Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, Germany was forbidden to own and operate military aircraft. However, the design and manufacture of civil aircraft was permitted and pioneering names such as Hugo Junkers, Ernst Heinkel and Willy Messerschmitt continued to build the German aviation industry.

Even before Hitler came to power, plans were already in hand to build a new German Air Force. When Hitler became Führer he knew that he had to have a large, modern and powerful air force to carry out his aims. Ignoring the terms of the Treaty, the Air Ministry of the Reich was established on 5 May 1933 by which time a number of German military pilots had already graduated from a secret training base in Russia. The embryonic Luftwaffe, a well guarded secret, was made public and by 1936 over a third of German defence spending was allocated to the Luftwaffe. Hermann Goering commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, had ordered the production of a large number of modern fighter and bomber aircraft such as the Messerschmitt Bf109, the Messerschmitt Bf110, Junkers Ju87 Stuka, Heinkel He111 and the Dornier Do17. By 1937 Hitler could call on 1,000 fighters and 700 bombers – two years later Britain could only field the same number while the Luftwaffe had grown even more powerful. By 1938 Germany was producing 1,100 aircraft a year. During the invasion of Poland, the Luftwaffe deployed 1,750 bombers and 1,200 fighters.


From 1936 the aircraft and tactics of the Luftwaffe were tested in the Spanish Civil War and then became the leading element of the German Blitzkrieg as it raged through Western Europe. The confidence in, and of, the Luftwaffe was only undermined when the German air force faced the Royal Air Force on ‘home turf’ and failed to break the ‘Tommies’. The Luftwaffe, to its end a tactical air arm structured to support land forces, lacked the strategic bombers with adequate protection essential to defeat a strong foe across the sea. The German air force had considerable success during the 1941 Operation Barbarossa against Russia. As in earlier attacks on Poland, Denmark and Holland, the Luftwaffe fared well against poorly defended targets and some German aces were able to rack up incredible victory totals such as Erich Hartmann who was credited with 352 victories. Unfortunately for Berlin, the propaganda claims of an imminent Soviet collapse never came true. Also, adherence to unwieldy heavy fighters types like the Bf110 did nothing to improve the Luftwaffe’s chance of success in an increasingly hostile aerial warfare environment.

Despite massive Allied bombing campaigns, Germany continued to increase aircraft production throughout the war. There were 10,800 aircraft built in 1940, 11,800 in 1941 and by 1944 39,800 were produced. Regardless of the types or numbers of aircraft produced, however, once the USA entered the war and brought types like the Mustang to battle, the Luftwaffe and Germany were doomed. While early in the war the Luftwaffe, in theory, had a slim chance of success through bombing British industry and removing Royal Air Force aircraft at source, there was no way that Germany could take on the industrial might of the USA who could build more Mustangs than the Luftwaffe could ever knock down. That said, Germany had plans for an aircraft that could have attacked the east coast of the United States. This aircraft was among many new types, some brilliant, many doomed but ultimately few of which made it from the drawing board to reality in the death throes of the Third Reich.

This book, featuring images from the Imperial War Museum’s outstanding Photographic Archive, charts the successes and failures of Hitler’s Luftwaffe. The photographs, many never before published, tell the stories of individuals, of aircraft and the German air force which at its peak was the largest, most modern and well-equipped air force in the world.

Francis Crosby, 2005



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