Why Did the Luftwaffe Struggle to Fight at Sea?

Larry Paterson

Twentieth Century World War Two
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The Luftwaffe became active in most maritime regions in which the Wehrmacht was fighting; from the Arctic to Black Seas, with even a token floatplane presence in the Indian Ocean. Their strategy, however, was ill-defined from before the war had even begun.

Lacking priority

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It is fair to say that in the years leading to war the German naval staff saw little value in a fleet air arm beyond reconnaissance for major surface units while the Reich Air Ministry fixated on building an air force capable of supporting war on land.

Between these two factions, a potential maritime aerial strike force was virtually stillborn by September 1939.

To compound problems for those that lobbied fiercely for an independent naval air service, the vainglorious Göring worked tirelessly to bring everything that flew within Germany under his control; his personal animosity towards the aristocratic head of the Reichsmarine, Erich Raeder, compounding an already bitter struggle for ownership of Germany’s aerial forces.

The compromise became the Küstenflieger, manned by Luftwaffe aircrew with Kriegsmarine observers; the latter’s naval training including the intricacies of nautical navigation.

Meagre success

Achievements of the Luftwaffe’s maritime air unit AS/88 in the Spanish Civil War were judged meagre at best and highlighted the technical imperfections of the F5 aerial torpedo. Somewhat bizarrely, instead of providing an impetus to improving this torpedo design, research was brought to a virtual standstill.

The torpedo was thought costly and inefficient — its task able to be accomplished with traditional bombs. The Luftwaffe had learned the value of close air support for ground units and, with the death of the farsighted Generalleutnant Walther Wever in 1936, development of long-range bombers capable of supporting naval operations was de-prioritised in favour of short and medium range aircraft that would shape the Blitzkrieg.

He 59 biplane
The Heinkel He 59 biplane.

Joint-control

The Luftwaffe entered the war with its main multi-purpose maritime bomber the obsolete Heinkel He 59 biplane. The improved He 115 monoplane was slowly entering service, though unable to use the F5 torpedo as its slowest speed exceeded the maximum launching velocity for this imperfect weapon.

Maritime units were grouped into Küstenfliegergruppen, under tactical Kriegsmarine control though never detached from the Luftwaffe and therefore subject to a form of ‘joint control’. Meanwhile, Luftwaffe Kampfgeschwader 26 (Heinkel He 111) and KG 30 (Junkers Ju 88) were grouped into 10. Fliegerdivision (later X.Fliegerkorps) which would also be dedicated primarily to maritime operations.

An ineffective outcome

Initial Küstenflieger missions against Poland used the maritime specialists as traditional bombers, yielding poor results and wasting the lives of valuable aircrew.

With the entry of Britain and France into the war on 3 September, the Küstenflieger were redirected to the North Sea, engaged in contraband interception, reconnaissance and its first anti-shipping missions. Local cooperation between regional Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine commands began to yield beneficial reconnaissance results.

At its pinnacle an opportunistic strike against Royal Navy capital ships on 25 September that had been shadowed by Küstenflieger Dornier flying boats brought KG 26 and KG 30 into action. The resulting attack inflicted no damage on the Royal Navy, though result-hungry German propaganda claimed HMS Ark Royal sunk.

Royal Navy World War Two
Bombs falling astern of HMS ARK ROYAL during an attack by Italian aircraft during the Battle of Cape Spartivento.

Göring’s immediate response at this apparent success was to order all long-range reconnaissance over the North Sea be henceforth handled by land-based Staffeln of Luftflotte 2.

Corresponding frequent navigational mistakes by Luftwaffe observers not fully versed in the vagaries of nautical navigation resulted in an increased number of erroneous sighting reports and requiring verification by skilled observers aboard Küstenflieger aircraft.

This useless waste of resources in duplicated and fruitless missions disastrously undermined Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine cooperation.

Losing the initiative

Focke-Wulf Fw 200 C Condor
Focke-Wulf Fw 200 C Condor (Credit: Bundesarchiv / CC).

Luftwaffe maritime strategy thereafter remained one of reaction rather than initiative. The introduction of long-range Focke Wulf Fw 200 ‘Condor’ aircraft to the newly formed KG 40 under the control of Fliegerführer Atlantik added a potentially powerful reconnaissance aircraft to the burgeoning U-boat conflict.

However, this was hamstrung by the weaknesses of this converted airliner, deficiencies in Luftwaffe nautical skills and repeated unwillingness to ‘shadow’ enemy shipping and transmit beacons for U-boats, but rather to attack for the benefit of the Luftwaffe’s reputation.

Furthermore, as was the case with much of the Wehrmacht, there were never enough aircraft to fulfil requirements.

Despite eventual advances in torpedo design and the application of several Kampfgeschwader to this role, torpedo bomber victories were relatively few with one or two notable convoy operations — such as against PQ17 — that sometimes benefited as much from Allied tactical mistakes as German response.

Impeding invasions

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Attempts to interdict Allied amphibious landings were, in the main, repeated failures, beginning with Operation Torch in 1942 through to Overlord in June 1944.

Though experiencing brief success with the introduction of radio guided missiles and glide bombs within the Mediterranean, the Luftwaffe was never able to seriously impede such invasions and countermeasures soon introduced.

The bombers themselves that were deployed were, in the main, upgrades of models with which the Luftwaffe had begun the war, or fresh designs such as the Heinkel He 177 that was troubled with flaws due to the confused nature of its development.

A torpedo is loaded on a German Heinkel He 115 seaplane.
A torpedo is loaded on a German Heinkel He 115 seaplane.

Doomed from the start

Despite the best efforts of front-line units, the Luftwaffe was ultimately doomed from the outset of war. Its leadership was in Göring’s confused hands; a man of high intelligence and political acumen, but completely unsuited to the task.

Inter-agency competition and rivalry became the bane of every service within the Third Reich, both military and political. It is nowhere more evident than the struggle between Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine for control of maritime air power.

However, the last whisper of Raeder’s original master plan for an independent naval air arm was finally silenced in October 1944 when the final remnant — Küstenfliegergruppe 406 — was disbanded.

Nonetheless, the Luftwaffe continued to mount maritime operations until the dying days of the Third Reich despite the horrendous odds stacked against them. The foibles of their leadership had doomed them to failure from the opening days of the Second World War.

Lawrence Paterson is a well-known author of German naval operations in World War Two. He has a long-standing interest in the Kriegsmarine. His latest book, Eagles over the Sea 1935–1942, was published on 7 August 2019, by Pen and Sword Publishing.

Larry Paterson