 58,000 in the Signals Corps). Aircraft strength was 4,201 operational aircraft: 1,191 bombers, 361 dive bombers, 788 fighters, 431 heavy fighters, and 488 transports. Despite deficiencies it was an impressive force.
Polish girl strafed by German dive bombers, September 1939
However, even by the spring of 1940, the Luftwaffe still had not mobilized fully. Despite the shortage of raw-materials, Generalluftzeugmeister Ernst Udet had increased production through introducing a 10-hour working day for aviation industries and rationalizing production. During this period 30 Kampfstaffeln and 16 Jagdstaffeln were raised and equipped. A further five Zerstörergruppen ("Destroyer groups") were created (JGr 101, 102,126,152 and 176), all equipped with the Bf 110.
The Luftwaffe also greatly expanded its aircrew training programs by 42%, to 63 flying schools. These facilities were moved to eastern Germany, away from possible Allied threats. The number of aircrew reached 4,727, an increase of 31%. However, the rush to complete this rapid expansion scheme resulted in the deaths of 997 personnel and another 700 wounded. 946 aircraft were also destroyed in these accidents. The number of aircrew completing their training was up to 3,941, The Luftwaffe's entire strength was now 2.2 million personnel.
In April and May 1941, Udet headed the Luftwaffe delegation inspecting Soviet aviation industry in compliance with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Udet informed Göring "that Soviet air forces are very strong and technically advanced." Göring decided not to report the facts to Hitler, hoping that a surprise attack would quickly destroy the USSR. Udet realized that the upcoming war on Russia might cripple Germany. Udet, torn between truth and loyalty, suffered a psychological breakdown and even tried to tell Hitler the truth, but Göring told Hitler that Udet was lying, then took Udet under control by giving him drugs at drinking parties and hunting trips. Udet's drinking and psychological condition became a problem, but Göring used Udet's dependency to manipulate him.
. Defendants in the dock. The main target of the prosecution was Hermann Göring
(at the left edge on the first row of benches), considered to be the most important surviving official in the Third Reich
Throughout the history of Nazi Germany, the Luftwaffe had only two commanders-in-chief. The first was Hermann Göring, with the second and last being Generalfeldmarschall Robert Ritter von Greim. His appointment as commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe was concomitant with his promotion to Generalfeldmarschall, the last German officer in World War II to be promoted to the highest rank. Other officers promoted to the second highest military rank in Germany were Albert Kesselring, Hugo Sperrle, Erhard Milch, and Wolfram von Richthofen.
At the end of the war, with Berlin surrounded by the Red Army, Göring suggested to Hitler that he take over leadership of the Reich. Hitler ordered his arrest and execution, but Göring's SS guards did not carry out the order, and Göring survived to be tried at Nuremberg.
Sperrle was prosecuted at the OKW Trial, one of the last twelve of the Nuremberg Trials after the war. He was acquitted on all four counts. He died in Munich in 1953.
Organization and chain of command
At the start of the war the Luftwaffe had four Luftflotten ("air fleets"), each responsible for roughly a quarter of Germany. As the war progressed more air fleets were created as the areas under German rule expanded. As one example, Luftflotte 5 was created in 1940 to direct operations in Norway and Denmark, and other Luftflotten were created as necessary. Each Luftflotte would contain several Fliegerkorps (Air Corps), Fliegerdivision (Air Division), Jagdkorps (Fighter Corps),Jagddivision (Air Division) or Jagdfliegerführer (Fighter Air Command). Each formations would have attached to it a number of units, usually several Geschwader, but also independent Staffeln and Kampfgruppen. Luftflotten were also responsible for the training aircraft and schools in their operational areas.
A Geschwader was commanded by a Geschwaderkommodore, with the rank of either major, Oberstleutnant (lieutenant colonel) or Oberst (colonel). Other "staff" officers within the unit with administrative duties included the adjutant, technical officer, and operations officer, who were usually (though not always) experienced aircrew or pilots still flying on operations. Other specialist staff were navigation, signals, and intelligence personnel. A Stabschwarm (headquarters flight) was attached to each Geschwader.
A Jagdgeschwader ("fighter wing", literally "hunting wing") (JG) was a single-seat day fighter Geschwader, typically equipped with Bf 109 or Fw 190 aircraft flying in the fighter or fighter-bomber roles. Late in the war, by 1944–45, JG 7 and JG 400 (and the jet specialist JV 44) flew much more advanced aircraft, with JG 1 working up with jets at war's end. A Geschwader consisted of groups (Gruppen), which in turn consisted of Jagdstaffel (fighter squadrons). Hence, Fighter Wing 1 was JG 1, its first Gruppe (group) was I./JG 1, using a Roman numeral for the Gruppe number only, and its first Staffel (squadron) was 1./JG 1. Geschwader strength was usually 120 – 125 aircraft.
Each Gruppe was commanded by a Kommandeur, and a Staffel by a Staffelkapitän. However, these were "appointments", not ranks, within the Luftwaffe. Usually, the Kommodore would hold the rank of Oberstleutnant (lieutenant colonel) or, exceptionally, an Oberst (colonel). Even a Leutnant (second lieutenant) could find himself commanding a Staffel.
Similarly, a bomber wing was a Kampfgeschwader (KG), a night fighter wing was a Nachtjagdgeschwader (NJG), a dive bomber wing was a Stukageschwader (StG), and units equivalent to those in RAF Coastal Command, with specific responsibilities for coastal patrols and search and rescue duties, were Küstenfliegergruppen (Kü.Fl. Gr.). Specialist bomber groups were known as Kampfgruppen (KGr). The strength of a bomber Geschwader was about 80–90 aircraft.
|Luftwaffe strength during the fall of 1941
|Air signal units
|Landsturm (militia) units
The peacetime strength of the Luftwaffe in the spring of 1939 was 370,000 men. After the mobilization in 1939 almost 900,000 men served, and just before Operation Barbarossa in 1941 the personnel strength had reached 1.5 million men. Luftwaffe reached its largest personnel strength during the period November 1943 to June 1944, with almost three million men and women in uniform; 1.7 million of these were male soldiers, 1 million male Wehrmachtsbeamte and civilian employees, and almost 300,000 female and male auxiliaries (Luftwaffenhelfer). In October 1944, the anti-aircraft units had 600,000 soldiers and 530,000 auxiliaries, including 60,000 male members of the Reichsarbeitsdienst, 50,000 Luftwaffenhelfer (males age 15–17), 80,000 Flakwehrmänner (males above military age) and Flak-V-soldaten (males unfit for military service), and 160,000 female Flakwaffenhelferinnen and RAD-Maiden, as well as 160,000 foreign personnel (Hiwis).
Spanish Civil War
The Luftwaffe's Condor Legion experimented with new doctrine and aircraft during the Spanish Civil War. It helped the Falange under Francisco Franco to defeat the Republican forces. Over 20,000 German airmen gained combat experience that would give the Luftwaffe an important advantage going into the Second World War. One infamous operation was the bombing of Guernica in the . It is commonly assumed this attack was the result of a "terror doctrine" in Luftwaffe doctrine. The raids on Guernica and Madrid caused many civilian casualties and a wave of protests in the democracies. It has been suggested that the bombing of Guernica was carried out for military tactical reasons, in support of ground operations, but the town was not directly involved in any fighting at that point in time. It was not until 1942 that the Germans started to develop bombing policy in which civilians were the primary target, although The Blitz on London and many other British cities involved indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, 'nuisance raids' which could even involve the machine-gunning of civilians and livestock.
World War II
When World War II began, the Luftwaffe was one of the most technologically advanced air forces in the world. During the Polish Campaign that triggered the war, it quickly established air superiority, and then air supremacy. It supported the German Army operations which ended the campaign in five weeks. The Luftwaffe's performance was as OKL had hoped. The Luftwaffe rendered invaluable support to the army, mopping up pockets of resistance. Göring was delighted with the performance. Command and control problems were experienced, but owing to the flexibility and improvisation of both the army and Luftwaffe, these problems were solved. The Luftwaffe was to have in place a ground-to-air communication system, which played a vital role in the success of Fall Gelb.
In the spring of 1940, the Luftwaffe assisted the Kriegsmarine and Heer in the invasion of Norway. Flying in reinforcements and winning air superiority, the Luftwaffe contributed decisively to the German conquest.
In the spring of 1940, the Luftwaffe contributed to the unexpected success in the Battle of France. It destroyed three Allied Air Forces and helped secure the defeat of France in just over six weeks. However, it could not destroy the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk despite intense bombing. The BEF escaped to continue the war.
During the Battle of Britain in summer 1940, the Luftwaffe inflicted severe damage to the Royal Air Force, but did not achieve the air superiority that Hitler demanded for the proposed invasion of Britain, which was postponed and then cancelled in December 1940. The Luftwaffe ravaged British cities during The Blitz, but failed to break British morale. Hitler had already ordered preparations to be made for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
In spring 1941, the Luftwaffe helped its Axis partner, Italy, secure victory in the Balkans Campaign and continued to support Italy in the Mediterranean, Middle East and African theatres until May 1945.
In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Luftwaffe destroyed thousands of Soviet aircraft, yet it failed to destroy the Red Air Force altogether. Lacking strategic bombers (the very "Ural bombers" that General Wever had asked for six years before) the Luftwaffe could not strike at Soviet production centers regularly or with the needed force. As the war dragged on, the Luftwaffe was eroded in strength. The defeats at the Battle of Stalingrad and Battle of Kursk ensured the gradual decline of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front.
British historian Frederick Taylor asserts that "all sides bombed each other's cities during the war. Half a million Soviet citizens, for example, died from German bombing during the invasion and occupation of Russia. That's roughly equivalent to the number of German citizens who died from Allied raids."
Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe continued to defend German-occupied Europe against the growing offensive power of RAF Bomber Command and, starting in the summer of 1942, the steadily building strength of the United States Army Air Forces. The Defence of the Reich campaign gradually destroyed the Luftwaffe's fighter arm. Despite its belated use of advanced turbojet and rocket propelled aircraft for bomber destroyer duties, it was overwhelmed by Allied numbers and a lack of trained pilots and fuel. A last-ditch attempt, known as Operation Bodenplatte, to win air superiority on 1 January 1945 failed. After the Bodenplatte effort, the Luftwaffe ceased to be an effective fighting force.
German day and night fighter pilots claimed more than 70,000 aerial victories during World War II. Of these, about 745 victories are estimated to be achieved by jet fighters. Flak shot down 25,000–30,000 Allied planes. Broken down on the different Allies, about 25,000 were American planes, about 20,000 British, 46,100 Soviet, 1,274 French, 375 Polish, and 81 Dutch as well as aircraft from other Allied nationalities.
The highest scoring day fighter pilot was Erich Hartmann with 352 confirmed kills, all of them at the Eastern front against the Soviets. The leading aces in the west were Hans-Joachim Marseille with 158 kills against planes from the British Empire (RAF, RAAF, and SAAF) and Georg-Peter Eder with 56 kills of aircraft from the USAAF (of a total of 78). The most successful night fighter pilot was Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, who is credited with 121 kills. 103 German fighter pilots shot down more than 100 enemy aircraft for a total of roughly 15,400 aerial victories. Roughly a further 360 pilots claimed between 40 and 100 aerial victories for round about 21,000 victories. Another 500 fighter pilots claimed between 20 and 40 victories for a total of 15,000 victories. It is relatively certain that 2,500 German fighter pilots attained ace status, having achieved at least five aerial victories. These achievements were honored with 453 German single and twin-engine (Messerschmitt Bf 110) day fighter pilots having received the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. 85 night fighter pilots, including 14 crew members, were awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.
Some Bomber pilots were also highly successful. The Stuka and "Schlachtflieger" pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel flew 2,530 ground-attack missions and claimed the destruction of more than 519 tanks and a battleship, among others. He was the most highly decorated German serviceman of the Second World War. The Bomber pilot Hansgeorg Bätcher flew more than 658 combat missions destroying numerous ships and other targets.
Losses on the other hand were high as well. The estimated total number of destroyed and damaged for the war totaled 76,875 aircraft. Of these, about 43,000 were lost in combat, the rest in operational accidents and during training. By type, losses totaled 21,452 fighters, 12,037 bombers, 15,428 trainers, 10,221 twin-engine fighters, 5,548 ground attack, 6,733 reconnaissance, and 6,141 transports.
According to the General Staff of the Wehrmacht the losses of the flight personnel until February 1945 amounted to:
- KIA: 6,527 officers and 43,517 enlisted men
- WIA: 4,194 officers and 27,811 enlisted men
- MIA: 4,361 officers and 27,240 enlisted men
total: 15,082 officers and 98,568 enlisted men
According to official statistics, the total Luftwaffe casualties, including ground personnel, amounted to 138,596 killed and 156,132 missing through 31 January 1945.