Luftwaffe Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Germany’s air force from the early 1930’s to the end of World War II.


After World War I, in which Germany had been roundly defeated by the war’s length as much as by the economic superiority of its opponents, General Hans von Seeckt, the commander of the German Army, realized that fast, mobile offensives would be necessary to avoid prolonged future wars that Germany could not win. He therefore devised the military strategy of the Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, fast-moving surprise attacks.

The Luftwaffe, designed around the Blitzkrieg concept, was initially very effective during World War II in gaining air superiority via short, independent operations all over the European continent. As the European air war drew on, however, the Luftwaffe was engaged in a contest that it could not win.

From the beginning, the Luftwaffe’s leaders saw the necessity of air superiority. Its chiefs of staff noted that air support of ground forces at the start of a war did not mitigate the damage inflicted by functional enemy air forces. From the start of any campaign, the Luftwaffe’s primary efforts were focused on the destruction of all enemy aircraft. Its bombers crushed enemy bombers on the ground, disrupting potential sorties, and its fighters hunted down any enemy aircraft able to become airborne.

The Luftwaffe carried out its activities via autonomous air fleets, known as the Luftflotten. Each Luftflotte comprised both aircraft and support units. Technologically, the aircraft were suited for offensive counterair missions (OCAMs) that destroyed enemy aircraft on the ground. German Stuka bombers had the range and payload to reach and damage the air bases that held the most enemy aircraft. Twin-engine fighters escorted bombers, warding off enemy fighters until the OCAM was completed. Single-engine Messerschmitt fighters fought enemy aircraft.

Luftwaffe aircraft enabled short-offensive campaigns but had little use in other types of air warfare, such as attacks on training bases in the rear and other distant sources of enemy air power. German bombers had low ranges, meager payloads, and very little defensive armament. Later failure of newer escort fighters and the short ranges of all existing escorts exacerbated the problem, restricting German air power to use in the battlefield. Germany successfully applied its OCAM doctrine during the first two years of the war. These attacks destroyed numerous aircraft and caused the remainder to operate inefficiently. However, these victories cost the Luftwaffe huge aircraft losses. For example, in the two-month battle for France, 36 percent of all German aircraft were either damaged or lost. Such losses were initially acceptable, because they were suffered in the defeat of several Allied air forces. However, over the course of prolonged warfare, this high loss rate was damaging to the German cause, especially after German offensive campaigns failed against both England and the Soviet Union.

In 1940, the Luftwaffe was unable to defeat the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the Battle of Britain. After unsuccessful battles over the English Channel, a three-week German campaign against RAF bases made some progress but was changed to unsuccessful day attacks and then to nocturnal terror attacks. German inability to win was due to RAF defense strategy and absence of a ground war to distract the RAF.

Similarly, the Germans had initial success in their air war against Russia by employing the OCAM doctrine, but the German ground forces ultimately proved unsuccessful. The unanticipated Siberian air power, the untenable Russian winter weather, and the vastness of the eastern front all led to the campaign’s failure and the Luftwaffe’s weakening. As General von Seeckt had noted, opponents pushed to defense are broken by destruction of aircraft. German failures in Britain and Russia forced the Luftwaffe into defensive counterair battle (DCAB), as the need to win air battles over its homeland exhausted Germany’s hope of air superiority.

The prolonged defensive air war forced the Luftwaffe to adopt a defensive strategy in its organization, equipment, and deployment. Overwhelmed by Allied aircraft production, German strategy consisted largely of annihilating Allied bombers. This strategy was impractical, given the Allied air superiority. Luftwaffe generals, however, clung to false hope that if they could decimate enough Allied bombers, they could cause the cessation of Allied air offensives. By 1944, two whole Luftflotten were used in this way. As the Allied threat grew, the German expansion and refinement of its air defense included the development of radar and automated fighter control systems, an increase in armor and armament, the use of aerial bombs and cannon on board fighter planes.

German aircraft manufacters shifted from the production of bombers to production of fighters, giving the Germans success throughout 1943. Although Allied bomber raids were not stopped entirely, they evolved into less effective, nighttime operations with huge bomber losses. However, these German victories were only temporary, because at the same time, hundreds of German planes and pilots were lost in the battles. The air war became a lost cause.

Although the Germans made other technological advances, including the use of jets and surface-to-air missiles, these came too late to be useful. Huge numbers of Allied air forces drove the Luftwaffe from the sky. Amid failing defenses, the German air force stubbornly held to its offensive practice. Its forces kept declining, however, and the last major OCAM achievements occurred as follows. In June, 1944, a night raid on Poltava, a Ukrainian city on the eastern front, destroyed many U.S. bombers caught on the ground. Operation Bodenplatte, the last major German fighter operation, was waged in Belgium, Holland, and France, in January, 1945. It used the entire German fighter force to raid Allied airfields. There, single-engine fighters and green German pilots carried out a mission in which 30 percent losses occurred. Both operations were destructive, but barely altered the numbers of Allied aircraft available in Europe.


Possibly, the Luftwaffe had always been in an untenable position, because Nazi Germany was a dictatorship ruled by its inflexible chancellor, Adolf Hitler. The German General Staff was faced with this problem as well as with the politicking, drug addiction, and incompetentency of high-ranking government officials.

An example is that of Hermann Göring. A former World War I fighter ace and the head of the Luftwaffe, he was unable to function adequately or consistently due to his drug abuse and his inability to counter Hitler’s preference for the production of bombers instead of fighters. These weaknesses in the Luftwaffe’s command led to the decrease and eventual collapse of the force’s fighting ability.

A contrasting example is that of the able Adolf Galland, a fighter ace of the Condor Legion who also participated in the German invasions of Poland and France and the Battle of Britain. In 1941, he became the commander of the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm and by 1943, had been promoted to the rank of major general. In 1943 and 1944, he ably commanded Germany’s already-failing fighter squadrons against Allied bombers. Despite Galland’s resourceful leadership of a crumbling air operation, Hitler and Göring blamed him for weakened Luftwaffe air defenses in 1944 and, soon thereafter, relieved him of his command.

Many critics blame the Luftwaffe’s failure on its leaders, based on three flaws. First is the fact that the Luftwaffe high command used training units in battles such as Poltava. This decision was seen as damaging, because continued training operations were essential to winning the war. Second is the perception that the Luftwaffe was too slow in recognizing the war’s attritional nature and implementing the defense measures needed for any chance of eventual success. Göring has been accused of overconfidence in the offensive air-war strategy and failure to see the need to prepare for failure. The third major Luftwaffe shortcoming was in its inferior equipment and inability to modernize or build heavy bombers that could compete with those of the Allies.


Much of the basis for eventual Luftwaffe failure may lie in Hitler’s long-standing preference for bombers over fighters. Under Hitler’s dictatorship, it was difficult for military leaders to work around such a prejudice. This theory may partly explain the relative obsolescence of the Luftwaffe aircraft toward the end of the war.

Although efforts were made to produce new aircraft, promising new designs apparently did not work out well. For example, the Junkers Ju-88, a twin-engine bomber planned as the successor to the Ju-87 Stuka, was not airworthy. In its production, designers increased the Ju-88’s weight to enable dive-bombing, thereby reducing its effective range and speed and rendering it ineffective against the increasingly faster aircraft being produced by the Allies.

Furthermore, the Heinkel He-117 aircraft, an attempt to produce long-range bombers, was a disaster. Its planned weight was doubled in order to make it suitable for dive-bombing. More devastating was the aircraft’s tendency to fall apart during dives and to explode in flight. Moreover, the Messerschmitt Me-210 fighter, planned to replace the Luftwaffe’s fighter workhorse, the Me-109, was a dismal failure. This aircraft and others were canceled early in production, and the Germans were never able to build a successful four-engine bomber. These failures occurred at times when Germany could not afford to squander its slim resources.

Consequently, the Luftwaffe relied on a few tried-and-true aircraft, such as the Junkers Stuka bombers and the Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters. These aircraft were, by the early 1940’s, relatively obsolete.

The Stuka dive-bomber, a low-winged, single-engine aircraft, was a very successful weapon during the first half of the war. Stukas employed dive-bombing techniques developed by the U.S. Navy, dropping bombs while diving and then moving into getaway flight mode. Special brakes slowed Stuka dives and gave pilots time to aim bombs. The bombers were armed with four 8-millimeter machine guns, two of which were operated by a rear-gunner. Late in the war, the rear-mounted guns were replaced with a heavier gun. The Stuka carried 1,100- or 550-pound bombs and had two 110-pound bombs under each wing. Although the plane was periodically modified throughout the war, its maximum speed remained 210 miles per hour. Eventually, it proved no match for faster Allied fighters.

The Me-109 fighter was used to great effect in World War II. Powered by a fuel-injected, Daimler-Benz engine, this low-winged, single-seater, monoplane had a top speed of 350 miles per hour and a ceiling of around 40,000 feet. It held two 20-millimeter cannons and two machine guns. Me-109’s were the pride and joy of the Luftwaffe, faster and much more maneuverable than most Allied fighters. However, the Me-109’s range was limited by a small fuel capacity, and by 1944, Allied fighters had outstripped it in every way.

  • Cooper, Matthew. The German Air Force, 1933-1945: An Anatomy of Failure. London: Jane’s, 1981. A book discussing the Luftwaffe’s operation and basis of failure.
  • Corum, James S. The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997. A fine text describing the Luftwaffe and the motivation of its creators.
  • Killen, John. A History of the Luftwaffe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. A solid description of the Luftwaffe written while its immediate memory lingered.
  • Pimlott, John. Luftwaffe: The Illustrated History of the German Air Force in World War II. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1998. An informative account of the history, armament, and operations of the Luftwaffe.


Fighter pilots

Messerschmitt aircraft

Royal Air Force

World War II

The Luftwaffe’s field marshall Hermann Göring (left) discusses plans with chief of staff Major General Hans Jechonnek in 1940.

(Hulton Archive)
Categories: History