As is often the case, wartime accelerates the development of new technology, and World War II was no exception. For Germany, this took the form of the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, the first operational rocketplane in human history. Like its immediate predecessor the He 176, it used liquid propellants in a Walter rocket engine. The Me 163 set a world airspeed record in 1941 of 1004.5 km/h. The Komet played the role filled in later years by the surface-to-air missile. It would take off with the help of a wheeled dolly that remained on the ground, make a steep ascent to high altitude, and level off in preparation for a high-speed attack run on American or British bomber formations. Within 8 min, all propellants would be gone, turning the Komet into a glider. At this point, the pilot had to set up the correct glide path, find his home airfield, and land by means of a single tail wheel and extendable skid. As a combat aircraft, the Me 163 had the dubious distinction of killing more of its own pilots than the enemy, typically during landing. But as a rocketplane it earned its place in history. It was the first rocket-powered airplane to be used operationally, officially entering service for the Luftwaffe in 1944. Although other flying test beds had been fitted with rocket motors prior to the Me 163, this was the first time a rocket-powered aircraft had been designed for regular operational use.
The Luftwaffe experimented with other jet designs, as well as the ultraradical tailless flyingwing, the Me 163, which used a liquid-fueled rocket motor instead of an air-breathing jet engine. The Me 163 could fly at nearly 600 miles per hour and quickly climb above bomber formations, then attack from above-the ideal approach against bombers.
A training unit was formed in late 1942, well before the first powered flight, operating from Peenemünde airfield. The first operational missions of the Me 163B were in May 1944, but its short range and low reliability did not allow actual engagements until August. The Me 163Bs never became a significant threat, although 279 Komets were delivered before the end of the war.
Ten Me 163A training gliders were completed by the Wolf Hirth-Werke and the trials programme continued with these and with about thirty Me 163B-0 aircraft, which were allocated V (experimental) numbers. The training programme was under the direction of Wolfgang Späte and Rudolf Opitz, the former a fighter ace with seventy-two victories. In September 1942, after many delays, the rocket motor that was to power the Me 163B became available; this was the Walter 109-509A-1, which continued to use T-Stoff but switched from Z-Stoff to C-Stoff (hydrazine hydrate, methyl alcohol and water).
The programme entered a new phase early in 1943, when some Me 163Bs were fitted with two 20 mm MG 151 cannon and, redesignated Me 163Ba-1, were assigned to an operational evaluation unit called Erprobungskommando 16 (EK 16) under the command of Major Wolfgang Späte. On 18 August 1943, following a massive night attack in which much of Peenemünde was obliterated by the RAF, EK 16’s aircraft were evacuated to Anklam, about 20 miles to the south, the Me 163s being towed by Bf 110s. From there the unit redeployed to Bad Zwischenahn, which was to be its principal training establishment.
Meanwhile, Späte had been recruiting a nucleus of experienced pilots. One of them was Leutnant Mano Ziegler, who had been flying Bf 109Gs on hazardous Wilde Sau (Wild Boar) missions against the RAF’s night bombers. Ziegler arrived at Bad Zwischenahn to begin his training, first on gliders. Ziegler described his training:
To simulate the high approach speed of the Me 163, which came in at between 100 and 130 mph, we used a number of Habicht (Hawk) sailplanes, which had had their wing spans reduced to 19 ft 6 in. Later, the wing span of these Habicht sailplanes was further reduced to 13 ft, by which time they had been dubbed the Stummel-Habicht (Stump-Hawk). Towed aloft by a Bf 110, the Stummel-Habicht was released and dived towards the airfield at about 125 mph, side-slipping on to the ground. After several weeks we were all adept at the art of making a fast, power-off landing.
During this flight training, we were given theoretical instruction in the Me 163. There was much to learn, particularly concerning the highly volatile fuels. Soon my head was spinning with formulae and figures, and I was more than aware of the lethal nature of T-Stoff and C-Stoff, some 4400 lb of which were to be housed in the Me 163B’s tanks… The slightest fracture in a fuel pipe and both pilot and aircraft would disintegrate in the subsequent blast. One of our technical instructors gave a graphic demonstration of what could happen by pouring a thimbleful of C-Stoff into a similar quantity of T-Stoff. A searing flame shot several yards across the room – a happy augury for the future…
None of us pilots had anticipated the necessity for training which, to us, seemed more suited for engineers and analytical chemists, and, as day after day passed, our impatience grew. At last, the day before our introduction to the Me 163A arrived. For the last time we operated the rocket motors on the test rigs, and the CO ordered us to assemble for a final briefing. He made no bones about the dangers that lay ahead; he stressed the vital importance of guarding against any irregularities in take-off or touchdown; a slight swerve during take-off, premature jettisoning of the undercarriage, any negative acceleration, and we would be sent back to our relatives in matchboxes!
Landing, he pointed out, was the most dangerous phase of a flight in the rocket fighter. We had to caress the runway with our Me 163 as tenderly as a lover’s kiss…
What could happen to an Me 163 pilot in an accident was illustrated in gruesome fashion a while later, when Oberleutnant Josef Pöhs lost his life. He was killed when, on take-off, the jettisonable trolley rebounded and struck the aircraft, cutting the T-Stoff fuel lines. The aircraft crashed and, although there was no fire, the hapless pilot, trapped in his cockpit, was literally dissolved alive when the T-Stoff tank ruptured and showered him with fuel.
Ziegler described what it was like to make a powered flight in the Me 163.
Thumbs up! With a whistling the turbine in the fuel pump started revolving: the whistle became a whine, the whine a howl. I glanced at the rev counter. All correct. I signalled to the mechanic to switch off. I freed the throttle and waited for the detonation of the blending fuels.
Bang! The first three nozzles had ignited. So far so good. The Komet was still at rest, two small blocks no more than two inches in height holding her steady until the desired thrust was attained. I glanced at the pressure indicator and threw the switch for the second stage. Two seconds later the third stage, and with a deafening roar the rocket motor opened up at full blast, the wheels jumped the tiny blocks and the machine was gathering speed down the runway. During the first two hundred yards of my take-off run I was preoccupied with the pressure indicator. The pressure in the rocket’s chamber had to be 340 lb/sq in, and it was vitally necessary to ensure that it did not drop below 256 lb/sq in. In such an eventuality I had to switch off the engine immediately and just hope for the best. Simultaneously, I had to ensure that my take-off run was perfectly straight, but this was not difficult once the Komet had reached speed.
The needle of the airspeed indicator flickered to the 190 mph mark and I felt the wheels leave the runway. I threw the switch jettisoning the undercarriage and my Komet lurched forward, the acceleration forcing me back into my seat. A hurried glance at the airspeed indicator – 435 mph – and I gently pulled on the stick, flashing upwards in a near vertical climb, the earth receding at a startling speed.
The exhilaration of that first climb is indescribable. For the first time I felt at one with this remarkable aircraft. The Walter rocket thundered away behind me, but its deafening roar did not reach my consciousness, and I gave no thought to those lethal T-Stoff tanks on either side of my seat, which could turn me into a ball of fire without a second’s warning. I was completely lost in the ecstasy of that seemingly endless climb. Above me stretched the wide violet canopy of the sky, and I felt completely detached from the earth below…
My Komet shuddered slightly and the rocket motor cut out. My fuel was exhausted and the drag was straining my body against the seat straps. I eased the throttle back to zero, levelled off, and reported to the control tower. I pushed the nose down slightly and now had some ten minutes of gliding flight available to examine the fighter’s behaviour. I trimmed the plane carefully and then pulled the stick back slowly to discover what would happen in a stall.
Virtually nothing happened. The airflow broke away, but the plane remained horizontal, dropping gently like an elevator. I pushed the stick forward, and immediately the speed began to build up. Port wing down, and I was in a steep dive, the airflow sounding like a hurricane against my canopy… by now the altimeter indicated some 25,000 feet, and at the speed of 560 mph that I had attained, my Mach number was 0.82, not much below the Komet’s limiting Mach number, so I pulled back on the stick before compressibility began to manifest itself. As the nose came up the fighter began to climb, and despite the lack of power, I had soon regained most of the altitude that I had lost in my dive…
‘White 14’ – an Me 163B-1a of 1/JG 400, which operated from near Leipzig between July 1944 and April 1945, defending the Leuna-Merseburg refinery complex. Two Me 163B-las were handed over to a special Luftwaffe unit early in 1943 to allow pilot familiarisation to begin, though it was July before training actually commenced. The high landing speed of the ‘Komet’ (around 220km/h; 140mph) combined with the fact that the pilot was committed to it from the outset, having no power available to allow him to regain height for a second attempt, resulted in many accidents, most of them fatal. The first operational unit, equipped with Me 163B-la aircraft, with a pair of 30mm cannon in the wing roots and a considerable degree of armour protection for the pilot, began forming at Wittmundhaven in May 1944, and first went into action as 1/JG400 on 16 August. It scored its first success some days later, when Leutnant Hartmut Ryll downed a B-17 near Leipzig.
The Me 163B-1a fighters first flew operationally on 6 August 1944, 2 Me 163s reportedly claiming 3 P-51 Mustangs of the 352nd Fighter Group. JG 400 intercepted formations of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers for the first time on 16 August 1944. Leutnant Ryll engaged the B-17s but was shot down and killed by two P-51s of the 359th Fighter Group.
On 24 August 1944, Several B-17’s were attacked, with Fw. Schubert claiming two B-17s downed (another is claimed by other pilots). His wingman also downed a B-17. One Komet was shot down by bomber gunners.
On 11 September 7 aircraft attacked a United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) bomber formation, and 3 B-17’s were claimed shot down. On 7 October two B-17s were claimed, but two more Komets were lost. By 24 September JG 400 had 11 serviceable Me 163s available, but was short of competent pilots to fly them. The Komets flew operationally on 5 days during the month, but highest number of rocket fighters involved was on 28 September, when 9 were committed. During the same month the two main factories producing the volatile fuel were seriously damaged in bombing raids, and the resulting shortage of fuel would hamper JG 400 for the rest of the war
Tactics were soon developed; typically to zoom through the bomber formations up to an altitude of 40,000 feet (12,000 m), and then to power-dive down through the formation again. This theoretically gave the pilot two chances to aim and fire a few bursts of 30mm cannon fire before gliding back towards the home airfield.
Allied fighter formations countered the Komet in several ways; the extremely short endurance was soon noted, and once in a glide the Komet was highly vulnerable to any escort fighter. Brandis was quickly identified as JG 400’s home airfield and strafing attacks curtailed operations.
Many other tactical issues faced the JG 400 pilots apart from the inherent instability of the aircraft and its fuel. It was found very difficult to aim and fire the guns accurately at such high approach speeds. A number of solutions were tried out, the most innovative being fitting a battery of six 50mm mortars, firing upwards. The mortars were fired by activation by a photocell in the upper surface of the aircraft. When the Komet flew under the bomber, the shadow of the aircraft above triggered the mortar rounds to be fired. Research suggests this arrangement was only used once in combat, reportedly destroying an Royal Air Force (RAF) Halifax bomber.
Although over 300 Me 163B’s were produced (including a few Me 163-Cs with increased fuel), only 9 confirmed air victories were credited to JG 400 by the end of the war, for 14 Komets lost from all causes ( mainly crashes and accidents).
1./JG 400 was disbanded at Brandis in April 1945, while II. Gruppe disbanded at Husum.