Encountering the enemy jets for the first time was quite a shock for the P-51 pilots of the Eighth Air Force. So accustomed to being top dog, the Mustang jockeys were forced to admit that the jets were at least 75 mph faster in level flight. However, they reckoned that the 262 were much less maneuverable than the P-51 or even P-47, they accelerated more slowly and the engines appeared to be the target to shoot for when training guns on the enemy. Twenty-two year old Capt. Charles “Chuck” Yeager of the famed 357th Fighter Group (Col. Irwin H. Dregne) found that his P-51 steed, “Glamorous Glennis III,” could not keep up with Kommando Nowotny on November 6th:
“north of Osnabrück we spotted three Me-262s going 180 degrees to us at two o’clock low. We were at 10,000 feet. I and my flight turned to the right and headed the last man off. I got a hit or two on him before he pulled away. They were flying a loose V-formation and they did not take any evasive action, but seemed to depend on their superior speed. They pulled out of range in the haze.”
The Germans at Achmer were quite aware of these shortcomings. Even given all the difficulties, technical and tactical, Nowotny’s advanced fighters claimed 19 victories in their first month of operations for a loss of six Me-262s in combat and another nine lost to accidents. The attrition on the highly prized German jet pilots was severe; more pilots were lost to accidents with the fickle jet engines than in dogfights. After all, the average experience level of the German pilots flying the jets was less than ten hours on the type. On November 8th Kommando Nowotny picked up its activity, flying several sorties against a bomber raid. Lt. Franz Schall felled three escorting Mustangs in a single outing, although was himself shot down (he bailed out after being hit by Lt. James W. Kenny of 357th FG) and Nowotny reported his third kill in the Me-262. However, even with the jets’ superior speed, the P-51s got the better of the action and two of the Me-262s were shot down. Tragically, one of these was Nowotny himself. The holder of the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds was killed as he tried to bring his machine back to Achmer with his left engine out. Picked off by Mustangs of the 20th and 357th FGs while at slow speed, his Me-262 plunged out of the clouds to auger into a meadow near Bramshe. So ragged had become the loss rate of the unit, that it was temporarily withdrawn from action for reorganization. It was to become operational within a few weeks as Jagdgeschwader 7 at Lechfeld. The new detachment was to be commanded by Obst. Johannes Steinhoff.
In was decided in May of 1944 that the experienced Maj. Robert Kowalewski’s KG 76 would be the first Luftwaffe unit to receive the jet-powered Ar-234 bomber now starting to come out of the Arado factory. The only operation of the 234 in the summer of 1944 was as a high-performance camera carrying reconnaissance aircraft. Flying as Kommando Sperling the Staffel-sized unit demonstrated the dramatic capabilities of the B-series aircraft in several spectacular reconnaissance missions over the Allied invaders in August and later in the fall. After months of complete inability to gather aerial reconnaissance Kommando Sperling gave the Luftwaffe ability to scout Allied rear positions freely at will. The plane was a tremendous success.
But the III/KG 76 under Hptm. Dieter Lukesch would be the first unit to be equipped with the revolutionary bomber. Lukesch first flew the plane in July; it was love at first sight. It was very fast, easy to control and with the bubble glass nose possessed excellent visibility. On August 26th the first two bombers were delivered to the unit. Conversion training from their Ju-88A4s beginning almost immediately near Magdeburg. All the pilots chosen had extensive experience and Lukesch found that training went smoothly, although some had trouble with horizontal stability since the pilot was so far forward that there were no engines or wings to look at to help keep one’s bearings.
Helmut Rast was one of the chosen pilots. Rast had been a 19-year old student at Munich Technical School when the war broke out and soon became a flight instructor. However, he was bored with student flying and in 1943 obtained a transfer to the Luftwaffe’s major proving center at Rechlin as a test pilot. There he tested the very latest products of German genius, many of which were extremely dangerous in the test phase. But his personal favorite was the new Arado 234B the “Blitz” then in preparation for its assignment to the Luftwaffe as a reconnaissance aircraft. Rast found the jet a thing of beauty. The bubble-nosed bird handled smoothly and was exceptionally fast. Rast’s reputation flying the 234 rose quickly, being enlisted to conduct a mock combat with a Fw-190A, at the time one of the leading German piston powered aircraft. Rast’s 234 easily outpaced the Focke Wulf in level flight and was faster in climb and descent. One performance limitation was the 234’s turning radius which was very wide relative to the piston-powered fighter. But the major weakness was acceleration; the throttles of the Junkers Jumo 004Bs could not be changed rapidly during takeoff and landings. Vulnerable to attack, the low speed on approach or takeoff could not be changed quickly enough to execute defensive maneuver. Regardless, Rast’s superiors were greatly impressed by his mock combat. He was promoted to Unterfeldwebel and was eagerly assigned to the post of the first combat unit to use the 234, III Gruppe of KG 76. At Burg the pilots trained in earnest with their new craft.
There were problems with the bird, however, which had not really completed flight testing. “Hardly any aircraft arrived without defects,” and Lukesch remembered they “were caused by hasty completion and shortage of skilled labor at the factories.” Training continued throughout the fall, hampered by the slowly accumulating number of aircraft and a variety of accidents associated with the new type.
Two methods of aiming the 3,000 lb bomb load were developed. The first was to drop the bombs during a shallow dive with special periscope sight and a trajectory calculator; the second involved putting the jet on automatic pilot at high altitude and then using the Lotke 7K bombsight to release the bombs automatically after the target was centered in the crosshairs. This advanced technique had considerable safety advantages since high-speed, high-altitude flight could be maintained where the Ar-234 was nearly invulnerable to slower Allied fighters. However, Lukesch felt the method impractical since the Allies quickly learned to attempt attacks on the speedy jets from above with the faster piston types particularly the Tempests, and having one’s hands on the control and able to see behind the aircraft was vital to survive such assaults. Installation of the technically advanced autopilot also slowed the delivery of the aircraft to the unit and it was the end of October before III/KG 76 had 44 Ar-234s available.
Training conversion continued in earnest for the fledgling jet unit in November, although plagued by accidents. Some problems, such as getting used to the tricycle landing gear, were due to differences with the Ju-88, but a variety of troubles arose from the machines themselves. One unexpected problem was that the two Jumo 004 engines were too powerful for their own good and an unladen Ar-234 could easily approach the speed of sound where Chuck Yeager’s demon lived. A good example is the experience of Uffz. Ludwig Rieffel who was hurt when he mysteriously lost control of his Ar-234 near Burg on November 19th:
“The effects of nearing the sound barrier were virtually unknown to us at this time, the high speed of the aircraft sometimes surprising its victims. Rieffel was practicing a gliding attack when he experienced a reversal of the controls at Mach 1. He bailed out successfully, but the shock of the parachute opening at that speed ripped three of its sections from top to bottom. A freshly plowed field prevented him from being seriously injured. This happened later to Oblt. Heinkebut he was unable to escape from the aircraft which crashed into the ground in a vertical dive”
At the end of November KG 76 was reaching its operational strength with 68 Ar-234s on hand. On December 1st, the famous bomber ace and veteran of some 620 operational sorties, Maj. Hans-Georg Bätcher, took command of III/KG 76 to take the jet bombers into action. With so many bomber units now disbanded, Bätcher had the pick of the German bomber pilots. Pilots with the unit included Hptm. Diether Lukesch, holder of the Ritterkreuz with Oak Leaves and veteran of some 372 missions, as well as Hptm. Josef Regler, a veteran with 279 operational sorties under his belt. Unlike the fighter pilots, where the attrition and demand for pilots often meant low skill levels, the pilots with the Gruppe all had extensive flying experience.
Regardless of the minor danger posed by these small groups of German planes, the Allies had a phobia about them and kept their bases at Achmer, Hesepe and Rheine under constant surveillance. Only the profusion of 20mm flak around the bases and a standing guard of German piston-powered planes allowed the jets to get off the ground or land without being shot down during the vulnerable portion of their flight. Still the German bases harboring the jets received much unwelcome attention. A carpet bombing raid on the Rheine base on November 13th killed many members of KG 51.
Similar to the teething troubles of the Me-262 jet, Dr. Heinkel’s entry, the He-162, was designed to use another problem-plagued turbo-jet (BMW-003E-1). And perhaps more significantly, with only one engine, the reliability of the turbojet powerplant would be critical. Operationally, the short-ranged fighter was intended for employment against the enemy escort fighters as soon as they crossed into German territory to cause them to drop their drop-tanks and leave the bombers open for attack from the conventional German fighters. Galland, however, was totally opposed to this aircraft. Not only did he believe it to be of “dubious airworthiness,” but he also questioned whether the plane would ever come into production soon enough to alter the outcome of the war. Certainly it’s production would detract from assembly of great numbers of a proven design such as the Me-262. Even more fanciful was the plan to use Hitler Youth hastily trained in gliders to fly the Volksjäger. Regardless of such assessments, outlandish schemes called for production to be expanded from 500 to over 4,000 per month in salt mines and underground factories in Germany. But all this took on the special air of delusion typical of the last six months of the Third Reich. Neither the Volksjäger nor the Me-262 would be ready for the Ardennes in quantity; the main fighter available would be the Me-109 with which Germany had begun the war in 1939.
Regardless of their type, German aircraft numbers rose in a spectacular fashion that fall: from the end of the summer debacle on the ground in August of 1944 to the middle of November, German single engine fighter strength increased from 1,900 to 3,300 planes a nearly twofold increase. The new aircraft were added to the day fighter force in the form of six new fighter Gruppen and by increasing the established strength of lower echelon units. This improvement resulted in an increase from three to four Staffeln per fighter group and each Staffel was increased from 12 to 16 aircraft. In December alone, a total of 2,953 new aircraft were delivered from the factories to the Luftwaffe. Indeed, so plentiful were the planes that the main problem was finding capable, warm bodies with which to fly the machines and aviation-grade fuel for the intended missions. Piston fighter aircraft were abundant and pilots often found it more expedient to take a new plane than repair a damaged one:
”We simply went to the depot nearby, where they had hundreds of brand new 109s G-10s, G-14s and even the very latest K models. There was no proper organization anymore: the depot staff just said, ‘There are the aircraft, take what you want and go away.’ But getting fuel that was more difficult”
Even the jets were not exempt from the petrol shortage. An OKL circular commanded that J2 jet fuel must be carefully conserved. The German jet bases were hauling the world’s most advanced aircraft to the end of the runway with oxen:
“the monthly production, compared with possibilities of consumption, is very small. As the jet engines have a relatively high consumption rate, it is absolutely forbidden for these particular aircraft to taxi under their own power prior to taking off and after landing. Remember that the Me-262 consumes 200 liters of J2 while taxiing for five minutes under its own power.”
In spite of strenuous efforts Hitler’s hope of “2,000 jet fighters by fall” never materialized. As it had been for the last five years of war, the Me-109 and Fw-190 would carry any German hopes of contesting Allied air power. As for filling the cockpits of the new aircraft, the German plans were sublime; it was anticipated that many of the needed personnel would come from the now moribund heavy bomber command or superfluous reconnaissance units now disbanded. Whether there would be fuel for any of this remained a major question.