The World’s First Pinpoint Accurate Dive Bomber
The Junkers Ju 87 dive bomber, or Stuka, was the most distinctive airplane early in WWII. With its inverted gull wings and nerve-wracking shriek as it dove on targets, the Stuka became the symbol of the blitzkrieg, terrifying soldiers and civilians from the Russian Steppe to the Atlantic, and from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara. The Battle of Britain exposed its vulnerability to enemy fighters, but in the right conditions, Stukas continued to wreak havoc until war’s end.
The Stuka was designed in secrecy in 1933, back when Germany still pretended compliance with the Treaty of Versailles and its prohibition of a German air force. A prototype was built in Sweden, smuggled into Germany in 1934, and test flown in 1935. The inverted gull wings improved the pilot’s ground visibility, and allowed a shorter and sturdier undercarriage, while maintaining enough ground clearance for the propeller.
Ju 87A Stukas were tested during the Spanish Civil War. The results were initially mixed, but they steadily improved as designers worked out the kinks, and personnel gained operational experience. By the time Germany launched WWII, front line squadrons were using the upgraded Ju 87B version. It was usually armed with a 500 kilogram bomb, and had wind-driven sirens known as “Jericho Trumpets” that emitted an intimidating wail when the plane dove. That effect was further enhanced by attaching cardboard sirens to the bombs, causing them to emit a terrifying shriek as they plummeted to their targets. The bombload was increased to 1800 kg in the upgraded Ju 87D, which entered service in 1941. The Ju 87G, which became operational in 1943, carried two armor-piercing 37mm cannons in lieu of bombs, and proved especially lethal against tanks, whose thinner top armor was vulnerable to attacks from above.
The Stuka’s greatest asset was its pinpoint accuracy by WWII standards, and in the hands of an experienced pilot, it could destroy a zigzagging target. Germany’s most decorated serviceman of the war, Hans-Ulrich Rudel flew a Stuka. Behind the controls of that plane, he is credited with having destroyed 519 tanks, over 800 vehicles, 150 artillery positions, damaged a battleship, sank a cruiser, a destroyer, plus 70 other seacraft, and downed 9 airplanes.