Meet the Ju 88: The Battle of Britain was fought by some highly iconic warplanes on both sides of the conflict.
On the British (Royal Air Force) side, you had the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane fighter planes, whose valiant pilots inspired Sir Winston Churchill’s famous speech declaring that “This was their finest hour” and “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
On the Nazi German (Luftwaffe) side, you had a veritable smorgasbord of warbirds in the thick of the fight, from the Messerschmitt Me 109 fighter plane to the Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka” dive bomber to the current subject at hand, the Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined multirole aircraft.
Junkers Ju 88 Early History and Specifications
The Ju 88 made its maiden flight on December 21, 1936, and officially entered into operational service with the Vaterland (“Fatherland”) in 1939. The plane had been envisioned as a Schnellbomber (“fast bomber”) that would be too fast for enemy fighters to intercept; by the time World War II got underway, that ambitious notion would prove to be a pipedream, but nonetheless, it proved itself so versatile that it was assigned to roles beyond mere high-altitude level flight bombing.
These roles included those of dive bomber (a la the Stuka), torpedo bomber – against such aircraft as the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm’s Fairey Swordfish and U.S. Navy Douglas TBD Devastator – heavy fighter, night fighter, fighter-bomber, reconnaissance bird, and, during the final desperate days of the Third Reich, an unmanned flying bomb known as the Mistel (“Mistletoe”).
Particularly noteworthy was the fact that the Ju 88 ended up as the second-most produced bomber of all time, with 15,183 airframes built; these numbers were only exceeded by America’s Consolidated B-24 Liberator four-engine heavy bomber, with 18, 482 airframes built.
Specifications for the Ju 88 included a crew of four (pilot, navigator/ventral gunner, bombardier/front gunner, radioman/rear gunner), a fuselage length of 47 feet 3 inches, a wingspan of 65 feet 7 inches, a height of 15 feet 9 inches, an empty weight of 21,737 pounds, and a maximum takeoff weight of 30,865 pounds. Max airspeed was 290 miles per hour, with an operational range of 970 nautical miles and a service ceiling of 26,900 feet. Armament consisted of five Mauser 7.92mm MG 81 (Maschinengewehr 81) machine guns and a bomb load of either 3,100 pounds internally (divvied between two bomb bays) or an external bomb load of 6,600 lb.
Thanks to the timing of its 1939 operational debut, the Ju 88 did manage to participate in the first official battle of the Second World War, that being the September 1939 blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) invasion of Poland. However, a mere dozen of these planes participated in the battle – courtesy of Erprobungskommando 88 (Ekdo 88), a unit tasked with the guinea piglike duties of testing new bomber designs under fire – thus making a negligible impact on the mission.
The ‘88s made a significantly bigger contribution in April 1940 during Operation Weserübung, the invasion of Norway and Denmark. During this engagement, the Junkers bombers were used to attack Allied shipping, sinking the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Gurkha and damaging the same battleship HMS Rodney that would gain immortality the following year by helping to sink the Bismarck. In exchange, four Ju 88s were lost. The following month, the plane would make a significant contribution to the Battle of France.
It was during the Battle of Britain that the Ju 88 garnered its biggest claim to fame. That fame, however, came at a terrible price: between July and October 1940, 303 of the Junkers bombers were shot down, thus comprising a 15.3 percent chunk of the 1,977 total Luftwaffe aircraft losses for the ill-fated campaign.
Regarding the Ju 88’s usage as a fighter, I consider its participation in the Luftwaffe fighter response to the U.S. Eighth Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress August 17, 1943 raid on the Schweinfurt ball-bearing plants to be one of the most significant. As noted by Bruce Crawford in a May 2018 article for HistoryNet:
“It was estimated that more than 300 German fighters participated in the day’s combat at some point. Most were the familiar single-engine Messerschmitt Bf-109G and Focke-Wulf Fw-190, but the Luftwaffe also made extensive use of night-fighter Junkers Ju-88 and Messerschmitt Bf-110 twin-engine craft. The use of these aircraft was controversial because their pilots, used to night attack techniques, often left themselves wide open to American gunners.”
The end of WWII would not prove to be the end of the Ju 88’s service record. In one of history’s many ironic twists, the warbird’s last official operator turned out to be the post-WWII French Navy (Marine Nationale), which finally retired the airframe in 1951.
Where Are They Now?
There are only two completely intact Ju 88s today, both of which survived in the first place thanks in no small part to the fact that they were flown into British hands by defecting aircrews. One, a Ju-88 D-1/Trop known as the “Baksheesh” (which is a Persian word for “bribery”), had originally been flown by the Royal Romanian Air Force and, is now housed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio.
Meanwhile, several other ‘88s have been recovered from remote land crash and underwater sites and are currently undergoing restoration to static display-worthiness status. One of these specimens is at the Norwegian Armed Forces Aircraft Collection (Forsvarets flysamling Gardermoen) at Gardermoen, near Oslo, Norway.
Christian D. Orr is a Senior Defense Editor for 19FortyFive. He is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).
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