Heinkel He 177: the Bomber that Won the War: or ‘Grief of the Greif’

Over the course of the 20th century there are very few aircraft that can claim to have been truly decisive, whether by accident or design. The list might Include such worthies as the P-51 Mustang or the Hurricane. It is doubtful that Heinkel’s much derided He 177 would be included in such a list but nonetheless the case can be made that it was one of the most influential aircraft on the course of the Second World War. Unfortunately for Germany it was influential in exactly the opposite direction they intended. Named the ‘Greif’ (Griffon) the mighty aircraft promised much and delivered considerably less. Unlike dragons, griffons do not breath fire but fire was to prove particularly pertinent to the He 177 programme.

The Nazis were a government of fantasists, they fantasised about a huge German Empire, arranged on strict psuedoscientific racial lines that rated hair colour over talent. They fantasised about enormous ugly buildings, so large they would experience internal weather conditions. They fantasised about murdering a large swathe of their population on the basis of who their grandparents were, and unfortunately for everyone else, many of their fantasies spilled over into reality. One thing that you can’t accuse them of is a failure to ‘think big’ and so it was, just as with big tanks and big trains, they fantasised about big aircraft. The origin of what would become the He 177 lay in a somewhat murky programme for a big aeroplane, developed by the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) under the leadership of Generalleutnant Walther Wever, impressively named the ‘Ural Bomber’. Wever envisioned a strategic bombing arm for the Luftwaffe and was closely aligned with the prevailing theories then governing the development of air power in the UK and USA. To that end he approached aircraft manufacturers Junkers and Dornier, in secret, that would be able to attack Soviet industry in the event they moved their factories eastwards during a future war. The Do 19 and Ju 89 produced for the Ural Bomber programme flew in 1936 and 37 respectively and were decidedly humdrum. Meanwhile Wever died in an air crash in 1936 leaving the Luftwaffe bereft of a strategic bombing proponent. Wever’s replacement was Albert Kesselring, a talented General who oversaw development of the Messerschmitt 109, but he was far more interested in medium bombers. Ernst Udet headed up the Luftwaffe’s technical division and was totally fixated on dive bombers (which was to prove significant to the He 177 down the line) inasmuch as he was fixated on anything other than partying with plenty of alcohol and attractive women. Erhard Milch, their superior, was fully aware that Germany lacked the industrial capacity at this point to produce strategic bombers in any meaningful quantities. Between them they persuaded Herman Goering to drop the Ural bomber programme and concentrate on tactical bombers, a strategy that was, initially at least, very successful but was to cost them dear later on. Goering is alleged to have stated, “The Führer will never ask me how big our bombers are, but how many we have.” Nonetheless, with the unfocussed strategy typical of the Nazi period, the idea of a strategic bomber was not completely quashed, indeed work on very large strategic aircraft was resuscitated with the requirement, issued in 1937, for an aircraft capable of carrying a five tonne bomb load to New York which really was in the realm of fantasy in the late 30s.

Out of all this muddled thinking and vacillation came the He 177: once the tepid performance of the Ural bomber contenders became known, a more modest requirement, named ‘Bomber A’ was issued by Wever on the very day of his death. The specification called for an aircraft to carry a tonne of bombs over a range of 5000 km at a speed not less than 500 km/h (311mph). This was an exceptionally challenging specification and the speed element alone put the bomber into territory beyond that of contemporary fighters, being known as the Schnellbomber concept, the same basic idea would result in the incredibly successful De Havilland Mosquito, but was to be the source of much heartache for the Luftwaffe.

Heinkel, well respected for the successful (and fast) He 111 that was then gainfully being employed laying waste to large areas of metropolitan Spain, responded to the tender with Projekt 1041, building a full scale mock-up by November 1937. Coincidentally Heinkel had been working on ways to wring the maximum speed out of aircraft design and had lighted on an almost pathological obsession with reducing drag – a process that resulted in the undeniably graceful He 119 which featured a smoothly tapering fuselage from nose to tail with no unsightly windscreens or other excrescences to spoil the streamlining. Significantly they had powered the He 119 with two Daimler Benz DB 601 engines mounted side by side in the fuselage and geared together to drive a single airscrew. Designated the DB 606 and known, rather grandiosely as a ‘power system’, the siamised engines had performed sufficiently well in the He 119 for Heinkel to propose two such ‘power systems’ for Projekt 1041, a decision that would see a significant reduction in drag over a similar aircraft with four separate engine nacelles but was to prove disastrous to the programme as a whole. But this would be only the most serious of the manifold problems of the He 177, virtually every major design decision Heinkel made was ill advised at best, as follows:

The DB 606 had caused no problems onto He 119 but in the He 177 the ‘power system’s were an incredibly tight fit in their cowlings. Both engines shared a common central exhaust manifold serving a total of 12 cylinders, the two inner cylinder banks of the component engines. This central exhaust system would often became extremely hot, causing oil and grease which routinely accumulated in the bottom of each engine cowling to catch fire. this problem was compounded by the fact that there was a tendency for the fuel injection pump on each engine to lag in their response to the pilot throttling back in such situations, deliver more fuel than was required and thus fuel the fire, in addition the fuel injection pump connections often leaked. Furthermore, to reduce the aircraft’s weight no firewall was provided, and the back of each engine was fitted so close to the main spar, with two-thirds of each engine being placed behind the wing’s leading edge, that fuel and oil fluid lines and electrical harnesses were crammed in with insufficient space and the engines were often covered with fuel and oil from leaking fuel lines and connections. At high altitude the poorly designed lubrication pump led to the oil foaming, reducing its lubricating qualities. Insufficient lubrication ultimately resulted in connecting rod bearings failing (which also befell the Avro Manchester but that aircraft was quickly altered into the superlative Lancaster), resulting in the conrods sometimes bursting through the crankcases and puncturing the oil tanks, the contents of which would then empty onto the white hot central exhaust manifold. The tightly packed nacelles in which the engines were installed on the He 177A, with many of the engine’s components buried within the wing led to very poor ventilation as well as poor maintenance access. In the words of one aviation historian, the engine accessories and cowling of the He 177 were ‘almost wilfully badly designed’. Essentially the He 177 was a fire waiting to happen.

But there was more. In an effort to fulfil their obsessive desire to reduce drag, Heinkel decided to use cutting edge technology to provide the aircraft’s defensive weaponry in three remotely controlled turrets. These offered other advantages such as reducing the vulnerability of the gunners and providing them with the best possible view. Unfortunately development of the remote turrets lagged behind the airframe and the aircraft had to be redesigned to allow manned gun position to be fitted, this required strengthening the aircraft in the affected areas and increased weight again. Eventually, later production He 177s got one remote turret at least. The manned tail gun position was always problematic, initially requiring the gunner to lay prone at his position, production aircraft at least gave him a seat but the field of fire was always very limited. 

Weight growth meant that the original single wheel undercarriage would be insufficient to handle the ever-enlarging He 177. The undercarriage legs needed to be long to allow ground clearance for the unusually large propellers (required for the mighty power of the DB 606). With limited room in the nacelle and wing for a larger undercarriage unit, Heinkel adopted the unique expedient of having two separate legs, each with its own wheel, that retracted in opposite directions up into the inner and outer wing simultaneously. Ironically, given that this system was adopted due to weight growth, the undercarriage design was very heavy and contributed to weight growth. Furthermore it added complexity for servicing, just changing a tyre required two hours of work and involved the use of a massive 12 tonne capacity jack.

As if this weren’t enough tests on the first A-1 production aircraft revealed that the wing had been improperly designed and would begin to fail after only 20 flights (provided the engines hadn’t caught fire by then) and extensive redesign and strengthening was undertaken requiring further time and increasing weight.

Meanwhile, the specification changed. After the death of Wever, the impetus for strategic bombing was lost. At the same time Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers were proving impressively successful in Spain. Contemporary German bombsights were pretty inaccurate (as were most bombsights at the time to be fair) and experience in Spain demonstrated that dive bombing was more effectively destructive than level bombing by conventional medium bombers. And thus, if a small aircraft could cause so much devastation by dive bombing, imagine how much potent that would be if the dive bomber were a large aircraft. On 5 November 1937 the RLM issued the stipulation that the He 177 should be capable of shallow angle dive bombing. Ernst Udet mentioned this to Ernst Heinkel when inspecting the He 177 mock-up on the same day. Heinkel stated that the 177 would ‘never’ be capable of dive bombing. 

Despite Heinkel’s response, the design was modified to possess the structural strength to safely pull out of shallow dives, thus beginning the aircraft’s inexorable increase in weight before it even existed, just in time for the requirement to be altered again to demand the He 177 be capable of 60 degree dive bombing. This is very steep, especially for such a large aircraft, the design was altered and strengthened again, this time causing a large jump in weight. If you are sniggering over the idea that such an obviously unsuitable aircraft as the 32 tonne, 100 foot wingspan, He 177 could be even considered for dive bombing, it is worth remembering that this wasn’t solely just some madcap Nazi scheme – the specification that called for the eminently sensible (ie dull) Handley-Page Halifax four engined heavy bomber of roughly the same dimensions and weight also stipulated that it be capable of dive bombing. Air forces across the world were painfully aware that the accuracy of level bombing was pretty woeful and were attempting to change that state of affairs. However, the British Air Ministry actually listened to Frederick Handley-Page when he told them the Halifax would never be capable of dive bombing. The RLM chose to ignore Ernst Heinkel to pursue their dive bombing dreams, which would never be realised, and paid for them with wasted time and weight growth 

The first He 177 flew on 9 November 1939 and all seemed broadly well despite its litany of questionable design choices and ongoing wrangling over its application. But then the engine temperatures soared and the aircraft had to return hurriedly to the ground, a fairly accurate premonition of what was to come. Similarly, the hopelessness of the dive bombing concept was made very apparent very quickly when the second prototype undertook the He 177’s first diving trials and promptly broke up in mid air, killing all on board. Just to make sure the point was adequately made though, during further diving trials the fourth prototype then dove straight into the Baltic Sea, killing all on board. The fifth prototype was the first to catch fire and was lost, followed by a further three.

The biggest myth about WW2 aviation is…

…that the Battle of Britain was a close run thing, won by a narrow margin.  It really wasn’t.  The Luftwaffe were whipped and whipped badly.  I can produce all number of stats to prove my point but perhaps this isn’t the place.

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Nonetheless, when working properly the He 177 possessed a performance that could not be ignored and the aircraft entered production, beginning with 35 A-0 pre production models followed by 130 A-1s, the latter all built under subcontract by Arado. virtually all of these aircraft were kept in second line service due to ongoing teething troubles. KG 40 were the first unit to attempt to use the bomber operationally in the maritime role during the summer of 1942, but this proved premature and they reverted to their Fw 200 Condors. The A-3 was an improved version, though still problematic, 170 of which were built. Further effort yielded the A-5 with more powerful DB 610 ‘power systems’ and many of the problems ameliorated if not solved and some 350 of these left the factory. Further developments led to the A-6 and A-7 of which a handful were built by which time development had switched to the He 177B with four conventional separate engines (and which would never progress beyond the prototype stage).

In service the He 177 never served in the numbers required to really make a difference and only became a mature enough design to commit to mass usage at around the same time that Germany effectively ran out of fuel. It is not known what proportion of the 1169 produced saw service but estimates range as low as 200. What is known is that hundreds of He 177s appeared parked at bases on Allied reconnaissance photographs and contemporary photographic interpreters stated “absence of track activity suggests that these aircraft are not being worked on.” 

To be totally fair to the He 177 it should be pointed out that it could prove to be effective on operations, it had, for example, the lowest loss rate of any German bomber during the ‘Baby Blitz’ of 1944 though the overall loss rate of all types was an eye-watering 60%. It was also formidable as an anti-shipping platform equipped with the Fritz-X radio controlled glide bomb, though on its debut in this role, the captain of the ship being attacked noted that one of the aircraft appeared to burst spontaneously into flame, which may not come as a great surprise to those familiar with the aircraft. “For five or six seconds we saw a large flame coming from the port engine and then the aircraft was enveloped in a dense black cloud of smoke. When I last saw the aircraft it was at an angle, which may have been done deliberately to blow the flame away, or it may have been losing height. It went into cloud and I did not see it again.”

The facts were that the He 177 was too accident prone, too late and too resource heavy. It is difficult to quantify exactly how many manhours were expended on its development and production but as this was at exactly the same time Heinkel were developing the world’s first jet fighter (that would ultimately never see production due to inexplicable official indifference) it was obvious that there were more worthwhile things they could have been doing. As to how much material went its production, each He 177 consumed four DB 601 or DB 605 engines for its ‘power system’s. With 1169 built that’s enough for 4676 single engine fighters, all of which never existed to attack Allied aircraft or strafe Allied troops. The empty weight of each aircraft was 16.8 tonnes, that is a lot of aluminium and steel to not be made into other more useful, aircraft (for comparison, a BF 109G weighed about 2.2 tonnes).

But perhaps the timing was the worst of all. The He 177 could deliver the goods in terms of speed, range and payload, at least when everything was working. But the desultory expenditure of time on tinkering with the design to try and make it work properly, which it didn’t really do for about five years, meant that the bomber essentially joined a war already lost. To put this into perspective, the He 177 flew for the first time in November 1939, a month after the Handley page Halifax, yet the Halifax began operational service in late 1940 and contributed much to Bomber Command’s horrific campaign against German urban centres. If one were to imagine an He 177 force, and the 177 was arguably a more potentially formidable aircraft than the Halifax, available at the end of 1940 then the destruction meted out to British cities would have been an order of magnitude higher than it transpired to be. The He 177 could carry more than any other German bomber and was extremely difficult to intercept by 1940/41 standards, even more so by night when it would have been effectively immune to night fighters, at least until the advent of the Mosquito.

Thus the badly designed large aircraft that, unavailable at the right time, built to a requirement its operators found uninteresting, consumed much industrial effort and material and required many trained aircrew who could have been flying something else. 

Did the He 177 cause the Allies to win the war? In reality, almost definitely not, Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union basically sealed the fate of Germany in June 1941. But it is not hard to imagine that a combat capable He 177, available in numbers in 1940, would have had a tremendous effect on the UK which could have adversely affected US commitments to its ally. Meanwhile a force of He 177s in the maritime role could have caused havoc with British naval operations. All of which does rather presuppose a massive production effort on the big Heinkel, which may have been beyond Germany’s ability to supply at that time. Nonetheless Goering summed up the effect of Germany’s fixation on the tactical medium bomber fleet in 1943, ”Well, those inferior heavy bombers of the other side are doing a wonderful job of wrecking Germany from end to end”, had the Greif been the priority earlier perhaps it would have been Luftwaffe heavy bombers wrecking Britain from end to end. It’s absence, whilst probably not decisive, was colossally influential.

He 177 engine run


      • Dick Pilz

        Those power systems were the bane of the Luftwaffe. The combination of 2 inverted Vees with a common exhaust manifold in the bottom center was an accident waiting to happen. Reichsfeuerzeug, indeed.

      • edin

        yeah those power systems were all engine fires waiting to happen, but in He177 they’re in a tighter space so even worse. Their biggest issue was being unable to develop a 2000hp+ engine so having to use those subpar solutions. It was heavier per HP as well

  1. Duker

    What about the Ju 290, it was 4 engines and could fly for 6000 km out into Atlantic, they were the basis for Amerika bomber, but should have been even easier to reach the industrial areas of Urals

  2. peceed

    I it as a fallacy that 2-engine bombers were better at the beginning of the war.
    Germany was limited by engine production anyway, and had very little fuel.
    4-engine bomber has better range, takes more bombs per engine, consumed fuel, crew members trained/lost.
    4-engine bomber is cheaper than two 2-engine.

  3. Brian

    Only the US could afford the 4 engined heavy bomber and there associated losses during the war. The RAF effort switched to night bombing but effectively bankrupted them in the post war years.

    • Duker

      ‘bankrupted them post war’…. we can see how Germany never recovered from financial collapse, devastation and the occupation. However Human capital is something that is far more important

  4. Lord Lucan

    “the He 177 flew for the first time in November 1939, a month after the Handley page Halifax, yet the Halifax began operational service in late 1940 and contributed much to Bomber Command’s horrific campaign against German urban centres.”

    Why do you consider the the bomber campaign to be “horrific”?
    Honest question.

  5. BV141

    For clarification, it was badly designed engines that were the problem, not the airplane itself. Substantial effort was applied and the engine problems fixed with 20+ major design changes just in time for no bomber fuel allocation (1943/44). I recall from memory, firewalls were installed between the coupled engines and oil leaks were stopped.

  6. Pingback: 10 MORE of the Worst British Military Aircraft | Hush-Kit

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