Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe vol. II


During the first few weeks of combat operations the Me 262 A-2a crews from KG 51 were forbidden from flying above enemy territory at altitudes lower than 4 000 m, which greatly limited the amount of damage they could inflict.
Air to air combat in the Me 262 A-1a was based on a handful of basic principles. Again, the decisive factors were the speed and aircraft handling characteristics. The jet’s key advantage was the speed, which allowed the pilots to launch surprise attacks and then to disengage quickly without being drawn into a prolonged dog fight. The preferred method of engaging enemy escort fighters was an attack from rear hemisphere using altitude advantage. After a brief burst of fire the Me 262 would disengage using its superior speed performance in a shallow dive. On paper the tactics seemed to be sound and should have allowed even less experienced pilots to achieve success in confrontation with Allied fighters. There were, however, some problems. Inherent characteristics of the jet engine made the Me 262 much less dynamic than piston-powered fighters: too enthusiastic operation of the throttle often led to compressor stalls or engine fires. With such limitations performing sudden, dynamic maneuvers was nearly impossible. In addition, the jet had an appallingly large turning radius and the engines took forever to spool up. Equally dangerous was overspeeding the aircraft in dives – it did not take much for the jet to reach its never exceed speed of Mach .83. At that speed recovering from a dive was extremely difficult. Johannes Steinhoff had this to offer: “Following the target in a dive was completely out of the question, due to the danger of exceeding the critical speed. The aircraft did not have speed brakes, which would have been very helpful in controlling the speed in a dive.”
Lt. “Quax” Schnörrer had a close call while chasing an Allied reconnaissance aircraft: “I pulled back on the stick as hard as I could, but the Me 262 failed to recover from the dive. I felt terrible. In panic I jettisoned the canopy, which immediately changed the aircraft’s trim and the jet recovered from the dive by itself. I landed without the canopy and with wing skin panels all wrinkled up. My Me 262 was a complete write-off.”
The fighter’s offensive armament comprising four MK 108 30 mm cannons was very effective against large and relatively slow targets, such as heavy bombers. It was, however, all but useless against fast, maneuverable Allied fighters. The weapon’s short barrel made it very inaccurate, especially at longer ranges. The supply of ammunition was enough to fire a 6 – 7 second burst, which meant the pilot had to calculate his deflection very carefully or come in very close before opening fire. Firing at short range was not only dangerous, but also counterproductive: it denied the attacking fighter the element of surprise as the jet had to slow down while the pilot was aiming the weapons. The jet then would have to accelerate rapidly to disengage, which was not always easy giving the nature of the early turbojet designs. The acceleration phase could easily take up to five seconds, during which time the Me 262 was vulnerable to enemy fire. In practice, shooting down an enemy fighter aircraft in the Me 262 was a very difficult task. Johannes Steinhoff remembers: “The Lightnings were rapidly growing in my gun sight. I only had a few seconds to get behind one of the fighters on the formation’s edge. As soon as I opened fire, as if warned by someone, the fighters broke formation and started to bog out in different directions. Thud, thud, thud – my cannon was pounding furiously. I tried to give chase to one of the Lightnings trying to get away in a tight turn, but the sudden onset of g slammed me into my seat so hard that I could barely turn my head to keep a tally on the enemy.”
On many occasions Me 262 pilots successfully engaged Allied fighter-bomber aircraft. The most common tactics against such targets was a low altitude approach followed by a climbing attack using the Me 262’s superior climb capabilities. Attacks from below allowed the Luftwaffe pilots to maintain visual contact with their targets, which were clearly visible against the light background of the sky.
However, the Me 262 A-1a’s main target were formations of USAAF heavy bombers, which had been raining death and destruction on German cities since the spring of 1944. Luftwaffe’s piston-powered fighters found it increasingly more difficult to penetrate the protective ring of Allied fighters escorting the “heavies”. Ever since the Americans pressed the P-51 into service, they had enjoyed not only quantitative, but also qualitative superiority. The Mustangs outclassed almost all Luftwaffe standard fighter types and they almost always went into battle in greater numbers. Introduction to service of the fast Me 262 A-1a fighters finally gave the Luftwaffe pilots a fighting chance of penetrating the formations of USAAF escort fighters and attacking the bombers.
Combat units operating the jets could hardly ever scramble more than sixteen fighters at a time, so the Luftwaffe crews were almost always greatly outnumbered by the enemy. Their priority was always the heavy bombers, therefore it was only on rare occasions that the Me 262s engaged Allied fighters.