History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

The making and breaking of the Luftwaffe

Feared, reviled and revered, few military organisations have carried a reputation quite like the Luftwaffe did during WW2. Victoria Taylor reveals how the Nazis shaped this formidable air force – and the reckless mistakes that underpinned its demise

Stuka dive bombers fly in formation over France in May 1940
Published: December 8, 2021 at 8:35 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

“We were proud. We were pampered. We were the guarantors of the future.”

Advertisement

Writing about his experiences many years later, the words of German flying ace Johannes Steinhoff reflect the innate confidence of the Luftwaffe during the early days of the Third Reich. Enraged by Germany’s humiliation at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, it was both a burning sense of ambition and entitlement that fuelled the Luftwaffe’s destiny in becoming one of the most formidable air forces the world has ever seen.

Spearheaded by its forceful commander-in-chief, Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe’s rise to notoriety under the Nazis appeared to corroborate their claim that Göring had built the air force “als einzelner Mann” (“as a lone man”). But in reality, the Luftwaffe had been created long before pilots such as Steinhoff took to the skies, initially as a secret Schwarze Luftwaffe (Shadow Luftwaffe) by the preceding Weimar Republic. As Heinrich Brüning, chancellor of Germany between 1930 and 1932, later claimed, “Hitler didn’t start the Luftwaffe – we did”.

A likely staged shot of a German two-seater Rumpler engaging in combat with British aircraft during the First World War
A likely staged shot of a German two-seater Rumpler engaging in combat with British aircraft during the First World War. (Photo by Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

To separate historical fact from myth, then, it is necessary to examine how the opportunistic Nazi regime made the air force its own – both to the eventual detriment of the world and, ultimately, to itself.

Bold beginnings

Germany first began to recognise the potential of aerial warfare during the 19th century. After Prussian forces witnessed France’s use of observational and evacuation balloons during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), the newly unified German empire formed its own stationary observational balloon units. Before long, balloons were being adapted so that they could scout across long distances, transport vital equipment and drop bombs on enemy territory.

By the 1910s, military aircraft had been incorporated into the Deutsches Heer (Imperial German Army), and in 1914, Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (the Imperial German Army Air Service) entered the First World War. Later reshaped into the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte (German Air Force) in October 1916, it provided the army with both aerial reconnaissance and ground and air support.

More like this

Despite the strain and dangers of the dogfights, pilots often came away with more favourable memories of warfare than troops stuck in the trenches, and the image of the valiant German airman became embedded in the national psyche. Indeed, in his interwar biography of the Bavarian fighter ace Max Ritter von Müller, Hans Haller enthusiastically wrote of how “there was again man and courage; there was hunting and the landing of blows”. It was this chivalric aura that would soon give rise to other hallowed fighter aces such as Manfred von Richthofen (the famous ‘Red Baron’), as well as the likes of Oswald Boelcke, Max Immelmann and Werner Voss.

Manfred von Richthofen (right) talks with fellow flying officers
Manfred von Richthofen (right) talks with fellow flying officers. Before his death in combat in 1918, the ‘Red Baron’ had chalked up at least 80 aerial victories. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, with the influx of American airpower towards the end of the First World War, the odds simply became insurmountable for the Luftstreitkräfte. After Germany’s defeat in November 1918, the subsequent Treaty of Versailles banned the nation from possessing “any military or naval air forces”, evoking, in the words of one author, “a cry of rage through German aviation circles”.

Included among such circles was Hermann Göring – the unlikely last commander of Richthofen’s ‘Flying Circus’ fighter wing – who declared in his diary that he wanted to “restore German aviation to the world”.

Cloaked with all the swagger and star power of a fighter ace, he piqued the attention of an Austrian corporal with similar aspirations of restoring Germany’s prewar ‘greatness’: Adolf Hitler. The two Nazis were eventually inserted into Germany’s government in 1933. In January, Hitler was made chancellor, and the next month, Göring was appointed Reich commissioner of aviation.

Yet according to the former Luftwaffe anti-aircraft assistant Georg Cordts, it was only in March 1933 that Göring truly came to realise the extent of the “treasures that had fallen into his lap”.

Hitler, Hermann Göring and other Nazi officials pay their respects at a First World War memorial event, 1933
Hitler, Hermann Göring and other Nazi officials pay their respects at a First World War memorial event, 1933. (Photo by Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Secretly established the previous summer by the former Reich minister of defence, Kurt von Schleicher, Germany’s so-called Shadow Luftwaffe was intended to boast 630 officers and 4,000 other ranks by the end of 1936. This, in turn, built upon foundations that had been laid a decade earlier, when a covert military flight school was set up in the Russian city of Lipetsk. The convenient arrangement not only allowed the Soviets to obtain vital German expertise in fighter tactics and aeronautical development, but also enabled the Germans to circumvent Versailles’ restrictions on military flight in Germany.

Between 1926 and 1933, around 120 German fighter pilots and 450 flying personnel attended the institution, where they used high explosives, engaged in live-fire practice and undertook mock dive bombing and fighter-bomber operations. Progress in boosting the number of potential pilots who could serve in the Luftwaffe had also been made by the Reich Transport Ministry, whose earlier recruitment efforts had seen the number of student commercial and civil pilots being trained double between December 1924 and March 1926.

Ushering in a new age

Keen to capitalise on the gains made by their predecessors, the Nazi regime urgently accelerated the Luftwaffe’s rearmament, pledging around 10.5 billion Reichsmarks for the purpose in 1934. And, with the passing of the Wehrgesetz (Defence Law) on 21 May 1935, the Luftwaffe was officially established as a branch of the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) alongside the Heer (army) and Kriegsmarine (navy) – all in direct contravention of the terms that had been set out at Versailles.

The Nazi Luftwaffe prided itself on its high operational standards, with only 5 per cent of applicants passing the rigorous entrance exam required to reach the interview stage for non-commissioned officer and officer ranks. Although the Jagdflieger (fighter pilots) and Kampfflieger (bomber crews) are two of the most well- known branches of the Luftwaffe today, by July 1944 there were 70 different career pathways within the air force, with the Nazis quick to praise the “flyers who don’t fly” at every opportunity.

Those serving as aircraft engineers, mechanics, electricians, metal workers, carpenters and painters were all seen as being of particular value, as – in the words of the propagandists – “a fast, reliable and smoothly functioning ground service is the prerequisite for the operational readiness and fighting power of the ‘weapon in the air’”.

In terms of military strategy, the Nazis initially believed the Luftwaffe should be a Risiko or ‘risk’ Luftwaffe, using its fearsome persona as a deterrent to fulfil Nazi ambitions of quickly seizing territory without provoking war. Although some airpower theorists favoured the installation of a heavy strategic bombing element within the air force, the Luftwaffe’s successful intervention during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) – from pulling off logistical triumphs for Franco’s Nationalists, to flushing out Republican strongholds – had been a temporary distraction from adopting a heavyweight approach.
But these early achievements shrouded many of the Luftwaffe’s shortcomings. By 1939, a shortage of manpower hovered over German aircraft production, and the Luftwaffe lacked a sophisticated ground-to- air communications system and integrated radar network. With Göring boasting that “no enemy bomber can reach the Ruhr!” (referring to the heavily industrialised region of western Germany), fervent Nazi rhetoric was also instilling a complacency within the Luftwaffe that would leave the Reich woefully underprotected.

Highs and lows

When news broke that Germany had advanced into Poland on 1 September 1939, an airfield construction manager near Hamburg noted that both “the youngest officers of the airborne units and old medal-decorated First World War officers sat around me with serious faces”. As Hitler’s bloodlust swelled, and as Göring’s eagerness to unleash ‘the Führer’s Hammer’ increased, the Luftwaffe quickly found itself embroiled in conflicts across the globe.
The Luftwaffe was intrinsic to the early success of the tactical phenomenon of blitzkrieg (lightning war), which was wielded to great effect in 1939 across Poland, before hitting Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries and France the following spring. Combining swift manoeuvres from highly mobilised armoured divisions with disorientating Luftwaffe air support, blitzkrieg was essential for the quick war Hitler desired and required. By June 1940, as the Allied forces retreated from Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe stood in awe at its accomplishments. “I am proud today that I was able to take part in the greatest battle the world has ever seen,” wrote a breathless Luftwaffe anti-aircraft gunner.

Hermann Göring with Adolf Hitler in 1944.
Hermann Göring with Adolf Hitler in 1944. Their blunders helped hasten the Luftwaffe’s disintegration, argues Victoria Taylor. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Filled with confidence, the Nazi leadership turned its attentions across the Channel to Britain, but Winston Churchill had no intention of accepting Hitler’s request to sue for peace. Dismayed at his refusal to surrender, the führer ordered the Wehrmacht to prepare for an amphibious invasion of Britain – code-named Operation Sea Lion – on 16 July. The Luftwaffe’s fighter pilots and bomber crews sought to soften up the country for invasion with a relentless aerial campaign.

Although the Luftwaffe ran the RAF ragged during the resultant Battle of Britain – attacking Allied shipping, British ports, airfields, radar installations and aircraft factories – it did not achieve the level of air superiority necessary to make Operation Sea Lion viable. Nor was Britain’s defeat secured by the Luftwaffe’s switch to bombing its cities during the Blitz from early September 1940 until May 1941.

Disappointed, Hitler diverted his attention towards the Luftwaffe’s other deployments. In particular, the air force was becoming more committed to the North African campaign – fighting over Libya, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. The Luftwaffe also enjoyed a stunning yet demanding performance over the Balkans from April 1941, after its fellow Axis power, Italy, had invaded Greece the previous October.

A fatal misstep

Hitler’s chief priority, though, was to capture more Lebensraum or ‘living space’ by invading the Soviet Union. The Luftwaffe was partially redirected from the Blitz over Britain to the eastern front for Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. However, the ensuing invasion proved a step too far, and the Wehrmacht became locked in a bloody struggle with the Soviets that drained German resources even further – over-stretching the heavily deployed Luftwaffe.

Matters were made even worse for the Nazis when the Allied strategic bombing offensive started to cause chaos back at home in Germany. In January 1943, Churchill and US president Franklin D Roosevelt had promised Soviet leader Josef Stalin they would ramp up their existing bombing campaigns to further split their foe into an exhausting “war on two fronts”.

Although the Luftwaffe still managed to inflict heavy losses upon the Allies on occasion, the ruthless British-American firestorm that rained down on Hamburg in July 1943, and the controversial raids on Dresden between 13–15 February 1945, left German airmen feeling especially deflated. “The three consecutive attacks in 12 hours left every aid organisation smashed and resulted in destruction unlike anything else,” said one member of the Luftwaffe after visiting Dresden on 18 February 1945. “[The city] is no more.”

Local residents in Dresden queue for a streetcar in 1945, surrounded by the rubble from Allied bombing raids
Local residents in Dresden queue for a streetcar in 1945, surrounded by the rubble from Allied bombing raids. (Image by Getty Images)

But in truth, morale had been cracking since 1944. Temperamental and experimental aircraft – such as the rocket-powered Messerschmitt Me 163 ‘Komet’, the Heinkel He 162 Volksjäger and the Arado Ar 234 – were hastily constructed to little effect. Frustrated by Germany’s decline, Hubert Retz, a Luftwaffe radio operator, declared in a letter to his fiancée in May 1944 that “it will soon be time for this circus to come to an end, otherwise there will be no city in the whole of Germany that has not been destroyed”.

Overall, the Luftwaffe’s disintegration was hastened owing to a catalogue of blunders by both its operational leadership and political guardians. Its overcommitment at the hands of the rapacious Nazis strained the air force until fuel shortages, a slump in aircraft production, insufficient pilot training and inadequate logistical support all crippled the Luftwaffe from within.

Such was the desperation in the Third Reich that, towards the end of the war, the Nazi regime even suggested the formation of a dedicated Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) squadron – to the utter horror of the Luftwaffe. Before this madcap scheme could be executed, however, the Nazis capitulated on 7 May 1945, and German aviation was set right back where it had been in 1918: defeated, disarmed, and effectively deceased.

A scathing Luftwaffe report from January 1945 perhaps captured the true reasons for the air force’s undoing when it claimed that the Nazi regime had “attached too little value to education” and “wanted too much to do with morality and the representation of dogmas [than] to be achieving the goal of a higher performance”.

The Luftwaffe had been crushed under the leadership that had once helped it to fly – and the price for its wartime glory would be peacetime infamy.

5 planes that defined the Luftwaffe

From jet fighters to dive bombers, these aircraft helped heighten the Luftwaffe’s fearsome reputation in the skies  
1 MESSERSCHMITT BF 109 
Fitted with a liquid-cooled 1,020hp Daimler-Benz DB 601A engine, the
Bf 109’s guts were stuffed with all the modernised apparatus of the best fighter aircraft in the mid-1930s: a retractable undercarriage, trailing edge flaps, and an enclosed cockpit. It packed a concentrated punch of ammunition, armed with various combinations of 7.9mm MG 17 machine guns and 20mm MG FF auto- cannons, though MG 151 autocannons were later experimented with. 

The Bf 109E took the fight to the RAF’s Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires in the Battle of Britain. Unlike its British counterparts, whose Rolls Royce Merlin engines’ float chambers were prone to flooding with fuel under negative G, the Bf 109’s fuel-injected engine reduced its chances of stalling and kept it in the fight for longer. 

2 FOCKE WULF FW 190 
The arrival of the Focke Wulf Fw 190 in 1941 caused huge concern for the RAF’s Fighter Command, who were puzzled by the sudden appearance of this stubby-nosed aircraft. Fitted with a 1,700hp BMW 801-D2 radial engine, later variants of the Fw 190 could fly up to 440mph at 37,000ft, with a ceiling height of 39,370ft. 

Although it initially struggled with a few teething problems, the Fw 190 was designed with simplicity in mind: its parts were easy to manufacture and replace. It was often considered to be sturdier, more forgiving to less experi- enced pilots, and a better all-rounder than the Bf 109. 

3 MESSERSCHMITT ME 262 
The world’s first operational jet fighter had its full potential curtailed by numerous delays in its development. The Luftwaffe and Adolf Hitler were notably divided over its role, with the führer envisioning it as a ‘Jabo’ (fighter-bomb- er) instead of a fighter interceptor. 

Powered by a pair of BMW-003 turbojets, each with 5.40kN thrust, from November 1941, its developers attempted to replace these with the temperamental 8.24kN Junkers Jumo- 004 engines. Botched landings were common due to the plane’s long nose, which could obscure the pilot’s visibility on the ground. 

Nevertheless, its advanced aerodynamics enabled it to reach an eye-water- ing top speed of 540mph. The Me 262’s ultimate success lay in catalysing the rise of the jet engine. 

4 JUNKERS JU 87 ‘STUKA’ 
The two-crew Sturzkampfflugzeug (‘Stuka’) dive bomber entered service with the Luftwaffe in 1937, powered
by a 1,400hp Jumo 211J-1 inverted-V piston engine from 1940. With a top speed of 230mph, which climbed to over 300mph in a dive, this gull-winged harbinger of death enjoyed great precision bombing success in the Spanish Civil War and during the first year of the Second World War.
But its vulnerability to attack due to its light armament rendered it increasingly obsolete. It is best known for its ear-piercing shriek while in a dive – pro- duced by the wind whistling through the ‘Jericho’s Trumpet’ siren fixed under its wings – which was designed to inflict psychological terror on the enemy. 
5 HEINKEL HE 111
The mainstay of Germany’s bomber offensive in the Second World War, the Heinkel He 111 medium bomber was powered by 1,200hp Junkers Jumo 211D 12-cylinder, inverted-V, liquid-cooled engines. This five-crew bomber had a top speed of 270mph and a maximum range of 1,280 miles. It was involved in some of the deadliest bombing raids in history – from Guernica and Warsaw, to Rotterdam and Coventry. 

Its age was already beginning to show at the start of the Second World War, however: it was slow, lumbering, and unable to develop significantly beyond its 1934 specifications. Never- theless, it remained sturdy and dependable – faithfully serving its Luftwaffe masters across all major German fronts until the end of the Second World War.

Victoria Taylor is an aviation historian based at Hull and Sheffield Hallam universities. Her PhD research examines National Socialism in the Luftwaffe

Advertisement

This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine's Collectors' Edition, Great Battles of World War Two: War in the Air

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sponsored content