Spanish Civil War
The baptism of fire for the Luftwaffe and their new concepts of air / ground cooperation came in Spain. In November 1936, Germany had 40 aircraft and more than 4,000 “voluntary” personnel in the theater, fighting on the Nationalist side as the Legion Condor. This number would eventually move upwards of 10,000 men.
The leaders of the fledgling Luftwaffe used Spain as the testing ground for doctrine, and for the most part came away with correct theory that would prove instrumental over Poland and France in the years to come.
One leader in particular, Oberst Wolfram von Richthofen (the cousin of WWI’s “Red Baron”) played a crucial role not only in developing the tactics of close air support, but also the tools to make it all work. Originally the Chief of Staff of General Hugo Sperrle, von Richthofen took over as commander of the Legion Condor in 1938. Prior to that, Richthofen cut his teeth turning years of theory of “peacetime” army/air force cooperation into practice.
Richthofen’s fame came largely later in France and Poland, and ironically, while he is often credited with the development of dive bombing tactics for the Ju87 Stuka, he was not an early proponent of the aircraft. While there was never a doubt of whether the Luftwaffe would support the army or not, Richthofen’s original preference was on the status quo theory of effective strikes, low-level strafing and bombing using He51 and Hs123 fighters and coordinated by liaison teams in the German Army.
Special Luftwaffe radio teams, attached to army commanders, could accurately direct ground support where it was needed. This by itself was revolutionary; with the added force of some new German weapons, the first large-scale lesson in close air support was about to begin.
In September 1937, the Junkers Ju87A Stuka was introduced to the Spanish Civil War as part of the aircraft’s operational trials. Three Ju87s from I/St.G 163 were sent to Spain, and aircrews quickly grew to appreciate the dive bomber’s abilities. It was rugged, stable, and easy to fly. Luftwaffe aircrews were rotated through the Stuka unit to give them combat experience in the airframe and provide a pool of skilled operators for when the type went into widespread use. The Germans prized the Ju87s so much that not even their Nationalist allies were allowed to examine them, and it became a great fear that one of these “wonder weapons” would fall into the hands of the enemy.
Approaching its target at a near vertical dive, the Stuka was capable of placing its 1,000 lb. payload with then-pinpoint accuracy. A pair of machine guns rounded out the armament. After its first combat use in March 1938, aircrews bragged of being able to deliver bombs within five meters of the target, more than close enough for the bomb to cause significant damage. Aviation historian Walter Boyne has called the Stuka “the first smart bomb” for its ability to strike at pinpoint targets, far more accurately than conventional low-level bombing.
The initial success of the Stuka was not lost on von Richthofen, who began to strongly push for more coordination between Stuka crews and the army forces below. This was a marked change from earlier in the conflict, when he was reluctant to use the new aircraft.
In one instance, the Germans launched a bombing raid on a road bridge near Guernica. More than 40 level bombers and fighters were tasked to take out the target. A 1948 British study of the action came to this conclusion:
“He had at his disposal a weapons far more suited to the task than the cumbersome Junkers (Ju52 level bomber). Each of his Stuka dive bombers was capable of carrying a single bomb weighing 1,000 pounds. Equipped the latest bombsight, able to nose-dive onto a target, and any of the four Stuka available that day would have had a high chance of taking out the bridge with one direct hit.”
von Richthofen apparently never considered employing the brand new Stukas for the attack. As their worth and accuracy became more evident, they were used much more, which also strengthened army / air force cooperation.
By the end of the civil war, Luftwaffe troops served at or near the front line, coordinating strikes on targets between the aircrew overhead and the commanders of both the Luftwaffe and the army further back. As the war came to an end, the Germans walked away from their victory with a solid appreciation for the power of air / ground coordination, although coordination between Luftwaffe units and ground troops still was mostly limited to the Army’s Divisional level.
Interestingly, the military observers in Britain came to opposite conclusions. When the Minister of the Army suggested that the value of close air support had been proven by the Germans, the idea was squashed by senior officials as inefficient and ineffective. Official memos strongly discouraged the mere talk of coordinating air power with the army below. It became so dogmatic that in 1938, any RAF unit practicing strafing in cooperation with the army got a letter of rebuke from the Air Ministry.
British and French soldiers and airmen would pay for their leader’s stubbornness in the years to come. Germany was going to take the lessons learned in Spain and focus their attention next on Poland. The West would sit back and watch. The fuse to WWII had been lit.