Air University Review, November-December 1983
Dr. Edward L. Homze
The gifted young English historian Matthew Cooper, who earlier wrote a lively account of the German Army, has now turned to the Luftwaffe. His considerable skills as writer and researcher are matched by the difficulties involved in trying to untangle the history of the Luftwaffe. The youngest and most favored branch of the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe was largely responsible for many of the successes of the Wehrmacht as well as its failures. In many ways analyses of the rises and falls of the Luftwaffe are better barometers of the Nazi regime than are studies of any other of its military institutions. The characteristics of the regime can be seen clearly in the youthful air force, since the Nazis literally moulded it from its inception to its fiery death.
The focus of The German Air Force 1933-1945 is slightly different from most of the recent publications on the Luftwaffe.* Cooper concentrates on the strategic development of the Luftwaffe, an area that, according to the author, has been missed by others. The weapons, tactics, and combat experiences of the Luftwaffe have not been ignored but are seen in relationship to the strategic development of the Luftwaffe. That is one of the many strengths of this book. Cooper sees the Luftwaffe in its totality. The interdependence of technology, the economy, political judgments, and military doctrine constitute the story he is trying to tell. This is what he means by strategic development.
In the first three chapters, Cooper quickly surveys the prewar period and concludes that the Luftwaffe of 1939 was a tactical air force largely because of the technological and economic realities of the period. The leadership of the Luftwaffe was planning a balanced air force consisting of strategic as well as tactical forces, but time ran out on them. Cooper notes with approval the Luftwaffes decisions to skip development of the first generation of heavy bombers in favor of an advanced bomber and the interim solution of dive-bombing. He is also sympathetic to the 1938 decision to concentrate production on four principal aircraft: the Bf 109, Me 210, Ju 88, and the He 177. Unlike most of the postwar critics of the Luftwaffe, Cooper argues that these were sound decisions arrived at through consensus by the leadership. He even has some kind words for Ernst Udets handling of the Technical Office and its selection of aircraft models, although he agrees that Udet and his staff were not capable of handling their many tasks.
In the prewar chapters, he explains the flaws in the command structure and the growing tensions among Hermann Göring, Erhard Milch, Udet, and the professional military that were to plague the Luftwaffe during the war. Not much is done with how the political climate of nazism influenced the Luftwaffe, nor does Cooper address the arguments of many Luftwaffe generals, after the war, that they were kept in the dark about Hitlers grand strategy. Since they were not privy to the Führers ultimate goals, they did not know what kind of air force to build. Should it be built to war against France, or should it be built to attack England or Russia? Obviously that would make a difference. Without tight control and guidance of the political leadership, the Luftwaffe just grewbattling with the army and navy for a bigger share of the limited resources but without a clear idea of its intended use. That the Luftwaffe performed so well in the blitzkrieg mode was largely accidental, Cooper would agree with a recent work of Wilhelm Deist 1 that by the time the Luftwaffe concentrated on a blitzkrieg type of operation the blitzkrieg was a thing of the past. In reality the Luftwaffe was like most of the other prewar air forces, a hybridpart strategic and part tactical. Reflecting the Douhet tradition, the Germans wanted a strategic Luftwaffeor at least make it appear to be a strategic air forcebut the best they could afford was a tactical air force. As the war was to show, the Luftwaffe was a failure at strategic bombing but successful with interdiction and close support. Probably just as important as its structure and doctrines, the Luftwaffe was saturated with an "offensive-minded" philosophy that was hard to reverse during the war. The feeble efforts at night fighting early in the war and the slowness in switching over to fighters later in the war are two examples of this persistence of offensive-mindedness that would cost the Luftwaffe dearly.
Once the war started, the shortcomings of the Luftwaffe became evident. Although it performed well in the early campaigns in Poland and France, the Battle of Britain was another story. Cooper thinks the Luftwaffe could have won it had the Germans persisted in their original strategy of pressuring the Royal Air Force. Fighter Command was on its last leg, but according to Cooper, "It was weaknesses in the Luftwaffes own conduct of the Battle that ultimately prevented it from gaining the victory within its grasp." (p.160) The Luftwaffe had air superiority over at least southeast England in support of a seaborne invasion.
Despite the loss over Britain, the real turning point in the fortunes of the Luftwaffe was the invasion of Russia. Germany now was fighting a three front aerial war that simply outstripped its limited resources. The faults in the German production, training, and organizational programs became evident, but the leadership failed to react quickly enough. Just as the French seemed to be a step behind the Germans in 1940, the Germans seemed a step behind the Allies during the second half of the war. The Germans were too slow in building their night fighter force, even slower in gearing-up their production. Hard-pressed on all fronts, German leadership turned conservative, preferring "a bird in the hand to two in the bush" approach. As a result, older proven aircraft were kept in production longer than they should have as the leadership was afraid to gamble on newer, more-advanced models. Of course, given their experience with the Me 210 and the He 177, this cautious approach is understandable, but every country during the war had flops. The difference was that Germany could not afford them as much as the Allies.
In other areas the German leadership revealed its slowness and caution. After the failure of a quick victory in Russia, the Luftwaffe had to abandon its concept of a "balanced air force." Concentrating on combat aircraft, they relegated the production of trainers and transports to a secondary role with dire results. More and more the Luftwaffe in Russia became tied to ground-support roles, and what little reserves it had were often switched frantically from one sector to another or one major front to another like a fire brigade. "Too little and too late" was a refrain as common to the Germans after 1942 as it was to the Allies before 1942.
In most other areas still hotly debated, Coopers judgment is usually very sound. For example, on the issue about the slow introduction of the jet fighter, he does not blame Hitler so much as the Luftwaffes leadership. They were too slow in pushing the program. As Cooper constantly pointed out, the bringing into operational service of a new aircraft is a finely tuned process between military requirements, industrial capacity, and technology. A mistake or even a change in goals in any of these areas has an immediate repercussion on the others. The German leadership never mastered this art; parenthetically maybe nobody ever masters this art, but at least some do better than others. In this case Cooper would agree that the Germans did not do as well as the Allies, as the Me 210, He 177, Bomber B, and the jet fighter prove.
In two areas Coopers views are open to criticism. First, he does not see how the organizational structure and training of the Luftwaffes leadership created a mentality that lent itself to disaster. As Horst Boog recently pointed out in his seminal study on the Luftwaffes leadership,2 the doctrine, training, and, of course, the promotions to higher ranks encouraged the development of a Luftwaffe mentality that emphasized combat over all else. Technological and industrial requirements were downgraded just as the officers who served in these areas were handicapped by the system. The results were obvious a further unbalancing of the Luftwaffe. In what is probably the best history of the air war, R. J. Overy argues the same thing;3 that the western Allies developed their balanced use of all forms of air power largely because of the circumstances they found themselves in, while the Germans and Russians did not. Second, Cooper does not address the problem of how nazism affected the Luftwaffe. The Nazi system, freewheeling, disjointed, personality dominated, without clearly defined goals (except for racism and expansion) had a devastating effect on the economy as well as the military of Germany. Under the Nazis, there just was no overall guiding concept for the air industry or the Luftwaffe. The Nazis scorn of methodical approaches, their impatience with experienced experts, and their incessant search for easy, "quick-fix" solutions had a corroding effect on the Luftwaffe during the war. The Nazis flair for activism and improvisation may have been a success in the political realm, but it was a failure in the more prosaic realm of building an industry and an air force to fight a world war.
Despite these criticisms, Cooper has written the best popular history of the Luftwaffe during World War II. It is a balanced, thoughtful, and interestingly written book that is every bit as good as his earlier work on the German Army.
University of Nebraska, Lincoln
*Matthew Cooper, The German Air Force 1933-1945: An Anatomy of Failure (London: Jane's, 1981, $27.95), 406 pages.
1. Wilhelm Deist, The Wehrmacht and German Rearmament (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981). Deist is a member of the Institute for Military Historical Research at Freiburg im Breisgau which is currently doing a projected ten-volume history of World War II called, Das Duetsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg; two volumes in the series have been published. Deist has written the Wehrmacht sections, and he has argued in all of his works that the so-called blitzkrieg strategy is largely a figment of imagination in the minds of writers. Hitler had no coordinated, rational plan for rearmament.
2. Horst Boog, Die deutsche Luftwaffenführung, 1935-1945 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1982).
3. R. J. Overy, The Air War 1939-1945 (New York: Stein and Day, 1980).
Edward L. Homze(B.A., M.A., Bowling Green State University; Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University) is Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has served as a visiting professor at the Naval War College and is on the U.S. Air Force Historical Advisory Committee. Dr. Homze is the author of Arming the Luftwaffe (1976), Foreign Labor in Nazi Germany (1967), and coauthor of Germany: The Divided Nation (1970) and Willy Brandt (1974). He was a consultant for Time-Lifes The Luftwaffe (1982).
DisclaimerThe conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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