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World War II begins

German operations and plans, July 1940 - March 1941. (click to enlarge)

The Versailles Treaty of 1918 ending World War I demanded the destruction of the German military. Specifically, it ordered the destruction of all warplanes and prohibited any kind of air force. The London Ultimatum of May 1921 forbade Germany from manufacturing all aircraft until the summer of 1922, and then only under tight restrictions. The cry "if we can’t fly with motors, we’ll fly without them" was heard across Germany as gliding clubs were established, teaching patriots to fly.

But the German military did not completely disappear; it merely lay dormant throughout the 1920s. Its staff still developed air doctrine and training programs, monitored technology developments, and built a civilian aviation industrial infrastructure--always ready to rearm when the Allies stopped watching. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) party came to power, campaigning against the Versailles Treaty restrictions. Immediately, Hitler began rearming under what he believed was a veil of secrecy. In reality, the Allies knew but were unwilling to react.

Aviation, through the air force, became Germany’s primary focus. Many Germans had felt abandoned by the army and navy at the end of World War I. However, the nation still regarded the aces and the air force as the greatest symbols of Germany. Aces Oscar Boelke and Manfred von Richthofen were celebrated as the ultimate patriots, having displayed a fierce discipline that was the ideal of the Nazis. Hermann Goering, the World War I ace who had taken over von Richthofen’s unit upon his death, was chosen by Hitler as his second in command and was appointed minister of aviation and commander in chief of the Luftwaffe. Airplanes were an integral part of Nazi pageantry, as Hitler frequently travelled the country by airplane, and formations of aircraft flew over party rallies and the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympics.

On March 9, 1935, Hitler decided to test the Allies’ resolve to enforce the Versailles Treaty. He directed Goering to announce during an interview with English journalist Ward Price that Germany now boasted an air force- the Luftwaffe (air weapon). Since there was no reaction from abroad, Hitler began to publicly organize rearmament. He sent planes and personnel to fight in the Spanish Civil War, where they gained valuable experience. He brought engineers home from abroad and built a new fleet of modern aircraft. And he paraded airplanes in front of visiting dignitaries, hoping to arouse fear of his power. Yet throughout all of this, Hitler kept reiterating that "Germany desires peace and Germany needs peace," keeping the Allies at bay as he prepared for war.

The dreaded Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber used by the German Luftwaffe so effectively in Poland in 1939 and western Europe in 1940.

After acquiring land through treaties and agreements, Hitler decided it was time to go to war. At 4:34 a.m. on September 1, 1939, three Stuka dive bombers appeared in the skies of Poland. They destroyed the detonating wires leading to a bridge that the Poles were preparing to destroy to stop the German advance. War had begun. The Poles put up a strong defence. In the early 1930s, the Polskie Sily Powiertrzne (Polish Air Force) had been considered one of the best in the world. It had possessed skilled pilots and good planes like the PZL P.11 fighter plane and the PZL P.23 and P.37 bombers. Unfortunately, after placing the men under poor command for five years and allowing its aircraft to fall behind advances in technology, Poland had forfeited its air superiority by 1939.

The Germans developed the JU-87 Stuka dive bomber and turned some of its weaknesses—its low speed and sluggish handling—into useful components of their blitzkrieg tactics. Stukas were never a factor when opposed by nearly any of the Allied fighters of the war.

Poland was the first nation to encounter the Nazi style of war- the Blitzkrieg (lightning war). At a time when most governments were still fixated on trench warfare, the Germans were developing their theories around the new technologies of aviation and tanks. Blitzkrieg moved frighteningly fast--first, the air force moved in to gain control of the sky, bombing cities, and attacking point targets like bridges, fortification, and railroads. Then airborne troops and Panzer (tank) units moved in on the ground to clean up. To add to the shock value of the sudden, intense attacks, the Stuka dive bombers were fitted with wind-driven sirens, called "trumpets of Jericho." This screaming sound became the hallmark of German attacks. The attacks required enormous coordination between land and air troops. They also required high concentrations of weapons and men, something the Germans were not able to sustain for too many invasions.

Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3,1939, but it was too late and Poland surrendered on September 17. After a winter break, Hitler launched "Operation Weser" against Denmark and Norway on April 6, 1940. Denmark surrendered that same day, but with the aid of the Allies, Norway fought until May. The Germans focused on airfields--using airborne troops to secure them. The Norwegians operated out of improvised airfields, even snowfields that had to be packed down by herds of reindeer. They flew Gloster Gladiators--biplanes acquired from the British. Although greatly outclassed by the Messerschmitts, the Gladiators gave it their best, scoring impressive victories. They were also reinforced by the planes from three British aircraft carriers, including the HMS Glorious, which was later sunk by German battleships while evacuating troops in June. When war on the Western Front began on May 10, Hitler had gained Scandinavia, but at a great cost.

Although obsolete as a bomber by World War II, the Junkers Ju 52s delivered the attacking forces and their supplies during the German invasion of Norway, Denmark, France, and the Low Countries in 1940.

Fall Gelb, or Plan Yellow, began on May 10, 1940, when the Germans attacked France, Holland, and Belgium. Despite an aggressive arming project, aided by the United States’ Lend-Lease program, the French Armee de l’Air was ill prepared to fight the Blitzkrieg, even though the Germans were weakened by airplane and leadership losses. The French did feel safe, however, behind the Maginot Line, constructed of three lines of reinforced concrete, blockhouses, and forts along its eastern borders. Much to their shock, the Germans rolled right over them. In the air, France sent its best airplanes to confront the Germans and on May 10, the Luftwaffe had its worse day of the year, suffering more than 83 losses. Yet the French did not have the strength or depth to continue meeting the German attack. Many of their resources had been depleted trying to help Norway, a situation the English were not eager to repeat by supporting France, which they considered a lost cause. A labyrinthine command structure, few airplanes, and inadequate training already impeded the French, and as the losses mounted, there was a growing sense of defeat at every level. Writing about his experiences as a reconnaissance pilot during the Battle of France, Antoine de Saint-Exupery compared the French effort to "dashing glassfuls of water into a forest fire."

Early in World War II, the Messerschmitt Bf 109E Gustav" completely dominated the Polish PZL fighters. In the invasion of France in May 1940, the Bf 109E outfought French Morane-Saulnier MS 406s and British Hawker Hurricanes.

The other invaded countries fell faster. After a mistaken order resulted in the terror bombing of Rotterdam on May 14, Holland surrendered two hours later. Belgium surrendered on May 28. Critical to the defeat of Belgium was the capture of Fort Eben-Emael. Considered impenetrable, Hitler ordered ten gliders, carrying 78 specially trained engineers to land in the fort. In less than 24 hours, the 1,500-man fort had surrendered, with only six Germans killed, leaving the way into central Belgium wide open.

As the Allies were pushed toward the Atlantic Ocean, it became clear that France was lost and that its counterattack plan was too intricate for the fleeing troops to carry out. On May 26, the Royal Navy approved Operation Dynamo--a massive evacuation of 338,226 English, French, and Belgium troops from the port town of Dunkirk. For eight days, 850 ships--from small fishing boats to destroyers--evacuated the soldiers. The Spitfire made its first appearance and a German pilot reported, "The British pilots attacked with the fury of maniacs." But the men on the ground still felt abandoned, constantly attacked by Stukas, screaming, "Where is the bloody RAF?" During the evacuation, 177 Allied aircraft were lost, as opposed to 240 German.

The remarkable Focke-Wolf FW 190, Germany’s answer to the British Spitfire, was a masterpiece of fighter design and one of the most versatile planes ever built. The Focke-Wulf plant in Bremen was a high-priority Allied bombing target

The Messerschmitt Me 109 was the backbone of the Luftwaffe: some thirty-five thousand were  produced

German aces of the 'Spades' Squadron  1940 after 2,008  sorties and 112 kills

When the French surrendered on June 20, Air Marshall Hugh Dowding, commander of the RAF’s Fighter Command said, "Thank God we’re alone now." After several months of using precious aircraft trying to help lost causes, England could finally concentrate on protecting itself against the upcoming German invasion.