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German Jets at Insterburg: Hitler’s Excellent Air Show

An excerpt from Fighting Hitler's Jets: The Extraordinary Story of the American Airmen Who Beat the Luftwaffe and Defeated Nazi Germany

It was the largest air show ever held for an audience of one.

On Friday, Nov. 26, 1943, a collection of the Third Reich’s most advanced weapons stood ready – almost – to be demonstrated to Adolf Hitler. The location was the German military airfield at Insterburg in East Prussia. En route with the Führer from Berlin aboard a Junkers Ju 52 tri-motor transport plane, Reichsmarshall (Marshal of the Empire) Hermann Göring hoped his orders to set up an impressive display had been followed to the letter.

On Friday, Nov. 26, 1943, a collection of the Third Reich’s most advanced weapons stood ready – almost – to be demonstrated to Adolf Hitler.

Göring was in disfavor with the Führer even though the German air force, of which he was in charge, appeared to be winning the war. A month ago, during one mission, the Americans had lost 60 bombers, each with a 10-man crew aboard. Göring kept telling the Führer that the Americans could not continue to lose bomber crews at this rate, that the Allies would never be able to launch an invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe because German fighter pilots commanded the sky.

Hitler was encouraged but saw Göring, grotesquely overweight and addicted to morphine, as an asset of declining value. Göring feared Hitler’s temper. Even though he was officially the second-ranking figure in the Reich he’d never really been an insider. Göring saw this as his day to shine.

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler around the time he launched the war in Europe on Sept. 1, 1939. At Insterburg, he attended an air show for one. Robert F. Dorr Collection photo

The Führer was especially interested in a new jet aircraft called the Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow). It was also a grand opportunity to outshine his rival, Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) Erhard Milch, who held the title of Air Inspector General.

Göring had been singing the praises of the Me 262 for months. For today’s show, two prototypes of the Me 262 were dismantled and shipped by rail with a crew of the Messerschmitt company’s most experienced mechanics. The trip took them five miserable days through Czechoslovakia and Poland. Alas, Göring was not as well informed about the Me 262 as he thought.

“The jet. Show me the jet.”

This soon became apparent after the Ju 52/3m landed at Insterburg just past noon, taxied to a halt in front of the top brass at the military airbase, and let out its very important passengers. Emerging from the transport were Hitler, Albert Speer, Göring, Milch, and an entourage of Luftwaffe officers. Hitler’s personal pilot SS-Brigadeführer (Major General) Hans Baur, said that he flew all of these notable people from Berlin, taking off from Tempelhof and making the short flight in good weather.

Karl Baur, chief test pilot for Messerschmitt and no relation to Hans, remembered Hitler arriving “with a flock of Generals and grim-looking SS guards at his side.” Waiting to greet them on arrival was Germany’s most important aircraft designer, Professor Wilhelm “Willy” Messerschmitt. He’d made certain his name was indelibly attached to the new Me 262 jet, even though he hadn’t worked on the engineering team that designed it.

Me 262

An Me 262 during a postwar test flight in the U.S. Hitler saw two test flights of the aircraft during his tour of advanced German weaponry at Insterburg. U.S. Air Force photo

“We have the jet you asked about,” Messerschmitt told the Führer.

“The jet. Show me the jet.”

There is every reason to believe that the Führer was here only because of his interest in the Me 262. The Heinkel He 280 jet aircraft was nowhere to be seen; Milch had been asked by Göring to organize the display and did not include the He 280 because Milch himself had struck off this aircraft from the development list on March 3, 1943 in favor of the Me 262. Worse, Göring had “nationalized” the Heinkel airplane company and detained Ernst Heinkel, who would not be fully rehabilitated until the postwar era.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...