The rise of ‘Luftwaffe’

Because I'm too lazy to write a proper post, here are some of my recent tweets:

The 1st use of the word "Luftwaffe" in The Times was on 24 May 1939, as the owner of 2 yachts entered in a race to Germany.

The 1st use of the word "Luftwaffe" in the Manchester Guardian was on 30 Nov 1939, in a commentary on the different national air forces.

The 1st use of the word "Luftwaffe" in the Observer was on 5 June 1938, again in reference to a yacht race.

The 1st use of the word "Luftwaffe" in Parliament may have been on 21 Feb 1940, in a question about air strengths:

It seems that "Luftwaffe" was not in wide circulation in English before c. 1939. It's somewhat anachronistic then, to use it for the 1930s.

... at least when talking about Britain and its fear of the German air force. But "Luftwaffe" is entrenched, and so much handier!

I can add some other data points. The first use in the New York Times was on 17 February 1940, as part of the name of a German propaganda film (D III 88, Die neue deutsche Luftwaffe greift an). Less authoritatively (because incomplete), the first mention in the Google Newspaper Archive is from 15 January 1939 in the Chicago Daily Tribune (in an article entitled 'The Nazi air force').

As might be expected, aviation periodicals were onto the word 'Luftwaffe' earlier. Flight first used it on 11 March 1937, in an article about a visit to a German squadron. Aeroplane used it as early as 1 April 1936, in the title of a German-language book being reviewed (Die deutsche Luftwaffe by Kürbs), but there could easily be an earlier use. Oddly, the OED gives The Times in 1935 as the earliest cite, although I can't find it in the online version:

1935 Times 23 May 15/1 The armed forces are henceforth known collectively as the Wehrmacht (Defence Force) and consist of the Army (Heer), Navy (Kriegsmarine), and the Air Arm (Luftwaffe).

But I stand by the conclusion I originally tweeted, i.e. that 'Luftwaffe' was not a widely used term in English before around 1939 (in fact, more like 1940). Between 1935, when the Luftwaffe was officially founded, and the start of the war, it generally seems to have been referred to as 'the German Air Force' or some variation thereof (as I noted in response to a query from @clioandme).

Well, so what, one might ask? Not very much, I'd have to answer. I'm fairly pedantic about avoiding anachronistic words -- I consciously nearly always write 'aeroplane', for example, instead of 'airplane' (an Americanism, I think, in my period at least) or 'plane' (only common from the late 1930s, at least in written British English). But although the man on the Clapham omnibus might have looked confused if asked in 1935 or 1938 if he was afraid of the Luftwaffe, it was a term used by some English speakers at the time (and presumably all German speakers), it was widely used in the somewhat important period 1939-45, it's an accepted term today (that it's in the OED is significant), and it's precise and concise. It's too useful to discard, even if it were possible to do so. So all I hope for is that just pointing out the slight anachronicity of 'Luftwaffe' for the years 1935 to 1939 will satisfy my inner pedant.

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24 thoughts on “The rise of ‘Luftwaffe’

  1. Interesting. I wonder what the Great War* term was?

    When I'm sub-editing, anachronism is an issue, but less so than inappropriate terms. Editing needs to respond to the common use, rather than hard rules, hence you'll rarely find English language publications referring to the Heer that the Luftwaffe were co-operating with.

    There's an implicit redundancy in the term as well - when saying Luftwaffe you don't usually specify whose air force, but German Luftwaffe is a bit silly like saying Italian Regia Aeronautica.

    Generally, Luftwaffe, is like Blitz, or Kamikaze - a word generally recognised in English use, but it differs in that there is an English (three word) equivalent.

    'Airplane' is, of course, the American term then as now, as is the more informal 'ship' as in 'four ship formation'. Aeroplane is the British and (generally) Commonwealth equivalent, but I prefer to use aircraft anyway, as a more general term covering all types of flying machine.

    Best to avoid "plane", and if you must, it's 'plane. You know, like 'phone, 'bus, and so on. More seriously, it would've definitely been 'plane in the 1930s and 1940s, when they understood the apostrophe to show part of the word's missing. (Noting that the illiterate programmers of this HTML (like the illiterate Microsoft geeks) have decided that the 9 style apostrophe can't come before a word and must be forced to the 6 style quotation mark. Personal pet peeve.)

    Then there's the development of 'airforce' from 'air force'.


    *Another fine example of anachronism to watch out for - First World War or Great War, and when were the terms most popular? There is a drive to re-popularising the use of 'Great War' today.

  2. Neil Datson

    Something of a minefield, this one.

    When did 'seaplane' supplant 'hydro-aeroplane' in general use? According to Richard Bell Davies Churchill coined the name in 1913, but of course that's not the same thing. And were they called 'hydro-airplanes' in the USA?

    Where one should obviously strive to avoid using anachronisms is in fiction. I heard a little bit of a Radio 4 drama in which Lloyd George noted that he was 'anxious about our present difficulties in the Middle East,' or something like that. I'm sure the man meant to say 'Palestine,' or 'the Holy Land,' or 'the Near East.' I was tempted to throw something at the radio.

  3. Post author


    'Plane is technically correct (the best kind of correct), but ugly and unnatural to type (at least for me). It was more common than plain plane in the newspapers I've looked at, but probably not by much. But as you say, best to avoid it altogether!

    I too use aircraft sometimes, for the same reason (and this was a contemporary term too, though not really a popular one). But since I'm usually talking about powered, fixed-wing, heavier-than air aircraft, I'd probably rather use aeroplane :)

    As for the Great War (on this I waver -- sometimes using it instead of First World War it seems over the top, so to speak) term for the German air force, I'm not sure what the prevalent term was there. I don't I've ever seen an English language publication use Luftstreitkräfte, for a start! It was definitely referred to on occasion as the German Flying Corps, see e.g. here (P-B alert) or here. Probably understandable, given that the terminology was fluctuating so much. I think 'air force' itself comes from the strategic bombing mission, incidentally: think Independent Force (sometimes called Independent Air Force at the time) and the Inter-Allied Independent Force. Which in turn maybe comes from the British army's habit naming ad-hoc independent units '-force', eg Dunsterforce? Well, that's enough speculation for one comment.


    I'm with you on historical fiction. On hydro-aeroplane vs seaplane, the former could still be found in the 1920s and 1930s, but I think for practical purposes it was mostly dead by 1914. Seaplane was used a lot during the war. (And then there's the hydroplane, which is not an aeroplane at all ...)

  4. A plane (sans apostrophe, ergo the whole word) is a surface, or a tool used to shave wood - and circa 1909 it was often used instead of 'wing'.

    Seaplane is sometimes given as a marine aircraft sub set, rather than the whole lot - incorrectly, in my view. Flying boats are always waterborne hulls, as opposed to floatplanes (I suspect the main reason for the invention of the Blackburn B-20 and the Piaggio P.7 Italian racer was just confuse this distinction). Of course the Americans had pontoons rather than floats.

    And of course that unpleasant man N.P-B chose the company name to be Supermarine in the way submersibles are submarines. With the result I've overheard mum telling the kids in the RAF Museum that "It's a Submarine Spitfire, boys."

  5. Neil Datson


    Richard P Hallion, in Rise of the Fighter Aircraft 1914-18, generally uses 'Luftstreitkräfte' to refer to the German Army Air Force. Or should that be Imperial German Army Air Force?

    The problem with WWI terminology is that so many writers seem to assume that the powers had one air force each. Hence the schoolboy howler: 'On 1st April 1918 the RFC became the RAF . . .'

    And from the preface to Air Power and the Royal Navy by Geoffrey Till:

    '(I have used) Fleet Air Arm (after 1918). In fact, the FAA only officially came into existence in 1924, and ended with the Admiralty's final assumption of full control over it in 1939. Other names followed until the FAA re-emerged as the officially accepted title in 1953.'

    My view is that Till's approach is the right one. One should strive for clarity and avoid clumsiness, even at the cost of a little imprecision.

  6. Erik Lund

    I've even seen the abbreviation "GAF" in lieu of Luftwaffe in postwar publications, although please don't ask me where. That may be someone consciously avoiding the word, though.
    Which, I think, is something worth exploring. The borrowings are inconsistent. When and why do we adopt one? I've wondered about the choice of "Panzer Division" over "Armoured Division." A Canadian might have a different perspective from someone less attuned to the self-constructing role of word choices (really, "armoured" over "armored?") but I read the "Panzer Division" as part of the general trend to glamourise (I did it again!) the German armed forces of WWII.
    But, really, "self-construction." The word choice _is_ significant.
    Unless it's convention.
    Also, if this is incoherent, I blame the overtime and the roofers standing six feet from my bed when I woke up. Some people work late, guys!

  7. Christopher

    Why not consider 'Luftwaffe' as the end result of an evolution? By this I mean we have a new entity which needs a title which can be used easily or 'convenient shorthand' as it were. Eventually 'Luftwaffe' is settled on as the most suitable one but the process is not necessarily quick. One looks at the evolution of 'torpedo boat destroyer' to the now recognised 'destroyer' as a similar example of this process. It mayc be a mistake to introduce too much precision into an evolutionary process.

  8. Like Erik, I've seen GAF used as an abbreviation, but I couldn't say whether this was in a wartime context. The classic 1948 Air Ministry study is still called 'The Rise and Fall of the German Air Force'; I don't have my copy to hand right now, so I can't check and see how often (if at all) it uses Luftwaffe.

  9. Allan, that's just so wrong (apart from the 'Terms & Conditions' which are brilliant). Thank you. I think.

    Yes, I've seen GAF, in modern works I(but I can't remember where either!) which is just acceptable if explicated in a glossary or first use - but it's not a common or accepted usage I'm aware of. But IJN for Imperial Japanese Navy and so forth are common.

    Eric's right to flag up the use, perhaps through a kind of glamour, of 'panzer'. Part of that is the absurd name of 'tank' in English for armoured vehicle - everyone else's terms are more appropriate than a semi-codename!

    One that I hate is 'British Royal Air Force' which is a reflection of Britain's imperial decline (we didn't used to have to specify whose, like the lack of a country name on British stamps) and worse is 'British Air Force'. I'm no royalist, but that's not the right name. Then there's the 'English Air Force'...

    (Which reminds me that on a recent trip to Germany I learned there'd been a Bavarian Air Arm in 1914, which would be like a Scottish or Yorkshire Air Force in the UK - scary!)

  10. Neil Datson

    The Bavarian Air Arm is an interesting one. Of course, in 1914 there was no 'Germany' but a German Empire, which comprised four kingdoms and sundry other principalities etc. So perhaps there were more air forces?

    For practical purposes they were presumably much like the regiments of the British Army.

    But it does illustrate how testing pedantry can become. Terribly easy to be hoist on one's own petard.

  11. Yes, that sounds like what I recall.

    And why don't we get hoist by our own mortar? Petards are so, well, middle ages. Hem.

  12. Chris Williams

    I'm more of a stickler for using contemporary names, but I can see the attraction of Till's approach (and it's a good book, isn't it?). In Kings'n'Princes history, there's also this problem, as the Hon John Smith becomes successively Lord Harlow, Viscount Swindon, then finally Duke of Earle, through inheritance, promotion, or a bit of both.

    ISTR that 'GAF' was official term for the other lot in the USAAF (see?) during WW2 but I'm not sure if the British used the acronym as much.

    As for the Blackburn B.20, I'll see that and raise you one of those USN single-float seaplanes (Grumman Duck?).

  13. Ah, the delightful works of Grover Loening and Leroy Grumman. One of my favourites, and I was able to crawl all over Kermit Weeks' example in Florida in preparation for a planned book on the type.

    The thing about the J2F Duck was that it didn't try to raise and lower its pontoon, so it was what it was, whereas the blasted Blackburn B.20 flew as a flying boat and in the circuit and on the water was a single float floatplane. That's just not right.

    More seriously, you've rightly touched on the transferring of period acronyms from one force to another. Another example that comes up as a result of US bias is some writing is the W.W.II RAF forces 'fighting in the MTO or ETO' etc.

  14. Post author

    We're switching back and forth between the issues of 'what did they call it then' and 'what should we call it now' here! On the latter, as I said I generally prefer the contemporary terms but a foolish hobgoblin etc. On the former, I wasn't criticising the contemporary terms in the post, but I will now. One of the Air Ministry's problems in dealing with the rise of the Luftwaffe in the 1930s was the assumption that it was a mirror image of the RAF, more or less: it would grow slowly, concentrating on institution-building as Trenchard had done; it would allow plenty of reserves instead of putting everything in the shop window; it would have a strategic bombing priority; and so on. Wrong. So they were caught on the hop. Calling it the German Air Force (and well before that, the German Flying Corps) could be a linguistic symptom of this way of thinking: they're like the Royal Air Force, only German. Calling it the Luftwaffe at least makes the foreignness and potential strangeness of the enemy a bit more obvious.


    The version on Google Books has a handy word cloud, and if anything Luftwaffe seems more common than German Air Force! Perhaps the title was chosen with an eye to American readers?

  15. I suppose related to this is the informal use of the word "Wehrmacht' to describe the German Army, when (so far as I understand anyway) that term actually described the German armed forces as a whole - land, sea, and air - with the Army specifically being the 'Heer' (hence OKH being subordinate to OKW). Or have I got that wrong?

  16. Erik Lund

    Just to totally non-sequiturise, I'm not sure that "tank" is a codename. It appears to originate in a plant that went from making tank (engines) to making tanks, and the thought might have been that they were making military tank (engines), before all that stuff about water-supplies in Mesopotamia and markings on crates got started.

  17. Alan: That looks right, but in the balkanised world of Nazi power politics OKW was used as another planning staff for the Heer rather than as a joint planning organisation. Whether this is the origin of the conflation of Heer/Wehrmacht I don't know.

    Brett: Nifty!

  18. I think there is an interesting dichotomy here when using terms to describe the Luftwaffe. Whenever the term is was first used, and Brett may be tight in his assumption here, there is a separation in its use. It seems that when describing the force that is associated with air raids etc in the media then Luftwaffe seems to used verbatim. However, in official reports, even during the war then German Air Force, or GAF, is commonly used in official correspondence. Why this is so I suspect it is for administrative clarity in report writing. It seems that many terms were translated in reports to aid clarity possibly because of language issues. However, in modern histories I agree with Chris that we should use the contemporary term in its proper context and understanding. So using Luftwaffe from 1935 onwards is not an issue. As the to the use of Luftstreitkrafte Corum uses it consistently in his works.

    As to the term Aeroplane it is interesting to note that in Haig’s diaries he uses the term Airoplane. Maybe because there is a lack of standardisation with a new piece of technology at this time. We also encounter the practice with the term Air Power or Airpower, the later I think is more commonly an Americanism too.

  19. Post author


    Interesting; I don't read enough official stuff to pick up on such a dichotomy, but I can see it happening.

    I've seen 'airoplane' as late as 1922 (Lord Robert Cecil), but it was always extremely rare, even in the early days. It strikes me as a personal affectation more than anything else, or maybe a phonetic spelling of 'aeroplane'. (Speaking of personal affectations, I must confess that I deliberately chose to use 'airpower' over 'air power' for no other reason than I knew I'd probably run up against word limits in my thesis, and I could save several hundred words that way!)

    BTW, when I said I've never seen anyone use Luftstreitkräfte, I meant in primary sources. Obviously historians have used it since then, or else I'd never have come across it! (And it's consistent, if you're going use Luftwaffe for one world war you should probably use Luftstreitkräfte for the other.)

  20. Brett I suspect it is phonetic. I suspect this may be true with the naming, and spelling, of new objects, in this case techology. We end up with several variations until one becomes generally accepted, though I am no linguist.

    I like the reasoning for the use of airpower over air power. Very clever!

    I agree I have yet to come across Luftstreitkrafte in primary sources but maybe it is the same reason as to why Luftwaffe is not used. I mean look at the word! I think the wording I have seen is German Air Service in the operational documents in AIR 1.

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