By 26 November things were ready for us on the conversion course to begin the Defence of the Reich duties with jet aircraft.
The Schwärme had been assigned and my ‘262 had a tactical number – a gold ‘8’. The weather was not exactly ideal, for there was a huge cloud bank pushing towards us from the west. This would be my first combat mission in the ‘262. Around 10:00 hrs, the order to take off was given, the engines were started and the turbines roared. I was tasked with intercepting a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft in the Munich area. It would be my first flight in cooperation with a ground-based fighter control officer using radar.
The ‘262 rolled forward and the speed increased meteorically. Just before the end of the runway, I lifted the machine up and raised the undercarriage and flaps. A quick check of the engine instruments, especially the temperature of the turbines. My ‘262 picked up speed and climbed upwards. I turned my FuG 16 on and found the fighter frequency ‘Bavaria’. A short call followed: ‘Bavaria from Schwalbe 8, please come in’. A few-second pause, then Bavaria came on and gave the first instructions clearly and exactly. Meanwhile, my ‘262 had reached an altitude of 5000 metres. I was vectored to the Munich area to look for U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft which conducted a bomb damage assessment mission.
The ground controller spoke very calmly and almost radiated an atmosphere of confidence. A further order: ‘Course 340, height 7000, distance ahead 20 km’. My ‘262 had quickly reached the altitude. I was on course and the distance was diminishing rapidly. The guns were loaded, the safety catches released and the engine instruments checked again. I was ready for a fight. Bavaria came through with new instructions: ‘Distance ahead 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – you have made contact – the highest concentration’. I looked around to see if I could catch sight of my target. Unfortunately, this first attempt, it must be said, was a complete wash-out. I could not locate my target.
The second attempt also met with no success. Unfortunately I could not spot any enemy aircraft. Something was not right. I had enough experience as a fighter pilot, I was in control of the Me 262 and was otherwise OK. Feverishly I checked over my flight and engine instruments and the fuel supply. All indicators were in the green area.
A new instruction from the ground control: ‘Course 270’, and a few minutes later: ‘Handing you over to Leander’. Leander was the Stuttgart Fighter Control Centre. Just after Augsburg, a cloud bank pushed eastwards and I flew over a sea of cloud. Alone, with nothing but a cloud bank under my ‘262 and blue sky streaked with vapour trails above me, I had contact with the ground only via radio. Leander called and advised: ‘Course 270, distance ahead 70 km’. The prescribed altitude was 8000 metres and my ‘262 shot there like a greased lightning. Hopefully, it would work out this time. The engines were running normally, the instruments were showing the correct readings and Leander, meanwhile, let me know the narrowing range. I had already been underway for 35 minutes and still had not had sight of the ground. Some decision had to be made soon. The target was still 10 kilometers away. Once again, I checked my weapons. Tension mounted. Leander continued to count down the time to target and then from the right, there appeared a point, my target. The seconds felt like an eternity, then I could identify him – a U.S. Air Force Lightning returning to France. My right hand firmly grasped the control column. The target filled the gunsight. A pressed the trigger. The first burst went too high. I dropped the aircraft’s nose a little and hit the aircraft’s fuselage with my next burst. A lick of flame shot out of its mid-right section. I broke off the attack. Circling above, I saw the Lightning tip over on its left wing and snap into a spin.
I watched the burning Lightning dive into the cloud bank beneath us. Now my tension abated somewhat and I reported my victory to Leander, and asked for instructions for the return flight to Lechfeld. Leander congratulated me on my success and ordered: ‘Course 090’. Again, I checked all the instruments, especially the engine indicators and the fuel supply. Everything was in order. My ‘262 soared calmly through the air. General Galland once said of the Me 262: ‘It’s as if the angels were pushing’. My reverie was broken when Leander came through with: ‘Handing you over to Bavaria, have a good trip.’ The flight continued above the cloud bank. My fuel supply was visibly dwindling.
Bavaria took over and informed me: ‘Course 090, leave your flying altitude and begin descent’. The weather at Lechfeld was also reported. The lower edge of the clouds was at 500 metres, visibility 10-15 km. Now everything happened very quickly. My ‘262 dived into the murky cloud cover. I held the speed at 650 kph. At an altitude of about 600 metres I shot out of the clouds, exactly over my home airfield at Lechfeld. Now everything was routine: cut the speed to 300-250 kph, flaps out, undercarriage out and an orderly landing approach. The tyres squealed, the ‘262 smoothly setting down after a flying time of 80 minutes (from 11:35 hrs to 12:55 hrs). I taxied off at the end of the runway and rolled to the dispersal. It was high time to get back on solid ground. Radio off, weapons secured and engines shut down. Now my tension dissolved. I undid my parachute harness and climbed out of my ‘262.
The machine I had shot down was an F-5E (a photo reconnaissance version of the P-38 Lightning) of the 7th Photo Recon Group, 27th Photo Squadron. The aircraft, model F-5E-2-LO, s/n 43-28619, was piloted by Lt. Irvin J. Rickey. He was able to take to his parachute near Speßhardt around 12:15 hrs German time and was taken prisoner at Mötlingen, 8 kilometers northwest of Calw”.1
Revolutionary design In early 1944 the Third Reich faced a critical situation. A series of defeats which the Germans had suffered throughout the previous twelve months deprived them of any hope to win the war. The Western Allies had beaten them squarely in the North Africa, captured Sicily and by then occupied much of the Italian mainland. Worse still, they were getting ready to launch the long-awaited cross-channel landing operation in France. On the eastern front the Wehrmacht lost the initiative and, obliged by Führer’s orders, desperately strove to hold successive defensive lines, suffering unrecoverable losses in men and machines.
The round-the-clock aerial strategic offensive, carried out by day by the USAAF and at night by the RAF, was turning German cities, especially those in the northern and western parts of the country, into a sea of rubble. Most of the German citizens had already realized that the would-be One-Thousand-Year Reich was crumbling apart. It was commonly believed that only some sort of a miracle could turn the tide and save Germany. Dr Josef Goebbels, the Reich’s minister of information and propaganda, perfectly diagnosed this prevailing mood of the German society. It was indeed ‘wonder weapons’ he talked about when he started his new media campaign. The new, powerful ‘vengeance weapons’ (Vergeltungs-Waffen) were about to enter service, he vowed. Not only V-1 and V-2 self-propelled missiles, but also a new aircraft, which was expected to regain air supremacy for the Luftwaffe. It was powered by two jet engines and bore the name of Messerschmitt Me 262.
The history of the Me 262 dates back to 1938, when the Reich Air Ministry2 ordered the Messerschmitt company to design an airframe which could be powered by BMW P.3302 turbojet constructed in the BMW plant at Berlin Schönefeld. The new powerplant was to be ready for serial production as early as December 1939. Since the BMW jet engine offered thrust limited to a bare 315 kG, the Messerschmitt design bureau proposed an aircraft powered by two engines, which received a working designation of P1065. Ludwig Bölkow, who was to gain fame after the war for his helicopter designs, was one of the Me 262 project team members. He recalled: “We felt at that time that we writing a new chapter in the history of aviation. This was the inspiration that drove our group of enthusiasts, who day and night fought mounting problems. One could sense the air of expectation among us, an impatient wait for the outcome of our fervent work”.
The preliminary project was ready by 7th June 1939. The aerofoil outline of the aircraft’s wings much resembled those of the Messerschmitt traditional designs, the Bf 109 and Bf 110. Its maximum speed at level flight, at 100% engine thrust, was supposed to reach 915 kph. In March 1940 the RLM representatives placed an order for 20 prototype and experimental machines.
Final specifications of the BMW P.3302 jet engine included a gross weight far in excess of anticipated figures, which forced a major redesigning of the airframe. In order to properly position the center of lift relative to the center of mass, the wings were slightly swept back. At the same time, tests in aerodynamic tunnels led to changes in fuselage cross-section, which took a nearly triangular shape. The construction of the P1065 first prototype commenced in February 1941, and the work was completed the following month. Beginning with 8th April 1941, the aircraft bore the RLM official designation of the Messerschmitt Me 262. Since the jet engines were not delivered on time, the prototype was fitted with a single 700 hp Junkers Jumo 210 G piston engine, mounted in the nose of the aircraft. Me 262 V1, (coded PC+UA, WNr. 262 000 0001), made its maiden flight on 18th April 1941 at 19:35 hrs, with the Messerschmitt test pilot, Flugkapitän Fritz Wendel, at the controls.
The first two BMW P.3302 units arrived at the Messerschmitt plant as late as in the fall of 1941. After coupling them to the Me 262 V1, on 25th March 1942 Fritz Wendel took to the air for a test flight. At the height of barely 50 meters one of the engines flamed out. Moments later the other engine also failed, but the pilot managed to make a go-round on the piston engine alone and land. The unacceptable lack of reliability of BMW engines led to a partial cancellation of the RLM order, which was reduced from 20 to only five aircraft. Fortunately for the Me 262 designers, an alternative solution to the problem appeared in the form of new Junkers Jumo 004 engines. First two Jumo 004 A-0 (WNr. 003 and 005) engines were delivered to the Messerschmitt plant on 1st June 1942. The were installed on Me 262 V3 (PC+UC, WNr. 0003), which was test flown on 18th July 1942. Again Fritz Wendel took the matters in his hands: “…as soon as I pressed the brakes, the tail lifted off the ground and the control surfaces began to respond. The engines ran faultlessly. The aircraft was a pure pleasure to fly. Never before had I experienced such a thrill during a maiden flight. I was delighted with the Me 262”.
On 1st October 1942 another prototype, Me 262 V2 (PC+UB, WNr. 0002), was first flown. During the winter months of 1942/43 intensive testing was carried out and the airframe was being refined. On 17 April 1943 the Me 262 was for the first time flown by a frontline pilot. Hptm. Wolfgang Späte, the recipient of the Knight’s Cross, had at that time 72 aerial victories to his credit. Erstwhile Staffelkapitän 5./JG 54, he was later appointed the commander of Erprobungskommando 16, an experimental unit which tested the rocket-powered Me 163 fighters. After the flight Späte submitted a report to Gen. Adolf Galland, the inspector of the Luftwaffe fighter arm, which read: “The aircraft’s handling characteristics allow it to be flown by an experienced pilot. Of special interest is the advantage of speed in relation to even the fastest traditional fighters. The highest maximum speed at low level recorded thus far was 780 kph. It is to be expected that mounting the armament and radio equipment will not reduce the speed of the aircraft since the serial production machines are to be fitted with jet engines of improved performance. Jet engines do not lose power with altitude, which is their unique feature. Quite the contrary, their thrust increase. The climb rate of the Me 262 surpasses that of Bf 109 by 5-6 m/s at a much higher speed. The advantage of speed in level flight and in rate of climb enables the aircraft to engage numerically superior enemy fighters. The extraordinarily powerful armament of the Me 262 will outbalance a relatively short time left to fire the guns due to a high rate of closure, making the aircraft a very potent weapon against enemy heavy bombers. Deployed in a fighter-bomber role, even laden with bombs the Me 262 will outrun any enemy fighter. […] The design has enormous potential and, as such, its further development should be treated with highest priority. Jet propulsion is the answer for obtaining even higher speeds in the future. Me 262 is only the first step in that direction...”.