The spectacular Allied failure to seize the bridges and cross the Rhine River at Arnhem in September had given the Luftwaffe a breathing spell to recover from the aerial fiascos of the previous nine months. Finally, Hitler had given fighter production precedence over bomber types; he could do little else after watching the vast armada of Allied planes pulverize the Reich throughout 1944. Then too, there was little in the way of fuel to keep any of the petrol-guzzling German bombers aloft. Albert Speer warned the German leader, however, that if this desecration continued much longer, there would be no way of continuing the war. In spite of increased production from other armament manufacture, the production of oil plummeted. By greatly expanding synthetic fuels production, German petrol stocks had reached an apex of some 574,000 tons by April of 1944. But then the Allied bombing campaign against German oil production began in earnest. Fuel stocks plummeted. By late June, production was down by 90%; only 52,000 tons were produced that month as opposed to 195,000 in May. With the refineries under a withering assault, the free fall continued. Only 35,000 tons dribbled out in July and barely 16,000 in August. Speer gave Hitler an honest appraisal:
“The enemy has struck us at one of our weakest points. If they persist at it this time, we will soon no longer have any fuel production worth mentioning. Our hope is that the other side has an air force general staff as scatter-brained as ours!”
Although his generals told him that things could be patched up, Hitler was too perceptive to believe the sycophants in his headquarters. The German leader was always calling for more tanks and planes from the German factories. Speer pointedly challenged him: what good would be these planes and tanks if there was no fuel for them? Hitler knew Speer was right. The German leader grudgingly approved the plan to re-build the fighter forces at the cost of the offensive air arm that summer. But was all this too late?
Under Hitler’s direction, Speer forcefully addressed the fuel problem. The hydro-generation plants were repaired so that production could resume. A horde of army engineers were enlisted to harden the refineries. The engineers and repair crews were supervised by Himmler’s SS, so that their “enthusiasm” would not flag. Thousands of the impressed laborers died. Where possible, facilities were moved underground. For those above, concrete ramparts were erected; and a thicket of heavy flak guns ringed the facilities. Along with smoke generators, this made bomb runs not only uncertain, but exceedingly deadly. The vital German facilities took on the air of fortresses; they were even called that Hydriesfestungen. The 14th Flakdivision, in charge of the defense of the important oil plants in the Leipzig area, possessed 374 heavy flak guns at the beginning of May, 1944. Over the following months, the dynamic Genmaj. Adolf Gerlach increased their strength six-fold and instituted effective fire control schemes to make future Allied blows nearly suicidal. On July 28th, Speer called for dramatic increase in the fighters allocated to defend German industry. One move designed to accommodate his desire was to post JG 400, flying the rocket-powered, but short-ranged, Me-163 Komet, at Brandis along the approach path to the oil facilities. On August 24, eight of these fast rocket planes struck a surprised force of 185 B-17s moving to attack the refinery at Merseburg. Four B-17s were shot down with only superficial damage suffered by two of the Komets. Finally, the ultimate oil protection strategy was entrusted to Edmund Geilenberg, Speer’s energetic head of the munitions organization. He proposed to dig in 41 small dispersed hydrogeneration plants in underground production facilities around Central Germany.
In spite of the far-reaching measures, oil production continued to flag. The experience of the sprawling synthetic oil plant at Leuna is illustrative. Between May 12th and September 28th, the facility was struck no less than twelve times by over 2,400 medium and heavy bombers. Although production resumed briefly with chaotic repairs during the summer, Leuna was bombed so often that at the end of the month repair work was again disrupted before operation could resume. Meanwhile, German fuel production had dropped to a war-relative drip: a mere 7,000 tons for September. The effects were not immediate the Luftwaffe had accumulated a fuel reserve of over half a million tons before the disasters of summer but soon the fat would be gone. With the total stocks down to only 180,000 tons at the end of September the promise of draconian conservation measures loomed. Gone would be profligate use by the Luftwaffe day-bombers. Even legitimate uses like reconnaissance and training operations would have to be sharply curtailed. Worst of all, the Luftwaffe, increasingly viewed as impotent, would be competing with Hitler’s panzers for the trickle of fuel left.
Fortunately for the Germans, there were so many pulls on the Allied air effort that it did not remain solely concentrated on oil. In the late summer the U.S. strategic air force was committed to the destruction of the rail system in France to hinder the ability of the Germans to respond to the invasion. Later, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, the Deputy Supreme Commander at SHAEF, pushed for a greater portion of the strategic bombing effort to be devoted to wrecking the rail and water transport system in Germany on the basis of a controversial study by Professor Zuckerman. Zuckerman had become convinced from an analysis of the effect of bombing on the Italian campaign that destruction of enemy rail centers and rail marshalling yards was the way to speed the end of the war. Eventually, this plan would be translated into Operation Clarion an all-out effort to wreck German rail capability in 1945. But an even larger factor was Air Marshal Harris’ refusal to be drawn away from his area bombing of German cities to attack oil targets. Zuckerman, Tedder and Harris were frequently at odds with Spaatz who was the leading proponent of the oil campaign. But even Spaatz, frustrated with the refusal of Nazi Germany to roll over dead from his precision bombing, was now leaning toward using the heavy bombers to support the armies in massive carpet bombing attacks. A final German grace came from the poor flying weather. With the onset of autumn and the socked-in skies over Western Europe, constant bombing of the German oil facilities became impossible.
Thus, through a combination of circumstances the Germans gained a breathing spell during the summer in which to reorganize. Speer would later write that “Had they continued the attacks of March and April with the same energy, we would quickly have been at our last gasp.” But Speer shrewdly used his breathing room to repair the faltering industry. Synthetic fuel stocks wavered and then rose. Some 19,000 tons were produced in October, and 39,000 in November. This was still not nearly enough, but at least the likelihood of complete collapse was averted. Obviously, the fuel famine was not going to ever allow either the army or Luftwaffe to enjoy the surpluses of a year before. Even with spartan fuel conservation measures, the Luftwaffe would have to fight a poor man’s war. Planes were horse-drawn to their take-off point; personal travel in motor vehicles was forbidden, and training flights were greatly abbreviated. Fuel depots were assiduously dispersed to prevent major losses to Allied air attacks. The gas-guzzling Luftwaffe bombers were relegated to deep mothball status. The list went on. But if Hitler was to have fuel for a major air and ground operation using a large reserve of new aircraft, even sortie rates that fall would have to be curtailed. It was not a good situation, but at least the poor flying weather helped.
Beyond the destruction of the facilities that distilled the German oil, there were limitations with the fuel itself. Although the ingenious distillation process certainly worked, it was inefficient and the produced cost of Hitler’s “synfuels” were about four times the world market crude oil price. When the war began, the octane number of first-grade German aviation fuel was only about 89 and this was obtained only by fortifying the synthetic fuel with 16% aromatics containing tetraethyl lead. Meanwhile, the Americans had 100-octane gas courtesy the pre-war efforts of Jimmy Doolittle at upgrading refineries. The upshot of the difference in 1944 was that the P-51D’s Rolls Royce Merlin engine produced 1,520 hp with 100-octane fuel, while the Me-109G’s Daimler Benz 605 could only reach a similar level of performance with 25% more engine displacement and greater weight. In an effort to match the superior American fuels, the Germans in 1944 were adding 40% aromatics to their brew to pull the octane up to the 96-point range. This increase meant less fuel production overall at a time when the Germans were critically pressed for gasoline for pilot training. Then too, the increased fraction of the aromatics reduced performance in other ways: engines overheated more readily, richer-mixtures had to be run to prevent stalling (reducing aircraft endurance, fouling plugs and fuel efficiency) and the added compounds attacked rubber hoses and the seal-sealing bladders in German fuel tanks. And still the fuels were not equivalent. The Germans attempted to make up for the remaining gulf by using power boost, either methanol-water or nitrous oxide injection. This expedient did increase horsepower, but could only be used for short periods and had to be carefully turned on and off to maintain performance a less than certain event in the heat of combat.
The prospect of increasing fighter output was brighter. With his usual efficiency, Speer set up the Jägerstab, or Fighter Committee, within his Ministry of Armaments to set things straight. Aircraft factories were scattered to prevent intervention by the omniscient Allied air forces: 27 main complexes were brought into being along with many other smaller factories dotted about the German countryside. Critical plants, such as the Junkers Aero-plant producing the Jumo 004 jet and 213 piston engines were sequestered to the safety of underground factories at Kohnstein in the Harz Mountains. There they turned out their products in seven miles of tunnels offering the protection of 140 feet of solid rock. Except for the jet Ar-234 and the new Ju-388, all bomber production was halted; all resources would concentrate on increasing fighter output. Speer’s programs were astonishingly successful. Single engine fighter Gruppen were able to build up to unprecedented operational strengths. German fighter production reached its highest point of the war in September of 1944 when 2,876 Messerschmitt Me-109s and Focke Wulf Fw-190s were produced. It was the final and most remarkable recovery for the Luftwaffe during the war in Europe. Allied intelligence learned of all this by ULTRA decrypts. On October 21, Gen. Spaatz warned that the cost of the air campaign would increase dramatically if the enemy was able to effectively field its new-found strength.
One problem, however, was that such levels of production had been attained by the Jägerstab by concentrating on existing fighter types. The important objective for the Germans was to contest the Allied air power through the use of a strong fighter force. But how would this be accomplished? Should more planes be produced, or fewer planes of higher quality? The most troublesome Allied fighters were the P-47D “Thunderbolt” (top speed: 429 mph), the P-51D “Mustang” (437 mph) and the British Spitfire XIV (448 mph). Production of promising high performance German aircraft to counter these types proceeded at a much slower pace. These included such planes as the Ta-152H (top speed: 470 mph), the exotic Dornier 335 Pfeil or “Arrow” (477 mph) and the jet Me-262 (540 mph) and Arado Ar-234 (461 mph) models. But various problems, particularly the need for very high performance engines, prevented the exotic piston types from seeing service in any numbers. Only eleven of the push-pull propellered Do-335s were delivered by war’s end and only 67 of Dr. Kurt Tank’s beautiful Ta-152. Attempts to build a fighter based loosely on the Me-209, a racing version of the 109 petered out in 1944. With test pilot Fritz Wendel at the controls, this cleaned up piston-powered Me-209V-5 had shown it could reach 42,000 feet and reach speeds of nearly 500 mph. However, Speer did not dare suspend production of the standard Messerschmitt for re-tooling. Instead German production had concentrated on the Me-109G (390 mph), the high-altitude G-10 (426 mph) and the Fw-190A-8 (408 mph). In late fall, production began concentrating on two improved versions, the Me-109K-4s with a nitrous oxide injected Daimler-Benz engine (452 mph) and the Fw-190D-9 “long nose” or Dora (440 mph). Even so, these planes made up a minority of the Luftwaffe inventory. Alas, the Luftwaffe’s new found numerical strength in the fall of 1944 had been achieved at the classic cost quality. But what of the jets?
On May 22nd, 1943, Adolf Galland stopped by the flight testing center at Augsburg. He was to test perhaps the most revolutionary German technological aviation achievement of the war the Messerschmitt 262 jet. Galland’s flight made an indelible impression on the German officer. He was euphoric. “It was just like being pushed by an angel,” he proclaimed. Without delay, Galland sent a teletype message to Genfldm. Erhard Milch. He suggested dropping the Me-209 and immediately transferring the production capacity to the Me-262. “The aircraft represents a great step forward,” he cabled, “which assures us an unimaginable advantage in operations should the enemy adhere to the piston engine. The aircraft opens up completely new tactical possibilities.”
Certainly the new jet aircraft were the most palpable of Hitler’s promises of “wonder weapons” to turn the tide of the war. The Me-262 and the Ar-234, upon which so much hope was pinned, were coming off assembly lines in increasing quantities nearly a hundred per month during the fall. But this was not enough. According to Hitler’s grandiose plans, a new jet plane was scheduled for mass-production, the “Volksjäger” or “People’s Fighter.” The contract was awarded to Ernst Heinkel on September 8, 1944. The single-engined Heinkel-162 “Salamander” went from drawing board to test in the astonishing time of 37 days! In the first test flight made on December 6th, the tiny plane proved speedy, reaching 520 mph. The machine showed signs of it’s abbreviated incubation period. The second test flight a few days later killed the pilot, Flugkapitän Gotthold Peter, when the plane shed its plywood wings due to defective wood-bonding adhesive. Other fliers filed varying reports on the futuristic-looking beast. Some indicated it was ”pleasant to fly” while others related questionable flying characteristics. Almost all, however, agreed that any idea that glider trained recruits might fly the machine was mere fancy.
Clearly, however, Hitler would be unable to realize his summertime wish of “2,000 jet aircraft” to alter Allied air superiority overnight. On the desirability of the jet, Genlt. Adolf Galland, the General der Jagdflieger, was certain. “At the time I would rather have one Me-262 than five Me-109s,” he had told Hitler. Galland fervently believed that only “technically superior planes” could make up for the wide gulf between German pilot experience and their Allied foes. But Hitler insisted that the twin-engined Me-262 be used as a “Blitz bomber.”