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Why the Luftwaffe Failed in World War II

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.



The seeds of the German Air Force can be traced to the speech of Adolf Hitler to the Reichstag on 17th May 1933. Adolf Hitler denounced the Treaty of Versailles because, in part, it had imposed such large reparations payments that Germany's economy collapsed. The western world led by Great Britain just watched as Hitler began to rearm Germany.

Hitler removed all the limitations which were imposed by the Treaty of Versailles and officially launched the Luftwaffe in 1935. Earlier he had taken a fateful decision to make Goering the chief of the Luftwaffe. Hermann Wilhelm Goering was a Nazi political and military leader and one of the most powerful figures in the Nazi party. He was a veteran World War 1 fighter ace and was the recipient of the Pour le Merite. He was the last commander of the Jagdgeschwader 1 the Fighter wing which was earlier led by Manfred von Richthofen.

The fact that Goering had been given command of the same squadron which had been commanded by Manfred von Richthofen is proof that he was a daredevil fighter pilot. Goring had 22 air victories under his belt during the war. This was one of the reasons that he was appointed the chief of the Luftwaffe. Hitler conferred on him the title of Reich Marshall. Hitler did not know the use of airpower and he began to rely on Goering on all the inputs regarding the Luftwaffe.

Goring's thinking was clouded by his experience of the first world war where the air battles were of a rudimentary nature. He had not read the works of Bruce Mitchell and Guilio Douhet and had little or no knowledge of the concept of strategic bombing and warfare. He never saw Air Power as a route to victory and only saw it as an appendage to an army operation in a tactical battle. He was thus of the view that the only role of the Air Force was to help the army in a tactical battle by dive-bombing. This was to have fatal consequences for the Luftwaffe in the years to come.

The Stuka Dive bomber

The Stuka Dive bomber

JU 52 on display at USAF museum

JU 52 on display at USAF museum

Initial Years and Success

Adolf Hitler and Herman Goering gave carte blanche to German aircraft manufacturers for combat aircraft.. By 1939, the Luftwaffe was arguably the best air force in the world. It followed a limited concept and a combined-arms strategy. German military planners honed the concept of the use of the air force as a support to the blitzkrieg tactics against forces like the Polish and the French. The structure of the Luftwaffe very much reflected the whims of its commander, Herman Goering. He built up a force of over three million men including air defense, and paratrooper units from 1939 to 1945 but overall his force never lived up to what was expected of it.

In 1939 and 1940 the Luftwaffe had some of the best airplanes in its inventory. Its Bf 109 fighter was better than most RAF planes and only the Spitfire matched it The medium bombers Do 17, Ju 88 and He 111 were also good though not exceptional. It also had over 500 transport planes. This made it the largest transport fleet in the world. This gave support to the paratrooper regiment the “Fallschirmjäger”. At that time the initial aim of the Luftwaffe was to defend Germany and support the German army units in their advance it was a young Air Force and most of the pilots had combat experience as they had fought in the Spanish civil war(1936-39).
The Luftwaffe gave an excellent account in the campaign in Poland and France. It perfected the concept of the dive bomber and became part of the blitzkrieg tactics that overran France in 40 days. They were also successful in the campaign in Russia.

The flaws first came to the fore in the Battle of Britain, wherein the Royal Air Force more than held its own against the bombing campaign of the German Air Force. Failure to win the battle of Britain resulted in operation "Sea Lion" being postponed. This was the first setback for the Luftwaffe and they began to lose some of their sheens

FW200. Biggest plane of the Luftwaffe was a puny size to B-24/29

FW200. Biggest plane of the Luftwaffe was a puny size to B-24/29

ME262 Jet fighter

ME262 Jet fighter

The Flaws and Blunders

Lack of Naval Air Arm

Hermann Goering's insistence on having complete control of all aircraft resulted in there being no Naval air arm. This had a deleterious effect in the battle of Britain where the Navy never played a part and could not use any aircraft to attack the channel ports or carry out any surveillance in the Atlantic.

The Battle of Britain should have not been fought over British airfields but over British ports and the Atlantic. Depleting Great Britain of vital resources by effectively disrupting incoming merchant shipping may have had a different result. At least it would not have resulted in massive losses of aircraft and aircrew who were precious to replace.
The German Navy without an air arm could not support its submarine fleet. It had developed an air-dropped magnetic mine that was hard to detect. In case it had the means and an air arm it could have deployed these mines in vast numbers and blockaded the post of the UK. This did not happen as it had no air arm.

An example will suffice. The FW200 was a puny aircraft but about 30 of these machines carried out operation between August 1940 and February 1941 and destroyed 85 merchant ships with a total of 363 000 tons. One can imagine the result if 300 such planes had been handed to the Navy.

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Failure of Logistics and support

We must understand the German air doctrine catered for short and quick campaigns. This is the reason the aircraft industry never went manufactured long-range planes. This was a policy decision.

The general staff of the air force was conditioned by Goering's thought process that the aim of aircraft is only to be part of a ground attack. Generally, the short range German fighter bombers moved with the advancing army and used captured airfield. Air force engineers could generally make airfield operational in 24 hours. Yet, the crucial point was that the aircraft and troops had to be supplied by transport planes. Once the transport fleet began to suffer losses due to Allied attacks there was no choice to send the aircraft back to Germany for repairs. This was done by trucks and the result was the operational fleet began to diminish day by day. This was because there were no repair facilities, which were only available in Germany resulting in some aircraft being AOG for months

The campaign in Russia suffered as it was neither a short nor quick campaign. The result of lack of repair facilities resulted in late 1941 only about 30% of the Luftwaffe forwards air units were operational. Hundreds of planes had been sent by truck to Germany for repairs.

The effect of this was deleterious as the serviceability rate of the Luftwaffe was just about 50% compared to 80-85% of the RAF and USAF. In the final years of the war. the Allies captured Luftwaffe airfields full of unserviceable and damaged planes. If the Germans had manufactured long-range and bigger planes the result would have been different.

Aircraft production

Another major problem was the thought process regarding aircraft design and the role of aircraft. Goering could not visualize the concept of a long range air bombing campaign. The German aircraft industry did turn out successful short-range planes like He111, Do17, Ju87, and the famous Bf109. The problem was that Göering and his think tank never got out of the concept of the dive bomber. It was OK till 1942 but after that, the lack of a strategic long-range plane spelled the death knell of the Luftwaffe. In addition at that time in 1942-43, there was no time for the design bureau to manufacture any long-range aircraft as the need was for fighters to counter the allied strategic offensive.

Goering replaced General Wimmer with his friend Colonel General Ernst Udet as chief of aircraft production. Udet was a world War I ace, but he also subscribed to Goering's theory of the dive bomber. He committed suicide in 1941. After 1943, the Luftwaffe was hard-pressed and Goering had tied the entire force in knots and now it was just a case of survival.


At the start of the war, the German Air Force had a sufficient number of trained pilots. As the war progressed particularly after the battle of Britain where valuable aircrew was lost the training programs had to be curtailed and this led to untrained and not fully operational men being thrown into combat. Thus, even an ambitious plan like "Òperatoipn Stosser" at the end of the war failed because of inexperienced aircrew.

Most of the German airfields were under heavy attack with the result that the training academy just never had the planes or the space to train the pilots who were actually trained. They were just given a few hours of flying and given their wings. There was also a shortage of fuel and many of the aircraft were just sitting on the ground with the pilots carrying out dry runs as they could not take off. For this state of affairs, Reich Marshal Goering and the German general staff has to shoulder complete and full responsibility.


The Luftwaffe is the weak link in the German war machine. Germany had the technology to manufacture the long-range bomber or fighter but short-sighted men who were at the helm of affairs sabotaged the theories of air-warfare as enunciated by Guilio Douhet and for this, the German armed forces paid a terrible price.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 20, 2020:

Flourish, so nice that you spared time and commented

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 20, 2020:

Your analysis was excellent. In so many ways, Goering undermined Germany's cause strategically with his misjudgments. Hindsight is 20/20, but what a poor decision to place him in this role. Let us be appreciative for that!

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 19, 2020:

Tom, you have given a hell of a lot of information. Readers can relish it.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 19, 2020:

Thanks Tom, basic flaw in Luftwaffe is the stress on dive bomber.When ME262 was flown in 1941 Udet asked " can it dive? " . This fixation cost Luftwaffe heavily. The v2 and other weaponry came too late. The war had been lost by then.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 19, 2020:

Tom, Goering had suffered a groin injury and to get relief he was given morphine. He became an addict after that.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 19, 2020:

Tom, thanks, the western allies gave birth to Luftwaffe in 1955 for fear of USSR.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 19, 2020:

Pamela, thanks for an appreciative comment

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 19, 2020:

You did explain the shortcomings of the Luftwaffe very clearly in the article. as always, I learned a few more facts about WWII, MG.

tom on November 19, 2020:

general wimmer died in 1973 luftwaffe reborn in 1955

tom on November 19, 2020:

goring morphine addict ,incompetent

tom on November 19, 2020:

documentary wings of luftwaffe ,goring failed as air chief,generals milch,wolfram von ricthofen, stumpfegger,karl koller,kesselring good,best pilots hartmann and rudel,shortage of pilots ,planes and fuel,short range me 109 and me 110,ju 52 outclassed by allied transports,russian factories beyond ural out of reac,germans planned aerika and ural bombers,short range ballistic missile v2

tom on November 19, 2020:

luft waffe lost 1736 planes in battle of britain and thousands of air crew,luftwaffe was a tactical air force,no army and navy aviation in germany,navy had few helicopters focke agelis and ship mounted float planes,allies had heavier long range bombers and transports, lt gen weaver cas 1934 developed junkers and dornier bomber ,but he died in 1934,goring destroyed bomber protypes,thousands of aircraft destroyed in russia and large number of crew killed ,pow,few aces erich hartmann 352 kills,me 109 shortrange,fw 200 had aerodynamic problems,me 262 and ar 234 came too late,germans failed to destroy british radar,later germany had good radars freya and wurzburg,chaffs foiled german radars,jeschonnek suicide,molders killed,experten name for german aces,good german night fighters with ai radar,if germans drooped more mines in channel outcome different,german stealth bomber horeten brothers experimental,experimental air to air miisiles and sams, he 178 first jet flew in1939,not produced ,me 262 available in 1941 not produced,german aircraft production fell ,1942 ussr had 15000planes,dambuster raids and thousand plane raids hit hard ,oil refineries destroyed,rumania captured by ussr,luftwaffe ended up as infantry divisons,book german airforce an anatomy of faliure by matthew cooper,max hastings bomber coomand ,movie battle of britain

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 19, 2020:

Liz, sweet of making a point

Liz Westwood from UK on November 19, 2020:

This article gives an interesting and thoughtful perspective on the shortcomings of the Luftwaffe. The Battle of Britain was a key make or break time for the UK.

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