Germany’s Suicide Aircraft

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In March 1942 the Luftwaffe formed a special duties unit, designated KG 200, to meet an Abwehr (German Military Intelligence Service) requirement for a clandestine flying unit equipped with aircraft that would be capable of landing supplies and saboteurs at any point within the European theatre of operations. I/KG 200’s operations were carried out under the direct orders of the Gestapo, the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service, or SD) and the Abwehr, and many of its missions were undertaken with complete success. The Gruppe’s more spectacular operations included flying a party of Abwehr and SD agents into Persia (Iran) to carry out an underground offensive against Allied stores and supply dumps as well as to set up a pro-German supply and intelligence network in the area, and dropping a team of commandos into Russia with orders to kill Stalin.

During most of its operational career up to 1944, KG 200 was commanded by Oberst Heigl, who, in the spring of that year, became involved in a bizarre special operation – the formation of a German suicide squadron. Throughout the operational planning and testing phase, the whole suicide squadron came under the administrative control of KG 200.

The idea of forming a suicide squadron was originally conceived in early 1943 by one of Heigl’s subordinates, Hauptmann Heinrich Lange. Before taking the scheme to higher authority, Lange set about recruiting a band of colleagues, all of whom shared similar opinions to his own and all of whom were prepared to lay down their lives without hesitation if it meant Germany’s salvation. Some of the volunteers were glider pilots who had never flown a powered aircraft, but they were confident that they could handle a machine on its one-way suicide trip.

The person chosen to present the scheme to higher authority was the famous woman aviator Hannah Reitsch, who already enjoyed the confidence of most senior Luftwaffe officers. The full support of the Luftwaffe had to be obtained before the idea could be presented to Hitler, who would have to give the final seal of approval. Reitsch found obstacles in her path right from the outset. Officials thought the idea preposterous and refused to take her seriously. Only after considerable persistence did she succeed in meeting Feldmarschall Erhard Milch, the senior officer responsible for the Luftwaffe equipment programme in the German Air Ministry. Milch said the scheme was ridiculous, impracticable and obviously the idea of a few fanatics who were tired of life and who wished to secure a place as martyrs in German folklore. In the end, he gave his reluctant promise to see what he could do, but Hannah Reitsch left his office convinced that the matter would end there and that Milch was hoping that the idea would fade away.

Several weeks passed and nothing happened. Finally, Reitsch decided to bypass Milch and approach the German Academy of Aeronautics. This organisation would ultimately be responsible for providing the team of scientists and engineers necessary to bring the scheme to fruition. Professor Dr Walter Georgii, Director of the German Aeronautical Research Council, expressed an interest in the project and called a meeting with representatives of the suicide group to discuss the details. The conference went on for two days and was often stormy, but it was decided by a narrow margin that the plan was feasible and would go ahead.

One of the factors that influenced this decision was that a suitable aircraft already existed. This was the Messerschmitt Me 328, a tiny wooden aircraft powered by Argus As 014 impulse ducts similar to those used on the V-1 flying bomb. Cheap and easy to manufacture, the Me 328 came as close as possible to the ideal aircraft for the kind of operation envisaged, and its use would mean that no valuable time would be wasted in developing an aircraft specifically for the task. The Me 328 had originally been conceived by Messerschmitt Flugzeugbau towards the end of 1942 as a high-speed bomber that could also be used in the day-fighter role, but as time went by it became obvious that because of its low cost and simplicity of production it would be better suited for use as flying artillery against heavily defended land targets and ships. The aircraft’s high speed meant that the pilot need not worry too much about the risk of interception by Allied fighters at low level, and its small size would make it a difficult target for anti-aircraft defences. The idea was that the pilot would aim his machine carefully at the target, then bale out in the seconds before impact.

In March 1943, development of the Me 328 was handed over to the Jacob Schweyer Glider Manufacturing Co., which worked in conjunction with Messerschmitt and the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug, the German Research Institute for Glider Flight. Development work was carried out on two separate variants, the Me 328A interceptor, which was designed to attack American daylight bomber formations, and the Me 328B low-level bomber. An early problem was the positioning of the impulse ducts; in the original design these were to have been attached by struts on each side of the fuselage aft of the trailing edge, exhausting under the tailplane. However, this configuration was found to be unsatisfactory because of the power plant’s high vibration level. Instead, it was decided to mount the units on the wing. In the end, the ducts were slung at quarter span, the intakes a foot aft of the wing leading edges.

The first test airframes were completed by Jacob Schweyer as pure gliders without power plants, and one of these was mounted on a rig above the fuselage of a Dornier Do 217E for flight tests. The first trials were carried out at Horsching, near Linz in Austria. The Me 328 was released at altitudes between 9000 and 18,000 feet, and manoeuvres were performed throughout the airframe’s full speed range of between 90 and 460 mph. During these tests the aircraft displayed poor handling characteristics, but was thought to be sufficiently capable for its intended mission.

Soon after flight testing began, work on the Me 328A was abandoned and development concentrated on the Me 328B. The aircraft’s diminutive fuselage, whose maximum diameter was only 3 ft 11 in, was occupied almost completely by self-sealing fuel tanks, two in the nose and two in the rear fuselage, each holding 110 gallons. The two nose tanks were separated by a 15 mm armoured bulkhead, while the pilot was protected by 15 mm armour plate positioned in front of the cockpit and an 80 mm bullet-proof windscreen. An additional space beneath the pilot’s seat could be used to accommodate either extra fuel or anti-personnel bombs. There were balloon cable cutters in the nose and along the entire leading edges of the wings, which had a span of 22 ft 7 in. The Argus As 014 impulse duct tubes were flexibly mounted under the wings, the under surface being protected from the heat by layers of asbestos. The Me 328B took off on a jettisonable undercarriage, and for landing there was a retractable skid of composite wood and steel construction recessed into the fuselage. The rack for the aircraft’s 2200 lb bomb was attached to this skid.

More problems arose when flight testing began with the Argus tubes fitted, and there were several accidents resulting from structural failure caused by the heavy vibration from the power plants. The two Argus pulse ducts produced 880 lb of thrust each, giving the Me 328B a maximum speed of 502 mph at sea level and 453 mph at 9800 feet in a clean configuration. With a 2200 lb bomb the maximum speed was reduced to 391 mph at sea level and 283 mph at altitude. The aircraft’s ceiling with a 2200 lb bomb was 9200 feet and the range was 345 miles. In its suicide role it was envisaged that the Me 328B would be adapted to carry a 2000 lb bomb-torpedo in the nose.

On anti-shipping operations the pilot would be expected to steer the aircraft into the water at a shallow angle, when the airframe would break up. The impact would automatically start a time fuse and the bomb would continue under the water to explode under the keel of the target vessel. Because of the unsatisfactory record of the Me 328’s pulse jets during flight testing, the aircraft was to be used as a glider in this suicide role. It would be carried to the neighbourhood of the target on the back of a Dornier Do 217E. Once within gliding range of the objective, the pilot would release himself from the mother aircraft and glide to the attack at 455 mph at a gliding angle of 12:1.

Early in 1944, while flight testing of the Me 328 continued, the suicide volunteer group judged that the time was ripe to place the project before Hitler. Hannah Reitsch was summoned to Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden on 28 February 1944. For three hours Hitler and his Luftwaffe adjutant, Oberst von Below, listened as she went into the scheme in great detail. The conference was only a partial success. Hitler objected to the suicide idea on the grounds that it was without precedent in German history. Hannah Reitsch’s argument was that Germany was now in greater danger than ever before, and the situation called for revolutionary and untried methods. She managed to secure the Führer’s permission to allow development work to continue, but he emphasised that an operation of the type envisaged could only be carried out in the event of dire extremity, and only at his own express command.

The interview did not produce the result that the volunteers had hoped for, but at least Hitler had not rejected the scheme outright. His approval for development work to continue also now opened many hitherto closed doors. One door led to General Korton, head of the Luftwaffe General Staff, later to die in the bomb plot against Hitler’s life on 20 July 1944. Although Korton was not enthusiastic about the project, he could not ignore the fact that Hitler had given his partial blessing to it, and he promised as much assistance as possible. Korton placed the project under the control of Oberst Heigl and KG 200.

By the time Heigl assumed his appointment in March 1944, the group numbered more than seventy volunteers. There was no need for an open recruiting drive: the word soon spread about the group’s activities and there was a steady stream of applications to join it. The vetting of potential recruits was very strict, and new members were only accepted after undergoing extensive psychological tests designed to establish whether they would measure up to their task when the time came. Each would-be suicide pilot signed a pledge that read: ‘I hereby volunteer as a pilot of the manned glider bomb. I am aware that this action will end with my death’.

The project was now under the direct control of the Reichsluftministerium and technical development was supervised by a team of engineers led by Heinz Kensche, a glider expert. Kensche selected Hannah Reitsch to flight test the Me 328 and be in overall charge of the volunteers’ flying training on the type as soon as the flight test programme was complete. The Me 328 was ordered into quantity production in April 1944 and everything appeared set for the working up of the suicide group into an operational Luftwaffe unit. Then a whole spate of difficulties cropped up, many of which still remain unexplained; they included problems in releasing the Me 328 from its Dornier Do 217 parent aircraft. Lengthy delays in production plans led Hannah Reitsch and her colleagues to suspect that there was an official move afoot to delay the suicide project or bring it to a halt altogether.

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The Fieseler Fi 103 Reichenberg programme :1 – Fi-103 (original V-1) -2 – Fi-103R-I -3 – Fi-103R-II -4 – Fi-103R-III – 5 – Fi-103R-IV. projected prototypes the four variants were converted from standard by the Henschel company in just 14 days.

When it became apparent that there would be a delay of several months before the Me 328 was ready for operations, the group began to look around for another aircraft type that would fill the gap and be ready in time to repel an Allied invasion. After hurried consultation, the type selected was a manned version of the Fieseler Fi 103 (V-1) flying bomb, also known as the FZG 76. Work on modifying the V-1 to carry a pilot began almost immediately, the project proceeding under the code name ‘Reichenberg’. Its true nature was kept highly secret, so that even the engineers directly involved with it believed that the piloted V-1 was intended to be flight tested to solve some problems experienced in the aerodynamic performance of the V-1 flying bomb itself. The modification programme was supervised by Dr Lusser of the Fielder Construction Bureau located at the Henschel factory in Berlin-Schönfeld.

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The design team produced four variants of the piloted V-1 in a fortnight, the only changes to the basic airframe being the installation of a cockpit just forward of the Argus As 014 impulse duct, and the fitting of ailerons to the flying bomb’s wing. The first prototype, the Reichenberg I, was completed as a glider and was fitted with landing skids, its purpose being to familiarise the future instructors with the aircraft’s aerodynamic characteristics. A two-seat version with dual controls was to be used as a trainer. The Reichenberg II was also a trainer, but this version was fitted with a power unit as well as the landing skids. The operational version was the Reichenberg III, which was fitted with a 1780lb warhead in the nose. Its maximum speed and range were 360 mph and 150 miles.

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