In terms of performance, the most outstanding operational fighter of the Second World War was the twin jet German Me-262 “Schwalbe” (Swallow). It was the fastest fighter of the war, carried a very heavy armament of four 30mm cannons and, for the first time, effective air-to-air rockets, and when it attacked Allied bomber formations it was devastating.
The Me-262 first flew in July 1942, nine months before any remotely comparable Allied jet fighter, and test flights continued the next nine months, hampered by problems with its Jumo 004 jet engines. However, by April 22, 1943, the aircraft was ready to be flown by the German commander of the fighter force, Adolf Galland, who proclaimed it a “war winner” that would make German air space invulnerable to Allied bombers.
Galland pushed to have it produced as rapidly as possible and provided to the Luftwaffe’s fighter force, but when it was shown to Hitler a few months later he proclaimed it the “blitz bomber,” a high speed ground attack aircraft that would be able to counter the Allied invasion of France.
From this point on, Galland asserts in his seminal book about the World War II Luftwaffe, “The First and the Last,” the Me-262 was diverted from what should have been its war winning role as an air-to-air fighter to bomber duties. Only after a long period of argument was it finally returned to the fighter role. But by then it was too late, even though more than 1,400 Me-262s were produced, because the Allies had too great a numerical superiority for the Schwalbe to have a major impact.
Albert Speer, the German minister of armaments at the time, also claimed that Hitler stopped production of the fighter and wanted it converted to a bomber.
This appears a wonderful and elegant argument, full of irony — the evil German dictator making the decision that prevented the deployment of a potentially war changing aircraft.
The problem is that this is not true. The truth is the Me-262 could never have been deployed in large numbers before late 1944 because of severe problems with the Jumo 004 engine.
The prototype Galland flew was powered by the first model of the Jumo 004, the Jumo 004A. This engine had been constructed with the highest quality materials available — notably nickel, cobalt and molybdenum — and as a result functioned reasonably well.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to produce the Jumo 004A in large quantity because Germany did not have enough of these raw materials, and the production version, the Jumo 004B, was built with inferior materials.
All of the “hot section” components were changed to aluminum-coated steel, and the turbine blades were also produced from different materials than those used in the Jumo 004A. The engine was easier to mass produce, but it was much less reliable and it required a complete overhaul every 10 hours. It also required delicate throttle movements in flight — difficult in combat.
The result of the engine problems was that the Me-262 did not begin to arrive in useful operation strength until October 1944 when Hitler’s order to use it as a bomber had been rescinded.
By then, the Allied air forces had a huge numerical superiority and caused so much chaos with the German production and transportation facilities that only about 200 Me-262s were ever operational at any one time.
The Me-262s maximum daily sortie rate — rarely achieved — was about 60 per day. While its presence had a huge psychological impact on Allied airmen, combat records show it only shot down about 150 Allied aircraft for the loss of about 100 Me-262s in air combat.
(For questions or comments, contact Dr. Michel at firstname.lastname@example.org.)