1 September 1939: At 4:40 a.m., without provocation or warning, the German Luftwaffe attacked the town of Wieluń, Poland, in the first combat action of World War II.
Three waves of Junkers Ju 87 B Stuka dive bombers from Sturzkampfgeschwader 76 and Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 Immelman attacked the defenseless town and dropped 46,000 kilograms (101,413 pounds) of 500 and 50 kilogram bombs.
The first target was the Szpital Wszystkich Świętych (All Saints Hospital), which was marked with red crosses. 26 patients and 6 nurses were killed.
In just over one hour, 75% of the town was destroyed and more than 1,200 people were killed. The death rate was twice that of the infamous attack on the Spanish town of Guernica by the Nazi Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War.
By the time the war ended six years later, over 78,000,000 people had died.
15 August 1939: As Nazi Germany prepared for a war now just weeks away, the Luftwaffe gave a demonstration of its Junkers Ju 87 B-1 Stuka dive bombers for a group of generals at a test range near Neuhammer-am-Queis, Silesia :
“. . . scores of generals were assembled at the training area at Neuhammer to watch a dive-bombing demonstration. Already, said Rudolf Braun, who took part with his unit (I St. G 3) there was a feeling of war in the air.
“Normally the order of attack was the Kommandeur’s Stab Kette (Staff Flight) first, followed by Staffels 1, 2, and 3. For some unknown reason Staffel I, led by Oberleutnant Peltz, was this time ordered to attack last. It would save Rudolf Braun’s life.
“The Met. reported cloud from 6,000 feet down to 2,500 with clear visibility below. At 6.00 a.m. Hauptmann Sigel led his Gruppe into attack at 12,000 feet. Half-rolling his Ju. 87 he plunged nearly vertically earthwards, with Oberleutnants Eppen and Mueller on each side.
“On the ground below, the generals (including Wolfram von Richthofen, the Stuka’s chief) listened to the whining crescendo of the dive-bombers as they plummeted towards the ground. Horrified, they knew that nothing could avert disaster. The Met. report was wrong. Cloud base was at three hundred feet.
“Hauptmann Sigel, yelling into his microphone, “Pull out!” managed to do so himself a few feet above the trees. But Eppen went in, Mueller went in, and both burst into flames. The nine Ju. 87s of Staffel 2 and two of Staffel 3 all went in.
“Rudolf Braun and his comrades of Staffel I had heard Sigel’s warning and remained circling above the cloud layer through which columns of black smoke were now rising from the wreckage of thirteen dive bombers. I St. G 3 lost twenty-six young aircrew that day.”
— Duel of Eagles, Group Captain Peter Wooldridge Townsend, C.V.O., D.S.O., D.F.C. and Bar, Royal Air Force. Castle Books, Edison, New Jersey, 2003, Chapter 14 at Pages 171–172.
The Junkers Flugzeug-und-Motorenwerke AG Ju 87 B-1 Sturzkampfflugzeug (“diving combat aircraft”) was a two-place, single-engine, low-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear, designed as a dive bomber. The airplane, commonly known as the “Stuka,” has a blocky, unstreamlined appearance. Its most identifiable feature is its sharply-tapered, inverted “gull wing.” ¹
The Ju 87 made its first flight 17 September 1935. Among the tests pilots who flew it during pre-production testing were Hanna Reitsch and aeronautical engineer Gräfin Melitta Schenk von Stauffenberg.
The Stuka was used in the murderous attacks on the Spanish market town of Guernica, 26 April 1937, and Wieluń, Poland, 1 September 1939.
The Ju 87 B-1 was the first variant to be produced in large numbers and was in service at the beginning of World War II. The airplane is 11.000 meters (36.089 feet) long with a wingspan of 13.800 meters (45.276 feet) and height of 3.770 meters (12.369 feet). The total wing area is 31.9 square meters (343.4 square feet). The B-1 variant had an empty weight of 2,745 kilograms (6,052 pounds), and gross weight of 4,235 kilograms (9,337 pounds).
The Ju 87 B-1 was powered by a liquid-cooled, supercharged 34.989 liter (2,135.190 cubic-inch-displacement Junkers Jumo 211 A inverted 60° V-12 engine. The 211 A had direct fuel-injected and the cylinder heads were machine for four spark plugs per cylinder. The compression ratio was 6.57:1, requiring 88-octane gasoline. It was rated at a maximum 900 Pferdestärke at 2,200 r.p.m. at 5,500 meters (18,045 feet). The engine turned a three-blade Junkers-Verstelluftschraube propeller with a diameter of 3.4 meters (11.2 feet) through a 1.55:1 gear reduction. The Jumo 211 A weighed 660 kilograms (1,455 pounds).
The Stuka B-1 had a maximum dive speed of 600 kilometers per hour (373 miles per hour). The Ju 87 B-1 had a service ceiling of 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), and range of 550 kilometers (342 miles).
The B-1 was armed with two fixed 7.92 mm Rheinmetall-Borsig MG17 machine gunswith 1,000 rounds of ammunition per gun, and one MG 15 machine gun on a flexible mount with 900 rounds of ammunition. It could carry a single 500 kilogram (1,102 pound) bomb under the fuselage.
An intersting feature the the Stuka was its automatic pull-out system. Once the bomb had been dropped, the airplane automatically began a 5–6 g recovery. This could save the airplane if the pilot became target-fixated, or blacked out.
The Ju 87 was equipped with a Zeiss gyro-stabilized bomb sight. According to an article in Air Force Times, the Stuka was a very accurate dive bomber. “. . . even the worst drops typically landed within 100 feet [30.5 meters] of the target. Good hits were either on target or no more than 15 feet [4.6 meters] off-center.”
In the same article, the legendary Royal Navy test pilot, Captain Eric Melrose Brown, C.B.E., D.S.C., A.F.C., K.C.V.S.A., Ph.D., Hon. F.R.Ae.S., R.N., is quoted:
“A dive angle of 90 degrees is a pretty palpitating experience, for it always feels as if the aircraft is over the vertical and is bunting, and all this while terra firma is rushing closer with apparent suicidal rapidity. In fact I have rarely seen a specialist dive bomber put over 70 degrees in a dive, but the Ju 87 was a genuine 90-degree screamer. . . the Ju 87 felt right standing on its nose, and the acceleration to 335 mph [539 km/h] was reached in about 4,500 feet [1,372 meters], speed thereafter creeping up to the absolute permitted limit of 375 mph [604 km/h], so that the feeling of being on a runaway roller coaster experienced with most dive bombers was missing. I must confess that I had a more enjoyable hour’s dive-bombing practice than I had ever experienced with any other aircraft of this specialist type. Somehow the Ju 87D did not appear to find its natural element until it was diving steeply. Obviously the fixed undercarriage and large-span dive brakes of the Junkers were a highly effective drag combination.”
Only two Stukas still exist, one, a Ju 87 G-2, at the RAF Museum at Hendon, and the other, a Ju 87 R-2, is at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Illinois.
¹ TDiA has not found any source that provides the details of the Ju 87’s most characteristic feature: the angles of anhedral and dihedral of its wings. TDiA estimates that the wings’ inner section has -12° anhedral, while the outer wing panels have approximately 8° dihedral.
4 June 1942: The Battle of Midway: By the afternoon American planes had heavily damaged three Japanese Aircraft carriers. They would later sink. Planes from the fourth carrier, IJN Hiryu, were launched to attack the American aircraft carriers.
USS Yorktown (CV-5) was hit by two aerial torpedoes from Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers. She listed sharply, lost power and was out of action. She would later be sunk by the Japanese submarine I-168. Hiryu was attacked by U.S. Navy SBD Dauntless dive bombers and was badly damaged, set on fire, and sank later in the day.
The Battle of Midway was not over. It would go on until 7 June. However, the outcome was clear. Midway was a decisive American victory.
The Americans lost 1 aircraft carrier and 1 destroyer, about 150 aircraft, with 307 soldiers, sailors and airmen killed. The island outpost was saved and would never again be seriously threatened.
The Imperial Japanese Navy lost 4 aircraft carriers and one cruiser, with other warships, including battleships, so heavily damaged that they were out of the war for some time. Also lost were 248 aircraft and 3,057 sailors and airmen killed.
For the rest of the War, the Japanese Navy suffered from the loss of these highly experienced naval aviators. Though they could replace the men, they could not replace their years of combat experience. From this point forward, Japan was on the defensive with its defeat inevitable.
The Battle of Midway was the most decisive naval battle in history. It was fought almost entirely by aircraft.
Very Highly Recommended: History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume IV, Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, May 1942—August 1942, by Samuel Eliot Morison, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, September 1949. The entire 15-volume series has TDiA’s highest possible recommendation.
4 June 1942: At the Battle of Midway, beginning at 0702 hours, fifteen Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers were launched from the United States Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) along with squadrons of Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers and Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters.
Led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8) flew at low altitude toward the expected position of the attacking Japanese fleet, while the fighters escorted the dive bombers at high altitude. Waldron sighted the enemy fleet at a distance of 30 miles and ordered his squadron to attack. Without any fighter escort, the slow flying torpedo bombers were attacked by Japanese Navy A6M2 Type 0 fighters and defensive anti-aircraft fire from the warships. All fifteen TBDs were shot down.
A detachment of VT-8, flying Grumman TBF-1 Avengers, had been sent ahead to Midway from Pearl Harbor. These six torpedo bombers, led by Lieutenant Langdon K. Fieberling, also attacked the Japanese fleet. Five were shot down by intercepting Zero fighters. The sixth, flown by Ensign Albert Kyle Earnest, was badly damaged and its gunner killed. The torpedo bomber was able to return to Midway but crash-landed. It was the only aircraft of Torpedo Eight to survive the Battle of Midway.¹
Only one man, Ensign George H. Gay, of the thirty pilots and gunners of Torpedo Eight who had launched from USS Hornet, survived. Ensign Earnest and Radioman Harry Hackett Ferrier, were the only survivors of the 18 men from the Midway detachment of VT-8. The torpedo bombers failed to score any hits on the Japanese ships, and their machine guns did not bring down any of the Zeros.
In the enigmatic ways of warfare, the attack by Torpedo Eight caused all of the Japanese fighters defending their aircraft carriers to descend to low altitude in their efforts to shoot down the American torpedo bombers. When the SBD Dauntless dive bombers from USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown arrived a few minutes later, there were no Japanese fighters at high altitude to interfere with their attack.
The dive bomber attack was devastating. The aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga and Hiryu were bombed and sunk. Soryu received major damage, and was sunk by its escorting destroyers later in the day.
The Imperial Japanese Navy, up to this time on the offense all over the Pacific and Indian Oceans, never recovered from the loss of the experienced pilots that died when those carriers went down.
In his After Action Report, Hornet‘s commanding officer, Captain Marc A. Mitscher (later, Admiral) wrote:
“Beset on all sides by the deadly Zero fighters, which were doggedly attacking them in force, and faced with a seemingly impenetrable screen of cruisers and destroyers, the squadron drove in valiantly at short range. Plane after plane was shot down by fighters, anti-aircraft bursts were searing faces and tearing out chunks of fuselage, and still the squadron bored in. Those who were left dropped their torpedoes at short range.”
¹ In a 2008 U.S. Naval Institute article, survivor Commander Harry H. Ferrier (then Aviation Radioman 3/c) wrote that following the Battle of Midway, TBF-1 Bu. No. 00380 was returned to Pearl Harbor for inspection. It had been hit by at least nine 20 mm cannon shells and sixty-four 7.7 mm machine gun bullets.
4 June 1942: The Battle of Midway: The Japanese naval task force (First Mobile Force) under Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, consisting of the aircraft carriers IJN Agagi, IJN Kaga, IJN Hiryu and IJN Soryu, along with their escorts of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and supporting tankers, launched the first attack at 0430 against the United States base at Midway Island. The attackers consisted of 36 Aichi D3A dive bombers, 36 Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers and 36 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters as escort.
The incoming aircraft were detected by radar on the island and defending U.S. Marines fighters—obsolescent Grumman F4F Wildcats and obsolete Brewster F2A Buffalos—were launched to defend the island’s airstrip and facilities. 15 U.S. Army Air Force B-17E Flying Fortress heavy bombers and 4 Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers took off to attack the Japanese carriers.
The Marine fighters were outnumbered and technologically inferior. 4 of the F4Fs and all 12 F2As were shot down. The Japanese lost 4 torpedo bombers and 3 Zero fighters. Facilities on the island were heavily damaged by the dive bomber attack, but it was not put out of action.