Which was the best German combat aircraft of World War Two? You might pick the Fw-190 fighter. Or the Ju-88 medium bomber. Or perhaps the Me-262 jet? However, there is another aircraft that served in the Luftwaffe without significant change from the first day of the war to the last. It fulfilled a specialized role very effectively, but it tends to be one of the most underrated of all German combat aircraft: the Ju-87 Stuka.
The design of what would become the Stuka began with Junkers engineer Hermann Pohlmann. The notion of dive bombing, which allowed very accurate placement of bombs, emerged in the 1920s. Pohlmann began work on a design for a German dive bomber and his early work became the basis for the Ju-87.
Above all, Pohlmann believed that a dive bomber, which would constantly undertake missions in the face of enemy ground fire, must be simple, robust and reliable. The first iteration, the Ju K 47, was produced in Sweden in 1928 as at that time Germany was still prohibited by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles from developing combat aircraft.
The Ju K 47 was a very conventional design, a straight mid-wing, two seat monoplane though it did prove to be a useful dive bomber. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, the Ju K 47 design was dusted off and revisited by Pohlmann.
This time, he created something radical and very different. To avoid the need for a very long and flimsy undercarriage, the wings were an inverted gull-wing design. The fixed undercarriage spats were placed at the lowest point of these wings, allowing a short and very sturdy fixed undercarriage which still kept the propellor clear of the ground during take-off.
A large chin radiator provided cooling to the engine, which was a Rolls-Royce Kestrel on the prototype but a Junkers Jumo 211 inverted V-12 engine on most early production examples. Dive brakes were provided on the underside of each wing. A pair of fixed, forward-firing MG 17 machine guns were mounted in each wing and a single MG 15 was provided in the rear cockpit. The fully glazed canopy housed the pilot and the rear gunner.
The first prototype was under construction in Sweden and first flew in September 1935. However, the Technical Director of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM – Air Ministry) Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of the World War One ace, felt that the new aircraft was simply too slow: its cruise speed was just 150mph. On 9th June 1936, Richthofen cancelled the Ju-87 in favour of a faster alternative from Heinkel, the He 118.
The following day Richthofen’s role at the RLM was dissolved and the first move of his successor was to reinstate the Ju-87 programme the following day.
Introduction of the Ju-87
In early 1937, RLM ordered the first production version of this aircraft, the Ju-87 A, for service in the Luftwaffe. This was a robust design from the very beginning. Major parts of the airframe and the metal skin were made from duralumin, an early aluminum alloy. The airbrakes were made of an even stronger material, Pantal, a titanium/aluminum alloy.
The airframe was designed as a series of sub-assemblies that could be quickly swapped out to repair battle damage. From the moment that it entered service, the Ju-87 became universally known as the “Stuka.” This is a contraction of the German word Sturkampfflugzeug, which simply means “dive bombing aircraft.“
Though Germany did introduce other aircraft that were capable of dive bombing, the Ju-87 would always be the Stuka.
The very things that made it slow, including the drag-inducing fixed undercarriage and deep chin radiator, were beneficial when this aircraft dived. With the dive brakes extended, the Ju 87 would not exceed 370mph even in a vertical dive.
The closer a dive bomber gets to diving vertically, the more accurate its bombing. The Ju-87 was one of very few World War Two aircraft that could be held indefinitely in a vertical dive. It even included an automatic pull-out device: as soon as the bomb was dropped, the aircraft began a pull-out and dive recovery that imposed loads of up to 6g on the crew.
An experienced Stuka pilot could use these abilities to consistently place a 250 or 500kg bomb within 15-20 feet of his intended target. No other aircraft of World War Two (and few modern warplanes!) proved capable of placing munitions with such extreme accuracy. The Ju-87 may have carried a relatively small bomb load, but this was more than made up for by its ability to place precisely where it mattered most.
The first Ju-87s were certainly not perfect. The aircraft had been designed to carry a 500kg bomb on the centreline, on a trapeze that swung it out beyond the arc of the propellor so it could be safely deployed in a vertical dive.
However, the first production aircraft, fitted with the underpowered Jumo 210A engine, could carry either a 500kg bomb or a rear gunner, but not both. Soon, the Ju 87A was upgraded with the more powerful Jumo 210AD and then, it began to realize its full potential.
The entry into service of the Ju-87 coincided with the development of entirely new tactics by the Wehrmacht. Forward-thinking leaders such as Heinz Guderian envisaged the use of large, fast-moving, independent mechanized formations. This would later become known as the Blitzkrieg approach.
However, there was an inherent problem with these tactics: they worked well when faced with enemy mechanized formations, but not when confronting bunkers of other fixed positions where artillery support was required. The traditional approach was to wait for the arrival of conventional (and largely horse-drawn) artillery, but doing so negated the advantages of speed and surprise that Blitzkrieg offered.
In response, UHF radios were mounted in tanks and armoured cars and manned by Luftwaffe personnel. These ground controllers could then communicate directly with nearby flights of Stukas, calling them in to attack ground targets. No other nation at the time used such advanced tactics to ensure the close coordination of ground and air forces.
The Stuka became the flying artillery that supported Blitzkrieg, and in this role, it proved to be unsurpassed. To heighten its effect, sirens were fitted under the wings which produced a characteristic scream as the Stuka dived.
Stuka crews were taught to continue to conduct diving attacks even after they had dropped their bombs. The psychological effect of being attacked by waves of screaming Stukas proved utterly demoralizing to troops on the ground.
By the time World War Two began in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, a new version of the Stuka was already in service with the Luftwaffe: the Ju-87B. This had an even more powerful Jumo 211D engine, a redesigned canopy and wheel spats, but otherwise, it was remarkably similar to the original version.
When the war began, the Luftwaffe had over 300 Ju-87Bs and new aircraft were being produced at the rate of more than 50 each month. A handful of other versions were also produced – the Ju-87R. This was a development of the Ju 87B primarily intended for long-range anti-shipping missions, but it was also used as a glider tug.
During the invasion of Poland and subsequent campaigns in Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and France, the Ju-87 proved devastatingly effective in its role of providing direct support to German ground forces.
In 1941, the next major upgrade of the Stuka was introduced, the Ju-87D (the Ju-87C had been planned as an anti-shipping version for the Kriegsmarine but never entered volume production). This featured a redesigned and more streamlined cockpit, a Jumo 211J engine, increased armour and the addition of a twin-barrel MG 81Z for the rear cockpit which provided a very high rate of fire.
By mid-1942, the Luftwaffe was receiving more than 80 new Ju-87Ds each month.
Close Air Support
Combat in Russia also led to the development of the last significant variant of the Stuka, the Ju-87G tank-buster. Early combat in Russia had shown that Russian tanks such as the T-34 and KV-1 were lethally effective against German armour. What was needed was an aircraft specifically designed to destroy these tanks.
The Ju 87G dispensed with dive brakes and could not be used for dive bombing but it was heavily armoured and armed with a pair of 37 mm Bordkanone BK cannons mounted in under-wing gun pods. Firing tungsten carbide-cored ammunition, these cannons were capable of piercing the armour of most Russian AFVs.
These Kanonenvogel (cannon birds) proved lethal to Russian armour throughout the remainder of World War Two: one Stuka pilot was credited with destroying more than 500 Russian AFVs while flying the Ju 87G!
The Ju-87 was one of the most specialized and successful ground-attack aircraft of World War Two. It was tough, cheap to produce and operate and its accuracy was little short of astounding. When used in the role for which it had been designed, it remained effective throughout the war. In many ways, the Ju-87 was the A-10 Thunderbolt II of World War Two: a superlative and specialized ground attack aircraft.
When Fairchild Republic began work on what would become the A-10, Stuka Ace, a book written by leading WW2 Stuka pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel was required reading for all members of the design team.
Yes, the Stuka was relatively slow and it couldn’t take on an enemy fighter in one-to-one combat, but looking only at those factors is to miss the point. This was a robust, reliable and simple aircraft that did precisely what it was designed to do: provide direct support to fast-moving German ground forces.
So, when you are considering a list of the best German aircraft of World War Two, please don’t ignore the humble and underrated Ju-87.
- Crew: 2
- Length: 36 ft 5 in (11.10 m)
- Wingspan: 45 ft 3.5 in (13.805 m)
- Height: 13 ft 2 in (4.01 m
- Empty weight: 5,980 lb (2,712 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 9,560 lb (4,336 kg)
- Powerplant: 1 × Junkers Jumo 211Da V-12 inverted liquid-cooled piston engine -1,200 hp (890 kW) for take-off, 1,100 hp (820 kW) at 4,920 ft (1,500 m)
- Maximum speed: 211.0 mph (339.6 km/h) at sea level/238 mph (383 km/h) at 13,410 ft (4,087 m)
- Cruise speed: 130 mph (209 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4,572 m)
- Range: 370.0 mi (595.5 km) with 1,102 lb (500 kg) bomb
- Rate of climb: 450 ft/min (2.3 m/s)
- Guns: 2× 7.92 mm (0.31 in) MG 17 machine gun forward, 1× 7.92 mm (0.31 in) MG 15 machine gun to rear
- Bombs: 1× 550 lb (250 kg) bomb beneath the fuselage and 110 lb (4× 50 kg) under-wing.