The German Army that crossed into Poland on September 1 had with it more than 200 Ju87s for support, and the years between the Spanish Civil War and the Poland invasion provided now-General Richthofen with time to experiment with new techniques for controlling close air support missions.
Named the “air commander for special purposes,” his main contribution to the development of CAS was the creation of four Special Air Detachments. Traveling with army division commanders and using armored cars, these units were sent to General von Reichenau’s Tenth Army to experiment calling in precision air strikes.
When not being used for direct support work, Stukas were used throughout the campaign to attack bridges, fortifications, and other “hard” targets. Some early lessons in the vulnerability of the Stuka operating alone could have been taught had the Poles used a unified, coherent command for their air force. They did not. Contrary to most reports, the Polish Air Force was NOT destroyed on the ground in the first day, but rather sent to dispersal fields, where interaction with larger air units was difficult at best. The Polish Air Force was therefore unable to stop the widespread attacks by the Stukas as they protected the German army’s flanks and blasted targets at or near front lines. While the attack on Poland is often considered the first real Blitzkrieg, it was a far more traditional attack. Points of resistance were simply bypassed, trading distance for all else. Air power preserved the flanks of the German advances and froze Polish units, who usually found themselves surrounded by the German army in large pockets.
When the Polish Army finally launched a major counteroffensive on the flanks of the fast-moving German army, they became early martyrs to the effectiveness of airpower. On September 9, about 170,000 Polish forces gathered and attacked German forces near Poznan. The attack briefly looked like it would work, cutting the 10th Army off from its logistics trail.
Unfortunately for the Poles, the 10th was the unit with von Richthofen’s Special Air Detachments. Quickly, the attacking Poles found themselves under withering dive-bombing from Stukas and constant strafing by Hs123 biplanes (the Hs123 was the German’s premier ground attack strafer for the first several years of the war). However, it wasn’t just the dive bomber and ground attack assets of the Luftwaffe that were used. Any available aircraft in the theater was sent to plug the gap. Horses, still crucial to both Polish and German ground forces, panicked under the air attacks; their troops did little better. Stukas had been fitted with sirens on their wings, and the Hs123’s engine sounded like a loud machine gun itself at low altitude. The effect on the fresh Polish troops, who had never come under air attack, was total. It was an utter route, and 1,700 sorties later, the Luftwaffe has effectively crushed the Polish counterattack.
Polish General Kutrzeba described the scene:
“Towards ten o’clock, a furious air assault was made on the river crossings near Witkovice – which for the number of aircraft engaged, the violence of their attack, and the acrobatic daring of their pilots, must have been unprecedented. Every moment, every troop concentration, every line of advance, came under pulverizing bombardment from the air. It was just hell on earth. The bridges were destroyed, the fords blocked, and the waiting columns of men decimated.”
Although the battle for Poland was handily won by the Germans, air power theorists such as von Richthofen still saw much room for improvement. A wide range of issues had arisen from the actual application of the theory of the Special Air Attachments. Army officers didn’t feel the need to call in air strikes as much as they could have, and there were the inevitable SNAFUs of radio frequencies and target identification. The fact that the Polish campaign really was more a battle of encirclement rather than a true concentrated armor attack also weighed heavily. Largely free of concentrated attacks, the Stukas were used to protect the flanks of German units and strike point targets.
As the battle for Poland effectively ended on September 17, the Luftwaffe had to take its lesson to heart. Despite the overall success, losses were not light. In the three weeks of battle, Luftwaffe losses climbed to about 18 percent. Out of the 285 aircraft lost, however, only 31 had been Stukas. Comparatively, the Polish Air Force lost more than 80 percent of their aircraft, and 30 percent of its aircrew, in the first two weeks. It was a convincing win that blinded the Germans to some problems with their CAS strategies, but which fueled further development of solid tactics.
In contrast to Poland, the attack on France in May, 1940 was a better illustration of CAS in a Blitzkrieg-style armored attack. Using the time between Poland and France to hone skills, develop strategy, and ready their forces, the Germans proceeded to embarrass their opponents, nations with militaries that were arguably as good, if not better, than the Germans in many areas.
As the Germans conquered Norway and Denmark, the Allies placed their faith on a strategy that would fail them during the inevitable attacks on Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. On May 10, the expected German attacks came on the Low Countries, in the form of airborne and air-landed assaults. The British and French had essentially predicted this attack, and moved their forces rapidly from northeast France to counter the attack, sure that the fortified Magniot Line and the dense Ardennes Forest protected their right flank from any German counterattack. As they moved, they came under surprisingly light air attack from the Germans. The Allies took this as a sign of weakness and wholly expected to block any further German advance.
It was, therefore, a bit of a shock when 1,800 German tanks, from seven divisions, emerged out of the “unpassable” Ardennes across a 50-mile wide front. An umbrella of airpower lashed out at the French and British air bases and far behind the front lines, using twin-engine bombers to attack communication lines, logistics center, and other key targets. Closer to the actual ground units, Stukas provided a rolling wave of support as the Germans raced out of the Ardennes and towards the River Meuse.
The attacks to the north were essentially a diversion for the knockout punch, which now not only threatened to trap the Allies to the north, but cut a wide path through Northern France to the English Channel. Supporting those tanks were more than 300 Stukas and over 40 Hs123s, attacking targets in front of the massive armored attack. Deeper into France, Bf110s, Ju-88s, and other German aircraft hit Allied airfields, communications centers, and other key targets in raids designed to make the opponent off balance and impotent.
Within two days, the German armored thrust had reached the Meuse River and all eyes were on the city of Sedan, where a crucial French strongpoint was charged with preventing a crossing. The French commanders at Sedan, caught by surprise at the sight of the German forces massing against the opposite edge of the river, now expected a long delay as German artillery, often still drawn by horse, caught up with the fast-moving armored units. They correctly assumed that they had more artillery assets at their disposal, but incorrectly assumed the Germans would hold off their attack until their own artillery caught up. What they didn’t know or understand was that the Luftwaffe, and especially the Stuka, were being transformed into another roll…on-call aerial artillery.
As the first German units crossed the river in boats on May 13, the French defenders were subjected to massive dive-bombing attacks on their fortified positions. As the French used their artillery against the attackers, it was targeted and destroyed by German air units. Once freed of their direct supporting role, the Stukas were reassigned to attack any reinforcements heading to Sedan.
Stunning the world and the French philosophy of a strong river defense, by May 14 German tanks were crossing the river and racing to the northwest, cutting off the Allied forces now stretched out in the flat land between the armor and the German airborne attackers in the countries to the north. The German tanks’ freedom from threats was due largely to the Luftwaffe and the incompetence of their opponents.
Despite the success of the German attack, some problems remained in the implementation of air / ground coordination. The rapid pace of the attack made fixed “bomb lines,” which clearly identified friendly and enemy positions, obsolete. Supply lines were greatly stretched, and aircrews were deeply strained. Some pilots flew nine sorties per day supporting the attacks. And while it had been enhanced, radio communication between the ground and the air sometimes still left much to be desired.
German General Helmut Mahlke discusses some of the new tactics attempted.
“Target description by telephone, based on maps, was used. This of course causes quite a bit of delay, which was not acceptable for a quick operation. Beginning in France, therefore, a special organization was set up. A Stuka UHF wireless set was mounted in a tank of the Panzer Force involved in the main battle. Luftwaffe UHF operators in these tanks participated in the main ground attacks, as close as possible to the commander of the Panzer Force. Where this system was in operation, the Stuka unit was directed overhead and got exact targeting by wireless. In addition, the ground troops would shoot colored flares near the target.”
The use of flares became important to identify enemy from friendly. Operating behind the rapidly-dissolving Allied lines, Stuka crews would use flares to request identification from unknown vehicles below. German ground troops spotting a Stuka overhead firing flares would respond in kind. Flare colors would change every few days to prevent the Allies from learning the tactic. Other attempts at providing targeting information included large flags laid on the ground with an arrow on them, pointing in the direction of the main enemy resistance, as well as German flags laid on top of German forward vehicles. The problem of friendly fire was a new hazard of bombing close to your own army, and while the techniques of the Germans seem primitive, the 50+ years since the war haven’t particularly seen much improvement in identifying friend from foe from the air.
Unlike Poland, where the Germans essentially enveloped spots of heavy resistance and bypassed likely points of heavy combat, in France, they directed massive aerial firepower at the “Schwerpunkt,” or vital points where the German commander focuses his attack (usually sources of heavy enemy resistance). The effects of the Stukas, sirens screaming as they fell from the sky onto the unbloodied Allied forces, was devastating.
One officer in the British Expeditionary Force described the aftermath of a Stuka attack on an infantry unit, which suffered very little in physical casualties from the attack.
“The chaps were absolutely shattered. I think afterwards the officers and few sergeants got up and tried to get things moving, but the chaps just sat about in a complete daze, and one had to almost kick them to get them moving to the next position…on this first occasion, the effect [of the Stukas] was truly fantastic.”
Another account tells a similar tale:
“The incessant howling of the dive bombers, the scream of their bombs, and the endless explosions, accompanied by blinding smoke and the shrieks of the wounded, would have strained the nerves of hard-bitten regulars, let alone those of the middle-aged and rather unwilling soldiers who thought only of returning to their families. For the infantry, covering in trenches and bunkers, it was an ordeal that produced deep shock, but for the artillery in their wider gun pits, it was infinitely worse.”
Germany’s Air Manual 16, which set much of the underlying strategy of the Blitzkrieg, had long identified the morale effects of a dive-bombing attack to be often much greater than the actual physical damage done. Those theories now seemed solidly proven. The Allied defenses had shattered in the face of the rapid German advance and the ceaseless pummeling from above. Defending Allied troops simply just broke and ran to the rear, under constant air attack from the Luftwaffe.
However, the Germans did not get off entirely without loss. In addition to losing one of their longtime and much-admired Stuka pilots to flak on May 12, the Germans also learned a valuable lesson in the vulnerability of their primary weapon, the Stuka. While Allied air missions against the German attack were at best weak and at worst disastrous, the Allies did occasionally get lucky. On May 12, French pilots flying Curtis Hawk 75 fighters intercepted a returning flight of 12 Stukas without an escort. They shot down all of them without loss, and then proceeded to cause an inbound flight of Stukas to drop their bombs early and head for cover. Several more were shot down, again without French loss. The lesson that Stukas could not survive alone in airspace actively defended by airplanes was one that the Germans would forget and learn again later over Britain in the summer of 1940.
In general, though, Allied aircraft committed to attacking the Germans was slaughtered wholesale by flak and air defenses. Because CAS was so de-emphasized by the Allied air forces, their attacks came in fat, dumb, and happy. On May 14, 40 out of the 72 attacking British Battle and Blenheim bombers were shot down. On May 17, only one aircraft in an attacking force of twelve from Britain’s 82 Squadron returned to base. By May 12, the RAF had lost 63 of its original 135 aircraft in the area. Daily losses ranged from 40 to 60 percent, and on Saturday May 11, the RAF took 100 percent losses in its attacks. Which side had spent the lull between Poland and France practicing air to ground attacks was painfully obvious.
As the Germans raced to the sea to cut off the Allies, several attempts were made to strike at the German flanks. At Marle and Montcornet on May 17, Arras on May 21, and Cambrai on May 22, the attacks were too little, too late. Airpower isolated the attacking units and punished them severely, often before their attacks ever started. Once in contact with German ground units, the attacking Allies found themselves outgunned and alone. The decision to start using the German 8.8cm anti-aircraft gun in an anti-tank role helped seal the fate of the poorly-planned Allied attacks.
By early June, the British were pinned at Dunkirk, trying to rescue what remained of their once-mighty expeditionary force. While German close air support certainly cannot take the entire credit for the Allied defeat, it was a major contributor and shocked the world.