Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Muse: Is Airpower Alone Enough to Defeat ISIS?

The Buffalo:

Now that the Western World has been awakened to the international threat of ISIS and has seemingly mobilized at least some of its potent war resources to contain the group, maybe we can assume that America and her military allies have taken the initial first steps needed to contain and ultimately defeat the violent Islamist scourge. Executing precision air strikes against the group’s militia forces is an important first step in hindering the group’s military advance across Iraq and Syria but it is just one tactical answer to the greater problem at-large. By no means should it be considered the wholesale remedy to the tantalizing problem that still threatens the region. Within the framework of a proper, multiple arms military operation, precision air-strikes are just one facet of the greater strategic undertaking and very rarely is it effective without ‘boots on the ground’. 

Recently the Obama Administration divulged their first, comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS on the battlefield yet limited the military’s commitment to the endeavor strictly to the operational use of its airpower, seemingly as the main ingredient of a multi-national and multi-faceted, military undertaking. The White House envisages American airpower to be used solely as the crucial battering ram to break apart the cohesion of the group’s ground advance while an assortment of suspect, Kurdish and Sunni militias and Iraqi regular army units descend upon the fragmented remnants in ancillary ops that would isolate and destroy the group piecemeal. Militarily speaking, the plan has its merits but does the White House honestly believe that the critical ground phase of the operation can be entrusted to a hodgepodge of suspicious allied militias with questionable motives and allegiances? Maybe the White House can, but should the whole Western World be comfortable with the defense of its whole geo-political position in the free world being allocated to a collection of groups that have more in common with the enemy than they do with the west? 

The dilemma here is basically twofold. Either the White House fails to acknowledge the strategic importance that ground troops will have in engendering the ultimate success of the mission or they are simply content on temporarily downplaying the significance of a ground force commitment in order to pass that responsibility off to the next administration in the White House. Therefore the White House can spend the next two years politically posturing with its dubious military allies for a more inclusive role in the fight against ISIS, while extolling the virtuousness of its air campaign and the brave sacrifice of its overburdened pilot fraternity. Ultimately this is meant to showcase the administration’s obligation toward its military commitments overseas, while safeguarding the president’s promise not to deploy American troops on the ground. Of course, what the American people will get is another front row seat in the nightly news shows of vividly accurate precision bombing strikes, followed by increasing alerts in the Homeland Security’s color-coded, terrorist threat index, as an undeterred ISIS branches out far beyond the borders of its self-declared caliphate in the Levant.

Fortunately the White House has recognized the fact that air power alone cannot defeat ISIS, thus it has made an appreciable step forward in acknowledging what it will take militarily to bring a comprehensive plan to fruition. However this is where the administration diverges from sound, operational orthodoxy in the military sphere and I’m beginning to detect a hazardous, political disregard for the strategic military judgment of the president’s advisers in the Pentagon as the overarching reason for this dangerous disconnect. Fundamental to these disparities is the preoccupation the president seemingly has in revisiting the mistakes of the last administration’s hasty, military involvement in Iraq. He seems overly-determined in garnering a political consensus among the relevant national interests affected by the emergence of ISIS. But in kowtowing to a strictly political solution through diplomatic channels, the administration has deferred the strategic threat to the nation’s national interests for the sake of political expediency. Wherein the earlier threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction proved premature and later patently false, the current threat of ISIS is quite real and clearly amplified. Thus American national interests palpably trump the need for prolonged international diplomacy.

In the interests of purely American national security, the Obama Administration cannot logically profess to be committed to a policy of national defense against terrorism while handcuffing its military with unnecessary restraints, such as forbidding it from committing ground troops to potential trouble spots. If there was ever one manifest example of a situation that required far more than the application of American airpower alone, it is the threat that ISIS now presents in Iraq and along the Turkish-Syrian border. So why is the Obama Administration obsessed with committing to a military policy that completely erases the most viable military option available and the one tactical deterrent that can unmistakably halt the group’s stunning progression in the field? American airpower can decisively serve to impede the group’s operational mobility and can probably erode its main firepower and support bases but it won’t be able to positively contain its command and control infrastructure nor can it extinguish its collective will to fight. Those are outcomes that only an appropriate, ground force contingent can elicit through its successful engagement with the enemy on the field of battle. In this case it might take a multitude of battles to reach the preferred outcome nevertheless these are battles that will have to be fought and these fights can only take place with the deployment of combat ground troops. This fact cannot be overlooked or mitigated. 

The Obama Administration has structured its anti-ISIS strategy to empower various Kurdish militias and Sunni tribal factions to do the bulk of the ground fighting while American military advisers and Special Forces operatives coordinate the overhead fire support and intelligence gathering missions. This will entail a comprehensive rearmament program to build up the strength of these dubious, makeshift militias. It will also take time and lots and lots of money. But money and arms alone will not induce these groups to fight nor will it keep their allegiance intact for the full duration of the conflict. History has already shown how prevalent tribal and religious animosities can be in determining friend from foe, at any given time when such groups are fused together. This holds especially true for the toxic stew of rebel groups fighting the Bashir Assad-led government in Syria. We’re talking about a merger that can’t be simply thrown together on a whim. Thus in addition to the rearmament of the various groups, their combat efficiency in battle will require lots and lots of training and inter-service coordination. This of course takes a lot of time; time which an effective operational plan cannot always wait for. Naturally this can only leave one to conclude that the Obama Administration is indeed inclined to simply pass on the major military decision-making to the next incumbent in the Oval Office.

The only major, conventional military force in the region with the resources to make an immediate impact on the war with ISIS is the Iraqi Army yet it has already forfeited the chance to take the strategic initiative on its own. In its initial major engagements with the Islamist militia it proved a shameful failure by turning heal and fleeing the battlefield, after hastily abandoning its state-of-the-art, American-provided, military equipment. This begs the question whether it will ever be able to adequately fight with even American airpower flying in tactical support. Are we to believe that simply giving the Iraqi Army millions of dollars’ worth of new military equipment will lead them to fight any better than they did before? Again, retraining and rejuvenating the Iraqi Army will continue to take a great deal of time and even then a crash-course in tactical proficiency is not a guarantee that the Iraqis’ will be up to the challenge. The political challenges intrinsic in Iraq’s Sunni-Shia feud make it nearly impossible to predict the long-term development of the Iraqi Army and right now they are far, far away from reaching a level of combat efficiency deemed strong enough to confront ISIS on an even battlefield, let alone being trustworthy enough to take the field alongside American military advisers.

Considering that it is probably impossible to get the otherwise friendly, American-allied governments in Turkey or Jordan to commit sizeable ground troops to assist in the take-down of ISIS, this leaves the immediate insertion of American combat ground troops as the only alternative available to comprehensively halt the threat of the radical Islamic militia. It is only through the prompt and inalienable presence of reliable and trustworthy American combat ‘boots on the ground’ that the USA can begin to undertake a comprehensive, war-winning strategy to defeat ISIS. With the intervention of American ground troops into the equation, America’s airpower efficiency becomes magnified ten-fold and the enemy force instantly digresses from being the hunter to the prey. Once ISIS has taken to flight, America’s smaller allied militias like the Kurds and the Free Syrian Army can be given the task of delivering the coup de grace to the mortally wounded enemy. It might also be the only way to get the Iraqi Army to stand and fight, which would probably go a long way in preventing a revival of the militia’s core components after the exit of American ground troops from the field. It might also be safe to say that with the intervention of strong American ground forces to the region, ISIS’s strength could be effectively halved within the first two-to-three months of combat operations, which is probably a far quicker pace than the current strategy the White House is wedded to.

Like most American president’s that have undertaken military interventions, the current administration’s apprehension to committing combat forces on the ground stems from an inability to anticipate a clear exit strategy after their main mission has been accomplished. It is this particular dilemma that most inhibits the political leadership from drawing the same conclusions as the military experts. President Obama’s seemingly greatest fear in introducing combat ground troops in Iraq is his incapacity to implement a proper exit strategy before his term in office ends. The pertinacity of carrying over America’s military commitments from one president to another does not sit well with the American people nor does it offer a particularly attractive political legacy in a historical perspective. Therefore he seems content in leaving the decision to commit ground forces to his successor. Although his proclamation of a comprehensive, long-range strategy to defeat ISIS may shield him from further responsibility if his successor chooses to amend the policy, it does nothing to change the status quo in Iraq that will most assuredly remain with America devoted solely to a policy of airpower to neutralize  ISIS. 

The question inevitably boils down to how long America has to deal with ISIS. Airpower alone is a component of a long-range strategy. It is a form of containment that offers the president legitimacy in the eyes of his detractors for doing something in the short-term until a broader coalition of forces can be assembled to mitigate America’s military commitment. It cannot destroy ISIS and although it might weaken it, the threat will continue to pose a formidable challenge to American interests if the group decides to undertake different avenues to avenge its strongest, mortal enemy. But by assuming the immediate solution in confronting the problem now—by undertaking a coordinated, ground attack and air campaign—America has a distinct opportunity to shatter ISIS in the field before it can shrink back to the one-dimensional and dispersed guerrilla unit it originally was. Right now the hastily expanding network of conventional military assets that ISIS has assembled and spread haphazardly throughout Northern Syria and Western Iraq is at its most militarily vulnerable state since it resolved to undertake its advance through Iraq. Its overstretched logistics capacity and thin defensive veneer poses a tempting target for any conventional military force with the tactical means to isolate and attack it. This can only be achieved through the inauguration of a multi-faceted, multiple arms, military operation on a less than grand scale but large enough to sustain ground and air assets in Iraq until the threat has dissipated. Certainly it wouldn’t be farfetched to assume that two American divisions—one airborne and one Marine—along with a brigade-sized force of Special Operations units would not be inappropriate for the tasks at hand. 

America cannot abandon its right to unilaterally assume preemptive measures to combat its gravest threats nor should it bow to the sovereignty of failing states that haven’t the gumption to challenge these radical groups in their midst, which seek to undermine the legitimacy of established international order. This is a tool America can never shrink from using if it wants to continue to uphold the democratic principles intrinsic to the values of the leader of the free world. If America is to continue on in this supreme leadership position it must take the lead in defending democracy’s most benevolent institutions from all external threats, even if the rest of the democratic world fails to recognize the threat or pretends it’s just not there. It shouldn’t have to resort to meaningless political posturing and military half-measures to tackle its most contentious, external problems. ISIS is a threat that poses a problem here and now. It is a military problem that warrants a military response. This would be the wrong time and place to inhibit the military’s freedom-of-maneuver by adhering to an ill-conceived notion that purportedly has only the interests and safety of the American soldier at hand. If the USA wants to win the war against ISIS it must commit to putting ‘boots on the ground’.                   

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Best Commanders in the German Wehrmacht of WWII; Part III, The Luftwaffe

Shortly after the expansion of the German Army was begun in 1933, the Nazis ordered the establishment of a powerful, ultra-modern air force to supplement their growing ground force contingent. Although the army’s expansion was one of the first instances where the Nazis’ readily contrived to violate the protocols of the Treaty of Versailles, it was their loudly heralded proclamation of the new German Luftwaffe in 1935 that ultimately set Nazi Germany on a collision course with Western Europe. But the Nazis’ weren’t content in simply reaching parity with the aging air forces of France and Great Britain; they embarked on a crash course in research and development, specifically structured to create the world’s first, high-tech, strategically-powerful, military aviation arm. Yet in doing so, the Nazis’ were quite particular in structuring the new service with a definitively National Socialist slant. Its genesis was after all, a conceptual undertaking conceived by Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering’s Air Ministry and the Nazi’s number two kingpin was adamant about keeping his political creation wholly separate from the interference  of the fiercely independent, German Army General Staff. It might have recruited its rank and file formations from the general population but right from the beginning the German Luftwaffe’s officer corps was considered the most Nazified out of all three of the armed services institutions. 

Unlike the German Army, whose institutional progression spanned more than three centuries and bestowed upon its hierarchy the accumulative capacity of nearly twelve generations of scholastic input from the keenest minds in martial learning, the infant Luftwaffe was an organization that was forced to develop far too quickly for its maturity. As such it suffered from a lack of strategic direction throughout its development and because of the war, never had the time to correct its many conceptual shortcomings. It developed some of the most innovative and revolutionary war machines the world had ever witnessed—including the Me-262 jet fighter and the V2 ballistic missile—yet it was never able to devise an adequate role for these ingenious inventions. Because of its close ties to the Nazi political machine, the Luftwaffe’s research and development wing was beset with a corporate culture entrenched with graft and corruption that continuously hindered its improvement. However it did inherit several outstanding commanders from the army and managed to cultivate a few of its own through the ranks. Unfortunately the constant infighting and bitter political rivalries in its upper echelons continuously served to impede and sidetrack the progress of its best, conceptual minds and strategists. It could only go as far as its biggest Nazi patron would take it and when Hermann Goering wafted into a drug-induced, egocentric party gadfly, the integrity of the whole service quickly unraveled.

Two of the earliest Luftwaffe pioneers were actually superb organizers and conceptual aviation strategists. Helmuth Wilberg, who guided the army’s infant air arm throughout the 1920’s, was a brilliant air war tactician who laid the basis for the Luftwaffe’s original deployment as a tactical arm of the army ground forces. For the early years of the war the Luftwaffe positively excelled at this particular undertaking but began to suffer later on when their mission was altered to take into account the inclusion of three separate theaters of war and the subsequent reduction in aircraft production due to the Allied strategic bombing campaign. Wilberg later gave way to Gen. Walther Wever, who as Luftwaffe Chief of Staff in the early 30’s began to implement the services first doctrinaire commitment to a strategic bomber wing. But Nazi interference and corporate graft in the bomber wing program severely curtailed its development and Wever was compelled to limit his involvement with the heavy bomber strictly toward conceptual strategy and design. Unfortunately for the German military, both of these innovative air gurus’ careers were cut short; Wever being killed in an air crash and Wilberg’s banishment to career obscurity due to his Jewish heritage. The following list consists of the ten best high commanders during the war and seven of the most prolific pilot/aces.

Field Marshal Albrecht Kesselring: Out of all the high Luftwaffe commanders in the Second World War Kesselring stood out as the most capable, tactically sound and palpably efficient combat leader. His high command assignments regularly placed him at the head of ground, naval and air force contingents under his operational control and he was consistently effective in coordinating these multiple arms assets in North Africa, Italy and throughout the Mediterranean. He began the war as the commander of Luftflotte 1, the German air force fleet charged with supporting Army Group North during the invasion of Poland. Kesselring’s air group proved quite decisive in engendering the success of the German blitzkrieg by completely destroying the Polish Air Force within the first ten days of operations. From there he led Luftflotte 2 during the attack on Western Europe and greatly assisted in the Luftwaffe’s attainment of air superiority over all of Europe for the next two years. But Kesselring’s greatest accolades were earned as Nazi Germany’s commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean Theater. It was there where Kesselring oversaw the stunning exploits of Rommel’s Afrika Korps in Egypt and Libya; the audacious airborne conquest of Crete and the isolation of the Allied island fortress of Malta, before his enemy’s manpower and material superiority forced the Axis forces onto the defensive for the rest of the war.

From 1943-45 Kesselring directed Germany’s outstanding defense of the Italian Peninsula against superior American and British Empire forces and also managed the full disarmament of Italian forces when their former ally abruptly turned against them following the downfall of Benito Mussolini. Kesselring’s management of the stubborn defense of the Italian Peninsula prevented the Allies from ever penetrating the Third Reich’s southern frontier, which his comrades in the east and west were unable to do. Consequently, Hitler summoned Kesselring to lead all German forces in the Reich during the last two months of the war in a desperate attempt to stall the Allied advance on both the eastern and western fronts. Not surprisingly, the field marshal was unable to work the same magic in the west as he had so doggedly displayed back in Italy over the last two years. Sadly, the field marshal’s postwar reputation was considerably tarnished because of an undeserved death sentence levied against him by the Western Allies for his erroneous involvement in atrocities committed against Italian civilians and partisans. Hence it is this injustice that prevents Kesselring from being awarded the same tributes that posterity has bestowed upon several of his esteemed colleagues in the German Army for their distinguished contributions to warfare.

Field Marshal Wolfram Freiherr von Richtofen: Although hardly as legendary of a figure as his more celebrated cousin Manfred—the WWI German fighter ace known as ‘The Red Baron’—this distinguished Luftwaffe field marshal was probably the best, purely tactical, ground-attack air commander in the Wehrmacht throughout WWII. As the leader of the Luftwaffe’s acclaimed VIII Fliegerkorps (air corps), Richtofen stood out as his service’s most competent practitioner of the powerful blitzkrieg tactics that brought such stunning success to Nazi Germany in the early years of the war. During Germany’s 1940 conquest of Western Europe, the VIII Fliegerkorps made a monumental impact on the crushing of French resistance west of the Meuse River and in thwarting the Allies’ preliminary advance into the Netherlands. His Ju-87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bombers were also effective in curtailing British naval traffic in the English Channel during the failed Battle of Britain, although they were clearly outmatched by the faster British ‘Spitfires’ over London. In 1941 the VIII Fliegerkorps was sent into the Balkans to aid in the conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece and then played a decisive role in supporting the successful airborne assault on the island of Crete; one of the most distinguished performances by a tactical air force in all of WWII. Richtofen’s air corps played a pivotal role in the triumphant march of Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army across the Crimea during the winter of 1941-42’ and they competently matched that performance later in the year while in support of the dynamic advance of Army Group South in the Caucasus and to the Volga River. In fact, Richtofen’s air corps excelled in all its air support operations throughout the Eastern Front; traveling north to support the advance on Leningrad before transferring south to augment the German attack toward Moscow. When the Soviets launched their powerful counterattack in the winter of 1941-42’, Richtofen’s ground attack bombers were decisive in bringing the surprise advance to a halt, roughly one month later. 

He was one of the few Luftwaffe commanders that vehemently protested Goering’s fanciful boast that the German 6th Army could be adequately supplied by airlift after the Red Army encircled the doomed formation in Stalingrad. By then Richtofen had ascended to command of Luftflotte 4, the main air fleet charged with all air operations in Southern Russia and the Ukraine. But even these considerable assets were not enough to save the 6th Army. Later in 1943, Richtofen took over all Axis air forces in the Mediterranean Theater under Kesselring but his further participation in the war was cut short with the disclosure of a malignant tumor in his brain, which eventually took his life shortly after the German capitulation. Richtofen was one of the early pioneers of the Luftwaffe, playing an instrumental role in the improvement of ground-to-air communications in combat formations. His valuable role in honing the aerial skills of ground attack pilots was skillfully showcased during the Spanish Civil War as the chief-of-staff in the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion. In the end it was Wolfram von Richtofen who played the far greater role in the development of aerial warfare tactics, more than his legendary cousin Manfred. 

Gen. Adolf Galland: As the Luftwaffe gained more experience in the operational field of aerial warfare, it instinctively turned to its most capable and successful squadron leaders and pilots to integrate those skills into the higher command echelons. As a result, many acclaimed, hands-on pilots were thrust into leadership positions that they weren’t always ready for or had no desire to attain. Galland was one of these Luftwaffe aces who found it much more suitable to lead by example; in his case, from the cockpit of the Me-109 fighter. However, Galland was to embark on his storied career as a strike pilot flying the Ju-87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber, as an original volunteer in his country’s Condor Legion. Galland was to refine his skills, as well as his service’s development of tactical, ground-strike capabilities and doctrine while serving the Nationalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. Those skills were showcased with dramatic effect when the German blitzkrieg rolled through Poland in 1939 and the Luftwaffe’s prowess in ground-support tactics were stunningly revealed to an astounded world. But in the process of that illustrious undertaking Galland began to gravitate more toward the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm; seeing in the fighter planes greater independence from command interference as a far better way to utilize his aerial skills. After his transfer to the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm, Galland’s aviation career took off to near legendary status. His enormous talents in aerial dogfighting tactics quickly propelled him to the top of the fighter pilot fraternity when he was christened as the Luftwaffe’s top fighter ace with 57 aerial victories, after the battles in Western Europe and Great Britain.

This brought him to the attention of the Luftwaffe high command, which naturally saw him as the most suitable successor to Col. Werner Molders as the operational commander of Germany’s whole fighter force. Even though it took a while and Galland continued to rack up more victories against British and American warplanes, he was finally remanded to a desk job by his alarmed superiors who believed his doctrinaire talents to be too significant to endanger. In the role of Commanding General of the Jagdflieger—the Luftwaffe’s fighter force—Galland was compelled to fight the latter half of the war against his many arrogant and suspicious superiors in the often chaotic and corrupt boardrooms and headquarters of the Luftwaffe high command. This quickly brought him the ire of Hermann Goering, who was quite at odds with Galland’s insistence on channeling Germany’s dwindling war resources toward the production of fighter aircraft rather than medium-range bombers and wonder weapons. His longstanding rivalry with the Luftwaffe boss came to a head in early 1945 when Galland was forced out as commander of the Luftwaffe fighter arm. But as a trade-off, Goering allowed Galland to return to the field as a squadron commander of one of Germany’s original Me-262, fighter jet formations. Galland ended the war with 104 aerial dogfighting victories and with his reputation intact as one of the most innovative and talented tacticians in aviation warfare.

Gen. Kurt Student: When the infant Luftwaffe creators resolved to cultivate the exciting new challenges in airborne warfare they turned to Gen. Kurt Student to build from scratch the first purely paratroop formation in the German Wehrmacht. Student’s pioneering pursuits in this novel military field were to lead to the first operational deployment of paratroopers and glider-borne assault troops in military history. His groundbreaking conceptions in airborne warfare were first introduced during the invasion of Poland when several small-scale paratroop drops were executed around the Dukla Pass to prevent the enemy high command from escaping into neutral Romania. During the invasion of Denmark and Norway, Student oversaw various paratroop drops in Denmark that successfully assaulted the numerous bridges and causeways in the Danish Archipelago. However many of the tactical limitations and vulnerabilities of the purely paratroop formations were brusquely exposed when Student’s airborne units were promptly neutralized during the assault on the Norwegian capital of Oslo. Nevertheless Student persisted through the inaugural baptism-of-fire episodes and continued to cultivate and tweak the unit’s tactics and operational doctrine. Finally during the invasion of Western Europe Student was tasked with an operational directive that would fully realize the potential of paratroop units in support of military operations. Components of Student’s 7th Fallschirmjager Division were airlifted to commence the original attack on military targets in Belgium and the Netherlands, including the wildly audacious, glider-borne assault on the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael. Although this particular operation went off according to plan, many of the other numerous paratroop drops in Holland met with failure and excessive casualties. 

Yet Student persisted in extolling the benefits of paratroop units on the modern battlefield by pushing for the first, purely airborne, military operation in history when the German high command approved of his plan Operation Mercury, to conquer the Mediterranean island of Crete. Student’s XI Fliegerkorps wrested control over Crete from British Empire forces after a grueling and costly eleven-day battle in May of 1941. In fact, Germany’s losses were so high that Adolf Hitler forbade the use of large-scale airborne operations for the rest of the war. Student’s paratroop units were utilized principally in an infantry role after their Pyrrhic victory at Crete yet they continued to earn high marks for tactical proficiency in battle, durability and valor, especially during the German defense of Monte Cassino in Italy. Some of Student’s paratroopers were involved in the Battle of the Bulge and proved to be a tough nut to crack in defending the Scheldt Estuary from Canadian troops in the autumn of 1944. Student later went on to lead the 1st Paratroop Army in Northern Germany during the latter days of the war, although this formation was airborne in name only and adeptly formulated the operational plans for the commando raid that rescued Benito Mussolini from Italian incarceration atop the prison-fortress at Grand Sasso. Gen. Student was convicted at the end of the war for war crimes committed by his units in Crete while serving as the occupation governor of the conquered island. He is considered one of the founding fathers of airborne warfare.

Col.-Gen. Ernst Udet: Much of this flamboyant German aviator’s illustrious military career occurred during the First World War but his prolific flying skills were considered too substantial for the infant Luftwaffe to do without. So, naturally he was one of the first experienced combat pilots that the Luftwaffe recruited to bring acclaim and respectability into the new organization’s upper echelons. Udet, who ended WWI as his country’s second highest scoring combat ace behind the renowned ‘Red Baron’, took up his post among the early pioneers of the Luftwaffe as a favor to his former squadron leader Hermann Goering. His expertise in the use of light, maneuverable, aerobatic technique in the prewar years made him a natural selection to adapt those skills toward the refinement of German dive-bombing tactics. In the process of cultivating the Luftwaffe’s tactical strike doctrine, Udet vigorously pushed for the procurement of the Junkers-built, Ju-87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber as the perennial workhorse of the Luftwaffe’s collective contribution to the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg operations. As the director of the Luftwaffe’s equipment office Udet made a huge impact in the steering of German industrial resources toward the manufacturing of tactical strike aircraft. As a result early Luftwaffe operational doctrine seemingly confined itself primarily to the mission of aerial ground support and even though its dominance as a purely tactical air force shined throughout WWII, it did so primarily at the expense of the development of a strategic bomber force.

But Germany’s industrial capacity would not allow the Luftwaffe to have it both ways. As much as Hitler and Goering strove to incorporate a strategic strike capability into the Luftwaffe’s inventory, Udet’s overarching influence over aircraft production in the early years of the war virtually assured Germany’s air force would remain predominantly tactical in scope and veracity. Udet’s conceptual influence on the Luftwaffe’s performance in the early years of the war was truly effective. Germany’s dive-bombers and other tactical strike aircraft made an impressive impact on the initial success of blitzkrieg operations. But they gradually began to suffer when Goering insisted upon directing the Luftwaffe’s research and development on medium and heavy bombers as well as Germany's famed 'wonder weapons'. This prevented the Luftwaffe from upgrading their tactical models wherein the ‘Stukas’ and Ju-88’s swiftly became obsolete. This also marked the final straw in Udet’s relationship with Goering and Hitler. Udet killed himself shortly after the German attack on the Soviet Union. He will forever be known as Germany’s foremost champion of tactical strike aircraft and aerial warfare’s momentary messiah in the days when the dive-bomber ruled supreme.

Col. Werner Molders: It’s interesting to speculate how great of an operational impact Col. Werner Molders might have had on the development of the Luftwaffe’s fighter force had his life not been taking from them at such an early stage in the war. Like the highly respected Udet, Col. Molders was well on his way to making a revolutionary impact on the progression of fighter-plane, tactical doctrine, which might have changed the fundamental way the Luftwaffe approached its war-fighting strategy before it was overwhelmed by its numerous enemies. But unlike Udet, Werner Molders most valuable contribution to his nation’s air force proficiency came from his performance behind the cockpit of the Messerschmidt Bf-109 fighter. Molders was the Condor Legion’s leading fighter ace, having destroyed some 15 enemy aircraft during the year he was stationed in Spain. After the outbreak of hostilities in WWII Molders fighter wing was intentionally kept out of the fighting in Poland in order to oversee the aerial defense of Germany’s western border from French and British intervention. As such, he tallied his first combat victories in the Second World War during the otherwise placid monotony of Europe’s Phony War in the autumn and winter of 1939-40’. But Molders’ skills were capably illustrated during the German invasion of Western Europe and the subsequent aerial battle over the British Isles. He was Germany’s first fighter pilot to achieve more than 40 accredited kills and ended the year having destroyed 56 enemy aircraft.

By the second week of Operation Barbarossa Molders had surpassed the glorious record of the famed WWI fighter ace, ‘The Red Baron’ and later went on to score more than 100 aerial victories before the Nazi high command deemed him too prominent of a national icon to spare, and tacitly removed him from a combat-flying role. In August of 1941 Molders was promoted to Inspector General of Fighter aircraft and immediately began the quest to develop and improve pilot training procedures and refining the force’s tactical doctrine. It was Molders who conceived of the ‘finger-four formation’ and the highly complex cross-over turn maneuver to permit a multi-aircraft squadron to turn as one unit. To the dismay of his superiors, Molders set up makeshift training centers close to the Eastern Front and eagerly undertook personal, hands-on instruction of fighter pilots during combat sorties. The great fighter ace’s legend was firmly established after he was killed in an aircraft accident on his way to the funeral of his mentor, Ernst Udet. Werner Molders was the first German serviceman in WWII to be adorned with the illustrious Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. After his death his former fighter squadron JG 51 was christened the Molders Wing in his honor. 

Gen. Hermann Bernhard Ramcke: It was probably a testament to the mostly ineffective influence Hermann Goering had over the Luftwaffe’s aerial command cadres that many of the service’s most celebrated combat commanders distinguished themselves at the helm of basically ground troop formations. Ramcke was another highly effective combat leader from the Luftwaffe’s paratroop fraternity who was more or less thrust into the role of infantry commander after Hitler prohibited large-scale paratroop missions after the costly Battle of Crete. But it was Ramcke’s exemplary command performance in this particular battle that set him far apart from many of his other paratroop colleagues as one of the most audacious and tactically brilliant, regimental commanders in the Wehrmacht. His instrumental leadership in rallying the beleaguered paratroop forces which had survived the original slaughter went a long way in turning the tide of battle against the superior Allied forces on Crete. After Crete, Ramcke led a brigade-size paratroop detachment as part of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which advanced toward the Suez Canal in the summer of 1942. When British General Bernard Montgomery overwhelmed the German forces at El Alamein, Ramcke’s paratroops found themselves suddenly surrounded and forced into a do-or-die battle to break out of the smothering British encirclement. Ramcke fearlessly broke the siege and then unwaveringly led the brigade’s fighting retreat to catch up with Rommel’s fleeing formations; boldly intercepting a British supply column along the way and capturing tons of much needed fuel and water supplies to replenish them for the grueling thousand-mile retreat.

By 1943 Ramcke had ascended to full command of the 7th Flieger Division and after the Axis collapse in North Africa he was sent forthwith to Italy to guard against the potential mutiny of Italian forces from the Axis alliance. When the Italian capitulation occurred, Ramcke’s paratroops were the first ones on the scene and fought their way into Rome, after which they promptly disarmed the remaining Italian forces in the capital. Elements of Ramcke’s division were also called upon to assist in the dynamic German defense of Monte Cassino, in which the paratroopers markedly distinguished themselves for holding the Benedictine Abby against no fewer than four separate Allied attempts to seize the hilltop fortress. In the summer of 1944 Ramcke led the futile defense of the French port of Brest after the Allied breakout from Normandy and firmly held out for more than a month against overwhelming enemy pressure. Incarcerated in a POW camp in the heartland of the USA, Ramcke brazenly escaped from his confinement exclusively to mail a letter to the White House to protest the implementation of the Morgenthau Plan; a postwar proposal that would have constrained the German nation to a purely pastoral existence. He then calmly lit up a cigar and waited for his captors to return him to camp. Ramcke was one of the 27 holders of the celebrated Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. He was probably the Luftwaffe’s greatest ground force commander in the field during the Second World War. 

 Col. Hans Ulrich Rudel: Three years before the start of WWII, Hans Urich Rudel joined the Luftwaffe as a junior-grade, officer cadet. After undergoing two years of vigorous training at various aviation schools, Rudel failed to attract the attention of any of his various pilot instructors for possessing any notable talents considered necessary for entrance into his country’s original combat pilot fraternity. His lackluster performance in the prewar years limited him primarily to non-combat, staff work with several reconnaissance wings during the initial battles in Poland and Western Europe. However, he was finally accepted to admittance into the Luftwaffe’s dive-bombing school in 1941 and underwent a swift aerial indoctrination with the Luftwaffe’s Ju-87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber. The day after the German invasion of the Soviet Union Hans Rudel entered combat service piloting the menacing, ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber in support of the German blitzkrieg rolling across the Baltic States. From that day, June 23, 1941 until the last day of the war, Rudel’s exemplary piloting skills would earn him the acclamation of being the most prolific combat pilot in aerial warfare history. When the war ended on May 8, 1945, Rudel deliberately crash-landed his Ju-87 dive-bomber on the tarmac of the Allied-held airfield in Kitzingen, Bavaria and surrendered to American troops; having survived the war as the most decorated German soldier in all of WWII. 

Many of Rudel’s illustrious aerial feats set records that are considered unbreakable; not the least of which is his more than 2500 combat sorties flown in the 48 months he held sway behind the cockpit of various German dive-bombers. That number calculates to roughly two sorties per day for the whole four-year duration of the war on the Eastern Front. During that period Rudel was shot down 32 times but never by the actions of an opposing warplane. He is credited with destroying more than 2,000 military targets including: some 800 transport vehicles; 519 enemy tanks and armored vehicles; 150 artillery pieces, 70 various naval landing craft, five bridges, a destroyer, two cruisers and the Soviet battleship Marat; sunk in Kronstadt Harbor on Sept. 23, 1941. Rudel’s combat perseverance was legendary and even after losing a leg during a crash-landing in Feb of 1945 he still returned to the cockpit to claim another 25 enemy tanks before the end of the war. Aside from the coveted Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds, Rudel went home with more than forty different awards, medals and ribbons and legend has it that their combined weight was actually heavier than the prosthetic leg he wore for the rest of his life.

Gen. Paul Conrath: This great paratroop general led the elite Fallschirmjager-Panzer Divion 1 Hermann Goering for much of the Second World War. Although primarily a paratroop general, Conrath’s combat commands ran the gamut of Luftwaffe ground force contingents; from paratroops to flak regiments and finally as a leader of motorized infantry and panzer troops. Components of Conrath’s paratroop regiment were intricately involved in the audacious airborne assault on the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael during the German invasion in the west. In the battle for Eben Emael Conrath led a flak battalion which was one of the pioneering units that vividly demonstrated the effectiveness of the .88mm flak gun in an anti-tank role. The famed ‘88’ later went on to destroy more enemy tanks than any other weapon in the Wermacht inventory. While various components of the Hermann Goering division were split up and fought all throughout the Eastern Front and North Africa, Conrath was adeptly handling its wholesale expansion into a Luftwaffe panzer division and then competently led the formation through its baptism-of-fire in Sicily in 1943. The Hermann Goering proved a tough nut to crack in the months-long fighting on Sicily but showed a striking vulnerability to off-shore naval shelling, which hindered its defense of the main coastal roads that skirted the island. However, Conrath’s para-panzers put up a highly effective defense of the German perimeter around Messina during the German evacuation of the island and were one of the last formations to leave before the Allied forces triumphed. 

Conrath made his greatest impact of the war in stalwart defense of the Italian Peninsula in the initial battles of that grueling campaign. The Hermann Goering was one of the more powerful German units that took a place on the line at Monte Cassino and doggedly held the Allies from breaking through to the Lira Valley for more than six months. Because it was a motorized unit, Conrath’s division was one of the first German reinforcements to arrive in the highlands surrounding the Allied beachhead at Anzio and proceeded to pour devastating artillery fire on the vulnerable Allied armies which almost succeeded in driving them back into the sea. Sent back to Monte Cassino later in 1944, Conrath was one of the senior German generals that sanctioned the rescue of priceless antiquities from the bombed-out Benedictine monastery atop the mountain and then safely transported them to the Vatican for safekeeping, before the greedy Hermann Goering could get his hands on them. When Goering moved to have the junior officer in charge of the rescue shot for insubordination, Conrath intervened to save his underling from almost certain death. Shortly thereafter Conrath was removed from command of the Hermann Goering and exiled to career obscurity for the rest of the war, running the Luftwaffe’s various paratrooper and infantry schools. Like his more familiar superior Kurt Student, Conrath was one of the leading minds in the advent of airborne warfare and a highly distinguished combat commander in nearly every assignment he led.

Field Marshal Erhard Milch: When war in Europe broke out in 1939, one of the most stunning developments that most shocked the Western Allies was Nazi Germany’s skillful demonstration of air power in support of its attacking ground formations. Germany’s tactical air capabilities were head and shoulders above the rest of Europe’s lagging perception of aerial warfare. Much of Germany’s abstract advantages in aerial warfare in the prewar years were derived from the practical innovations of men like Erhard Milch. One of Germany’s leading aviation administrators in the interwar years, Milch’s industrious talents in the commercial aircraft industry were keenly adapted for dissemination in the infant field of military aviation. As one of the founding pioneers of Germany’s leading commercial airlines Lufthansa, Milch was one of the aviation industry’s most competent technocrats recruited into his nation’s military service for the development and wholesale expansion of its new air arm. Milch quickly took up his new job in the high command of the Luftwaffe with a zeal and determination that bordered on fanaticism. He swiftly went to work in organizing the different design teams and preparing the industrial base needed to commence the manufacturing of more than 40,000 aircraft per year. At the same time he was also deeply involved with establishing the new service’s operational doctrine and providing its various air wings with the essential resources necessary to construct and sustain one of the largest and most powerful air forces the world has ever known. As a one-time chief-of-staff in Herman Goering’s Air Ministry, Milch played a pivotal role in directing the German aircraft industry to the production of fighters and tactical ground attack warplanes rather than a strategic, heavy bomber force. For much of the war this arrangement worked out quite well for the Luftwaffe, which made its most effective presence felt in a tactical role flying in support of blitzkrieg operations. Although the Luftwaffe’s questionable industrial practices played a critical part in Germany’s military decline, Milch did his utmost to keep production on pace with the enormous losses of Luftwaffe aircraft in battle and because of the Allied strategic bombing campaign. However his utilization of slave labor in the aircraft industry has permanently scarred his otherwise sterling record as one of the better, military administrators of the Second World War. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the fact that he ever rose to such a high position of influence and prestige in the Nazi war machine, considering that he was half-Jewish. 

The Aces:

Maj. Erich Hartmann: In the history of aerial warfare there have been many good fighter pilots and a small group that could even lay claim to reaching greatness. But in the case of WWII Luftwaffe pilot Erich Hartmann, there is clearly enough definitive data to put forth the assertion that this prolific marksman might undeniably be the best of the best. Hartmann’s 352 aerial victories is the highest total ever achieved by a single fighter pilot, in any war and in any age of aerial warfare. At least 345 of these enemy kills were perpetrated against his adversaries in the Soviet VVS (air force) and the other seven came against the pilots of the USAAF, all flying the formidable P-51 Mustang. Hartmann was known by his opponents as ‘The Black Devil’ for the distinctive black tulip he had painted on the fusillade of his Bf-109G, Messerschmitt fighter but to his comrades in fighter-wing 52 (JG 52), he was simply known as ‘Bubi’ for his baby-faced, youthful looks. Yet Hartmann was no little boy, as that German moniker refers to. In his four years of combat action, Hartmann flew more than 1400 missions and engaged in some 825 aerial dogfights, the great majority of them occurring on the Eastern Front. He made fourteen crash-landings, although none of them were caused by the actions of enemy fighters. In 1943 his Bf-109 crash landed in Russia, after having been damaged by the explosion of a Soviet craft he had just shot down. He was subsequently captured by enemy ground troops but managed to escape as he was being led back to the rear. On his return to friendly lines he was challenged by a sentry and shot, only to have the bullet pass through his trousers. After that episode he returned to his unit and shot down another 260 enemy planes, the final one occurring on the last day of the war. Hartmann was one of only twenty-seven other German soldiers in WWII who was rewarded the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords & Diamonds, and the highest distinction for battlefield valor in the German Wehrmacht.

Maj. Walter Nowotny: This highly acclaimed Luftwaffe fighter ace was the first pilot in aviation warfare history to achieve 250 aerial victories. His 258 confirmed kills was the fourth highest total among all fighter pilots in WWII. Nowotny was best known in the annals of Luftwaffe history for leading a squadron of fighter pilots on the Eastern Front prominently known as the ‘Chain of devils’, which accumulated 524 confirmed kills in the two years they flew together. On July 19, 1941 Nowotny was shot down by Russian fighters and forced to bail out over the Gulf of Riga. He spent three days adrift in a rubber dinghy before coming ashore in Latvia and rejoining his unit. Nowotny later wore the same flight-trousers he had on during his ordeal in the gulf on every subsequent sortie he flew throughout his glorious climb to 258 aerial victories. On the one day he chose to don a different set of trousers, he was shot down and killed in a dogfight with American P-51 Mustangs while flying the Messerschmidt Me-262 jet fighter. He was one of only 27 other German servicemen awarded the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.

Maj. Heinz-Wolfgang Schnauffer: Is the highest-scoring, night-fighter ace in the history of warfare. His 121 aerial victories were all executed in the darkness of night, flying for the most part in the Luftwaffe’s premier night-fighter, the Messerschmidt Bf-110. Schnauffer was infamously known as ‘The Spook of St.Trond’ for the location of his Belgian airbase and proved to be the bane of Britain’s strategic bomber force during their nightly raids over the Third Reich. The legendary ace proved to be a fixture in the Luftwaffe’s notorious Kammhuber Line; the aerial defensive net covering the western approaches to German-occupied Europe. In this setting the appearance of Schnauffer’s ghostly night-fighter squadron was usually the first sign that British bomber crews were in for a long and perilous night. On Feb. 21, 1945 Schnauffer shot down nine British Wellington bombers during a raid on Berlin, which is the highest number of bombers shot down in one night by a lone fighter pilot. He was another illustrious Luftwaffe recipient of the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.

Col. Hermann Graf: Flying the state-of-the-art Messerschmidt Bf-109e, Hermann Graf became the first pilot in military history to achieve 200 aerial victories. He ended the war with 212 confirmed kills before his Luftwaffe bosses removed him from active combat duty and forced him into a staff position for the duration of the war. Graf flew more than 800 combat sorties, achieving 202 of his aerial victories on the Eastern Front. Forty-eight of these came in one three-week span in April of 42’, in support of Army Group South in the southern reaches of Russia. During the fighting in Stalingrad Graf scored more than sixty confirmed kills in just the first month alone, including ten in one day. He was the first Luftwaffe pilot to score a kill flying the Messerschmidt Bf-109g; a specially modified, high-altitude variant of the fighter specifically built to challenge the elusive British Mosquito bomber. Graf was awarded the coveted Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds after his 200th aerial victory. 

Lt.-Col. Kurt Welter: Although there is some discrepancy as to the actual number of confirmed kills on his record, Kurt Welter was and remains the highest scoring fighter-jet ace in the history of aerial warfare. Welter’s Luftwaffe career started later in the war so his final tally of 63 aerial victories pales in comparison to some of his more acclaimed pilot colleagues. But he did end the war as the Luftwaffe’s most prolific jet-fighter ace, scoring 28 kills in which 20 were officially confirmed. Welter flew the Messerschmidt Me-262 jet fighter for only three months but was one of the first pilots to fly this revolutionary new machine in the night-fighter role. Still, Welter managed to chalk up quite an impressive record, achieving 63 aerial victories in only 93 sorties. What is more impressive is the fact that he did this at a time when the Allied air forces were flying with a more than 12:1 superiority in the sky at any given time.

Col. Gordon Gollob: This fervent, Nazi pilot from Austria was the first to score 150 aerial victories during WWII. As one of the first, highly acclaimed aces in the early years of the war Gollob was heaped with praise and recognition in the Nazi press and quickly became the Luftwaffe’s celebrated standard bearer of National Socialist virtuosity. Excluded from partaking in further combat after his 150th kill, Gollob was promoted to the upper ranks of the Luftwaffe’s fighter command where his zealous Nazism regularly clashed with many of his still active, pilot underlings. When Galland was removed from command of the fighter force, Goering personally elevated Gollob to the top spot in the Luftwaffe’s fighter wing. Gollob was the third Luftwaffe member after Molders and Galland to receive the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.

Hanna Reitsch: Next to Amelia Earhardt, this distinguished German test pilot was probably the second most celebrated female pilot in the history of aviation. Her international acclaim in the prewar years as an aerobatic stunt pilot swiftly brought her to the attention of the infant Luftwaffe high command, which coveted her expertise in aerial acrobatics as a natural springboard for employment in the services research and development department. She was immediately put to work test-flying the Ju-87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber and later went on to experiment with many of the other, innovative flying machines that managed to make it out of the R&D’s busy design phase. Reitsch flew the high-tech, Me-163 rocket plane as well as the piloted version of the V1 buzz-bomb. She was the first woman ever to fly a helicopter—the experimental Focke-Achgelis Fa-61—which she proudly demonstrated at the 1941 Berlin Motor Show. During the closing days of the war Reitsch courageously braved through excruciating Soviet flak and artillery fire to land a Fieseler Storch reconnaissance plane on the Tiergarten, in bombed-out and surrounded Berlin. She had just delivered the new Luftwaffe boss Field Marshal Robert Ritter von Greim to meet the fuehrer. One day later Reitsch and von Greim braved another deadly volley of point-blank, flak fire to fly out of Berlin in order to take the helm of the Luftwaffe from the defrocked Hermann Goering. Hanna Reitsch was one of only two women to be awarded the Iron Cross, First Class in all of WWII.

Honorable Mention

Maj. Erich Rudorffer: His 222 aerial victories places him seventh highest on the list of WWII fighter aces and his thirteen kills in one day is still the greatest one day performance of a fighter pilot in aerial warfare history. To this day, Rudorffer is the highest scoring WWII fighter ace still alive, which makes him the most prolific, combat fighter-pilot in the world today.