The War-Winning Fighter That Never Was
The reason why the Luftwaffe did not have working jet fighters years earlier than it did lies with the strange fate of the Ernst Heinkel He 280.
The first jet fighter project of them all was the He 280. It was an evolution of the He 178, the experimental jet that was flying in record-breaking fashion by 1938. For some reason, the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (German, Reich Aviation Ministry, RLM) headed by Hermann Goering and his crony Ernst Udet was very slow to appreciate the huge advance in capability offered by the He 178. The Heinkel company, under head designer Robert Lusser, undertook to adapt the ground-breaking He 178 into a military form anyway. This project began under the designation He 180 and developed into the He 280.
In some respects, the design was simply too far ahead of its time. For instance, it was fitted with a cutting edge tricycle landing gear at a time when, for example, Stuka 87s were considered invincible with their fixed landing gear. Airfields at the time, especially in operational zones, were usually (not always) grass and dirt. The brass did not think that the tricycle landing gear could stand the strain of actual operation. In addition, the RLM did not order a crash program to develop a series of reliable jet engines, but instead focused on piston-engined fighters and left the jet development to the private companies. It is forgotten decisions like this that determine the fate of nations.
The bottom line is that the error was larger than just the particular decisions regarding the He 280. The RLM's critical and even fatal error was not realizing soon enough the decisive role those jet fighters would/could play before the end of the war. Early in the war, the Luftwaffe was reasonably dominant over Europe, and no reason to change was seen. When the balance of power shifted against Germany in every way by 1943, it was too late - the work to develop quality, reliable jet engines, which was the bottleneck of the whole project, simply took too long. Even after good jet engines became available, pilots had to be trained to use them with completely new tactics that had to be worked out, mechanics trained to service them, factories set up to make them - everything takes time. Only a full-priority emphasis by the RLM on jet engines to the exclusion of all else from day one of the war might have made a difference in the war's outcome, and the will to do this was completely lacking for the first three years of the war.