Defence of the Reich – Strategic Defensive Aerial Campaign

The Defence of the Reich (German: Reichsverteidigung) is the name given to the strategic defensive aerial campaign fought by the Luftwaffe over German-occupied Europe and Nazi Germany during World War II. Its aim was to prevent the destruction of German civilians, military and civil industries by the Western Allies. The day and night air battles over Germany during the war involved thousands of aircraft, units and aerial engagements to counter the Allied strategic bombing campaign. The campaign was one of the longest in the history of aerial warfare and with the Battle of the Atlantic and the Allied Blockade of Germany was the longest of the war. The Luftwaffe fighter force defended the airspace of German-occupied territory against attack, first by RAF Bomber Command and then against the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF).

In the early years, the Luftwaffe was able to inflict a string of defeats on Allied strategic air forces. In 1939, Bomber Command was forced to operate at night, due to the extent of losses of unescorted heavy bombers flying in daylight. In 1943, the USAAF suffered several reverses in daylight and called off the offensive over Germany in October. The British built up their bomber force and introduced navigational aids and tactics such as the bomber stream that enabled them to mount larger and larger attacks with an acceptable loss rate.

In February 1944, the USAAF introduced the P-51 Mustang, a fighter capable of escorting the USAAF bombers to and from their targets in daylight. With new fighter tactics, the Eighth Air Force gained air supremacy over Nazi Germany by the spring of 1944 against the Luftwaffe. By the summer of 1944, the Luftwaffe was also suffering from chronic fuel shortages and a lack of trained pilots, and it ceased to be an effective fighting force by 1945. By the end of the campaign, American forces claimed to have destroyed 35,783 enemy aircraft and the RAF claimed 21,622, for a total of 57,405 German aircraft claimed destroyed. The USAAF dropped 1.46 million tons of bombs on Axis-occupied Europe while the RAF dropped 1.31 million tons, for a total of 2.77 million tons, of which 51.1 percent was dropped on Germany.

The intensification of night bombing by the RAF and daylight attacks by the USAAF added to the destruction of a major part of the German’s industries and cities, which caused the economy to collapse in the winter of 1944–45. By this time, the Allied armies had reached the German border and the strategic campaign became fused with the tactical battles over the front. The air campaign continued until April 1945, when the last strategic bombing missions were flown and it ended upon the capitulation of Germany on 8 May.

German Defensive Strategy

The Luftwaffe lacked an effective air defence system early in the war. Allied daylight actions over German controlled territory were sparse in 1939–1940. The responsibility of the defence of German air space fell to the Luftgaukommandos (air district commands). The defence systems relied mostly on the Anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) arm. The defences were not coordinated and communication was poor. This lack of understanding between the AAA and flying branches of the defence would plague the Luftwaffe throughout the war. Adolf Hitler in particular wanted the defence to rest on AAA as it gave the civilian population a “psychological crutch” no matter how ineffective the weapons. Germany’s Ruhr region, frequently targeted by Allied raids during this time, proved particularly difficult to defend as resources became increasingly strained. Frequently, the only air units available for Ruhr defence were the Luftgaukommandos, which were assigned specific objectives and lacked an effective ground-to-air control system to aid in interception of enemy aircraft.

On 21 September 1939, Hans Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffe’s Chief of Staff, clarified the role of the day fighter force in the defence of German territory. Fighter units earmarked for specific defensive tasks would remain under local air-defence command. However, all other fighter units would be organised under one of several Luftflotten (Air Fleets), which would prosecute the defence of German targets in a manner “linked directly with the strategic concept for the continued conduct of the air war”. In other words, the Luftwaffe fighter force would act as both a defensive and offensive force, maintaining air superiority over enemy air space would prevent enemy attacks on German-held territory.

This kind of strategy worked well at the front, but it soon became clear that a lack of training, experience and coordination between the Fliegerdivisions (Flying Divisions) and the AAA arm, when dealing with strategic defensive operations, made an effective defence difficult. With the AAA defences ineffective and seven Gruppen covering German air space, the vital industries were not well protected. This system remained in place for so long because the Allied air forces were too weak to take advantage of the situation.

Most of the air battles fought through May 1941 by the Luftwaffe on the Western Front would be against the RAF’s “Circus” raids and the occasional daylight raid into German air space. This was a fortunate position since the Luftwaffe’s strategy of focusing its striking power on one front started to unravel with the failure of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. The “peripheral” strategy of the Luftwaffe, advocated by Jeschonnek, had been to deploy its fighter defences at the edges of Axis occupied territory, with little protecting the inner depths.

German Weaknesses

Although the Luftwaffe eventually allocated more resources to the coming campaign than the RAF did during the Battle of Britain in 1940, it failed to commit these resources at a time when the Allied air offensive might have been checked. The Luftwaffe’s key mistakes in leadership, production and training decisions that eventually cost it the campaign were made in 1940–1942. The German leadership failed to develop a coherent air strategy for a long war. Strategic blindness, operational effectiveness and missteps paired with a failure to assign air defence as a top priority undermined the Luftwaffe’s efforts in 1943–1945. German strategy, termed the cult of the offensive, worked in 1939–41, but when faced with an attrition war, the growing power of its enemies, its forces spread thin over four fronts, the failure to develop defensive doctrines, tactics and plans led to defeat.

A map of German front of the Second World War, 1941.

Organisation and Planning

The Jagdwaffe defences of Germany were not considered a part of the offensive air effort. The German strategy of focusing on offensive aviation to achieve superiority on the enemy, on the home front the force was considered second-rate and unimportant. It did not receive the investment it needed and was too weak in respect of other Luftwaffe arms for proper expansion after the start of hostilities. As a consequence, the force had no representation in the High Command. The organisation remained split under different Air Fleets and was not put under a unified command. When the need for some sort of air defence was recognised before the outbreak of war, the rush to build the Jagdwaffe was so fast that quality in cohesion and organisation suffered. The expansion, when it did come, came too late. Only nine Jagdgeschwader were in existence in 1939, and no new Geschwader (Wings) were created until 1942. The years 1940 and 1941 were wasted. Only eight were created for defence duties, and the force increased in size by only one-third. The growth of the force and its concepts owed much to the activity of its enemies. The planning of defence was always reactive.

Developments and Equipment

No tactical-technical section existed in either the RLM or Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL), with a near-complete lack of any system for a direct manner for combat pilots to place field requests for improvements to existing weapons systems, and to address improved tactics for their use. The Luftwaffe was therefore unable to provide appropriate equipment for the task asked of its units. Starting in 1940, all planning was short-sighted as a matter of policy. The need for technical improvements was resisted as pushing through upgrades would have reduced production rates of standard aircraft. Hardware would have to be turned over to the production of new types, causing a drop in output. This meant obsolete sub-variant or main types were kept in production too long. The OKL failed to produce adequate numbers of aircraft and refused to cut bomber production in favour of fighters until mid-1944. Even when these events were corrected, procurement was poor. As one key example late in the war, the Messerschmitt Me 262 was unable to be introduced rapidly enough. Partly through the pioneering nature of its axial-flow jet engines, the first ever placed in production, requiring much development time to make them reliable enough for front-line use, and too much time was wasted between operational testing, tactical-doctrinal development and training. General der Jagdflieger (General of Fighters) Adolf Galland took responsibility for this failure.

Pilot Selection and Training

One of the most damaging elements of this aspect was the Luftwaffe’s intent on giving preference to the bomber arm when it came to highly trained personnel. Flight schools were more interested in turning out bomber pilots than fighter pilots. The organisation lacked a sufficient supply of commissioned pilots of fighter forces. This neglect meant a lack of combat leaders later in the war. Galland himself noted that pilot training for trainees was too limited in flying hours received. Too little training was received on operational types, formation flying, gunnery training, combat training, and there was a complete lack of instrument training. Galland asserted that the lack of instrument training had not been corrected until late in the war.

Staff Training

Staff training was uneven and neglected. Systematic training of formation leaders was not begun until after 1943. It created a lack of trained and experienced flight leaders in 1943–1945. This was far too late to help in the Defence of the Reich campaign. The trained and experienced leaders that did exist were replaced in 1940 by younger and less experienced leaders too quickly (owing to Göring’s frustration with them during the Battle of Britain). Later, Göring did the same thing with Fighter Division, the Jafu Jagdfliegerführer and Jagddivision commanders. The high turnover in the division made gaining experience impossible. Making matters worse, there were no fighter command organisations at the start of the war and there were never enough good officers to staff those that were set up. The Luftwaffe had very few General Staff Officers.

Most Luftwaffe leaders were born well before the First World War, and the army preferred officer candidates from the Real Gymnasien high school, that emphasized sciences and modern languages. However, because of the social and political situation, they looked for candidates from the Humanistische Gymnasien, a high school enrolled with sons of families of the higher classes, of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, and which stood against the egalitarian and democratic ideas of the lower, more technical-minded worker and craftsmen. The Humanistische Gymnasien produced graduates with a classical and all-round education, that was less focused on specialisation and technology. However, many of those graduates from the Humanistische Gymnasien would eventually became famous scientists. 75 percent of the later Luftwaffe generals came from upper middle class officer families, and only 17 percent of the generals’ fathers had technical professions. About 5 percent of Luftwaffe generals and general staff officers obtained technical degrees during their academic training. Most of these officiers could not familiarise themselves with higher technology, because Germany was not allowed to have aircraft and heavy weapons during the time of the Weimar Republic.

Strategic and Operational Tactics

The Luftwaffe’s key mistakes meant that the Jagdwaffe was overloaded with missions after 1942. At no point the Jagdwaffe was allowed to take the offensive to try to regain air superiorty, and tactics were always defensive or reactive. The successive draining of resources from the Defence of the Reich to the Eastern Front went on for too long which hampered an early build-up of RLV forces. It was slow and piecemeal and lacked any formal planning. The OKL damaged the fighting efficiency of fighter groups by transferring them away from their Geschwader command. The ground organization and communications networks were neglected when moving units causing confusion and reducing operational readiness.

 

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German Military History with a focus on World War 2 History including other areas of German History

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