Before the ground crumbled all around it, before the Allies invaded the Normandy coast, before the Soviet Red Army broke the back of the once vaunted German Wehrmacht, even before the German skies were completely filled with Allied bombers seemingly running without any hassle from German fighters, the once powerful Luftwaffe looked poised to stop the Allied push into Fortress Europe. In fact, real optimism ran through the Luftwaffe’s officer corps as new materials, men and fighting machines began to join the ranks. By the end of May 1944, the much maligned Luftwaffe possessed an impressive amount of fire power. Its ranks now was compromised of 2.8 million men and women. Its overall air assets were now at 4500 combat ready aircraft with new and more powerful platforms, such as the Messerschmitt Me 163 and Me 262 jet fighters as well as the Arado Ar 234 jet bomber; commencing to enter front line service. These aircraft types were augmented by a new force of redesigned Heinkel He 177 heavy bombers. The Luftwaffe was also in the final stages of having the Fi 103 or V-1 flying pulse bomb and the much powerful A-4 (V-2) rocket, ready for operational debut.
This infusion of materials was mainly the work of the Ministry of War Production under the tutelage of one Albert Speer. Since late 1942, German aircraft production had been taken a pounding from the constant bombing done to its infrastructure by the British Bomber Command at night and the United States Army’s Eight Air Force during daylight. Nevertheless, Speer pushed ahead. He streamlined production by removing many unproductive aircraft models, dispersing production of airframes, air systems and more importantly, engine parts; to twenty seven main production centers dispersed in the Fatherland. He also oversaw the construction of a few major underground facilities completely dedicated to the final assembly of aircraft. Most important to the Luftwaffe’s war effort was the development of aviation fuel, which had at times curtail air operations, In 1944, aviation fuel production reached an all time high in March with the production of just under 200000 tons. This figure raised the Luftwaffe’s strategic reserves to an all time high of 580000 available tons. The direct result of all of those measures was that the total output of German air industry increased by fifty percent over the past December. On the downside, by April 1944, the Luftwaffe was looked by an uneasy public with contempt at best. Its main mission role, the defense of the Fatherland, had been a colossal failure by any standard. Thus the public’s faith and respect on what was once their more proud armed service, was lost. But this paled in comparison to the Force’s main problem: the ability to maintain an experience pilot program. The attrition of the German pilot element lead to the rush of untested, and sometimes, unqualified young recruits to the front lines. This “revolving door” policy cut deep into the overall effectiveness of the German Air Force. Because of this, the Luftwaffe’s tactical reserve formations were decimated and in some instances, they were none existent. Nevertheless, by April 1944, the Luftwaffe that the Allies were facing was a more advance and better tactical and strategic force that the one they faced from early 1942 onwards.
The strength of the Luftwaffe laid on its Luftflotten or air fleets. The Luftflotten was the German AF main fighting force. Every Luftflotten formation is compromised by elements of all type of aircraft, pilots, support crew compliment and an Anti-Aircraft Batteries detachments. These formations were grouped by geographical areas. The most powerful Luftflotten force was the Luftflotte Reich. The Luftflotte Reich was based in air bases across Greater Germany area which compromised all of Germany itself, Austrian and the western sections of Czechoslovakia. This was the force that was assigned the bulk of the air defense of the Fatherland at all times. Because of this, this was the most equipped and trained formation the Luftwaffe possessed. Its commander, generaloberst Hans-Jurgen Stumpff, was the commanding officer of Luftflotte Number 5, based on Denmark and Norway, during the Battle of Britain. The Number 5 was basically a tactical reserve force, seeing limited combat action, mostly later in the conflict. Now the confident Stumpff commanded the Luftwaffe’s last line of defense against the combine might of Bomber Command and the 8th Air Force.
His force was compromised of just 555 operational day fighters, 421 night interceptors, 302 bombers and an array of various other type of aircraft for a grand total of 1,348 serviceable airframes. A woeful amount to defense such a vast space against such a powerful opponent. Beside the sheer numbers laid the fact that of 555 day fighters, available, the vast majority were outclassed Bf 109Gs, Fw 190s and Me 410s which were not competition for the new P-47s and P-51s. Luftflotte Reich was able to “post” 302 bombers on its operational lists on 21 Gruppen or squadrons. Five of those Gruppens were not operational between February and May because of their transitions to the new He 177 bomber platform. The pathfinder force consisted on one Gruppen, I/KG66, assigned to support all bomber activity. They were armed with aging Junkers Ju 188s reconnaissance planes. This unit was one of the most hardest hit Gruppens on the Luftwaffe’s list. It had suffered tremendous losses in the Battle of Britain, even to the point of being deemed a “paper force” without any real aircraft, so at the time of D-Day, they were in a re-formation mode. Gruppen III/KG 3 was converting a version of the venerable He 111 to carry the new Fi 103 pulse flying bombs. Others bombers formations were having similar transition issues. By April, the Luftflotte Reich only ground attack unit, the III.-SG 3, was being replenish with improved Fw 190s. This unit would be send to the Eastern Front where it was decimated within just two months. There were two dedicated units attached to the Luftflotte Reich. The first, the Versuchsverband Ob.d.L. was designated to conduct experiments and testing on captured Allied aircraft and systems. The other was the I.KG 200 which operated capture Allied transport planes such as the Douglas DC-3, Boeing’s B-17 and Liore et Oliver 246 seaplanes. All aircraft flown by I.KG 200 were utilized to transport German infiltration units inside Allied lines. Despite what many historians had stated, there’s no official records indicating that any of these aircraft wore any other insignia beside the Nazi logo.
The second major Luftwaffe formation was Luftflotte 3rd or the Western Air Force as its was later known. As its name suggest, Luftflotte 3rd was assigned to exclusively to the Western Front where it awaited the impending massive Allied air assault in preparations to the expected cross Channel invasion of Fortress Europe. The force was commanded by Generalfieldmarshall Hugo Sperrle who had orchestrated the Luftwaffe’s tactical attacks on French formations during the successful 1940 Blitz. At the heart of the Western AF was Fliegerkorps X, an specialized anti-shipping formation which would be crucial if the Germans were to curtail the allied invasion. The force had 539 operational aircraft at its disposal. Seventy five percent of the force consisted of Fw 200s, He 177s and Dornier Do 217s. The Do 217s were modified to carry the new Henschel 293 and Fritz X radio-guided attack missiles. The other aircraft of the X were Junkers Ju 188s armed with torpedoes. The other main force in the Western AF was Fliegerkorps IX with its complement of 137 aircraft including Ju 188s, 88s and Do 217s. The Luftflotte 3rd was based on several airfields in Belgium, Holland, western Germany and eastern France; all within range of the Atlantic Wall. As was the case with Luftflotte Reich, the 3rd were to be completely overwhelming by its assigned task. Its air defense assets were allocated on only six gruppens with an overall total of serviceable airplanes of just 115 Bf 109s and Fw 190s. Augmenting the 3rd were two Gruppens of Ju 88 long range fighters utilized for U-boat screening.
By the beginning of April, the Luftwaffe had made plans to transfer fighter Gruppens from Luftflotte Reich to northern France in an effort to assist the overwhelmed Western AF. This transfer of assets would had depleted the Reich force and had left Germany basically at the mercy of the bombers. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe counted that during the first weeks of the invasion, the majority of the allies aircraft would be employed supporting the invading troops. It is here were the lack of Luftwaffe’s resources played a pivotal role. The German Air Force knew they would not be able to stop the landings, only, if they were lucky, delayed it until the Wehrmacht’s reserve units could be rushed to the front. To do this, the Luftflotte 3rd needed more close air support fighter/bombers, but thanks to the massive rate of attrition on the Eastern Front, the 3rd only possessed two operational Gruppens with just 48 Fw 190s among them. A woeful number to steam a powerful invasion.
As sad as the state of the Luftflotte forces on the West was, their counterparts on the Eastern Front were on the verge of total collapse. In May 1944, the Luftwaffe deployed four Luftflotte forces, the 1st, 4th, 5th and 6th on a vast 1500 mile front extending from the Arctic Ocean on the north to the Black Sea on the south. The 5th had its bases located on Norway and Finland and was assigned the northern part of the front. The 1st was stationed along a moving set of bases in the Baltic coast and the ever shrinking Leningrad sector. Luftflotte 6th operated on the center of the front while the 4th covered the south portion of it. The 5th, under the command of general Josef Kammhuber had only 193 operational aircraft. It only possessed two day fighter Gruppens of Bf 109s. One Gruppen of Ju 88s and Fw 190 for close ground support plus a Gruppen of Ju 87s for night operations. There were also a Gruppen of Ju 52 floatplanes and three small Staffeln (sub-groups of 10 to 15 aircraft) of Ju 188s and 88s long distance reconnaissance platforms. The 1st was in better shape. Its commanding officer, general Kurt Pfugbeil, commanded a force of two fully equipped day fighter Gruppens, two Staffeln of night fighter/bombers and another one of He 111 bombers. This force was augmented by three additional night attack and two close air support Gruppens.
The 6th was lead by generaloberst von Greim. Although the 6th covered the most space among the Eastern Luftflotte, it only had two operational Gruppens plus two Staffeln of day fighters at its disposal. What the force lacked in fighters it made it up with its bombers. Luftflotte 6th had eleven Gruppens of He 111 bombers, three Fw 190s and Ju 87s Gruppens for ground attack missions and a single night fighter Gruppen of Ju 87s. It also possessed three Staffeln of long range reconnaissance planes plus two additional Staffeln for short-to-medium range reconnaissance operations. A sole Gruppen of Ju 52s transport planes was also at Greim’s disposal.
The last of the Eastern Front forces was the southern air fleet, Luftflotte 4. The 4th was under the command of generaloberst Desloch. Since his force sat on the area of front where the Germans expected the main axis of the Soviet offensive to come in, Desloch’s group was well equipped with ten Gruppens of ground attack planes, seven of day fighters and two more of night fighters. These formations were augmented by four Staffeln of long range reconnaissance airplanes. There were also two and a half Gruppens of transport aircraft equipped with Ju 52s and Italian Savoia Marchetti SM.82s which were manned by Italian pilots loyal to Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
On the extreme southern part of the 1500-mile front rested the last Luftflotte formation, the 2nd. Based in Italy, the 2nd was assigned the central and western Mediterranean area of air operations. Lead by generalfeldmarschall Wolfram von Richthofen, the 2nd was basically a “paper” force. In “paper” it can field four day fighter, three bomber and two close air support Gruppens. Augmented by two long range and one short range reconnaissance Staffeln. A Gruppen of transport aircraft was also “available”. In paper this force looked impressive, specially for their area of operations, by this time, the central and western parts of the Mediterranean Sea were basically off-limits to German air formations. But this was on paper alone. The reality was That because of the massive Allied air superiority on the Mediterranean and the absent of any major German operations in the area, the air assets of many of those Gruppens were re-allocated to other Luftflotte forces.
Beside the great air fleets, the Luftwaffe operated several other smaller air formations. Chief among them was Luftwaffenkommando Sudost, a force compromised of two day and one night fighter Gruppens, a Staffeln of Ju 88s plus three Staffeln of reconnaissance aircraft. There was also a depleted Staffeln of Ju 87s for close air support. But its main air asset was one Gruppen of Me 323s transport airplanes plus two Staffeln of Ju 52s seaplanes. The transport aspect of the force was at the heart of its mission profile which was the resupplying of German Army garrisons on the Greek Islands.
Overall, before the Allied invasion of Hitler’s Europe, the state of the various Luftwaffe formations was impressive. By May 1944, he Luftwaffe presented a massive air armada. A force that, in any other occasion, take out any one. But constant fighting on four continuing fronts had and would again take the bite out of this re-constituted force.
– Raul Colon
German Aircraft of the Second World War, EJ Creek and JR Smith, Putnam Books 1972
Six Months to Oblivion, Allan Ian, Shepperton 1975
Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Group 2004
The German Navy, Edward Von der Porten, Thomas Crowell Company 1969
The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany, Robin Neillands, The Overlook Press 2001