Luftwaffe (Wehrmacht)

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Luftwaffe eagle
Luftwaffe Construction Workers Badge (Luftwaffen-Baubataillon)

The Luftwaffe was the air force or air weapon of the German Wehrmacht from the 1 March 1935 until the end of World War Two. It must not be confused with the Luftwaffe of the Bundeswehr as of 1955.


Balkenkreuz, insignia for aircraft of the Luftwaffe (fuselage and wing undersurfaces)
Combined Pilot and Observer Badge in Gold with Diamonds
Focke-Wulf Fw 200 „Condor“ (Luftwaffe version)
Stahlhelm M38 for Fallschirmjäger with the eagle of the Luftwaffe which differed from the eagle of the army.

It was tasked with the air defense of Germany and the fulfillment of the country’s airpower commitments abroad. In the last year of the war it mainly was dedicated to the Reichsluftverteidigung, the defense of German air space against enemy intruders, predominantly from the RAF and the USAAF, with fighter planes by day such as night and anti-aircraft guns, but was also dedicated to the Reichsverteidigung, as ground-attack aircraft against the invasion of the Red Army from the east leading up to the Battle of Berlin.

Lacking aircraft and fuel many Luftwaffe members were engaged as infantry-like ground combat forces adding to the Luftwaffe strength of Fallschirmjäger and the Luftwaffe Field Divisions (German: Luftwaffen-Feld-Divisionen).


Combat mission (Feindflug) of a typical fighting finger formation of four aircraft (Vierfinger-Schwarm or doppelter Rottenflug)
Luftwaffe assisting the Kriegsmarine during the Operation Rösselsprung (1942)
Junkers Ju 88 A-4 from the 4. Staffel/II. Gruppe/KG 54 in Italy (air raid on the port of Bari in 1943)
Luftwaffe Honor Dagger for recipients of the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, the first five all being flying aces of the Luftwaffe: Werner Mölders, Adolf Galland, Gordon M. Gollob, Hans-Joachim Marseille, and Hermann Graf.
Erich Alfred Hartmann (1922–1993) was the most successful fighter ace in the history of aerial warfare. He flew 1,404 combat missions and participated in aerial combat on 825 separate occasions. He was credited with shooting down a total of 352 Allied aircraft: 345 Soviet and seven American (USAAF) while serving with the Luftwaffe. During the course of his career, Hartmann was forced to crash-land his fighter 16 times due either to mechanical failure or damage received from parts of enemy aircraft he had shot down; he was never shot down from direct enemy action. He would later serve as a Oberst (Colonel) in the Luftwaffe of the new Bundeswehr.
Front Flying Clasp of the Luftwaffe (symbols)

World War I

Main article: Luftstreitkräfte

The forerunner of the Luftwaffe, the Imperial German Army Air Service, was founded in 1910 with the emergence of military aircraft, although they were intended to be used primarily for reconnaissance in support of armies on the ground, just as balloons had been used in the same fashion during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 and even as far back as the Napoleonic Wars. It was not the world's first air force, however, because France's embryonic army air service, which eventually became the French Air Force (Armée de l’Air), had also been founded in 1910. Britain's Royal Flying Corps (which merged in 1918 with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force) was founded in 1912.

During World War I, the Imperial Army Air Service utilised a wide variety of aircraft, ranging from fighters (such as those manufactured by Albatros-Flugzeugwerke and Fokker) to reconnaissance aircraft (Aviatik and DFW) and heavy bombers (Gothaer Waggonfabrik, better known simply as Gotha, and Zeppelin-Staaken).

However, the fighters received the most attention in the annals of military aviation, since it produced aces such as Manfred von Richthofen, popularly known as the Red Baron (der rote Baron), Ernst Udet, Hermann Göring, Oswald Boelcke, Max Immelmann (the first airman to win the Pour le Mérite, Imperial Germany's highest decoration for gallantry, as a result of which the decoration became popularly known as the Blue Max), and Werner Voss. As did the German Navy, the German Army used Zeppelins as airships for bombing military and civilian targets in France and Belgium as well as the United Kingdom.

All German and Austro-Hungarian military aircraft in service used the Iron Cross insignia of the Teutonic Knights until early 1918. Afterwards, the Balkenkreuz, a black cross on white, was introduced.

After the war ended in German defeat, the service was dissolved completely under the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, which demanded that its aeroplanes be completely destroyed. As a result of this disbanding, today's Luftwaffe (which dates from 1956) can not claim to be the oldest independent air force in the world, since the Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom is older, having been founded on 1 April 1918.

Interwar period

German Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka” dive-bomber

Lipetsk fighter-pilot school

Since the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from having an air force, German pilots had to be trained in secret. Initially, civil aviation schools within Germany were used, yet only light training planes could be used in order to maintain the facade that the trainees were going to fly with civil airlines such as Lufthansa. To train its pilots on the latest combat aircraft, Germany solicited the help of its future enemy, the USSR, which was also isolated in Europe.

A secret collaboration with the Soviet Union began after the treaty of Rapallo. Major-General Otto Hasse (de) traveled to Moscow in 1923 to further negotiate the terms. Germany assisted the Soviets with some industrialization, and Soviet officers were to be trained by German officers. German tank and air force specialists would be able, in return, to exercise in the Soviet Union, and German chemical weapons research and manufacture could be carried out there along with other projects. Around three hundred German pilots received training at Lipetsk, and some Panzer training took place near Kazan.
Walter Stahr (1882–1948) was head of the secret flying school from 1925 to 1929 [Note: succeeded by Major Max Mohr under director Major Hellmuth Bieneck]. His greatest effort was to build up a group of regular pilots, from which he formed two training squadrons of eleven pilots each, who were able to train against each other in combat formation. Under the leadership of Carl-August von Schoenebeck and Josef Mai, both flying aces during the First World War, the regular pilots developed a “fighter pilot manual” that specified exactly which requirements the student pilots had to meet. Under the seemingly harmless point “attacks against two-seater formations,” a special challenge was dealt with: the attack by fighters against closed bomber formations. For a long time, the military office was convinced that such attacks would be unsuccessful. Although the instructions were unable to provide a final answer, a short time later the regular German pilots in Lipetsk, together with their Russian comrades, managed to find the tactical solution.

A secret training airfield, the Geheime Fliegerschule und Erprobungsstätte der Reichswehr, disgused as "WIVUPAL (Scientific Experimental and Personnel Training Station or Wissenschaftliche Versuchs- und Personalausbildungsstation)", was established at Lipetsk (Lipezk) in 1924 and operated for approximately nine years using mostly Dutch and Russian, but also some German, training aircraft before being closed in 1933. This base was officially known as 4th squadron of the 40th wing of the Red Army.[1]


On 26 February 1935, Adolf Hitler ordered Hermann Göring to establish the Luftwaffe, breaking the Treaty of Versailles's ban on German military aviation. Germany violated the treaty without sanction from Britain and France or the League of Nations, and neither they nor the league did anything to oppose this or any other action that broke the treaty. Although the new air force was to be run totally separately from the army, it retained the tradition of according army ranks for its officers and airmen, a tradition retained today by united Germany's Bundesluftwaffe and by many air forces throughout the world. It is worth noting, however, that before the official promulgation of Göring's new Luftwaffe in 1935, Germany had a paramilitary air force known as the Deutscher Luftverband (DVL: German air union). The DVL was headed by Ernst Udet and the its insignia were taken over by the new Luftwaffe, although the DVL "ranks" had special names that made them sound more civilian than military.

Dr. Fritz Todt, the engineer who founded the forced labor Organisation Todt, was appointed to the rank of Generalmajor in the Luftwaffe. He was not, strictly speaking, an airman, although he had served in an observation squadron during World War I and had been awarded the Iron Cross. He died in a plane crash in February 1942.

Hermann Göring personally chose an insignia for the Luftwaffe that differed from that of the other armed branches. The eagle (Reichsadler), an old symbol of the German Empire back to the Holy Roman Empire, was used, but in a different posture. Since 1933, when Hitler's National Socialist Party came to power, the eagle held between his claws the symbol of the party—the swastika (an old symbol of sunrise)—which usually was enveloped by an oak wreath. Göring rejected the old heraldic eagle because he felt it was too stylized, too static, and too massive; instead he chose a younger, more natural and lighter eagle with wings spread as if in flight, as he considered this a more suitable symbol for an air force. While the Wehrmacht eagle held the symbol of the National Socialist Party firmly in its claws, the Luftwaffe eagle held the swastika with only one claw while the other was bent in a threatening gesture.

The Luftwaffe had the ideal opportunity to test its pilots, aircraft and tactics in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939, when the Condor Legion was sent to Spain in support of the anti-Republican government revolt led by Francisco Franco. Modern machines included names which would become world famous: the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane. However, since the aircraft were seconded to Franco's Nationalist air force, Luftwaffe markings were replaced to avoid giving the world the impression that Germany was actively supporting the revolt. Instead of the National Socialist Party's swastika on the tail, the German planes used the nationalist air force aircraft markings (a Saint Andrew's cross over a white background, painted on the rudder of the aircraft and a black disc on fuselage and wings). All aircraft in the Legion were affiliated to units given a designation ending in the number 88. For example, bombers were in Kampfgruppe (combat group) 88, abbreviated K/88; and fighters, in Jagdgruppe (fighter group) 88, J/88.

Training and education

Pilots were trained at the many Flugzeugführerschulen (FFS) throughout the Reich. Officers were trained at the Luftkriegsschulen, but the brightest of the bright (future general staff officers) were educated at the elite Luftkriegsakademie in Berlin-Gatow (LKA) with the Lufttechnische Akademie (LTA) for ongoing aviation engineers.

The Luftwaffe's most basic fighter organization, testing by the Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War had proven very successful, was the Rotte or section, composed of two aircraft: a leader (Rottenführer) and a wingman (Rottenflieger), often fondly referred to as Katschmarek/Kaczmarek. The best pilots, regardless of rank, would plan and lead formations. The adopted 'Mölders' formation was a fighting finger of four aircraft (Vierfinger-Schwarm) made up of two pairs (Rotte). Although the Staffelkapitän/Staka (squadron captain) or his deputy usually led Schwarm, oftentimes, an experienced NCO would lead the rear Rotte with a less experienced officer as his Katschmarek/Kaczmarek or wingman.

The distinction between class and rank was not considered important and rarely played a part in the daily routine of the Jagdgeschwader (fighter wings consisting of three, later four autonomous groups with three to four squadrons). This is in stark contrast to similar sized German army units, where officers lived and ate separately.

Kampfflieger, on the other hand, always flew in a chain or Kette of three bombers or Stukas with chain leader (Kettenführer) and two chain wingmen (Kettenflieger), also known as chain dogs (Kettenhunde); If there were several chains, the group commander (Gruppenkommandeur) usually led the leading chain (Kommando-Kette / Führungs-Kette).

World War II

German Luftwaffe against bombers of the USAAF
Me 262 during the Reichsluftverteidigung (RLV), the defensive aerial campaign of the Luftwaffe 1945.

At the outset of the war, the Luftwaffe was one of the most modern, powerful, and experienced air forces in the world, dominating the skies over Europe with aircraft much more advanced than their counterparts. The Luftwaffe was central to the German Blitzkrieg (lightning war) doctrine, as the close air support provided by various medium two-engine bombers, Stuka dive bombers and an overwhelming force of tactical fighters were key to several early successes. Unlike the British and American Air Forces, the Luftwaffe never developed four-engine bombers in any significant numbers, and was thus unable to conduct an effective long-range strategic bombing campaign against either the Russians or the Western Allies.

The Messerschmitt Bf 109 was the most versatile and widely-produced fighter aircraft operated by the Luftwaffe and was designed when biplane was still standard. Many versions of this aircraft were made. The engine, a liquid cooled Mercedes-Benz DB 601, initially generated up to almost 1000 horsepower. This power increased as direct fuel injection was introduced to the engines. The Focke Wulf Fw 190 was considered the best German fighter of World War II. It had relatively short wings and was powered by a radial BMW engine. The Junkers Ju 87 Stuka was a main asset for Blitzkrieg, able to place bombs with deadly accuracy.

The leader of the Luftwaffe was Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, a World War I fighter ace and former commander of von Richthofen's famous JG 1 who had joined the National Socialist party in its early stages. In the (northern) summer and autumn of 1940, the Luftwaffe lost the Battle of Britain over the skies of England, the first all-air battle and Germany's first defeat. Following the military failures on the Eastern Front, from 1942 onwards, the Luftwaffe went into a steady, gradual decline that saw it outnumbered and overwhelmed by the sheer number of Allied aircraft being deployed against it.

Towards the end of the war, the Luftwaffe was no longer a major factor having lost air superiority, and, despite fielding advanced aircraft like the Messerschmitt Me 262 and Me 163, was crippled by fuel shortages and a lack of trained pilots.

Naval air force

Whereas Hitler had a strained relationship with Erich Raeder (who was forced to resign in January 1943), Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring had been one of Hitler’s most ardent supporters since the earliest days of the Nazi Party. For this reason, Göring would hold a place of almost unequaled influence within the Third Reich, and he would wield near-total control of German air power. Because Göring openly disliked Raeder, the Kriegsmarine would not be allowed to develop a serious naval aviation capability. The Graf Zeppelin, the Reich’s only aircraft carrier, never entered service despite being almost completed, and its only significant contribution to the war effort was as a floating timber warehouse.[2]

German World War II flying aces (excerpt)

35 flying aces of the Luftwaffe shot down over 150 enemy planes each; 16 of them were killed in aerial combat (⚔):

  • Erich Hartmann 352
  • Gerhard Barkhorn 301
  • Günther Rall 275
  • Otto Kittel 267 ⚔ (the most victories with the Focke-Wulf 190)
  • Walter Nowotny 258 ⚔
  • Wilhelm Batz 237
  • Erich Rudorffer 222 (12 victories or Luftsiege with the Me 262)
  • Heinz Bär 220 (16 victories or Luftsiege with the Me 262)
  • Hermann Graf 212 (first ace or Flieger-As with 200 victories)
  • Heinrich Ehrler 208/209 ⚔
  • Theodor Weissenberger 208 (8 victories or Luftsiege with the Me 262)
  • Hans Philipp 206 ⚔
  • Walter Schuck 206 (8 victories or Luftsiege with the Me 262)
  • Anton Hafner 204 ⚔
  • Helmut Lipfert 203
  • Walter Krupinski 197
  • Anton Hackl 192
  • Joachim Brendel 189
  • Max Stotz 189 ⚔
  • Joachim Kirschner 188 ⚔
  • Kurt Brändle 180 ⚔
  • Günther Josten 178
  • Johannes Steinhoff 176
  • Ernst-Wilhelm Reinert 174
  • Günther Schack 174
  • Emil Lang 173 ⚔ (shot down 18 enemy planes in one day)
  • Heinz Schmidt 173 ⚔
  • Horst Ademeit 166 ⚔
  • Wolf-Dietrich Wilcke 162 ⚔
  • Hans-Joachim Marseille 158 ⚔ (shot down 17 enemy planes in one day)
  • Heinrich Sturm 158 ⚔
  • Gerhard Thyben 157
  • Hans Beisswenger 152 ⚔
  • Peter Düttmann 152
  • Gordon Gollob 150 ⚔ (first ace to achieve 150 victories)

Luftwaffe prisoner of war camps

The care of enemy prisoners of war was fundamentally the responsibility of the Wehrmacht High Command (OKW). However, in order to better meet the special characteristics of the composition of the prisoner of war aircraft crews, at Hermann Göring's request, the Luftwaffe was given direct responsibility for looking after the aircraft crew POWs. For this purpose, two transit camps (Dulag Luft) and one special camp (Lw. Sonderlager Ost) as well as seven main camps of the Luftwaffe (Stalag Luft 1 to 7) were set up. They received instructions from the Luftwaffen Inspektion 17 (L. In 17; construction troops and engineers of the Luftwaffe) regarding the distribution to the main camps. Soldiers from the enemy air forces of all ranks (including officers) were housed in the various Stalag Luft camps.

Front Flying Clasp

The Front Flying Clasp of the Luftwaffe (German: Frontflugspange) was a World War II German military decoration awarded to aircrew and certain other Luftwaffe personnel in recognition of the number of operational flights flown. It was instituted by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring on 30 January 1941. It was awarded in Bronze, Silver, and Gold with an upgrade to include diamonds possible. Pennants suspended from the clasp could indicate the number of missions obtained in a given type of aircraft.

The "Pennant to the Golden Front Flying Clasp with Mission Number" was donated on 29 April 1944 and was the increase of the "Pennant to the Golden Front Flying Clasp" (star pennant), which was donated on 13 July 1942 as an incentive to the highest performance and performance in front of the enemy. Individual numbers of front flights (Feindflüge) in increments of 100 were distinguished with the pennant for the golden Front Flying Clasp with number of operations. At the same time, Hermann Göring had introduced the Front Flying Clasp in gold with diamonds, which he reserved the right to award himself. Anyone who was awarded the pennant with the number of missions had to discard the pennant without (star pennant).

Criteria for the Front Flying Clasp

  • Bronze – 20 flown missions
  • Silver – 60 flown missions
  • Gold – 110 flown missions

Pennant to the Gold Front Flying Clasp:

  • Day Fighters and Transport Units – 500 missions
  • Air to Ground Support Fighters – 400 missions
  • Bombers, Air Sea Rescue and Weather Reconnaissance – 300 missions
  • Reconnaissance and Night Fighters – 250 missions



According to the General Staff of the Wehrmacht the losses of the flight personnel until February 1945 amounted to 15,082 officers and 98,568 enlisted men:

  • KIA: 6,527 officers and 43,517 enlisted men
  • WIA: 4,194 officers and 27,811 enlisted men
  • MIA: 4,361 officers and 27,240 enlisted men

According to official statistics, total Luftwaffe casualties, including ground personnel, amounted through 31 January 1945 to:

  • 138,596 fallen
  • 156,132 missing

The numbers afterwards surely rised highly, considering the fact that the last months of the war would become the bloodiest of all.


  • 76,875 aircraft (43,000 in combat, the rest in operational accidents and during training)
    • 21,452 fighters
    • 12,037 bombers
    • 15,428 trainers
    • 10,221 twin-engine fighters
    • 5,548 ground attack craft
    • 6,733 reconnaissance planes
    • 6,141 transports

See also

Further reading

  • Werner Baumbach: The life and death of the Luftwaffe, Noontide Press, 1991
  • Jeffrey Ethell: Blitzkrieg in the West, 1939-42 (Luftwaffe At War),[3] Greenhill Books (1997), ISBN 978-1853672835
  • Henry L. deZeng IV / Douglas G. Stankey: Luftwaffe Officer Career Summaries, 2023 (updated version)

External links

In German


  1. Dyck, Harvey Leonard, Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia 1926-1933, Chatto & Windus, London, 1966, pps: 21, 76, 144-5, 188, 216.
  2. Wehrmacht, armed forces of the Third Reich, Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. This illustrated series presents every aspect of the Luftwaffe in World War II, on all fronts and in widely varying conditions. Contemporary photographs from archives and private collections, many never before published, show how and where all types of German military aircraft operated, and are accompanied by detailed captions written by experts in aviation history. For the first year of the war the Luftwaffe proved itself a superb and deadly tactical air force, helping the Wehrmacht and its Panzers move from Poland through the Low Countries into France. Its pilots, led by Spanish Civil War veterans who had revolutionized air combat, were far more experienced than the Allies. Rare photos taken by Luftwaffe pilots and crew, as well as by press photographers, show what aircraft were used, what equipment they carried, and who flew and maintained them during this dramatic period of the war.