Military history




When retired Lt. Col. Donald S. “Don” Bryan, 90, died on May 15, 2012, near his home in Adel, Georgia, shortly after being interviewed for this book, the United States lost an air ace who had fought in the skies of the Third Reich, was credited with shooting down more than thirteen German aircraft (including a jet), and received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor.

Bryan loved the P-51 Mustang. It was, after all, the P-51, not the Me 262, that decided the air war in Europe.

Bryan’s mount served him well on March 14, 1945, when he engaged and shot down an Arado Ar 234B-1 Blitz jet bomber high above the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen. By that time, Bryan may have known more about the Ar 234 than any other American pilot. “It was my fourth encounter with one,” he said. Others said the Arado aircraft was Bryan’s nemesis.

In fact, it came very close to being an obsession. Bryan was too easygoing to be truly obsessed, but by the time of his fateful encounter, he’d thought about the Arado a lot.

Born in Hollister, California, in 1921, Bryan flew the P-47 Thunderbolt in combat before graduating to the Mustang. Bryan received a private pilot’s license in college from the Civilian Pilot Training Program, learning on an Aeronca. He enlisted on January 6, 1943, and began his Army Air Forces training in PT-17 Kaydet biplanes at King City, California. He took his basic training at Moffett Field, California, and advanced training at Luke Field, Arizona. After earning pilot’s wings and a commission, he was first stationed at Morris Field, South Carolina, in the 20th Fighter Group. He soloed in the P-40 Warhawk two days before he could legally buy a drink.

“Don was a fighter pilot’s fighter pilot,” Jay A. Stout, the author of The Men Who Killed the Luftwaffe, said in an interview for this book. “He was wry, fun-loving, and intelligent. When he climbed into the cockpit, he did it with no intent other than to win. He was in the war from July 1943 to May 1945. He played all four quarters.”

No, the Ar 234 didn’t obsess Bryan. But it came close.

December 1, 1944

In December 1944, Bryan became—he said—the first Allied pilot ever to see an Ar 234 in the air. He observed the twin jet just slightly too far away on the horizon. “If it had been a mile closer, I could have tried to get him,” he said, even though the faster jet was pulling away on a parallel course.

Bryan wanted to get one.

He studied drawings of the jet in a group intelligence document. He looked for vulnerabilities and couldn’t find any. He tried to compare it to the Me 262—which he never saw—and came up with few conclusions. “I scratched my head and wondered how many of these we would be seeing and whether they would threaten the advances our side was making in the war,” he said.

Bryan spotted an Ar 234 on a second occasion later that month. “This time it wasn’t even close,” he said. “He was too far away and moving too fast.”

During his third sighting on December 21, 1945, the Luftwaffe warplane crossed his flight path beneath him, flying from left to right. Bryan went after the Arado. He took a long shot, estimating deflection after the jet rushed by. He saw his rounds impact on one wing. Bryan was credited with an enemy aircraft damaged. “So at least I got a piece of him, but he pulled away. As I already knew by now, my P-51 was fast, but the Ar 234 was almost a hundred miles per hour faster,” he said.

Able to reach a speed of 540 miles per hour, the Arado Ar 234 Blitz was the fastest combat aircraft in the world—slightly faster, even, than its cousin, the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet.

It was the world’s first operational jet bomber, and in many ways the most advanced of the Reich’s secret weapons. It was important enough that Hitler referred to it several times in staff meetings with his military leaders. The Führer often boasted to his staff that the jet Ar 234 was even faster than the prop-driven Mosquito.

The Ar 234 was a product of the German company Arado Flugzeugwerke. It was the Arado company’s response to a 1940 German Air Ministry requirement for a fast reconnaissance aircraft. Walter Blume headed the Arado engineering team.

Blume had been an ace during the Great War with twenty-eight aerial victories and had been gravely wounded on a combat mission. Blume could appear absent-minded at times, prickly at others, but he’d studied aeronautical engineering for more than two decades and was up to date on the jet engines that some touted as the wave of the future. He was responsible for all of the key design features of the Ar 234, assisted by Hans Rebeski and others.

On their drawing boards, they conceived an aircraft that was extraordinarily clean. It had smooth, flush-riveted exterior skin. It had rakish lines and (eventually) tricycle landing gear. Where most planes needed a bulge or a step for the cockpit windshield, the Ar 234 had a completely smooth, glass-covered nose in the manner of the American B-29 Superfortress. The engine arrangement was similar to that of the better known Me 262, with long, deep-throated nacelles slung beneath the inboard portion of the wing.

Code-named the E370 while being designed, the new aircraft was built for a projected maximum speed of 485 miles per hour, which it eventually exceeded with ease. Its projected range of about two thousand miles was a little less than what the Air Ministry wanted, but officials in Berlin liked the design and ordered two prototypes, known as the Ar234 V1 and Ar 234 V2.

The success of the new plane would be dependent on the engine intended for it. The engine was the Jumo 004 axial-flow turbojet designed by a team headed by Dr. Anselm Franz of the Junkers aircraft company. It eventually became the world’s first jet powerplant to enter production and become operational. But early jet engines being developed by the Germans and the British—with the Americans lagging a distant third in jet engine development—were cantankerous, unreliable, and trouble prone.

Design work on the Ar 234 airplane went smoothly. As related elsewhere in this narrative, the Junkers Jumo 004 turbojet engine was another matter. Tests that began in October 1940 were delayed by constant technical problems, including vibration of compressor blades. Steel blades had to be developed to replace the original alloy blades. Still, early versions of the engine sputtered, smoked, and died. One blew up on a test bench. When that didn’t happen, the vibration problems continued until a second overhaul was made of the stator blade design. These and other problems delayed the engine, and that, in turn, delayed both the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter and the Ar 234—for reasons unclear, the latter more than the former.

Once it became workable, the production version of the engine, the 004B-1, was rated at 1,980 pounds thrust, which was comparable to the turbojet Frank Whittle was developing for the British. Even then, the Jumo typically had a service life of only ten to twenty-five hours. Like all turbojets, it was sluggish in responding to the pilot’s hand on the throttle.

The plane’s landing gear was not part of the original design. Blume’s design team was very much aware that the Luftwaffe wasn’t fully satisfied with the plane’s range and endurance. To increase internal fuel, they initially dispensed with wheels. Early Ar 234 versions took off using a three-wheeled trolley and landed by means of skids that worked well on a grassy surface. For increased thrust during takeoff, Ar 234s used Hellmuth Walter–designed, liquid-fueled rocket assisted takeoff (RATO) boosters, one mounted beneath each wing.

The Ar 234 was not as large as it looked. When Bryan first spotted one, he thought it was an American A-26 Invader. But the A-26 had a wingspan of seventy-one feet and was intended for a crew of three. In contrast, the Ar 234 had a wingspan of just over forty-six feet. Its crew consisted of just a single pilot who, as Bryan later said, “had to be a very busy and very lonely man.”

The pilot got aboard by pulling down a retractable step on the left side, climbing up kick steps on the left side, and entering via the roof hatch. This hatch could be discarded, but there was no ejection seat and a pilot’s prospects of getting out of the Arado under any circumstances were never good.

The pilot operated conventional throttle and rudder pedals and looked out with clear Plexiglas, giving him a superb view in all directions. Between the pilot’s legs was the complex Lofte 7K tachometric bombsight. At the start of a bombing run, the pilot was expected to swing the control yoke out of his way and fly the aircraft using the bombsight control knobs, looking through the optical sight. Alternately, he could fly the aircraft using the yoke and a periscope sight (derived from the type used on German tanks), mounted on the cockpit roof and associated bombing computer to make a diving attack. Despite the very narrow landing gear that became standard after the skids were abandoned, the Ar 234 performed well when taxying, taking off, and landing, and it was not unduly vulnerable to crosswinds.

Although Arado began construction of the Ar 234 prototype at its factory in Warnemunde in spring 1941, almost two years elapsed before the plane maker received its first engines. No one seems to know why Willy Messerschmitt’s aircraft company was able to get Jumo 004 engines for its Me 262 in June 1942, while Arado was forced to wait to receive its first engine until February 1943. For months, Blume and his engineers looked at the unfinished shell of the first plane, called the Ar 234 V1, and followed reports of Messerschmitt’s aircraft undergoing flight tests.

June 15, 1943

The Ar 234 V1 prototype made its first flight on June 15, 1943, not at the factory, but at the company test facility at Rheine Airfield. At the controls was Arado chief test pilot Flugkapitän Selle, whose first name seems to be lost to history. By September, four prototypes were flying. The second prototype, the Arado Ar 234 V2, crashed October 2, 1943, at Rheine near Munster after suffering fire in the port wing, failure of both engines, and various instrumentation failure. The aircraft dived into the ground from four thousand feet, killing pilot Selle.

In flight tests, there were constant problems with the takeoff trolley and the landing skids. On one flight, the pilot correctly jettisoned the trolley at an altitude of two hundred feet, but its parachute failed to deploy and it was smashed. The skids often stayed in the extended position when they should have retracted, or collapsed when they should have been extended. At this rate, Arado experts and Luftwaffe officers agreed that during mass operations a typical airfield would become cluttered with disabled Ar 234s and following aircraft would be unable to land at all. Another drawback was that the Ar 234 could not taxi on the skids. It had to come to a halt and then be moved using a crane. Recognition of the need to change the landing arrangement prompted cancellation of a planned production version called the Ar 234A.

August 2, 1944

Despite the problems, the Ar 234 V7 prototype became the first jet aircraft ever to fly a reconnaissance mission. On August 2, 1944, Leutnant (Lt.) Erich Sommer whizzed over the Normandy beachheads at about 460 miles per hour and used two Rb 50/30 cameras to take one set of photos every eleven seconds. Although the Allies supposedly had air superiority over the beaches, as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, Sommer’s warplane returned with its fuel, unscathed.

The Ar 234B Schnellbomber, or “fast bomber” version introduced a widened fuselage that permitted conventional landing gear, albeit with a very narrow track. The B model—first flown March 10, 1944, piloted by civilian test pilot Joachim Carl, who replaced Selle—was slightly heavier than reconnaissance versions at 21,720 pounds. Because the Ar 234 was slender and entirely filled with fuel, it had no room for a bomb bay: its bombload had to be carried on external racks. The added weight and drag of a full bomb load reduced the speed, so on the B model two 20mm MG 151 cannons with two hundred rounds each were added in a remotely controlled tail mounting to give some measure of defense. Since the cockpit was directly in front of the fuselage, the pilot had no direct view to the rear, so the guns were aimed through the periscope. There exists no record of anyone ever hitting anything with these guns. Many pilots removed them to save weight.

It was not until June 1944 that twenty Ar 234Bs were produced and delivered. Some of these were diverted to the Luftwaffe test center at Rechlin. From October 1944, the German air unit known as KG 76 began to convert to the Ar 234B-2 bomber. The group began flying missions during heavy fighting in the Ardennes. In March 1945, coming in at low level and slinging bombs almost horizontally, after several attempts KG 76 finally succeeded in collapsing the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, but by then the loss of the bridge had little effect.

“I liked the Arado very much,” said former Luftwaffe pilot Willi Kriessmann, who lives today in Burlingame, California. “It was a wonderful plane. I thought it was designed better than the Messerschmitt Me 262. It was a single-seater so we didn’t have time to practice much, so we had some ‘dry classes.’ Landing and taking off was very different from a prop plane.” Kriessmann noted that the RATO units often didn’t work properly.

Two different configurations for a four-engine version of the Ar 234 were built and flown. The sixth and eighth planes in the series were powered by four BMW 003 jet engines instead of two Jumo 004s, the sixth (Ar 234 V6) having four engines housed in individual nacelles and the eighth (Ar 234 V8) flown with two pairs of BMW 003s installed within twinned nacelles underneath either wing. These were the world’s first four-engine jets. They offered no performance advantage over the twin-engine version.

An improved Ar 234C was the final production version. This model introduced an improved pressurized cockpit and larger main wheels. A crescent-wing Ar 234—foretelling Britain’s Handley Page Victor bomber of the 1950s—was under construction but never flown.

Kriessmann was assigned to ferry Ar 234s from the factory to different places where optical equipment and bombing equipment was installed. “I flew the first one on December 12, 1944, from Hamburg to Kampfgeschwader 76 and the last on May 1, 1945,” he said. KG 76 flew the final Ar 234 sortie of the war against advancing Red Army troops near Berlin.

Plans existed for the manufacture of 2,500 Ar 234 Blitz bombers, but they were cut short by the war’s end. Total production was 224 examples of all versions of the Ar 234.

March 14, 1945

“I’m not letting one get away from me again,” Bryan thought out loud.

The usual soup over Germany had been transformed into brilliant sunshine on March 14. Eleven of the German jet bombers from flying unit KG 76 (Kampfgeschwader 76) were attacking the newly constructed floating engineer bridge south of the Ludendorff Bridge (which was the last traditional bridge standing on the Rhine when it was captured by soldiers of the U.S. 9th Armored Division on March 7, 1945).

Bryan, of the 352nd Fighter Group, “The Bluenosed Bastards of Bodney,” was commander of the group’s 328th squadron. He was leading a flight of four P-51D Mustangs escorting Ninth Air Force A-26 Invaders.

He saw the Arado pulling off the bridge and maneuvering into a tight turn to evade a formation of American P-47 Thunderbolts. This maneuver compromised the jet bomber’s strongest asset—its superior speed—and Bryan was able to position himself so the German would have to fly toward him.

Bryan wrote in his encounter report: “I observed an Ar 234 cross in front of us headed for the Remagen bridgehead. I dropped tanks and started after the enemy aircraft. He was traveling about 50 miles per hour faster than we were, and crossed the Rhine south of the bridge going west and then turned north making a very shallow dive run on the bridge, but did not drop his bombs. I saw several P-47s to the northwest, so I headed in a northeasterly direction. I could not catch the enemy aircraft in a straight run, and thought he might turn east to avoid combat with the P-47s. When the enemy aircraft saw the P-47s, he turned east and had to pass directly under me. I turned east, and when he passed under me, I dove down on him and opened fire at about 250 yards.”

Bryan rolled right into a dive to assure he would be on top of the jet as it passed. As the jet whooshed past, Bryan then rolled his wings—vertically left directly behind it— and prepared to fire. Said Bryan: “I probably knew as much about the Ar 234 as any American at this point, but I didn’t know if it had forward-firing guns”—it didn’t—“and I knew that if he was armed, he might be able to get the advantage on me. I got ahead of him and let him fly by me. I rolled in behind the 234 and fired when all g’s were neutral.”

“I hit him with the first burst and knocked his right jet out,” Bryan said. “He made a shallow turn to the right and started very mild evasive maneuvers. They consisted of shallow turns and a few shallow dives and climbs.”

Bryan saw none of the smoke-filled jet exhaust that was sometimes associated with the German jets. He banked the P-51 behind his adversary and fired long bursts, exhausting nearly all of his ammunition.

“I don’t know what the hell was on his mind,” Bryan said in an interview for this book, “but he should have gotten out of that airplane while he was high enough. I think he was afraid I would shoot at him in his parachute, which I would never do.”

The Arado pilot, Hauptman (Capt.) Hans Hirshberger, waited too long to jettison his roof hatch and attempt to escape from his cockpit. He went down with the aircraft. It was his first and only combat mission.

Pilots are credited with a portion of an aerial victory when they share in a shootdown: Bryan’s final score was 13.33 kills.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!