LUFTWAFFE GROUND ATTACK UNITS 1939-45
Influenced by the trench warfare of the First World War, German military planners of the 1930s drew up a new concept designed to bring rapid mobility to the battlefield. This lightning war, or Blitzkrieg, called for particularly close co-operation between air and armoured forces with aircraft primarily employed in the close support role, disrupting the enemy's back area - especially communications - and paving the way for deep armoured penetrations by denying him the ability to organise resistance or counter-attack. Should the occasion arise the air force could also support the step-by-step advance of the army by attacking targets directly in the line of advance.
It was already realised as a result of tests carried out at the secret German testing and training establishment at Lipezk in Russia during the 1920s that the precision bombing of pin-point targets could only be achieved by an aircraft releasing its load whilst in a steep dive directly over the target - the dive-bomber. American and Japanese aviation planners were also evincing interest in the idea of the dive-bomber and in 1931, while the US Navy was experimenting with the Curtiss Hawk II, the Japanese placed an order with the German Heinkel company calling for the development of a two-seat dive-bomber, the He50. The second prototype was demonstrated before the Staff of the still-secret German Air Force, who were sufficiently impressed with the aircraft to request a small evaluation batch, and subsequently placed an order for a small production quantity.
One of the three Junker Ju87A-1s which formed the 'Jotanthe Kette' of the Legion Condor; drawn from Stukageschwader 163 'Immclmann', the detachment was sent to Spain in December 1937, and was flown by a large number of rotated crews from St.G 163, usually against targets behind the front lines. (Hans Obert)
Meanwhile Ernst Udet, stunt pilot and former fighter ace, was invited to attend an air display in America where he witnessed a demonstration of the Curtiss Hawk. In spite of the Allies' complete ban on German military aviation, Udet had nevertheless continued to fly privately, resisting pressure from Hermann Goring to take up a necessarily non-flying administrative position to aid in the building up of the new air force. Udet was so impressed with the American machine's diving performance that he finally persuaded the German Air Ministry to purchase two for evaluation. Upon their arrival in Germany during December 1931, they were extensively tested at the Rechlin Experimental Centre.
Official opinion of the value of a dive-bomber was, however, divided. Limited raw materials, fuel and production capacity simply did not permit the construction of heavy bomber fleets and had the effect of restricting the choice of aircraft to medium and light bombers with the highest degree of bombing accuracy. Whilst Hans Jeschonnek, Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff, favoured dive-bomber development on these economic grounds. Wolfram von Richthofen, Chief of the Development Section of the Technical Office, was totally opposed to the idea, claiming that such a machine would be too vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire and that diving to a level below 6,000 feet is complete nonsense'.
Contrary to von Richthofen's wishes, a few officers at the Technical Office continued to pursue the matter and had in 1933 already drawn up a programme and two-part specification. The first part called for a relatively simple aircraft with which to equip an experimental dive-bomber unit, and, of the designs submitted, the Hs123 was considered to be the best. Deliveries of the Hs123A-1 commenced during the late summer of 1936. The second phase, issued in January 1935, called for a more advanced machine and was in fact drawn up around the Junkers Ju87, development of which, unofficially urged by Udet, was already well advanced into the prototype stage.
Luftwaffe armourers of St.G 165 bomb up the unit's Ju87A-1s. Note the hydraulically-raised cradle on the bomb trolley, and the lugs on the central band round the bomb, to locate it on the fuselage crutch which swung it down and clear of the propeller arc during bomb release. (US National Archives)
On 5 May 1935 the existence of the new Luftwaffe, secretly built up under a variety of disguises, was officially revealed and, in January 1936, Udet finally gave way to persuasion and joined the Luftwaffe. In June he was appointed Chief of the Technical Office and from this position gave his full and official support to the dive-bomber programme, rescinding von Richthofen's directive calling for the discontinuation of Ju87 development. Prototype construction of the Ju87 continued and, following trials at Rechlin, when the machine's most serious contender broke up in the air, the Ju87 was ordered into production.
The first dive-bomber unit was formed from an offshoot of a disguised fighter unit operating Ar65s and He51s from Berlin-Staaken on smoke-laying and communications duties for the army under the code name 'Rektamestaffel Mitteldeutschland' (Advertising Squadron Central Germany). The aircrew of this formation were given the task of practising dive-bombing tactics in addition to their fighter training and, on 1 October 1935, the dive-bomber element of Reklamestaffel Mitteldeutschland was formed into a separate experimental unit equipped with Ar65s and He50s and designated Fliegergruppe Schwerin. However, neither type was ideally suited to its role and even in a power dive the He50 proved incapable of attaining the diving speed required for accurate dive-bombing. Fortunately, deliveries of the Hs123 were soon to hand and in the autumn of 1936 were received by Fliegergruppe Schwerin, since redesignated to form the first of the Luftwaffe's Stukagruppen, I/St.G 162. Simultaneously, two further Hs123 units were activated: II/St.G 162 at Lübeck-Blankenseeand I/St.G 165 at Kitzingen. Subsequent Luftwaffe planning called for a total of six Stukagruppen, and by 1 April 1937 II/St.G 165 had begun to form with Hs123s and I/St.G 162 and I/St.G 165 were converting to the newly available Ju87A-1, together with III/St.G.162 at Wertheim and III/St.G 165 at Breslau.
Taking advantage of the Spanish Civil War, which had broken out during July 1936, to evaluate its aircraft and tactical theories under operational conditions, the Luftwaffe formed the Legion Condor to provide air support for General Franco's Nationalist forces. At this time the Luftwaffe had no plans to form units specifically for direct battlefield support, but the matter arose quite unexpectedly in March 1937 when von Richthofen, who had earlier tried to cancel the dive-bomber programme, personally witnessed the rout of an advancing Republican column by three He51s which, outdated in the fighter role, had been experimentally fitted with bombs.
Impressed by this demonstration of direct battlefield support, von Richthofen requested a number of Hs123s for evaluation and, although intended as dive-bombers, these aircraft immediately proved highly successful in the ground attack role, bombing and strafing the battlefield with excellent results. Dive-bombing itself was later carried out by three Ju87A-1s which arrived in Spain in December. Initial trials were disappointing, but with the introduction of the improved Ju87B-1 better results were obtained; the machines proved so successful against targets behind the front lines that plans drawn up by a special duties staff for the organisation of specialised ground attack formations for direct battlefield support as pioneered in Spain were abandoned and ground attack units (Schlachtfliegergruppe 10, SFG 20, 30, 40 and 50) were provisionally formed. Employed during the occupation of the Sudetenland, these were largely disbanded, the sole exception being the Hs123-equipped SFG 10 which was incorporated into the newly activated and élite Teaching and Development Wing, Lehrgeschwader 2, as II (Schlacht)/LG 2.
On 1 May 1939 a full-scale redesignation of all Luftwaffe units took place; in addition to the Stuka units shown in Table 1, 4 (Stuka)/Trägergruppe 186 had been formed at Burg, near Magdeburg, for service aboard the uncompleted aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin and was operating the Ju87B, as was the élite IV (Stuka)/LG 1.
In August 1939, the Hs123s of II (Schlacht)/LG 2 were transferred from their peacetime base at Tutow to Alt Rosenburg close to the Polish frontier. At the same time the Stuka units were also made ready for the invasion which aimed for two massive pincer movements into Poland from north and south. In the north, Luftflotte 1 controlled IV (Stuka)/LG 1, I/St.G 1, II and III/St.G 2 and the 4 Luftflotte 3's III/St.G 51 operated in the south, together with Luftflotte 4's I/St.G 76, I and II/St.G 77 and I/St.G 2. The Luftwaffe, in order that it could support the army unhindered by enemy air opposition, had first to gain air superiority by destroying the Polish Air Force on the ground in a series of surprise attacks.
Between sorties over Poland, groundcrew re-arm and re-fuel a Ju87B-l of IV (Stuka)/LG 1 while the pilot relaxes on the wing. (Author's collection)
Because of bad weather in the early morning of 1 September 1939, Air Fleet commanders ordered their aircraft off against targets not specified in the priority list, but it was later discovered that Crakow airfield was covered only by a thin mist and I/St.G 2 under Maj. Oskar Dinort (RK, EL 14.7.41) bombed the buildings and runways leaving the airfield under a pall of smoke. Other Stuka units attacked the airfields at Katowitz and Wadowice, whilst Hptm. Sigel (RK, EL 3.9.42) led I/St.G 76 in an attack against a line of emplacements at Lublinitz. During the afternoon a column of Polish soldiers, horses and vehicles was annhilated near Wielun by I/St.G 2 and I/St.G 77 whilst II and III/St.G 2 together with Bern von Brauchitsch's IV (Stuka)/LG 1 and Hptm. Helmut Mahlke's 4/(Stuka) 186 attacked ships and harbour installations along the Danzig Bay, virtually eliminating the Polish Navy.
From first light on 1 September, the 36 Hs 123s of II (Schlacht)/LG 2 flew as many as ten sorties a day in support of the army's advance on Warsaw, bombing and strafing a path wherever German troops encountered resistance, often employing 'Flambos' - light incendiary bombs fitted with percussion fuses. As they advanced, these aircraft flew from fields that were declared fit for operations by simply driving a car over the surface at 30 mph; if the ride was not too bumpy the field immediately became a forward airstrip! On the second day of the campaign, with the Polish Navy and Air Force almost destroyed, Stuka operations in full support of the ground forces began. Paralysed by these devastatingly accurate air attacks the Poles were unable to contain the Germans' armoured thrusts, and by 8 September German troops were in the outskirts of Warsaw itself.
Unexpectedly, twelve Polish divisions by-passed at Kutno boldly counter-attacked the flank of the main German advance towards Warsaw, and all available German aircraft were transferred to meet the threat. As the Poles crossed the Bzura several Stuka formations destroyed the bridges, cutting off forces which had already crossed and preventing the bulk of the Polish force from engaging the German 8th Army. For two days the Stukas spread destruction on the Polish armour and vehicles in a continuous and unprecedented aerial attack; while the pilots of II (Schlacht)/LG2 discovered during a low-level mission that the appalling din emitted by the Hs123's engine when set at 1,800 rpm was sufficient to panic and terrorise the ranks of horses and men below. On 19 September 170,000 surrounded Poles surrendered and the battle of the Bzura was over.
Meanwhile, during the battle of the Vistula, the crews of I/St.G 76 repeatedly attacked the fortress of Modlin, bravely defended until 25 September, when the Luftwaffe prepared for the bombardment of targets in Warsaw. Eight Stukagruppen totalling some 240 aircraft, attacked the city together with medium bombers producing so much smoke and dust that the army complained it could not see the targets it was supposed to be shelling. The aerial assault continued until the 27th, when Warsaw finally surrendered, bringing to an end a campaign from which the Ju87 emerged with a legendary reputation.
The Luftwaffe's next major operation, the invasion of Denmark and Norway, opened on 9 April 1940, Denmark surrendered on the first day and the Luftwaffe began landing troops on key airfields in the south of Norway. Initially, only 1 and 3 Staffetn of Hptm. Hozzel's I/St.G 1 (now equipped with the extended-range Ju87R-1 and controlled by X Fliegerkorps) were involved, operating against the fortifications at Akershus and Oskarborg from Kiel/Haltenau in northern Germany, but once the airfields at Fornebu and Sola were in German hands the entire Gruppe moved to Norway.
Successful missions included the bombing of Vigra radio station, when a Ju87 from 2 Staffel rammed the transmitter aerials, and precision attacks on roads and railways, of particular importance in the mountainous country. Several ships were attacked including HMS Suffolk, an escorted convoy leaving Namos, the French destroyer Bison and the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Afridi. In mid-April Luftwaffe units in that area came under the control of Generaloberst Stumpff's Luftflotte 5, and during May the Stukas continued their attacks against shipping, sinking the Polish destroyer Gram and damaging the antiaircraft ship HMS Black Swath Two Knight's Crosses were awarded to I/St.G 1 during the campaign, one to Hozzel for the work of his Gruppe at Drontheirn and for sinking a submarine in the Skagerrak, the other to Martin Möbus for his exceptional attacks on shipping which brought his total personal score to one battleship, one cruiser and one destroyer.
Even before the fighting in Norway had ended, German forces launched a campaign in the West on 10 May against Belgium, Holland and France. The Hs123s of II (Schlacht)/LG 2 and over 350 Stukas from St.G 2, III/St.G 51, I/St.G 76, and I/ and III/St.G 77 were controlled by VIII Fliegerkorps, now under Luftflotte 2.
The wing-mounted machine guns of a Ju87B-1 of 9/St.G 2 are re-armed during the French campaign, 1940. (Author's collection)
Once free of effective air opposition, the Stukas bombed Belgian positions without respite in support of airborne troops landing to capture the Eben Emael fort and vital bridges over the Albert Canal At Moerdijk, road and railway viaducts captured by paratroops held out for three days until relieved by advancing German Army units, a feat made possible by continuous Stuka support. Further Stuka sorties assisted deep armoured thrusts either side of Liége, and on 12 May St.G 2 and St.G 77 attacked armoured columns west of the city.
The main attack in the West, however, was made through the Ardennes into France. By the evening of 12 May, panzer divisions had reached the river Meuse near Sedan, where the Luftwaffe was to smash resistance in the northern extension of the Magi not Line. VIII Fleigerkorps was transferred to Luftflotte 3 for the attack and throughout the morning of 13 May the Stukas were armed and fuelled at their forward airfields. The first Stukas appeared over the Maginot Line towards midday and immediately dived onto the gunpits and pillboxes. The noise was terrifying; the wailing of engines and sirens pierced by the shriek and crash of falling bombs totally demoralised the defenders. After five hours, during which more than 200 Stuka sorties were flown, the German Army crossed the Meuse to find the French soldiers too stunned to fight back.
The Ju87B with extra wing tanks was designated Ju87R. Here Ju87R-2s, almost certainly of Hptm. Hozzel's 1/St.G 1, stand ready for action. This was the only Stuka unit involved in the Norwegian campaign. (US National Archives)
For the next two weeks the Stukagruppen brought an extreme concentration of striking power to bear against vital rear areas, opening a path to the Channel. II (Schlacht)/LG 2, escorted by Bf109Es and aided by a Luftwaffe Flakregiment, successfully destroyed a counter-attack by French tanks and motorised infantry near Cambrai. Although several Stukas were lost, including those flown by the Kommodore of St.G 77 and the Gruppenkommandeur of III/St.G 51, initial losses were light; but once the dive-bombers reached Boulogne, Dunkirk and other Channel ports, they encountered serious opposition for the first time when they came within range of the eight-gunned RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes operating from southern England. Losses began to mount; a formation from I/St.G 76 was scattered by British fighter attacks over Dunkirk, and one of the unit's pilots later reported that This was our first real taste of war'. Moreover, the effect of intensive operations was beginning to tell; the number of serviceable aircraft in many units dropped to below 50% of original strength, and the pilots too began to feel the strain of continuous action.
During the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk, the dive-bomber pilots found the highly manoeuvrable warships difficult targets, but the slower and less agile merchantmen presented easier prey. Although large-scale operations were prevented by bad weather and RAF fighters often broke up the formations of German aircraft before they reached the beaches, a large number of destroyers, passenger ships and many smaller and assorted merchant vessels were sunk. After 4 June, when the evacuation of British troops was completed, the Germans turned their attention to the south for operations east of Paris. Dive-bombers supported the crossing of the Marne, Seine and Loire rivers until Paris fell and hostilities ceased on 24 June.
The end of the campaign in France also marked the final phasing out of the Hs123s, which had proved remarkably successful in areas where the Luftwaffe enjoyed air superiority. The unit therefore withdrew to Brunswick for training on the Bf109E, followed by a move to Boblingen for specialised fighter-bomber, or Jabo, training. Meanwhile, the Stukagruppen assembled at various airfields in the Cherbourg Peninsula in preparation for the assault on Britain and on 6 July were regrouped and reorganised to form Geschwader of full strength. Thus, III/St.G 51 became II/St.G 1; I (Stuka)/186 became III/St.G 1; and I/St.G 76 became III/St.G 77. Shortly afterwards I Gruppe of Stukageschwader 3 was activated with the formation of a Stabsstaffel consisting of a few crews and machines from I/St.G 76 under Hptm. Sigel.
During July, dive-bombing attacks were mainly directed against Channel convoys with some isolated attacks against harbour installations. On 9 July St.G 77 bombed Portland naval base, losing Hptm. Freiherr von Dalwigk zu Lichtenfels, the Gruppenkommandeur of I/St.G 77, whose aircraft was shot down into the sea by Spitfires. On 27 July Stukagruppen from as many as three different Geschwader took part in several raids against shipping and some 60 machines twice attacked a convoy near the Dover Straits. Dover itself was attacked by IV (Stuka)/LG 1 and St.G 1 on the 29th, and on the morning of 8 August 57 aircraft from St.G 2, St.G 3 and St.G 77 took part in a running battle against a convoy off the Isle of Wight, during which three Ju87s were shot down by RAF fighters. In the afternoon, 87 escorted Ju87s again attacked the convoy and, although only four of the ships remained undamaged as they sailed into Swanage, five more Stukas failed to return.
The Battle of Britain began in earnest at midday on 13 August, but the only Stuka unit to meet with any success was IV (Stuka)/LG 1 commanded by Hptm. von Brauchitsch, who led his 40 aircraft in an attack on Detling airfield and returned to base without loss. Elsewhere, II/St.G 2 under Maj. Walter Ennecerus (RK 21.7.40) attacked the RAF fighter station at Middle Wallop, but the Gruppe was intercepted by fighters which, as Maj. Ennecerus reported, 'ripped our backs open to the collar'. St.G 77 under Maj. Graf von Schönborn (RK) was unable to locate its target at Warmwell because of dense cloud, and II/St.G 1 under Hptm. Anton Keil (RK 19.8.40) also ran into navigational difficulties; unable to find Rochester airfield, the formation jettisoned its bombs when attacked.
Nine aircraft from St.G 2 failed to return from attacking Tangmere on the 16th, and on 18 August St.G 77 suffered a staggering defeat when it attacked Poling radar station, Ford and Thorney Island. No less than sixteen aircraft were shot down, including that flown by Hptm, Meisel, Kommandeur of I Gruppe, whose machine had been specially fitted with armour plate from wrecked French Morane fighters; two aircraft crashed on their way home and four more were damaged. Clearly such losses could not be tolerated, and in order to prevent their complete destruction the Stukagruppen were immediately withdrawn from further participation in the battle.
Meanwhile, the aircrew of II Schlacht)/LG 2 were still undergoing Jabo training at Boblingen. After the sturdy and stable Hs123, the pilots found difficulty in becoming accustomed to the narrow-track undercarriage and higher landing speeds of the Bf109E, and landing accidents were frequent. Operational training continued when the unit, with 33 Bf109E-4/Bs, moved to St. Omer in August 1940. On 6 September the unit, based at Calais-Marck, suffered its first combat loss on the new type when two aircraft were shot down during an attack against London.
With the German bombers switching to night attacks, Göring ordered that the Bf109s from one Staff el of every Jagdgeschwader be equipped with bomb racks. Although unpopular with the pilots, this instruction resulted in the immediate availability of over 200 Jabos which, flying in at up to 33,000 feet, posed a considerable interception problem for defending fighters. On 7 October an almost continuous stream of Jabos appeared over Kent, and sorties of varying intensity continued throughout the month. Overall, Jabo losses were low, but II (Schlacht)/LG 2 lost three Bf109Es on 29 October, including the machine flown by the Staffelkapitän of 5 Staffel, Oblt. Bern von Schenk.
Henschel Hs123As or II (Schlacht)/LG2 - note unusual use of individual aircraft number, in the fighter style. Early in the war these aircraft usually bore a four-character code beginning with the Geschwader cypher 'L2', while Hs123s of the later Schlachtgeschwader used an individual letter system. (James V. Crow)
The night bombing and daylight nuisance, or hit-and-run, sorties against London and various coastal towns in the south continued until early 1941, but the threat of invasion had passed and Luftwaffe forces on the Channel Front were gradually depleted as units were sent east for the invasion of Russia.