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Stuka Attack! The Dive-Bombing Assault on England during the Battle of Britain

Stuka Attack! The Dive-Bombing Assault on England during the Battle of Britain by Andy Saunders. Grub Street Publishing, 2013, 224 pp.

To invade the British mainland, the Germans needed two things: a closure of shipping activity in the English Channel and air superiority over the southern coast. Enter one of the feared air weapons from World War II: the Junkers 87 Stuka dive bomber. German propaganda propelled the Stuka to a near mythical status, evidenced by its triumphant battle song:

We do not fear Hell and we give no peace,
Until the enemy finally lies on the ground,
Until England, until England, until England is conquered—
The Stukas, the Stukas, the Stukas! (p. 216)

In his book Stuka Attack! The Dive-Bombing Assault on England during the Battle of Britain, British author and museum founder Andy Saunders pays tribute to the Junkers 87 by recreating their combat experience during the Battle of Britain. In the summer of 1940, the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, and Luftwaffe encountered one another in a whirlwind of violent skirmishes. Saunders retells these air-to-air and air-to-sea battles with a generous use of photos and first-person testimony. Although it did not yield strategic success for Germany, the Stuka force did much to wreak havoc against Britain.

The Stuka’s capacity for precision damage gave rise to its lasting reputation as a formidable tactical bomber. Battle-proven during the blitzkrieg against Poland and France, the Ju 87 refined a high-speed, steep-dive tactic delivering a five-weapon salvo—a 250 kg high-explosive incendiary bomb with four 50 kg bombs—against pinpoint targets. As other aircraft also employed dive-bomber tactics like the Ju 88 and Messerschmitt (Me) 110, Saunders is adamant that Stuka—a shortened version of Sturzkampfflugzeug, the German word for dive-bomber aircraft—is the exclusive moniker of the Ju 87.

The book’s first half recounts the events of July 1940, when the Luftwaffe aimed to “strangle the supply of Great Britain” and the English Channel was informally dubbed “Stuka Alley” (p. 18). To cripple ships, Stuka pilots would dive up to 90 degrees toward the stern, shallow to 45 degrees while passing 1,500 feet mean sea level, release weapons, and pull away as the tail machine gunner suppressed defensive fire. Vulnerable targets weathered direct hits or the indirect damage of blast waves as missed bombs impacted nearby.

The Stuka’s deadly effectiveness was showcased on 4 July 1940 when 26 dive bombers flew north from Angers, France, to attack Portland Harbour near Dorset. The British antiaircraft ship HMS Foylebank sustained 104 strikes, with 176 sailors lost. Meanwhile, OA (Outbound Atlantic) Convoy 178 suffered the onslaught of a 23-Stuka unit when it came too close to the French coast, resulting in the loss of four merchant vessels. These double-whammy attacks were a picnic for the Germans and resulted in British leaders prioritizing air cover and rerouting vital shipping convoys.

The book’s second half strikes a different theme. The Stuka assault expanded with the Luftwaffe’s new strategy under Directive No. 17, issued by Hitler on 1 August 1940 to “eliminate the [RAF] both as a fighting force and in its ground organization” (p. 164). Subsequently, Stukas shifted from sea-based to land-based targets along Britain’s southern coast, which exposed their inherent vulnerability to fighters. Compounded by its slow airspeed, the Stuka was most vulnerable during its pullout phase. These vulnerabilities required a close escort from the Me 109 and Me 110. However, both aircraft had limits: the Me 109 was extremely fuel-limited for cross-channel operations, and the Me 110 was generally not capable against RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires.

The air engagements of August 1940 were colossal as hundreds of RAF and Luftwaffe fighter aircraft confronted one other. Saunders fleshes his narrative with many individual testimonies, particularly personal examples of bravery in the face of attack. This approach is essential, as these testimonies weave into a riveting tapestry of airpower.

Unfortunately for the Luftwaffe, significant losses ensued. On 18 August 1940, a raid on the south coast by 109 Stukas resulted in 21 percent of its force destroyed or damaged. As the air assault evolved to a nighttime blitz on London and major British cities, the Stuka’s role declined in the Battle of Britain. The mainland invasion of Operation Sea Lion was cancelled by Hitler on 17 September, and the Stuka force went into reserve for future objectives. The Stuka’s role against Britain concluded on 4 February 1941 with the sinking of the HMT Tourmaline, an antisubmarine trawler, by a single attacker who was subsequently shot down by a Spitfire patrol. It seems fitting that the Tourmaline bookended a rough chapter for the Royal Navy, reinforcing Saunders’s argument that the Stuka’s attrition against maritime targets and ports was the aircraft’s tangible contribution to the Battle of Britain.

Saunders challenges the accepted wisdom that the Stuka’s sudden withdrawal was on account of its perceived rate of “unacceptable losses.” Instead, Saunders argues that the Stuka force’s results were viewed as insignificant because its target taskings were flawed and inconsequential. These targets were mostly airfields along the southern coast like Thorney Island and RAF Tangmere or had been incorrectly identified as “high value,” such as the abandoned airfield of Lympne. Saunders provides substantial details of battles and rigorously judges the merits of all targets destroyed by the Stukas. It seems plausible that Stuka air assaults could have yielded a more disastrous outcome for Britain absent the failure of German planners to task Stuka units with more strategic targets.

Stuka Attack! is undoubtedly for enthusiasts of fighter combat and offers useful lessons for modern air planners. As the Junkers 87 Stuka was the only World War II aircraft capable of precise bomb delivery on pinpoint targets, its iconic reputation makes sense. Still, the author overly presumes its readers are familiar with British geography as well as with the Battle of Britain’s legacy as the first major German defeat in World War II. A simple map would have enhanced the reader’s understanding, though the presence of more than 100 photos offers a strong perspective on the people, places, and machines involved. So, too, no less than 10 appendices give primary source information on Stuka tactics, RAF claims, casualties, and ground reports that will be helpful for researchers.

Maj Dwight Rabe, USAF

 

 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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