Fire in the Steppe:
Germany’s Dive Bombers

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 the French.

The Blohm und Voss Ha.137, loser in the dive-bomber competition.
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 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.

Too pretty for dive bombing. The He 118.
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.

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.

Arado supposedly did not intentionally design the Ar.81 to be ugly.
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.

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 twin-finned prototype. Selected for production even though it killed its test pilot.
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 1936.

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.