A Brief History
On February 26, 1935, the militant German nationalist leader Adolf Hitler defied the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and ordered the reestablishment of the German Air Force, known as the Luftwaffe.
Hitler and his Nazi buddies had plotted this for some time, disguising pilot training as lessons to fly gliders, something allowed by the treaty. As German industry developed war planes, the ruse that these planes were civilian craft was used as a cover story.
German pilots got their first taste of combat flying in the Condor Legion of “volunteers” during the Spanish Civil War, and their new Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter was shockingly better than any other fighter in the world. The Bf 109 would be produced throughout World War II, and despite its aging design, its engines and weapons were upgraded to where it kept up with the best Allied fighters right to the end. With 34,000 of these simple and rugged fighters built (the most of any aircraft ever), they were the backbone of the Luftwaffe’s fighter corps, and stayed in active service in Spain until 1965.
Probably the best German piston-engine fighter of the war was the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, the fighter with the fastest roll rate during World War II. Heavily armed and “ruggedized” to make it able to handle primitive landing strips, this work horse was adapted into effective ground attack versions and continuously upgraded throughout the war. Over 20,000 of them were built, and it served until 1949 with the Turkish Air Force. The Fw 190 was distinct in that it was one of the rare European examples of a radial engine fighter and was sometimes mistaken for the US P-47 Thunderbolt.
The primary German bombers of World War II were the Junker Ju 88, with over 15,000 built, and the Heinkel He 111, with over 6,500 built. Both were medium bombers that had been adapted for use as night fighters and for ground (tank) attack roles as well. The Dornier Do 17 and its variants rounded out the main 3 bomber aircraft types of the Luftwaffe, with over 2,100 built.
The primary ground attack and dive bomber of the Luftwaffe in World War II was the Junker Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber. Though state of the art when introduced in 1936, it was quickly made obsolete with advances in Allied fighters once the war started. Still, over 6,500 were built, and despite its retro look with fixed landing gear and exposed struts, the Stuka was up-engined and up-gunned like the fighter planes so that it would be able to soldier on til the end of the war. Though rugged and extremely accurate, it just did not have the speed or defensive firepower to protect itself. The most highly-decorated German serviceman (of any branch) of the war was Colonel Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a Stuka pilot.
Germany never developed a sufficient fleet of cargo/transport planes and had these needs met mainly by the tri-motor-powered Junker Ju 52, also known as “Iron Annie.” Nearly 5,000 were built, but that pales in comparison to the 10,000+ American C-47s (2 engine), 3,100+ American C-46s (2 engine) and 1,100+ American C-54s (4 engine) cargo/transports.
Other innovative German aircraft capture still the imaginations of military buffs today, but in reality, the highly advanced Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter, the Arado Ar 234 jet bomber and the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket interceptor were too little and too late to make much of a contribution. The previously listed aircraft above were the mainstays of the Luftwaffe of World War II, and had the Germans concentrated on building only these types to have as many of them as possible, they might have greatly assisted their war effort.
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For more information, please see…
Killen, John. The Luftwaffe: A History. Pen and Sword, 2013.