The Jet Race and the Second World War
By Sterling Michael Pavelec. 248 pp. Praeger Security International, 2007. $49.95.
The first true jet vs. jet air war took place over Korea, but jet-propelled aircraft debuted during World War II. The British Gloster Meteor was the first to enter squadron service; the Messerschmitt Me 262 turbojet was the first to fire its guns in anger; and the U.S. Army Air Forces sent two YP-80A “Shooting Star” prototype jets to the Italian theater in the war’s dying days—though largely for propaganda purposes, since the sight of Me 262s tearing through massed air force bomber formations in April 1945 briefly sparked fears of a nasty eleventh-hour German technological miracle.
Still, no German jet ever met its Allied counterpart in combat, and no Allied jet ever downed a German-manned aircraft, although Meteors did shoot down some German V-1 missiles.
Books offering individual examinations of some of these pioneer planes exist; there are some very fine technical and operational studies of the Me 262, for example. But comparative looks at the development of jet aircraft in Germany, Great Britain, and the United States are few. Now, this book adds depth and revelations to the existing picture by offering three well-integrated case studies of the first jet air powers.
They were far from equals. The Germans were early leaders in combining theoretical development with practical engineering. Great Britain’s jet program owed much to the genius and persistence of Frank Whittle who, with modest but sustained support from the Air Ministry, developed and flew his prototype, nicknamed the “Squirt,” in May 1941. Development in the United States initially lagged, but with major technical assistance from Great Britain (and later from captured German technology), ultimately surged ahead.
Pavelec’s approach to the Me 262 story, which he describes as “a mixed bag of genius and sheer idiocy,” demonstrates his virtues. Although he doesn’t provide a detailed account of the plane’s combat history and operational use, he does a superb job of putting its development into historical context. He lays to rest the myth that Hitler’s ill-advised meddling in the development and production of the Me 262 delayed its combat debut, and instead properly focuses on effects of poor program management and the shortage of raw materials as well as the plane’s many teething troubles. Even the final mass-produced versions of the Me 262 featured engines with a ten-hour running life and poor low-speed performance. By the time Pavelec is done, little remains of the popular idea that, were it not for Nazi mistakes, the Luftwaffe could have filled the skies with Me 262s in 1943.
He also concludes that the German success in fielding hundreds of jet interceptors and smaller numbers of Arado Ar 234 jet reconnaissance bombers was spurred by their loss of air superiority and the Allies’ numerical advantage. Since Great Britain and the United States were winning the air war with piston engine planes, they were more inclined to accord jet aircraft a lower priority than did the Luftwaffe. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Me 262’s performance exceeded that of the Meteor and America’s first contender, the P-59, by a wide margin.
There is, of course, a human as well as a technological story here, and Pavelec displays the foibles of the individual designers, engineers, and pilots with telling glimpses into the always dangerous and sometimes humorous world of flight-testing. The Me 262 prototype (a tail-dragger) required the pilot to tap the brakes in order to bring the tail up— and many pilots weren’t up to the tricky task. British test pilot Michael Daunt was nearly sucked into a Meteor’s jet intake; his colleagues subsequently fitted wire screens known as “Daunt Stoppers” to the engines.
And so The Jet Race and the Second World War exemplifies the best of comparative history: it offers sufficient technical information without a suffocating mass of detail; deft deployment of political, strategic, and operational matters; useful appendices; capsule biographies; accessible discussions of key technology; and research drawn from three national archives as well as memoirs and secondary literature. Best of all, it significantly rewrites one of World War II’s lesser-known chapters.
Originally published in the November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.