The German Air Force during the World Wars: The History of the Imperial German Air Service and the Luftwaffe

Written by Charles River Editors
Category: · History

*Includes pictures
*Includes accounts of the fighting
*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
*Includes a table of contents

“My Luftwaffe is invincible…And so now we turn to England. How long will this one last — two, three weeks?” – Hermann Goering, June 1940

The first aircraft to appear in the skies over the battlefields of World War I showed few signs of the dominant future of airplanes in warfare. Small, fragile, and slow, they provided no hint of the sleek jet fighters that would one day slash across the skies of Earth faster than sound to unleash the lethal blast and fire of sophisticated missiles, or the bombers able to level an entire city with one nuclear bomb. That said, they did not represent a complete novelty in warfare either, at least not during the early months of World War I.

At first, airplane improvements occurred in an ad hoc, almost accidental manner during the war. However, when pilots’ mounting of armaments on airplanes proved a successful means of defeating other aircraft and even attacking men on the ground, a much more active and systematic development of warplanes began across the continent. Each advance prompted a countermeasure, as the two sides strove for primacy in a deadly, unforgiving environment which rewarded real advances in equipment and tactics with survival and punished poor ideas with death. But before long, relatively powerful, heavily armed aircraft buzzed through the skies over battle-stained Europe, tearing each other apart with furious gusts of machine gun fire and sending many of the vaunted dirigibles plunging, burning, to the ground. The new era of fighting aircraft arrived in dramatic fashion, raising successful pilots to celebrity or heroic status, and laying the groundwork for the tremendous potential of airpower to achieve its next logical expansion in World War II and beyond.

The Germans produced cutting edge aerial technology during World War I, along with revolutionary dogfighting tactics and some of history’s first flying aces, including the most famous, the Red Baron. But ultimately, economic shortages and lack of manpower hampered the Germans in the air, even when their men and machinery proved superior at critical periods of the war. The story would not turn out the same a generation later. The Third Reich’s Luftwaffe began World War II with significant advantages over other European air forces, playing a critical role in the German war machine’s swift, powerful advance. By war’s end, however, the Luftwaffe had been decimated by combat losses and crippled by poor decisions at the highest levels of military decision-making, and it proved unable to challenge Allied air superiority despite a last-minute upsurge in German aircraft production.

Given its unique strengths and distinctive weaknesses by the personal quirks of the men who developed it, the Luftwaffe initially overwhelmed the more conservative, outdated military aviation of other countries. Its leaders embraced such concepts as the dive-bomber, which proved both utterly devastating and extremely useful for supporting the sweeping, powerful movements of Blitzkrieg, while other martial establishments rejected dive-bombers as impractical or even impossible.

The Luftwaffe’s eventual loss of aerial domination exposed the Germans to precisely the same misfortunes on the ground as they had once relentlessly inflicted on the Poles and Russians. During its heyday, however, the Luftwaffe amply proved the leading role played by air power in the modern combined arms formula. It also produced a remarkable number of aces, whose exploits overshadowed the finest pilots of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, or the United States.

The German Air Force during the World Wars: The History of the Imperial German Air Service and the Luftwaffe looks at the roles the German air force played during the wars, from their origins to their demise.

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