The Gloster Meteor I was the only Allied jet aircraft to see combat during the Second World War. It made its operational debut at almost exactly the same time as the German Me 262, but while the Me 262 saw action against Allied aircraft over Germany, the Meteor began its service career against the V-1 Flying Bomb, and despite the best efforts of its pilots never had the chance to prove itself against the Luftwaffe.
After a long development process the Meteor F Mk.I was finally ready to enter begin service testing in June 1944. In May a dedicated flight, the T-Flight, was set up at the A&AEE at Farnborough, under the command of Group Captain Hugh Joseph Wilson, receiving its first aircraft in the next month. Over the next month they were subjected to tests, and on 17 July 1944 the Meteor was cleared for service use at a maximum weight of 11,925lb, although its speed was limited to 400mph at altitudes below 15,000ft, or to 450mph below 8,000ft in calm air. One week later, on 23 July 1944, T-Flight, with its aircraft and pilots flew to Manston to join No.616 Squadron, the first squadron to receive the Meteor.
No.616 Squadron had received its first aircraft on 12 July 1944 at Culmhead in Somerset. It then moved to Manston, where its pilots gained experience with the new jet. By the end of the first week more than thirty of the squadron’s pilots had converted to the new jet fighter.
At this point the RAF was not willing to deploy the Meteor over occupied Europe, feeling that the Meteor I was not sufficiently impressive to risk against the Luftwaffe. Instead it was decided to use the high low altitude speed of the Meteor against the V-1 Flying Bomb. The first interception was made on 27 July 1944, when Squadron Leader Watts caught up with a V-1 over Ashford, but on this occasion his cannon jammed.
The squadron’s first success came on 4 August 1944. This time the Meteors were operating in pairs, in case of further problems with the cannon, but once again the cannons failed. The first interception was made by Pilot Officer Dean. After his cannon failed, he used the “tip and run” tactic to destroy the V-1. This involved bringing the wingtip of the Meteor close to the wingtip of the V-1. Air pressure then knocked the V-1 off course which disrupted the gyroscope based auto pilot, sending the V-1 crashing to the ground. A few minutes later Flying Officer Roger destroyed a second V-1, this time with his fully functioning cannons. The Meteors of No.616 squadron eventually claimed thirteen V-1s.
The threat of the Me 262 worried the USAAF, so for a week from 10 October 1944 a series of exercises were carried out in which a flight of Meteors from No.616 squadron made mock attacks on a formation of 100 B-24s and B-17s guarded by 40 Mustangs and Thunderbolts. These suggested if the jet fighter attacked the formation from above it could take advantage of its superior speed in the dive to attack the bombers and then escape by diving through the formation before the escorts could react. The best counter was to place a fighter screen 5,000ft above the bombers and attempt to intercept the jets early in the dive.
With the arrival of the Meteor F Mk.III in December 1944 the RAF finally decided that the Meteor was ready for combat over Europe. On 20 January 1945 a flight of four Meteors moved to Melsbrook in Belgium becoming the first Allied jet squadron to operate from the continent. Their initial purpose was to provide air defence for the airfield, but it was also hoped that their presence might provoke the Germans into sending Me 262s against them. At this point the Meteor pilots were still forbidden to fly over German occupied territory, or to go east of Eindhoven, to prevent a downed aircraft being captured by the Germans or the Soviets.
In March 1944 the entire squadron moved to Gilze-Rijen in Holland, and on 13 April moved again to Nijmegen. Finally, on 17 April the Meteor entered combat over Europe, carrying out a ground attack mission near Ijmuiden. For the rest of the war the squadron flew a mix of ground attack and armed reconnaissance missions.
The biggest frustration for the pilots of 616 Squadron was that they never clashed with the Me 262, or indeed with any German fighter aircraft. They came close towards the end of the war when a flight of Meteors encountered a force of Fw 190s, but they were forced to abandon their attack when other RAF fighters mistook them for Me 262s. The nearest No.616 squadron came to a jet-to-jet battle came on 19 March, when a force of Arado Ar-234 jet bombers attacked their airfield.
Comparison with the Me 262
The Gloster Meteor entered service just after the Messerschmitt Me 262. In July 1944 the experimental unit Erprobungskommando 262 (Test Command 262) began to fly experimental interceptions of high flying Allied reconnaissance aircraft. On 25 July one of their Me 262s clashed with a RAF Mosquito, which escaped, allowing its crew to report their first encounter with a German jet. The first operational sortie of the Gloster Meteor came two days later, on 27 July.
The Gloster Meteor can claim to be the first jet fighter to enter operational service, while No.616 squadron of the RAF was the first operational jet fighter in the work. The first fully operational Me 262 squadron, Kommando Nowotny, was not formed until September 1944, under the command of the famous ace Walter Nowotny, flying its first operation on 3 October.
The Me 262 was a more capable aircraft than the wartime versions of the Meteor. Its top speed of 540mph was 50mphs faster than even the Derwent IV equipped version of the Meteor III. However by the end of the war the Meteor IV was almost ready, and had the speed to match the German jet. On the plus side the Meteor was much more reliable than the Me 262, which suffered from famously unreliable engines.