Every major-power air force since the middle of the Great War has possessed a tactical and strategic component. The British Royal Flying Corp, the predecessor of the famous Royal Air Force, developed during World War I a strategic component centered on the idea that a heavy bomber could penetrate the enemy’s air defenses and submit them to an aerial pounding that would reduce their ability to produce, supply and field their ground and naval forces. Beside Great Britain, France, Italy and Imperial Germany implemented, in one form or another; the concept of strategic bombing during the war. When the war ended in 1918, only the victorious allies were able to maintain and expand these concepts. During the inter war years, the idea of strategic bombing gained valuable allies in the UK, France and the United States. Many experiments and trials were conducted leading to efforts to develop and produce long range platforms, bombers, capable of taking the war to the enemy’s farther reaches. The situation was not similar in Germany.
Unable to field a regular air force due to the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the new Nazi regime in Germany started to improvise ways to develop a different type of air arm – an air force mainly designed to cover and support ground troops engaging in rapid maneuvers. That this newly designed air arm lacked the vital strategic component can be attributed to several reasons. Mainly that the early Nazi military doctrine of employing rapid panzer formations in open fields would require the use of much of their available air assets in a support role, is the one most attributed to this shortcoming, but there was another, less reported situation that ended up costing the Luftwaffe more than it’s doctrine. There have been many reports and papers written about the strategic shortcomings of the Luftwaffe, but seldom did these papers mention the name of Walther Wever – yet, if he would had lived, his strategic vision might have altered the course of World War II. Wever was a fierce proponent of strategic bombing. He possessed both the vision and the willpower to built a strategic air fleet out of the Luftwaffe – fortunately for the Allies he died before the war started. If not, one can just imagine what aircraft and tactics Wever could have employed in the Battle of Britain or in the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Wever was born in the eastern province of Posen – a product of a middle class environment. When he became eligible, he joined the army as an infantry officer. After completing his training, he was commissioned as second lieutenant. The rank on which he would enter the Great War with. During that terrible conflict, Wever displayed an above average intelligence, valor and superior organization skills. These traits propelled him to the rank of captain and eventually to a post in the staff of the famous German military commander, General Erich Ludendorff. There he is credited with the development of the so called “elastic defense” strategy employed very effectively by the German army all throughout the conflict. The defense called for the abandonment of forward positions during artillery bombardments, making the Allies feel more secure for their advance once the bombardment was over. A strategic troop build-up was placed near the threatened area, passionately awaiting the advancing and unsuspecting Allies’ armies. The strategy was so successful that after the war, French military historians credited it with the breaking of their army’s will to fight in The Somme and other places. Wever’s stock rose during the dull interwar years. He achieved the rank of colonel and in early 1932, was appointed Germany’s Air Command Officer. A title used to deceive the watchful Allies. The reality was that the new command given to Wever amounted to a Chief of the Air Force in the current military lexicon. At forty-six, without any flying training, Wever was now the overall commander of Germany’s air force.
Even before Adolf Hitler sealed the fate of Germany by going to war, Wever understood that the next armed conflict would be a tactical as well as a strategic one. Adhering to his vision, Wever steered the German air industry into developing what he saw as its most precious asset in the next war: a four-engined heavy bomber. The bomber Wever envisioned would have been able to carry a payload of some 3,300 pounds to a distance of at least 1,240 miles. In developing the concept for such an aircraft, Wever had only one enemy in mind: Soviet Russia. He understood what many of his peers and eventual successors failed to see. In order to take the war into the Russian industry, buried deep behind the Ural Mountains, Germany needed an aircraft able to subject those industries to a heavy bombardment that could disrupt the flow of aircraft, tanks, truck, artillery pieces and other tools of war; into the frontlines – the destruction of the enemy’s means of war production. He clearly saw that in order to defeat the air force of a country such as Russia, where the sheer amount of aircraft available to them could had overwhelmed Germany’s fighter force, they would need to destroy the industry that made those aircraft, instead of shooting them out of the skies. Here was the British Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Frederick Sykes’s strategic vision at its most basic. The objectives of the new German air force would not only be concentrated on the support of its ground and naval forces, although Wever was a passionate believer in a mixed-mission and completely independent Luftwaffe, but it would take the tools of war to the enemy’s nerve centers, the troop staging areas, rear bases, their industries and in the end, their population as a whole. This concept of total air war was first promulgated by Sykes in December 1918.
For all of his vision, strategies and directions, Wever’s views were in the minority in the German air force. The most senior Luftwaffe commanders saw little need for the development of a strategic heavy force, although they changed their minds when the British and American heavy bombers began to pound their beloved country. Following Wever’s lead, Germany’s air industry began to conceive plans for the design and production of a fleet of heavy bombers. Two proud German companies, Junkers and Dornier put forward design sketches for a heavy level bomber in late 1934. On January 3rd, 1935, Junker’s chairman, Dr. Heinrich Koppenberg; reported to Colonel Wilhelm Wimmer, head of the Luftwaffe Technical Department and fierce backer of Wever; that a preliminary design for the new bomber, designated Ju 89, had been completed. Dornier followed a couple of months later. On a clear morning in October 28th, 1936, the much anticipated Do 19 made its maiden flight. The Ju 89 followed two months later. But by this time, fate had intervened. On June 3rd, 1936, Wever was in Dresden addressing a gathering of Luftwaffe cadets when he received the news of the passing of a World War I German hero. He decided to leave the city immediately in order to attend the funeral. Wever took off on his He 70 airplane. As the plane started to climb, one wing tipped on the ground propelling the aircraft into a mad tailspin that ended with a fiery crash. Wever and his flight engineer died immediately. With his prematurely passing, his dream, that of a well balanced tactical and strategic Luftwaffe; also died. Without Wever’s vision and relentless drive to pursue, Germany fell behind its main adversaries in the development of a heavy bomber platform.
Wever’s successors were more “yes”-type officers. More eager to please the Luftwaffe’s Chief Commander Herman Goering than in establishing a balanced force. From June 1936 onwards, the main effort of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft development programs was concentrated on the design and production of aircraft capable of providing the German army with a close air support arm. Nearly all of the heavy bomber development resources were diverted to the development of dive bombers. Even the much anticipated and needed He 177 was not ordered into full-scale production until the four-engined plane was refitted to operate as a dive bombing platform. It’s safe to say that with the death of General Wever, the dream of developing a multi-faceted air force, an air force capable of providing Germany with the same kind of capability as the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Forces possessed, died also. There were many aspects of discrepancy between the Allies combat air philosophy and that of Germany’s air arm, but what separates them most profoundly was the strategic aspect of their respective philosophies. The Allies truly believed in the importance of strategic bombing to their overall war effort, while the Germans were more focused on the tactical aspect. Had Wever lived, maybe the Luftwaffe’s philosophy and the product of this philosophy would have been more balanced.
- Raul Colon
wikipedia: Walther Wever (general)