Berlin, Germany · April 18, 1941

On this date in 1941 tests began of the world’s first operational turbojet fighter, the Messer­schmitt 262 Swallow (Schwalbe). The tests were really of the airframe because the BMW turbo­jets were nowhere close to being ready. On July 18, 1942, a fully con­figured version flew—this almost nine months before the first flight of an Allied jet, the British Gloster Meteor. Three years later, on April 19, 1944, a test unit in Bavaria was set up to intro­duce the revo­lu­tionary air­craft into service and train a core of pilots to fly it.

The Allied response to the arrival of the Me 262, which flew at speeds of 560 mph, was to bomb the run­ways and fac­tories where the planes were evident. This barrage, coupled with a fuel short­age, ensured that the Me 262, for all its tech­no­logical superi­ority over the Allies’ piston aircraft, had limited success. That said, in March 1945 Me 262 fighter units were able for the first time to mount large-scale attacks on Allied bomber forma­tions over Germany. On March 18, 1945, 37 Me 262s inter­cepted 1,221 Allied bombers and 632 escorting fighters, shooting down a dozen bombers and one fighter for the loss of three Me 262s. The Luft­waffe would have needed to sus­tain a 4‑to‑1 ratio to make any impact on the war’s out­come.

The British Meteor (top speed 410 mph) came into service about the same time as the Me 262 but suffered in com­pari­son to its faster and better-armed rival. It had prac­tically no impact on the out­come of the war, forbidden as it was to fly near conti­nental Europe for fear that a downed jet might reveal design secrets to the enemy. Thus, Meteors were princi­pally used to inter­cept the more than 8,000 jet-powered V‑1 buzz-bombs targeted on London.

During the closing months of the war, the world’s first jet bomber, the Arado Ar 234 Lightning (Blitz), entered service after project kick­off in late 1940. The Ar 234 had twin jet engines, flew at alti­tudes of 36,000 ft where it was impos­sible for Allied air­craft to inter­cept it, had a range of 1,240 miles, and was used mostly for recon­nais­sance. To reduce weight, the air­craft ini­tially had no landing wheels; instead, after being launched on a three-wheeled trolley, it landed on skids. In April 1945 the Ar 234 was the last German air­craft to fly over Britain during the war, a bomber that never carried a bomb.

German and British Jet Aircraft of World War II

Messerschmitt Me 262AMesserschmitt Me 262A in flight

Left: The twin-engine Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe was the world’s first oper­a­tional jet-powered fighter air­craft. It was used in a variety of roles, in­cluding light bomber, recon­nais­sance, and even exper­i­mental night fighter. Roughly 1,400 Me 262s were produced. No more than 200 Me 262s were oper­a­tional at one time, meaning their small num­bers were in­cap­able of in­flu­encing the Allied air cam­paign against Nazi Ger­many. Me 262s de­stroyed some 150 Allied planes (Me 262 pilots claimed a total of 542 Allied kills), but the Allies de­stroyed about 100 Me 262s in the air. In February and March 1945, Allied planes de­stroyed approximately 60 Me 262s in ground attacks.

Right: Pictured here was the first Me 262 to come into Allied hands when its test pilot defected in March 1945. It was subsequently lost in August 1946, the U.S. test pilot parachuting to safety.

Gloster Meteor F.3Messerschmitt Me 262A

Left: The Gloster Meteor was initially used to counter the V‑1 flying bomb threat. Meteors accounted for 14 flying bombs kills, the first two on August 4, 1944. This was the first downing of one jet-powered air­craft by another. With the intro­duc­tion of the bal­listic V‑2 rocket, the RAF was for­bid­den to fly the Meteor on com­bat mis­sions over Ger­man-held terr­itory for fear of an air­craft being shot down and sal­vaged by the Germans.

Right: An Me 262A on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio.

Arado Ar 234B with U.S. markingsHeinkel He 162

Left: Slightly faster but less famous than the Me 262 was the Arado Ar 234 Blitz, the world’s first oper­a­tional jet-powered recon­nais­sance/­bomber. Pro­duced in very limited num­bers (total pro­duc­tion was 224 of all ver­sions), the Ar 234 was used almost en­tirely in a recon­nais­sance role, but in its few uses as a bomber it proved to be nearly im­pos­sible to inter­cept. This photo­graph shows the Arado Ar 234B‑2 bomber with U.S. markings back in the States following its capture by British forces in Norway in 1945.

Right: A captured Heinkel He 162 Volksjaeger (People’s Fighter) parked at Free­man Field, Indi­ana, 1945. Made pri­marily of wood, the He 162 was a sleek single-engine, jet-powered fighter air­craft and was the fastest of the first-gen­er­ation World War II jets. By war’s end on May 8, 1945, 120 He 162s had been de­livered to the Luft­waffe. A further 200 had been com­pleted and were awaiting col­lec­tion or flight-testing, and about 600 more were in various stages of production.

Wings of the Luftwaffe: Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe