By Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis
By June 1941, Adolf Hitler had perhaps come to the realization that he was not going to win the war in the west, and by May 1943, he must have known that the war in the east was lost as well, as he had recently lost North Africa, Sicily and Italy were under threat, and the setback at Stalingrad had secured the second major German defeat of World War II in February 1943 on the heels of the stalemate at Moscow in the winter of 1941. In his many meetings with the members of his staff within the High Command, Hitler often spoke of these new “wonder weapons” that German science and technology were developing.
With these new tools, Hitler tried to convince his followers en masse that Germany could turn things around as the war progressed. Among these many revelations was a series of revolutionary new aircraft, one of which would become the first operational jet fighter in history to see active regular combat service, the Messerschmitt Me 262. Propaganda had always been the most successful weapon employed by the National Socialists, reinforcing the hopes of the true believers, while attempting to convince through coercion and enervation those who opposed them; so the continuance of false prophecies and wishful thinking was given new life with every new idea, concept, and development, realistic or not.
Just as with other nations, where institutions of political authority made the determinations on the viability of projects, the Germans were no exception. Reorganization for the procurement and assessment of technological innovations was undertaken in September 1933. The result was the creation of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM). Following Adolf Hitler’s successful appointment as chancellor and with Hermann Göring relinquishing his control of the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo) to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, German aircraft designers, builders, and scientists—solely focused upon Luftwaffe concerns—could, in essence, simply perform “one-stop shopping” to sell the ideas. The maze of independent departments that had often delayed decisions for years and that had been fraught with interdepartmental and political infighting was now reduced.
The purpose of this restructuring was to increase effectiveness and reliability and combine the efforts among the various military and technical departments. The result was the creation of six independent subdepartments: Luftkommandoamt (LA), Allgemeines Luftamt (LB), Technisches Amt (LC, but more often referred to as the C-amt) in charge of all research and development, Luftwaffenverwaltungsamt (LD) for construction, Luftwaffenpersonalamt (LP) for training and staffing, and the Zentralabteilung (ZA), central command. In 1934, just as Hitler was building up German military power in secret, there was the creation of the Luftzeugmeister (LZM), which controlled all logistics concerns.
The major aircraft designers were not working completely in their own personal vacuums. The technology for jet propulsion was not new; all were aware of the patent filed by Frank Whittle years earlier. Rocketry already had been firmly established when Robert Goddard took the ancient Chinese technology to the next level, and the Germans began applying a liquid fuel component to increase the life span and range of their rockets at Peenemünde on the Baltic. Hitler had given the German people many promises, and he kept all of them. However, he also gave them many prophecies, many of which would fail to emerge—although many would, thus increasing the “Hitler Myth” as stated by eminent historian Ian Kershaw.
The Messerschmitt Me 262 was one such prophecy that was to prove factual, lethal, yet far too little and much too late. Along with other fantastic creations such as the V-1 Buzz Bomb, V-2 rocket, Me 163 Komet rocket fighter, Arado Ar 234 jet bomber, and the HeinkelHe 178 single jet engine and He 280 twin-jet fighter, the Me 262 was eventually accepted and produced as the world’s first operational jet-powered fighter/bomber aircraft. It was perhaps the most revolutionary fighter aircraft of World War II.
With over a dozen major design options, the fighter version bristled with the firepower of up to four 30mm nose-mounted cannons, as well as the ability to carry twenty-four R4M air-to-air rockets, and it was capable of flying 120 miles per hour faster than the North American P-51 Mustang. It was also the only mass-produced German fighter that could contend with the speed of the vaunted de Havilland Mosquito. When a skilled Me 262 pilot had an advantage, anything non-German was a potential victory. German aeronautical engineering and science had created a formidable weapon.
Despite the great promise of being an air superiority fighter, given the heavy hitting power of the weapons array, it was soon to be proven to be a far more effective heavy bomber killer as opposed to a dogfighter. Senior German pilots who were aware of the aircraft, especially those flying on the Western Front, wanted it immediately just for this reason. Adolf Hitler ranted to Reichsmarschall and Luftwaffe Commander in Chief Hermann Göring incessantly for his fighter pilots to earn their pay and decorations by eliminating the Allied bomber threat.
The British Royal Air Force had been bombing German cities since December 1939 and later adopted night bombing; starting in the late spring of 1943, the United States Army Air Corps, primarily the Eighth Air Force heavy bomber squadrons based in the United Kingdom, after a few months of familiarization missions to French targets, started pounding German cities and industry by day.
By 1943, most of the Luftwaffe’s fighter strength had been spread throughout the Third Reich. The vast majority of fighter units were positioned on the Eastern Front, from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea, with almost a quarter of these forces spread throughout the Mediterranean from Libya to the Balkans. Only three primary day fighter units were permanently stationed in Western Europe on the English Channel coast: Jagdgeschwader 2 (JG-2) “Richthofen” and JG-26 “Schlageter” were both in France. JG-5 “Eismeer” was spread throughout Norway and Finland, while the growing night fighter units under Wolfgang Falck were scattered all over Europe by the end of 1943.
The Germans were continuously developing new and enhancing existing aircraft designs (as were the Allies). The first major development post-1937 was the introduction of the radial engine Focke-Wulf Fw 190, which was designed by Prof. Kurt Tank and was a great departure from the inline Daimler-Benz–powered, liquid-cooled Messerschmitt Me 109 that had been the tip of the spear during the latter part of the Spanish Civil War and had led Germany to rapid victory during the blitzkrieg by providing air support and establishing air superiority from the first day of the war on September 1, 1939. Hermann Buchner commented on his comparison between the Me 109 and the Fw 190, as well as the Me 262:
“I really felt comfortable in the Me 109, and this was the mainstay fighter. But the Fw 190 was truly a much better fighter. It was more powerful, stronger, built better, and was in its structure able to withstand more damage than a 109. The weapons platform was incredible, and you had a lot more firepower, especially when the A-6, A-8 and F models were built. Later the Dora was built, which was also faster, just as strong, but now had a liquid cooled engine, instead of the radial air-cooled engine.
“I did in fact like the Focke-Wulf better than the Messerschmitt 109 or even the Me 262, as far as reliability. The only real advantage the 262 had was its speed, and the 30mm cannons were very powerful. Other than that, if the Fw 190 had had the speed of a 262 I would have stayed with the Focke-Wulf.”
By the time World War II began, piston-powered fighters had greatly increased in their sturdiness with all-metal construction, survivability, and engine power, and they had almost quadrupled their airspeed since World War I, as technology and science allowed for greater experimentation. World War II became the shortest period in human history that actually produced the most revolutionary technological and scientific developments through absolute necessity.
Germany’s greatest pilots who flew in World War II all started their training in gliders and then graduated into World War I—or recent postwar–era biplane trainers. Ironically, when Adolf Hitler sent Generaloberst Hugo Sperrle and the Condor Legion into Spain to support Francisco Franco, the frontline fighter was in fact the Heinkel He 51 biplane. This was one of the primary training aircraft used during the 1930s. It was not until later that the Me 109C and D models were produced, with the first of these fighters being flown by such future luminaries as Werner Mölders and Günther Lützow. Some of these men who started their careers in biplanes would end their careers—and sometimes their lives—in jets during the most remarkable period in aviation history. Several famous German airmen cross-trained in the jet though did not fly it in combat, but their perspectives are of interest.
Generalmajor Hannes Trautloft, a Spanish Civil War veteran, group leader, Inspector of Day Fighters under Adolf Galland, and fifty-four-victory ace with the Knight’s Cross in World War II, explained what it was like to be a pilot during this period of technological transition, from fabric-covered biplanes to all-metal
“It was a very interesting period. I recall that when I started flight school, I had never even seen a mono-wing all-metal aircraft. It was not until the mid-1930s that I first flew in the air races, and I was able to fly in several models. Once I flew the Me 109 D, I knew that I was in the best fighter aircraft in the world at that time, and then the Emil came and the later versions. I also flew the Fw 190 models, which I feel were better, more rugged, wider landing platform, and carried more firepower. This transition from the early biplanes to fast all-metal single-wing fighters was almost like going from riding the bus to driving a fast race car. But, when I flew the Me 262, this was an entirely new universe, absolutely the best experience I ever had in an airplane during the war.”
Major (later Generalleutnant) Günther Rall, a 275-victory ace with the Knight’s Cross and Oak Leaves and Swords, test flew the Me 262, although never in combat. He had his comments on the new technology: “It was certainly a new dimension. The first time I sat in it, I was most surprised about the silence. If you are sitting in a standard piston-powered aircraft, you have a hell of a lot of noise and static and such, which I did not experience in the Me 262. It was absolutely clear. With radio from the ground they controlled the flight. They gave me my orders, such as ‘Now accelerate your engines, build your rpm.’ It was very clear. Totally clear.
“One other thing was you had to advance the throttles very slowly. If you went too far forward too fast, you might overheat and set the engines on fire. Also, if you were up to 8,000 rpm, or whatever it was, you released the brakes and you were taxiing. Unlike the Bf 109, which had no front wheel and was a tail dragger, the Me 262 had a tricycle landing gear. It was a new sensation, beautiful visibility. You could go down the runway and see straight forward.
“This was, however, also a weak moment for the Me 262. The aircraft at this point was a little bit stiff and slow during landing and takeoff, but fine when coming up to speed gradually. It was absolutely superior to the old aircraft. You know, I never did get to shoot the weapons, because when I had about fifteen to twenty hours I became commander of JG-300, which was equipped with Bf 109s. I only made some training flights, but never flew the jet in combat.”
The highest scoring fighter ace in history, Major (later Oberst) Erich Alfred Hartmann, with 352 confirmed victories and the Diamonds to his Knight’s Cross, had this to say about the Me 262: “It was really a lovely aircraft, and many advanced features, great power, and a wonderful visibility forward and all around with the canopy. I really was impressed by the speed and performance, but not so enthusiastic about the inability to turn tightly, or dogfight, as in the 109, which I flew through the entire war and loved very much. I was invited to transfer to the defense of Germany and fly it, but I felt a responsibility to my comrades in JG-52.”
Between the wars, the United States, Soviet Union, Italy, Great Britain, and National Socialist Germany had been neck and neck against each other wanting to lead the world in their aircraft designs and developments—with Imperial Japan following close behind the Europeans. Each nation had its stable of engineers and designers, but the global depression meant that nations did not have the liquidity to spend massive amounts of money unless a project was seen to be a good investment with a reasonably rapid return.
Germany was able to take the lead simply because with Germany a dictatorship, Adolf Hitler did not have to worry about congressional or parliamentary restrictions on military expenditures. Although the Soviet Union and Japan were also unencumbered by those political limitations, the political issues in those nations, combined with the great purges initiated by Josef Stalin in the USSR and the limited natural resources of Japan, prevented them from exploiting their potential until much later in the war.
Excerpted from The Me 262 Stormbird: From the Pilots Who Flew, Fought, and Survived It by Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis.
Copyright 2012 by Colin D. Heaton.
Reprinted with permission from Zenith Press.
COLIN D. HEATON served in the U.S. Army and later the U.S. Marines as a scout sniper under Livingston’s command. He was a guest historian on the History Channel program Dogfights: Secret Weapons and has authored several books of military history, including German Anti-Partisan Warfare in Europe 1939–1945; Occupation and Insurgency: A Selective Examination of The Hague and Geneva Conventions on the Eastern Front; Night Fighters: The Luftwaffe and RAF Air Combat over Europe, 1939–1945, coauthored with Anne-Marie Lewis; and The Me 262 Stormbird: From the Pilots Who Flew, Fought, and Survived It, coauthored with Anne-Marie Lewis. He has taught history and military history at American Military University.
ANNE-MARIE LEWIS has co-authored Night Fighters: The Luftwaffe and RAF Air Combat over Europe, 1939–1945 and The Me 262 Stormbird: From the Pilots Who Flew, Fought, and Survived It with author Colin D. Heaton.