Ju-87 Stuka – Terror weapon of Blitzkrieg
As we head towards the summer months of 2015, our nation is preparing to pay tribute to the men and women who served through possibly the most significant period in our recent history – The Battle of Britain. Outnumbered in both manpower and available aircraft by five to one, it is difficult to imagine just how precarious Britain’s position was at this time and had our service personnel not prevailed, against all the odds, the world would have been a very different place today. Aerodrome is planning a series of features in support of this significant anniversary, and we begin this week by taking a slightly unusual viewpoint. This week, we are going to look at perhaps the most recognised exponent of Blitzkrieg – the feared Junkers Ju-87 Stuka.
As a teenager, I was absolutely in awe of the Battle of Britain pilots of the Royal Air Force. In those days, the surviving airmen from the battle would be aged around 60 years old, as the average age of a Battle of Britain fighter pilot in 1940 was 20. Reading about the exploits of these extraordinary people and being able to see and hear interviews where they recounted their experiences, or even better than this, actually getting to meet them, was absolutely the stuff of dreams. The current anniversary will see Britain mark the 75 years since the battle and unfortunately, most of the men and women who either took part, or witnessed the events of the late summer of 1940, have long since passed away and their memoirs are consigned to the history books. The current commemorations could very well be the final time that the nation marks the sacrifices of the Battle of Britain airmen, before a new generation of interested people are charged with preserving their memory and this important period in Britain’s history.
The summer of 1940 saw Britain bracing itself for the monumental struggle to come. They had seen what had happened in Continental Europe, with mighty France being the latest country to fall to the military prowess of Germany – now, only the English Channel lay between Britain and a similar fate. These were very frightening times for the British people – they were next in line for Blitzkrieg, which must have caused more than a few sleepless nights! Germany’s ‘lightning war’ had just overwhelmed Europe’s great armies and it seemed to the world as if the Wehrmacht was totally invincible at this time and no nation would be able to stand up to them.
The German people have a reputation for being methodical and highly organised and these attributes were fully employed in developing the Blitzkrieg concept. Their ‘Lightning War’ was a highly organised, fully integrated battle plan, which was designed to disorganise, disorientate and demoralise the forces of any opposing enemy. If executed correctly, the tactics would quickly overwhelm opposing forces and propagate a sentiment of futility and inevitability amongst the enemy, resulting in an early cessation of hostilities. This is the common understanding of the concept, but it is actually even more calculated than this. In truth, Germany was not actually fully equipped for war at the end of 1939 and Blitzkrieg was an extremely clever masking of this fact. Using brilliant military strategies and the flawless selection of strategic targets, the Wehrmacht purposely avoided getting bogged down in a war of attrition and instead unleashed massive, concentrated firepower where it would be most impactful. Importantly, if executed correctly, it would shorten any military campaign, thus preserving the lives of their soldiers and protecting valuable military assets and infrastructure – which were still in quite short supply!
Perhaps the most feared exponent of the Blitzkrieg phenomenon was the dreaded Junkers Ju-87 Stuka, which could quite easily be described as the first modern ‘terror weapon’. Designed specifically to instil fear and confusion into both enemy troops and the population in general, the Stuka was a highly effective, precision dive-bomber, which was used as a flying propaganda machine for the Wehrmacht. A terrifying wailing siren was intentionally bolted to the Stuka’s airframe, to herald the fact that you were in the way of the Wehrmacht and as a consequence, you were now in grave danger. The Stuka was Blitzkrieg!
One of the most instantly recognisable aircraft from the Second World War, the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka was a two man dive-bomber and ground attack aircraft, which first flew in 1935. With a two man crew, up to four machine guns and the ability to carry 1800kg of bombs, the Stuka was rather a large aeroplane to be powered by a single V-12 Junkers Jumo engine and indeed the Stuka actually weighed over four tonnes. As a result of this, the aircraft was rather slow and suffered from poor manoeuvrability and very much relied on either close fighter support, or almost complete air superiority, for its effective use. When it was operated in favourable conditions it was a devastatingly effective weapon, being both accurate and extremely reliable. During the first few months of WWII, the Stuka was unparalleled as a strategic strike weapon and was the spearhead of Blitzkrieg – the Battle of Britain proved to be something of a rude awakening for the all-conquering Stuka crews.
The feared Stuka – a unique design in terror
The most significant identifying features of the Ju-87 Stuka were the inverted gull wing arrangement and fixed undercarriage spats, which whilst being more than adequate when the aircraft first flew in 1935, had made the Stuka almost obsolete by the beginning of WWII. It did, however, possess some impressive design features, which were essential in turning this rather cumbersome aircraft into one of the most feared weapons of the 20th century.
The principle designer of the Ju-87 was absolutely convinced that his new dive-bomber should possess one attribute above all other – functionality. He wanted the aircraft to be simple and robust, able to carry out its intended task with ruthless efficiency and to remain serviceable as often as possible. He turned away from technical innovation, preferring very strong design and a host of segmented, interchangeable parts, which would make maintaining the aircraft in the field much simpler. A fixed undercarriage arrangement also made the aircraft much simpler to maintain and allowed it to be operated from all but the most uneven of airfields, also allowing the Stuka to absorb significant landing abuse from squadron pilots, who could be a little heavy-handed in the heat of battle. The distinctive, inverted gull wing design also dictated that the Stuka had excellent short field performance, providing superb lift characteristics and giving significant clearance for the large propeller. It also provided the pilot with excellent visibility whilst the aircraft was on the ground. Once in the air, these beneficial design features became much more detrimental to the operation of the aircraft and dictated that the Stuka needed either constant fighter protection, or almost total air superiority for effective use – this would become the Achilles heel of the Ju-87.
One of the most interesting features of the Ju-87 design was the inclusion of a slipstream driven dive siren, which was attached to the undercarriage leg spats of the aircraft. This might seem on the surface to be something of a rather insignificant design detail, but it actually illustrates the mind set of the German military, as they geared up for possible war in the late 1930s. Known as the ‘Trumpet of Jericho’, this seemingly innocuous addition was intended to strike fear into the hearts of both opposing forces and the population of non-German Europe – it was basically a flying propaganda exercise in fear. It was to become the most recognisable trait of the Stuka and become synonymous with the early years of WWII and the Blitzkrieg tactics used by the all conquering Wehrmacht.
Great War ace Ernst Udet and his support for the dive-bomber concept
One of the main driving forces behind the Luftwaffe’s adoption of the dive-bomber concept was WWI flying ace Ernst Udet. Udet was the second highest scoring air ace of the First World War, with 62 aerial victories and was a highly influential figure in the development of the inter-war Luftwaffe. Following a flight in a US manufactured Curtiss Hawk II, he became fascinated by the ability to use an aeroplane to deliver highly accurate bomb loads on strategic targets. He was not only influential in ensuring that the Stuka was a critical part of future Luftwaffe planning, but he also insisted that other medium bomber aircraft have the ability to dive bomb, above other attributes, which is one of the reasons why the Luftwaffe did not have an effective heavy bomber at their disposal during WWII, which proved to be a significant limiting factor in WWII.
Udet was a highly capable pilot, who was able to use his considerable skills to illustrate the benefits of a dive-bombing attack. Despite this, even he had difficulty in perfectly executing the manoeuvre and almost failed to pull out of a steep dive, when demonstrating the concept for Luftwaffe commanders. Although the benefits were clear, would the ordinary pilot have the skills necessary to carry out such a violent manoeuvre? Commanders were sceptical, but allowed development of the Stuka to continue. The answer was, as always, to be found in the clever application of technology – an automatic dive recovery system! The Stuka was unusual in that its bombing dive could actually be almost vertical, which massively increased the accuracy of the attack, but conversely placed huge strain on the crew. The g-forces placed on the human body during these severe manoeuvres were considerable and could quite easily result in the crew blacking out during the bombing attack dive – without an automatic recovery system, many Stuka crews would have simply flown into the ground and perished.
Surviving a Stuka attack dive
It is difficult for us to try and imagine what it would have been like to throw one of these large aeroplanes into a near vertical bombing dive and hopefully hit your intended target, whilst surviving the experience in one piece. Add to this the fact that you would be in formation with other aircraft from your unit and could quite possibly be under enemy fire and it sounds like a nightmare scenario – it is not easy for us to take this all in, but let’s try and have a go.
With their mission target in sight, a Stuka crew would be bracing themselves for something of a wild ride. Even though they were very highly trained and would probably have made similar attacks many times before, they were still putting their lives in the hands of a four tonne machine and some clever technological gadgetry. Once the Stuka rolled into its attack dive, there was little else that they could do and their lives were very much in the hands of their aircraft.
The attack dive of the Stuka was so severe, that quite a number of automatic features had to be incorporated into the manoeuvre. At an altitude of approximately 15,000 ft., the pilot would locate his target through a bombsight window, which was located in the floor of the cockpit. His engine and propeller had automatic controls, to optimise the aircraft when in a dive, and an automatic trimmer would make the aircraft tail heavy, as the pilot initiated the dive. He would move the dive lever to the rear, which would limit the ‘kick’ of the control column and quickly begin a defined sequence of actions, which if done correctly, would see his ordnance detonate on his intended target. He quickly set the trim tabs, reduced the throttle and closed the engine coolant flaps. The aircraft would automatically become tail heavy and pitch over in a 180-degree roll, placing the aircraft in a steep nose-down dive – at the same time, dive brakes were automatically deployed to reduce the speed of the dive to a constant 360 mph. This was the point of no return – the attack sequence had begun.
As the strain on the body of the pilot increased, he still had much work to do. The angle of his dive could be checked by looking at a series of red lines on the side of his cockpit window and lining them up against the horizon – 60, 75, or 80 degree angle of attack. He would then look forward through the fixed gun sight, to line up his attack, before releasing his heavy main bomb - the optimum release height was indicated to the pilot by a light flicking on in his altimeter. The bomb was carried on a large U-shaped cradle, which would swing down on release, throwing the bomb safely clear of the large propeller and on to the target. As all this action was taking place, the pilot would have certainly had at least a couple of reassuring glances at the red pins protruding up from the top of the wings, which informed him that the automatic dive recovery system was engaged, should he fall victim to a g-induced black-out. All this would have been taking place in just a matter of a few, frantic seconds!
Once the bombs had left the aircraft, it automatically began its dive recovery sequence. This was the point at which the maximum g loading on the crew would be felt and forces in excess of six times the force of gravity were regularly experienced, which could result in vision impairment at the very least. Once recovered and the nose of the aircraft was above the horizon, the dive brakes were automatically retracted, the throttle was opened and the propeller was set to climb – the pilot then quickly had to manually open the coolant flaps to prevent the engine from overheating and then resume flying the aircraft. This was the point that the Stuka was at its most vulnerable, flying at low level, at relatively slow speed and in hostile territory. His rear gunner may still be blacked out and indeed the pilot might still be feeling a little light headed, but every anti-aircraft gun, rifle and enemy fighter in the vicinity would be taking pot-shots at them, from every angle – something tells me that a Stuka crew must have possessed a particularly strong constitution!
How to combat Germany’s terror weapon
We have already seen how the combat introduction of the Stuka was a stunning success for the Wehrmacht and helped to ensure the success of the Blitzkrieg strategy, but it has to be argued that this was achieved under a specific set of operational circumstances. There is no doubting that the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka was a highly effective, robust and reliable dive-bomber, which instilled fear into the hearts of Germany’s enemies, but it did need to have the support of Messerschmitt fighters. As Germany attacked Poland and then turned to the Low Countries and France, the strategic effectiveness of the Stuka continued to be hugely important to the Wehrmacht and it remained at the forefront of their planning – as long as the Luftwaffe retained air superiority, the Stuka would continue to be a devastatingly effective weapon.
The Battle of Britain
As German forces arrived at the Channel coast, they remained confident that Britain would not be in a position to withstand a concerted attack, but before an attempt to invade Britain could take place, the Luftwaffe would have to take control of the skies. They were supremely confident of their impending success, but for the first time, they would be coming up against an adversary that was extremely well organised, equipped with some of the best aircraft in the world and were quite literally prepared to fight for their lives. This was clearly going to be a monumental struggle for both nations.
The early skirmishes of the kanalkampf proved to be very rich pickings for Stuka crews of the Luftwaffe. As both sides were reluctant to commit large numbers of aircraft to combat over the channel, Ju-87’s were using their accurate dive-bombing capabilities to take quite a toll on British shipping. These raids soon extended to British channel ports where successes continued apace, but the Stuka could now be studied closely by Britain’s home defences, who were intent on shooting them down in large numbers. Once both sides committed aircraft to combat in earnest, the Stuka came up against excellent enemy fighters, available in large numbers and flying over their home bases, where multiple sorties could be flown in the same day. As the Stuka was a significant threat to British forces, due to the precision nature of its bombing attack, they made a rather juicy target for RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes. Unfortunately, they were usually protected by large numbers of Messerschmitt fighters, which kept the RAF fighters fully occupied – if Stukas were caught without fighter protection, they were incapable of protecting themselves and easily fell to the guns of the British fighters. Their predictable dive pull out also helped anti-aircraft crews develop effective tactics in targeting the Stukas whilst at their most vulnerable.
Whenever the RAF managed to catch a flight of Stukas on their own, without the protection of fighter cover, they managed to shoot them down in large numbers. It was obviously more effective to shoot down a Stuka before it had the opportunity to deliver its bomb load, but as long as they were brought down in large numbers, this was clearly all that mattered. Where it was almost impossible to shoot down a Stuka was when it had already begun its attack dive – whilst positioning to bomb and whilst pulling out of the attack, the Stuka was incredibly vulnerable to fighter attack and its weakness was fully exploited. At the height of the Battle of Britain, Stuka crews were being lost at an alarming rate for Luftwaffe commanders. In the ten days between 10th and 18th August, over 20% of the entire Stuka strength had been lost over Britain and they were temporarily withdrawn from the battle. Although they would be re-introduced to the fray at a later date, the Battle of Britain served to destroy the myth of the much-vaunted Stuka and highlight the clear deficiencies in its design.
Following their chastening experience during the Battle of Britain, Stuka crews went on to serve with distinction in Eastern Europe, Italy and North Africa, but always with the support of fighter protection in contested airspace. It enjoyed something of a renaissance as a Kanonenvogel tank buster against Soviet armour during 1943, where the strengths of the Stuka design made it ideally suited to this work. Without doubt, when used in the right circumstances, the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka was a devastatingly effective weapon, but as with many aircraft which took part in WWII, was soon overtaken by superior aviation technology. It does remain, however, as one of the most distinctive aircraft of WWII and continues to fascinate enthusiasts and aviation historians to this day.
The Corgi Stuka – one of the jewels in the Aviation Archive crown
I think that I can say with some degree of certainty that most die-cast aviation collectors will have at least one Corgi Stuka in their collection. Just as the Bf 109 Emil is the smallest single engine fighter tooling in the range, the Stuka is possibly the largest and you certainly get a lot of die-cast model for your money. When you combine the undoubted popularity of the Corgi Stuka with a Battle of Britain livery, then you have an unbeatable combination and the latest release announcement is squarely in this territory. AA32517 is due for a June 2015 release and presents the collector with a classic Luftwaffe Battle of Britain Stuka scheme. As this model should be available during the 75th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Britain, it will certainly be amongst the most successful models of recent years and will be a welcome addition to our collections. Indeed, we have no fewer than FOUR Battle of Britain related models to look forward to in the coming few months, two Royal Air Force and two Luftwaffe subjects, which will all be heavily collected by the aviation enthusiast. We will look at the other releases in a future edition of Aerodrome, but for our current edition, we are sticking firmly with the distinctive Ju-87 Stuka.
With sixteen previous Corgi Stuka releases in the Aviation Archive range, there are some fantastic schemes for the die-cast collector to get excited about. From aircraft taking part in the Battle of Britain, to a beautifully presented North African machine, featuring a snake design down the entire length of the fuselage, it is no wonder that the Stuka has become a firm favourite with the collector, since it was first introduced back in 2002. I have raided my own collection to feature one of the classic Stuka releases in the range, which again marks a machine which saw action during the Battle of Britain. AA32501 was the first release from the Corgi Stuka tooling and in line with the thinking at that time, was an unlimited release – this means that several thousand models will have been produced. The model proved to be incredibly popular with the collector and quickly sold out at most suppliers, as the combination of new model tooling and Battle of Britain subject matter proved to be just too tempting for many. It presents a Stuka from 3./StG 2 ‘Immelmann’, operating from the airfield at St. Malo, during the Battle of Britain and is a classic representation of the feared Stuka dive-bomber.
Interestingly, on this particular model, the fuselage emblem is different to the one previously carried by this Stuka unit. Although it still carries the yellow disc, the unit's Scottie dog emblem has been replaced with the coat of arms of the city of Breslau, which was the home base of the unit when it was formed in 1937. For many years, this model proved to be incredibly difficult to find if you did not already have one in your collection. One or two examples do seem to be available at the moment, but I would expect this summer’s Battle of Britain commemorations will ensure they don’t remain available for long. One thing that is certain, a display featuring Stuka AA32501 and the new AA32517, which is due for release this June, will be a fantastic way to mark this summer’s 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
That’s it for another week. I am really grateful for the positive feedback we are receiving regarding our Aerodrome blog and I am very much looking forward to developing the feature in the future. Thank you for reading our latest edition, which I hope will be of interest to you.