Luftwaffe and the Battle of Stalingrad
Hitler came to power on the back of a general election. The aging President Hindenburg invited Hitler to form the government as the Nazi party was the largest single party in Parliament. In 1934 after the death of Hindenburg he seized absolute power. His one burning ambition was to restore German pride, badly damaged during World War I and the Treaty of Versailles ( 1919). The terms of this treaty were very harsh. One of the clauses pertained to the German Air Force, forbade it to have an Air Force capable of offensive action. An example of the harshness can be seen from the fact that Germany was forbidden to develop the engines of the Zeppelin the airship and the same engines had to be utilized in the Maybach car.
Hitler's rise was facilitated by the German People who began to lionize him. He announced the removal of all restrictions on the Air Force put in force by the Treaty. He gave carte blanche to Messerschmitt and Folk Wulf to develop new warplanes. This bore fruit and a new breed of fighters appeared like the Messerschmitt 109 fighter which was superior to the Spitfire and Hurricane of the RAF.
At this time a German World War I ace pilot named Herman Goering joined Hitler. In hindsight, this was a catastrophe because Herman Goring though being a pilot had little knowledge of the concept of strategic air warfare and bombing. He thought the concept of dive-bombing and interceptor aircraft was the be-all of airpower. Hitler entrusted the air force to Goering and conferred the title of Reich Marshall.
With war clouds building up one vital component of the Air Force long-range aircraft was not on the table.No stress was laid on building large planes capable of flying long distances. The Germans were to pay heavily for this blunder and it came to the fore in 1942 in the battle of Stalingrad.
The Luftwaffe and the Army:early success
In the mid-30s there was a debate in Germany for building a long-range plane. Unfortunately, Goering seconded by Hitler forbade the development of large 4 engine planes. At that stage, Goering had no vision of strategic warfare as enunciated by Guilio Douhet and B Mitchell. Their concept of the airforce was hinged on the use of the airplane as a dive bomber to support the ground troops. The success of the Polish and the French campaign reinforced this belief that the dive bomber was all that was needed for the German air force.
Despite restrictions, Dr. Kurt Tank of Focke Wulf produced one 4 engine plane. This was the FW-200 also known as the Condor. This was the only 4- engine plane produced in Germany, though the German technology could have easily produced aircraft of the type of B-29 or the B-17 used later by the United States Army Air Force. Even the Condor in comparison to the Strato Fortress and the Liberator of the USAF was a puny machine and could just carry 26 troops, though it did have a range of over 3500 km. Even the RAF Lancaster was bigger and sturdier than the condor.
The victories of 1939-40 and the initial stages of the Russian campaign was like butter on top of the bread for the concept of dive-bombing in which Goering believed. The Germans could use the Luftwaffe for close air support in a tactical war theater. The German think tank successfully integrated the dive-bombing concept with the operations of the army.
At that stage, the United States had not yet put into operation the B-29 and the B-24 long-range heavy bombers, and the German air force and the army had no concept as to how much havoc they could cause.
The German military think tank was smug in their belief as the German armies adopted the tactics of blitzkrieg or lightning war. This concept stood the Germans in good stead as they overran Poland, the low countries, and France and also conquered Norway. The Luftwaffe using dive bombers, which were closely integrated with the German army brought success.
The same tactics were used in Russia when Operation Barbarossa was launched on 22 June 1941. The German army supported by the Luftwaffe heralded a close integration of the Luftwaffe with the German ground troop. The result was stupendous victories and over 2 million Russian soldiers including 35 generals were taken POW. Three German army groups with over a million soldiers advanced deep into Russia and by 1942 had reached Moscow, surrounded Leningrad, and were on the verge of capturing Stalingrad.
Failure at Stalingrad:Beginning of the end
Hitler ordered an all-out assault on Stalingrad and the German Panzer divisions reached the Volga river. Both Hitler and Stalin knew the significance of Stalingrad and in case the Germans had crossed the Volga they would have had a great drive into Asia. Hitler grave great importance to the capture of Stalingrad because it carried the name of the man who he considered to be his enemy and secondly it was the road to Central Asia, the Caucasus, and India.
General Von Paulos was given command of this operation. Opposing him was the best Russian General Marshall Zhukov. Stalin also sent Nikita Khruschev to Stalingrad to organize the defence of the city. He later became the first secretary of the Soviet communist party and brought about the process of destalinization in Russia. This was after his secret speech to the Supreme Soviet in 1956. Nikita Khrushchev was a hard nut and he passed the word to the Russian army that there was no land beyond the Volga for them and they had to either die or throw the Wehrmacht back.
The problems of 1941 now came up again in 1942 for the Germans. This was the onset of winter when temperatures reached sub-zero. In October 1943, in extreme cold, the Germans had taken a part of the city but the Russians were not giving up and there was street fighting. In November the Russians launched a massive offensive and they linked up with the result that the army of Von Paulos was completely surrounded.
The German commander sent a secret message to Hitler requesting permission to break out and join the main army which was under command of Field Marshal Manstein. The request was refused and Manstein made an attempt to break the Russian cordon but he failed.
At that moment an event of great significance took place. Hitler had a meeting with the Reichmarshal Goering and asked him how the 6th army could be saved. The chief of the Luftwaffe made a bombastic comment that he had the planes to keep the army supplied with weapons and food throughout the winter. He was confident that the Luftwaffe would keep the supply lines open to the beleaguered troops. This was an empty boast and perhaps Goering himself did not believe it but Hitler would not have listened to any other advice.
Goering ordered an air bridge to be established to supply materials to the encircled German army. He authorized the use of the FW 200 ( condor ) for the airlift. This was the fatal error and sealed the fate of the army of Von Paulos. The Luftwaffe had no large cargo plane and the entire air bridge was doomed to collapse. During the initial days, a few of the FW 200 landed and were cheered by the troops when they saw these four-engine planes landing but within a few days, there were no planes as Russians now controlled the airspace. The plane also had service problems and many times the engines refused to start in the severe cold.
The FW -200 had a lot of limitations. Firstly, it could carry very limited cargo and secondly, the plane was not conditioned to operate in the Russian winter. Thirdly the German air force could not give any fighter cover to the Condor with the result that most of the planes were sitting ducks. The much-vaunted air bridge collapsed inside five days.
The situation inside the German lines in Stalingrad was becoming worse and morale had become low. Paulos repeatedly informed Hitler of the dire situation, but Hitler replied by promoting Paulus to Field Marshal. This had no effect as Paulos was a realist and in the absence of supplies including food and clothing he threw in the towel and surrendered. 93000 German troops were taken captive. The Russians sent them to prison camps and used them for labor and only about 5000 of them returned home in 1955.
Paulos joined Russians and frequently broadcast from the radio Moscow. After the war in 1955 he was repatriated to East Germany where he died.