Early European Air Campaigns: German Western Offensive (May-June 1940)

Luftwaffe Western Offensive
Figure 1.--Both in Belgium and France, refugees dled south to escape the advancing Germans. Most at first thought the French Army would again stop the Germans and be the bulwark of a new Western Front. This did not prove to be the case. And the Luftwaffe was ordered to attack the refugee stream, even if they were purely ciilians. Here we see an unidentified French boy wouunded in one such atack. The American press caption read, The Nazi aviator whose bomb painfully injured this French child probably had no desire to hurt the child. But his orders were to be ruthless in wrecking all cover that might be used for enemy resistance. The boy was simply in the pathway of totalitaroian invasion." The photograph was dated June 2, 1940. The editot was badly mistaken. The Luftwaffe pilots did no go after cover' nor did they attack refugee collums with bombs. Rather they more commonly straffed the refugees at very low alditude at whgivch thy could clearly identify civilians. Often the civilians were the intended targets. Roads filled with civilians andwerecked vhicles became a hinderence to the rapid deployment of French reserves.

The Luftwaffe played a key role in the early campaigns of World war II. It was the threat of bombing that eventually convinced the Czechs to submit even before the War began (September 1938) . The Luftwaffe was a key element inthe Blitzkrieg on Poland (September 1939). The Luftwaffe was the decisive component for the German success in Norway. Again the Luftwaffe played key roles in the German Western offensive against the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. The offensive as in all German campaigns was led off by raids intended to criple the oposing air force. Here they were largely sucessful, giving the Germans command of the air during the critical fighting which led to Dunkirk and the fall of France. The Dutch airforce was largely destoyed on the first day and the Belgian airforce crippled. The French and British were unprepared for the force of the attack. The French unliked the Germans had not massed their air force to counter the German attack. A factor here may have been to make a knockout blow impossible, but it meant that a substantial portion of the French air force was out of the battle as the issue was being decided. The British held back much of the RAF to protect Britain itself. After Dunkirk the RAF continued flying missions over France, but flying from distant British bases made the RAF effort ineffectual. The RAF units that had been posted to France were badly mauled. The RAF had depoyed 261 fighters and in only 10 days, 75 had been shot down in aerial combat or destroyed on the ground. An additional 120 could not be brought back to Britain because they were damaged or fuel was not available. [Gilbert, p. 319.] Overall the RAF lost 1,000 planes in France. Fortunately, most of the pilots could be brought back. The losses in France were a quarter of the FAF's front-line fighter strength. The French pleaded for more, but Churchill, who had just replaced Chamberlain as prime minister, had to refuse knowing that the RAF now would be needed to protect Britain itself.

Initial Campaigns

Hitler and Göring announced the Luftwaffe (1935). Actually they began buoilding the Luftwaffe immediately after seizing power 1933). The Luftwaffe played a key role in the early campaigns of World war II, actually even before the War actuall began. . The Luftwaffe Condor Legion played amajor rile in the Spanish Civil War. It was the threat of bombing that eventually convinced the Czechs to submit even before the War began (September 1938) . The Luftwaffe was a key element inthe Blitzkrieg on Poland (September 1939). The Luftwaffe was the decisive component for the German success in Norway.

German Western Offensive

The Germans proceeded to conquer virtually all of Western Europe. After a few months of the "Phony War", France's turn came. The Germans struck on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgiym, and Luxemburg. The terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the already hard-pressed Dutch Army to surrender. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) rushed north to aid the Dutch. The Germans then struck in the Belgian Ardenes which allowed them to avoid the formidable Maginot Line. The French and Belgians considered the Ardenes impassable to tanks. The Germans managed to easily penetrate the rough terraine, crossed two substantial rivers, and the XIX Panzer Corps rapidly reached the English Channel--cutting the BEF off from the French and rendering the Maginot Line uselss. The French entrenched behind the Maginot Line simply could not cope with the exposive highly mobil style of Blitzkrieg warfare. The Panzers surrounded the Belgian Army which King Leopold III surrendered. The BEF was within Hitler's grasp. The Panzers were only a few miles south of Dunkirk and facing no serious opposition. Hitler ordered the Panzers to halt. Some believe that he hoped this gesture would help convince the British to comes to terms, other believe that is was just as it was described at the time, aneeded pause to regroup and prepare for a more coordinated assault. [Davidson, p. 408 and Fest, p. 630.] What ever the reason, this 48-hour respite allowed the British to organize a defensive perimter around Dunkirk and begin an almost miraculous withdawl. Nearly 340,000 men were evacuated from Dunkirk, including French and Dutch sholdiers. This is even more important that it sounds as akmost all if the British sholdiers were regulars and would form the corps of the future British Army that would play such an important role in the War. All of the BEF's equipment, however, was lost. Paris soon fell and the French signed a NAZI imposed armistace. The collapse of France after only a few weeks was a disaster of emense proportions. It was the French Army that had provided the bulk of the allied War Western Front in World War I. The German victory was no ccomplished with superior numbers or weaponry. In fact they had fewer men, tank, and planes. What they had was a superior tactical doctrine. The Germans were amazed to find, for example, that French tanks were not even equipped with radios, and a more disciplined fighting force. NAZI propaganda began to describe Hitler as " Der grösste Feldherr Allerzeiten " (the greatest field commander of all time). [Davidson, p. 483.]

Luftwaffe Role

Again the Luftwaffe played key roles in the German Western offensive against the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. The offensive as in all German campaigns was led off by raids intended to criple the oposing air force. Here they were largely sucessful, giving the Germans command of the air during the critical fighting which led to Dunkirk and the fall of France.

Opposing Air Forces

The Dutch airforce was largely destoyed on the first day and the Belgian airforce crippled. The French and British were unprepared for the force of the attack. The French unliked the Germans had not massed their air force to counter the German attack. A factor here may have been to make a knockout blow impossible, but it meant that a substantial portion of the French air force was out of the battle as the issue was being decided. The British held back much of the RAF to protect Britain itself. After Dunkirk the RAF continued flying missions over France, but flying from distant British bases made the RAF effort ineffectual. The RAF units that had been posted to France were badly mauled. The RAF had depoyed 261 fighters and in only 10 days, 75 had been shot down in aerial combat or destroyed on the ground. An additional 120 could not be brought back to Britain because they were damaged or fuel was not available. [Gilbert, p. 319.] Overall the RAF lost 1,000 planes in France. Fortunately, most of the pilots could be brought back.

German Success

The Luftwaffe played a key role in the German success in the West. This success is, however, largelY misunderstood. It is commonly assumed that the Luftwaffe succeded because ghey had much larger numbers of superior aircraft. This in fact is not the case. even not counting the Dutch and Belgians, the British and French had comparable air forces to the Germans in terms of aircraft strength. And even more startling, the German air craft types were not dramtically supperior to the Allied aircraft. The German edge was that they were more experienced and their tactical doctrine and deployment gave them an enormous edge. An offensive battle plan in particular gave the Luftwaffe an enormous advantage. And the Germans had made considerable progress in establishing communication links between the ground forces and supporting air units. The French French Armée de l' Air at the onset of the German offenssive was a sizeable forece. With British supoort it could have inflicted considerable damage on the Germans. The French aviation industry had been significantly expanded and was priducing aircraft in substantial numbers. They had about 2,000 planes when the Germans struck. Management of the force was, however, apauling, not disimilar to the perfornmance of the Army's ground forces. There was a chronic failure of maintenabce. Shortahes od spare parts were a major problem. One source claims that only 29 percent of its aircraft were serviceable, about 600 planes. And this included 170 largely obsolate bombers. The French fighters were inferior to the Luftwaffe's Jagdgruppen ME-109s, but if reasonably handeled could have put up a serious fight. The German break out in the Ardennes and crossing of the Meuse was achieved largely because the Germans concentrated available forces to support the attack. The Whermacht forces were verybvulnerable at this time as the Panzers, other velickes, and artillery were jammed into the few narrow roads in the area. The French Armée de l' Air had dispersed its air assetts so they were not vuknerabke to a Luftwaffe raid. This meant that they were not in a position to attack the Germans at their weakest point and block the breakout (May 16). This was the decisive point of the German offensive.

Dunkirk

The Luftwaffe effort was very important to the German success in France. The one operational failure was the inability to prevent the escape of the British Expeditionary Force and large numbers of French soldiers at Dunkierk (May–June 1940). Reichs Marshall Göring had assured Hitler that his Luftwaffe could bag the BEF. The result was a fierce air battle. The men on the ground later complained that the RAF was absent over the embarcation beaches. Actually it was very active, but focused on breaking up Luftwaffe air groups before they got to the beaches rather than immediately over the beaches. Maintaining a constanht presence over the beaches would have dusapated the limited RAF strength and ability to hold off the Luftwaffe. Had this not been done, the BEF would not have escaped. The Luftwaffe flew 1,882 bombing and 1,997 fighter sweeps. Luftwaffe losses over Dunkirk constituted a mere 2 percent of their losses during the campaign, less than 100 aircraft.

Fall Rot (June 1940)

After Dunkirk the Germans turned south executed the second phase of their offensive--Fall Rot. The Luftwaffe continuedd to actively support the rapidly advancing Panzers. They launched several offensives such as Operation Paula. French opposition in the air was at first substantial, but quickly declined. The pivital point was Parirs. Nearly 1,000 French aircraft were destroyed or captured on airfields around Paris when the city fell (June 14). . After this, the Armee de l'Air was largely absent in the final days of the Battle for France. [Hooton, pp. 74-75.] The French Army thus had virtually no air cover as the Panzers drove south.

Critical British Decision

Unable to assessmble their own air forces, the French pleaded for the British to commit more RAF Fighter Groups. Hugh Dowding, RAF Fighter Command Commander in Chief resisted, telling Churchill that if France collapsed, a weakened RAF Fighter Command would be severely impaired in its ability to protect Britain. The losses in France were a quarter of the RAF's front-line fighter strength. The French pleaded for more, but Churchill, who had just replaced Chamberlain as prime minister, had to refuse knowing that the RAF now would be needed to protect Britain itself. RAF losses totaled 6 percent of their total losses during the French campaign, including 60 desperately needed fighter pilots. [Hooton, p. 74.] This was particularly important because the key to the Battle of Britain was experienced pilots. Britain was never short of aircraft, it was the pilots that were in short supply. The French saw the British failure to commit additional Fighter Squadrons as abandonment even betrayal. In fact this key decission by Churchill would save both France and the French peope, although it would take the americans to turn the liberation of France into a reality.

Sources

Davidson, Eugene. The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (Univesity of Missouri: Columbia, 1996), 519p.

Gilbert, Martin. A History of the Twentieth Century Vol. 2 1933-54 (William Morrow and Company, Inc.: New York, 1998), 1050p.\

Hooton, E.R Luftwaffe at War: Blitzkrieg in the West Vol. 2 (London: Chervron/Ian Allen, 2007.








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Created: 9:04 PM 11/17/2014
Last updated: 9:04 PM 11/17/2014