1944-45 German Aircraft Quality and Production

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The protracted development work required in order to make new technologies ripe for operational use was the main reason jet and rocket aircraft entered operational service only in 1944. The main problem with jet aircraft was the low reliability of their engines. Only in summer 1944 did German jet engines become reliable enough for operational use, even though their development had begun in late 1939. The same problem plagued rocket fighters. Prototypes of the Me 163 rocket interceptor began powerless flight testing already in 1941, but entered limited operational service only at the end of May 1944. This long delay was caused by the difficulties involved in making a rocket-propelled aircraft ready for operational service. These problems were never fully solved and rocket-propelled aircraft were somewhat sidelined after initial enthusiasm.

Some of the new jets figured prominently in production plans submitted from mid–1943. The RLM planned a massive procurement of some of the more developed types and the aviation industry geared up to produce them en masse. They subsequently appeared in increasing numbers on the production lines in 1944–45. These modern aircraft entered series production just as the aviation industry went through the greatest transformation in its history.

Me 109

This single-seat, single-engine fighter was designed by Willy Messerschmitt and entered operational service with the Luftwaffe before the outbreak of the war. It was even used in the Spanish Civil War. It was the most produced fighter ever, with around 35,000 units built before and during World War II. Some 13,942 Me 109s were produced in 1944 alone. It was supposed to be replaced as the main Luftwaffe fighter in 1942, but delays with the introduction of a replacement, and subsequently the decision to produce the Me 262 as its replacement, meant that it was never replaced. Mass production of its modified versions continued right until the end of the war, even though by 1944 it was inferior to both Western and Eastern fighters in many respects. It was considered difficult to fly and the masses of young and inexperienced late-war German fighter pilots mostly lacked the skills needed in order to fly it effectively in combat.

FW 190

Another single-seat, single-engine fighter that was somewhat outdated by 1944. It was developed and purchased as a more advanced complement to the Me 109. It entered operational service with the Luftwaffe in autumn 1941, but suffered continuous problems with its BMW engine. Advanced and much improved versions of this fighter were supposed to enter series production in mid–1944. These were the re-engined and redesigned FW 190D and the Ta 152. The latter was designed primarily as a high-altitude fighter. These fighters were considered to be more than equal to modern Allied fighters. Severe delays in their production meant that the older models soldiered on and remained the most dominant types. The FW 190 was also used as a fighter-bomber and as ground support aircraft.

Ju 88, Ju 188, Ju 388

The initial model was the Junkers 88, which was developed before World War II as the Luftwaffe’s “wonder bomber.” The production of this aircraft formed one of the largest contracts in the history of the German aviation history and turned state-owned Junkers into one of the giants of German industry. This twin-engine aircraft was later converted into an efficient night fighter, and in this role it stayed in series production almost until the end of the war. Its wartime development was the improved Ju 188, which entered service in early 1943. The completely different Ju 388 bomber-reconnaissance aircraft came too late to enter service in meaningful numbers. The production of these three Junkers aircraft was terminated in February 1945.

Less important types were produced in ever-decreasing numbers during 1944, but all of them were stricken from the production plans before the end of that year. In any case, of all the 20 types produced in significant numbers in 1944, the piston-engine types described above constituted 74 percent of total aircraft production for the year. Taking into account that other planes included in the 20 types were also propelled by piston engine, the dominance of “traditional” aircraft over jets on the production lines is obvious.

Paradoxically, at the time Germany commenced production of some of the most advanced aerial weapon systems of their time, there was a marked drop in the production quality of German aviation products. Hermann Göring generally confirmed the deterioration of quality after the war and attributed it to the dispersal of the aviation industry in 1944. Adolf Galland, former influential General of the Fighters, gave the following explanation when asked by American interrogators why dispersal caused deterioration of quality: “Because the assembly lines were interrupted. The planes no longer were in assembly halls, but somewhere the control surfaces were manufactured, in another plant fuselages were made, construction took place in destroyed halls and construction took place in the open air instead of under roofs.”

The explanations offered by these two wartime leaders provide only a partial explanation for this phenomenon. It appears that particularly the high-priority modern jets and other new aircraft types suffered from these declining production standards. Following a comparison flight test of an Me 262 against an Ar 234 prototype in June 1944, Messerschmitt’s main development office at Oberammergau complained about the quality of production Me 262s: “Workmanship— The workmanship carried out on production Me 262s leaves much to be desired. Armament hatch covers, sheet steel cockpit, engine cowlings, etc., were all poor as were those of most production machines. The surface finish is also coarse.” Problems with series Me 262 continued and became even worse. In February 1945 Messerschmitt’s chief test pilot Fritz Wendel reported severe technical problems originating from poor quality control after visiting operational units flying the plane.

Conventional types also suffered from this deterioration. Poor quality of the initial production runs of the Ta 152 fighters led to a brief production halt in order to enable the engineers to locate all the defects and to fix them. The main problem appeared to be faulty welding of the aileron pushrods. Further technical problems and other sticky production difficulties finally led to the cancellation of this aircraft at the end of March 1945, when its production capacity was allocated to the production of older proven types.

Unit commanders and pilots receiving the new aircraft experienced severe problems with their new mounts, caused by poor workmanship and slack quality control. Erich Sommer, flying Ar 234 reconnaissance aircraft since the summer of 1944, reported that “spare engines and accessories had to be stripped before use as quality control in the factory became less and less reliable.”

It seems that production standards of series Ar 234s was particularly low. Captain Dieter Lukesch, who commanded the first operational Ar 234 squadron, remarked about the production quality of the brand-new aircraft his unit received in July 1944: “Hardly any aircraft arrived without defects which covered all systems and were caused by hasty completion and shortage of skilled labor at the factories. The same applied to the Arado’s equipment.”

These problems were well-known and higher authorities tried to solve them in different ways. Among others, the Germans tried to use Allied standards in order to restore their own standards of quality. In this framework the Airframe Main Committee arranged to have wing sections of shot-down American aircraft sent around to aircraft factories to show the relative superiority of American workmanship in this regard, and serve as an incentive to do as well. At the end of September 1944 Ernst Heinkel pointed at the excellent polish of the wings of the American Mustang fighters and at the way such finish could improve the performance of German planes. He blamed the inferior German finish on a poorly trained workforce and demanded better training in order to achieve better workmanship.

The main solution was to improve quality control. Quality control was normally preformed on the final products upon leaving the production line. From 1944 it became generally slacker and less efficient. The dispersal of most factories in 1944 made it much more difficult to perform proper quality control because quality control departments usually stayed at the main factory and could not satisfactorily perform their tasks in the dispersed facilities. Furthermore, while efforts were invested in expanding production, much less effort was invested in expanding quality control departments to cope with the new situation.

The countermeasures failed in most cases to improve the quality of the end products and the production standards of German aviation products kept deteriorating until the end of the war. Arguably, the main reason for this failure, and for the worsening quality, was the composition of the workforce the Germans used at that time for aviation production. This huge army of foreigners, POWs, and concentration camp inmates lacked the motivation that prevailed in the German aviation industry before the war. With such manpower it was extremely difficult to preserve the prewar standards.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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