During Germany’s early string of victories between 1939 and 1941, Hitler informed the members of the nation’s aerospace industry that he had decided to impose new restrictions on aircraft research and development. However, by 1942 the Führer and his Air Force High Command (Oberkommando der Luftwaffe) had recognized their mistake. With the increasing weakness in the fighter arm, Hitler saw that his old faithful aircraft like the Messerschmitt Me-109 were losing ground to the new Allied long-range fighters, such as the North American P-51 Mustang , used to escort U.S. and British bombers that were devastating Germany with little resistance.
The Me-262 Hitler’s Jet Fighter
The constant barrage of Allied bombing finally forced Hitler to invest in producing airplanes at the cutting edge of technology. These included bombers capable of carrying the war as far as America and beyond the Ural Mountains into Russia. To the German warlord, these new “wonder weapons” would mean the life or death of his Third Reich. What he wanted was a cheap, revolutionary aircraft of such advanced technology that it could be mass produced quickly and efficiently. One such aircraft pressed for by the designers was the jet fighter.
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The engines of the new jet types stemmed from work carried out before the war by Britain’s Sir Frank Whittle and Germany’s Hans-Joachim Pabst von Ohain. Both inventors created centrifugal and axial flow turbojets, which became the obvious step forward in aircraft design and the arrival of the operational jet aircraft.
Despite the massive destruction of German industry, aircraft manufacturers rushed to build the world’s first operational jet fighter. By the end of 1942, two companies had turbojet projects: Heinkel with its He-280 and Messerschmitt with the Me-262. After a number of competitive trials between the two designs, the latter plane was chosen for production mainly because test pilots preferred the Me-262’s greater range and better speed delivered from its twin Junkers Jumo engines.
When the commander of the Luftwaffe’s fighter force, General Adolf Galland , flew the Me-262 in May 1943, he reported that his flight in the jet was like “being pushed by angels.” With a speed of over 540 miles per hour and combat capability far superior to any Allied plane “these aircraft were hailed as the Reich’s best chance of turning round a lost war.”
Regardless of the Me-262’s promise, by the winter of 1943, with the increasing waves of Allied bombers over the Reich, Hitler worried about the Me-262’s high fuel consumption and postponed the jet’s production. However, in January 1944, after reading an article in the British press on the success of their experiments with jet aircraft, he ordered that the design be rushed into production with a goal of 1,000 being manufactured a month.
After November 26, 1943, the date Hitler first saw the aircraft, he decreed that the Me-262, which was built as fighter, be employed as a fast bomber. To that end, he directed all weapons on board the jet to be removed so it could carry a greater bomb load. His rationale was that his new jets did not have to defend themselves since with their superior speed they could avoid enemy fighters. Hitler’s decision that the Me-262 should be used exclusively as a bomber caused extensive design modifications to the aircraft and delayed its production and introduction into service. By October 1944, further versions of the Me-262 were introduced: photo reconnaissance, ground attack, and two-seater radar-equipped night fighter models.
The Me 262 A-1a, built by Messerschmitt, was flown by a single pilot and was powered by two Junkers 004B-1 jet engines, giving it a thrust of 1,980 pounds. Its wingspan was 41 feet, and the aircraft was almost 35 feet long and 12 feet, 7 inches high. It weighed 6,396 pounds when fully combat loaded. It could reach an altitude of 37,565 feet and had a range of 652 miles.
The first trial unit, Erprobungskommando 262 (EK 262 or Trials Unit 262) received its complement of jets at Lechfeld in May 1944. Operating in small detachments, within three months the unit had achieved a number of aerial victories, although its missions were mainly bombing runs. With a serious lack of fuel, ammunition, and spare parts, operational policy for the Me-262 remained purely defensive until the Ardennes Offensive in December 1944. About 25 Me-262 jets supported the German ground attack during what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The plane’s effect on the struggle was minimal due to the poor weather over the Ardennes battlefield and the small number of Me-262s employed.
During the war, 1,433 Me-262s were delivered to the front; however, few became fully operational and their numbers were too few to mount significant attacks on the enemy. Some Me-262s continued in the tactical bomber role while others fought Allied air assaults over central Germany. Reports of Allied aircraft shot down top 100 bombers and fighters falling to the Me-262’s four 30mm MK 108 cannons. But many of the jets were brought down by American and British piston engine fighters, destroyed by enemy fire while taking off or landing, or crashing due to mechanical problems. Lastly, during the war’s final months, with only German day fighter operations allowed over the Fatherland, most Luftwaffe bomber units were disbanded, and the Me-262 bomber was almost nonexistent.