Oh, Good Greif: Germany's Inexplicable Decision to Pass on Long-Range Bomber

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With full apologies to Charles Schulz and the Peanuts gang, the above title is not a typo. Instead, we’re going to take a look at the incredible string of bad decisions and missed opportunities that characterized the history of the Heinkel He 177 Greif (Griffon), Germany’s only serious attempt at building and deploying a long-range heavy bomber in World War II.

Some decisions in life are simply inexplicable. Whether in sports or war or business, there are times when a perfectly good course of action was available for the taking, without any penalty or risk, yet the people in charge foolishly went down the wrong path, stumbling into the total disaster that seems so obvious — and avoidable! — in hindsight.

Here are some good examples:

Super Bowl 49, Seattle Seahawks vs. New England Patriots, February 1, 2015

With the Patriots leading 28-24, Seattle had the ball on the Patriots’ 1-yard line with 26 seconds left in the game. Everyone expected the Seahawks’ powerful running back Marshawn Lynch to be given the ball to run in for the game-winning touchdown. A big, bruising runner, Lynch seemed certain to burst through the Pats defense and score from only one yard away.

But for a totally unfathomable reason, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll gave his quarterback Russell Wilson instructions to throw a pass, rather than have Lynch run the ball. Wilson’s pass was intercepted, the Pats took possession of the ball and the game was over. Carroll’s choice to pass instead of run might be the single dumbest decision in the history of championship sports.

1986 World Series, Boston Red Sox vs. New York Mets, Game 6 October 25, 1986

One out away from their first World Series championship since 1918, Boston first basemen Bill Buckner lets a routine grounder get past him and the Mets win the game, tying the series at three games apiece. The Mets go on to win game 7 and the World Series title.

Boston manager John McNamara, knowing full well that Buckner has bad knees and ankles and thus limited defensive mobility, declines to use Dave Stapleton as a defensive replacement for Buckner in that crucial game, even though he’d used Stapleton in that role many times throughout the season. Perhaps giving into the misplaced sentimentality of letting Buckner stay on the field when the Sox won the title, McNamara’s failure to replace Buckner led to the most famous error in all of baseball—and it was a self-inflicted mishap, totally avoidable.

Germany made its share of calamitous decisions

In WWII, Germany made many such calamitous decisions, and the avoidance of any one had the very real potential to have dramatically altered the course of the war. Some of Germany’s ruinous strategic choices are well known:

Dunkirk, May 1940: Having defeated and trapped 330,000 Allied troops at the coastal town of Dunkirk France, Germany holds back their armored panzer divisions for what seemed like no real reason and lets the Allied troops escape to England. Had the Germans closed in and finished the British and French armies, the war in Europe would have ended right there, in Germany’s favor.

Stalingrad: After an impressively successful opening campaign when it attacked Russia in the summer of 1941, Germany ran into ever-stiffening Russian military resistance, coupled with an early and brutal Russian winter. Nonetheless despite their deteriorating strategic position, the Germans attacked city of Stalingrad in August 1942. By late 1942, it’s apparent that the Germans need to retreat, re-group and await reinforcements. Nothing prevents them from doing so and that course of action would have likely saved the campaign. But Hitler forbids retreat and retrenchment of any kind, insisting on holding their ground and attacking when possible. Suffering appalling losses, the Germans eventually surrender to the Russians at Stalingrad in February 1943, a loss from which they will never recover.

Mishandling of the Messerschmitt Me 262: The sleek, swept-wing Me 262 is Germany’s most advanced fighter plane, and it’s the world’s first operational military jet aircraft. It has a top speed at least 100 MPH faster than the fastest Allied fighter planes and it single-handedly could have had a huge impact on turning the European air war in Germany’s favor. But instead of using this swift interceptor to turn back the vast fleets of American bombers appearing almost daily over Germany, the Germans instead try to convert the Me 262 into a fast bomber to strike back at Britain. Failing completely in a role for which it was not designed, the Germans squander a golden opportunity and by the time they decide to deploy the 262 in the interceptor role it was intended to fill, it’s too late. Their numbers are too few and their impact is negligible.

Here's Germany's biggest WW II blunder

But as bad for the German war effort as the foregoing were, Germany’s stubborn, pointless dithering over the design and development of the Heinkel He 177 Greif stands tall among their biggest blunders of the war.

Let’s step back and look at the context of world airpower at the time, how it was used and the thinking that was in effect in the 1930s. In World War I (1914-18), airplanes were mostly rudimentary biplanes, used mainly for observation and dogfighting with enemy aircraft. Although dramatic and colorful, these dogfighting exploits in WWI had very little significance on the actual course of the war.

However, aviation technology advanced rapidly after WWI and by the 1930s, the majority of the world’s front-line aircraft were streamlined all-metal monoplanes, light years removed from the fabric-covered biplanes of WWI. Bombers in the 1930s utilized a two-engine layout (one engine mounted on each wing). Warring nations had now developed specific roles for fighter planes and bombers, as the use of air power in armed conflict became more sophisticated. Bombers of the time had both a modest range and relatively limited bomb-carrying ability and were intended to support front-line tactical actions — attacking troop concentrations, knocking out bridges, etc. However, despite their limitations, they were relatively effective in that role.

The idea of a truly long-range bomber that could strike an enemy’s strategic targets — like factories and energy production facilities--deep inside their own country was a new concept, well beyond the capability of the smallish twin-engine medium bombers of the day. 

German proponent of long-range bomber killed in crash

Germany had one far-sighted Luftwaffe (German air force) senior officer, Lieutenant-General Walther Wever. Recognizing the impending importance of the long-range strategic bomber, he pushed for the development of the four-engine Dornier Do 19 and Junkers Ju 89. Prototypes of both aircraft actually flew by early 1937 and they were promising designs. Wever was a proponent of the so-called “Ural Bomber,” a program designed to produce a large, long-range bomber capable of striking Russian factories in the Ural region, far behind Russia’s border with Eastern Europe. Unfortunately for Germany, Wever died in a plane crash in 1936 and his successors did not share his view of the value of the long-range bomber. Without Wever’s championing of the cause, the Do 19 and Ju 89 programs were quickly canceled shortly after the prototypes flew.

As a result, when Germany initiated hostilities in Europe on Sept. 1, 1939, it went to war with only medium-range twin-engine bombers. These aircraft — the Heinkel He 111, the Junkers Ju 88 and the Dornier Do 17 — were perfectly acceptable planes for their intended mission of close support of front-line action, but Germany’s lack of a long-range heavy bomber would cost them dearly in future campaigns against Britain and Russia. Finally seeing the need for a larger, longer-range bomber than their existing medium bombers, Germany accelerated the development of the Heinkel He 177, essentially starting from scratch after having abandoned the Ju 89 and Do 19.

U.S., Britain developed long-range bombers in mid-1930s

The United States and Great Britain both had the foresight to develop four-engine long-range heavy bombers during the mid-1930s, correctly guessing that in the likely event of future hostilities, the ability to strike vital industrial targets deep in enemy territory, well behind the front lines, would prove to be of utmost importance. Indeed, American and British heavy bombers played a critical role from 1943-45 in defeating Germany, crushing German munitions and transportation factories, oil production, hydro-electric dams, as well as destroying important German naval targets at their moorings.

Hermann Göring, Reichsmarschall of the Luftwaffe, was frustrated with Germany’s lack of a suitable heavy bomber. When his underlings told him that the British and American heavy bombers were crude, unsophisticated machines, Göring reportedly snapped, “Well, those inferior heavy bombers of the other side are doing a wonderful job of wrecking Germany from end to end!" 

The American and British four-engine heavy bombers of that time period (the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator and British Lancaster and Halifax) were the largest front-line combat aircraft in service. Their great size gave them the fuel-carrying capacity and large bomb load that made productive long-range missions possible. But by their very nature, they were big, slow and ponderous, easy prey for opposing fighter interceptors. In order to survive the hostile environment of enemy airspace, these planes had to have heavy defensive weaponry if they were flying missions during the day, or else they needed to operate under the protective cover of darkness at night. One of the biggest problems was the four-engine layout itself. Four separate engines presented a large frontal area in the airstream, resulting in excessive aerodynamic “drag,” limiting both the aircraft’s speed and maneuverability.

He 177 had a (theoretically) clever design

To get around the speed and maneuverability limitations of conventional four-engine bombers, for the He 177 German designers came up with the novel idea of coupling two engines side-by-side on the wing in a single enclosure, driving a common central crankshaft and a single propeller. Outwardly, the He 177 looked like a normal twin-engine aircraft, but it was in fact powered by four engines, with all the range and load-carrying advantages inherent in such a design. Extremely clever, in theory.

However, in practice, the He 177’s coupled engine layout proved frustratingly problematic, with severe overheating and mechanical reliability issues manifesting themselves right from the start. Yet the basic airframe and flying characteristics of the He 177 were excellent and there was nothing that prevented Germany from simply abandoning the unorthodox coupled engine experiment and going to a four-engine layout like the American and British bombers. The He 177 would have still been a superb aircraft, even in a four-separate-engine configuration.

But Germany didn’t make that simple, obvious, correct decision. Instead, the high command stubbornly stayed with the coupled engine design, expending an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources to ironing out its problems. They were never entirely successful and the small numbers of coupled-engine He 177s that entered service met with very limited success.  The twin coupled engines vs. four separate engines issue became a point of political contention — so much so that any further talk of the four-separate-engine He 177 variant was forbidden! The Heinkel company secretly continued development of the corrected version and it showed great potential, but no official approval ever came.

There was another seemingly ridiculous situation that came about with the He 177. In the very early stages of the war, Germany experienced great success with its single-engine Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber. Screaming down at high speed at an extreme angle, the Ju 87 wreaked havoc and instilled terror in opposing forces with the pinpoint accuracy of its attacks.

Long-range bomber couldn't make shrieking dives

The shrieking howl of its dives became part-and-parcel of the aura of invincibility that German forces enjoyed in the opening phases of the war. Irrationally enamored with the achievements of the Stuka, German generals made it a requirement that each new Luftwaffe bomber design be capable of dive bombing. The structural and aerodynamic requirements for dive-bombing were very demanding, such that in order for an aircraft to be able to dive bomb, it had to have an unusually heavy, robust structure that could withstand the stresses of sharp-angle high-speed dives, and the aircraft also had to have what were called “dive brakes” in order to precisely control its attack speed. It also needed specialized attachment points for the external ordinance that would be dropped during the attack.

All of these dive-bombing requirements ran totally counter to what was needed in a long-range strategic bomber like the He 177. Making the plane’s frame strong enough for dive bombing would seriously increase its weight, thereby increasing its fuel consumption and reducing its range. And expecting a large, heavy, multi-engine plane like the He 177 — at least four times the size and weight of the single-engine Ju 87 — to plunge out of the sky in a dive-bombing role was so nonsensical as to defy lucid thought.

Yet there it was. The Heinkel He 177, Germany’s lone belated entry into the four-engine long-range bomber sweepstakes, was doomed from the start by rancorous, ignorant political bickering behind the scenes. A perfectly sound airframe, the He 177 could have provided Germany with a potent weapon that had ample potential to turn the tide of war, especially on the Eastern front against Russia. In the end, the Greif’s ignominious fate was sealed by several incalculably bad decisions, lost in a long series of astonishingly ill-advised choices made by the German high command in World War II — ill-advised choices that history has smiled upon in retrospect.

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