Perhaps no weapon was as closely associated with the Nazi German in early in World War II as the Stuka dive bomber, infamous for howling, near-vertical dive attacks on warships, battlefield targets and defenseless civilian communities like merciless birds of prey.
However, the Stuka’s reputation did not survive the war it helped kick-off as it proved less and less survivable in the face of capable opposition.
The dive bomber was a solution to a timeless challenge in military aviation: how to ensure weapons dropped by fast-moving aircraft land anywhere near a point target like a warship, artillery battery or fortification. Precision was an especially big problem in an era where tactical aircraft could carry only light, unguided bombs.
In the early 1930s, German World War I ace and stuntmen Ernst Udet was impressed by American F11C Goshawk fighters he saw perform steep dive-bombing attacks. Upon joining the Nazi Party in 1933 he imported two Goshawks for test-flying and insisted the fledgling Luftwaffe develop a specialized dive bomber—an aircraft that could withstand the strain of pulling out of steep dives without smashing into the ground or ripping its wings off.
Engineer Hermann Pohlmann of the Junkers company devised a two-seat monoplane with fixed landing gear covered by spiffy ‘spats’ and distinctive inverted gull-wings that helped lift the fuselage high enough off the ground to accommodate its large propeller. In addition to two rifle-caliber machineguns in the wings, the radio operator had a rearward-facing gun to protect against enemy fighters.
Powered by a Jumo 211 engine, the Ju 87 beat out competing models in an aircraft design competition and saw initial combat-testing in the Spanish Civil War in 1938-1939. The Stuka was slow with a maximum speed of 200-240 miles per hour in level flight and had a short combat radius of only 245 miles. It typically carried a single 551-pound bomb under the fuselage (released by a crutch-like dispenser to avoid hitting the propeller) and four 110-pound bombs under the wings.
Stuka pilots spotted targets through a floor window, then rolled their aircraft completely around into a dive as steep as 90 degrees. Underwing dive brakes would extend automatically, controlling diving speed to just over 350 miles per hour, buying the pilot time to line up his attack using controls switched to ‘dive mode’ and lines etched into canopy side to judge his dive angle.