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THE AIR SHOW, NOVEMBER 26, 1943

When the war was over, when there was no going back to change any part of what happened, a large American man named Valmore Beaudrault sat in a barber shop, awaiting his turn.

“Hitler Is Alive—Prepares to Return,” was the title of an article by George McGrath in the June 1953 issue of Police Gazette.

Beaudrault later told a friend about reading an article with those shocking first three words in its title. The Police Gazette, sold in drugstores and always in barbershops, published stories titled “Hitler Is Alive” at least three times. Other stories in the magazine told how the Führer had escaped from Berlin and was living in exile in Argentina (December 1960), Colombia (June 1968), or in Antarctica (in several editions). In one issue, referring to Antarctica, the term SECRET NAZI BASE was spelled entirely in capital letters throughout.

Paradoxically, in other issues the Police Gazette reported that Hitler had died in his bunker in the German capital, but that the magazine had gotten a copy of his will (March 1955), found proof that he was a Jew (August 1959), or that his previously unheard-of daughter had married a Jew (December 1966).

Beaudrault, who had been a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot during the war and who had found himself fighting Hitler’s jets, read one of these stories while awaiting a trim of his reddish-brown locks near his home in Nashua, New Hampshire. He shook his head, and the story took him back. For just a moment he was no longer at home but back again above the battlefields of Europe. For just a moment he again heard the rumble of piston engines, the howl of jets, and the chatter of machine guns in cold, clear skies high above Nazi Germany.

“I don’t believe this stuff,” said Beaudrault, one of 165 Americans who racked up an aerial victory fighting Hitler’s jets. “I don’t believe any of it. We won the war.”

AIR SHOW FOR ONE

It may have been one of the largest air shows ever held. Certainly, it was the largest ever for an audience of one.

On Friday, November 26, 1943, a collection of the Third Reich’s most advanced weapons stood ready—almost—to be demonstrated to Adolf Hitler. The location was the German military airfield at Insterburg in East Prussia. The weather in the region is usually lousy, but this was a cold but clear day.

En route with the Führer from Berlin aboard a Junkers Ju 52 tri-motor transport plane, Reichsmarshall (Marshal of the Empire) Hermann Göring hoped his orders to set up an impressive display had been followed to the letter.

Göring knew he was in disfavor with the Führer, even though the German air force, the Luftwaffe, of which he was in charge, appeared to be winning the war. German fighters and fighter pilots were shooting down American bombers right and left. A month ago, during one mission, the Americans had lost sixty bombers, each with a ten-man crew aboard. Göring kept telling the Führer that the Americans would not be able to continue to lose bomber crews at this rate, that the Allies would never be able to launch an invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe because German fighter pilots commanded the sky.

Hitler heard this, was encouraged by it, but saw Göring, grotesquely overweight and addicted to morphine, as an asset of declining value. The Führer ardently hoped that what he would witness today would alleviate any doubts about Göring and Göring’s Luftwaffe, and ensure that Germany’s airmen would continue to command the skies.

In fact, Göring was very much a hands-on leader of the air force he loved, and despite his flaws—he was grossly overweight, had a reputation for enjoying fine food and wine, loved partying, and was publicly pledged to blindly follow Hitler—he was more complex than his latter-day image suggests. He had counseled against Germany starting the war because he felt its forces were not ready. In Hitler’s Charisma, Laurence Rees wrote:

Göring was a more complex character than the bluff, bullying caricature that is so often presented, and his views about the road Hitler was traveling were complex. It wasn’t that Göring was against Nazi aggression—quite the contrary. What Göring worried about [in 1938]—as did Hitler’s generals—was a wide-ranging conflict that involved Britain, France, and potentially America and the Soviet Union as well.

Göring was happily married to the actress Emmy Sonnemann and was father to a daughter, Edda, who was just over a year old. They lived in epic splendor at his vast estate in Carinhall in the Schorfheide Forest and at his grand house in Berlin. Life for Göring was good.

Göring feared Hitler’s temper. Even though he was officially the second-ranking figure in the Reich, he had never really been an insider. Jittery about what would happen on this day, Göring also saw this as his day to shine.

Göring looked “like a child with a new toy,” one observer commented, as he prepared to claim credit for Germany’s recent scientific advances. The Führer was especially interested in a new jet aircraft called the Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow). Today Göring would be certain it was showcased to good advantage. This was his chance, he believed, to restore his on-again, off-again status in good standing with the Führer. It was also a grand opportunity to outshine his rival, Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) Erhard Milch, who held the title of air inspector general.

Several “black,” or secret, aircraft and items of equipment were ready for Hitler’s inspection. None looked more dull or deadly basking in the winter sun than the Me 262, the Wunderwaffe or “wonder weapon” that was soon to be touted as the world’s first operational jet fighter. Göring had been singing the praises of the Me 262 for months. For today’s show, two prototypes of the Me 262 were dismantled and shipped by rail with a crew of the Messerschmitt company’s most experienced mechanics. The trip took them five miserable days through Czechoslovakia and Poland.

Although he was his country’s highest-ranking military officer, wearing an elaborate uniform of his own design dripping with awards and decorations, Göring was not as well informed about the Me 262 as he thought.

This soon became apparent after the Ju 52/3m landed at Insterburg just past noon, taxied to a halt in front of the top brass at the military airbase, and disgorged its very important passengers. Emerging from the transport were Hitler, Albert Speer, Göring, Milch, and an entourage of officers of the Luftwaffe. Hitler’s personal pilot, and the only pilot Hitler would fly with, SS-Brigadeführer (Major General) Hans Baur, said that he flew all of these notable people from Berlin, taking off from Tempelhof and making the short flight in good weather, so there was no problem in having the transport plane overloaded with so many notable persons. Hitler, it should be noted, did not like flying on a crowded plane, and always kept a seat for himself and his painting of Frederick the Great, the great German military leader he admired so much, in a case. He did not talk during flights, since flying scared him. Baur’s recollection notwithstanding, some of the other luminaries may have traveled from Berlin aboard other airplanes or arrived by other means.

Karl Baur, chief test pilot for Messerschmitt and no relation to Hans, remembered Hitler arriving “with a flock of Generals and grim-looking SS guards at his side.” Karl Baur was a virtuoso in the cockpit of the new aircraft being developed with those new engines. He had no idea that within the short span of a couple of years he would observe his Me 262 at displays in two places with similar-sounding names—Insterburg and Indiana.

The other Baur, Hans Baur was one of the few people genuinely close to Hitler. Hans had nothing but contempt for Göring, whom he called “a thick-headed glutton.” Others felt that while Göring was far from brilliant, he was also the jolly-fellow-well-met in any of Hitler’s frequent and bloated travel entourages.

Today’s showcasing of German air power was meant to be Göring’s day.

THE OPPORTUNIST

Waiting to greet them on arrival was Germany’s most important aircraft designer, Professor Wilhelm “Willy” Messerschmitt. The tall, thin, balding Messerschmitt wore his title handily even though he possessed no academic degrees. He had made certain his name was indelibly attached to the new Me 262 jet, even though he hadn’t worked on the engineering team that designed it. In fact, Messerschmitt had had almost nothing to do with the wonder plane that was going to ensure the Reich’s salvation. “I’m more an artist than a mechanic,” Messerschmitt once said, as if to denigrate those who labored over drawing boards and blueprints. “I might be the right person to be in charge, but I’m not right for the working details.”

The record does not show whether the designer of the Me 262, Ludwig Bölkow, who worked for Messerschmitt, was in attendance.

One of Messerschmitt’s detractors called him an opportunist. A less partisan view is that he should be best remembered as an aviation visionary and organizer. Although Messerschmitt unquestionably wanted to ingratiate himself with the hierarchy of the Third Reich, his situation is perhaps best summarized by another expert who was interviewed about him: “They needed him as much as he needed them.”

Author James Neal Harvey wrote in Sharks of the Air of how Messerschmitt fit into the Third Reich, noting his friends “urged Willy to join the [Nazi] party. Although Messerschmitt believed in most of the party’s principles, he was not anti-Semitic.” It appears Messerschmitt never did officially become a Nazi—a formal process that involved several steps and included carrying an identity card. His job today was to show off his new and potentially game-changing aircraft, not talk politics.

“We have the jet you asked about,” Messerschmitt told the Führer.

“The jet. Show me the jet.”

THE AMERICAN SIDE

While the Führer was enjoying the airshow, most of the Americans who would soon be fighting Hitler’s jets were at bases in the United States, part of an American war machine that seemed to have inexhaustible time and resources to prepare men for battle. Valmore Beaudrault, a gentle giant from New Hampshire, was learning the nuts and bolts of a not-so-gentle giant called the P-47 Thunderbolt, the largest single-engine American fighter of the war. It wasn’t beautiful, it wasn’t graceful, and it wasn’t always forgiving, but like Beaudrault himself the P-47 was big, tough, and dependable.

Urban L. Drew, later to be known by the nickname Ben, was another young American pilot, a very young one who had gotten his wings just after his nineteenth birthday. Expecting to be sent overseas, he was instead retained at Bartow, Florida, and made a flight instructor in the P-51 Mustang. Drew did not want to be a flight instructor. He wanted to be in combat. He said as much to everyone he could find who would listen. It never occurred to him that he was getting the best possible preparation for fighting Hitler’s jets. As an instructor, he logged seven hundred hours in the very new and not yet proven P-51 in just a few months. The typical American pilot went into combat with sixty hours.

James L. “Jim” Vining had a twinkle in his eyes and showed up at the recruiter’s office in Livingston, Louisiana, weighing 135 pounds dripping wet. He was a little past his eighteenth birthday, younger even than Drew. “ ‘No way are you going to become a pilot,’ ” Vining remembered the recruiter telling him. “No way I’m not,” he replied. Looking into the stern face of a doubtful and disbelieving senior sergeant who happened, paradoxically, to like him a lot, Vining flashed his brilliant blue eyes and said, “My ambition is to fly the biggest thing available.” Beaudrault, Drew, and Vining were all going to be fighting Hitler’s jets.

At that very moment, in late afternoon in Germany, when Messerschmitt was sucking up to the Führer, an American private was joining a morning reveille formation at Scott Field in Illinois. William R. Wagner, known as Bill, was having a tough time. “I’m really good with code because I have a musical ear,” Wagner said to a buddy. “But the mechanics of the radio are too much for me. I just don’t have the mechanical aptitude.”

Wagner wanted to fight. Being of Jewish heritage, he hoped especially that he would be permitted to fight in Europe, where he was hearing terrible things about the Nazi regime. But his bosses at this airfield in Illinois seemed to be wondering whether they’d done the right thing, sending him to radio operator school. “You might be the right person to be a gunner,” one of his buddies said to Private Wagner in the morning. “But you’re clearly having problems with the radio stuff.”

Adolf Hitler was fifty-four years of age. He was five feet eight or nine inches tall with a manner that often seemed unfeeling or callous, a likely defense against his discomfort with virtually every other human being in his circle. He began the afternoon at Insterburg in the subdued and businesslike way that was often his manner when his temper was in check. No photograph appears to have survived of his visit to Insterburg, but it seems certain he was wearing his peaked cap and gray winter military overcoat, without the swastika armband that he’d stopped wearing when he began the war on September 1, 1939. There is no known photograph of the Führer wearing the swastika after that date.

Aircraft and weapons were ready and on display around the German airfield. Pilots were preparing to fly for the Führer. It would be little exaggeration to say that every man on the airfield on that bright November day was looking to ingratiate himself with the leader and chancellor of the Reich.

There is every reason to believe that the Führer was here only because of his interest in the Me 262. The Heinkel He 280 jet aircraft was nowhere to be seen; Milch had been asked by Göring to organize the display and did not include the He 280 or 280a because Milch himself had struck off this aircraft from the development list (on March 3, 1943) in favor of the Me 262. Worse, Göring had nationalized the Heinkel airplane company and detained Ernst Heinkel, who would not be fully rehabilitated until the postwar era. Worse yet, Göring had seized the Arado company, maker of the Ar 234 jet bomber, after its chief, Heinrich Lübbe, refused to join the Nazi party. It was up to Willy Messerschmitt, the perfect sycophant, to stay out of jail and appear more loyal than the Reich’s other plane makers by putting on a super show for the Führer.

MESSERSCHMITT ME 262

The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow) is almost always billed as the world’s first operational jet fighter and sometimes as the first jet aircraft designed for operational military use. As this narrative will relate, those statements could as easily be applied to the American Bell XP-59A Airacomet. It’s important to look at dates to understand why the Me 262, especially the one Hitler saw at Insterburg, was far less than it appeared to be.

The prototype Me 262, the Me 262V1, made its initial flight on April 18, 1941, but used a piston engine for that foray into the sky. An attempt to fly the same airframe with both piston and jet power took place on November 25, 1941, but the jet engines failed. The Schwalbe did not fly as a jet-powered aircraft until the third plane in the series, the Me 262V3, went aloft on July 18, 1942, using Jumo 004 turbojets. Fritz Wendel, who was the premier German test pilot of the era, flew the craft. But wait a minute. That flight was made with a tail wheel and without a full kit of military equipment. The first flight of an Me 262 with its intended tricycle landing gear and military gear did not occur until the sixth plane in the series, the Me 262V6, flew on October 17, 1943—five weeks before the Insterburg show—with Jumo 004B-O engines. That happened more than a year after Robert Stanley made the first flight of the XP-59A at Muroc, California, on October 1, 1942, and the XP-59A was fully equipped as an operational fighter from the beginning.*

None of that detracts from the brilliance of Ludwig Bölkow’s Me 262 design. The Me 262 evolved slowly and painfully. Still—although this happened long after Insterburg—it became a world-class war machine while the XP-59A never even matched the performance of propeller-driven fighters. The Me 262 is one of a handful of true greats, and it reflects an area of science and technology where the Germans were far ahead of the rest of the world.

Hitler looked at the two Me 262s on display “like a kid looking at a new toy,” Göring said later, but the Insterburg airshow did not take place with the flawlessness Göring had hoped for. Generalleutnant (Major General) Adolf “Dolfo” Galland, the thirty-four-year-old fighter ace who had flown a tailwheel-equipped Me 262 six months earlier and famously recommended that priority be given to the aircraft on production lines—for this, in postwar years, he would be better known in the United States than in Germany—now watched as an Me 262 took off as part of the demonstration, flamed out, and had to limp back to the runway for a dead-stick landing. Galland thought the Führer was fairly calm when this failure occurred in front of him, but Hitler’s expression was beginning to change.

Hitler appeared impatient as a second Me 262 (the Me 262V6, which was then the only example approaching a production configuration as the first plane with tricycle landing gear and MK 108 cannon ports) prepared to take off. Piloted by Gerd Lindner, the 262 lifted away with its imperfect Jumo 004 turbojet engines howling, circled over the visitors, and flew overhead with no apparent flaw. Galland heaved a sigh of relief. Undoubtedly, Göring did too.

Because some of it still lay ahead, no one at Insterburg that day could know that early Me 262 developmental flying would be plagued by burst tires, electrical and mechanical malfunctions, and persistent engine flameouts.

Hitler had had a question in mind ever since he’d learned about the new weapons. Now, he posed the question not to Göring but to the ever-servile Messerschmitt. The pair walked side by side. “Tell me,” Hitler said. “Is this aircraft able to carry bombs?”

Messerschmitt was clearly uncomfortable but had a quick answer: “Yes, my Führer. It can carry for sure a two hundred fifty–kilogram bomb, perhaps two of them.”

No one involved in the design of the Me 262 had ever considered such a thing.

“Well!” Hitler beamed. “Nobody ever thought of this!” He was certainly right on that point. “This is the Blitz bomber I have been requesting for years.”

It was the right moment for Messerschmitt to add, “This aircraft is a fighter, my Führer. It has the potential to reinforce our command of the air over the Reich. It can halt the American bombing campaign in its tracks and prevent the Allies from landing in Europe.”

“No one thought of this,” the Führer repeated. “I’m going to order that this 262 be used exclusively as a Blitz bomber, and you, Messerschmitt, have to make all the necessary preparations to make this feasible.”

Watching this exchange, Galland felt his heart sink. Galland had met Hitler previously and knew the Führer wanted a Blitz bomber that would halt an invasion by the western Allies. Willy Messerschmitt, who knew less about the aircraft bearing his name than Hitler realized, was making it sound all too easy. Converting the Me 262 into a bomber required structural changes, a relocation of its center of gravity, and new internal wiring. It was not easy, but it was also not quite so much a challenge as the engines were. Messerschmitt’s engineering team already knew—and had demonstrated—that the Jumo 004 turbojet was cantankerous and unreliable. The fixes were going to take longer than anyone imagined.

While no one else appears to have noticed anything odd about the Führer, Karl Baur would later say that Hitler could not lift one arm and appeared to be sick, as if he had suffered a stroke. He would later say Hitler appeared to have a mental disability.

The tough-minded, often argumentative Galland was approaching the end of a prolonged period when he believed the Luftwaffe could prevail and Germany could actually win the war. The previous month, October 1943, Luftwaffe fighters had shot down sixty American B-17 Flying Fortress bombers over Schweinfurt, a devastating blow to the U.S. Eighth Air Force, to the daylight bombing campaign, and to Allied hopes for an invasion to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe.

With that recent success in mind and with “wonder weapons” arrayed all around him and Hitler talking of support for the military, Galland should have been riding high and thinking big. But although he was quite young, Galland was, like many of his peers, already exhausted from the war. The Battle of Britain, which took place more than three years ago, left the Luftwaffe with enormous losses. Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, begun two years ago, began easily enough, though quickly became a meat grinder. The sheer number of aircraft the Russians kept throwing at the Germans was beginning to wipe out the Luftwaffe’s best. This very month—November 1943—the Americans were beginning to field a new fighter that the Reich hadn’t planned for, hadn’t wanted at first, and did not yet quite know how to use. The P-51 Mustang wasn’t a wonder weapon, but it was an accidental triumph of engineering.

Galland watched the Insterburg display for the Führer and was quietly grim. Even in the best of times, Galland was grim, and for Galland’s beloved Luftwaffe this was a better time than any that would occur ever again.

OTHERS AT INSTERBURG

Except to Karl Baur, who saw a sick man approaching a life change, Hitler appeared unremarkable when Messerschmitt and others began showing him other weapons and aircraft on display. Soon, though, he began to appear impatient again. He may not have been that interested in the V-1 robot bomb, two antishipping missiles called the Hs 293 and Fritz-X, and film of the new panoramic radar sets and the Korfu receiver stations tracking British bombers by their radar emissions during a night attack on Berlin a few days earlier. Another aircraft the engineers displayed for Hitler was the Dornier Do 335, which wasn’t a jet, but a very odd pusher-puller aircraft with propellers at both ends of the fuselage.

A six-engined Junkers Ju 390 V-1 was also displayed, but was largely ignored. It was one of the largest German landplanes of the war and might have made a superb transport or bomber, but Hans Baur saw it as too big and too economical for executive duty with the Führer’s personal fleet. Immediately after the display, the Ju 390 V-1 was flown immediately from Insterburg to Prague. There, it took part in a number of test flights, which continued until March 1944, including rare tests of in-flight refueling. The big Ju 390 was cancelled the following spring after just two airframes had been built; most historians discount a wartime claim that one of the aircraft made a 32-hour reconnaissance flight that took it within eyesight of Long Island, New York.

A four-engined Junkers Ju 290 A-5, an early version of another big aircraft that could be used as a transport or a bomber, was also part of the display. Hitler paused in front of it. “I want one for my personal use,” he said. It would happen a year later when a similar Ju 290 A-7 was assigned to his personal flight unit as a Führermaschine—although Hitler would never fly in it. Both the Ju 290 and the Ju 390 would later be identified by conspiracy theorists as the aircraft in which Hitler escaped from Berlin in 1945 in order to take refuge at the SECRET NAZI BASE in Antarctica, or in Argentina, or Colombia, or somewhere.

The Ju 290 that Hitler never flew had a special passenger compartment in the front of the aircraft for the Führer, which was protected by a half-inch (12mm) of armor plate and two-inch (50mm) bulletproof glass. A special escape hatch was fitted in the floor, and a parachute was built into Hitler’s seat. In an emergency, he could put on the parachute, pull a lever to open the hatch, and roll out through the opening. This arrangement was tested using life-size mannequins. The escape seat for the Führer has appeared several times in speculative fiction.

Hitler never assigned a high priority to large aircraft and seemed to have no further interest in this one. The Third Reich would reach the end of the war without ever having any significant number of four-engined bombers, while the United States and Britain would employ more than sixty thousand. At this juncture in the war, those Allied four-engined bombers were nothing more and nothing less than fat, inviting targets for German fighters, and Hitler had no reason to think that would change. He could not have known that the real wonder weapon of the European air war was not going to be the Me 262 but another plane that looked and acted far less wondrous: the North American P-51 Mustang.

Eager to increase Hitler’s interest and to upstage Milch, Göring attempted to take the Führer’s arm. Hitler shook off the gesture but could not prevent Göring from acting as chief guide, speaking loudly, claiming credit for many of the technical achievements for his own staff. Göring talked while Milch looked on, infuriated and embarrassed.

In The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe, historian David Irving described the debacle that followed:

[The Reichsmarschall] took the printed program out of Milch’s hands and began introducing each aircraft to Hitler, working his finger down the list. He was unaware that one of the fighter prototypes had had a mishap at Rechlin [the German flight test base on the south shore of the Müritzsee] and as a result one aircraft was missing; the remaining aircraft had each been moved along one place in the line. Milch saw what was going to happen and took his revenge: he stepped tactfully back into the second row. Where the missing fighter should have been, there was now a medium bomber. Göring announced it to Hitler as the single-seater; for several more exhibits this farce continued until the Führer decided that enough was enough, and pointed out Göring’s error.

One aircraft that aroused little interest on Hitler’s part was the Feiseler Fi 103 flying bomb, a manned version of the V-1 “buzz bomb.” The leader of the flying-bomb experimental unit at Peenemünde-West, Hermann Kröger, explained to the Führer how the weapon worked. An awkward conversation about when the Fi 103 could become available caused Hitler to stomp away in a huff while one of the Führer’s lackeys asked, “Who was the pessimist who arranged this demonstration?”

Recollections of the Insterburg event differ, but it appears Hitler did not personally look at the small, buglike Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet that was the world’s first rocket-propelled fighter. Göring did. Or at least, as Rudolf “Rudy” Opitz related later, Göring did. Göring supposedly stopped by each aircraft to personally speak with pilots and crews. The small and plain-looking-looking Opitz apparently was mistaken for a mechanic, and it took some explaining for Göring to grasp that he was chief test pilot for the 163 program. Once Göring got it right, their brief exchange went something like this:

Göring: “Young man, were you drafted to serve in the rocket fighter squadron or did you volunteer to fly this aircraft?”

Opitz: “I am in charge of it, sir.”

The Me 163 may not have been an important factor that day—it was not possible to find any record of the Führer ever speaking of it—but the wobbly little rocket craft was destined to be put in combat very soon.

The star of the show was the Me 262 jet fighter, but the Insterburg exhibit also included an Arado Ar 234 twin-jet bomber and reconnaissance aircraft, which was transported to the event with great difficulty. While the Me 262 was at the event to show its flying skills, the third airframe in the Arado jet series, the Ar 234 V-3, was dismantled and transported by road to Insterburg, where technicians hurriedly pieced it back together for static display. The Arado was parked unceremoniously between a pair of Junkers Ju 88 twin-prop warplanes, one of which carried special equipment for laying smoke screens.

According to Arado company records, Hitler immediately gave the plane maker Arado carte blanche to obtain factory personnel, raw materials, and funds so that the company could build two hundred Ar 234s by the end of 1944. Some former members of Luftwaffe bomber units, who had been scheduled for reassignment as ground troops—possibly to the horrors of the Soviet front—were diverted to Arado to become workers on the project.

HANS BAUR

Hans Baur, Hitler’s personal pilot and known for his cheerful personality, was savoring the display of new flying machines.

“Baur was a decent person in many ways,” said his biographer, G. G. Sweeting, in an interview. “He was a good husband and loyal family man with a pleasant disposition, but he never wavered in his stalwart support for national socialism and for Hitler. He was busy running his private squadron, which was not a part of the Luftwaffe. He told me he was really impressed by the jets, especially the Me 262, but also by the Ju 290 A-5 transport.”

Baur’s outfit was dubbed Die Fliegerstaffel des Führers, or the Führer’s personal squadron, and was marked with a special insignia that was painted on the nose of all planes: a black eagle head on a white background, surrounded by a narrow red ring. Unlike Galland, Baur was still optimistic about the war. He pictured himself squiring Hitler about in a sky made safe by the sharklike, jet-propelled Me 262s.

In The Me 262 Stormbird, authors Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Louis recount what Baur told them:

Hitler was always excited about new things, like a child at Christmas, you could say. If there were any new ideas in tank, U-boat, or aircraft designs, he wanted to see all the blueprints and have them explained to him. His memory was photographic and he forgot nothing. I remember we were having lunch in Berchtesgaden in March or so, this was 1943, and Hitler was discussing this Messerschmitt project with Göring and Speer. [Heinrich] Himmler and [Martin] Bormann were there also.

In the meeting, Göring expressed support for the Me 262 and named some prominent German pilots who might conduct test flying of the revolutionary jet. Speer pointed out that the Reich was facing a shortage of raw materials for war projects. It would probably not have occurred to him to mention the American daylight bombing campaign, which, so far, was achieving little in its own efforts to stymie aircraft production. Hitler told Speer that he would have a letter prepared authorizing procurement of whatever was needed to acquire the materials. Speer concurred. As Bauer remembered it:

I then remembered that the next day Hitler called his secretary, Fraulein [Trudl] Junge, into his study where he composed the letter. I know because I was discussing the flight plan with him for us to go to the Ukraine for a visit. Later Speer came by, picked up the letter, gave the party salute, and left. The funny thing was that later that day some gauleiter from somewhere had called, demanding to speak with the Führer. Well, Bormann took the call and I remember him telling the man on the other end of the line to just ‘shut his mouth and give Herr Professor Speer whatever the hell he wanted,’ and his life would be much easier. ‘Bothering the Führer with this complaint would not be advised.’ And then he hung up the phone.

According to Heaton and Lewis, Hitler’s secretary Junge later remembered the letter. It was for Speer, one of only two such letters Junge (1920–2002) ever typed for the Führer. Once Speer had the letter in hand, no one hesitated to provide the materials needed for Me 262 production.

DECEMBER 20, 1943

As for Baur, sixteen months later one of his last acts was to fly the Ju 290 intended for Hitler’s use to Munich-Riem airport on March 24, 1945. Baur parked the aircraft in a hangar and went to his home. The next morning, he learned that Allied bombing had destroyed the magnificent four-engined transport and its hangar. In a Monday, December 20, 1943, speech to Wehrmacht officers, Hitler revealed the priority he placed on the Me 262 as an anti-invasion weapon:

Every month that passes makes it more and more probable that we will get at least one Gruppe of jet aircraft. The important thing is that they [the enemy] get some bombs on top of them just as they try to invade. That will force them to take cover, and in this way they will waste hour after hour! But after half a day our reserves will already be on their way. So if we can pin them down on the beaches for just six or eight hours, you can see what that will mean to us.

This was the speech in which Hitler predicted an Allied invasion two or three months hence, much sooner than it actually happened. This was also the date of a “president to prime” letter in which Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed with Prime Minister Winston Churchill that an announcement could be made on the first of the year that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower would command Overlord, the code name of the invasion the Führer was preparing for.

Hitler’s “wonder weapon” show lasted just ninety minutes. At 1:30 p.m., the Führer entrained for his Rastenburg headquarters.

Heinrich Himmler followed him within the hour. But a thought process was forming in Himmler’s mind. He was seeking new ways to expand his security apparatus into a military formation. He was just a year away from snatching away the ownership and management of some of the Führer’s wonder weapons from the Reich’s military staff. Heinrich Himmler, much like Hans Baur but in a different way, would soon be in charge of his own air force.

*That’s right. It can be argued that the Americans, not the Germans, made the first flight of a jet fighter. Britain’s Gloster Meteor did not fly until March 5, 1943, but it, too, was a fully capable fighter from the beginning as the Me 262 was not.

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