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The Messerschmitt Me 262 Jet Fighter

Messerschmitt's wonder weapon was a story of too little, too late

The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (“Swallow”), also called the Sturmvogel (“Stormbird”) in its fighter-bomber version, was the world’s first operational jet fighter. It had the potential to create havoc for the western Allies during World War II. When officials demonstrated the plane to Adolf Hitler at Insterburg, Germany on Nov. 26, 1943, Hitler said that having this jet would help Germany win the war.

Its pilots – intrepid men all, for the Me 262 was cantankerous and dangerous to fly – claimed 542 allied warplanes shot down while sustaining just 100 combat losses.

The Me 262 did take a toll from its adversaries. Its pilots – intrepid men all, for the Me 262 was cantankerous and dangerous to fly – claimed 542 allied warplanes shot down while sustaining just 100 combat losses. Luftwaffe ace Hauptmann (Capt.) Franz Schall was credited with 17 aerial victories, including six four-engine bombers and ten P-51 Mustangs.

Captured Me 262

An engineless Me 262 captured at an airfield in the area of Frankfurt. Lack of engines was a major obstacle to fielding more Me 262s. Next to the plane is ammunition for the Mk 108 cannon. U.S. Army photo

In the end, however, the Me 262 was a “might have been.” Fully 20 percent faster than the Allied fighters it came up against, capable of reliable performance once it reached operating altitude, highly maneuverable and heavily armed, the Me 262 never overcame obstacles created by poor leadership, technical glitches, and the vicissitudes of war.

Generalleutnant (Maj. Gen.) Adolf Galland, a top ace, combat leader, and advocate for the Me 262, said in a 1994 interview that the jet “might have been in action one year earlier, had the highest priority been attached to it right from the start of engine and airframe development, which began before the war.” But while about 1,430 Me 262s were manufactured, “never more than 50 or 60 came into operation at any one time,” said Galland.

It performed sluggishly in the airfield pattern while taking off or landing, making it “meat on the table.”

Based on design work that began in 1938 and first flown on April 18, 1941, initially with a piston engine, the Me 262 evolved into a turbojet fighter with slatted, partially swept wings, tricycle landing gear, and a variety of armament configurations. In most versions, it carried heavy cannon, and all variants used low-pressure tires to allow operation from grass airstrips.

 

Formidable Fighter

It became a formidable weapon in the hands of an exceedingly skilled pilot, but the Me 262 was prone to engine failures, and its landing gear frequently collapsed. It performed sluggishly in the airfield pattern while taking off or landing, making it “meat on the table,” as American fighter pilot 1st Lt. Valmore P. “Val” Beaudrault put it. Beaudrault shot down an Me 262 on Oct. 2, 1944 while piloting a P-47D Thunderbolt of the 365th Fighter Group, the “Hell Hawks.”

Me 262B-1a/U1

An Me 262B-1a/U1 night fighter, with Neptun radar antenna on the nose and second seat for a radar operator, surrendered to the RAF at Schleswig in May 1945. U.S. Air Force photo

Revisionist histories often downplay Hitler‘s role in sabotaging the Me 262 by demanding that it be used as a “blitz bomber” against Allied ground troops, rather than as an air-to-air fighter to sweep the skies clean of Allied warplanes that were swarming over the Reich. During the Insterburg demonstration, the Fuehrer asked whether his new jet could carry bombs and was told that it could. What Hitler’s lapdogs didn’t say was that extensive modifications would be required and that experienced Luftwaffe combat leaders believed they could achieve more in the air-to-air role.

“I’ll never change an opinion I’ve expressed often, that with just 300 Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters we could have on any day shot down a minimum of 200 bombers,” said Galland. “If this could have continued for even a fortnight, then the day bombing would have had to be halted.” Galland called the “blitz bomber” idea “a typical Hitler error.”

“I’ll never change an opinion I’ve expressed often, that with just 300 Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters we could have on any day shot down a minimum of 200 bombers,” said Galland.

The idea of making the Me 262 a bomber had genuine consequences and possibly owes less to Hitler than to engineer-planemaker Wilhelm E. “Willy” Messerschmitt, whose company created the jet, although Messerschmitt himself had no role in designing it. On Sept. 7, 1943, granted a rare audience with the Fuehrer, Messerschmitt expressed mixed feelings about the jet and repeated his longstanding request that top priority be accorded to the Me 209-II propeller-driven fighter.

 

Orders From on High

The Me 209-II was close to Willy Messerschmitt’s heart because it was a derivative of the Bf 109, which Messerschmitt did design – the 109 was the world’s “most manufactured” fighter with about 33,000 copies, but is sometimes called the only product from Messerschmitt’s drawing board that was truly successful. The Me 209-II had about 65 percent of its parts in common with the Bf 109G.

Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwable

Me 262A-1 was brought into U.S. hands by Messerschmitt test pilot Hans Fay at Frankfurt on March 30, 1945. This aircraft was assembled at the Schwabisch-Hall-Hessental factory and lacked camouflage because bombs from U.S. B-24 Liberators destroyed the paint shop building. Brought to the United States for tests, this airframe crashed near Xenia, Ohio, on August 20, 1946. U.S. Air Force photo courtesy of Robert F. Dorr

During his conversation with Hitler, Messerschmitt, never hesitant to curry favor, touted the Me 209-II vigorously and also suggested to the Fuehrer that the Me 262 could be modified to carry bombs, apparently because Messerschmitt was promoting it in competition with the Arado Ar 234 and Dornier Do 335 in the fighter-bomber role. This may have been the first iteration of what became the “blitz bomber” concept. This was two months before the Insterburg demonstration, when Hitler had not yet received a detailed briefing about, or seen, the jet.

In May 1944, following up on a subsequent conversation at the Insterburg demo, Hitler ordered the Me 262 fleet converted into fighter-bombers. Only a few dozen were so modified. The Luftwaffe’s operational leaders, especially Galland, did their best to ignore the order and fielded the Me 262 in fighter units.

The Luftwaffe’s operational leaders, especially Galland, did their best to ignore the order and fielded the Me 262 in fighter units.

Belatedly, in July 1944, the first Me 262s entered service. In its first combat on July 25, 1944, an Me 262 attacked a British Mosquito flying a reconnaissance mission over Munich.

The first operational unit, Kommando Nowotny, led by 258-kill air ace Walter Nowotny, had high attrition rates and never resolved the Me 262’s teething troubles. Nowotny was killed in a Nov. 7, 1944 action while engaging American B-24 Liberators. A new unit under Galland fared better, but the Me 262 was difficult to handle by even the most experienced pilots.

Me 262 Replica

An Me 262 replica at an air show in July 2011. Note the deployed full-span slats. Photo by Matthias Kabel

Galland said that persistent allied attacks on Axis fuel supplies also hindered Me 262 operations. Toward the end of the war, Me 262s were often towed to the end of the runway by draft horses in order to conserve fuel. In addition, many airframes sat idle waiting for engines that never arrived.

Although it was the first by a considerable margin, the Me 262 was not the best jet of its era. Britain’s Gloster Meteor, which used more reliable centrifugal-flow turbojet engines, joined the Royal Air Force in 1944. The first practical U.S. jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, reached Europe by May 1945, but saw no combat in World War II.

North American Aviation’s Larry Green studied the German language in night school so he could use Me 262 manuals as part of the design team developing the F-86 Sabre jet that fought in Korea.

A typical Me 262 was powered by two 1,984-pound thrust Jumo-004B axial-flow turbojet engines, armed with four 30 mm nose cannon, and reached a speed of 540 miles per hour  (or ten percent faster than the Me 209 speed record). A fully loaded Me 262 weighed about 14,400 pounds. After the war, captured Me 262s influenced western fighter designs. North American Aviation’s Larry Green studied the German language in night school so he could use Me 262 manuals as part of the design team developing the F-86 Sabre jet that fought in Korea.

Today, the only flying Me 262s are a handful of replicas powered by American 2,800-pound thrust General Electric J85-CJ-610 turbojet engines.

By

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

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-38975">
    Barrett Tillman

    A fine summary. Looking at Me 262 info, it’s interesting to note how little training some GAF jet pilots received. Sometimes their “Fam Two” hop was in combat. Many had never fired the 30mm cannon before engaging enemy aircraft. Despite its far superior top-end performance, the relatively few 262s could not change the outcome of the air war, and perhaps we should give similar thought to the relation between low numbers of high-tech stealth fighters we can afford and the likelihood of far more numerous conventional opponents, when & if there’s ever another air war.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-38977">
    Edmond W Holcombe

    My grandfather was s truck driver during the war. While unloading ammunition from a train to the trucks, they were straifed by a 262. He went into the burning train and rescued two fallen soldiers, earning him the Soldiers Medal. He has been gone for 17 years now, but I will never forget sitting with him and talking about his life.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-38998">
    Bill English

    I’m surprised you said the Gloster Meteor was better. It was slower and uglier.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-39000">

    Mr. Tillman,
    Your last point is especially well taken. It’s interesting that during World War II we made a conscious decision to go with many of the “good enough,” such as the M4 Sherman, rather than fewer of the best. We ended up using “rat trap” tactics and attacks on the Me 262s in the pattern to eliminate the threat because of relatively inferior aircraft, which worked out in the end. It’s ironic that today we are looking at “silver bullet” solutions like the F-22, and find ourselves on the opposite end of the equation. Then again, were I king for a day, I would have built the number of F-22s the Air Force asked for.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-39319">
    Philip Lyon

    A few corrections are in order.

    The Me-262 was put into service too soon.

    When Hitler witnessed the V6 flying, no one told him the other five had crashed mainly to engine problems etc.
    Having in his mind defeated the American daylight bombing raids in October, defeating the expected invasion next spring was his next concern, so an unstoppable jet bomber seemed of greater importance than a clear air superiority fighter, when what he had seemed adequate at that moment.

    This isn’t to excuse Hitler for his many stupid decisions, but to explain his apparent thinking.

    Unfortunately, theMe-262’s engines were simply far too unreliable for service use.

    The engines only lasted 20-25 hours.

    By comparisons piston engines were expected to last 300-500 hours between overhauls.

    For example, the Westinghouse engines for the P=59B were supposed to last 300 hours.
    To do that, the Westinghouse engineers were ordered by their bosses to derate the engines, ie reduce their power to achieve the contracted reliability requirements without telling the USAAF or the Bell company, regardless of what it did to the performance of the Bell P-59B, whose engineers were constantly confused why its performance declined as they eliminated other problems. By the time the Bell engineers got the Westinghouse engineers to confess and explain their effective sabotage of the program it was too late to save the Bell P-59.

    One could argue the Westinghouse engineers and the corporation leaders were fortunate they weren’t shot for sabotaging a potentially critical aircraft program, which might have happened had they been in Nazi Germany.

    The excuse for being towed around the airfield wasn’t so much to save fuel, because it used kerosene which was kitchen fuel in Germany then, and far easier to get 100+ octane av-gas when it became operational due the allied attacks on the oil industry, but to save the taxi time on the engines.

    The figures of 542 kills from the cited July 25th July 1944 debut, which is the first hard number for Me-262 victories I seem to recall reading, is interesting and revealing at just how little effect it had on the war; since that’s an average of less than 2 per day in the approximately 40 weeks of its combat experience, which given it supposed superiority, is rather pitiful.

    Production numbers cited for the Me-262 have varied, as has those of the Me-109 (30,000 to 36,000; depending on what was politically correct at the time), but if Galland in 8 plus month’s could not put 3-4% of that production into the air concentrated against enemy attacks, it speaks more to the Me-262’s liabilities than its strengths

    Then there are the tactical limitations of its 30mm cannon being slow firing, in part because the front pair had only 80 rounds, the rear only 100, which among other things meant combat was rather brief.

    Time doesn’t permit further development of its weaknesses, but I should mention its swept wing wasn’t originally swept for reasons of speed but to move the center of gravity rearward for stability reasons, and Messerschmidt’s rather lackadaisical development program must bear some of the blame.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-39350">

    Great comments. If there are any mistakes in the article that need to be corrected, they were introduced in the editing process.

    The weak link was always the engines, which I felt the article stated. The aircraft itself was great to fly, apparently, except that one had to “fly the engines” and the engines were prone to catastrophic failure.

    I believe the outboard portions of the wings being swept back due to CG issues was because the Jumos were actually the second engine considered after the failure of the originally planned BMWs, and the Jumos’ weight difference necessitated the changes since the aircraft had originally been designed around the BMWs. I don’t know how the Jumos would have operated had they been made without compromises due to the material shortages Germany was experiencing, but Bill Gunston wrote somewhere that after the war German engineers were astonished at the number of hours the centrifugal flow Whittle could run in bench tests.

    My understanding of the fuel situation was that, first, the Me 262 used prodigious amounts of fuel and that it was an actual order that they be towed to the end of the runway, (although I’m sure being able to avoid putting hours on the engines made a lot of sense, too) and, second, that while you’re right that kerosene was much more common than the high-octane avfuel needed for piston engines, the problem of getting the fuel to the airfields over a shattered transportation network meant that there were constant local shortages even if the country at large had adequate supplies.

    The octane situation is a story in itself, and an underappreciated one. Allied fighters enjoyed significant performance advantages due to the availability of higher-octane fuel than the Germans could dream of obtaining in quantity.

    The 542 figure is claims and not confirmed kills, and of course German record-keeping at that stage of the war wasn’t always reliable, consistent, or even existent. We all know about claims versus reality, of course, but it’s not a difficult number to swallow, and it certainly speaks to your point.

    Was Galland right? We’ll never know, because the Luftwaffe never had more than a few jets in the sky at any one time. I suspect that with time and numbers, the Luftwaffe would have eventually developed the tactics to make the jets extremely lethal, but there were not enough jets, nor was there time.