Type: single-seat fighter / interceptor;
Powerplant: 2 x 1,984lbs (900kg) thrust Jumo 004B turbojet engines;
Performance: 540mph / 870kph at 19,685ft / 6,000m (maximum speed), 37,565 ft / 11,450m (service ceiling), 652 miles / 1,050 km (range – internal fuel),
Weight: 8,378lbs / 3,800kg (empty), 14,110lbs / 6,400kg (maximum take-off);
Dimensions: 40ft 11.5in / 12.48m (wing span), 34ft 9.5in / 10.60m (length), 12ft 7in / 3.84m (height), 233.58sq.ft / 21.7m.sq (wing area);
Armament: 4 x 30mm MK108 cannon in the nose;
The Me262 Schwalbe (Swallow) was the first jet fighter to enter combat and in doing so, earned a place in history, being the most advanced aircraft of the period to fly and achieve operational status. The fact that it did not make a bigger impact on the course of the war, was not due to the airframe but due to engine problems, interference from a raft of government departments and later on, even Hitler himself. Allied leaders were already anxious over the introduction of the Me163 rocket fighter into service and the introduction of this new aircraft only added to their alarm. The only response, however inadequate, was the rushed introduction of the Republic P-47M Thunderbolt, a piston-engined aircraft that was specially configured to achieve a maximum level speed of 470mph (755kph) it was still some 70mph (115kph) slower than the Me262 and other factors, such as better manoeuvrability could not always make up for this deficiency. During 1938, Hans A Mauch and Helmut Schelp in the powerplant development group of the technical department in the RLM were working on the plans for putting together an official jet engine programme. At about the same time, Hans M Antz joined the airframe development group and set about organising a complimentary official programme for jet and rocket airframes, part of this
As the programme continued, BMW were having problems with their engine, which on bench tests was giving only 573lbs (260kg) of thrust; the rival Junkers Jumo 004 engine also had problems and so the prototype Me262 flew on 18 April 1941 under the control of Fritz Wendal, with a single Jumo 210G piston engine in the nose. Although acceleration was poor, general handling was good and so testing continued in this way to test various systems before the first BMW 003 turbojets were delivered in November 1941. These were fitted to the prototype, which retained the piston engine in the nose, which was fortunate as both turbojets failed just after take-off, and the pilot managed to complete a circuit of the airfield and land. The engines had seized due to compressor blade failures which necessitated a complete redesign – the Me262 could not wait however and as Junkers had overcome most of their problems, the Jumo 004A engine was chosen as the aircraft's powerplant. The Junkers engine however was larger and heavier than the BMW one, so this meant that the aircraft's airframe had to be modified and the third prototype flew with two Jumo 004A engines producing 1,852lbs (840kg) of thrust each on 18 July 1942. Testing continued with this aircraft but there was a knack with getting airborne because with the tail-wheel landing gear, the elevators were ineffective in the tail-down position. This would obviously be unacceptable once the aircraft entered service so the fifth prototype had a tricycle undercarriage designed and fitted, by which time two further prototypes and fifteen pre-production Me262A-0 aircraft had been ordered. The undercarriage proved satisfactory and so the sixth prototype had a fully retractable set installed as well as having 1,984lbs (900kg) thrust Jumo0048-1 engines with redesigned nacelles.
On 22 April 1943, the fourth prototype was flown by Generalleutnant Adolf Galland in a flight of some importance of the programme (and German jets in general) as it was part of a plan to convince non-technical Luftwaffe and government personnel of the desirability of jet power. After the flight, Galland enthused greatly over the Me262 and organised a meeting at the RLM soon after, where it was decided to transfer production at Messerschmitt from the Bf109 to the Me262. although the aircraft was ordered into production on 5 June 1943, various delays ensued, not least being the disruption caused by Allied bombing of the Regensburg factory and the transfer of the development programme from Augsburg to Oberammergau. The suicide of Ernst Udet (who had strongly favoured radical developments) in November 1941 didn't help either as he was succeeded by Erhard Milch, who preferred to concentrate production on existing aircraft and impressing Hitler with large production figures and did little to facilitate the introduction of new aircraft. However, in Novemeber 1943, the prospects for production began to look much more hopeful as Oberst Siegfried Kneymeyer, who had frontline experience of the way the Luftwaffe was beginning to suffer at the hands of increased Allied numerical superiority, became head of the Luftwaffe's development section for technical air armament. He realised that, in order to reverse the effects of the Luftwaffe's numerical inferiority, a striking superiority in aircraft performance was necessary and proposed the abandonment of the Luftwaffe's bomber programme and concentrate solely on fighter development, especially the Me262. To his credit, Göring agreed with him but Bormann and Goebbels persuaded Hitler to keep the existing bomber programme going in a smaller form so as to keep the raids on Britain going. Following a demonstration of the sixth Me262 prototype before Hitler on 26 November 1943, the Me262 was given a top-priority production status but a number of problems with both the airframe and the engines had to be resolved using the twelve existing prototypes and test aircraft. A hold-up in the supply of engines meant that the pre-production Me262A-0 airframes had to be stockpiled, the engines also being used on the Arado Ar234 bomber, but sixteen Me232A-0 aircraft were delivered during April 1944 and another seven the following month. Hitler's early interest and backing of the aircraft was due to him seeing it as a fighter-bomber, after being told it could carry bombs, although the necessary equipment had not yet been fitted. Neither Göring nor Messerschmitt were keen to divert precious resources away from what they saw as the main direction of the programme (that of being a fighter) but they had little choice, being told to move ahead with adapting the aircraft as a super-speed bomber. Various combination of bomb racks were tried, with loads up to 2,205lbs (1,000kg) and there was even a bomb with a wooden wing, towed at the end of a 20ft (6.1m) tube beneath the aircraft's tail, taking off on a dolly that could be jettisoned. The intention was to dive towards the target and release the bomb and its towbar, the latter being jettisoned along with the wings. Tests were not encouraging and the idea was abandoned.
In early 1944, the first Me262A-0 test aircraft were delivered to the Erprobungsstelle Rechlin for testing in all aspects of air worthiness, performance and equipment. The process was speeded up by using extra aircraft and that the 1st and 3rd Staffeln of the versuchsverband Ob.d.L. had begun to experiment with the aircraft in carefully selected clandestine missions. Despite a few quirks, the test pilots reported excellent flying characteristics and so following acceptance, the initial production aircraft, Me262A-1a, began to enter service in July 1944 and were very similar to the preproduction aircraft. The first semi-operational Luftwaffe jet fighter unit was known as Erprobungskommando 262 (EK 262) which finished evaluating the aircraft in September 1944 when a new fighter unit, Kommando Nowotny was formed. The new unit had two Staffeln, with about twenty Me262A-1a aircraft each, based at Achmer and Hesepe, becoming operational on 3 October 1944, flying against USAAF bombers. Initial operations were rather poor, with a number of aircraft being shot down as the pilots were having difficulty lining up a shot while they were travelling so fast and so slowing down, thereby losing their only real advantage. There were also a number of losses due to structural, undercarriage and turbojet failures, the biggest problem being high-speed landings on stationary wheels, the resulting shock causing wheel failure and structural damage.
Later sub-variants included the Me262A-1a/U1 which differed in having two MK103, two MK108 and two MG151/20 cannon in the nose. The Me262A-1a/U2 was an all-weather fighter in which the standard radio was supplemented by a FuG125, while the Me262A-1a/U3 was an unarmed reconnaissance aircraft with two Rb 50/30 cameras. The next variant was the Me262A-2a production bomber version and was almost exactly the same except for having bomb racks to carry one 1,102lbs (500kg) or two 551lbs (250kg) bombs. The first bomber units were formed in September 1944, as well as a bomber training unit designated IV / (Erg) / KG51. The first bomber units were Kommando Schenk, commanded by Major Wolfgang Schenk and formed from a detachment of KG51 and an experimental unit known as Kommando Edelweiss. The Me262A-3a had extra armour protection; the Me262A-5a was an armed reconnaissance variant with two MK108 cannon and two under-wing drop tanks. While the Me262A series had all been single-seat aircraft, there was obviously a requirement for a two-seat conversion trainer and this was met by the Me262B-1a. The second seat in fact replaced the rear fuel tank and so auxiliary tanks were fitted below the forward fuselage. Fifteen were built before its suitability as a night-fighter was realised, leading to the conversion of a number of B-1a aircraft off the production line with radar and homing equipment. The Me262B-1a/U1 proved so effective that the Me262B-2a was built from the outset as a night fighter. This variant had a larger fuselage so as to allow the storage of extra fuel and came equipped with dual MK108 cannon in a Schräge Musik installation behind the cockpit. The single prototype began flight trials in March 1945 but the war ended before more could be built. The Me262C was an experimental version, flown in February 1945 using auxiliary rocket boosting but was not developed beyond the production of three prototypes. The last big Luftwaffe effort was made on New Year's Day 1945 with every available aircraft attacked Allied airfields but after this the decline became rapid and by the end of the war, the Me262s were among the few aircraft still flying, with the third Gruppe of JG7 Nowotny at Fassberg and the famous Jagdverband 44 still operational. JV44 had been formed by Adolf Galland as a last-ditch effort to keep the cream of the Luftwaffe pilots together, flying the best available aircraft. Formed from 12 / JG54 on 10 February 1945 at Brandenburg-Briest, JV44 began operations on 31 March 1945 from Munich-Riem with twenty-five Me262s and fifty pilots. A month later, every remaining Me262 was being flown to the JV44 base from disintegrating units, ending up with over 100 Me262s. After transferring to Salzburg-Maxglam, the unit was forced to surrender on 3 May 1945. In its month of operations, the unit showed what the Me262 was capable of, shooting down around forty-five Allied aircraft while having an average of only six aircraft operational at any time.
Total production of the Me262 amounted to just over 1,430 and there can be no doubt that if this aircraft had not been held up by engine trouble and political interference then it might have swung the balance of the air campaign back in Germany's favour by breaking up the Allied strategic bombing schedule. Me262s firing salvos of twenty-four R4M missiles against a bomber formation and then following up with their cannon could be lethal but a few were shot down by escorting Allied fighters due to their greater manoeuvrability compared to the Me262s greater speed. Fortunately for the Allies, only a small number of Me262s were employed operationally, and their effects were diffused over the varied roles they ended up fulfilling. There were also a number of tactical mistakes made for not only were Me262s used in the ground attack role, but German tacticians believed that the Me262s should engage the bomber's fighter escort from a string of bases from the Netherlands to northern France, leaving the bombers to fly on towards their target and be intercepted by Germany's conventional fighters as they neared their targets. Jet tactics were however, still being worked out, and the wisdom of the tactics used was only realised after the satellite bases were overrun.
Gunston, Bill. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Combat Aircraft of World War II, Salamander, London, 1978.
Kay, A L & Smith, J R. German Aircraft of the Second World War, Putnam Aeronautical Books, London, 2002.
Mondey, David. The Hamlyn Concise Guide to Axis Aircraft of World War II, Bounty Books, London, 2006.
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