At the start of November 1944, no fewer than seven P-47 Thunderbolt pilots had achieved success against Me 262s: Joseph Myers and Manford Croy on August 28; Richard Conner and Ben Drew on October 1; Huie Lamb on October 25; and Walter Groce and William Gerbe on November 1. The newly arrived P-51 Mustang was marking its mark in profound ways, but had not yet bagged a jet.
This would be no easy task for the Mustang men. In early 1944, German defenses were formidable. Under the command of Gen. Gunter Korten, the Luftwaffe pulled back many of its far-flung fighter squadrons to defend the Reich. The Eighth Air Force’s primary targets, German centers of production and operation, were ringed by hundreds of deadly 88mm antiaircraft guns. The morale of the German citizenry on the ground was high.
On November 6, 1944, some P-47s were still in the air—one piloted by 1st Lt. William J. Quinn who was the next Thunderbolt pilot to be credited with a kill of an Me 262. But most of the action took place when four combat groups of the newly arrived P-51 Mustangs escorted B-24 Liberator heavy bombers near Minden, Germany. Although one Mustang was lost near Minden, it was not in air-to-air combat. Major Robert Foy of the 357th Fighter Group, “The Yoxford Boys,” was leading the Mustang formation. When the Me 262s arrived in force, the Mustang men were ready for them. Foy tangled with them inconclusively.
Air ace Capt. Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager of the 357th Fighter Group—who had been previously shot down, evaded capture, and returned to combat—became the first P-51 Mustang pilot to chalk up a score. In his after-action report, Yeager wrote: “I was leading ‘Cement White Flight’ when north of Osnabrück we spotted three Me 262s going 280 degrees to us at about two o’clock, low. We were at 10,000 feet. I and my flight turned to the right and headed the last man off. I got a hit or two on him before he pulled away. They were flying a loose V-formation and they did not take any evasive action, but seemed to depend on their superior speed. They pulled out of range in the haze.
“We were flying along in overcast, which was very thin and the edge of it was over to the right, altitude about 5,000 feet. I went under it and flew along for a minute or two and I met them head-on again only they were now flying at about 2,000 feet. I split-S’ed on the leader and they all separated. I fired a high deflection burst from above on the leader, got behind him and was pulling 75 inches of mercury and indicating 430 miles per hour. I fired two or three bursts and got hits on the fuselage and wings from 300 yards, then he pulled away and went into the haze where I lost him.
“In this engagement I lost the rest of the flight and found myself alone. I climbed to 8,000 feet and headed north. I found a large airfield with black runways about 6,000 feet long and started flying around it. [He was referring to the base at Achmer.] I got a few bursts of flak, but it was very inaccurate.
“I spotted a lone 262 approaching the field from the south at 500 feet. Flak started coming up very thick and accurate. I fired a short burst at him from about 400 yards and got hits on the wings. I had to break off at 300 yards because the flak was getting too close. I broke straight up, looked back, and saw the enemy jet aircraft crash-land about 400 yards short of the field in a wooded area. A wing flew off outside the right jet, but the plane did not burn.”
Yeager’s opponent appears to have been one Oberfeldwebel (First Sgt.) Freutzer, whose first name is lost to history, although Fruetzer survived the encounter and walked away from his wrecked jet.
Yeager, of course, would go on to serve as a postwar test pilot flying dozens of aircraft types that were strongly influenced by wartime German designs. Yeager’s October 14, 1947, flight at Muroc, California, in the Bell XS-1 rocket plane is the first recorded supersonic flight, although an Me 262 pilot named Hans Guido Mutke, whom we will meet soon, did not think so. Yeager’s success against an Me 262 in the airfield pattern brought a visit to Achmer the next day—November 7, 1944—by the ubiquitous and often angry Generalleutnant (Maj. Gen.) Adolf “Dolfo” Galland. The German fighter leader had cordial talks with Maj. Walter “Nowi” Nowotny, whom he’d hand-picked to lead history’s first fighter jet unit, but was annoyed that Kommando Nowotny hadn’t followed the practice of keeping a patrol of Focke-Wulf Fw 190s in the air to protect the Me 262s during their vulnerable period when taking off and landing. For various reasons, the long-nosed Fw 190D-9 “Dora” fighters never seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Galland believed that many in the fledgling Me 262 force were unaware of how big a target they’d become, or how important the Fw 190 support mission was.
The FW 190D-9s were stationed at Achmer and nearby Hesepe. The idea was that the Focke-Wulfs would prowl above the airfields and form a shield between marauding Mustangs, Tempests, and Typhoons, and the Me 262s when taking off and landing. But the Fw 190D-9 pilots were in a separate unit and underestimated their adversary. Nowotny and others initially believed they needed as few as six Fw 190D-9s in the air to provide adequate protection and that the Focke-Wulfs could achieve their purpose flying very short sorties. In one air battle shortly before Galland’s arrival, P-51 pilots of the 78th Fighter Group, who outnumbered the Focke-Wulfs forty to six, shot down several of the “Doras,” and damaged others. The plan wasn’t working. Galland made it clear he wanted larger numbers of the Focke-Wulfs in the air for longer periods to coincide with jet operations in the airfield pattern.
Over coffee in Nowotny’s hut, Galland expressed his concern that the Allies had identified Me 262 bases and were singling them out for attention. Galland also had to tell his handpicked wing commander that he could do little or nothing about a serious shortage of J-2 jet aviation fuel. The bombing campaign was disrupting the flow of all fuel, everywhere, and the jet force would continue to be directly impacted.
Both sides were making a maximum effort in the air battles over Europe on November 8, 1944. To the German side it was part of what the Luftwaffe called “The Big Blow,” a maximum effort to put as many as one thousand fighters into the sky to confront oncoming American bombers. Galland followed the action from the radio shack at Achmer. Oberleutnant (1st Lt.) Franz Schäll engaged 1st Lt. Warren Corwin and mixed it up in a close-quarters maneuvering contest. Corwin made the mistake of pulling a sharp turn in front of the Me 262, and his Mustang was torn apart by shells from Schäll’s guns. Some of his wingmen heard Corwin cry out, “This jet job got me!” First Lieutenant James W. Kenney, nearby, should have heard the transmission but didn’t. Neither Corwin nor the wreckage of his Mustang has ever been found.
Kenney shot down an Me 262 with short bursts and photographed its pilot dangling from a yellow parachute. Second Lieutenant Anthony Maurice also shot down an Me 262 while 1st Lt. Ernest C. “Feeb” Fiebelkorn Jr. and 1st Lt. Edward “Buddy” Haydon combined their skills to shoot down another. But it was left for 1st Lt. Richard W. Stevens of the 364th Fighter Group to rack up the most important tally of the day. While Galland listened on the radio, Nowotny talked of being under attack by a Mustang—it was Stevens—and of his left engine being damaged. “My god, I’m burning!” were the last four words ever spoken by Maj. Walter Nowotny. Galland burst out of the radio shack in time to see Nowotny’s jet crash. Galland and others rushed to the scene in a car, but it was too late. It was the only sortie on which Nowotny was not wearing his storied “victory pants.” On his death, Galland promoted Hauptmann (Capt.) Georg-Pete Eder to command the unit, but Kommando Nowotny never reached its potential: it claimed twenty-two Allied aircraft shot down in exchange for twenty-six Me 262s before the Kommando was withdrawn for further training and a revision of combat tactics to optimize the Me 262’s strengths. The unit was broken up with most of its pilots going to Jagdgeschwader 7, or JG 7, the first jet line unit. Kommando Nowotny essentially became part of JG 7.
While the evidence is strong that Stevens got Nowotny, some sources credit the kill to Haydon and Fiebelkorn, while British pilots believed for years that Nowotny was bagged by a Typhoon. The credit to Stevens appears to be the best case that historians can make, however.
December 1944, a young, earnest, and impressionable Oberfaehnrich (Senior Officer Candidate) Hans Busch was ready for a new assignment with KG 51 at Neuburg an der Donau, commanded by Maj. Wolfgang Schenck.
“I wanted a fighter unit but was ordered to Bomber Group 51,” said Busch. “This was meant to be fighter-bomber duty.” Elements of the wing converted to the Messerschmitt Me 262 and flew fighter-bomber and bomber-intercept missions against Allied bomber streams from June 1944 through the end of the war.
Before Busch and his buddy Horst Netzeband could fulfill their aspiration to strap into a jet cockpit, they were required to undergo single-seat training at München Riem.
Busch was experienced in aircraft that had a crew, like the Heinkel He 111 bomber. However, like other newcomers to the jet world of KG 51, he had little aptitude for single-seat flying. Although a two-seat version of the Me 262 existed, none would be available to KG 51 in time to help Busch and his buddies learn the aircraft.
While doing classroom work on the Jumo 004 jet engine, Busch was assigned to log single-seat time in the Fw 190 at München Riem.
Busch felt himself gaining confidence as he flung the highly maneuverable Fw 190 around the sky. He hoped to run up against American warplanes while at the controls of an Fw 190, but did not. “I was mystified that during my Fw training I never saw an American aircraft or heard of one being overhead,” he said. Actually, he said, on second thought, he did see a small group of four-engine Allied plans overhead once, but “they didn’t hit anything of importance.” Although the Reich no longer had the luxury of taking a long time to train a pilot, as the Americans still did, the Fw 190 flights were designed and scheduled for training only at times when Allied aircraft were not operating nearby.
The Fw 190 was a low-cost way of teaching pilots who’d previously worked with a crew that “you had to start your own engine,” said Busch. “Some of the old experienced hands were a little nervous about that and made mistakes. If you’re going to fly a single-seat aircraft, especially a complex aircraft with two jets engines, you need to have practice being the only one who turns on the radio, lowers the flaps, lowers the landing gear, and so on.”
Some pilots say no one ever wants to witness or experience a disaster, but according to Busch, most airmen keep inside a dark curiosity about what it looks like when things go wrong. A disaster of his own lay in the near future, but in the meanwhile Busch observed a seriously bad event that happened to someone else and illustrated the need for single-seat training.
On possibly the only day of the year when the sun was shining brightly and the sky was almost cloudless, Busch and Netzeband were watching planes take off and land. A mottled gray Fw 190 was turning at the runway’s end, beautiful and sleek in “clean” flying condition. Busch watched the fighter descend. “He doesn’t have his wheels down,” Busch said.
“He’s not going to land,” said Netzeband. “He’s just practicing.”
“I’m not so sure.”
The screech of metal against pavement reverberated across the airfield. As if grabbed by a giant hand, the Fw 190 rotated 180 degrees and came hurtling down the runway sideways, throwing off sparks and debris. The distinctive sound of the propeller beating itself to death against a hard surface was louder than the complaint of the battered engine. Busch watched as the pilot, a fellow cadet, pushed back the canopy and climbed out. The pilot then slammed a gloved fist against the windshield bow.
Does bellying in a perfectly good Fw 190 disqualify a hopeful officer candidate from ever strapping into the cockpit of an Me 262? The only certain fact is that the upset cadet did not receive grips and grins from his commander. Unfortunately, history does not record what happened to this particular pilot after he ranged a plane, lost his temper, and hurt a hand.
“He was a mature guy,” Busch said, “just like several of us. He had a lot of flying hours. But like several of us, he was used to a copilot being in the right seat at his side. Yes, we had checklists and safety practices, but the fact remains, he was used to a different person reaching for the handle and putting down the retractable undercarriage. He ripped open the guts of an Fw 190 by scraping it on pavement because he forgot to put down the landing gear.”
One reason the transition was difficult: unlike almost every other air force in the world, the Luftwaffe did not use checklists. “They relied instead on a pilot’s really knowing the aircraft handbooks,” writer-researcher Walter J. Boyne said in an interview for this book. “This was complicated by the way the Germans broadly allowed pilots to fly different aircraft. The onus was on the pilot to know. Checklists were not used, even in the later stages of the war when courses were hurried and not a lot of time was available for studying manuals.” That the Luftwaffe did not follow the American practice of using checklists “seems incredible,” Boyne said, “considering the complexity of starting an Me 262 or a twin-engine Heinkel.”
Busch vowed never to make a similar mistake. In late December 1944, after Ben Drew and other P-51 pilots had begun sprinkling Me 262s over the German landscape—and while Me 262s were batting American bombers out of the sky, right and left—Busch was ready for his first flight at the controls of the jet.
He arrived at Neuburg from München Riem disappointed that it was a bomber unit, but excited that he would now fly jets. Busch’s cadet status made him less than an officer but higher in rank than the sergeant pilots of KG 51, some of whom had considerable combat experience. He and his buddies, he said, were known for wild behavior when circumstances permitted. Busch himself said he had no mechanical aptitude and had to hope that a sense for operating the Me 262 would come naturally. Together with his best buddy Horst Netzeband, Busch found that his first look at the Me 262 was an unforgettable experience.
Busch wrote: “We walked up to this mysterious airplane that we had never seen a picture of and heard that it was Geheime Kommandosache [top secret]. What an excitement! We were allowed to touch this bird that looked like it had just dropped in from the future or from another planet. No aircraft we had flown or seen so far looked as streamlined as the Me 262. We were allowed to sit in the cockpit but that was all.” Before the new pilots could fly the jet, “there was a lot of learning and familiarization necessary,” he added.
Men who fly and fight together often form close bonds, and Busch felt his friendship with Netzeband was closer than most. The two German pilots were very different: Busch pliable and humorless, Netzeband witty and something of a prankster in a good way. They learned the Me 262 together and shared free time, snacks, and jokes.
“Here I sat in the cockpit, parachute strapped on, flight helmet secured, radio-telephone hooked up, throat mike buttoned down, and shoulder and belly straps tightly secured,” Busch said. Wearing gloves as required, and under the watchful eye of a crew chief standing on his wing, Busch made certain he could grasp every knob or lever in front of him. “The instruments and controls were not exactly designed with my comfort in mind, but they were not uncomfortable to reach either.”
The Jumo 004B turbojet engines came with their own starters, Reidel motorcycle motors situated in the intake section of the turbines and connected with a claw clutch to the front end of the turbine shaft. Although earlier versions were cranked by hand, lawn mower style, the Reidels came with electric starters. Busch ran them up to one thousand revolutions per minute and then depressed the button on the throttle handle that turned on the fuel pump.
The Me 262 was not easy to taxi, nor to steer, as Busch noted earlier. Its landing gear had a bit of a stalky feel, but the aircraft was robust enough to taxi well and to respond well as he went into his takeoff roll. After that it was … “well, it was a miracle,” he said.
With wheels up and throttles on full power, the Me 262 climbed like the swallow after which it was named. If Busch needed anything to increase his fascination with this airplane, his first flight did it. He was truly hooked.