Military history

ELEVEN

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NATTER

It’s unclear whether Erich Bachem knew that Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler had a temper, or that Himmler could have anyone killed on a whim. One of the most powerful men in the Reich, one of the primary architects of the Holocaust, even while not really a member of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle, the deceptively bookish-looking Himmler was a man to be feared. You did not get an audience with Himmler easily and you did not want to make a mistake in his presence.

But Bachem was desperate. He had a military solution to what he saw as the Reich’s military problems, and military men, including key leaders of the Luftwaffe, had rejected him.

Bachem’s solution was a manned, vertical takeoff interceptor—today it might be called a surface-to-air missile with a cockpit—a semidisposable aircraft intended in its initial incarnation to wield a nose-mounted battery Henschel Hs 217 R4M 73mm rocket in its nose. It was the answer, Bachem believed, to those four-engine bombers that were increasingly plentiful in Germany’s skies.

The idea of mounting an air-to-air defense using an aircraft carrying “dumb” or unguided rocket projectiles has recurred throughout air warfare history. Long after Bachem had the idea, the U.S. heartland was defended in the 1950s by fighter interceptors that carried only 2.75mm air-to-air rocket projectiles—24 in the case of the F-86D Sabre, no fewer than 104 in the F-89D Scorpion, and 48 in the F-94C Starfire. The difference was that the Sabre, Scorpion, and Starfire were costly, complicated warplanes designed to return safely from a mission and return to fight another day. The aircraft taking shape in Bachem’s engineering drawings was cheap and expendable. The aircraft did not need to survive a mission, and it appears little concern was directed toward whether the pilot did either.

Thirty-four years old, credited with being a codesigner of the Feiesler Fi 156 Storch (Stork) light plane, Bachem was told Himmler would see him on a certain day in early 1944. Spurned by the Air Ministry and the Luftwaffe, Bachem had been led to believe that the SS chief would be receptive to becoming involved in military aviation.

It’s easy to imagine Bachem presenting his proposal, in a meek and subservient way, explaining that his unique aircraft—eventually to be called the Bachem Ba 349 Natter (Adder)—would sweep the skies clear of American and British bombers. It’s easy to imagine Himmler looking skeptical with a furrow in his brow, as he often did, and then lighting up. If Germany’s air force wouldn’t field this extraordinary aircraft, the SS would! It’s even easy to imagine Himmler, perhaps, patting Bachem on the back.

Or not. Research for this book did not turn up a contemporaneous account of the meeting. All we know is that the Natter, which had been stalled, received a go-ahead, with Himmler becoming its champion.

In English, to “natter” is to talk casually, especially about unimportant matters. Spiro Agnew, a famous American vice president, dismissed his political opponents as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” The Bachem aircraft certainly never lived up to its name in German, a language in which a Natter is a fearsome snake, but the Natter and other unsuccessful high-technological aircraft are anything but unimportant. All of the unsuccessful but advanced aircraft demonstrate how both sides made strides in aeronautical knowledge while experimenting with more aircraft types than they needed to win the war. Still, trying to build a bridge to the future with the Natter may have been a bridge too far.

“I can’t imagine what the hell they were thinking,” said American P-51 Mustang pilot Don Bryan, the California-born ace who bagged an Arado Ar 234 over the bridge at Remagen. Bryan was referring to two “wonder weapons” that appeared to him to be similarly weird, the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet and the rocket-booster Bachem Ba 349 Natter. “What if they had taken all the effort they put into those contraptions and used it to build an airplane something like ours?” He was referring to the P-51 Mustang.

Ironically, much later in life Bryan piloted a warplane whose makers dubbed it “the missile with the man in it.” That was a Lockheed marketing pitch for the F-104 Starfighter. It would have been a perfect term for the Ba 349 Natter if only Himmler, or Bachem, or somebody had thought of it.

“I’m glad they didn’t have more time to refine their experiments,” said P-51 pilot Robert Bush, the Washington, D.C., youngster who got within eyesight of a Heinkel He 162 Volksjäger. “I don’t know how far they might have gotten. They were willing to take extraordinary risks. I’m glad we were able to defeat them before most of their plans materialized.” Bryan and Bush had both heard strange and bizarre rumors about Third Reich scientists in subterranean caverns developing advanced missiles, antigravity devices, and even a time machine. “They were nasty men with far-out ideas and I’m glad we beat them,” Bush said.

Fighting the Natter would have been difficult for P-51 pilots such as Bryan and Bush, and near impossible for the gunners aboard American B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers. In fact, claims by gunners were hugely exaggerated: there is good reason to believe that a bomber would have been just as safe without them. Certainly they would have done more harm than good against Bachem’s design. The Natter was designed to hit and run when sent up against bomber formations. With stubby little wings spanning less than a dozen feet, it was a very small target, and pushed through the sky by rocket power, it was an exceedingly fast one. Bachem’s rocket-armed aircraft was in many respects more like an artillery shell than a fighter plane.

NASTY NATTER

Bachem’s idea may have been a little too ambitious in the context of its era, but it seemed timely. The Reichsluftfahrtministerium, or RLM—the Air Ministry—had been looking at concepts for a point-defense interceptor that would be, in effect, a manned surface-to-air missile. This would be a weapon that could be deployed in massive swarms to engage approaching Allied bombers. The Heinkel P.1077 Julia, the most promising such design other than Bachem’s, looked as if it had been designed by Rube Goldberg, the American cartoonist famous for drawing impossibly complex, eccentric gadgets to perform simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways. The P.1077 was designed for the pilot to lie prone while at the controls, which would have placed him in an awkward standing-up position during vertical launch.

With some initial encouragement from a low-level factotum in the RLM, Bachem did his initial engineering work on the Natter in the sure belief that aviation authorities would eat up his revolutionary idea. He was well liked by bureaucrats in Berlin. They warmed to his enthusiasm. But Albert Speer, who had taken over the RLM, among other duties, from Erich Milch, was not interested, nor was Hermann Göring. It seemed no one in authority wanted to buy into Bachem’s concept. Bachem received a little encouragement from the ubiquitous Generalleutnant (Maj. Gen.) Adolf “Dolfo” Galland, but not enough to overcome resistance.

It appears that after a Herculean effort, SS boss Himmler granted Bachem an interview and fully supported the project. In the middle of September 1944 the technical office of the Waffen-SS made an order for Bachem to develop and manufacture the Natter at his Waldsee factory. This decision is said to have been the only time the SS significantly interfered with aircraft design and air fighting strategy. Early in the project the RLM undertook an engineering assessment of the Natter, which it reported on October 28, 1944. Various stringent economies were imposed on an already frugal design.

The Natter concept had numerous strengths, including advantage of being cheap and simple. But no one seemed to see the beauty of the idea—a sky full of Natters, blasting B-17 Flying Fortresses right and left. Bachem came to the conclusion that he would never drum up much support for his concept unless he sidestepped the established bureaucracy and went to Himmler. Even then, an enormous gulf loomed between Bachem’s expectations and anything like an actual, realistic war weapon.

The concept was an accountant’s dream in a nation worried (and unduly so) about a shortage of strategic materials. The Bas 349 was a crude airframe, intended for ease of manufacture by unskilled woodworkers.

The design of the wings was too simple for words: they were plain rectangular slabs of wood devoid of ailerons, flaps, or control devices. The control surfaces to make the Ba 349 roll, pitch, and yaw were installed in its cruciform tail, made up of four fins and control surfaces. The four control surfaces in the tail connected to guide vanes that augmented the control of aerodynamics.

The nearly cylindrical fuselage was wrapped around a Walter 109-509A-2 sustainer rocket capable of putting out thrust for seventy seconds at full power and dependent upon volatile liquid fuel. The aircraft was to be launched vertically by what would later be called boosters, namely four Schmidding 109-533 solid-fuel rockets, two on each side of the fuselage able to generate thrust for ten seconds. As Allied bombers passed overhead, the Natter would be blasted vertically off the ground, climbing almost vertically on an internal rocket. Nearing the bombers, the pilot would sight on one and fire his battery of rocket projectiles. He would then use his remaining kinetic energy to climb higher than the bombers and swoop back for a ramming attack. Just before impact, the pilot was to trigger a mechanism to separate his seat (or forward fuselage) and the rear portion with the rocket motor. The idea of a ramming attack was short-lived as planning for the Natter progressed, but the remainder of the scenario was unchanged: it would go straight up, attack, and recover.

The Natter had no landing gear, which saved weight, expense, and construction time. The pilot and the aircraft were both meant to be recovered safely—but separately. After intercepting bombers and discharging its weapons, the Ba 349 was to dive to a lower altitude and flatten out into level flight. The pilot would then open the cockpit canopy, the canopy would swing back, and the pilot would be thrown clear and would open his parachute. A separate parachute would deploy to bring the relatively lightweight Nattersafely to the ground, ready to fight another day.

SS SCRUTINY

Lest there be any doubt of Himmler’s influence, the SS openly took charge of Natter development and of unpowered, manned flights in which the Natter was effectively a glider. In December 1944 the project came largely under the control of the SS and Hans Kammler. Kammler was a longtime Himmler loyalist who razed the Warsaw Ghetto and later employed domestic prisoners to create an underground V-2 rocket assembly facility at Mittelwerk, making him responsible not just for the facility but for its attendant concentration camp complex, Mittelbau-Dora. Although he was a civil engineer, he apparently had neither education nor experience that qualified him to oversee the V-2—when it, too, came under SS control—or the Natter.

As a sidelight to the Natter story, it is not known how—or even whether—Kammler died. In recent years, Kammler’s name has been linked to apocryphal Nazi “wonder weapons” such as Die Glocke (the Bell), which may have been an anti-gravity device or a time machine—or something. This link was suggested by author Nick Cook in The Hunt for Zero Point, which suggested that Kammler survived the war and was secretly whisked to the United States ahead of other German scientists as part of Operation Paperclip for the purpose of exploiting his knowledge of secret German projects.

But Kammler, who has since been a protagonist in half a dozen fantasy novels, had few qualifications that would have been useful to the Allies, and no solid evidence has ever surfaced that German leaders were brought to the United States secretly. There have been no Kammler sightings since the end of the war and Kammler never made it into pulp magazines such as the Police Gazette that repeatedly reported Hitler alive and thriving in Antarctica or Argentina—or somewhere.*

With or without much direct involvement by Kammler, the first of just fifteen Natters that were completed became available in October 1944 and was used for this series of four unpowered handling trials, towed aloft behind a Heinkel He 111 twin-engine bomber. Erich Klöckner piloted the Natter. Three times, it performed as predicted.

Something went wrong on the fourth flight. Klöckner abandoned the first Ba 349, known as aircraft M1 in mid-air and parachuted to safety.

To clear doubts about the Natter in the glider mode, Hans Zübert made a daring free flight in M8 on the February 14, and showed that once it was aloft and level, the Natter was a stable and comfortable aerodynamic platform. The problem, of course, was getting there.

The first vertical launch with booster and sustainer rockets firing, but without a pilot in the cockpit, took place on February 23, 1945. Bachem was now under pressure from authorities in Berlin who were telling him to achieve a manned vertical takeoff by the end of February.

March 1, 1945

In fact, it was March 1, 1945, when test pilot Lothar Sieber briefly—and fatally—became the bravest man in the world.

The location was Heuberg near Stetten am kalten Markt, Würtemberg, on an artificial plateau at a Truppenübungsplatz (military training area). Just short of his twenty-third birthday but a seasoned pilot, Sieber strapped into the fully fueled, camouflaged Nattervehicle for history’s first manned vertical takeoff of a rocket. Designer Bachem comforted the pilot as they talked moments before what would later be called blastoff. If the Natter should veer off course, Bachem told Sieber, he should execute a half roll to stabilize the ship and attempt a recovery. Sieber’s Natter was equipped with an FM transmitter for the purpose of transmitting flight data from various monitoring sensors in the machine. In addition, Sieber had a hard-wire interphone that connected him to engineers in the launch bunker.

The start worked as planned. On cue, the Walter main rocket motor built up to full thrust and Sieber depressed the switch to ignite the four rocket boosters. The sound was shattering. The Natter lifted aloft in a cloud of steam and rocket smoke and climbed rapidly to about five hundred feet, where it abruptly pitched back into a near upside-down attitude. Now, instead of climbing at ninety degrees it was climbing at thirty, but in an inverted curve. Onlookers thought they saw the four boosters detach and fall to earth as they were supposed to, but in fact one failed to break loose. No one knew this until 1998 when the crash site was excavated.

Sieber executed a roll maneuver but could not make the aircraft recover. Engineers on the ground saw the cockpit canopy fly loose at about 1,500 feet, suggesting that Sieber considered the aircraft out of control and had begun the escape sequence.

To the frustration of onwatchers, low-hanging stratus clouds swallowed up the Natter. The Walter motor was heard to cut out. The Natter soared to about five thousand feet and then came straight down. It blasted a fifteen-foot crater into the earth about five miles from the launch pad. Altogether, the Natter had been in the air for about fifty seconds.

Anxious onlookers searched the sky for Sieber to come descending out of the clouds beneath a parachute canopy. He did not. At the impact site, rescuers found a grisly assortment of body parts, including half of a left arm and half of a left leg. Before the main motor cut out, Sieber may have unintentionally become the first human to fly faster than sound (763 miles per hour at sea level), but only long after the departing canopy, with his headrest attached, snapped his head back and killed him.

Because an experienced test pilot lost his life struggling in vain to control the Natter—which, like the Heinkel He 162, was intended to be a “people’s fighter” and be piloted by novice youngsters—Himmler’s SS canceled the project. The cause was officially explained as a failure of the canopy, even though the evidence was overwhelming that Sieber had failed to fully close the canopy before launch. It can only be speculated that this seemingly minor error, not properly latching the canopy, led to disaster.

* Kammler’s name was implied but not used in the movie Iron Sky (2012) about a secret Nazi base on the dark side of the moon.

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