Ten Things You Didn’t Know About World War Two warplanes

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Spitfire F Mk. IX, BS451, FY-V of No. 611 Squadron at Biggin Hill
[Crown Copyright]

Unlike the many brilliant British aero-engineers of the 1930s and ’40s, who were repeatedly thwarted by crusty officialdom, their German equivalents were lavishly funded and nurtured by both a determined state and a brutally efficient military …or so the myth goes. As we shall find out in ’10 things you didn’t know about World War II Warplanes’, the truth was rather different.

Calum Douglas B.Eng M.Sc is a piston aero-engine history specialist, and author of The Secret Horsepower Race – WESTERN FRONT FIGHTER ENGINE DEVELOPMENT

 

The reason Germany missed out on the two-stage supercharger 

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The Mk IX Spitfire, with its two-stage supercharged engine, is lauded for having rescued the RAF from the clutches of the Focke-Wulf 190. Given the new Spitfire’s effectiveness did the Focke-Wulf rapidly counter it with a similarly equipped fighter? No. Germany only fielded a couple of fighter types with two-stage superchargers and both entered service far later, very close to the end of the War. They were the Fw 190D-11 and Ta 152, powered by the Jumo 213E/F. The Jumo 213E had a system like the Merlin, but only appeared in tiny numbers a few months before the collapse of Germany. German failure to develop a two-stage supercharged fighter is widely regarded as one of their great technical failures in high-altitude flight. However, this was as much an organisational failure as anything else, as Daimler-Benz had been running two-stage supercharged DB601 engines since around 1936 in their test cells in Stuttgart Untertürkheim. Focke-Wulf master designer Kurt Tank told incredulous American engineers that the notion of a two-stage supercharged fighter had been quashed by German military bureaucrats before it could take full form. The Luftwaffe was regarded at the time as purely a tactical force, designed to support ground operations. They saw the ability of fighters to attain very high altitudes as an anathema to this strategic concept, and cancelled all such projects. They did have their own equivalent to the Spitfire Mk IX’s engine, but wasted the opportunity with sheer ineptitude.

 

2. Britain needed fuel from the US to survive? 

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Germany is well known for its successful synthetic aviation fuel programme in the Second World War, which created fuel from coal and hydrogen, mixed under high pressure and temperatures. However, Britain had embarked on a programme to do the same thing. This began as early as 1932 and received strong Air Ministry support from about 1936 onwards. Not as outlandish as it sounds, Britain was at the time the third largest producer of coal in the world, and could therefore, have waged war against Germany even if no fuel from America had ever arrived. When, later in the war it became imperative to increase the performance of fighters stationed in Britain to combat the German pulse-jet powered V1 flying bombs, it was the British synthetic fuel programme which helped yield ingredients for the 150 Grade fuel that was needed. This fuel was also made in the U.S.A., but the process was pioneered at I.C.I. Billingham in the laboratory of Ronald Holroyd.

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3. Radio gagger

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After the ascension of Nazis into power, all amateur radio activity and associated clubs and component development was banned. The paranoia of the Nazi state couldn’t allow the thought of young Germans freely communicating with long distance HAM radio, or listening to remote foreign broadcasting stations. This had a catastrophic impact on German radar and electronic warfare development a decade later. Dr Wolfgang Martini, in charge of all German radio technological development was fired by Göring not long after Martini admitted that he had no countermeasures to British jamming devices. Erhard Milch dryly reminded Göring that having no enthusiastic young radio fanatics to help had likely been a direct result of their earlier policy on banning youth radio.

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Martini time

Not long before this meeting, on 8th October 1943 Göring had also harangued Martini on why they had not been able to shoot down more de Havilland Mosquitos, which were now roaming with almost complete impunity over all of Germany day and night. Martini had reported that their radar was struggling to get a reliable echo return on the Mosquito, due in part to its very high speed and also its primarily wooden construction.

Göring, infuriated with the lack of technical prowess, told Martini:

“Er hat Genie, und wir haben Dösköppe.”

(“They [the English] have the geniuses and we have bone-heads.”)

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The first ‘stealthy’ intruder

While a popular documentary was made about the German Horten jet-fighters being the first stealth aircraft, in fact the best real evidence for a high speed intruder aircraft which (probably inadvertently) had a very small radar signature was the British Mosquito.

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4. The lost List 

Hans List, was probably the most renowned piston engine development scientist in Germany in the Second World War. In Europe he was second only to Sir Harry Ricardo in stature. Whilst Ricardo was busy helping Rolls-Royce develop a two-stroke engine to replace the Merlin in the Spitfire, Dr List squandered much of his time on bizarrely speculative projects, such as working out how to increase the performance of the enemy’s Packard-Merlin engine. Ostensibly this project (which must have absorbed the work of his laboratory for several months) was to provide technical intelligence predictions to the German designers by judging what technical steps the British might take in their own development methods. However, there is a strong case that the entire project was an unbelievable waste of the talents of the great Dr List.

Not long after the war, List started the engine development consultancy AVL, which remains the largest privately owned engine development firm in the world today. This kind of abysmally poor usage of German talent was very representative of the gigantic failure to leverage science by the Nazis in the Second World War. Whilst they are acknowledged for having started the jet, rocket and space race, this appears to have been the fruits of a totally unbalanced research programme, which required the resources of the Allies to make full use of post-war.
Figure 2: Translated version of Dr List’s report on the Merlin.

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5. Why did the Germans really put a german engine on a Spitfire? 

The now well-known ‘MesserSpit‘ or  ‘German Spitfire’ was a captured Spitfire Vb fitted with a Daimler-Benz DB605 engine. The re-engining largely took place to settle a feud between the head of Daimler-Benz Fritz Nallinger, and Professor Willy Messerschmitt.

ref.jpgMesserschmitt, furious with being blamed for the poor performance of German fighters compared to the latest Allied types in 1943, told Erhard Milch that this was no surprise to him, because he was forced to fit water radiators twice the size of those the Spitfire used, per horsepower delivered. Erhard Milch, astonished, turned to the head of German Engine Development Wolfram Eisenlohr and asked him:

“How have our designers not noticed this?”

Germany, had failed to develop high-pressure-high-temperature water cooling. This meant that their radiators had to be significantly larger in section than the Allied fighters used, adding to their drag values. They estimated this was costing German fighters at least 15mph in top speed, enough to turn a performance edge into mere equality.

6. Speer’s fake miracle 

Albert Speer is credited with the miracle of German fighter production in 1944, where vast numbers of fighters were built. However when Allied investigators interrogated Speer and started adding up the numbers in his departments production figures they discovered an incredible secret. Eight thousand German single engine fighters in the ledgers, didn’t exist. Further investigation revealed that although Speer had managed to dramatically increase the number of fighters produced, he had also cooked the books to gain favour with Hitler. American engineers discovered that Speer had done it by having all aircraft being repaired, or refitted re-allocated to the ‘new aircraft’ ledger. Thus, giving a dramatically over inflated impression of his achievements. That was not all, German engine designers told Allied engineers that the impressive final boost levels released by Daimler for the Bf 109 of +2.1 and even +2.3 atmospheres manifold pressure, where in fact needed just to get the 109 to meet its basic service specifications. Speer’s ‘miracle’ had created fighters of such incredibly poor build quality that the Daimler-Benz engine designers told the Allies that the fighters reaching the front line were on average an incredible 25mph slower than their claimed performance (over 6%). The allies had faced hordes of ‘ghost fighters’, those which were not figments of Speers ledgers were in performance terms, shadows of their potential.

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7. Sexing down the ‘Butcher Bird’

The Fw 190 was judged to be such a serious threat when it arrived, that the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal wrote to Churchill on the matter. The archives show that he rewrote the letter twice in March 1942 before sending it, each successive letter putting the threat across in more nuanced language than the last. The first read: “adverse casualty rate”, the second version scored out this line and replaced it with “unfavourable balance” and finally “unfavourable factor”.
Figure 3: One of the draft letters Portal prepared for Churchill.

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8. Why the chaos? 

There is strong evidence to suggest that German aviation production planning was thrown into the ruinously bad state of organisation which plagued it during the Second World War as early as 1936. One of Germany’s most renowned aviation designers Dr Robert Lusser (who had worked for Messerschmitt and Heinkel) wrote to the Secretary of State for Air, Erhard Milch on 15th January 1942 to inform him that German aviation was being destroyed by the application of badly thought out plans to accelerate production of new types.
Figure 4: Dr Robert Lusser, German aviation designer.ggg

Lusser explained how up to 1936, the path from aviation development to mass production had taken (in planning) at least 4 years. This began with design, then testing, production simplifications and prototype building over the course of the middle 2 years, with mass production beginning in the 3rd year.

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Figure 5: Lusser`s chart of how production was planned up until 1936 in Germany.

At a certain stage, due to the pressures from above, planning had attempted to be ‘compressed’ by one year, to allow mass production (Gross Serie) to begin after just two years. This involved both testing (Erprobung), production simplifications (Serieneinfachung) and prototype build (Null-Serie) all occurring at once, over the course of just one year.

To make this (in theory) a possibility, demands were also made that design and testing resources might have to be drafted in from other firms who were being under utilized in some particular capacity at the time.
Figure 6: The same chart modified to show how it was altered post-1936.

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The process was in fact, according to Lusser, a disaster. It resulted in several aircraft of appalling quality being made, and the changes needed to rectify the faults ended up putting on far more time than would have been taken to just stick to the original, (proven) time plan.

Lusser, regarding these compressed plans told Milch:

“Diese Glaube hat sich als eine schwere illusion!”

(“These beliefs [that production can be accelerated] are nothing more than a fantasy!”)

9. Willy’s Frölich?

Frankreich, Flugzeug Me 210

The Messerschmitt Me 210, the much-needed replacement for the ageing Me 110 was a disaster which tarnished Professor Messerschmitt’s reputation for decades and resulted in him temporarily being demoted. However, it appears from archive records of interrogations carried out in 1945 of German aviation designers that it may not have been his fault.

According to British Technical Intelligence files on the Me 210, a series of problems occurred, none of which were instigated by the professor himself.

It turned out that in the concept phase, the German Air Ministry (the RLM) told Messerschmitt that a team of designers from the Arado firm would be drafted in to the Messerschmitt offices to design the wings and tail section. This team was led by Arado engineers Rethel and Frölich. There was a fundamental disagreement about the ideal concept to take, but the RLM insisted that the Arado engineer’s idea was to be followed, and the original twin-fin tail layout was rejected. If that were not enough, for reasons of expediting the development timeline the RLM ordered that the drawings were to bypass the manufacturing department (fertigungsbüro).

When the aircraft was tested, it displayed appalling aerodynamic instability and frightening structural failures (the wings sometimes broke off at about 2/3 of the distance from the wing-root). It killed many pilots and was branded a dangerous menace.

Two hundred had been made when production was stopped whilst the errors were fixed. The tail was modified five times before it had been enlarged enough to induce stability. This never worked very well, and only when the original specifications were re-issued as the Me 410 was the fighter a success. By the time that occurred, the design was nowhere near as useful as it would have been had it been in service two or three years prior.

Messerschmitt had fallen victim to RLM incompetence and demonstrated exactly why Lusser had been right when he wrote to Milch.

10. Teacher’s pets 

German technical intelligence spent its time producing wonderfully artistic but useless reports on British aircraft development possibilities, whist the British produced simple projections on possible German developments on a single sheet of paper with a typewriter and some hand-drawn arrows.

Figure 7: Typical British Intelligence chart showing projections for the Bf 109 development.

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The German reports were produced by Dietrich Schwenke, who was the head of German aviation technical intelligence. What follows is a page showing the equivalent projections on possible British developments with the Spitfire. This was part of a mammoth 60-odd page report, the illustrations for which must have taken weeks to prepare.

Figure 8: One of the well-illustrated pages from Schwenke’s huge pamphlet on Allied aviation developments

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We can conclude from this only that the German report was not written to provide a timely and useful memo for German engineers, but was written to show superiors an impressive looking publication to convince them what a thorough job they were doing. It would have taken so long to prepare that by the time it was released much of the utility of the information was lost.
This concentration of appearance over substance is representative of much of the failure which resulted in the German defeat in the air over Germany in 1943 and 1944.
In conclusion, it was not in fact the Allied engineer who struggled against all odds to succeed but the German. Whist Allied policies and choices are full of incompetence and failure, the German story simply has even more disastrous strategic errors, and so reached the event horizon of defeat.

 

 

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6 comments

  1. Blue 5

    Great article. The time compression for German design and development has been frequently ignored, with too many books and opinions expressing surprise at (usually new engines) ‘not working’ – there being a totally logical reason for the that and it usually involves rushed development. I did think that multi-stage super-chargers were in development, but fell down the list of priorities until too late. Fw.190C etc with DB 603s and Ju 213s were supposed to be the move in this direction but was never given support owing to other requirements.

    Just to add to your Speer’s self-serving myth, Tooze has demonstrated conclusively that the production increase was also due to a massive allocation of workers, coal, energy, raw materials etc. during 1943-44 which – astonishingly – allowed fighter manufacture to peak. Shame about most other sectors of the war economy. Oh, and also he denied all knowledge of the Holocaust or slave labour. Which is a lie of such magnitude that I am, surprised he was not hit by a random bullet of karma.

  2. kimmargosein

    Two items- First, wasn’t this compressed development tried with the F-35? Second, regarding reports-Anyone in a bureaucracy can take one look at the German report, and realize it is made to cover not only all points, but all asses.

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