The Aviation Industry and the Air War

Developments in the air struggle over Europe in 1939–1944 influenced the German aviation industry in direct and indirect ways. On the one hand the aviation industry supported the war effort of its own air force by providing it the hardware it needed. Therefore, developments on the industrial sector determined to a large extent the Luftwaffe’s successes and failures, its needs and its actions. On the other hand, the actions of the Luftwaffe also affected the industry. Most importantly, German air superiority meant security from enemy air attacks. Loss of air superiority enabled the enemies’ air forces to attack the aviation industry. The outcome of the aerial struggle largely determined the developments and changes of the German aviation industry, and its emerging new character. Narrating the history of air power in World War II or of the Luftwaffe is not the aim of this research,1 but a short description of the major trends in the air war up to early 1944 is mandatory here in order to understand some of the most important changes in Germany’s late-war aviation industry.

Towards the Abyss The War of the Luftwaffe

Germany entered World War II with the best tactical air force in the world. By the beginning of 1944 this air force was in shambles. In fact, when looking into its operational history, it is obvious that after several early brilliant campaigns, the Luftwaffe’s efficiency deteriorated rapidly. Although it was able to support German ground troops well into World War II (especially on the Eastern front), it lost air control over Germany and western occupied Europe quite early, therefore allowing Allied aircraft to operate over them with increasing freedom. There were several reasons for this failure. One of them was Germany’s reliance on tactical offensive air force and negligence of strategic and purely defensive capabilities. Limitations of the national economy and limited industrial capacity played an important role in the prewar decision to create a tactical Luftwaffe rather than a strategic one. One of the main determining factors in this crucial decision was Germany’s inability to build and support an expensive strategic bomber force due to lack of resources.Initially this decision proved to be a lucky one, because superior tactical air power was a decisive factor in the success of early German blitzkrieg campaigns. The technical and tactical superiority of the Luftwaffe were fully exploited during the campaign in the West in 1940, where it fought mostly enemies right across the Reich’s border. The Luftwaffe even succeeded in supporting the Wehrmacht on a strategic level during the Norwegian campaign, but this was largely due to weak opposition and its ability to establish air bases in Norway soon after the invasion of this country. The first serious problems appeared when Germany tried to project its air power across the English Channel against Great Britain. The use of aircraft designed mainly for shortor intermediate-range tactical use proved problematic when engaged in a strategic air campaign. Furthermore, the Luftwaffe encountered over England what is termed today an integrated air defense system, composed of early-warning radar stations, an efficient communication network, modern defensive fighters and extensive ground defenses. This system was conceived precisely to counter the kind of threat posed by the Luftwaffe in 1940. The Luftwaffe lost the Battle of Britain and as a result the Germans were forced to abandon Operation “Sea Lion”—their planned invasion to England. At the same time the Luftwaffe also failed to prevent British bombers from attacking targets in western Germany. Early British daylight attacks proved to be too costly and as a result the Royal Air Force (RAF) started to operate its bombers only at night. Night bombing was largely inefficient due to the inability of most bombers to find and hit their assigned targets. Furthermore, it was almost impossible to hit pinpoint strategic targets at night. Nevertheless British bombers were able to regularly drop bombs on Germany without the Luftwaffe being able to stop them. It was a bad omen, which was only a prelude to the British night onslaught on German cities in 1942–43. In the aftermath of the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe was still a powerful and effective force, as was proved by its crucial support of the Wehrmacht’s operations in 1941. These included the conquests of Yugoslavia and Greece, operations over the Mediterranean, the airborne invasion of Crete, and the early successes against the Soviet Union. Despite these successes the Luftwaffe started losing its edge in 1941, when its theatres of operations expanded beyond its capabilities. The inability of the aviation industry under Udet to supply the Luftwaffe at that time with the aircraft it needed has already been discussed here. The industrial failure was made even worse by the heavy losses of flight crews and aircraft the Luftwaffe suffered in the East and elsewhere. By the end of 1941 German aircraft production and aircrew training could no longer keep up with the losses. Now the Luftwaffe entered a vicious circle with disastrous implications for its combat effectiveness: in order to complement losses, the Luftwaffe’s high command pulled out growing numbers of aircraft and experienced personnel from flight training centers and sent them to replenish combat units. As a consequence, flight-training programs were cut back and the level of training deteriorated continuously. Because new flight crews received lesser training, the loss rate increased and the crisis escalated. At the same time, the Allies mobilized their resources more efficiently in order to keep up the strength of their air forces despite constant attrition. The British, for example, established the Empire Air Training Scheme, which expended enormously the prewar training establishment and enabled training of new flight crews in great numbers and to high standards. The United States’ entry into the war, with its enormous production and training capacity, aggravated Germany’s position also in this regard.

Although the Luftwaffe continued operating on a massive scale in 1942 and 1943, the seeds of disaster were sown by the vicious cycle of attrition and overstretching commitments it had entered in 1941.

The crisis in the air war came to a head in 1943, after the Luftwaffe was heavily bruised in the East, and as western air power increased its operations in the West. Among others, in 1943 the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) started targeting directly the German aviation industry in order to eliminate the Luftwaffe’s combat effectiveness by cutting off its supply artery. The focal point of the air struggle shifted increasingly to a battle for air superiority over the Reich. The outcome of this struggle determined to a large extent the fate of the aviation industry and other key elements of the German armaments industry.