The Aviation Industry at War

The German aviation industry went through a series of changes during World War II. Some of them resulted from wartime developments, but a large number of wartime changes started before the war. Since the Nazis came to power the aviation industry had produced mostly for the military, but because it was a peacetime industry, it used only a small portion of its potential capacity. The shift from peacetime production to wartime production was not as dramatic as it could have been. We would have expected that after the outbreak of World War II the aviation industry would fully gear up in order to deliver the increased amount of hardware required by a country waging a major war. This gear-up happened only to a limited extent. As it finally became obvious to the German leadership that Germany was involved in a total war, it sought to reform the organization of aircraft production. The reform took place in two main areas: management and production methods. Procurement policies remain practically the same all through the war and led to several spectacular and traumatic acquisition fiascos. Some of the basic problems the Germans encountered with aviation production in later stages of World War II evolved before the war or shortly after it started. Therefore, in order to understand the transformation of the aviation industry and its structure, we need to take a look at the earlier history of this branch. This chapter deals with several key aspects and problems of the aviation industry before the outbreak of World War II and afterwards.

Organization of the Aviation Industry

Until Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany’s aircraft industry was composed of several small firms manufacturing limited series of mostly light planes. The Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from producing or possessing military aircraft and practically killed a large industrial sector which had produced thousands of aircraft for Germany and its allies during World War I.1 Although several important civilian aircraft were developed in Germany in the 1920s and the early 1930s, production runs were limited. Total German aircraft production in 1932 was 36 and the aircraft and aero-engine industry employed in January 1932 a total of only 3,988 workers.2 This industrial sector could hardly be viewed as a meaningful branch of German industry at that time. The Nazi seizure of power brought a dramatic change. In April 1933 Hitler appointed Hermann Göring as Air Minister and established for him a completely new ministry: the Reichsluftfahrtministerium(RLM). The RLM immediately instructed the active aircraft firms to increase the production of current types and to begin designing new types. At that time Germany was still restricted by the Treaty of Versailles, but the RLM started preparing plans for aerial rearmament and for a massive expansion of the aviation industry.

German air force existed, this reorganization was an important change, which practically placed under the supposedly civilian ministry both civilian and military aviation matters and made it Germany’s top aviation organization. On 26 February 1935, Hitler ordered Göring to recreate the German air force, the Luftwaffe, and shortly afterwards its existence was openly acknowledged, thus formally ending Germany’s commitment to the Versailles armament restrictions. Although all operational matters were now the responsibility of the Luftwaffe’s high command, matters of design, research and development, production, and procurement stayed in the hands of the RLM. This division of responsibilities was trouble-prone and later caused some severe problems. While the Luftwaffe was supposed to submit the characteristics of the equipment dictated by its doctrine, the RLM controlled the development and production of this equipment. As a result the Luftwaffe received several times something completely different from what it had ordered. In several cases it even got products it never ordered or needed. The majority of aircraft flown by the Germans in World War II were conceived along lines set by the RLM in 1935–1936 and were consequently designed and developed by the aircraft manufacturers. The Luftwaffe was represented in this process by numerous liaison officers allocated permanently or temporarily to the RLM. However, even this liaison system failed to prevent some embarrassing procurement fiascos. Unlike most other parts of the German industry under Nazi rule, the RLM sought to centrally plan and manage the production of aircraft.4 The two most important persons involved in the central management of military aircraft production were the aforementioned State Secretary and later Field Marshall Erhard Milch and Colonel Ernst Udet. Göring pulled out Milch in 1933 from his position as general director of national airline Lufthansa and made him his deputy in the RLM. Udet was appointed in 1936 to head the Technical Office under the title Generalluftzeugmeister. Milch was sidelined at that time and Udet took over from him the technical departments.5 Udet was a former World War I ace. Afterwards he became an internationally acclaimed stunt pilot and co-owned a small aircraft production firm in the 1920s. Unlike Milch, who accumulated organizational and managerial experience during his term with Lufthansa and in other positions, Udet lacked the capabilities required to manage large and complicated organizations. Furthermore, although he was a capable aviator, he lacked formal technical training and was ignorant in most technical matters he dealt with as head of the Technical Office. Most members of his staff were trained technicians and professional engineers, but their impressive collective skills did little to compensate for their boss’s shortcomings.6 Udet’s initial influence was immense, and he was a key figure behind the development and procurement of tactical dive-bombers, which played a crucial role in Germany’s blitzkriegsuccess. On the long term, however, his appointment to this important position proved disastrous.