“The Stuka was more than just a terror weapon – its ability to deliver bombs where needed with then unheard of precision made it a potent war machine.”
IT WOULD BE difficult to come up with a more potent symbol of the German Blitzkrieg of World War Two than the Ju 87 Sturzkampfflugzeug or “Stuka”.
The notorious single-engine, two-man, dive-bomber’s iconic ‘gull wings’ and ‘spatted’ undercarriage are as unmistakable as the plane’s instantly recognizable wailing siren, dubbed the “Jericho Trumpet” (♬ LISTEN TO IT HERE).
But the Stuka was more than just a terror weapon – its ability to deliver bombs where needed with then unheard of precision made it a potent war machine that crippled the defenders of both Poland and France. In fact, the Ju 87 was a critical contributor to Axis victory in a number of campaigns in the war’s opening years. In fact, it would soldier on in various roles long after the tide had turned against the Nazis. Here are 11 remarkable facts about this famous warplane.
The Stuka: An American idea
In 1931, Ernst Udet, the second-highest scoring German fighter ace of the First World War and future Luftwaffe architect, was in the United States to take part in a stunt flying display. During his trip, the 36-year-old fighter pilot witnessed a Curtiss F8C Helldiver make a simulated dive bombing attack at an air show. The spectacle made an impression on the visiting flier. After the Nazis rose to power, Udet became a champion of to concept of using dive bombing to support ground forces. Udet even brought two U.S. dive bombers back to Germany (the Curtiss Hawk version of the Helldiver). The demonstrators played a key role in making dive bombing central to Luftwaffe doctrine. This in turn would help inform the development of the Stuka.
The first Stukas had twin tails
Early prototypes of the Stuka featured stabilizing double-fin tail-plane configurations yet weren’t fitted with dive brakes. In January 1936, one of Junkers’ most experienced test pilots was killed when his starboard tail-fin broke away. The pilot was unable to pull out of a dive and crashed. After this, Stukas were fitted with single tail fins and brakes.
The Ju 87 first fought in Spain
Stukas made their combat debut as part of the German contingent to the Spanish Civil War — the Condor Legion. They first flew in action in 1936 when a single experimental Ju 87 was secretly deployed to fight alongside nationalist forces. More would follow in the coming months. In fact, Stukas would serve in limited numbers in support of Francisco Franco until early 1939. During that time, at least one was lost in action. Yet the Luftwaffe learned valuable lessons about the effectiveness of the Ju 87 as a dive-bomber from the deployment.
Dive-bombing is a tricky business
Dive bombing was both physically taxing and intellectually demanding on pilots. Before a bombing run, Stuka crews were required to go through a dizzying checklist that included the following steps:
✔ Landing flaps at cruise position
✔ Elevator at cruise position
✔ Rudder trip at cruise position
✔ Contact altimeter ON
✔ Contact altimeter set to release altitude
✔ Supercharger set at automatic
✔ Throttle fully closed
✔ Cooler flaps closed
✔ Dive brakes open
As soon as the dive brakes were activated, the Stuka’s nose would automatically turn down and the plane would begin its descent. The maximum dive-speed was 600 km/h (373 mph).
Once the bombs were released, the contact altimeter warning would light. The pilot would toggle a knob on the control column that would trigger an automatic pull-out. It was a handy feature that prevented the plane from ploughing into the ground — during recoveries, crew were subject to a black-out inducing force of some six Gs.
The Stuka ravaged Poland
Ju 87s flew almost 6,000 sorties during “Case White” the German invasion of Poland. In that time, only 31 of the planes were lost (out of a total of 285 Nazi aircraft destroyed in the two-week campaign). For their part, Stukas decimated the opposition. “We came across throngs of Polish troops, against which our 100-lb fragmentation bombs were deadly,” one pilot recalled. “After that, we went almost down to the deck firing our machine guns. The confusion was indescribable.”
It carried a range of payloads
Stuka squadrons that took part in the invasion of Western Europe in 1940 were outfitted with four main types of bombs:
- The heaviest was a 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) tank-busting panzerbombe cylindrische (PC) or armour-piercing weapon.
- The 500 kg (1,100 lb) spreng dickwand (SD) or high-explosive thick-cased bomb was effective against concrete fortifications.
- Then there was the spreng cylindrische (SC250) or general-purpose 250 kg (500 lb) bomb.
- And finally, planes might also carry a 50kg (110 lb) fragmentation weapon, the SC50.
The most common load-out for a Stuka was a single SC250 beneath the fuselage and four SC50s under the wings.
Stukas met their match over Britain
During the early phase of the 1940 Battle of Britain, Stukas proved highly effective against Allied shipping in the English Channel. But it soon became evident that the dive-bombers were no match for British Hurricanes and Spitfires. The Stuka’s maximum speed was only a sluggish 242 mph, while its two wing-mounted MG-17 machine guns and its single rear-facing 7.92 mm weapon were woefully inadequate in the face of the heavily armed and maneuverable RAF fighters. In one day alone (Aug. 18), British planes shot down 18 Stukas. In fact, a total of 59 of the dive-bombers were destroyed in aerial combat during the summer of 1940. As expected, the Luftwaffe soon pulled its Ju 87s frontline service.
The Stuka got a new lease on life
Although the Ju 87 was fast becoming obsolete in the West, it wasn’t the end for the Stuka. In fact, an improved G-model came into use early in 1943 on the Eastern Front. Based on the earlier D-3 variant, this new version was armed with two under-slung 37-mm cannons. The Stuka’s old dive-bombing mission profiles gave way to tank busting tactics. Although the plane’s ‘heavy artillery’ couldn’t hope to penetrate the front armour of the Red Army’s T-34, they could easily blast through the sides and back of any Soviet armoured vehicle.
Germany boasted a number of Stuka “aces”
Hans-Ulrich Rudel was the most successful Ju 87 pilot of the war and was the lone recipient of Germany’s Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. Ironically, the decorated ace was considered a lacklustre pilot earlier in his career. Yet Rudel claimed 519 tank “kills” while flying Ju 87s. He also destroyed 150 artillery pieces, 70 landing craft, nine aircraft, four armoured trains, several bridges, a destroyer, two cruisers, and even the Soviet battleship Marat. In all, Rudel flew 2,530 sorties on the Eastern Front, and survived the loss of a leg (amputated below the knee) when he was shot down in February of 1945. He died in 1982 at 66.
The Stuka owned the night
As the Stuka became increasingly vulnerable to Allied fighters in daylight operations, the Luftwaffe created special Nachtschlachtgruppen (NSGr) or “Night Attack Groups”. After the Normandy landings, three NSGr operated in Western Europe. The aircraft, designated D-7 and D-8, were outfitted with eliminators to mask their exhausts, ultraviolet lighting behind the instrument panel and special night reflector sights or nachtrevi. The planes’ nocturnal tactics involved a lead plane dropping flares to illuminate a target while other Stukas swooped in for the attack.
Stukas did the most damage at sea
Although most picture the Stuka screaming down onto enemy tanks, trucks and soldiers, it’s arguable that the plane’s greatest successes came when it was used against enemy shipping. During the Norwegian campaign for example, Ju 87 formations sunk two destroyers, crippled a pair of cruisers and posed a deadly threat to Royal Navy surface operations in the region.
In the early stages of the Battle of Britain, the dive-bombers famously played havoc with British sea traffic in the English Channel. Indeed, the first Stuka pilot Knight’s Cross was awarded to Captain Paul-Werner Hozzel for successfully attacking shipping there.
Later, in the Mediterranean, Ju 87s proved their worth, putting the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious out of action in January 1941. Finally, on the Eastern Front, Stukas dealt crippling blows to both the Soviet Black Sea and Baltic fleets. It was the skill of the pilots in dive-bombing tactics that made the Stuka so deadly against ships. As British Admiral Andrew Cunningham put it, while observing the Ju 87 attacks on Illustrious: “We could not but admire the skill and precision of it all.”
You can find out more about the Ju 87 STUKA in a “Rapid Read” eBook Stuka Tank Busters ’43, available for £1.99 (or dollar equivalent) on Amazon and also on the German War Machine website:www.germanwarmachine.com