The Henschel Hs 123 was the second dive-bomber to be used by the Luftwaffe, replacing the Heinkel He 50, before being replaced by the famous Ju 87. The Hs 123 then went on to have a surprisingly long career as a ground attack aircraft, surviving into 1944.
The Henschel Hs 123 was a sturdy looking biplane, with unequal span wings. The wings were connected by large outward canted struts. The lower wing was level with the base of the fuselage, the upper wing was carried above the fuselage and was connected to it by smaller struts. The radial engine was carried in a tight cowling with eighteen fairings for the valves. The open cockpit was carried some way behind the wings. The aircraft was very solidly built, and could take a great deal of damage and still return to base.
The Hs 123 was armed with two fixed forward firing 7.9mm machine guns. As a dive bomber it carried a single 250kg (551lb) bomb on a crutch that could swing forward between the main wheel struts. It could also carry four 50kg/110lb bombs under the wings.
During the Second World War the Hs 123 rarely if ever acted as a dive bomber. The under-wing racks were instead used to carry either the four SC 50 bombs, two pods each carrying a 20mm MG FF cannon, or two containers each carrying 92 SC 2 2kg anti-personnel bombs, while an extra fuel tank could be carried on the centre line.
In 1934 the Luftwaffe issued a two-stage requirement for a dive-bomber, the first stage to be filled quickly and the second to feature advanced technology. The second stage would produce the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, while the first would lead to the Hs 123.
Henschel and Fieseler both produced biplane dive-bombers to fill the specification - the Hs 123 and Fi 98. Both aircraft made their maiden flights in the spring of 1935, with the Hs 123 flying on 1 April and being revealed to the public on 8 May. The V1 differed from later aircraft in having a smooth NACA style engine cowling, replaced with a tight cowling on the second and third prototypes. The first two prototypes had three bladed adjustable pitch propellers, the third had a two-blade variable pitch model.
The Hs 123 quickly outpaced the Fi 98, and Henschel were awarded a production contract. The first three prototypes then went to Rechlin for tests, where a potentially disastrous problem soon disappeared. In the first three weeks of trails two of the aircraft were lost when their top wing came off, after the central struts broke. The fourth prototype was given stronger central struts, and the problem disappeared.
Production of the A-1 production series began in the summer of 1936, and ran into April 1937. Most of the 250 aircraft produced fell into this series. The A-1 was powered by the 880hp BMW 132Dc radial engine, and could carry an auxiliary fuel tank in place of the central bomb.
Power BMW 132Dc, two MG 17 machine guns carried in upper fuselage decking, could carry 250kg/ 551lb bomb on crutch with swung forward from between the main wheels, also four 50kg/ 110lb bombs on wing ranks
The B series was to have been powered by the 960hp BMW 132K engine. A single prototype (V5) was built, but no series production followed.
Likewise the single prototype (V6) for the C-series didn't lead to production. This prototype had an enclosed cockpit and four MG 17 machine guns.
The Hs 123 made its combat debut in Spain. In the autumn of 1936 three aircraft were used to equip a Stukakette in VJ/88 of the Condor Legion, going into action for the first time in the Malaga offensive of January 1937, before taking part in the attack on Bilbao.
The Hs 123 proved to be a disappointment as a dive bomber, lacking the stability in the dive needed to give it the pin-point accuracy required. Oberstleutnant Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, the Legion's chief of staff (and a cousin of the Red Baron), decided to use his (now six) Hs 123s as ground attack aircraft. The sturdy Hs 123 turned out to be much better at this role, although still suffered heavy losses, with four of the six aircraft lost by the summer of 1937. It was also discovered that the noisy BMW engines could cause panic amongst troops unused to aerial attack.
The surviving aircraft went to the Spanish Air Force after the civil war, where they were joined by a dozen new aircraft.
The Hs 123 entered Luftwaffe service with Stukagruppe I/162 'Immelmann' in the summer of 1936, but its front line career as a dive bomber was very short. During 1937 it began to be replaced with the Ju 87, and by the start of the Sudetenland crisis in 1938 only one group still had the Hs 123 (III./StG 165).
The lessons learnt in Spain were remembered as the Sudetenland crisis deepened. The Luftwaffe decided to form five new ground attack groups (Fliegergruppen). Adolf Galland was put in charge of the project, and soon had the five units in place. Three were equipped with Hs 123 - Fliegergruppen 10 at Brieg, Fliegergruppen 50 at Grottkau and Fliegergruppen 30 in Bavaria.
After the Munich Agreement ended the immediate crisis the five Fliegergruppen were re-allocated to new tasks, with three becoming dive bomber groups and one a bomber group. Only one, Fliegergruppen 10, continued as a ground-attack unit, and retained its Hs 123s. In November 1938 this group joined Lehrgeschwader 2, an experiment unit whose purpose was to investigate new aircraft and tactics. The Hs 123s were used to form II (Schlacht)/ LG 2.
On 1 September 1939 this unit took part in the invasion of Poland, operating as a light bomber and ground attack aircraft, carrying 50kg bombs under the wings.
The fighting in Poland revealed one big advantage of the Hs 123 - it could operate from very basic fields that couldn't have supported any more modern aircraft. II (Schlacht)/ LG 2 was thus able to advance closely behind the advancing armies, flying up to ten sorties a day. As in Spain the aircraft's engines, when operating at 1,800rpm, made such an appalling noise that it could on occasion cause panic
The Hs 123 was effective enough in Poland to mean that plans to replace it were cancelled, and II (Schlacht)/ LG 2 was still equipped with the type in May 1940.
At the start of the campaign in the west II (Schlacht)/LG 2 was part of VIII Fliegerkorps, alongside more than 350 Stukas. The corps operated as part of Luftflotte 2, and the Hs 123s were used to support the Sixth Army as it advanced into Belgium. This quickly changed, and from 13 May the group was used to support the main attack across the Meuse at Sedan, operating as part of Luftflotte 3. The Hs 123s helped support the dash to the Channel, and helped defeat a French counterattack near Cambrai.
On 1 July 1940 the gruppe moved back to Germany to re-equip with the Ju 87 Stuka. The English Channel was simply too wide for the short range of the Hs 123. In the event the Ju 87 never arrived, and instead the group was given the Bf 109E fighter bomber. For nearly a year the Hs 123 didn't equip any front line units, but in March 1941 II.(Schlacht)/LG 2 received a new batch of the old aircraft, which were used to equip one staffel of the group in preparation for the campaign in the Balkans. The group moved to Bulgaria in April, and on 6 April took part in the invasion of Yugoslavia. Once again the Hs 123 proved itself to be a useful sturdy ground attack aircraft, both in Yugoslavia and in Greece.
At the start of Operation Barbarossa the group had 22 Hs 123s, of which 17 were serviceable, and 38 Bf 109s. It was part of VIII Fliegerkorps, and was based in northern Poland, from where it operated on the left flank of Army Group Centre. At the start of the campaign the group was involved in the attacks on Soviet frontier airfields, before turning to support Panzergruppe 3. In August the group moved north to support the attack on Leningrad, before returning south to support the attack on Moscow in September. Even the robust Hs 123 suffered during this period of frantic movement, although not as much as the Bf 109, and once again its ability to operate from muddy fields became essential.
At the end of 1941 the group was withdrawn to Germany, where it was used as the basis of a new dedicated ground attack unit, Schlachtgeschwader 1. Both of this unit's groups were equipped with a mix of Bf 109s and Hs 123s, along with the first Hs 129s. This new unit was used to support the advance into the Crimea, and then the advance towards the Caucasus. The Hs 123 still played a role, but in ever smaller numbers - on 27 July only six were serviceable! With production having ended five years earlier the Luftwaffe was slowly running out of replacement aircraft.
The Hs 123 was still in use in May 1943 when SchlG 1 returned to the front after a short break. At this point II./SchlG 1 had a dozen aircraft on strength, and a suggestion to put the aircraft back into production had only been vetoed because the production rigs had been scrapped! An ever-decreasing number of Hs 123s remained in use with II/SchlG 1 well into 1944, before finally being withdrawn because no more aircraft were available.
Engine: BMW 132Dc nine-cylinder radial
Power: 880hp for take-off, 870jp at 8,200ft
Wing span: 34ft 5 1/3in (upper wing); 26ft 3in (lower wing)
Length: 27ft 4in
Height: 10ft 6 ¾ in
Empty Weight: 3,318lb
Normal loaded weight: 4,888lb
Max Speed: 212mph at 3,940ft
Cruising Speed: 197mph at 6,560ft
Initial climb rate: 2,950ft/ minute
Service Ceiling: 29,525ft
Range: 534 miles
Armament: two 7.9mm MG 17 machine guns in upper fuselage, underwing racks for four 110lb/50kg bombs, two containers with 92 2k/4.4lb anti-personnel bombs or two 20mm MG FF cannons