Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Junkers Ju 52

Junkers Ju 52 in airborne role

The Junkers Ju 52 began in 1931 as a single engine commercial plane for Germany’s Lufthansa airlines but quickly became a three engine military transport and Wehrmacht workhorse by 1934.  Besides its logistical duties is was used briefly as a bomber in the Spanish civil war, taking part in the bombing of Guernica, and again over Poland in 1939 where it was used to bomb Warsaw.   Its role as a bomber was merely a stopgap measure and by 1939 there were true bombers available to the Nazi regime to take its place.

With the invasion of Poland by Germany on September 1 1939 there were over 500 Ju 52s available to transport troops and supplies.  The aircraft was rugged, made of a corrugated duralumin metal skin and four pairs of circular duralumin cross sections that stiffened the structure.  Still, over 50 of the aircraft were shot down or lost to accidents during the 30 day campaign.  Later in the year during the invasion of Norway an additional 150 Ju 52 Junkers were lost in the operation.  By the time of the Battle of France in 1940 there were less than 500 of these transports available for use.  In an attempt to conserve these aircraft for a possible follow-up invasion of Britain it was decided that the Ju 52’s participation would be limited mostly to airborne attacks on bridges in the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as the airport in Rotterdam.  After just five days of action more than 160 transports were lost – mostly to anti-aircraft fire.  The problem was the slow speed of the Ju 52.  At maximum effort it could reach maybe 165 miles an hour.  It was an easy target for gunners and a sitting duck for enemy fighters patrolling the area. 

The losses continued to mount in operations where the Junkers transport was needed.  The airborne invasion of Crete in 1941 saw over 170 aircraft lost – some of these due to collisions on the ground because of blinding dust kicked up by the prop wash.   By June 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union there were less than 250 Ju 52s available on the opening day of Operation Barbarossa.  Russia’s scorched earth policy, leaving nothing of use to the invading Germans, meant the Wehrmacht became ever more dependent on air supply.  Consequently 500 new Ju 52s were built in 1941 and again in 1942.  Nearly 900 Junkers transports were assembled in 1943.  They were needed just to make up for operational loses.  At Demyansk, in 1942, 100,000 German troops were trapped for three months and relied on men and supplies being airlifted in and casualties being evacuated out by air.  Junkers Ju 52s provided the lifeline until the siege was lifted but at a cost of over 260 aircraft being lost.  The attempt to supply the doomed German 6th Army at Stalingrad also took a tremendous toll.  Given the barbarity of the warfare on the Eastern Front there was probably no consolation for surviving a crash landing behind enemy lines.

Hitler’s refusal to evacuate German troops from North Africa resulted in another disastrous surrender for Axis forces in Tunisia in 1943 and a loss of 430 Ju 52s over just three weeks in a desperate attempt to supply the trapped forces from Italy. 

The Junkers Ju 52 was the reliable logistical workhorse for the German army in World War II but any air transport is easy prey for fast and nimble fighter aircraft prowling the area.  The crews of these stolid birds were frequently sacrificed because the Nazi leadership too often gave little regard for the lives of even their own men.

Junkers Ju 52 / 3m

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