Air University Review, March-April 1983

Attrition and the Luftwaffe

Dr. Williason Murray

One of the great ironies in military history may lie in the claim of post-World War I air power theorists that aircraft would provide an escape from the horror of the last conflicts' trenches. In fact, as was apparent soon after the second great European conflagration had ended, the attrition of air forces in that war had reached enormous levels.1 Moreover, the air war over Europe seemed to have even less clear-cut military victories and defeats that had the great land battles of the 1914-18 struggle. Nevertheless, while historians have understood that extensive attrition of crews occurred in the skies during World War II, they have unfortunately not taken a careful look at these losses and trends. In this article I will redress some of the gaps in our knowledge of what actually happened in terms of the attrition of the German air force in 1943 and 1944.2

By the time the United States entered the war in December 1941, the Germans had lost the equivalent in aircraft of two whole air forces. From the onset of major operations against Scandanavia and Western Europe in the spring of 1940, the Luftwaffe had faced an appalling attrition rate. In May 1940, a month during which the Germans lost 20.2 percent of their total force structure and 27.4 percent of their bomber force, the Luftwaffe lost more aircraft in three weeks of heavy fighting than it would lose in any other month of that year.3 By the end of 1941, sustained attrition of Luftwaffe units in Russia had brought German air power into serious straits, as production of new aircraft and the training of new crews proved incapable of keeping up with front-line demands for replacements. Adding to the seriousness of the situation was the fact that the German logistic system broke down in the depths of Russia. By January 1942, only 47 percent of bomber crews in front-line units were fully operationa1.4 "In-commission" rates had fallen to 52 percent for fighters, to only 32 percent for bombers, and to 45 percent for the whole force structure.5

In 1942, the Luftwaffe enjoyed a partial recovery. As Field Marshal Erhard Milch regained control of the aircraft industry, increasing production helped matters considerably. But from January 1942 the Germans were never again able to forecast accurately what their training establishment would turn out; the attrition and the demands of combat squadrons for replacements were such that new pilots were rushed to the front with decreasing training time and often without the benefit of attending operational training schools.6 For the moment, the Germans escaped the full consequences of their difficulties because the Anglo-American air forces found it difficult to come to grips with the Luftwaffe except in peripheral theaters, while the Red Air Force was still recovering from its catastrophic losses of 1941.

Despite a partial recovery in the first half of 1942, the Luftwaffe failed to realize the full potential of increasing German production. In the high summer of that year, Hitler embarked on a major campaign in southern Russia, the scale of which was out of all proportion to available strength, especially of the army after its first winter in Russia.7 The Luftwaffe, as a result, had to support the army’s efforts with a total commitment to ground operations, while the British challenge in the Mediterranean began to assume dangerous proportions. A steady aircraft loss rate in late spring and summer 1942 (between 14 and 19 percent per month for fighters and 13 and 19 percent for bombers) chewed up German air resources at an alarming rate.8 But in the fall of 1942, losses fell as the army had exhausted itself and offensive operations had come to a halt.

At this point the war’s strategic pattern substantially shifted. Anglo-American forces landed in French North Africa while later, in November 1942, the Russians launched a massive counterblow around Stalingrad that aimed at the destruction of the German Sixth Army. In both cases the Germans reacted instinctively and aggressively to meet the Allies on their chosen ground rather than trade space for time. As a result they fought these battles on the periphery while facing enormous logistic difficulties as well as enemy air forces that were enjoying a growing quantitative superiority. The logistic difficulties forced the Germans to rely on their meager air transport resources and to augment those forces by shutting down navigation and bomber transition schools--a situation that served only to exacerbate the Luftwaffe’s long-range problems.9

As 1943 began, the Luftwaffe was engaged in three major operational theaters: the Mediterranean, the Eastern Front, and the night skies over the Reich. No matter how serious the pressure on Germany’s cities applied by Bomber Command, the Luftwaffe did not suffer unsupportable aircraft attrition of its night defensive forces until late in the war. In the other engagements, however, loss rates mounted while the Luftwaffe proved increasingly ineffective in its intervention on the ground or naval battles. Moreover, in the spring of 1943 the appearance of the U.S. Eighth Air Force in increasing numbers over Western Europe opened up a new operational theater. The trends of aircraft losses directly reflected the intensity of the struggle. In April, German squadrons in the Mediterranean wrote off nearly 600 aircraft, a direct reflection of the fact that the Luftwaffe by this point was wholly responsible for supplying the Tunisian bridgehead as well as providing air defense and close air support for hard-pressed Axis ground forces.10

July and August 1943 saw the final collapse of the strategy to slug it out with Allied air forces in peripheral theaters, while the pressure in the west exerted by American bomber crews became almost unbearable. In the great battle around the Russian city of Kursk in early July and then in a series of ferocious struggles in August as the Russians counterattacked, the Luftwaffe formations in the east suffered enormous losses. Similarly, the Anglo-American invasion of Sicily in July forced the Germans into major commitments in the Mediterranean. Finally for the first time, in July and August the American bomber raids reached toward the jugular of German industrial production. In those two months the Luftwaffe wrote off 1032 aircraft in the Mediterranean, 1030 aircraft in the east, and 1151 in the west. Thus, total losses amounted to 3213 from a force structure numbering 7080 aircraft (including noncombat aircraft) in early July.11 (The magnitude and impact of these losses suggest a whole new frame of reference for analysis of the air war. Within this new frame of reference—to cite one obvious example—Eighth Air Force’s unescorted daylight bombing campaign becomes something more than a tactical failure as it is usually presented.)

Total losses of combat aircraft reflect an even more depressing tale. In that two-month period, the Germans wrote off no less than 1313 single-engine fighters; at the beginning of July, they had 1784 single-engine fighters.12 The result of such devastating attrition was that the Germans had to shut down most air operations both in the Mediterranean and in the east. For the remainder of the war, their ground forces would receive little or no air support. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe now had more than enough on its hands in contesting American daylight raids over the Reich.

The following table indicates the pressures on the force structure throughout l943.13 (See Table I.) What these percentages emphasize is rising levels of German aircraft production had relatively little impact on the war. Allied production was climbing even faster, for the Americans and the British had decided to increase aircraft production well before the Germans. Thus, relatively speaking, the gap between opposing air strengths was growing rather than decreasing despite rising German production.

Table I. German aircraft losses, 1943

Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe extracted a heavy price from the attacking Allied air forces throughout 1943. While the trends may appear clear to the historian, they were not so clear to Allied commanders and certainly not to the aircrews who flew the bombers. Beginning in May, the Eighth Air Force launched raids deeper and deeper into Germany. Aircraft losses immediately reached 20 percent per month and remained at that level (with the exception of September) through October. In the latter month, the number of aircraft written off reached more than one quarter of those present at the beginning of the month.14 Crew losses were even higher because there were fewer crews on duty than aircraft. Table II suggests not only the level of losses but the impact that overwhelming American production of trained crews and aircraft had on the balance of air forces in Western Europe.15 Despite high monthly loss rates, the Eighth Air Force’s strength steadily grew. Nevertheless, the second terrible drubbing over Schweinfurt in October forced a fundamental rethinking of American air strategy. For the remainder of the year, American bombers flew only as deep into Germany as their escort fighters could lend support. There were no lon46ger any deep-penetration, unescorted raids.

Table II. Eighth Air Force heavy bomber strengths and losses, 1943

Although German crew losses as well as operational sortie loss rates are difficult to establish (largely because most Luftwaffe records were destroyed at the end of the war), one can establish loss rates for pilots of the single-engine fighter force.16 The percent of fighter pilots killed, wounded, or missing each month rose sharply in late spring 1942 with heavier operational commitments to a high of 9.4 percent in August but fell to a low of 2.4 percent in November. Thereafter, pilot losses began an ominous rise that continued unabated for the rest of the war. For the month of April 1943, the percentage loss was 10.9 percent of the fighter pilots present for duty at the beginning of the month. The loss rate would fall below that level during only one month (November 1943, 9.9 percent) for the remainder of the war. The heavy fighting and commitments over the summer of 1943 imposed a terrible attrition rate on the force structure.

For the period from July through October, the Luftwaffe was losing between 14 percent and 16 percent of its fighter pilots every month. The average number of fighter pilots available in combat squadrons over 1943 was 2105. The number of fighter pilots killed, wounded, or missing over the course of the year was 2967 or 141 percent. The inescapable conclusions that such statistics point to is that the Luftwaffe was in desperate trouble by the end of the year; and that if it had managed to blunt the American daylight offensive in October it had suffered no less grievously itself in the great air battles of 1943.

Historians of air power, like other military historians, cast their work in terms of tidy, clear-cut decisions. Thus, the prevailing wisdom on the 1944 air campaign argues that in February of 1944 the Eighth Air Force returned to the skies over Germany, this time accompanied by fighter support, and in a great series of air battles that lasted one week (hence "Big Week") broke the Luftwaffe’s back. The loss data on both sides suggest otherwise. They indicate that a great battle of materiel lasted over the three-month period from February through April 1944. Only in May 1944 did German air resistance crumble. Moreover, rising fighter pilot losses in January suggest that one should include that month in the period during which American air forces won air superiority over Europe.

American bomber loss trends lend support to the above contention. In absolute terms, bomber losses rose each month from January through April. They reached a high of nearly 25 percent of the force structure in, April. Thereafter, our bomber losses began to fall to a level only slightly above 10 percent.17 The sortie loss rate also indicates the same trend.18 A noticeable drop-off in the sortie loss rate did not occur until the month of May. Although the major campaign to destroy the transportation system in France may have helped lower these loss rates since the bombers were not flying as dangerous missions, a clear trend begins in May that continues to the end of the war. It will see bomber losses fall by a factor of close to two.

The losses for the Luftwaffe in the four-month period from January through April 1944 make it difficu1t to understand how the fighter force functioned at all. Moreover, the terrible losses suffered by the fighter force in the first third of the year represented a culmination of rising attrition rates that had been heavy even in the first years of the Second World War. Losses in 1943 had been bad enough, with total pilot losses for the year in the single-engine fighter force equaling close to one-and-a-half times average monthly strength. The arrival of American bombing formations protected by fighters over central Germany was not entirely unexpected,19 but the speed with which the Americans had extended the range of P-47s and the long-range and combat capabilities of P-51s came as a nasty shock. Luftwaffe fighter pilots soon found out that American fighters would contest attacks on bomber formations with great ferocity. Moreover, there were no safe havens that American fighters could not reach. Thus, slower aircraft, such as the Bf 110, which had proved effective in 1943 as a launching platform to lob rockets into the bomber formations, had no area safe from American fighters. The results were immediately apparent. The experience of Zerstörergeschwader "Horst Wessel" was indicative of what happened to twin-engined fighters in the new combat environment where American long-range fighters could get at them. At 12:13 P.M. on 20 February 1944, this unit scrambled thirteen Bf 1l0s. Six minutes later three more took off to join the first group. When they arrived at a designated contact point, there was nothing left to meet. American fighters had jumped the first group and shot down eleven of the thirteen. On 6 March of nine aircraft scrambled, two returned with mechanical difficulties, one received damage in air-to-air combat, five were shot down (four pilots wounded and one killed), and the commander landed his aircraft at another field.20

The impact of the American air offensive on the Luftwaffe’s single-engine fighter force was no less severe. The number of single-engine fighters written off in January and February reached above 30 percent, while in March the level reached well above 50 percent. Thereafter, for the next three months the total each month was well above the 40 percent level.21 Pilot losses were appalling by any standard.22 (See Table III.) By March attrition had reached over 20 percent per month of single-engine aircraft crews, while losses for May reached one quarter of the pilots present at the beginning of the month. The losses in Germany’s bombing force were hardly more encouraging. Committed to a series of revenge attacks on London as well as a series of wasting and operationally pointless missions on the Eastern Front, front-line bomber squadrons wrote off close to 30 percent of their aircraft strength each month from February through June 1944.23

Table III. Eighth Air Force strengths and losses, 1944

One can see what this pressure meant in the war diaries and messages of the fighter squadrons. The 2nd Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader II scrambled sixteen aircraft on 13 March. Returning pilots claimed two Mustangs as certain and two as probable, but one of the squadron’s aircraft had crashed on return (pilot killed), two aircraft were missing, a fourth was lost when its pilot bailed out, and a fifth crashed near Lübeck.24 The war diary of 3rd Gruppe Jagdgeschwader Udet makes similarly depressing reading. On 15 March, the Gruppe launched twenty aircraft; two pilots were killed (aircraft destroyed), two pilots had to parachute to safety, and two crash landings took place. On the next day nine aircraft scrambled: two pilots were killed, four were wounded (one severely), and one pilot parachuted to safety unhurt. On 17 March, operations cost the unit one pilot killed and two more wounded (one severely). Thus, in a three-day period this unit with approximately twenty-five pilots had five killed and six wounded (two severely).25

One may suppose that a sizable percentage of pilots lost during these months were those who were just out of the training establishment. The pressure on the Luftwaffe over the past three years was such that the High Command had had to strip untrained pilots from the training establishment before they were ready. The results are shown clearly in Table IV.26 German pilots at the beginning of the war had spent more time in basic and operational training than their opponents in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Thereafter, as the attrition rate spiraled, the ratio of training hours of German and enemy pilots increasingly favored the Allies. By the July 1943-June 1944 period, German pilots received barely half the training hours and only one-third the hours in operational aircraft that the RAF gave its pi1ots. The ratio was even more unfavorable in comparison with American pilots: one-half and one-fifth The decline in German training levels was a direct result of the attrition taking place. The Germans had no choice but to man the cockpits with less and less skilled pilots in response to the increasingly savage losses Allied air forces inflicted on their combat squadrons.

Table IV. Total flying hours in British, American, and German training programs

The terrible pressure on the fighter force culminated in the five-month period between January and May of 1944. The Luftwaffe was already in serious trouble at the beginning of the year. On 31 December 1943 the Luftwaffe had 2395 single-engine pilots in combat squadrons deployed throughout Europe. Of these pilots only 1495 were fully operational (62 percent), 291 were partially combat-ready (12 percent), and 691 were not operationally ready under any circumstances (26 percent). This force lost no less than 2262 fighter pilots in the next five months—close to 100 percent of the number reporting for duty at the turn of the year.27 In a conference with Herman Göring in mid-May, General Adolf Galland admitted that Luftflotte Reich (responsible for air defense over northern Germany) had lost 38 percent of its fighter pilots in April, while Luftflotte 3 (responsible for air defense over France and southern Germany) had lost 24 percent of its fighter pilots.28

The laconic reports of II Gruppe/JG 53 indicate what happened to that unit in the months of May and August. In the former month the unit reported:

(A) Operations took place on thirteen days. Twenty-one scrambles, fifteen of which resulted in combats.

(B) Average aircraft strength thirty-four; average serviceability twenty.

(C) Fifty-three aircraft lost or damaged. Of these: (1) extent: thirty-four 100%, three over 60%, nine over 35%, seven under 35%, (2) reason: thirty-three through Allied action, four [through] technical faults, sixteen owing [to] servicing faults. . . .

(D) Personnel losses—Killed or injured: seven killed, five missing, three wounded (two bailed out), seven injured (of whom five bailed out). Two more injured not through Allied action. Seventeen parachute jumps, two jumped with wounds, two jumped twice without injury.29

In August the same unit lost 42 aircraft through enemy action, 18 more in noncombat accidents, 20 more abandoned or destroyed on airfields captured by the enemy, and a final 20 through other causes.30 The impact of such attrition is indicated by the fact that in July 1944 Luftflotte 3 discovered that with few exceptions only its Gruppen and Stafflen commanders had more than six months' operational experience, a small number of other pilots had up to three months’ experience, and the bulk of available pilots had between eight and thirty days combat service.31 Their combat capabilities are not hard to imagine.

Table V summarizes what happened to the Luftwaffe over the course of the Second World War.32 Whereas the German fighter force that embarked on the campaign against France in May of 1940 had been a well-trained and relatively experienced force, within a year-and-a-half German pilot losses had reached the point where the force had to depend increasingly on young and inexperienced pilots. Although Germany’s opponents were in similar circumstances, their production totals gave them an increasing advantage. As losses on both sides rose (a reflection of massive and rising production totals), the Germans were less able to absorb the level of attrition taking place. They were then forced to take short cuts, particularly in the training program. Once entered on that slippery path, the Germans were in an impossible position. The change in the ratio of noncombat to combat losses in the last six months is probably not the result of any increased concern by the Germans for flying safety (in fact, there is no evidence to suggest such a possibility). Rather, the change in ratios reflects the probability that American fighter pilots were shooting down their inexperienced opponents before they could crash the aircraft they were flying.

 Table V. German fighter losses by six-month periods

We Americans are not particularly interested in learning from the past, particularly when the events happened nearly forty years ago. Nevertheless, study of the air battles of the Second World War may have more relevance to our understanding of the shape and context of a major struggle with the Soviet Union than the air war over Vietnam or in the Middle East. To begin with, one must underline that the military history of the past 120 years suggests that war between major industrialized powers will not be short but rather has entirely depended on massive production, the mobilization of enormous financial and productive resources, and the ability to sustain operations, not over a matter of months but rather over a period of years. In World War II, the Germans, fortunately for their opponents, proved for the most part unwilling to accept that lesson from the American Civil War and from the First World War. We run the same risk if we also believe that the next war, if it comes, will be short.

Ohio State University, Columbus


1. See among others: Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, Vol. II (London,1961); Wesley F. Craven and James L. Cate, The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. II (Chicago, 1948); and Anthony Verrier, The Bomber Offensive (London, 1968).

2. Readers who wish to examine the author’s conclusions and material in greater detail are urged to consult his soon to be published monograph on the Luftwaffe: Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe 1933-44 (scheduled for publication in 1983 by the Air University Press).

3. These statements are based on figures in the Luftwaffe Quartermaster General’s reports on aircraft damaged and written off: Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv (BA/MA), RL 2 II, Übersicht über Soll, Istbestand, Einsatzbereitschaft, Verluste und Reserven der fliegenden Verbände; RL 2 III/1025, Front-Flugzeug-Verluste; and RL 2 III, Flugzeugunfälle und Verluste bei den fliegenden Verbänden, Genst. Gen. Qu. (6. Abt.).

4. BA/MA, RL 2 III/712, 713, 714, Ubersicht über Soll, Istbeständ, Einsatzbereitschaft, Verluste und Reserven der fliegenden Verbände

5. "Luftwaffe Strength and Serviceability Tables, August 1938-April 1945," Air Historical Branch, Royal Air Force, Translation No. VII/107.

6. Conversation with Lieutenant General Hannes Trautloff, Retired, Baden Baden, Federal Republic of Germany, 7 November 1980.

7. See George Blau, The German Campaign in Russia—Planning and Operations (1940-1942) (Washington, D.C.: 1955), pp. 135-39.

8. BA/MA, RL 2 III/1025, Front-Flugzeug-Verluste.

9. Manfred Kehrig, Stalingrad, Analyse und Dokumentation einer Schacht (Stuttgart, Germany, 1974), p. 219.

10. BA/MA, RL 2 III/II85-1195, Flugzeugunfälle und Verluste bei den fliegenden Verbänden, Genst. Gen. Qu. (6. Abt.).

11. Losses based on BA/MA, RL 2 III/1185-1195, Flugzeugunfälle und Verluste bei den fliegenden Verbänden, Genst. Gen. Qu. (6. Abt) For German aircraft strength consult "Luftwaffe Strength and Serviceability Tables, August 1938-April 1945."

12. Ibid.

13. BA/MA, RL 2 III/1025, Front-Flugzeug-Verluste.

14. "Statistical Summary of Eighth Air Force Operations, European Theater, 17 August 1942-8 May 1945," Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.

15. Ibid.

16. The following discussion of Luftwaffe single-engine fighter pilot losses is drawn from the tables, BA/MA, RL 2 III/726-728, Ubersicht über Soll, Istbestand, Einsatzbereitschaft, Verluste und Reserven der fliegenden Verbände.

17. "Statistical Summary of Eighth Air Force Operations, European Theater, 17 August 1942-8 May 1945."

18. Ibid.

19. See in particular the following intelligence report: BA/MA, RL 2 II/365, Der Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe, Führungsstab Ic., Nr 4611/43,3.12.43., "Luftlagebericht West, Stand: 1.12.1943."

20. BA/MA, RL 10/257, Kriegstagebuch Nr. 8 des Zerstörergeschwader "Horst Wessel" Nr 26 vom l.l.-30.9.44.

21. BA/MA, RL 2 111/1025, Front-Flugzeug-Verluste.

22. BA/MA, RL 2 III/728-731, Ubersicht über Soll, Istbestand, Einsatzbereitschaft, Verluste und Reserven der fliegenden Verbände.

23. BA/MA, RL 2 III/1025, Front-Flugzeug-Verluste.

24. "Ultra, History of US Strategic Air Force Europe versus German Air Force," U.S. National Archives, SRH-0l3, p. 153.

25. BA/MA, RL 10/639, Notizen zurTraditionsgeschichte der III. Gruppe des Jagdgeschwaders Udet.

26. United States Strategic Bombing Survey, "Overall Report (European War)," September 30, 1945, p. 21.

27. BA/MA, RL 2 III/728, Genst. Qu. Gen. 6. Abt. (III A), Übersicht über Soll, Istbestand, Einsatzbereitschaft, Verluste und Reserven der fliegenden Verbände.

28. "Notes on Discussions with Reichmarschall Göring, Held on May 15-16, 1944, on the Subject of Fighters and Fighter Personnel," Royal Air Force Air Historical Branch, Translation No. VII/71.

29. Public Record Office (Great Britain), DEFE 3/165, KV 6476, 5.6.44., 1210 Z.

30. "Ultra, History of US Strategic Air Forces Europe versus German Air Force," National Archives, Modern Military Records, SRH-013, p.251.

31. Air Ministry (Great Britain), The Rise and Fall of the German Air Force (London, 1948), pp. 316-17.

32. BA/MA, RL 2 III/1025, Front-Flugzeug-Verluste.


Williamson Murray (BA., M.A., Ph.D., Yale University) is Assistant Professor and Director, Military History and Strategic Studies Program, The Mershon Center, Ohio State University. He previously served as a Research Associate for the Airpower Research Institute, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, and as a maintenance officer while serving in the USAF from 1964-69. Dr. Murray is author of Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe 1933-1914 (Air University Press , 1983) and a previous contributor to the Review.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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