An armada of German Heinkel He-111 bombers droned through the Ukrainian night sky on September 21, 1944, en route to Poltava Airfield in the Ukraine for a mission against American bombers parked at the base. The B-17 Flying Fortresses and their escort P-51 fighters were part of an experimental cooperative “shuttle” program between American and Russian forces known as Operation Frantic by which American strategic bomber crews based in England and Italy would fly against Axis targets in and around Berlin, lay over at Soviet Union airfields, and strike more targets on the return leg of their circuit.
The chief architect of the German bomber raid was General der Fleiger Rudolf Meister, the commander of Fliegerkorps IV, based at Brest-Litovsk. The mainstay of this particular air corps was the Heinkel He-111 medium bomber with a range of 1,400 miles. The bombers had been upgraded with advanced avionics and their crews were well trained in long-range navigation and target location. A group of Junkers Ju-88 pathfinder aircraft navigating electronically would guide the Heinkels to their target.
The armada took off from airfields near Minsk bound for their target 500 miles away. The Ju-88s dropped flares to mark the targets for the Heinkels. At 12:40 amthe Heinkels began dropping their ordnance. They roared over the airfield in several waves. Altogether, the bomb crews dropped 15 tons of high explosives on the airfield. The raid lasted 90 minutes during which the Soviets mounted a weak defense. No Soviet night fighters took off to contest the attack, and 50mm truck-mounted antiaircraft guns proved wholly inadequate for the task. Of the 73 B-17s parked at Poltava, 47 were destroyed and the remaining 26 suffered varying degrees of damage. In contrast, the Luftwaffe did not lose a single aircraft. It was an exhilarating triumph not only for Meister’s Fliegerkorps IV, but for the German military leadership and German people at a time when bad news from the front lines vastly outweighed good news.
After Germany’s defeat in World War I, the country was banned from having an air force by the Treaty of Versailles. In spite of this restriction, the Germans secretly began to rearm in the 1930s. One of the aircraft designers who most benefitted from the German rearmament was a short, bespectacled aircraft engineer named Ernst Heinkel. The native of Baden-Wurttemberg eventually became a Wehrwirtschaftsführer. Having paid his dues as an aircraft designer for various companies during World War I and in the early postwar period, 34-year-old Heinkel established his own company, Heinkel-Flugzeugwerke, in 1922 at Warnemunde in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.
In the postwar period, Heinkel was fixated on fielding the world’s fastest passenger aircraft. He was passionate about high-speed flight and was keen on exploring different forms of aircraft propulsion. Because of his interest in propulsion, he donated aircraft to aviation wizard Wernher von Braun, who was exploring rocket propulsion for aircraft. Many of his colleagues in the German aircraft industry were dismissive of Heinkel’s concepts and ideas, but that was generally the case with all innovators.
In June 1933, Albert Kesselring, who at the time headed the Luftwaffe Administration Office, wanted to build a German Luftwaffe whose air wings were composed of modern aircraft. Kesselring convinced Heinkel to relocate his factory and increase his work force to 3,000 employees. Among the aircraft that Heinkel would develop under a government-sponsored program was a fast medium bomber. To disguise the work so that Germany would not be found in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, the Luftwaffe requested in 1934 that Heinkel design and build a commercial airliner incorporating Germany military specifications that could be converted to a medium bomber.
Heinkel entrusted the project to gifted aircraft designers Siegfried and Walter Gunter. The Gunter brothers designed what would come to be regarded as a classic World War II airplane. The He-111 not only incorporated the latest aerodynamic features and structural refinements, but also handled well and performed to the designers’ expectations.
The Gunter brothers had designed the He-70 Blitz, a German mail plane and fast passenger aircraft in 1932, and they incorporated many of its best features into the medium bomber they were building. The first prototype was tested in February 1935, but it was found to be under powered, and therefore required significant changes. The design team subsequently replaced the original 600 horsepower BMW engines with 1,000 horsepower Daimler-Benz engines for the 111B series.
The He-111E series aircraft came off the production line in February 1938 and were flown to Spain where they joined the bomber fleet operated by the German Condor Legion fighting for the Nationalist cause during the Spanish Civil War. Afterward, the Heinkel team made some minor refinements to the aircraft, such as raising the pilot’s seat so that he could see over the glazed cockpit if necessary because it proved difficult to see through in extremely bright sunshine and in rainstorms. During this period the crew increased from four to five as more machine guns were added for protection against enemy fighters.
The He-111P, which incorporated these improvements, went into action in the skies over Poland when the Germans invaded that country in September 1939. The Kampwaffe, or bomber force, in Poland consisted of 705 Heinkel He-111s and 533 Dornier Do-17s.
During the first half of 1940, the He-111s became a workhorse of the German Luftwaffe. They harassed British shipping in the North Sea, participated in the invasion of Denmark and Norway, and supported Wehrmacht forces in the Low Countries and France. They played a key role in the bombing of Rotterdam on May 14, 1940, which was intended to ensure the Dutch surrender. During the fall of France, they harassed Allied troops attempting to evacuate from the Dunkirk beaches.
After the fall of France, the Luftwaffe began preparing for the Battle of Britain. The He-111H, which could deliver 5,500 pounds of bombs, inflicted an impressive amount of destruction. Whereas in the Spanish Civil War the Heinkel bomber could outrun enemy fighters, this was not the case during the Battle of Britain. During the three-month campaign that began in July 1940, the Heinkels faced fierce resistance from Royal Air Force Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires. Their one advantage lay in their large numbers because there generally were not enough fighters in the skies to stop the incoming bombers. Still, the campaign revealed substantial defensive deficiencies in regard to speed, armor, and weapons.
In the strikes on Great Britain, it soon became evident that the bombers needed an escort. Even better, the bombers needed their own defensive capabilities. Heinkel engineers placed machine guns in the nose and tail and a 20mm cannon in the ventral gondola. To man the guns, it was necessary to add more crew as well. The aircraft eventually had five crewmembers: a pilot, navigator-bombardier-nose gunner, dorsal gunner/radio operator, ventral gunner, and side gunner. The redesign called for machine-gun positions in the glass nose and in the flexible ventral, dorsal, and lateral positions of the fuselage.
The Heinkel design team developed a variant specifically for attacking Allied surface vessels. The He-111J-1 was designed to serve as a torpedo bomber. It boasted two external torpedo racks in lieu of an internal bomb bay. But following a short period in service, the Kriegsmarine discarded it because the service felt it required too many crew members to operate.
The He-111 also saw action in the Balkans and North Africa and during the invasion of the Soviet Union. The He-111 would have a long career on the Eastern Front not only conducting raids against the Soviet rail network, but also serving as a transport workhorse along with the venerable Junker Ju 52. During the Battle of Stalingrad, the He-111F was one of the aircraft used to fly food and ammunition to the encircled German Sixth Army during the winter of 1942-1943.
The first versions of Germany’s V-1 Flying Bombs were launched in the summer of 1944 not from rocket launchers as they would be later in the war, but from He-111Hs. To launch the powerful weapon, the pilot approached the target below 300 feet to avoid detection by British radar. As the aircraft approached the coast of England, the pilot would increase the altitude of his aircraft to 1,700 feet, which was deemed the minimum altitude for a safe launching. He then released the cruise missile. Over a period of seven weeks, it was reported that the Luftwaffe launched more than 300 of the bombs against London. The initial missions achieved great success; however, during the next six months only 240 of the 1,200 V-1s reached their intended targets.