In the summer of 1943, some Dornier 217s were modified to carry air launched guided missiles the first such weapons ever to be used in action. There were two quite different types of missile, though subsequent accounts have frequently confused them or treated them as one.
The first of the guided missiles to enter service was the Henschel 293 glider bomb. This weapon looked like a small airplane with a wingspan of just over 10ft. Prior to launch it weighed a little over 2,000lb, 1,100lb of this being the warhead. After release from the parent aircraft the rocket motor under the missile fired carrying the weapon to a speed of about 370mph. Then the motor cut out and the missile coasted on in a shallow dive, accelerating slowly towards its target. The range of the missile depended upon the altitude of the parent plane at the time of release. A typical operational range was five miles, for which the aircraft needed to be at 4,500ft. In the tail of the missile was a bright tracking flare. This allowed the observer in the parent aircraft to follow its movements. The observer operated a small joystick controller, the movement of which fed the appropriate up down left right impulses to the guidance transmitter, which in turn radiated them to the missile. Here, they were converted into control movements for the ailerons and elevators. The observer only had to steer the tracking flare until it appeared to be superimposed on the target, and hold it there until the missile impacted. The Henschel 293 was a low speed weapon compared with a normal gravity bomb and as a result had little penetrative ability. It was intended mainly for use against merchant ships and more lightly armored warships.
The glider bombs were used in action for the first time on 25 August 1943. Fourteen Do 217s of the Second Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 100 attacked a Royal Navy U boat-hunting group off the NW tip of Spain. An observer on the sloop HMS Landguard later reported, after the aircraft had formed up off her starboard quarter at a range of about six miles:
‘Exactly like an aircraft’
‘A pall of smoke forming into a streamer appeared from the leading aircraft. At the time of firing the aircraft were on a reciprocal course to the ships, well out on the beam. The projectile was seen for some time apparently near the aircraft, but this was probably due to the fact that it was coming towards the ship at a constant bearing. Flashes were seen coming from the aircraft at about the time of the firing (almost certainly this was due to the tracking flare lighting up) but neither smoke nor flame from the projectile during the later stages of its run . . . . The projectile then banked exactly like an aircraft and set course towards the ship, descending at an angle of about 15° or 20°. When about two cables from the starboard quarter the bomb appeared to be pointing straight at the ship. Then it banked to starboard and lost height rapidly, falling in the sea one hundred yards off Landguard’s starboard quarter and exploding on impact.’
Two further bombs were aimed at Landguard, both of which exploded clear of her.
The only damage inflicted during the action was to the sloop HMS Bideford. A near miss caused splinter damage to her port side, holing her stores, Asdic compartment and forward messdeck and causing some flooding. She was able to continue in action, but was later in dock for a month being repaired.
Two days later 27 August the Dorniers again attacked British warships off the NW tip of Spain. This time the victims belonged to the 1st Escort Group comprising the destroyers Grenville and Athabaskan, the frigates Jed and Rother and the sloop Egret. Soon after 1200 the force of 18 bombers was sighted coming in from the north. The warships were heading southwards in a line abreast formation searching for U boats. The commander of the force, Captain Godfrey Brewer in Egret, immediately ordered ‘Repel Air Attack’. All ships went to action stations and ‘ increased speed. The ships swung into two columns of two ships in line ahead with two miles between columns. With her powerful AA armament of eight 4in guns, Egret was to move across the rear to support whichever column was threatened.
The attack began with four Dorniers flying along the ships’ port side. When they came within gun range Athabaskan and Egret opened fire. But the bombers held their course, and each launched a glider bomb at Athabaskan. ‘ The first three missiles fell harmlessly into the sea, but the fourth continued on and struck and destroyed near the base of her ‘B’ gun turret. The bomb smashed straight through the superstructure, shedding its wings and body in the process. The warhead finally detonated just clear of the ships’ starboard side abreast the forward end of the bridge. The explosion caused severe splinter damage. ‘B’ turret shell room, two fuel tanks, the torpedomen’s mess and lower power and gyro room were all flooded. The blast caused the fires in the boilers to flash back into the boiler rooms. This resulted in a minor oil fire. Athabaskan’s engines stopped. She slid to a halt.
Bitter fruits of gallantry
Meanwhile the German bombers were forming up on the starboard side and Egret departed to support the column there. But her gallantry was to bear bitter fruit. It was on her that the German crews now concentrated their attack. Within a short time seven glider bombs were streaking towards the sloop. The commander of Egret, Commander John Waterhouse, reported afterwards:
Several rocket bombs were now heading for Egret and I increased to full speed and put the wheel hard to starboard in an endeavour to point them and present the smallest possible virtual target. Two bombs passed close astern and a third was either hit by Oerlikon fire or else fell into the sea within thirty feet of the starboard side amidships.
After this escape a report was received from the engine room that all was well below and I assumed that any damage sustained was superficial. The ship was momentarily steadied on a west north westerly course with her main armament engaging the enemy, when two more bombs were reported approaching from just before and just abaft the starboard beam. I did not see the one approaching from aft, which I believe missed, but I was able to observe carefully the behaviour of that before the beam. Swinging fast under full starboard rudder the ship would normally have brought the bomb, which was flying level about fifteen feet above the water, within 30° of the ship’s bow and the bomb should have passed down the starboard side. In the event the bomb banked sweetly and turned smoothly to starboard like a well piloted fighter aircraft and so continued to head straight for the bridge . . . .
The missile struck Egret near her forecastle deck, and the warhead continued on into the ship before detonating. The resultant explosion, whose force was probably compounded by the detonation of one of the ship’s magazines, almost certainly blew out a large area of plating on Egret’s port side.
She listed badly to port. Within about 40 seconds of the explosion she had capsized completely. She floated bottom up for over an hour before sinking. Only 36 men survived out of a complement of 188. So it was that Egret gained the dubious distinction of being the first ship ever to be sunk by an air launched guided missile.
The crew of Athabaskan were able to effect temporary repairs to their engines and the destroyer returned to Britain under her own steam. Permanent repair work kept her out of action for over two months.
From German records it would seem that Leutnant Paulus and Hauptmann Vorpahl, respectively, had captained the Dorniers which sank Egret and damaged Athabaskan. It must be said, however, that the total of only two hits for an expenditure of 25 glider bombs during the attacks on 25 and 27 August was hardly impressive. During a subsequent investigation into the causes of the missile failures held at the bombers’ base at Bordeaux/Merignac it was discovered that several of the Dorniers had had their missile control transmitters sabotaged in a very clever way so that normal ground tests did not reveal the fault. The SS conducted a full investigation, but the culprit was never found.
While the Second Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 100 was operating with its glider bombs, the Third Gruppe was preparing to go into action with a quite different type of missile. This was the Fritz X guided bomb a high velocity weapon designed to pierce the heaviest armor. In appearance the Fritz X resembled an ordinary bomb, except that it carried four stabilizing stub wings mid-way along its body. It weighed 3,100lb and was unpowered. Released from altitudes around 20,000ft, it fell under gravity to reach an
impact velocity close to that of sound. In the tail of the bomb was a tracking flare, and after release the missile was guided down to its target in a similar way to the glider bomb. Since the Fritz X had to be released from high level if it was to reach the necessary impact velocity, III./KG 100 received the high flying K2 version of the Dornier 217. This model was similar to the normal K type except that its wingspan was 19ft wider.
For the Third Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 100 the big chance came on 9 September. The Italians capitulated and their battle fleet made its dash to Malta to surrender. The main body of the fleet sailed from La Spezia in northern Italy and included the modern battleships Roma, Italia and Vittorio Veneto. Early that afternoon Major Bernhard Jope, the commander of Kampfgeschwader 100, led a striking force of eleven Dorniers off the ground at Marseilles/ Istres. Each aircraft carried a single Fritz X under its starboard wing, close to the fuselage.
The bombers caught up with the Italian warships off the Straits of Bonifacio between Sardinia and Corsica. The German crews broke formation and attacked individually–aiming their missiles at the ships twisting below. After releasing the Fritz X each pilot throttled back his engines and climbed through 1,000ft. This brought the aircraft in line with the missile and the target during the final stage of the missile’s trajectory. It was now possible to guide the Fritz X on to the target. Apart from being essential for the control of the missile, this maneuver produced the useful bonus of throwing off predicted AA fire from below.
One of the first bombs scored a near miss on the Italia, temporarily jamming her rudder. A few minutes later another scored a direct hit on Roma, on her deck near the starboard side abeam her after funnel. The missile punched its way straight through the ship and exploded immediately underneath the hull, wrecking her starboard steam turbines and causing some flooding. Severely shaken, Roma’s speed fell to 16 knots and she began to list to starboard. A little later a second bomb struck Roma. This was almost certainly released from the Dornier flown by Oberleutnant Heinrich Schmetz with Feldwebel Oscar Huhn as observer. This missile hit the ship squarely just in front of her bridge and pierced deep into her vitals and then detonated. The explosion its effects worsened by being confined inside the armored structure knocked out the remaining steam turbines and started an uncontrollable fire which raged through to the forward magazine. With a violent explosion the battleship snapped in two like a jack knife, and sank. Only 622 officers and ratings survived, out of her crew of nearly 2,000.
Shortly after the second bomb hit Roma, Italia took a Fritz X on her bow, which blew a large hole. She took on about 800 tons of water. In spite of this, the battleship was able to limp to Malta unaided.
In the months that followed, the Dornier 217s of Kampfgeschwader 100 scored other successes. A direct hit and two near misses with Fritz X bombs on the battleship HMS Warspite put her out of action for seven months; a single Fritz X hit on the cruiser HMS Uganda, which required repairs lasting over a year. At the same time, Henschel 293 glider bombs sank the cruiser HMS Spartan and several destroyers. But the Allies proved able to take the measure of the new threat. Strong fighter patrols were maintained over all future concentrations of shipping. From the spring of 1944 it was rare for the missile carriers to reach their targets. They usually suffered debilitating losses whenever they tried. During the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 the Allied shipping not only enjoyed powerful fighter cover, but some of their number carried special transmitters which emitted jamming on the German missile control frequencies blotting out the radio command signals. As a result of these countermeasures, the missiles were virtually useless.
The German failure to contain the Allied invasion of Normandy coincided with the success of the Allied strategic bombing offensive against the German oil industry. This led to a crippling shortage of aviation fuel. One result of this was that the Luftwaffe bomber force was reduced to a shadow of what it had been. Most of the units were disbanded, their men being sent to the fighter units or into the army. A few Dornier 217s continued in use until the end of the war; but the majority of those that survived their bomber units ended their days in aircraft parks, where they swelled the scores of strafing Allied pilots.