Junkers Ju 87 Stuka Dive Bomber — Nazi Terror Weapon

By Peter Suciu
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Junkers Ju 87 Stuka Dive Bomber — Nazi Terror Weapon

February 24th, 2024

10 minute read

Few aircraft in history were able to cause such terror — to both seasoned troops and helpless civilians alike — as the German-made Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber. Known infamously as the “Stuka,” it is now remembered for the successful role it played in Nazi Germany’s “Blitzkrieg” operations in 1939 and 1940. It remains iconic for its strong inverted gull wing and fixed landing gear. 

In this vintage photograph, we see a three plane formation of a German air force Ju 87D dive bombers enroute to attack Yugoslavian partisans fighting the Nazis. From the cockpit, a pilot could make the Junkers dive and attack infantry positions. In fact, Stukas dropped the first bombs of the war in the European War. Stukas went deep behind enemy lines to strike soft targets and could dive on many otherwise inaccessible targets due to the unique Stuka design. However, the planes were easy targets for enemy fighters and Stuka losses increased throughout the war.
Three Junkers Ju 87D dive bombers fly to attack Yugoslavian partisan positions in the mountains of Montenegro. Image: Polish State Archives

Although it was rapidly outclassed in its original dive-bomber role, the Ju 87 remained in service with Germany’s Luftwaffe until the end of the war. The Sturzkampfflugzeu (dive bomber in German) concept was tailored to support the Blitzkrieg combined-arms doctrine — essentially operating as flying artillery. It was employed in every theater in which Germany was engaged. 

In this photo, we see Americans with the United States Army Air Force examining the armament on a captured Stuka. The 37mm cannon turned the Stuka units into tank busters. 
Later version of the Ju 87 were equipped with 37mm gun pods to attack enemy armor. In this photo, Americans examine a captured Stuka. Image: NARA

In addition to terrorizing those on the ground, it later in the conflict was modified as a tank-busting aircraft armed with a pair of 37mm cannons.

Enter the Dive Bomber

The technique of “dive bombing” began in the early days of military aviation. During the First World War, brave pilots would send their aircraft into a deep dive — a risky maneuver as no aircraft was specifically designed for such a role. However, dive bombing proved so effective that aviation designers considered how an aircraft could be tailor-built to conduct such operations.

In this digital image, we see several Stukas on the flight line that are being prepared for combat in France. You can see the rear gunner entering the cockpit of one aircraft. His mission was to keep the RAF pilots off of the plane when the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters were unavailable. When running a dive-bomb mission, the planes were particularly vulnerable to hits on the fuselage — a point made by Von Richthofen during pre-war strategy sessions.
These Stukas are prepared for combat during Germany’s invasion of France, circa May 1940. Image: Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Campaigns in France/NARA

One of the first purpose-designed dive bombers was the German Junkers K 47. However, the aircraft was actually built at first in Sweden as it was patently a military-type aircraft and therefore banned in Germany, according to the terms of the Versailles Treaty. Only a handful of the airplanes were ever produced and most were employed by the Chinese Nationalists against the Imperial Japanese Army.

ground crews load a bomb on a Junkers Ju 87A bomber
A ground crew transports a bomb by trolley to their Ju 87 A in preparation for a mission. Image: Polish State Archives

However, its greater importance was in its proof of concept, which convinced many in the Luftwaffe of the importance of a dive-bomber as a central weapon in close support of ground forces. 

Junkers Ju 87 Stuka Takes Shape

In 1934, under the direction of Hermann Pohlmman, the Junker Company began work on an improved aircraft that evolved from the K 47 — it was a single-engined, low-wing monoplane with prominent fixed landing gear and twin fins and rudders. It was later modified to a more conventional single-fin design after the twin fins collapsed and the aircraft crashed. 

In this photo we see a German Stuka returning from a successful bombing mission. The Junkers Ju 87, popularly known as the "Stuka", is a German dive bomber and ground-attack aircraft. Designed by Hermann Pohlmann, it first flew in 1935.
This German Stuka taxis off the runway following a successful bombing flight against Soviet troops on the Karelian Isthmus. The mission was supporting Finland during the Continuation War. Image: SA-kuva

The earliest prototypes were also powered by a Rolls-Royce Kestrel engine, but it was later equipped with the Junkers V12 Jumo 210A petrol engine.

In this photograph, we see two German pilots of the Luftwaffe with their Ju 87 dive bomber. Helsinki-Malmi Airport was an airfield in Helsinki, Finland, located in the district of Malmi, 5.4 NM north-north-east of the city centre. It was opened in 1936. Until the opening of Helsinki-Vantaa Airport in 1952, it was the main airport of Helsinki and of Finland.
A Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 87 Stuka at the Malmi airport during the Continuation War. Located near Helsinki, Malmi was operated by the Finnish Air Force until the war’s end. Image: SA-kuva

The initial Ju 87A-1 production version entered service in spring 1937, and it began to replace the Henschel Hs 123 biplane in the close support units of the still-fledging Luftwaffe. 

In this black and white photograph, we see a pilot prepare his Junker Ju 87D for take off in the Continuation War. The Continuation War, also known as the Second Soviet-Finnish War, was a conflict fought by Finland and Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union during World War II.
In mid-1944, a German pilot prepares his Stuka dive bomber for take off. Image: SA-kuva

The aircraft were purpose-built dive bombers — equipped with “dive brakes” that served to reduce speed during the aircraft’s dive, which granted the pilot additional time for precise targeting and accurate bomb release. The targeting was further aided by external bomb racks that were designed to swing downward and outward during the steep dives. The aircraft’s automatic pull-up dive brakes also helped ensure that the dive bomber would recover from its attack dive, even if the pilot began to lose consciousness from the high g-forces or became too fixated on the target.

In this photo we see an Fascist Italy Air Force Stuka flying in formation with a Nazi Germany Stuka. The Italian Air Force is the air force of the Italian Republic. The Italian Air Force was founded as an independent service arm on 28 March 1923 by King Victor Emmanuel III as the Regia Aeronautica. The Kingdom of Italy was governed by the National Fascist Party from 1922 to 1943 with Benito Mussolini as prime minister and dictator.
A German and Italian Stuka fly together towards an Allied target. Image: Netherlands National Archive

The Stuka had a crew of two — including the pilot and the rear gunner/radio operator. The offensive armament of the Ju 87 consisted of two 7.92 mm (.312 in) MG 17 machine guns fitted one in each wing outboard of undercarriage, and operated by a mechanical pneumatics system from the pilot’s control column. The rear gunner/radio operator operated one 7.92 mm (.312 in) MG 15 machine gun for defensive purposes.

Stuka Goes to War

Small numbers of the Ju 87A-1s and improved B-1s were deployed with the Condor Legion — the supposed German “volunteers” — to support and aid the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. In reality, the German troops were able to test a number of new weapons platforms and new tactics. 

In this digital image we see a German Stuka in flight above a North African beach on the Mediterranean Sea. The North African campaign of the Second World War took place in North Africa from 10 June 1940 to 13 May 1943. It included campaigns fought in the Libyan and Egyptian deserts and in Morocco and Algeria, as well as Tunisia. Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel was a German Generalfeldmarschall during World War II. Popularly known as the Desert Fox, he served in the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany, as well as serving in the Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic, and the army of Imperial Germany.
A German Stuka in flight above a North African beach on the Mediterranean Sea. Image: Netherlands National Archive

The Stuka was one such platform and it proved outstandingly effective. Of course, it should be noted that the Stuka met little in the way of fighter opposition, but it still proved the viability of the dive bomber concept. 

Despite its remarkable combat debut, Junkers continued to refine and improve upon the design. That included the addition of sirens — dubbed “Trumpets of Jericho” — to the landing gear. As the aircraft entered a dive, the flow of air through the sirens would cause them to screech, adding to the terror of those on the ground.

Shown is a 250 kg bomb being lifted onto a Stuka frame hanger using a bomb crane. The bomb is already attached to a "fork" whose function is to prevent the bomb from touching the propeller.
A 250 kg bomb is lifted onto a Stuka frame hanger using a bomb crane. The bomb is already attached to a “fork” whose function is to prevent the bomb from touching the propeller. Image: SA-kuva

By mid-1939, production had reached up to 60 aircraft per month, and the aircraft went on to play a critical role in the early stages of Germany’s Blitzkrieg campaigns. Notably, three Stukas were employed in the first combat mission of the Second World War. On September 1, 1939, the aircraft were charged with attacking the Dirschau Bridge over the Vistual River — beginning the aerial strike 11 minutes before Germany officially declared war on Poland.

Shown here are two German members of the ground crew attaching a 50 kg bomb to the underside of a Stuka wing. A total of four (4) of these bombs could be attached to the plane's wings.
A 50 kg bomb is attached to the wing of a Stuka dive bomber. A total of four of these bombs could be attached to the plane’s wings. Image: SA-kuva

Stukas were used to great effect during the campaign against Poland, sinking all but two of the nation’s warships, while the dive bombers attacked troop concentrations.

In this photograph, we see a Stuka crew preparing for a mission to destroy the bridges in the Battle of Tali–Ihantala. The Battle of Tali–Ihantala was part of the Finnish-Soviet Continuation War, which occurred during World War II. The battle was fought between Finnish forces — using war materiel provided by Germany — and Soviet forces.
A Stuka dive bomber crew prepares for a bombing mission to destroy the bridges in the Battle of Tali–Ihantala. The pilot of the Ju 87 D-5 is already in the plane. Image: SA-kuva

It quickly developed a notorious reputation as a terror weapon, able to strike lines of communication, bridges, rail targets and even airfields. However, the dive bomber concept was most effective when the Germans had air superiority. That fact became all too clear during the course of the Battle of France in the late spring of 1940 when it was revealed to be especially vulnerable to fighter interception. 

In this image we see the commander of a Stuka dove bomber squadron briefing his men on the upcoming mission against the Soviet Union. In these fierce battles, the Stukas flew many sorties and the Stuka could make a major impact on the outcome of the battle. They were powerful air support platforms that saved many units from annihilation. 
The commander of several Stuka dive bomber squadrons, Oberleutnant Hans Töpfer, gives the pilots a situation report and mission briefing on June 28, 1944. Image: SA-kuva

In the subsequent Battle of Britain, the German Luftwaffe’s fighter arm was stretched especially thin and the Ju 87 was often left vulnerable without adequate fighter cover. During a 10-day period in the summer of 1940, the Stuka arm lost 66 dive bombers and crews, including 17 aircraft from Sturzkampfgeschwader 77 in a single day of operations. Yet, before they were withdrawn from the theater, the Stukas still left their mark, notably in heavy raids launched against British airfields along the south coast.

Improved Ju 87 Aircraft and Variations

During the Norwegian campaign in the spring of 1940, the Stukas also proved quite successful in attacks on British shipping, and efforts were made to further extend the dive bomber’s range. That resulted in the Ju 87R, which was equipped with underwing fuel tanks. Both the Ju 87B and Ju 87R were then heavily involved in the opening phase of the Battle of Britain — and as noted, only withdrawn after suffering heavy losses at the hands of the fighter command in the summer of 1940.

In this photo we see a pair of Stuka dive bombers take off to attack Red Army troops of the Soviet Union. The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, often shortened to the Red Army, was the army and air force of the Russian Soviet Republic and, from 1922, the Soviet Union.
Stuka dive bombers take off from an airfield in Finland to attack Soviet troops. Image: SA-kuva

In early 1941, the definitive Stuka variant — the Ju 87D — entered service, deployed to the Russian Front and to North Africa. The aircraft was refined to reduce drag, and that included the deletion of the former model’s notably large radiator intake, which was replaced with a smaller armored design. It also received the more powerful Jumo 211 powerplant. 

In this photograph, we see a Junkers Ju 87 D-5 Stuka dive bomber taxis for a bombing flight against Soviet troops in Finland.
A Junkers Ju 87 D-5 Stuka dive bomber taxis for a bombing flight against Soviet troops in Finland. Image: SA-kuva

The role of the aircraft also evolved, and it was no longer viewed primarily as a dive bomber — and instead was increasingly used as a close-support aircraft, dropping bombs within 330 feet (100 meters) of friendly units. On the Eastern Front, the Stuka enjoyed its greatest success in that new role, helping the German forces drive deep into Soviet territory. But as the tide of war turned against Nazi Germany, the Ju 87 was found to be increasingly vulnerable. By 1943 the losses were so great that the aircraft was shifted to a night assault role.

However, it was also used in an anti-partisan role in Yugoslavia until the very end of the war. 

Ju 87C — Proposed Carrier Variant

Though never built, Germany designers conceived of a carrier-based model equipped with folding wings and arrestor hooks for use aboard the German Kriegsmarine aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin. However, the flattop was never completed and therefore there was no need for a special carrier-based variant.

In this photo, we see the prototype Junkers Ju-87C version of the Stuka. It was intended for use aboard carriers by the German Navy hence the folding wings and tail hook. 
This prototype Junkers Ju 87c Stuka was intended for use by the Kriegsmarine on aircraft carriers. It had folding wings and an arrestor hook visible forward of the rear wheel.

How effective the aircraft would have been in such a role has been debated in the years since — especially given how many were lost in the aforementioned Battle of Britain. The Stuka would have likely been too antiquated to be truly effective as a carrier-based aircraft.

Ju 87G — Tank Busting Stuka

Among the most infamous of the late war variants was the Ju 87G, which saw the aircraft armed with a pair of 37mm (1.45-inch) cannons under the wings. The Ju 87G had its dive brakes removed, and while the additional gun armament added considerable weight, it proved to be an effective tank buster.

Shown in this digitial photograph is a Ju 87G Stuka with anti-tank guns. An anti-tank gun is a form of artillery designed to destroy tanks and other armored fighting vehicles, normally from a static defensive position. However, these were attached as gun pods to the Luftwaffe plane to destroy Allied tanks and armored vehicles.
This German Ju 87G Stuka was captured at an airfield in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. It is examined by an American sergeant. It’s 37mm antitank guns are visible under each wing. Image: NARA

The guns had a muzzle velocity of 850 meters (2,789 feet) per second, which enabled them to fire rounds that could penetrate the toughest of armored targets. 

In this photo, we can see the right side gun pod used by the Stuka pilot to attack ground targets. Although the planes were famous for close air support  in the North African desert, more than one stuka crashed in a vertical dive despite its increased range in World War Two. 
From this angle, you can see the 37mm gun pod used by Germany to turn the Stuka into a tank buster. Image: NARA

One particularly notorious pilot of the Ju 87G was Hans-Ulrich Rudel. While originally an observer/gunner, he retrained as a pilot and flew countless sorties — reportedly four in his first day! During the first day of the Battle of Kursk, Rudel used his Stuka to destroy a dozen Soviet Red Army T-34 tanks.

in this 1945 photograph, Staff Sergeant Charles N. Culver of Rosser Texas examines a JU-87G Stuka equipped with 37mm cannons. 
Staff Sgt. Charles Culver of Rosser, Texas, examines a 37mm cannon attached to the wing of a German JU 87 Stuka at an airfield in Eastern Europe. Image: NARA

By the time the war ended, Rudel had posted claims that he sunk the Soviet battleship Marat in the Baltic Sea, as well as a cruiser and a destroyer. In addition, he has been credited with destroying 519 tanks in the course of 2,530 missions flown. Though he was also shot down 30 occasions, he always returned to action. He had the dubious distinction as being described as Adolf Hitler’s favorite pilot — and was the sole recipient of the Golden Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross.

Very Few Survive

Though more than 6,000 Stukas were produced in total, and in addition to service with the German Luftwaffe, the dive bomber was employed during the war by Germany’s allies including Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy and Romania. The last Stukas came off the production line in September 1944.

In this image, we see one of the two restored Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers left in the world. This one is in the Royal Air Force Museum. The Royal Air Force Museum London is located on the former Hendon Aerodrome, in North London's Borough of Barnet. It includes five buildings and hangars showing the history of aviation and the Royal Air Force. It is part of the Royal Air Force Museum.
Shown is one of the two surviving Stukas. This one is in the collection of the RAF Museum outside of London. Image: Author

Today, only two survive intact — while efforts are underway to restore a third.

These include a ground-attack variant that is now on display at the Royal Air Force Museum outside of London. That particular aircraft was captured by British forces in May 1945, and was selected for museum preservation — and maintained by the RAF’s Air Historical Branch. In 1967, it was repainted and modified to resemble the 1940 variant of the Ju 87 for an appearance in the film Battle of Britain. Those modifications were later removed, and it has been restored to its G-2 configuration. 

In this image, we see a heavily damaged Ju 87 on the ground. The airfield had been hit by a B-24 raid late in World War 2. The Consolidated B-24 Liberator is an American heavy bomber, designed by Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego, California. It was known within the company as the Model 32, and some initial production aircraft were laid down as export models designated as various LB-30s, in the Land Bomber design category.
This Stuka Ju 87 was damaged in Vicenza, Italy during a U.S. Army Air Force bomber raid late in the war. Image: NARA

A second complete Ju 87 is now in the collection of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry — which is also home to the German submarine U-505 and the command module of Apollo 8. That aircraft had been donated by the British government and sent to the United States during the Second World War. Restoration was completed in the mid-1970s.

In this photo, we see members of the USAAF inspecting a Stuka abandoned by German troops in Algeria. The United States Air Force is the air service branch of the United States Armed Forces, and is one of the eight uniformed services of the United States. During World War II, it was part of the U.S. Army.
Members of the U.S. Army Air Force inspect a Stuka left behind by retreating Germans somewhere in North Africa. Image: NARA

Currently, efforts are also underway to restore to airworthy condition a Ju 87 from two wrecks for the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Seattle, Washington. In addition, several wrecked aircraft have been preserved. Even though few Ju 87’s remain today, the legend of the terrifying dive bomber lives on. 

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Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers military history and hardware for The National Interest and FoxNews. He has collected military small arms and headgear since he was 12 years old. His most recent book A Gallery of Military Headdress was released last year and is available from Amazon.com here.

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