The theories of Lightning War that had been developed in Germany, in which the Luftwaffe was a vital element, were put to the test in 1939 – 40. They achieved stunning successes, and the Luftwaffe was all-conquering.
A house collapses under aerial bombardment in a suburban district close to Schipol airport, Amsterdam, the 10th May 1940. Such destruction was designed to demoralise and disrupt.
“Peace in our time,” was the hope of British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlin, and of millions of other people worldwide. But dark clouds had long been gathering over Europe and the storm broke with Hitler’s onslaught on Poland. Shortly before 5am on Friday the 1st September 1939, German forces stormed the Polish frontier. Tanks and motorised troops raced into the country over ground baked hard by a glorious summer. Supported by screeching Stuka dive-bombers, a total of 1.25 million men swept into Poland, nothing could halt their advance. The world learned that day of a new and devastating tactic, known as the Blitzkrieg or “Lightning War”.
Berlin radio carried a threatening proclamation by Hitler as early as 05:33 hours that morning, but many Germans first heard of the invasion at breakfast. It was a beautiful morning, with a tinge of autumn in the air. Loudspeaker vans decked with swastikas roared through towns: “Achtung! Achtung! In the early hours of the morning the Führer’s troops have invaded Poland. Germany is at war! “The national anthem and the Horst Wessel song, the Nazi Party hymn, followed, at full volume. Families ran out onto the pavements. Later on that Friday morning Hitler addressed the Reichstag in Berlin, informing the assembly of the resent events. The Capitals’s foreign correspondents were all there, and short-wave radio crackled out a simultaneous commentary upon his speech around the world. Feverish diplomatic activity followed these events, and it was only when all ultimatums had failed that Britain declared war on Germany.
At 11am on the 3rd September, British listeners tuned in to the BBC to hear an announcement to stand by for a speech by the Prime Minister, Neil Chamberlin. All over the nation families gathered around their sets. At 11.15am, following a programme in which a lady was giving a talk about tinned-food recipes, Neville Chamberlain came on the air. His voice was tired and strained. Britain had called for an undertaking from Hitler to withdraw his troops from Poland. “I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently this country is at war with Germany”.
Only a few minutes later, sirens wailed out all over London and many other parts of the country, as far north as Sheffield. People hurried to their air-raid shelters. Then the “All Clear” sounded, it had been a false alarm, triggered by a friendly plane carrying two French officers across the south coast. An eerie relaxation spread. The situation was accepted soberly: there were no outbreaks of flag waving hysteria as there had been at the start of the First World War.
The British dominions, Australia and New Zealand also joined the struggle on the 3rd September. So too did France, whose government declared war at 5pm. French men and women listened tensely to the announcement, for their eastern border directly adjoined the Fühere’s belligerent Reich and there was much nervous talk in the Parisian cafés. Indeed, throughout Europe, even nations not yet involved in the conflict became nervous. Sweden and Norway, determined to remain neutral, nevertheless red alert.
The old fighter pilots from the First World War, who were now sitting “at the joy stick” of the supreme command of the Luftwaffe, with Göring at their head, had had a compulsory pause of 15 years behind them, during which they had probably lost contact with the rapid development of aviation. They were stuck on the idea that manoeuvrability in banking was the determining factor in aerial combat. Hitler’s strategical thoughts were exclusively directed towards the offensive. The initial successes he was to achieve were to confirm that he had been right and undoubtedly strengthened his opinion still further. With regard to aerial warfare, therefore, the Stuka idea must have had a fascination for him. The idea of annihilating the enemy from the air, of stifling any resistance by terrific bombing, approached his concept of Blitzkrieg. The enemy had to be beaten, and all his means for a possible counteroffensive must be destroyed, before one was compelled one day to go over to the defensive. The same ideas were held by the first Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, General Weaver. In agreement with Hitler’s and Göring’s ideas he definitely stressed the bomber. The fighters played a subordinate role from the start. They were, so to speak, only tolerated as a necessary evil, a concession to the unpopular act of defence. The strategic concept current in Germany was to regard the Luftwaffe as an instrument off attack.
Preparation for the German attack on Poland, Operation “Fall Weiss” or “Plan White” began as early as April 1939, in the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s successful seizure of Czechoslovakia. The Luftwaffe’s role was a straightforward one of supporting the field armies as they advanced towards Warsaw. General Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte 1 was to help General Fedor von Bock’s Army Group North as it cut the Polish Corridor to Danzig from Pomerania and thrust out of East Prussia towards Warsaw, the Polish capital. General Alexander Löhr’s Luftflotte 4 was to support General Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South as it struck north-eastwards out of Silesia and Slovakia.
Luftwaffe ground personnel wait to board transport ships that will carry them into a Polish port, September 1939. Once in Poland, their tasks will include the creation and defence of airfields as well as the maintenance of aircraft.
The pilot and gunner of a Dornier Do 17 P reconnaissance aircraft are photographed in the cockpit during the campaign in Poland. The men are clearly posing for the camera and are probably not even airborne.
Air reconnaissance missions began in July with the aim of identifying Polish airfields, preparatory to a “crushing blow” that would destroy the Polish Air Force and gain air superiority for the Luftwaffe. It was widely recognised that the side with freedom of the sky’s would have immediate advantages: it would be able to observe enemy dispositions, call in the “flying artillery”, cut the enemy off from his support and use air transport for resupply, while denying the same to the opposition. As the Polish Air Force had fewer than 1900 aircraft, which included reserves, at its disposal in 1939, against which the Germans could field 2152 Luftwaffe and 30 Slovak machines, the majority of which were modern, battle-tested designs, the chances of satisfying such a doctrine seemed high.
Operation “Fall Weiss” or “Plan White” began early on the 1st September 1939, however the air campaign did not get off to a good start, for instead of the Luftwaffe massing its bombers against Polish airfields in a pre-emptive strike, most of the aircraft stayed where they were, grounded by fog and morning mist. By midday, only 5 or 6 Gruppen had carried out their missions, hitting pre-selected airfields around Warsaw, only to find that the bulk of the Polish Air Force had dispersed. Nevertheless, some close air support attacks were mounted, despite the lack of safety guarantees, and German ground units soon began to advance deep into western Poland.
As the early morning mist clears on a Polish airfield in September 1939, a Luftwaffe sentry stands guard over a pair of Junkers Ju 87 Stukas. The white cross just ahead of the cockpit was a recognition symbol used by the Wehrmacht in Poland.
The Luftwaffe establishes air superiority.
This became the pattern for the next few days; Luftwaffe bombers struck at airfields but destroyed relatively few enemy aircraft, while Henschel Hs 123s supported the army, though by the 3rd September Göring was confident enough to announce that air superiority had been achieved. In response, both Kesselring and Löhr shifted their emphasis to attack on the Polish Army, cutting its lines of communication and supply. They enjoyed some success. Attacks on the Polish railway system between the 2nd and the 5th September, for example, led to bottlenecks, which were then bombed mercilessly. In other Luftwaffe victories, the Polish 13th Division was virtually destroyed en route to the frontline, while Cavalry Brigade Kresowa was badly hit as it detrained. At the same time, airfields continued to be attacked, undermining the overall effectiveness of the Polish Air Force by disrupting its support elements, and Polish aircraft, outnumbered and outclassed, were gradually neutralised. By the 5th September, the Luftwaffe was running out of worthwhile target.
The Germans do not have it all their own way in Poland, as this shot-down Heinkel He 111 P bomber shows. As can be seen, it has undergone some changes to design since the Spanish Civil War, most notably in the heavily glazed nose.
Ground-to-air liaison problems.
But the campaign was not free from problems. Although Generalmajor Wolfram Frhr von Richthofen’s Stukas proved their worth, helping to destroy Polish defences in the path of the armoured spearhead, ground-to-air coordination was poor, leading to some mistakes. On the 8th September, for example, just as the tanks of 1st Panzer Division were about to cross the River Vistula, Stukas swooped down to destroy the bridges in front of them. Equally significantly, Luftwaffe support units, trained to cover about 8km (five miles) a day to set up new airfields and communications posts, suddenly found themselves lagging behind an advance that was covering five times that distance. Fuel shortages were one of the results, curtailing the number of sorties that could be flown, and Junkers Ju 52s had to be utilised to deliver jerry cans of petrol to forward airstrips.
Even so, the advance into Poland continued at a lightening pace, and once the Soviets had joined the fray, advancing from the east on the 17th September in accordance with the terms of a pact with Hitler signed the previous month; there was little the Poles could do to stave off disaster and ultimate defeat. A Luftwaffe raid on Warsaw on the 25th September, carried out in response to Hitler’s insistence that the city should fall to German rather than Soviet forces, finally broke the back of any resistance. As remnants of the Polish Air Force flew to neutral Romania, Hungary and Latvia, the Polish Government ceased military operations. By then, the Luftwaffe had lost 285 aircraft destroyed and 279 badly damaged, with 759 personnel killed or missing. In return, its reputation as a ruthless and effective arm of the German war machine had been considerably enhanced.
Luftwaffe armourers work to prepare a Messerschmitt Bf 110 long-range fighter for offensive operations, Poland, September 1939. The belts of ammunition are being checked before they are loaded into the nose cavity that house the main armament of four 7.9mm machine guns. It is a laborious process.
Such a reputation was invaluable in the West, where Britain and France had declared war on Germany on the 3rd September, for it helped to deter any attacks on Germany from that direction while the Polish campaign continued. Politicians in London and Paris, fearful of Luftwaffe raids on cities that it was believed could not be adequately defended, remained cautious, restricting their own airpower to leaflet drops over Germany and attacks on shipping in the North Sea. In the latter process, Allied air forces suffered significant losses. On the 18th December 1939, for example, 14 Royal Air Force Wellington bombers were lost out of a force of 24, all of them falling to Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engined fighters. This merely reinforced existing fears about Luftwaffe strength. It was just as well, for the Polish campaign had left Göring’s airmen exhausted and dangerously short of munitions.
Henschel Hs 123 a single-seat dive-bomber and close-support aircraft, photographed in pre-war livery, 1937.Henschel Hs 123 As were still in front-line service with the Luftwaffe in 1939, operating as part of Luftflotte 4 in Poland. They achieved some ground-attack success despite their obvious obsolescence.
Plans for Operation “Fall Gelb” – “Plan Yellow”.
There followed an edgy seven month period known in Britain as the Bore War or Phoney War, in France as the drôle de guerre, the “Funny War” and in Germany as the Sitzkrieg the “Armchair War”. Though nations were geared up for mass confrontations, nobody seemed in a hurry to start fighting on land.
But Hitler was not one to rest on his laurels. As early as the 27th September, he announced his intention to carry out an immediate attack on the West, exploiting the momentum of victory. Codenamed Operation “Fall Gelb” – “Plan Yellow”, this would entail an advance into the neutral Low Countries before sweeping south to take Paris and catch the French Maginot Line defences along the German border in the rear. Once again, the Luftwaffe’s roles would be to gain air superiority and support the ground attack, although an added refinement would be the use of airborne troops to seize key bridges and fortresses in the immediate path of the armour, preventing the creation of enemy blocks. The date for the assault was initially to be the 12th November, but a combination of factors, including poor weather, production delays and opposition from the Generals, led to postponements. On the 27th December, Hitler insisted on the attack taking place sometime between the 9th and the 14th January 1940, and for once it looked as if this would be the case.
“Cut of the Scythe”.
On the 10th January, however, a Messerschmitt Bf 108 liaison aircraft, flying from Münster to Cologne, went seriously off-course and crash-landed at Mechelin-sur-Meuse in neutral Belgium. On board was a Major Helmut Reinberger who against strict instructions was carrying a key part of the Operation “Fall Gelb” – “Plan Yellow” planning document. Despite his desperate attempts to burn the incriminating evidence of Hitler’s intention to invade Belgium, enough of the document survived to compromise the campaign plan. Hitler was apoplectic when he heard the news, and although there is no direct evidence to suggest that he immediately scrapped existing plans, the incident did allow General Erich von Manstein, Chief of Staff to Army Group A, to put forward an alternative proposal. Known as Sichelschnitt, “Cut of the Scythe”, this envisaged an attack into the Low Countries to fix Allied armies in the north while armoured divisions infiltrated the supposedly “impassable” Ardennes, crossed the River Meuse and cut through to the Channel coast behind the main enemy forces. Cut off from their reserves and supplies, British and French armies in Belgium would be encircled and forced to surrender. It was a bold plan, adopted officially in February 1940.
Before this could be put into effect, however, Hitler was persuaded that attacks on Denmark and Norway were essential, both to prevent Allied occupation of these countries and, in the case of Norway, to ensure German access to vital iron-ore deposits. Codenamed Weserübung or “Weser Exercise”, the attacks were expected to be short and decisive, paving the way to the main assault on France and the Low Countries without wasting valuable resources. Luftwaffe units would contribute by destroying the relatively tiny Danish and Norwegian Air Forces, after which airborne troops would be flown in to seize bridges and, most importantly, airfields in support of ground units. As a result, the emphasis was firmly on the provision of transport squadrons, protected by long-range fighters and bombers, a total of over 700 aircraft.
The airborne assault on Scandinavia.
The attacks began on the 9th April 1940. In Denmark, paratroopers seized Aalborg airfield in northern Jutland, allowing infantry units to be flown in, and a force of 28 Heinkel He 111s dropped leaflets over Copenhagen. This proved to be sufficient to deter the Danes, who surrendered before the end of the day. Simultaneously, Messerschmitt Bf 110s landed at Fornebu, outside Oslo, to secure the airfield for Junkers Ju 52s carrying infantry soldiers, and paratroopers seized Sola, close to Stravanger. Amphibious landings at Trondheim, Bergen and Kristiansand completed the coup, while the Luftwaffe sought out and destroyed the Norwegian Air Force, reducing it from 102 to 54 serviceable aircraft in a single day. As transports created an air bridge to bring in reinforcements and further landings were made in the far north at Narvik, Norway seemed doomed.
A Luftwaffe anti-aircraft gunner, his Maschinengewehr (MG) 34 ready beside him, watches for enemy air attack as troops and supplies are off-loaded in a southern Norwegian port, April 1940. The German ability to seize Norway depended on sea transport.
A practice torpedo, denoted by its painted nose, is carefully loaded aboard a Heinkel He 115 B floatplane during evaluation trials, 1940. The He 115 saw operational service in Norway on both sides. The Norwegians had purchased examples pre-war, these led to some confusion.
General Albert Kesselring, photographed in 1936 when serving as Chief of Staff to the Luftwaffe. Transferred to operational command in 1937, he later commanded Luftflotte 1 in Poland and Luftflotte 2 in the Low Countries and during the “Battle of Britain”.
Men of the Reichsarbeitsdienst (RAD), State Labour Service, help to repair and extend the captured airfield at Oslo-Fornebu, April 1940. Here, they are carrying wooden segments of planking that will be employed to extend the runway, enabling it to be used by twin-engined Messerschmitt Bf 110s.
While the runway at Oslo-Fornebu is being laboriously extended, officers supervise the construction of large wooden hangers. The Luftwaffe was aware that once the winter set in, aircraft such as the Messerschmitt Bf 110 would have to be protected from the elements, particularly if maintenance work was needed.
Extending the runway at Oslo-Fornebu meant clearing large rocks from the projected area of extension. Here, RAD men struggle to level the ground, using a pulley to lift heavy obstacles.
RAD men carry bombs to a waiting Heinkel He 111 – a shot designed to make RAD work seem exciting and glamorous.
Luftwaffe airfield guards, armed with 7.92mm 98K rifles, pause to watch the servicing of a Messerschmitt Bf 109 E fighter, presumably at the now extended airbase at Oslo-Fornebu.
But the campaign went on for longer than expected, partly because the Norwegians refused to give in and partly because the British and French hurriedly committed troops, which landed at Harstad, Namsos and Andalsnes between the 14th and the 19th April. These bridgeheads were contained, the British withdrew from Namsos and Andalsnes in early May, but the Luftwaffe had to increase its commitment quite significantly, flying well over 1000 sorties in direct support of ground units. Even then, the danger was not over, for Allied attacks on Narvik necessitated the use of Junkers Ju 52s to reinforce the isolated German garrison there between the 15th April and the 2nd June. In the event, Narvik did fall to the Allies on the 28th May, only to be abandoned in response to looming disaster in France. By then, the Luftwaffe had lost 260 aircraft in Scandinavia, including 86 invaluable transports.
A photograph, taken in the air, looking forward past the pilot in the cockpit of a Heinkel He 111 P bomber over France, May 1940. The look of concentration on the face of the navigator – observer suggests that this is an “action shot”.
The Luftwaffe in France.
Operation “Fall Gelb” – “Plan Yellow”, was initiated on the 10th May 1940 and went according to plan. At dawn, 500 Luftwaffe bombers, part of a force that numbered 3868 aircraft which was pitched against a combined Allied strength of 2600 aircraft, hit 47 airfields in northern France, 15 in Belgium and 10 in the Netherlands, inflicting significant damage. By the end of the day, Göring’s airmen had destroyed 83 Belgian, 62 Dutch and 65 French aircraft, gaining a modicum of air superiority that was quickly exploited. At the same time, airborne troops seized bridges over the River Waal and airfields close to The Hague, disrupting Dutch mobilisation, and in an audacious move gliders landed engineers on top of the key Belgian fortress of Eben Emael, covering the approaches to Maastricht. Eben Emael fell on the 11th May, opening the way for armoured units to thrust deep into Belgium, and this persuaded the Allies that the original “Fall Gelb” plan was being executed. As anticipated by von Manstein, they moved the bulk of their mobile forces north to meet the threat. Meanwhile, General Ewald von Kleist’s panzer group of seven divisions was moving slowly through the “impassable” Ardennes. Infantry troops were airlifted ahead in Fieseler Fi 156 Storch light aircraft to seize road junctions and bridges, allowing the spearheads to approach the barrier of the River Meuse late on the 12th May. Once across, they could lance westwards to carry out the Sichelschnitt move. However, the execution of opposed crossings, at Montherme, Dinant and Sedan, was not going to be easy. Luftwaffe support was essential. At Sedan, where General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps was preparing to cross on the 13th May, a four-hour blitz by Stukas and level-bombers paved the way for engineers and infantry to establish bridgeheads and build pontoons for the tank and artillery. It was an all-arms effort, but one in which the air attacks, demoralising French defenders to the extent of causing them to panic and run, were crucial. On the 13th May alone, Fleigerkorps II flew a total of 1770 sorties in support of Guderian, following this up with further attacks as the Allies finally realised the danger and reacted by sending their air forces to destroy the Meuse bridges. A combination of anti-aircraft fire and fighter protection led to the destruction of 48 British and 6 French light bombers on the 14th May.
The results of a bombing raid on Anglo-French troops using one of the typically straight roads of northern France, May 1940. Having lost air superiority during the first few hours of the German attack, the Allies are powerless to prevent such interdiction. The bombing is exceptionally accurate.
Events farther north continued to fix Allied armies in place. On the 14th May Rotterdam was bombed, causing 800 civilian deaths and leading directly to a Dutch decision to surrender, while German ground units continued to advance into Belgium. This allowed von Kleist’s panzers to cut across the rear of the Allies armies without encountering strong opposition. Guderian reached the coast at Abbeville on the 20th May, and then turned north to squeeze the Allies from the rear. Under pressure from north and south, the Allies began their retreat to the beaches at Dunkirk. Göring, anxious to emphasise the power of the Luftwaffe, persuaded Hitler to halt the panzers and allow the bombers to destroy the trapped armies. Between the 24th and the 2nd June, wave after wave of bombers flew over Dunkirk, only to encounter RAF Spitfires from southern England. Goring managed to concentrate some 500 fighters and 300 bombers against the Allied forces at Dunkirk, though many of his units were faced with mechanical problems. Furious air battles led to the loss of over 100 Luftwaffe machines and diverted the bombers sufficiently to allow over 336,000 Allied soldiers to be evacuated from the beaches. By then, Belgium had succumbed and surrendered.
German airborne troops jumping over Rotterdam on the 10th May 1940. The aircraft they are jumping from is a Junkers Ju 52; in the sky above is a Dutch Fokker G – 1 twin-boom fighter.
Thus by early June the Germans had won stunning victory, destroying the main Allied formations and opening the way to a thrust south towards Paris. Again, the Luftwaffe contributed, hitting Allied units as they pulled back and disrupting rear areas by mounting attacks on communications and supply lines. On the 14th June, Paris fell and eight days later the French asked for an armistice. The fighting ended officially on the 24th June, by which time the Luftwaffe had lost 1428 aircraft, about 28 per cent of the total deployed since the 10th May. In addition to this it suffered 1722 personnel killed. It was a relatively small price to pay for a campaign that had seized Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, forced the surrender of France and left Britain apparently defenceless. The next logical step was an invasion of Britain. This seemed only a matter of time. The code name of this was Operation “See löwe”, or “Sea lion”.
Junkers Ju 87 Stukas taxi forward for refuelling at a captured air base in France, May 1940. The fuel has been delivered in barrels and has to be pumped into the aircraft.
One of the major tasks facing the Luftwaffe in any campaign was to disrupt enemy lines of communication. Here two Luftwaffe officers look over their handiwork after the fighting in France is over, June 1940. The bombers have left these railway lines twisted and unusable, rendering Allied reinforcement plans inoperable.
Junkers Ju 87 Stukas return from a raid against enemy positions in France, May 1940. The fact that they can fly in such close formation implies a lack of Allied air opposition, though it is worth noting how archaic the Stuka is in design terms, the fixed undercarriage slows the aircraft significantly. However, with total German superiority this did not matter.
Bomb damage in the French town of Sedan, photographed in June 1940. Sedan was the scene of Guderian’s assault crossing of the River Meuse in May, a key element in the execution of the Sichelschnitt plan, and the Luftwaffe had devoted considerable support to his attack. The results of the Luftwaffe attack are apparent.
Walter Oesau, photographed in August 1940 after the award of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. This is shown worn around his neck. By then, Oesau had shot down 20 enemy aircraft in combat, some of them during the Spanish Civil War.
A Heinkel He 100 D single-seat fighter, seen in full Luftwaffe colours over the Channel in 1940. This is pure propaganda, designed to persuade the British that a new aircraft is being deployed. This succeeded in its aim of deceiving the enemy about the number of operational Luftwaffe units. In fact, the Heinkel He 100 never fired its guns in anger, being something of a failure in design terms.
A Fieseler Fi 156 Storch (Stork) short take-off and landing light aircraft flies over an advancing panzer division, May 1940. The advantage of such an aircraft is apparent: the pilot can observe progress and report any fourth coming obstacles to ground commanders. The Storch was favoured by Erwin Rommel.
Luftwaffe crews study a model of the port of Southampton, the 24th September 1940. The specific target is an aircraft factory.