The history of the Schlachtflieger
WW I to 1939
The concept of Schlachtflieger was not knew to the Second World War. It originates from WWI.
A development of the reconnaissance role was the dropping of bombs and the strafing of troops. The individual experiences were combined and on the 10th July 1917 an independent Squadron of Bomberwing 1 was for the first time solely committed to the ground attack role. Interrogated prisoners of war pointed especially out the de-moralising effects of low-levels attacks. As a consequence independent Escort squadrons were transformed into the ground attack role, supported by the establishment of a ground attack school.
The Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 saw the first mass-employment of aircraft in this role. This massive air-support coupled with a reorganisation of ground troops employing new tactics lead to a 65 km gap in the frontline and drove the British Fifth Army to the point of disintegration.
The Schlachtstaffeln developed into the most offensive part of the German Air Service and at the end of the war 38 'Schlacht'-squadrons were in existence.
Despite the large impact of this branch, the Schlachtflieger became soon forgotten and even after the reconstruction of the Luftwaffe in 1935, no plans were made for the establishment of ground-attack units.
New insights were gained during the war in Spain as the He 51s were no use any more in the fighter role and were employed in the ground attack role. Nonetheless they were still designated as fighters and used obsolete fighter aircraft in the ground attack role.
Consequently new 'Schlacht'-units were created and a new purpose built Schlachtaircraft was designed, the Hs 129. But the fortunes of the branch changed as the map of Europe up to 1939. The newly created Gruppen were re-equipped with the Ju 87 and trained in a dive-bombing role. The Schlachtgruppen and with them the idea disappeared, all but one.
One issue that has to be addressed about these changing fortunes is the question of attitude and support by the top level towards the Schlachtflieger idea. In WWI German fighter pilots were obsessed by the idea of air-warfare as a fair and knightly business. Ground attack was disliked and despised. The attitude persisted till the end of the war and was not confined to the German side only.
The 'new' Luftwaffe emerging in 1935 was led by Hermann Göring, an ex-fighter pilot. Support to new concept of air-warfare was going to the dive-bomber branch, the Stukas. They were vehemently supported by Ernst Udet, an ex-fighter pilot and the German father of the dive bomber. As a consequence close support had no mentor and was additionally seen as a task that could, given the need arises, be fulfilled by any plane in the inventory, but especially by the Stuka.