He 111: The Iconic Pre-War Bomber

Initially designed as a civil airliner for Lufthansa, the aircraft’s true significance lay in its potential to function as a medium bomber for the Luftwaffe.

Having been deployed in both the Spanish Civil War and World War II, the He 111 initially experienced significant successes.

However, when confronted by the advanced fighters of the Royal Air Force, it was compelled to conduct its operations nocturnally. Even with these challenges, the aircraft persisted in service, with its civilian models still operational in Spain into the 1970s.

During the Battle of Britain, the Heinkel He 111 stood out as a particularly destructive aircraft in terms of strategic bombing.

A Heinkel 111 h-8. The giant frontal assembly was meant to cut through the cables on barrage balloons…..

However, unlike several of Britain’s bombers, the He 111 wasn’t specifically designed for World War II. Due to the Versailles Treaty’s restrictions, Germany was prohibited from having a military air force.

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As a result, many aircraft were secretly developed, often under the pretense of being for Lufthansa Airlines, and the He 111 was one of them. As early as 1934, the Luftwaffe had commissioned the construction of a large commercial airliner.

Flying into a thick steel cable at speed – a good idea at the time?

Heinkel He 70 ‘blitz’

Yet, its design was unique; it had to be easily and affordably transformable into a bomber that met the German military’s requirements.

The He 111 was designed by the Günter brothers, who were pioneering aircraft designers. Walter and Dr. Siegfried Günter built upon the foundation of the Heinkel He 70 ‘blitz’, three prototype versions of this aircraft were developed.

The Heinkel He 70 Blitz, translated as “lightning”, was a German mail and rapid passenger aircraft from the 1930s developed by Heinkel Flugzeugwerke.

The inaugural prototype took to the skies with Flugkapitan Gerhard Nitschke at the helm on February 24, 1935, in Rostock-Marienehe, Germany, powered by twin 660-hp BMW VI 6,0Z engines.

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The subsequent prototype, designed for civilian purposes, had a reduced wingspan, featured two passenger cabins, and reserved the nose for mail storage.

This model took flight on March 12, 1935, later joining Lufthansa’s fleet. The quintessential military bomber prototype was the third in line.

Dispatched to Rechlin

Meanwhile, a fourth prototype emerged for the civilian model’s further development and was showcased to the public on January 10, 1936, at Berlin’s Tempelhof airport.

The development of the military model persisted, leading to the creation of ten He 111A-0 pre-production aircraft. These closely mirrored the third prototype but featured an elongated nose.

Two of these were dispatched to Rechlin, Germany for testing, but due to inadequate handling, power, and overall performance, they were declined and later sold to China.

Two German airmen, who parachuted from a Heinkel He 111 bomber that was shot down in the Battle of Britain, are marched off by the Home Guard near Goodwood in Sussex, 12 September 1940.
Two German airmen, who parachuted from a Heinkel He 111 bomber that was shot down in the Battle of Britain, are marched off by the Home Guard near Goodwood in Sussex, 12 September 1940.

In a bid to rectify these shortcomings, a fifth prototype was crafted, equipped with two 1,000-hp Daimler-Benz DB600A engines.

This model took flight in early 1936, serving as the foundation for the subsequent production model.

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By autumn 1936, these production models, the He 111B-1 (powered by 880-hp DB600 engines) and He 111B-2 (with 950-hp DB600CG engines), started emerging from the Marienehe facility in Germany.

The Reichsluftfahrtministerrum was so impressed by the Heinkel’s enhanced performance that they ordered in such quantities that new production facilities had to be erected in Oranienburg, Germany, with completion in 1937.

Introduction to Combat Spanish Civil War

The Heinkel He 111, a medium bomber designed by the German aircraft company Heinkel, played a significant role in the Spanish Civil War, which took place between 1936 and 1939.

He 111Es of the Condor Legion, 1939

This conflict served as a prelude to World War II and acted as a testing ground for new military technologies and tactics. Here’s a brief overview of the role the He 111 played in the Spanish Civil War:

The He 111 was first introduced to combat during the Spanish Civil War, where it was deployed by the German Luftwaffe in support of Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces against the Republican forces.

The Germans used the conflict in Spain as an opportunity to test their new aircraft under combat conditions.

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The He 111 was part of the Condor Legion, a unit composed of German air crews and aircraft sent to assist the Spanish Nationalists. The Condor Legion played a pivotal role in the war and was instrumental in the Nationalist victory.

A Precursor to World War II

The He 111 conducted numerous bombing missions during the war. It was able to operate both during the day and night, targeting infrastructure, enemy troop concentrations, and other strategic locations.

Its involvement became infamous after events like the bombing of Guernica in 1937, although the primary bombers in that raid were the German Junkers Ju 52s and the Italian Fiat BR.20s.

Combat experience in Spain provided the Luftwaffe with valuable insights into the He 111’s capabilities and potential areas of improvement.

The aircraft’s performance in Spain led to several design changes and modifications to enhance its effectiveness as a bomber.

Luftwaffe pilots in the cockpit of a Heinkel He-111 bomber over North Africa. February 1943
Luftwaffe pilots in the cockpit of a Heinkel He-111 bomber. February 1943

Experience gained by He 111 crews and the data collected during the Spanish Civil War proved invaluable for the Luftwaffe in the early stages of World War II.

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Lessons from Spain shaped bombing tactics and strategies that would be employed in the subsequent larger conflict.

Cockpit Design

The numerous variants of the He 111 were designated using alphabetical letters, with the letter “V” assigned to experimental or interim models.

While these variants mostly followed an alphabetical sequence, they didn’t strictly adhere to it. The version prominently utilised during the Battle of Britain was the He 111H.

A He 111 with a line of bullet holes in the nose
The line of 303 bullet holes is fascinating to see

However, the precursor that set the stage for this variant was the He 111P. Before the introduction of the “P” model, the aircraft’s nose was rounded, entirely metallic, and featured a cockpit design reminiscent of the Dakota.

With the advent of the “P” variant, the He 111 underwent a transformation, adopting its iconic glazed nose, which accommodated the nose gunner, while the pilot and observer were situated just above.

Production of the He 111P commenced in late 1938. Within a couple of months, it was supplied to KG157 and played a pivotal role in preparations for the Polish campaign, with its active service extending into 1940.

Invasion of Poland the He 111 Enters WWII

The He 111H was integrated into the Luftwaffe’s ranks shortly before the Polish invasion. By September 1939, when war broke out, the Luftwaffe had a fleet of 810 He 111s spanning different variants.

Iconic image of a He 111 over Poland

400 He 111H, 349 He 111P, 40 He 111E, and 21 He 111J. Of these, it’s estimated that around 100 were deemed inoperable, effectively reducing the total operational He 111 count to just over 700.

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Despite this, those deployed during the Polish campaign reported significant successes. Since production outpaced losses, the He 111’s numbers grew, ensuring its formidable presence in subsequent campaigns.

While seven Kampfgeschwadern utilized He 111 bombers in Poland, only three were active during the Norwegian campaign, largely due to the lack of appropriate airfields in Norway.

Notably, a fleet of 100 He 111 bombers launched an assault on Rotterdam on May 14th, 1940.

Invasion of Norway

During Operation Weserübung, which saw the invasions of Denmark and Norway, the Heinkel was a critical asset to the Kampfwaffe. Squadrons KG 4, KG26, and KGr 100 participated in the operation.

Denmark’s occupation was swift, lasting less than a day, with minimal casualties and zero aircraft losses.

One of the initial tasks for the He 111s, along with other Luftwaffe units, was to counterbalance the British Naval dominance in the North Sea.

Remains of a Heinkel He-111 H-5 that was shot down by AA fire in the Kongsbakktinden mountain valley near Narvik, Norway - 28 May, 1940
Remains of a Heinkel He-111 H-5 that was shot down by AA fire in the Kongsbakktinden mountain valley near Narvik, Norway – 28 May, 1940

In their mission to support the German Naval Task Force – which included the heavy cruisers Blücher and Lützow, light cruiser Emden, and other naval assets – on their way to Oslo,

He 111s from KG 26 couldn’t thwart the sinking of the Blücher during the Battle of Drøbak Sound, thanks to the formidable defenses of Oscarsborg Fortress.

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As Drøbak became a focal point after other strongholds were captured, it faced intense bombing from KG 26, leading to Norwegian surrender.

Furthermore, He 111s from KG 26, in coordination with Junkers Ju 88s from KG 30, managed to inflict damage on the battleship HMS Rodney and sink the destroyer HMS Gurkha on 9 April.

Once most of Norway was secured, He 111s were engaged in the Battles of Narvik and also launched anti-shipping raids targeting Allied reinforcement convoys headed to Norway during May and June 1940.

French Campaign

The French Campaign began on 10 May 1940. In the initial stages over the Netherlands and Belgium, the He 111 units faced sporadic and disjointed Allied fighter opposition.

On 14 May 1940, the Rotterdam Blitz saw He 111s from KG 54 leveling significant parts of the city, unleashing around 91 tonnes of explosives.

Heinkel He 111 KG4 July 1941

This bombardment precipitated the Dutch’s surrender the next day. Although most units endured minor to moderate casualties in the beginning, KG 27 experienced the most significant losses among the He 111 units over France.

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By the campaign’s opening day, they had lost several aircraft and many others were damaged.

The He 111s played pivotal roles in advancing to the English Channel, overpowering French forces at Sedan, repelling the Allied counter-attack at the Battle of Arras, and supporting German troops during the Battle of Dunkirk.

A large portion of the German bomber missions during the Sedan breakthrough, which totaled 3,940 sorties, were executed by He 111s, leading to the French defenses’ collapse and paving the way for the German strategy of Fall Gelb.

Fall Gelb Wrapped Up

He 111s, due to their significant bomb capacity, were given the critical task of disabling the French rail infrastructure in regions like Reims and Amiens.

Their bombings effectively hindered French troop movements, stalling reinforcements and retreats.

Heinkel He 111 being attacked by an Beaufighter heavy fighter from Cyprus. November 1943. Mediterranean Sea.
Heinkel He 111 being attacked by an Beaufighter heavy fighter from Cyprus. November 1943. Mediterranean Sea.

As Fall Gelb wrapped up, the He 111 units geared up for Fall Rot. In Operation Paula, aimed at neutralizing the residual French aerial might in the Paris vicinity, around 600 He 111s and Do 17s were deployed.

Despite intense engagements and bombings, the remnants of the Armée de l’Air endured.

Subsequent He 111 casualties remained relatively low with a few exceptions.

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Overall, the He 111 had a commendable performance during the French Campaign, albeit with a notable uptick in losses compared to prior campaigns.

Its lackluster defensive firepower was a primary factor for these losses and would later be glaringly evident during the Battle of Britain.

He 111 Enters the Battle of Britain

By the onset of the Battle of Britain, the Heinkel He 111H and the Dornier 17 Z conducted the majority of the bombing raids.

Although most other variants had phased out, evidence indicates a Heinkel downed over Middle Wallop on August 14th, 1940 was a He 111P, suggesting some older models still participated in attacks on Britain.

Spitfire trails smoke after being hit while attacking German Heinkel He-111 bombers, seen from the cockpit of an He-111, Battle of Britain, September 1940
Spitfire trails smoke after being hit while attacking German Heinkel He-111 bombers, seen from the cockpit of an He-111, Battle of Britain, September 1940

The He 111H variant had several sub-variants, designated by consecutive numbers like He 111H-1 through He 111H-4. T

he differences mainly pertained to the engines, with some additional tweaks. For instance, the initial He 111H-1, derived from the He 111P, employed Junkers Jumo 211 engines.

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Anti-Shipping Role

The He 111H-2 incorporated the enhanced Jumo 211A-3 engine, while the He 111H-3 was powered by the Jumo 211D-1 engine and featured a forward-firing 20mm cannon, primarily for anti-shipping roles. Subsequent He 111H-4 models adopted the Jumo 211F-1 engines.

Spitfire chases a Heinkel He-111
Spitfire chases a Heinkel He-111

This newer engine, the Jumo 211F-1, offering 1350 hp, replaced the previous 211D-1 engine with its 1100 hp output. This setup persisted until the introduction of the Jumo 213 in the He 111H-23 later in the war.

The He 111H-5 was among the most frequently utilized variants. In this model, extra fuel tanks replaced the wing bomb cells, pushing the aircraft’s regular range to 1,212 miles (1950 km).

It also featured two external bomb racks, each capable of carrying a 2,205lb (1000kg) bomb.

With these modifications, the He 111H-5’s total weight rose to 30,985 lbs (14055kg).

A very close pic of a Supermarine Spitfire seen from the nose of a Heinkel He-111
A very close pic of a Supermarine Spitfire seen from the nose of a Heinkel He-111

London Blitz

While this added weight slowed the aircraft when fully loaded, it didn’t deter its impact role during the nighttime ‘Blitz’ raids on London, where its payload wreaked significant havoc.

The Luftwaffe aimed to concurrently target industrial, transport, and civilian areas, but couldn’t effectively do so.

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Nonetheless, the He 111 played a significant role in the bombings of Birmingham, Bristol, Barrow, Coventry, Liverpool, Plymouth, and Southampton, resulting in extensive destruction.

While clouds often obscured some targets, Heinkels equipped with X-Gerät still managed to cause significant harm.

Heinkel He 111 escorted by a "Heinkel He 113 on a mission over England" in a German 1940 propaganda shot
Heinkel He 111 escorted by a “Heinkel He 113 on a mission over England” in a German 1940 propaganda shot

The British responded by setting up decoy sites to divert bomber attention and deploying the “Meacon” system to interfere with Luftwaffe beacon signals.

During the battle from July to October 1940, 242 He 111s were shot down. This number was considerably lower than the 303 Ju 88s lost. Meanwhile, the Dornier Do 17 had the fewest losses among the three German bomber types, with 132 downed during the Battle of Britain.

The Soviet-German War, 1941−1945

On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s assault on the Soviet Union. At the outset, three Kampfgeschwader squadrons were equipped with the Heinkel.

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KG 53 supported Army Group North under Luftflotte 2, KG 27 backed Army Group Centre under Luftflotte 4, and KG 55 was assigned to V. Fliegerkorps.

German sentry and his dog next to a Heinkel He-111 H6, Russia, 1943.
German sentry and his dog next to a Heinkel He-111 H6, Russia, 1943.

Throughout the campaign, the He 111 primarily offered tactical aid to the German Army.

There was minimal focus on strategic bombing, as it was anticipated that such actions would only become necessary after securing the European portion of the Soviet Union up to the boundary often referred to as the A-A line, linking the cities of Arkhangelsk and Astrakhan.

Junkers Ju 87 Stuka

From 1941 to 1942, the He 111’s tactical utility was curtailed due to its less agile nature and sizable design.

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Consequently, its primary mission became targeting trains. With the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka and Henschel Hs 123 being the only dedicated German ground-attack planes, and lacking the desired range, the He 111, in tandem with the Ju 88, became a makeshift choice for such operations.

For instance, KG 55 claimed to have damaged or destroyed 122 train carriages and 64 locomotives. However, the Soviets fortified their defenses with dense anti-aircraft fire, leading to escalating losses, especially among the green crews.

The train-targeting squadron, Eis./KG 55, reported up to 10% losses. In the winter warfare of 1941, the He 111 played a dual role: aiding in the evacuation of 21,000 troops from the Demyansk pocket and delivering roughly 24,300 tons of supplies.

He 111 H with the tactical code A1+BT WNr 4566 of the 9/KG 53 is prepared for its next operation. Russia Winter 1942-43
He 111 H with the tactical code A1+BT WNr 4566 of the 9/KG 53 is prepared for its next operation. Russia Winter 1942-43

Its significance was particularly evident during the isolated battles of the period.

In 1942, the He 111 played a pivotal role in the Battle of Stalingrad. As the Soviet Operation Uranus trapped the German Sixth Army, the He 111 was tasked with delivering supplies.

Tank Factory was a Prime Target

Despite their efforts, the mission was unsuccessful, leading to the obliteration of the Sixth Army. During the siege, heavily fortified Soviet defenses around Stalingrad claimed approximately 165 He 111 aircraft.

On the Eastern Front, the role of the He 111 remained consistent with its prior assignments.

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While initially, the German High Command (OKL) did not prioritize targeting Soviet industry in 1941-42, by the time of the Battle of Kursk, the narrative changed.

The Gorkovskiy Avtomobilniy Zavod (GAZ) tank factory was a prime target, undergoing intense bombardment throughout June 1943.

Crashed He 111 H G1+AD of the Stab III/KG 55 Samorsk Crimea 1944

Facing intense resistance from Soviet fighters during daylight, German bomber crews underwent retraining in the winter of 1943/44 for nighttime operations.

The bombing campaign initiated on the night of 27/28 March 1944, with approximately 180 to 190 He 111s participating, releasing around 200 tons of bombs.

On the night of 30 April/1 May 1944, they reached a peak, flying 252 sorties, the most throughout the offensive. Their primary targets were Soviet railway hubs in both western and eastern Ukraine.

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The Heinkel He 111 functioned as a medium bomber for the Luftwaffe throughout Europe until 1943. However, due to the Luftwaffe’s loss of air dominance, its primary role shifted to transportation.

Starting from 1950, Spain bolstered their fleet of German-manufactured He 111s with locally licensed CASA 2.111s. Remarkably, some of the original German-produced planes remained operational until 1958.

Professor Heinkel commented on the He 111s’ wartime contribution:

They became reliable, proven and easily maintained worker-bees for the Luftwaffe bomber units. Even though, after 1941, they had been technically superseded and, above all were hampered by their lack of range..and, despite repeated modifications, could not be given the additional range required-there was really no substitute for them