During World War 2, the Luftwaffe (Germany’s Air Force) fielded some of the most advanced warplanes of the era, and some of the world’s best pilots. This great force, however, found itself smashed, unable to do a thing while other air forces pounded the third reich. How could both things be true simultaneously? The simple answer is: logistics.
If you are going to field an air force, one must keep it supplied. Combat aircraft require fuel, ammunition, spare parts, pilots, crew, and a whole host of support staff. These aircraft must be protected while they are on the ground, and the personnel housed, fed, watered and entertained. Furthermore, the vehicles and personnel you need to supply your air force must be maintained, so you see this is a massive undertaking.
One way to make this easier is to standardise. If you think that various aeroplanes need various parts, and that there might be different factories producing these parts, and that you need to get the correct parts to the correct aeroplanes if you are to get them in the air, you begin to see the importance of standard parts. This problem extends to ammunition, in a similar way, so standardisation is a key way to make your logistics easier.
An example of great standardisation in this era is the US military. US armed forces on every front used identical .50 in calibre machine gun bullets, and most of their aircraft used only .50 in calibre machine guns. The guns themselves were the same, using the same ammunition. This meant many factories could produce identical bullets and guns, which could be sent to every front, no further organisation needed.
As another example, consider the M4 Sherman tank, the one everyone loves to hate. Shermans were used on every front of the war, using (mainly) the same engines, the same guns, the same parts, etc. It was simply designed to operate on every front. Thus the US found it easy to arm her troops with a fairly competent tank almost wherever they went.
By contrast, the Luftwaffe was very bad at standardisation. Their most produced aircraft, which, incidentally, is the most produced fighter aircraft in history, the Messerschmitt Bf109, was an absolute nightmare. Though the aircraft was effective, most Bf109s were fitted with a mixed armament, with some machine guns and some cannon. Frustratingly, the Luftwaffe switched from one type of 20 mm cannon to another during the war, and some aircraft kept the older type, compounding the problems.
Furthermore, some later Bf109s had a 30 mm cannon, to give it more punch against heavy bombers. Unfortunately, this was not adopted on all Bf109s, making the supply situation more complicated still. Other problems abounded – numerous different variants of the aircraft were produced, and then field modification kits were introduced, adding extra cannons to some aircraft, tropical filters to others, and so on and so forth. This meant that there was, for most of the war, no standard version of the Bf109. A later version, the Bf109 K4, was intended to standardise production, but just introduced yet another version to worry about.
Messerschmitt’s fighter was by no means an isolated case. Germany’s main bomber, the Heinkel 111, was fitted, during its life, with numerous types and calibres of machine gun, and cannons varying from 15 to 75 mm.
Quite apart from anything that might happen in combat, these standardisation issues would hamstring the Luftwaffe throughout the war. They would also place great strain on Germany’s relatively small industries and transport networks. However, it does leave the question as to why this was the case, if the benefits of standardisation were so obvious?
The Luftwaffe was obsessed, perhaps understandably, with the combat situation, and technical officers were not well regarded, not even being allowed to wear their own insignia. The multitude of cannons and machine guns only existed to incrementally upgrade the combat effectiveness of their aircraft, without thinking about the supply chain issues.
Amongst the Allied nations, the supply chain was considered throughout the process of introducing equipment. Despite the obvious combat advantage of the 20 mm cannon over the 0.5 in machine gun, the US armed forces stuck with it, because of the disruption to the supply chain. The British even stuck with the largely obsolete Browning .303 calibre machine gun for years, because British factories were already churning out the ammunition for them.
You might have heard of Germany’s first jet fighter, one of the most important aircraft ever produced, the Messerschmitt Me262. This was much quicker than the Bf109, and any of the opposing Allied fighters, but again, it shared virtually no components with the previous aircraft, being a jet after all. Since Germany had now lost precious metal mines in Eastern Europe, the engines were made from inferior materials, and would need to be removed and overhauled after 10 hours of running. Many lasted far less time.
This necessitated both the supply chain headache of producing and overhauling the engines, and the transport issue of engines constantly going back and forth. Another logistical nightmare.
Even more bizarrely, the Germans also used a rocket-propelled interceptor, the Me163, which used 2 different kinds of fuel (the mixture was hypergolic; that is, when the fuels were mixed, they spontaneously combusted, propelling the aircraft). Undoubtedly a technical marvel, and the fastest aircraft of the war, the Me 163 not only made the supply chain awkward, it also made it extremely dangerous.
Those last 2 aircraft, the Me 163 and Me 262, deserve articles of their own, and indeed, both have had entire books written on them. Perhaps another edition of “Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough”? Watch this space…
Of course, there were other factors that contributed to the failure of the Luftwaffe in World War 2, and a proper appraisal of them all would result in a very long article indeed. I imagine you would not want to trawl through such an article, and I certainly do not have the time to write one, at least not without prejudicing everything else.
But there we are…