Messerschmitt Me262 in Bodensee, 1946. (Credits: Erich Sallard)

The Messerschmitt Me 262 – First Operational Jet Fighter

The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (“Swallow”), also called the Sturmvogel (“Stormbird”) in its fighter-bomber version, was the world’s first operational jet fighter. It had the potential to create havoc for the western Allies during World War II. When officials demonstrated the plane to Adolf Hitler at Insterburg, Germany on Nov. 26, 1943, Hitler said that having this jet would help Germany win the war.

Messerschmitt Me 262

The Messerschmitt Me 262 did take a toll from its adversaries. Its pilots – intrepid men all, for the Me 262 was cantankerous and dangerous to fly – claimed 542 allied warplanes shot down while sustaining just 100 combat losses. Luftwaffe ace Hauptmann (Capt.) Franz Schall was credited with 17 aerial victories, including six four-engine bombers and ten P-51 Mustangs.

In the end, however, the Me 262 was a “might have been.” Fully 20 percent faster than the Allied fighters it came up against, capable of reliable performance once it reached operating altitude, highly maneuverable and heavily armed, the Me 262 never overcame obstacles created by poor leadership, technical glitches, and the vicissitudes of war.

Messerschmitt Me262 in Bodensee, 1946. (Credits: Erich Sallard)
Messerschmitt Me262 in Bodensee, 1946. (Credits: Erich Sallard)

Generalleutnant (Maj. Gen.) Adolf Galland, a top ace, combat leader, and advocate for the Me 262, said in a 1994 interview that the jet “might have been in action one year earlier, had the highest priority been attached to it right from the start of engine and airframe development, which began before the war.” But while about 1,430 Me 262s were manufactured, “never more than 50 or 60 came into operation at any one time,” said Galland.

Based on design work that began in 1938 and first flown on April 18, 1941, initially with a piston engine, the Me 262 evolved into a turbojet fighter with slatted, partially swept wings, tricycle landing gear, and a variety of armament configurations. In most versions, it carried heavy cannon, and all variants used low-pressure tires to allow operation from grass airstrips.

Messerschmit Me 262 – Formidable Fighter

It became a formidable weapon in the hands of an exceedingly skilled pilot, but the Me 262 was prone to engine failures, and its landing gear frequently collapsed. It performed sluggishly in the airfield pattern while taking off or landing, making it “meat on the table,” as American fighter pilot 1st Lt. Valmore P. “Val” Beaudrault put it. Beaudrault shot down an Me 262 on Oct. 2, 1944 while piloting a P-47D Thunderbolt of the 365th Fighter Group, the “Hell Hawks.”

Revisionist histories often downplay Hitler‘s role in sabotaging the Me 262 by demanding that it be used as a “blitz bomber” against Allied ground troops, rather than as an air-to-air fighter to sweep the skies clean of Allied warplanes that were swarming over the Reich. During the Insterburg demonstration, the Führer asked whether his new jet could carry bombs and was told that it could. What Hitler’s lapdogs didn’t say was that extensive modifications would be required and that experienced Luftwaffe combat leaders believed they could achieve more in the air-to-air role.

Messerschmitt Me262 in Bodensee, 1946. (Credits: Erich Sallard)
Messerschmitt Me262 in Bodensee, 1946. (Credits: Erich Sallard)

“I’ll never change an opinion I’ve expressed often, that with just 300 Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters we could have on any day shot down a minimum of 200 bombers,” said Galland. “If this could have continued for even a fortnight, then the day bombing would have had to be halted.” Galland called the “blitz bomber” idea “a typical Hitler error.”

The idea of making the Me 262 a bomber had genuine consequences and possibly owes less to Hitler than to engineer-planemaker Wilhelm E. “Willy” Messerschmitt, whose company created the jet, although Messerschmitt himself had no role in designing it. On Sept. 7, 1943, granted a rare audience with the Führer, Messerschmitt expressed mixed feelings about the jet and repeated his longstanding request that top priority be accorded to the Me 209-II propeller-driven fighter.

Orders from on High

The Me 209-II was close to Willy Messerschmitt’s heart because it was a derivative of the Bf 109, which Messerschmitt did design – the 109 was the world’s “most manufactured” fighter with about 33,000 copies, but is sometimes called the only product from Messerschmitt’s drawing board that was truly successful. The Me 209-II had about 65 percent of its parts in common with the Bf 109G.

During his conversation with Hitler, Messerschmitt, never hesitant to curry favor, touted the Me 209-II vigorously and also suggested to the Führer that the Me 262 could be modified to carry bombs, apparently because Messerschmitt was promoting it in competition with the Arado Ar 234 and Dornier Do 335 in the fighter-bomber role. This may have been the first iteration of what became the “blitz bomber” concept. This was two months before the Insterburg demonstration, when Hitler had not yet received a detailed briefing about, or seen, the jet.

In May 1944, following up on a subsequent conversation at the Insterburg demo, Hitler ordered the Me 262 fleet converted into fighter-bombers. Only a few dozen were so modified. The Luftwaffe’s operational leaders, especially Galland, did their best to ignore the order and fielded the Me 262 in fighter units.

Messerschmitt Me262 - Bodensee, 1946. W.Nr. 113332. Flown from Lechfeld, Germany to St. Dizier/ Melun (Villaroche), France by Col. Harold E. Watson on the 4th of june 1945. Handed over to the French government for testing. (Credits: Eric Sallard)
Messerschmitt Me262 – Bodensee, 1946. W.Nr. 113332. Flown from Lechfeld, Germany to St. Dizier/ Melun (Villaroche), France by Col. Harold E. Watson on the 4th of june 1945. Handed over to the French government for testing. (Credits: Eric Sallard)

Belatedly, in July 1944, the first Me 262s entered service. In its first combat on July 25, 1944, an Me 262 attacked a British Mosquito flying a reconnaissance mission over Munich.

The first operational unit, Kommando Nowotny, led by 258-kill air ace Walter Nowotny, had high attrition rates and never resolved the Me 262’s teething troubles. Nowotny was killed in a Nov. 7, 1944 action while engaging American B-24 Liberators. A new unit under Adolf Galland fared better, but the Me 262 was difficult to handle by even the most experienced pilots.

Galland said that persistent allied attacks on Axis fuel supplies also hindered Messerschmitt Me 262 operations. Toward the end of the war, Me 262s were often towed to the end of the runway by draft horses in order to conserve fuel. In addition, many airframes sat idle waiting for engines that never arrived.

Although it was the first by a considerable margin, the Me 262 was not the best jet of its era. Britain’s Gloster Meteor, which used more reliable centrifugal-flow turbojet engines, joined the Royal Air Force in 1944. The first practical U.S. jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, reached Europe by May 1945, but saw no combat in World War II.

Me262A-1 Replica in the US Evergreen Museum. (Credits: Eric Sallard)
Me262A-1 Replica in the US Evergreen Museum. (Credits: Eric Sallard)

A typical Messerschmitt Me 262 was powered by two 1,984-pound thrust Jumo-004B axial-flow turbojet engines, armed with four 30 mm nose cannon, and reached a speed of 540 miles per hour  (or ten percent faster than the Me 209 speed record). A fully loaded Me 262 weighed about 14,400 pounds. After the war, captured Me 262s influenced western fighter designs. North American Aviation’s Larry Green studied the German language in night school so he could use Me 262 manuals as part of the design team developing the F-86 Sabre jet that fought in Korea.

Today, the only flying Me 262s are a handful of replicas powered by American 2,800-pound thrust General Electric J85-CJ-610 turbojet engines.

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