Once "Invincible," Now Dead or Dying

by Leonard Engel
During the last several months, the question has frequently been asked; where is the Luftwaffe? Isn't it possible that its conspicuous absence from the Sicilian front and in the last days in Tunisia means that a major part of it is secretly being held in reserve to strike us a surprise blow or trap the first Allied soldier to set foot on the mainland of Europe?

To either supposition, the answer is no. While there are Luftwaffe squadrons in reserve. their number is small. The once-mighty German air force is fighting only on two fronts — where it is able to wage a defensive struggle only — because it no longer has the strength to fight on more. Its only attempt to take the offensive this year was on the Kursk front, early in July and, with the Wehrmacht, it was beaten back in eight days.

The Luftwaffe has declined sharply both relatively and absolutely. At its peak, in June, 1941, when Hitler invaded the USSR, it had a total of about 22,000 to 25,000 bombers and fighters, first-line and reserve, permitting daily operation of 6,000 battleplanes. Today, its total strength is down to 12,000 to 14,000 and its daily operational strength, some 4,000. By itself, of course, that total is not so small. In the same period, however, the air arms of Great Britain and the Soviet Union and of our Army and Navy have undergone enormous expansion. Our current daily operational strength is at least double and perhaps triple that of the Reich.

In calculating air force losses, it is customary to make deductions from, or at most take at face value, the claims of the force's enemies. Where reports are carefully compiled, however, as by the Luftwaffe's American, British and Soviet foes. actual losses outrun claims by about two to one. In other words, for every Luftwaffe plane a United Nations airman sees go down, one has been lost because of bad weather, a crash landing on a patch-pocket front-line airport, been so badly damaged as to be incapable of salvage, been missed by Allied battle observers or is otherwise "hidden" from our view.

On this basis, the Luftwaffe's losses since September, 1939, total a minimum of 80,000 fighters and bombers. Half of these the Germans have spent in their futile attempt to crush the Soviet Union. Operations against the RAF and other British forces have cost them perhaps 25,000 planes altogether. The rest have been destroyed in operations against us and other United Nations air arms. (Our contribution to the total is the smallest of the "big three" since we began air operations against the Nazis only late in 1942.)

Startling as they seem, these figures are conservative. They work out to an average monthly depreciation for the Luftwaffe of less than 15%. Experience in other countries shows that active service losses are about 20% a month. It is possible that the Nazi rate is 15% because of extraordinary efficiency of repair services.

When Hitler attacked Russia, the Luftwaffe's five air fleets disposed of some 1300 planes each, including spares. The Luftwaffe's sixth group. the special Richtofen dive bomber and army cooperation unit (not to be confused with the Richtofen fighter group, which is now stationed in France opposite England) had some 800 planes, making a total of roughly 7500 (of which four-fifths could be flown on any one day). The Luftwaffe had long since more than made up the 6000 planes (3000 claimed by the RAF and British AA gunners, plus a like number for unseen operational casualties) lost in the Battle of Britain and the much smaller losses incurred in the Polish, French, Norwegian and Balkan campaigns.

In the first five months of the Nazi-Soviet struggle, as the Wehrmacht surged forward only to be halted twice, for two months (August and September) at Smolensk and then for the year at the gates of Moscow. the Luftwaffe spent 20.000 fighters and bombers.

That winter, air activities in the east were reduced to a minimum and half a million soldiers were furloughed for three months for work in Nazi aircraft factories. As a result, when the Germans' summer 1942 offensive was begun on June 25, the Luftwaffe's daily operating force was 5000 to 5500 planes. The 1942 offensive, however, even though limited to the southern front, proved almost as expensive as the first. Well over two thousand ships a month were sacrificed in Russia, most of them in the furnace of Stalingrad. Air war on other fronts, such as Egypt and over western Europe, where the RAF's bomber offensive was gaining strength, brought German casualties up to 3000 a month. As the summer before, these losses far exceeded new construction and the Nazis had to dip deeply into their reserves.

When the 1942 Nazi offensive in Russia ended, the Luftwaffe's daily operating strength was but 4000 combatant craft and its reserve and first-line total 12,000. And this past winter it had little opportunity to recuperate. First, the Soviet winter offensive prevented Hitler from furloughing any troops for factory work, whether in the aircraft or any other industry. Second, our landing in North Africa and the then coming Allied invasion of the Central Mediterranean forced the Germans to increase their active forces in southern Europe. Third, besides increasing the cost of anti-raid defense activities, the ever greater weight of RAF and now US Army Air Forces bombs on western Germany has finally made an appreciable dent in aircraft production. (Until recently, air plants were not consistently and heavily attacked, for most of them were out of practical bombing reach.) Finally, there has been a decline in production even in untouched factories, owing to the desperate German manpower shortage — thanks to the Red Army's guns — which has compelled the Nazis to use foreign "slave labor" even in the most crucial sectors of industry. The Nazis long swore that no foreign workers, who, since they are essentially "chain gangees" are not as efficient as German workers and who slow down and commit other acts of sabotage with much greater frequency, would ever work in German aircraft factories. They are now employed, however, at Heinkel, Messerschmitt, Dornier, BMW, the South German Brake Works (which makes BMW engines for Focke-Wulf fighters) and others.

Through last winter and spring, Luftwaffe combatant craft losses ran at a 1500 to 1600 monthly rate, while production of these same types of planes did not exceed 1700 a month. At the end of June, its main units were as follows (all figures include spares in operating squadrons, ie, daily operating strength is four-fifths of the figures given): the First Air Fleet, commanded by Col Gen Albert Keller, on the Russian front from Smolensk to Leningrad, about 1100 fighters and bombers; Second Air Fleet, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring commanding, in the Mediterranean, perhaps 500 combatant craft (plus Italian units with a strength of 800; most of the Italian air force is operating under Marshal Kesselring's orders); Third Air Fleet, in France and the Low Countries, Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle, 900 battle-planes, including two special night-fighter divisions stationed in northwestern Germany; Fourth Air Fleet, Soviet front from Smolensk southward to the Caucasus, and including the Richtofen dive bomber group, 2500 craft (some units of Axis satellite countries' air forces included); and the Fifth Air Fleet, Col Gen Hans-Jurgen Stumpff, in Norway and Finland, about 700 fighters and bombers. Total: 5500-6000 planes, or 4500, daily operational and 13,000-16,000 first-line and reserve.

Since then, the Red Air Force claims the destruction of nearly 2500 German aircraft in a single month, July. With losses from accidents and the like and on other fronts, therefore, it looks as though the Luftwaffe's operations this summer have cost a minimum of 8000 planes, in a period in which new output could not have exceeded 5000. Thus the figure of some 12,000 for first-line and reserves together, and of not over 4000 aircraft for daily operations.

This general analysis is confirmed by still another striking fact. In the past year, the British, the Soviets and we have placed in service a score of new aircraft types. The only new Nazis to go into service in any numbers, on the other hand, are the redesigned twin-engined Henschel 129 "ersatz Stormovik" and the long-delayed and still not very active Messerschmitt 119 twin-engined fighter-bomber. (A few other new German aircraft have been reported, but they are seen only infrequently.) The paucity of new models reflects the pressure for immediate production. Time and men for retooling factories can no longer be afforded, no matter how urgently new models are needed.

Since it takes longer to train a pilot than to build a plane, the four years of war must also have had a serious effect on Luftwaffe personnel. In fact, reports are at last coming from the various fronts of encounters with inexperienced and partly trained airmen in great numbers.

The Luftwaffe is capable of putting up stout resistance on perhaps one front, if it is permitted to limit itself to one front. But it is no longer able to oppose effectively simultaneous attack from two or three directions. If we have a second front now and if we do not relax our own efforts on production or battle lines for an instant, the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht, ie, Germany, can be finally crushed by Christmas.

This article was originally published in the September, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 5, no 3, pp 12-14.
The original article includes 7 photos.
Photos credited to Sovfoto, British Combine.

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