One of the deadliest and most effective airplanes of the Axis powers, the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka, owed its origin to a fearless World War I ace and, ironically, to innovative American aviation visionaries in the peaceful early 1930s.
After shooting down 62 planes, ranking second only to the famous “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen, and surviving the 1914-1918 war, Frankfurt-born Ernst Udet became a stunt pilot and barnstormed over Africa, Greenland, the Swiss Alps, and South America. While visiting the United States in 1931, he observed dive-bombing techniques being developed by the U.S. Navy.
An ebullient, humorous man with a weakness for women and alcohol, and who made many friends in America and England, Udet returned to Germany around the time that Adolf Hitler and his National Socialists came to power. Encouraged by Hermann Göring, aviation minister of the new regime, Udet demonstrated dive bombing. While the U.S. Navy embraced the dive-bombing concept and the Royal Air Force ignored it, certain German leaders showed interest.
Udet received overtures to help recast the German air service. Though not in a hurry to join the Luftwaffe, he offered some far-sighted technical suggestions. One was that Germany should develop a dive bomber. Hitler wanted a “long-range artillery” plane that would complement the German Army for his planned blitzkrieg strategy, so design work went ahead promptly. In April 1935, the Junkers aircraft company produced and flight-tested a single-engine prototype, and thus was born the Ju-87 Stuka. The name was derived from the German word for dive bomber, sturzkampfflugzeug.