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Lufthansa - The Covert Air Force

Military aviation was prohibited completely under the Versailles Treaty, and the direction of German civil aviation in the immediate postwar years was delegated to the Air Office in the Ministry of Transportation. The construction of civil aircraft was prohibited until 1922, then limited as to weight, ceiling, speed, and horsepower. Though it operated under a sharp disadvantage, German aviation managed to retain its proficiency in building and flying aircraft during the period of restrictions that followed. The interest of the German public in aviation matters was also kept alive in gliding clubs and similar air-minded associations.

As with most other European countries, civil air transport in Germany had been a logical outcome of the military use of aircraft during World War I. As the war neared its end, German aircraft manufacturers were keen to convert their production to civilian use. They did not, however, anticipate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, signed by all the major powers in June 1919, which severely restricted German weapons development. As a consequence, civil aviation also suffered from the lack of available aircraft.

After World War I, the new Weimar government in Germany was very supportive of early efforts at commercial aviation. With as much as 70 percent of their costs paid by the government, companies such as A.E.G. (Allgemeine Elektrizitats Gesellschaft) offered basic airlines services, often for only a single passenger. By the mid-1920s, there were a number of small civilian passenger services in Germany, although only a few survived the massive inflation and poor economic conditions of the time.

Many important German airplane manufacturers simply collapsed, but some survived. The most important survivor was the Junkers firm, founded by Hugo Junkers, the son of a mill-owner who already had established a name as an inventor of engines and boilers. During the war, he had pioneered the construction of all-metal aircraft for the German air force. One of Junker's most famous contributions to civil aviation was the all-metal low-wing Junkers F13 monoplane, which some historians consider the world's first true transport airplane, in other words, one that was not converted from military to civilian use, but rather was built specifically to carry passengers. Other companies that continued to build civilian aircraft in the 1920s included Heinkel and Dornier. All these companies built a variety of models that were regularly exported to countries such as the Soviet Union, Sweden, Poland, Italy, Iran, and Turkey for their own use. The Germans had much incentive to build a variety of different transport aircraft. Since the Treaty of Versailles prohibited Germans from building military aircraft, the government built "dual-use" aircraft that could be secretly and quickly converted for military use.

In 1924 General von Seeckt succeeded in engineering the appointment of his own candidate, a World War I flying officer named Brandenburg, as head of the Air Office. Cooperation between the highly centralized German civil aviation organization and the Reichswehr was assured, and from this point on the development of German civil aviation was controlled and directed to a considerable extent by the military.

At first, 180 flying officers of World War I were distributed throughout the Army in various other capacities. A core of 3, later 15 air specialists was assigned to the headquarters of the Army Command. Restrictions on flight training for military officers were relaxed as time passed. The small number of Reichswehr officers permitted to taking flying instructions for obtaining weather data or in preparation for the possible use of the Reichswehr in support of the civil police was increased from its' ceiling of 5 per year to 72 in 1926.

The restrictions on German aircraft construction were also lifted in 1926. That same year several small corporations were amalgamated to form the Lufthansa, or government-sponsored airline. Lufthansa owes its origins to "Deutsche Luft Hansa Aktiengesellschaft" (renamed "Lufthansa" in 1933), which is formed from a merger between "Deutsche Aero Lloyd" (DAL) and "Junkers Luftverkehr" on January 6. The new airline inherits its crane logo, designed by "Deutsche Luft-Reederei" in 1919, from DAL, the blue-and-yellow house colors from Junkers. It commenced scheduled flights on April 6 with a fleet of 162 aircraft, of 18 different types.

German aircraft were already flying on regular schedules to various countries in eastern Europe. A series of agreements with members of the former Allies soon permitted the Lufthansa to establish regular routes in western Europe. Night and all-weather flying techniques were improved, and German aviation reached a high point in technical development. Following its acquisition of shares in 1926 in the German-Russian "Dereluft" airline, which was founded in 1921, Lufthansa is influential in the founding of the Spanish Iberia, the Brazilian "Syndicato Condor" and the Chinese "Eurasia" airlines.

The government gave Deutsche Luft Hansa (DLH), which effectively had a monopoly on German air transport, an annual subsidy of the modest sum of 18 million marks to ensure that it had a stable future. DLH was quite large for the time. On the day of its first regularly scheduled service, April 6, 1926, it owned as many as 162 aircraft consisting of 18 different models. Most of these aircraft were the single-engine Merkur built by the Dornier company, owned by Claudius Dornier, a veteran of the Zeppelin airship design teams. DLH's services began to expand through the late 1920s, when it acquired shares in a joint German-Soviet airline known as Deruluft that operated popular international services between the two countries. In 1933, DLH was renamed simply Lufthansa, a name that the modern German airline inherited.

Lufthansa's expansion was helped by two factors: a powerful government eager to expand and spread its influence all over the world, and the lifting of restrictions on German commercial aviation in 1928. By 1928, Lufthansa flew more miles and carried more passengers than all the other European companies combined. The company had a staff of 300 superbly trained pilots as well as some of the best civil aircraft in the world, manufactured by Junkers and Dornier. The Junkers Ju.52 trimotor was an 18-seat airliner that could double as a transport or bomber. The first of them flew in 1932.

A small nucleus for the future German Air Force was formed within the Lufthansa organization shortly after its creation. By 1931 the "secret" air force had a total of four fighter, eight observation, and three bomber squadrons. Flight training was carried on in the four schools maintained by the Lufthansa, but tactical training was necessarily restricted.

Some progress in German military aviation was also made in the experimental installations in the Soviet Union during this period. A party of German aviation experts moved to the Soviet Union in 1924, and in 1926 a group of fighter and reconnaissance pilots began training in the vicinity of Moscow. Another air installation was later set up in the Caucasus Mountains area. In Germany, the Reichsheer studied the air forces of the other world power and planned measures for defense against possible air attack. Preoccupied with the defense, the Reichsheer felt that any future air force should be part of the army, and assigned missions in support of the ground forces. As a consequence, the aircraft and tactics developed in the Soviet Union reflected this thinking, and most of the German military air effort of the period was devoted to fighters and observation work.

Only a small number of pilots in all were trained in the Soviet Union. Some pilots had also been trained or had maintained their skill by flying for the civil airlines in Germany or abroad. However, there were still too few qualified flying personnel available for a new air force at the time Hitler organized his government. The Reichnheer concept of the air arm as an adjunct to the Army and the few aircraft types developed as a result of this policy helped little in forming a foundation upon which to organize an air force capable of operating in its proper sphere.

Germany was in a somewhat better position by 1933 insofar as production facilities were concerned. Messerschmitt was already producing light aircraft in quantity. The Focke-Wulf concern was established at Bremen; Junkers was developing one of Europe's largest aircraft factories at Dessau; Heinkel had a large plant at Warnemuende; and Dornier had had several successes in building aircraft factories aboard. With a little retooling the plants producing sports aircraft and commercial transports could build observation and liaison planes, troop carriers, and bombers. A little more work would be necessary to build fighters and attack aircraft. With the military influence throughout their development, many of the German commercial aircraft could be put to immediate military use if necessary.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:00 ZULU