Thirty He 111Bs were sent to Spain to take part in the civil war, later followed by 45 He 111E-1s. There they equipped two squadrons (staffeln) of Kampfgruppe 88, and were the most effective German level bombers to serve in Spain. However the Spanish experience was not without its costs. Loses were very low, and enemy fighter aircraft did not pose a threat. This was taken to be because of the superior performance and speed of the He 111, and so nothing was done to increase the defensive firepower or survivability of the aircraft. The lightning victories in Poland, the Low Countries and France seemed to confirm this verdict, and the true vulnerability of the daylight bomber would not be realised until the Battle of Britain.
At the outbreak of the Second World War the Luftwaffe had 808 He 111s, most of them either the He 111H (400) or the He 111P (349), of which 704 were serviceable. Most of these aircraft were allocated to the Polish campaign, where they suffered heavier losses than expected when faced with determined fighter opposition. As a result the next version of the aircraft, the He 111P-4 was given heavier armament and defensive armour, reducing its speed and potentially making it more vulnerable. Despite these losses, which were actually fairly low, the He 111 performed well in Poland, both in attacks on Polish military targets and on Warsaw.
France and Low Countries
The invasion of France and the Low Countries that began on 10 May 1940 saw the first signs of the attrition that would eventually destroy the German bomber forces. With part of the Luftwaffe still engaged in Norway, only 641 He 111s were available to support the invasion of the west. However the disorganised allied defensive measures and the air superiority soon won by the Bf 109s over France meant that the He 111s were able to perform their duties in style. The most numerous Luftwaffe level bomber of the campaign, the He 111 helped to disrupt the allied armies and cause the chaos behind the front lines that so helped the rapid German victory.
Battle of Britain
In August 1940 the Luftwaffe had 463 He 111s in northern France ready to take part in the assault on Britain. This reduction in numbers was partly due to attrition during the invasion of France, but also partly due to the appearance of the Junkers Ju 88, which was beginning to replace the He 111 as the Luftwaffe’s main bomber.
The Battle of Britain came as something of a shock to the Luftwaffe. In May and June 1940 a number of British bombers had been revealed as dangerously vulnerable when opposed by modern fighters, amongst them the Fairey Battle and Bristol Blenheim. Like the He 111 the Blenheim had once been too fast for any fighter to catch, but also like the He 111 that speed advantage had been reversed by 1940. Now the Germans were to find that their own bombers were also vulnerable in daylight. The Ju 87 actually had to be withdrawn from the daylight battle. The He 111 suffered around 250 losses during the Battle of Britain, 60% to British activity. This represented half of the starting establishment of the He 111 units, and while aircraft could be replaced, the experience aircrew could not.
On 15 August the Luftwaffe launched an attack on the north east of England, from bases in Norway, confident that they would meet no fighter opposition. Seventy two He 111s provided the bomber element of this attack, which was aimed at Bomber Command bases in Yorkshire. Sixty three Heinkels reached the English coast near Newcastle, where they were met by a strong force of RAF fighters from squadrons being rested. Eight He 111s were lost in the ensuing battle, along with a number of the Bf 110s escorting them.
From September 1940 until the spring of 1941 the Luftwaffe turned to night bombing. During the Blitz the He 111 retained its importance. The majority of the larger bombs dropped on Britain during the Blitz were carried by the He 111, which could now carry a single SC 1800 (3,968lb) bomb on external bomb racks (H-4 and H-5).
The He 111 was also the main aircraft used by KG 100, the pathfinder unit of the Luftwaffe. Equipped with a variety of navigational aids, such as the X-Gërat and Knickebein beam based systems the He 111s of KG 100 led the Luftwaffe’s bomber force on many missions, most famously the attack on Coventry that destroyed much of the old town.
At first the night bombing offensive was fairly safe for the bombers. British night fighters did not begin to take a toll of German aircraft until 1941, but in the first three months of 1941 around 150 He 111s were lost to British action. The He 111 units were once again shrinking.
The Luftwaffe’s bomber force had not recovered from the mauling it received over Britain when it was forced to move east to prepare for the invasion of Russia. At the start of Operation Barbarossa the Germans could only find 800 bombers for the entire eastern front, of which on 214 were He 111s (most of the rest were Ju 88s). Three bomber wings – KG 27, 53 and 55 began the Russian campaign equipped with the He 111.
At first all went well with the German offensive. The Luftwaffe destroyed those units of the Red Air Force that were posted close to the borders, and provided close support as the German armies swept across western Russia. On 22 July 1941 the Luftwaffe was close enough to Moscow to launch a raid on that city, in which the He 111 played an important role.
The situation began to change from 1942. Increasingly the He 111 was used to fly desperate supply missions to encircled German troops, culminating at the end of the year in the siege of Stalingrad. Of 300 He 111s available at the start of the re-supply exercise, 165 had been lost by the time the last German troops in Stalingrad surrendered in February 1943.
During the long German retreat the He 111 was increasingly used as a transport aircraft, although some bombing raids did continue. One notable success came on 21-22 June 1944, when a force of He 111s attacked Poltava airfield, hitting a force of American B-17s and P-51s that were resting there after a raid on Berlin. Forty three B-17s and 15 P-51s were lost on the ground. Despite these last successes, by the end of the war only nine He 111s remained in service.
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