World War II: Messerschmitt Me 262

Me 262
Messerschmitt Me 262. US Air Force

Messerschmitt Me 262 - Specifications (Me 262 A-1a):

General

  • Length: 34 ft. 9 in.
  • Wingspan: 41 ft.
  • Height: 11 ft. 6 in.
  • Wing Area: 234 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 8,400 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 15,720 lbs.
  • Crew: 1

Performance

  • Power Plant: 2 x Junkers Jumo 004B-1 turbojets, 8.8 kN (1,980 lbf) each
  • Range: 652 miles
  • Max Speed: 541 mph
  • Ceiling: 37,565 ft.

Armament

  • Guns: 4 x 30 mm MK 108 cannons
  • Bombs/Rockets: 2 x 550 lb. bombs (A-2a only), 24 x 2.2 in. R4M rockets

Origins:

Though best remembered as a late-war weapon, design of the Messerschmitt Me 262 began prior to World War II in April 1939. Spurred by the success of the Heinkel He 178, the world's first true jet which flew in August 1939, the German leadership pressed for the new technology to be put to military use. Known as Projekt P.1065, work moved forward in response to a request from the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM - Ministry of Aviation) for a jet fighter capable of at least 530 mph with a flight endurance of one hour. Design of the new aircraft was directed by Dr. Waldemar Voigt with oversight from Messerschmitt's chief of development, Robert Lusser. In 1939 and 1940, Messerschmitt completed the initial design of the aircraft and began building prototypes to test the airframe.

Design & Development:

While the first designs called for the Me 262's engines to be mounted in the wing roots, issues with the power plant's development saw them moved to pods on the wings.  Due to this change and the increased weight of the engines, the aircraft's wings were swept back to accommodate the new the center of gravity. Overall development was slowed due to continued issues with the jet engines and administrative interference.  The former issue often was a the result of the necessary high-temperature resistant alloys being unavailable while the latter saw notable figures such as Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Major General Adolf Galland, and Willy Messerschmitt all oppose the aircraft at different times for political and economic reasons. Additionally, the aircraft that would become the world's first operational jet fighter received mixed support as many influential Luftwaffe officers who felt that the approaching conflict could be won by piston-engine aircraft, such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109, alone.

Originally possessing a conventional landing gear design, this was changed to a tricycle arrangement to improve control on the ground.

On April 18, 1941, the prototype Me 262 V1 flew for the first time powered by a nose-mounted Junkers Jumo 210 engine turning a propeller. This use of a piston engine was the result of ongoing delays with the aircraft's intended twin BMW 003 turbojets. The Jumo 210 was retained on the prototype as a safety feature following the arrival of the BMW 003s. This proved fortuitous as both turbojets failed during their initial flight, forcing the pilot to land using the piston engine. Testing in this manner continued for over a year and it was not until July 18, 1942, that the Me 262 (Prototype V3) flew as "pure" jet.

Streaking above Leipheim, Messerschmitt test pilot Fritz Wendel's Me 262 beat the first Allied jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, into the skies by about nine months. Though Messerschmitt had succeeded in out-pacing the Allies, its competitors at Heinkel had first flown their own prototype jet fighter, the He 280 the previous year.  Not backed by the Luftwaffe, the He 280 program would be terminated in 1943. As the Me 262 was refined, the BMW 003 engines were abandoned due to poor performance and replaced by the Junkers Jumo 004. Though an improvement, the early jet engines possessed incredibly short operational lives, typically lasting only 12-25 hours. Due this issue, the early decision to move the engines from the wing roots into pods proved fortuitous. Faster than any Allied fighter, production of the Me 262 became a priority for the Luftwaffe. As a result of Allied bombing, production was distributed to small factories in German territory, with around 1,400 ultimately being built.

Variants:

Entering service in April 1944, the Me 262 was used in two primary roles. The Me 262 A-1a "Schwalbe" (Swallow) was developed as a defensive interceptor while the Me 262 A-2a "Sturmvogel" (Stormbird) was created as a fighter-bomber. The Stormbird variant was designed at Hitler's insistence. While over a thousand Me 262s were produced, only around 200-250 ever made it to frontline squadrons due to shortages in fuel, pilots, and parts. The first unit to deploy the Me 262 was Erprobungskommando 262 in April 1944. Taken over by Major Walter Nowotny in July, it was renamed Kommando Nowotny.

Operational History:

Developing tactics for the new aircraft, Nowotny's men trained through the summer of 1944, and first saw action in August. His squadron was joined by others, however only a few of the aircraft were available at any given time. On August 28, the first Me 262 was lost to enemy action when Major Joseph Myers and Second Lieutenant Manford Croy of the 78th Fighter Group shot one down while flying P-47 Thunderbolts. After limited use during the fall, the Luftwaffe created several new Me 262 formations in the early months of 1945.

Among those becoming operational was Jagdverband 44 led by the famed Galland. A unit of select Luftwaffe pilots, JV 44 began flying in February 1945. With the activation of additional squadrons, the Luftwaffe was finally able to mount large Me 262 assaults on Allied bomber formations. One effort on March 18 saw 37 Me 262s strike a formation of 1,221 Allied bombers. In the fight, the Me 262s downed twelve bombers in exchange for four jets. While attacks such as this frequently proved successful, the relatively small number of available Me 262s limited their overall effect and the losses they inflicted generally represented a tiny percentage of the attacking force.

Me 262 pilots developed several tactics for striking Allied bombers. Among methods preferred by pilots were diving and attacking with the Me 262's four 30mm cannon and approaching from a bomber's side and firing R4M rockets at long range. In most cases, the Me 262's high speed made it nearly invulnerable to a bomber's guns. To cope with the new German threat, the Allies developed a variety of anti-jet tactics. P-51 Mustang pilots quickly learned that the Me 262 was not as maneuverable as their own planes and found that they could attack the jet as it turned. As a practice, escorting fighters began flying high over the bombers so that they could quickly dive on German jets.

Also, as the Me-262 required concrete runways, Allied leaders singled out jet bases for heavy bombing with the goal of destroying the aircraft on the ground and eliminating its infrastructure. The most proven method for dealing with the Me 262 was to attack it as it was taking off or landing. This was largely due to the jet's poor performance at low speeds. To counter this, the Luftwaffe constructed large flak batteries along the approaches to their Me 262 bases. By war's end, the Me 262 had accounted for 509 claimed Allied kills against approximately 100 losses. It is also believed that an Me 262 flown by Oberleutnant Fritz Stehle scored the final aerial victory of the war for the Luftwaffe.

Postwar:

With the end of hostilities in May 1945, the Allied powers scrambled to claim the remaining Me 262s. Studying the revolutionary aircraft, elements were subsequently incorporated into future fighters such as the F-86 Sabre and MiG-15. In the years after the war, Me 262s were used in high speed testing. Though German production of the Me 262 ended with the conclusion of the war, the Czechoslovak government continued building the aircraft as the Avia S-92 and CS-92. These remained in service until 1951.

Selected Sources