The demise of the Third Reich is one of the most richly observed areas of modern history with a myriad of books and literature on the political and military decline of Hitler’s Nazi State
Much is made of the turning point of the Battle of Stalingrad (January 1943) with the result that the historical tool of hindsight has been used to cloud the reality of the final eighteen months of war in Europe with an air of inevitability that was less tangible at the time. At land, at sea and in the air, therefore, Germany has been painted as a sick patient living on borrowed time. However, questions must be raised as to how and why the Allied powers took so long to defeat an apparently dejected nation whose own chief ally in Europe, Italy, ceased offering resistance in 1943; moreover outstanding issues remain to be clarified over the legacy the German struggle bequeathed to modern military disputes.
For the purposes of the following analysis of the Luftwaffe’s role in the perpetuation of World War Two, a chronological approach must be adopted to trace the gradual decline of the aerial capabilities of the Third Reich. Military matters must be examined as well as comparisons with the Allies, as numerical and production superiority naturally translated into air superiority.
Most important of all, the actions of key figures who each played their part in the saga such as Reichsmarschall Goring, Head of Armaments Speer, Chief of Staff Korten and of course the Fuhrer must likewise be detailed: in the absence of democratic ideology, the decisions made by important figures like these ultimately decided the fate of the Luftwaffe and of the country at large. A conclusion will be sought after all of the facets of the realities of Nazi war policy - economic, political and military - have been studied to underline both the common features and unique attributes discernible during the protracted resistance that marked the end of the Second World War.
Even at the beginning of 1944, all did not appear to be lost for the Luftwaffe. Facts and figures remained impressive. The German Air Force had a total personnel strength of 2.8 million men and women operating about 4 500 combat aircraft. New jet fighters such as the Messerschmitt Me 262 and 163 gave fresh hope to the pilots, especially considering that the Messerschmitt Me 262 had a maximum speed of 540 mph and was capable of climbing to 30 000 feet in seven minutes, which was discernibly quicker than any Allied jet at the time. Furthermore, production was largely able to withstand the first year of sustained Allied bombing due to the relocation of plants underground, such as the huge underground munitions complex at Kohnstein. However, it is clear that the defence of the Reich, which was the raison d’être of the Luftwaffe at this time, was clearly faltering in fundamental ways.
Bar the Messerschmitt Me 262, many of Germany’s planes used as resistance against frequent Allied raids were of a poor quality. The Messerschmitt 109G was outclassed by the British Mosquitoes and the Focke Wulf Fu 190 was likewise unable to withstand the burgeoning numerical superiority of the Allied offensive, which became increasingly daring as the land armies encroached upon Germany’s borders from all sides. Moreover, as the logistical disadvantages of the Luftwaffe were translated into losses of both personnel and planes the standard of the force was logically weakened. Training was reduced and pilots were no longer hand picked from the very best of the flying schools but were instead selected on an altogether less idealistic basis. The cumulative effect was a degeneration of the calibre of the fighting force at the exact moment when German resistance required only their very best fighters.
Apart from physical and numerical weaknesses, the greatest theoretical challenge to face the Luftwaffe was the re alignment of its ethos from the dominant air power in Europe to the role of underdog. The preceding four years of conflict had given the British Air Force the opportunity to develop new planes and the dog fights over British territory during 1940 had resulted in a resolute, battle hardened core of airmen more than capable of outmanoeuvring the relatively inexperienced pilots of the Luftwaffe. The arrival of American planes over German skies, however, was even more damaging to the Luftwaffe’s prospects of resistance. In comparison, the US was masterful in every respect.
The Luftwaffe had to devise tactics that befitted the state of the war after 1943. The greatest problem posed was which direction to take: either to defend the Reich using fighter pilots against the Allies flying, predominantly, the Me 262, or, as Hitler wanted, to arm Germany’s fighter planes with bombs to repel the planned Allied land invasion of Europe. General of the Fighters Adolf Galland claimed that the Me 262 should be deployed solely as a fighter jet, so that the defence of the Reich would once again be the main priority of the Luftwaffe.
Yet Hitler remained unconvinced and the details of the construction of the Me 262 (the only technical advantage that the German Air Force possessed over the Allies by 1943) continued to be delayed for over twelve months during which time the Allies had already landed in Northern France and strengthened their own aerial capabilities. Even when Messerschmitt bomber production was increased, it was at the expense of the overall resistance of the increasing Allied raids.
This was a serious error on the part of the Nazi leadership, one which made the ultimate defeat of the Reich inevitable as opposed to very likely. Furthermore, the highly significant schism over the role of the Messerschmitt planes raises two key questions, which both require analysis: the first is the hierarchical structure of decision making in the Third Reich that necessarily affected crucial moments in the defence of Germany; the second is the widespread refusal, on the behalf of the German High Command, to realise how dramatically the war had changed since the zenith of Nazi superiority in the summer of 1942. At the epicentre of both discussions resided the Fuhrer – chief power broker in Nazi Germany.
The organisation of the Nazi State is best understood as an exponent of political Darwinism, incorporating a dual policy of ‘divide and rule’. Although it is true that the British Air Force, especially the Bomber Command headed by Arthur Harris, had to stand their corner against the Navy and the Army in order to secure funding and munitions, the logistical problem facing the Luftwaffe was of a far more intense nature. Goring had been in charge of the broader administration of the air force since the Nazi seizure of power, although the fact that Goring, from 1936, also doubled up as Head of Economics in the Third Reich ought to have served as a warning as to the true state of air command in Germany during the war: not only was Goring’s chief duty to the Luftwaffe becoming marginalised but, ironically, his ineptitude in fiscal affairs further damaged the German Air Force.
“Goring’s economic and military responsibilities coincided. The failure to mobilise the German economy effectively enough restricted the growth of the air force. It was the poor position that made it impossible to pursue either an independent air strategy or effective army support after 1941.”
By August 1943 Goring’s popular appeal was on the wane, yet at the same time the duties that he delegated to Chief of Staff Korten were not equitable to the powers at his disposal. Personal duels were likewise a common feature of military policy in the Third Reich and Goring’s chief enemy was Albert Speer who, from 1942 as Head of Armaments, began to encroach on the niche that the Reichsmarschall had carved out for himself, resulting in further delays and indecision. The defence of the Reich thus gradually had to make way for the egos of the men in charge, as was the case when Speer advocated the formation of a ‘Fighter Aircraft Staff’ to merge the talent at the disposal of the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Armaments to overcome the crisis in aircraft production at the start of 1944 only to be spurned by Goring.
As if the rival factions at work within the Nazi hierarchy were not bad enough, the increasing intervention of Hitler in military matters made the situation practically untenable. Not only was his judgement flawed, as was the case when he fought the corner for the Messerschmitt to be equipped as a blitz bomber, but his presence also affected the decision making of every subordinate in the Air Force. Goring, in particular, was guilty of fabricating the true capabilities of production, staff training and tactical ability to curie favour with the Fuhrer. In January 1943 he overstated the Luftwaffe’s position to support the German Eight Army trapped in Stalingrad, a spurious line of logistical reasoning that he continued to pursue for the duration of the war. By Germany’s demise in April 1945 Goring was the most hated of Hitler’s lieutenants.
The cumulative effects of the unique military machinations of the Nazi regime meant that important decisions were frequently misinterpreted or even ignored. Added to this managerial malaise was the unwillingness of Hitler and his political subordinates to appreciate the gravity of the military situation of late 1943 and early 1944. Even Field Marshall Rommel could not convince Hitler of the extent of Allied superiority when he filed the following assessment in June 1944.
“The enemy is strengthening himself visibly on land under cover of very strong aircraft formations. Our own operations are rendered extraordinarily difficult and in part impossible to carry out owing to the exceptionally strong and, in some respect overwhelming, superiority of the enemy air force.”
The resistance offered by the Luftwaffe in countering Allied raids must therefore be viewed within the discord of the political context of the time as well as to the backdrop of vast Allied air superiority. In this way, resistance and the tactics employed by pilots as well as the administrators of anti aircraft land power, must be gauged as impressive; testimony to the prevailing professionalism of the German Air Force. The German Night Fighter Force, in particular, offered dogged resistance to Allied night time raids, the main source of bombing German industry until the last months of the war.
However, the service was increasingly affected by factors beyond its control, namely technological solutions to the RAF’s navigation and radar advances that had almost completely disrupted German air raid reporting services throughout 1943. Yet while airborne defence systems were produced at break neck speeds to assist the resistance being offered by the Night Fighters, plane production declined in tandem. Manufacturing of planes such as the Bf 110G, the Ju 88C-6, the Do 217N and He 219 fell 50 per cent behind production targets set by the Armaments Ministry during the second half of 1943 and the first months of 1944 ; by the summer of 1944 the night time hunters had become the hunted.
One can see how the noose tightened around Nazi Germany’s neck from all angles (natural resources fell away in the East, which affected production, which affected the statistics pertaining to air superiority, which in turn meant that there was little protection for the Reich’s armaments factories to attempt to balance out the numbers). In ever decreasing cycles therefore defeat was indeed inevitable by the beginning of 1945 with resistance rendered to essentially meaningless dogfights over German skies.
“During the seventeen weeks from 1 January 1945, [British] Bomber Command operating by day and night flew 62 824 sorties and dropped approximately 180 000 tons of bombs on Germany. Figures show that only 1.1 per cent of aircraft was lost.”
As the final weeks of the war signalled the dissolution of tactics and planning, so resistance likewise faltered. By the end of the war Germany was as much under attack from within as without, as foreign recruits sabotaged production, manufacturing and, in the end, air resistance itself.
After the war arguments raged concerning the overall effectiveness of the Allied bombing raids on the German mainland where some commentators believed the means far too costly to justify the end. Its morality was likewise questioned in light of the debilitated German strategic defence system. With the lessons learnt via the passing of time, though, the importance of the battle for air supremacy over German territory cannot be overstated, a point which Albert Speer made after the Nuremberg Trials in 1946.
“The real importance of the air war consisted in the fact that it opened a Second Front long before the invasion of Europe. That front was in the skies over Germany. The fleets of bombers might appear at any time over any large Germany city or important factory. This front was gigantic. Every square metre of our territory became a front line. Defence against air attacks required the production of thousands of anti aircraft guns, the stockpiling of tremendous quantities of ammunition all over the country and the holding in readiness of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, who had to stay in position by their guns, totally inactive, often for months at a time.”
The lessons to be learnt for aircraft tactics in modern warfare from German resistance at the end of World War Two are both military and political in nature. Militarily, it is doubtful that the Allied bombing of German industry or urban centres was in itself sufficient to end the war without recourse to the kind of explosives deployed by the Americans against the Japanese in August 1945.
The reason for this is that resistance was always encountered, both in the skies and amongst the civilian population below as the Germans themselves discovered during the Battle of Britain in September 1940. This inherent resilience is a common fact of military history that the USA is currently considering in perseverance of its geo political strategy in the Middle East. Although the German case study proves that technology and production is every bit as significant as tactics and personnel, the total destruction of a state is never complete as long as the political head remains intact.
Following on, the political legacy of the National Socialist air defence of the Reich is a re enforcement of the assertion that dictatorships thrive in times of triumph but self destruct when they are under siege. Poor judgement of the Nazi hierarchy was a direct result of the intricacies of authoritarianism where reality and fantasy frequently became blurred and lines of communication were often thwarted. Divisions that are papered over during times of peace are likewise exposed when the nation is at war.
However, even if Hitler had not intervened to the extent that he did in the arguments relating to the role of the Messerschmitt Me 262, the air superiority of the Allies, achieved through greater production, training, personnel, numbers as well as the advancements of armies in the West and the East, could not have been resisted for very long. Together with the Allied land armies and the destruction of the perilous U boats, Germany was indeed beaten on all fronts by a numerically, technologically and tactically superior enemy.
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