Over Germany March 18, 1945

On April 18, 1941, tests began of the world’s first oper­a­tional twin-engine 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 fighter pilots (Jagd­flieger) to fly it. Intro­duc­tion of the Me 262 fighter/­inter­ceptor config­u­ra­tion would have occurred months earlier had not Adolf Hitler side-tracked the pro­gram by demanding that Messer­schmitt develop the air­craft as a jet bomber. The change order meant that the Me 262’s air­frame had to under­go a major modification to be able to carry a bomb.

The Allied response to the late-war arrival of the Me 262, which flew at speeds of 560 mph, was to bomb the run­ways and fac­tories where the planes were evi­dent. Five hun­dred Me 262s were lost this way. The aerial bar­rage, coupled with a fuel short­age and the afore­men­tioned polit­ical inter­fer­ence, 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 this date, 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 kill 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 tactical light jet bomber, the single-seat 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 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 1,400 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.

Right: Twenty-eight Me 262 pilots became aces (five or more kills) flying the twin-engine turbo­jet with the seven Jagdgeschwader (fighter squadrons) that saw combat. 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 British-built Gloster Meteor was initially used to counter the V‑1 flying bomb threat over Great Britain. 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 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. 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. A restored Ar 234B can be viewed by visitors to the Smith­sonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

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.

German and Allied Pilots Describe Their Experiences with the Me 262 in Combat

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