At high altitude east of the Rhine bridgehead at Remagen on March 13, 1945, American fighter pilot 1st Lt. Ed Lopez looked down from his P-47 Thunderbolt at a sight none of his buddies had ever seen. Lopez spotted three Arado Ar 234 Blitz jet bombers, flying in a wide “V” 10,000 feet below. Lopez and his fellow fighter pilots rolled into a dive, straining for a chance to attack the faster, seemingly untouchable jets.
“We were doing at least 500 miles per hour and closing in on them very fast,” wrote Lopez, probably exaggerating his own velocity. “The German pilots knew what they were doing. They let us get close to them but not within range. Just when it looked like we were going to get some easy targets the German pilots gave their planes full power and took off at a 45-degree angle and left us like we were standing still.”
Capable of 461 miles per hour at 20,000 feet and faster than any Allied fighter it was likely to face in the sky during its era, the Arado Ar 234 was the world’s first operational jet bomber. It was initially used for reconnaissance. Adolf Hitler considered it to be one of the wunderwaffen, or “wonder weapons” that would reverse his fortunes at a time when Nazi Germany was losing the war.
One of about a half dozen jet warplanes developed by the Third Reich, the Ar 234 was a product of the German company Arado Flugzeugwerke and was designed by an engineering team headed by Walter Blume and Hans Rebeski. The design of the aircraft was finalized fully 18 months before the first engines became available. The Ar 234 V1 prototype made its first flight on June 15, 1943, at Rheine Airfield.
With tricycle gear, a flush nose canopy and twin jet engines slung under its wings, the remarkably clean and straightforward Ar 234 was handicapped by developmental and reliability problems with the Junkers Jumo 004 turbojet engine. The eventual production version of the engine, the 004B-1, was rated at 1,980 pounds thrust (8.80 kN). For increased thrust during takeoff, Ar 234s used rocket-assisted takeoff (RATO) boosters.
Early versions did not have a conventional undercarriage, but took off using a three-wheeled trolley and landed by means of skids. This permitted more space in the fuselage for fuel, but had a serious drawback: Until it could be loaded onto a specialized vehicle to be moved, the Arado was a sitting duck for any Allied aircraft that might strafe the airfield.
Still, an early prototype became the first jet aircraft ever to fly a reconnaissance mission. On Aug. 2, 1944, Leutnant Erich Sommer whizzed over the Normandy beachheads at about 460 miles per hour and used two Rb 50/30 cameras to take one set of photos every 11 seconds.
“I liked the Arado very much,” said former Luftwaffe pilot Willi Kriessmann, who lives today in Burlingame, Calif. “It was a wonderful plane. I thought it was designed better than the Messerschmitt Me 262. It was a single-seater so we didn’t have time to practice much, so we had some ‘dry classes.’ Landing and taking off was very different from a prop plane.” Kriessmann noted that the RATO units often didn’t work properly.
B Model Blitz Bomber
The Ar 234B Schnellbomber, or “fast bomber” introduced a widened fuselage that permitted conventional landing gear, albeit with a very narrow track. The B model, first flown in June 1944, was slightly heavier than reconnaissance versions at 21,720 pounds (9850 kilograms) and had two 20 mm fixed, rearward-firing MG 151 cannons in a remotely controlled tail position operated by the pilot using a periscope. There exists no record of anyone ever hitting anything with these guns, and many pilots removed them to save weight.
Two different configurations for a four-engined version of the Ar 234 were built and flown. The Ar 234 V8 had four BMW 109-003A-1 engines, each of 1,760 pounds static thrust, podded together two to a side and the Ar 234 V6 housed the four engines in separate nacelles. The Ar 234 V8 with podded engines was chosen for production as the Ar 234C, the added engines improving top speed to 529 mph at 20,000 feet.
The Ar 234C was the final production version, and also introduced an improved pressurized cockpit and larger main wheels. A “crescent-wing” Ar 234 – signaling the future Handley Page Victor – was under construction but never flown. Ultimately only 19 Ar 234Cs are believed to have been built, with none reaching combat units.
Kriessmann was assigned to ferry Ar 234s from the factory “to different places where they installed optical equipment and bombing equipment. I flew the first one on Dec. 12, 1944, from Hamburg to Kampfgeschwader 76 and the last on May 1, 1945.” KG 76 was a German group that flew the final Ar 234 sortie of the war against advancing Red Army troops near Berlin.
Plans existed for the manufacture of 2,500 Ar 234 Blitz bombers, but they were cut short by the war’s end. Total production was 224 examples of all versions.