German Air-Power 1919-1945



Germany did not produce a philosopher of air power comparable to Douhet, Trenchard, or Mitchell. Instead it looked carefully at the past, analyzed the statements of Douhet and others, then committed itself to a course of action that in time led to the mighty German Luftwaffe of World War II. The land of von Richthofen would have remarkable good fortune in the selection of its air force leaders from 1919 through 1936, and remarkably bad fortune in the years that followed. The Five Factors came into play, but because of circumstances, they operated in a different, sometimes completely opposite, manner from the way they operated in other countries.

Germany ended World War I with only its air service still capable of putting up an effective defense, a fact the Allies recognized in the Versailles Treaty by absolutely denying Germany any air force at all and severely restricting its capability to build civilian aircraft. Thus, while Great Britain and the United States demolished their air services voluntarily through a helter-skelter demobilization, Germany’s air service was forcibly demobilized.

The treaty also limited Germany to an army of 100,000 men, designed for internal security and a moderate frontier defense capability. Its navy was similarly limited to 15,000 men, with submarines forbidden, and no modern capital ships allowed.

What the Versailles Treaty could not prohibit, however, was the clever planning of Generaloberst Hans von Seeckt, who was the last Chief of the General Staff of the former Imperial German Army, and, after October 11, 1919, the first Chief of Staff of the new and severely limited Reichswehr. The fifty-three-year-old von Seeckt, known as “the Sphinx” within the Army because of his arrogant secretiveness, seemed to have a hopeless task, with his country surrounded by enemies and still suffering from the rigors of the Allied blockade and the ravages of influenza, disrupted industries, rampant Communism, a broken economy, and immense reparation payments. Yet in his memoirs, Thoughts of a Soldier, Seeckt wrote, “Fear was always a bad counselor, and fear is no position from which to view the world. Against a technical means of attack, the same technical concept has always found a defense.” This concept would be his philosophy in laying the foundation for what the world in just sixteen short years would come to fear as the Luftwaffe.

An ardent royalist who despised the new government of the German Weimar Republic, Seeckt was determined that Germany would have a new and independent air force. A majority of former officers, faced with the dismal German economy, sought to become part of the new 100,000-man army. Seeckt was thus in a position to be both selective and reflective. He picked the best people, including 180 specially selected to analyze the lessons to be learned from the 1914-18 war. Of these, no fewer than 130 were assigned under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Helmuth Wilberg to study air power, and how it might be employed in the future German Air Force. Wilberg would be of great influence, for he was essentially Chief of the Secret Air Staff from 1919 to 1927.

In another move that revealed Seeckt’s consciousness of the value of air power and his hope for Germany’s future, he saw to it that 180 of the 3,800 officers allowed to his 100,000-man force had experience useful to the future Air Force. It is interesting to note that Seeckt did not bring any of the top aces into the new Reichswehr. The reason was simple: There were no aircraft for them to fly, and he needed planners and builders, not aces.

What emerged from the intensive study was an understanding that while the strategic air campaign against Great Britain had not been successful, it was still necessary to have a strategic bombardment arm. The studies also showed how successful the cooperation of air force and army units had been, and that this combined effort could be even more important in the future.

Finally, it was recognized that “letting the customer come to the door,” fighting a defensive air war, was ultimately a losing proposition. This was a difficult decision to reach, for the 1914-18 defensive policy had been successful, with the Germans shooting down 7,425 Allied aircraft during the war. Even in 1918, when Germany was so hard pressed, its airmen shot down 3,732 Allied aircraft while losing only 1,099 during the period January to September 1918.24 The strategy allowed the German Air Force to be a viable service to the end, when it was still operating more than 2,700 aircraft on the Western Front.

The acknowledgement that aircraft were essentially an offensive weapon, and the decision that their primary function should be in support of the Army, were two important factors for the future Luftwaffe, which had already begun to take shape in shadow form in several arenas under the Weimar Republic.

It should be noted that under the Weimar Republic and under Hitler, Germany had unique perceptions of the threats to its security. Before Hitler, Germany had a well-founded fear that either or both France and Poland would initiate a war. France did use its military might to occupy the Ruhr in 1923, and there were so many disputes at the Baltic and Polish frontiers that the so-called Freikorps, essentially private armies serving the helpless German state, were formed to resist them. Under Hitler, the perception of the threat was the same, with the added specter of the might of the Soviet Union added to the equation. The character of his government, however, was to use bullying diplomacy to obtain whatever was possible to obtain, and then to use preemptive aggression to obtain lebensraum (living room) in the territories all the way to the Ural mountains to the east. Hitler, and his able colleague, Joseph Goebbels, used an essentially phantom threat of air power to leverage Germany’s capacity for bullying.

One of the arenas in which the future Luftwaffe would be shaped was the air-mindedness that Germany had fostered in its population. Germany was particularly attentive to its youth, creating in 1920 the Deutsche Luftfahrt-Verband as a sort of national flying club for building models and flying gliders. A second arena was the early development of German airlines that culminated in their combination into Deutsche Luft Hansa (DHL) in January 1926. DHL would dominate European traffic until World War II, at least in part because it was led by the future Field Marshal Erhard Milch. It became the training ground not only for pilots, but also for mechanics and other ground crewmen, as well as a laboratory for instrument flying, navigation, and radio equipment. Specially selected pilot candidates obtained licenses at the German Commercial Flying School, and the best of them went on to receive fighter training at a secret base in the Soviet Union.

A third factor in shaping the Luftwaffe was Seeckt’s prescience in 1922 in establishing secret relations with the Soviet Union by which Germany obtained airfields and labor at which to create training bases, while the Russians gained access to the technical advances the Germans would demonstrate. The retired Colonel Herman von der Leith-Thomsen, a monarchist who had not rejoined the service, headed the mission. By 1924 a training field was established at Lipetsk, about 180 miles to the southeast of Moscow. At the same time, Germany contributed 100,000,000 Reichsmarks to build a Junkers aircraft factory at Fili, near Moscow. Unlike Lipetsk, where everything expected and more was achieved, the Junkers factory was a relative failure. With a capacity of 600 aircraft a year, it built only 142 in the four years it existed before being taken over by Tupolev.

The Luftwaffe prepared its industrial foundation with the establishment of German companies manufacturing aircraft in foreign countries, including Albatros in Lithuania, Dornier in Switzerland and Italy, and Junkers and Heinkel in Sweden. This dispersion allowed German firms to maintain an engineering force, keep up with foreign developments, and even make a profit on sales to other countries The man who had led the bomber offensive against England during World War I, Captain Ernst Brandenburg, became key to revitalizing Germany’s aviation industry. As a Ministerial Director in the German Transport Ministry, Brandenburg diligently sought the relaxation of Versailles Treaty restrictions on building aircraft, and ultimately succeeded in his task by the fall of 1926.

Thus the creation of a new German Air Force was well under way by the time Adolf Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, with his commitment to spend billions of marks to build an air arm for future conquests.

Hitler had a natural liking for aviation, for his political successes were partly because he used aircraft in his election campaigns. With his future personal pilot, Hans Bauer, usually at the controls, Hitler flew in three separate campaigns in the critical 1932 elections, visiting at least sixty-five cities on each one, sometimes as many as six in a day. The flights were sheer theater for the enthusiastic crowds waiting at the airport for their leader to arrive, sometimes descending majestically through an overcast, for Bauer was an accomplished instrument pilot. So novel was this approach that “Hitler Over Germany” came to be an accurate (and portentous) campaign slogan. Hitler flew in Rohrbach, Messerschmitt, and Junkers transports, with a Junkers F-13 carrying the soon to be infamous Sepp Dietrich ahead of him as an “advance man” in today’s parlance.

On January 30, 1933, the day that he assumed power as Germany’s chancellor, Hitler appointed his comrade and World War I ace, Herman Goering, who had just turned forty, to be the Reich’s Commissioner of Aviation, in charge both of German civil aviation and its still secret air force. At the time, Goering was a good choice, for World War I technology had not been totally superseded, and he was well connected both with the officer corps and the aviation industry. The former fighter pilot was then quite energetic and could be as ruthless as required with businessmen who did not wish to take the risks he saw were necessary to build up the industry to the scale and at the speed that Hitler demanded.

Goering was actually too occupied with his many other tasks (including heading the Four Year Plan to reconstitute German industry) and allowed others to supervise the Luftwaffe’s rapid growth. Hitler fostered this growth by seeing to it that the Luftwaffe’s share of the defense budget rose from 10 percent in 1933 to 38 percent in 1936.

This seemingly disproportionate share of the budget stemmed from a canny, crucial decision that Hitler had made on the basis of advice from Erhard Milch and Goering. They in turn had obtained their concept from Dr. Robert Knauss, a former combat pilot and Lufthansa colleague of Milch. Knauss’s theory was that the most effective way to defend Germany in the early days of the Hitler government was to build up a fleet of heavy bombers as a Risiko Flotte, the term used by Admiral Tirpitz to describe the “risk fleet” he had built up as a deterrent to Great Britain’s Royal Navy. The scheme was attractive for several reasons, the most important of which was the psychological effect that the threat of bombing had upon Great Britain and France. Almost equally important, it could be done relatively inexpensively, costing about 80 million Reichsmarks, or the equivalent of outfitting five army divisions.

As it happened, Knauss’s plan could not be adopted at the time of its proposal in 1933 because the German aircraft industry was not up to building such a strategic fleet. Yet Hitler, a consummate bluffer, was quick to see the potential for the threat to use such force, even if the force did not exist.

Before the public announcement of its existence on March 9, 1935, the Luftwaffe had been a “secret” air force, although every major intelligence service knew that pilots were being trained and new aircraft being produced for Germany’s use. With Goering busy, running the air force was left to a succession of competent deputies, including Wilberg, whose Jewish background soon disqualified him. He was succeeded by the head of Deutsch Lufthansa, Erhard Milch. Ironically, Milch’s father also was Jewish, but Milch managed to redefine himself as an Aryan by having his mother and father swear that he and all his siblings were the natural children of his mother’s Christian lover, Baron Hermann von Bier. Milch became Secretary of State for Aviation, which infuriated some regular Army members, for his highest previous military rank was that of captain.

Yet Milch’s experience with Lufthansa proved to be immensely valuable, for he knew that the German Air Force would need far more than just planes and pilots. He established an extensive building program for air bases, and used his airline experience to acquire sophisticated navigation and communication gear that would have been the envy of every air force in the world.

It was a time of intoxicating expansion for the German armed services, and it speaks to the fairness of the Minister of War, General Werner von Blomberg, that the new service was provided with a number of excellent officers. They included Colonel Hans-Jurgen Stumpf; Lieutenant Colonel Walter Wever; Colonel Wilhelm Wimmer; Captain Baron Wolfram von Richthofen, a cousin of Manfred, a nine-victory ace in World War I, and the very best Luftwaffe field commander in World War II. Another great asset was Colonel Albert Kesselring, who would become the German field marshal best able to conduct a tough ground defense in the absence of any German air power.

When he was appointed to a position of Chief of the Air Command Office (effectively Chief of the General Staff of the Luftwaffe) in September 1933, Walter Wever had much to learn, and he rapidly set about doing it. First of all he learned to fly (at the age of forty-six), and he learned to recant all that he had said about not having an independent air force. Wever had a pleasant personality despite being a workaholic who drove himself harder than anyone. Although he is best known for his advocacy of strategic bombing, Wever had a well-rounded view toward air power and understood the value of close air support to the German Army.

As a staff officer during the 1914-18 war, Wever had argued for the use of an elastic defense to minimize casualties. The same desire, to minimize casualties, led him to believe, like Trenchard and Douhet, that the way to win wars was to destroy the enemy’s industrial heartland. For this reason he backed the development of the four-engine bomber, and two advanced prototypes, the Junkers Ju 89 and the Dornier Do-19, were built for the task. Unfortunately for Wever, no available German engine had adequate power to give the two aircraft the performance they needed, a situation reflecting the general state of the engine industry.

Wever was killed in an aircraft accident on June 3, 1936, when, in his usual tearing hurry, he skipped the aircraft preflight and took off in a relatively hot Heinkel He 70 Blitz with the aileron controls locked. With his death, the impetus behind the four-engine bomber program was lost.

Kesselring succeeded Wever, and on the whole did his usual excellent job. His biggest mistake was recommending that development of the four-engine bomber be canceled on the grounds that it required too many resources and would use too much fuel on operations. Goering issued the cancellation on April 29, 1937. As has been noted many times, Goering was glad to acquiesce, for many more twin-engine bombers could be built than four-engine bombers, and, as he noted, the Führer “asked him how many bombers he had, not what kind.”

The still young Luftwaffe was going through a period of organizational confusion. Goering’s personality would not tolerate Milch’s increased prestige and responsibility as he orchestrated the swift expansion. As a result Goering insisted on a number of personnel changes to place in positions of power people he believed would be loyal to him, personally. The most disastrous of these was the appointment of the highest-scoring surviving German World War I ace, Ernst Udet, as head of the Technical Office, and soon thereafter, head of the Office of Supply and Procurement.

Udet had a checkered postwar career as stunt pilot, filmmaker, aircraft manufacturer, and hard-drinking bon vivant. He was constitutionally unsuitable for his new responsibilities, and he knew it. While he had the expert pilot’s intuitive understanding of aircraft, he had no scientific or technical bent. Further, he had absolutely no understanding of how to manage a bureaucratic organization, and no wish to learn. In short order, he had more than twenty department heads reporting directly to him, personally, with no intermediate layer of management to make decisions in his absence. This lack of organizational skill was particularly unfortunate, as it was his habit to absent himself from his place of work for days at a time, and upon returning to make important decisions on a spur-of-the moment basis. Despite his obvious unsuitability, Goering regarded him as “his man” and continued to promote him so that the onetime captain was a Generaloberst by July 19, 1940.

Udet’s influence was disastrous for the Luftwaffe, but the effect was not perceived until after 1942. In effect, the adverse effect of the Fifth Factor, the influential people in the command structure, was temporarily offset by the Fourth Factor, national politics. Germany, as an aggressor, had the great advantage of choosing when it would go to war. Hitler was conscious in 1939 that his armed forces were more modern than those of England and France, and that in two or three years, his enemies would have closed both the qualitative and quantitative gap that existed in 1939. The harm of Udet’s mismanagement came with his disruption of the second wave of German aircraft, which should have begun coming on line in 1942. A few new types were introduced, but only one, the Focke Wulf Fw 190, served in meaningful numbers. Others such as the Messerschmitt Me 209, 309, 210, 410, and 163 were either bad designs or did not reach production. Udet’s backing of dive-bombers, and Goering’s acquiescence in his demands, resulted in requirements for two- and even four-engine bombers to have a dive-bombing capability. This was sheer lunacy, and the manufacturers did not hesitate to say so, but the demand caused additional delays for the already change-plagued Junkers Ju 88 and the ill-fated Heinkel He 177.

Timing and technology are everything for air forces, and the Luftwaffe’s initial technology was excellent, resulting in Germany’s going to war in 1939 with the most modern and efficient air force in the world. (German technology was lacking only in engine development, and it compensated for this lack in part by building larger displacement engines, which, although heavier, generated adequate horsepower.) The mismanagement by Goering, Udet, and a later Chief of Staff, Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek, forced the Luftwaffe to fight till the end equipped for the most part with its first generation of war planes—and far too few of them.


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