When the Soviet pincers closed around the Sixth Army in Stalingrad, the Luftwaffe was ordered to resupply the encircled troops and began to assemble a transport force, and a remarkable variety of aircraft ultimately participated in the airlift.

The primary aircraft to be used was the standard Luftwaffe transport, the Junkers Ju 52. It was used as a bomber with the Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War, but by 1939 was dedicated to dropping paratroopers, delivering supplies and serving as a trainer. The aircraft was a capable transport with a wide side door for loading and able to deliver two tons of supplies on each sortie. The Ju 52s carried only two machine guns for defence, however, and its cruising speed of 130mph made it difficult for speedy Bf 109s to escort and vulnerable to Soviet fighters and even Il-2 Shturmoviks.

The German military viewed the Ju 52 as primarily an asset for dropping airborne troops into battle when needed and lacked a large standing transport force. When needed, Ju 52s and crews were surged from the training establishment to form provisional units to augment the permanent 1st Transport Wing and then disbanded and returned to their training roles. This system had worked in 1940 and 1941, although the Ju 52 force had suffered heavy losses dropping the Fallschirmjaeger during the Battle for Crete. The Luftwaffe used the same surge system to fly supplies to the Demyansk pocket during the winter of 1941–42, augmenting the limited number of Ju 52s at the front with aircraft and crews pulled from training units in the Reich.

In November 1942, the Luftwaffe contained a total force of 750 Ju 52s, with a third dedicated to supporting operations in Tunisia. Given the size of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad, the Luftwaffe went to extraordinary lengths to obtain additional transports for the airlift. The training establishment was stripped of aircraft and instructor pilots, along with some Ju 52s pulled from support to Mediterranean operations. Lufthansa airliners and other government courier, VIP transport and postal service Ju 52s were ruthlessly searched out and sent to augment the airlift. All these aircraft needed to be prepared and conditioned for winter flying, and the civilian ones equipped for military operations. The Luftwaffe established conversion workshops at Kirvovograd and Zaporozhnye in Ukraine to prepare the transports but struggled to handle the large numbers of incoming Ju 52s, many of which were older and well-used. Pressure from above to rapidly increase the numbers of transports at the front led to many inadequately prepared Ju 52s being rushed forward. One estimate assessed that only about 40 percent of the aircraft were fully prepared to operate in the Russian winter, with many lacking the necessary defensive armament, radios and direction-finding equipment, or insulation. Some Lufthansa Ju 52s arrived at airfields near the front with passenger seats still in the cargo area that needed to be removed, much to the disgust of the ground crews. As a result, forward airfields rapidly became crowded with non-operational transports.

It soon became clear that the Ju 52s needed to be augmented. Numbers of He 111 bombers were converted to a transport role. The bombers could carry 1.1 tons of supplies, although the need to use the bomb bay doors for supply operations complicated loading and unloading. The He 111s proved better able to fly, manoeuvre and defend themselves with their stronger defensive armament. Soviet pilots often sought out the Ju 52s rather than attack the more dangerous He 111s. The airlift was, however, burdened with less useful aircraft. The Ju 86 bomber had been developed in the 1930s but, as it was inferior to the He 111, was relegated to use as a trainer. Bomber Group 21 and 22 were drawn from the training schools and arrived at the airlift airfields with their obsolete Ju 86 bombers in early December. The aircraft had serviceability issues, a limited cargo capacity, and suffered heavy losses. The 16 Ju 86s that successfully escaped the Soviet tank attack on Tatsinskaya airfield on 24 December were sent back to the Reich.

Much was hoped from the Fw 200 Condor, which joined the airlift in January 1945 and had long range and a high carrying capacity of five tons. When used as a maritime reconnaissance asset, the Condor posed a major threat to allied convoy operations in Atlantic and Arctic waters. Twenty-five Fw 200s were dispatched from Bomber Group 40 on the Atlantic coast, organized along with two Ju 290 airliner-transports into an amalgamated unit designated Kampfgruppe 200 and stationed at Stalino in eastern Ukraine. During the first flight by seven Condors on January 9th, they delivered four and a half tons of fuel, nine of ammunition and 22.5 tons of rations, and were able to return with 156 wounded. The next day saw heavy losses to the Condors, with two shot down by Soviet fighters and three crashed at Pitomnik in the pocket. They continued to operate with the airlift until 2 February, but during these 25 days only three of the 20–25 Condors were operational at any given time. Two Ju 290 long range 4-engine transports capable of carrying 10 tons in and 80 wounded out were dispatched and made a successful round trip on 10 January. One Ju 290 crashed on takeoff from Pitomnik on the 13th and the second Ju 290 was engaged by Soviet LaGG-3 fighters over the pocket and was so damaged it had to be returned to German for repairs.

Twenty-eight He 177 4-engine bombers led by Major Kurt Schede joined on January 16th and operated from Stalino and Zaparozhne. The bombers were still in development and could fly long ranges but were difficult to keep operational, consumed great amounts of fuel, and suffered from in-flight engine fires. Only seven of the bombers could take off on the 16th, and Schede himself was shot down flying one of them to the pocket. Overall, the He 177s managed only 19 successful air supply missions and lost five of their number to enemy action or mechanical failure.

DFS-230 and Go-244 freight gliders had been landed during the Demyansk airlift to deliver supplies, but after consideration, the Luftwaffe rejected their use at Stalingrad as they would require special preparations at the airfields and would only be usable in good weather. Some of Milch’s initiatives proved even less useful. He was determined to use gliders to increase supply deliveries, an idea already considered and rejected by the 4th Air Fleet. Gliders were more vulnerable to poor weather and could not be used in strong winds. The Germans lacked long-range fighters to adequately cover their Ju 52s, and certainly could not protect vulnerable gliders. The collapsing pocket had no facilities to receive the gliders, and if they landed in fields, the 6th Army lacked the fuel to recover, unload and distribute any supplies. When Luftwaffe Marshal Erhard Milch arrived in late January with a special commission from Hitler to improve the airlift, however, he insisted that gliders be used and for some time every third day a train arrived loaded with gliders, a waste of valuable rail capacity. By January 25th, it was clear that there was no potential to employ them, and Milch admitted defeat and transferred the gliders to the south where they could be used in support of Army Group A.

In the end, all of these transports failed to fly adequate supplies to Paulus’ freezing troops. The Luftwaffe’s effort to supply the 6th Army had failed, as its front-line leaders had predicted from the first. 4,487 transport sorties had landed in or dropped supplies to the pocket, delivering just over 8,300 metric tons over the 71 days of the airlift, giving an average delivery of 117 tons each day. This amounted to only a third of the minimum 300 needed to keep the army in being, and a fraction of the 500 and 750 tons that staffs assessed were needed to keep the army fully effective. Readiness and maintenance issues with the transports, poor weather, and above all the actions of the Soviet Air Force kept the effort from succeeding. The Luftwaffe’s efforts were costly in addition to being unsuccessful. Milch’s staff tallied the losses as 488 transports overall with 274 destroyed or missing and 214 damaged so badly they had to be written off as losses. 266 of these were Ju 52s, amounting to over a third of the Luftwaffe’s total force. 165 He 111 bombers being used in the transport role were also lost, as were 42 Ju 86s, nine Fw 200 Condors, five of the developmental He 177 bombers, and one Ju 290 airliner.  Given the total of 6,098 sorties that took off for the pocket, the German loss estimates would give an overall loss rate from all causes of over 8%. Over 1,000 pilots and aircrew, many experts drawn from the training establishment, were killed in action. Soviet sources claim over 900 transports destroyed, almost certainly an exaggerated total, but may include some aircraft destroyed or abandoned at bases that are not included in Milch’s totals.