Junker Ju-87 Stuka Dive Bomber: A World War II Terror Weapon
Since I’ve written about both American and Japanese WWII dive bombers – the Douglas SBD Dauntless and Aichi D3A “Val” respectively” – on behalf of 19FortyFive in the past month, it would only make sense to also do a write-up on Nazi Germany’s famous (infamous to its victims) entry into the WWII dive bomber field, that being the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka.
Let’s take a closer look at how the Stuka (stemming from Sturzkampfflugzeug, literally “dive bomber”) struck terror into the hearts of its foes and blasted its way into the pages of history.
The Stuka made its maiden flight on September 17, 1935, and was officially introduced into the service of the Third Reich the following year.
Though best known for its Second World War usage, the feared warbird actually made its combat debut with the Condor Legion (bad pun intended) of the Luftwaffe in support of the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War.
Though the Ju-87 ended up on the losing side of WWII, it was definitely a history-maker that made an immediate impact. After all, as pointed out by my 19FortyFive colleague Peter Suciu, “It was the first combat aircraft employed in the Second World War. When Germany began its invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the Luftwaffe had 366 Ju 87 ready for service, and three of those aircraft carried out the first bombing mission of the war, actually beginning an attack eleven minutes before the official German declaration of hostilities.”
That particular mission actually failed, but nonetheless, the Stukas played a huge role in the Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) against Poland that forced the beleaguered capital of Warsaw to capitulate on September 27, 1939, less than a month after the beginning of the campaign.
Although not designed as a fighter plane, the Ju-87 would also obtain the Luftwaffe’s first air-to-air kill of WWII. On that same fateful first day of hostilities, then-Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Frank Neubert – eventual Major and recipient of the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross – shot down a PZL P.11 piloted by Kapitan Mieczylaw Medwecki.
In Neubert’s own words, his bursts from his two wing-mounted MG-17 7.92mm machine guns caused the P.11 to “suddenly explode in mid-air, bursting apart like a huge fireball – the fragments literally flew around our ears.” In turn, in spite of the valiant efforts of the Polish Air Force, only 31 Stukas were shot down for the entirety of the campaign.
These dive bombers would then play a key role in Fal Gelb’s (‘Case Yellow’) Fall of France in 1940. Besides the devastating bomb load – one 250-kilogram (550 lb) bomb beneath the fuselage and four 50-kilogram (110 lb) underwing bombs – the Ju-87 was infamous for its wailing siren, dubbed the “Jericho Trumpet,” which could strike fear into the hearts of infantry troops and hapless civilians alike. As ruefully observed by French Army General Edouard Ruby, “[French artillerymen] simply stopped firing and went to the ground, the infantrymen cowered in the trenches, dazed by the crash of the bombs and the shriek of the dive bombers.”
The flip side to that was that the siren was also very annoying and distracting to the bombers’ crews themselves.
Ship Sinker and Tank Buster
The Ju-87 also proved itself quite adept at combat on the Eastern Front. The Ju-87G “Gustav” variant, in particular, proved to be a ferocious killer of Red Army tanks, ravaging the Russians with its two specially modified Flak 18 37mm high-velocity, anti-aircraft guns, which were sufficient to punch through the relatively thin Soviet armor. Oberst (Colonel) Hans-Ulrich Rudel was the most successful tank-killing Stuka driver of the bunch, destroying 519 enemy tanks – along with nine enemy aircraft shot down for good measure – thus becoming Germany’s most highly decorated combat pilot (more so than even Erich “Bubi” Hartmann or Adolf Galland).
When it comes to its anti-shipping role, the Stuka is not nearly as well-known as either the Dauntless or the “Val;’ after all, the SBD sank more Japanese shipping than any other Allied aircraft—including the four Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway—while the Aichi bomber was a key participant in the Pearl Harbor Raid. Yet the Stuka has a certain bragging right that its American and Japanese counterparts do not: it sank more ships than any other aircraft type in history. Among other things, it destroyed nearly the entire Polish Navy in port.
Bested Over Britain
The Ju-87 was not without its flaws, however, and the flaws came back to haunt Stuka pilots and gunners in the Battle of Britain. For starters, the fixed landing gear caused plenty of drag, relegating it to a max airspeed of 238 mph (383 kph) and a cruising speed of 130 mph (209 kph); the aforementioned siren also exacerbated the drag factor. In addition, the aforementioned forward-firing MG 17 machine guns along with the rear gunner’s single MG 15 7.92mm machine gun were a poor match for the RAF’s Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes.
The British fighter pilots tore into the Stukas with a vengeance, and the dive bomber’s crews experienced an unsustainable 20 percent loss rate. As pointed out by Air Force Times author Stephan Wilkinson, “During the Battle of Britain, Stukas were downed by the dozens while trying to do a job – strategic rather than tactical bombing – for which they were never intended.” (emphasis added).
Where Are They Now?
Despite the flaws, vulnerabilities, and high casualty rate, the Stukas fought hard for the duration of the war. In total 6,000 were produced, yet surprisingly, only two survive today. One is at the RAF Museum in the Hendon section of London, whilst the other is at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. According to Peter Suciu, “A third aircraft is being restored to airworthy condition from two wrecks. It is owned by the late Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Washington.”
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).