By Raul Colon
September 21st 2008
Before the ground crumbled all around it,
before the Allies invaded the Normandy coast, before the Soviet Red Army
broke the back of the once vaunted German Wehrmacht, even before the
German skies were completely filled with Allied bombers seemingly
running without any interference from German fighters, the once powerful
Luftwaffe looked poised to stop the Allied push into Fortress Europe. In
fact, real optimism ran through the Luftwaffe’s officer corps as new
materials, men and fighting machines began to join the ranks. By the end
of May 1944, the much maligned Luftwaffe possessed an impressive amount
of fire power.
now were compromised of 2.8 million men and women. Its overall air
assets were now at 4500 combat ready aircraft with new and more powerful
platforms, such as the Messerschmitt Me 163 and Me 262 jet fighters as
well as the Arado Ar 234 jet bomber; commencing to enter front line
service. These aircraft-types were augmented by a new force of
redesigned Heinkel He 177 heavy bombers. The Luftwaffe was also in the
final stages of having the Fi 103 or V-1 flying pulse bomb and the much
powerful A-4 (V-2) rocket, ready for operational debut.
This infusion of materials was mainly the work of the Ministry of War
Production under the tutelage of Albert Speer. Since late 1942, German
aircraft production had been taking a pounding from the constant bombing
to its infrastructure by the British Bomber Command at night and the
United States Army’s Eight Air Force during daylight. Nevertheless,
Speer pushed ahead. He streamlined production by removing many
unproductive aircraft models, dispersing production of airframes, air
systems and more importantly, engine parts; to twenty seven main
production centres dispersed in the Fatherland.
oversaw the construction of a few major underground facilities
completely dedicated to the final assembly of aircraft. Most important
to the Luftwaffe’s war effort was the development of aviation fuel,
which had at times curtailed air operations, In 1944, aviation fuel
production reached an all time high in March with the production of just
under 200000 tons. This figure raised the Luftwaffe’s strategic reserves
to an all time high of 580000 available tons. The direct result of all
of those measures was that the total output of German air industry
increased by fifty percent over the past December.
downside, by April 1944, the Luftwaffe was looked on by an uneasy public
with contempt at best. Its main mission role, the defence of the
Fatherland, had been a colossal failure by any standard. Thus the
public’s faith and respect on what was once their most proud armed
service, was lost. But this paled in comparison to the Force’s main
problem: the ability to maintain an experienced pilot programme. The
attrition of German pilots led to the rush of un-tested, and sometimes,
un-qualified young recruits to the front lines. This “revolving door”
policy cut deep into the overall effectiveness of the German Air Force.
Because of this, the Luftwaffe’s tactical reserve formations were
decimated and in some instances, they were non existent. Nevertheless,
by April 1944, the Luftwaffe that the Allies were facing was a more
advance and better tactical and strategic force that the one they faced
from early 1942 onwards.
The strength of the Luftwaffe relied on its Luftflotten or air fleets.
The Luftflotten was the German AF main fighting force. Every Luftflotten
formation was compromised of elements of all types of aircraft, pilots,
support crew and Anti-Aircraft Batteries detachments. These formations
were grouped by geographical areas. The most powerful Luftflotten force
was the Luftflotte Reich. The Luftflotte Reich was based in air bases
across Greater Germany area which compromised all of Germany itself,
Austrian and the western sections of Czechoslovakia. This was the force
that was assigned the bulk of the air defence of the Fatherland at all
times. Because of this, it was the most equipped and trained formation
the Luftwaffe possessed. Its commander, Generaloberst Hans-Jurgen
Stumpff, was the commanding officer of Luftflotte Number 5, based in
Denmark and Norway, during the Battle of Britain. The Number 5 was
basically a tactical reserve force, seeing limited combat action, mostly
later in the conflict. Now the confident Stumpff commanded the
Luftwaffe’s last line of defence against the combined might of Bomber
Command and the 8th Air Force.
His force was compromised of just 555 operational day fighters, 421
night interceptors, 302 bombers and an array of various other type of
aircrafts for a grand total of 1,348 serviceable airframes. A woeful
amount to defend such a vast area against such a powerful opponent.
Beside the sheer numbers, was the fact that of 555 day fighters,
available, the vast majority were outclassed Bf-109Gs, Fw-190s and
Me-410s which were no competition for the new P-47s and P-51s.
Luftflotte Reich was able to “post” 302 bombers on its operational lists
on 21 Gruppen or squadrons. Five of those Gruppens were not operational
between February and May because of their transitions to the new He-177
bomber platform. The pathfinder force consisted on one Gruppen, I.-KG66,
assigned to support all bomber activity. They were armed with aging
Junkers Ju-188s reconnaissance planes. This unit was one of the hardest
hit Gruppens on the Luftwaffe’s list.
suffered tremendous losses in the Battle of Britain, even to the point
of being deemed a “paper force” without any real aircraft, so at the
time of D-Day, they were being reformed. Gruppen III.-KG 3 was
converting a version of the venerable He-111 to carry the new Fi 103
pulse flying bombs. Others bomber formations were having similar
transition issues. By April, the Luftflotte Reich’s only ground attack
unit, the III.-SG 3, was being replenished with improved Fw-190s. This
unit would be sent to the Eastern Front where it was decimated within
just two months. There were two dedicated units attached to the
Luftflotte Reich. The first, the Versuchsverband Ob.d.L. was designated
to conduct experiments and testing on captured Allied aircrafts and
systems. The other was the I.KG 200 which operated captured Allied
transport planes such as the Douglas DC-3, Boeing’s B-17 and Liore et
Oliver 246 seaplanes. All aircraft flown by I.KG 200 were utilized to
transport German infiltration units inside Allied lines. Despite what
many historians had stated, there’s no official records indicating that
any of these aircraft wore any other insignia beside the Nazi logo.
The second major Luftwaffe formation was Luftflotte 3rd or the Western
Air Force as its was later known. As its name suggested, Luftflotte 3rd
was assigned exclusively to the Western Front where it awaited the
impending massive Allied air assault in preparations to the expected
cross Channel invasion of Fortress Europe. The force was commanded by
Generalfieldmarshall Hugo Sperrle who had orchestrated the Luftwaffe’s
tactical attacks on French formations during the successful 1940 Blitz.
heart of the Western AF was Fliegerkorps X, a specialized anti-shipping
formation which would be crucial if the Germans were to curtail the
allied invasion. The force had 539 operational aircraft at its disposal.
Seventy five percent of the force consisted of Fw 200s, He 177s and
Dornier Do 217s. The Do 217s were modified to carry the new Henschel 293
and Fritz X radio-guided attack missiles. The other aircrafts of the X
were Junkers Ju-188s armed with torpedoes. The other main force in the
Western AF was Fliegerkorps IX with its complement of 137 aircraft
including Ju-188s, 88s and Do-217s. The Luftflotte 3rd was based at
several airfields in Belgium, Holland, Western Germany and Eastern
France; all within range of the Atlantic Wall. As was the case with
Luftflotte Reich, the 3rd were to be completely overwhelmed by its
assigned task. Its air defence assets were allocated on only six
gruppens with an overall total of serviceable airplanes of just 115
Bf-109s and Fw-190s. Augmenting the 3rd were two Gruppens of Ju-88s long
range fighters utilized for U-boat screening.
By the beginning of April, the Luftwaffe had made plans to transfer
fighter Gruppens from Luftflotte Reich to northern France in an effort
to assist the overwhelmed Western AF. This transfer of assets would have
depleted the Reich force and left Germany at the mercy of the bombers.
Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe considered that during the first weeks of
the invasion, the majority of the allies aircraft would be employed
supporting the invading troops. It is here where the lack of the
Luftwaffe’s resources would play a pivotal role. The German Air Force
knew it would not be able to stop the landings unless it was very lucky
so delayed it until the Wehrmacht’s reserve units could be rushed to the
front. To do this, the Luftflotte 3rd needed more close air support
fighter/bombers, but thanks to the massive rate of attrition on the
Eastern Front, the 3rd only possessed two operational Gruppens with just
48 Fw-190s among them. A woeful number to stem a powerful invasion.
As sad as the state of the Luftflotte forces on the West was, their
counterparts on the Eastern Front were on the verge of total collapse.
In May 1944, the Luftwaffe deployed four Luftflotte forces, the 1st,
4th, 5th and 6th on a vast 1500 mile front extending from the Arctic
Ocean on the north to the Black Sea on the south. The 5th had its bases
located on Norway and Finland and was assigned the northern part of the
front. The 1st was stationed along a moving set of bases in the Baltic
coast and the ever shrinking Leningrad sector. Luftflotte 6th operated
on the centre of the front while the 4th covered the south portion of
it. The 5th, under the command of general Josef Kammhuber had only 193
operational aircrafts. It only possessed two day fighter Gruppens of
Bf-109s. One Gruppen of Ju-88s and Fw-109 for close ground support plus
a Gruppen of Ju-87s for night operations. There were also a Gruppen of
Ju-52 floatplanes and three small Staffeln (sub-groups of 10 to 15
aircrafts) of Ju-188s and 88s long distance reconnaissance platforms.
The 1st was in better shape. Its commanding officer, general Kurt
Pfugbeil, commanded a force of two fully equipped day fighter Gruppens,
two Staffeln of night fighter/bombers and another one of He-111 bombers.
This force was augmented by three additional night attack and two close
air support Gruppens.
The 6th was led by Generaloberst von Greim. Although the 6th covered the
most space among the Eastern Luftflotte, it only had two operational
Gruppens plus two Staffeln of day fighters at its disposal. What the
force lacked in fighters it made it up for with its bombers. Luftflotte
6th had eleven Gruppens of He-111 bombers, three Fw-190s and Ju-87s
Gruppens for ground attack missions and a single night fighter Gruppen
of Ju-87s. It also possessed three Staffeln of long range reconnaissance
planes plus two additional Staffeln for short-to-medium range
reconnaissance operations. A sole Gruppen of Ju-52s transport planes was
also at Greim’s disposal.
The last of the Eastern Front forces was the southern air fleet,
Luftflotte 4. The 4th was under the command of Generaloberst Desloch.
Since his force sat on the area of front where the Germans expected the
main axis of the Soviet offensive to come in, Desloch’s group was well
equipped with ten Gruppens of ground attack planes, seven of day
fighters and two more of night fighters. These formations were augmented
by four Staffeln of long range reconnaissance airplanes. There were also
two and a half Gruppens of transport aircrafts equipped with Ju-52s and
Italian Savoia Marchetti SM-82s which were manned by Italian pilots
loyal to Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
On the extreme southern part of the 1500-mile front rested the last
Luftflotte formation, the 2nd. Based in Italy, the 2nd was assigned the
central and western Mediterranean area of air operations. Lead by
Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram von Richthofen, the 2nd was basically a
“paper” force. On “paper” it could field four day fighter, three bomber
and two close air support Gruppens. Augmented by two long range and one
short range reconnaissance Staffeln. A Gruppen of transport aircrafts
was also “available”. On paper this force looked impressive, especially
for their area of operations. By this time, the central and western
parts of the Mediterranean Sea were basically off-limits to German air
formations. But this was on paper alone. The reality was that because of
the massive Allied air superiority on the Mediterranean and the absence
of any major German operations in the area, the air assets of many of
those Gruppens were re-allocated to other Luftflotte forces.
Beside the great air fleets, the Luftwaffe operated several other
smaller air formations. Chief among them was Luftwaffenkommando Sudost,
a force compromised of two day and one night fighter Gruppens, a
Staffeln of Ju-88s plus three Staffeln of reconnaissance aircrafts.
There was also a depleted Staffeln of Ju-87s for close air support. But
its main air asset was one Gruppen of Me-323s transport airplanes plus
two Staffeln of Ju-52s seaplanes. The transport aspect of the force was
at the heart of its mission profile which was the re-supplying of German
Army garrisons on the Greek Islands.
Overall, before the Allied invasion of Hitler’s Europe, the state of the
various Luftwaffe formations was impressive. By May 1944, the Luftwaffe
presented a massive air armada. A force that, in any other occasion,
could overwhelm any other force. But constant fighting on four
continuing fronts had and would again take the bite out of this
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