Piling On, Part II

by Dr. Marshall Michel
52nd Fighter Wing historian

Editor’s note: This week’s article is a continuation from last week’s article, “Piling On: Part I,” which can be found on Page 6.

Five Mistels took off for an attack on the British capital ships at Scapa Flow in October 1944, but the weather was terrible and three crashed while the other two could not find the target. Before another attack could be launched, the Royal Air Force sunk the last German battleship, the “Tirpitz,” in a Norwegian fjord. The Tirpitz had been the raison d’être for the British battle fleet forces at Scapa Flow, and with its sinking, the fleet departed for the Pacific, leaving the Mistels with no targets in the harbor.

Despite their limited success, the Luftwaffe had been impressed enough with the Mistels to order 125 more modern ones with strengthened landing gear and a Focke Wulf FW-190 fighter on top, designated the Mistel II.

But Anglo-American air superiority to the West was such that it was no longer deemed viable to risk the Mistels in this theater of operations, so the Mistel force turned east for Operation “Eisenhammer,” or Iron Hammer. Iron Hammer was a plan dating back to 1941 for a series of raids against three gigantic, irreplaceable but poorly defended Soviet electric power plants around Moscow, Leningrad and the Urals. If successful, the raids by 100 new “Mistels” were to reduce Soviet electricity production by 75 percent.

One problem with this project was that the FW-190 fighters, unlike the Bf-109s, could not use JU-88 fuel. This meant the fighters would not have the range for the return flight after they struck the power plants.

The production of such a large number of Mistels, the training of the pilots and bad weather meant delays before the plan could be implemented. By the time the mission was ready, in early 1945, the Red Army was pushing into Germany.

The advance of the Soviets meant there was no longer time for ambitious strategic operations and the 82 Mistels that were available were ordered to revert to more modest attacks to slow down the Soviet advance. Orders were given to the Mistel units to destroy large bridges on the Oder, the Neisse and the Vistule rivers to prevent the Red Army from crossing.

On March 24, 1945, four Mistels attacked bridges over the Neisse River, destroying two of them. On April 12, 1945, a large group of Mistels took off for another attack on the other bridges. Most of the aircraft were shot down, but five Mistels hit and destroyed several large bridges.

The next day, a number of Mistels were destroyed by U.S. bombers, but the attacks on the bridges continued. On April 27, seven Mistels were launched against other bridges but only two of the composite units made it to the target to launch, and the bridges remained intact.

As one might expect, the awkward fighter/bomber combination was very slow — a top speed of only about 200 mph — and awkward, which made them extremely vulnerable to any type of fighter attack. By the end of April, all available Mistels in the operational units had been expended.

There were experiments with even more advanced Mistels, including a jet version with a Heinkel 162 fighter on top of an Arado 234 jet bomber and one version with a television camera in the nose of the bomber for more accurate guidance. None these came to fruition.

Less one think the Mistels were completely foolish, at about the same time the Mistels were first used in combat, the U.S. conducted “Project “Aphrodite,” which was a plan to use remotely controlled, explosives-filled B-17s and B-24s to destroy hardened concrete V-1 launch facilities. The plan was that the bombers, which had TV cameras and automatic guidance systems, would take off with pilots on board who would fly to the target area and then bail out, while a “mothership” B-17 would guide the bomber to the target.

Virtually none of the bombers hit their target and the project was abandoned after a few months, but it can be argued that Aphrodite changed American history. One of the pilots killed in the Aphrodite operation was U.S. Navy Lt. Joseph “Joe” Kennedy, the oldest son of Ambassador Joseph Kennedy of Boston and the older brother of John F., Robert and Edward Kennedy. Lieutenant Kennedy, it has been well documented, was the son his father expected to become the U.S. president.

(For questions or comments, contact Dr. Michel at marshall.michel@spangdahlem.af.mil.)