The Luftwaffe Under the Nazis: A Formidable Air Foe & Force

During the Third Reich, the Luftwaffe became a vital part of German military culture, and with innovation and power, it struck fear into the hearts of its enemies.

Jul 10, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

luftwaffe nazis formidable air foe force

 

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany had no air force to speak of. Under the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forbidden to have one. The will of the Nazis, however, challenged this dynamic, and the Germans started preparing their country to build a massive air force that would dominate the skies.

 

The renewed vigor of the Luftwaffe saw the German war machine take to the skies in alarming numbers, and throughout the war, Germany sought dominance in the air to maintain its power on the ground.

 

Through the Luftwaffe, Germany became a monster of military power, able to exert force at an unprecedented scale. Technological advancements took the Luftwaffe from rickety biplanes to jet fighters almost out of science fiction.

 

The Early Years of Germany’s New Air Force

Hermann Goering in 1933. Photo by Heinrich Hoffman (Hitler’s personal photographer). Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

When Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, Germany was still under the constrictive terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Battling internal political problems as well as well as successive economic catastrophes, and crippling war reparations, Germany was in no position to break the terms. It could ill afford any substantial military force, let alone an air force.

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Nevertheless, even before Hitler came to power, men were sent in secret to the Soviet Union, where they trained as military pilots. Back in Germany, civil aviation schools were used, but this was difficult, as they could not train on any aircraft of military worth. They were trained with the intention of making it look like they were being trained to become civilian pilots.

 

Just months after Hitler came to power, preparation for the creation of the Luftwaffe started. In March, the Deutscher Luftsportverband (German Air Sports Association) was created and absorbed all private and national organizations.

 

In April 1933, the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (Reich Aviation Ministry) was created, and it was in charge of the creation and production of aircraft.

 

On May 12, the Deutscher Luftsportverband was rebranded as the Luftwaffe, Germany’s new air force, with Hermann Goering in charge. He would remain the authoritative head for almost all of the Nazi era; however, he maintained a distanced approach to many issues, such as doctrine and aircraft construction, understanding that there were others more knowledgeable than him.

 

Prototype of the Stuka dive bomber, 1936. Source: Netherlands Ministry of Defence

 

Until 1936, there was little growth in the physical aspects of the Luftwaffe as Germany was focused on rebuilding its land power. The emphasis in the Luftwaffe was put on tactical bombing in order to support ground operations, while further research into theories and doctrines became important in adapting to a new kind of war in which air superiority was vital for victory.

 

The main direction the Luftwaffe would take in terms of its doctrine was outlined by Generalleutnant Walther Wever, who served as the chief of staff of the Luftwaffe until his untimely demise in an air crash in 1936. While Wever was a huge proponent of larger aircraft and victory through destroying the enemy’s industrial capability, his successors were more focused on support of ground operations and thus favored the development of smaller aircraft. Thus, the Stuka dive-bomber was born.

 

One of the most terrifying machines of the Second World War, the Ju-87 Stuka was used en masse and proved highly effective. It earned a reputation not just for its destructive capabilities but for its psychological effect. Sirens were mounted on the fixed wheel struts, sounding as the aircraft went into a dive. The Stuka provided an excellent and more accurate alternative to level bombing.

 

The Heinkel He 111 was a medium bomber introduced in 1935 and served in the Luftwaffe until the end of the war. Source: Public domain / Store Norske Leksikon

 

After the death of Wever, Goering began taking a more active interest in the appointment of men to high-ranking positions. His choices caused rifts within the upper echelons of the organization, as many of his appointments did not see eye-to-eye on many matters. Of note was the animosity between the new chief-of-staff, Albert Kesselring, and the head of the Reich’s Air Ministry Technical Office, Ernst Udet.

 

Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe developed into a flexible organization that could take on multiple roles during wartime. The death of Wever and the new direction taken by the Luftwaffe also created a severe weakness in that the lack of long-range heavy bombers would limit the strategic capabilities of the Luftwaffe and would prove a fatal dynamic both during the Battle of Britain and later in the war. Although the Heinkel He 111 performed its task as a medium to heavy bomber, it quickly became obsolete, and a viable alternative was never created.

 

The task of creating a heavy bomber was also dogged by lack of technical expertise, but most notably, the lack of resources. Steel, copper, aluminum, and rubber were all needed in vast quantities to create a strategic bombing fleet, and Germany simply could not get hold of enough materials, especially later in the war when Germany’s industrial capability was being bombed on a regular basis.

 

The Luftwaffe Gains Experience

The Messerschmitt bf-109 formed the backbone of the Luftwaffe’s air-to-air combat capabilities. Source: Netherlands Ministry of Defence

 

Germany began aiding the Spanish Nationalists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. Hitler sent a large unit of German volunteers from the army and the air force to Spain. This conflict would serve as a test bed for German strategy and tactics, especially in the air, where Germany’s new aircraft designs would be put to the test.

 

Of note were the presence of Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, Heinkel He 111 medium bombers, and Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters.

 

During the war, the Blitzkrieg tactic was employed to devastating effect. It emphasized the highly coordinated and well-timed use of multiple elements of ground and air power. Such an overwhelming and effective use of air power had never been seen before, and the German commanders and tacticians were delighted with its results.

 

The Nazis also showed their first in-combat disregard for civilian life by bombing the Basque city of Guernica, which was not a strategic target. Estimates vary wildly on how many people died during this episode, but it was somewhere between 150 and 1,650. It generated protests from around the world.

 

In total, around 20,000 German airmen gained experience in this war and played a vital part in helping their fascist ally, Francisco Franco, seize power over all of Spain.

 

World War II Begins

A British soldier fires his rifle at a low-flying German aircraft making strafing runs at Dunkirk. Source: Australian War Memorial, 101171

 

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. The ground operations were supported by the Luftwaffe, which provided a vital, flexible service, aiding the ground troops on many occasions. The performance of the Luftwaffe was overwhelmingly effective and created a terrifying new reality in the dynamic of aerial warfare. With the most advanced air force in the world, Germany swept all conventional Polish forces aside in a matter of weeks.

 

The Luftwaffe continued its exceptional performance in the campaign against Norway and again in May 1940, when the Germans launched their invasion of France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Within six weeks, the Germans had achieved the unthinkable in defeating France, which was considered to have the most powerful army in Europe. German victory was due to audacious tactics, speed, Pervitin, and the incredible power of the Luftwaffe. The victory was almost flawless. But for the hesitation at Dunkirk, the British Expeditionary force would have been captured as well. This hesitation cost the Germans the opportunity to capture 338,000 soldiers, who instead made their escape back to England.

 

A Heinkel He 111 flying over London. Source: Public domain / Store Norske Leksikon

 

The Luftwaffe’s first real failure came during the Battle of Britain from 1940 to 1941. For the planned invasion of Britain to go ahead, the Germans needed air superiority, and bombing runs started over England. Despite having the advantage in numbers and inflicting heavy losses on Britain’s cities, the Luftwaffe was losing planes at a ratio of 2 to 1.

 

The fight was also costly in terms of pilots. When British pilots bailed out, they landed on or near Britain and could be easily rescued. Luftwaffe pilots, on the other hand, ended up being captured.

 

This situation was untenable, and with the Germans unable to curb British aircraft production, the planned invasion was called off. Hitler turned his attention to the east and launched Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union.

 

Irreplaceable Losses

A crashed Messerschmitt Bf 109 in Stalingrad. Source: Nikolai Surovtsev / Tass

 

Despite being stopped just short of Moscow and unable to fully capture Leningrad, the first few months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union were a success. Vast numbers of Soviet forces were destroyed or captured while the Soviets struggled to adapt. At this point, the Luftwaffe held superiority over the Soviet skies, but as the war dragged on, the balance of power would begin to tilt.

 

Many Soviet production centers were moved east of the Urals, and the full might of Soviet industrial capability swung into action while the troops on the frontline held the Germans off. Without the Luftwaffe having heavy, long-range bombers, Soviet industrial might remained largely intact. The Germans revived plans to build heavy bombers, but it was too late to make any difference.

 

From late 1942 and into 1943, the Germans suffered critical losses on the ground at Stalingrad and Kursk. The weakened Luftwaffe provided a pitiful handful of supplies to the soldiers in Stalingrad, falling far short of what Goering boasted his Luftwaffe could do, and the Germans lost 800,000 men killed or captured.

 

A surviving Messerschmitt Me 163 sits in the Luftwaffenmuseum in Berlin. Source: Denis Apel / Wikimedia Commons

 

As the Soviets started recapturing all their lost territory, German scientists were hard at work, creating weapons that Hitler believed would turn the tide back in favor of the Germans.

 

Under the onslaught of troops, new vehicles, and new airplanes being produced in Russia, these German Wunderwaffe would not be nearly enough to stem the tide of the Soviet advance.

 

First came the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163, an aircraft as deadly to its own pilot as it was to the enemy. With a volatile engine and no landing gear, it proved to be the death of many trained German pilots.

 

A preserved Messerschmitt Me 262 still flying today. Source: Julian Herzog

 

In April 1944, the world’s first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft took to the skies and proved highly effective. With unmatched speed, it quickly proved superior to anything the Allies could come up with. German industrial capability, however, was being regularly bombed, and a decent network of air defense had been omitted from German war plans.

 

The Messerschmitt Me 262 was produced in quantity, with a total of 1,433 being built. It wasn’t, however, enough. The Allies achieved air superiority over Germany, and by 1945, the heartland of Germany was pressed on all sides.

 

With the Reich collapsing around them, Goering suggested that he take over from Hitler. The Führer was not impressed and ordered that Goering be executed for treason. Goering evaded the Nazi attempts to apprehend him but was captured by the Allies and put on trial. On May 8, Germany surrendered, bringing an end to the Third Reich and the Luftwaffe.

 

Throughout its tenure, the Luftwaffe, like other branches of the armed service, was served by forced labor. Heinous experiments were performed as the Luftwaffe tested on live subjects. These included testing ejection seats and experiments involving hypothermia. Most of the victims were from Dachau or Auschwitz.

 

The Eagle emblem of the Luftwaffe. Source: Panzerfaust9000 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

 

The Luftwaffe of the Nazi era was a formidable fighting force that struck fear into the hearts of its enemies. Despite its power, however, it had weaknesses. These inadequacies and lack of planning contributed in no small amount to the final defeat of the Third Reich.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.