“Grief” in Development and Combat

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Grief in Development and Combat

Heinkel 177 by Mark Postlethwaite

In last few months of the war the He 177 was used on the Eastern Front and for the first-time pattern bombing was used. Horst von Riesen, by now Kommodore KG 1, led his Geschwader against the railway centre of Velikye Luki, some 480km west of Moscow. It must have been an impressive sight-a Stab of four aircraft followed by three Gruppen of 27 aircraft in vics at about 6,000m. But the time for Luftwaffe strategic missions was past: most targets were well out of range. Quite apart from any other considerations, fuel was by now so short that such missions were out of the question. Von Riesen was then ordered to send his huge bombers out on anti-tank sorties. After losing several aircraft, with no commensurate return in tanks destroyed, the order was rescinded.

Beset by technical difficulties in development, the He 177 had a troubled history in service. Overly demanding design requirements of long range, high speed, heavy bomb load, and dive bombing capability didn’t help. Although the He 177 entered service in 1942 it was far from operational. In an assessment of the aircraft on 9 April 1942, the newly activated Erprobungsstaffel 177 reported that the Greif had good flying characteristics, but had unacceptable engine troubles and problems with its airframe strength. As an emergency measure it was used to supply the encircled 6th Armee at Stalingrad, where it was found to be unsuited for the transport role, carrying a little more cargo than the smaller, more reliable Heinkel He 111, and proving useless for the evacuation of wounded. As a result the He 177s reverted to bombing and flak-suppression missions near Stalingrad. Only 13 missions were flown, and seven He 177s were lost to fire without any action attributable to the enemy.

As the war progressed, He 177 operations became increasingly desultory. Fuel and personnel shortages presented difficulties, and He 177s were sitting on airfields all over Europe awaiting new engines or engine related modifications. Of the 14 He 177 sent out during Operation Steinbock, one suffered a burst tire, and eight returned with overheating or burning engines. Of the four that reached London, one was lost to night fighters. These aircraft were brand new, delivered a week before the operation and not fully flown in, because the air unit had moved to a new airfield the day before, and lacked sufficient maintenance personnel and material. Constant attacks against Luftwaffe long-range combat units in France made continuous operations difficult.

While Steinbock was unsuccessful, the He 177 did achieve some successes. They typically carried two 1,800 kg (3,970 lb) and two 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) bombs. Climbing to 7,000 m (22,965 ft) while still over German territory, the He 177s approached the target in a shallow dive, each aircraft throttled back, the pilot putting his aircraft into a gliding descent to take it across the bomb release-point at about 4,500 m (14,760 ft). After releasing the bombs the pilot re-opened the throttles, but continued the descent at approximately 200 m (656 ft) per minute.

The bombers typically re-entered German airspace at an altitude of 750 m (2,460 ft), and headed back to base. By such means, the He 177s were able to keep up speeds of about 600 to 700 km/h (370 to 430 mph) during their withdrawal phase. The higher speed and constant change of altitude made interceptions difficult, increasing the survivability of the aircraft, but decreased accuracy. With an average loss rate of 60% for all types of bomber used in Operation Steinbock, the He 177’s loss rate below 10% made them the most survivable bomber in the campaign.

During operations on the Eastern Front in early 1944, often carried out in daylight at about 6,000 m (19,690 ft) or higher, losses were relatively light. The Soviet Air Force, equipped mainly for low-level interception and ground-attack roles, was able to do little to hinder the high-flying bombers.

In common with most German bombers, the He 177 was grounded from the summer of 1944 as Allied bombing crippled German fuel production. The He 177 can be compared with the Boeing B-29 Superfortress[citation needed] which also took about two years to have its problems ironed out, after which it found success. However the He 177 was never to achieve its full potential.

Heinkel He 177 Greif

In the Second World War, the greatest deficiency in the Luftwaffe was the lack of a true strategic bomber. The He 177 was the nearest the service ever got to it, although compared to contemporary British and American heavy bombers it was far short of ideal. On 2 June 1937, only weeks after the cancellation of the ‘Uralbomber’, the Ernst Heinkel works was given the contract to develop Project 1041 for a multi-engine long-range bomber. The aircraft was given the designation He 177 and the prototype flew for the first time on 20 November 1939. By then it was already included in long-range planning for output from 1942 onwards, as successor to the ageing generation of medium bombers. It was intended to produce 350–450 bombers in 1942, rising to 900 in 1943 and over 1,500 in 1944. The new bomber had a limited performance compared with the new generation of British and American aircraft, the Avro Lancaster and the B-29 ‘Superfortress’ then under development. With a full load of 6,000 lbs of bombs the He 177 had an operational range of only 745 miles, which would not take it to the Urals and back. The greatest handicap for the new long-range bomber was the requirement that despite its great bulk and weight, it should have the capacity to perform a shallow dive as well, a requirement entirely at odds with the size of the aircraft and its strategic purpose. Heinkel solved the problem by coupling two pairs of Daimler Benz DB-606 engines together, giving the aircraft four engines but only two nacelles, to reduce the drag during a dive. The engine configuration was not the only difficulty experienced with the aircraft – there were 56 files on modifications and technical problems on the He 177 in Heinkel’s office – but it was the principal one. The aircraft as a result was prone to engine failure and engine fires, so much so that crews nicknamed it the Luftwaffenfeuerzeug, the ‘air force lighter’, and disliked having to fly it.

The slow pace of development of the He 177 dictated by problems of design mattered less in the early part of the war when quick victories could be achieved with the prevailing technology. The German Air Force nevertheless expected that it would be their replacement bomber and by 1942, with the Soviet war prolonged beyond the first phase of fast-moving mobile warfare, the necessity for a bomber with greater bomblift and longer range became obvious. The strategic gap that this opened up for the air force was exacerbated by the insistent demands of the army for close support and the low level of serviceability and supply for the eastern theatre. An air force study written in late 1943 claimed that air force commanders had wanted to bomb Soviet industry from at least the autumn of 1941, but found that army requirements left the air force ‘completely harnessed to close support’ throughout the campaign. Although Hitler deplored the absence of a heavy bomber, his role as commander-in-chief of the army, assumed in December 1941, inclined him to place priority on air support for ground operations when these faced crisis. The main handicap, however, was the failure of the He 177 to fulfil its early promise.

The sorry story of the He 177 reflected more profound problems in the technical evolution of the air force. Uncertainty about the course of the war or the reliability of the aircraft had led to two cancellations, only for the model to be reinstated months later. Decision-making at a technical level was hampered by the interference of both Udet and Göring, neither of whom understood the nature of technical planning or grasped the extent to which industrial rivalry encouraged Heinkel to shield the seriousness of the design problems from fear that the heavy bomber would be placed with another company. Only in August 1942 did the chief of the air force development and testing office supply Göring with a comprehensive survey of all the faults of the He 177, with the conclusion that the model could only be introduced successfully into combat by March 1944 at the earliest. Erhard Milch, Göring’s deputy, reflected that ‘one could weep’ over the failure of the air force’s one available strategic bomber. When Hitler was finally informed in May 1943 that the coupled engine was the explanation for the failure to get the He 177 into combat he is supposed to have retorted: ‘But that’s madness … is it possible that there could be so many idiots?’ The air force technical branch had already arrived at the same conclusion and other bomber models were now in the pipeline, though years away from large-scale operation. Heinkel was ordered to convert the bomber to four regular but different engines (the DB-610) and the model was renamed the He277. It was ready for testing only by July 1944, by which time the bomber programme had been wound up in favour of fighters. Until then plans continued to produce the ill-starred He 177 at the rate of 100 a month.

The 1938 specification stated a warload of 2,000kg over a radius of 1,600km at a speed of 500kph. This aircraft duly emerged as the He 177, which made its first flight on 19 November 1939, piloted by Carl Francke, the man who ‘sank’ the Ark Royal.

In an attempt to improve performance by minimising drag, it was powered by two pairs of coupled engines, which gave only half the frontal area of a conventional four-engined bomber, for the same power. In concept this was not too far removed from the ill-fated British Avro Manchester, which used two monster 24-cylinder Rolls Royce Vultures which were effectively two 12-cylinder engines mounted above and below a common crankshaft-and with much the same results: unreliability, overheating, and in-flight fires. But whereas the Manchester was quickly abandoned in favour of the more conventional Lancaster, the Luftwaffe persevered. This was a major error. Losses due to engine fires were unsustainable, and while a handful of He 177s entered service, notably with I/KG 40 from July 1942, delays mounted while solutions to the problems were sought. Eventually they were found, but by then it was far too late.

One novel method of reaching the United States from Germany was the proposal for a hybrid of two planes. A Heinkel He-177 would be used to transport a Dornier Do-217 bomber equipped with an extra Lorin-Staustrahltriebwerk ramjet engine until the planes were sufficiently close to the United States for the Do-217 to be released and fly on towards the target. The plane would deliver its bomb to United States territory and then be ditched in the Western Atlantic, where the pilot would be recovered by a German submarine. The design could not be realized as the distances proved to be insurmountable, so the idea was soon abandoned.

The He 177 was used to carry up to three Hs 293 missiles in the antishipping role; it was also used during ‘Steinbock’ and on the Eastern Front, but never on true strategic missions. One aircraft was modified to carry a nuclear weapon, ready for when and if this should be developed. A German engineer is said to have remarked: ‘If we succeed in this, we shall rule the world!’


He 177 V1 to V8

    First eight prototypes of the He 177. V1 through V3 powered by DB 606 A engines. He 177 V4 and subsequent aircraft powered by DB 606 A/B engines.

He 177 A-0

    Pre-production series, 35 built. First to use the “Cabin 3” cockpit with “fishbowl” framed glazed nose, as with production A-series.

He 177 A-1

    First production series, 130 built. Armed with a single MG 81 in the nose, a single MG FF/M cannon in the forward end of the Bola ventral gondola, a remote-controlled dorsal turret with a single (later twinned) MG 131, and a single tail mounted MG 131.

He 177 A-1/R1

    Equipped with a pair of aft firing MG 81Z machine guns in the rear of the Bola ventral gondola.

He 177 A-1/R2

    Experimental version only, equipped with a sighting station in the rear of the Bola ventral gondola for a remotely controlled ventral turret housing a single MG 131.

He 177 A-1/R4

    Equipped with a supplementary aft firing MG 131 in the rear of the Bola ventral gondola and a manned aft dorsal turret containing an MG 131.

He 177 A-1/U2

    Zerstörer heavy fighter with a pair of limited-traverse 30 mm MK 101 cannon in enlarged Bola lower nose mount, 12 conversions.

He 177 A-2

    Proposed four-man pressurized variant with reduced defensive armament of six MG 81 and a single MG 131, never built.

He 177 A-3

    Second production series, 170 built, with a fuselage lengthened by 1.60 m (5 ft 3 in). Sixteenth and subsequent aircraft powered by DB 610 A/B engines.

He 177 A-3/R1

    Powered by two Daimler-Benz DB 606 A/B engines, 15 built.

He 177 A-3/R2

    Improved electrical system. MG FF cannon replaced by an MG 151 cannon in the Bola ventral gondola. DB 610 engines. Larger, upright seating-equipped redesigned tail position, MG 131 replaced by MG 151 cannon in the tail position. First variant to be fitted with Kutonase (cable cutting equipment).

He 177 A-3/R3

    Anti-shipping version capable of using the Henschel Hs 293, equipped with FuG 203-series Kehl I control gear, usually fitted in the rear fuselage.

He 177 A-3/R4

    Bola Ventral gondola’s aft end lengthened by 1.2 m (3 ft 11 in) to provide room for the FuG 203b Kehl III missile-control equipment, instead of the usual rear-fuselage mounting location.

He 177 A-3/R5

    Planned, never-built Stalingradtyp version armed with a 75 mm Bordkanone BK 7,5 cannon based on the 7.5 cm PaK 40 installed in the ventral Bola gondola, based on a small number of He 177 As field-equipped with the KwK 39-based BK 5 cannon.

He 177 A-3/R7

    Torpedo bomber version abandoned in favor of the He 177 A-5, only three built.

He 177 A-4

    Proposed high altitude pressurised version, never built under the designation, and later developed into the Heinkel He 274.

He 177 A-5

    Main production series, 826 built. Standardized on the A-3’s longer rear fuselage, strengthened wing, shortened undercarriage oleo legs, ETC 2000/XII wing racks and an increase in maximum external load.

He 177 A-5/R1

    Version optimized for Fritz X and Hs 293 guided bombs, equipped with Kehl control gear.

He 177 A-5/R2

    Armed with a single MG 81 in the nose, a single MG 151 cannon in the forward end of the Bola ventral gondola, an MG 131 in the rear end of the ventral gondola, a pair of MG 131 in an FDL 131Z remotely controlled forward dorsal turret, a single MG 131 in a manned aft dorsal turret, and a single tail-mounted MG 151 cannon.

He 177 A-5/R4

    Simplified bomb rack installation, equipped with Kehl control gear.

He 177 A-5/R5

    Tested with a supplementary pair of MG 131 in an FDL 131Z aft ventral remote turret aft of the rear bomb-bay, only one built.

He 177 A-5/R6

    Replacement of the forward and central bomb-bays with enlarged, full-fuselage-depth fuel tanks.

He 177 A-5/R7

    Pressurised cockpit study with a projected ceiling of 15,200 m (49,869 ft) and similar reduced armament to the He 177 A-2.

He 177 A-5/R8

    Armed with FDL-series remote gun turrets. Abandoned as a result of difficulties with the turrets, only one built.

He 177 A-5 Grosszerstörer

    Anti-bomber variant based on the He 177 A-5, armed with up to 33 spin-stabilized 21 cm (8¼ in) calibre rockets obliquely mounted in fuselage, replacing bomb bays and auxiliary fuel tanks, and most likely based on components of the 21 cm Nebelwerfer 42 infantry barrage rocket system. Five examples delivered in January 1944 for operational trials. Abandoned due to increasing numbers of Allied air supremacy fighters.

He 177 A-6

    Meant to be a “32 metric-ton” loaded-weight long-range bomber, as a planned improvement over the A-5 version, the A-6 dispensed with the rear manned dorsal turret, and retained the A-5/R2’s single MG 151 flexible cannon at the front of the Bola, the flexible ball-mount MG 81 in the “fishbowl” nose glazing, along with the regular A-series FDL 131Z remote forward dorsal turret, and standardized the rear armament with the planned, Borsig-designed Hecklafette manned HL 131V quadmount MG 131 machine gun turret for the first time. Not produced, due to building volume of design work on the He 177 B-series four-engined aircraft.

He 177 A-6/R1

    Replacement of the forward and central bomb bays with full-fuselage-depth fuel tanks (as on the A-5/R6 modification) and the addition of external bomb rack under the new fuel tank bays, capable of carrying a single 2,500 kg (5,511 lb) bomb or Fritz X/Hs 293 in addition to the rear bomb-bay payload of four 250 kg (551 lb) or two 500 kg (1,102 lb) bombs, if equipped with Kehl control gear. Range of 5,800 km (3,604 mi), only six test conversions built, from A-5 versions.

He 177 A-6/R2

    Equipped with a redesigned fuselage nose of improved aerodynamic form, abandoning the earlier “Cabin 3” cockpit, with the new nose being generally the same as intended for He 177 A-7 and all He 177 B development versions. Retained the FDL 131 remotely controlled forward dorsal turret, a single flexible-mount MG 131 in the rear of the Bola, a pair of MG 151/20 cannon in a remotely controlled FDL 151Z “chin” turret (to be standardized on the B-version) at the front of the Bola, and a manned Hecklafette HL 131V hydraulic-drive, quadruple-MG 131 armed “quadmount” tail turret. Similar bombload and range to He 177 A-6/R1. Only one test airframe converted from an He 177 A-3 to test the new cockpit/nose, as the He 177 V15, of which no photos are known to survive, and which itself was wrecked in a mishap in late July 1944.

He 177 A-7

    High-altitude bomber with an extended wing spanning 36 m (118 ft 1⅓ in) and powered solely with DB 610 A/B engines instead of the intended 3,800 PS (3,748 hp, 2,795 kW) DB 613 “power systems”, which never emerged from testing and used pairs of twinned DB 603 engines for each “power system”. Six examples, for wing tests, converted from He 177 A-5 airframes, but never fitted with the intended He 177 B-series advanced cockpit. One converted He 177 A-5 example, Wk. Nr. 550 256 captured by American forces, scrapped postwar and believed buried under the grounds of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

He 177 A-8

    First proposed He 177 design to feature four individual engines, using the A-3 or A-5 fuselage with a new wing design, and either Daimler-Benz DB 603 engines as prototyped (He 177 V101 through -V103 in 1943-44) or Junkers Jumo 213 engines (proposal only) with He 219 style annular radiators for the Heinkel-unitized DB 603s used in the He 219. Remained a paper project only, before re-designation as the “He 177 B-5” by August 1943.

He 177 A-10

    Proposed four-engined He 177 design, similar to the He 177 A-8, but based instead on the He 177 A-7 definitive production fuselage, with manned rear dorsal gun turret omitted, and re-designated as the “He 177 B-7” in August 1943.

He 177 B

    Developed as the direct, “separate four-engined” development of the “coupled engine” powered He 177 A-series, four prototypes ordered (He 177 V101 to V104) with three built and flown under DB 603 power. Originally postulated in postwar aviation books to have been a “cover designation” for the never-produced, paper-only He 277 Amerikabomber design competitor by February 1943, itself cancelled in late April 1944.

He 177 H

    Initial project designation for the Heinkel He 274.

He 179

    Proposed 1939 variant of He 177 with four separate piston engines; not built.

Special variants

    He 177 V38

        An A-5 (Werknummer 550 002, bearing Stammkennzeichen of KM+TB) – documented use was as testbed for FuG 200 Hohentwiel ASV maritime patrol radar with flexible MG 131Z nose gun installation, speculated to have been intended for the installation of an enlarged bomb bay for test purposes, said to be intended for use in the Junkers Ju 287. A common myth claims V38 was the prototype for a German “atomic bomber” (purportedly capable of carrying a fission device as a droppable weapon). Remains found at Prague’s Rusiye field on V-E Day.

Specifications (He 177 A-5/R2)

General characteristics

    Crew: 6

    Length: 22 m (72 ft 2 in)

    Wingspan: 31.44 m (103 ft 2 in)

    Height: 6.67 m (21 ft 11 in)

    Wing area: 100 m2 (1,100 sq ft)

    Airfoil: He 1.5 36.8 17.3-0.715-36.6[78]

    Empty weight: 16,800 kg (37,038 lb)

    Gross weight: 32,000 kg (70,548 lb)

    Powerplant: 2 × Daimler-Benz DB 610 24-cylinder liquid-cooled piston engines 2,900 PS (2,860 hp; 2,133 kW) (paired DB 605 V-12 engines)

    Propellers: 4-bladed VDM constant-speed propellers


    Maximum speed: 565 km/h (351 mph, 305 kn) at 6,000 m (19,685 ft)

    Stall speed: 135 km/h (84 mph, 73 kn)

    Combat range: 1,540 km (960 mi, 830 nmi)

    Ferry range: 5,600 km (3,500 mi, 3,000 nmi)

    Service ceiling: 8,000 m (26,000 ft)

    Rate of climb: 3.167 m/s (623.4 ft/min)

    Wing loading: 303.9 kg/m2 (62.2 lb/sq ft)


    Guns: 1 × 7.92 mm MG 81 machine gun in Cabin 3 “fishbowl” nose glazing with 1,000 rounds

        1 × 20 mm MG 151 cannon in forward ventral Bola gondola position with 300 rounds

        1 × 13 mm MG 131 machine gun in rear ventral Bola gondola position with 1,000 rounds

        2 × 13 mm MG 131 machine guns in Fernbedienbare Drehlafette FDL 131Z remotely operated forward dorsal turret, full 360° traverse with 1,000 rounds

        1 × 13 mm MG 131 machine gun in manned Hydraulische Drehlafette HDL 131/1 aft dorsal turret with 1,000 rounds

        1 × 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon in tail position with 800 rounds

    Bombs: Up to 7,000 kilograms (15,000 lb) of ordnance internally, up to 2,500 kg (5,500 lb) externally on each ETC 2000 underwing rack, or up to 3 Fritz X or Henschel Hs 293 PGMs (w/FuG 203 Kehl MCLOS transmitter installed) externally

        48 × 50 kg (110 lb) bombs (2,400 kg/5,291 lb total)

        12 × 250 kg (551 lb) bombs (3,000 kg/6,613 lb total)

        6 × 500 kg (1,102 lb) bombs (3,000 kg/6,613 lb total)

        6 × LMA III mines (3,000 kg/6,613 lb total)

        2 × 1,800 kg (3,968 lb) bombs (3,600 kg/7,936 lb total)

        4 × LMB III mines (4,000 kg/8,818 lb total)

        2 × 1,800 kg (3,968 lb) bombs + 2 × LMA III mines (4,600 kg/10,141 lb total)

        10 × 500 kg (1,102 lb) bombs (5,000 kg/11,023 lb total)

        2 × 2,500 kg (5,511 lb) bombs (5,000 kg/11,023 lb total)

        2 × 1,000 kg (2,204 lb) bombs + 2 × 1,800 kg (3,968 lb) bombs (5,600 kg/12,345 lb total)

        4 × 1,400 kg (3,086 lb) bombs (5,600 kg/12,345 lb total)

        6 × 1,000 kg (2,204 lb) bombs (6,000 kg/13,227 lb total)

        4 × 1,700 kg (3,748 lb) bombs (6,800 kg/14,992 lb total)

        2 × 1,800 kg (3,968 lb) bombs + 2 × 1,700 kg (3,748 lb) bombs (7,000 kg/15,432 lb)

        2 × FX 1400 Fritz X + 1 × FX 1400 Fritz X under the wings and fuselage (w/FuG 203 Kehl MCLOS transmitter installed)

        2 × Hs 293 or 294 + 1 × Hs 293 or 294 under the wings and fuselage (w/FuG 203 Kehl MCLOS transmitter installed)

        2 × 500 kg (1,102 lb) bombs internally + 2 × Hs 293 under the wings (w/FuG 203 Kehl MCLOS transmitter installed)

        2 × LT 50 torpedoes under the wing


For control of gravity and/or rocket-boosted PGM ordnance:

FuG 203 Kehl radio control transmitting system

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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