‘Because of the cannons the Ju 87 manoeuvrability is disadvantageously reduced and its landing speed is increased considerably. But now armament potency is a prime consideration over flying performance,’ Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the most renowned Stuka pilot of all.
In late 1942, as part of its attempts to strike back at ever-increasing numbers of Soviet tanks, the German air ministry authorised the development of an adaptation and enhancement of the longspan Junkers Ju 87D-5 Stuka dive-bomber. The aircraft was duly fitted with two underwing pods containing 37 mm BK 3.7 cm cannon – an antiaircraft cannon with its origins dating back to 1933. The Ju 87G was born. The solid, slow, Ju 87 airframe offered the Luftwaffe an ideal platform for specialist, low level, ‘tank-killing’ operations.
As told by Robert Forsyth in his book Ju 87D/G Stuka versus T-34 Eastern Front 1942–45, results were generally encouraging, but Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the most renowned Stuka pilot of all, was circumspect and wrote later:
‘The Ju 87, which is not too fast, now becomes even slower and unfavourably affected by the load of the cannon it carries. Its manoeuvrability is disadvantageously reduced and its landing speed is increased considerably. But now armament potency is a prime consideration over flying performance.’
While it was recognised that there was some compromise in handling and performance as a result of the cannon installation, it was not considered adverse enough not to proceed with further operational development.
After introduction in numbers, results with the BK 3.7cm-equipped Junkers did vary, and some units found the weapon to be unsatisfactory. Thus, they removed the cannon and returned to carrying bombs. But those crews which prevailed began to devise effective short-dive or shallow glide, low-level attack tactics in which an enemy tank was approached in a long, straight run, and fire opened at the closest possible range. Proof of the success of this method came in July 1943 when, despite his earlier reservations, Hauptmann Rudel of StG 2 destroyed 12 T-34s in one day, each kill being recorded by a photograph [CLICK HERE to read the story of the A-10 pilot who destroyed 23 tanks in one day]. However, of the introduction of the Ju 87G into service, Rudel remembered:
‘The outlook is none too rosy. We are the object of commiseration wherever we appear, and our sympathisers do not predict a long lease of life for any of us. The heavier the Flak, the quicker my tactics develop. It is obvious that we must always carry bombs to deal with the enemy defence. But we cannot carry them on our cannon-carrying aircraft as the bomb load makes them too heavy. Besides, it is no longer possible to go into a dive with a cannon-carrying Ju 87 because the strain on the wings is too great. The practical answer is therefore to have an escort of normal Stukas.’
The evolved standard procedures were to fire at a tank’s side armour, where the BK 3.7cm was effective, or to aim for the thinner armour at the rear of a tank where the engine vents were located. Even if this could not be done, a tank could be immobilised by blowing off a track tread. The introduction of the Ju 87G compelled some Russian tank commanders to let off smoke cannisters fitted to their tanks in attempts to simulate destruction, but the more experienced anti-tank pilots such as Rudel knew that a genuinely destroyed tank burned with flames. A hit tank would often explode instantaneously if fire broke out close to its store of ammunition, and so for a Ju 87 flying at an altitude of just five to ten metres above it, the situation could be, as Rudel described it, ‘uncomfortable’. He experienced personally such a scenario on two occasions in his first few days of flying the Ju 87G in combat.
Under operational conditions it was found that a 3.7cm cannon round could penetrate 58mm of armour at a range of 100m at 60 degrees.
Ju 87D/G Stuka versus T-34 Eastern Front 1942–45 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-655-5976-04 / Grosse / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia