Rheine Airfield, Lower Saxony, Germany June 15, 1943

On this date in 1943 the world’s first jet-powered bomber, the Arado Ar 234 Blitz (English, Light­ning), made its appear­ance in the skies over North­western Germany. The flight of this all-metal, single-seat, twin-jet proto­type came 11 months after the first flight test of a fully con­figured Messer­schmitt Me 262 Swallow (Schwalbe) fighter/­interceptor. Although con­struc­tion of Arado’s revolu­tionary proto­type began in the spring of 1941, the maiden flight of the Blitz was delayed 2 years due to Junkers Air­craft Com­pany working out reli­abi­lity kinks in its Jumo 004 axial-flow turbo­jet engine: both Arado Flug­zeug­werke and Messer­schmitt relied on the same manufacturer for their powerplant.

The Me 262 entered oper­a­tional ser­vice in April 1944, this time behind schedule because Adolf Hitler demanded multi­ple ver­sions of the jet: fighter, fighter-bomber, night-fighter, light bomber, and recon­nais­sance ver­sions were among its many vari­ants. The Ar 234 first saw service 3 months later in just two versions: bomber and unarmed recon­nais­sance plane. Com­man­der, Army Group B in France, Field Marshal Erwin Rom­mel, after meeting with Hitler and other senior gene­rals of the Western Theater in mid-March 1944, took heart that pro­gress was finally being made in the pro­duc­tion of the new high-speed jets under the direction of Armaments Minister Albert Speer.

To reduce air­craft weight and increase air speed the first prototypes of the Ar 234A used a proble­matic 1,400 lb (635 kg), three-wheeled take­off dolly and landing skids, both falling out of favor in the B‑series machine. Even after retract­able tri­cycle landing gear was built into the slightly widen Ar 234B’s fuse­lage, air speeds topped out at 461 mph (742 km/h) when fully loaded (21,605 lb, 9800 kg), which was roughly 26 mph (42 km/h) slower that the piston-driven North Amer­i­can P‑51H Mus­tang, the fastest (at 487 mph, 784 km/h), most sophis­ti­cated fighter in the Allied air armory. The Blitz flew at a service ceiling of 32,810 ft (10000 m) and had a range of 1,013 miles (1630 km).

The aerial recon­nais­sance (German, Aufklaerer) version of the Ar 234 buzzed Normandy’s beaches in July 1944. Other Blitz recon­nais­sance for­ma­tions over­flew Northern Europe, Italy, and Great Britain. The bomber ver­sion saw com­bat with KG (Kampf­geschwader; English, Battle Wing) 76 in Janu­ary 1945, the one and only Blitz bomber wing. Flying from Rheine and Achmer air­bases in Lower Saxony, KG 76 parti­ci­pated in the Battle of the Bulge (aka Ardennes Offen­sive, Decem­ber 16, 1944, to Janu­ary 25, 1945) in a close air support role. Able to carry a 1500–2000 kg (3,310–4,409 lb) bomb load exter­nally (fuel com­pletely filled the fuse­lage), KG 76 bombers made many daring and accu­rate air strikes, the last against the Red Army near the German capital, Berlin, on May 1, 1945.

By the end of the war just 224 of the two ver­sions of the Arado Ar 234 were pro­duced, and then only a small pro­por­tion of these air­craft was ever accepted into ser­vice. Much of the blame for this can be attri­buted to a slow­down in indus­trial acti­vity and short­ages of skilled pilots, petro­leum pro­ducts, ser­vice person­nel, and replace­ment parts; for example, the Jumo 004B turbo­jet engine ser­vice life was only 10–25 hours before the fan blades, which were made from low-grade mate­rials due to min­eral short­ages and couldn’t resist heat the way they should, had to be changed out. Very few of the lighter-weight BMW 003A‑1 replace­ment engines were ever in­stalled, and when they were, they went into the four-engine V6 and V8 test air­craft, which offered modest perfor­mance increases over the two-engine models. Despite the Blitz’s limi­ta­tions, the tech­no­log­i­cally advanced air­craft was of immense inter­est to the Allies. Intact Ar 234s cap­tured after the war went to Britain and the U.S. and under­went rigor­ous exam­i­na­tion. Visitors to the Smith­sonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chan­tilly, Virginia, can view a restored Ar 234B that was captured in Norway in May 1945.

Hitler’s Jet-Powered Wonder Weapons: Too Few, Too Late to Matter

Arado Ar 234 assisted by a trolley during takeoffMesserschmitt Me 262A at airfield

Left: An early version of the Arado Ar 234 jet bomber is assisted by an auxil­iary three-wheeled dolly during take­off. The dolly detached from the fusel­age as the plane became air­borne and came to a stop with the aid of a para­chute. Note the retract­able landing skids that worked well on a grassy sur­face—if they extended correctly as the plane approached the run­way, which didn’t always happen. More­over, it was impos­sible for the jet to taxi on skids, thus neces­si­tating a crane to move the air­plane off the tar­mac or grass. This issue, plus the poten­tial for jetti­soned dollies to clutter take­off strips during mass oper­a­tions, sent Arado designers back to the drawing boards.

Right: 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 or fighter-bomber in a version known as Sturm­vogel (Storm­bird), recon­nais­sance jet, and even exper­i­mental night fighter with nose-mounted radar. Despite round-the-clock bombing of German popu­la­tion and indus­trial centers during the final 12 months of the war, Messer­schmitt was able to build roughly 1,430 Me 262s. 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. Armed with no fewer than four formi­dable 30mm cannon mounted in the nose and several sets of wing-mounted air-to-air rockets, Me 262s destroyed some 150 Allied planes (Me 262 pilots claimed a total of 542 Allied kills), among them their first B‑17 Flying Fortress on August 15, 1944, 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.

Arado Ar 234 V13 at an airfield in GermanyHeinkel He 162 at Freeman Field, Indiana, 1945

Left: Photographed at an airfield in Germany, this Arado Ar 234 V13 is repre­sen­ta­tive of the 13th proto­type of the aircraft and the vari­ant that set the pro­duc­tion standard for the twin-engine jet. Slightly faster but less famous than the Me 262, the Arado Ar 234 Blitz was the world’s first oper­a­tional jet-powered recon­nais­sance/­bomber. Pro­duced in very limited num­bers (total pro­duc­tion was 224 in 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.

Right: A captured Heinkel He 162 Volksjaeger (People’s Fighter) parked at Free­man Field, Indi­ana, 1945. Made pri­marily of wood (metals were in short supply), the twin-tailboom He 162 was a sleek single-engine, jet-powered fighter air­craft using a BMW 003E axial-flow turbo­jet power­plant. At maxi­mum speed (553 mph, 890 km/h) at sea level, the light­weight fighter was the fastest of the first-gen­er­ation World War II jets. First flight of the He 162 occurred on Decem­ber 6, 1944, just over 12 weeks after design require­ments were issued by the German Minis­try of Avi­a­tion (Reichs­luftfahrt­minis­terium). It was armed with a pair of 20mm cannon. The Volks­jaeger drew first blood in mid-April 1945 but lost 10 air­craft and 10 pilots to oper­a­tional losses, not to the enemy. 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, flight-testing, or sat on air­fields awaiting fuel that never arrived. About 600 more were in various stages of production.

Arado Ar 234 Blitz: The World’s First Jet Bomber

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