A brief history of the Luftwaffe – the organization and command settings of the German Air Force in World War II

During World War II, although there were differences in the aviation forces of various countries, they were largely similar in combat organization. The smallest tactical unit was a flying squad composed of 3 to 4 aircraft.

At the strategic level, the air force forms a large-scale aviation regiment equivalent to an Army Group. This regiment consists of multiple aviation units equipped with different aircraft types and has hundreds or even thousands of aircraft under its command for various missions.

In 1935, after the establishment of the Luftwaffe, research was conducted to determine the organizational structure of the air force at different levels. Before World War II, a three-tier and six-tier structure was established. The basic combat unit was a flight squad consisting of 3 bombers or 4 fighters. Three squadrons formed a flight squadron, and three to four squadrons formed a flight group.

 Further, three to four flight groups formed an aviation wing corresponding to the Army’s platoon, company, battalion, and regiment levels. Each level of troops, from the flight squad to the air wing, operated with a single type of aircraft to carry out specific combat missions.

The aviation wing, being the largest tactical combat unit, served as the core of combat operations. Ideally, the units under the wing operated together as a cohesive force. However, as the war progressed and the front expanded, there were often insufficient troops, leading to the dismantling of wings. In such cases, brigades or even squadrons were used as separate units and deployed to different battlefields for combat.

The German Air Force has successively formed 14 aviation wings according to the equipment type.

During World War II, the German air force, the Luftwaffe had various wings and units specializing in different types of aircraft and missions. Here are some of the main wings and their abbreviations:

  1. Fighter Wing (Jagdgeschwader, JG): Engaged in aerial combat and air superiority missions.
  2. Night Fighter Wing (Nachtjagdgeschwader, NJG): Specialized in nighttime air defense and intercepting enemy aircraft.
  3. Destroyer Wing (Zerstörergeschwader, ZG): Conducted ground-attack missions and long-range fighter operations.
  4. Reserve Fighter Wing (Erganzungsjagdgeschwader, E JG): Served as a reserve unit to reinforce fighter wings.
  5. Bomber Wing (Kampfgeschwader, KG): Carried out bombing missions against ground targets.
  6. Bomber Training Wing (Kampfschulgeschwader, KSG): Trained bomber pilots and crews.
  7. Dive Bomber Wing (Sturzkampfgeschwader, StG): Specialized in precision dive bombing attacks.
  8. Ground Attack Aircraft Wing (Schlachtgeschwader, SchG/SG): Conducted ground attack and closed air support missions.
  9. Fast Bomber Wing (Schnellkampfgeschwader, SKG): Operated high-speed bombers for rapid strikes.
  10. Special Bomber Wing (Kampfgeschwader, KG zb V): Carried out special bombing operations.
  11. Transport Wing (Transportgeschwader, TG): Responsible for the transport and logistical support missions.
  12. Reconnaissance Aircraft Wing (Aufklärungsgeschwader, AG): Conducted aerial surveillance and intelligence gathering.
  13. Glider Wing (Luftlandegeschwader, LLG): Employed glider aircraft for airborne operations.
  14. Flight Instruction Wing (Lehrgeschwader, LG): Provided flight training for pilots and aircrew.

The number of aircraft within each wing varied depending on the aircraft type and mission. For example, a bomber wing typically had 80-90 aircraft, while a fighter wing could have as many as 120-160 aircraft.

In addition to wings, the Luftwaffe also formed Air Corps (Fliegerkorps) and Aviation Division (Fliegerdivision) as larger campaign units. It’s important to note that both the aviation army and aviation division were equal units but differed in scale. They were part of the higher-level air force, and each Army or division had its own complement of fighter aircraft.

Fighter Jet
Reconnaissance aircraft
Transport Aircraft

The German Air Force had various units, including wings and brigades, which were part of larger combat corps responsible for specific campaign operations. These units were flexible in their organization, adapting to combat missions and troop strength.

In 1943, a special fighter army and fighter division were formed for air defense operations. The highest-level unit in the Luftwaffe was the Air Force, known as Luftflotten, responsible for commanding all air forces in a strategic direction. 

It often collaborated with large corps at the Army Group level. The Air Force had 2-3 aviation armies or divisions under its command, sometimes directly controlling each wing. Units could be transferred between theaters based on battle needs.

The air force typically had a designated combat area as a first-level strategic unit. However, the Luftwaffe adjusted its combat direction multiple times during the war and even established new air forces.

Prior to the war, the Luftwaffe established four air groups, which later increased to eight. They were organized as follows:

  1. 1st Air Force: Formed in 1939, headquartered in Berlin, responsible for North and East Germany.
  2. 2nd Air Force: Formed in 1939, headquartered in Braunschweig, responsible for Northwest Germany.
  3. 3rd Air Force: Formed in 1939, headquartered in Munich, responsible for Southwest Germany.
  4. 4th Air Force: Formed in 1939, headquartered in Vienna, responsible for Southeastern Germany.
  5. 5th Air Force: Formed in 1940, headquartered in Hamburg, responsible for Northern Europe and Northern USSR.
  6. 6th Air Force: Formed in 1943, headquartered in Smolensk, responsible for Central USSR.
  7. Imperial Air Force: Formed in 1944, headquartered in Berlin, responsible for home air defense.
  8. Tenth Air Force: Formed in 1944, headquartered in Berlin, responsible for replenishment and training.

The Luftwaffe, along with the German Army and German Navy, was under the command of the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht (OKW), with Adolf Hitler as the ultimate authority.

Before the official formation of the Army in 1935, all aviation activities in Germany, both military and civilian, were under the jurisdiction of the Reich Air Ministry (RLM), established in 1933.

 In 1935, the Luftwaffe established the Air Force General Command (OKL) as a separate military command organization. The OKL was responsible for operational command and administrative management of the Air Force but still operated under the authority of the Ministry of Aviation in certain aspects, such as aircraft development and production.

Prior to April 1945, the authority of the Luftwaffe’s commander-in-chief and the Minister of Aviation was held by Meyer. He held dual positions as a government minister and the Air Force commander-in-chief, allowing him to receive instructions directly from Hitler and issue orders to the troops without going through the Wehrmacht High Command.

The Air Force General Headquarters was the highest command organization of the German Air Force. It comprised various departments, including the General Staff, Operations Staff, Directors, Logistics, and Communications. The General Staff, with eight departments, was responsible for managing all air force units, formulating combat plans, and overseeing operations.

During wartime, all frontline and rear air teams had to follow orders from the Air Force General Headquarters and the General Staff for their operations, and they commanded armies, divisions, and wings under their jurisdiction.

Similar to the German Army, the Luftwaffe established several Luftgaues in Germany and occupied areas. These Luftgaues were responsible for administration, logistics, training, and maintenance related to the Air Force in each area. 

There were 17 air forces in Germany, and they were named after Roman numerals. As the war progressed, the Luftwaffe also established military districts in occupied areas named after the regions they controlled, such as the Balkan Military District and the Belgian-Northern French Military District.

 On the frontline, aviation units primarily focused on gaining air superiority, destroying enemy air forces, cooperating with the Army, and supporting ground forces. The Air Force maintained liaison personnel within Army units to ensure effective air and ground operations coordination.