Junkers Ju-88 – The Workhorse of the Luftwaffe
The Junkers Ju-88 was one of the finest twin-engine combat aircraft of the Second World War and performed in a staggering range of operational roles during its service in the Luftwaffe.
Originally conceived as a fast bomber, the Ju-88 served as a heavy day and night fighter, dive bomber, reconnaissance platform, torpedo bomber and specialised ground-attack aircraft. Its last role in German service was as a flying bomb as the war turned against the Axis powers.
The Ju-88 was easily the best of the early German medium bombers and was in production from 1936 to the end of the war, with over 15,000 examples manufactured during this period.
The type had a troubled development due to the many roles it was envisaged the airframe could perform but became one of the most important aircraft in German service during the conflict.
The Ju-88 was a difficult aircraft to fly due to its high performance, but properly handled it was an effective and formidable weapon, and the type had a distinguished combat record in Europe, Russia and the Mediterranean theatre of operations.
Design and Development
Due to the bewildering number of sub-variants of the basic airframe used to test various weapon and power plant configurations, only the main production versions of the Ju-88 will be itemised in this article.
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In August 1935 the German Ministry of Aviation issued a specification for a ‘Schnellbomber’ (fast bomber). The requirements were ambitious and exacting – a twin-engine fast bomber with a crew of three, unarmed but capable of carrying a bomb load of 2,200 lbs (1,000 kg), relying on speed instead of defensive weaponry to outpace fighter aircraft of the era.
The Junkers Corporation initiated a study known as EF59, which produced both the Ju-85 and Ju-88 design proposals. While both models were ordered for Luftwaffe service, only the Ju-88 made it into mass production.
In June 1936 Junkers finalised the design of the Ju-88, and it was submitted to the Ministry for appraisal. This was accepted and two prototypes were ordered for testing and evaluation. Three further test aircraft were ordered, which introduced defensive machine-gun positions, and the ability to carry ordnance under the wings between fuselage and engine.
The first prototype performed the maiden flight of the type in December 1936 and achieved a very high speed of 360 mph (580 km/h). While Herman Goring insisted the first service order for the platform be for a fast bomber design, Junkers designers realised the potential of the basic airframe and began to secretly design variants capable of performing multirole combat duties.
In 1937 the head of Luftwaffe research and development Ernst Udet ordered that a variant of the Ju-88 be developed as a heavy dive bomber, and other departments and individuals also proposed a series of operational variants utilising different armament and flight profiles.
All this interference led to the top speed of the Ju-88 dropping to below 300 mph, and many difficulties in producing prototypes and flight-testing the many design modifications proposed for service use.
As a result, the planned service introduction date of 1938 was continually pushed back, and the type entered service on the first day of the invasion of Poland, with only a single squadron of 12 aircraft taking part.
The Ju-88A was the first version accepted into general service with the Luftwaffe, fitted with a glazed nose for use by the bombardier as suitable for its tasking as a high-speed medium bomber.
There were an incredible seventeen sub-variants of this mark, testing a wide variety of defensive gun positions and cockpit configurations. The Ju-88s employed as heavy dive bombers were modified from the original ‘A’ design for this role, but while very accurate this method of attack was found to severely stress the airframe.
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The ‘B’ version introduced a ‘stepless’ cockpit and other innovations, but only ten pre-production aircraft were ordered for evaluation, and this variant evolved into the Ju-188 fast bomber project of the late war.
The Ju-88C reverted back to the ‘A’ design except for a solid nose in place of the glazed bombardier position. This variant was employed as a heavy fighter in both day and night and also served as a fighter-bomber in the ground-attack role.
While not a dedicated night fighter, the ‘C’ version tested several armament configurations and early radar sets for the night-fighting role, and these would be accepted for service in later variants of the Ju-88.
The Ju-88D was formulated as a long-range reconnaissance aircraft and included specialised ‘tropicalized’ sub-variants intended for use in hot weather conditions such as those found in North Africa. This version also introduced metal propellers instead of the standard Junker’s wooden airscrews.
The following ‘G’ series was designed from the start as night fighters intended to combat British bombing raids and were lavishly equipped to function in this role. Sub-variants introduced a series of power plant improvements, revised weaponry arrangements and a series of increasingly sophisticated air-intercept radar systems.
The fuselage of this version was also used in the manufacture of the following ‘H’ series, which produced sub-variants capable of both the heavy fighter and reconnaissance roles.
A sub-variant with very heavy cannon armament was specially designed to attack and destroy Allied long-range convoy escort aircraft, in an attempt to regain the initiative in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The ‘P’ series of aircraft was one of the very few failures in the story of the Ju-88, as this version was fitted with heavy cannons varying in size from 37mm all the way up to 75mm weapons.
This version was intended for heavy ground attack and also be used as a heavy daytime fighter to destroy US bombers, but sadly it proved to be incapable of performing either task satisfactorily.
The Ju-88R was a ‘C’ variant with new high-performance engines, this version was developed late in the war to counter Allied gains in heavy bomber performance, particularly that of the Lancaster bomber.
The last two versions of the Ju-88 are almost identical except in role, and the Ju-88S was a high-speed bomber with new high-performance engines and a re-designed cockpit canopy. This was the fastest of all variants of the Ju-88 and also spawned the final production version, the Ju-88T, which was a three-seat reconnaissance aircraft.
All performance and payload figures are given for the Ju-88 A-4 variant, which was the penultimate light bomber version employed in the early part of the Second World War.
The Ju-88 had a height of 4.8 metres (15 feet 9 inches), a length of 14.4 metres (47 feet 3 inches) and a wingspan of 20 metres (65 feet 7 inches). Empty, the Ju-88 registers a mass of 9,860 kilograms (21,730 lbs) and the gross loaded weight is 12,105 kg (26,680 lbs). The Mass Take-Off Weight (MTOW) of the Ju-88 is 14,000 kg (30,865 lbs).
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The crew of the Ju-88 consists of four personnel: pilot, bombardier/front gunner, radio operator/rear gunner and navigator/ventral gunner. The Ju-88 was fitted with two Junkers Jumo 211J-1 V-12 inverted piston petrol engines driving metal VDM three-bladed propellers, and these power plants developed 1,340 HP in take-off mode. The top speed of the Ju-88 was 470 km/h (290 mph), and the best economical cruise speed was 370 km/h (230 mph).
The Ju-88 had internal tankage capable of carrying 2,896 litres (637 Imperial gallons) of fuel, and this gave the Ju-88 an operational range of 1,790 kilometres (1,110 miles). With the bomb bays used for extra fuel, the ferry range of the Ju-88 was 2,730 kilometres (1,700 miles). The service ceiling of the Ju-88 was 8,200 metres (26,900 feet).
This variant of the Ju-88 was armed with five MG 81 7.92 mm machine guns in front, rear and ventral positions. 1,000 rounds of ammunition were supplied for each gun. The Ju-88 was capable of carrying a bombload of 1,400 kilograms (3,100 lbs) internally in two bomb bays, and the airframe could carry 3,000 kilograms (6,600 lbs) of bombs externally if no ordnance was carried internally.
However, this external load severely reduced the performance of the aircraft and necessitated the need for rocket-assisted take-offs when fully loaded in this way.
Other variants of the Ju-88 carried and employed a wide variety of weapons for both ground and air attacks, including torpedoes, heavy cannons, unguided rockets and bombs of various types. As a night fighter, the Ju-88 was fitted with radar sets for night interceptions, and many were fitted with the ‘Schrage-Musik’ upwards-firing autocannon for use against RAF heavy bombers.
The Ju-88 got off to a slow start, only entering service on the first day of World War Two, and only in squadron strength. As such, it had little impact on the Polish campaign but served with distinction for the rest of the war. The Ju-88 took part in the battles with Norway and Denmark, and were successful in the maritime strike role, but did suffer heavy losses compared to other medium bombers.
Approximately 140 Ju-88s were available for the Battle of France, and the type was particularly effective in the dive-bombing role, accounting for 250 Allied aircraft destroyed on the ground, as well as a 10,000-ton merchant ship and other ground targets.
However, while some Ju-88s were shot down by Allied fighters, more aircraft were lost in accidents due to the high-performance flight profiles. Some crews were said to be more scared of the Ju-88 than the enemy, and the type was withdrawn from service to allow comprehensive re-training for the crews.
The Ju-88 took part in the Battle of Britain, but as improvements to the basic design were still being formulated and tested the type suffered heavy losses during this campaign, even more than the other medium bombers in the German inventory.
However, nearly half of the operational losses were due to crashes attributable to pilot inexperience, and improvements were continually sought for the Ju-88. The platform matured into a fine combat aircraft, but by then the German battle plans were increasingly focused towards the East.
The Ju-88 saw much use in the Balkans and in the Mediterranean and North African theatres. The type was used in the maritime strike role and conducted strikes against Allied troops in the Western Desert and Libya and Egypt.
The Ju-88 served with distinction on the Eastern Front, causing enormous damage to the Russian air force and ground formations. The platform also caused heavy Soviet merchant and naval losses but stresses on the airframes during dive-bombing led the Ju-88 to be restricted to a dive angle of 45 degrees only.
The night-fighter versions of the Ju-88 were particularly effective against RAF heavy bombers, increasingly so as new model radar sets became more available. Those Ju-88s fitted with the Schrage-Musik gunnery kit were especially deadly, with many Luftwaffe night-fighter aces flying the Ju-88, continuing even when newer aircraft became available.
The Ju-88 was employed by the Luftwaffe right up to the German surrender, but insufficient spare parts and a lack of fuel gradually stymied this endeavour. The Finnish Air Force also employed the Ju-88 against the Russians and used the type for training until 1948. The French Army and Navy operated the JU-88 in small numbers after the conclusion of the war, and the last Ju-88 retired from French service in 1951.
There were a few aircraft during the Second World War that could be said were ‘multirole’ aircraft, as we understand that term in this modern era, and the Junkers Ju-88 could be said to be one of the best of these.
Capable of a wide variety of roles, this large, fast German twin-engine aircraft definitively had no problem with multi-tasking, and was one of the few platforms that showed excellent capability in nearly every role it was employed in.
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The Ju-88 was a handful to fly due to its very high performance, but once crews had safely transitioned to the type and were comfortable with its flying characteristics they routinely praised the airframe for its speed and comfort. While successful in many roles, the Ju-88 was one of the best heavy night fighters of the war and took a heavy toll on RAF heavy bombers.
The protracted development of the Ju-88 constrained its employment in the early part of the conflict when the Axis was on the front foot. History may have had a different tale to tell had large numbers of the Ju-88 been available to the Luftwaffe before September 1939, but the same could be said for a lot of German weapon programs. On such matters, wars are won and lost.
- Crew: 4 (pilot, bombardier/front gunner, radio operator/rear gunner, navigator/ventral gunner)
- Length: 14.4 m (47 ft 3 in)
- Wingspan: 20 m (65 ft 7 in)
- Height: 4.8 m (15 ft 9 in)
- Empty weight: 9,860 kg (21,737 lb)
- Gross weight: 12,105 kg (26,686 lb)
- Max takeoff weight: 14,000 kg (30,865 lb)
- Powerplant: 2 × Junkers Jumo 211J-1 or 211J-2 V-12 liquid-cooled inverted piston engine, 1,000 kW (1,340 hp) each for take-off 1,010 kW (1,350 hp) at 250 m (820 ft)790 kW (1,060 hp) at 5,200 m (17,000 ft)
- Maximum speed: 470 km/h (290 mph, 250 kn) at 5,300 m (17,390 ft) and 12,500 kg (27,557 lb)
- Range: 1,790 km (1,110 mi, 970 nmi) with 2,896 L (765 US gal; 637 imp gal)
- Service ceiling: 8,200 m (26,900 ft)