The Luftwaffe, the newest of the military services, was the least professional and suffered the most from promotions not based on merit. Göring surrounded himself with advisers whose principal qualifications were that they were Nazis, as opposed to experienced aviation military officers. Many times they either offered poor advice or, not wishing to anger him, agreed with whatever ideas he developed. Increasingly, Göring, who held numerous offices in the Reich, largely abandoned his command of the Luftwaffe, intervening only in fits and starts and often with disastrous results, as during the 1940 Battle of Britain. During the war, the Luftwaffe was also the agency least conscious of communications security.
The Luftwaffe controlled all air services but had little interest in naval aviation. Airborne troops were Luftwaffe personnel, and the air force also had charge of antiaircraft artillery. Eventually the Luftwaffe even fielded 22 ground divisions, including the Hermann Göring Armored Division. The Luftwaffe itself was organized into Luftflotten (air fleets), constituted so as to perform a variety of roles and consisting of a wide variety of aircraft types. At the beginning of the war, Germany had four Luftflotten, and during the course of the conflict three more were added. The next operational division was the Fleigerkorps (flier corps), and below that was the Fleigerdivision (flier division). These last two each contained several Geschwader (squadrons) that were designated as to types (including fighters, bombers, night fighters, training, and so on). Each division controlled three to four Gruppen (groups) comprising three or four Staffein (squadrons). In September 1939, the Luftwaffe had 302 Staffein.
At that point, Germany’s chief advantage was in the air, for at the start of hostilities the Luftwaffe was certainly the world’s most powerful air force. In September 1939, Göring commanded more than 3,600 frontline aircraft. The death in 1936 of strategic bomber proponent General Walther Wever, however, had brought a shift in emphasis to tactical air power. This remained the case throughout the war. Although Germany developed four-engine bomber prototypes, these were never placed in production. It could be argued, however, that a tactical air force was the best use of Germany’s limited resources.
The German air force was essentially built to support ground operations. It suited ideally the new blitzkrieg tactics, and the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber was a highly accurate form of “flying artillery.” Impressed by U.S. Marine Corps experiments with precision dive-bombing, the Germans embraced this technique; indeed, all German bombers had to be capable of dive-bombing. This entailed considerable aircraft structural change with attendant production delays and a decrease in bomb-carrying capacity. The flying weight of the Junkers Ju-88 twin-engine bomber went from 6 to 12 tons, sharply reducing both its speed and its bomb-carrying capacity. Nonetheless, the Germans developed some exceptional aircraft. In addition to the Stuka, they had a superb air superiority fighter in the Messerschmitt Bf-109, certainly one of the best all-around aircraft of the war.
The Germans did not have numerical or technological superiority over their opponents. Against Adolf Hitler’s 136 divisions (2.5 million men), the French, British, Belgians, and Dutch could field 135 divisions (more than 2 million men). The Allies and neutral powers also had more tanks (perhaps 3,600, compared with 2,500 for the Germans). The Allies were sadly deficient, however, in numbers of antiaircraft guns and aircraft. Against 1,444 German bombers, the Allies could send up only 830 fighters. These would have to cope with 1,264 German fighter aircraft, more than 1,000 of which were Bf-109s. Overall, the German air fleets deployed in the west numbered 3,226 combat aircraft, whereas the British and French had half that number.
The German army and air force displayed ingenuity and adaptability in the invasion of the Low Countries. In the heart of Rotterdam, Heinkel float planes landed infantry which paddled ashore in inflatable boats.
Infantry-carrying gliders had been towed behind transport planes to land on the roof of Belgium's titanic Eben Emael fortress. On the Luxembourg frontier, German soldiers posing as tourists and dressed in civilian clothes went ahead of the main force to disconnect the demolition devices. The invaders used Dutch uniforms and an armoured train to take the bridge at Gennep. Parachute troops came tumbling out of the sky to seize the mile long undefended bridges at Moerdijk.
Three-engined Junkers airliners crammed with infantry were crash-landed on Dutch roads.
Most of this 'exotica' was used against the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium by the Germans of Army Group B. There was not very much of it and its actual contribution was small. These gimmicks were not a portent of wars to come, they were a stage conjuror's trick to hold the attention of the audience while Army Group A brought the rabbit from the Ardennes woodlands.
Although Germany had overrun France and northwestern Europe rather swiftly in the spring of 1940, its victory was by no means one-sided. The Luftwaffe had committed about 1,000 first-line fighters to the campaign, while the Allies between them had nearly as many. Allied losses were heavy, including aircraft abandoned during the hasty Allied retreat. These losses included about 65 Spitfires, 350 Hurricanes, and 300 DeWoitine 520s (a very good French fighter quite literally just coming off the assembly line during the battle). But the Luftwaffe also took a beating, with nearly 500 Messerschmitt fighters lost, plus many bombers. Pilot losses on both sides had also been serious. Moreover, in an inspired moment, the RAF shipped German pilot prisoners to Great Britain, thereby removing them from the war permanently.
The Luftwaffe played key roles in the German victories over Poland in 1939 and over France and the Low Countries in 1940. Its limitations first became evident during the Battle of Britain, when Göring attempted to wage a strategic bombing campaign with a tactical air force. Germany’s defeat in this battle was its first setback of the war.