Germany's Most Advanced Weapons Systems
Advanced Aircraft that FlewThe Third Reich had quite a few advanced aircraft that flew. There were not mere scribblings in a notepad, they were built and used. Some were several decades ahead of their time.
ME 262The Messerschmidt Me-262 fighter is the most famous of the Third Reich's jet aircraft. It deserves its fame, although it was just one of several operation jet aircraft that were used in combat in 1944-1945.
|The Me 262 has become a favorite of modern enthusiasts.|
The Allies also had jet aircraft either in development or in provisional use behind the front lines during the closing months of World War II. None saw combat, and none matched the capabilities of the ME 262. Its pilots claimed 542 kills, which did not affect the strategic situation but did badly scare Allied planners and also likely saved the lives of some German civilians.
The Germans built their first jet engine in 1936, designed by Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain. A test plane, the Heinkel He 178, flew in 1938. Development on a fighter version began at once, led by Messerschmidt designers Dr. Woldemar Voigt and Robert Lusser.
It took time to develop the fighter, and the hold-up was the engines. The entire design had to revolve around the fragile new engines. Also, the Germans were overconfident and did not think they would need the plane quickly, as the war was going well. The design team was slashed in February 1940. Other aircraft were easier to make and needed immediately. Nevertheless, progress continued, and the first successful jet-powered flight was on July 18, 1942.
Another hold-up was interference by Adolf Hitler, who wanted a ground-attack bomber rather than another fighter. However, this only resulted in a variant being designed, the Sturmvogel, and development on the main fighter version continued regardless of the wishes of higher-ups. The engines were the problem that had to be overcome, not Hitler. Those who claim that he personally kept the aircraft from appearing in the skies are misguided.
|A fleet of ME-262s ready to go, parked under the open sky - no worries in the world.|
Sporadic ME 262 missions continued through the fall. Nowotny himself was shot down on November 8, 1944. The unit was reorganized into a fighter squadron (Jagdgeschwader), JG 7, commanded by Macky Steinhoff, but it was withdrawn until January 1945. Lieutenant General Adolf Galland took over a unit in February 1945 and created a "superstar of the Luftwaffe" unit, staffed by the best pilots. This unit hit the Allies hard in March 1945, operating in numbers for the first time and scoring kills. One Luftwaffe pilot, Hauptmann Franz Schall, was credited with 17 kills, and another, Oberleutnant Kurt Welter, claimed 25 kills. Oberstleutnant Heinrich Bär claimed 16 kills.
As always with any good plane, weak pilots were still shot down, while the best racked up the kills. That any pilots could creditably claim that many kills in the short time that the ME 262 squadron flew is remarkable and illustrates the power of the design.
Armament varied. Some versions had four 30 mm MK 108 cannons, others only two. Some were armed with rockets, 24 x 55 mm R4M rockets. The ground attack versions, which were not successful, carried 2 x 250 kg bombs or 2 x 500 kg bombs.
The ME 262 was superior for its time, but it was far from perfect. It had a relatively short combat range, and the engines were vulnerable to enemy fire. The engines themselves burned out quickly and only lasted a certain number of hours before having to be replaced.
Perhaps the best test pilots of all time, Captain Eric "Wink
le" Brown is one of aviation's legends. He was asked in 2010 (minute 6:30):
"Was there any German aircraft that you evaluated during the war where you thought, 'this is so much more advanced we should just put it into production ourselves in the UK'?"
"Oh Yes. The one which was... which staggered us, frankly, with its quantum jump in performance was the jet - twin jet - Messerschmidt 262. When I tested it here at Farnborough, it was 125 miles an hour faster than any Allied fighter. Now, this puts it in a league by itself, and it was virtually untouchable. And that rattled us, frankly, to find that, and it's just as well that they were unable to produce them fast enough to really make a nuisance of themselves. Anyway, at this stage in the war, which is very late, the Germans were running out of pilots and running out of fuel, but the thought of them perhaps having pilots and fuel and a lot of these jets was a bit sobering."Several ME 262 survive, in museums and in private hands. Some replicas are in flying condition. The ones being built today are considered part of the original production run begun during World War II.
Messerschmitt Me 163 KometOf all the planes of the Second World War, the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet was the craziest. Sure, there were fanciful designs that didn't stand a chance of ever being made, but the Komet was, in fact, made. Not only was it made, but it became a major effort of the Hitler regime, an effort that was completely pointless and utterly wasted.
While the ME 163 has all the appearance of being a last-ditch aircraft that only a desperate man would cling to for dear life, in fact, it was the product of years of careful development that began well before the war started. It derived from gliders, and then someone thought to add a propeller to it. It was so low-rent that it didn't even have wheels until late in development, relying instead on a dolly to take off and a fixed skid to land. This in a craft with extremely combustible and hazardous fuel that would explode if you accidentally spilled onto another form of fuel that it used.
|Putting the C-Stuff in the C-Stuff tank. Wait, that is the C-Stoff tank, right? I better go check.|
|Me 163s were small little birds. That is an advantage when people are shooting back at you.|
|Taking a rest on the most advanced aircraft in the world.|
|A ME-163 sitting on the grass.|
Horten Flying Wing
In the 1980s, the cutting-edge of aviation technology was stealth aircraft (and remains so today). However, the Germans got there first... in 1945.
The Horten brothers, Walter and Reimar, were glider designers. Gliders were all that Germany legally could design under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and the Horten Brothers had fun designing alternative designs for their gliders. They joined the Hitler Youth in 1933 and continued their glider experiments.
|The Horten brothers in their Luftwaffe uniforms.|
The brothers' best design was the Horten 229. It was a jet-powered flying wing that was built and flew before the end of the war. The brothers came up with other advanced designs as well, but they were never built except as gliders. They also participated in the Amerika Bomber project.
|I like how someone just casually parked their bike within feet of the most advanced plane in the world.|
|Horten 2-29 - WW2 German Stealth plane. A group of experts from Northrop Grumman, a global security company, recently re-built the Horten 2-29 for a television special airing on the National Geographic Channel.|
"What's your opinion on the Germans' flying wing design, the Horten 9? Do you think they would have made a good plane?"
"Oh yes, I believe the Horten brothers, who were specialists in tail-less aircraft or all-wing aircraft - it's a difficult formula to get right, but when you get it right, it pays huge dividends, and the Horten 9 they had certainly I think got it right. And the great pity is that although we captured one which could have been repaired and it went to the United States, it was never brought to fruition. We know it has flown, it flew about four times, but not with what I call an experienced test pilot, but I had great faith in the Horten brothers."Flying a plane like the Horten 9 took extreme bravery for anyone.
|The Horten plane did fly, several times.|
|That is just the very tip of the nose, the plane was much larger.|
|The Horten Ho 229 V3 being unloaded in 1945 at Freeman Field. Much of the damage to the wing roots can be attributed to the sharp angle of the hoisting strap digging into the plywood.|
|What remains of the Horten Ho IX / Horten Ho 229 Jet-Powered Flying Wing at the Smithsonian.|
|The Horten parts remain in a storage shed to this day.|
JU-390 "New York Bomber"
|Actual JU-390 being readied for flight.|
The Luftwaffe had halted development of strategic bombers in the 1930s - "The Fuhrer does not ask me how big my bombers are, only how many I have," Hermann Goering once said - a decision which the Germans regretted as the years passed and the Allies demonstrated the devastating power of four-engine bombers. Some projects were attempted, but it was tough to tool up and develop a capable strategic bomber. One project that did advance beyond the design stage was the "New York Bomber."
The German designers took the Junkers 290 and expanded it, lengthening the wings to fit a total of six engines and lengthening the fuselage to increase the payload. It would have carried a crew of ten in full operational mode, with two 13mm machine guns in a gondola, two on the beam as in Allied bombers, and a 20 mm cannon in the tail. The plan was to prepare it for maritime reconnaissance, bombing, and transport. The engines were BMW 801D radial piston engines of 1730 horsepower apiece. These would have provided a top speed of 314 mph, better than Allied bombers and comparable to most fighters of the day, with a range of 6,030 miles and a service ceiling of 19700 feet.
|JU-390 in flight.|
If the war had continued, the JU-390 would have had major strategic implications. The impact would not have been the bomb damage caused by the craft but from the Allied response. The Americans were notorious for taking careful security precautions against proven threats, for instance instituting extensive convoys and other defensive measures in response to the short-lived U-Boat operation in 1942 off the American coast (Operation Paukenschlag). If even a few of the "New York Bombers" had bombed continental US targets, the US would undoubtedly have instituted costly air patrols, perhaps put up observation and barrage balloons off the coast, and instituted naval surveillance for air attacks. This would have cost the US greatly and diverted resources from other pressing tasks. It never happened, though, with the JU-390 project basically abandoned when the Allies captured the French airfields in August 1944. The planes were flown to Germany and destroyed.
It is theoretically possible that Hitler (or others) could have flown this bomber somewhere far away as the Reich collapsed. However, where would he have gone? There were no safe havens, and this plane was very noticeable.
Henschel HS 132
|Henschel Hs 132.|
Luftwaffe HelicoptersIn February 1938, the world's first helicopter was demonstrated by the German test pilot Hanna Reitsch indoors at the Deutschlandhalle sports stadium in Berlin, Germany. Called the Focke Wulf Fw 61, it subsequently set several records for altitude, speed and flight duration culminating, in June 1938, with an altitude record of 3,427 m (11,243 ft) and a straight line flight record of 230 km (143 mi).
|FW 61, of the type flown by Hanna Reitsch.|
Another Luftwaffe helicopter was the Focke Achgelis FA 223. It was armed with a 1 x 7.92 mm MG15. It had a crew of two and was substantially larger than the other early types, though it came into service in 1942, around the same time as the Fl-282.
|Focke Achgelis FA 223.|
The Americans also had some experimental helicopters in the works, but the Germans were far ahead in this area. Only a couple dozen Luftwaffe helicopters were made because the Allies bombed the main production facility, and those that were made were used primarily as artillery spotters, operating out of the test field at Rangsdorf. If the Germans had had better luck, the order the Wehrmacht placed for 1000 of them would have been filled and they would have been everywhere.
Luftwaffe helicopters were not even that rare, they just didn't have a defined role yet, such as helicopters gained during the Vietnam War as troop carriers. They may look sketchy because they don't look like later helicopters, but they were capable of lifting cannons and even airplanes.
Below is some rare footage of Luftwaffe helicopters of World War II, set to "Where Eagles Dare," the theme to a 1968 Clint Eastwood film:
Several Fl-282 survive, one in Russian hands, one with the Americans at Dayton, and one with the British in Coventry.
Dornier DO 335 Pfeil (Arrow)
|Dornier DO 335.|
|Dornier DO 335.|
|Do-335s on the apron at Oberpfaffenhofen at the war's end, including unfinished two-seat versions.|
Below is some footage of the DO 335.
This is one aircraft that was being manufactured at war's end and would have seen major combat duty later in 1945 if the war had lasted that long.
Heinkel He-162 "Salamander"While another of the last-minute jet projects undertaken by the Germans as the Allies closed in, the Heinkel He-162 "Salamander" was no jury-rigged disaster. The Germans had the technology, the materials and, most importantly, the desperate need to crank out a capable jet fighter, and the ME-262 couldn't do it alone. Envisaged as a "People's Fighter" which could be flown by just about anyone, the Salamander instead was a high-performance cutting-edge piece of hardware that stood a good chance of turning the tide of the air war if the Wehrmacht had been able to hold its airfields.
|The He-162 Salamander, basically a jet engine with a vestigial plane attached.|
|Heinkel HE162 jet in British markings.|
|A surviving He 162.|
|A captured He-162. From conception in September 1944 to operations in early 1945 - an incredible industrial achievement using slave labor and all exigencies of a police state.|
|The captured He 162 in British markings.|
Fritz XGuided missiles are so common now that they seem as though they always have been around, sort of like the term "teenager." But the word "teenager" was only invented in the mid-1940s, and so was the guided missile - and the Germans did it. There was a concurrent American program, the Azon, but as usual with these advanced designs (and these are issues of national pride, but the truth will out) the Azon came along later and is completely forgotten, while the German Fritz X was used first and to stupendous effect.
Nobody is trying to claim that the Germans were better people for having created these weapons first. However, trying to claim the reverse - that they didn't create some epic things first - is simply anti-intellectual. Which is great if you aren't interested in the truth, but we try to describe only the truth here. It is important to be exact about what actually happened during World War II, because once you head off into fantasyland you get Holocaust deniers and all that. The Holocaust happened, and so did the Fritz X.
The training ground of the Spanish Civil War had proven the difficulty of hitting moving ships with bombs - a lesson it took the Allies a long time to learn. A German engineer, Max Kramer, started thinking about the problem, and he experimented with small 250 kg bombs, adding remote-controlled spoilers in the late 1930s. Much like modern video games, the controls on the bomb were activated with a joystick via radio signal. The transmitter was a Funkgerät (FuG 203) Kehl, the receiver a Funkgerät (FuG 230) Straßburg. The transmitter had a range of only five miles, and the controlling aircraft had to remain in steady flight, exposing it to counter-fire.
|Do 217K-2 with its unique “non-stepped” cockpit. This photo is from September 1943 (Federal Archive).|
|The Fritz X.|
|The Roma meets its fate.|
|Fritz heads for the Roma (artist's conception).|
|Fritz X on display.|
|Loading a Fritz X.|
Henschel Hs 293
|Henschel HS 293 Radio-controlled Glide Bomb.|
Henschel Hs 117
|A Henschel Hs 117 Schmetterling on display at the National Air & Space Museum (NASM), Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.|
|Henschel Hs-117 Schmetterling ready to fire.|
|The Ruhrstahl X-4.|
The missile was a multi-stage solid fuelled rocket. There were 82 test-firings, with an air-to-air version contemplated. A typical rushed late-war desperation project, it never succeeded. The project was canceled on February 6, 1945. Given a few more years of ordinary development, it probably would have been the best anti-aircraft missile of its time, but it needed time that Germany no longer had.
V-1 flying bombThe V-1 flying bomb (German: Vergeltungswaffe), also known to the Allies as the buzz bomb, or doodlebug, and in Germany as Kirschkern (cherrystone) or Maikäfer (May bug), was an early pulse-jet-powered cruise missile used by Germany against the Western Allies.
|A V-1 preserved in a museum in Auckland, NZ - The War Memorial Museum (author's photo).|
The V-1 was another of the many German advanced weapons that appeared during the final years of the war. It didn't have a category - it was simply known at the time as a flying bomb - until the 1980s when the term "cruise missile" was invented. That's how far ahead the Germans were.
The V-1 was developed at Peenemünde Army Research Centre on the Baltic coast by the German Luftwaffe under the leadership of Werhner von Braun. The concept originated in the 1920s, with the pioneering rocketry work of Dr. Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth. It combined two elements that were not banned as research by Germany. While military aircraft were banned under the Treaty of Versailles, that was not the case for rockets or gliders. So, the underlying technology could be developed freely within Germany and not furtively in the Netherlands or Soviet Union as was done with Luftwaffe airplane projects. Engineer Fritz Gosslau began work on pilotless aircraft in 1936 for Argus Motoren, an auto/plane engine manufacturer. In 1939, the company submitted a proposal to the RLM (German Air Ministry) headed by Hermann Goering to create a pilotless weapon carrying a 2200 pound warhead up to 310 miles. Once the RLM accepted, Argus formed a consortium with Lorentz AG and Arado Flugzeugwerke to develop the missile.
|V-1 being hauled into place.|
|V1 over London in its death dive.|
|A V-1 on the launch ramp. These would be launched from wooded areas due to Allied air attacks. Apparently. the Germans weren't worried about the fire hazard.|
|A V-1 in flight - what a chasing interceptor would have seen.|
|Fi-103 manned V-1.|
|German pilot Hanna Reitsch sitting on a V-1 rocket manned version (Fieseler Fi 103R) on the test site Rechlin (Rechlin-Larz). 1944 Germany. Yes, it existed, and yes, she would have flown it in a heartbeat if Hitler asked.|
|The Fieseler Fi 103R.|
|FZG 76 Piloted V-1 rocket. Allied code name, Doodle Bug.|
|An RAF fighter (apparently a Spitfire) intercepting a V-1.|
V-2 rocketThe V-2 (German: Vergeltungswaffe 2, "Vengeance Weapon 2"), technical name Aggregat-4 (A4), was the first long-range ballistic missile, and the first one used in combat. It was the product of decades of development and a high-point in technological development during World War II. The V-2 led directly to missile development by the Allied powers in subsequent decades and the first Moon landings in 1969-1973.
|This was a completely mobile missile, which could be pulled out of hiding, raised and launched literally in minutes.|
Wernher von Braun also had an interest in rockets. He bought a copy of the self-published Oberth book and matriculated at the Technical University of Berlin, where he assisted Oberth in liquid-fueled rocket motor tests. Artillery Captain Walter Dornberger noticed von Braun's promise and arranged an Ordnance Department research grant for von Braun. Von Braun then worked next to Dornberger's existing solid-fuel rocket test site at Kummersdorf testing field, and he wrote a doctoral thesis ("Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket" (dated 16 April 1934))that spelled out advanced concepts for rocketry. He and the others also borrowed from the advances of American physicist Robert H. Goddard and even occasionally contacted him with questions. It was an ideal team: Oberth the theorist, von Braun the implementer, Dornberger running interference with the authorities and providing resources.
|The distinctive checkerboard paint pattern was later sometimes replaced with olive green|
After a decade of development, von Braun announced during September 1943 that the rocket was "practically complete/ concluded." Indeed, from a long-term perspective, it was, but the Devil is in the details. It took another year of frantic work to iron out the bugs. Hitler now changed his tune and, whatever his actual thoughts about the rocket's actual effect on the war, knew a propaganda tool when he saw one. He commanded that assembly line production of the V-2 begin at the Mittelwerk site by prisoners from Mittelbau-Dora, a concentration camp where an estimated 20,000 prisoners died during the war. The glorious V-2 was put together by horribly maltreated people who were working on the tools of their own suppression.
|A V-2 flying straight and true.|
The Allies took various countermeasures of minimal impact, but the only true solution was to overrun the underground German production facilities and strangle the manufacturing inputs. As with everything else, the inability to defend had pluses and minuses: on the plus side for the Germans, that meant the rockets got through. On the minus side for Germany, it meant the Allies did not have to spend exorbitant amounts on aircraft defense, as they did on, say, patrols against U-boats or air attacks and naval positioning against the Tirpitz sitting endlessly at anchor in Norway. The V-1 was a much more effective weapon in this sense, though not as terrifying.
Over 3100 rockets were fired, and most of them were not against London. Only 1402 were against England, 1358 against London. The rest were against European targets: 1664 against Belgium (Antwerp being a key Allied port), 76 against France, 19 against The Netherlands, 11 against the Remagen Bridge after it was taken intact in early March 1945 (to no effect whatsoever).
|A V-2 nearing the end of its flight.|
There were 2,754 civilian deaths in London alone attributed to the rocket before operations ceased on March 27, 1945, 1,736 killed in Antwerp. V-2s left a huge impact crater and caused extensive - but random - damage. The V-2s almost always were aimed against cities because they fell wherever they fell, anywhere within a huge radius, unguided (though radio guidance was attempted with middling results). They were as likely to fall uselessly in an empty field or in water as on a crowded cinema full of people (as happened once in Antwerp, killing over 500 people in a stroke).
The cost to Germany was fantastically expensive. It was the German "Manhattan Project," and in fact cost more than the US development of the atomic bomb. SS General Hans Kammler organized production using slave labor, thousands of whom died due to maltreatment, without which costs would have been even greater. Overall, for the cost, the rocket hurt Germany more than it hurt the Allies, though it hurt both sides a great deal. It did, however, allow Hitler and his cronies to keep the troops fighting a hopeless war for months based on the spurious propaganda promise that the V-2 was just one of many "super weapons" coming along that would lead Germany to ultimate victory despite all the obvious evidence to the contrary. That was perhaps the largest cost of all.
|A Saturn V liftoff. Note the black/white pattern. Remind you of anything above?|
Space flight is a peculiar legacy of the Third Reich, but spaceflight would have happened decades later than it actually did without the Germans' contributions to basic space science.
FeuerlilieWhen casually dismissing German attempts at technological breakthroughs that might change the entire war situation around as mere fantasy, armchair historians sometimes forget the sheer number of projects under development from early in the war that may, under the right circumstances, have borne fruit. Jet aircraft, missiles, helicopters - everything seemed right on the verge of fulfillment.
|Rheinmetall-Borsig F55 Feuerlilie anti-aircraft missile, 1943.|
Ba 349 Natter
It was a typical 1945 German project born out of desperation. The objective was to fly the plane against the Allied bomber streams. This project remains shrouded in mystery. Out of all those projects, only a few were at all viable, and none made a difference. The Natter proved irrelevant to the war's outcome despite the high hopes vested in it.
The Bachem Ba 349 Natter (Viper, Adder) was a World War II German point-defense rocket-powered interceptor, which was to be used in a very similar way to a manned surface-to-air missile. After a vertical take-off, which eliminated the need for airfields, the majority of the flight to the Allied bombers was to be controlled by an autopilot. The primary mission of the relatively untrained pilot was to aim the aircraft at its target bomber stream and fire its armament of rockets.
Factory workers saw the Soviets approaching and decided to carry one example into the mountains to present to the Americans. That Ba-349 is known to survive in storage at the Smithsonian Institute in Suitland, Maryland, but it is not on public display.
|This is the Bachem Ba 349 which factory workers transported into the Alps to turn over to the Americans.|
Aircraft and Related Equipment Still at the Design StageBelow are some cutting-edge ideas that very easily could have been integrated into weapons systems by 1946 or 1947. These are all proven technology, they just had to be developed a bit further.
Television Remote Control
|German Third Reich television intended as missile remote control.|
|Henschel Hs 117 Schmetterling.|
There was no prototype built because the Allies captured the factory before the designers could get beyond the wind-tunnel stage. The aircraft is unique because it has neither wings nor rotors as such, and would have ascended and descended by firing the three rockets attached to the fuselage. It would have operated somewhat like a helicopter, except with the entire lower body rotating. It was projected to have four cannons in the forward fuselage.
|This is a rather fanciful depiction of what the Triebflugels might have looked like.|
Lippisch Delta Wing FighterDr. Alexander Lippisch was born in Munich, Germany in 1894. He worked on Delta winged fighters during the 1930s, and his design led to the Me 163 rocket-powered interceptor which flew successfully and shot down roughly a dozen Allied bombers.
|The Delta jet.|
20 sq meters
Typical Release Altitude
Experimental Messerschmidt Fighters P.1079
|Messerschmitt P-1101 prototype Oberammergau, photo by Arthur Hansen, 7854 Military Intelligence Détachement. Appears to be a mockup solely for a wind-tunnel test.|
|ME P-1011. It appears to be a jet engine with a plane loosely attached.|
Junkers Pulse Jets EF-126The Junkers company also tried to develop some pulse jets that would serve as fighters. They got a frame together without an engine. The Soviets tried to build one after the war and apparently did, but then they dropped the project.
|EF 128 painting|
|EF 128 painting|