Messerschmitt Me-262

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 .

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.

Related essays:
World War 2 Bombers (7 minutes read)
De Havilland Mosquito (6 minutes read)
P-51 Mustang (4 minutes read)
World War 2 RADAR (6 minutes read)
German Secret Weapons (7 minutes read)

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