On the morning of August 27, 1939, a new era dawned when Ernst Heinkel telephoned Ernst Udet and told the just-awakened chief of the technical department of the German air ministry, “I wanted to inform you that Captain Warnitz has just successfully flown the world’s first jet plane, the Heinkel He-178, and landed safely.” After a drowsy pause, Udet congratulated Heinkel, then went right back to sleep. Neither Udet nor the German Luftwaffe was fully aware of the significance of Erich Warnitz’s unprecedented test flight. Just a few days later, however, Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland plunged Germany into a war that would compel the Luftwaffe to accelerate the jet’s development into a practical weapon.
Heinkel wasted no time in developing a twin-jet fighter, the He-280, which made its first powered flight on March 20, 1941. By then, however, he was not alone. In Britain Frank Whittle had long been working on a jet engine, which would finally propel a demonstrator airframe, the Gloster E.28/39, into the air on May 15, 1941. Closer to home, Heinkel’s rivals at Messerschmitt were working on a fighter of their own—one that would usher in the jet age in deadly earnest.
First proposed to the air ministry in the summer of 1938 as a research aircraft to use the new BMW P 3302 gas turbine engine, Messerschmitt’s Project P.1065 was pursued by a design team led by Woldemar Voigt. The airplane was intended as an interceptor from the outset, even though the Luftwaffe requirement had not specified that role for it. The original Me-262 had a tailwheel and slightly swept back wings to maintain the desired center of gravity. The prototype, powered by a single 690-hp Junkers Jumo 210 piston engine, was first flown at Augsburg by Captain Paul Wendel on April 18, 1941.
Although Hitler’s fixation on using the Me-262 as a fighter-bomber is popularly blamed for holding up its development, the real delaying factor was the engine. BMW had claimed its P 3302 turbojet would produce 1,300 pounds of thrust by the end of 1939, but when one of the engines was bench-tested in late 1940, it only managed 570. Meanwhile, Heinkel had developed his own engine, capable of producing 1,100 pounds, to power his He-178 on its historic first flight. The first of BMW’s P 3302 engines—redesignated 003s—did not arrive at Augsburg until November 1941, and on March 25, 1942, Wendel took the Me-262 up for its first jet-powered flight. When both of the 003s failed, he was forced to land using the auxiliary piston engine.
By then Junkers had developed the Jumo 004, which was tested at 2,200 pounds of thrust. Two 004s were installed on the third Me-262 prototype, and Wendel made a successful 20-minute flight on July 18, 1942. Even after plane and engine went into full production, however, the Jumo 004 would be an Achilles’ heel for the Me-262. Germany lacked adequate supplies of chromium and nickel, essential for the production of steel alloys necessary to operate at a jet engine’s high temperatures, and substitute metals, such as ordinary steel with a spray coating of aluminum, were prone to burning. At the end of the war the average Me-262 engine required an overhaul after 10 hours of use, and outright replacement after only 25 hours.
Heinkel and Messerschmitt vied for a production order until March 27, 1943, when the German chief of aircraft procurement, Erhard Milch, ruled in favor of the Me-262. Although the He-280 was faster, had a better climb rate and higher service ceiling, its twin vertical tail structure was suspect and its range was two-thirds that of the Me-262.
The jet fighter program had proceeded with such secrecy that General of Fighters Adolf Galland knew nothing of it until he finally got to fly the Me-262 V-4 on May 22, 1943. He was instantly impressed, declaring that flying the jet felt “as if an angel were pushing,” and recommended that Me-109 production be halted so that Messerschmitt could concentrate on the new fighter. Galland’s influence did speed things up: 72 hours later, Milch ordered the Me-262 into series production. The first 100 would be issued to special test units that would use the fighters operationally while ironing out any shortcomings as they arose.
In mid-1943 German air defenses had been holding their own against British and American bombers. But the successful Allied invasions of North Africa in November 1942, Sicily in July 1943 and Italy in September fueled Hitler’s fears about a potential invasion of France. He proposed that a series of lightning airstrikes by high-speed “blitz bombers” could eliminate any beachhead the Allies might establish.
Such was the situation on November 2, 1943, when Hermann Göring, while visiting the Augsburg plant, first asked Willy Messerschmitt if the Me-262 could be adapted to the bombing role. “Herr Reichsmarschall, from the very outset we have provided for the fitting of two bomb pylons so it can carry bombs—either one 500 kg or two 250 kg,” Messerschmitt replied. When Hitler broached the same question while watching an Me-262 demonstration at Insterburg on November 26, Messerschmitt again answered affirmatively. But while the Führer blissfully assumed that his wish would be carried out, Messerschmitt proceeded with the Me-262 as a bomber interceptor, with four MK 108 low-velocity 30mm cannons in the nose.
The Luftwaffe accepted its first 16 preproduction Me-262A-0s, which had been waiting for engines, between April 18 and 29, 1944, and at the end of that month Erprobungskommando 262 was formed at Lechfeld, Bavaria, commanded by Captain Werner Thierfelder. As they gained experience, the test unit’s pilots wrote an operating manual for the Me-262A-1a Schwalbe (swallow) fighter.
On May 23, Hitler summoned Göring, Milch, Galland, Albert Speer and other officials to Berchtesgaden to discuss fighter production. When Milch’s report touched on the Me-262, Hitler interrupted him: “I thought the 262 was coming as a high-speed bomber? How many of the 262s already manufactured can carry bombs?”
“None, Mein Führer,” Milch replied. “The Me-262 is being manufactured exclusively as a fighter aircraft.” There was an awkward silence, then Milch added that extensive design changes would be necessary to convert the jet into a bomber, and even then it would not be able to carry more than 500 kilograms.
“Never mind!” Hitler exclaimed. “I wanted only one 250-kilo bomb.” Losing his composure, he demanded precise weight statistics on the fighter’s armor, guns and ammunition. “Who pays the slightest attention to the orders I give?” he railed. “I gave an unqualified order, and left nobody in any doubt that the aircraft was to be equipped as a fighter-bomber.” His confidence in Milch shattered, Hitler thereafter progressively stripped him of his authority, while making Göring personally responsible for implementing the blitz bomber program.
On May 27, a still-furious Führer ordered that the Me-262 be regarded strictly as a fighter-bomber. He allowed fighter testing to continue a few days later, but insisted that the first operational units be equipped with the bomber. Messerschmitt responded by mounting two pylons, each capable of carrying a 250-kg bomb, under the nose of the 10th prototype, and fitting an extra 132-gallon fuel tank in the rear fuselage. To compensate for their weight, two of the nose cannons and most of the cockpit armor plating were removed. While the Me-262A-2a Sturmvogel (storm bird) was hastened into production, a detachment from Kampfgeschwader (bomber wing) 51, commanded by Major Wolfgang Schenk, was sent to Lechfeld for conversion training.
Meanwhile, Allied forces landed in Normandy on June 6, and fought their way down the Cotentin Pensinsula to take St. Lô on July 18. Even then Hitler remained convinced that Normandy was only a feint and the main Allied landing was yet to come at Calais, for which the Sturmvogel would surely be ready.
The first nine Me-262A-2as of Schenk’s detachment were finally transferred to Châteaudun, France, on July 20—the same day that Hitler was wounded by a bomb in an unsuccessful assassination attempt at his “Wolf’s Lair” headquarters in East Prussia. Only five of the fighter-bombers arrived, and their efforts were hobbled by an order from the Führer that they not fly faster than 750 kilometers per hour or dive below 4,000 meters. Consequently, the Sturmvogel pilots accomplished little as they joined the retreat to Chièvres, Belgium. On August 28, the unit suffered its only combat loss—the first Me-262 to be claimed by Allied fighters—when Republic P-47Ds flown by Major Joseph Myers and 1st Lt. Manfred O. Croy of the 82nd Squadron, 78th Fighter Group, sent Sgt. Maj. Hyronimus Lauer’s Sturmvogel crashing into a field west of Brussels, after which the pilot ran for his life while the rest of Myers’ flight demolished the jet.
It was an Me-262A-1a of Erprobungskommando 262, however, that had drawn first blood on July 26, when 2nd Lt. Alfred Schreiber caught a de Havilland Mosquito engaged in a high-altitude photoreconnaissance mission over the Alps. A former Me-110 pilot, Schreiber swiftly downed four more British and American photorecon intruders. But while taking off on November 26, he suffered an engine flameout, and the world’s first jet ace died in the ensuing crash.
On October 1, 1944, KG.54 became the second German bomber wing to receive Me-262A-2as. The unit was not combat-ready until mid-December, when its planes made desultory attacks on American ground targets in the Ardennes. By then, Allied air superiority had left Germany in such desperate straits that on February 9, 1945, KG.54’s fighter-bombers joined the interceptors in attacks on American bomber formations, downing two B-17s but losing four pilots. The wing claimed 50 Allied planes by war’s end, but between aerial combat, accidents and attacks on its bases, KG.54 lost 70 percent of the more than 150 Me-262A-2as assigned to it.
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In August 1944, while the first Me-262s were starting to prove their worth, the Luftwaffe formed a new fighter wing, Jagdgeschwader 7. Its original equipment was to have been Focke-Wulf Fw-190Ds, then Messerschmitt Me-109G-14s, but while it waited for sufficient numbers of either to become available, the Luftwaffe decided to equip its three groups entirely with the new jets. “They came in sections on long railway trucks from the south of the Reich,” recalled JG.7’s first commander, Colonel Johannes Steinhoff, “and the mechanics, assisted by a team from the Messerschmitt works, started assembling them and shooting in the cannon. By the end of November we were in the air, training in flights of three and in small formations.”
Meanwhile, an interim unit based at Achmer and Hesepe airfields was formed under Austrian ace Major Walter Nowotny on September 26. Having difficulty getting his troublesome jets operational due to the growing danger from Allied fighters, Nowotny arranged for Fw-190Ds to provide air cover for the 262s during takeoff and landing, when they were most vulnerable.
Kommando Nowotny was credited with 22 victories before being incorporated into JG.7. These included a B-24 downed by “Nowi” Nowotny himself on November 7, and a B-17 and a P-51 on the 8th, raising his overall tally to 258. As he was returning from that last mission, however, one of Nowotny’s engines flamed out. General Galland, who was visiting Hesepe at the time, recalled what followed:
I was outside with [1st Lt. Georg-Peter] Eder, [Lufwaffe chief of staff] Generaloberst [Günther] Korten and other pilots including Karl “Quax” Schnörrer, Nowi’s best friend and wingman for many years, and the ground crew personnel to watch his approach to the field, when an enemy fighter, clearly a Mustang, pulled away not far from us. I remember being surprised because rather than coming in from altitude, this Mustang was low….The explosion of the jet rocked the air, and only a column of black smoke rose from behind the trees.
We all jumped in a car and took off and reached the wreckage, and it was Nowotny’s plane. After sifting through the wreckage, the only salvageable things found were his left hand and pieces of his Knight’s Cross, Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds decoration. He had simply disintegrated. The hole in the ground was about four meters deep and the area for about 100 meters all around was on fire and smoking. I remember the smell of the jet fuel being quite heavy in the air….Eder was standing next me as we looked through the wreckage, and I promoted him on the spot to take over command of the unit. He just looked at me and said, “Yes sir,” and then turned away.
Some 70 percent of JG.7’s personnel were experienced pilots, many of them aces, but the others were new and inadequately trained. Steinhoff spent six weeks at the Lechfeld air base trying to familiarize his men with the new fighters. Only one of the four Me-262A-1as slated for the wing’s first operational mission got off the ground on November 28, 1944, but its pilot, Sgt. Maj. Hermann Büchner, intercepted and shot down a Lockheed F-5E, the photoreconnaissance version of the P-38 Lightning. Later that same day Major Rudolf Sinner downed another F-5E over Lake Ammer.
Besides basic armament, some Me-262s carried underwing racks with R4M 55mm rockets, and a few sported 210mm rockets on the nose rack in place of bombs. Major Heinz Bär flew a special Me-262A with six MK 108 nose cannons, while Major Wilhelm Herget piloted one of two Me-262A-1a/U4s fitted with a single 50mm MK 214 cannon that one American who spotted it likened to “a giant telegraph pole.”
Messerschmitt built a two-seat trainer, the Me-262B-1a. Seven of them were fitted with radar arrays, designated Me-262B-1a/U1s and fought alongside the single-seaters operating with a night fighter squadron led by 1st Lt. Kurt Welter. The unit was credited with 48 victories, of which 30 were claimed by and at least 20 confirmed to its commander, making Welter the most successful 262 pilot of the war.
By the late autumn of 1944, Me-262As were making their presence felt among the American bomber streams and, to a considerably lesser degree, among the Allied ground forces. They were, however, too little and too late to affect the course of the air war over Europe. The presence of the long-ranging P-51D Mustang and the steady Allied advance across the Continent brought Me-262 air bases within striking distance of an increasing number of Allied fighters. If the jets were too fast to catch in the air (though some were shot down by a handful of lucky pilots), they could be ambushed as they took off or landed.
On January 19, 1945, a coterie of fighter pilots, represented by Colonel Günther Lützow, confronted Göring regarding his inflexible, incompetent running of the Luftwaffe. The five-hour session ended with an apoplectic Göring demanding that Lützow be shot (his punishment was later changed to exile on the northern Italian front) and that Galland step down as general of fighters in favor of Gordon Gollob. Hitler intervened with a decree for Galland to form his own squadron of Me-262s, flown by his pick of the Luftwaffe’s surviving aces. Consisting primarily of “disgraced” senior officers who had stood up to Göring, Jagdverband 44’s ranks included such veterans as Lützow, Steinhoff, Bär, Herget, Walter Krupinski and Gerhard Barkhorn, Germany’s second-ranking ace with 301 victories.
Flying from Munich-Reim, JV.44 did not enter combat until April 4, and its first victory was a P-38 that was accidentally clipped by an enlisted member, Eduard Schallmoser. Schallmoser would down two more of his four victims in similar fashion, earning his own place in JV.44 legend as the “Jet Rammer.”
JV.44’s adjutant, Major Krupinski, who scored the last two of his 197 victories in the Me-262, recalled what it was like to fly the jet:
The first time I saw them work was I think on April 5, 1945, as the unit shot down five heavy bombers. There were quite a large number of enemy escort fighters around, so that tended to keep you busy in the cockpit. There was no way we were going to dogfight with these Mustangs, Thunderbolts and Lightnings. We had to just come in fast, hit [the bombers] very hard and then get away very quickly. Once we were at least four to five miles away we could turn back and line up another target. The one great advantage that we had in the 262 over the 109 or 190 was our approach and climbing speed. This was both a positive and a negative thing.
Our speed allowed us, as I said before, to attack rapidly and then leave. That speed gave the enemy gunners on the bombers much less reaction time to sight in, lead us and get a solid killing burst. Our speed also allowed us to approach from underneath, closing the gap quickly, and if you had the rockets that gave you a great advantage, as you could fire the R4Ms from outside the effective range of the .50-caliber machine guns. The rockets also gave you a better chance of a hit, as they spread out, like a shotgun. This allowed us to pull away before we could be fired upon in many cases. However, the rockets also increased drag, thus slowing us down from our 100 mph speed advantage over the Mustangs to just over 70-75 mph speed advantage….
[Allied escort fighters] would have to drop from very high altitude, convert that into increased airspeed and then hope to close in on one of us, and even get a good deflection shot. This was the most common way our jets were shot down, other than being shot up trying to take off or land, when we were very vulnerable and had no maneuverability or speed until about two to three minutes after takeoff. That is a lot of time when you have the enemy on your tail.
The only great downside to having the jet was the loss of maneuverability; we could not turn as tight as the other fighters, so speed was our life insurance. The other problem with such a fast attacking and closing speed was that, just as the enemy gunners had little time to lead you for a kill, you had much less time to pick out a target. You had to be right the first time, and if you did not have rockets, you had to adjust your shooting to compensate for the much slower targets. In this case there was very little deflection shooting. You closed in quickly, fired a quick burst and then you left.
Krupinski was well aware of the danger that attended completing a mission with enemy fighters still on the prowl:
The one method they would use was going to our airfields and shooting them up. They knew where we were; it was no great secret. These guys would hang around and try to catch us landing, hoping for an easy kill. This was why we had Fw-190s or Me-109s that would fly cover for us to protect our landings. The other problem was that after you broke contact, and were usually out of ammunition and low on fuel, the enemy fighters would be following….On a good day, you probably had about 10 to 15 minutes to approach, extend your gear hoping it would work, land and get out of the cockpit. Many times we jumped out of our jets to have the shadows of enemy fighters pass overhead as they strafed us….
Taking off and landing, as I have said, were the most tense moments for a 262 pilot, as the plane built up speed slowly, and you could stall out easily if you pushed the throttles forward too quickly, which caused a flameout. This happened several times…and we finally learned how to throttle up slowly without killing ourselves.
I flamed out once when I was in transition training. I was used to pushing the throttle full to increase takeoff power. This was a great error in the jet. I know that many of the pilots who were killed flying the jet probably died due to stalling out this way. The 262 was a very heavy aircraft when compared to the 109 and 190, and at low speed I would equate it to flying a brick.
Overall, JV.44 claimed more than 55 victories by April 29, when Bär used his six-cannon plane to down a P-47. But the cost was high, including Steinhoff, severely burned after a landing gear collapsed on April 17; Lützow, killed by P-47s on April 24; and Galland, wounded by a P-47 on April 25. On May 4, as the Seventh Army closed in on JV.44’s last base, Krupinski oversaw the destruction of its last two dozen jets.
Although the Me-262 didn’t enter service until Allied numbers were too overwhelming to overcome, the jet units were credited with at least 735 planes. They left an indelible impression on their enemies, accelerating the drive among post war powers to develop their own turbojet warplanes. Czechoslovakia’s Avia plant continued to build its own version of the 262, the S-92, until the Communist coup of 1948, followed by a 1951 order for production to cease in favor of license-built Soviet designs.
One of many Allied pilots who got to evaluate the Me-262A after the war, Royal Navy Captain Eric Brown said the cockpit had “a complex but neat layout.” Starting the jet was an involved affair, and its slow acceleration revealed how underpowered it was. But once it built up some speed, Brown said it was “a very responsive and docile aeroplane, leaving one with a confident impression of both a first-class combat aircraft for both fighter and ground attack roles.” He reported a pleasant harmony of controls, but noted the “landing run was long and was always accompanied by that unpleasant suspicion of fading brakes that one had with all German aircraft of the period.” Overall, though, he considered the 262 “in my view unquestionably the foremost warplane of its day.”
Aviation History research director Jon Guttman wishes to thank Colin D. Heaton for permission to use quotes from his interviews with Adolf Galland and Walter Krupinski from his upcoming book Voices of War, Vol. 1: The Luftwaffe Aces, No. 1. Additional reading: The German Jets in Combat, by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price; Stormbird: One of the Luftwaffe’s Highest Scoring Me262 Aces, by Hermann Büchner; and Messerschmitt Me 262 Sturmvogel, by Dennis R. Jenkins.
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Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.