By Daylight to Augsburg

On 17 April 1942, RAF Bomber Command mounted one of the most audacious missions of the Second World War. The target was the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (MAN) diesel engine factory at Augsburg in Bavaria, which was responsible for the production of roughly half Germany’s output of U-boat engines. The Augsburg raid, apart from being one of the most daring and heroic ever undertaken by Bomber Command, was notable for two main things: it was the longest low-level penetration made during the war, and it was the first mission flown by the command’s new Lancaster bombers in the teeth of strong enemy opposition.

The prototype Avro Lancaster had been delivered to the RAF for operational trials with No. 44 Squadron at Waddington, near Lincoln, in September 1941. On 24 December it was followed by three production Lancaster Mk Is, and the nucleus of the RAF’s first Lancaster squadron was formed. In January 1942 the new bomber also began to replace the Avro Manchesters of No. 97 Squadron at Coningsby, another Lincolnshire airfield.

Four aircraft of No. 44 Squadron carried out the Lancaster’s first operation on 3 March 1942, laying mines in the German Bight, and the first night bombing mission was flown on 10 March when two aircraft of the same squadron took part in a raid on Essen. In all, fifty-nine squadrons of Bomber Command were destined to equip with the Lancaster before the end of the war, and this excellent aircraft was to become the sharp edge of the RAF’s sword in the air offensive against Germany. Developed from the twin-engined Manchester, whose Rolls-Royce Vulture engines were disastrously unreliable, the Lancaster was powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlins, the splendid engines that also powered Fighter Command’s Spitfires and Hurricanes. It carried a crew of seven and had a defensive armament of ten 0.303-in Browning machine-guns. It had a top speed of 287 mph (460 kph) at 11,500 ft (3,500 metres) and could carry a normal bomb load of 14,000 lb (6.350 kg) – although later versions could lift the massive 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) ‘Grand Slam’ bomb, used to attack hardened targets in the last months of the war.

Because of the growing success of Hitler’s U-boats in the Atlantic, the MAN factories at Augsburg had long been high on the list of priority targets. The problem was that getting there and back involved a round trip of 1,250 miles (2,000 km) over enemy territory, and the factories covered a relatively small area. With the navigation and bombing aids available earlier, the chances of a night attack pinpointing and destroying such an objective were very remote, and a daylight precision attack, going on past experience, would be prohibitively costly.

Then the Lancaster came along, and the idea of a deep-penetration precision attack in daylight was resurrected. With its relatively high speed and strong defensive armament, it was possible that a force of Lancasters might get through to Augsburg if they went in at low level, underneath the German warning radar. Also, a Lancaster flying ‘on the deck’ could not be subjected to attacks from below, its vulnerable spot. A lot would depend, too, on the route to the target. RAF Intelligence had compiled a reasonably accurate picture of the disposition of German fighter units in western Europe, which early in 1942 were seriously overstretched. Half the total German fighter force was deployed in Russia and another quarter in the Balkans and North Africa; most of the remaining squadrons, apart from those earmarked for the defence of Germany itself, were stationed in the Pas de Calais area and Norway. The danger point was the coast of France; if the Lancasters could slip through a weak spot, perhaps in conjunction with a strong diversionary attack, then the biggest danger, in theory at least, would be behind them.

Although Bomber Command’s new chief, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, was generally opposed to small precision raids, being a strong advocate of large-scale ‘area’ attacks on enemy cities, the situation in the North Atlantic, with its awful daily toll of Allied shipping, compelled him to authorize the Augsburg plan. If it succeeded, it might reduce the number of operational U-boats for some time to come, and at the same time silence those in high places who were clamouring for RAF Bomber Command to divert more of its resources to hunting them.

The operation was to be carried out by six crews from No. 44 Squadron at Waddington and six from No. 97, now at Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, the two most experienced Lancaster units. A seventh crew from each squadron would train with the others, to be held in reserve in case anything went wrong at the last minute.

For three days, starting on 14 April 1942, the two squadrons practised formation flying at low level, making 1,000 mile (1,600 km) flights around Britain and carrying out simulated attacks on targets in northern Scotland. It was exhausting work, hauling thirty tons of bomber around the sky at such an altitude and having to concentrate on not flying into a neighbouring aircraft as well as obstacles on the ground, but the crews were all very experienced, most of them going through their second tour of operations, and they achieved a high standard of accuracy in the short time available.

Speculation ran high about the nature of the target. To most of the crews, a low-level mission signified an attack on enemy warships, a long, straight run into a nightmare of flak. When they eventually filed into their briefing rooms early on 17 April, and saw the long red ribbon of their track stretching to Augsburg, a stunned silence descended on them. Almost automatically, they registered the details passed to them by the briefing officers. The six aircraft from each squadron were to fly in two sections of three, each section leaving the rendezvous point at a predetermined time. The interval between each section would be only a matter of seconds; visual contact had to be maintained so that the sections could lend support to one another in the event that they were attacked by enemy fighters.

From the departure point, Selsey Bill, the Lancasters were to cross the Channel at low level and make landfall at Dives-sur-Mer, on the French coast. Shortly before this, bombers of No. 2 group, covered by a massive fighter ‘umbrella’, were to make a series of diversionary attacks on Luftwaffe airfields in the Pas de Calais, Rouen and Cherbourg areas. The Lancasters’ track would take them across enemy territory via Ludwigshafen, where they would cross the Rhine, to the northern tip of the Ammer See, a large lake some 20 miles (30 km) west of Munich and about the same distance south of Augsburg. By keeping to this route, it was hoped that the enemy would think that Munich was the target. Only when they reached the Ammer See would the bombers sweep sharply northwards for the final run to their true objective.

As they approached the target, the bombers were to spread out so that there was a 3 mile (5 km) gap between each section. Sections would bomb from low level in formation, each Lancaster dropping a salvo of four 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs. These would be fitted with eleven-second delayed-action fuzes, giving the bombers time to get clear but exploding well before the next section arrived over the target. Take-off was to be in mid-afternoon, which meant that the first Lancasters should reach the target at 20.15, just before dusk. They would therefore have the shelter of darkness by the time they reached the Channel coast danger-areas on the homeward flight. The fuel tanks of each aircraft would be filled to their maximum capacity of 2,154 gal (9,792 litres).

The Lancasters of No. 44 Squadron would form the first two sections. This unit was known as the ‘Rhodesia’ Squadron, with good reason: about a quarter of its personnel came from that country. There were also a number of South Africans, and one of them was chosen to lead the mission. He was Squadron Leader John Dering Nettleton, a tall, dark 25-year-old who had already shown himself to be a highly competent commander, rock-steady in an emergency. The war against the U-boat was of special interest to him, for after leaving school in Natal he had spent two years in the Merchant Navy and consequently had a fair idea of the agonies seamen went through when their ships were torpedoed. He came from a naval background, too: his grandfather had been an admiral in the Royal Navy. John Nettleton joined the Royal Air Force in 1938, and in April 1942 he was still completing his first operational tour. It was one of the penalties of being an above-average pilot: such men were often ‘creamed off’ to teach others.

Shortly after 15.00 on 7 April, the quiet Lincolnshire village of Waddington was shaken by the roar of twenty-four Rolls-Royce Merlins as No. 44 Squadron’s six Lancasters took off and headed south for Selsey Bill, the promontory of land jutting out into the Channel between Portsmouth and Bognor Regis. Ten miles (15 km) due east, the six bombers of No. 97 Squadron, led by Squadron leader J.S. Sherwood DFC, were also taking off from Woodhall Spa.

Each section left Selsey Bill right on schedule, the sea blurring under the Lancasters as they sped on. The bombers to left and right of Nettleton were piloted by Flying Officer John Garwell and Warrant Officer G.T. Rhodes; the Lancasters in the following section were flown by Flight Lieutenant N. Sandford, Warrant Officer H.V. Crum and Warrant Officer J.E. Beckett. The sky was brilliantly clear and the hot afternoon sun beat down through the perspex of cockpits and gun turrets. Before they reached the coast, most of the crews were flying in shirt sleeves.

As they raced over the French coast the pilots had to ease back their control columns to leapfrog the cliffs, so low were the bombers. They thundered inland across the picturesque landscape of Normandy, the broad loops of the River Seine glistening in the sunshine away to the left. The bombers would pass to the south of Paris and on to Sens, on the Yonne River, their first major checkpoint. Sens lay about 180 miles (290 km) from the Channel coast – about an hour’s flying time, at the ground speed the Lancasters were making. If they survived that first hour, if the diversionary raids had drawn off the German fighters, then they would have a good chance of reaching Augsburg.

The bombers were flying over wooded, hilly country near Breteuil when the flak hit them. Lines of tracer from concealed gun positions met the speeding Lancasters, and the ugly black stains of shellbursts dotted the sky around them. Shrapnel ripped into two of the aircraft, but they held their course. The most serious damage was to Warrant Officer Beckett’s machine, which had its rear gun turret put out of action.

It was sheer bad luck that drew the German fighters to the Lancasters. The Messerschmitt Bf 109s of II/Jagdgeschwader 2 ‘Richthofen’ were returning to their base at Evreux after sweeping the area to the south of Paris in search of No. 2 Group’s diversionary bombers when they passed directly over the Lancasters’ track, actually passing between Nettleton’s and Sherwood’s formations, although at a much higher altitude. Even then, the bombers might have escaped detection had it not been for a solitary Messerschmitt 109, much lower than the rest, making an approach to land at Evreux with wheels and flaps down.

The German pilot spotted the Lancasters and immediately whipped up his flaps and landing gear, climbing hard and turning in behind Sandford’s section. He must have alerted the other fighters, because a few seconds later they came tumbling like an avalanche on the bombers.

The first 109 came streaking in, the pilot singling out Warrant Officer Crum’s Lancaster for his first firing pass. Bullets tore through the cockpit canopy, showering Crum and his navigator, Rhodesian Alan Dedman, with razor-sharp slivers of perspex. Dedman looked across at the pilot and saw blood streaming down his face, but when he went to help Crum just grinned and waved him away. The Lancaster’s own guns hammered, there was a fleeting glimpse of the 109’s pale-grey, oil-streaked belly as it flashed overhead, and then it was gone.

The Lancasters closed up into even tighter formation as thirty more Messerschmitts pounced on them, and a running fight developed. The Lancaster pilots held their course doggedly; at this height there was no room to take evasive action and they had to rely on the bombers’ combined firepower to keep the Germans at bay. It was the first time that Luftwaffe fighters had encountered Lancasters, and to begin with the enemy pilots showed a certain amount of caution until they got the measure of the new bomber’s defences. As soon as they realized that its defensive armament consisted of 0.303 in machine-guns, however, they began to press home their attacks skilfully, coming in from the port quarter and opening fire with their cannon at about 700 yards (640 m). At 400 yards (366 m), the limit of the .303’s effective range, they broke away and climbed to repeat the process.

The Lancasters were raked time after time as they thundered on, their vibrating fuselages a nightmare of noise as cannon shells punched into them and the gunners returned the enemy fire, their pilots drenched with sweat as they dragged the bombers over telegraph wires, steeples and rooftops. In the villages below, people fled for cover as the battle swept over their heads and shells from their own fighters spattered the walls of houses.

Warrant Officer Beckett was the first to go. A great ball of orange flame ballooned from his Lancaster as cannon shells found a fuel tank. Seconds later, the bomber was a mass of fire. Slowly, the nose went down. Spewing burning fragments, the shattered bomber hit a clump of trees and disintegrated.

Warrant Officer Crum’s Lancaster, its wings and fuselage ripped and torn, came under attack by three enemy fighters. Both the mid-upper and rear gunners were wounded, and now the port wing fuel tank burst into flames. The bomber wallowed on, almost out of control. Crum, half-blinded by the blood streaming from his face wounds, fought to hold the wings level and ordered Alan Dedman to jettison the bombs, which had not yet been armed. The 1,000- pounders dropped away, and a few moments later Crum managed to put the crippled aircraft down on her belly. The Lancaster tore across a wheatfield and slewed to a stop on the far side. The crew, badly shaken and bruised but otherwise unhurt, broke all records in getting out of the wreck, convinced that it was about to explode in flames. But the fire in the wing went out, so Crum used an axe from the bomber’s escape kit to make holes in the fuel tanks and threw a match into the resulting pool of petrol. Within a couple of minutes the aircraft was burning fiercely; there would only be a very charred carcase left for the Luftwaffe experts to examine.

Afterwards, Crum and his crew split up into pairs and set out to walk through occupied France to Bordeaux, where they knew they could make contact with members of the French Resistance. All of them, however, were subsequently rounded up by the Germans and spent the rest of the war as prisoners.

Now only Flight Lieutenant Sandford was left out of the three Lancasters of the second section. A quiet music-lover who amused his colleagues because he always wore pyjamas under his flying suit for luck, he was one of the most popular officers on No. 44 Squadron. Now his luck had run out, and he was fighting desperately for his life. In a bid to escape from a swarm of Messerschmitts, he eased his great bomber down underneath some high-tensions cables. The Lancaster dug a wingtip into the ground, cartwheeled and exploded, killing all the crew.

The enemy fighters now latched on to Warrant Officer Rhodes, flying to the right of and some distance behind John Nettleton. Soon, the Lancaster was streaming fire from all four engines. Rhodes must have opened his throttles wide in a last attempt to draw clear, because his aircraft suddenly shot ahead of Nettleton’s. Then it went into a steep climb and seemed to hang on its churning propellers for a long moment before flicking sharply over and diving into the ground. There was no chance of survival for any of the crew.

The Lancaster was shot down by another warrant officer, a man named Pohl. Poor Rhodes was the thousandth victim to be claimed since September 1939 by the pilots of JG 2, and a party was held in Pohl’s honour at Evreux that night.

There were only two Lancasters left out of the 44 Squadron formation now: those flown by Nettleton and his number two, John Garwell. Both aircraft were badly shot up and their fuel tanks were holed, but the self-sealing ‘skins’ seemed to be preventing leakage on a large scale. Nevertheless, the fighters were still coming at them like angry hornets, and the life expectancy of both crews was now measured in minutes.

Then the miracle happened. Suddenly, singly or in pairs, the fighters broke off their attacks and turned away, probably running out of fuel or ammunition, or both. Whatever the reason, their abrupt withdrawal meant that Nettleton and Garwell were spared, if only for the time being. They still had more than 500 miles (800 km) to go before they reached the target. Behind them, and a little way to the south, Squadron Leader Sherwood’s 97 Squadron formation had been luckier; they never saw the German fighters, and flew on unmolested.

Flying almost wingtip to wingtip, Nettleton and Garwell swept on in their battle-scarred aircraft. There was no further enemy opposition, and the two pilots were free to concentrate on handling their bombers – a task that grew more difficult when, two hours later, they penetrated the mountainous country of southern Germany and had to fly through turbulent air currents that boiled up from the slopes. They reached the Ammer See and turned north, rising a few hundred feet to clear some hills and then dropping down once more into the valley on the other side. And there, dead ahead under a thin veil of haze, was Augsburg.

As they reached the outskirts of the town, a curtain of flak burst across the sky in their path. Shrapnel pummelled their wings and fuselages but the pilots held their course, following the line of the river to find their target. The models, photographs and drawings they had studied at the briefing had been astonishingly accurate and they had no difficulty in locating their primary objective, a T-shaped shed where the U-boat engines were manufactured.

With bomb doors open, and light flak hitting the Lancasters all the time, they thundered over the last few hundred yards. Then the bombers jumped as the 8,000 lb (3,600 kg) of bombs fell from their bellies. The Lancasters were already over the northern suburbs of Augsburg when the bombs exploded, and the gunners reported seeing fountains of smoke and debris bursting high into the evening sky above the target.

Nettleton and Garwell had battled their way through appalling odds and successfully accomplished their mission, but the flak was still bursting around them and now John Garwell found himself in trouble. A flak shell turned the interior of the fuselage into a roaring inferno and Garwell knew that this, together with the severe damage the bomber had already sustained, might lead to her breaking up at any moment. There was no time to gain height so that the crew could bale out; he had to put her down as quickly as possible. Blinded by the smoke that was now pouring into the cockpit, Garwell eased the Lancaster gently down towards what he hoped was open ground. He was completely unable to see anything; all he could do was try to hold the bomber steady as she sank.

A long, agonizing minute later the Lancaster hit the ground, sending earth flying in all directions as she skidded across a field. Then she slid to a stop and Garwell, with three other members of his crew, scrambled thankfully out of the raging heat and choking, fuel-fed smoke into the fresh air. Two other crew members were trapped in the burning fuselage and a third, Sergeant R.J. Flux, had been thrown out on impact. He had wrenched open the ecape hatch just before the bomber touched down; his action had given the others a few precious extra seconds in which to get clear, but it had cost Flux his life.

Completely alone now, John Nettleton set course northwestwards for home, chasing the afterglow of the setting sun. As he did so, the leading section of No. 97 Squadron descended on Augsburg. They had to fly through a flak barrage even more intense than the storm that had greeted Nettleton and Garwell; as well as four-barrelled 20 mm Flakvierling cannon, the Germans were using 88 mm guns, their barrels depressed to the minimum and their shells doing far more damage to the buildings of Augsburg than to the racing bombers. All three Lancasters released their loads on the target and thundered on towards safety, their gunners spraying any AA position they could see. The bombers were so low that on occasions they dropped below the level of the rooftops, finding some shelter from the murderous flak.

Sherwood’s aircraft, probably hit by a large-calibre shell, began to stream white vapour from a fuel tank. A few moments later flames erupted from it and it went down out of control, a mass of fire, to explode just outside the town. Sherwood alone was thrown clear and survived. The other two pilots, Flying Officers Rodley and Hallows, returned safely with their crews.

The second section consisted of Flight Lieutenant Penman, Flying Officer Deverill and Warrant Officer Mycock. All three pilots saw Sherwood go down as they roared over Augsburg in the gathering dusk. The sky above the town was a mass of vivid light as the enemy gunners hurled every imaginable kind of flak shell into the Lancasters’ path. Mycock’s aircraft was quickly hit and set on fire but the pilot held doggedly to his course. By the time he reached the target his Lancaster was little more than a plunging sheet of flame, but Mycock held on long enough to release his bombs. Then the Lancaster exploded, its burning wreckage cascading into the streets.

Deverill’s Lancaster was also badly hit and its starboard inner engine set on fire, but the crew managed to extinguish the blaze after bombing the target and flew back to base on three engines, accompanied by Penman’s Lancaster. Both crews expected to be attacked by night fighters on the home run, but the flight was completely uneventful. It was just as well, for every gun turret on both Lancasters was jammed.

For his part in leading the Augsburg raid, John Nettleton was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was promoted to the rank of wing commander, and the following year saw him flying his second tour of operations. He was killed on the night of 12/13 July 1943, his bomber falling in flames from the night sky over Turin, Italy.

Altough reconnaissance later showed that the MAN assembly shop had been damaged, the full results of the raid were not known until after the war. It appeared that five of the delayed-action bombs which the Lancaster crews had braved such dangers to place on the factory had failed to explode. The others caused severe damage to two buildings, one a forging shop and the other a machine-tool store, but the machine-tools themselves suffered only light damage. The total effect on production was negligible, especially as the MAN had five other factories building U-boat engines at the time.

The loss of seven Lancasters and forty-nine young men was too high a price to pay. Not until the closing months of 1944 would the RAF’s four-engined heavy bombers again venture over Germany in daylight, and by then the Allied fighters ruled the enemy sky.

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The Chaco Air War

A major war was raging between Bolivia and Paraguay in the late twenties/early thirties. Both nations had for many years been disputing sovereignty of the Chaco Boreal, a dispute fuelled by the belief by foreign interests that large oil deposits lay undeveloped in the territory. In 1928 Paraguayan forces had seized a Bolivian fort and immediately a series of isolated but bloody clashes followed. A truce had been negotiated by the Pan American Conference and League of Nations but this failed to hold and in 1932 all-out warfare between the two states erupted

The small Paraguayan air force possessed a number of Italian Fiat CR 30 biplane fighters. Bergamaschi AP 1 monoplane fighters, Caproni Ca 101 three engine bombers and Breda Ba 44 transports, while the larger Bolivian Cuerpo de Aviacion flew about 60 Curtiss Wright Osprey general – purpose aircraft, Curtiss Hawk IA fighters and Junkers W 34s converted as bombers. From 1933 onward both sides made considerable use of their air forces. A high proportion of the aircrews were foreign mercenaries although, with the assistance of an Italian military aviation mission, the standard of training among Paraguayan flying personnel quickly improved. Numerous air combats took place, particularly when both sides began flying bombing raids and it has been suggested that each air force lost about 30 aircraft. Best known pilot of the war was undoubtedly Major Rafael Pavon who, in Curtiss Hawks, was credit ed with three combat victories and came to be dubbed the Bolivian ace of aces.

A further truce was arranged in 1935 and the Chaco Treaty was signed at Buenos Aires dividing the Chaco Boreal between the two belligerents, Paraguay gaining by far the greater area. Both sides had suffered heavy casualties (Paraguay 36,000 men and Bolivia 52,000), and both were rendered economically exhausted by the Chaco War which achieved precious little, as the oil interests that had led to such bitter jealousies were not to be realised for many years to come.

The Gran Chaco War: Fighting for Mirages in the Foothills of the Andes

Mi-8/17 Multipurpose Helicopter

The Mi-24 attack helicopter, which the soldiers called the ‘Crocodile’, stars in most films about the Afghan war. It carried a crew of three and eight passengers or four stretchers. A sinister-looking beast, it could mount a variety of formidable weapons to use against people, buildings, and armoured vehicles. The Mi-8 transport helicopter, the ‘Bee’, was the workhorse of the 40th Army. It came into service in 1967: more were said to have been produced than any other helicopter in the world. With a crew of three, it could carry twenty-four passengers, or twelve stretchers, or a load of three thousand kilograms. Little more than a decade after the Soviet war was over, the Americans hired Mi-8s to supply their special forces because they were particularly well adapted to operate in the high mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The aircraft were flown by Russians – sometimes by the same men who had flown them during the Soviet war. But this time they were flown not by military crews but – because Russia was now a capitalist country – by the employees of a commercial company called, appropriately enough, Vertical-T. When one of these helicopters was shot down in 2008, the Russian Ambassador in Kabul contacted the Taliban for the return of the bodies. ‘You mean they were Russians?’ said the Taliban. ‘We thought they were Americans. Of course you can have them.’

Designed by Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant, the Mi-8/17 series the most successful in the history of Russia’s helicopter industry. Mi-8/17 series helicopters have won respect and admiration from helicopter operators around the world thanks to their advanced flight capabilities, high level of reliability and adaptability, ability to operate in a wide range of climatic conditions (from -50 to +50 degrees Celsius) and ease of operation and maintenance.

The Mi-8/17 boasts an ever-expanding range of operational capabilities thanks to Russian Helicopters’ ongoing upgrade programmes. The helicopters can be fitted with a wide range of additional equipment to tackle a variety of missions.

The basic Mi-8/17 model is the cargo helicopter, which can transport up to 4,000 kg of various kinds of cargo either inside the cabin or on an external sling.

The passenger helicopter can carry up to 26 passengers. The helicopter boasts low levels of noise and vibration, is fitted with cabin climate-control systems, and has emergency exits that meet the latest safety standards. Everything is designed to ensure passenger in-flight comfort and safety.

The VIP model is designed to accommodate 7-14 passengers with enhanced levels of comfort. The helicopter’s interior is customisable to customers’ needs and wishes. The helicopter boasts the largest cabin in its class, and is ideally suited to luxury-class equipment. The VIP model can be fitted with entertainment systems, satellite links and special communications equipment in line with client needs.

The search-and-rescue model can fly search-and-rescue operations around the clock in all weathers. The helicopter is fitted with special equipment including searchlights, winches, speakers and radiolocation systems. This model is used by Emergencies Ministries in countries across the world.

The Mi-8/17 flying hospital is designed to offer medical assistance in remote and hard-to-access regions. Special on-board equipment provides life support and first aid to patients during the journey to hospital. Special sheeting used inside the cabin can be disinfected quickly and to high medical standards.

The firefighting model is designed to tackle blazes using a helicopter bucket on an external sling, which can deliver up to 4,000 litres of water and target the burn zone with a high degree of accuracy. The helicopter can also deliver firefighting crews and special equipment to firefighting areas.

Mi-8/17 helicopters are built at Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant and the Kazan Helicopters, both Russian Helicopters companies. More than 12,000 Mi-8/17 helicopters have been produced to date – a record for twin-engine helicopters anywhere in the world. They have been supplied to more than 100 countries worldwide and racked up total flying time of about 100 million hours.

The following models are currently in production: Mi-8AMT, Mi-8MTV-1, Mi-171, Mi-171A1 and Mi-172. 

Development

On June 9, 1961, the first Mi-8 Hip prototype, with a single AI-24V turboshaft and four-bladed main rotor system, lifted off for its maiden flight. On September 17, 1962, the Hip B, modified with two TV2-117 1,482-horsepower turboshafts mounted atop the fuselage, and a five-bladed main rotor system measuring 70 feet in diameter, took flight. The Mi-8 went into full production in 1965, and by 2000 fifty-four countries operated the more than 10,000 Mi-8s manufactured by the Rostov and Kazan production facilities in Russia and by foreign licensees. Designed as a medium-lift transport helicopter, the Hip, in its many variants, fulfilled a miscellany of mission requirements, including troop and cargo transportation, air ambulance, attack helicopter, airborne command post, fire fighter, and civilian carrier.

Constructed of light alloys, the Hip featured a “bus-shaped” fuselage with a rounded nose and glassed-in cockpit that accommodated a pilot, copilot, and flight engineer. The cabin housed twenty-four passengers, 8,800 pounds of cargo, or twelve stretchers. A large sliding door on the forward port side and rear-opening clamshell doors simplified loading large cargo. Removable interior seats and an internal winch capable of lifting 350 pounds that doubled as a rescue hoist facilitated cargo handling. Additionally, Mil equipped the aircraft with a cargo hook capable of carrying slingloads up to 6,500 pounds. A long tailboom extended from the upper portion of the fuselage and swept up to a tapered vertical fin that housed the gearbox and tailrotor, attached to the left side (right on the export versions).

External racks attached along the center of the 61-foot fuselage were designed to hold auxiliary fuel pods or weapons systems. Variants of the Hip carried a combination of 57-mm or 80-mm rockets, AT-2 Swatter or AT-3 Sagger ATGMs, 12.7- or 23-mm gun pods, or either 4  500-pound or 2  1,000-pound bombs. In 1967, Mil introduced the Hip E and F ground support helicopters, each mounting a flexible 12.7-mm heavy machine gun under the nose and carrying 192 57-mm rockets. Combat troops could also fire their individual weapons from the windows of the helicopter. In later models Mil installed the upgraded Isotov TV2-117A engines, which produced 1,700 horsepower each. Generally a Hip cruised at 122 knots, had a service ceiling of 14,700 feet, and hovered Out of Ground Effect (OGE) at 2,600 feet. All Mi-8s rested on a fixed tricycle landing gear, with dual wheels at the nose. Total production estimates ran as high as 15,000 units of the Mi-8 and its export version, the Mi-17.

Designed to replace Mi-4, first flown in June 1961; used by Soviet and Russian forces and Aeroflot. Military versions denoted by round windows and armed with machine guns and 57-mm rockets. Later version designed and equipped for ECM operations. Introduced in August 1975, Mi-17 employed Mi-8 fuselage and Mi-14 engines; latest version with upgraded engines is Mi-17 Hip H.

More than 10,000 of all variants manufactured.

Specifications (Mil-17-1A2)

General characteristics

    Crew: 3 (two pilots and one engineer)

    Capacity: 24 troops / 12 stretchers / 4,000 kg (8,818 lb) cargo internally / 5,000 kg (11,023 lb) externally slung.

    Length: 18.465 m (60 ft 7 in)

    Height: 21.25 m (69 ft 9 in)

    Empty weight: 7,489 kg (16,510 lb)

    Gross weight: 11,100 kg (24,471 lb)

    Max takeoff weight: 13,000 kg (28,660 lb) normal

                13,500 kg (29,762 lb) with under-slung load

    Powerplant: 2 × Klimov VK-2500PS-03 turboshaft engines, 1,800 kW (2,400 hp) each for take-off

                2,000 kW (2,700 hp) emergency rating

    Main rotor diameter: 21.25 m (69 ft 9 in)

    Main rotor area: 354.7 m2 (3,818 sq ft)

    Blade section:NACA 23012[157]

Performance

    Maximum speed: 280 km/h (170 mph, 150 kn)

    Cruise speed: 260 km/h (160 mph, 140 kn)

    Range: 800 km (500 mi, 430 nmi)

    Service ceiling: 6,000 m (20,000 ft)

    Hover ceiling OGE: 4,000 m (13,123 ft)

    Rate of climb: 8 m/s (1,600 ft/min)

Armament

    up to 1,500 kg (3,307 lb) of disposable stores on six hardpoints, including bombs, rockets and gunpods.

Mi-8 / Mi-17 Hip Multimission Helicopter

Thousand Bomber Raid

In Britain, General Alan Brooke and Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal had been having an increasingly acrimonious spat about the use of air power, with the Chief of the Imperial General Staff arguing vehemently for a separate Army air arm independent of the RAF. Portal had rebuffed such a suggestion, arguing there were not anything like enough aircraft operating to justify such a move and pointing out the by now well-trodden argument that airmen, rather than soldiers, were the best placed to judge how air forces should most effectively be used. Coningham’s men had certainly proved that point very clearly.

Things were also looking up for Bomber Command. At the end of May, Air Marshal Harris had launched the first-ever Thousand Bomber Raid against Cologne. Although the daily numbers in his squadrons had still been only around 400, by scouring Training Command and borrowing 250 aircraft from Coastal Command, as well as using aircraft that really were almost obsolete, he had managed to reach the magic 1,000 mark – 1,047 to be precise. It was a high-risk coup de théâtre, but one that proved, on the whole, pretty successful, inflicting heavy damage on an important target. The German High Command had been pleasingly appalled – in fact, as early as the end of April, well before the raid, they had already been muttering to the Italian delegation at Salzburg about the effects of bomb damage.

Most importantly, the raid was a terrific public-relations success, which is exactly what Harris had hoped. Headlines about it were splashed all over British newspapers. In her diary, Gwladys Cox excitedly quoted London’s Evening Standard. ‘“This is the most glorious First of June in all our island’s annals,”’ it claimed, ‘and all because “some 1,000 young British pilots have thwarted Hitler’s strategy anew.”’ ‘1,500 PLANES IN BIGGEST RAID,’ pronounced the Daily Mirror. ‘3,000 TONS BOMB STORM’. ‘German radio began to wail last night about the great RAF raid on Cologne,’ it added gleefully. ‘A special transmission from Cologne said: “Much misery had come over our town.”’ That papers like the Mirror were blatantly exaggerating didn’t bother Harris one jot. Two more similar raids followed in the ensuing weeks and, although it was not something Harris could mount regularly, they did much to stop the back-sniping and show all concerned that Bomber Command could, after all, pose a serious threat to Germany’s war machine.

Harris was also now receiving increased numbers of two exciting new aircraft. The first was the twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito, which had been conceived as a light and very fast bomber but was proving its use in other ways as a reconnaissance and even fighter aircraft. Most, however, were heading straight to Bomber Command and, because they were largely – and incredibly – built of wood and had a maximum speed of over 400 mph, they were not only immune to most radar, but there was no German plane that could catch them. With the potential to carry bombs as well as cannons and machine guns, the Mosquito was a highly versatile and extremely fine aircraft.

The machine that Harris wanted as his workhorse, however, was the Avro Lancaster, which back in April had already dropped the war’s first 8,000lb bomb. Numbers were only slowly rising, but gradually Harris was able to increase those squadrons now equipped with this big bomber. His aim was for the whole of 5 Group to be equipped with Lancasters and he was keenly aware that until then, and until navigational aids improved, little meaningful damage could be inflicted on Germany.

These difficulties and the logistical issues of converting a squadron of four-man crews into one of seven was just one of the challenges facing Guy Gibson, who was now a Wing Commander and the CO of 106 Squadron, one of the squadrons currently converting from the troublesome twin-engine Avro Manchester to the bigger and better four-engine Lancaster.

Gibson’s Lancasters arrived five at a time from the Avro plant at Woodford near Manchester, flown in by the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Harris was planning to set up special Heavy Conversion Units, but Gibson and his squadron – which, including staff and ground crew, amounted to around 800 men – were to convert and train themselves. He was twenty-three.

Also still new to Bomber Command was a navigational device called GEE, first tested the previous year. This was a radar pulse system that enabled a navigator on board an aircraft to fix his position by measuring the distance of pulses from three different ground stations in England. It was hoped this would massively improve navigation and thus, in turn, bombing accuracy, but it was not proving as accurate as scientists had hoped. The Ruhr industrial heartland was about the limit of its range and it was nothing like good enough to aid blind flying. This meant Harris’s bombers were still largely dependent on clear skies and preferably a half-decent moon – but that in turn made them easier targets for German flak-gunners and night-fighters. Furthermore, by the summer of 1942, as scientific and technological developments on one side were repeatedly answered on the other, the Germans had successfully worked out how to effectively jam GEE. As the British had trumped Knickebein, so the Germans had found an answer to Harris’s latest navigational leap forward.

Although 106 Squadron contributed eleven aircraft to the Thousand Bomber Raid, Gibson was ill, much to his frustration, and so missed it. After recuperation and leave, he finally flew his first combat operation in a Lancaster on the night of 8/9 July. ‘I’m always terrified every time I go on ops,’ he later confessed to a fellow pilot. Standing around the crew rooms before the flight was the worst part. ‘It’s a horrible business,’ Gibson wrote. ‘Your stomach feels as though it wants to hit your backbone. You can’t stand still.’ He found he would smoke far too many cigarettes, laugh too loudly, and sometimes had to go to the lavatory because he felt sick. Somehow, once he was in the cockpit with the engines running, ready to take off, he felt better. ‘Then it’s all right. Just another job.’

That night, they attacked Wilhelmshaven, one of 285 aircraft. ‘Very dark but good,’ Gibson jotted in his logbook. ‘Bombed from 12,000 feet. Bombs fell in dock areas but not sure whether submarine yards were hit. Opposition fairly accurate.’ They had not hit the U-boat yards, as it happened. Rather, reports suggested damage to the dockyard buildings, a department store and a number of houses. Some twenty-five were killed and a further 170 injured. This rather insignificant return from so much effort underlined the problem of strategic bombing nearly three years into the war: that what was needed was very many more big aircraft with better means of achieving bombing accuracy.

The Thousand Bomber Raid had done severe damage to both the reputation of Germany’s night-fighters and the Luftwaffe leadership. At the time of the attack on Cologne, Göring was entertaining Milch and Speer at Burg Veldenstein, his childhood home near Nuremburg, and that night he was rung personally by Hitler, who told him the Cologne Gauleiter – governor – had reported hundreds of bombers over the city. How could this be, Hitler wanted to know. Göring assured him the Gauleiter was mistaken – only seventy had come over, he told the Führer blithely; in truth, he had no idea. The following morning, Göring learned that around forty had been shot down, which then looked like a big victory until London announced that over a thousand bombers had indeed raided Cologne. When Hitler confronted him, Göring squirmed that this was a lie, and ordered Jeschonnek to play along. ‘It is out of the question,’ Hitler told his own staff, ‘that only seventy or eighty bombers attacked. I never capitulate to an unpleasant truth. I must see clearly if I am to draw the proper conclusions.’ That was rubbish, but it was also neither here nor there. Göring’s and the Luftwaffe’s reputation had taken a big dent.

Despite this, Milch’s overhaul of aircraft production was going reasonably well. He had successfully removed Willi Messerschmitt from managerial control and had stopped the cosy up-front payments for aircraft delivery. This had been disastrous for the Heinkel company, which had enabled Milch to push Ernst Heinkel into a purely development role too. Junker was also brought under tighter financial control, which meant that three of the major aircraft producers, previously rather errant, unfocused and hugely wasteful, were now directly under Milch’s eagle eye.

He had also put in a number of rationalization measures, which had seen production numbers rise while consumption of aluminium had stayed the same. Fighter production, for example, had risen from just over 200 a month at the end of 1941 to 349 per month by June – a trend that would continue to rise. None the less, Milch was still saddled with some projects that he could do little about. Aircraft, from first drawings to large-scale production, took about four years, and so in the middle of 1942 the Luftwaffe was still dealing with planes that had first been brought to the table before the war.

The Heinkel 177, for example, had not gone away, but was still being tinkered with and tweaked because it was too late to start afresh on a completely new four-engine bomber. Göring had only finally seen this monster in May on a visit to the aircraft-testing base at Rechlin and had been horrified to learn that its four engines had been coupled, one on top of the other, so that each pair powered one propeller. Incredibly, until then the C-in-C of the Luftwaffe had not known about this feature on the only major heavy bomber being developed. ‘How is such an engine to be serviced on the airfields?’ he railed. ‘I believe I am right in saying you cannot even take out the sparking plugs without pulling the engine apart!’ A few weeks later, on a visit with Speer to the Peenemünde research establishment, they saw an He177 taking off on a test flight with 4 tons of bombs. Soon after, it banked to the starboard, side-slipped and blew up. A coupling had broken on the propeller shaft.

There had also been problems with the FW190’s engine, the BMW 801D, and with the Me109G’s Daimler-Benz DB605. By the summer, these were being ironed out, but it meant the build-up of the Luftwaffe was still not as fast as Milch, Göring or Hitler would have liked. Milch was not only deeply shaken by the first Thousand Bomber Raid, but was also obsessed with production figures from Britain and the threat of American mass production. The attack on Cologne had given him a stark indication of what was to come. ‘Comparison of German aircraft production with the figures available to us from Britain,’ he told Göring in June, ‘shows that the British are making both more bombers and fighters than we are.’ Göring was dumbfounded.

With this inevitable bomber onslaught coming, it was the defence of the Reich that now dominated Milch’s thoughts on strategy. Protecting Germany adequately was taken very seriously by the Luftwaffe High Command and the dressing-down Göring had received following the Thousand Bomber Raid had demonstrated that in this they were not alone. Luftwaffe flak units had in fact been fewer at the beginning of 1942 than they had been six months earlier due to the heavy losses over the Eastern Front. However, from April, improvements were made as concentrations of three flak batteries were attached to one radar detection unit, and by increasing the number of guns per battery from four to six for heavies, twelve to fifteen for light, with from nine to twelve searchlights per searchlight battery. Furthermore, heavy guns were gradually being upgraded from the 10.5cm models to the much harder-hitting and more powerful 12.8cm, which had a much bigger burst range, and from the 150cm models to 200cm. Overall, numbers of flak units would rise by 35 per cent in 1942 and within the Luftwaffe Command Centre, based in Berlin and responsible for the defence of the Reich, there were eight ‘Air Districts’, which included 838 heavy flak batteries in all and 538 medium and light flak batteries. That amounted to over 13,000 guns. Already, then, Bomber Command was making an impact, for that was a lot of German guns and manpower that were not being used at the front.

While the Luftwaffe was growing its flak defences, the night-fighters under General Josef Kammhuber had continued to achieve some notable successes, and none more than Helmut Lent. By May, he had thirty night victories to his name as well as a Knight’s Cross, and was also now commander of his own Gruppe, II/NJG2, feted by Hitler and Göring and known throughout the Reich as the leading night-fighter ace. Like Guy Gibson, he had still been only twenty-three years old when he took command of the Gruppe back in January.

The Thousand Bomber Raid, however, had also underlined the need to improve radar both on the ground and in the air, as well as to increase the number of night-fighters, as Kammhuber had been repeatedly urging since the summer of 1940. The Himmelbett system used on the so-called Kammhuber Line worked because a night-fighter could be vectored to a lone enemy bomber in any one zone at a time. Back in England, Dr R. V. Jones, who had earlier cracked the Knickebein and X-Gerät beam systems, now worked out that if bombers crossed over into occupied Europe using the same route and in quick succession, not only would collisions be minimized but the Himmelbett zone over which they crossed would quickly become overwhelmed and no longer work – as Lent discovered on the night of the first Thousand Bomber Raid. Although he had been one of those who had taken off to intercept the attack on Cologne, even he had been unable to engage a single bomber. This new tactic by Bomber Command was known as the ‘bomber stream’.

New radar and navigation technology was being developed in Germany, however. A ‘giant’ Würzburg radar had started to come into service, as had an improved Freya known as a Mammut. Both were essentially the same as earlier models but with larger reflectors, which gave them increased range. A further radar, the Wassermann, was the finest early-warning radar that had yet been developed anywhere in the world, with a range of some 150 miles and fully rotational. Finally, in early 1942, the Lichtenstein onboard radar set came into service. With a maximum range of 2 miles and minimum of 200 yards, Kammhuber had hoped this would be a crucial piece of equipment and had urged Hitler to give Lichtenstein the highest priority in production.

The first four sets were fitted to some of Helmut Lent’s aircraft at Leeuwarden, where its shortcomings quickly became apparent. For Lichtenstein to work, large aerials and reflectors had to be added to the nose of the aircraft, which acted as an airbrake and badly affected the machine’s handling. Most pilots, like Lent, would rather stick to the system of improved ground radar and being vectored to the target by ground controllers. Certainly he was managing just fine without Lichtenstein – in June 1942, he flew ten combat sorties and shot down nine, including a Halifax destroyed during a raid on Bremen. ‘Once again, God mercifully looked after me when I was in action,’ Lent wrote in a letter to his parents. ‘The 40th was a hard, four-engined nut to crack. Praise be to God, he didn’t succeed in dropping his bombs on Germany. He was forced to jettison them, and I was able to see just what the monsters can carry. Down below, a path of high explosives and incendiaries a kilometre long flared up.’

In the air, out at sea and on land too, British and German forces continued to battle it out that summer of 1942. In North Africa, however, the British had managed to avert annihilation. Along the Alamein Line, deadlock had been reached. After Rommel had put his Panzerarmee on to the defensive, the Auk had twice tried to turn the tables and break the position, but each time the Axis forces had held. Now, both sides were exhausted.

Eighth Army had been saved and the deep crisis at the beginning of the month had passed. None the less, while to the Germans it was clear that Rommel had once again overreached his forces, to the British it was also clear that change was needed. The first six months of 1942 had thrown a succession of bitter and humiliating blows at the British war effort. That trend needed to be reversed, and quickly.

In Britain, General Alan Brooke and Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal had been having an increasingly acrimonious spat about the use of air power, with the Chief of the Imperial General Staff arguing vehemently for a separate Army air arm independent of the RAF. Portal had rebuffed such a suggestion, arguing there were not anything like enough aircraft operating to justify such a move and pointing out the by now well-trodden argument that airmen, rather than soldiers, were the best placed to judge how air forces should most effectively be used. Coningham’s men had certainly proved that point very clearly.

Things were also looking up for Bomber Command. At the end of May, Air Marshal Harris had launched the first-ever Thousand Bomber Raid against Cologne. Although the daily numbers in his squadrons had still been only around 400, by scouring Training Command and borrowing 250 aircraft from Coastal Command, as well as using aircraft that really were almost obsolete, he had managed to reach the magic 1,000 mark – 1,047 to be precise. It was a high-risk coup de théâtre, but one that proved, on the whole, pretty successful, inflicting heavy damage on an important target. The German High Command had been pleasingly appalled – in fact, as early as the end of April, well before the raid, they had already been muttering to the Italian delegation at Salzburg about the effects of bomb damage.

Most importantly, the raid was a terrific public-relations success, which is exactly what Harris had hoped. Headlines about it were splashed all over British newspapers. In her diary, Gwladys Cox excitedly quoted London’s Evening Standard. ‘“This is the most glorious First of June in all our island’s annals,”’ it claimed, ‘and all because “some 1,000 young British pilots have thwarted Hitler’s strategy anew.”’ ‘1,500 PLANES IN BIGGEST RAID,’ pronounced the Daily Mirror. ‘3,000 TONS BOMB STORM’. ‘German radio began to wail last night about the great RAF raid on Cologne,’ it added gleefully. ‘A special transmission from Cologne said: “Much misery had come over our town.”’ That papers like the Mirror were blatantly exaggerating didn’t bother Harris one jot. Two more similar raids followed in the ensuing weeks and, although it was not something Harris could mount regularly, they did much to stop the back-sniping and show all concerned that Bomber Command could, after all, pose a serious threat to Germany’s war machine.

Harris was also now receiving increased numbers of two exciting new aircraft. The first was the twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito, which had been conceived as a light and very fast bomber but was proving its use in other ways as a reconnaissance and even fighter aircraft. Most, however, were heading straight to Bomber Command and, because they were largely – and incredibly – built of wood and had a maximum speed of over 400 mph, they were not only immune to most radar, but there was no German plane that could catch them. With the potential to carry bombs as well as cannons and machine guns, the Mosquito was a highly versatile and extremely fine aircraft.

The machine that Harris wanted as his workhorse, however, was the Avro Lancaster, which back in April had already dropped the war’s first 8,000lb bomb. Numbers were only slowly rising, but gradually Harris was able to increase those squadrons now equipped with this big bomber. His aim was for the whole of 5 Group to be equipped with Lancasters and he was keenly aware that until then, and until navigational aids improved, little meaningful damage could be inflicted on Germany.

These difficulties and the logistical issues of converting a squadron of four-man crews into one of seven was just one of the challenges facing Guy Gibson, who was now a Wing Commander and the CO of 106 Squadron, one of the squadrons currently converting from the troublesome twin-engine Avro Manchester to the bigger and better four-engine Lancaster.

Gibson’s Lancasters arrived five at a time from the Avro plant at Woodford near Manchester, flown in by the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Harris was planning to set up special Heavy Conversion Units, but Gibson and his squadron – which, including staff and ground crew, amounted to around 800 men – were to convert and train themselves. He was twenty-three.

Also still new to Bomber Command was a navigational device called GEE, first tested the previous year. This was a radar pulse system that enabled a navigator on board an aircraft to fix his position by measuring the distance of pulses from three different ground stations in England. It was hoped this would massively improve navigation and thus, in turn, bombing accuracy, but it was not proving as accurate as scientists had hoped. The Ruhr industrial heartland was about the limit of its range and it was nothing like good enough to aid blind flying. This meant Harris’s bombers were still largely dependent on clear skies and preferably a half-decent moon – but that in turn made them easier targets for German flak-gunners and night-fighters. Furthermore, by the summer of 1942, as scientific and technological developments on one side were repeatedly answered on the other, the Germans had successfully worked out how to effectively jam GEE. As the British had trumped Knickebein, so the Germans had found an answer to Harris’s latest navigational leap forward.

Although 106 Squadron contributed eleven aircraft to the Thousand Bomber Raid, Gibson was ill, much to his frustration, and so missed it. After recuperation and leave, he finally flew his first combat operation in a Lancaster on the night of 8/9 July. ‘I’m always terrified every time I go on ops,’ he later confessed to a fellow pilot. Standing around the crew rooms before the flight was the worst part. ‘It’s a horrible business,’ Gibson wrote. ‘Your stomach feels as though it wants to hit your backbone. You can’t stand still.’ He found he would smoke far too many cigarettes, laugh too loudly, and sometimes had to go to the lavatory because he felt sick. Somehow, once he was in the cockpit with the engines running, ready to take off, he felt better. ‘Then it’s all right. Just another job.’

That night, they attacked Wilhelmshaven, one of 285 aircraft. ‘Very dark but good,’ Gibson jotted in his logbook. ‘Bombed from 12,000 feet. Bombs fell in dock areas but not sure whether submarine yards were hit. Opposition fairly accurate.’ They had not hit the U-boat yards, as it happened. Rather, reports suggested damage to the dockyard buildings, a department store and a number of houses. Some twenty-five were killed and a further 170 injured. This rather insignificant return from so much effort underlined the problem of strategic bombing nearly three years into the war: that what was needed was very many more big aircraft with better means of achieving bombing accuracy.

The Thousand Bomber Raid had done severe damage to both the reputation of Germany’s night-fighters and the Luftwaffe leadership. At the time of the attack on Cologne, Göring was entertaining Milch and Speer at Burg Veldenstein, his childhood home near Nuremburg, and that night he was rung personally by Hitler, who told him the Cologne Gauleiter – governor – had reported hundreds of bombers over the city. How could this be, Hitler wanted to know. Göring assured him the Gauleiter was mistaken – only seventy had come over, he told the Führer blithely; in truth, he had no idea. The following morning, Göring learned that around forty had been shot down, which then looked like a big victory until London announced that over a thousand bombers had indeed raided Cologne. When Hitler confronted him, Göring squirmed that this was a lie, and ordered Jeschonnek to play along. ‘It is out of the question,’ Hitler told his own staff, ‘that only seventy or eighty bombers attacked. I never capitulate to an unpleasant truth. I must see clearly if I am to draw the proper conclusions.’ That was rubbish, but it was also neither here nor there. Göring’s and the Luftwaffe’s reputation had taken a big dent.

Despite this, Milch’s overhaul of aircraft production was going reasonably well. He had successfully removed Willi Messerschmitt from managerial control and had stopped the cosy up-front payments for aircraft delivery. This had been disastrous for the Heinkel company, which had enabled Milch to push Ernst Heinkel into a purely development role too. Junker was also brought under tighter financial control, which meant that three of the major aircraft producers, previously rather errant, unfocused and hugely wasteful, were now directly under Milch’s eagle eye.

He had also put in a number of rationalization measures, which had seen production numbers rise while consumption of aluminium had stayed the same. Fighter production, for example, had risen from just over 200 a month at the end of 1941 to 349 per month by June – a trend that would continue to rise. None the less, Milch was still saddled with some projects that he could do little about. Aircraft, from first drawings to large-scale production, took about four years, and so in the middle of 1942 the Luftwaffe was still dealing with planes that had first been brought to the table before the war.

The Heinkel 177, for example, had not gone away, but was still being tinkered with and tweaked because it was too late to start afresh on a completely new four-engine bomber. Göring had only finally seen this monster in May on a visit to the aircraft-testing base at Rechlin and had been horrified to learn that its four engines had been coupled, one on top of the other, so that each pair powered one propeller. Incredibly, until then the C-in-C of the Luftwaffe had not known about this feature on the only major heavy bomber being developed. ‘How is such an engine to be serviced on the airfields?’ he railed. ‘I believe I am right in saying you cannot even take out the sparking plugs without pulling the engine apart!’ A few weeks later, on a visit with Speer to the Peenemünde research establishment, they saw an He177 taking off on a test flight with 4 tons of bombs. Soon after, it banked to the starboard, side-slipped and blew up. A coupling had broken on the propeller shaft.

There had also been problems with the FW190’s engine, the BMW 801D, and with the Me109G’s Daimler-Benz DB605. By the summer, these were being ironed out, but it meant the build-up of the Luftwaffe was still not as fast as Milch, Göring or Hitler would have liked. Milch was not only deeply shaken by the first Thousand Bomber Raid, but was also obsessed with production figures from Britain and the threat of American mass production. The attack on Cologne had given him a stark indication of what was to come. ‘Comparison of German aircraft production with the figures available to us from Britain,’ he told Göring in June, ‘shows that the British are making both more bombers and fighters than we are.’ Göring was dumbfounded.

With this inevitable bomber onslaught coming, it was the defence of the Reich that now dominated Milch’s thoughts on strategy. Protecting Germany adequately was taken very seriously by the Luftwaffe High Command and the dressing-down Göring had received following the Thousand Bomber Raid had demonstrated that in this they were not alone. Luftwaffe flak units had in fact been fewer at the beginning of 1942 than they had been six months earlier due to the heavy losses over the Eastern Front. However, from April, improvements were made as concentrations of three flak batteries were attached to one radar detection unit, and by increasing the number of guns per battery from four to six for heavies, twelve to fifteen for light, with from nine to twelve searchlights per searchlight battery. Furthermore, heavy guns were gradually being upgraded from the 10.5cm models to the much harder-hitting and more powerful 12.8cm, which had a much bigger burst range, and from the 150cm models to 200cm. Overall, numbers of flak units would rise by 35 per cent in 1942 and within the Luftwaffe Command Centre, based in Berlin and responsible for the defence of the Reich, there were eight ‘Air Districts’, which included 838 heavy flak batteries in all and 538 medium and light flak batteries. That amounted to over 13,000 guns. Already, then, Bomber Command was making an impact, for that was a lot of German guns and manpower that were not being used at the front.

While the Luftwaffe was growing its flak defences, the night-fighters under General Josef Kammhuber had continued to achieve some notable successes, and none more than Helmut Lent. By May, he had thirty night victories to his name as well as a Knight’s Cross, and was also now commander of his own Gruppe, II/NJG2, feted by Hitler and Göring and known throughout the Reich as the leading night-fighter ace. Like Guy Gibson, he had still been only twenty-three years old when he took command of the Gruppe back in January.

The Thousand Bomber Raid, however, had also underlined the need to improve radar both on the ground and in the air, as well as to increase the number of night-fighters, as Kammhuber had been repeatedly urging since the summer of 1940. The Himmelbett system used on the so-called Kammhuber Line worked because a night-fighter could be vectored to a lone enemy bomber in any one zone at a time. Back in England, Dr R. V. Jones, who had earlier cracked the Knickebein and X-Gerät beam systems, now worked out that if bombers crossed over into occupied Europe using the same route and in quick succession, not only would collisions be minimized but the Himmelbett zone over which they crossed would quickly become overwhelmed and no longer work – as Lent discovered on the night of the first Thousand Bomber Raid. Although he had been one of those who had taken off to intercept the attack on Cologne, even he had been unable to engage a single bomber. This new tactic by Bomber Command was known as the ‘bomber stream’.

New radar and navigation technology was being developed in Germany, however. A ‘giant’ Würzburg radar had started to come into service, as had an improved Freya known as a Mammut. Both were essentially the same as earlier models but with larger reflectors, which gave them increased range. A further radar, the Wassermann, was the finest early-warning radar that had yet been developed anywhere in the world, with a range of some 150 miles and fully rotational. Finally, in early 1942, the Lichtenstein onboard radar set came into service. With a maximum range of 2 miles and minimum of 200 yards, Kammhuber had hoped this would be a crucial piece of equipment and had urged Hitler to give Lichtenstein the highest priority in production.

The first four sets were fitted to some of Helmut Lent’s aircraft at Leeuwarden, where its shortcomings quickly became apparent. For Lichtenstein to work, large aerials and reflectors had to be added to the nose of the aircraft, which acted as an airbrake and badly affected the machine’s handling. Most pilots, like Lent, would rather stick to the system of improved ground radar and being vectored to the target by ground controllers. Certainly he was managing just fine without Lichtenstein – in June 1942, he flew ten combat sorties and shot down nine, including a Halifax destroyed during a raid on Bremen. ‘Once again, God mercifully looked after me when I was in action,’ Lent wrote in a letter to his parents. ‘The 40th was a hard, four-engined nut to crack. Praise be to God, he didn’t succeed in dropping his bombs on Germany. He was forced to jettison them, and I was able to see just what the monsters can carry. Down below, a path of high explosives and incendiaries a kilometre long flared up.’

B-17 Clandestine/Special Service

Although Bomber Command had no use for the Fortress as a standard night bomber following the early war experiences with Fortress Mk. Is, the B-17G nevertheless was to play a vital role in the RAF’s night bombing offensive against Nazi Germany. This involved some Mk. IIIs being converted for Radio Counter Measures (RCM) work, later called Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), to fly with the RAF’s specialist 100 Group. Their role was to combat German defences, particularly radar, to protect the RAF’s Main Force of Lancaster and Halifax bombers. The Fortresses intended for this tasking were seconded to Scottish Aviation Ltd at Prestwick for conversion.

Most were fitted with a prominent radome under the forward fuselage for H2S radar equipment, replacing the standard Bendix chin turret of the B-17G. H2S was used as a ground mapping radar by the RAF as an aid to night area bombing, and was also fitted to Main Force Lancaster and Halifax bombers. There were many other alterations made to the Fortresses, including the installation of various jamming equipment. Indeed, it appears that no two aircraft were the same in their equipment fits. In addition, the RAF also received 14 specially converted B-17Fs directly from Eighth Air Force stocks for ECM work (additional to the aforementioned Mk. II/B-17F airframes), which are sometimes called Fortress Mk. IIIA (serials SR376-SR389). The Eighth Air Force was additionally involved in this form of clandestine and highly secret electronic warfare, and there was considerable collaboration between the RAF and USAAF on this tasking.

Two 100 Group squadrons flew the Fortress Mk. III on Electronic warfare operations. The first of these, 214 (Federated Malay States) Squadron (code letters BU), was based at RAF Oulton from May 1944. Its Fortresses were joined by those of 223 Squadron (code 6G), a Consolidated Liberator unit at Oulton, late in the war; the latter unit flew its first RCM Fortress sorties in April 1945. The Fortress Mk. IIIs of these two squadrons flew in support of Main Force bomber operations with RCM, as well as `Window’ (chaff-dropping), support. A Fortress training unit, 1969 Flight, was also stationed at Oulton.

Involvement in the clandestine RCM war was no guarantee of safety for the Fortresses, however, and several were shot down by German defences. A particularly costly occasion was the night of March 14-15, 1945. Bomber Command’s targets that night included oil facilities in the Lützkendorf area, as part of the significant oil/gasoline bombing campaign. 214 Squadron provided jamming support, but its aircraft appear to have become detached from the Main Force bombers, allowing Luftwaffe night fighters the opportunity to make several successful attacks. It was also costly for 214 Squadron itself and two of its Fortress Mk. IIIs, HB802 and HB799 (one published source claims HB779). Both were attacked by aircraft of NJG 6, the two Fortresses probably successfully fired upon by the radio/radar operator of the Junkers Ju 88G-6 night fighter coded 2Z+MF of Hauptmann Martin Becker, Kommandeur of IV./NJG 6. Crew members of HB802 baled out before the Fortress crashed, but the pilot of HB799 managed to bring his crippled Fortress in for a crash-landing at Bassingbourn after the remaining nine crew members bailed out over German-held territory.

The conclusion of World War Two in Europe was the end of the road for many of 100 Group’s special Fortresses, and a number were put out to pasture at 51 Maintenance Unit, RAF Lichfield (Fradley). Most of the RAF’s Fortresses (except for the Mk. I examples) were supplied under Lend-Lease arrangements with the Americans, who did not require their return, so many were simply scrapped. However, some examples did soldier on into the early post-war era and the commencement of the Cold War. The need for ECM work did not stop with the end of World War Two, and several Fortress Mk. IIIs served with the Radio Warfare Establishment at RAF Watton in the months following the end of the war.

U.S. Navy and Coast Guard

During the last year of World War II and shortly thereafter, the United States Navy (USN) acquired 48 ex-USAAF B-17s for patrol and air-sea rescue work. The first two ex-USAAF B-17s, a B-17F (later modified to B-17G standard) and a B-17G were obtained by the Navy for various development programs. At first, these aircraft operated under their original USAAF designations, but on 31 July 1945 they were assigned the naval aircraft designation PB-1, a designation which had originally been used in 1925 for the Boeing Model 50 experimental flying boat.

Thirty-two B-17Gs were used by the Navy under the designation PB-1W, the suffix -W indicating an airborne early warning role. A large radome for an S-band AN/APS-20 search radar was fitted underneath the fuselage and additional internal fuel tanks were added for longer range, with the provision for additional underwing fuel tanks. Originally, the B-17 was also chosen because of its heavy defensive armament, but this was later removed. These aircraft were painted dark blue, the standard Navy paint scheme which had been adopted in late 1944. PB-1Ws continued in USN service until 1955, gradually being phased out in favor of the Lockheed WV-2 (known in the USAF as the EC-121, a designation adopted by the USN in 1962), a military version of the Lockheed 1049 Constellation commercial airliner.

In July 1945, 16 B-17s were transferred to the Coast Guard via the Navy; these aircraft were initially assigned U.S. Navy Bureau Numbers (BuNo), but were delivered to the Coast Guard designated as PB-1Gs beginning in July 1946. Coast Guard PB-1Gs were stationed at a number of bases in the U.S. and Newfoundland, with five at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, two at CGAS San Francisco, two at NAS Argentia, Newfoundland, one at CGAS Kodiak, Alaska, and one in Washington state. They were used primarily in the “Dumbo” air-sea rescue role, but were also used for iceberg patrol duties and for photo mapping. The Coast Guard PB-1Gs served throughout the 1950s, the last example not being withdrawn from service until 14 October 1959.

Special operations

B-17s were used by the CIA front companies Civil Air Transport, Air America and Intermountain Aviation for special missions. These included B-17G 44-85531, registered as N809Z. These aircraft were primarily used for agent drop missions over the People’s Republic of China, flying from Taiwan, with Taiwanese crews. Four B-17s were shot down in these operations.

In 1957 the surviving B-17s had been stripped of all weapons and painted black. One of these Taiwan-based B-17s was flown to Clark Air Base in the Philippines in mid-September, assigned for covert missions into Tibet.

On 28 May 1962, N809Z, piloted by Connie Seigrist and Douglas Price, flew Major James Smith, USAF and Lieutenant Leonard A. LeSchack, USNR to the abandoned Soviet arctic ice station NP 8, as Operation Coldfeet. Smith and LeSchack parachuted from the B-17 and searched the station for several days. On 1 June, Seigrist and Price returned and picked up Smith and LeSchack using a Fulton Skyhook system installed on the B-17. N809Z was used to perform a Skyhook pick up in the James Bond movie Thunderball in 1965. This aircraft, now restored to its original B-17G configuration, is on display in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.

Buna 1942

Airacobras of the 80th FS at Fourteen Mile Drome, fourteen miles from Port Moresby in the fall of 1942. The pilot with the cigarette in his mouth is William Brown, who shot down two Zeros during the raid of August 26th, 1942. The other pilot in this shot is 2nd Lt. Charles R. Able, who also had some success during this raid, when he damaged another Zero, although this was not during the actual raid proper, but rather on the return trip to their home field. In any case, Able was one of four pilots that were ultimately forced to leave the formation due to damage to their own airplanes. In this case, it was due to the loss of a cockpit entry door. In the background, behind the plane coded `A’, is Airacobra coded `Y’, the subject of the ProfiPACK release of the P-400 kit. Noteworthy is the nonstandard black spinner and the kill mark ahead of the code `Y’. In the case of this Airacobra, the marking was applied to both sides of the nose.

80th FS, 8th FG, Port Moresby, New Guinea, Autumn 1942

Between the 25th and 29th of August, 1942, the Americans conducted four aerial raids against the Japanese airfield situated near the village of Buna, during which the attacking 80th and 41st FS Airacobras  were credited with the destruction of eleven Zeros in air combat, and another nine on the ground. The Americans conceded the loss of one Airacobra, without, however, the loss of the pilot. The successes of these raids significantly influenced the course of air combat over New Guinea for the next several months. This was also helped by the fact that the Japanese were compelled to withdraw their elite Tainan Kokutai from New Guinea to Rabaul at the end of August, 1942. The unit was replaced on New Guinea by the newly transferred 2nd Kokutai, which began combat ops from Buna on August 22nd, 1942, and the above mention raids severely limited their combat effectiveness, considering that the unit initially had around thirty A6M3 Model 32 Hamps at its disposal, more commonly known by the reporting name of Zero.

When pilots of the 80th FS strapped into their Airacobras on the morning of August 26, they had completed their first month of combat duty in the defense of Port Moresby, but without a single victory over a Japanese aircraft to the unit’s credit. This was partially due to the decrease in Japanese air force activity at the time. Even more significant factors were the relative inexperience of the pilots and the limited performance of the Airacobra at higher altitudes, from which the Japanese bomber assets tended to attack Port Moresby. Even on this rainy morning, there was really nothing to suggest that the cards were about to change in the 80th FS’s favor. From the group of ten Airacobras slated to fly the mission, almost half were pulled off the roster due to technical issues, including the unit CO, Capt. Philip Grasley. As a result, the planned mission would be flown by just six airplanes. The mission was taken over by Capt. William Brown, and maybe because of this turn of events, the unit took off on an incorrect heading. The first to realize the mistake was 2nd Lt. Daniel Roberts, flying Brown’s wing, and as the formation was increasingly heading off course, radio silence was broken in order to inform his CO of what had been happening. Brown promptly corrected the navigational error, and it was at this moment that the 80th FS fortunes would turn for the better. Thanks to the aforementioned problems, the formation of six Airacobras approached the Japanese base from an unexpected direction. Adding to the misfortune of the taking off Japanese, the timing of the attack couldn’t have been worse. Three Zeros began gaining altitude, while another three had just left the runway. The first encounter between the two sides led to Zero kills recorded by Capt. William Brown, 2nd Lt. Daniel Roberts, Lt. George T. Helveston and 2nd Lt. Gerald T. Rogers. Brown and Rogers each downed another after a quick turn back into the fight in a head on attack, while 2nd Lt. Leonidas S. Maters damaged a third, and Lt. Noel Lundy, bringing up the rear of the Airacobra group, also was involved. On the Japanese side, lost were Petty Officer 1st Class Takeichi Iwase and Petty Officer 3rd Class Taizo Ibara. Flight P/O 3c Kiyoshi Nakono was also lost, while Ensign Kazuo Tsonuda managed to force land his stricken aircraft, coded Q-102, on the airfield’s landing strip. Member of the Tainan Kokutai, Petty Officer 2nd Class Ichirobei Yamazaki, needed to be evacuated to Rabaul due to his injuries, and subsequently back to his native Japan. The only loss suffered by the Americans was Airacobra serialed BW112, flown by 2nd Lt. Gerald G. Rogers, who was forced to bail from his stricken aircraft and after parachuting into the ocean below, endured strafing attacks by Zeros trying to avenge their own losses. The journey back to his unit through the New Guinea jungle, with the help of sympathetic and supportive locals, lasted a seemingly never ending thirty days. After his return, he still managed to close out the kill tally of the first operational tour of the 80th FS, when he downed a Sally on January 17th, 1943.

As was mentioned above, 5th AF Airacobras conducted a total of four air raids against the field at Buna. The first came on August 25th, with a raid conducted by the 80th FS and 41st FS together. The 80th FS was tasked with providing top cover for their 41st FS colleagues, the latter of which managed to light up six Zeros parked on the field, with another 14 to 16 damaged. Over the course of the missions conducted between the 27th and 29th of August, Airacobras from the 41st FS  accounted for another five Zeros downed in air combat and another three on the ground. The 41st FS also added a Betty bomber destroyed to their credit. The sudden success of the unit was no doubt helped by pilot morale within it, despite flying the somewhat unappreciated Airacobra, and this was at least in part responsible for improving the type’s reputation in the skies over New Guinea.

Sources:

Logged information of 80th FS missions between January 1942 and January 1944

Attack and Conguer, The 8th FG in WWII, by J. C. Stanaway a L. J. Hickey

The 5th Fighter Command in WWII, by William Wolf

Airacobra vs Zero, Osprey Publishing, by Michael John Claringbould

Zeppelins!

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was born in 1838. He served in the Royal Wurttemberg Army, in which he fought during the Franco-German War of 1870. In 1890 he left the Army feeling, as did many South German noblemen, that Prussia had far too much influence in the recently created German Empire. He then devoted himself to the development of the rigid dirigible airship which has born his name ever since. In fact, his organisation, the Luftshiffbau Zeppelin was not alone in manufacturing this type of airship, the Luftshiffbau Schutte-Lanz being a competitor during the early years, although by custom ever since every rigid airship has become known as a Zeppelin, just as vacuum cleaners are known as Hoovers and raincoats as Macintoshes.

Zeppelin chose hydrogen as the lifting agent for his airships, despite the terrible danger of fire, the outbreak of which was almost always fatal to the ships. The hydrogen was contained within huge gasbags along the interior of the hull, with provision for venting and water ballast tanks used to maintain stability while ascending or descending. These were contained in a long, sausage-shaped hull based on a complex internal girder construction surrounded by a flexible skin. Control and communications gondolas were suspended below, as were the ship’s engines, the number of which varied according to type.

At first, Zeppelin’s organisation was not a financial success and it was not until 1911 that his airline, the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts AG began to show that large numbers of passengers could be carried at a profit. This aroused the interest of the Imperial German Army and Navy. The obvious advantages were that the Zeppelin had a very long in-flight endurance which made it capable of longrange reconnaissance and, of course, it could also be armed with bombs for dropping on specific targets. Of the disadvantages, fire has already been mentioned. In addition, the girder construction was so flimsy that clumsy handling in a shed or high winds on take-off or landing could wreck a ship. Even more serious was the fact that Zeppelins were extremely difficult to navigate. Even modest winds were capable of pushing the huge, lighter-than-air hulls many miles off course, while cloud cover could make it impossible to obtain a fix on the ground below. Later, a small car containing one or two observers and a telephone could be lowered by electric winch through the cloud and provide a view of the ground below, but the idea was not a success.

During World War One, Zeppelins served in every German theatre of war save East Africa, and even there one tried to get through, albeit unsuccessfully, by overflying Egypt and the Sudan. The Army preferred to use them for deep reconnaissance but would occasionally mount a bombing mission. The Navy used them as scouts for the operations of the High Seas Fleet but also carried out raids well inland into England, proving that nowhere was safe from the attentions of the Imperial Navy. Naval Zeppelin bases were established near Cuxhaven, at Ahlhorn near Oldenburg, Wittmundshaven (East Friesland), Tondern (Schlewig-Holstein, now Denmark) and, for a while, Hage, south of Nordeny. From these their route took them on a south-westerly course from which they would cross the North Sea to the East Anglian coast, from which the glow of London’s lights provided a distant beacon to steer by. Having carried out their mission, they would leave England by crossing the Kent coast and then head north-east to home.

Huge though the Zeppelins were, they generated very little awe in the professional flying community. In 1914 Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps squadrons had been posted to the French and Belgian coast as a defence against German air operations in the Channel. On 8 October, flying a Sopwith Tabloid, Lieutenant R.G.L. Marix located a Zeppelin shed at Dusseldorf and dropped four 20-lb bombs onto it from a height of 600 feet. The resulting explosions were quickly followed by a roaring inferno, the flames of which reached as high as 500 feet, signifying the end of an Army Zeppelin, Z-9. Although the Tabloid received some damage from enemy fire, Marix managed to nurse it back to within 20 miles of Antwerp, completing the journey home on a borrowed bicycle. The following day the Allies withdrew from the city.

On 21 November an even more ambitious RNAS raid with three Avro 504bs was mounted from Belfort in Alsace against the birthplace of the Zeppelin, Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance. One airship was wrecked and considerable damage was done to the hangars and other facilities of this airship holy-of-holies. One aircraft was shot down, its pilot being seriously injured when he was attacked by a civilian mob. In contrast, the German military treated him with respect and great kindness while he was recovering in hospital.

On Christmas Day 1914 further incidents demonstrated how the naval air war was likely to develop. A squadron of light cruisers under the command of Commodore R.Y. Tyrwhitt escorted three specially converted Channel ferries, Engadine, Riviera and Empress, across the North Sea to a position close to the mouth of the Elbe, from which an attack could be made on the Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven. Nine Short floatplanes were lowered into the sea, of which only seven managed to lift off. The remainder flew to Cuxhaven where, although they were unable to identify the sheds, their appearance caused uproar. As the High Seas Fleet relied on Zeppelins for much of its reconnaissance, the risk of future raids was only too real. Furthermore, the German high command was seriously unsettled by the fact that so much valuable information on the fleet’s disposition had been gathered by the British pilots that a number of warships were moved immediately. Amid the hullabaloo, the battle cruiser Von der Tann was involved in a collision and so seriously damaged that she had to be docked. Three of the floatplanes returned safely to their carriers. The pilots of three more were picked up by the submarine E11, and the last became a passenger aboard a Dutch fishing boat.

Meanwhile, a counter-attack had been launched on Tyrwhitt’s cruisers by two Zeppelins, L5 and L6, plus a number of seaplanes. None were hit, although some were near-missed and finally the German aircraft droned off. L6, with her crew frantically slapping patches on 600 bullet holes hissing hydrogen out of her gasbags, was very lucky to get home.

It is, of course, impossible to describe all the raids that took place over four years in a single chapter. Naturally, the Kaiser insisted in regulating what was going on and insisted that London was not to be attacked west of the Tower. This ruled out most of the best targets, including the City. The Imperial Chancellor, Theobald Bethmann-Holweg gave permission for the City to be attacked at weekends, when it was empty. It was then pointed out that it emptied every night, so that restriction was removed.

Finally, the Kaiser permitted attacks throughout the capital, with the exception of historic buildings and royal palaces. Nature imposed her own limitations when Zeppelin operations were restricted to the moonless half of the month. The first attack on the United Kingdom took place on 19/20 January 1915 and caused very little damage. In all, 42 raids were launched during the year with a variable number of airships, the first strategic air offensive aimed at the United Kingdom, with very mixed results, including the needless destruction of a large number of glasshouses at Cheshunt.

London was not attacked until 31 May, when seven people were killed and 38 wounded. On 6 June L13, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Heinrich Mathy, a brilliant navigator and the nearest thing to a Zeppelin ace, attacked Hull, causing £45,000 of damage. A riot ensued in which property believed to be in German ownership was wrecked. It was not just that fear was getting the better of people; they were angry, too, that the powers that be were apparently failing to provide them with adequate protection and several Royal Flying Corps personnel were roughed-up because of it. This was not justified, because the threat was being taken very seriously and a great deal was already being done, although it would be some time before a fully integrated defence system became operational.

On 8 September, Mathy was back in L13, carrying a two-ton bomb-load, including one of the new 660-lb bombs specially designed for use against England. This time his target was the City, in which he started extensive fires and destroyed buildings in the area north of St Paul’s Cathedral. Anti-aircraft fire forced him to climb hurriedly to 11,200 feet, but his last bombs was used to damage the railway track leaving Broad Street Station and to destroy two motor buses. On this occasion he had caused over £500,000 worth of damage, killed 22 people and injured 87 more. Such was public anger that on 12 September the Admiralty appointed Admiral Sir Percy Scott, a gunnery expert of note, to command London’s anti-aircraft defences.

One of the most remarkable raids of all took place on the night of 13/14 October, involving L15 under the command of Lieutenant Commander Jaochim Breihaupt, another excellent navigator. Breihaupt penetrated central London and, flying steadily from west to east to the north of The Strand, dropped his bombs on Exeter Street, Wellington Street, Catherine Street, Aldwych, the Royal Courts of Justice, Carey Street, Lincoln’s Inn, Hatton Garden and Farringdon Road before heading for home. Behind lay a trail of death and destruction, including 28 killed and 60 injured. The number of casualties could have been higher as Breihaupt’s course took him close by the capital’s theatre land, where places of entertainment were packed to the doors. While leaving the target area, Breihaupt was also forced to climb sharply to avoid anti-aircraft fire, and noted with alarm that several aircraft were searching for him at a lower level, proof that the defence was stiffening.

Breihaupt’s attack may have unsettled some Londoners, but in certain circles it was simply not done to acknowledge the fact. At the height of the attack, about 22:30, Mrs Patrick Campbell, the doyenne of the London stage and leading member of British society, was being fitted with a dress. She was leaning out of her window, trying to discover the cause of all the fuss, with two seamstresses hanging onto her bottom for dear life. ‘They’re bombing Derry and Thoms!’ she announced in total disbelief. Obviously, the attempted destruction of one’s favourite fashion house was taking things beyond acceptable limits.

During this period, unless luck was on their side, aircraft were at a disadvantage when engaging Zeppelins, for not only were they unable to match the airships’ ability to gain altitude rapidly, their machine gun ammunition was unable to do more than puncture the gasbags inside the hull, damage which could be repaired quickly by a trained crew. An alternative was to drop bombs on the airship from above, but that was a very hit and miss affair, even if the necessary height could be gained. However, on the night on 6/7 June 1915 Sub-Lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford, piloting a tiny Morane, was on his way to bomb the Zeppelin sheds at Berchem Ste Agathe when he spotted LZ-37 over Ostend. He closed in to attack but was not only driven off by machine gun fire, but also chased by the monster for a while. Without losing sight of the airship, he put his machine into a slow, steady climb until he reached the height of 11,000 feet. Turning off his engine, he glided noiselessly down on LZ-37, 4,000 feet below, and, flying along the back of his opponent, dropped six 20-lb bombs onto it. Some must have detonated on the airship’s hard internal skeleton, for there was a huge explosion that blew the little Morane upside down and caused some internal damage to the engine. Having recovered control of his machine, Warneford could see the flaming mass hurtling earthwards. It smashed into a convent, the only survivor being a quartermaster named Alfred Muhler who was thrown out of the control gondola when it crashed through a roof, landing on a bed bruised and singed but alive. For his part, Warneford managed to land his aircraft in enemy territory, where he was able to repair the damage and return home. His exploit won him the Victoria Cross but his story had a sad ending for, ten days later, he was killed in a flying accident.

In 1916 the number of Zeppelin raids mounted against ‘the island,’ as the crews termed the United Kingdom, increased three-fold, although the results achieved were far from commensurate with the additional effort involved. The principal reason for this was that the anti-aircraft defences of London and the Home Counties had improved beyond recognition. New and improved anti-aircraft guns were deployed throughout the capital and suburbs and in a secondary ring in the outlying hinterland, leaving a corridor in which British fighter aircraft could operate against the raiders without the risk of being hit by the anti-aircraft batteries. These were supplemented by searchlights and barrage balloons between which cable aprons were stretched, forcing the attackers to climb and therefore lose accuracy. These defences were duplicated to a lesser degree around the Thames estuary, the Kent and Essex coasts and further north along the east coast. In addition, the Royal Navy stationed guard ships along the Zeppelins’ most likely avenues of approach, armed with anti-aircraft weapons. Special machine gun ammunition was also added to the fighters’ armament, including Brock incendiary rounds, developed by the firework company of the same name, and Pomeroy explosive rounds. These were mixed together in the drum magazines of the Lewis guns that armed the antiairship fighters.

In August 1916 Admiral Reinhard Scheer received a letter from Captain Peter Strasser, the energetic operational commander of the Imperial Navy’s airship arm, promising him that his Zeppelins would inflict such serious damage on British civilian morale and economic life that their recovery was unlikely. It was indeed true that much larger, improved airships with the capacity to climb higher were being introduced, and that raids were now being carried out by groups of Zeppelins rather than by individual ships. However, the old problem of faulty navigation persisted, with commanders returning home convinced that their bombs had hit their target when they had actually landed many miles away. Again, the standard airship engine was a veritable minefield of trouble, causing numerous sorties to be aborted and contributing to the loss of ships. In the circumstances, it was an unwise prediction, especially as the British defence was beginning to take a steady toll.

On the night of 2/3 September no fewer than twelve naval airships, joined by four army craft flying from the Rhineland, set out for London. Among the latter was a new Schutte-Lanz craft, SL-11, commanded by a Captain Schramm. Approaching London from the north, SL-11 was brilliantly illuminated by searchlights and surrounded by bursting anti-aircraft shells. Schramm decided to turn away, but three night fighters were already converging on him. Closest was Second Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson, who laced the huge hull with two drums of incendiary and explosive ammunition, without result. He then concentrated the fire of a third drum against one point near the tail. A glow appeared inside the envelope, grew in intensity and suddenly burst through in a roaring tongue of flame that briefly lit up another airship, L-16, over a mile distant. Then, stern first, SL-11 crashed to earth near Cuffley in Essex, her wooden Schutte-Lanz skeleton continuing to burn long after the impact. There were no survivors. Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Simultaneously, after a good run in which serious ground fires had been started, L-33, one of the new ‘super-Zeppelins,’ sustained heavy damage from anti-aircraft fire and was crippled by a night fighter flown by Second Lieutenant Albert de Bathe Brandon. Her crew managed to land her near Little Wigborough, then set her on fire before marching towards the coast in the vain hope of finding a boat.

Mathy, now commanding L-31, took part in an eleven-strong raid on London during the night of 1 October. Having dropped his bombs, Mathy found himself under attack by four night fighters, one of which, piloted by Second Lieutenant Wulstan J. Tempest, came in from above and set the ship ablaze. The wreckage hit the ground at Potters Bar. Somehow, Mathy managed to jump clear but died from his injuries almost immediately. His loss was keenly felt throughout the airship service.

It was two months before naval Zeppelins appeared again in British skies. They avoided London because of its heavy defences, and attacked the North and Midlands instead. The raids were not a success and cost two Zeppelins shot down in flames; L-34 over West Hartlepool and L-21 off Lowestoft, having raided as far west as Newcastle-under Lyme.

For Count Zeppelin the airship was not the war-winning weapon he had hoped it would be. Zeppelin raids against the United Kingdom tailed away to 30 in 1917 and ten in 1918. Scheer’s memoirs record the final days of the airship service.

A painful set-back occurred in January 1918 when, owing to the spontaneous combustion of one of the airships in Ahlhorn, the fire spread by the explosion spread to the remaining sheds, so that four Zeppelins and one Schutte-Lanz machine were destroyed. All the sheds, too, were rendered useless. After this, the fleet had, for the time being, only nine airships at its disposal.

That was not quite the end of the of the Zeppelin story. The Royal Navy had been developing the concept of the aircraft carrier for some time and had finally produced a workable design by converting the light battle cruiser Furious and fitting her with a flight deck. On 19 July 1918 she flew off six Sopwith Camels which mounted a successful attack on the airship base at Tondern, destroying Zeppelins L-54 and L-60.

On 5 August five Zeppelins, led by Captain Strasser himself in the recently delivered L-70, mounted a final attack. L-70 was attacked by de Havilland DH-4 fighters. Explosive ammunition blew a hole in the outer skin of the ship’s stern. Within seconds flames spread rapidly along her length and the blazing wreckage tumbled seawards from a height of some 15,000 feet. The British pilots were horrified to watch the entire airship consume itself in less than a minute. There were no survivors. Strasser was a well-liked commander who had often accompanied his crews on their missions and had never lost faith in the airship concept.

Six days later Zeppelin L-53 was carrying out a reconnaissance patrol over the North Sea. No doubt the crew noticed, far below, a destroyer travelling at speed. It did not attract a great deal of interest as the airship was well beyond the range of its guns. For some unexplained reason it seemed to be towing a lighter, although the details were unclear. Had L-53 been flying lower she would have seen one of the strangest anti-aircraft systems ever devised, for on the lighter was a Sopwith Camel. The wind created by the speed of the destroyer’s passage created just enough lift for the biplane to become airborne. It took an hour before the Camel could reach a height at which the airship could be engaged. At a range of 100 yards, drum after drum was emptied into the Zeppelin’s belly, sending it into a fiery death-dive. This was the last enemy airship to be destroyed by British fighters during the war.

The huge size of the Zeppelins, caught in searchlight beams or sliding across a gap in the clouds, coupled with their ability to hover, produced widespread fear among the civilian population of Great Britain, generated by the knowledge that their island was no longer a safe haven from enemy activity, but it did not break their will to fight, as had been intended. Zeppelins killed 528 people and wounded 1,156 more. They also caused enormous damage, but it was spread across a very wide area. In addition, they tied down 17,340 men, hundreds of anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons, plus numerous RNAS and RFC squadrons, all of which could have been usefully employed in other theatres of war.

To crew a Zeppelin was to risk a particularly horrible death. About 1,100 Zeppelin crewmen lost their lives, the second highest proportion of those serving in any branch of the German armed services, the highest being U-boat crews. John Terraine provides some idea of the scale of Zeppelin losses in his book White Heat – The New Warfare 1914–18. He points out that of the 130 airships employed by the German Army and Navy during the war, only 15 existed when the Armistice was signed. Of the remainder, 31 were scrapped, seven were wrecked by bad weather, 38 were accidently damaged beyond economic repair, 39 were destroyed by enemy warships or land forces, while a further 17 fell victim to the RFC or RNAS, either in the air or as a result of bombing.

Flying the Me-262 in Combat

As Me-262 pilots gained more experience in flying the Me-262 in combat, all were in agreement that special measures should be taken to protect them at the beginning and end of their flights. For one thing, there was a need for the airfields to be more effectively disguised. The pilots concurred that the huge nets over the hangars and other installations were fairly effective, but they felt that overall, the camouflage could be improved.

The runways were the worst problem. They were easy to spot from the air, and scorch marks left on the pavement by jet engine exhausts were a sure tipoff to enemy airmen flying reconnaissance. As much as possible, the pilots said, runways should be hidden when not in use.

For another thing, it would help to have piston fighters fly top cover when Me-262s were taking off and landing. It was obvious that the enemy had quickly become aware of the jets’ vulnerability at those critical times, and that was when they did their hunting. More 88mm flak batteries would be a good idea as well.

Admittedly, only a handful of Me-262s had been lost in combat so far, and some of those were destroyed by AA fire. One such incident had occurred when Lt. Rolf Weidemann was hit over Diest while on a bombing mission. Another was when German flak gunners in Holland mistook Unteroffizier Herbert Schauder’s aircraft for an Allied bomber and shot it down. But the others had been lost while the jets were just getting off the ground, or when they were on final approach.

The talk then turned to tactics. Once aloft, speed was a boon, of course—but it could also be a hindrance, especially if the pilot didn’t know the best way to use it. In a dogfight, the standard practice of scissoring was fine for a Bf-109 or an Fw-190, but not for an Me-262. An astute enemy flier would realize he could outmaneuver an attacking jet by turning inside it, which had been done a number of times. The pilots were aware that making abrupt turns was to be avoided. Bank too sharply in an Me-262 and you ran the risk of engine flameout. It had led to fatal accidents even in practice flights, and if you lost power in combat the game was up.

Therefore, whenever possible, an Me-262 should rely on a fast-closing attack from astern—that was when the jet was at its best. Baudach could attest to that, and so could many of the others. You wanted to line up on the enemy and give him a good squirt with the cannons before he knew you were there. Deflection shots were far more difficult, again because of the jet’s speed. And the Revi gunsight wasn’t much help, either. Any angle greater than 30 degrees usually insured a miss, thanks to the enemy’s ability to break quickly.

Attacks on bombers presented special problems, which were different from engaging a fighter. It was true that Feldwebel Lennartz had easily shot down a B-17 over Stuttgart back in August, but that was because the Fortress had been alone. That in itself was unusual, inasmuch as the bombers almost always flew in large fleets. Their standard battle formations comprised tight combat boxes, which enabled them to protect one another with massed machine-gun fire. An enemy squadron of twelve aircraft formed such a box, with four elements of three aircraft each. A group would have three squadrons, or 36 planes. A wing consisted of three groups, for a total of 108 bombers. On some raids the Allies would fly five or six wings, or even more. And now with hundreds of Mustangs escorting the bombers, the Me-262 pilots were heavily outnumbered.

Although they’d encountered heavies several times since Lennartz’s victory, the jets had claimed only a few kills. The pilots agreed that having to deal with large numbers of fighter escorts was the main obstacle, especially now that the Mustangs were ranging freely out in front of the enemy formations. And even when an Me-262 penetrated the fighter screen and reached the bombers, the jets’ speed was again a factor. Typically the bombers would be flying at about 350 kph, and an Me-262 attacking at more than twice that rate would have little time for a firing pass. If you weren’t a good shot, you had almost no chance to make a hit.

Some pilots felt it would be best to use the boom-and-zoom type of attack, diving on the enemy from above and firing, then pulling up and away. The angle of the dive would present the largest silhouette of the bomber, resulting in more of a target to shoot at. Others said it would be better to continue the dive after firing rather than risk a rapid pull-up. Or maybe boom-and-zoom would be all right if the dive were kept very shallow. The so-called roller coaster attack might also work, though it wouldn’t allow the pilot much time to fire with accuracy.

But what the pilots couldn’t dispute was that no matter how they did it, attacking a Fortress in an Me-262 was a lot better than in an Fw-190 or a Bf-109. Many of the pilots were veterans of such battles, and closing on the tail of an enemy bomber through a hail of .50-caliber bullets was not a pleasant task.

Most of all, the pilots wanted more aircraft. They realized the Messerschmitt plants were doing their best to produce them, but the supply was a trickle. With more Me-262s, they were sure they could blow enough of the Allies out of the sky to make a real difference.

And one other point. Supposedly they were at Lechfeld to form a special jet squadron, which was to be fully staffed with qualified pilots. Ideally, it would be led by a commander who knew his business, yet so far that person hadn’t appeared. When would he?

General Galland answered that question on 26 September, when he ordered Major Walter Nowotny to take charge of the unit. Nowotny had all the ability the Me-262 pilots could hope for, and all the credentials to prove it. Fine-featured and slim, with black hair and a cocky attitude, Nowotny was one of the Luftwaffe’s top aces. Only 23, he’d already posted 255 victories.

Most of the major’s record had been achieved on the eastern front, where his exploits were legendary. On several occasions he’d made multiple kills, knocking down five or six of the enemy in a single battle. And on one memorable day over Leningrad, he shot down ten Soviet aircraft.

He’d also displayed great personal courage. In a dogfight with Soviet I-53s off Riga Bay, his Bf-109 was riddled with machinegun bullets. The battered fighter crashed into the frigid waters, and Nowotny climbed out just as it sank. Cold and wet and bleeding from wounds, he spent three days and nights in a rubber dinghy before reaching shore.

On another sortie, near Novgorod, he destroyed four Ratas while refusing to bail out of his smoking Bf-109. Afterward he crash-landed, and leaped from the flaming wreck as it skidded along the ground. When he recovered from his wounds, he flew an Fw-190 and continued to run up his score.

In recognition of his heroism, Nowotny was awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. The Luftwaffe then assigned him to administrative duties, rather than risk losing him, but he hated being grounded and agitated constantly to get back into the air. He got his wish when he was sent to Pau for training in an Me-262. The aircraft was made for him. He loved the speed, and the sense that only the best of the best could fly this entirely new and superior type of fighter.

After he took command, the unit was officially dubbed Kommando Nowotny and moved to two airfields in northern Germany. One was at Achmer, the other at nearby Hesepe. Nowotny immediately set about expanding his outfit into a complete fighter gruppe. When at full strength, the gruppe would have three staffeln of 16 aircraft each. There would also be a Stabschwarm, or headquarters flight, consisting of four more. Thus Kommando Nowotny would eventually comprise 52 jet fighters.

Like a good commander, the major listened carefully as his pilots expressed their views. They said that because Me-262s needed a long takeoff run, the runways at Achmer and Hesepe were barely acceptable. Nowotny had them lengthened. Next, the pilots complained about inadequate camouflage. The major saw to it that new, better designed nets holding clumps of brush were made up. He had the nets arranged so that they could be positioned quickly over the airfields, including the runways when they were not in use. Then there was the problem of vulnerability when taking off and landing. Nowotny petitioned General Galland to send piston fighters, so there would be top cover for the jets over both fields. Galland transferred a gruppe of Fw-190s to Achmer. This was III/JG54, commanded by Hauptmann Robert Weiss.

There were four staffeln under Weiss. They were led by Hauptmann Karl Bottlander and Oberleutnants Willy Heilmann, Peter Crump, and Hans Dortenmann. All had extensive combat experience.

Their Focke-Wulf fighter was the D model. Pilots called it the Longnose Dora because it mounted a liquid-cooled 2100 hp Jumo 213A V-12 engine, rather than the air-cooled radial BMW. Armament was two 13mm MG131 machine guns and two 20mm MG151/20E cannons.

Finally, there was the need for more flak batteries. Nowotny applied pressure, and they were installed. The batteries were the latest type, which had been expanded from four 88mm cannons to eight. Each gun would fire 120 rounds per minute, lofting 10 kg shells as high as 10,600 meters, where they would explode in a burst of steel splinters.

The major drilled his pilots hard. He had them fly several times a day, practicing combat maneuvers. The sessions were not without misfortune, however. On 4 October, the Kapitan of 2 Staffel, Hauptmann Alfred Teumer, was on final approach when both his engines failed. The Me-262 slammed to earth, killing him. Nowotny replaced him with Oberleutnant Franz Schall, who had scored 117 kills while serving with I/JG52 in Russia.

The Kommando was still nowhere near full strength, when on 7 October, Nowotny led 11 of his charges to intercept American bombers attacking Magdeburg. The target was an aircraft production plant. When the Me-262s arrived, Nowotny saw that the oncoming bombers were B-24 Liberators. He estimated there were 300 of them, and probably more. They were flying at 6,500 meters, and escorted by P-47s that were apparently equipped with extra fuel tanks to increase their range.

The jets were the first on the scene, though the major knew from radio transmissions that controllers were sending squadrons of piston fighters as well. He could hear the excitement in the pilots’ voices. As he gained altitude in readiness to lead an attack, his flight was seen by the Thunderbolts. The American fighters came up to do battle, but were unable to climb as fast as the jets. Nowotny picked out a P-47, rolled over and dove on it.

The enemy pilot’s wingman must have warned him, because the P-47 broke left in a tight turn and Nowotny was unable to line up for a shot. As he flashed through the swirl of enemy aircraft, he was careful not to handle his Me-262 as roughly as he would an Fw-190, instead recovering gracefully and climbing once more. At that point, a flight of Bf-109s showed up, and the fighting immediately became a series of dogfights. Nowotny and the others in his Kommando tried to break through the P-47s, so as to get at the bombers.

Oberleutnant Franz Schall succeeded. He attacked a Liberator, making the type of shallow dive his fellow airmen felt would be most effective. When he fired his cannons he was only about two hundred meters above the B-24, and the shells hit the cockpit. Apparently the strikes killed the pilot and copilot, because the bomber flipped over and went into an inverted spin, out of control. Schall knew better than to watch it go down. Instead, he pursued another B-24, but had to break off because of machine-gun fire from the bomber and from others in the box.

As the enemy began their bomb runs, Oberfähnrich Heinz Russel ignored warnings about attacking too closely from the rear. He slipped in behind a B-24 and concentrated his fire on the tail. Because of his speed there was time to fire only a few shells, but they silenced the tail gunner and did enough damage to the aircraft to send that one down as well. Unfortunately for Russel, a P-47 caught him just as he was pulling up after firing at the bomber. Pieces of the jet were torn off by the Thunderbolt’s machine guns, and both its engines quit. Russel jettisoned his canopy and bailed out. The crippled 262 had slowed down, but it was still moving so fast that when Russel jumped, it was as if he’d run into a brick wall. Nearly senseless, he opened his parachute by instinct alone. When he landed he was bruised, but thankful to be alive.

Before fuel shortages forced the jets to withdraw, Feldwebel Lennartz again scored. The bomber he attacked had still not dropped its bombs, and when his cannon shells struck the B-24, it exploded.

Oberleutnant Paul Bley also lost his aircraft that day, but not to enemy gunfire. Instead he made too hasty a turn, which caused his engines to fail, and he was unable to restart them. He too bailed out, and like Russel, lived to rejoin the unit and fight again another day.

The P-47 that shot down Russel was flown by Col. Hubert Zemke, commander of the 56th Fighter Group known as Zemke’s Wolf Pack. In the confusion typical of those huge air battles, Zemke thought he had destroyed a Bf-109. It was only when his combat film was viewed that he learned that he’d scored one of the first aerial victories over an Me-262.

As for Nowotny, the major was more than satisfied by the way his pilots had acquitted themselves. They’d made a few mistakes, but by and large they were operating just as he’d hoped. And he was sure the best was yet to come.

On the same day as the Magdeburg raid, another battle took place near Achmer. It began when 8th Air Force Lieutenant Urban Drew of the 362st Fighter Group approached the area in his Mustang. Drew was the leader of the 375th Fighter Squadron, and he and his pilots were returning to base after escorting B-17s in attacks on targets in Czechoslovakia.

There had been reports of Me-262s operating in the vicinity, and Drew was keeping a sharp eye out for them. As he looked down, he was startled to see two twin-engine aircraft taxi onto a runway and take off. Drew realized at once what they were. He ordered his Deputy Squadron Leader, Captain Bruce Rowlett, to cover him.

Drew’s combat report described what happened next:

“Waited until both jets were airborne, then rolled over from 15,000 feet and caught up with one Me-262 when he was 1,000 feet off ground. I was indicating 450 mph. Me-262 couldn’t have been going more than 200 mph. I started firing from approximately 400 yards, 30 degrees deflection, and as I closed, I saw hits all over the wings and fuselage. Just as I passed him I saw a sheet of flame come out from near the right wing root, and as I glanced back I saw gigantic explosions and a sheet of red flame over an area of 1,000 feet. The other Me-262 was 500 yards ahead, and had started a fast climbing turn to the left. I was still indicating 440 mph, and had to haul back to stay with him. I started shooting from about 40 degrees deflection, and hit his tail section. I kept horsing back, and hits crept up his fuselage to his cockpit. Just after that I saw his canopy fly off in two sections, his plane roll over and go into a flat spin. He hit the ground on his back at 60 degrees angle and exploded violently. I did not see the pilot bail out. Two huge columns of smoke came up from the Me-262s burning on the ground.”

The first aircraft Drew destroyed had been flown by Leutnant Gerhard Kobert. The pilot of the second was Oberfeldwebel Heinz Arnold. The action was witnessed from the ground by Hauptmann Georg-Peter Eder, who had intended to lead the flight but was prevented from taking off because of an engine flameout.

For unexplained reasons, Hauptmann Robert Weiss’s Fw-190s were not in the air providing cover when Drew attacked. Also, the crews of the flak batteries were slow in reacting; it wasn’t until the two jets were piles of blazing wreckage that the gunners opened up.

When the 88mm shells began bursting, Drew ordered his wingman, Lieutenant Robert McCandliss, to join him in making evasive maneuvers at treetop level. Instead, McCandliss, who was on his sixteenth mission and had not yet achieved a victory, disobeyed and attacked the flak batteries. That proved to be a mistake. The gunners were only too happy to have a shot at the American pilot who dared strafe them. There were so many batteries in the area that all the crews had to do, was put up a barrage, and the Mustang flew straight into it. The last Urban Drew saw of McCandliss’s Mustang, it was afire from nose to tail and going down. There was nothing to be done for him; the squadron leader flew on.

Drew was not aware of it, but McCandliss had just enough altitude to bail out. He jumped clear, pulled his ripcord, and the chute blossomed. The hard landing sprained his ankles, but otherwise he was not seriously hurt. German troops quickly surrounded him and took him prisoner, and he spent the rest of the war in a Stalag Luft in eastern Germany.

When Drew returned to base, he was anxious to see his combat films, but to his irritation, the gun camera had malfunctioned and he could not verify his claims. The others in his flight had not seen the Me-262s destroyed, so they couldn’t back him up.

In the weeks following the attack at Achmer, the many small plants that were constructing components of the Me-262 increased their efficiency. As a result, the pace of assembly also improved, and the aircraft were turned out in greater numbers. Though most of these were the pure fighter, a few of the fighter-bombers were still being built, even though their performance in combat continued to be less than satisfactory. Not only were they unable to bomb with accuracy, they were also 100 kph slower than the fighters, which made it easier for enemy pilots to shoot them down.

Nevertheless, the Air Ministry was not willing to give up on the idea of the Sturmvogel as Hitler’s high-speed bomber. When Messerschmitt was ordered to come up with a new version, his team designed the Me-262 A/2a/U2. In this aircraft the entire forward section was removed, including the cannons, and a new nose made of glazed wood was fitted in its place. A bombardier lay inside the nose and focused on the target with a Lotfe 7H bombsight. Examples of the jet were sent to Lager Lechfeld for testing.

Flown by Gerd Lindner and Karl Baur, the Me-262 A/2a/U2 achieved good results. According to the test pilots’ reports, bombs dropped from altitudes as high as 5,000 meters landed with acceptable accuracy. But there were problems with the aircrafts’ aerodynamics, and the project stalled. Another version of the Me-262 the team designed was a trainer with two seats in tandem. This would enable instructors to fly with pilots being introduced to the aircraft. Not many of the two-seaters were built; most pilots new to the jet received only ground instruction, and learned by flying it.

As more Me-262s went into service, American fighter pilots kept them busy in dogfights, which prevented many of the jets from attacking the bombers. As a result, most of their victories, as well as their losses, occurred in combat with Mustangs and Thunderbolts. Leutnant Schreiber also had success in engagements with Lightning F-5s, shooting down two of them in one battle on 29 October.

For Schreiber, the day was memorable for another reason as well. The Lightnings belonged to the RAF 7th Photo Recon Group, and were accompanied by Spitfires. After Schreiber got his second kill he pulled up in a climbing right turn, and his Me-262e collided with a Spitfire. Both aircraft burst into flames. The British pilot, Flight Lieutenant Wilkins of RAF 4 Squadron, was killed. Although singed and only halfconscious, Schreiber jumped from the burning wreckage and popped his chute. He landed intact, and a day later was back in the air.

Also on 29 October, Feldwebel Büttner and Oberfeldwebel Göbel of Kommando Nowotny ran across a flight of P-47s that were shooting up a train. The low-flying Thunderbolts made perfect targets. Each pilot chose one and dove on it, taking care not to pick up too much speed. One quick burst of cannon fire from the cannons was all that was needed. As the two P-47s spun in, the others quickly rose to give chase, but all they saw were wisps of exhaust smoke as the jets pulled away and disappeared.

With additional Me-262s becoming available, General Galland was eager to establish more units with them. In the first of these, KG54 was given the new designation KG(J)54, and received its jets at the beginning of November. I Group of this unit was established at Giebelstadt, and a second part of it, designated IIKG(J)54, was sent to Neuburg. A training unit was also formed, and stationed at Lechfeld, with Hauptmann Eder appointed commander. The pilots assigned to the unit were all veterans, so instruction simply covered the characteristics of the aircraft. Eder would lead them in combat when he thought they were ready.

A major problem was the growing shortage of J2 jet fuel. Pilots were limited to one hour of flying circuits of the field, two hours of aerobatics, one hour of cross-country, one hour of flying at high altitude, and two hours of practicing formation flight. Many accidents occurred, most of them fatal.

By then American pilots were encountering Me-262s with increasing frequency. On 1 November, three wings of 8th Air Force bombers were en route to bomb Gelsenkirchen, a city on the Rhine, when they were attacked by four jets of Kommando Nowotny. The B-17s and B-24s were escorted by Mustangs of the 20th and 352nd Fighter Groups, as well as Thunderbolts of the 56th Group.

The bombers were flying at 8,500 meters, a higher altitude than usual. But the Me-262s were still higher, and despite the enormous disparity in numbers, the jets dove in with cannons blazing. Oberfeldwebel Willy Banzhaff sent his shells into a Mustang of the 77th Fighter Squadron, killing the pilot, Lt. Dennis Allison. Other Mustangs gave chase, but they had no hope of catching the Me-262. Banzhaff could have escaped altogether, but he committed a tactical error. Instead of continuing his dive, he pulled up. A P-47 pilot, W.L. Groce, shouted into his mike: “Spread out, and we’ll get him if he turns!”

Banzhaff did, climbing and swinging left. Groce and Lieutenant W.T. Gerb of the 352nd poured machine gun and cannon fire into the jet, and its port engine became wreathed in flames. The aircraft went into a spin, and Banzhaff bailed out.

Groce then followed an order that had recently been issued by the USAAF High Command. He came about and fired at the German who was hanging defenseless in his parachute harness. This was a practice Luftwaffe pilots could not believe was happening, but it was. Many Americans as well could hardly believe the order, and refused to carry it out. Fortunately for Banzhaff, Groce missed.

But Banzhaff’s good luck was not to last much longer. On 3 November, he and another member of Kommando Nowotny were flying near Hesepe when they were spotted by the pilot of a Hawker Tempest Mk. V. One of the most powerful piston-engine fighters of the war, the Tempest mounted a 2,400 hp Napier Sabre engine and was armed with four 20mm Hispano cannons. RAF Wing Commander J.B. Wray was at the controls, and reported:

“I was flying at about 18,000 feet when I sighted two Me-262s. They were camouflaged blue-grey and were flying in a southwesterly direction. They saw me and turned in a wide arc to port. I had already launched an attack, opening to full throttle and diving. My speed was in the region of 500 mph. I closed to about three hundred yards on the starboard aircraft and opened fire with a four-second burst, hitting the tailplane. The Me-262 continued on course and started to pull away, but before he got out of range I fired again. Suddenly a large piece flew off the aircraft and he flicked over onto his back and disappeared downwards into cloud in an inverted position. I followed, but the thickness of the cloud made it impossible for me to maintain contact.”

Wing Commander Wray did not learn until after the war that the jet had sustained fatal damage. It crashed at Hitfeld, and its pilot, Willy Banzhaff, was killed.

On 5 November, Me-262s of Kommando Nowotny attacked another fleet of 8th Air Force bombers. Feldwebel Büttner shot down a Mustang and a Thunderbolt, and Oberfeldwebel Baudach also destroyed a Thunderbolt. Nevertheless, they were unable to penetrate the fighter screen and get at the heavies.

By then a few more American fliers were learning the best way to engage the jets. Among them was a pilot who in later years would become one of the world’s most famous airmen. He was Charles E. Yeager.