German aircraft design during the third Reich.

AuthorHarvey, A.D.
PositionNazi Germany

German victories in 1940 and 1941 obliged most onlookers to believe, as the Germans themselves boasted, that Hitler's Reich had the best army, the best air force, and the best-designed weaponry in the world. The Soviet T-34 tank, by the end of 1941, raised serious questions about the superiority of the German army's equipment, and soon similar questions arose with regard to the Luftwaffe. In fact it is questionable whether the Luftwaffe ever did have the best equipment in the world. One can pick out a number of aircraft in different classes from the 1934-1945 period that were clearly superior to all direct competition--the Kawanishi H8K2 in the long range flying boat class for example, or the Boeing B-29 in the heavy bomber class--but not one of these superior designs were German.

In the run-up to the Second World War, German aircraft design can only be described as mediocre. The Arado Ar 68 and Heinkel He 51 single-seat fighters that equipped the new Luftwaffe in the early days of German rearmament were boringly conservative biplane designs that were conceptually out of date compared to monoplanes--all actually slightly older--like the American Boeing P-26, the French Dewoitine D 500, or even the Polish PZL P.11, and their performance was inferior; they were also significantly out-performed by equally conservative but older biplane types, like the British Gloster Gauntlet, the Hawker Fury, and the Italian Fiat C.R. 32. (1) A little later the Heinkel He 111B bomber, though faster than many interceptor fighters when it was introduced into service, was inferior to its contemporary the Savoia-Marchetti S.M. 79, and the famed Junkers Ju 87 Stuka was markedly inferior to the Northrop BT-1, forerunner of the Douglas Dauntless SBD series of dive bomber, the prototype of which first flew a couple of months earlier than the Stuka. The four-engined Dornier Do 19 and the Junkers Ju 89 Urals bombers that were still being flight-tested when the Luftwaffe decided to concentrate on twin-engined machines were inferior to the American B-17 and even the relatively unsatisfactory Soviet ANT 42, which later took part in the small Soviet raids on Berlin in 1941; the poor development potential of the Ju 89 is demonstrated by the mediocrity of the later Junkers Ju 290 maritime patrol aircraft, which was derived from it.

The one apparently outstanding German military aircraft of the pre-war era was the Messerschmitt Bf 109, but the first version to see combat, the Bf 109B was outmatched by the rather older Soviet Polikarpov 1-16, which it encountered when serving with the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. (2) (It has never been clear why the Luftwaffe accepted the Bf 109 in preference to the generally superior Heinkel He 112, which was also combat-tested in Spain, though with non-Condor Legion pilots.) The Bf 109 was also slower, less maneuverable and a less steady gun platform than the Hawker Hurricane, first flown only two months later. The Bf 109's prospects were transformed by the substitution of the 635 h.p. Junkers Jumo 210D engine of the B model by the 1,000 h.p. Daimler-Benz DB 600A in the D model and by the 1100 h.p. Daimler-Benz DB 601A or 1300 h.p. DB 601E in the E model, which was the type employed by the Luftwaffe in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain. Nearly twice as powerful as the earlier models, the Bf 109E's main weakness was that at 350 m.p.h. the controls became increasingly heavy, and in a quite shallow power-dive with speeds exceeding 400 m.p.h. the controls required extraordinary muscular strength; except at high altitude it was in no way superior to the RAF's Supermarine Spitfire I and II, which German pilots first encountered over Dunkirk. (3)

A report by staff of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Famborough on a Bf 109E captured in France noted that "the cockpit is too cramped for comfort" and that whereas in the Spitfire, in which there was more room to move, the pilot could exert 60 lb sideways force on the control stick, in the German plane he could only exert 40 lb. The British experts also found fault with the way in which the Bf 109E lost directional trim and harmonization of rudder, elevator and aileron controls above 250 m.p.h., and the lack of a rudder trimmer. (4) These deficiencies were probably due to the controls being designed for a much less powerful aircraft, and it is certainly true that in the even more powerful F and G models flying characteristics deteriorated even further.

The Luftwaffe enjoyed a temporary advantage with a new type, the Focke-Wulf FW 190A, introduced in 1941, though the RAF also had a new type, the Hawker Typhoon, relatively clumsy and with an unreliable 24-cylinder engine...

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