Close Air Support in World War II: The Luftwaffe

by John “Spoons” Sponauer



This is the second part of a series of articles on the role of close air support in modern war. For the previous installment, be sure to read Andy Bush’s excellent “Close Air Support in the Vietnam War.”

The idea of writing a series of articles on CAS came out of some internal discussions back in October of 1999. In one day, we exchanged about 30 emails back and forth, and quickly chose “assignments” for CAS stories to cover. As you may guess, talking about writing these articles and actually doing it are two different things…I was amazed at how much I didn’t know about the topic until I started reading about it, and this article has been a real joy to write (in some ways 😉 ). I hope I do the topic justice.

Author’s Notes
Before the reader delves into the article, there are several points of clarification that I’d like to make, just to avoid confusion later.

  • I interchangeably use the words “Russian(s)” and “Soviet(s)” throughout this article. I fully understand that they are not the same thing, but taken in the context of the WWII’s Eastern Front, I felt they were close enough to not cause confusion.
  • While there were many other examples of German close air support in the war (for example, in Greece, North Africa, the Balkans and Scandinavia), I have focused on the three most well-known battles where CAS was used: Poland, France, and the Soviet Union.
  • I really do not discuss a vital component of Luftwaffe CAS in the war…the role of aerial reconnaissance in finding, identifying, and delivering intel to ground commanders. The Germans had a very well-developed recon capability throughout the war, and used it extensively for guiding their attacks. Truth be told, an article about the role of German aerial recon in WWII could almost be as large as this one.
  • This is not an academic work….I do not properly footnote, but I have provided a full bibliography of my sources at the end.

In case the reader is not already familiar with the common types of German aircraft and weapons involved in the war, an appendix has been included with graphics and data.

I am in no way, shape, or form sympathetic to the German causes in WWII, nor Nazism. My voluntary selection of this time period and side is entirely based on my interest of WWII history and nothing else. I find the Allied use of CAS in the war just as interesting.

Thanks for visiting and for reading “Close Air Support in World War II: The Luftwaffe.” Feedback is always appreciated!

Pre-War History

It’s hard to believe that a little more than five years prior to the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the Luftwaffe didn’t even exist. Disarmed by the conditions of surrender of the First World War, Germany was banned from having a standing air force. While organizationally it prevented the Luftwaffe of WWII from being formed early, the ban was widely ignored in spirit. Numerous state-sponsored “flying clubs” blossomed all over the country, many air officers from WWI were placed high in the German Army structure, and the German aircraft industry, banned from building warplanes for Germany, moved some operations oversees and produced aircraft under contract for other nations.

The fact that the Germans saw the potential of airpower in a CAS role is important for understanding the success of the airpower component of what western observers called Blitzkrieg. Unlike most other countries in the inter-war years, Germany saw a close connection between its air force and army, not just on paper, but in tactics. As the Luftwaffe came into its own in 1934, most of the higher officers in the Luftwaffe were formerly of the German Army. Even new recruits to the Luftwaffe officer corps were given valuable training in army tactics and concepts. The two branches frequently held officer exchanges during annual exercises, and to a degree unlike any other nation, the Luftwaffe was seen as a supporting peer to the Army, as well as the other way around. As Germany’s enemies would find once they were on the receiving end of the Blitzkrieg, this coordination, from the highest echelons down to combat units, greatly enhanced their military effectiveness. Despite some early, and even some lingering, feeling of distrust of their new airborne counterparts (incidentally, many of those same German military leaders also distrusted the armor corps), the German Army not only expected, but demanded, that the Luftwaffe support them in war. While the Luftwaffe was not instantly wed to the actions that we would consider close air support today (preferring instead to initially focus on actions in the enemy’s rear…what we would consider interdiction today), several of the Luftwaffe’s most progressive military minds had their own theories.

To make these theories work, the Germans needed a practical testing ground for testing air / ground coordination. They got it, in the form of the Spanish Civil War.

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