The Junkers Ju 87 series of dive bombers is perhaps the most readily recognizable type of aircraft to fly during the Second World War. With its gull wings, reinforced non-retractable landing gear and jutting radiator intake, it is often perceived as ugly or sinister in appearance. It was, however, an extraordinarily effective ground attack aircraft, provided that the Germans enjoyed air superiority where it was being used. The Stuka, as it is popularly known, remained in use for the entire war.
“Stuka” is simply the German abbreviation for the word Sturzkampfflugzeug, which means “dive bomber.” Dive bombers were a major priority for the Luftwaffe in the mid-1930’s; among the lessons learned from World War I was the need for close cooperation between land and air forces, and with the technology of the period, a successful dive bomber design was the most accurate way to deliver a small or medium bomb. Several varieties of dive bombers were built, and one, the Henschel Hs 123, enjoyed substantial patronage and an early production run. By 1937, however, they would all be eclipsed by the Junkers design, which would soon become synonymous with the word “Stuka.” Junkers Flugzeug und Motorenwerke AG was well-positioned to create a winning design. During World War I it had created the first airplane with a metal skin; by the standards of the Great War, the J1 was an armored aircraft, and this recommended its later version, the J4, for dedicated ground attack missions. After the war, military design continued in the company’s Swedish offices, with one design, the K 47, clearly anticipating the ground attack role that would be filled by the later Stukas.
In 1936, Junkers had produced three prototypes for the design that would become the Ju 87, and the Luftwaffe accepted this design for further development. The original production model, the Ju 87A (or Anton) entered service later that year. The Anton was then superseded in 1938 by the Ju 87B (or Berta) version, which offered numerous changes to the fuselage, an upgraded engine, and a landing gear system that reduced drag. The Berta was the design that would carry the Stuka through its heyday in 1939 and 1940.
The Antons, however, had already begun the reputation of the Stuka for their service in the Spanish Civil War. The first Anton had arrived in Spain in November, 1936; for most of 1938, three were in use, and this single unit (termed a “Kette” in German, meaning a “chain”) contributed substantially to Franco’s victories in this period. In October, 1938, these Antons were withdrawn in favor of five new Bertas, which were also withdrawn in secrecy just before the cessation of hostilities.
When World War II commenced, virtually all of the Luftwaffe’s dive bombers were Bertas, and they contributed substantially to Germany’s successes in Poland, the Low Countries and France. The first combat mission of the war was carried out by a Kette of Stukas; the mission, which was meant to prevent the destruction of a bridge that the Germans hoped to use as the invasion unfolded, was a success in itself, but it came to nothing when subsequent events led to the bridge’s demolition. Ironically, given that the Stuka was largely ill-suited to aerial combat, a Stuka also shot down the first enemy aircraft.
Losses were light at the beginning. The Luftwaffe began the war with 346 Stukas; 31 were destroyed in the Polish campaign. The war in the west, however, caused four times as many losses by the time the French capitulated, and losses mounted substantially during the Battle of Britain. In 1941, the Stukas were effectively grounded in the west.
Development continued, however. The Ju 87C (Cäsar) was created for carrier use while the Navy proceeded with plans for the Graf Zeppelin aircraft carrier, but the Cäsars were refitted as Bertas when the project was abandoned. Another variant of the Berta, the Ju87R, was created for a naval role, offering an extended flight range. Most importantly, a substantial improvement of the Stuka design, the Ju 87D (Dora) was released in 1941, featuring a more powerful engine, more effective armor, and a significantly higher bomb-carrying capacity.
The Doras saw considerable action in North Africa and on the Russian front, but by 1943, air superiority had passed to the Soviets, and once again enemy fighters took a heavy toll on the Stuka forces. Late versions of the Dora, such as the Ju 87D-5 and the night-combat Ju 87D-7, abandoned the dive bomber concept entirely. Eventually, the Ju 87D-5 was adapted to carry two 37 mm antitank guns under the wing instead of a bomb load, and this version was given the designation Ju 87G (Gustav). The Gustav was a very effective tank-killer, but its heavy cannons made it just as vulnerable to enemy fighters as the dive bombers were.
Eventually, the Stukas were again pulled from most combat operations. Indeed, the final variant of the design was the Ju 87H, which was adapted from existing Doras for use in training. In the absence of a viable successor vehicle, however, some Stukas remained in use until the end of the war, despite the punishment inflicted upon the Luftwaffe by mounting Allied air superiority.
With so many variants, specifications differed significantly. Most Stukas had a wingspan of 13.8 meters and a fuselage length between 10 and 12 meters. All were powered by Junkers Jumo engines, which became more powerful in later versions. The Anton had a 640 hp engine and a maximum speed of 320 km per hour; the Berta featured a 1200 hp engine and a maximum speed of 340 kmh, while the Dora boasted a 1400 hp engine with a maximum speed of 410 kmh.
All except some early Antons were built as two-seaters. The rear of the cockpit was outfitted with a 7.92 mm machine gun for the observer/gunner; with the Dora generation, this was improved to paired machine guns. Primary armament, however, was the bomb load, which increased over time. Antons could carry 250 kg, while Bertas could carry 500 kg and Doras, 1800 kg. Secondary armament consisted of wing-mounted 7.92 mm machine guns; Antons carried one of these, while subsequent variants carried two.
As a dive bomber, the Stuka was never superseded. It was a rugged plane, designed to withstand the rigors of an almost perpendicular dive toward the ground, followed by an abrupt leveling out and climb after the bomb has been dropped. With features like dive brakes built into the landing gear, it was designed to create drag in many cases, and this was more useful in its intended role than efforts to reduce drag, as seen in air superiority fighters. This left the Stuka vulnerable to fighter craft, but all dedicated ground attack planes depend upon a condition of local air superiority. The decline of the Stuka came about because of the inability of the Luftwaffe to offer it that condition, rather than because of any inherent defect in the design. Between 1936 and 1943, that design had proven itself many times over.
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Mondey, David. The Hamlyn Concise Guide to Axis Aircraft of World War II. Chartwell Books, Inc., 1996.
Weal, John. Junkers Ju 87 Stukageschwader 1937-41. Osprey, 1997.