The Germans knew the bombers were coming, and they prepared even as the U.S. 457th Bomber Group first assembled in the early morning sunlight over faraway London. That March 18, 1945, raid on Berlin included more than 1,220 Allied bombers and scores of North American P-51 Mustang fighters contending with heavy German flak and tangling with fast-flying German Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighters employing air-to-air rockets operationally for the first time.
A Twelve-Thousand-Foot Jump
It was the last great air battle of the European war, one that would be a final, deadly encounter for many American flyers and nearly so for Oberleutnant Gunther Wegmann, commander of Jagdgeschwader 7’s 9th Squadron of Me-262 jets. Wegmann led his squadron in a loose formation toward the incoming bombers. He and his two wingmen fired their R4M rockets into one tight formation of some 60 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers from a distance of 3,000 feet. The scores of rockets created devastation, with bits of aircraft, smoke, and flame erupting from the formation of bombers.
The squadron then scattered for the homeward flight. That was when Wegmann spotted another formation of enemy bombers and swung around to take a pass at them with his MK 108 “machine cannons.” He swooped in from astern and came within 600 yards of one bomber before opening up with a staccato of fire that ripped away the cowling from one of the target’s engines.
Wegmann was jubilant and started to transmit his victory to home base when a stream of enemy fire struck his jet, splattering his canopy, tossing instruments from their panels, and studding his plane with bullet holes. Worse yet, his right leg was numb. Reaching down, he discovered a large hole just below his knee. But he felt no pain at that point as his plane streaked along at 18,000 feet above war-torn Germany.
He desperately pushed his shot-up jet downward, and at 12,000 feet he saw flames leaping from his starboard engine. That quickly ruled out a crash landing that would turn his plane into a giant fireball. He decided to push the control stick forward, disconnected his seat straps, removed the retaining bolt from the plane’s canopy, and was sucked from the cockpit at 250 miles per hour. Wegmann bounced off the plane’s tail and fell free. He counted five long seconds before pulling the release cord of his parachute and drifted downward toward the town of Wittenberge 60 miles northwest of Berlin. He brushed the tops of pine trees and managed, just barely, to land in a small meadow.
“German pilot!” he shouted loudly as an elderly woman made her way to him. Wegmann’s luck held. The woman was a nurse who quickly bound his thigh above his right knee and applied a tourniquet. Within four hours he had been rushed to a hospital where his leg was amputated.
Others were not so fortunate that day, including five American fighter pilots who failed to return home. Sixteen Allied bombers were hit by flak and either crashed on their approaches to Berlin or managed to make emergency landings behind the advancing Soviet lines east of the German capital. Another 25 Allied bombers were destroyed with the loss of only two German jets. The pilots acquitted themselves well that day against overwhelming odds, yet the effort of the German jet fighters was to prove too little too late in the face of relentless Allied assault from the air, land, and sea with their overwhelming war matériel and seemingly endless supply of manpower.
“It was Like Being a God”
The Me-262 did have a significant influence on the later stages of the war. It was the world’s first operational turbojet fighter, and it simply outclassed any plane flying at the time. It reportedly could reach speeds of 540 miles per hour with a cruising speed of 460 miles per hour and a range of some 650 miles. The Me 262 had a ceiling of 38,000 feet, and it could climb at 3,940 feet per minute with its two Junkers Jumo engines, which produced 1,980 pounds of thrust apiece. In its standard configuration, the single-seat jet was armed with four 30mm MK-108 cannons and the plane could be modified to carry 1,000 pounds of bombs.
It was the development of the feared R4M rockets that sealed the fate of many Allied flyers over Germany when facing the Me-262. “The rockets gave us extra punch,” said Me-262 pilot Leutnant Klaus Neumann. “Fire the rockets, do the damage, weaken the tight formation integrity of the bombers, and then pick off the crippled stragglers,” he said.
“It was like being a god in a way,” added Neumann, who had seen combat in piston-driven Messerschmitt Me-109s and Focke Wulf FW-190s over Russia. The jet was “fast, had great firepower,” and gave one a lot of confidence when pitted against a well-armed enemy aircraft, he said. The 55mm R4M rockets contained a high explosive shell filled with Hexogen and were mounted under the wings on specially designed wooden racks with 24 rockets typically attached to each jet.
Initially, there were problems because the rockets often failed to fire. Reports of the problem reached Generalleutnant Adolf Galland, head of the Luftwaffe’s jet arm. An electrician was promptly called in. The electrician quickly identified a problem with the copper electrical triggering connectors. From that point forward, the connectors were reinforced with silver or nickel, and the difficulty was resolved.
Each of the Me-262’s four MK-108 30mm cannons could pump out more than 650 rounds per minute. The specially produced MK cannon was considered a masterpiece of weapons engineering because of its stopping power, compact size, and ease of manufacture. German engineers noted that it could knock down enemy bombers with a minimum expenditure of ammunition while staying beyond the range of enemy counterfire.
The newly developed Jumo 004 engines presented challenges, occasionally pulling in debris after an enemy plane had burst apart, damaging the compressor, and causing a flame out. Flying on one engine, the Me-262 could not easily take evasive action or even outrun an Allied P-51 Mustang, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, or the De Havilland DH.98 Mosquito. In that situation, the Me-262 pilot had to reach a friendly base as quickly as possible. Galland was particularly disgruntled with the jet power plants. Germany’s war economy lacked many of the needed specialty metals for the jet engines that, on average, lasted less than 12.5 hours before needing to be changed out. That problem became far worse toward the end of the war as nickel and chromium supplies petered out. Many of the newly unpacked engines at that point did not even make it through the onboard testing process before failing and needing to be replaced.
The Nazi engineers knew that the engine’s compressor had to be brought up to speed before the ignition of the turbojet. They resorted to a small two-stroke gasoline engine located behind the engine nozzle, while many postwar jets came to rely on a high-torque electric motor or airflow from a small starter turbine engine.
The Me-262’s starter engine relied on an electric start, with a pull-cord starter with a handle serving as backup. One can only image the frustration of a Luftwaffle mechanic needing, on occasion, to tug on a lawnmower-type pull cord to get the state-of-the-art jet engine fired up. The jet came with armored front glass and an armored seat back but lacked an ejection seat. The pilot was to pop the canopy, gently roll the plane over, and slide out or remain horizontal and let the plane’s speed suck him out as Wegmann elected to do late in the war.
First Flight of the Jet Fighter
The Me-262 first took flight on March 25, 1942, when test pilot Fritz Wendel achieved a test flight speed of 541 miles per hour, almost 100 miles per hour above the speed of the Mosquito or anything the Americans could field. The smooth, shark-shaped plane was surrounded by controversy almost from the start, with Hitler insisting that it be used as a fast bomber. Designer Willi Messerschmitt, Galland, and others gave some lip service to Hitler’s request, largely moving forward with their initial plans for a fighter while planning to have the Arado 232 fill the role of a future jet bomber. Hitler’s constant meddling, though, pulled precious time and resources from fighter development to produce a modified Me-262 bomber. Some 232s were also developed as reconnaissance planes and others as night fighters.
Galland remained critical of using the 262 as a bomber, a role it was not designed to play. He remained firmly convinced that the fighter jet could have been put into combat “at least a year and a half earlier” without Hitler’s interference, “and built in large enough numbers so that it could have changed the air war.”
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.