My latest title in the Osprey ‘Dogfight’ series covers the operations of the Messerschmitt Me 262 over north-west Europe in 1944-45, but in this post I’d like to move the perspective over to some of the Allied airmen who came up against it.
Two of the things that have always struck me as being most remarkable about the appearance of the Me 262 in late 1944 and into 1945 have been, firstly, the fact that a large element of the USAAF remained ignorant and unbriefed about this new ‘jet’ fighter for some time after its operational debut and, secondly, how the Me 262 brought with it the dawn of high-speed and very effective air-to-air rocketry (true, rockets had been used in Italy and Normandy by the Allied air forces, but these were primarily for air-to-ground deployment).
Back in the 1990s I had cause to correspond with several former aircrew who flew B-26 Marauder medium tactical bombers with the Eighth and Twelfth Air Forces over what remained of occupied Europe in 1945. From their letters, I became aware that despite the engagements taking place between the ‘heavy’ four-engined B-17 and B-24 groups and the Me 262s of JG 7 over northern Germany, what these men were saying was that precious little technical or tactical intelligence had filtered through to their units operating further to the south.
Admittedly, it seems the ‘quality’ (and quantity) of such intelligence varied from unit to unit, with some receiving more and better information than others, but according to their written testimonies aircrews were often astounded when they observed high-speed enemy aircraft which they simply did not recognise. On 24 April 1945, for example, one engineer-gunner aboard a B-26 of the 344th BG on a mission to bomb an oil depot at Schrobenhausen observed a ‘small plane going like a bat out of hell’ and wondered to himself, ‘What the Hell was that?’ The crew aboard the aircraft were so perplexed and excited that the pilot had to order them to cease their chatter over the intercom.
Returning from other missions in the spring of 1945, the crews of B-26s would report having seen ‘fast enemy planes without engines’ to their intelligence officers, who simply dismissed their claims or refused to believe them and attributed their sightings to the heat and excitement of air combat.
But any such reluctance to recognise and accept the Me 262 for what it was, was rudely shattered when in mid-March 1945, jet interceptors of JG 7 operating to the west and north of Berlin commenced deployment with a devastating new weapon.
The ‘Rakete 4 kg Minenkopf’ – ‘4kg Mine Rocket’ – or R4M, was a 55-mm rocket intended to be launched from underwing racks.
An Me 262A-1a interceptor of JG 7 fitted with R4M underwing rockets. (EN Archive)
Throughout the latter half of 1943 and into 1944, the mixed success achieved against USAAF bomber formations with the W.Gr.21 cm air-to-air mortar led German armaments experts to conclude that the only plausible alternative was for a fighter formation to attack a bomber formation simultaneously, firing batteries of rockets carried either in underwing racks or in nose‑mounted ‘honeycombs’. These weapons, it was thought, could create ‘a dense fire‑chain’ that would be impossible for the bombers to avoid. In June 1944, a requirement was put forward by the Reich Air Ministry’s Technical Office for an electrically fired, fin‑stabilised weapon, the warhead of which would contain sufficient explosive to destroy a four‑engined bomber in one hit.
The resulting weapon was produced by a consortium of companies comprising the Research Institute of the Deutsches Waffen und Munitions Fabrik (DWM) at Lübeck, WASAG at Reinsdorf, Rheinmetall‑Borsig and the Luftfahrtgerätewerk at Hakenfelde – all led by DWM.
The R4M was 81.4 cm in length, contained 520 g of Hexogen explosive and weighed 3.5 kg in total. It was a single venturi, solid fuel‑propelled, multi‑fin stabilised missile, with the warhead contained in an exceptionally thin 1-mm sheet steel case enclosed in two pressed steel sections welded together and holding the high‑explosive charge.
It was intended to launch the R4M from the Me 262 from wooden underwing railed racks, each weighing 21 kg, though as many rails as desired could be fitted together to make one rack by means of transverse connection. The usual tactical load for an Me 262 comprised 12 R4Ms under each wing. It was calculated that the loss of speed incurred to an Me 262 as a result of a launch rack being fitted was approximately 16 km/h. It had been expected to obtain an 80 per cent ‘kill’ score at 500 to 600 m.
View of the R4M launch rack loaded with a standard battery of 12 rockets. (EN Archive)
On 18 March 1945 nearly 1,200 American heavy bombers attacked railway and armaments
factories in the Berlin area. They were escorted by 426 fighters. 9./JG 7 put up six Me 262s,
each fitted with two underwing batteries of the new R4M rockets. The jets intercepted
the bombers over Rathenow and a total of 144 rockets was fired into the American
formation from distances of between 400 and 600 m. Pilots reported astonishing amounts of debris and aluminium fragments – pieces of wing, engines and cockpits flew through the
air from aircraft hit by the missiles.
Oberfähnrich Walter Windisch was one of the first pilots of JG 7 to experience the effect of the R4M in operational conditions. He recalled:
‘Flying the Me 262 was like a kind of ‘life insurance’, but I was on that first sortie on 18 March during which R4M rockets were used and I experienced something beyond my conception. The destructive effect against the targets was immense. It almost gave me a feeling of being invincible. However, the launching grids for the rockets were not of optimum design – they were still too rough and ready, and compared with conventionally powered aircraft, when you went into a turn with the Me 262, flying became a lot more difficult because the trimming was not too good.’
So, this being said, let us return to southern Germany. Throughout the spring and summer of 1996 I exchanged letters with James L. Vining. In 1945 Mr Vining had been a B-26 pilot with the 455th BS, 323rd BG, and in several letters from his home in Virginia, he gradually described to me his horrific experience of the mission he flew on 20 April. That day, the Marauders of the 323rd BG were sent out to bomb a marshalling yard at Memmingen in southern Germany. Again, intelligence on the Me 262 was patchy and for the most part, the crews of the 323rd BG were largely uninformed over this new jet that was causing consternation to the crews of the heavy bomber groups and their escort fighters attacking strategic targets to the north.
Captain James L. Vining of 323rd Bomb Group. (Vining via author)
On 20 April, as the B-26s were flying between the towns of Kempten and Memmingen, they were attacked by a formation of some fifteen Me 262s from Generalleutnant Adolf Galland’s JV 44 – a unit that had gained some degree of notoriety within the Luftwaffe for its composition of a number of ‘Ace’ pilots who had fallen foul of Reichsmarschall Göring. At least some of the jets were carrying R4M rockets, and one German pilot fired his battery into the rear of the Marauder formation.
James Vining explained to me how one rocket struck his aircraft, named Ugly Duckling:
‘In a fast glance over my shoulder, I saw a jet coming in out of a slight turn with muzzle flashes around the four 30 mm cannon in the nose. I turned my attention back to my position, tucking my wing closer to No.4 and at that instant a terrific blast went off below my knees and the plane rolled to the right. Sensing that my right leg was gone, I looked toward my co-pilot and while ordering him to take his controls, I noted that the right engine was at idle speed. So, in one swift arcing motion with my right hand, I hit the feathering button, moved to the overhead rudder trim crank and trimmed the plane for single engine operation and, just as rapidly, pressed the intercom button to order the bombardier to jettison the two tons of bombs. We were losing altitude at 2,000 feet per minute, which slowed to 1,000 feet per minute with the load gone.’
The wreck of James Vining’s B-26 Marauder, Ugly Duckling, after having been hit by an R4M fired from an Me 262 of JV 44. (Vining via author)
It transpired that Ugly Duckling had literally been ‘speared’ by an R4M from its nose to its rear fuselage and within two or three seconds the bomber was rendered a flying wreck. Accompanying crews watched in horror as their comrade’s aircraft fell away from formation, burning and smoking, to become a lone, vulnerable straggler. This was the first time most, if not all, of the crews had experienced a devastating Me 262 rocket attack in addition to fire from the jets’ 30 mm nose-mounted cannon. What happened in the moments after this is described in my ‘Dogfight’ title Me 262 Northwest Europe 1944-45, but there was now little doubt in the minds of USAAF Technical Intelligence that a formidable aircraft and weapon had been introduced into the air war and that despite the ‘late hour’ nothing could be taken for granted.
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