Sunday, June 30, 2013

WWII Myths – The Me262 jet fighter and the dumb Fuehrer

One WWII myth that still endures to this day is that the production of the revolutionary Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter was fatally delayed by Hitler’s insistence that it be modified to carry bombs.

The Me262 was the first operational jet fighter and its engines gave it a massive advantage in speed versus the propeller driven aircraft used in WWII. This miracle weapon was expected to turn the tides of the war in the air. However according to the standard accounts Hitler instead wanted to use it as a bomber. This meant that lengthy modifications had to be made and so much time was lost than when it finally went into mass production the war was almost over.

For example Field Marshall Erhard Milch who was in charge of aircraft production says in his memoirs ‘The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe: The Life of Field Marshall Erhard Milch’, p316 ‘In desperation the field marshal appealed to Hitler to think again, but he was subjected to a torrent of abuse; and before he could control himself he shouted back, ‘Mein Führer, the smallest infant can see that this is a fighter, not a bomber aircraft!
This story is satisfying on an emotional level as it has the dumb dictator who doesn’t listen to anyone and a miracle weapon that could have changed the outcome of the war. However both parts are wrong.  

According to ‘The Last Year Of The Luftwaffe: May 1944-May 1945’ by aviation historian Alfred Price, p147-8:
There can be no doubt that if it had gone into action in sufficient numbers in the fighter role, the Me 262 could have brought to a halt the daylight attacks on German industry by B-17s and B-24s. In May 1944 it had seemed that the large-scale operational use of the Me 262 was imminent. Components for airframes were being turned out in large numbers at numerous small factories dispersed throughout the country, and final assembly of Me 262s was moving ahead rapidly. The restricting factor was the Jumo 004 engine that powered the new fighter. The 004 was the first turbojet engine in the world to enter pilot production and initially its average running life was only about 10hr. That was too low for general service use, and until it was improved the design could not be frozen for mass production to begin. When engineers face technical problems never previously encountered, it is impossible to predict how long it will take to find a solution - hence the over-optimistic noises being made in May 1944 on when the 004 would be ready for mass production……………………………………………. It has become part of the accepted wisdom about the Luftwaffe that Hitler's decision was instrumental in preventing the large-scale deployment of the Me 262 in the fighter force. In fact his edict was not the main reason, or even a major reason, for the failure to deploy the fighter in the hoped-for numbers. Not until August 1944 was the average running life of the 004 jet engine raised to 25hr; that was still a very low figure, but it meant that the design could be frozen and mass production could begin. In September Hitler rescinded his order that all new Me 262s be delivered as fighter-bombers. By then more than a hundred fighter airframes were sitting around without engines, and as soon as 004s became available these aircraft were completed and delivered to the Luftwaffe. In fact Hitler's order delayed the introduction of the Me 262 into service in the fighter role by only about three weeks. For the real reason for the failure to deploy the fighter in large numbers, we must look elsewhere.

As a completely new combat aircraft, the Me 262 suffered its share of teething troubles when it entered service. Despite energetic efforts to eradicate these, serviceability was poor and its sortie rate was correspondingly low during the latter part of 1944.
The author also finds Hitler’s idea to turn the Me262 into a fast bomber reasonable:

Much has been written about the delay to the Me 262 programme supposedly imposed by Hitler's edict that initially the aircraft be used as a fighter-bomber rather than an air defence fighter. Few commentators have considered the possibility that Hitler's edict might have been correct in military terms, and this author believes it was. If the Allied landings in Normandy had run into serious difficulties - as actually happened to American troops coming ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day - repeated bombing and strafing attacks from a few score Me 262s could have tipped the balance and changed the operation from one that just succeeded to one that failed with heavy loss of life. If the jet aircraft were available only in small numbers they were better employed as fighter-bombers against the beach-head than in high-altitude jousts with Allied fighters aloof from the troops coming ashore. Yet the point is purely academic, for in June 1944 the Me 262 was quite unready for operations in any role.
For comparison’s sake an Arado Ar 234 prototype was able to penetrate Allied fighter defenses and take detailed pictures of the Normandy beaches on August 2nd 1944, thus performing a task that the entire recon force in the West was not capable of.

Note: Me262 picture available from Wikipedia Commons user Softeis


  1. from what I was reading, fuel shortages and very maintenance-demanding engine complicated deployment of Me262. The debates whether to build more fighter planes or bombers were certainly going on in Germany in 1944 (Speer recommended building more fighters, Hitler obsessed about bombers) and bombers were more costly and difficult to build because needed twice as many engines, etc. At the time Germany was already running out of nearly everything, not least of experienced pilots because they let kept their aces flying for propaganda reasons rather then retiring them to teach in flight schools. Artillery shell melt-casted explosives were cut with inert additives (30% of table salt by weight) to stretch the ammo since the end of 1944, steel compositions were reformulated to inferior alternatives because the supply of alloying additives like vanadium and molybdenum was cut off and their stores were running low. It is quite impressive that the jet fighter got deployed at all.

  2. Other problems troubled the deployment of the Me 262. The first main unit was commanded by Nowotny who was an ace and good pilot, but not a good leader nor mentor into fielding a new, technically complex fighter. Pilots initially selected had single-engine fighter backgrounds, and moving on a twin-engine aircraft was not easy.

    All in all, it's only around February 1945 that Me 262 began using good tactics - as well as good weaponry with the R4M rocket. Luftwaffe command has thus a heavy responsibility in all these hitches that very likely slowed down the build-up of the Me 262 force (though I have not a precise estimate).

    1. It was unrealistic of people like Milch and Galland to view the Me262 as a superfighter. A tanker could go from the Panzer IV to the Panther without special training and a soldier who used a rifle could learn to use the Sturmgewehr 44.

      However a piston engine pilot could not jump to a jet plane without special training. The difference was too great. As you said the first unit was made up of expert pilots and it took months for them to learn how to pilot the plane.

      After WWII when all the airforces made the jump to jet planes there were heavy losses in pilots due to accidents.

  3. One historian wrote that Messerschmidt informed the Fuehrer that outfitting the jets with the necessary alterations would not throw off readiness at all. This is in AV Schaerffenberg's book "Hitler: Bungling Amateur or Military Genius?"

    Is there any truth to this version (i.e. that Messer lied to cover his butt and blame the Fuehrer for the "stupid delay")?

    1. From Irving’s book, p282:

      ‘It must be said that at this stage nobody criticized the Führer’s inclination to regard the Me 262 as a potential fighter-bomber - Messerschmitt least of all, when Milch and Göring travelled down to see him a few days later. Before they toured the sprawling factory buildings and hangars, the Reichsmarschall mentioned Hitler’s requirement. Messerschmitt exclaimed, ‘Herr Reichsmarschall, from the very outset we have provided for the fitting of two bomb pylons so that it can drop bombs  either one 500-kilo or two 250s!’ And he volunteered, ‘But it could also carry a 1.000-kilo bomb, or two 500s.’ Asked by Göring how long this modification would take, the professor responded: ‘That is relatively easily done - say, fourteen days.’

  4. There were actually lots of problems, prohibiting the use of the Me 262 efficiently from the start. What seems clear to me, is that the conversion to "Jabo" use did not play a big role. As Price stated, one major factor were the engines.

    Other factors were, that german fighter pilots weren't trained for flying with no visibility (instruments only), which was not a major problem, when one tried to accend as a swarm with 270 or so km/h in a Bf 109 through thick clouds, but more so when doing this in a jet figher. Which was a reason, why bomber pilots were used, these on the other hand had no air-to-air training.

    Another factor was the long and easily recognised runways. Not only did they have to be long and covered with hard material, they also were distuingishable, because they couln't be tarred (as "normal" runways could) because the jet exhausts melted the tar and caused damage.

    Add to that the many features which made the Me 262 "newbie" unfriendly and it becomes quite clear, why it wouldn't have been possible to use it really effectively.