Few aircraft have had so many “might have been” stories attached to it than the fabled Messerschmitt Me 262, the world’s first operational jet fighter. Some alternative histories postulate that the introduction of the Me 262 in mid-1943 would have thwarted the D-Day invasion, leading to vastly different outcomes for the war. These include (a) a German victory after either defeating the Soviet Union or concluding separate peace with it (b) the United State’s use of the first atomic bomb upon Berlin to finally defeat Hitler or (c) an uneasy peace which gave Hitler time to get his own nuclear weapons and thus create a totally different version of the Cold War.
Most of these stories, including some very well done television presentations, rely on blaming Adolf Hitler for destroying the war-winning possibilities of the aircraft by insisting that it be used as a bomber rather than as a fighter. However appealing they are to the layman, these versions are both wrong and short-sighted.
As a systematic date by date perusal of events reveals, Hitler’s net effect upon the fate of the aesthetically beautiful twin-jet fighter was probably more helpful than harmful. First of all, Hitler’s intense and often quite knowledgeable interest in armament production spurred the development and output of new weapons. His intuitive selection of his architect, Albert Speer to succeed Fritz Todt as Reich Minister for Armaments and Munitions did much to overcome inherent faults in the chaotic German system of management. It also reaped the fruits of some of the previous sensible decisions made on German aircraft production.
But most important, when Hitler made the recommendations so often cited as decisive to the fate of the Me 262, the ultimate results were already out of his hands. The real causes of the relative ineffectiveness of the Me 262 should not be attributed to a series of bad decisions and assumptions made when the war was going wrong for Germany. Instead the blame must be placed upon a variety of conflicting personalities and decisions that characterized the Nazi regime—and one baleful decision that occurred in February 1940.
Before outlining the series of circumstances and the bad decision, it is interesting to investigate the origins and operational career of an aircraft that has fascinated people to for more than half a century to the extent that it was reinstated “in production” in 2002. (Sidebar I) The Me 262 was not the world’s first jet. That honor belongs to the Heinkel He 178, flown by Erich Warsitz on 27 August 1939, a few days before the outbreak of World War II. The flight lasted about five minutes, with the pilot reporting that the aircraft “had no vibration and no torque like a propeller engine. Although top German leaders, including Ernst Udet and Erhard Milch witnessed the flight, there was little interest in the aircraft or the engine Dr. Hans von Ohain created to power it.
The lack of official interest may have stemmed from a preexisting program, Project 1065, that led eventually to the Me 262, called “the Turbo” by its pilots, and the Schwalbe and Sturmvogel by others. Issued to the Messerschmitt firm in late December, 1938 by the Technical Branch of the State Ministry of Aviation, the project called for a research aircraft to be powered the Bayerische-Motorenwereke GmbH (BMW) P3302 gas turbine engines. This axial-flow design engine (known as the TL-Strahltriebwereke) was intended to develop about 1,300 pounds of static thrust. The engine was based on work initially done by the Bramo company, which BMW had acquired in the summer of 1939.
Engineers around the world had deep reservations about the application of the gas turbine engine to aircraft, the general feeling being that fuel consumption would be so high as to make the idea impractical. Nonetheless, the capable German engineers at BMW and elsewhere were allocated limited funds for research and development even of projects that seemed unlikely to succeed.
For Project 1065, Professor Willy Messerschmitt appointed Dr. Woldemar Voigt to lead a team of engineers to design an aircraft for test engines that were supposed be available in 1939. The new aircraft, while a research vehicle, was intended to be developed into a Luftwaffe fighter. Voigt’s initial design reflected the general lack of knowledge about both the jet engine’s potential power and its potential difficulties. It was a simple low wing monoplane with the characteristic straight Messerschmitt single-spar wing and a conventional “tail-dragger” landing gear. The engines were to be mounted in the wing roots.
As the BMW 003 engine grew in size and weight, the original Project 1065 was redesigned as a much larger aircraft, with engines moved from the wing roots to nacelles beneath the wing. Having learned much from the ill-fated placement of the Bf 109 landing gear, the Me 262’s gear retracted inward, being stored in an enlarged forward lower fuselage area that gave the fighter its “shark-like” appearance.
The BMW engine encountered further development problems. Its weight increase caused the Messerschmitt engineers to employ a fix long used by aeronautical engineers—sweeping the wing back to adjust the center of gravity. The design eventually had about 18 degrees of sweep-back, enough to give it a modern appearance and help a little in reducing drag at high speeds.
The first prototype, the Messerschmitt Me 262V1 flew on April 18, 1941, powered not by jets but by a work-horse Junkers Jumo 12 cylinder liquid cooled piston engine used on aircraft such as the famous Ju 87 Stuka. Test pilot (and holder of the world’s absolute speed record of 469.22 mph) Fritz Wendel found the aircraft, to have relatively pleasant flight characteristics–once airborne.
The piston engine was fortuitously retained on the next major test flight, when two BMW 003 engines were fitted to the prototype. The March 25, 1942 flight by Wendel was hair raising, as both jet engines failed shortly after a long take-off run, and he had to drag the airplane around nose-high for a quick landing.
In the meantime, Anselm Franz was developing what he later described as his “bread-board” jet engine, the 1,850 pound static thrust Junkers Jumo 004, and a decision was made to install a pair of these in the Me 262 V3 prototype. The brave Wendel made an attempt at takeoff early on the morning of 18 July 1942, but found that the take-off attitude of the aircraft effectively blanked out the elevators, so he had to abort on the short runway at Leipheim. A decision was made that he should “tap” the brakes at about 112 mph so that the nose would dip down and the tail would lift. He did that at 08:40 AM, and launched the world’s first operational jet fighter into the air and into history.
Despite its evident potential, the Me 262’s progress was hindered by ill-advised decisions, some made long before, and some continuing to be made by a mixed bag of people. Of these, the most surprising was Willy Messerschmitt himself, the man who “owned” the Me 262 design. Messerchmitt displayed an extremely short-sighted concern about maintaining the current high profits from the Bf 109 and the projected Me 209 production lines and permitted Me 262 development to stew on a backburner without adequate resources.
Incalculable damage was also done by the head of the Technical Department, Colonel General Ernst Udet. A 62-victory ace, great aerobatic pilot and alcoholic, drug-ridden bon-vivant, Udet was incompetent to supervise the development and procurement of aircraft for the Luftwaffe. But his very incompetence made him an ideal choice for Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering for it meant that he was not a threat. Udet committed suicide on November 17, 1941, and was succeeded by a man Goering feared as a competitor, Field Marshal Erhard Milch.
Milch, a pilot in World War I and the successful Managing Director of Deutsch Lufthansa, had both industrial and command responsibilities in World War II. This made him conservative, and he did not embrace the introduction of the Me 262 at a time when he was struggling along with others to increase German aircraft production by significant amounts. . Milch sided with his long-time enemy, Willy Messerschmitt, in preferring the Me 209 as late as March 31, 1943. This position was supported at the time by Lieutenant General Adolf Galland.
Things began to change on 22 April 1943 when Galland finally got to fly the airplane. A 104 victory ace, Galland saw in the Me 262 as a solution to the current Allied aerial strength and to their imminent aerial superiority. And, after an even more enthusiastic recommendation by Galland after his second flight in the aircraft on 22 May, Milch committed himself to mass production of the Me 262 at the expense of the Me 209.
Supervising everything, if in an indolent, capricious manner, was Reichsmarschall (technically the highest military rank in the world) Hermann Goering. The perfect symbol of the deep corruption of the Nazi regime, Goering was often in open conflict with Galland. And, as we shall see, it is Goering who ultimately was the most at fault for the inability of the Messerschmitt Me 262 to influence the outcome of the European air battle.
While the bureaucratic and developmental battles were raging, the crucial work for the ultimate success of the Me 262 program was being conducted by Franz’s team at Junkers. Their initial Jumo 004A design was built in small numbers, and could thus use the necessary high grade steel that the temperatures generated by a jet engine required. These initial engines had a satisfactory 200-250 hour service life. Unfortunately for the engine, Germany was in desperate straits for such materials as chromium, molybdenum, nickel, titanium and tungsten and the new advanced submarine construction program had a higher priority than jet engines. The 004B4 production engine had to be built with only about one-third of the necessary materials that high grade steel required. The primitive turbine blade design, rigidly mounted, imposed such stresses that the inferior metal used in the compressor blades failed often and early. These and other factors resulted in a service life of only 10 to 25 hours for the 004B4 engine.
Initial production rates on the 004B were very slow, and the introduction of the Arado Ar 234 jet bomber 1943 added to the requirement for them. The 004B was not put into mass production until June, 1944. Production built slowly, and it was not until September 1944 that sufficient engines were in the pipeline to permit delivery of 90 Messerschmitt Me 262s. By then much had happened to blunt any possible effect of the aircraft on the outcome of the war.
Origins of the Myth of Hitler’s Bungling
The limping Me 262 program had completed only a few prototypes by mid-1943, but their performance commanded ever greater respect. At this time an often overlooked aspect of Hitler’s interference with the Me 262 program took place when he formally asked Milch to risk reducing the number of fighters produced by exerting too much effort on the Me 262.
Oddly enough, this occurred even as Hitler frantically sought a means to repel the Allied invasion he expected in the spring of 1944. While no one could predict exactly where the Allies might choose to invade, Hitler rightly concluded that the best chance to defeat the invasion was at the onset. Then the Germans would have numerical superiority and the Allies would be enmeshed in the inevitable confusion of an amphibious invasion. As he did so often in making decisions during the war, Hitler drew on his own infantry experience, and decided that if he could keep the Allies contained for the first few hours necessary to route the German forces to the invasion point, he could defeat the invasion. From this came his concept of using fast bombers to break through the inevitable Allied air superiority. Whether they dropped bombs accurately or not he expected a constant bombing of the invasion beaches would “keep the enemy heads down” for those vital first few hours. Given the alternatives available to him, it was not a bad concept.
He passed his ideas on to Goering, who was at last firmly behind the Me 262 program. On a visit to the Messerschmitt plant on 2 November 1943, Goering asked Willy Messerschmitt if the Me 262 had any bombing capability. The wily Willy, knowing full well that little or no effort had been given to making the Me 262 a bomber, answered that it could carry two 500-kg or one 1,000-kg bomb, and that the design changes necessary to do so could be effected in “two weeks or so.” Ever-eager-to-please, Goering conveyed this to Hitler, who at last consented to visit the Rechlin test center on 26 November to see the Me 262 and other weapons. In the meantime, on 12 November, Milch had at long last committed the Me 262 to full production.
Paranoid and surrounded by his own requirements for heel-clicking sycophants, Adolf Hitler was rightly suspicious of claims made for production quantities and delivery dates on armaments demonstrated to him. Two Me 262 pre-production prototypes were prepared. The first flamed out, aborting its takeoff, but the second performed well enough. Hitler’s approval was reflected in a telegram Goering received on December 5th, in which Hitler asked that jet fighter bombers be developed for “front commitment by the spring of 1944.” He intended to use them to keep the enemy heads down.
Hitler had now conferred top priority status on the program, something that accelerated it in a fashion nothing else could have done, and which more than offsets the harm his later insistence on employing the aircraft as a fighter bomber did. But in totalitarian Germany, bombed by day and night, and beset by overlapping chains of command, conflicting priorities and competing forces within the Nazi party, Hitler’s orders lost their priority did not have much effect. Speer decided that it made sense not to stop existing production for the Me 262, but to build new facilities for it and allocated the resources. Enthusiastic Nazi party satraps, Otto Saur and Karl Sauckel, planned to use empty mines as production facilities, guaranteeing to produce 1,000 Me 262s a month by March, 1945, nine months after Hitler wanted them most.
Real life production proceeded slowly, so that it was not until April, 1944, that fifteen pre-production aircraft were allocated to Erporbungskommando 262, to train pilot and develop combat tactics. It was in that same month that Hitler discovered that no Me 262 were as yet to deliver bombs, and he delivered his much quoted line “Not a single one of my orders have been obeyed.” Goering jumped on the band-wagon with a bit of spin, declaring that the airplane was a “super-speed bomber” rather than a fighter-bomber.
Time was running out for Hitler, Germany and the Me 262 program. On June 7, 1944—one day after the day he needed the Me 262 the most—Hitler ordered that the initial production of the Me 262 be as a bomber only, although limited testing of its fighter properties could be continued. This had the usual effect of disrupting production lines, priorities and deliveries, but still had no real effect upon the program. Engine shortages had restrained Luftwaffe 1944 acceptances of the Me 262 to 28 in June, 59 in July, 20 in August, 91 in September, 117 in October and 315 in November—when Hitler had already withdrawn his infamous order to use it only as a bomber.
About 1360 Me 262s were completed, and it is estimated that some 300 actually engaged in combat, where they had a significant effect upon Allied thinking and planning. Given the slow introduction of both the aircraft and the engine, Hitler’s decision on the use of the Me 262 had no effect whatsoever upon the conduct of the war.
The blame, as previously noted, lay squarely at the feet of Hermann Goering, who in February, 1940, long before France had been defeated, decreed that the development of jet engines be stopped because the war would be over by 1940-1941, and such engines would be of no use. His words had immediate effect; in 1940 only about 35 engineers were actively engaged in creating jet engines. The first large order for jet engines (80) did not occur until 1942. Unfortunately for the Luftwaffe, it apparently possessed no great courageous leaders such as the USAAF’s Ben Kelsey, Cass Hough, F.O. Carroll or Pete Warden, officers who were wiling to defy instructions and do what they knew to be correct for their service.
Hitler was responsible for much that was evil—the war, the Holocaust, millions of deaths—but he was not responsible for the failure of the Me 262 to alter the course of World War II. His big mistake was not in making the Me 262 a fighter bomber—but for selecting the corrupt dilettante Hermann Goering to lead his Luftwaffe.
SIDEBAR I: “NEW PRODUCTION ME 262S”
The late Steve Snyder, pilot, businessman, and founder of the Victory Air Museum, was the driving force behind bringing the Messerschmitt Me 262 back into flight. Snyder was determined to have an exact replica of the Me 262 produced, changing only those elements that compromised safety. He formed Classic Fighter Industries and entered into a two-year negotiation with the United States Navy to obtain the use of a Messerschmitt Me 262 B-1a two-seat aircraft located at the Willow Grove NAS, Pennsylvania. The aircraft had been outside for years and was badly deteriorated. Snyder offered to restore the aircraft and return to the Navy if he could use it as a pattern from which parts could be duplicated for new production aircraft. Snyder contracted with Herb Tischler’s Texas Aircraft Factory in Fort Worth Texas to undertake the project. Tischler had previously restored three Grumman F3F and one G-32 biplanes with complete authenticity. Construction began in 1993, but a variety of problems ensued and the effort was ultimately transferred to a new firm in Seattle in 1999. Sadly, Snyder was killed on June 19 of that year in a crash of his North American F-86 Sabre.
The new firm Legend Flyers, was headed by Robert “Bob” Hammer, a veteran engineer from Boeing, and creator of the home-built jet “Zipper” also holds the U.S. patent for the wing of the B-2. Hammer had a staff of about twenty experts, some paid and some volunteer, and they directed their effort to getting the first two examples of the remanufactured 262 into the air. The reproduced aircraft are very authentic. The most important variation is the use of reliable General Electric GE85 engines in place of the Junkers Jumo 004Bs. Other improvements include better brakes, strengthened landing gear components and similar safety measure. The first ME-262 reproduction (a two-seater) took off for the first time in December 2002 while the second flew in August 2005.
SIDEBAR:2 THE COMPETITOR
Messerschmitt arch rival, the Ernst Heinkel Aircraft Company, used its own resources to develop both jet engines and a prototype fighter, the He 280, designed by a team led by Dr. Heinrich Hertl and Karl Schwaerzler. It was awarded a contract for its development in March, 1940, as a back-up to the Me 262. Although incorporating some advanced ideas, such as an ejection seat and a tricycle landing gear, the He 280 encountered problems with the engines designed by Dr. von Ohain. It made its first powered flight on April 2, 1941, but neither Udet nor Milch were enthusiastic about the radical nature of a jet fighter. Nonetheless, test results were encouraging and the aircraft demonstrated its combat potential in a convincing “dog-fight” with a Focke Wulf Fw 190. Early in 1943 a contract was let for 300 He 280B-1 fighter bombers, powered by the Junkers Jumo 004 engines, and capable of a top speed of 547 mph. Heinkel’s manufacturing capacity was already overwhelmed, and a decision was made to have the Seibel firm build the He 280B under contract. However, with the characteristic quick-flip-flop Luftwaffe management of the time, the He 280 program was officially cancelled on March 27, 1943. There were several reasons. These include Heinkel’s other production commitments, the Me 262’s superior range and the fact that both aircraft required the scarce Junkers Jumo 004 engine. Heinkel would re-enter the jet fighter field with the notorious He 162 “Volksjäeger” in the fall of 1944.