Saturday, 5 May 2012

Bombing the Wrong targets: The German Luftwaffe in Africa and the Mediterranean 1941-2 Pt I

Some readers may know that on Wednesday 9th May I've volunteered to do a talk to the Imperial War Museum History department about the Luftwaffe in North Africa and the campaign against Malta. To be fair I was at a leaving party last year, I'd had a couple of beers and got talking to one of the others about my Dissertation and said in usual Becks fuelled bravado.
You know what Bryn... I could talk about that. Next year? Yeah plenty of time.

Well now I need to present and the research is taking up a lot of my spare time and taking over my writing time. As I am trying to commit my presentation to text I thought I'd post it here on this blog for anyone that is interested....


There are several generalisations and disbelief about the German Military that have developed through time since the War and I'm hoping to dispel them through the course of this presentation.

Germany's War aims were driven, not through ideology, though that did help, but by resources and OKW (OberKommandderWehrmacht) was painfully aware of the short falls of fuel, precious metals and rubber that faced the fledgling Wehrmacht.

The notion of Blitzkrieg grew out of tactics first used by German Stormtroopers and during British counter attacks in 1918. Heinz Guderian, in his seminal work Achtung Panzer! described the conditions for the ideal tank attacks to punch through an enemy front line and into the rear areas quickly.

Its all about Schwerpunkt.

OKW and OKH (OberKommand der Heer) would select a point of attack along the enemies front line that was the weakest or most preferable for attack. Behind German lines tanks and motorised Infantry would be massed and on X-day they would advance under artillery fire through the line and then sweep towards stores and rear areas sewing confusion and panic into civilians and military staff alike with the aim of bringing the war to a swift end.

This type of war appealed to the German strategists who knew that Germany could not afford another protracted war of attrition like the First World War. If Germany was to go to war she had to take out her enemies quickly and efficiently and this is where a problem arose.

Artillery is slow and cumbersome, it cannot be dragged along at the same speed as a Panzer column and takes time to deploy and fire. Also with the advent of aircraft any large mass of artillery being deployed behind the lines and the lengthy barrage before the attack would attract a lot of attention and the enemy would be able to guess where the attack would come. So what is the solution?

Cue the Luftwaffe.

The German high command had not been ignorant of technical developments and had pursued an active, though supposedly secretive, creation and evaluation program for aircraft development including the infamous "Dive bomber order" from Udet's office.

I'm not going to delve into the age old, and dare I say it tired debate, about whether the Luftwaffe was a Tactical or Strategic air force. For the purpose of Blitzkrieg it was purely tactical as the OKW heads were not interested in long term aerial strategy they only needed temporary aerial supremacy above the Schwerpunkt and advances. The point of the invasion was to knock the enemy out quickly.
I shall never start a war without the certainty that a demoralised enemy will succumb to the first stroke of a single gigantic attack  - Adolf Hitler

The Luftwaffe was thus seen only as flying artillery. The beauty of it, as seen by the Army commanders and their master planners in Berlin, was that they could attack without prior warning. On X-day the medium bombers would strike the enemies air instillations around the target areas whilst 109's would perform a freijagd over the advancing columns and areas shooting at anything that moved and engaging enemy aircraft. As the Panzer columns moved forward Ju 87 Stukas would be called in to strike hard points in the defencive network and enemy counter attacks.

This was all controlled by the column commanders who had a Luftwaffe officer attached to update the local Fliegerkorps commander of situations and to report their units current position to cut down the chance of friendly fire. This way the Army group commanders and Luftflotten commanders knew where their men were- In theory.

One of the big problems came with the attacks on England and Malta. The Luftwaffe was suddenly thrown into a strategic role without Panzer support. Africa and Russia threw into sharp relief the amount that the Luftwaffe was being used as an artillery piece. Field commanders were more than happy to call in wave after wave of Stuka dive bombers on one target forgetting the wear and tear on aircraft and their crews but I'll come to that later.

One of the great myths about the Third Reich is the size of its armed forces including the Luftwaffe. What is often forgotten is that during the invasion of Poland there was only 1 bomber fleet on the Western front and only a handful of fighters. The same was true during Sealion, the Germans fielded some 2400 aircraft and that was the total strike force available. When the Germans built up a bomber fleet for Malta or assigned the meagre forces to North Africa they were reassigning aircraft from more vital areas and were generally the only aircraft available.

So why Africa?

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