Belatedly, in July 1944, the Messerschmitt Me 262 went into front-line service in its first operational unit.
The unit evolved from Erprobungskommando 262, or EKdo 262. Its first commander, the accomplished ace Hauptman (Capt.) Werner Thierfelder, twenty-eight, lost his life on July 18, 1944, when his Me 262 crashed for reasons that are unclear but remind us that Me 262 operations were hampered by parts and supply shortages, irregular availability of fuel, and overall reliability issues. At one juncture, the Reich would lose ten Me 262s in six weeks to noncombat causes.
Austria-born, 258-kill air ace Walter Nowotny, twenty-three, replaced Thierfelder. Nowotny was well liked by fellow pilots but few others. He was full of himself. He was better at shooting than at leading. A seasoned Bf 109 and Fw 190 veteran of fighting on the Eastern Front, he had no credentials for leadership or organization, but to his credit, he formed the unit, later to be named after him as Kommando Nowotny, while continuing to fly operational missions and claiming three aerial victories in the newfangled jet.
Essentially a trial-and-development unit, Kommando Nowotny holds the distinction of having mounted the world’s first jet fighter operations. Trials continued slowly, with initial operational missions against the Allies in August 1944 allegedly downing nineteen Allied aircraft for six Me 262s lost. However, these claims can’t be verified by cross-checking with Army Air Forces records and the Royal Air Force Museum holds no intelligence reports of RAF aircraft engaging in combat with Me 262s in August, although there is a report of an unarmed encounter between an Me 262 and a Mosquito.
The unit took shape at a succession of airfields near Osnabrück, suffered painful attrition rates, and never resolved the Me 262’s teething troubles. Nowotny was a genuine pioneer in testing and developing tactics to employ the Me 262 in combat, but he was also difficult and, to some, strange. He appears to have totally ignored orders to remain on the ground while introducing a new form of warfare to the skies. He was an intensely superstitious young man and always wore a particular pair of trousers that had served him well in an earlier action—his “victory pants,” as he called them.
Nowotny was said to have become cockier after being summoned to a personal audience with Adolf Hitler and being awarded the Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillanten (Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds), making him the eighth of twenty-seven men to be so honored. Superstitious, a perfectionist, confident, and arrogant, Nowotny never ceased showing himself to be a better pilot than a leader: his fledgling unit with newly delivered Me 262s was being so poorly administered that pilots complained outside the chain of command. Generalleutnant (Maj. Gen.) Adolf “Dolfo” Galland, on a visit to Nowotny’s unit (described in greater detail in the next chapter), was bombarded with complaints that the Me 262 was not ready for battle.
It may have been like a homesick angel when it tucked in its wheels, broke free from the airfield pattern, and vaulted to medium or high altitudes where it performed best, but the Me 262 was hindered by more than logistical issues and the all-too-familiar reliability problems with jet engines. Although the existence of the Me 262 quickly became well known throughout the Reich and outside it, the rules dictating secrecy were an additional hindrance. Some supply and support contractors were physically prevented from doing their jobs by the guards who maintained things and by loose—but at times, pervasive—security around jet bases.
Although the Me 262 was a straightforward design operating from relatively primitive airfields, Nowotny, in particular, stressed to pilots the importance of secrecy, a tradition he passed on to his successors. Hans Busch, the youngster from Lübeck who had flown gliders in the Hitlerjungen, the Hitler Youth, took the proscription most seriously. Wrote Busch:
We were sternly instructed to never, ever talk to anyone, military or civilian, about this aircraft. Secrecy was enforced! We used to take pictures of us sitting in all sorts of aircraft or standing in front of one, but with the Me 262 that was an absolute NO! NO! That’s why relatively speaking so few pictures of the Me 262 are available today. Together with expert pilots with lots of flying experience and many combat missions under their belts, we ten [new pilots] formed a flight training group and maintained rigid secrecy.
Nowotny, Busch, and the others were being asked to go into battle in an aircraft that performed beautifully at altitude and was remarkably quiet inside the cockpit. “No aircraft we had flown or seen so far looked as sleek or as streamlined,” wrote Busch. But the aircraft had plenty of problems when taxying or operating in the airfield pattern. Busch was constantly having problems with the brakes and with the nose wheel. He wrote:
The nose wheel was a weak part of the aircraft. We were careful not to put too much stress on it. It was not steerable; in other words it was freewheeling. At one time when I turned the aircraft at the end of the runway into takeoff position I made a mistake and stepped on the right brake just a little too hard. The aircraft promptly swung around, but then it would not move forward any more. The nosewheel had flipped into a crossway position.
Busch was stuck with no choice but to “idle the engines, unbuckle the seat belt, unbuckle the parachute, disconnect the radio, open the cockpit, jump to the ground and kick the nose wheel very hard with my foot until it was in an about 45-degree position,” he wrote.
With very limited information, U.S. intelligence experts searched for a flaw in the Me 262. Over time, they would conclude that the jet fighter relied on poor structural workmanship and that its flight duration could vary from forty-five to ninety minutes. The intelligence officers were many months away from actually getting their hands on a real Me 262, but they were already deciding that if U.S. fighters were going to defeat the Me 262, the place to do it would be close to the ground, in the airfield pattern.
July 26, 1944
On July 26, 1944, Leutnant (Lieutenant) Alfred “Bubi” Schreiber intercepted and attacked a De Havilland Mosquito PR XVI, a photoreconnaissance aircraft from No. 544 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, while piloting a Messerschmitt Me 262A-1a.
Schreiber did several things that had never been done before. One was to mount a serious challenge to the Mosquito, the all-wood, twin-engine British warplane that until now had sailed over the Reich on a daily basis with almost total impunity. Adolf Hitler called the Mosquito “imprudent” and shook his head in contempt when he added, “and it’s made of wood!” The Führer personally regarded the Mosquito as a thorn in his side. His “wonder weapons,” he hoped, would finally enable his pilots to counter the aircraft he considered both a threat and a pest.
The all-wood Mosquito was in some ways the most useful Allied aircraft of World War II. It flew fast and high, and Hitler and Göring looked up and could do nothing about it. They would essentially be defenseless until they could put a wonder weapon up to confront the plane the Brits called the “wooden wonder.”
When De Havilland proposed the Mosquito, nobody was interested. A twin-engine, two-man bomber with no defensive armament was an ideal that some RAF officers called laughable. But the Mosquito was fast and nimble, and it performed well in an attack on Gestapo headquarters in Oslo, which was thwarted by dud bombs. High-speed, precision air strikes became the stock in trade for the Mosquito, which also adapted quickly to other missions.
A typical Mosquito was pulled through the air by two 1,480-horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin 21/21 or 23/23 liquid-cooled V-12 engines, the same powerplant that would eventually enable the P-51 Mustang to prevail over the Luftwaffe. The two-man, tail-dragger Mosquito had a wingspan of fifty-four feet two inches (almost thirteen feet greater than the Me 262) and a maximum takeoff weight of 18,649 pounds (compared to 15,720 pounds for a typical Me 262).
When the Mosquito entered production in 1941, it was one of the fastest operational aircraft in the world. Entering widespread service in 1942, the Mosquito first operated as a high-speed, high-altitude photo reconnaissance aircraft, and it continued in this role throughout the war. From mid-1942 to mid-1943 Mosquito bombers were used in high-speed, medium-, or low-altitude missions, attacking factories, railways, and other pinpoint targets within Germany and German-occupied Europe. From late 1943, Mosquito bomber units were formed into the Light Night Strike Force and used as pathfinders for Royal Air Force Bomber Command’s heavy-bomber raids. They were also used as nuisance bombers, often dropping four thousand–pound “cookies” (bombs) in high-altitude, high-speed raids that German night fighters were almost powerless to intercept.
Almost four dozen versions of the Mosquito carried out every wartime duty, from whisking spies behind the lines to photo mapping enemy territory. Precision bombing of special targets—Amiens prison, Gestapo headquarters in the Hague, V-1 “buzz bomb” launching sites—persisted throughout the war. Each time, the Mosquito demonstrated its unique ability to strike fast, hit hard, and get away clean.
Small wonder “Bubi” Schreiber regarded his target very seriously when he locked onto a Mosquito and launched the first air-to-air encounter in history involving a jet aircraft. He didn’t know, at first, that he was going to have the encounter. It was a beautiful day for flying, and Schreiber, who loved to fly, was simply very glad to be in the air.
Author James Neal Harvey wrote, “It was a warm, sunny day, and there had been no reports of an impending attack by American bombers. This would be a routine training flight, although the magazines of the aircraft’s four Mk-108 cannons were fully loaded. Schreiber enjoyed flying the jet and was proud of having been selected to join Ekdo 262 [his jet unit]. Because he’d logged many hours in [Messerschmitt] Bf 110s, he found the transition to the new [aircraft] relatively easy.”
He didn’t know a Mosquito was coming. The first Allied pilot to fight Hitler’s jets, arriving over the Reich at a combat speed of about 430 miles per hour, was Flight Lt. Albert E. “Bertie” Wall. He was at the controls of the Mosquito approaching Schreiber and could not have known about the impending encounter either. Wall and his navigator Albert Sinclair “Jock” Lobban had every reason to believe they would make it safely home today.
As he cruised over the German countryside, Schreiber had to be happy that he’d made a smooth takeoff, despite the unreliability of his jet engines and the weak construction of the Me 262’s nose wheel. Once away from the airfield pattern, where he could be vulnerable to marauding American fighters, Schreiber was at the controls of what he later called “a super ship to fly,” smoothly responsive to his hand on the controls and free of torque or vibration. Instead of the clattering of pistons and propeller, Schreiber could detect only a faint whisper from his engines. Decent weather was rare in northern Europe, and Schreiber was going to make the most of what was intended as a short check flight.
Not that anyone ever made a long flight in the 262. Schreiber and his fellow pilots were under a restriction that required them to land after fifty minutes since the “wonder weapon” jet was good for only about an hour in the air.
Schreiber spotted the Mosquito, poured on the power, and engaged. For possibly the first time ever, a Mosquito was under attack from an aircraft that was faster than it was. Wall apparently thought at first that he was going to outrun his attacker, just as he’d outrun Bf 109s and Fw 190s in the past. He pushed his throttles to full power, looked back over his shoulder, and saw Schreiber’s Me 262 pass him by and pull up to the right above him.
But Wall believed his aircraft was more maneuverable. He was right: the Mosquito had a wing loading of forty-eight pounds per square foot while the figure for the Me 262 was sixty-five pounds. At just the moment Schreiber spotted the Mosquito and banked to attack it, Lobban saw the German jet and shouted a warning over the intercom. Just as Schreiber’s gloved thumb came down on the trigger for his four MK-108 cannons, Wall made a sharp, tight turn to the left and turned inside the Me 262.
Cannon shells ripped through the air. Three times, Schreiber repeated his maneuver, and each time Wall broke and turned inside the attacker. Schreiber thought he saw his rounds striking the Mosquito. He saw a piece of the aircraft fall off. He knew he had a kill. In German records, he would receive credit for the first air-to-air victory by a jet fighter.
When Wall and Lobban heard a muffled explosion, they, too, thought they’d been hit and perhaps mortally damaged. Wall ordered Lobban to open the emergency hatch in preparation for bailing out. When he did so, Lobban learned that the explosion had been the outer hatch blowing off due to the intensity of their maneuver. That was the piece Schreiber had seen.
Schreiber and his fellow pilots later looked at gun camera footage from his Me 262. It showed the Mosquito taking hits and a piece of the aircraft flying loose while the Mosquito itself plummeted downward. They celebrated the kill. They had no way to know that Wall nursed the Mosquito over the Austrian Alps and landed at Fermo, Italy. Schreiber apparently was luckier a few days later when he engaged a Spitfire and shot it down.
August 28, 1944
Major General William Kepner, the tough-as-nails boss of XIII Fighter Command—the air-to-air component of the Eighth Air Force—had been briefed on German jets and knew about the Me 163 and Me 262. Once the long-awaited Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe was underway (observed from overhead by an Arado Ar 234 jet reconnaissance aircraft), Kepner began getting more intelligence on Adolf Hitler’s “wonder weapons” and ideas to combat them. Kepner had already freed up his new P-51 Mustangs—the first U.S. fighter easily able to escort bombers all the way to targets deep inside the Reich—so that Mustang pilots could roam ahead of the bomber formations and, where appropriate, attack airfields. Now, Kepner realized that even the vaunted Me 262 could become meat on the table when operating in its airfield pattern.
On August 28, 1944, Kepner’s men came up against Oberfeldwebel (First Sergeant) Hieronymus “Rony” Lauer, a straightforward, clean-cut young man who exuded quiet confidence and seemed incapable of being afraid.
He’d been living on the edge longer than any of the Americans who were fighting Hitler’s jets. Lauer joined the Luftwaffe in 1937 and was in pilot training at the start of the war, in those early days when the Luftwaffe could afford the time for the same kind of rigorous training program that was typical of the Americans. That luxury would vanish, though, and Lauer would eventually find himself fighting alongside men with relatively little experience.
With an initial assignment similar to that of his fellow pilot Hans Busch, Lauer flew the twin-prop Junkers Ju 88 in the Mediterranean theater. In 1944, he was transferred to unit 1/KG51 for training on the Me 262 and flew in combat a few months later. He appeared to have a natural feel for the jet aircraft and to be stoic about its flaws. Lauer was to achieve several “firsts” as a jet pilot and one was becoming the first Me 262 pilot claimed as an aerial victory by the Allies.
It happened when Maj. Joseph Myers led the Surtax Blue Flight of P-47 Thunderbolts of the 82nd Fighter Squadron, 78th Fighter Group, on a fighter sweep at eleven thousand feet near Termonde, Belgium. At 7:15 p.m., Myers saw what he thought was a B-26 Marauder going south very fast and very low. He dove at forty-five degrees registering 450 miles per hour and got right above the aircraft at five thousand feet, observing that it was painted slate blue with no markings. The plane began doing ninety-degree-wide evasive turns, apparently demonstrating in the process what many pilots would conclude later—that it could not turn inside a P-47. Myers cut him off and closed in to within eight hundred yards. That’s when Myers remembered that intelligence officers had shown him recognition plats of a new aircraft called the Me 262. The pilot: Rony Lauer.
Lauer’s guns weren’t even loaded. He was ferrying the Me 262 on a transfer from Juvincourt, near Reims, France, to Chievres, Belgium.
Myers and 2nd Lt. Manford O. Croy Jr. latched on and chased Lauer. As Myers held his thumb over the firing switch, Lauer slowed down and crashed in a plowed field. Myers started shooting as the M2 262 touched the ground and continued pumping bursts into it at close quarters, getting hits in the cockpit and both engines. The Me 262 skidded across a field, on fire. Lauer leaped out and ran. By then Croy was opening up with his eight .50-caliber guns, and the after-action report indicated that Croy hit the pilot as he ran from the jet. In fact, Lauer was never touched. Myers and Croy are each credited with one-half of an air-to-air victory, officially the first American kill of a jet.
Lauer wasn’t finished being shot down—it would happen again—but at the very time Allied armies were making a breakout in France, there was a lull in engagements.
October 2, 1944
He was a big guy in a big plane. The good-natured giant from Milford, New Hampshire, Val Beaudrault, had been “the guy who always did the blocking on end-around plats, who usually got hit by three opposing linemen on trick formation,” remembered Sgt. Bill Davidson. When he had been a machinist, “he was the one who had to wrestle the heavy equipment all over the floor,” Davidson said. Now Beaudrault was wrestling with the heaviest single-engine American fighter of the war, the brute P-47 Thunderbolt. He was on his fourth P-47, named Miss Pussy IV after his girlfriend, Priscilla Pero. This war was tough on airplanes, and plenty of pilots lasted longer than their planes did.
It was late afternoon, October 2, 1944. Beaudrault’s 386th Fighter Squadron, 365th Fighter Group, the “Hell Hawks,” was on patrol southwest of Münster.
A muscular man at the controls of a muscular aircraft, one in which he had complete confidence even though it required constant monitoring, Beaudrault coaxed his P-47 along in a cold sky of good visibility with 7/10 multilayer cloud cover. Suitably for a fighter leader, he had grown an impressive moustache. His hair was brown with a reddish tinge, but the “cookie doctor,” as he called it, was flaming red, a fitting adornment for an air warrior who would have looked good with a red flying scarf if he’d had one.
He was leading Plastic Blue Flight, a brace of four of the seven-ton Thunderbolts. Val Beaudrault had never heard of a man named Rony Lauer but was about to try to kill him.
“My God!” shouted 1st Lt. Robert Teeter, the number three pilot in the flight. “What is that?”
“Let’s see what that sonofabitch is,” Beaudrault said. He went into an abrupt climb, mindful that the cloud cover around him was tricky. His two-plane element, consisting of Beaudrault and 1st Lt. William F. “Pete” Peters, lost the rest of the squadron in the overcast. They were alone.
They went down below the clouds again and then Beaudrault spotted the same adversary.
“I sighted a bogie at 10 o’clock slightly low and in a shallow drive,” Beaudrault wrote in his after-action report. A bogie was an unidentified aircraft, but a later Stars & Stripes story about the next few minutes would put Beaudrault in the middle of an aerial boogie—a dance. If a strong, fast beat was part of it, maybe the faux term wasn’t so out of place after all. Val Beaudrault was flying into a jet plane boogie.
“I dropped my belly tank and led Plastic Blue Flight in a dive after him. The enemy aircraft turned toward us and steepened his dive to approximately 40 degrees, passing low and approximately 150 yards in front of me,” Beaudrault added in his report.
The bogie was playing around. It seemed to slow down and let them come within range. And then it whipped around and passed within 150 yards.
“It’s got wings like a C-47,” said Beaudrault.
“No C-47 ever traveled along at five hundred miles an hour,” said Peters.
“It’s got a tail like a P-51.”
“You never saw a P-51 with a paint job like that.” Peters was a relatively new replacement pilot from Cold Spring, Minnesota, who may not have attended briefings about the remarkable new flying machines the Germans were building.
“He did a sharp, 360-degree turn,” Beaudrault wrote. “However, I had no trouble turning inside of him with my P-47. During these maneuvers I failed to definitely identify the aircraft, so consequently held my fire. The aircraft then rolled out of the turn and applied full throttle and started to pull away, even though I was using full throttle and water injection.
“It seemed, however, to take a few seconds for the jet [engines] to take effect. At this time I took a few pictures with my gun camera. The aircraft flew straight, taking evasive action for approximately one minute. At this time I saw a second similar aircraft come in from the right and pull up sharply into a very steep climb at about 45 degrees. I saw my wingman Lt. Peters pull up after him. However, [Peters] could not climb as fast and fell behind. I then saw the aircraft I was chasing suddenly lose power.”
The fast, nimble Me 262, which flew so very well once freed from the bonds of the airfield pattern, was always vulnerable to power issues and Beaudrault was now ready to seize the advantage. At the controls of the fleeing jet in front of Val Beaudrault was Oberfeldwebel (First Sergeant) Hieronymus “Rony” Lauer, a straightforward, clean-cut young man who exuded quiet confidence. If the name seems familiar it’s because of Lauer’s dubious distinction as the first Me 262 pilot to be shot down, sort of, by Maj. Joseph Myers and 2nd Lt. Manford O. Croy Jr. of Surtax Blue Flight five weeks earlier. Another pilot described Lauer as fearless, which was the right trait at the right time. After all, he had been living on the edge for a long time and now his aircraft was faltering and Beaudrault was closing in behind him, hand on trigger.
This should have been Lauer’s day to die.
Possibly his long history in the Luftwaffe dating to 1937 gave Lauer just enough additional experience to evade the inevitable. He knew he could not turn inside a P-47, not with sixty-five pounds per square foot of wing load pressing down on his Me 262 while the Thunderbolt bore just forty-five. He knew he should have outrun his foe, but that he had missed his chance by allowing Beaudrault to get into firing position.
Lauer struggled with his controls and pondered the best way to go in the only possible direction—down.
In an official account, white puffs of smoke sputtered from the Me 262 and then stopped. “The German was out of fuel. Now it was Beaudrault’s turn,” the report read. “The German, in a 300-mile-an-hour glide, tried to take evasive action by slipping from side to side. Beaudrault moved in close for the final burst. The German slipped sideways a bit too much and hit the ground.”
The account continued: “There was a tremendous explosion. Beaudrault made a pass over the field, but there was nothing left but a fearfully burning fire and shining pieces of aluminum scattered over three acres.”
It’s unclear where the explosion or the burning field came from, but both would undoubtedly be a surprise to Rony Lauer, who had survived being shot down in an Me 262 a second time. Beaudrault’s after-action report cites no explosion or fire. Beaudrault wrote: “After I saw him strike the ground I immediately pulled up sharply to assist my wingman [Peters]. Consequently, I had no opportunity to photograph the crash. When I reached my wingman, he was chasing the other [Me 262] around in a circle and as I approached the aircraft went into a 10 to 15 degree dive and disappeared into clouds.”
The P-47 Thunderbolt was back in the air against the Me 262 on October 7, 1944, when the busy 78th Fighter Group was on the prowl in the Osnabrück area. Major Richard E. Conner peered from his Thunderbolt at twenty-four thousand feet and, far below, saw two blurred objects in high-speed motion climbing toward the bombers he was escorting. Conner used hand signals to two P-47 pilots alongside and the trio went into a rapid dive. It appeared to Conner that the unidentified aircraft below were moving faster.
Author William N. Hess wrote:
The P-47s’ pursuit paid off when the Me 262s ran short of fuel and began to circle an airfield. As Conner closed on one of the aircraft, it came back toward him in a head-on pass. The Thunderbolt pilot easily turned inside the pass and fired a ninety-degree deflection burst. The 262 then headed for the airdrome, and Conner closed rapidly when the jet lowered its landing gear. The P-47 pilot let fly with a long burst that scored many strikes on the enemy aircraft. As Conner overran the 262, his wingmen watched as it crashed on the airfield. The downed Me 262 was from Kampfgeschwader 51, or KG 51 (Bomber Group 51) “Edelweiss,” and, although the Americans did not report it, the German pilot is said to have bailed out.
On the day of Conner’s aerial victory, P-51 Mustang pilots 1st Lt. Elmer T. Taylor and 1st Lt. Willard G. Erfkamp of the 364th Fighter Group encountered one of the pesky Me 163 Komet rocket planes and teamed up to shoot it down. Its pilot, with the surname Husser, survived. But despite the volatility and flaws that came hand in hand with the Me 163, rocket pilots claimed credit for two B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers shot down that day. Fortress bombardier 2nd Lt. Stuart W. Jakku of the 457th Bombardment Group had been married for just four weeks when his bomber went down and his crew perished.
October 7, 1944
The day wore on. October 7, 1944, was a long day over Europe for American bomber crews and fighter pilots, including 1st Lt. Urban L. “Ben” Drew of the 361st Fighter Group—one-time moviegoer and former instructor and sometime screw-up from Detroit—who was at the controls of a sleek new P-51 Mustang.
Leading his squadron that day, Drew was taking his P-51 pilots home after escorting B-17s to a target in Brux, Czechoslovakia. As testimony to the range of the P-51, Drew still had fuel in his external tanks. He called and received radio permission to swoop down on a pair of Me 262s of Kommando Nowotny, based at Achmer and that someone had spotted while the jets were on the ground.
Drew wrote: “I watched them for a while and saw one of them start to taxi. The lead ship was in takeoff position for a formation takeoff. I waited until they were both airborne and then I rolled over from 15,000 feet and headed for the attack with my flight behind me.” The German jets were impressive, but the sight of four factory-fresh Mustangs in a near-vertical dive, glinting in the sun while rushing downward at high speed, had to be remarkable.
With Capt. Bruce Rowlett and 2nd Lt. Robert K. McCandliss close behind him, Drew watched the pair of Me 262s grow in his gunsight. A protective screen of Focke-Wulf Fw 190s (the long-nosed Fw 190D-9 or “Dora” version) was supposed to be protecting the airfield, but for reasons unknown they were nowhere to be seen. Leutnant (2nd Lt.) Gerhard Kobert and Oberfeldwebel (First Sgt.) Heinz Arnold were in a position where no Me 262 pilot wanted to find himself—vulnerable in the airfield pattern.
Drew wrote that he “caught up with one Me 262 when he was 1,000 feet off the ground. I was indicating 450 miles per hour. The Me 262 couldn’t have been going more than 200 miles per hour. I started firing from approximately 400 yards, 30 degrees defection, and as I closed, I saw hits all over the wings and fuselage. Just as I passed him [Kobert], I saw a sheet of flame come out from near the right wing root and as I glanced back I saw gigantic explosions and a sheet of red flame over an area of 1,000 feet.”
McCandliss was hoping to bag an Me 262. “I’ve got a shot,” Drew heard McCandliss say. “Long range, but I have a shot.”
Drew was surprised when the second Me 262 tried to climb away. Had the jet been moving at high speed at the beginning of the encounter, it would have gotten away. However, while the Me 262 was faster than a P-51, it did not accelerate faster. Drew turned inside the jet and closed in. He opened fire and saw hits striking the Me 262’s tail section.
Wrote Drew: “Just then, the canopy flew off in two sections and the plane rolled over and went into a flat spin. The aircraft hit the ground on its back at about a sixty-degree angle. I did not see the pilot bail out, and the enemy aircraft exploded violently. As I looked back at the two wrecks, I saw two mounting columns of black smoke.”
Instead of bagging his own Me 262, McCandliss found himself eyeball-to-eyeball with a flak battery. Drew last saw McCandliss when McCandliss’s P-51 went into a veering steep turn, spraying pieces of debris in its wake.
When Drew returned to base, he found that not only had his wingman failed to return after being hit by flak following Drew’s victories, but the gun camera also failed. The only eyewitness to Drew’s extraordinary boldness over Ahmer during the war—McCandliss—was in the process of becoming a prisoner of war at a Stalag. Only after the war did Drew learn his wingman had survived. That’s when McCandliss described his Me 262 encounter as “like trying to catch a motorcycle while on a bicycle.” Drew was the first and only Allied pilot to shoot down two German jet aircraft in one aerial combat, the first operational losses of Kommando Novotny, but recognition did not come until long after the war (on May 12, 1983), when he was belatedly awarded the Air Force Cross.
On a subsequent mission, Drew and two wingmen destroyed the only Luftwaffe six-engine flying boat at Schlaalsee seaplane base in northern Germany. This six-engine aircraft was later acknowledged to be a Blohm und Voss BV 238 V1, a new very long-range, flying-boat bomber that had just finished its operational tests and with which Adolf Hitler had hoped to attack New York and Washington. It was also an aircraft Hitler aide Martin Bormann wanted available in case Hitler and other Reich leaders needed a means of escape from embattled Berlin.
The BV 238 was the heaviest aircraft ever flown when it made its initial flight on March 11, 1944. It was the largest flying boat and the largest Axis aircraft.
Some historical accounts say the BV 238 survived Drew’s attack and was later destroyed by British Hawker Typhoons or Tempests. Either way, with the prototype sunk, the BV 238 program was abandoned and the aircraft was no longer a candidate to bomb the U.S. East Coast or to carry Adolf Hitler to safety in Antarctica, or Argentina—or somewhere.
Drew believed he had destroyed a Blohm und Voss BV 222 Wiking (Viking), the four-engine flying boat that was nearly as large, far more reliable, and equally a perfect candidate for both long-range bombing and leadership evacuation missions. Long after the war, researchers contacted Drew and told him their research indicated he’d wrecked the sole BV 238, the largest aircraft to be destroyed during the war.
During the war, a German newspaper reported that one of the thirteen BV 222s built flew via the North Pole to Sakhalin Island, the southern half of which was then part of the Japanese Empire (the northern half being Russian), prior to April 1944. The news story accurately reflected a capability that fascinated Bormann—the only Reich official who devoted a lot of time and attention to anticipating the need for a postwar escape by the Nazi leadership—but the flight to Japan apparently never took place.
October 12, 1944
Drew and other Eighth Air Force pilots were now able to use personal experience to inform and prepare others. Intelligence officers were now able to pore over maps of German airfields—nothing is more difficult to hide than a paved runway—and to discern when and where Me 163s and Me 262s would be most vulnerable. Having been freed up to roam away from the bomber formations, having learned that they could easily turn inside the jets once a maneuvering contest began, and having experienced how vulnerable the jets were in the airfield pattern, the P-51 pilots were becoming more and more confident.
On October 12, 1944, officer Robert W. “Bob” Cole in a British Hawker Tempest V fighter of No. 3 Squadron, Royal Air Force, shot down an Me 262 of KG 51. It was the first jet kill by a Tempest. Cole’s air speed indicator was reading 480 miles per hour, yet the jet was pulling away. For reasons unclear, the Me 262 slowed down, Cole started shooting, and the jet fell in Allied territory, badly wrecked but a treasure for intelligence experts. A Cole’s adversary, Unteroffizier (Corporal) Edmond Delatowski, bailed out, landed behind German lines, and emerged from the encounter with minor wounds. About a dozen other encounters in October resulted in Me 262s shooting down at least two British fighters and half a dozen bombers. One Me 262 pilot lost his life in a strike with a flock of birds.
The month of October 1944 was marked by a lull in encounters between German jets and American fighters. Official U.S. records do not support the widely reported sharing of an Me 262 aerial victory by Col. Hubert “Hub” Zemke and 1st Lt. Norman Benoit on October 7. Moreover, German records confirm that the Zemke-Benoit duo actually bagged a propeller-driven Messerschmitt Bf 109. The first American kill of the month occurred on October 15, when 1st Lt. Hugh O. Foster damaged an Me 262 and 2nd Lt. Huie H. Lamb Jr. shot one down. Foster and Lamb were P-47 Thunderbolt pilots of the 78th Fighter Group, and Lamb’s adversary was Feldwebel (Sgt.) Edgar Junghans.
Leutnant (Lieutenant) Alfred “Bubi” Schreiber, previously renowned for his duel with a speeding Mosquito, was credited with shooting down a Lockheed Lightning—a P-38 fighter or an F-5 photo ship—on October 29. It marked the end of a busy month.
November 1, 1944
On November 1, 1944, Me 262s from Kommando Nowotny tangled with Thunderbolts of the 56th Fighter Group and Mustangs of the 20th and 352nd Fighter Groups. Two of the P-47 pilots, 1st Lt. Walter R. Groce and 2nd Lt. William T. Gerbe Jr., shared an aerial victory credit.
The following day, after a period of down time spent reorganizing, the buglike Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket fighter was back in action. Jagdgeschwader 400 (Fighter Group 400), or JG 400, commanded by the busy Maj. Wolfgang Späte, sent about a dozen Me 163s into the air from their base at Brandis. The Komets were going to use their limited fuel time of about nine minutes to confront American bomber formations boring toward petroleum targets in the Reich.
High over central Germany east of Leipzig, Capt. Fred Glover—called Freddie, from Ashville, North Carolina, and already an ace—was leading the 4th Fighter Group at the controls of a P-51 Mustang. He was minding a formation of four-engine bombers churning along at twenty-five thousand feet and was searching the sky alertly when he saw a blemish in motion. An Me 163 appeared in front of the bombers and dived toward them. Glover called in the sighting, dropped his external fuel tanks, and accelerated straight on toward the Me 163. Other pilots in Glover’s formation were distracted by a gaggle of Bf 109s and sent two of them falling to earth. What the American Mustang men failed to see was that other Me 163s shot down two bombers, while gunners from those bombers bagged a pair of Me 163s, killing both German pilots, Oberfeldwebel (First Sgt.) Horst Rolly and Oberfeldwebel (First Sgt.) Herbert Straznicky.
Glover overshot the Me 163 and turned to approach it from behind. He unleashed his Mustang’s six .50-caliber guns and saw hits on the tail, wings, and fuselage of the Me 163. He was drawing closer to fire again when the underside of the rocket plane erupted in an orange torrent of fire. Glover swept past, saw that the Me 163’s tail was shot off, its canopy remained affixed, and Oberfeldwebel (First Sgt.) Gunther Andreas was struggling to get out.
Andreas told author Stephen Ransom, “I … attempted to jettison the canopy in case I had to bail out should the aircraft start to burn. At 600 [kilometers per hour], the canopy would not budge—it had probably been jammed by the enemy’s fire.”
Andreas slowed down, was able to jettison the canopy, and wriggled out of the Komet while it was in a dive. He was able to hit the silk and was seen dangling beneath a parachute. While Glover and Andreas were testing each other, another 4th group Mustang ace, Capt. Louis H. Norley, saw an Me 163 moving into position behind him. Norley made his first-ever use of a device that was being newly installed on Mustangs, the K-14 gyroscopic lead-computing gunsight.
With his air speed indicator at 450 miles per hour, Norley got off a burst, saw his rounds hit the tail of the Me 163, and closed in. He actually had to retard his throttle to remain in a tight turn behind the Komet. It wasn’t good enough. Norley lost his adversary momentarily, maneuvered into firing position again, and fired again. The German pilot, Jacob Bollenrath, ignited the rocket engine briefly, but lost control as more .50-caliber rounds poured into the Komet. The Me 163 went down and exploded. Bollenrath was killed. His was the last Me 163 to be downed by Eighth Air Force Mustang pilots.