I fear I’ve overused the word “iconic” since I started this site, but I can think of no more fitting adjective for this airplane.
Join me for a look at Germany’s much feared dive bomber after the jump.
For much of the world, the Stuka symbolized everything that was terrifying about Nazi blitzkrieg. It stood for unstoppable force and wanton destruction, especially to the streams of refugees pouring across Europe in the first few years of the war.
Of course as a weapon it can be looked at a little more rationally. We can see what it was good at and what it’s limitations were. Dive bombing goes back to World War I, it was first experimented with by the British. But Britain largely abandoned the tactic after The Great War because the trade off of high risk for the increase of accuracy did not seem worthwhile to them. That is, if an airplane standing on its nose in a dive increases its own accuracy, it also leaves itself exposed to ground fire in the same way. You simplify Bomb aiming and trajectory by making yourself a sitting duck. Britain, the U.S. Army Air Force, and many others would use “dive bombing” in World War II, but mostly in high speed, shallow dives.
The US Marine Corps and Navy pursued the most extreme form of dive bombing, known as “Helldiving”, that involved nearly vertical dives and pull outs below 2000 feet for specific reasons. The Marines were primarily interested in high precision close support work for their ground troops; while the Navy was developing tactics for their new aircraft carriers, and were acutely aware of how size limited their Bombers would be, making accuracy against moving ships a very high priority.
When Ernst Udet, a famous stunt pilot and ace from the First World War, visited the US in 1933, he saw a demonstration of Marine Corps dive bombing. When he subsequently joined the Nazi party, he convinced Herman Goring, head of the newly forming Luftwaffe, to buy two of those dive bombers for evaluation work in Germany. Dive bombing was appealing to the Germans since they’d been prohibited from having an air force by the Treaty of Versailles; dive bombing presented the possibility of being a real force multiplier. Perhaps they wouldn’t have to worry about building a whole force of heavy bombers all at once, if they could invest in much smaller, high precision aircraft.
So Germany set about working on dive bombing tactics, and building an aircraft suited to the mission. In time this lead to the Ju 87 (“Stuka” is actually just a shortened form of the German word for dive bomber). The type was combat tested, like many German types, in the Spanish Civil War, and deployed en masse just before World War II got started. The Stuka was perfectly optimized for its role. It was rugged, stable in a dive, and carried a good bomb load for a single engine aircraft. As long as it had surprise, or the Germans had local air superiority, it was highly effective as a precision weapon, airborne artillery and terror weapon. In the opening months of the war, the Stuka seemed an unstoppable force.
But as the British had observed 25 years earlier, when local air superiority was lost, the dive bomber became very vulnerable. When the Stuka was used over England summer of 1940, into the teeth of a radar guided fighter force, it took unsustainable losses. The Germans did learn their lesson. The Stukas were withdrawn from the Channel Front, and deployed more effectively in Eastern Europe, North Africa and Russia. But the mystique had been broken, and the Stuka would no longer generate the awe and panic it had in those first months of the war.
Like the American Dauntless and Japanese Val, the Stuka was at the pinnacle of dive bomber design. Later in the war; radar guided anti-aircraft guns, proximity fused ammunition and a more permanent loss of air superiority led to the decline of dive bombing for the Luftwaffe. Later versions of the Stuka did not even have dive flaps and the type became just another light tactical aircraft. And the emergence of guided weapons (smart bombs) post war ensured that dive bombing was a thing of the past.
This example is from the Hasegawa kit, with Aeromaster decals. It represents an early Stuka used in the Battle of France.
Up Next: North American B-25J Mitchell