The Gestation Period of the Me 262

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Messerschmitt Me 262 A-1a late production model

The world’s first operational jet powered fighter was the Me 262 , the fighter version was known as the Swallow (Schwalbe) and the fighter-bomber was the Storm Bird (Sturmvogel). We are once again indebted to Herr Wilhelm Flicke for this sorry tale of ineptitude that often characterised Nazi Germany.

Had the Me262 been available earlier than it was then the Luftwaffe might have kept its air superiority.  It would have been possible if the right decisions had been made at the right time. This article is not about the technical side of the jet fighter , it is about the shambles the Germans made of producing it.

The discussions on the possibility of jet engines had started in 1938. In June 1939 a BMW project for a pursuit plane with two jets was presented to the Air Ministry. The designation was Me 262 and , except for some minor details , this was the finished product. The Ministry ordered 3 experimental planes and by the middle of 1940 , the plane had reached the assembly stage. Jets had the advantage of speed and fuel economy ; high performance gasoline motors were not available at that time in Germany.

They had the plane but the production of the jet engine was lagging. There were not only technical problems but an apparent lack of interest in official circles. This may have been due to the overwhelming feeling that the war was all sewn up , done and dusted leaving little need for a revolutionary new plane , or at least not yet. Adolf screwed this theory up with his invasion of Russia which I firmly believe was originally not intended for quite a few years yet. Why rush about working on a jet plane when the war is almost over and it will be too late to play a part.

Just to keep their eye in , so to speak , Messerschmitt installed a normal gasoline motor in the nose of the first experimental plane. Some valuable information was gathered but the cause of the jet engine was not advanced. A full year went by before the jet engine started to make headway. Finally on 25 March 1942 , the Me 262 started for the first time with two BMW jet engines. First indications were that the engine did not reach expectations.

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Me 262B-1a/U1 night fighter, Wrknr. 110306, with FuG 218 Neptun antennae in the nose and second seat for a radar operator. This airframe was surrendered to the RAF at Schleswig in May 1945 and taken to the UK for testing

Meanwhile Junkers were working on a similar engine which showed some promise. A second Me 262 was equipped with Junkers engines and the first flight was made about the middle of July 1942. These engines also had defects but were reliable enough to get the plane in the air. The pilot who flew it was very enthusiastic.

In 1940 , Schulze-Boysen , high up in Nazi Germany but a Russian spy , learned of this new aircraft and took a great interest in it. He agreed with the top guys in the Air Ministry that no usable machine of this type could be produced in the foreseeable future. Through this man , news leaked to England in 1942 where the reports were considered daydreams. It was not until 1943 that the British made any effort to find out what was going on. Early in 1944 , the British had become well informed of progress and suitably , well concerned.

After the brilliant results of the first test , anyone with any sense would expect Germany to have done everything possible to get this machine into production. While every country was straining to get even a 1 kph increase in performance , the Me 262 had a maximum speed of more than 200kph faster than the fastest existing planes.

Of course this being Nazi Germany , everything was under the control of Adolf. For example he had been given the statistics about American aircraft production (they were true) but he decided they were some kind of Utopia rather than reality. He could not be convinced that Germany needed to up its game.

The Air Ministry ordered 5 experimental planes in late 1942 and 20 others that were to be delivered by the end of 1943. They also worked out a plan to produce 20 Me 262s a month. It wasn’t only the Air Ministry who were less than interested , the Luftwaffe , after initially ignoring the plane , eventually came back and said that the 20 a month would be adequate.

Messerschmitt was having trouble fulfilling its existing orders and had no spare capacity with which to produce these machines. In late 1942 no less than 53 different types of planes were in use or under construction and this is without counting sub-types. The aviation industry tried to convince the Air Ministry that production should be limited to 6 or 8 basic types but the Generals all had their pet projects and nothing changed.

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Me 262 A in 1945

In April 1943 Messerschmitt finally convinced some airmen to get interested in the Me 262. A chief of an air force testing command flew it and was enthusiastic about it.  In May Major General Galland took off from Lechfeld on a fairly long experimental flight. He was greatly impressed and said that with tactics adapted to the performance and peculiarities of this plane , air warfare would be revolutionised. He called for the delivery of 100 planes before the end of 1943 and the building of large numbers as soon as possible. He promised to convince Hitler of this via Goering so the necessary support was available. The Air Ministry now put in place plans for production and stopped production of several other machines.

The 100 initially requested could  not be supplied until May 1944 at the earliest. The only way production could be achieved was by

1. Giving the Me 262 top priority

2. Stop the Armed Forces conscripting aviation workers

3. Prompt fulfilment of men and supplies for production

These requirements could not be met by the Air Ministry so Speer , Minister of Armaments , had to get involved. The Messerschmitt chairman then had a meeting with the Ministry of Armaments and told the tale of woe that has so far been described. Speer’s people had been told a few days before by Hitler that they were to increase submarine production and they could not actively help the Me 262 because of this. Anyway , reports of increasing Allied air superiority were being exaggerated.

The author of this report was not impressed with submarines and attributes the Allies success against the U-Boats to their use of Radar rather than Ultra of which he was not aware. After two hours of discussion the chairman decided he was not getting his message about air superiority across. Soon after this the massive British attack on Hamburg showed them the reality. The Armaments man then remembered his meeting with Messerschmitt and delivered a lecture at Hitler’s HQ where he said he was willing to take over the aviation industry if he was given full responsibility. The top Nazis were not ready for this so yet more months passed by.

The summer of 1943 was disaster after disaster for the Germans – North Africa , Sicily , Stalingrad and Allied air raids were increasing in number and violence. In September the Messerschmitt chairman tried again with Field Marshal Milch having enlisted the help of General Frydag, The same arguments were used and Milch ended up accusing Frydag of taking bribes from Messerschmitt. Such is the Nazi mentality.

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Me 262 cockpit

Air Force Program 223 , drawn up in late August 1943 provided for serial production of the Me 262 in January 1944 and for an increase to 60 planes a month by May 1944. Beginning in October 1944 , after switching to large scale production , the output was to jump to a maximum of 1,000 planes a month in September 1945. In view of Messerschmitt’s production problems , this was a pipe dream and would only be used by somebody to impress Hitler.

The British eventually got their act together and on 17 August 1943 there was a heavy raid on the Messerschmitt plant at Regensburg. In October 1943 the manager of the rebuilt Regensburg plant invited Goering and his mates to a visit where they explained again what was lacking in the Me 262 program , Goering listened sympathetically , others didn’t , and the end result was …. no change.

This new weapon was , by now , no surprise to the Allies and it was not being produced in a quantity likely to swing the initiative to the Luftwaffe. The superiority of the Allied air forces was such that they could begin to destroy the Luftwaffe and the aviation industry. In March 1944 a new team was formed of men from the Armaments Ministry of Speer. The shifting and bunkering of aircraft production brought results , but they still kept on producing countless types of aircraft.

In March 1944 , the Me 262 was supplied to the Luftwaffe and was used over Bavaria to attack reconnaissance planes with great success. For weeks they stopped aerial reconnaissance. The intelligence from the Allies was that they were seriously worried about this new jet plane and worried in case the Germans could produce it in large quantities. The inference being that they had no jet plane of their own. As we know , they had the Gloster Meteor in service by July 1944 but it was not used outside the UK to start with , the fear was that one would be shot down and the Germans could learn from it. Two P80 Shooting Stars were used in Italy during February and March 1945 but only for reconnaissance. This was Germany’s last chance to go all out make extensive use of this weapon.

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Hans Guido Mutke’s Me 262 A-1a/R7 on display at the Deutsches Museum

Yet again , there appeared another lunatic decision from Adolf. He decided he wanted the Me 262 as a high-speed bomber and so the order was given. There is reason to believe Field Marshal Milch was behind this , considering his never ending attempts to sabotage the 262 , his loyalty must be questioned. The propaganda was unrelenting , the Germans could now bomb with impunity although the first versions of the 262 had no bomb sights or any significant bomb load. General Galland retired in exasperation. Hitler meanwhile forbade any discussion of the question.

After D-Day the Germans smelt the coffee and in a panic decided to actually start producing the 262 in quantity. However the manpower , tools and plants required for this were simply not available. In the spring of 1944 the Allies began their attacks on plants making synthetic gasoline. During the summer the Luftwaffe had a shortage and had to curtail flights. Production of a number of types of plane were now stopped. Messerschmitt now thought they would get the resources for the Me 262. Wrong , Adolf now ordered the construction of the Heinkel 162  jet fighter , a cheaper model with only one engine. It was scheduled to go into production and therefore use , in early 1945. Heinkel faced the same resource shortages as Messerschmitt and had no chance of achieving their promised production targets.

The 162 was not as good as the 262 and was reliant on the BMW jet engine which was still giving problems. It was a clash between the two aircraft companies rather than an attempt to improve the Luftwaffe. By 1945 production problems were bogging everything down , in March 1945 the Me 262 project was passed to the SS who then tried to relocate production away from the fighting. It all just went nowhere. Even their standard tactics of shooting people and working them to death could not improve production.

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Me-262 being shot down. Note jettisoned canopy and empty cockpit. As seen from USAAF P-51 Mustang gun camera

About 1,400 Me 262 were produced but a maximum of 200 were operational at any one time. The Allies famously used to attack them during take off and landing as well as bombing them on the ground , they were generally no match for a jet fighter when it was airborne. After the war , the Allies took a very close look at the 262 and found it was better than the Gloster Meteor and the Shooting Star , its only drawbacks were its shorter range and less reliable engines. The British had started work on the jet engine in 1936 but the Meteor went into production later than the 262. The hardest fight both sides had was with their respective Air Ministries plus the Germans had to contend with their lunatic Führer.

As a fighter to attack bombers , the 262 was surprisingly a bit too fast. The guns were only accurate up to 600 yards and the attack had to be finished at 200 yards , this gave two seconds to aim the guns (in effect the plane itself was the gun sight) so it was not always successful. Eventually they put 24 unguided rockets on the wings and this was a much more successful weapon against the bombers but it was all too little and too late , the Allies were not only knocking at the door , they were kicking it down.


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