The short but glorious reign of the schnellbomber

Over the holiday weekend, we had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of the USAF near Dayton, Ohio. It’s a phenomenal museum, and well worth the visit should you find yourself in the area.

Due to time constraints, we were only able to fully explore the World War II section of the museum, which includes among other things the B-29 that dropped the second atomic bomb. The aircraft that interested me the most, however, was a restored Junkers Ju 88–an aircraft I’d not before seen in person. (A subsequent internet search revealed that there are just a handful of restored Ju 88s today–the first one pictured on that list is the one we saw at the Museum.)

The Ju 88 represents a curious and short-lived period of military aviation history. Between the two World Wars, military thinkers around the world (Billy Mitchell being perhaps the most famous) spent a lot of time trying to figure out how airplanes, which had shown promise but had not proved decisive in World War I, could best be used in future conflicts.

The Ju 88 was an effort to meet the German ideal for combat aircraft: the schnellbomber, a fast, agile plane that combined the speed and manuverability of a fighter with the heavy armament and payload of a bomber. It was a fast medium bomber that could, in theory, hit enemy ground targets while holding its own against enemy fighters. The Ju 88 was but one of several aircraft built to meet this vision–other German aircraft in this vein included the infamous Stuka dive bomber, the unusual Me 110 “Zerstorer,” the Do-17 “Flying Pencil,” and the He-111. These bombers are unique, perhaps a bit ugly even, in appearance–but they seem to me to possess a sort of curious elegance.

All of these fighter/bomber hybrids saw action in the early months of World War II. They enjoyed great success in the Spanish Civil War, and performed reasonably well during the Blitzkrieg. The Battle of Britain, however, was where they were really put to the test–they would be facing a prepared foe armed with capable aircraft. By the end of that hard-fought campaign, it was clear that the schnellbomber concept didn’t work as well in reality as it did in theory. Their speed was not enough to protect them from the top-of-the-line British fighters of the day (which were themselves getting faster and more powerful as time went on); the Ju 88 and its brethren actually required a fighter escort if they hoped to survive above England. Nor were their bombing capabilities sufficient for the task; their relatively limited payloads (compared to the Allied heavy bombers that would soon be clouding the skies over Germany) made them rather mediocre strategic bombers.

Like its fellow medium bombers, the Ju 88 was a solid aircraft but too much of a jack-of-all-trades to hold its own in the face of rapidly-advancing fighter and bomber technology. After a short period of dominance before and immediately after the start of the war, most of the schnellbomber-type planes were quickly outclassed. Most German planes of this type ended up being reassigned to secondary roles (reconnaissance, night-fighter duty, etc.), where they performed competently but unremarkably until Germany’s surrender. But they were important precursors to the more specialized fighters and bombers that, by the war’s end, would completely redefine the practice of war.

Comments (5) to “The short but glorious reign of the schnellbomber

  1. While I have a fair amount of WW2 aircraft knowledge, the majority of what I know is about the Jet Era, through about 1990.

    I never really thought about it until I read this post, but the idea of the schnellbomber continued and flourished. The British made the Canberra, and the US came up with the F-105. Niether were *stellar* fighters, but quite a few 105 pilots became aces in theirs, which is no mean feat for a light bomber. Or very heavy fighter if you will.

    The F-111 was originally intended to be a Navy fighter/bomber. They wanted a swing-wing aircraft that had long range capabilities and could drop bombs if needs be. It turned out to be too big for the carriers so they went with F-14’s and F-18’s instead, and the Air Force bought them as light bombers. But they still had an internal cannon for air to air combat.

  2. I think you’re right, Topher. I think that “very heavy fighters” are the most direct descendant of the schnellbomber idea. I’d say the F-4 might be another good example along with the ones you mention.

  3. Yes, I agree there. The “no cannon” fiasco made it obvious that the F-4 was barely adequate as a fighter. It worked best as a fighter-bomber.

    It’s interesting to me that as far as I know, the FB-111 was the only plane to get the FB designation, even though they made the F-15 Strike Fighther (which could carry more than a B-17) as a bomber.

    I suspect that about that time they decided to go with the A (Attack) designation for light fighter/bombers, which gave us the F/A-18.

  4. A quick followup comment, now that Topher’s got me thinking about it again: I think that the schnellbombers would have been more successful if they had really been as “schnell” as they were meant to be. Although they were meant to be fast bombers, they were quite a bit slower than the British Spitfire. So you could say that these bombers, while faster than some of the fighters of the day, didn’t actually meet the full design goals of the schnellbomber program.

    Another big issue, which I didn’t mention earlier, is the problem of taking tactical aircraft and putting them to use as strategic weapons–a mistake that could be chalked up to the relative newness of the whole concept of combat aviation.

  5. I would have to say that the Dehavlin Mosquito bomber out classed any airplane that Germany ever built during WWII(apart from the ME262 which arrived to late to make a difference). It could fly from England to Berlin drop its bombs and nothing could touch it. Out of thousand of sorties during that war only a handfull of casualties occured among its crews.

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