10 myths you shouldn’t believe about the Messerschmitt 262
When it comes to German World War II aircraft, busting myths is a risky business. There’s such a wealth of surviving primary source material sitting around in archives that it would take a brave individual to stick their neck out and attempt to disprove what’s commonly regarded as fact today. With suitable caveats firmly in place then, Dan Sharp, author of Messerschmitt Me 262 Development & Politics, presents 10 ‘myths’ about the famous German jet fighter
10. The Luftwaffe and Air Ministry threw all their resources at the Me 262 because jets were cheap.
The Jumo 004 was cheaper to produce than, say, a DB 605 or BMW 801, but the Me 262 needed two of them. And the debate about whether to cancel piston engine production continued essentially until the war ended. It was acknowledged that although jets worked well as bomber interceptors, poor acceleration and a very wide turning circle meant they weren’t ideal for combatting enemy fighters – particularly low-flying fighter-bombers – nor could the 004 maintain power above 11,000m (36,000ft – some de Havilland Mosquito variants, for example, could fly significantly higher than this). And range was poor compared to piston engine types. Therefore, the Luftwaffe continued to invest a great deal of time and vast resources in piston engine types such as the Fw 190/Ta 152 and Do 335. Even the Bf 109 somehow struggled on in mass production till the end.
9. The glass-nosed Me 262 variant with prone bomb-aimer was a weird curiosity.
Widely known today as the Me 262 A-2a/U2, from June to December 1944, this type – known then as the Me 262 A-3 – was regarded as the most important one. When Hitler decided that the 262 had to be a pure bomber, Messerschmitt was immediately tasked with working out how to change the design from that of a fighter (don’t call it that!) to a bomber. Downwards visibility from the standard 262 was rather poor and the aircraft was very fast, so it was decided that a dedicated bomb-aimer was needed. Early designs involved a second crewmember seated behind the pilot – like the trainer variant. However, this would have required a 2m long periscope to give the back-seater a view past the bomb hung below the aircraft’s nose. Therefore a prone bomb-aimer seemed like the best compromise. Work on it largely stopped when Hitler rescinded his ‘bomber-only’ order in November 1944.
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8. The Me 262’s full designation has a little ‘a’ on the end, i.e. Me 262 A-1a or Me 262 A-2a. The little ‘a’ seems to have first appeared in October 1944 when the 004 engine shortage likely to occur in December 1944 was first identified. It was hoped that this anticipated shortfall could be mitigated by fitting some 262s with BMW’s 003. That being the case, 004-engined machines would get the little ‘a’ and 003-engined ones would get a little ‘b’. So a BMW 003-engined standard Me 262 fighter would be Me 262 A-1b. But of course, the 003 wasn’t ready in time and the 004 shortage proved to be fairly brief. Some contemporary sources do continue to use the little ‘a’ but many don’t. Any Me 262 made before October 1944 was certainly an ‘A-1’ or ‘A-2’ without the little ‘a’ and even for those made thereafter, it’s not really essential to add the ‘a’.
7. The Me 262’s final configuration wasn’t determined until the autumn of 1944. Preparations for full series production of the Me 262 had commenced before the end of 1943 – with full blueprints drawn up and ready to use. The standard A-1 design appears to have been completed during the autumn of 1943. In April 1944, the Luftwaffe officially accepted delivery of 17 Me 262s – some of these were pre-production models but the basic configuration had been established.
6. The Jumo 004 jet engine had a service life of only 10 hours in the Me 262.
Horror stories of the 004’s incredibly poor endurance appear to be somewhat exaggerated. The 10-hour figure was evidently the worst-case-scenario period between engine-out overhauls. The 004 B-1 wasn’t a disposable unit but it does seem as though actual total service lifespan was initially still only around 25-30 hours. It could last somewhat longer if the pilot was careful but most weren’t. This wasn’t much of an issue though, since very few Me 262s apparently lasted beyond 25-30 hours – most being wrecked due to pilot error, according to official figures. Engine lifespan was dramatically increased – to 100 hours or more – with the introduction of ceramic turbine blades in early 1945.
5. It was the poor state of the Jumo 004 engine which delayed the Me 262.
Given the tremendous difficulties faced by BMW, Heinkel and indeed Daimler-Benz, Anselm Franz and his team at Junkers Motoren seem to have had a relatively easy time designing the 004. By early 1943 they were lobbying the Air Ministry for more airframes in which to test their engines because Messerschmitt had hardly built any of the 20 that had been on order since July 1940. The 004 A ate up too much in the way of scarce metals, the B-0 used too few scarce metals and the B-2 programme collapsed but the B-1 represented a sweet spot that was relatively economical to make and worked passably well. Contemporary records appear to show that there were sufficient engines to power every 262 airframe built, up to around December 1944, when there was indeed a brief shortage. At no other point were there airframes sitting around waiting for engines.
4. Bombs didn’t delay the Me 262.
Willy Messerschmitt told Hitler during a personal audience in September 9, 1943, that the Me 262 would make a great aircraft with which to bomb Britain. Hitler seems to have thought about this and on October 27, 1943, issued an order that every Me 262 should be built as a fighter-bomber. The distinction here between fighter, fighter-bomber and bomber is crucial. Göring passed this order on to Milch and his senior staff on October 28, who then passed the message on to Willy Messerschmitt. From this time on, the Me 262 would have to carry bombs – but it could also be flown on fighter operations as needed. Fast forward to May 1944 and the first 100 Me 262s are in production. At a meeting with Hitler on May 23, Milch and his staff reassure Hitler that everything is fine with the Me 262 fighter-bomber. But on May 24, at a meeting without Hitler, the German Air Ministry’s chief of development Siegfried Knemeyer expresses concerns to Göring that not only are the first 100 not being wired-up to carry bombs, but that no Me 262 will be capable of carrying bombs owing to centre of gravity issues. Göring is horrified – did his staff just lie to Hitler yesterday? Eventually, it’s worked out that this is actually wrong and everything IS fine, but Hitler has already, somehow, got word of the confusion. He’s furious and issues an order on May 26 that now the 262 must be a bomber. Not a fighter-bomber. A bomber. He expressly orders that it CAN NOT be used for fighter operations. It is forbidden even to refer to it as a fighter. Limited fighter testing can still take place, but henceforth, the Me 262 is to be called a ‘fast bomber’. It will be operated by bomber units as a bomber. But no Me 262 has ever dropped a bomb. They haven’t even designed bomb racks for it, nor fitted a bomb-aiming device. Hitler refuses to revoke this order till November 1944.
Willy Messerschmitt was the Me 262’s greatest champion, battling Luftwaffe and Air Ministry indifference. This is the narrative that both Messerschmitt himself and his staff presented to Allied interrogators shortly after the war ended: the failure of the Me 262 to reach the front lines in time was down to the German Air Ministry. The truth, however, is somewhat different. In fact, the Minister of State for Aviation, Erhard Milch, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and General der Jagdflieger Adolf Galland decided in May 1943 to cancel the Bf 109 and build the Me 262 in its stead, with production of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 being ramped up in the meantime to cover the unavoidable dip in overall fighter production. Willy Messerschmitt appears at this time to have experienced the revelation that his company had developed a product in the Me 262 which made practically all of its existing products obsolete. Building the Bf 109 (and Bf 110, Me 210 and Me 410) was a vast and vastly profitable enterprise involving huge supply chains. Not only that, Messerschmitt had been banking for years on building a successor to the 109 – initially the 309 and by this point the 209, which was intended to share around 50% of its parts with the 109 to minimise supply chain disruption. Dismantling all that in favour of the Me 262 would be a disaster for the company, particularly since very little work had been done on the 262 for around 18 months. Messerschmitt, therefore, went to Hitler and had him overturn the 109/209 cancellation, which effectively kicked the 262 into the long grass. In truth, while the Luftwaffe and Air Ministry were desperate for the 262 by May 1943, Willy Messerschmitt, through his friendship with Hitler, was able to successfully frustrate their efforts to get it into production early, thereby rescuing his company from another disaster.
2. There was a big celebration following its first successful flight with Jumo 004s. Mano Zielger described the scene at Leipheim on July 18, 1942, in his book Hitler’s Jet Plane: “The flight had lasted 12 minutes in all. And then it was all jubilation: onlookers running from the airfield buildings, the groundstaff crowding round to offer their congratulations, an exultant Willy Messerschmitt.” This appears to be a work of fiction. By all (contemporary) accounts, no one other than those physically involved in the flight test were really aware of it, and none of them was aware of its significance. Willy Messerschmitt, in particular, was thoroughly distracted, struggling through the aftermath of a rolling catastrophe which threatened to destroy both his company and his own career – the failure of the Me 210. Immediately after the war, Messerschmitt commercial director Rakan Kokothaki confessed that no one in management noticed the Me 262’s first successful jet-powered flight at the time.
1. The Messerschmitt Me 262’s nickname was ‘Schwalbe’, German for Swallow.
This name appears all over the place in connection with the Me 262. It’s on the cover of books, the National Air and Space Museum in the US uses it in its official description of the aircraft, ditto the Imperial War Museum, so it must be right, right? Well, yes and no. Delving through archival material you might expect to find references to the ‘Schwalbe’ sprinkled through various German documents. You would soon discover, however, that ‘Schwalbe’ doesn’t seem to appear in… well… ANY German WW2 documentation. ‘Sturmvogel’? Yes, various sources. ‘Silber’? Also yes, albeit from fewer sources. ‘Schwalbe’? Not a one (at least nothing yet discovered!). So where did it come from then? Curiously, British and American publications – magazines and newspapers – seem to have begun using the ‘Schwalbe’ name at least a year before the war ended. It reached a point where practically every photo of a captured Me 262 was captioned using ‘Schwalbe’. Could it be that the Swallow name was actually an invention of the Allies? It seems at least possible.
Messerschmitt Me 262 Development & Politics by Dan Sharp is available here
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