Could Nazi Germany have gotten a jet fighter into action earlier than it did? What if the Third Reich had rushed the Heinkel He 280 into service rather than waiting for the similarly jet-powered Messerschmitt Me 262 that came later?
A sky full of He 280s, faster and deadlier than any fighter in Allied colors, might have prevented the U.S. Eighth Air Force from building up its bombing campaign over Europe—and might have forced the Allies to postpone the invasion of occupied Europe that took place at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Maybe even, in the wildest imaginations of a few leaders in the Third Reich, squadrons of He 280s might have turned the tide and won the war.
Or maybe not. Today, the history of the He 280 is buried in obscurity; the aircraft is not as well known as some of Adolf Hitler’s other Wunderwaffen (wonder weapons).
The very term “wonder weapons” was a hopeful proclamation that the miracle of advanced science would save the Reich, the Führer, and the German people. By late 1943, subjected to bombing every day and night, food shortages, electrical blackouts, and frequent reports of new successes by the Allies, the German people seized the term and shortened Wunderwaffe(n) to Wuwa, a meaningless pair of syllables that resembled the name of a children’s cartoon. The people used the term to belittle not only the projects but also the Führer himself, although it was always necessary to be on guard when doing so.
On the field of battle, on the ground, and in the sea and air, the issue was still in doubt. Scientists, engineers, and pilots still knew the Reich could win the war. They truly could achieve a miracle. They knew it, they said later, and didn’t doubt it. No other nation had anything like the V-1 robot bomb. No other nation had the V-2 rocket that terrorized London. The V-1 and V-2 were in Hitler’s wonder-weapon subcategory of Vergeltungswaffe, or retaliation or vengeance weapons, developed at the secret northeastern German rocket facility Peenemünde.
Hitler wanted to call the V-1 the Maikäfer, May bug, but engineers on the program almost never uttered the term. The V-1 was a straightforward, straight-wing design from the engineering team of Robert Lusser, chief designer and technical director at Heinkel, although production of the V-1 was turned over to the Fieseler aircraft company after Ernst Heinkel fell into disfavor. The V-1 was powered by a simple pulse jet engine that pulsed fifty times per second, producing the unique and, to some, terrifying sound that prompted those on the receiving end to call it the buzz bomb. The pulse jet engine had just one moving part, a shutter assembly in the front air intake. This was not a jet engine as the term is used today, and it didn’t have a great deal of power. However, it was sufficient to push along a powered projectile with a lethal, 1,900-pound warhead in the nose, a welded steel fuselage, and wooden wings. Apart from an autopilot, the flying bomb had no guidance system: when the engine cut out, the V-1 dropped from the sky.
The V-1 was manufactured at various sites in the Reich, but the main production facility was the notorious underground SS slave-labor complex known as Mittelwerk at Nordhausen in the Harz Mountains. An estimated total of twenty-four thousand V-1s were built in 1944, with, as many as ten thousand built in 1945, though quantities tend to vary from source to source.
The V-1 was called a doodlebug, a robot bomb, or a buzz bomb. But “buzz” is not really the right sound that emanated from this crude cruise missile and terrorized those in its path. The grinding drone of the V-1’s pulse jet engine sounded something like a washing machine struggling to find its pace. When the V-1 reached its target and dived, the sound of the propulsion unit spluttering and cutting out, followed by an eerie silence before impact, was nothing but terrifying, although the silence at least provided a warning to seek shelter. If you were a customer at a certain retail shop near the King’s Cross tube station in London, a cheery sign let you know that you could shop there and have enough time, with this warning, to make it to the station to take shelter.
Many Londoners became victims without ever making it to the underground. Clouds and rain in summer 1944 aided the effectiveness of the V-1, and casualties mounted. By late summer a million and a half people had evacuated London, and the rate of work production declined. The Royal Air Force would eventually respond to the V-1 by fielding something new and different—a jet fighter called the Gloster Meteor. Looking like an upended rifle bullet with small fins, the V-2 rocket, also known as the Aggregat 4, or A-4, stood to a height of forty-five feet eleven inches when on its launching stand, weighed almost 28,000 pounds, and carried a nose-mounted 2,200-pound Amatol explosive warhead.
Inspired by Germany’s Hermann Oberth and America’s Robert Goddard, who did early studies and tests of rocketry—although Goddard (1882–1945) was largely ignored in his own country—the V-2 was developed by a scientific and engineering team at headed by Wernher von Braun at Generalmajor (Maj. Gen.) Walter Dornberger’s Peenemünde Army Research Center. It was the world’s first successful ballistic missile and it had a futuristic look that seemed relatively benign when, in reality, it was the most malignant kind of weapon—an indiscriminate one.
Some historians question whether von Braun had as significant a role in developing the V-2 as he later claimed. He was one of four section leaders at Peenemünde, and writings from another section leader, Paul Schröder, suggest that von Braun’s role was minor, at most.
What is not in dispute is that Von Braun had full knowledge and completely acquiesced to the use of slave labor. He was a willing member of the Nazi party. A postwar musical spoof by Tom Lehrer called von Braun a man “whose allegiance is ruled by expedience.” And who, claimed Lehrer, didn’t care where his rockets came down.
Even after the first launch of a V-2 prototype on October 3, 1942, when the new missile exceeded the speed of sound and rose to an altitude of sixty miles—the first man-made object ever to fly in space—Hitler was unimpressed. He viewed the V-2 as merely a larger and farther-reaching version of an artillery shell. He groused about its apparent high cost (although not about the slave labor that eventually enabled its production).
Hitler’s view changed over time. He authorized mass production of the rocket. After the Allies began bombing Peenemünde, production shifted to the underground slave labor camps known as Dora-Mittelbau (the Mittelwerk), located in impenetrable gypsum tunnels under Mount Kohnstein at Thüringen near Nordhausen.
The Mittelwerk—which will be discussed in chapter ten on the Heinkel He 162 Volksjäger jet fighter—was, plainly put, a hellhole. Construction of the V-2 rocket factory claimed the lives of six thousand slave laborers. Building the rockets cost fourteen thousand more lives, or about four human beings for every V-2 produced. The slaves were pulled mainly from Buchenwald, a German concentration camp, and were mostly French, Polish, and Russian prisoners of war. Hitler specifically banned Jews from working on his wonder weapons for fear of sabotage. Von Braun made visits to the Mittelwerk, and in May 1944, he went to Buchenwald and asked the commandant for 1,800 skilled French prisoners of war.
When the V-2 became operational (on September 2, 1944), Allied boots were already on the ground in Europe and Paris had been liberated.
Unlike the crude V-1 and V-2 rockets, everything about the brilliant, fearsome, and flawed Messerschmitt Me 262 was different. With its sleek, sharklike fuselage, mottled ocre and olive green colors, and razor-thin swept wings from which huge turbojet engines hung, and with its hot, paraffin-tainted blast and high-pitched whine, the Me 262 was like nothing that had been in the skies before. When black-helmeted pilots began taking it into combat at snow-covered Rheine-Hopsten in 1944, the Me 262 was a cantankerous and unreliable mount so long as it was taxying or flying in the airfield pattern. But once freed of the bonds of its airstrip, the Me 262 flew brilliantly and wielded awesome firepower. No other warplane could defeat it, its pilots were told.
It didn’t have to happen that way. Ernst Heinkel’s company was ahead in jet-plane development in the late 1930s, with Messerschmitt struggling to hold second place.
Heinkel was an arrogant figure who had little regard for the Nazi party (which he joined only under pressure), nor for other aircraft designers, whom he saw as not sufficiently willing to take risks in order to advance technology. Heinkel’s grandest decision was taking into the fold Hans von Ohain, a twenty-four-year-old engineer, who met with Heinkel at the latter’s villa estate overlooking the beach at Warnemünde and pulled out engineering drawings of something he called a turbojet device. No other figure in German industry would give von Ohain the time of day. When von Ohain admitted that there were weaknesses in the revolutionary engine—high fuel consumption was a problem and it wasn’t clear the engine’s combustion could be contained—Heinkel was smitten by the young engineer’s candor. He and his company embraced von Ohain and set forth to build a new aircraft around the new powerplant. At the time no one in Heinkel’s company knew that a British pioneer, Frank Whittle, had secured a patent for his own version of a turbojet engine.
The high-wing Heinkel He 178, using a 992-pound thrust HeS 3 engine drawn from a patent by Ohain, became the world’s first aircraft to fly under turbojet power on August 27, 1939, piloted by Erich Warsitz (who’d also been the first to fly under liquid-fueled rocket power in a different Heinkel test ship). That was the month a U.S. scientist named Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning of U.S. inaction in harnessing atomic fission.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s tanks grinded into Poland—and invaded Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France soon afterward on May 10, 1940—so what had been a research project was now a war machine effort.
The Reich’s aeronautical future now belonged to the twin-engine Heinkel He 280, which qualifies as the world’s first jet fighter, although it appears never to have been fully armed. The He 280 took to the air with Fritz Schäfer in the cockpit at Rostock-Marienehe on September 22, 1940. That was an unpowered glide flight, but Schäfer completed the first flight of Germany’s first definitive jet fighter at the same location, using the He 280V2 second prototype, on March 30, 1941. Noteworthy in the appearance of the aircraft were its twin engines, twin fins and tricycle landing gear, all of which gave it a superficial resemblance to the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber. The aircraft used Heinkel-designed 1,852-pound thrust Junkers Jumo 004A turbojets in lieu of Heinkel’s troubled He S8. If surviving recordings are to be believed, the engines throbbed in a louder version of what might be called purring, rather than emitting the thunderous roar of later turbojets. The first flight was smooth and unremarkable.
Schäfer reportedly told Ernst Heinkel that the He 280 was a little difficult to control in turns but that an experienced pilot should be able to fly it easily. He also reported the He 280 to be a little sluggish on landing but said that otherwise it handled well.
Designers credited the He 280 with a top speed of 508 miles per hour, making it in every respect a formidable competitor to the Messerschmitt Me 262.
The He 280 offered a compressed-air power ejection seat to enable the pilot to escape in an emergency, the world’s first aircraft to be so equipped. It became the first to be used, ever, on January 13, 1942, when a pilot found himself in trouble due to icing conditions, jettisoned his canopy, and made the first-ever emergency ejection from an aircraft.
Unfortunately, Generalfeldmarschall (Air Marshal) Ernst Udet, whose opinion then held considerable sway, was unimpressed by the aircraft.
Colin Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis, authors of The Me 262 Stormbird, speculate the following: “This is where history took a strange course. Had Udet been impressed enough to approve continued development, Heinkel would have received the extra funding they needed. This infusion of capital and political support would likely have led to the firm solving all of the problems they were having with the engines.”
In tests, the He 280 proved itself speedier than the best German fighter, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. During a demonstration, the He 280 completed four laps on the oval circuit course before the Fw 190 could complete three. The maximum weight displacement of the He 280 was 4,296 kilograms (9,470 pounds) compared with 7,130 kilograms (15,720 pounds) for the Me 262. The He 280 could have gone into production by late 1941 and maintained the air superiority, which the Fw 190 had been designed and built for. The initial teething experience with the He S8 engine would have plenty of time to be ironed out just as production of the fighter airframe had begun.
Udet and Air Inspector General Erhard Milch saw the He 280 as an aircraft that could be in frontline service as a stopgap in anticipation of the Me 262. Equipped with three 30mm cannons and capable of 512 mile-per-hour speeds, the He 280 would have provided a bridge between the Fw 190 and Me 262 and would have enabled the Luftwaffe to maintain superiority in Europe at a time when the Allies had no comparable aircraft. Heinkel, of course, had even grander aspirations. This is intriguing speculation, but it fails to go far enough. With a smaller footprint, greater ease of maintenance, and better reliability than the Me 262, the He 280 could have become operational by, one speculates, mid-1942. At that point, although the Royal Air Force was bombing Germany at night, the Allies did not yet have a full-fledged air campaign over the continent. The fledgling U.S. Eighth Air Force was still struggling merely to come into existence. The Americans were going to change everything with their own four-engine heavy bombers and with high-altitude precision daylight bombing of military and industrial targets. Yet as late as October 1943, they lost sixty bombers on one mission and had not yet fielded a true escort fighter, the P-51 Mustang. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was telling anyone who would listen that the Allied air campaign would have to succeed or plans for the invasion of Europe would have to be put on hold. If hundreds of He 280s had been in the field before the bombing campaign even began, before the first P-51 arrived or even before the first American bombers reached Berlin as late as March 1944, B-17s and B-24s would have been swept from the skies.
The He 280 would have reigned supreme. Battered by their losses, unable to command the air, the Allies would have needed to sue for a peace agreement that would allow Hitler to keep much of Western Europe, turn his guns to the east, and overwhelm the Soviet Union.
Or maybe not. From an engineering perspective, the He 280 was more complex and may have had less growth potential in its design. The Me 262 with good engines would have been better tailored for air defense.
Was the Heinkel effort deterred in part by Ernst Heinkel’s misguided effort to develop an advanced four-engine bomber—something the Germans would never do successfully?
The failure of the German air arm to equip itself with long-range bombers goes hand in glove with the failure of the Heinkel He 177 Greif (Griffon), a towering symbol of unrealized possibilities. Rarely has an aircraft been so despised by the men who maintained and flew it. Rarely has an aircraft with so many technical problems gotten as far as the He 177.
The He 177 was a four-engine bomber that looked like a twin-engine bomber. It had “twinned engines” in each of two nacelles, making it a four-engine bomber—sort of. The concept relied on the Daimler Benz DB 606 twin engine, which took two 2,950-horsepower DB 601A-1/B-1 inverted V inline engines and placed them side by side, with the inner cylinders almost vertical, producing an inverted W. The engines were prone to overheating, and in-flight engine fires were common. Six of the original eight aircraft were lost, most due to engine fires, and many of the first thirty-five production aircraft (built mainly by Arado) also suffered the same fate.
“Why has this silly engine suddenly turned up, which is so idiotically welded together?” asked Hermann Göring. “They told me then, there would be two engines connected behind each other, and suddenly there appears this misbegotten monster of welded-together engines one cannot get at!” Göring, the Reich leader who was Ernst Heinkel’s greatest adversary, wouldn’t have liked the He 177 if it had come with an apple strudel.
The He 177 made it into service. As engineers kept redesigning the He 177, they introduced new versions of the bomber, which were then modified further in the field. Front-line armorers at Stalingrad, which was resupplied at great cost by a half-dozen He 177As used as transports, installed a 50mm BK-5 antitank gun under the nose. A separate effort to install a 75mm cannon produced new aerodynamic problems and was cancelled after five He 177A-3/R-5s received the guns.
None of the changes could overcome the inherent faults in the He 177, including a tendency to swerve sharply sideways on takeoff. Troops called it the “Luftwaffe Lighter” (referring to a cigarette lighter) or the “Flying Tinderbox.”
Until manufacture of all aircraft other than fighters was virtually halted in October 1944, Heinkel and Arado built about 1,100 He 177s, including 826 examples of the He 177A-5 model, which was much improved over earlier versions. The usefulness of the bomber did not improve. On one occasion, Göring watched fourteen aircraft taxi out for late-war attacks on London. Thirteen took off. Eight returned immediately with overheating engines, one diverted elsewhere, and four actually reached London, but one was shot down.
The He 280, that promising jet from the same builder as the He 177, never did become operational. Ultimately, the He 280 faced an insurmountable obstacle. Dour-faced, bespectacled, Nazi party member Ernst Heinkel had objected to a Hitler decision in 1933 to fire Jewish designers and staff, while tall, muscular, strong-jawed non-Nazi-party member Willy Messerschmitt, although mostly interested in aeronautics and technology, was always willing to show his unwavering support for the Führer. Ernst Heinkel never used slave labor. There is no indication Willy Messerschmitt, like von Braun, viewed using slave laborers as anything but the price of being permitted to pursue his advanced projects.
The idea of making the Me 262 a bomber had genuine consequences and possibly owes less to Hitler than to Messerschmitt. On September 7, 1943, granted a rare audience with the Führer, Messerschmitt expressed mixed feelings about the jet and repeated his longstanding request that top priority be accorded to his Me 209 propeller-driven fighter.
The Me 209 was close to Messerschmitt’s heart because it was a derivative of the Bf 109, which Messerschmitt did design. The Bf 109 was the world’s most manufactured fighter with about thirty-three thousand copies, but it is sometimes called the only product from Messerschmitt’s drawing board that was truly successful. The Me 209, even though it had established a world air speed record of 469 miles per hour in its original configuration on April 26, 1939, was in its production form very fragile, longitudinally unstable, and riddled with its own panoply of technical problems.
During his conversation with Hitler, Messerschmitt, never hesitant to curry favor, touted the Me 209 vigorously and also suggested to the Führer that the Me 262 be modified to carry bombs. This was fully two months before the Insterburg demonstration and before the conversation in which the Führer famously asked if the jet aircraft could do exactly that. During their earlier meeting, Hitler had not yet received a detailed briefing about, or seen, the jet and, in fact, had only a little interest at most.
THE AMERICAN SIDE
While the Third Reich was securing its hold on occupied Western Europe and launching an offensive against the Soviet Union, the Americans were arriving in England with the fledgling beginnings of what would become the mighty Eighth Air Force. They arrived holding the firm belief that high-altitude daylight precision bombing of military and industrial targets would enable them to expand an aerial offensive and pave the way for an Allied invasion. Very likely, the nascent Me 262 was the last thing on their minds.
On January 19, 1942, seven U.S. airmen set up VIII Bomber Command at Daws Hill, England. They did not yet have troops or bombers, but they brought with them a body of knowledge about strategic bombing that didn’t exist elsewhere. Within months, VIII Bomber Command became a component of the Eighth Air Force, which set up headquarters at High Wycombe. In the early spring of 1942, the first three heavy bombardment groups were activated. B-17 Flying Fortresses began to arrive at new bases being built for them on British soil but owned by the Americans. Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker famously told his British hosts: “We won’t do much talking until we’ve done more fighting. After we’ve gone, we hope you’ll be glad we came.”
On May 5, 1942, Lt. Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz assumed command of the Eighth Air Force. Eaker retained responsibility for VIII Bomber Command while Brig. Gen. Frank O. “Monk” Hunter ran the newly forming VIII Fighter Command, initially with American-crewed Spitfires and newly arrived P-47 Thunderbolts. At first, they were going to have plenty of trouble with Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. We can only imagine the greater challenge had the Heinkel He 280 begun to enter squadron service to challenge them.
The U.S. bombing campaign over Europe began on a small scale, with both the brass and the bomber men pinning their prospects on a firm belief that the bomber would always get through to the target. Hardly anyone was doing enough thinking about fighter escort. Eaker was among those to whom the belief was almost religion: the bomber would always get through.
On August 17, 1942, eight B-17E Flying Fortresses attacked marshalling yards at Rouen-Sotteville in France. A sign on the flight line egged bomber crewmembers on by imploring “Ruin Rouen.” The bombers ran into a few German fighters, dropped a few bombs, and didn’t accomplish very much.
On September 6, 1942, Fortresses attacked an aircraft factory at Meaulte, France. Crews flew part of the mission without fighter escort, after the fighters and bombers failed to meet up on time. This time, the bomber did not always get through. Two B-17Es were lost.
Soon, B-17F Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators were venturing deeper into occupied Europe, escorted part way by P-47 Thunderbolts. But German fighter defenses were formidable, and a typical bomber crew faced heavy odds against completing its assigned twenty-five missions.
The Luftwaffe began making head-on attacks from ten degrees above the centerline flight path of each bomber, the position the Americans called twelve o’clock high. A frontal attack required nerves of steel and unparalleled skill on the part of a Luftwaffe pilot. Later in the war, maintaining skill levels would become the greatest challenge facing Adolf Hitler’s air force. But if a Messerschmitt or Focke-Wulf pilot could ignore all the instincts that were shouting at him to peel off, and if he could stay on course for a closeup shot from the front, he had a strong chance of killing both of a bomber’s pilots. Even if the pilots survived, a frontal attack could confuse and break up a bomber formation. The B-17E had no real defense against a head-on firing pass, while a B-17Fs carried two cheek guns that were ineffective until their position in the nose was changed.
On December 1, 1942, Eaker replaced Spaatz as commander of the Eighth Air Force and pinned on a second star. On a December 20, 1942, mission, six B-17s were lost attacking a target without fighter escort.
Consultations between the British and the Americans became frequent as both tried to carve out a joint policy for using heavy bombers against the Third Reich. For almost a year, Britain’s Royal Air Force had been operating under an air ministry order directing RAF Bomber Command “… that the primary objective of your operations should be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular the industrial workers.” This was the highly controversial policy of area bombing, or bombing that made no allowance for sparing civilians, and it was a striking contrast to the American doctrine of daylight precision bombing of military and industrial targets. Already, bomber crewmembers were caught up in a controversy that would remain with them forever: Were they carrying out a legitimate mission against an enemy’s military under the law of war or were they (as the British were often all too ready to admit) engaged in terror bombing aimed at breaking the will of the German people?
This was one of many issues debated at the January 14 Casablanca Conference in French Morocco attended by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and France’s Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Large military staffs accompanied the leaders. Notably absent was the Soviet Union’s Premier Josef Stalin, who was preoccupied with the fighting at Stalingrad. It was at this conference that the Allies issued a declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers. This would become a controversy all its own. Was it really necessary? Could the war have been ended some other way, perhaps with lesser loss of life?
General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold was most concerned with this thought. He was an administrator, a leader who delegated authority. At Casablanca where he could have stood beside Air Chief Marshal “Arthur Bomber” Harris, Arnold chose instead to exert influence in the background but to allow Eaker (the most important advocate of precision bombing) to convene meetings and conduct briefings. The British and the Americans clearly had very different ideas about how to use four-engine airplanes to deposit bombs within the Third Reich. Eaker proved an excellent spokesman with his mix of modesty, knowledge, and persuasiveness.
It would be tempting to imagine Arnold’s and Harris’s lieutenants rolling up their sleeves, putting on their green shades, and squinting at reconnaissance photos taken by Allied camera planes, especially the nimble De Havilland Mosquito, which will reappear on these pages as the first victim of the Me 262. In fact, there is no evidence that these high-level meetings included lower level intelligence-sharing sessions. The Americans and British knew their plan to push bomber formations deeper into the Reich would be met by formations of flak and fighters that were plentiful, well equipped, and well manned. But even while searching for a formula to combat the Luftwaffe’s propeller-driven fighter force, did Arnold and Harris know that a second generation of jet fighters was being developed? Did they realize how fortunate they were that the Germans had not fielded the He 280 and that the Me 262 was taking longer than it should have? We do not know. The top brass responsible for paving the way for an Allied invasion of Europe appears to have paid little attention to German, British, or American development of jet aircraft.
Following the Casablanca conference, on January 21, 1943, the British area bombing directive was replaced by the Casablanca directive, which was approved by the combined chiefs of staff and was a key part of the British-American combined bomber offensive (CBO). The critical language in the Casablanca edict established the CBO’s prime objective as “… the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial, and economic systems and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened. Every opportunity to be taken to attack Germany by day to destroy objectives that are unsuitable for night attack, to sustain continuous pressure on German morale, to impose heavy losses on German day fighter force, and to [divert] German fighter strength away from the Russian and Mediterranean theatres of war.” The short version: the British would conduct area bombing at night, the Americans precision bombing by day.
And the air arm of the Third Reich would do its very best to knock them out of the sky.
THE ME 262’S BACKGROUND
The revolutionary design emerged from a 1938 Reichsluftfahrtministerium (Reich Air Ministry, the RLM) request for an aircraft to use two turbojet engines then being developed by the engine maker BMW, which was exploring the same technology that belatedly interested the Americans and the British. Optimists imagined that the BMW engine would offer 1,320 pounds of thrust and would be ready to be joined to an airframe by December 1939.
These, it must be remembered, were aviation people, not military people. Mostly anonymously, the men at RLM headquarters on Frederichstrasse in Berlin were civilians. While they were not immune to sucking up to Hitler or Göring, they did not come from military careers. It would have been unthinkable for a true military man such as Generalleutnant (Maj. Gen.) Adolf “Dolfo” Galland to perceive his role in the Luftwaffe as a stepping stone to a cushy job in the aviation industry. Hitler enforced an ironclad rule against military men going to work in the air industry or air ministry. In that era, unlike today, the United States had a similar proscription, but it was exerted by peer pressure, not by any written rule. In 1944, a general in either German or American forces would have deemed it beneath himself to accept employment in the civilian aviation world. Erhard Milch, the State Secretary for Aviation, was a military man, but after 1943, the RLM came under Albert Speer. Milch and his colleagues—mostly civilians—were mostly responsible for Me 262 development, and it is easy to wonder whether it might have happened more quickly had Milch not been a bitter enemy of Willy Messerschmitt.
The Messerschmitt team, initially headed by Woldenmar Voigt, envisioned an all-metal, low-winged monoplane with retractable landing gear and two turbojet engines mounted in the wing roots. Messerschmitt built a mockup in 1940. By then, of course, Germany was embroiled in war. It had at its disposal prospects for a truly revolutionary warfare, which, if it were developed on a timely basis, would almost certainly guarantee victory.
The Me 262 was a swept-wing design with the degree of sweep being modest at 18.5. This configuration addressed a range of aerodynamic considerations and offered the best prospect for a higher speed than conventional aircraft.
Perhaps the lack of initial enthusiasm was linked to the dismal performance of early jet engines. The BMW engine failed to materialize as planned. Junkers began developing the Jumo 004 turbojet, created by Anselm Franz. During its first run-ups in November 1940, the Jumo, too, performed poorly.
Test pilots Karl Baur and Fritz Wendel were on hand at the Messerschmitt facility at Augsberg, but no urgency was attached to the flight development of the Me 262. Of far greater concern to Messerschmitt were improvements to the Bf 109 and Bf 110 propeller-driven fighters (although Galland would soon recommend discontinuing production of both). The BMW engines initially meant for the new aircraft prototype arrived from Spandau in mid-November 1941, just in time for Wendel to attempt to fly the aircraft under both jet and prop power: he experienced a double flameout and cannot be said to have completed a jet flight.
Fortunately, an alternative to the touchy BMWs was available. Always under consideration in any event was the Junkers Jumo 004, developed by Dr. Anselm Franz’s engineering team.
In their adherence to axial compressors, German engine designers showed much courage and foresight. This type of compressor was difficult to construct and balance, and was susceptible to vibration and could be damaged far more easily than the tough centrifugal type of compressor. It became apparent that the acceleration rates, fuel efficiency, power output, and drag coefficients of axial-flow turbojets far exceeded the figures attained by the tougher and somewhat more reliable centrifugal types.
By August 1941, the Jumo 004 was giving 1,323 pounds of static thrust and many of its teething problems were being cured. Technicians installed Jumo 004s on the Me 262 V3, and this aircraft, bereft of piston engine but still with tail-wheel gear, made its first flight on July 18, 1941, in Wendel’s experienced hands. It looked correct in every way except for the absence of the finalized landing gear design; it flew beautifully, and henceforth the fortunes of the Me 262 were to rise at the expense of its nearest rival, the He 280. To the end, many German air experts felt certain a combat-ready He 280 was capable of being fielded earlier. Still, the project was eventually canceled in March 1943.
Service test pilots of the Erprobungsstelle (testing center) at Rechlin were enthusiastic about the Me 262 from the beginning. It was largely because of the urging of these pilots that Messerschmitt received contracts to produce prototypes for weapons and engines tests. The experienced Maj. Wolfgang Späte had already reported his findings when Galland flew the Me 262 V4 on May 22, 1943, and issued his celebrated written recommendation that the piston-engined Messerschmitt Me 209 A be cancelled and that the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and Me 262 become the only fighters being produced in the Reich. (The Bf 109 does not appear in Galland’s memorandum to Göring, but Galland clearly intended that the Bf 109 be discontinued).
Despite cancellation of the He 280, it was curiously true in both the United States and Germany that industry was designing, building, and testing a far wider variety of aircraft than would ever contribute to new knowledge, find any purpose, or fight any battles. The United States invested heavily in three pusher-engined, propeller-driven fighters, the XP-54, XP-55, and XP-56, which never were able to match the performance of prewar fighters and did little to advance technology. As we shall see, the Reich had a variety of fighter designs on the drawing boards long after Germany should have searched harder for priority and focus. Experimenting with weird and wonderful designs of little practical value was a luxury the Americans could afford and the Germans could not.
Speer seemed to have this on his mind in a famous quote late in the war, referring to the Reich’s diversity of wonder weapons:
We possessed a remote-control flying bomb, a rocket plane that was even faster than the jet plane [this, a reference to the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet], a rocket missile that homed on an enemy plane by tracking the heat rays from its motors, and a torpedo that reacted to sound and could thus pursue and hit a ship fleeing in a zigzag course. Development of a ground-to-air missile had been completed. The designer Lippisch had jet planes on the drawing board that were far in advance of anything so far known. We were literally suffering from an excess of projects in development [emphasis added]. Had we concentrated on only a few types we would surely have completed some of them sooner.
Speer was on record as favoring concentration on the V-2 rocket.
Galland’s recommendation was discussed at a conference in Berlin on May 25, 1943, but was not followed. Against its own best interest, Nazi Germany continued to manufacture too many aircraft of too many kinds until the final day of the war. That included the Bf 109. It had been a breakthrough when it first appeared in 1936 and had been the most advanced warplane in the Spanish Civil War, but by 1944 the Bf 109 was a design that couldn’t be improved upon any further. The Berlin conference achieved little in terms of focusing the Reich’s aircraft production priorities, but it did yield an all-important contract for one hundred Me 262s.
There was a good-news, bad-news story for the Reich’s air defenses on August 17, 1943. The good news for Hitler’s side was that the day marked a massacre of American bomber crews—losses the Eighth Air Force would not have been able to sustain. The bad news was that the bombing inflicted a setback on the Me 262 program.
For bomber crews, Schweinfurt-Regensburg—on the anniversary of the first, puny bombing mission dispatched by the Eighth Air Force—was a horror. Two hundred thirty bombers launched against Schweinfurt and another 146 against aircraft factories in Regensburg. Sixty were lost before returning to base, and another eighty-seven had to be scrapped due to irreparable damage.
Over Regensburg, supremely experienced German pilots attacked, slashed through the bomber formations from the front, and shot down twenty-four Flying Fortresses. Many of the attacks came from twelve o’clock high. German gun camera film portrays the majesty of a Flying Fortress under attack, but it also depicts B-17s catching fire, breaking up, sometimes tumbling end over end, the crewmembers inside often pinned by gravity forces and sometimes burned by flash fires. In addition to the shootdowns, the Luftwaffe defenders damaged fifty more bombers during the first stage of the day’s fight over Regensburg. At this stage of the war, Germany had plenty of battle-seasoned pilots, the Americans were still feeling their way, and the battle was one-sided. Despite all the years the Americans had spent forging their daylight precision-bombing doctrine, the Germans were winning a mighty battle high in the freezing sky and seemed closer to winning the campaign. Some Luftwaffe pilots talked of halting the American bomber offensive in its tracks. Having begun their air campaign so recently with such spirit and optimism, the Americans were being defeated.
Unknown to the Americans, the Regensburg portion of the air attack destroyed most of the manufacturing jigs for the Me 262. Anything that delayed the German jets was a huge plus for the Allies. The results at Regensburg were better than just anything: the Reich’s air industry was forced to disperse Me 262 production into small, crude factories hidden in deep forests. This imposed a requirement to transport assembled components for final assembly amid chaos in the German transportation network, and this hurdle significantly delayed completion of the first jets.
In the second phase of Schweinfurt-Regensburg, the day’s fighting, 183 Flying Fortresses attacked Schweinfurt’s ball-bearing plants. Ball-bearing factories were vulnerable and losing them would cramp the Reich’s war effort. But the execution was flawed. Again, Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs ripped into the bomber formations. The Luftwaffe extracted a horrendous toll—thirty-six Flying Fortresses shot down, including two that ditched in the frigid North Sea. Total B-17 losses at Schweinfurt-Regensburg were 60 aircraft lost, 4 damaged beyond repair, and 168 damaged.
U.S. planners rated Schweinfurt-Regensburg a disaster and as a warning that the entire plan for bombing Germany might be a prescription for failure. This first of two disastrous missions to Schweinfurt removed any doubt that bombers needed help protecting themselves and that some way would have to be found to extend fighter cover all the way to the target.
To the great satisfaction of everyone of high rank in the Third Reich, the Americans now took their next step in the deadly confrontation unfolding in the high blue over occupied Europe.
They backed off.