When the history of this World War is written, the chapters dealing with aviation will record that at no time did Germany enjoy complete mastery of the air against Russia. While the graph of the shifting fortunes of ground combat will be zigzaggy, there will be apparent a steady decline in the relative power of the Luftwaffe.
In fact, it is felt safe to assert at this seemingly inconclusive stage of the conflict that, non-military considerations aside, the Axis defeat on the Eastern Front was predestined precisely because the Luftwaffe has not proved equal to the task of putting the Red Air Force out of combat. This assertion is made despite any Axis advantage in geography, manpower, equipment and strategy in ground operations throughout most of the war. Parenthetically, the same aerial impotence is certain to prevail in Nazi relations with the American and British air forces.
While this article cannot give in detail the Russian air organization or give those of the RAF or our own AAF the full meaning of what has been happening to and in the Luftwaffe cannot be grasped without constantly remembering what it is up against militarily, industrially and morally. Nor can the picture be complete without seeing Goering's air weapon in its framework of the entire Wehrmacht, without comprehending its relationship to other German armed services and to the Axis economic background, resources and reserves.
There is, for example, the inescapable consideration of fuels and lubricants. Hitler's frantic drive for the Caucasian oil fields is now in his second year. The staggering price already paid in the quest and the willingness perhaps even a life-and-death necessity to pay any disposable number of lives and material to reach that source of lifeblood for modern fighting machinery should be remembered. Assuming he reaches that objective, what are the chances of Nazi technicians finding the required equipment at all, or in working orders Goebbels has complained before of the effectiveness of the Russians' scorched earth policy.
Earlier this year Clement R Attlee, reported in the House of Commons that British troops in Libya had possession of a German High Command document which admitted a severe petroleum shortage in Reich-controlled territory. The document was said to reveal that "because of the great expenditure of fuel in the East (on the Soviet front), the fuel situation in the Reich is universally strained." It also served notice that "exports of fuel from Europe for the Panzer troops in Africa accordingly are severely reduced. In particular, we cannot in the future replace oil lost by enemy action."
The implications of such finds are apt to be forgotten, especially when the Allies face trying days. But it is far from wishful thinking to keep in mind the inactivity of Mussolini's aircraft, battleships and tanks, resulting at least in part from a shortage of oil. Nor should Nazi triumphs in the air or on the ground counteract completely the reliable pre-war estimates of respective Allied and Axis petroleum potentialities. Nothing has been adduced since to nullify the conclusions then reached concerning the incomparably greater Allied natural wealth, even taking into account the changes in ownership caused by enemy conquests.
The Nazis staked much on an expected quick victory of the Soviet Air Force, which they expected to destroy at the first blow on the ground and to this end massed their maximum strength. Failing in this they altered tactics; rapidly shifting their sweeps from one sector to another in attempts to wear the Red Air Force out by sheer superiority of numbers. This, too, failed, due in no small measure to individual skill and daring of the Russians, who have employed ramming tactics on a large scale.
The biggest surprise, however, was the quality of Soviet aircraft. Nazi plane losses mounted so swiftly early in the campaign that they exceeded the ability of Germany's aircraft industry to make replacements, making it necessary to throw obsolete types into the campaign.
Early in the war the writer reported evidence that the Nazi High Command found its basic fighter, the Messerschmitt Me-109, had proved ineffective against Red aircraft and was being replaced wherever possible by the Heinkel He-113.
This was an outstanding tribute to the Soviet air force, in view of the Me's performance maximum speed, 354 mph at 12,300 ft; cruising speed at 62.5 percent power, 298 mph, service ceiling, 36,000 ft; rate of climb, 3,345 ft per min; cruising range, 621 mi Powered by a Mercedes-Benz DB601 engine of 1,150 hp, the Me-109 carried one 23-mm shell-firing gun operating through the propeller hub; four 7.7-mm machine guns, one in each wing and two firing through the propeller; and provision for carrying four 50-kg bombs in external racks.
But the Heinkel, despite its level speed of some 375 mph, and its heavy armament, has not proved the ideal substitute because of its high landing speed up to 100 mph. which requires large improved bases.
Lacking time to modernize the aircraft types, the Nazis tried the expedient of simply adding cannon and armor. This, however, failed to overcome one basic factor: speed. Many Soviet fighters are reported to be 20-25 miles an hour faster than their adversaries; some Soviet bombers 25-30 miles faster than their Nazi counterparts.
Those familiar with the current organization of serial production in the Reich know what a complex and painful process it is to change even one type. When Hitler and his air generals laid out their 1941 campaign, their plans did not call for large-scale replacement of aircraft types that had proved successful to that time.
Modernization of design and equipment did not present quite so drastic a problem, but mere organization was not enough. Yet, as the German planes brought down by the Russians have shown, that was what the Nazi High Command finally resorted to, because it was the best that could be done.
Stepping up the power of aircraft engines has been an outstanding trend in this German undertaking. The modernized planes began to mount the latest types of existing power plants. No newly evolved models of engines have shown up, however.
But tactical and flying-quality improvements could not be attained in this manner every time. So, in addition to replacing the engine, the Germans in some cases, including the Me-109, installed new and powerful armament on old planes.
What happened in this respect was that the 20-mm cannon which made its bow on the Me-109, Heinkel-111, and Henschel-127 proved decidedly inferior to a similar Soviet weapon in rate of fire, range and piercing strength.
Armor plating was another Nazi "innovation" essayed after about six months' effort to wipe out the Red Air Force. On the Dornier-215 bomber they protected the pilot with 8 mm of armor in the rear and with 5-mm plates on the sides and overhead. Previously lacking armor, the Me-109 now emerged with the pilot's seat armor-plated behind and partly on top.
Representative of the utmost in German modernization methods are the Me-109 and He-111. Overhauled seven times by 1942, the Heinkel was able to flash 268 mph as compared with 195 mph at the beginning of its career. Its former three machine guns had become six machine guns and a cannon.
As for the Messerschmitt, since 1936 it had experienced four rejuvenations by the first of this year. From 265 mph it rose to 355-365 mph. Still, both of the touted fighters under discussion were being readily overtaken by Soviet fighters with with guns capable of piercing 8-mm armor.
We have it on the authority of Col P Stefanovsky, a former test pilot who has brought down many a Nazi plane and made a specialty of inspecting enemy wrecks at the approaches to Moscow, that the Junkers-87s usually get the concentrated and uninterrupted Soviet machine-gun fire in their tanks. This technique, of course, sets the Germans on fire. Only one solution seems possible, and that is to accelerate production of new German types. To some extent that has been done, but to date no Russian has complained that this extent is one of his biggest troubles.
To be sure, new Nazi aircraft are announced over the Soviet Union from time to time. The fact that it is on the Eastern Front that new types are being introduced for the first time since Hitler's European aggressions began is testimony to the unsuitability of formerly satisfactory Nazi aircraft.
Earlier the Heinkel-113, as it was known to be when it began to substitute for the Messerschmitt in Russia, was described. There are reasons to believe that the Germans would like to unleash in quantity an improved version with a 1,500 hp Daimler-Benz engine. This recent type probably hits 400 mph and mounts two 20-mm cannon and two 7.92-mm machine guns.
This model was tried out in Russia a good many months ago when the Germans sought to spread the impression that the He-113 was a the front only until the production of a spectacular new fighter got under way. The Heinkel itself established beyond doubt that it is hared to manufacture and pilot.
As to the promised new machines, for which the Heinkel was supposed to be pinch-hitting, at least one belonged to the Messerschmitt family, the Me-109F, occasionally designated in the Soviet press as the Me-115. This has a high rate of climb and is comparatively fast. Its sponsors claim 400 mph for it, but Russian commentators say it has not topped 365 mph. As 1ate as last June only one of these operated in Russia for every four of the discredited Me-109s. Meanwhile, it is reported that the Reds' YAK fighter has been doing very nicely against the Me-109F. (A description of typical Soviet aircraft is given on page 100. Ed note.)
Also in Goering's bag of tricks this year has been a new Dornier bomber, the Do-217. The Germans spent three years' experimentation before springing it on the Russians. It was routed for the sectors where the Luftwaffe appeared deficient in fast, medium bombers of good carrying capacity. Making its bow in May, the Dornier has not been numerous and the Russians have attacked successfully with their LAGG type.
The new Focke-Wulf* fighter, which Berlin propaganda has ballyhooed as the newest and greatest fighter, has not been prominent in Russia.. But in encounters with the RAF, it has fared poorly against the latest Spitfires. The latter can turn within a smaller radius and have superior armament. If the Focke-Wulfs do come to Eastern Europe in numbers, the Russians appear to be ready, for their military press has already discussed and analyzed this craft at length. As Col Stefanovsky said in Red Star when he and his fellow airmen were still awaiting the Do-217:"How this new maneuver of the leaders of the German fascist air force will end is unknown. Nevertheless, it remains indisputable that by re-equipping its own air force in due time the Soviet Union beat the strongest trump card of the Germans."
It is known that the Goering group has always placed orders for aircraft without honoring the opinions of the General Staff as to the desirable types. It is even better known that Goering is not only the head of the Luftwaffe but also the owner of important flying equipment factories. The dividends from his business enterprises in this war surpass appreciably those of the Russian adventures of his winged armadas.
Often rumored before the war, breakdowns of German aircraft have been on the increase, and the causes are not always structural. The age, training and experience of the fliers have much to do with the accidents.
The courage and willingness of the Nazi airmen to accept battle may also be questioned, partially attributed to their lacking the optimum age and grasp of the tasks involved. They have been displaying a pronounced preference for wreaking their damage upon undefended ground objectives and for avoiding direct encounters with the opposing air forces.
Because of the crisis in equipment, leadership and personnel, latest Luftwaffe tactics show many modifications. The long-distance mass raids on Soviet towns and villages far behind the lines have been abandoned. German airmen concentrate principally on frontwise destinations. Only solitary reconnaissance ships fly inland and these quite infrequently. How this was brought about by the conditions of last winter will be presently discussed. At this point only the poorly trained crews and their inability to fly deep into hostile terrain are considered
Not that the Germans don't try to create the impression of concentrated air sweeps. Reports from various sectors of the Eastern Front tell an identical story of the same plane or a very small group of planes repeating raids on the same objective at intervals.
Once again the Germans are reviving the tactic, abandoned since the first days of the war, of "hunting" down individual Red Army soldiers, trucks, ships and communications aircraft. No strategist or tactician anywhere has ever regarded this as a gainful occupation, but such dignified bombers as Ju-87, Ju-88 and He-111 have been seen at this work.
On the other hand, German fighters, whose foremost function used to be the interception of Russian bombers, are being pressed into service for daylight raids on ground objectives. This is to economize on materiel.
The Me-109s come in groups of four to six. Some patrol, the rest carry out the combat mission. Soon the lower ones ascend to change places with the patrol planes which then go into action. Thirty-five minutes is the maximum length of such forays. If defending planes appear the Nazis withdraw, flying at a low altitude. Inability of the Luftwaffe to seize mastery in the air has been a major factor in the failure thus far of Hitler's mechanized-motorized divisions to deal a death blow to any vital objective within the Soviet Union.
It is noteworthy that in the Wehrmacht's greatest triumphs, no effective attempt has been recorded of landing German paratroops, as was the case in the Low Countries, Norway, Crete and wherever the invaders had confidence in their aeronautical prowess. This brings up consideration of the question of dispersal.
Since the launching of the Pacific phase of World War II much has been said of the grave problems thrust upon the United Nations by the necessity of scattering their air, land and naval forces over the planet. The Luftwaffe has the same headache. Recently in the London Sunday Times, Peter Masefield wrote that the German first-line aircraft were distributed as follows: France and Low Countries, 1,050; Norway, 300; Italy and Sicily, 700; North Africa, 500; Greece and Crete, 100; Germany proper, 400; Russia, 1,600; the Balkans, 200.
He appraised the total Luftwaffe strength at 30,000 units and Germany's annual production at 24,000. It is doubtful whether the British commentator was prepared to vouch for the absolute authenticity of his figures, but it is not hard to agree why the Reich should maintain concentrations of air power in all the places listed. The reasons are clearly prompted by a purely defensive strategy.
It is this dispersal of air power that will be mentioned in the post-war memoirs of Prussian generals as a heavily contributing factor in their ultimate defeat. This thinning out of their aviation strength, lest any vital German-held spot be exposed to a catastrophic Allied assault, impairs the coordination of the Luftwaffe with ground and sea contingents for a truly balanced offensive on any front.
A few days after Mr Masefield's analysis an Associated Press dispatch from London cited an unnamed source as evaluating Germany's first-line air strength exclusive of planes in reserve and on transport and non-fighting missions at 5,000 bombers and fighters. This is 1,500 fewer than Hitler was able to muster on the Western Front in the Spring of 1941. His aerial strength is being sapped as the Luftwaffe is compelled to throw itself simultaneously east, west and south. Weakened by losses in manpower and equipment, the Luftwaffe is no longer the monster air weapon that battered and terrorized Europe before it was hurled against the Soviets.
Of all the trials facing the Luftwaffe none is more dreaded than the prospect of fighting in Russia through another winter. Last winter, when the Germans had painfully curtailed their aerial operations, the alibi offered by the Fuehrer himself was that the cold made extensive activity impossible. However, successful operations had been carried out by the Red Air Force during that very season. The bitter Russian cold was not so much to blame as mismanagement by Goering & Co, who had failed to foresee and prepare for something that was universally known from time immemorial the Russian winter climate.
To be sure, after the seizure of Norway, the Nazi airmen underwent some training under winter conditions there. Yet, that turned out to be a purely academic exercise because as late as the middle of January, 1942, Maj General Shcherbakoff of the Red Air Force was reporting: "Not one of the German planes which have been brought down was fitted with skis."
Aircraft with wheels require airdromes which are continuously cleared of snow during the season when snow storms are a chronic condition. This compelled the Germans last winter to discontinue the practice of basing their planes close to the land-troop dispositions.
Likewise, winter refueling calls for landing fields with buildings where water and oil can be heated, but such bases were not usually available where most needed by the Nazis. On the other hand, Soviet crews, Arctic flying almost second nature, displayed full preparedness in this respect, the result of peacetime foresight, and of experience gained in Finnish operations in the winter of 1939-1940. Another winter handicap befell the Germans last year when the severe Russian frost thickened their lubricants and vitiated the Luftwaffe's use of machine guns, cannon and bombing devices.
Nor could the German mechanics do much overhauling of the machines for flight while blizzards raged. Their pilots found frequent snowfalls, thick cloud formations and fogs insurmountable. The navigators were confounded when lakes, rivers, populated areas and other points of reference merged into one white landscape as far as the eye could reach.
Providently prepared, better acquainted with the terrain, the Red fliers caused the German High Command to discontinue sending tanks and motorized infantry in big columns. By midwinter, the Germans traveled in small groups.
Perhaps by this time the Hitlerites have learned the lesson of preparing for the winter, but to what degree they can translate the newly-acquired education into a realistic approach to their strategic approach to their strategic undertakings remains to be seen.
One thing is certain: the Red Air Force, already having proven its winter striking power, will be waiting with faster and better armed fighters, and Allied flying equipment arriving in greater volume will hasten complete elimination of the Luftwaffe.
*A Focke-Wulf captured intact by the British has been found to have a top speed of 375 mph, cruising speed of 326 mph, rate of climb 3,280 ft per min. Its armament consists of four 20-mm cannon, two 7.9-mm cannon and two machine guns firing through the propeller.
This article was originally printed in the September, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 9, pp 98-99, 276, 279-280, 283.
The original article includes 3 photos: Me-109, He-111, FW-190.
Photos are credited: Me-109, Acme; He-111, British Combine; FW-190, Press Association.