August 2nd 1944 saw Juvincourt aero- drome bustle with unusual activity. This was the day on which the Luftwaffe’s newest jet aircraft – the Arado 234 – would make its premier operational sortie. The machine sported the sleek, streamlined silhouette of a high-wing monoplane, with two engine nacelles suspended under wings.
It was the engines that aroused so much interest among those present at the airfield. Most of them had never before seen aviation engines devoid of propellers. Another extraordinary feature of the design was its undercarriage – the aircraft was resting on a tricycle trolley! A closer look revealed a sizable, retractable skid installed under the fuselage and two smaller, stabilizing skids mounted under the engine nacelles.
Several minutes later, the Arado Ar 234 V7 (WNr. 130 007, coded T9+MH), with Lt. Erich Sommer at the controls, was towed to the end of the east-west runway. Sommer re-checked his instruments and started the engines, then released the brakes and pushed the throttle levers. The ground crew watched with awe as spurts of red-hot air burst from the engine nozzles with a distinctive whizz. Meanwhile, the aircraft began to roll down the runway. After the first 200 meters the pilot started the auxiliary rocket engines, which promptly spat out billows of white smoke.
“It looks like a flying Nebelwerfer1 battery!” – commented Ofw. Nowitzki. He was a veteran of the eastern front and had had ample opportunity to watch rocket artilleries in action.
The aircraft accelerated rapidly. It appeared to suddenly lose weight and glide like a feather. Sommer jettisoned the trolley and with the Arado smoking profusely from its rocket engines, left the ground. After about 20 seconds the rocket booster units had exhausted their fuel and were extinguished. Immediately, Sommer pressed the release button and both rocket units fell away from the wings, automatically deploying small parachutes. They drifted off towards the edge of the airfield.
The pilot held the climb rate at 13 meters per second, whilst the speed indicator showed 410 kph. Since the aircraft had taken off in a westerly direction, there was no need to alter course, and after a few slight corrections the Arado was headed straight towards its target. Climbing constantly, it soon reached layers of thinner air, which allowed it to further increase its speed. Barely 20 minutes had passed before the machine topped 10,500 meters. Far below, the ground war continued. Sommer kept looking over his shoulder to make sure that his aircraft wasn’t pulling contrails, which would betray his presence to enemy interceptors. However, the sky behind him was clear. High above the Cotentin Peninsula, in the vicinity of Cherbourg, he turned east, dropping some 500 meters and speeding up to 740 kph. After a while he pulled out of the shallow dive and leveled out, getting ready for a photographic session. The lenses’ covers slid back and, as he pressed the shutter release button, the two cameras went to work. They took one set of pictures every 11 seconds, imaging a swathe of land almost ten kilometers wide across the direction of flight.
Weather conditions were perfect, a clear summer sky offering almost unlimited visibility. From such an altitude it was hard to perceive any evidence of the ruthless battles taking place on the ground. Sommer didn’t notice any interception attempts. He was too busy directing his aircraft along a route that would cover the greatest possible area, in order to photograph it with the modest reserve of films in both cameras. His first pass over the coast and the artificial harbour in the area of Asnelles-sur-Mer took ten minutes. Then Sommer turned around and carried out a second pass, photographing a stretch of land ten kilometers away from the beaches, including some airfields around St. Pierre. The third pass, on a parallel course, took him another ten kilometers inland and somewhat to the east of his previous pass. Shortly before he reached the end of the Peninsula, the image counters for both cameras showed zero, indicating that had run out of films.
Sommer continued to the east. His only concern was to deliver the precious images back to base. Carefully scanning the sky around him in search of enemy fighters, he kept descending toward Juvincourt, where he managed to drop the Arado smoothly onto the grass alongside the concrete runway. Before his machine had slowed to a halt, he saw ground personnel running towards him from all directions. As he climbed out of the cockpit, both cameras were extracted from the fuselage through hatches in its spine. The film boxes were secured in a special container and passed to messenger mounted on a motorcycle, who took them to a darkroom to be processed.