The first bombs of WW2 were dropped by Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers, during the invasion of Poland, and the last Luftwaffe ground-assault mission against Soviet tanks took place on the 5th May 1945 as part of the defence of Berlin was also by Stukas dive bombers. This “little Bomber“ as the Germans called it, bookended the start and the end of the war in Europe.
Similarly, in the Pacific War against Japan, the U.S used the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers to destroy five out of the eight Japanese fleet carriers and a sixth light carrier as well as entrenched enemy positions during the island hopping push back of the Japanese to their home islands and in doing so, changed the course of the war in favour of the U.S.
Both aircraft were key to the progress of the war for their respective sides because they could do what artillery or heavy bombing could not and that was to hit often moving, high-value targets with great accuracy with just one pilot and one small plane.
So, in this video, we’ll look at two aircraft that were hardly stellar performers when they entered service and yet they ended up as two of the most influential aircraft of WW2.
By the time Germany invaded Poland on the 1st Sept 1939, the Junkers Ju-87 was already slow, outmoded, and out of date and yet it would prove to be a decisive weapon when used alongside the German panzer tanks, artillery and mechanized infantry in what became known as blitzkrieg or “Lightning War”.
This was a method of fast but overwhelming combined arms force that could maneuverer quickly to find the weak points in an enemy’s defenses. This was so effective that it broke through defensive lines across Western Europe, and in just nine months from the 1st Sept 1939 to 22nd June 1940, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France surrendered to the German forces, leaving Great Britain alone and isolated ready to be the next target.
This “Lightning War” wasn’t a German invention, in fact the British Royal Flying Corps pioneered the technique of strafing, utilizing diving aircraft armed with machine guns and small bombs as a strategic manoeuvre.
This was first used for great effect by the British at the Battle of Cambrai on the 20th November 1917 where 320 Mark 4 tanks and 300 aircraft, mostly Sopworth Camels and Airco DH 5s with 9.1 kg bombs, were used to suppress artillery and machine guns.
Although up to 30% of the pilots were lost, the overall effect was very successful. The results were later published by the Royal Tank Corps which was later picked up by Heinz Guderian who would become the architect of not only the Panzer divisions but also what would be become known to the Allies as the blitzkrieg method.
Although the British had initially used dive bombing, the high cost in pilots put them off using this technique for nearly 20 years, whereas the Americans, Germans, and Japanese all went on to develop their own Dive bombing aircraft and tactics.
After WW1 Germany was strictly limited under the Versailles treaty as to what armaments could and could not be built on German soil.
Despite the Nazi party ousting its founder Hugo Junkers in 1933, the Junkers Aircraft and Motor Works established a factory in neutral Sweden. Here, they built the K.47, a heavily strutted and braced radial engine monoplane fighter, initially for Turkey but eventually sold to China’s Nanking government.
The K.47, was optimized for diving with Junkers dive brakes and an automatic dive pullout mechanism, was pivotal in developing divebombing techniques in Sweden for the German company. Hermann Pohlmann, the designer of the K.47, later adapted it into the Ju.87, a dive bomber and the nickname Stuka, is a shortened form of the German “Sturzkampfflugzeug,” meaning “diving fighter aircraft.”
Pohlmann thought that any dive-bomber design needed to be simple and robust and to that end modern retractable undercarriage was discarded in favour of fixed and “spatted” undercarriage.
The early designs used a Rolls Royce kestrel engine, though by 1936 it was using the Jumo 210 inverted V-12 engine. The wing was also unusual in that it had an inverted gull, or “cranked”, wing pattern along the leading edge. This improved the pilot’s ground visibility and also allowed a shorter undercarriage height.
Attached to the leading edges of the landing gear were mounted ram-air sirens known as Jericho trumpets, which became a propaganda symbol of German air power and the Blitzkrieg victories of 1939–1942, though by 1943 they were replaced by wind-whistles on the fins of Stuka bombs.
Meanwhile in 1933, Ernst Udet, joined the Nazi party. A WW1 fighter ace who had the second largest number of kills after the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. Udet was being enticed by his old commander, Hermann Göring to join the newly formed Luftwaffe. By 1935, Udet had already been to America and seen the U.S. Navy Curtiss F11C-2 Goshawk biplane dive bombers and was greatly impressed by their performance and was keen for the Luftwaffe to use the same capabilites and by 1939 was the Chief of Procurement and Supply for the Luftwaffe.
Udet admired the Stuka but the head of the Reich Aviation Ministry, Wolfram von Richthofen, the Red Barons cousin thought it was out of date, slow, and would not survive the anti-aircraft guns it would come up against compared to the newer fighters like the Messerschmitt Bf 109 that was in development at the time.
So, on the 9th June 1936, Richthofen cancelled Ju-87 program even though it had been awarded top marks and was about to be accepted by the ministry. The next day Udet was appointed Chief of the Technical Office of the Reich Aviation Ministry and reversed the order.
The Stuka first saw occasion use service in the Spanish civil war and proved that it was a useful weapon.
The Stuka was one of only a few dive-bombers that could actually dive vertically without exceeding the absolute permitted speed limit, due to the dive brakes, bluff chin radiator, large wheel pants and upright cockpit canopy, it was quite a draggy aircraft.
British test pilot Eric “Winkle” Brown described flying a Ju-87D as exhilarating, especially its 90-degree dive, which felt almost over-vertical and controlled compared to other dive bombers that typically reached only 70 degrees. He said that when flying the Stuka, because it’s all automatic, you are really flying vertically … The Stuka was in a class of its own.
Although an excellent dive bomber, in the battle of Britain, it was used as a strategic bomber instead of a tactical bomber. Stukas were ground-support aircraft, designed to work in tandem with tanks in areas where the Luftwaffe held complete air superiority, they were not conventional fighter bombers where they had to deal with modern enemy fighters.
The RAF soon found its weakness as after it had finished its dive it was slow to recover and gain altitude something that the Hurricanes and Spitfires with their 165Km or 100mph speed advantage could just come and mop them up, destroying them by the dozen.
After the battle of Britain, the RAF said that the Stuka was finished as an offensive weapon, and yet it operated right up until the end of the war sinking hundreds of thousands of tons of allied merchant ships and warships which it proved to be very effective at.
In the opening days of the Russian offensive, Operation Barbarossa, Stukas were credited with destroying over 2000 aircraft nearly destroying the western soviet Airforce.
For Operation Barbarossa asa whole, Stuka group StG 77 with 300 aircraft, and the most effective of the war, alone had destroyed 2,401 vehicles, 234 tanks, 92 artillery batteries and 21 trains for the loss of 25 Stukas.
Overall, in the Russian offensive and in the retreat back to Germany the Stukas were credited with destroying over 3500 soviet tanks and 10 warships and thousands of other pieces of hardware.
But the Soviets could build more tanks and aircraft faster than the Germans and with more modern Soviet fighters like the Yak-3 and the LA-7 they regained air superiority pushing the Germans back.
Although by 1945 the Ju.87 was largely replaced by the ground-attack versions of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, the Stukas remained a potent weapon, especially in the defence of Berlin where for 3 months they we able to hold off the Red army but with depleted fuel reserves and in the end the collapse of the German war machine after Hitler committed suicide, the war in Europe was over.
While the Stukas had proved their worth in Europe, the Japanese proved that their main dive bomber the Aichi D3A Val was equally good at tactical strikes when the Japanese sent 54 D3A Vals carrying 550 250 kg bombs to attack parked aircraft at Wheeler Field and Ford Island during the attack at pearl harbor.
The American’s main dive bomber was the Douglas SBD Dauntless, the SBD standing for “Scout Bomber Douglas”, though after the battle of Midway it was also known as “Slow But Deady”.
The SBD had started off as a Northrop XBT-1 in 1936 which had a reputation as an ill-handling dive bomber. By the time Douglas had taken over the Northrop company in 1937, the XBT-1 designer, Ed Heinemann had fixed its failings and developed the much-improved XBT-2, which was the direct forerunner of the Dauntless.
Although made for carrier operations, Heinemann did not use a folding wing design saying that he wanted the strongest possible wing for 5G plus pull outs.
But by the advent of the Pearl Harbor attacks the SBD was a slow, dated prewar design that had been used as a trainer before an engine upgrade gave it more speed but it was still slow by the standard of the day and vulnerable to fighters even though it was robustly made .
However, it did have one redeeming quality in that it was a very good dive bomber that was easy to make precise downline corrections in a dive making it very accurate.
Part of this was due to the use of perforated dive brakes to eliminate tail buffeting during diving manoeuvres making it easy to make and hold its position in a dive.
This was used to great effect during the battle of Midway when on the 4th June 1942 the US fleet engaged the Japanese carriers first with 41 Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber of which 35 were shot down and no torpedos hit their targets.
Shortly after a squadron of SBD’s were looking for the Japanese carriers which were obscured by cloud, then through a gap in the cloud they spotted the Akagi and Kaga.
At 10:25 am, 30 SBDs from the USS Enterprise attacked both carriers in an matter of minutes they were both on fire. At the same time 17 SBDs from the USS Yorktown attacked the carrier Soryū.
At 1:00pm, the carrier Hiryū was detected and 24 SBD set off to attack it.
At 4:10pm the Soryū sank and at 7:25pm the Kaga sank
The next day, 5th June at 05:00am Akagi sank and at 09:00 the Hiryū sank.
The SBDs had done what the Americans biggest battleships couldn’t do and that was decimate the Japanese carrier fleet taking with them 248 aircraft and 3075 personal, many of which were veteran aircrew, highly trained aircraft mechanics and technicians, plus the essential flight-deck crews. armorers, and the loss of organizational knowledge that these highly trained crews had.
The Battle of Midway marked a pivotal shift in the significance of air power for the rest of the war, as the Japanese unexpectedly lost their four primary aircraft carriers, forcing them to retreat. This loss of air dominance meant that Japan was unable to initiate any significant offensives in the Pacific afterwards.
Although the two aircraft were very different and used in different theatres of war, the effect each had was definitive, whether or not they were on the winning side, they both had a major impact in the course of WW2.
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Two average warplanes, one on each side of the war, both overlooked by their more glamorous brethren but both were outstanding dive bombers capable of doing what artillery or heavy bombing could not and both had a major impact on the course of WW2, one in starting it and the other at ending it. This is the story of how the Junkers Ju.87 Stuka and the Douglas SBD Dauntless Altered the Course of WW2.