Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Feb 25, 2021 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

The Decline of the Luftwaffe As a Maritime Power. Lawrence Patterson’s “Eagles Over the Sea 1943- 45”. Book Review.

The Decline of the Luftwaffe As a Maritime Power. Lawrence Patterson’s “Eagles Over the Sea 1943- 45”. Book Review.

Ray Garbee

Eagles Over the Sea 1943-45. Seaforth Publishing. 2020.  Author: Lawrence Patterson. 382 pages. ISBN-10: 1526777657

In Eagles over the Sea 1943-45, Lawrence Patterson focuses on the lens of maritime air operations to illuminate the decline of the Luftwaffe in the later half of World War II.  While maritime air operations drive the narrative, Patterson also highlights the organizational challenges and personality clashes that contributed to the decline of the Luftwaffe.  The time frame of this book tracks roughly with the change in the character of the broader war in which strategic momentum shifted to the Allies with Germany adopting a more defensive posture. It’s a case study in the economics of a global war in which Nazi Germany found itself “punching above its weight class” against the Allied economic powers which it was unable to match in terms of manpower, resources or industrial output. This volume completes Patterson’s history of Luftwaffe maritime operations begun with the prior book Eagles over the Sea 1935-42 which documents the growth and organization and operations of German maritime operations from the Spanish Civil War into 1942.


Patterson adopts a chronological approach that is subdivided by geographic region. While the narrative can feel as if it’s bouncing you around Europe (and occasionally the Far East) it’s a good way to convey the scope of the global war.  This approach allows the narrative to convey the scope of the strategic challenges facing Germany. The reader gets a sense of the constant pressure the Luftwaffe faced in the last years of the war as operational needs and the demands for resources demanded attention from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caucasus in the east as well as from the Arctic to North Africa and the Central Atlantic.

In each region Patterson provides solid details of the participants and operations involved. Individual air missions are detailed down to crew and specific aircraft identification. The roles of maritime reconnaissance, strike, naval escort, air transport and air sea rescue are all covered in the narrative. 

Patterson weaves a narrative that shows how the sum of the pressure on all fronts worked to prevent a concentration of resources that allowed a meaningful outcome in any one theater. Convoys to Murmansk, the Atlantic and Mediterranean are all part of a strategy that forces the German Luftwaffe into prioritizing where to allocate the finite number of air crew and planes. This pressure put the Luftwaffe into a state where they were constantly reacting to the latest Allied offensive or redirecting resources in response to Hitler’s current cause celebre.

During the war, the UK and United States relied on amphibious assault as a tool to repeatedly kick open doors with major invasions in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France. For the Germans, one of the main lines of defense against these invasions were the coastal air patrol and maritime strike squadrons. Patterson shows how this scare resource was spread thinly across the Atlantic and coastline of Fortress Europe. At the same time, the narrative details how the Allies applied their own aviation units to counter and then prevent the Luftwaffe from achieving their operational mission goals. 

Patterson argues that the failure of the Kriegsmarine (the German Navy) to develop its own independent ‘Fleet Air Arm” contributed to Germany’s loss in the war. The narrative details how this was in large part due to Hitler’s failure of leadership. Hitler’s ‘divide and rule’ political style of playing off senior leaders caused both decision-making friction as well as wasted precious resources in struggles between the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe. This conflict exacerbated the existing interpersonal conflicts between Raeder and Goering that ultimately led to Raeder’s resignation.

This lack of central control and planning was as important a factor in the German defeat as any single air campaign fought by the Allies. In an economic mis-match in which Germany spent much of the war ‘punching above its weight class’ in terms of aircraft production (and almost all other categories), this internal infighting manifested itself in haphazard production schedules that left the front-line units understrength and often with the wrong tools for the job. The failure of rational, centralized in the Reich Air Ministry (RLM) hampered efforts to bring new aircraft into service. At the same time the RLM failed to rein in aircraft developers that did not grasp the need for practical designs that could stand the rigors of operations on the front lines.

Patterson captures how both the RAF Coastal Command and Luftwaffe maritime squadrons were the odd man out in their respective organizations and how both squared off in a fight for what was arguably the most important theater – the battle for the Atlantic. While each side appealed for resources, the differences in aircraft production meant that Coastal Command soon outpaced and outnumbered the German maritime air units. Unlike Luftwaffe coastal air squadrons. once Coastal Command had the aircraft, they were well integrated into a larger operational plan with the Royal Navy (and later United States Navy and Air Corps) ships and squadrons.

An example of this being that RAF Coastal Command was able to mount a campaign to assert aerial control over the Bay of Biscay and in doing so challenge U-boats attempting to reach the Atlantic Ocean. As the Allies were committing bombers and patrol aircraft to this campaign, the Germans countered with a long-range fighter version of the Ju-88C. This in turn was countered by the far superior Beaufighters and Mosquito fighter bombers of the RAF. Though attempts were made to field newer planes such as the failed Me210 and later the Me 410 in an effort to redress this qualitative imbalance, the quantitative tide had shifted against the Germans. As a stop gap, FW 190 were assigned to escort the vulnerable coastal patrol planes, though this effort was curtailed as the increasingly effective Allied strategic bombing campaign required diverting these fighters to air defense missions.

Focke-Wulf FW 190D-9. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Patterson’s narrative effectively captures the constant tension within the Luftwaffe regarding fighting a war with multiple competing demands for aircraft – East vs. West and North vs. South. It becomes clear that a major failing was the lack of a clear vision defining exactly what the Luftwaffe was supposed to do besides support the army, and then later to defend Germany against the Allied strategic bombing campaign.

At the same time, Patterson does an effective job documenting the technical innovations for which the Germans are known. In the case of maritime strike operations this came in the form of two bleeding edge weapon systems – the ‘Fritz-X’ guided bomb and the Hs293 rocket powered guided glide bomb. This is an area in which the book shines as aside from a handful of Fritx-X attacks, the stand-off guided weapons generally don’t get a lot of coverage. It’s an informative story that documents the first generation of guided weapons and the scramble to invent, design and implement a suite of electronic countermeasures (ECM) to defend against the new threat. As with so many of the innovative German weapons, these were another case of too little, too late, with the occasional successes such as the attacks on the battleships Roma and Warspite or the light cruiser USS Savannah being offset by the relatively few available weapons, scarce aircraft and trained crews as well as the relatively quick development and deployment of ECM systems by the US and UK navies.

German “Fritz X” Guided Bomb on display in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)

Beyond the weapons, Patterson details how radar was used in the maritime campaign, both for bomber interception, but also the use of airborne surface search radar to locate Allied shipping during the Torch landings. The handful of radar equipped planes played an important role in generating the intelligence needed to direct the maritime strike units to attack Allied shipping.  

Focke-Wulf FW-200 “Condor.” (U.S. Air Force photo)

Patterson included a good mix of images detailing both the various personalities participating in the conflict as well as the equipment being used. It’s likely the first time you’ll see a reference to a Focke-Wulf-58.  Patterson gives solid coverage to other planes used in maritime roles including reconnaissance planes including the Arado 196, the BV 138 the aging He 115 and captured planes such as the Breguet Bizerte flying boat. Strike aircraft are well represented ranging from the He 111 through the Fw 200 Condors and the He 177 long range bombers. The use of maritime aircraft as transports is well- documented including the mis-use of Ju 290 and He 177 during the Stalingrad campaign.  The air bridge to Tunisia is well covered with the use of BV 222 transports and the need of the aerial maritime patrol units to provide escorts for these aerial convoys. 

A weakness in the book is the lack of detailed maps. While there are a few general maps included in the book, these lack the detail to center the reader with a clear sense of place. The result can be confusion as to exactly where much of the action being discussed actually occurs. Part of this is the challenge of describing a conflict that spans a continent while using only a sparse number of maps. This is not a fault unique to this work, but rather the continuation of a broader trend in historical tomes that marginalizes the role cartography plays in communicating military history.  The reader is encouraged to seek out a good atlas or other source for charts and maps to help better place the numerous events Patterson describes.

Another item that could have been handled better is the index. A good index is invaluable in helping the reader quickly return to a specific reference. Unfortunately, the index is what can be described as non-traditional, being split into three parts. It may help some readers, but I found it omitted many items that would improve the utility of the book as a reference. The lack of a detailed index results in the obfuscation of much of the detail contained in the book. For example, if you want to quickly reference sections pertaining to the Fritz X or the Hs293, you’ll be disappointed.

Eagles Over the Sea 1943-45 provides a focus on maritime aviation that both parallels and is entwined with the Atlantic U-boat war. Maritime air operations were initially designed to support and enhance the U-boat war. The maritime strike mission grew in importance along with the Luftwaffe’s expanding responsibilities. But as the effectiveness of the U-boat began to decline, the maritime air strike role grew in importance as one of the few tools that could engage the Allies at sea. The irony is that this importance grew even as the Luftwaffe’s effective strength began to decline.  

Patterson’s detailed narrative helps the reader understand the maritime role of the Luftwaffe.  It’s also a cautionary case study in the what happens to an organization where the leadership lacks a unified objective and fails to understand of how those goals were to be achieved.  Readers with an interest in maritime air operations will find this book of interest. Patterson provides a different perspective on how the leaders of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine suffered repeated management and implement failures that were not purely ideological, but represent the failings of leadership and management at multiple levels across both organizations.