The Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber was the classic precision bomber which provided very effective "airborne artillery" support to the rapidly advancing columns of German tanks in their Blitzkrieg tactic. Its main disadvantage was that it was a slow and easy target for enemy fighters.
Unlike high altitude level bombing, which was not precise, and unlike low altitude precision attacks with guns and rockets which became more popular later in the war as those smaller air weapons became more powerful, dive bombing was highly effective since the beginning of World War 2 for many types of precision attacks, such as cutting roads, smashing bridges, destroying supply convoys and installations, attacking ground forces of all types, cracking fortified positions and tanks, even sinking ships of all sizes. It remained the precision bombing method of choice much later after World War 2 until it was gradually replaced by using guided bombs and missiles for precision air attacks.
These abilities were exactly what the German military needed for the airborne element of their new and revolutionary Blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactic when they developed it before World War 2 .
The Stuka first flew in 1935. It was perfectly suited for its role of tactical precision dive bomber. It was equipped with many dedicated special features, the important "small details" of design that make one aircraft much better than another. The Stuka had a dedicated autopilot system that automatically brought it to a dive when the pilot extracted the dive brakes, prevented damaging pilot stirring during the dive while not limiting the pilot's ability to aim, and then automatically pulled the aircraft out of the dive and back to level flight when the bomb was dropped. Since the G-suit was not yet invented then, pilots could temporarily lose consciousness because of the high G force during the pull out of the fast near-vertical dive, and crash to the ground, but the autopilot prevented that from happening. The Stuka pilot had excellent view from the cockpit and special indicators which conveniently informed him of his dive angle and when he reached the optimal bomb release altitude, allowing him to focus entirely on precise aiming during the fast steep dive. The Stuka was also very stable, making it easier for the pilot to aim the bomb. It had an arm that moved the bomb away from the aircraft body before releasing it, for better safety. The Stuka had a fixed landing gear with front wheel covers, which allowed the Stuka squadrons to land and take off from primitive unprepared front line "airfields", allowing them to stay close to the rapidly advancing German ground forces, enabling each Stuka to fly up to ten short-range attack sorties every day, making it accordingly several times more efficient than a similar tactical support aircraft that had to fly from more convenient airfields further from the advancing front.
Finally, as if the sight and sound of an enemy bomber diving right at you is not frightening enough, Adolf Hitler ordered to equip the Stuka with a screaming siren that made the sound of its dive far more frightening, giving it a greatly enhanced psychological effect which terrorized enemy civilians and soldiers alike, including some anti-aircraft gunners who could fire at it and did not.
As a dive bomber, the early Stuka carried 700kg of bombs, and since 1942 a big 1800kg (4000lb) bomb, which it could aim with great precision (similar bomb load as a modern F-117 stealth fighter). It also had two machine guns which could be used to further suppress anti-aircraft fire from the target.
The Stuka was the best and most precise dive bomber of World War 2, so much that the Luftwaffe headquarters insisted that even their heavy bombers should also be able to operate as dive bombers, a stubborn requirement that caused great delays in the development of much needed heavy bombers for the Luftwaffe.
The Stuka had one main disadvantage, it was a very easy prey for enemy fighters. It was quite slow, it was not agile (unlike Japanese dive bombers which were almost as agile as fighters after dropping their bomb load), its defensive weapon of two light machine guns operated by a rear gunner, was not enough against fighters, and it was not armored (the Il-2 Sturmovik, the main Russian tactical attack aircraft of World War 2, was very efficiently armored both against fire from the ground and from enemy fighters). As a result of that, the Stuka suffered very heavy losses whenever it operated without air superiority provided by German fighters.
The Stuka excelled in the German invasions of Poland, Scandinavia, France, North Africa, Greece, and Russia, serving as a key element of the German Blitzkrieg tactic, but in the Battle of Britain, where they first fought in the presence of a strong enemy Air Force, they suffered such high losses that they had to be restricted to anti-shipping missions and level bombing night missions, and later they were removed from the West front and sent to the East, to participate in the invasion of Russia.
In the Russian front, a new version of the Stuka was developed, the Ju-87 G was no longer a dive bomber. Instead it was equipped with two 37mm anti-tank guns. Although these guns were no longer effective in ground use against the front thick armor of the modern Russian tanks, they were still very lethal against the much thinner rear and top armor of those tanks. This was basically the German equivalent of the Russian Sturmovik which also used to attack German tanks from the rear. The Stuka excelled in this new dedicated anti-tank role too, although it remained easy prey for fighters. A total number of over 5700 Stuka dive bombers were produced, and until the end of the war there was no new German dive bomber which replaced it.
World War 2 produced quite many German aces, and some of them survived long enough and excelled so much that they had almost unbelievable records.
Their ever increasing combat achievements, and repeated acts of bravery, were such that the German military used a score system to award its heroes with medals, and new higher levels of the Knights Cross medal were introduced, representing ever higher scores.
Of the top group of German war heroes, which included mostly fighter pilots and submarine captains, the highest decorated one, the only recipient of the highest level of the Knights Cross medal, was a Stuka pilot, Hans Ulrich Rudel.
Rudel personally destroyed 519 Russian tanks, and a huge number of other targets, in over 2500 combat missions over the Russian front. He also committed several acts of great bravery, including landings in enemy territory and in the battlefield to rescue downed comrades by taking them back in the small cockpit of the Stuka. In one of those rescue attempts, Rudel's Stuka was stuck in mud, so he and his gunner and comrades had to escape the chasing Russian soldiers on foot all the way back to German lines.