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The German who built planes out of metal

Tom Barfield · 5 Feb 2015, 17:15

Published: 05 Feb 2015 17:15 GMT+01:00

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Think of the name Junkers and you might picture the Ju-87 "Stuka", the howling dive-bomber that struck terror into soldiers facing Nazi armies in the first years of the Second World War.

Then again, you might think of the Ju-88, the twin-engined bomber which was a workhorse of the Luftwaffe during the Blitz against London and other major British cities, leaving huge swathes of them in ruins.

But the real Junkers story begins decades before in Rheydt, near the city of Mönchengladbach in modern-day North Rhine-Westphalia, where Junkers was born on February 3rd, 1859.

After his school studies, Junkers left home in 1879, travelling to study at university in Berlin, Karlsruhe and Aachen.

Junkers concentrated on studies in electrodynamics and thermodynamics. In 1888, he moved to Dessau, where the Deutsche Continental Gasgesellschaft (German Continental Gas Company) had begun making gas-powered motors.

Makings of an entrepreneur

It was there he helped develop one of the first two-stroke piston engines and patented his own calorimeter (a device for measuring the heat of chemical reactions) in 1892.

That invention won him a gold medal at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, with Junkers personally making the trip to present his device.

He used the same techniques to develop the gas boilers which would become the bread and butter of his company Junkers & Co., founded in 1893 in Dessau.

Not satisfied with making a living building boilers, calorimeters and pressure regulators, Junkers returned to Aachen to become Professor of Thermodynamics, using the profits from his company to fund research in his laboratory.

In 1898 he married Therese Bennhold, who he had met in Dessau. They went on to have 12 children together, seven daughters and five sons.

First flights

In Aachen, he also met Hans Reissner, a fellow engineer who had worked in the USA and returned to Aachen to found the Aerodynamic Institute, a first step for Germany in the fledgling field of aeronautics.

Junkers was enthralled by the prospect of flight, and was soon having his workers in Dessau build parts, including the wings, for Reissner's early "Duck" prototype, made of steel tubes and corrugated metal sheets.

Given his industrial background, it was no surprise that Junkers wanted to build metal aircraft, in contrast to the lightweight wood-and-canvas models that dominated early flight. His first all-metal wing was patented in 1910, the same year in which he built a wind tunnel to test his flying machines.

Junkers' first true all-metal aircraft, the prototype J1, did not fly until 1915 – but it marked another milestone as one of the first single-winged aeroplanes.

Between 1917 and 1919, his company successfully merged with Fokker to create Junkers-Fokker-Werke AG, which produced a number of models that were used by Imperial German forces on the front lines of the First World War.

The soaring 20s

1919 saw the development of the Junkers F13, the world's first all-metal passenger plane with a carrying capacity of four people.

But it could not be used at home, as Britain and France refused to allow the defeated Germans to use air transport.

Instead, Junkers started joint ventures with companies in New York and Moscow. The planes would arrive from the factory in Dessau packed into crates, ready for assembly and sale to the final customers.

During the 1920s, Junkers founded his own air transport company, Junkers Luftverkehr AG. His network, served by his own aircraft, stretched from Budapest and Belgrade to Oslo and London.

Not content with owning and operating the airlines and planes, Junkers even designed the large hangers needed to house his aircraft – built out of modular parts that could be carried by camels or horses – and sold them to the airfields he served.


Suffering heavy losses due to the country's dire financial straits, it was forced to merge with Deutscher Aero Lloyd into Deutsche Luft Hansa, the ancestor of modern Germany's national flag carrier.

And in 1928, a Junkers W33 – based on the F13 – was the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean from East to West, flying from Baldonnel in Ireland to Greenly Island in Canada.

Personal and political life

As well as being a businessman and researcher, Junkers was a forward thinker in the social and political life of his time.

He ran his business from his chaotic house filled with the noise and games of the children. One contemporary visitor, Larissa Reissner, wrote that "a serious conversation at table is unthinkable."

He hired communist painters and writers to work in his advertising department – two of whom went on to become his son-in-laws.

And his business philosophy was foreign to his capitalist contemporaries, to say the least.

In his diary he wrote the following principles:

"1. I don't see the whole business organism as my private property, but the property of everyone involved, from the leader to the last apprentice and shift-worker.

"2. Because the prosperity of the whole depends above all from the ethical-moral behaviour of the relevant worker, his exemplary playing his part in the whole... that's the decisive feature you can judge capacity for leadership roles from.

"3. That inherently means that the position of leader of the whole enterprise includes the greatest degree of subordination to the task."

In fact, Junckers didn't see himself as a capitalist at all, but told workers in his factory in a 1924 speech that he was more interested in giving them valuable work to do.


As the 1930s began, nothing seemed capable of stopping Junckers' onward progress.

In 1930, he completed the Ju-52, a large transport aircraft with one and later three motors that would be used by airlines from South America, across Europe and Africa, to the USSR – but also Nazi paratroopers.

Story continues below…

And 1932 saw the completion of the mammoth G38, a unique "flying wing" design, whose passengers sat in the wings with a panoramic view.


But the Nazis had their eye on Junkers' companies even before they came to power. Hermann Göring, the former First World War air ace who became "Reich Commissar for Air Travel", had been refused a job as a test pilot by Junkers 10 years before.

In 1933, Junkers was forced to give a majority stake in both his Junkers Aircraft Factory and Junkers Motor Company away to the Nazi government.

They went on to legally exclude him from Dessau, forcing him out of the company he had built from nothing and the city which had been his home for most of his adult life.

From then on, his former designers and workers designed and built the models which would make Junkers' name world famous again for all the wrong reasons, from the Ju-87 to experimental jet prototypes. 

Never keep a good man down

Junkers was determined not to let his skills go to waste after his removal. Although by now 74 years old, he moved to Bavaria and founded a new research institute to develop all-metal house construction.

Inspired by the Bauhaus movement, some of whose exponents he had got to know during his time in Dessau, Junkers wanted to build simple, long-lasting structures with as few parts as possible.

The houses he designed then were exported to more than 20 countries, and many of them are still standing today after more than 70 years.

After Junkers' death in 1935, his factory continued to be used to produce military aircraft.

But his name lives on in his original business – boilers – which was sold off to Bosch before the Nazis could get their hands on it.

And he is commemorated in his adopted home town of Dessau by the Hugo Junkers Technology Museum, which exhibits many of his designs as well as artefacts from his life.

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Tom Barfield (tom.barfield@thelocal.com)

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