In 1920, the German air service was dissolved in accordance with the terms of the post-World War One Versailles Treaty. Within just 13 years however, the Nazi regime had formed a new air force that would quickly become one of the most sophisticated in the world.
Here are 10 facts you may not have known about the Luftwaffe.
1. Hundreds of Luftwaffe pilots and personnel trained in the Soviet Union
Following the end of World War One and the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forbidden from having an air force after 1920 (except for up to 100 seaplanes to work in minesweeping operations). Zeppelins, which had been used in World War One to bomb the UK, were also banned.
Therefore would-be military pilots had to train in secret. Initially this was done at German civil aviation schools, and only light training planes could be used to maintain the façade that the trainees were going to fly with civil airlines. Ultimately these proved insufficient training grounds for military purposes and Germany soon sought help from the Soviet Union, also isolated in Europe at the time.
A secret German airfield was established in the Soviet city of Lipetsk in 1924 and remained in operation until 1933 – the year the Luftwaffe was formed. It was officially known as 4th squadron of the 40th wing of the Red Army. Luftwaffe air force pilots and technical personnel also studied and trained at a number of the Soviet Union’s own air force schools.
The first steps towards the Luftwaffe’s formation were undertaken just months after Adolf Hitler came to power, with World War One flying ace Hermann Göring, becoming National Kommissar for aviation.
2. A Luftwaffe detachment supported rebel forces in the Spanish Civil War
Together with personnel from the German army, this detachment was known as the Condor Legion. Its involvement in the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939 provided the Luftwaffe with a testing ground for new aircraft and practices, and helped Francisco Franco defeat the Republican forces on the condition that it stay under German command. Over 20,000 German airmen gained combat experience.
On 26 April 1937, the Condor Legion attacked the small Basque city of Guernica in northern Spain, dropping bombs on the town and surrounding countryside for around 3 hours. One-third of Guernica’s 5,000 inhabitants were killed or wounded, prompting a wave of protests.
The Legion’s development of strategic bombing methods proved particularly invaluable for the Luftwaffe during World War Two. The Blitz on London and many other British cities involved indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, but by 1942, all major participants in World War Two had adopted the bombing tactics developed at Guernica, in which civilians became a target.
3. By the start of World War Two the Luftwaffe was the largest and most powerful air force in Europe
This saw it quickly establishing air supremacy during the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and later playing an important role in helping Germany to secure victory during the Battle of France in the spring of 1940 – within a short amount of time, Germany had invaded and conquered most of Western Europe.
However, the Luftwaffe was unable to achieve air superiority over Britain in the summer of that year – something that Hitler had set as a precondition for an invasion. The Luftwaffe estimated it would be able to defeat the RAF’s Fighter Command in southern England in 4 days and destroy the rest of the RAF in 4 weeks. They were proved wrong.
4. Its paratroopers were the first to ever be used in large-scale airborne military operations
The Fallschirmjäger were the paratrooper branch of the German Luftwaffe. Known as the “green devils” by Allied forces during World War Two, the Luftwaffe’s paratroopers were considered the most elite infantry of the German military, along with the light infantry of the German alpine troops.
They were deployed in parachute operations in 1940 and 1941 and participated in the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael, the Battle for The Hague, and during the Battle of Crete.
5. Its two most prized test pilots were women…
Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were both pilots at the top of their game and both had a strong sense of honour and duty. But despite these similarities, the two women didn’t get on and had very different perspectives regarding the Nazi regime.
6. …one of whom had a Jewish father
While Reitsch was very committed to the Nazi regime, von Stauffenberg – who found out in the 1930s that her father had been born Jewish – was very critical of the Nazis’ world view. In fact, she had married into the family of German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and supported his failed assassination plot to kill Hitler in July 1944.
The Women Who Flew for Hitler author Clare Mulley says letters show Reitsch speaking of von Stauffenberg’s “racial burden” and that the two women absolutely loathed each other.
7. Medical experiments were carried out on prisoners for the Luftwaffe
It is not clear on whose orders these experiments were carried out or whether air force personnel were directly involved, but they were nonetheless designed for the Luftwaffe’s benefit. They included tests to find ways of preventing and treating hypothermia that involved subjecting concentration camp prisoners at Dachau and Auschwitz to freezing temperatures.
In early 1942, prisoners were used (by Sigmund Rascher, a Luftwaffe doctor based at Dachau), in experiments to perfect ejection seats at high altitudes. A low-pressure chamber containing these prisoners was used to simulate conditions at altitudes of up to 20,000 metres. Nearly half the subjects died from the experiment, and the others were executed.
8. About 70 people volunteered to be suicide pilots for the force
The idea to set up a kamikaze-esque unit of the Luftwaffe was Hanna Reitsch’s idea. She had presented it to Hitler in February 1944 and the Nazi leader had given his reluctant approval.
But although testing on aircraft in which suicide pilots could fly was carried out by Reitsch and engineer Heinz Kensche, and adaptations made to the V-1 flying bomb in order that it could be flown by a pilot, no suicide missions were ever flown.
9. Hermann Göring was commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe for all but two weeks of its history
Göring, who was one of the most powerful members of the Nazi Party and who had been a World War One ace, served in this position from 1933 until two weeks before the end of World War Two. At that point, Göring was dismissed by Hitler and a man named Robert Ritter von Greim was appointed in his place.
With this move, von Greim – who, incidentally, was the lover of Hanna Reitsch – became the last German officer in World War Two to be promoted to the highest military rank of generalfeldmarschall.
10. It ceased to exist in 1946
The Allied Control Council began the process to dismantle the armed forces of Nazi Germany – including the Luftwaffe – in September 1945, but it wasn’t completed until the August of the following year.
By the end of World War Two, the Luftwaffe had around 70,000 aerial victories to its name, but also significant losses. Around 40,000 of the force’s aircraft had been completely destroyed during the war while around another 37,000 had been badly damaged.