That time estimate is perhaps exaggerated, and Galland did not say it could have changed the outcome, but rather more likely the course of the war, perhaps causing the Allies to reconsider daytime bombing over Germany.
The two-seat night fighter variants proved surprisingly successful, again despite Hitler’s initial misgivings. With a radar operator in the back, the pilot could zero in on the bombers. Oberleutnant Kurt Welter, who had two years’ experience as a night fighter in FW-190s and Me-109s, proved to be the best of the night fighter aces. Using recent analysis, Welter appears to have made 20 confirmed kills, including a large number of Mosquitos, with his Me-262, making him the highest scoring German jet fighter pilot.
The Me-262 in Combat
The first Me-262 fighters were delivered to Luftwaffe field units in April 1944, with the first encounter recorded on July 26 when one of the German jets fired at a British Mosquito, which disappeared trailing smoke but managed to land safely in Italy. On August 8, a unit scored a confirmed kill over a Mosquito. Interestingly, the Allies had received reports of the Me-262 from both the resistance and via the Office of Strategic Services. “The rumors of a super fast German plane were being taken seriously,” wrote Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle, who had led the daring early war bomber raid on Tokyo and later joined the U.S. Eighth Air Force in Europe. “There were just too many corroborating reports from different sources not to take notice, but many of the pilots almost refused to believe [them],” he wrote.
Doolittle recalls one bomber pilot who was stunned at the quickness and severity of an Me-262 attack. One explosive shell, most likely from a MK-108 cannon, entered through the bomber’s bomb bay, killing one and injuring four other airmen. Fortunately, the plane was returning from its bombing run, otherwise the shell could have struck the bombs on board and the resulting explosion could have destroyed several additional aircraft flying in the tight box formation. The young American pilot was in complete shock, recalled Doolittle. “I knew he was never going to be an effective leader again,” he wrote. The Americans realized something had to be done to prevent a severe morale problem.
Countering the German Jet
Additional reconnaissance flights were immediately ordered, and soon the jet airfields were being bombed. This became an ongoing process; one that forced the use of bases ever-closer to the heart of Germany in the face of Allied advances. Eventually, the Germans even resorted to using parts of the autobahn for landing strips and nearby wooded areas to conceal the parked jets from marauding and opportunistic American P-51 Mustang pilots.
The Allies knew the fast-moving jets were exceptionally vulnerable during landing and takeoff, so the patrolling of the jet airfields paid handsome dividends. The Germans used the airfields as improvised “flak traps,” attempting to lure Allied fighters in where the deadly 88mm and other flak guns—along with covering piston-driven FW-190s and Me-109s—could take a substantial combined toll on unwary Allied pilots who ventured too close.
Galland admitted after the war that the bombing of the factories did not prove overly effective, but the bombing of the petroleum facilities and railways did have a significant effect. “What harmed us the most was the killing of our pilots in combat,” wrote Galland. “Planes can be rebuilt, but men cannot be made.”
The development of drop tanks and the eventual positioning of P-51s on the European mainland gave the fighters more air time over Germany. It was the unleashing of the Mustangs from escort duty with the Allied bombers that made a significant difference. In 1944, the fighter pilots were often given the green light to go in before the bombers and destroy anything that moved, especially the jets rising to meet the slow-moving bombers.
“We had the numbers, we had the best pilots, best aircraft and we were in a sort of blood lust to whack those guys the best and hardest way we could,” said 2nd Lieutenant Francis S. Gabreski, the leading American fighter ace in Europe.
The Allies had a few other tricks up their sleeves, too. One of these was nitrous oxide injection, similar to the Germans’ own GM-1 fuel injection system, which gave them a quick burst of speed to close and fire on the jets. They also found that a tight box formation of four P-51s could reportedly prevent a jet from evading them, especially when the American fighters had the advantage of altitude and position. In that situation, a “jet-propelled plane can be destroyed on every encounter,” according to a report filed in late 1944 by Colonel Irwin Dregne, commander of the 357th Fighter Group.
Operation Bodenplatte: Striking Back at the Allies
While this method of winning through attrition proved effective for the Allies, the Germans had a few surprises, too. Operation Bodenplatte, for example, called for a first strike against all the Allied fighter fields on the continent that the jets and other Luftwaffe planes could reach. Generalmajor Dietrich Pelz believed that if the German planes could destroy half the Allied fighters on the ground and destroy the airfields in the process, then the jets would be able to handle the remainder of the Allied fighters.
Pelz noted the plan was never fully put to the test because of the lack of Nazi planes at that point in the war. The daring operation, however, that took place on January 1, 1945, did result in the destruction of more than 285 Allied planes, including some 145 fighters, with another 180 aircraft damaged and 185 personnel killed, according to recent research.
How Many Me-262s Saw Combat?
More than 1,400 Me-262s were built, but only 50 were approved for combat, according to Galland. Of those 50, there were never more than 25 operational at any given time, he said. It is no secret that continuing engine problems, shortages of fuel, and Allied bombing and strafing of airfields and manufacturing facilities took a toll on the number of available jets.
Some reports indicate that there had been more than 180 Me-262s, including those modified as bombers, but reliable German documentation was problematic at best in the final months of the war. The same thing also holds true for proper documentation on the number of victories achieved by the jet pilots, which may have totaled more than 500 before the war’s end.
The Me-262 was well ahead of its time. If the Nazis had had greater access to refined metals for the jet engines, more fuel reserves, and more time, then things might have played out somewhat differently toward the end of the war. The fact remains that the ground-breaking jet truly set the course for the future of aviation history.
This article by Phil Zimmer originally appeared on Warfare History Network.