Herman Goering, The Luftwaffe, and the Defeat at Stalingrad
One fact that is not mentioned these days is that Adolf Hitler came to power in a general election. The Nazi party of Hitler became the single largest party in the Reichstag though it did not have an absolute majority. Being the largest party it was asked by President Hindenburg to form the government.
Adolf Hitler thus became chancellor of Germany and once the aging President Hindenburg passed away, he became the Fuehrer: the leader of the German people. By that time by insidious propaganda, Hitler had been able to captivate the mind of the German people and the majority began to feel that here was a man who would restore German pride.
The defeat of Germany at the hands of the Allies during World War I and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 had humiliated the Germans. Even common people felt the terms and conditions of the treaty to be unjust. At that juncture, Hitler promised them the utopia with a place in the sun for the German people. Thus even those who were skeptical of supporting him also sided with him.
The Treaty of Versailles has been much discussed but I am concerned only with one aspect of it. One of the clauses of the treaty referred to the German air force or the Luftwaffe. The draconian provision was that Germany was debarred from having an air force that could have offensive capability. Germany was forbidden from building long-range bombers or aircraft. Even the development of the Zeppelin the airship was halted and the Germans were reduced to using the engine of the Zeppelin to power the Maybach car.
When Hitler came to power he fired the imagination of the German people and one of his first acts after coming to power was the scrapping of the provisions of the Treaty and all references and restrictions on having an airforce.
Hitler who had become the de facto dictator of Germany at that time passed instructions for the development of new aircraft and the Messerschmitt and the Folke -Wulf factories begin to see the light of the day. This led to the flowering of German genius and the Messerschmitt 109 fighter was developed which at that time was superior to any fighter with the allies. The Spitfire and Hurricane of the RAF were inferior to the German fighter
Fate now took a hand because Hitler had in his entourage, a First World War pilot named Herman Goering. He had been a fighter pilot during World War I and had made a name for himself.
Goering and Airpower
Hitler was impressed by the man. As he had very little knowledge of airpower and had never read the works of the pioneers of AirPower like Giulio Douhet, Hitler took the fateful decision to hand over control of the air force to Goering. He created him a Reich Marshal.
Goering was a good pilot but that does not mean he had a grasp of the concept airpower. He had no concept of strategic bombing. His entire concept of airpower was as an adjunct to the Army and as such he could not think beyond the concept of a dive bomber which could support the Army in a tactical battle.
With this concept permeating the top hierarchy of the Air Force and Army the die was cast in making one of the cardinal blunders by the German military think tank.
Even at that time, the United States Air Force was developing the four-engine long-range heavy bombers like the B-29 and B-36. In contrast, Germany was just sitting on its concept of an airforce only for tactical use. Goering forbade the development of large 4 engine planes as he could not visualize their use.
Many did not agree with Goering but in the totalitarian society of that period, they did not open their mouth. Despite this, Dr. Kurt Tank did go ahead and developed a four-engine plane.
This was the FW-200 also known as the Condor. The Condor however in comparison to the Strato- Fortress and the Liberator of the USAF was a puny machine and could just carry 26 troops. However, it did have a range of over 3500 km. It was also a much lighter plane compared to the RAF's Lancaster.
This fatal blunder by the German military think tank was to be one of the causes of the German defeat. So long the US and the British air force had not adopted the concept of strategic bombing, the Germans were extremely successful in the battles in France and Poland. The dive bombers of the Luftwaffe supported the German ground forces and the French and Poles were annihilated. The dive bomber was very much part of the German tactics of 'blitzkrieg' but after 1942, the Germans were greatly handicapped.
The German invasion of Russia added the icing to the cake of the concept of the dive bomber as the German army almost reached Moscow. In any case, Russians did not have any strategic bombers and at that time the US air force had only just started receiving the B-29 and B-36.
In December 1943, the famous battle of Stalingrad commenced. We are now aware that this was the decisive battle of World War II and had the Russian army been defeated the road to the Caucasus and India would be open.
The German army under Field Marshal Von Paulos was in occupation of the city of Stalingrad and there were instructions to him that he was to hold on to the city for the winter and with the onset of summer he was supposed to cross the Volga deeper into Russia.
This was easier said than done as in October 1943 winter had started and temperatures had reached sub-0. Zhukov brought in reinforcements and launched a counter-attack. In a massive thrust, the Russian army surrounded the army of Paulos.
The situation was getting desperate because the Russians had also cut the supply line to the German 6th Army. In the city, hand-to-hand fighting commenced. At that time Hitler reportedly called Reich Marshal Goering and asked him if he could create an "air bridge" to the German army and supply them with the rations and ammunition.
At that critical juncture, Reich Marshal Goering told Hitler that he would create an air bridge with the help of the FW 200 Condor and supply ammunition and rations to the German army. He authorized the use of the FW 200 ( condor ) for the airlift.
This was like a catch-22 situation as the Luftwaffe had no heavy planes like the US airforce and there was no time to develop one also. For the last decade, Goering had forbidden research on a long-range bomber.
Hitler believed in whatever Goering told him and he passed a message to Field Marshal Paulus to hold firm as supplies would be airlifted to him. He also told him not to surrender though he was surrounded. In late 1943, the Wehrmacht’s Sixth Army was trapped in the city of Stalingrad. The survival of this army was the key to the Reich’s survival on the Eastern Front. It was up to the Luftwaffe to airdrop supplies for the army. Not only did the Luftwaffe not deliver anywhere near the amount needed, but they delivered some ludicrously wrong supplies, including cellophane grenade covers, fish food, ground pepper, and a massive condom shipment.
Loss of Favorable Air Situation
The FW -200 was a plane with a lot of limitations. The cargo it could carry was limited but Hitler believed in whatever Goering told him and he passed a message to Field Marshal Paulus to hold firm as supplies would be airlifted to him.
The plane had severe limitations of performing in the Russian cold. When the first few FW 200 landed the German troops were cheered and began to think that help was on way. But within a week everything evaporated. The planes became unserviceable in the cold and many were stuck on the runway and landing fields. Russian fighters appeared in the air and created a Favorable Air Situation(FAS) for the Russian airforce.
The Luftwaffe lots its edge and no planes were available to carry supplies to the beleaguered army of Von Paulus. No supplies could be transported to the German army and the writing was on the wall for a German defeat.
With the failure of the Luftwaffe to maintain the air bridge and also dominate the sky over Stalingrad the German army was fighting with one hand tied behind its back. With no supplies and mounting casualties, Field Marshal Paulos took a momentous decision to surrender and 93,000 German troops were taken POW
We can now conclude that the battle in Stalingrad was lost mainly because of the failure of the Luftwaffe. If the top brass of the Luftwaffe including Goering and Hitler had studied the great captains of air warfare like Douhet, Mitchell, Tedder, the result may have been different. The seeds of the defeat at Stalingrad lie in the German concept of not going in for a long-range heavy bomber which they should have started developing around 1935-36. Their failure to do it led them to total defeat.
While there was no doubt that the Luftwaffe pilots gave it their all, flying over Soviet airspace and artillery (they lost 500 planes in the effort), management and Goering bungled the effort rather spectacularly.