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Influenced by the trench warfare of the First World War, German military planners of the 1930s drew up a new concept designed to bring rapid mobility to the battlefield. This lightning war, or Blitzkrieg, called for particularly close co-operation between air and armoured forces with aircraft primarily employed in the close support role, disrupting the enemy's back area - especially communications - and paving the way for deep armoured penetrations by denying him the ability to organise resistance or counter-attack. Should the occasion arise the air force could also support the step-by-step advance of the army by attacking targets directly in the line of advance.

It was already realised as a result of tests carried out at the secret German testing and training establishment at Lipezk in Russia during the 1920s that the precision bombing of pin-point targets could only be achieved by an aircraft releasing its load whilst in a steep dive directly over the target - the dive-bomber. American and Japanese aviation planners were also evincing interest in the idea of the dive-bomber and in 1931, while the US Navy was experimenting with the Curtiss Hawk II, the Japanese placed an order with the German Heinkel company calling for the development of a two-seat dive-bomber, the He50. The second prototype was demonstrated before the Staff of the still-secret German Air Force, who were sufficiently impressed with the aircraft to request a small evaluation batch, and subsequently placed an order for a small production quantity.

One of the three Junker Ju87A-1s which formed the 'Jotanthe Kette' of the Legion Condor; drawn from Stukageschwader 163 'Immclmann', the detachment was sent to Spain in December 1937, and was flown by a large number of rotated crews from St.G 163, usually against targets behind the front lines. (Hans Obert)

Meanwhile Ernst Udet, stunt pilot and former fighter ace, was invited to attend an air display in America where he witnessed a demonstration of the Curtiss Hawk. In spite of the Allies' complete ban on German military aviation, Udet had nevertheless continued to fly privately, resisting pressure from Hermann Goring to take up a necessarily non-flying administrative position to aid in the building up of the new air force. Udet was so impressed with the American machine's diving performance that he finally persuaded the German Air Ministry to purchase two for evaluation. Upon their arrival in Germany during December 1931, they were extensively tested at the Rechlin Experimental Centre.

Official opinion of the value of a dive-bomber was, however, divided. Limited raw materials, fuel and production capacity simply did not permit the construction of heavy bomber fleets and had the effect of restricting the choice of aircraft to medium and light bombers with the highest degree of bombing accuracy. Whilst Hans Jeschonnek, Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff, favoured dive-bomber development on these economic grounds. Wolfram von Richthofen, Chief of the Development Section of the Technical Office, was totally opposed to the idea, claiming that such a machine would be too vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire and that diving to a level below 6,000 feet is complete nonsense'.

Contrary to von Richthofen's wishes, a few officers at the Technical Office continued to pursue the matter and had in 1933 already drawn up a programme and two-part specification. The first part called for a relatively simple aircraft with which to equip an experimental dive-bomber unit, and, of the designs submitted, the Hs123 was considered to be the best. Deliveries of the Hs123A-1 commenced during the late summer of 1936. The second phase, issued in January 1935, called for a more advanced machine and was in fact drawn up around the Junkers Ju87, development of which, unofficially urged by Udet, was already well advanced into the prototype stage.

Luftwaffe armourers of St.G 165 bomb up the unit's Ju87A-1s. Note the hydraulically-raised cradle on the bomb trolley, and the lugs on the central band round the bomb, to locate it on the fuselage crutch which swung it down and clear of the propeller arc during bomb release. (US National Archives)

On 5 May 1935 the existence of the new Luftwaffe, secretly built up under a variety of disguises, was officially revealed and, in January 1936, Udet finally gave way to persuasion and joined the Luftwaffe. In June he was appointed Chief of the Technical Office and from this position gave his full and official support to the dive-bomber programme, rescinding von Richthofen's directive calling for the discontinuation of Ju87 development. Prototype construction of the Ju87 continued and, following trials at Rechlin, when the machine's most serious contender broke up in the air, the Ju87 was ordered into production.

The first dive-bomber unit was formed from an offshoot of a disguised fighter unit operating Ar65s and He51s from Berlin-Staaken on smoke-laying and communications duties for the army under the code name 'Rektamestaffel Mitteldeutschland' (Advertising Squadron Central Germany). The aircrew of this formation were given the task of practising dive-bombing tactics in addition to their fighter training and, on 1 October 1935, the dive-bomber element of Reklamestaffel Mitteldeutschland was formed into a separate experimental unit equipped with Ar65s and He50s and designated Fliegergruppe Schwerin. However, neither type was ideally suited to its role and even in a power dive the He50 proved incapable of attaining the diving speed required for accurate dive-bombing. Fortunately, deliveries of the Hs123 were soon to hand and in the autumn of 1936 were received by Fliegergruppe Schwerin, since redesignated to form the first of the Luftwaffe's Stukagruppen, I/St.G 162. Simultaneously, two further Hs123 units were activated: II/St.G 162 at LГјbeck-Blankenseeand I/St.G 165 at Kitzingen. Subsequent Luftwaffe planning called for a total of six Stukagruppen, and by 1 April 1937 II/St.G 165 had begun to form with Hs123s and I/St.G 162 and I/St.G 165 were converting to the newly available Ju87A-1, together with III/St.G.162 at Wertheim and III/St.G 165 at Breslau.

Taking advantage of the Spanish Civil War, which had broken out during July 1936, to evaluate its aircraft and tactical theories under operational conditions, the Luftwaffe formed the Legion Condor to provide air support for General Franco's Nationalist forces. At this time the Luftwaffe had no plans to form units specifically for direct battlefield support, but the matter arose quite unexpectedly in March 1937 when von Richthofen, who had earlier tried to cancel the dive-bomber programme, personally witnessed the rout of an advancing Republican column by three He51s which, outdated in the fighter role, had been experimentally fitted with bombs.

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