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The Luftwaffe 1935 - 1945

Although a secret air staff had existed since the early 1920s, on February 26, 1935, the Luftwaffe was re-established, breaking the Treaty of Versailles which had dissolved the Imperial German Army Air Service after World War I.

During the late 30's many of the planes that would serve through the war were developed, such as the Messerschmitt 109 single-engine fighter. The failure to develop a capable long-range fighter during this period, however, was felt keenly later in the war.

The Condor Legion was sent to support nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War, allowing the Luftwaffe to gain valuable combat experience, giving it a crucial advantage over its enemies during the first part of World War II.

At the outbreak of war in Europe the Luftwaffe played a major and successful role in Germany's early Blitzkrieg campaigns, although in the battle for France it lost 1,130 planes, roughly 36% of its frontline strength.

As a pre-requisite for the invasion of Britain, the Royal Air Force (RAF) needed to be defeated. Faulty German intelligence and over-confidence plus the skillful handling of the British defense led to the Luftwaffe's defeat in the Battle of Britain. For the first time the Luftwaffe fighters met their match with the Bf110 being totally outclassed and the Bf109 being restricted by limited range and escorting duties.

RAF fighter and pilot numbers increased throughout the battle, while those of the Luftwaffe fell through attrition. At the end of September 1940 the invasion was cancelled. The Luftwaffe switched to a strategic bombing campaign against British cities that would last until late in 1941.

The Luftwaffe saw action on many fronts, including support of the Afrika Korps in North Africa and the offensives against Yugoslavia and Greece prior to the invasion of the USSR in June 1941. Many Luftwaffe units were stationed in Italy, remaining there until the end of the war, and from 1940 to 1944 the Luftwaffe contributed forces to the Battle of the Atlantic. These included fighter cover for U-boats venturing out into and returning from the Atlantic, and for returning blockade runners.

For the first two years after the invasion of Russia the Luftwaffe enjoyed superiority over the Soviet Air Force (VVS) due to more advanced aircraft and highly trained and experienced pilots. Luftwaffe resources, however, could never guarantee complete control of the air space over the frontline, and from 1943 onwards superiority slipped away. The VVS recovered from its devastating initial losses, and was provided with more advanced planes that could compete with their German counterparts. Although the Luftwaffe stayed active on the eastern front until the last days of the war, the air battle over the Reich relentlesly drained their resources and ability to offer resistance.

Between 1940 and 1945 the Luftwaffe had to continually increase the resources made available to counter the Allied strategic bombing campaign, first carried out alone by RAF Bomber Command (by night) and eventually joined by the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) Eighth Air Force (by day). From 1942 onwards their bombers penetrated deep into Reich's territory in increasing numbers.

Until the development of allied long-range fighters the Luftwaffe inflicted serious losses on Allied bombers with the day fighters and night fighters as well as the anti-aircraft guns under its command. In total more than 11,000 heavy bombers of the RAF and USAAF were lost in the European theatre of operations.

The Nachtjagd (night fighter force) was developed to counter the RAF using a chain of radar stations from Norway to the Swiss border to provide early warning of attacks. Too few dedicated night-fighters such as the He219 were built to impact the RAF bombers whose use of radar jamming window also blunted their effectiveness. The tide turned during the day when long-range fighter support for the Eighth Air Force became available in early 1944 and the ability of German fighters to inflict any significant damage became increasingly difficult. By the time of the Normandy invasion of 6 June 1944 the USAAF considered the Luftwaffe defeated.

Despite inflicting serious losses on Allied planes transporting paratroopers and supplies into battle at Arnhem, by the end of the war the Luftwaffe lacked fuel, trained pilots, organisational unity and 'safe' airfields from which to offer serious opposition.

Operation Bodenplatte was launched on 1st January 1945 as a last gasp attempt to cripple Allied air forces in Western Europe and keep the Wehrmacht on the offensive during the Battle of the Bulge. Although 465 Allied aircraft were damaged or destroyed, Allied fighters and flak accounted for 277 Luftwaffe aircraft lost. Some of these losses were due to the secrecy of the mission as German flak gun crews opened fire on their own planes returning to base. The Allied losses were soon replaced while the Luftwaffe aircraft and pilots were irreplacable.