Fire in the Steppe:
During the First World War, British pilots
experimented with dive-bombing, making shallow
dives to point their aircraft at the target
before releasing their bomb load. Lt. Harry
Brown of the Royal Flying Corps sank a barge
with the tactic in 1917, but official tests
finally decided the method was too dangerous
and pilots were discouraged from trying it.
Dive-bombing as a ground-support tactic
dates back the campaigns of U.S. Marines in
Nicaragua against Augusto Sandino in the late
1920s. The Marine fliers made much steeper
dives than the British pilots had tried, and,
pleased with the results, added the impressive
maneuver to their repertoire for the air shows
they gave in the United States. Ernst Udet,
the Great War fighter ace who headed aircraft
development for Germany’s still-secret
Luftwaffe, attended a demonstration in 1933
and bought a pair of Curtiss Hawk biplanes
for testing. Udet also appears to have obtained
examples of the American-designed “swinging
bomb crutch” so important to American
and German dive bombers. This device, made
of metal tubes, swung the bomb downward and
forward before release, so that it would clear
the propeller. Without such a device, near-vertical
dives (and the accuracy such dives permitted)
were not possible. Later, the U.S. Navy would
refuse to transfer the same technology to
After tests with some other biplanes, the
standard German dive bomber, or Sturzkampfflugzeug
(“Stuka” in German military shorthand),
became the Henschel Hs123 biplane. It was
a rugged aircraft that remained in service
well into World War Two as a close-support
plane. But biplanes did not seem very modern,
no matter how fine their performance, and
Nazi ideology demanded that the Luftwaffe
fly the most modern aircraft available. Also,
Udet believed (probably correctly) that biplane
technology had reached its maximum development,
and he wanted an aircraft design that would
support future improvements.
The Blohm und Voss Ha.137, loser in the dive-bomber
The Luftwaffe tested a low-wing monoplane,
the Junkers K47, and also shared data with
the Swedish Air Force. After some further
studies, in 1936 requests went out for a new
design. Four firms entered the competition.
Udet, still considered a hot pilot, flew each
plane himself at the Air Force test center
at Rechlin, as did several other test pilots.
Arado entered the only biplane in the competition,
the indescribably ugly Ar.81. It was actually
faster than all but one of the competitors,
and had very good handling. But it Udet had
no interest in another biplane Stuka. Heinkel’s
He 118 was a very advanced plane, but couldn’t
hit the steep diving angles required. And when
Udet tried to press its limits, the propeller
fell off and the ace had to punch out —
not the best way to impress the head of procurement.
Heinkel made its money back, however, when it
sold the design to the Japanese Navy as the
Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” — a plane
whose long development time in Japanese hands
fully justified Udet’s misgivings.
Too pretty for dive bombing. The He 118.
Blohm und Voss put up the Ha.137, another
ugly plane but at least it had only one wing.
A single-seater, unlike the other entries,
it could carry a much greater bombload. Another
member of the judges’ panel, Wolfram
von Richthofen (later a senior Luftwaffe commander)
recommended this plane, but Udet eventually
ruled against it.
Instead, Udet favored the Junkers entry,
the Ju.87. Another ugly airplane, the Ju.87
had the twin fins of the K47; these would
soon be replaced by a single large one after
the plane went into an uncontrolled spin and
killed test pilot Willy Neunhofen. While the
Ju.87 did not look very much like the K47,
which had been designed as a fighter, it borrowed
the fixed undercarriage (covering it with
“trousers” on the new plane) and
the slotted flaps of the older plane.
Arado supposedly did not intentionally design
the Ar.81 to be ugly.
While slower than other contenders, the Ju.87
had excellent low-speed handling and gave
the pilot a very good field of vision, aspects
Udet considered highly important. Hermann
Pohlmann’s engineering team had actually
begun their design in 1934, soon after Hugo
Junkers was placed under house arrest for
his anti-Nazi views and his refusal to transfer
his private engine and aircraft patents to
the government. The Hs.123 had been clearly
designated a stop-gap solution, even though
the Luftwaffe eventually bought over 600 of
the machines, and the new directors of Junkers
AG hoped to regain political favor by winning
the competition for the next Stuka.
The plane flown by Udet therefore already
had two years of development behind it, and
performed very well. Test pilots remarked
on its smoothness in a dive, with none of
the sensation of falling common to the other
candidates, a quality confirmed by later combat
reports. The production version began to reach
Luftwaffe squadrons in early 1937, and three
of the pre-production models went to Spain for
combat testing with the Kondor Legion in late
The twin-finned prototype. Selected for
production even though it killed its test
The first production model, the Ju.87A, ended
its production run in late 1938 after 260
machines had been delivered. It saw no combat
outside Spain. The B-model appeared late that
year and became the standard Luftwaffe dive
bomber of the early war years. It had more
aerodynamic “spats” over the landing
gear and a more powerful fuel-injected engine.
It also carried the “Jericho Trumpet,”
a siren designed by Udet and fitted to the
undercarriage to give the plane its famous
“death scream” and inspire terror
in Germany’s enemies. Pilots believed
it degraded the plane’s performance,
and during the Battle of Britain in 1940 most
removed the siren as it slowed an already
vulnerable plane and sowed precious little
terror among the English.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.