Thursday, May 14, 2020

Why Was RAF Marshal Hugh Dowding Fired?

A Grave Injustice Done to a War Hero

Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and Douglas Bader
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and Douglas Bader at the conclusion of World War II. If the meeting appears a bit awkward, there is a good reason for that which we will get to below.
Why was RAF Air Marshal Hugh Dowding fired? Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding was fired (“reassigned”) at the close of the Battle of Britain for reasons that are widely misunderstood. This has cast a shadow of sorts over his legacy. I shall go through some facts about Dowding as I explain why I believe he was the victim of politics and was not fired for cause.

Dowding spent over a decade before World War II in Royal Air Force leadership positions building up the institution and infrastructure. While not considered the "father" of the force (that was Marshal of the Royal Air Force Hugh Montague Trenchard), Dowding played a large role in building the modern RAF that wound up facing off against the Luftwaffe.

Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding in 1930
Dowding presides over the graduation exercises at RAF College, Cranwell, in 1930. He became the director of training at the Air Ministry in 1926 and advanced rapidly after that.

Air Marshal Hugh Dowding Guided the RAF Through Dangerous Times

Dowding, intending to retire in June 1939, showed excellent judgment after being asked to remain in office due to the war crisis. He displayed an outstanding grasp of the air war and the proper uses of the RAF interceptor force. There was nothing outdated about his thinking and he clearly understood the power and limitations of modern fighters. He developed the “Dowding System” for early warning of air attacks that incorporated radar chains on the south coast, radio control of aircrews, the Duxford Operations Room, and the underground Operations Room at Headquarters Fighter Command, Bentley Priory, Middlesex. The cutting-edge Dowding System proved vital during the war. Hugh Dowding was no Dudley Pound falling asleep at strategy meetings.

RAF headquarters at Bentley Priory
Dowding established the entire RAF command and control operation, including RAF Fighter Command headquarters at Bentley Priory.
Dowding carefully husbanded his forces throughout 1940. His first major policy position was on 15 May 1940 to refuse the French request to send “clouds of planes” to fight the lost cause in France. This undoubtedly was the right position in terms of preserving forces to protect the homeland. The War Cabinet agreed with Dowding and this had major strategic and political implications, as it began the growing divergence between French and British strategy and war aims.

A Hawker Hurricane in flight
In his role as the commanding officer of the newly created RAF Fighter Command beginning in 1936, Dowding oversaw the introduction of the Hawker Hurricane, above, and other modern fighters.
Dowding kept close track of British fighter forces and was careful to protect them from any unnecessary threats. On 3 June 1940, he warned that the RAF would literally run out of Hawker Hurricanes (the backbone of the RAF fighter force despite the flashier Spitfire) within two weeks at the current loss rate. This justified his earlier decision to not send his precious remaining fighters to France.

On 11 June 1940, with France crumbling, Dowding reiterated his position against sending fighters to France (they demanded “the entire RAF”). Churchill agreed with him. This was an extremely tough decision because it furthered the breach between France and the UK. However, Dowding was looking after his country’s survival.

On 23 July 1940, Dowding succeeded in getting convoys routed away from the east coast and sent north around Scotland instead. He knew the RAF was so weak it could not protect the ships even right along the coastline. On 28 July 1940, he moved his fighters closer to the Channel to better confront the Luftwaffe, a very aggressive move that led to the famous Luftwaffe losses in August.

RAF World War II fighter and pilot
While RAF planes were in short supply early in the conflict, pilots became scarce as time went on. Dowding took decisive steps to maintain enough of both.
Despite his wise moves that preserved the fighter force, Dowding ran into a huge problem of a dwindling supply of fighter pilots. He solved this on 17 August 1940 by receiving permission to poach pilots in training in other branches of the RAF.

So far, so good. Dowding skillfully preserved his fighter force and kept it at full strength through a sequence of canny moves. In September 1940, after the peak of the Battle of Britain, his problems began. That is when Air Marshal Hugh Dowding finally met enemies he could not overcome.

RAF Groups during World War II
The RAF groups in 1940 with their relative strengths. The most important group for Britain's survival was No. 11 Group at lower right, led by Keith Park, which faced the brunt of the Luftwaffe onslaught.

Dowding Falls Victim to Careerists in the RAF

Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory of No. 12 Group (north of London), who was a bit of a schemer, had developed what became known as the “Big Wing” concept. In simple terms, the Big Wing involved assembling a large force of fighters (three or four squadrons) over RAF bases before sending them as a group to attack incoming Luftwaffe bomber streams. This had some advantages - it meant maximum-strength interceptions. However, its major failing was that it took time to assemble these large forces. By the time the RAF set out to intercept the bombers, the Germans had completed their work of bombing cities and turned back to France. The Big Wing tactic, however, worked well for forces further back from the “front” that had time to assemble before their own bases came under attack.

RAF fighters in flight during World War II

Dowding did not like the Big Wing concept. He preferred sending smaller groups of fighters immediately as they got airborne to intercept the bombers. This disrupted enemy bombing operations and gave more opportunities for shoot-downs. Dowding’s strategy was arguably better for front-line units that were under immediate threat and did not have time for leisurely assemblies. Each strategy obviously had strengths and weaknesses and reasonable people could disagree. This may seem like a minor policy disagreement that could have been settled over after-dinner cognacs, but it led to Dowding’s downfall.

Keith Park in his personal Hawker Hurricane
Keith Park in his personalized Hurricane, which he flew to the ten airfields under his command in No. 11 Group. His personal insignia, Cerberus, is to the extreme left.
The problem for Dowding was that the Air Ministry, which never had shown much leadership or skill in operations, backed Leigh-Mallory (and had ulterior motives for doing so, as we shall see below). New Zealand native Air Vice Marshal Keith Park in command of Fighter Command in southeast England, however, agreed with Dowding. In other words, the two men at the tip of the spear, who had the biggest responsibility for confronting the Luftwaffe and the most success in the Battle of Britain, were against the “Big Wing” concept. RAF people further back from the hot spot and sitting in cozy offices, on the other hand, liked it.

So, two power blocks emerged within the RAF: the warriors Dowding and Park, opposed by the Air Ministry and Leigh-Mallory (who was in command of a secondary zone but coveted Park’s prestigious job). They could not coexist, one power block or the other was going to win and the other lose. This internal struggle ultimately became more about power than strategy.

Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and the King and Queen of England
From right to left, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, King George VI, and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon during the Battle of Britain.
It’s not like Dowding was not appreciated. However, his support was not institutional within the RAF. He was on good terms with the King, who followed events extremely closely and knew exactly who was doing what. On 30 September 1940, Dowding, already a Knight, received the further honor of the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (investiture on 8 October 1940). However, the fight - the real fight, never mind the air war itself - was on within the Air Ministry to gain the laurels for the saving of the country during the Battle of Britain. And this battle was fought tooth-and-nail in the corridors of power, and Dowding's downfall was close at hand.

Douglas Bader enters his fighter in World War II
Douglas Bader swinging his artificial leg into his fighter before a 1945 flight.
The tipping point was the support of Squadron Leader Douglas Bader for Leigh-Mallory and the Air Ministry. Bader, within Leigh-Mallory’s command, was a legend within the RAF for, among other things, remaining in action despite losing both of his legs in an air accident. Bader also just so happened to have a Member of Parliament in his unit. As a major propaganda hero (even the Germans knew all about him), Bader had a lot of pull that went way above his rank. Like any good soldier, he wanted to support his commander - Leigh-Mallory.

As always seems to happen in bureaucratic infighting, the battle was decided at a staff meeting. At a key high-level RAF meeting held on 17 October 1940, with the Battle of Britain basically won, Leigh-Mallory brought Bader (who had no reason to be there) to argue for the BIg Wing concept and against Dowding and Park. The political clout of Bader, combined with the institutional power of Leigh-Mallory and the Air Ministry itself, was too much for Dowding (who could be shunted aside as “too old”) and Park (who wasn’t even English, for goodness sakes). This meeting led directly to the sacking of both Dowding and Park - the two men most responsible for the winning of the Battle of Britain.

Air Marshal Sholto Douglas reviews the troops
On 29 September 1942 at Debden, Air Chief Marshal Sholto Douglas conducts a change-over review of the three U.S. Eagle Squadrons. Trailing him are Major General Carl Spaatz (right) and Brigadier General Frank O'Driscoll Hunter (left) - Commanding Generals of USAAF in Great Britain and 8th Air Force Fighter Command.

Where They All Wound Up

Dowding then “retired” (he actually just went to a staff position in the United States, the standard dumping ground for the losers such as Lord Halifax in British bureaucratic struggles). Park was transferred to a humiliating training position (he later rebounded with prestigious commands including Malta and is considered quite a war hero in New Zealand).

Air Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory gives the 1943 Battle of Britain speech
Trafford Leigh-Mallory reaped many rewards from his coup against Dowding and Park. For instance, above he makes official remarks at the grand 1943 Battle of Britain Day held in London. Dowding and Park, employed elsewhere, could not attend.
And Leigh-Mallory? He got what he had wanted all along, Park’s prestigious command of the No. 11 Group in southeastern England. Guess who got Dowding’s position? The real head of the Air Ministry, Deputy Chief of the Air Staff Sholto Douglas (Chief of the Air Staff Charles Portal was brand new to the job in October 1940 and likely had little stake in these internal struggles). In other words, Douglas, who was really running things as the "power behind the throne," got rid of the other power block in one fell swoop and put himself and his cronies in position to claim credit for the success of the Battle of Britain.

Bader got his rewards, too. He quickly received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on 12 December 1940 and was promoted to acting wing commander and became one of the first "wing leaders" on 18 March 1941. In 1941, Bader again combined with Leigh-Mallory in an abortive attempt to equip Spitfires with four .303 machine guns, which Bader personally preferred, instead of .50 machine guns. The larger guns proved more effective and Bader's plans came to naught. He was shot down in combat on 9 August 1941 and spent the remaining war years as a guest of the German government, primarily in Colditz Castle Oflag IV-C.

Douglas Bader spent much of the war in Colditz Castle POW camp
Douglas Bader's home for much of World War II was Colditz Castle POW camp.
The "Big Wing" concept ultimately turned into a big flop. The claims made by Leigh-Mallory and Bader turned out to be vastly inflated. RAF ace Johnnie Johnson summed up the matter nicely:
Douglas was all for the Big Wings to counter the German formation[s]. I think there was room for both tactics – the Big Wings and the small squadrons. It might well have been fatal had Park always tried to get his squadrons into "Balbos," for not only would they have taken longer to get to their height, but sixty or seventy packed climbing fighters could have been seen for miles and would have been sitting ducks for higher 109s.
So, there were pluses and minuses to the "Big Wing," more appropriate for units further from the front than front-line units as Dowding and Park knew. It certainly was not worth a major leadership shakeup in the RAF. In any event, the days of large Luftwaffe daylight raids were over. The "Wing" name lived on as an organizational title meaning a group of squadrons, but the "Big Wing" concept died a quick death.


There was no reason to remove Dowding (or Park). They had both done outstanding work and continued to do outstanding work. The “Big Wing” concept had major failings and was just a handy way to get rid of them. Dowding and Park were the victims of a political purge in which the victors took the spoils. After they had done the “heavy lifting” that won the Battle of Britain and having shouldered the risk of massive failure, Dowding and Park were efficiently disposed of by the real powers within the RAF.

In a way, Dowding was a victim of his own success. Having won the Battle of Britain through brilliant leadership, he created a nation-saving victory that others coveted - and basically took from him.

Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding in 1949
Sir Hugh Dowding (left) at a 1949 commemoration of World War II.


Sunday, April 19, 2020

Why Narvik Was So Important in World War II

Both Sides Wanted Narvik, But Only One Got It

German battleship Tirpitz during World War II
A rare original color photograph of the German battleship Tirpitz underway in a Norwegian fjord (perhaps Altafjord) ca. 1943.
Narvik was important to both sides for several reasons. Overall, however, it was more important to the Germans than to the Allies. The Germans prevailed because Narvik fit into their overall presence in Scandinavia more than it ever could have been of use to the British. The British basically just wanted to keep a foothold on the mainland for very vague and ill-defined purposes. Ultimately, Narvik was just too remote for the British to keep bothering with and maintaining a presence there simply wasn’t worth the effort. German control of the rest of Norway decided the issue.

Map of Battle of Narvik 1940
a map of Narvik ca. 1940. Note that the rail line comes in from the right (east) and heads down to the Narvik port (center). The outlet to the sea is off to the left. (HISTORY OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR, The Campaign in Norway Map 9).
I’ve been to Narvik. The basic layout hasn’t changed much since World War II. The typical entryway is via rail from Stockholm, a grueling 24-hour ride. It is a rough, rugged, beautiful region with an economy that is (or at least was) based on mining. This is obvious once you get a look at the port with its giant ore-processing equipment. It is further from Berlin to Narvik than it is to Moscow, so German troops marching up Norway advanced about as far as any Wehrmacht troops during World War II.

Luftwaffe Do 24 seaplane during Battle of Narvik 1940
Luftwaffe seaplanes, such as this Do 24, were vitally important in maintaining the German presence in northern Norway. You can see the shattered buildings of Narvik in the background (Federal Archive Bild 101II-MW-5618-02).
One reason Narvik was strategically important was its location at the end of the only rail line in northern Norway from the south (as far as I know, that’s still the case). The Germans could shuttle supplies there by land through Sweden. Now, military access through Sweden was tricky and the Swedes placed a lot of conditions on transit rights, but basically, the Germans could maintain a large garrison at Narvik supplied by land rather than by risky sea convoys. The Germans worked out an accommodation with the Swedes that pretty much allowed the shipment on the line of everything but actual troops (and some of that apparently went on, too).

German destroyer Z11 Bernd von Arnim during the Battle of Narvik 1940
German destroyer Z11 Bernd von Arnim beached and scuttled in the fjord Rombaksbotn near Narvik, Norway, 13 April 1940.
Another reason Narvik was important was all the mining that went on there (much of it in Sweden, which sold it to the Germans). Iron ore mining in the area began in 1903. The Swedes did their part to exploit the area by building their rail line to the border, while Norway finished the line the short remaining distance to the port itself. Mining company LKAB built massive mining infrastructure at the port. The port of Narvik is ice-free, making it the perfect spot to collect ore brought overland from northern Sweden and ship it to customers overseas. The Germans desperately needed natural resources, and they were always on Hitler's mind. Since they controlled southern Norway, they could ship ore down along the coast without too much interference. The Narvik ore made a lot of German tanks and ships and that alone made it of prime strategic importance for the Germans.

Battle of Narvik 1940
British ships batter Germans in Narvik in April 1940.
A third reason Narvik was important was as a supply base for operations further north. Extreme Northern Norway was strategically important because it helped secure northern Finland, as German ships could sail around it to the line anchored at Petsamo. The fjords also were great places to park naval units that could attack the Allied Arctic convoys (such as battleship Tirpitz). At the end of the war, the Germans retreating from northern Finland withdrew into a secure defensive sector front anchored by Narvik. Since Sweden was neutral, that line protected basically the entire rest of Norway.

German paratroopers during the Battle of Narvik 1940
German paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) during the Battle of Narvik in 1940.
Perhaps most importantly, the Germans simply wanted to kick the British completely off the European mainland and secure the entire country of Norway. Adolf Hitler took a keen personal interest in the battle at Narvik, where General Dietl barely survived with his force until the British were forced to withdraw on 7 June 1940 by units marching up from the south (a very rough march). For the rest of the war, Hitler was paranoid that the British would try to invade there and kept huge garrisons in Norway. Allied reverses in France ultimately decided events at Narvik. Hitler felt that Dietl’s success at Narvik was so important that Dietl was the first soldier to receive the Oak Leaves.

Battle of Narvik 1940
The German troops at Narvik only survived in 1940 because the Luftwaffe was able to drop paratroopers to reinforce General Dietl's weak force.
So, Narvik had great strategic importance. For the Germans, it was vital to eliminate the British presence and secure the area’s mineral and geographical advantages, while the British basically were just trying to deny the area to the Germans. The Germans ultimately prevailed because their successes on land overcame the clear British advantage at sea. However, it was a very close victory for the Germans decided more by the general war situation than by local military factors.

Battle of Narvik 1940
German troops firing at Royal Navy ships at Narvik.


Saturday, February 29, 2020

Female Aces of World War II

There Were Two Female Aces of World War II

Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak, female fighter aces of World War II
Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak.
It is a little-known fact that there were female fighter aces during World War II. This article is about the two female fighter aces of the Red Air Force, Lydia Litvyak and Yekaterina Budanova.

The Soviet Union had a number of excellent female pilots. At the absolute nadir of Soviet fortunes during World War II, famed Russian pilot Marina Raskova suggested the formation of all-female air force units. Joseph Stalin then personally ordered the formation of several air units specifically intended to be composed entirely of women. By Order No. 0099, dated 8 October 1941, the Stavka (Soviet high command) that Stalin led created three all-female units in the Soviet Air Force.

Marina Raskova, female military pilots of World War II
Marina Raskova on a stamp issued on the centenary of her birth in 2012.
These all-female units were in Aviation Group 122. This group was composed of the No. 586 Aviation Regiment (Yak-1 fighters), No 587 Regiment (later the 125th Guards Dive Bomber Regiment flying Pe-2 bombers), and No. 588 Regiment (later the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment, flying Polikarpov Po-2 night bombers). Stalin never rescinded his order and the all-female units went into action even as the Soviet fortunes improved.

The Night Witches of World War II
The Night Witches got down and dirty in the mud just like the male pilots. Here, a bunch of Night Witches pushes their truck out of the ubiquitous Russian mud.

The Night Witches

The most famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) female pilots flew in the Night Witches, the all-female No. 588 Regiment that flew bombers. The Night Witches unit (a nickname given to them by the Germans) flew over 23,000 missions in obsolete biplane bombers. While not conducting a strategic bombing operation, the Night Witches unit flew harassing missions at night in order to disrupt the Germans’ sleep while causing a little damage.

The Night Witches regiment was considered a success and produced 24 Heroes of the Soviet Union (there was another handful in the 587th Regiment). This was the ultimate accolade, equivalent to the British Victoria Cross or the US Medal of Honor. Receipt of this award granted an annual stipend, placement of a bust of the recipient in his or her home town, and various other highly desirable emoluments.

Restored Polikarpov Po-2 of World War II
A restored Polikarpov Po-2.
I mention the Night Witches because they were the female pilots most people are probably most familiar with. Also, it is to show that female pilots were a very real phenomenon in the Soviet Union and not just a gimmick. Now, before anyone gets excited and defensive about this, no, the female pilots did not win the war all by themselves and were more of an adjunct to the main forces. They were not the core of the Red Air Force and were viewed with some skepticism even by their fellow male pilots. Female pilots did serve a useful function and performed well as part of a team, often operating together or as the "wingmen" (wing women?) of established male pilots.

The Germans considered the female Soviet pilots "unnatural." A legend that may be true grew that they would shoot female Red Air Force pilots on sight.

There apparently were two Soviet female aces, and at the very least one. By “ace,” we use the standard definition of five aerial kills against the enemy. These two ladies followed similar career paths and perished around the same time during 1943.

Lydia Litvyak, female fighter ace of World War II
Lydia Litvyak (RIA Novosti).

Lydia Litvyak, or "Lilya"

One female ace was Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak. She has received almost no recognition in the West largely because she died midway through the conflict and thus did not get a chance to write her memoirs or get interviewed by Western war correspondents.

Lydia Litvyak, or “Lilya” as she was known, was the real deal. She learned to fly long before the war at the age of 14. She later became a flight instructor at the Kalinin Airclub. She was 19 when the war broke out and she enlisted immediately pursuant to a 1939 law allowing women into the military. Lilya joined one of the three all-female units, the 586th (the Night Witches were the 588th). Already trained on a Yakovlev UT-1 trainer, Lilya learned to fly a military Yakovlev Yak-1.

Yak-1 fighters of World War II
Yak-1 fighters. Designed by Aleksandr Sergeievich Yakovlev in 1938, the Yak-1 first flew in January 1940 was built of metal and wood and the cockpit was notable for giving pilots excellent views.
Lilya was known for maintaining a feminine appearance that was "a model of femininity and charm." She used hydrogen peroxide to bleach her hair and liked to pick flowers to put on the wings of her plane. As a result, Lilya became known as the "White Rose of Stalingrad."

In mid-1942, Lilya transferred to the 437th Fighter Regiment. This was a standard men’s unit. The 437th was based on the east bank of the Volga at Srednaia Akhtuba. She was awarded her first two kills on 13 September 1942, thus earning the distinction of becoming the first female pilot to ever shoot down enemy aircraft. One was a Junkers Ju-88, the other a Bf-109 G-2 “Gustav. She claimed another Bf 109 on 14 September (this was not officially recognized), then another Ju 88 on 27 September 1942 (this was officially recognized).

Lydia Litvyak, female fighter ace of World War II
Lydia Litvyak.
Lilya's unit began using Lend-Lease P-39 Aircobras in January 1943, but Lilya wanted to continue flying her trusted Yak. So, she transferred to the 296th Fighter Regiment (later the 73rd Guard Regiment). Lilya continued her successful flying and shot down another Ju 88 and a Bf 109 on 22 March 1943 but was wounded in the process. While Lilya managed to fly back to base, this led to a long hospital stay. After her release in May and while flying an upgraded Yak-1b fighter ("WHite 23"), Lilya quickly shot down an artillery observation balloon on 31 May 1943 after executing a lengthy flight behind enemy lines to attack the balloon from behind. Later, she shot down another Ju 88 on 16 July 1943 during the Battle of Kursk. She was credited with another Bf 109 on 19 July 1943 and again on 21 July 1943.

Lily perished on 1 August 1943 at the age of 21 on a mission over Orel while escorting some Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik ground-attack planes. Her No. 44 plane, as was customary for "free hunters" as they were known, bore a white lily symbol. Being recognized as a "free hunter," or able to go on your own "seek and destroy" missions as a freelancer, was the highest honor a Red Air Force fighter pilot could receive from fellow pilots.

Lydia Litvyak, female fighter ace of World War II
During her career, Lilya flew in 168 combat missions. She was given credit for at least five kills and possibly as many as a dozen. Lilya's remains were found in 1979 buried in the village of Dmitrievka, Shakhterski district (also known as Dmitrovka in the Cherkasy region of Ukraine). This disproved a common belief that Lilya had been taken captive, which was considered dishonorable, and thus opened her to further posthumous accolades. Senior Lieutenant Lydia Litvyak received the Hero of the Soviet Union accolade on 6 May 1990 from USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev. She since has become a sort of cult figure in some circles and there may be a film made about her life.

Yekaterina Budanova, female fighter ace of World War II
Yekaterina Budanova.

Yekaterina Budanova

The other female ace was Yekaterina Vasilyevna Budanova. Yekatinera and Lilya were great friends and worked almost virtually as a team, though they did not always fly together. Yekaterina was about five years older than Lilya and in some ways guided her young friend. As the more outgoing of the two, Budanova "hardly stood out from the fellows."

A common description is that Lilya and Udanova were "complete opposites. While outgoing, though, Budanova was absolutely committed to the war effort. She wrote to her sister:
I am now devoting my entire life to the struggle against the vile Nazi creatures. If I am fated to perish, my death will cost the enemy dearly. My dear winged ‘Yak’ is a good machine and our lives are inseparably bound up together; if the need arises, we both shall die like heroes.
And, of course, that is exactly what happened.

Yekaterina Budanova, fighter ace of World War II
Yekaterina Budanova.
Like Lilya, Yekaterina Budanova, nicknamed Kaća, learned to fly before the war. Budanova began her career with the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment. She remained with the unit and began flying combat missions around May 1942. She later transferred to the 437th Fighter Regiment with Lilya and flew a The Lavochkin-Gorbunov-Gudkov LaGG-3 (LaGG-3) fighter.

Yekaterina also began shooting planes down in September or October 1942. Some say that she shot down a Bf 109 on 14 September 1942. There is better proof that she claimed a Ju 88 and Bf 109 on 2 October 1942. Another possible victory was a Ju 88 on 6 October 1942. She then transferred to the 9th Guards Regiment unit. Two kills of Bf 109s followed on 10 December 1942.

Yekaterina Budanova, fighter ace of World War II
Yekaterina Budanova.
In January 1943, Yekaterina transferred to the 296th Fighter Aviation Regiment (73rd Guards Regiment) along with Lilya so that she could continue flying Yaks. She shot down a Focke-Wulf 190 near Rostov on 10 February 1943, then a Bf 109 on 9 March 1943. She shared the destruction of Bf 109 on 30 May 1943. By July 1943, she officially had 11 claims.

Finally, after shooting down one Bf 109 (her undisputed fifth solo victory) and damaging another, Yekaterina took heavy fire near Antratsit in Luhansk Oblast on 19 July 1943. The plane caught on fire. Budanova crash-landed in the no-man’s land (aptly named this time, no?) between the two sides. However, Yekaterina did not manage to get out of her Yak and perished as her plane burned up at the age of 26. She is buried on the outskirts of the village of Novokrasnovka in the Donetsk region, Ukraine (also near Mariupol). Her plane also bore the white lilies of a "free hunter."

Yekaterina was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Russian Federation on 1 October 1943, missing out on the title Hero of the Soviet Union only because the Soviet Union at that point no longer existed.

Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak, female fighter aces of World War II
Lydia Litvyak, Yekaterina Budanova, and fellow pilot Maria Kuznetsova plan a mission beside a Yak-1 fighter (RIA Novosti).


Fellow Soviet ace Vladimir Lavrinjenko recalled Budanov and Litvjak this way:
Kaća was lively and cheerful, and Lydia Litvjak was the opposite - thoughtful and silent. The girls were real friends, but Kaća always had the last word.
So, although Lilya apparently wound up with more victories and more posthumous fame, the relationship between the two women was quite the opposite. Yekaterina was the planner and Lilya more of the follower.

Lydia Litvyak, fighter ace of World War II
Lilya remains the top female ace of all time.
With both Lilya and Ekaterina, there is some controversy about their exact number of victories. The Soviets were not quite so thorough about counting and verifying aerial victories as the Germans or the Western Allies, though they definitely kept score. However, most sources agree that both were awarded credit for at least five victories, with the true number probably closer to a dozen for each woman. There seems little question that at the very least Lilya was a true ace in any common understanding of the term. As far as I am aware, these were the only two female aces of World War II.

Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak, fighter aces of World War II
Budanova and Litvyak in 1943, not long before their deaths.


Saturday, February 22, 2020

Workhorses of the Luftwaffe

The Luftwaffe Relied on a Handful of Workhorses

Luftwaffe Ju 52 transport
The Junkers Ju 52 was the Luftwaffe’s true workhorse.
This article is intended as an introduction to the workhorses of the Luftwaffe. I have written separate articles about them, so click on the links regarding each plane if you want to learn more about them. There were many other Luftwaffe planes, but this article is devoted only to the backbone of the Luftwaffe.

These were the workhorses in each of the major categories of every World War II air force: fighters, transport planes, ground-attack planes, and bombers. From them, I will choose the one true workhorse of the Luftwaffe.

There was only one or at most two workhorse aircraft for each of these broad aircraft categories. Generally, the same group of top Luftwaffe planes served throughout the conflict, though they were in a continual upgrade process. There were not a lot of successful designs that entirely replaced serviceable aircraft types during the conflict, though there were some new good designs that supplemented the workhorses. Among other reasons, this heavy reliance on only a few major aircraft types was due to the time and effort it would take to retool aircraft factories - time that the Third Reich did not have in abundance.

Bf 109 fighters
The Bf 109 was the Luftwaffe's workhorse fighter.


Fighters are pretty much everyone's favorite class of aircraft. Which would you rather stand around an admire, a Maserati or a Gremlin? Each has their uses - Gremlins carried home an awful lot of groceries and Maseratis not so much - but faster and deadlier craft will always be more interesting than mundane and practical ones.

Focke-Wulf Fw 190
A lineup of Focke-Wulf Fw 190s.
The workhorse Luftwaffe fighter was the Bf 109 (sometimes called the Me 109 or the "Messerschmidt"). It went through multiple revisions throughout the war, but the design definitely was beginning to show its limitations by 1945 (for example, it could remain in the air for only a little more than an hour while the US P-51 could stay aloft for several hours). Designer Kurt Tank added his Focke-Wulf Fw 190 during the summer of 1941, and it also went through numerous models. The top Luftwaffe pilots tended to prefer the Fw 190 after some initial skepticism. The Fw 190 was a big mystery plane to the Allies until a German pilot got confused and landed one in perfect condition in England by mistake in June 1942.

Me 262 fighter
The Me 252 jet fighter caused the Allies a lot of problems.
The excellent Me 262 jet fighter came along in the fall of 1944 and was the preferred mount for the best pilots from that point on, but there weren’t enough of them to go around. Incidentally, one of the main reasons the Me 262 was so popular with the pilots was that it was very survivable - the Allies had great difficulty shooting them down until they figured out that they could just hang out near their airfields and catch them as they were slowing down to land.

Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter-bomber
An FW-190 A5 fighter-bomber loaded with 1x500kg and 2x250kg bombs.
One thing that many people overlook regarding both the Bf 109 and the Fw 190 is that they were good fighter-bombers. Once they dropped their bombs, they were ready to take on the best fighters the Allies could throw at them. The Luftwaffe really began to appreciate this capability as a means of drawing RAF fighter up to battle early in the war, and then also late in the war as their obsolete bombers became more and more vulnerable to Allied night fighters.

Luftwaffe Ju 52 transport
A Junkers Ju 52. I like its appearance, it has a sort of art deco styling.

Transport Aircraft

In terms of transport aircraft, the Junkers Ju 52 was the Luftwaffe’s workhorse throughout the war years. It wasn’t that fast and didn’t have particularly good specifications or defensive armament, but the Ju 52 could fulfill a variety of necessary functions. The Ju 52 originally was designed as a seaplane, but it was the best aircraft to fill the gap in the Luftwaffe’s lineup for cargo planes, so it was adapted to land use.

Luftwaffe Ju 52 transport
A swarm of Ju 52s bringing supplies and troops across the Black Sea to the troops marching on Stalingrad during the summer of 1942.
The problem for the Luftwaffe was that Hitler kept creating situations where the Ju 52 had to fly over enemy territory and in airspace where it could not be adequately defended. It simply was not equipped to do that well. For instance, large numbers were lost during the invasion of Crete, during the supply operations at Kholm and Demyansk, and then at Stalingrad. If the Ju 52 could have just operated behind the front, it would have been available in abundance to do the types of transport jobs it was good at.

Luftwaffe Ju 52 transport
The cockpit of the Junkers Ju 52 embodied classic styling.
Hitler put his own stamp of approval on the Ju 52 by using one as his personal aircraft during the 1930s. Upon the outbreak of war, he switched to a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor because it was faster and thus less vulnerable to Allied fighters.

The Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor.
The Condor was the best reconnaissance plane in the Luftwaffe and sank a lot of Allied ships, some quite large. It also served as a transport, especially as the war ground on, but this did not maximize its capabilities. The Condor's chief advantage was its exceptional range of 3,560 km (2,210 mi, 1,920 nautical miles). Its payload was up to 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lb) of bombs internally or up to 5,400 kg (11,900 lb) externally on four PVC 1006 underwing racks. However, only 276 Condors were built, and it did not have a very good defensive armament. The Luftwaffe made an early (and wise) decision to prohibit its use as a bomber in order to preserve its numbers.

Luftwaffe Ju 252 transport
The Junkers Ju 252 was "better" than the Ju 52 but too fancy for the Luftwaffe's needs.
The Luftwaffe developed an upgraded version of the Ju 52, the Ju 252, by mid-1941. However, it used too many strategic materials (rare metals) and also used engines that were in short supply (the Junkers Jumo 211F). So, very few of these were built and then back to the drawing board. A subsequent model that used fewer strategic materials and engines that were more plentiful, the Ju 352 "Hercules," was the final model. It was not as well-regarded as the Ju 252 but certainly had better capabilities than the original Ju 52. The Ju 352 even had a hydraulically powered Trapoklappe (rear loading ramp) that facilitated the loading of heavy vehicles or freight whilst holding the fuselage level. It should be noted, however, that the Ju 352 could only carry smaller vehicles, not tanks. Only 43 of the Ju 352 model were built before the war situation required a halt to production.

Luftwaffe Ju 352 transport
The Junkers Ju 352. Was it a better plane than the Ju 52? Absolutely. Was it available when the German war effort would have really benefited from it? Absolutely not.
This progression of the Ju 52 shows a larger truth. Getting a serviceable design in operation at the right time is more important than building superior design later when it no longer matters. This is a trap that many students of the war fall into, thinking that just because some later design had better specifications, that meant it was the "best." A good design that comes along too late to matter is not the "best" in my opinion. The best design is one that you can use when it counts. The Ju 52 was the backbone of the Luftwaffe during the time of decision.

Luftwaffe Ju 87 Stuka ground-attack plane
A Junkers Ju 87 Stuka preserved at The Royal Air Force Museum, London.

Ground-Attack Planes

While it is easy to dismiss ground-attack planes as boring and the old-age home for planes that didn't really make it in other roles, they were supremely important in the Wehrmacht. The German military always focused on the ground campaign to the exclusion of almost everything else, including the air war. This narrow focus paid a lot of dividends (superior army performance) and had serious drawbacks (failure to develop a strategic bomber). It resulted in a highly developed integration between the Army (Heer) and the Luftwaffe. This was the essence of the famous "Blitzkrieg" advances and a source of Hitler's early victories.

Luftwaffe Ju 87 Stuka on the cover of Der Adler magazine
The Stuka of the cover of the February 1942 Der Adler military magazine wears an evil grin as it is loaded for action. 
As mentioned above, the Bf 109 and Fw 190 were useful as ground-attack planes. However, the workhorse in this area was the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. These were slow and ponderous and thus suffered the same faults as the Ju 52 transport planes. They were a liability when tasked with missions beyond their capabilities, most notably when used for bombing raids in airspace where the Allied held clear supremacy. Thus, they failed miserably during the Battle of Britain and large numbers were lost over Malta.

Luftwaffe Ju 87 with anti-tank cannons
A Stuka equipped with massive tank-busting cannons.
However, the Ju 87G Stukas equipped with the massive two 37 mm (1.46 in) Bordkanone BK 3,7 cannons were outstanding tank-killers even if even slower and more ponderous than other variants. The most battle-hardened Luftwaffe pilots such as Hans-Ulrich Rudel were using them to knock out Soviet tanks right up to the Battle of Berlin. This is an example of where a plane that is not particularly good at many things is an outstanding contributor to the military effort because it does one thing exceedingly well.

Luftwaffe Heinkel He 111 bomber
A Heinkel He 111 shot down in England during the Battle of Britain.


The Germans never really had a workhorse bomber, which was the Luftwaffe’s major failing. They tried all sorts of different medium bombers with mediocre results for each of them. These included the Junkers Ju 88, which was probably the best of a bad lot. Others which were almost all obsolete by the middle of the conflict included the Heinkel He 111, the Dornier Do 17, and the Heinkel He 177 Greif (Griffin). The Griffin was so prone to engine fires that the pilots took to calling it the “flying fireworks.”

Luftwaffe Arado Ar 234 jet bomber
The Arado Ar 234 - too little, too late.
The Arado Ar 234 Blitz Bomber jet may have been the "best" medium bomber of the war on either side. It did enter service in 1945 and carried out a few missions, such as trying to destroy the famous "Bridge at Remagen" (which ultimately was destroyed, but only after it no longer mattered). However, the Ar 234 came along too late to make a difference.

Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 bomber
A Junkers Ju 88 downed in Moscow. How the pilot brought it down intact among all those buildings was a miracle.
Some people would choose the Ju 88 as the Luftwaffe’s best overall aircraft. This apparently is because it was used in a wide variety of roles and also helped to fill the critical gap in the Luftwaffe’s lineup as a mediocre bomber. I can understand this view, and it has some merit to it. You certainly may take a different view than me on the relative value of the Ju 88, these are all judgments and evaluations subject to what you view as important in a plane.

Luftwaffe Ju 88 bomber
Junkers Ju 88.
The Junkers Ju 88 and its variants certainly did quite a lot of things well. However, in my view, the Ju 88 was certainly a handy plane, but it really fit the old saying of being a jack of all trades but master of none. It was like the sixth man on a basketball team or the utility player on a baseball team. Certainly, the Ju 88 filled an important role. However, most people would view the starting lineup as having the best players.

Luftwaffe Me 323 Gigant transport
The Me 323 "Gigant" was one of the most massive cargo planes of World War II. However, it was slow and a favorite target of Allied fighters.


If I had to pick one indispensable aircraft in the Luftwaffe that was its true workhorse, I would not pick the one that everyone else would choose, namely the Bf 109 fighter. There were other German fighter designs early in the war reasonably similar to the Bf 109’s capabilities. However, Willy Messerschmitt was a savvy businessman and got his bird chosen by using his connections. So, sure, the Bf-109 won the most air battles for the Reich - while it was still winning air battles. There were, after all, 33,984 Bf 109s built.

Luftwaffe Ju 52 transport

But the Bf 109 was not the most important workhorse of the Luftwaffe. No, I would choose the Ju 52, the “flying toolshed,” because the Luftwaffe never had another aircraft that could do what it could do nearly as well.

Luftwaffe Ju 52 transport