The world's first operational jet fighter.
8 minutes read.
The Messerschmitt Me-262 was the first jet fighter to enter operational service.
It was a superb day and night bomber interceptor, with a speed advantage so great, and armament so powerful, that it could easily intercept and destroy allied heavy bombers, while practically ignoring their swarms of piston-engined escort fighters, and the bombers' own gun turrets.
As with other advanced weapons produced by the German industry in World War 2, its contribution to the German war effort came far too little and too late than it could, due to great delays caused initially by Hitler's over confidence in a quick victory, and later by his obsession with bombers, and by rivalries in the German Air Force and military industry.
Allied bombardments of the Messerschmitt factories and of the German fuel industry, and later of Me-262 air bases, also greatly contributed to delay and minimize its operational activity.
Performance, armament, types
When it did fly to air combat, the Me-262 was unstoppable at high speed, but it was vulnerable at low speed, after takeoff and before landing, because of its very sensitive and immature jet engines, and that's where allied fighters ambushed it, in addition to attacking it on the ground.
It was not a classic agile fighter aircraft.
A fast twin-jet aircraft, it was designed to be a powerful bomber interceptor, what the Germans called Zerstorer (destroyer).
It had a speed of 870kmh (540mph) decisively faster than the 700kmh (437mph) of the allied P-51 Mustangs which escorted the allied bombers.
The fighter version, named Schwalbe (swallow), was armed with four 30mm guns in the nose, giving it an enormous punch which easily destroyed a heavy bomber, and also a stand-off firing range advantage against the bombers' defensive weapons.
Before the end of the war it was also armed with R4M unguided 50mm air-to-air rockets, which also proved very lethal against bomber formations, also from stand-off range.
The two-seater night fighter version was also equipped with an air intercept RADAR and a passive homing device that homed on the transmissions from allied aircraft.
Its speed advantage over the slow heavy bombers was so great that it became a difficulty in the conditions of a RADAR-based night intercept, so its pilots specialized in intercepting the much faster Mosquito bombers, easily intercepting many of the previously almost invincible Mosquitoes.
The bomber version, that was produced only because of Hitler's command, was named Sturmvogel (Storm bird).
In addition to the 30mm guns it also carried two 500lb bombs, and was generally inefficient as a bomber, due to its low precision (it was limited to high altitude level bombing), low bomb load, and low range.
Without bombs, the bomber version was still efficient as a bomber interceptor, but initially they were simply not used as interceptors.
Later they were, but since Hitler demanded that it will be flown by bomber pilots even in interception missions, this proved a total failure, since the bomber pilots simply lacked the necessary fighter pilot training to perform and survive this type of mission.
There was also a photo reconnaissance version, and several other versions which never passed the prototype stage.
A history of political intervention, delays, and misuse
The German advantage in jet and rocket technology, and in many other fields of military technology, in the beginning of World War 2, was not a coincidence.
Since 1933, when Adolf Hitler became dictator of Germany, with a firm and declared intention to go to war, Germany was making a maximum national effort to prepare to a major war.
The German military industry, which was already one of the world's leading industries, was given enormous budgets and other national resources, in a major national effort to equip the German military with the most advanced weapons possible, and such an effort was bound to produce results.
At those same pre-war years, the UK, France, US, were led by nationwide pacifism which preferred to ignore the rapidly rising threat, and their defense budgets were miserably low.
Russia did not ignore the threat, but Stalin's paranoid totalitarian regime was then busy in self-destruction, by murdering most senior officers, sending many leading scientists and engineers and millions of other citizens to jail, and destroying initiative of any kind by fear.
So there's no wonder that between 1933 - 1939 Germany achieved a significant advantage in military technology over its future enemies, an advantage it partially lost during the war, not just by the allied efforts but also by it own errors.
In jet and rocket technology, the Germans kept the technological advantage until the end of the war, but the errors, human errors, greatly reduced the actual military benefit from it, as was in the case of the Messerschmitt Me-262 .
- Aug. 1939 - a week before the beginning of World War 2, a German aircraft performs the first jet-powered flight in history, almost two years before the 1st British jet and more than 2 years before the 1st American jet.
- 1940 - confident of a quick victory, Hitler orders to stop all development projects which are not expected to become operational within 18 months.
General Udet, the director of air armament development, quietly orders to continue such work, including of jet and rocket aircraft, but the pace is much slower since, and causes major delay in the development of the Me-262.
- July 1942 - the first jet-powered test flight of the Me-262 prototype.
- May 1943 - General Galland (103 victories), head of the German fighter command, flies a Me-262 prototype.
His enthusiast report of the performance of the new aircraft as a bomber interceptor is shared by all Luftwaffe seniors.
They issue a recommendation to immediately start initial production, to speed up technical and operational evaluation.
Actually the Me-262 then was almost identical with its final version, it was ready for combat service.
But the enthusiasm in the Air Force is blocked by Hitler, who by 1943 no longer trusted his Air Force seniors, especially in anything related to promises of wonderful new aircraft, so Hitler forbids initial production and orders to continue development with just the few initial prototypes.
- Dec. 1943 - Hitler, surrounded by Air Force seniors and Willi Messerschmitt, the aircraft designer, sees the Me-262 prototype for the 1st time.
Always frustrated by the German disadvantage in bombers, Hitler asks if the Me-262 can be used as a bomber, and the answer is "theoretically yes".
It is clear to everyone else there that the Me-262 is an exceptional interceptor, but not to Hitler.
Hitler then lectures to them about the potential he sees in the Me-262 as a bomber, and leaves, wrongly thinking that his lecture was understood as a command to develop and produce the Me-262 as a bomber.
Development continues, but only of the original fighter version.
- Feb. 1944 - allied bombardment of Messerschmitt factories delays initial production by two more months.
- April 1944 - the first production series of the Me-262 is destroyed in another allied bombardment of Messerschmitt factories.
The Allies begin to concentrate bombing efforts in destroying the German oil industry.
- April 1944 - during a discussion about the Me-262, Hitler suddenly realizes that it is produced only in the original fighter version, not in "his" bomber version.
Hitler is furious.
He commands to shift all production to a bomber version.
He forbids to even refer to the aircraft as an interceptor or even as a fighter-bomber, and the military responsibilities
related to the Me-262 are transferred from the fighter command to the bomber command.
This means that jet fighter pilot training is stopped.
Instead, bomber pilots will train to fly the Me-262, as a bomber.
The decision also further delays production.
- Aug. 1944 - Ploesti, Germany's only source of natural oil, is destroyed by systematic bombardments, and then occupied by the Russian army.
The shortage of fuel quickly becomes unbearable, and until the end of the war the German Air Force will have much more aircraft than it can actually fly, because of fuel shortage. Furthermore, allied fighters achieve air superiority all over Germany, and will keep it until the end of the war.
They also begin to raid German air bases.
The Me-262 (bomber version) makes its debut, bombing mostly in France, causing insignificant damage.
- Sept. 1944 - The Luftwaffe's 60 Me-262 bombers are destroyed on the ground by American bombers.
The Luftwaffe's first six evaluation Me-262 fighters are scrambled to protect them, but too late.
(just imagine what if all the 66 Me-262s were operated by fighter pilots and scrambled..)
- Oct. 1944 - Germany now has a real jet bomber, the Arado 234, and Hitler, still obsessed with bombers, agrees to a "deal" in which for every Arado 234 bomber delivered, a Me-262 of the fighter version will also be delivered.
The first few Me-262s (fighter version) become operational.
The small new unit shoots down an increasing number of allied aircraft, and The Allies respond by fighter and bomber raids on its air base.
Hitler agrees to expand the small unit from a few aircraft to the world's first jet fighter wing (JG7).
- Jan. 1945 - following long disputes with Hitler and Goering, General Adolf Galland (103 victories), the head of the fighter command and formerly the top German ace, is dismissed.
He is permitted to establish and lead an independent Me-262 fighter squadron and select its pilots.
The squadron (JV44) becomes the most elite fighter squadron in history.
Its pilots are all veteran "experten", the German term for top aces.
The total number of air combat victories by its pilots is amazing, and when I counted them, I reached over 1000 victories at the 5th name!!
JV44 was by far the highest concentration of air combat talent and experience ever in history, but it took three months until it became operational in April 1945, shortly before the end of the war, and its air base was often bombarded by The Allies.
- Feb. 1945 - An attempt by bomber pilots flying the Me-262 to intercept allied heavy bombers ends with failure.
Six of the ten Me-262s are shot down for one damaged American bomber.
The night-fighter version of the Me-262 makes its debut.
The small jet night fighter unit has just 10 aircraft, and it flies a total of just 70 sorties until the end of the war, but they shoot down 48 allied aircraft, including 43 Mosquitoes.
- March 1945 - JG7, the world's first jet fighter wing makes it debut, shooting down six American heavy bombers and two fighters for one Me-262 lost.
Two weeks later, in the last big air combat over Germany, Berlin is bombarded by 1200 American heavy bombers escorted by 14 fighter wings.
Although terribly outnumbered, the Me-262 jets of JG7 shoot down 25 heavy bombers and five fighters.
- April 1945 - JV44, the squadron of the experts, makes its debut.
In addition to the 30mm guns, its Me-262 aircraft are armed with 50mm unguided air-to-air rockets.
Galland and others score victories both with guns and with rockets.
Later during the month, in the last days of the war, the political hierarchy of the Nazi regime, that was responsible for the production delays and operational misuse of the Messerschmitt Me-262, finally collapses, and all the non-fighter units in the German Air Force which previously possessed Me-262s of all types, voluntarily transfer them to the unit which could best use them, and JV44 suddenly grows from a small squadron to 70 aircraft, but its far too late.
JV44 must retreat to a base in Austria, where it surrenders to an American tank unit in May 3, 1945.
Overall, about 1400 Messerschmitt Me-262 aircraft were produced, but the number of operational aircraft was usually below 100, mostly due to lack of fuel.
The top scorer with the Me-262 was Heinz Baer of JV44 (220 victories), who scored 16 victories with it.
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