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Document created: 1 December 03
Air & Space Power Journal - Winter 2003

Editorial Abstract: Is the United States ready to deal with an opponent who employs asymmetric strategies in an attempt to wage a “poor man’s air war”? This case study of the Luftwaffe’s efforts to cope with the loss of daylight air superiority in 1944–45 shows how a military organization, faced with the neutralization of most of its weaponry and the increasing irrelevance of its doctrine, may attempt to prolong its useful life. The ability to inflict unexpected casualties on the US Air Force, its coalition partners, or friendly populations might pay disproportionate dividends to a future adversary.

Losing Air Superiority

A Case Study from the Second World War

Dr. Richard R. Muller

What happens when an air force loses the ability to gain and maintain air superiority? How might an energetic and resourceful air force leadership deal with this situation? As the United States prepares to face twenty-first-century adversaries, it is extremely unlikely that it will encounter an air force able to match the US Air Force in terms of technology, training, numbers, and combat power. However, the United States may well have to deal with opponents who employ asymmetric strategies in an attempt to wage a “poor man’s air war.”

A study of the Luftwaffe’s efforts to cope with the loss of daylight air superiority in 1944–45 is of more than historical interest. It serves as a case study of how a military organization, faced with neutralization of most of its weaponry and the increasing irrelevance of its doctrine, may attempt to prolong its useful life. Since the United States may encounter such an adversary in the future, an examination of how a past foe coped with this state of affairs may enlighten contemporary air and space planners.

The Loss of Air Superiority
over the Homeland

When the Anglo-American bomber offensive began seriously to threaten Germany’s control of its airspace, the Luftwaffe leadership responded energetically. Gen Günther Korten, chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff, set to the task of creating “an umbrella of fighter aircraft over the Reich.” Korten belonged to a “defensive clique” that included Col Adolf Galland—the inspector general of fighters—and Field Marshal Erhard Milch—the chief of air armament. Korten beefed up the homeland air-defense organization, finally creating Air Fleet Reich—equivalent to a numbered air force—which centralized all flak, fighter, and command-and-control functions. At the same time, and in keeping with basic Luftwaffe doctrine, Korten’s reforms also called for strong bomber forces in both the eastern and western theaters in order to permit the Luftwaffe to carry out strategic operations.1 Even so, Korten’s program brought about an increase in the strength and efficacy of Germany’s air defenses.

Korten’s organizational reforms were matched by Milch in fighter production. In partnership with Albert Speer, the armaments minister, Milch minimized the inefficiency of the German aircraft industry. Through stringent measures, he was able to boost aircraft output without increasing consumption of raw materials.2 By June 1943, German factories were producing over 1,100 fighters per month. In March 1944, Milch and Speer set up a joint “Fighter Staff” with far-reaching authority over production, plant dispersal, construction of bombproof factories, raw material, and labor matters. German aircraft production finally peaked in September 1944 at just over 3,700, despite months of Allied air attacks.3 The production reflects the underlying tension between the need to strengthen the home-defense forces and the desire to retain an offensive capability. Thus, the Germans also manufactured thousands of bombers (whose production consumed far more raw materials and factory floor space than did fighter aircraft) in 1943–44.4 The quest for offensive power did its part to make the loss of air superiority permanent.

The Luftwaffe’s operational response to the crisis was no less energetic. It placed great hopes in its basic interceptors, the Messerschmitt (Me) Bf 109G and Focke-Wulf Fw 190A. These aircraft initially lacked the necessary armament to deal with American heavy bombers, so later variants carried 13 mm machine guns and 30 mm cannons in place of the earlier 7.9 mm and 20 mm weaponry. Both types could also carry 21 cm rocket mortars to break up enemy bomber formations from well outside the radius of their defensive firepower. The German fighters would then pick off the stragglers at will.

Yet, these modifications also hastened the loss of air superiority once American long-range escort fighters appeared on the scene. The heavily laden 109s and 190s were severely handicapped in combat with their less encumbered American adversaries—a problem the Luftwaffe command never solved. One attempted remedy involved the development of specially stripped fighter aircraft with superior high-altitude performance and air-to-air capability. These included Bf 109G and K fighters with special superchargers and methanol and nitrous oxide injection, as well as the “long-nosed” Fw 190D and Ta 152. These vastly improved interceptors appeared only in small numbers; coordinating the “light” and “heavy” aircraft proved extremely difficult—and tactically ineffective—in practice.

Another proposal that has attracted postwar attention was Galland’s suggestion to mass some 2,000–3,000 German fighters for a knockout blow. His goal was to commit this force against an American bomber formation in order to “shoot down an approximate total of 400–500 four-engined bombers against a loss of about 400 aircraft and about 100–150 pilots.”5 A victory on this scale would cause the Americans to cease daylight penetrations, restoring air superiority at a single stroke. In Galland’s view, Hitler scuttled this potentially decisive action by earmarking his carefully husbanded fighter reserve for support of the Ardennes counteroffensive in December 1944.

One has reasons to doubt the potential effectiveness of the “Great Blow.” While the operation was in the planning stages, considerable portions of the fighter reserve engaged American formations, but even under favorable conditions, the Germans did not down a significant number of American aircraft.6 The standards of German fighter-pilot training were so low by fall 1944 that the bulk of the 2,000+ pilots participating in the proposed operation would have been incapable of operating effectively. In particular, the task of assembling and controlling such a large quantity of aircraft in a single operation was probably beyond the Luftwaffe’s capability in late 1944.

With conventional German tactics proving increasingly futile, desperate expedients arose. In summer 1944, the Luftwaffe command created the “assault fighter groups.” Modified Fw 190s, with increased armor plating and packing heavy armament, formed into “flying wedges” of 48 aircraft. The massed juggernaut, heavily escorted by conventional fighters, would approach a B-17 combat box from directly astern. The rationale was simple: to ensure the greatest possible number of kills, shatter enemy morale, and disrupt formation discipline. As one Sturmgruppe pilot recalled, “We positioned ourselves about 100 yards behind the bombers before opening fire. From such a range we could hardly miss, and as the 3 cm explosive rounds struck home we could see the enemy bombers literally falling apart in front of us.”7 If all else failed, the Sturmgruppe pilot was to ram his target. According to official Luftwaffe High Command instructions, “the guiding principle for the Sturmgruppe is: for every assault fighter that encounters the enemy, a sure kill.”8 These special units achieved some noteworthy successes, but the overall cost was high—especially when the American fighter escort caught the formation while it was still assembling.

The German technological cure that has received the greatest amount of postwar scrutiny was the development of turbojet and rocket-propelled interceptors. Because airpower and air superiority have increasingly depended upon technology since 1945, it is hardly surprising that studying the German “wonder weapons” has become something of a growth industry. Many authorities single out mismanagement of these weapons as one of the cardinal reasons for the Luftwaffe’s defeat. Certainly, the Me 262, with its top speed of 540 mph and powerful armament of four 3 cm cannons (and eventually racks of air-to-air rockets), was an awesome weapon. Galland, echoed by many other writers, attributes this aircraft’s delayed debut to Hitler’s untutored meddling in air force ­matters. The führer, so the argument runs, decreed that the Me 262 enter service as a high-speed bomber; this decision ensured that it did not reach operational units in time to turn the tide.9

The idea of the Me 262 as the potentially decisive wonder weapon is one of the most enduring myths in airpower history. Hitler’s oft-quoted order forbidding the employment of this aircraft as a fighter dates from May 1944, by which time no Me 262s were in service. Because design and technical faults still plagued the aircraft, its employment in any role would have to await their resolution—as would the training of a sufficient number of pilots, many of whom found it difficult to master the temperamental interceptor. It is unlikely that the jet could have appeared in combat much earlier than it did, even without Hitler’s interference. The 262, although a deadly aircraft in the hands of the right pilot, remained essentially a prototype pressed into combat service. Throughout its short service life, the aircraft suffered from an abnormally high accident rate and scored only a minuscule number of combat victories.

German industry produced a number of less significant advanced-weapons projects in the last year of the war. Although these caused Allied intelligence some concern, none had any discernible impact upon the battle for air superiority. During the years of victory in 1939–41, German aircraft industry failed to energetically press the development of successors to the basic types with which Germany began the war. A more rational production strategy might have relieved the Luftwaffe of the dilemma of having to go into battle in 1944 with either obsolete types or unready new ones.

A sure sign of the fighters’ slumping effectiveness was the resurgence of antiaircraft (flak) forces as the main element of home air defense. German antiaircraft concentrations around key targets grew dramatically. The backbone of the force was the 8.8 cm flak 36; by 1944 improved 10.5 cm and 12.8 cm guns had appeared. Although the flak force was actually more effective than many postwar analyses would lead us to believe, the failure of the fighter defenses led to increased—and by 1945, virtually sole—reliance upon it.10 Prior to January 1944, fighters claimed the lion’s share of downed US Army Air Forces (AAF) bombers, but in June 1944 alone, flak downed 201 Eighth Air Force heavies—fighters only 80.11 Instructions to flak units stressed that they were to “free fire” at all altitudes, without regard for friendly fighters in the area.12 The prewar tenet of German airpower doctrine that gave antiaircraft guns the dominant air-defense role had been fulfilled by default.

Even though German ingenuity was able to provide the Luftwaffe with large numbers of aircraft, it offered no solution to the problem of producing sufficiently qualified pilots to fly them. The Luftwaffe in 1939 had what was probably the highest standard of aircrew training in Europe.13 As a result, German fighter pilots, seasoned by combat in Spain in 1936–39, were the best in the world by 1940. Yet, as early as the Battle of Britain, increased crew losses brought with them a decline in the length and rigor of the training program. The instructor cadres of the flying schools were constantly raided for combat pilots. By July 1944, when the general fuel crisis hit home, Luftwaffe fighter-pilot trainees were receiving fewer than 25 flying hours in operational fighter aircraft, compared with over 150 hours for American pilots.14 Quite simply, the average German fighter pilot in mid-1944 was more a liability than an asset, all too prone to crash his aircraft on the first sortie. Specialized skills such as night or bad-weather flying and long-distance navigation were lost arts in the Luftwaffe by that time. In an effort to redress the balance, the Luftwaffe command made a number of grave personnel-policy decisions. The overstretched pilot-training schools were compelled to give up additional instructors, and every able-bodied fighter pilot serving on staff duty was recalled to combat flying. Galland pillaged night-fighter units, ground-attack formations, and the Russian front for trained pilots.15 The course of the air war over the Reich placed tremendous strains on an already overtaxed organization.

In April and May 1944, the operations staff noted an alarming rise in losses of training, courier, and transport aircraft operating in previously safe havens in eastern and southern Germany.16 Allied fighter aircraft ranging at will over Reich territory curtailed the Luftwaffe’s ability to train new pilots to replace losses of the previous months. Many gun-camera films from AAF Mustangs and Thunderbolts illustrate attacks on aircraft, frequently misidentified as “Me-109s,” that are in fact Arado 96 trainers—usually with a dazed student pilot at the controls. In order to cope with this situation, the Training Branch issued new instructions emphasizing vigilance (“daydreaming leads to death”). Noncombat flights were to take place only at dawn and dusk. The Luftwaffe expanded its aircraft-warning system and devised a series of radio and visual signals. Even courier aircraft were armed. If attacked, aircraft were to take evasive action and dive quickly to ground level. If necessary, the crew was to belly-land the aircraft and take cover to avoid being strafed.17

The commencement of “aerial guerrilla warfare” by AAF escort fighters meant that not only the training facilities, but also the whole of the Luftwaffe’s supporting infrastructure was at risk. American escort fighters, at first individually but later as a concerted policy, began strafing airfields and ground installations on their homeward flights.18 The Luftwaffe airfield commands adopted a number of passive measures, including constructing revetments, increasing the use of optical camouflage and smoke screens, and burying vital communications and electrical cables that served command posts and radar installations.19 Deep slit trenches appeared on airfields, with fuel and ammunition stored in tunnels. Posting of additional lookouts and a reorganization of the aircraft-reporting service provided crucial early warning.20 In the final month of the war, some units operated off stretches of the autobahn, sheltering their aircraft beneath the overpasses.

The single most effective countermeasure the Luftwaffe took was the equipping of airfields with additional antiaircraft protection. Luftwaffe operational directives pointed out that the concentrated firing of every available weapon—even machine guns and cannons removed from parked aircraft—could turn the airfield into a veritable “flak trap” for low-flying aircraft. The Luftwaffe operations staff noted with satisfaction the depositions of captured AAF pilots who spoke of the dangers of strafing.21 Indeed, during 1944 the AAF lost 1,293 fighters in the European theater of operations to enemy fighters, while losing 1,611 to flak—mostly in low-level actions.22 During the last five months of the war, German flak kills of AAF fighters exceeded those made by Luftwaffe fighters by a ratio of nearly four to one.

One final remedy for the air-superiority dilemma deserves mention: the employment of volunteer pilots on suicide missions. The popular literature is filled with Wagnerian references to 11th-hour attempts to emulate Japanese kamikaze tactics. Although the reality is somewhat less dramatic (in only a very few instances did such attacks take place), they remain of interest: such expedients rarely occur on an organized basis in interstate warfare, but nonstate actors such as terrorist groups have not shrunk from employing them.

The desperate military situation in 1944–45 partially accounts for the contemplation of these extraordinary efforts. As historian Omer Bartov has noted in his study of combat motivation on the Eastern Front, the military reverses of the latter years of the war, coupled with intensified Nazi indoctrination, generated a new level of fanaticism among German soldiers.23 Official Luftwaffe publications, including military-science journals and even operational directives, which had been largely devoid of overt political content up to 1944, began referring to the struggle in ideological terms. Directives maintained that only “the National Socialist world-view” could provide the necessary “internal strength” to vanquish the enemy.24 The primary sources for such “spiritual weapons” were the National Socialist Leadership Corps, which populated Luftwaffe and army units with “political officers” (akin to Red Army commissars) and the Military Science Branch of the Luftwaffe General Staff. Although the latter agency produced much valuable operational analysis and traditional historical studies of recent campaigns, by 1944 it was more concerned with inculcating the Luftwaffe officer corps with proper National Socialist attitudes.25 In this ideologically charged climate, the most extreme measures for redressing Allied air superiority took shape.

Luftwaffe programs along these lines fell into two broad categories. The first consisted of extremely high-risk (but theoretically survivable) missions against enemy air and ground targets. Sturmgruppe tactics fall into this category, since even ramming attacks did not prevent pilots from bailing out. Even more desperate was the proposal to quickly train Hitler Youth boys on gliders and send them immediately into combat in the Heinkel 162 “people’s fighter”—an aerial manifestation of the Volkssturm, the “people’s militia,” with which Germany hoped to create a Nazi “levee en masse.”26 Only the end of the war spared teenagers from flying the unreliable and dangerous aircraft in combat.

The second (and much rarer) category was so-called total-commitment missions, billed explicitly as suicide operations. With the air battles over the Reich seen as the greatest threat to German national survival, a number of proposals surfaced in late 1944 for using volunteer pilots for suicide attacks against American bomber formations or other lucrative targets. Korten ordered the formation of the Leonidas Squadron, which would operate aging bombers, attack gliders, and manned flying bombs in this manner. The unit ultimately disbanded after extensive training and political indoctrination.27 Yet, proposals and programs for ramming attacks against bomber formations continued throughout the war, culminating in a desperate mass ramming attack by the hastily formed Schulungslehrgang Elbe unit on 7 April 1945. One hundred twenty Bf-109s engaged an AAF formation, destroying at most 13 bombers at a cost of 53 German fighters. Many of the poorly trained pilots never even engaged the AAF formation.28

Despite the expenditure of blood and trea­sure, the Luftwaffe was never able to regain air superiority over the Reich. Despite signs of an 11th-hour technological “knockout blow,” the Luftwaffe of 1944–45 was an ineffective force, incapable of controlling the tempo of operations or even of causing the AAF more than occasional inconvenience. Most of its pilots from June 1944 onwards were more a hazard to themselves than to their enemies, and its overstretched flying units operated obsolete, poorly constructed aircraft. During the final year of the war in Europe, German day fighters destroyed 703 AAF heavy bombers; from June 1943 to May 1944, a much smaller force had destroyed 1,579.29 All of the energetic measures put into place by the Luftwaffe command to combat the daylight bombing offensive had failed.

Coping with Allied Air Superiority:
The Combat Fronts

Despite the fearful losses sustained by its fighter units in the early months of 1944, the Luftwaffe command believed that it could mount a successful aerial response to the coming Allied invasion of Western Europe: “Defense against this landing attempt is decisive for the outcome of the war.”30 The Luftwaffe developed a complex scheme for reinforcing the invasion sector once the Allies launched Operation Overlord. Upon receipt of the code phrase Drohende Gefahr West (Imminent Danger West), squadrons from the Reich defense force were to fly to previously identified airfields in northern France. As many fighter aircraft as possible were to be equipped with bomb racks so that they could participate directly in the ground battle.

The Luftwaffe took note of the experience gained during the months preceding the invasion in preparing for battle. Units in France in early 1944 reported increasing enemy fighter and fighter-bomber attacks—augmented by medium- and heavy-bomber strikes—against airfields, transportation centers, rail communications, and radar and signals installations.31 The ground organization learned sophisticated techniques of camouflage, concealment, dispersal, and mobility as means of reducing losses of materiel and personnel to air attack. Drawing on its experiences on German territory, the Luftwaffe deployed mobile flak batteries, especially the quadruple 2 cm antiaircraft gun. This useful weapon, often mounted on a trailer, truck, half-track, or even a tank chassis, provided dense and highly mobile fire support for important targets, including airfields, bridges, and trains.32 For protection of ground units, the Germans concentrated their flak batteries in the front and rear of the columns, with weapons at the ready. German commanders designed quick and responsive aircraft-alert procedures, and when an enemy aircraft was sighted, the column would stop, and the antiaircraft vehicles would deploy to the sides of the road, providing massed antiaircraft fire against low-flying Allied “Jabos.”

The effect of Allied air superiority was far worse than even the most pessimistic Luftwaffe planners had envisioned. A Luftwaffe officer reported that enemy air activity rendered all daytime convoy traffic impossible, with the exception of fully armored units.33 Landline communication throughout the invasion zone was disrupted from D-day onward, due to both air attack and the activities of the French resistance. The Germans responded by making increased use of radio communications although, dependent as they were on the Enigma cipher machine, such measures made German intentions all the more transparent to Allied intelligence. Allied air superiority rendered the orderly transfer of Luftwaffe units into the theater an extremely difficult proposition.

The Luftwaffe’s immediate response to the landings was “barely perceptible.”34 Indeed, the German air effort during the first 24 hours added up to only 319 sorties, thus dashing the initial hope of defeating the invasion during the first crucial hours.35 Even so, the movement of Reich defense-fighter units had some success, with 200 aircraft arriving during the first 36 hours. By D-day plus seven, over 1,000 German aircraft directly opposed the landing.36 As well as fending for themselves, they had to provide escort for the lumbering trimotor transports that hauled ground personnel and spare parts.37 Real troubles for these aircraft began after their arrival since Allied air attacks had already damaged many of their airfields. The German fighter force was drawn into a losing battle to retain its operational ready-rates in the face of intense enemy air activity.

German commanders quickly realized that their methods for contesting Allied air superiority were not equal to the tasks facing them in Normandy. The ground organization had to deal with conditions far worse than even those in the Reich territory. As a result, the Luftwaffe High Command emphasized that “the flying forces and the ground organization are a single weapon” and sought to instill “warlike deportment” even among the second-line personnel who ran the airfields.38 The Germans greatly strengthened their existing air-raid warning service since Allied fighter-bomber attacks often took place with little or no warning. Camouflage and dispersal almost became art forms, with aircraft uncovered immediately before a sortie and whisked under cover quickly after the propeller stopped turning. Antiaircraft forces came under an airfield-defense commander, responsible for training, implementing new defense measures, and actually conducting operations if the base came under attack. Flak commanders took advantage of the fact that Allied fighter-bombers pounced on everything that moved on the Norman roads by creating ingenious “low-flying-aircraft booby traps.” They deployed mobile canvas dummies equipped with glass panels to simulate glare from vehicle windshields. When fighter-bombers dove to the attack, massed antiaircraft artillery (AAA) guns, usually camouflaged as shrubbery, opened fire.39

Early in the summer invasion, the Germans experimented with attempts to fly aircraft away from threatened airfields and disperse them to emergency strips. These “evacuation flights” soon ceased. For one thing, they tended to consume scarce stocks of aviation gasoline; for another, the airspace over Normandy proved far more dangerous than the ground. By early August 1944, the Luftwaffe had to withdraw its fighter force from the forward airfields since, as one commander recalled, his fighters were “pinned to the ground” by Allied aircraft.40 The new bases—located to the southwest of Paris—though marginally less vulnerable to direct attack by Allied aircraft, compelled the Luftwaffe to fly greater distances, thus using precious fuel and decreasing loiter times. The hope of using fighters as “swing-role” ground-attack aircraft proved vain: bomb racks were quickly discarded as the fighters massed over selected German units to provide a modicum of air cover. They also attempted to shoot down Allied spotting aircraft, which registered the fire of conventional and naval artillery against the hard-pressed German ground forces.

Clearly, the fighter force could not make an appreciable impact, and the ground-attack arm found itself in an even more precarious position.41 Bomb-laden Fw 190s were even less capable than their fighter counterparts of penetrating Allied fighter screens.42 The Luftwaffe restricted its ground-attack missions to dawn and dusk—or bad weather. The Luftwaffe general staff concluded that “ground attack aircraft . . . no longer afforded any decisive support to the land forces, and the heavy losses incurred rose ultimately to a level out of all proportion to the successes achieved.”43

The Luftwaffe at least had few illusions that its bomber force, once its primary striking arm, would have a significant role to play in the daylight battles in Normandy.44 Driven from even the night skies over western Europe, the Luftwaffe’s offensive force depended increasingly on pilotless weapons—the Fieseler Fi 103 (V-1) “buzz bombs.” As a substitute for conventional bombing capability, the V-1 had a number of shortcomings, especially its lack of precision. Yet, the robot bombardment, which began on 13 June 1944, tied down large numbers of Allied fighter aircraft and antiaircraft batteries that might have otherwise gone to Normandy. The Luftwaffe staff drew special attention to this collateral benefit in several of its tactical memoranda.45 Later in the summer invasion, the army’s A-4 (V-2) ballistic missile entered the fray. Although long touted by the Army Ordnance Rocket Program as a potential substitute for strategic bombing,46 the V-2 featured even less accuracy than the V-1 and (since no defense was possible) did not cause any diversion of Allied fighter or antiaircraft forces.

Only in the area of reconnaissance support did Luftwaffe countermeasures produce any significant improvement. The Luftwaffe’s inability to conduct even the most basic aerial reconnaissance rendered German forces virtually blind, a situation that went a long way towards ensuring the success of the Allies’ preinvasion deception operation (Fortitude),47 as well as granting Allied formations fighting in Normandy an unprecedented level of operational freedom.48 Although Allied air superiority seemed to condemn the Luftwaffe reconnaissance force to the same irrelevance as most of its combat units, in this case radical new technology did bring about a noticeable improvement. Although the Me 262 jet-­propelled interceptor did not appreciably alter the balance in the struggle for air superiority over Germany, its less celebrated counterpart—the Arado Ar 234 jet bomber/reconnaissance plane—dramatically improved the fortunes of the reconnaissance arm. In late July and early August 1944, two prototypes of the Ar 234 arrived at the invasion coast.49 The Ar 234 was unarmed, carried two high-resolution panoramic cameras, and relied on its tremendous speed and altitude performance to escape interception.50

During a single flight on 2 August, an Ar 234 pilot flying the one operational aircraft “achieved what had been beyond the entire Luftwaffe reconnaissance force in the West for the previous eight weeks: he had photo­graphed almost the entire Allied lodgment area in Normandy.”51 In fact, for the remainder of the war, reconnaissance units equipped with Ar 234s could operate virtually unmolested in the west, in Italy, and even over the British Isles. No longer did the German military possess the capacity to take effective action based upon the improved flow of intelligence information. Nevertheless, the operational career of the Ar 234 indicates the possibilities conferred upon even a hopelessly outclassed air force by single items of new technology.

Small successes aside, Luftwaffe countermeasures to Allied air superiority in Normandy did not appreciably prolong the struggle. Air support for German counteroffensives such as the Mortain attack in August was lacking, and the Luftwaffe ground organization was caught up in the general rout that followed in France. Wags in Germany remarked that the “WL” license-plate prefix on Luftwaffe vehicles in fact stood for “we’re leaving!”52 Luftwaffe tactical support for ground operations during the rest of the campaign remained spotty and ineffectual. Even the rare mass attacks by the Luftwaffe fighter force, as occurred in Operation Bodenplatte—the surprise attack on Allied air bases on New Year’s Day 1945—were hardly worth the losses sustained.

The Luftwaffe’s loss of air superiority on the Russian front, although neither as complete nor as dramatic as that in the west, still posed considerable problems. Although the Luftwaffe could concentrate its forces and wrest local air superiority from the Red Air Force, even into the final year of the war, it still had to contend with the fact that it could muster only very limited or nonexistent air opposition over large sectors of the front. In these regions, the Germans resorted to many of the same camouflage, concealment, and antiaircraft techniques in place in the west, but a number of countermeasures were unique to the eastern theater. One of the most interesting and widely used of these “low-tech solutions” to the air-superiority problem was the use of aircraft in a night-harassing role. Since the early days of the eastern campaign, even when the Germans enjoyed general air superiority, frontline army units were vexed by the appearance of obsolete Soviet biplanes, operating at night and frequently flown by female pilots (the so-called Night Witches). Although the material effect of these attacks was minuscule, nightly fragmentation-bomb attacks eroded troop morale, caused sleep deprivation, occasionally destroyed supply depots, and inflicted casualties.

German air commanders drew inspiration from these developments. In the Luftwaffe’s rear areas one found an assortment of obsolete training and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as many captured types. These aircraft had little role in major air operations, but—given the size of the theater and the dispersal of the Luftwaffe’s fighter and bomber wings—most commanders adhered to the philosophy that “any unused aircraft is helping the enemy.”53 The Luftwaffe made extensive use of these antiquated aircraft, grouping them into night ground-attack units. Virtually undetectable by radar or other means, the aircraft attacked Soviet supply depots, partisan encampments, enemy airfields, and other vulnerable targets with light fragmentation bombs and machine-gun fire.54 That these crude aircraft were able to operate so effectively should not be surprising; even 60 years later, under certain circumstances, light aircraft can penetrate even sophisticated air-defense systems. By fall 1944, over 500 such aircraft were operating, most of them in Russia; however, Allies also encountered night ground-attack units equipped with more modern aircraft types on the Italian and Western Fronts. As with many such improvisations throughout German military history, this cheap expedient came from the grass roots. Not until early 1944 did official published doctrine for the use of this weapon appear, and the bulk of developmental and experimental work with the concept occurred at the unit level. The fixation of the Luftwaffe Operations Staff on regaining conventional air superiority probably prevented more extensive reliance on such low-tech work-arounds.


By destroying the Luftwaffe and gaining air superiority over the whole of the battle area, airpower made its single greatest contribution to Allied victory in the Second World War. The German air force responded to this threat with resourcefulness and determination. Many of these measures brought transitory success; others had no detectable impact upon the course of events. One may assess their individual effectiveness on a number of levels. In creating a homeland-defense organization in the face of many demanding commitments on three widely separated combat fronts, the Luftwaffe High Command actually did a creditable job; in fact, by late 1943 it had come close to rendering the AAF’s deep-penetration operations too costly to continue. The German aircraft industry certainly rose to the task of providing greatly increased numbers of fighter aircraft—so much so that the Luftwaffe to the end did not suffer from a shortage of airframes. Even under punishing bombing attacks, the armaments overlords of Nazi Germany accomplished a “production miracle.” The success of these measures underscores the amount of resilience present in a modern state, even under the most adverse circumstances.

In spite of impressive technological developments such as the Me 262 interceptor, German high-tech solutions to the air-superiority problem were largely failures. As compelling as the vision of new technology countering Allied numerical superiority may have been, the late-war German developments could not justify the exaggerated hopes placed in them. It is a fact that Luftwaffe airmen and ground personnel won their few defensive successes towards war’s end with conventional or even obsolescent weapons.

What lessons does the Luftwaffe’s struggle to regain air superiority suggest? Clearly, many aspects render the experience, from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, only of historical interest. The pace of combat operations in the Second World War was rather leisurely and incremental. The Allied air offensive took years to unfold, only in the final year of the war doing real damage to the German economy. Even after the Normandy landings, the “broad front” strategy of the Western Allies enabled German forces—despite the drubbing they received in France—to reconstitute and not only defeat the Arnhem operation in September 1944, but also launch a major offensive in the Ardennes. Future conflicts are unlikely to afford an adversary such breathing space, during which the Germans implemented reforms in organization and aircraft production. Nor can a future adversary count on having time to ready new technology for even limited combat action. Furthermore, German countermeasures were designed to inflict decisive defeat upon the air forces of their enemies. As vain as that hope turned out to be, it is most unlikely that an adversary in the foreseeable future would even attempt to engage the US Air Force in such a battle for air superiority.

Despite the apparent gulf between the Luftwaffe experience and any future scenario, this historical case study offers relevant lessons. One of the more striking conclusions concerns the unwillingness of modern air forces to make sweeping changes in their operational doctrine. To suggest that the Luftwaffe’s fixation on offensive operations was the sole—or even primary—cause of its defeat is to oversimplify the situation, but its adherence to cherished beliefs regarding the proper employment of airpower certainly delayed and hampered its response to the loss of air superiority. The costs of maintaining an offensive capability proved enormous, and for the Luftwaffe this was largely a self-inflicted wound.

Yet, to a certain extent, the Luftwaffe freed itself from the shackles of prewar doctrine, and its resulting measures hold the greatest interest to current airpower practitioners. Although the passive performance of the Iraqi air force in 1991 and 2003 in the face of coalition air dominance is reassuring, the Luftwaffe’s experience—as well as the performance of the Argentine air arm during the Falklands war in 1982—suggests that well-trained air forces will continue to operate even in the face of overwhelming odds. Moreover, most of the significant, if transitory, German defensive successes resulted from clever and determined employment of conventional aircraft types, despite the postwar fixation on “wonder weapons.” Ironically, the most relevant lesson from the Luftwaffe experience may be the use of obsolete, stealthy biplanes in a night-harassing role rather than the belated introduction of the world’s fastest fighter. Recent US combat experience around the globe suggests many possibilities offered by the employment of less sophisticated weapons.

Reliance upon ground-based defenses also offers a great number of lessons. By mid-1944 the flak arm could claim responsibility for most of the Allied aircraft destroyed by German forces. Although the massing of heavy AAA tubes around important targets may seem a cost-ineffective way of doing business, the protection of tactical targets with massed small-caliber weapons was a different story. Since Allied aircraft immediately pounced upon every moving vehicle, it became a simple matter to lure them into well-concealed flak traps. Even humbler measures such as camouflage, concealment, smoke screens, shelter construction, and evacuations should not escape notice. Their cumulative effect enormously complicated the task of the Allied air planners. As Milch summed up, “If the last war taught us how to dig in, this war has taught us camouflage.”55 Inexpensive and requiring little training and preparation, such methods quickly lend themselves to the repertoire of any nation that faces air dominance by an enemy. Moreover, concealment and mobility may prove an effective counter to precision-guided munitions, since these weapons often contain only a small warhead and depend on accuracy for their effectiveness. A future adversary would do well to study the German example.

In failing to halt the Allies, even the cleverest German countermeasures acquired an aura of total futility. The increased casualties inflicted by some of the measures were unlikely to divert the Allies from their stated goal of unconditional surrender. Yet, in a different political and social context, the capability of prolonging a conflict or driving up the casualty bill may be enough to force a major power to rethink its investment. As fruitless as the German measures were in a total war between nation-states, the ability to inflict unexpected casualties on the US Air Force, its coalition partners, or friendly populations might pay a future adversary disproportionate dividends.


1. For details of this plan, see Luftwaffenführungsstab Ia, “Kurze Studie: Kampf gegen die russischen Rüstungsindustrie,” 11 September 1943, Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv (BA/MA) RL 2 II/52. See also Richard Muller, The German Air War in Russia (Baltimore: Nautical and Aviation Publishing Co., 1992), chap. 5.

2. R. J. Overy, Goering: The “Iron Man” (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 190.

3. Air Ministry, The Rise and Fall of the German Air Force, 1933–1945 (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1948), 307.

4. Luftwaffenführungsstab Ia/Flieg. Nr. 9592/44 g.Kdos. Chefs. (T), “Studie über die Flugzeuglage der Kampfverbände,” 5 May 1944, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm T321/10/4746765. See also “Suggestions by the German Air Force Operations Staff for the Regaining of German Air Superiority,” 19 May 1944, Air Historical Branch translation, United States Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Maxwell AFB, Ala., file no. 512.621 VII/48, 2.

5. Adolf Galland, The First and the Last: The German Fighter Force in World War II, trans. Mervyn Savill (Mesa, Ariz.: Champlin Museum Press, 1986), 316.

6. Alfred Price, The Last Year of the Luftwaffe: May 1944 to May 1945 (Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1991), 111.

7. Ibid., 52.

8. Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, Lw. Führungsstab Nr. 2300/44 geh. (Ia/Ausb.), “Taktische Bemerkungen des Oberkommandos der Luftwaffe Nr. 6/44,” 25 August 1944, BA/MA RH 11 II/76, 14.

9. See Manfred Boehme, JG7: The World’s First Jet Fighter Unit, 1944/1945, trans. David Johnston (Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1992), 180–89, for a comprehensive review of the controversy surrounding the Me 262.

10. The most significant work on the antiaircraft forces is Edward B. Westermann, Flak: German Anti-Aircraft Defenses, 1914–1945 (Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 2001).

11. Richard G. Davis, Carl A. Spaatz and the Air War in Europe (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1993), 439.

12. Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, Lw. Führungsstab Nr. 1920/44, 15 July 1944, “Taktische Bemerkungen des Oberkommandos der Luftwaffe Nr. 5/44,” 15 July 1944, BA/MA RL 2 II/125, 17.

13. Air Ministry, Rise and Fall, 28.

14. Williamson Murray, Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe, 1933–1945 (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1983), 314.

15. “Notes on Discussions with Reichsmarschall Göring, Held on May 15–16, 1944, on the Subject of Fighters and Fighter Personnel,” Air Ministry, Air Historical Branch translation, AFHRA, file no. 512.621 VII/71, 1–2.

16. Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, Lw. Führungsstab Nr. 1640/44 geh. (Ia/Ausb.), 26 June 1944, “Taktischer Einzelhinweis Nr. 19, Sicherung des Flugbetriebes gegen feindliche Jagdangriffe,” BA/MA RL 2 II/127, 4.

17. Ibid., 3.

18. Stephen L. McFarland and Wesley Phillips Newton, To Command the Sky: The Battle for Air Superiority over Germany, 1942–1944 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 229–31.

19. Der Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe, Führungsstab Ia/Ausb. Nr. 570/44, “Taktische Bemerkungen des Ob.d.L. Nr. 2/44,” 1 March 1944, BA/MA RH 11 III/76, 9.

20. Ibid., 4.

21. Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, Lw. Führungsstab Nr. 1411/44 geh. (Ia/Ausb.), “Taktische Bemerkungen des Oberkommandos der Luftwaffe Nr. 4/44,” 1 June 1944, BA/MA RH 11 III/76, 11–12.

22. Davis, appendix 23.

23. Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941–45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare (Oxford: Macmillan, 1985).

24. “Taktische Bemerkungen . . . 6/44,” 3.

25. Generalstab der Luftwaffe, 8. Abteilung, Beurteilung des Krieges Nr. 11, 3 April 1944, NARA T971/21/380.

26. On the rationale behind the Volkssturm, see David K. Yelton, Hitler’s Volkssturm: The Nazi Militia and the Fall of Germany, 1944–1945 (Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 2002).

27. Günther W. Gellermann, Moskau ruft Heeresgruppe Mitte (Koblenz: Bernard & Graefe, 1988), 42–60.

28. Adrian Weir, The Last Flight of the Luftwaffe: The Fate of Schulungslehrgang Elbe, 7 April 1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1997), 168–71.

29. Davis, appendix 23.

30. Der Reichsmarschall der Großdeutschen Reiches und Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe Nr. 8947/43, Betr: “Drohende Gefahr West,” 6 December 1943, NARA T321/10/4746474.

31. “Taktische Bemerkungen . . . 4/44,” 13.

32. Ibid., 15.

33. For a fresh look at the issue, see Ian Gooderson, Air Power at the Battlefront: Allied Close Air Support in Europe, 1943–45 (London: Frank Cass, 1998), chap. 5. 

34. Air Ministry, Rise and Fall, 329.

35. Generalstab 8. Abteilung, “The Normandy Invasion, 1944,” 8 August 1944, Air Ministry translation, AFHRA, file no. 512.621 VII/61, 1.

36. Air Ministry, Rise and Fall, 330.

37. “Some Aspects of the German Fighter Effort during the Initial Stages of the Invasion of Northwest Europe: A Survey Dated 18 November 1944 by Oberst Martin Mettig, Chief of Staff of Jagdkorps II, 25 March–25 June 1944,” Air Historical Branch translation, AFHRA, file no. 512.621 VII/19, 3.

38. “Taktische Bemerkungen . . . 6/44,” 4.

39. “Instructions for the Operation and Command of Battle of the Antiaircraft Artillery in Air Defense,” 10 September 1944, USAFE Posthostilities Investigation, German Air Defenses, AFHRA, file no. 519.601A-14, vol. 14, pt. C, bk. 25, p. 4.

40. “Some Aspects of the German Fighter Effort,” 2.

41. Panzergruppe West Abt. Ia/Fliegerverbindungsoffizier Nr. 1600/44 geheim, “Merkblatt zur Luftwaffen-Unterstützung (Westverhältnisse),” 22 March 1944, NARA T321/51/4798880.

42. “The Normandy Invasion, 1944,” 3.

43. Generalstab 8. Abteilung, “Development of the German Ground Attack Arm and Principles Governing Its Operations Up to the End of 1944,” 1 December 1944, Air Ministry translation, AFHRA, file no. 512.621 VII/14, 15.

44. James S. Corum, “The Luftwaffe’s Normandy Campaign” (unpublished paper, October 1995), 7–9.

45. “Taktische Bemerkungen . . . 5/44,” 8.

46. Michael J. Neufeld, The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemunde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era (New York: Free Press, 1995), 125.

47. Michael Howard, British Intelligence in the Second World War: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations, vol. 5, Strategic Deception (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 103–34.

48. “The Normandy Invasion, 1944,” 3.

49. Price, 63–65.

50. For technical details on this aircraft, see Werkschrift 2234 B-2/Fl, Ar 234B-2 Bedienungsvorschrift/Fl (mit Rüstanweisung), July 1944, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, curatorial files, file “Arado Ar 234.”

51. Price, 64.

52. David Irving, Göring: A Biography (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1989), 437.

53. “Army Co-Operation in the GAF: The Duties of Reconnaissance Units,” 29 July 1942, AFHRA, file no. 512.625-3, 2.

54. Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, Führungsstab Ia/Ausb. Nr. 1300/44 geheim, “Merkblatt: Die Nachtschlachtflieger-Verbände,” 20 May 1944, BA/MA RH 11 III/76.

55. David Irving, The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe: The Life of Field Marshal Erhard Milch (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), 105.


Dr. Richard R. Muller (BA, Franklin and Marshall College; MA, PhD, Ohio State University) is a professor of military history at Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Specializing in the history of World War II and the development of airpower, he teaches core courses in airpower history, international security studies, the nature of war, leadership and command, and the elective course The Second World War and the Operational Art. Dr. Muller’s publications include The German Air War in Russia (1992) and The Luftwaffe’s Way of War: German Air Force Doctrine, 1911–1945 (with James S. Corum, 1998).


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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