The Buzz

Nazi Germany Tried to Build an 'A-10 Warthog'. It Ended Up Being a Huge Mistake.

The high command “underestimated the need for a dedicated ground-attack aircraft — and particularly a dedicated tank-killer — until it was far too late,” he said. “For example, prior to Operation Barbarossa, the German Abwehr had estimated that the Soviets had only about 10,000 main battle tanks. The actual number was about 24,000. By the time the Germans realized that they needed a dedicated tank-busting aircraft such as the Hs 129, the die had already been cast.” What’s more, the German government treated Henschel as an all-purpose manufacturer and often directed it to build aircraft for other firms.

At first glance, you might think the Henschel Hs 129 was the perfect ground-attack airplane.

Twin engines. A heavily-armored cockpit that protected the pilot from small-arms fire. The aircraft even eventually had the heaviest and most powerful forward-firing cannon ever fitted to a production military aircraft during World War II.

The Hs 129 was supposed to be the Luftwaffe’s ultimate aerial tank-killer, dealing death from above to Soviet T-34s on the Russian front. In other words, it would be easy to see it as a World War II-forerunner of today’s formidable A-10 Warthog.

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There was just one problem: By all accounts, the Hs 129 was a questionable performer. In fact, the original Hs 129 A-1 series was so badthat the Luftwaffe refused to accept any of the A-1s for service.

The Hs 129 wasn’t a Warthog. It was a turkey.

Still, the aircraft occupies an interesting niche in aviation history. It’s an aeronautical also-ran that reminds us that despite their reputation for Teutonic technical superiority that included producing jet fighters and ballistic missiles, the Nazis could screw up, too.

“The Hs 129 was intended to be the A-10 Warthog of its time, but never came close to achieving that exalted status,” John Little, assistant curator and research team leader at The Museum of Flight, Seattle, told War Is Boring. “Though slow, the A-10 is extremely maneuverable, pleasant to fly and does everything extremely well from plinking tanks to bringing its pilots home alive.”

“The Hs 129 was a dog of an airplane that should have been completely redesigned to incorporate more powerful engines, more reliable engines, lower stick forces, better maneuverability and better visibility,” Little continued. “Unfortunately for the Luftwaffe, the need for the Hs 129 was so great that it had to enter service even though it was far from combat-ready. With that said, the Hs 129 was rugged and popular with its pilots — that’s about all that it has in common with the A-10.”

By the late 1930s, German military planners decided the Luftwaffe needed a dedicated ground-attack aircraft. German pilots who flew ground-attack missions as members of the Kondor Legion during the Spanish Civil War learned that low-level attacks could demoralize the Republicans with strafing runs, destroy installations with more accurate bombing, disrupt communications and pinpoint enemy artillery.

There was nothing revolutionary about the idea of a dedicated attack aircraft — the first planes for that purpose were developed during World War I.

But Hitler didn’t want to fight a war like World War I. He wanted rapid movement that swept away Germany’s adversaries. That strategy called for special aircraft that could support German ground forces.

But design difficulties, intelligence failures and poor decision-making in the Luftwaffe high command plagued the manufacture and deployment of the Hs 129, Little said.

The high command “underestimated the need for a dedicated ground-attack aircraft — and particularly a dedicated tank-killer — until it was far too late,” he said. “For example, prior to Operation Barbarossa, the German Abwehr had estimated that the Soviets had only about 10,000 main battle tanks. The actual number was about 24,000. By the time the Germans realized that they needed a dedicated tank-busting aircraft such as the Hs 129, the die had already been cast.”

What’s more, the German government treated Henschel as an all-purpose manufacturer and often directed it to build aircraft for other firms.

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