Hitler's Terrifying Dive Bomber: The Junkers Ju-87 Stuka

Junkers Ju 87-D
January 25, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIJunkerNazi GermanyDive BomberJu-87

Hitler's Terrifying Dive Bomber: The Junkers Ju-87 Stuka

Death from above.

The largest Ju-87 attack during the Battle of Britain came on August 18, which went down in history as “The Hardest Day.” Early that sunny afternoon, 109 Stukas drawn from three groups of Geschwader 77 set out to bomb the radar station at Poling and airfields at Gosport, Ford, and Thorney Island in southeastern England. Fifty Me-109s provided protection. As usual, the raiders hit their targets with precision, but scrambling Hurricanes from the RAF’s No. 43 and 601 Squadrons charged into the German formations with their machine guns belching fire.

Lieutenant Frank Carey, who led the Hurricanes of No. 43 Squadron, reported later, “In the dive, they [Stukas] were very difficult to hit, because in a fighter, one’s speed built up so rapidly that one went screaming past him. But he couldn’t dive for ever.” One by one, flaming Stukas went down. As the surviving Ju-87s headed south for their French bases 70 miles distant, the Hurricanes ran out of ammunition and broke off the chase.

It was a black day for the Junkers dive bombers. Sixteen were shot down, and seven limped home with damage. The first real setback suffered by the Stuka groups highlighted the plane’s major weakness, which would be demonstrated repeatedly as the war progressed. While it was a deadly attack weapon, it could operate only when escorted, when there was no interference from enemy fighters, and when its targets were not well protected by antiaircraft guns.

At the height of the Battle of Britain on August 13-18, a total of 41 Stukas were shot down by Spitfires and Hurricanes, and the losses were regarded by the Luftwaffe high command as unacceptable. The planes were needed to counter the might of the Royal Navy during the imminent invasion of England, so it was decided to preserve the dive-bomber force. The Ju-87s were withdrawn from the Battle of Britain and played little further part in it. RAF Fighter Command’s eventual triumph over the Luftwaffe in September 1940 forced Hitler to shelve Operation Sealion, but the Ju-87’s career was far from over. Vital roles awaited it the following spring and summer in the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and Russia.

During the bitter campaign on Crete in April-May 1941, when British and Greek troops were forced to evacuate after failing to dislodge the Germans, Stukas caused heavy losses to Royal Navy ships. Three cruisers and six destroyers were sunk, and 13 other vessels were severely damaged, including the 23,000-ton carrier HMS Formidable.In the Western Desert, meanwhile, Ju-87s flew numerous sorties in close support of General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps during its long, seesaw struggle with British and Commonwealth forces. The planes destroyed many British strongpoints with incredible accuracy.

By 1941, however, the Stuka was virtually obsolete. It had an unfortunate tendency to disintegrate when struck by Hurricane machine guns, and its 120-mph climbing speed was too slow to qualify for escort by fast fighters such as the Me-109. RAF pilots breezily relished “Stuka parties” as a form of risk-free recreation, while the Stuka crews joked wryly that their planes were so sluggish that survival depended on their British opponents overshooting.

Nevertheless, the Ju-87s continued in their role of attacking Allied land and sea targets and as “flying artillery” spearheads wherever German forces launched offensives. When three powerful German army groups smashed their way into the Soviet Union on Sunday, June 22, 1941, eight Stuka groups with a total of 324 planes flew in close support. They bombed Russian installations and towns as the panzer and infantry columns raced forward against sparse opposition.

“At first, things were easy in Russia, and we had few losses to either flak or fighters,” reported Hauptmann Schmidt of Geschwader 77. “Gradually, however, the Russian gunners gained experience in dealing with our diving tactics. They learned to stand their ground and fire back at us, instead of running for cover as others had done before…. A further strain was caused by the knowledge that if one was shot down on the enemy side of the lines and captured, the chances of survival were minimal.”

As the grinding war of attrition continued across the vast Russian steppes, modified versions of the Stuka were rushed into frontline service. They included the Ju-87 “Dora” and the Ju-87G “Gustav.” Filling the desperate need for a tank-busting airplane, the Gustav carried a 550-pound high-explosive bomb and mounted two 37mm high-velocity cannons under the wings. The guns proved highly effective in piercing the relatively thin armor on the rear of Red Army tanks. The Gustavs made a timely appearance in the spring of 1943, shortly before the main German offensive, Operation Citadel, aimed at the central front near Kursk.

All available Stuka units, with a total of about 360 Doras and a dozen Gustavs, were positioned to support the offensive. What developed into the biggest tank battle in history commenced on July 5, 1943. With their crews flying up to six sorties a day, bomb-carrying Doras attacked targets in the Soviet rear areas while the Gustavs went after enemy tanks caught in the open. Despite powerful air support, however, the German armored thrusts became bogged down in the Soviet defenses. With the last reserves fully committed, Hitler ordered his army to move to the defensive on July 23. At Kursk, the German Army failed to produce a decisive victory, and it never regained the strategic initiative.

On the Eastern Front, a Stuka pilot emerged as the leading combat ace of World War II. He was Oberst Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a once timid minister’s son who flew an incredible 2,530 sorties, dived lower than anyone, and pioneered a ground attack technique. Like a one-man air force, he destroyed 519 tanks, more than 2,000 vehicles, many artillery positions, and even a Soviet battleship, the Marat, and a cruiser. Rudel was the sole recipient of Germany’s highest decoration, the Gold Oak Leaves with Swords and Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross. After losing a leg, he disobeyed orders from Hitler and Göring and continued to fly until the last day of the war. Rudel was reported to be Hitler’s choice to succeed him as führer.

In the autumn of 1943, the Luftwaffe reshuffled the tactical support units, with ground-attack Focke-Wulf 190Fs beginning to replace the Ju-87 Doras. Arguably the best German fighter of the war, the FW-190 mounted four 20mm cannons and two machine guns, carried up to 1,100 pounds of bombs, and was twice as fast as the Stuka.

Elsewhere, from Athens to Corinth and Malta to Tobruk, Stuka squadrons continued to give sterling service. They escorted convoys, raided Allied bases and shipping in the Mediterranean area, and harassed British Eighth Army troops and installations during the long war in the Western Desert. After Operation Torch, when U.S. forces invaded North Africa to join the British, inexperienced GIs felt the wrath of Ju-87s, particularly during the rout of the U.S. II Corps at Kasserine Pass.

The last of more than 5,700 Ju-87s came off the production lines in September 1944, but the type continued in service. Some were modified as night raiders, many were employed as glider tugs, trainers, and transports, and the Ju-87C, equipped with folding wings and a tail hook, was developed to operate from the German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin. The ship was never commissioned.

But the heyday of the Stuka, which had been supplanted by faster and more powerful planes, was over. By April 1945, the last month of the European war, only 125 Ju-87 Doras and Gustavs remained with frontline units. Besides the Luftwaffe, Stukas flew during the war with the air forces of Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia.

The plane that had spread so much terror and destruction from Warsaw to Crete to Stalingrad, symbolizing Nazi might and ruthlessness, outlived the man who masterminded it. Ernst Udet, one of the most important planners of the Luftwaffe, along with Göring and the stocky, able Erhard Milch, was appointed chief air inspector-general of the Reich Air Ministry in February 1938. He was in charge of aircraft design, production, and procurement.

But his career in preparing the Luftwaffe for the coming war was stormy. He drove himself to the limit as chief of supply, but he became a shadow of his former self, and his buoyant personality cracked under the strain. Udet overindulged in cognac and turned to drugs. On November 17, 1941, he committed suicide.

This article by Michael D. Hull originally appeared at Warfare History Network on January 21, 2020.

Image: Flickr.