The untold story of the Heinkel He 546 Nazi superbomber

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The Heinkel He 546 was a German aircraft designed by Siegfried & Roy at Heinkel Flugzeugwerke in 1941. It is believed by many historians that the design of the aircraft was an act of sabotage by two designers unsympathetic to the Nazi regime. It is likely that Siegfried & Roy deliberately set out to produce a dangerously flawed aircraft, the development of which would suck up vast resources, and deprive the Luftwaffe of the fast medium bomber they sought.

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The first He 546 flew on 27 February 1942, piloted by chief test pilot Gerhard Nitschke, who was ordered not to wear anything ‘too flashy’ so as not to upstage the rather ungainly looking aeroplane (Nitschke said he would wear a simple Adidas hoody and Bermuda shorts for the test flight). But he ignored these orders and wore an exceptionally racy zoot suit in peacock green. Nitschke said that the He 546 performed well, except when it was in flight. Nitschke also praised its “sardonic flight and landing characteristics” and “whimsical performance, which is close to that of a diesel milk-float”. During the second test flight Nitschke revealed there was insufficient longitudinal stability during climb while eating a cheese sandwich.

Despite a concerted development the aircraft failed to prove effective and was dropped by the Luftwaffe. It said goodbye to the world of military aviation and was re-launched into the heady theatre scene of 1940s London.

The Heinkel He 546  is best known for performing a flight demo version of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), a landmark air demonstration in which the episodes of Homer‘s Odyssey are paralleled in a series of barrel rolls and Cuban Eights. The ‘546 also produced its own writings include three books of poetry, a play, occasional journalism and a battle rap about destroying Spitfires. The work was described as ‘unhinged but readable’ in a review by The Aeroplane in 1944.

The He 546 continued to perform during most of the Second World War, appearing at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre in 1943 in The Reluctant Bomber and on tour with Amy Brandon Thomas‘s company in ‘The Coventry Air Waltz’. In 1945, it appeared in Death from the air, a comedy produced by Hawtrey. The 546 recalled in its memoirs, “My part was reasonably large and I was really quite good in it, owing to the kindness and care of Hawtrey’s direction, and the lack of coordinated ack-ack fire.” 

On 23 April 1976, the He 546 collapsed from catastrophic structural failure in front of millions of television viewers, midway through his act on the London Weekend Television variety show Luftwaffe Lovelies, transmitted live from Her Majesty’s Theatre. It was buried next to the cafe at IWM Duxford where it remains to this day.

General characteristics

  • Crew: 36 (pilot, navigator/bombardier/nose gunner, ventral gunner, dorsal gunner/radio operator, side gunner, choirmaster, choir, Sous chef, hot yoga instructor)
  • Length: variable
  • Wingspan: disappointing
  • Height: of fashion
  • Wing area: smoking
  • Empty weight of pilot: 14 stone 7 pounds
  • Loaded weight: 14 stone 10 pounds
  • Max. takeoff weight: No comment you cheeky mare
  • Powerplant: 2 × Jumo 711F-1 or 211F-2 martini-cooled double binary inverted V-12, 5,300 hp  each

Performance

  • Maximum speed: 34 km/h (downhill)
  • Range: Good at playing villains, can cry on request
  • Ceiling: Sistine Chapel pastiche, some dry rot
  • Rate of climb: One step at a time
  • Wing loading: sassy
  • Power/mass: One squat thrust to one liturgy

The He 546 was created by Francis Bennett

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17 comments

  1. tonyo262

    As the near mythical super 8 cine of the Tuesday matinee guest spot at the Alhambra Morecambe is yet to surface (no doubt held close to their heaving and impressively protective bosom by some overzealous LuftKollector), it is singly unfortunate that there are no surviving photos of the stage costumes from the Iggy Sawdust early 70’s era. I would so like to be able to build a 16th scale replica of the A-10 R3/U4 ( to go with my Dornier Do 666 ‘dopple-Ameisenbär) and have commissioned the construction of a large inflatable weatherproof corset in preparation. From your unassailable wealth of knowledge and tireless research, perhaps you might hazard an educated guess at the colours? I’m sure I could then impress upon the good offices of Dulux to donate a few imperial gallons of their finest eggshell. Although my own leanings are towards a two tone chartreuse/mocha with matt charcoal undersides(a given for the nightfighter variant) accuracy, as always is a must and I’d hate to be accused of ‘imagineering’ by my local IMPS chapter.

  2. elleetoo

    I’m surprised that you’ve not mentioned the famous confrontation at the French Pub in Soho between the He 546 and the inebriate boxer/author Maurice Richardson. Their tussle – first verbal, then decidedly physical – over the relative merits of a fictional Coanda jet aircraft, the Bristol Brabazon, and Amy Johnson – spilled out from the snug and eventually entranced much of Wardour Street. Its culmination in a touching reconciliation scene in the saloon of the ‘Sir John Snow’ brought tears to the eye of even the toughest of the West End’s doormen for decades. Ah, happy days.

  3. tonyo262

    I remember this! I was ‘regrouping’ in the French for an extended liquid lunch after a spectacularly unsuccessful interview with Keith Moon’s loon pants in De Hems (I blame the lost interview on the five pints of Kwak and a pickled egg downed in a heroic attempt to keep up with the prodigious ale capacity of Mr Moons trousers.. but that’s another story). Anyway, you are quite correct, and the altercation was mindbogglingly biblical in true Charlton Heston style. The jovial mood and friendly aerial badinage turned sour when ‘stumpy’ Richardson took offence at the drunken 546’s piss poor attempt at John Gregson in Angels-One-Five (remember at this time he was living under an assumed name and had taken the identity of Group Capt, ‘Batchy’ Salter) The last straw came when ‘546, already the worse for wear after three pints of creme de menthe and several cheroots, threw up over Stumpy’s brogue. Initially, Stumpy already suspicious of ‘546, was about to call him out as an imposter after he got tongue tied trying to pronounce Launcester Lance. The final straw was when ‘546 suggested that Johnson had actually not flown solo and had had a team of retired Wildebeeste pilots do the hard yards for her. Anyway, at this point and as you so rightly recall, it spilled out into Wardour St with fists, elbows and gold lame manbags a’ flying. Interestingly, a young Paul Weller witnessed the fracas and incidentally, the SC500 too, which slipped unnoticed from 546’s rotating weapons bay. Weller (real name Von Weiller) would go on to write A Bomb in Wardour St, a punk homage to the anarchic scene.

    Happy days indeed, (although I might have been very very drunk and made this up, the creme de menthe bit is real).

      • tonyo262

        Dear Messrs Hush and Kit, What, and leave behind a promising career as a semi-professional tester of economy class banquettes… What’s on offer? Patisseries, and the occasional in-box review of a MiG 37 Ferret?

        Hmm there’s a thought, how about an article on how model companies have run out of Supermarine and Messerschmitt subjects and are now forced to scrape around for obscure variants of ugly maritime reconnaissance kites with too many propellers or failed V-Bombers that were in service for ten minutes to squeeze a buck out of the ‘modelling cognoscenti? Working title: ‘I’ve no idea what the f*ck it is, but that won’t stop me buying three for the stash’. There might be some mileage in this with a follow up ‘Fantasy Kits League’ – subjects so crap in real life, ugly, inept, boring or downright pointless (I was thinking a 32nd scale Gotha but my ex-employer actually kitted it) that will never ever be made, but ones which modellers would secretly sell a testicle for (most of ’em have contemplated relinquishing body parts to finance their ridiculous hobby costs already). Sound like a plan?

  4. sol

    wow really? seriously guys? definitely need to label this as sarcasm in the title to keep people from getting pissed.

      • sol

        i guess only i wasn’t smart enough then. i saw the title and thought you were posting about an unknown REAL airplane. just me apparently….

      • tonyo262

        Ahh, but you do have to admit the artwork was very convincing, for me the giveaway was the quadruple Schrage Musik pointing the wrong way, but then I’ve always had a keen eye for detail (the left one after the absinthe ‘incident’). Its an easy mistake to make for those not familiar with S&R’s earlier designs so don’t be too hard on yourself. That and the lack of dive brakes, it should have dive brakes… No self respecting (ex-)nazi purveyor of death from above could be seen down The East India Docks without their dive brakes. In fact I believe later models came with an optional 8 track and a free recording of Brian Blessed shouting ‘dive’ but again I may be confusing this with Dornier’s Do R55 (dubbed ‘Diana’ by its unfortunate crews). Anyway must dash, the Oerlikon’s need a light oiling.

      • elleetoo

        For me, the visual giveaway was the rear auxiliary engine (or, to give it its correct Lufwaffe short title, the ‘backenstofgeratstaffelnmachtgebenzin’). It is well know to all aviation buffs that in early 1941, a period of time which Goering spent speeding his (considerable) tits off, he issued a mildly amusing Order Of The Day, repeating a vaguely-understood and badly-expressed idea of the Fuhrer’s which had reached him through a convoluted process involving a Luftwaffe liaison officer on work experience, a man who was installing a telephone, Fred Trump jr (in Berlin at the time on a wholly innocuous civilian business deal involving high-grade tractor parts), and someone known to history only as ‘Mimi’.

        Tragically for yet another generation of German test pilots, this order mandated that every new aircraft in the Lutfwaffe order of battle was to gain another 50km/h of speed by the simple process of installing a highly-strung Jumo 0208 pusher engine in the rear of its fuselage. Schnapps was spilt, tears slicked the cheeks of hundreds of designers — but the Fuhrer’s word was law and could not be gainsaid! In his rare lucid moments, Goering suggested that the whole concept of the ‘centre of gravity’ might even be an artefact of Jewish Science, so not to worry, eh?

        The rest, as they say, is, as they say, history. As they say. Months of production was wasted as these heavy (690kg) engines were grafted into nacelles hastily designed in the rear fuselages of all of the Reich’s prototypes. Aside from the Do335, each of these proved a hideous failure. Analysis of UTRA intercepts quickly told the British what was happening, and in consequence during this period Bomber Command stopped even trying to attack the German aircraft industry, taking instead a well earned breather divided between mining the Baltic and sunbathing on the Devon Riviera.

        A number of these Jumo 0208 engines lie, forlorn and friendless, behind the visitors’ parking lot at the Aberdeen Proving Ground And Steakhouse in the USA. One is on display in pride of place in the lower mezzanine basement loft of the Science Museum’s justly-famous annex on Orford Ness, accessible to all who can hire a rowing-boat to cross the Hof [NB Check the tides!]. It is burnished to a fine sheen, as befits the role that it played in securing a speedy Allied victory.

  5. tonyo262

    Nice…it’s lovely to be able to lend credence to these back waters and kerosene slicked tidal pools of aviation history via some well researched and lucid commentary such as yours.

    But what if… eh eh?
    There’s some weird shit laying around Orford Ness, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re onto something here elleetoo old chap. Given the government’s propensity for protecting us plebs from the ‘truth’ with a zeal that borders on some distinctly dodgy ideology (said ideology was last seen driving off down the Under den Linden in a Porsche turreted Audi S8 around April ’45), I’d sleep with one eye open if I were you matey.

    As Dave ‘shagtastic’ Duchoveny said, ‘the truth is out there’, and probably hiding just behind Derek Jarman’s shed.

  6. tonyo262

    I should have mentioned that the boot of the Audi was full of Pervitin and Argentinian Fernet Branca (45%) bought in error as an alternative experimental fuel for the 0208. As an interesting aside, they discovered a little too late, that 1 tab of crystal meth to 100 litres of Fernet gave a 400% increase in thrust. Luckily for those few remaining Luftwaffe test pilots, the initial tests were carried out with a Llama who was on exchange from the Fuerza Aérea Argentina. Used to operating at extreme altitude, it took the Llama (we’ll call him Fernando to protect his family) a fortnight to come back down and even after this was often sighted racing around the shores of the Havel shouting ‘Adios! Adios! it burns! (…but in Spanish obviously).

    In the pursuit of factual aviation and to avoid Messrs Hush and Kit being forced to live in a card box under the Vauxhall bridge, I think this thread has, much like Fernando, probably run its course…unless elleetoo has more stories to tell.

    NOTE: In standard form, it was discovered that unadulterated Fernet didn’t supply the required thrust ratio, but the exhaust smelled faintly of rhubarb.

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