The Junkers Ju-87 Stuka was an infamous dive bomber produced in Germany before and during World War Two (the name was derived from Sturzkampfflugzeug which translates to dive bomber). Approximately 6,500 were built between 1936 to 1944.
In the Spanish Civil War (the Ju-87 entered combat with the German Condor Legion in 1937) and the early days of the Blitzkrieg of World War Two (1939-1940), this purpose-built aircraft spread terror amongst allied troops and civilians alike, with its screaming sirens fitted to the undercarriage struts and deadly payload. Luftwaffe pilots could be very precise in their dive bombings and close support operations and the aircraft was used with great effect in places like Poland and France.
By 1940 and the Battle of Britain the big gulf winged Ju-87 soon proved to be slow with a top speed of just 195 mph / 318 kph (compared to an RAF Supermarine Spitfire flying at 355 mph / 517 kph) and poorly armed with just two 7.92mm machine guns in the wings and one in the rear of the cockpit (used by the radio operator/gunner) to defend itself against better aircraft and opposition than it faced in the early part of the war. RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes made a meal of the Stuka and without heavy fighter protection they were unable to operate effectively and were removed from the air battle.
Despite this set back the Stuka continued to be further developed and improved but it became an obsolescent aircraft that just had to soldier on. Later models could reach a top speed of around 250 mph/400 kph but this was still significantly slower than then modern fighters which were reaching speeds upwards of 430 mph / 700 kph.
While still slow and vulnerable, the Stuka was used effectively on the Eastern Front for bombing various targets including ships and tanks. In 1943 the Ju-87G model was fitted with 2 underwing Rheinmetall-Borsig 37mm AA flak guns in pods for tank busting and was known as the “Kanonenvogel” (“cannon-bird“). In the close support role the Ju-87 Stuka was eventually replaced by faster, more effective aircraft such as the Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighter that could more readily defend themselves but the Ju-87G continued on as an effective tank buster.
Germany’s most decorated pilot in World War Two, Hans-Ulrich Rudel was a “Stuka Ace“ (he also flew the FW-190 on ground attack missions and managed to shoot down or destroy 11 Soviet aircraft in the process) and one of the most feared pilots on the Eastern Front. He flew an incredible 2,530 missions (over 2,000 were in the Stuka), destroying a vast amount of Soviet material (2,000 targets destroyed) including 519 tanks and 800 vehicles! Rudel worked out the best way to destroy tanks using the 2 underwing Rheinmetall-Borsig 37mm AA flak guns on the Ju 87G–2 was to attack them from the rear or flanks. His tally also included a number of Soviet ships and trains destroyed in dive bombing missions.
Although Rudel was never shot down by enemy aircraft, he was forced down 32 times by enemy anti-aircraft fire and had to escape from behind enemy lines on a number of occasions. He displayed a lot of courage during battle, was wounded a number times and even landed behind enemy lines in his Stuka to rescue downed German aircrews. As such he was rewarded accordingly including the highest German military decoration the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with golden oak leaves, swords and diamonds! This just goes to show that despite its setbacks, the Stuka in the right hands was still a lethal weapon.
On February 1945 Rudel was badly wounded and had a leg amputated from below the knee. Amazingly he returned to flying duty the following month and destroyed 26 more tanks before the war’s end! Regardless of who he fought for, he was one tough and relentless pilot!
Rudel avoided Soviet capture (oh would they have loved to get their hands on him!) by flying his aircraft with other members of his squadron to surrender to American forces. He spent 11 months as a prisoner of war, migrated to Argentina, then went on to be successful in business in Germany before passing away in 1982 at the age of 66. I can thoroughly recommend his autobiography as a great read (Stuka Pilot: Hans-Ulrich Rudel).
Amazingly of all the Stuka’s produced (6,500), only two complete airframes remain in the world today. One an earlier 1941 Ju-87R-2 kitted out for tropical operations (captured during the North African campaign) is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois in the USA and the other a later model 1942 Ju-87D in the RAF Museum in Hendon, UK. I have been lucky enough to see both of these extremely rare aircraft (along with some incomplete and damaged airframes). The Ju-87 in the RAF Museum is painted up as one from a “tank buster” squadron (minus the cannons). They are much bigger than you expect!