Part two of our series on military blueprints focuses on the primary dive bomber of the Luftwaffe, the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka
The Junker Ju-87 Sturzkampfflugzeug (dive-bomber), or Stuka for short, was the culmination of several years of dive bomber design. The driving principle in the early stages of design were that the the plane must be simple and robust. This lead to several technical innovations, such as the adoption of fixed landing gear. Dive breaks were added to improve control during a dive and an automated recovery system was developed. This meant that if the pilot blacked out from the extreme g-forces during a dive, the plane would automatically pull up. The iconic gull wing design was chosen to improve the visibility of the pilot during a dive. It would also allow the Ju-87 to have higher ground clearance, meaning bigger bombs could be mounted to the fuselage.
On the B-1 model, the Stuka was fitted with Jericho Trumpets. These were essentially propeller driven sirens mounted on the landing gear. In a dive they would emit a wailing sounds intended to weaken enemy morale and add to the terror of dive bombing. However, the trumpets caused considerable drag and lost their morale effect once the enemy were used to the sound. So they were removed on later models and bombs were fitted with whistles, which would produce a similar noise on release but would not affect the aircraft’s performance.
Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown, legendary British test pilot, flew a captured Ju-87. He said of the Stuka, “I had flown a lot of dive-bombers and it’s the only one that you can dive truly vertically. Sometimes with the dive-bombers…maximum dive is usually in the order of 60 degrees.. When flying the Stuka, because it’s all automatic, you are really flying vertically… The Stuka was in a class of its own.”
The Ju-87 made its combat debut in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. Being flown with the Condor Legion, part of Nazi Germany’s contribution to Francisco Franco’s nationalists. In these early skirmishes, pilots were able to test and perfect dive bombing techniques that they would use to great effect in the coming years. From the outbreak of the Second World War the Stuka operated with considerable success in close air support and anti-shipping. They were the spearhead of the invasion of Poland, and proved instrumental in the rapid conquests of Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and France in 1940.
Like many other dive bombers the Stuka was vulnerable to contemporary fighters. Up until now they had operated where the defence was disorganised and the Luftwaffe had secured aerial supremacy. During the Battle of Britain the lack of manoeuvrability, speed and defensive armament meant that heavy fighter support was required to operate effectively. Despite some success with precision strikes on airfields and radar stations, the Stukas were taking heavy losses. From the 8th to the 18th of August 1940, 20% of available Ju-87’s were lost. Due to the unsustainable losses they were withdrawn from use over Britain. A token force remained to raid shipping in the English Channel. The Stuka would then go on to admirable service in the North African and Mediterranean theatres. Although by 1943 the allies had air superiority in Africa and again the Stukas suffered heavy losses.
The opening days of Operation Barbarossa saw the Ju-87, partake in the annihilation of the Soviet Air Force in the Western Soviet Union. Almost 4,000 Soviet planes were destroyed in the first three days. Once again the Luftwaffe had achieved aerial supremacy and the Ju-87 could operate with impunity. The battle of Stalingrad marked the high point of the fortunes of the Ju-87. As the German Army pushed the Soviets into a 1,000 metre enclave on the west bank of the Volga River, 1,208 Stuka sorties were flown against this small strip of land. The intense air attack, though causing horrific losses on Soviet units, failed to destroy them. From 1943 the Soviet Air Force would gradually wrestle control of the skies back from the Luftwaffe.
By 1943 Soviet T-34 tanks were impervious to all but a direct hit from a Ju-87. At the suggestion of the leading Stuka ace, Hans-Ulrich Rudel, two 37 mm Flak 18 guns were attached in self-contained under-wing gun pods. With an experienced pilot the Kanonenvogel (cannon-bird), was devastating against tanks.
As the war progressed into 1944 the allies achieved aerial supremacy. The Ju-87 was being phased out in favour of ground-attack variants of the Fw 190. Production would cease this year but the aircraft would continue to be used until the German surrender. A somewhat ‘last hurrah’ of the Stuka occurred in early 1945 when the Soviet 1st Belorussian Front advanced beyond their air cover. High casualties were inflicted with few taken. Some 2,000 vehicles and 51 tanks were destroyed in the first 3 days of February 1945. This counter attack was instrumental in saving Berlin from capture, albeit for 3 months.