Operation Merkur: The Invasion of Crete,
the Air Component

The battle for the Island of Crete was a short, but violent affair. Its air component was, and its still is, one of the lesser known aspects of this campaign. In November 1940, and after months of internal discussion, the first British Royal Army detachments began to arrive on the Island. The first installation to be set up by the newly arrived British was the Marine Naval Base Defense Organization (MNBDO) based at Suda Bay in the northern west part of the Island. The newly formed defense organization was manned by an all British detachment utilizing rudimentary anti-aircraft systems. At that early time, no permanent Royal Air Force (RAF) squadron was assigned to the Suda Bay base, or Island for that matter. Nut this did meant that the British were air deprived on Crete. Stationed at Suda was the Fleet Air Arm No. 805 squadron with its complement of Fairey Fulmars, Gloster Sea Gladiators and Brewster F2A Buffaloes.

As the overall situation in Europe began to deteriorate for the Allies, the RAF Air Staff concluded that an efficient air defense of Crete was out of the force’s realm due to the more pressing need of securing the British Home Island from the ever more daring German Luftwaffe’s raids. This does not meant that the RAF abandoned the air defense of the Island, but no effort to bolster the over stretched RAF Middle East Command were made during the last part of 1940 or the spring of 1941. With an ever increasing operational scope area, the Command was original responsible for air operations in and around Libya, Syria, Iraq, Abyssinia, Somaliland, and the Western Desert, then in the winter 1940, the RAF expanded the Command’s converge area to include the whole of Greece, the island of Malta and parts of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea; the Command became the most active air unit of the RAF outside the one defending the Homeland. Although bigger in scope and responsibility, the RAF was slow to augment it with top of the line aircraft and supporting systems. Much of the Command’s air inventory centered on a few obsolete Hurricane Mk Is and a short supply of P-40Bs, both of which were inferior in all aspects to the new Spitfire Mk VB being held exclusively for the defense of Great Britain.

By the end of April 1941, the No. 805 began air operations attacking German and Italian airfields on Rhodes and Scarpanto as well strafing German shipping vessels going in and out of the Aegean Sea. Early that month, the RAF Fighter and Bomber Commands transferred several units of Blenheim Mk Ifs, Hurricanes and Gladiators for air operations in Crete. Because of the infusion of more fighter-type of aircraft, the Luftwaffe was forced to shift its axis of attack, from bombing Allied, more specifically, British shipping; they now will concentrate its main effort in the destruction of all British airfields on the Island. From that moment on, all of the Luftwaffe’s assets in the Greece Theater of operations were diverted to Crete. Swarms of He 111H3s, Do 17Z-2s, Bf 109Es and Bf 110Cs began to pound allied air and naval installations all along the Island since the beginning of May. By the middle of the month, with the allied air and ground situation in Crete deteriorating by the day and with a new phase in the air war over Continental Europe drawing an ever bigger piece of the RAF’s assets, the British Army High Command decided to pull the plug on all offensive air operations in the area. The decision was followed by a total withdraw of all airplanes from Suda and the smaller airfields.

Meanwhile, the Germans, who began to plan the invasion on April 1941, had accelerated their pace. Although there were some opposition the very concept of invasion. In fact, several Germans middle commanders expressed reservations about redirecting precious resources to an endeavor they considered secondary in importance. Nevertheless, the plans were drawn up. As it was devised, 22,750 elite German airborne troops would be employed in the assault. Most of them would be parachuted along the northern coast of the Island. Heraklion, Rethimnon and Maleme were the areas selected by the Germans. Following the parachute troops was the air transport element of the force which consisted of Junkers Ju 52/3m4s. The whole undertaken would have the distinction of being the largest airborne operation the world has ever seen, that was until June 6th 1944 and the invasion of Occupy France.

Operations began in mid May 1941 with a massive German bombardment of British, Commonwealth and Greek forces entrenched all along the road from Kastelli to Sitia. Junkers Ju 87B-2s from the I/Stukageschwader No. 2, commanded by Oberstleutnant Oskar Dinort, joined Heinkel He 111H-3s from Kampfgeschwader 26 and Junkers Ju 88As from III/Kampfgeschwader 30 in the saturation bombing of allied position that lasted until May 20th, the day the airborne assault commenced. In the wee hours of the morning, DFS 230s gliders originally assigned to land its troops at Maleme and Canea missed their landing zones and instead landed near the fortified 5th New Zealand Brigade stationed on Hill 107. A similar fate was encounter by parachutes from the III/FJSTR who landed atop a British held post at the rear of the town of Heraklion. Almost 400 German airborne troops were killed in action around the by now, deserted town in just seven hours. Ferocious opposition was also encountered by the invaders at Galatas and the northern side of Canea. It was a fight the Germans did not envisioned when the planned the attack. But a sudden and unexpected event changed the invader’s fortunes the next day. During the night of the 20th, the NX 5th Brigade, which so stubbornly held back repeated German attempt to take the strategic hill, decided to abandon their advantageous position during the late hours of the night paving the way for a consolidation of German forces and resources around the Hill.

With a secure foothold on the Island, the Fallschrimjager elements on the ground were boosted by troops from Generalleutnant Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision. With such an overwhelming force converging on the British overstretch defensive line; the order was giving on the 25th to retreat towards the small village of Sfakia located in the south part of Crete. After five days of brutal, delaying fighting, most of the British and New Zealand forces were evacuated from Sfakia. When the fighting ended on the 31st, the Germans were in full control of the Island, except for a few spots around Pirgos and Leapetra where Greek defenders fought a valiant but unsuccessful guerrilla-type of war.

As the fighting was raging on the Island, the British Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was use to support, at first, the defender’s positions and later on, to evacuate the war weary troops. During the retreating operation, the HMS Formidable was the only air asset employed by the RN. Her full complement of 18 Fulmar Mk Is were employ in covering the evacuation beach head. This lack of support from the Navy, and the relative small and obsolete RAF’s contribution to the campaign only augmented the state of despair felt through the Allied ranks during the invasion. Because, if was true that the Germans airborne troops were having a hard time securing the Island, the Luftwaffe was having a field day against the RAF and Navy. Overall, Luftwaffe aircraft shotdown 39 RAF planes while at the same time, the force’s bombers wreaked havoc with the vaunted Royal Navy at Crete. The British navy came away from the battle with three of its top armed cruisers and six destroyers sunk. A battleship, an aircraft carrier, six cruisers and eight escort destroyers were badly damaged. On the ground, near 15,000 British and Commonwealth troops were either capture or killed. Meanwhile, the German loss 1,990 and had 2,320 troops missing during the operation. On the air, the Luftwaffe’s field day came with a price. The brave British pilots, flying obsolete fighters and medium range bombers took out almost 200 (198) German planes, most of them Ju 52/3ms.

In the end, Operation Merkur, although successful in the mater that the Germans were able to consolidate their southern flank, took longer than expected thus pushing the starting day for the most grandiose military operation of all time, Operation Barbarossa, for a full moth. A month that would cost the Wehrmacht dearly in the winter ahead.

– Raul Colon

Air Power: The men, machines and ideas that revolutionized war, from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books, 2004
The illustrated Guide to Naval Aircraft, Francis Crosby, Hermes House, 2008
The Second World War, Sir John Hammerton, Trident Press International, 2000

The Luftflotten Before D-Day 1944

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

RADAR: The German Side of the Story

Radio detection and ranging (radar) is viewed by most as one of the quintessential technological accomplishments of the Twentieth Century. Radio detection finding or RAD, as it was known in Great Britain, was perhaps the single biggest piece of technology, aside the atom bomb, that came out of the ashes of World War II. The employment of RAD made the defense of Britain more plausible to plan for. The Royal Air Force (RAF) enjoyed a major technological advantage during the Battle of Britain because most of the times they knew where was headed the bulk of the Luftwaffe force. It could be argue that without radar, the fierce battle that ranged over the skies above the British country side would had been lost. Radar also warned the Americans at Pearl Harbor of a massive airborne formation heading towards them. Unfortunately for the United States forces at Hawaii, misinterpretation of the radar data lead to the surprise of the attack. Radar was used extensively by the Americans in their Pacific and Atlantic campaigns. Today, many facts about the development of radar is widely known. What is seldom mentioned by historians and researchers alike is the fact that in the beginning, it was Nazi Germany, not Britain, which was leading the way in the field of radio detection.

On a the clear morning of September 26th 1935, a group of high German naval officers, including the overall commander of the German Fleet, Admiral Erich Raeder and various Nazi party leaders; visited the new Funkmessgerat station (radar finder device) at Pelzerhaken near Neustadt in the Bay of Lubeck. At top of the forty feet tower, the visitors, for the first time, were able to see in action Germany’s new technological marvel: the radar. The rudimentary equipment, which included sets of transmitters, receivers, turntables, monochrome screens and two electrical generators; was designed to located a ship up to a distance of five nautical miles outside the field of view, quiet an accomplishment for the day. As it was setup, the transmitter would send out a radio pulse signal to all directions which would proceed to bounce off the searched platform and return to the receiver. Then the receiver would send a signal to the monochrome display projecting a one dimensional image revealing the platform’s present. To the stunned VIP audience, the demonstration was an eye opener. But to those who knew radio technology it was but just one step towards a bigger goal. Almost a year early, American inventor Robert Morris Page had demonstrated the feasibility of a radar system with his December 1934 experiment near Washington DC. Three months later, Robert Watson Watts, known to many as the father of the radar; made his first active experiment. From there, radar was well on its way. The first German active radar experiment took place on March 1935. A rudimentary set of transmitters and receivers were able to pickup a faint signal bouncing from a German warship one mile away. Similar efforts were also taking place in France, Italy, the USSR and, on a somewhat more limited scope, in Japan.

The system demonstrated at Pelzerhaken on September 26th was the direct result of the research done by the brilliant German physicist, Rudolf Kuhnold. In the mid 1930s Kuhnold was the owner of a small new corporation named Gesellschaft fur Elektroakustische and Mechanische Apparate (GEMA) which specialized in the development of sophisticated transmitters and receivers mechanisms. GEMA had close ties with Germany’s Naval Research Institute. From the mid 1935 onward, GEMA, although not officially linked to Germany’s military industrial complex, was an integrated part of the Fatherland’s war effort. Before the war ended, the small 1935 company would had grown in size and scope. By early 1945, GEMA employed more than 6,000 skill workers, a far cry from the days of a seven staff operation. But although GEMA began the radar revolution, it had by no means a monopoly on the new technology. Within three years, Siemens, Telefunken and Lorenz would push their own radar system programs.

Beside the enormous potential the Pelzerhaken experiment showed, it also seeded a deep distrust between the Navy and the most powerful Luftwaffe. Because the experiment was first showed to the top brass of the navy, many of them resentful of the treatment they had been receiving from the Luftwaffe leadership, wanted it to keep the news of the system in the dark.

No radar story could be develop without mentioned the extraordinary efforts of one man, British physicist Robert Watson Watt. At forty two, Watson Watt, the head of Britain’s National Physicist Laboratory’s Radio Research Station, was summoned in 1934 by the Air Ministry to explore the possibility of developing a transmitting, damaging radiation platform to be employed against possible enemy air incursions, mainly from Germany. He began his research in earnest focusing on utilizing radio signals for early detection of incoming objects. On February 26th 1935, Watson Watt and his trusted fiend and colleague, AP Rowe, turned on the world’s first true radar mechanism at the British Broadcasting Company’s short wave radio station in Daventry, Northamptonshire, almost seven months ahead of the Germans. Watson Watt’s system operated at a 164′ wavelength spectrum. It employed a basic receiver set that gather signals generated from a high frequency alternating current (the number of cycles per second is known as frequency). Radio emissions or waves are electromagnetic radiation similar to light waves, but they have a longer wavelength range. When utilizing radio signals for detection of objects, a beam is emitted, the waves scatter all over the “target” to later return as an echo which the receiver picks up at the point of origin. Radio wavelength are, by definition, large, and those utilized by radio transmitters are measured in feet or meters. A smaller wavelength is require in order to make a much accurate profile of the targeting object. This was the first problem encounter by Watson Watt and the others radar pioneers of the times. The generation of wavelengths less than a feet, also known as microwaves, required massive amounts of raw energy in order to travel long distances. Any mechanism capable of generating such a force was bound to be big. Then the process would be complicated. The mechanism needed to be reduced to its smallish form in order to be fitted on an aircraft’s bay. On Watson’s experiment at Daventry, a heavy bomber flew over the BBC’s radio towers and on the second pass, radar operators saw “beats” on their monochrome displays screens for just over two minutes. They were able to track the bomber flying pattern for up to eight miles.

Although early successes on both sides of the Channel were promising, they by no means were error-free. Mistakes in developing the new technology was a common trend on both, Germany and England. In Germany, the most costly error made was ceasing research into the development of an magnetron, which German physicists tested and later on, discarded for obscure reasons. A fact attributed to the rigid Nazi political system. In February 1953, while giving a lecture on the birth of radar, Watson Watts stated that “I believe that British and American success in radar depended fundamentally on the informed academic freedom which was accorded, in peacetime radio research, to my colleagues and myself…I believe the most valuable lesson from radar history is that of the intellectual organizational environment from, and in, which it grew”. Renowned German historian, Harry von Kroge disagree “The aspect of the German effort that seems to have differed from the Allied was the degree to which corporate rivalry affected the course events. The numerous agreements that had to be made concerning licensing and post-war rights I order to smooth production will certainly seem remarkable to American and British readers”, he went on to said that “a puzzling aspect of German radar research was the delay imposed by severe secrecy in drawing on the many excellent universities and polytechnic institutes until late in the war”. His claim was that the British and, to a lesser extend, the American radar effort ran more smoothly because its was under the auspices of the military with full access to all of the academic and civilian sources of expertise.

His claim has some merit. Germany’s first radar array was sorely developed by a private company with the encouragement of a major naval research institution. This contrasted with Germany’s other top scientific programs such as missile development. Engineers assigned to rocket and propulsion development usually drew freely on the expertise of others, specially on the universities ranks, to achieve their goals. Again, there’s evidence to support the theory. Its true that the British main radar problem, the development of a workable and reduce microwave-based system was enormously enhanced by the program’s ability to recruit the best talent from any source. This, pluralistic effort will eventually find its way to a central research program and thence to full production. In Germany on the other hand, there were not enough collaborative diversity, instead, a series of modern era monopolies worked under the cover of secrecy, not for military purposes but to protect their intellectual rights. This problem was compounded by Germany’s leaders preferences for offensive weapon systems instead of purely defensive ones such as a radar array. This one set mind would have a devastating effect on the overall German war effort. But what is more puzzling about the whole program was the lack of understanding of what a radar system could achieve by the very top political and military leadership. A clear example of this was the Luftwaffe’s technology chief, General Ernst Udet, who objected from the very beginning the massive amounts of money the radar program were being allocated on the bases that if it works “flying won’t be fun anymore”.

Despite all those factors, Germany could had matched or even surpassed Britain’s radar program if its was not for Watson’s obsessive determination. The prominent scientific historian David Zimmerman put it simple, “Much of the rapid early progress in the early years was a direct result of the drive, energy and leadership of Watson Watt”, but “paradoxically, it would be Watson’s erratic, almost manic behavior and lack of administrative skills which would be a significant factor in the failure to mount effective night defenses ready in time for the Blitz”.

– Raul Colon

More information:
The Paperclip Conspiracy: The Battle for then Spoils and Secrets of Nazi Germany, Tom Bower, London 1987
What Little I Remember, Robert Frisch Otto, Cambridge 1979
Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century, Helge Kragh, Princeton 1999

The Nazi’s Inter Continental Ballistic Missile

When Adolf Hitler plunged Germany into the Second Word War he envisioned a short raging contest. Never in his dream had he envisioned a prolonged and straining four year struggle, but by 1942 he was exactly in the middle of his “struggle”. In order to chance the tide of the war, the German leader ordered the design and development of very advance weapon systems. By this time, many civilian initiated, dual-purposes projects were underway in Germany. Chief among them were the V (for Vengeance) weapons platforms. The first of those systems, the V-1 or “Buzz Bomb” was able to bring terror into the heart of London. The V-1, which was essentially the first rudimentary cruise missile, was easy to design and built in large quantities. Next in line came the famous V-2 rocket. There were several variants of this impressive missile system. The more impressive one was the forth generation variant known simply as the A4 rocket. The A4 was the first truly military-controlled missile developed system. In short, the A4 was the world’s first ballistic missile. It was 46′-0″ en length with a circular diameter of 5′-5″. On the base of the rocket, four fins, with a span of 11′-8″ gave stability to the platform. Prior to fueling, the A4 weight it at 8818 lbs. The A4 was able to carry an impressive 1654 lbs warhead. Fully loaded, the rocket weight it at 28440 lbs. The fuel use to power this massive rocket was a combination of alcohol and liquid oxygen that consume itself at a rate of 280 pound per second. This rate of consumption gave the A4 only 65 seconds of power flight. But by the time its fuel had ran out, the A4 was traveling faster than the speed of sound. Operational range for this rocket was an astonishing 220 miles.

The first A4 was launched on the morning of June 13th 1942 from test Stand Number 7 at Germany’s main rocket research facility on Peenemunde. The launch, which was viewed by the Luftwaffe top brass, was successfully. The rocket cleared the launching tower without any problems. If the liftoff was successful, the flight trajectory was not. After reaching the dense cloud formation above the Baltic coast, the rocket exploded in an impressive manner. Nevertheless, the test had proven the feasibility of the A4’s design. Further test were made and, on the afternoon of October 3rd 1942, the A4 made its first successfully launch and flight. The rocket achieved an altitude of nearly 50 miles above Earth and landed more than 120 miles outside the Test Stand area. After less than ten test sets, the A4 was deemed operational by the Nazis and on September 6th 1944, two of these extraordinary rockets were fired at Paris. Within a matter of days, A4s were been fired at London and the important Belgian port city of Antwerp. It is believed that in the later stages of the war, Germany developed over 5,000 V2-class weapons, firing above 1,000 of them towards the English capital.

Artist’s impression of the A9. (photo, via author)

As a weapon of terror, the A4 had its use, but it was far too rudimentary to affect positions on the strategic battlefield. A new kind of missiles was needed. Range and payload became Germany’s obsession when it came to its rocket program. Thus the development of Germany’s next ballistic rocket was centered on those two factors. The new A9 missile was basically a winged version of the current A4 platform. Engineers at Peenemunde found that once a rocket reached its top altitude and exhausted its fuel, it will plummet toward the ground with out many in-flight corrections. But, adding wings to a streamline body will enable the A9 to “glide” to its intended target area. Beside a flight pattern correction, the installation of wings on the bottoms of the missile will give the rocket a much better opportunity to explode above its target instead plummeting hard to the ground as the A4 did. When a missile hit hard the ground, the proceeding explosion is mostly absorbed by it. If the missile could glide to its target instead of plummeting on it, it would hit it more softly causing a bigger explosion effect. When conceived, the A9 blue prints closely resemble that of the A4. It had basically the same frame length and diameter dimensions. The idea of adding the wings, first proposed by designer Kurt Patt during the A4 program; was first viewed as too radical for the A9’s engineers, but as the program progressed, those wing structures were viewed as stabilizing and controlling mechanism. Beside the controlling aspects of the wings, designers estimated that these structures could actually double the rocket’s operational range. As promising as the A9 program was, it was not one of Germany’s top projects until the Allied landings on Normandy. With the Allied armies in northern Europe, London was now out of the A4 range. Thus on the summer of 1944, the German High Command ordered the A9 to full production status despite the fact that the rocket’s new engine system was not fully tested. Clinging to the faint hope of knocking the British out of the war, Hitler ordered massive A4 and 9 attacks on London and its nearby cities and towns. The decision of the Fuehrer basically ended any hope German had of developing a real Inter Continental Ballistic Missile.

On July 1941, Field Marshall Walther von Brauchitsch, Germany’s Army Commander in Chief, suggested to Hitler and the Nazi top brass that the developing of a functional and advance rocket program would give a moral boots to the German people. He also, vaguely, mentioned that Germany should place resources into developing a missile capable of reaching the United States. There are some rumors that Peenemunde’s to secret Projects Office commenced designing a missile capable of achieving long distances. The project, which some had called the “American Rocket” it was rumored to had began in late 1940. The American Rocket was the brainchild of Ludwig Roth, a brilliant, yet obscure German designer; who began looking at the feasibility of installing an A9 missile on top of a massive booster rocket. The concept, now designated A10, was deemed to technically challenge by most German engineers. The A10 program was called off soon after. If developed, Roth’s massive rocket would have an engine capable of giving it almost 200 pounds of thrust for around sixty seconds this would had enable the mounting A9 rocket to reach an altitude of 35 miles. It was estimated the returning A9 could have cover a range of 2,500 miles in just thirty five minutes.

After the A10 program was terminated, there were discussions of developing a manned version of the A9 system. Engineers believed that a manned rocket would have solved the main problem of guiding the rocket to its target. There were even “talk” that a manned A9 with an A10 booster can actually hit small targets such as the Empire State Building. The idea was that once the A9 was in clear sight of its target, the pilot would have bailed out and the rocket would have self-guided to the intended area. Although the project looked promising on the drawing board, it never made it out of it. In fact, all work relating to the A10 booster rocket was terminated in the spring of 1944. Work on the winged A9 proceeded at much slower peace. The A9 project was cancelled in the autumn of 1944 because of material and fuel shortages. Although halted, the A9 and A10 projects did provide Germany with the necessary data from which to further develop its operational missile, the A4. A winged version of the A4 with a new and improved propulsion system, code named A4b, was developed. Unfortunately for Germany, the Red Army was closing fast on Peenemunde and all work related to this program was hastily suspended in late 1944.

If Nazi Germany would had employed the resources needed to configuration A10 booster with an A9 rocket, there is little question that Hitler would have had the world’s first true Inter Continental Ballistic Missile. The extent of German research and development of a true ICBM can better be explained by Wernher von Braun, the brilliant German scientist who led the American effort to reach the moon. When interrogated after the war, von Braun explained that German engineers were commencing the design of a new booster rocket, code named the A10, which would have been a three stage, extremely long range ballistic missile. In fact, he described the A10 as the first moon rocket, meaning that it was intended to get the A9 missile over Earth’s atmosphere. How close Nazi Germany came to actually develop a workable ICBM is anybody’s guess, but the sheer volumes of data clearly point to a massive German effort to develop such a weapon. One could guess that if Hitler and his staff had pressed the rocket program early on the war, what could that program have delivered?

– Raul Colon

Secrets Weapons of World War II, William B. Breuer, John Wiley & Sons, New York 2000
The Air War in Europe, Ronald Bailey, Time-Life Books, Chicago 1981
Top Secret Tales of World War II, Patrick Buchanan, John Wiley & Sons, New York 2000
German Secret Weapons: A Blue Print for Mars, Brian Ford, Ballantine Books, New York 1969

The End of the Luftwaffe

The final came swiftly to the once powerful German Air Force. After nearly two years of continuing fighting in two major fronts, the Luftwaffe, once the most feared air force in the world, was reduce to a token force. The force that once dominated the skies above continental Europe was now in no position to slowdown the onslaught of Allied formations pounding the Fatherland. But although the writing could be clearly seen from the outside, it took a long time for the Luftwaffe leaders to realize their dire situation. In fact, it was not until the beginning of April 1945 that the “end of the war” was clearly seen. By this time, allied ground forces were rapidly approaching the German capital, Berlin, from the West. This quick advance by the powerful armies of the Western democracies aside taking huge chunks of German territory, it had also overrun a good size of Germany’s aircraft factories. For example, the Focke Wulf factory at Cottbus, which have just began to mass produce the Ta 152 high altitude fighter, when its was overran by the Red Army. Full production of the Ta 152, along with its “wonder weapons” counterparts, the Ba 349, He 162 and Do 335; came to a crashing halt by mid March 1945. By April 1st, Gruppen Jagdgeschwader Number 1 had received nearly all of its He 162 complement. The pilots on the outfit found the new fighter to be extremely fast and maneuverable although very unforgiving. Almost two hundred of these jet fighters were delivered to the Luftwaffe before hostilities ceased in May. The Bachem Ba 349 Natter vertical take off interceptor was another of the Luftwaffe’s wonder weapons. The platform passed the manned test flight phase without much glitch and by April 1945, units of these small planes were already deployed. The first launching fully operational Ba 349 site was located at Kircheim near Stuttgart. The aircraft never attacked the dreaded US 8th Air Force bomber formations they were designed to do from Kircheim. The Germans, fearful that their new weapon would slid into American hands, the American Army was closing the Stuttgart gap quickly, demolished the aircraft’s take off ramps. As for the other wonder weapon, the much heralded Dornier Do 335, the aircraft ran into many technical hurdles during its design phase, and although they were corrected, this twin engine fighter never entered operational service.

At the same time the Germans were abandoning air force bases, the much malign Luftwaffe was launching their last great offensive. Operation “Wehrwolf”, the planned large ramming operation against the American heavy bomber formations, took place on April 7th. A force of 120 Bf 109 and 59 Me 262s were thrown against an American air fleet of nearly 1,300 B-17 and B-24, supported by a massive fighter complement. Utilizing fewer aircraft that the operational plans called for, “Wehrwolf” was a failure. Only eight heavy bombers were lost due to the new German ramming technique, fifteen were damaged but were able to return to their departing bases. In all, the American shut down 59 German planes. There was widespread recrimination inside the Luftwaffe for the apparent failure. Evidence collected pointed to icing conditions preventing most German fighters to reach their dives positions and the fact that the Germans mounted an operation this complex without the requirement complements of aircraft. Whatever was the reason for the failure, the fact remains that after “Wehrwolf”, the Luftwaffe ceased to plan any other large scale operation due to its shortness in assets and now, time.

By the second week of April, the German forces, fighting in two fronts; only controlled two separate enclaves in the country, the Bavaria sector in the south and the area around Schleswig-Holstein in the north. In recognition of this development, the Luftwaffe command was restructured once more. The still operational units in the north of Germany, East Prussia, Denmark, Norway and Courland were placed under the command of Luftflotte Reich under General Stumpff. The units on the south of Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and northern Italy were placed under Luftflotte 6 under the overall command of General von Greim. On the ground, by April 16th, Soviet spearheads were crossing the Rivers Oder and Neisse and began to establish beachheads on the other side. The German formations on the rivers’ banks, outnumbered two to one in manpower and four to one in equipment, fought valiantly and initially they hold them back. That afternoon, every Luftwaffe unit available for combat operation was thrown into the desperate battle. The attack action that took place by the gallant Luftwaffe pilots can only be described as desperation. In a classic kamikaze-style attack, scores of Bf 109’s pilots rammed their aircraft against Soviet tanks pouring into the new established beachhead. This was the first and only occasion that the Luftwaffe would employ this barbaric tactic in combat. No ones know the extended of the damage caused by the Luftwaffe’s kamikaze pilots. If it was significant, Soviet engineers were quickly able to replace the damaged pontoon bridges. In fact, the flow of Soviet troops and equipment continued almost unmolested by the air attack. By the late 17th, scores of Soviet bombers augmented by a massive artillery bombardment stunned the outmanned defenders. By the early hours of the 18th, the mass of the Soviet Army was preparing to cross the rivers. German defense positions along the rivers banks crumbled in the face of superior numbers and firepower.

At the same time inside Adolf Hitler’s Berlin bunker, the situation was getting to a climax. Hitler began to issue orders to many depleted Luftwaffe combat units to attack the Soviet formations at once. One order in particular stunned General Karl Koller, the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff who had been by the side of the German leader in his bunker. Hitler proposed given command of all jet fighter and bombers to Hans Ulrich Rudel, a ground attack expert who knew little about the new jet planes. Koller and other Luftwaffe officials tried to talk Hitler out of the idea. The situation deteriorated further when on the morning of April 21st Berlin was shelled by Soviet long range artillery. Hitler was furious. He demanded from Koller an explanation regarding the Luftwaffe’s absentee from the fight during that morning barrage. Koller tries once again to tell Hitler the fact that most Luftwaffe units were depleted and the ones that remained semi operational lacked sufficient fuel and ammunition to mount an effective campaign. The Fuhrer criticized the fact that the Me 262s did not took off from their field in Prague to support the beleaguer Berlin garrison in April 22nd. Koller responded that in spite of the continually narrowing and changing the combat area, the Luftwaffe is encircle in an ever small pockets, surrounded on all side by a much stronger foe; all that is human possible to relive Berlin is being done.

By the late hours of the 22nd, Hitler began to see the writing on the war. He now came to the conclusion that the war had been lost. Many of Hitler’s inner circles tried to convince the Fuhrer to leave the capital but he refused. Instead, Hitler had his secretaries bring his personal papers up to the bunker’s courtyard and burn them. The Wehrmacht wanted to take all of the troops fighting on the West and throw them in the East. Meanwhile, Reichmarschall Hermann Goering, who was first in Germany’s line of succession, began to carve out a plan to take command of the Third Reich. He seized the opportunity and, before all communication was lost with the Berlin bunker, on April 23rd he sent a cable directly to Hitler. In the now infamous telegram, Goering stated his reason for taking command of the Reich. He cited the Fuhrer’s decision to remain in Berlin despite all odds and courted Hitler’s June 29th, 1941 decree stating that if the Fuhrer is incapacitated in any form, the Reichmarschall would take over the German government as its official head. Goering even demanded that Hitler respond to the cable before 10:00PM of that day. He sent the same piece to Keitel and Ribbentrop. Before Goering’s telegram arrived, the Fuhrer had recovered his sense of purpose and began planning the capital defense. When he received the cable, Hitler went on one of his now famous tirades. He lambasted Goering calling him a traitor. Enraged by what he saw as a stab in the back from a trusted old friend, the German leader sent Goering a strongly worded cablegram forbidding the Luftwaffe leader from taking over the government. The Fuhrer sent out orders to arrest Goering at once, together with Koller and many top Luftwaffe officials. Thus, at the time of its greatest peril, the Luftwaffe was left without its top officials. After the arrest of all of the officials, Hitler released Koller the same day, the Fuhrer appointed General Robert von Greim, previously commander of the Luftflotte 6, to the post of Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe replacing Goring. As all these were happening, the disintegration of the Third Reich continued at a rapid pace. On the afternoon of the 25th, the two arms of the Red Army met west of the German capital. On the same date, Soviet and American spearheads linked up on the River Elbe at Torgau. With this linking, the only way available for the German Army to move its forces and equipment was by air. Night flights became the sole mean of transportation for the once fearful German Army.

Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe continued its desperate attacks against the Soviet columns crossing the River Oder. On the afternoon of the 27th a force of seven Mistel and three Ju 188s, joined by a force of Fw 190 fighters; attacked the Soviet Oder’s beachhead. As they approached the target area, a massive anti-aircraft barrage greeted them. It was a slaughter. In the end, only one of the seven Mistel returned along with a sole Fw 190. As these sorties were taking place there were a frantic effort to supply the beleaguer Berlin garrison. A flight of six Fieseler Storch, escorted by 30 fighters assembled at Rechlin to fly to the German capital at dusk. The operation failed miserable. Terrible weather was blamed for the failure. On the 28th, four Ju 52 left Rechlin bound for the center of Berlin. Only one Ju 52 made it through the flak-heavy encirclement. On the 29th, von Greim flew to Rechlin to plan the air aspect of the Fuhrer “massive attack” on the Soviet army in the Berlin area of operation. Unfortunately for the Fuhrer by this time the Luftwaffe had just a trickle of combat ready units available for the operation. Having changed bases so often in the past year meant that the units allocated to those bases had retired from them without its full fuel compliment as well as its ammunition allocation, thus when Hitler ordered the “massive counter attack” there were no full combat ready Luftwaffe unit available for combat. There was also a major shortness in manpower as well. As the German Army began to crumble, many Luftwaffe units were disbanded. These displaced Luftwaffe personnel went on to join the Army’s ever depleted ranks. The Army was also in peril. Its units decimated by four years of brutal combat. When the attack commenced in April 29th, it smashed itself uselessly against the powerful Soviet force ringing the capital. In Berlin itself, conditions were rapidly deteriorating. Fuel and ammunition had almost run out and the only way to re-supply the small pockets of defenders that now fought for every corner of the city was with airdrops. A prospect that now the once most powerful air force in the world could not even attempt to perform at this time. On April 30th, Hitler named Grossadmiral Karl Donitz his successor as Fuhrer of the Third Reich; he then proceeded to commit suicide.

The small size of China’s amphibious fleet excludes the Chinese of taking control of Taiwan by means of an amphibious assault. In the past, Chinese leaders had threatened to take action against Taiwan if the island, which China considered a renegade province, decided to declare its independence. The reality is that even if China decided to use force, it lacked the necessary military resources needed to complete the operation. An amphibious assault, which is the only mean China could take control of Taiwan’s territory, is out of the equation. First, China can only transport one armored division across the Straits, and even this would be hard to accomplish. Second, any amphibious landing would need complete control over the skies in the Strait, which the Chinese air force probably could not accomplish. Finally, both Taiwan and the United States could see the signs of pending military offensive months before the actual event. What China could do is to attack Taiwan with a barrage of missiles, the DF 15 and the DF 11. These missile systems are not accurate enough to destroy strategic targets such as airfields, radar stations and transport facilities; their only use would be as terror weapons, such as the V-2 or the Scud. If they are not fitted with nuclear warheads, the damage they could cause would be similar to a natural disaster. China also possesses a limited number of these missiles and any missile siege would be limited in duration. A naval blockade of the island is possible, but due to the strong U.S. statement regarding any attack on Taiwan and the notion of a powerful U.S. fleet coming to relive the besieged island, China would be hard pressed to perform any naval operation in the area.

From the moment Donitz assumed command of the German state, he worked to end the war as soon as possible. He understood the need to at least slow the Soviet advance so as much as the German civilian population could make it to areas controlled by the Western Allies. As soon as he commenced surrender negotiations with the American and British, masses of German ground, naval and air formations began to surrender in full. Almost all of the Luftwaffe forces who were able to surrender to the Western Allies were content to do so. But in the east the situation was different. Several units continued to resist the Soviets with ferocity. The units that were closer to the Allies’ lines began to journey into them with as many civilians as they could take. The end came swiftly for the Luftwaffe. An end it was destined to achieve given the nature of the war Hitler undertook.

– Raul Colon


Six Months to Oblivion, Werner Girbig, Shepperton 1975
The Flying Bomb, Richard Young, Shepperton 1978
The Luftwaffe War Diaries, Cajus Bekker, London 1966

Could the Red Air Force do Tactical?
The Germans certainly did not believe it

It’s a commonly known fact. The mighty Luftwaffe was far superior to the Soviet Union’s Red Air Force at the start of the Second World War. The German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, possessed a clear advantage over the Soviets in material and training, and for a brief moment; was superior to the Red Air Force in aircraft inventory. At the time of Operation Barbarossa, one of the biggest military gambles of all time, the Red Air Force was behind the Germans in aircraft design and development, as well in the number of air worthy aircraft. The Soviets did catch-up and eventually surpassed the Luftwaffe in the number of available planes, but not even this fact could change the outcome of the battle in the air. When the Germans initially started planning their surprise invasion of the Soviet Union, they carefully considered the ability of the Red Air Force to interfere or even deny Germany air control over the battlefield – a must for the German high-octane ground forces. After studying a mass of intelligence papers and reports, the German High Command felt strongly that the Soviets would only be able to muster limited tactical operations, if any. The Red Air Force’s main asset, the sheer number of fighters, most of them obsolete by 1940, was to be employed in a vain defense of the Motherland. All thru the war, the Soviets were not able to change the reality of warfare on the ground with its Air Force. Not even the introduction of new aircraft and tactics could changed it.

In the early stages of Operation Barbarossa, the German ground armies seldom saw any Soviet aircraft above their heads. When they did, it was an occasional reconnaissance aircraft or a lone bomber on a desperate mission. The only fighters that were deployed by the Red Air Force close to the German lines were the venerable I-16 fighters. They were no match for the advanced German fighters and they quickly were shot down by the Germans. Their pilots, parachuting into new German lines, were, for the most part sobbing at the idea of being a prisoner of the “savage” Germans, as the Red propaganda had led them to believe. They became more confused when the Germans treated them in a somewhat friendly manner, by their standards. The same fate awaited the bombers that followed. Deprived of any significant fighter escorts, their single-line formations were decimated by German ground fire. If any Red bomber managed to pass thru the anti-aircraft fire, the German fighters were waiting to take care of them. This happened repeatedly during the early stages of the war in the East. At this moment, a Soviet bomber attack meant nothing more to the German ground troops than an exciting spectacle, which always ended in tragedy for the Russians. Day after day, the Soviets sent their bombers in formation, and day after day, the majority did not come back home. Aircraft that managed to return to their bases were the ones that had jettisoned its bomb load and promptly turned around at the first sight of a German fighter formation. The Soviets were destined to loose all of their available aircraft if they continued with this unproductive practice. Although the Russians were able to replace all of the aircraft lost, it never recovered from the shock effect of the German fighters pounding their formations. The German superiority on fighter design was to last until the end of the war. The Soviets tried new tactics as the Germans inched closer to the heartland of the country. Soviet bombers and fighters started bombing bridges, strafing armor columns and German troop concentration areas, but this tactic did little to slow the German progress. The Germans crossed every bridge and the Soviets planes were overwhelmed by the fighter tactics of the Luftwaffe.

Another problem for the Red Air Force was the lack of coordination between the branches of the military. The Army would plan an operation but they would not inform the Air Force of it in time, or vice-versa. Planned, joint operations did manage to move forward, but with little success. The art of cooperation, introduction of new tactics and integration are a presupposed measure of personal initiative, a faculty that the Russians did not seem to posses because it ran counter to its national character. The Soviets missed many opportunities to employ airpower in order to achieve a decisive victory. A major aircraft concentration outside Moscow in the winter of 1941 would have had devastating effects on the retreating German troops, but no effort was put forward by Soviet air force officers. But when Soviet air assets were deployed, as in the Battle of Kursk during the summer of 1943, they achieved a success against the Germans. Unfortunately for the Soviets, by now all they could accomplish with tactical air power was to delay, rather than halt, the German withdrawal. The Red Air Force did not manage to destroy the majority of bridges in the area. This is the War’s second stage for the Red Air Force; they would attack in full-force, but would mainly concentrate on destroying armor, not trying to prevent the enemy from escaping. This second act would follow the Red Air Force all the way to Berlin. Time and time again, such as in Vitebsk in 1944 and East Prussia in 1945, they could have inflicted a more damaging blow, but they fizzled out after a couple of days of fighting. Another factor that hampered the Soviet air effort was their insistence on a bombing level of 7,000ft or higher. This had the effect of denying a clear sighting lane for bombers. Many of their bombs missed their targets, thus making it imperative that they go back at that target, providing the Germans with an incoming direction. These raids tended to be made by single formations. The Russians did not employ any large scale bombing formations during the war. Carpet bombing was also not employed by the Soviets. When they tried to do saturation bombing, they usually missed the Germans altogether, sometimes they even hit their own ground troops.

Night bombing attacks were the stamp of nuisance raids. In nearly all instances they were flown by a single plane and directed at targets located close to the front lines. They were annoying to the Germans but seldom caused major damage. Major night attacks, such as the bombing of Tilsit in East Prussia, were performed by single-line formations of bombers. At this rate, it took the Red bombers seven full days to destroy most of Tilsit. By the second night, the residences, knowing what’s coming, had left the city. After a major night bombing mission, some of the returning bomber crews would become disoriented and would land on German airfields thinking it was an airfield in Russian hands. Faulty maps, no clear electronic finder systems and outdated intelligence, contributed to the Soviet disastrous air effort during the last years of the war. It was the sheer mass of aircraft they had available and the fact that the Germans were sustaining massive losses on other fronts, which helped the Soviet Air Force clear the skies of German fighters on the Eastern Front in 1945. But in all critical tactical areas: aircraft design, tactics, training, integration and operational concepts, the Luftwaffe was vastly superior; all the way to the end of the war. So, yes, the Germans were right, the Soviets could not do tactical.

– Raul Colon


1. Top Guns of the Luftwaffe, Donald L. Caldwell, Random House
2. Heroes of WW II, Edward Murphy, Random House
3. Fighting in Hell…, Edt Peter G. Tsouras, Presidio Press Book

Japan’s World War II Tailless Aircraft

During the early days of World War II, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army’s Air Forces had minimal interest in the development of a tailless configuration airplane. This dramatically contrasted with the view held by their main ally, Nazi Germany, who had experimented with tailless aircraft for several years. The lack of effort by the Japanese Navy, the one service viewed by most observers as the forerunner in military aviation in Japan, did not imply that the Army would follow them. Indeed, the Army quickly started a crash design program in late 1939. Because of the lateness of their start, the Japanese Army top brass knew that they needed to set up a program that could achieve in a short time, and with a dwindling financial resource base, maximum results.

The HK1 with a rudder but no tailplane. (photo, via author)

Efforts by the Imperial Japanese Army concentrated on the glider designs of the Kayaba Works Corporation, as well as the Mitsubishi Company’s tailless aircraft designs, which copied the German Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket fighter concept. The Kayaba designs were first conceived to collect data on tailless airplane configurations. Many designs were submitted by engineers inside Kayaba and outside consultants. The most promising design program was the HK1. The HK1 was the brainchild of a brilliant, albeit, obscure Japanese engineer, Dr. Hidemasa Kimura. He based his design on the concept of Kumazo Hino, the pioneer aviator who was the first person in Japan to fly a plane – performing the feat in the spring of 1910. Initial tests on the HK1 design were promising and lead the Japanese Army to sponsor an aircraft concept program – the first step in establishing a development and production program for a military aircraft. Working closely with Kayaba’s Chief Developing Designer, Dr. Shigeki Naito, Kimura designed and constructed a tailless test model aircraft. The model, designated the KU2, was extensively tested between early November 1940 and May 1941.

The KU2 with wingtip rudders. (photo, via author)

After the test phase of the KU2 was over, Dr. Kimura, with the assistance of another brilliant Japanese engineer, Joji Washimi, began to work on a more advance design in the spring of 1941: the KU3 was born. The KU3 was a two-system experimental model, it had no vertical control surfaces and the edges of its wings were cranked, incorporating sections of different angles of sweepback. The KU3 had three-control surfaces arrayed along the trailing edge of each wing. The KU3 made 65 test flights before the only built model crash landed in late 1941.

The KU3, showing it’s cranked wing. (photo, via author)

Kimura wasn’t done with tailless aircraft. He took the data recollected on the KU3 program and used it to built the first Japanese powered tailless aircraft, the KU4. At this moment time was running out for Japan and Kayaba had not shown sufficient concrete results to merit further investment of resources. Japan’s limited resources were needed in other areas. The tide of war had turned against the Empire. The KU4 program was terminated by the Army as soon as the drawings were on the table. This marked the end of any official Japanese-funded research on a tailless aircraft design. Then in 1944, the appearance of America’s massive B-29 bombers in the skies over Japan’s Home Island changed the equation. The Japanese Army, now with the complete support of the Navy, re-started the tailless aircraft program. The need for a high flying interceptor plane to take out the B-29s became imperative. The Army knew time was running out, and so turned to the Germans for help. They knew that any aircraft development program would take years to produce a serviceable plane, and in the case of a radical design such as a tailless aircraft, the development process could take at least a decade. With this situation on their minds, the Japanese Navy leadership decided that the only route available to them was to copy the only successfully operational tailless design program in the world, Germany’s Me 163 Komet rocket fighter. The Mitsubishi Company, using German supplied Me 163 Operational Manuals as well as a Walter HWK 109-509 rocket engine, was selected for the job of interpreting the data given by the Germans. They promptly went to work on a design for the new tailless airplane. In a matter of only months, thanks to the assistance of German engineers, Mitsubishi produced a test version of what they thought would be the next great Japanese plane. The J8M-1 Shusui (Swinging Sword) was unveiled in late December 1944. Mitsubishi built first a glider version for data collection purposes. It first took to the air around mid January 1945 and was subsequently placed in full prototype production mode. Two prototypes models were designated for the two services, the previously mentioned J8M-1 for the Navy and the Army’s Ki-200.

Two MXY-8 training gliders. (photo, via author)

Pilots started taxi-run practices with the J8M-1 gliders at Kashima Air Base in the spring of 1945. Rigorous testing and practice runs were made at Kashima by Navy pilots in preparation for the day when the Walter rocket engines would be fitted on the J8M-1 and the aircraft could take-off under their own power. The first powered J8M-1, fitted with the Walter engine, first took to the air on the morning of June 7th, 1945. A catastrophic engine failure shortly after takeoff resulted in a massive crash and subsequent explosion. The test pilot was killed instantly. This crash and the end of the war just two months after, spelled the end of the minimal Japanese attempt of acquiring a tailless fighter. The J8M-1 never entered assembly line production status, and the next generation Ki-202 advanced fighter never made it off the drawing board. When the Allies entered Japan in August 1945, they discovered, to their relief, a crude tailless program, a program that was doomed before it could takeoff.

– Raul Colon

More information:
wikipedia: Kayaba tailless gliders
The Mitsubishi J8M Shusui
wikipedia: Mitsubishi J8M