The Heinkel He 111 was a German aircraft designed by Siegfried and Walter Günter in the early 1930s in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Like so many other German warplanes of its era, the He.111 was first revealed to the world in civil guise, and when shown to the press on January 10, 1936 at Templehof, Berlin, as a 10 passenger commercial transport, its shapely contours clearly inherited from its single engined predecessor, the He.70 Blitz, it was immediately obvious that this aircraft had been designed for maximum performance rather than passenger comfort, and that the commercial economics were somewhat questionable. While it masqueraded as a transport aircraft, its main purpose was to provide the Luftwaffe with a fast medium bomber. What was not revealed at the time was that the first prototype had flown as a bomber almost a year earlier, on February 24 1935 with Gerhard Nitschke at the controls.
It is perhaps the most famous symbol of the German bomber force (Kampfwaffe) due its distinctive "Greenhouse" nose. Despite being constantly upgraded it became obsolete during the latter part of the war.
The Heinkel became the most numerous and primary Luftwaffe bomber during the early stages of the Second World War. It fared well in all the early campaigns suffering modest losses until the Battle of Britain, when its weak defensive armament left it exposed. Nevertheless, as a combat aircraft it proved capable of sustaining heavy damage and remaining airborne. As the war progressed the He 111 took on the mantle of "workhorse", and was used in a variety of roles on every front in the European Theatre throughout the war. It was used in every conceivable role; as a strategic bomber during the Battle of Britain, a torpedo bomber during the Battle of the Atlantic, a medium bomber and a transport aircraft on the Western Front, Eastern Front and Mediterranean and North African Fronts. The failure of the Luftwaffe to design and produce a worthy successor meant the He 111 continued to be produced until 1944, when piston-engined bomber production was largely halted, in favor of fighter aircraft.
Battle of Britain
By Adlertag (Eagle Day) only four Kampfgeshwader of the Luftwaffe were still completely equipped with the He.III, these being KG 26 “Löwen” based in Norway, and KG 27, KG 53 “Condor” and KG 55 “Grief” based respectively at Tours, Lille and Chartres. The remaining He III units being, at that time, in the process of conversion to the newer and faster Junkers Ju 88A bomber. After the first initial strikes across the English Channel, the first sorties in masse by He IIIs took place on the 15th of August 1940, when 63 aircraft of I and III Gruppen of KG 26 flew from Stravanger, Norway, escorted by Messerschmitt Bf.110D-1 Dackelbauch long-range fighters of I/ZG 76. Their intention was to attack Dishforth and Linton-upon-Ouse, but due to a navigation error no bomber found its target and the force, intercepted by R.A.F fighters suffered heavy losses.
Daylight attacks by the He 111 formations continued despite almost insupportable losses. Whilst the aircraft’s armour and defensive armament had been progressively improved since the Polish campaign, the He III was nevertheless, the most vulnerable of the Luftwaffe medium bombers. The provision of heavier escorts barely alleviated the situation, and on occasions when the hard-pressed Bf 109E fighters failed to rendezvous with their charges, the He III formations were severely mauled.
By mid-September it was obvious to the Luftwaffe High Command that a change of tactics was imperative, and from the 16th of that month the Heinkel bombers were largely confined to nocturnal missions.
Battle of the Atlantic
The spring of 1941 saw the majority of Luftwaffe Bomber units withdrawn from the west in order to prepare for the intended invasion of Russia. The sole He.III formations remaining on the Atlantic coastline being I & III/KG26 in Norway, (II/KG26 having been transferred to Greece in May 1941), who was the Luftwaffe’s acknowledged experts in anti-shipping operations, and III/KG40 based in France. These had now been re-equipped with the He.111H-6 fitted out with attachments to carry two torpedoes.
Perhaps the most successful operation carried out by the Heinkels occurred on the 4th of July 1942 when, in a joint U-boat/Luftwaffe operation, Arctic convoy PQ17, carrying vital war supplies to Russia, was almost destroyed. With the U-boats drawing away the escorting warships the undefended merchantmen were easy targets for waves of Ju88A level bombers and the He111H-6 Torpedo bombers of 1/KG26 flying from Bardufoss and Banak in Northern Norway. When the final count was made the convoy had lost 23 ships sunk out of the 33 vessels that had sailed from Ireland on the 27 June. This together with the equally destructive assault on Convoy PQ18 (see also September 13) would result in all further Russian convoys being postponed until after the Allied landings in North Africa in November.
Mediterranean and North African Fronts
Aircraft of the Battle of Britain (William Green, Janes Publishing, 1980)
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