Planes of the German Air Force

The editors of Flying review the excellent aircraft that were largely beaten only by the Luftwaffe's own strategic errors.

Technically, the German air force was one of the world's best, even at the end of the war. It surpassed the Russian and Japanese air forces in quality and quantity, and might even have been a serious match for the American and British air forces in 1944-45 had it not been for certain major German strategic blunders that literally defeated the German air force on the ground. Two major factors crippled the Luftwaffe: Allied air attacks on German fuel production grounded German planes for lack of fuel; high combat losses of experienced pilots, plus lack of fuel with which to train effectively new pilots, did the rest.

German aeronautical engineers apparently would try anything — anything — once. To achieve mass production they concentrated on a few major combat types but there was no limit to the extent they would experiment with those types. The Messerschmitt Me-109 served the Luftwaffe throughout the war as a staple fighter and still was going strong at the end. The Focke-Wulf Fw-190 also was a veteran. But the number and extent of the modifications to each of these basic designs continued at a great rate from 1939 to 1945.

The Fw-190 went through even more drastic evolution. It started with an air-cooled radial engine (which in itself was considerably stepped up in power), then went to a liquid-cooled engine with even more horsepower. Then there was a stub-winged version, the more or less standard-winged version, and an unusually long-winged version; they eventually went back to the standard wing.

German engineers improvised and experimented with everything in their air force in much the same way. They hooked a V-1 power unit onto an odd-looking single-seat Henschel fighter design; it worked, but not very successfully. Their experiments with jet propulsion and rocket power were fantastic. When the war ended they were well ahead of us, with jet propelled bombers already flying, rocket-propelled bombs already in use, supersonic aircraft experiments and a vast number of other developments.

While German aircraft designs were good, the manufactured aircraft themselves were noticeably inferior to their earlier predecessors toward the end of the war. Workmanship was poor, quality of materials had deteriorated. American air force men operating a number of captured German aircraft in this country have the greatest difficulty keeping the planes flyable. The best German engine cannot be run without overhaul over 25 per cent of the time-before-overhaul considered normal for an average American engine. In later production jobs, like the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter, there is evidence of bad design as well; the electrical wiring systems in nearly all of the newer German aircraft are a confused maze, are highly vulnerable to damage, and take much longer to repair than do comparable American systems.

One of the greatest single mistakes the Germans made with their air force was to discontinue the design, development and use of heavy bombers. They tried a sort of last-minute comeback with the Heinkel He-177 but even the Germans themselves admitted that that design was a miserable failure. The great majority of German aircraft production was of fighters — and those were good. But the Germans had automatically placed themselves on the defensive by dropping their bomber program.

What with the terrific fuel shortage and overwhelming Allied air superiority, the German air force ended the war sitting on the ground. Even at this moment there are thousands of the Luftwaffe's first-line planes sitting around on the ground all over Germany. Even the jet fighters — of which the Germans had thousands, both completed and in production — were grounded for lack of fuel. This despite the fact that one important reason for the high-priority development of the jet airplane was that it could burn almost any type of fuel, down to and including fuel oil.

Standardization on the two German fighter types (Me-109 and Fw-190) was an advantage to the Germans from a viewpoint of production and maintenance but it meant ceaseless improvement to offset the new Allied types that constantly appeared. This is particularly well illustrated in the case of the Me-109, which in 1937 had a 500-hp engine and in its modern Me-109K version had nearly 2,000 hp, was about as fast as the Mustang and had 10 times the firepower of the original Me-109. Nonetheless, the increased firepower demanded to counteract the American daylight heavy bomber offensive resulted in a very heavy load for a small fighter and detracted appreciably from its potential performance if it had been designed from the ground up to meet the new conditions. Messerschmitt did attempt to build better fighters, of course — the Me-209 and Me-309 — but neither of these was enough to warrant retooling for production. Neither of these planes (the Me-309 had a tricycle landing gear) ever became operational.

Similarly, the Fw-190 was an excellent fighter though in the earlier years its BMW801 engine gave very poor altitude performance. Eventually it was completely redesigned as the Ta-152, which was virtually a new type. The Ta-152 had an excellent performance, particularly the "H" version. It had an amazingly long wing and with the Jumo-213 engine it had a top speed of over 460 mph at 41,000 feet. Kurt Tank, the designer, tells how, when testing a Ta-152H a few weeks before the collapse, he outstripped a flight of pursuing Mustangs. A remarkable high altitude fighter under development was the Bv-155 with a liquid-cooled DB-603, which was expected to attain its top speed of nearly 430 mph at over 50,000 feet — far higher than the known ceiling of Allied fighters.

It should be noted, too, that the first jet-propelled airplane to fly anywhere in the world was the Heinkel He-178 on August 27, 1939 — four days before the Germans marched into Poland. Though experimental, it provided useful data for subsequent successful German jet jobs.

The standard Me-262A fighter which was in service at the time the war ended had a top speed of 525 mph at 23,000 feet and a service ceiling just under 40,000 feet. Handling qualities were good and landing speed was not too high — about 120 mph. Towards the end of the war, the Germans emphasized rapid climb, and highly specialized rocket interceptors with extremely short duration were under development.

One such plane in service for several months before the collapse was the Me-163 Komet, a semi-tailless design capable of level flight speed of about 550 mph and able to climb to 30,000 feet in just over 2½ minutes. It was armed with two 30-mm cannon. A later model, the Me-163C had a special rocket unit incorporating a second jet to give cruising economy.

Endurance of the Me-163C was only about 12 minutes and the maximum speed 590 mph. The British are inclined to discount much of the effectiveness of these planes because of their limited endurance, but many American experts feel that in greater numbers they could have wrought enormous havoc in intercepting American daylight bomber formations. Meanwhile, the Germans were developing a last ditch airplane — the BP-20 or Natter (Viper), a liquid-rocket powered craft with only an 18-foot wing span, capable of vertical takeoff and the ability to climb at the rate of about 37,000 feet per minute. It was designed to attack bombers with a battery of rocket projectiles. Upon firing these projectiles, the pilot was to be ejected and descend by parachute, while simultaneously the rear half of the fuselage containing the liquid rocket would break off and itself descend by parachute.

In twin-engined fighters, the Me-110 and Do-217 night fighters are not considered to have been so effective as the Ju-88. Towards the end of the war, the Ju-88G night fighter had efficient radar equipment, a five-hour endurance, good handling qualities, a compact battery of four 20-mm cannon firing forward and two 20-mm cannon firing obliquely upwards. Further, it had a reasonable speed margin over the British night bombers. The Ju-388 was about to be issued as the war ended and had a performance approaching that of the Mosquito.

At the beginning of the war, the standard German bombers were the He-111, Do-17 and Ju-88. The Do-17 soon disappeared from service but the He-111 and Ju-88 remained to the end. Their bomb loads were quite small but improved. The He-177, of course, was a dismal failure because of fire hazards, structural failures and inferior performance. Development was not continued. The Germans also tried other heavy bombers — the four-engined Ju-290 and the six-engined Ju-390 which was originally produced as a transport. Farman was working on the He-274 in France; Messerschmitt on the Me-264 which was designed to bomb New York, and Focke-Wulf on the six-engined Ta-400.

Jet-propelled bombers also were attractive to the Germans. The Arado Ar-234B could carry up to 4,000 pounds of bombs and had a top speed of 470 mph, and the Ar-234C with four BMW-003 jets had a speed of over 540 mph. Meanwhile Junkers had already flown the Ju-287 with six BMW-003 jet units. It had a sharply swept-forward wing giving it the appearance of a tail-first aircraft and had a maximum designed bomb load of 10,000 pounds and a range of 1,175 miles with a bomb load of 6,600 pounds, with a maximum speed of over 530 mph.

For reconnaissance, the Germans used adaptations of their standard fighters and bombers, including jet-propelled types, but they were working on a specialized reconnaissance craft, the 8-635, which was a "Siamese-twin" combination of two D0-335s with a range of over 4,000 miles.

Arado, according to the British, had the most imaginative design of a transport aircraft, the Ar-232. This strange creation could have two or four engines and was fitted with an undercarriage like a centipede. It was designed to kneel like a camel or elephant for easy loading.

From the foregoing, it is plain that German aircraft development continued actively even in the last days of the war. Many other new types have not been mentioned in this brief summary but may be found in the accompanying tables.

In all this there was much that was revolutionary in design. Full comparisons with US and British accomplishments and experiments are not yet possible, but tentative conclusions can be drawn.

First, one of the main difficulties confronting the Germans was lack of endurance. The British Air Ministry regards some of the performance figures as "staggering" but concludes that "in actual fact they could be maintained for such a small space of time as to make them doubtful quantities in operation." It is not certain that the American view would agree with this conclusion.

Second, it appears that the German aircraft and aircraft engine designers suffered from a lack of coordination and direction from above. They appeared to be in frantic competition with each other to produce a weapon which would overcome Allied superiority and turn the air war in their favor.

Third, as a consequence, many prototypes were produced only to be scrapped in favor of a design which seemed to offer greater possibilities. As a result of this policy, the Luftwaffe always suffered from a shortage of orthodox aircraft able to challenge the air superiority which the Allies built up.

This article was originally published in the January, 1946, issue of Flying magazine, vol 38, no 1, pp 76-77, 120, 122.
The original article consists of a 1½-page table [ HTML ] and accompanying text (above.)