War accelerates technology. Aircraft entered the First World War in 1914 as little more than powered kites that fell apart easily, didn’t carry weapons and barely figured in military strategy. By 1918, they were fast-climbing, power-diving sharks of the air equipped with machine-guns and bomb-racks. They had also become central to military strategy.
As this book describes, technology was also accelerated by the Second World War. But it happened most obviously on the German side. The Allies began and finished the war using propeller-driven aircraft. The Germans began with props and finished with something extra: jet aircraft like the Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow) and rocket aircraft like the Me-163 Komet. The ingenuity and technological sophistication of these aircraft aren’t the only astonishing things about them. The odds against which they were developed and put into service are astonishing too.
The Third Reich was being hammered by British and American bombers from the west and relentlessly ground down by the Red Army in the east. Fuel, parts and pilots were in ever-shorter supply. But both the Schwalbe and the Komet saw active service. Other aircraft described here, like the Bachem BA-394 Natter (Viper) and the Heinkel He-178 Volksjäger (People’s Fighter), didn’t get that far. An unofficial name of the He-178, the Salamander, is a clue to why. The Volksjäger was commissioned in late 1944 and by then the Reich was on fire. In legend salamanders are said to dwell in fire and flourish there. The He-178 didn’t flourish, but Terry C. Treadwell delivers this verdict: “Despite the dead ends and final defeat, Ernst Heinkel had made a major contribution to the world of jet- and rocket-propelled aircraft” (pg. 122).
Treadwell seems to know his subject and navigates the complicated history of test-flights, modifications and specification changes with assurance. His introduction to the book begins in “A.D. 1232, during the Mongol siege of the city Kai-fung-fu”, which was where the “first recorded use of a rocket” took place. He discusses the development of rockets, then devotes the first chapter to the “Messerschmitt Me 163B ‘Komet’” (pp. 19-69). Even today the Komet seems like something out of science fiction: a bat-winged rocket-plane powered by highly dangerous chemicals – C-Stoff and T-Stoff – that would “ignite on contact with the skin” (pg. 41). That’s why the pilots and ground crew had to wear protective gear: a photo caption on pg. 48 describes “Leutnant Fritz Kelb wearing his asbestos flying suit climbing into the cockpit of his Me 163B”.
It was a tight fit there, because the Komet was a tiny aircraft. And it was probably more dangerous to its own side than to the enemy. Test-pilots fractured their spines and lost their lives trying to correct its failings. Hanna Reitsch, the famous “Nazi aviatrix”, nearly died when she crash-landed a Komet in 1941, for example. Hitler and Göring sent flowers to her hospital bed and “critics of the Me 163 projects saw their chance of having the programme stopped” (pg. 38). However, another test-pilot for the Komet, Rudolf Opitz, “demonstrated the Me 163B with take-off dolly attached to the satisfaction of all concerned” and the programme continued.
The Komet was still being flown as a glider at that stage. Adding an engine added more complications, more dangers and more delay. The “first operational sortie” wasn’t until 13 May 1944, when Hauptmann Wolfgang Späte tried to shoot down two P-47 Thunderbolts. But the Komet’s speed got in his way: he was chasing the Thunderbolts and about to fire when “the left wing suddenly heeled over and the whole aircraft began to shake violently” (pg. 52). Then the engine “flamed out”: Späte had “inadvertently touched the ‘Sound Barrier’, as it was later to be known”.
That exceptional speed was apparent again later in the month:
Another encounter took place on 31 May 1944, this time between a photo-renaissance Spitfire and a Komet from No. 1 Staffel. The Spitfire pilot was at 37,000 feet and about to make his first run over the target, when he noticed a white trail some 7,000 feet below and about a mile away. The Spitfire pilot climbed his aircraft to 41,000 feet and saw the tiny aircraft just 3,000 feet below him and about 1,000 yards away. The sudden realisation that the tiny machine had climbed around 8,000 feet in the same time that the Spitfire had climbed 4,000 feet was quite disturbing. The only description the pilot could give of his potential adversary was that it appeared to be all-wing and travelled exceptionally fast. (ch. 1, pg. 54)
If Allied bombs were turning Germany into a hell of high explosive, then bats were rising out of that hell. While its fuel lasted and its rocket engine functioned, the Komet was uncatchable, but like the Me-262 the Me-163 was highly vulnerable when landing:
As he ran out of fuel and glided into land, the P-51 Mustang attacked and hit the little rocket plane. The Komet made a perfect landing, but when the ground crew got to the pilot they found the pilot, Feldwebel Herbert Klein, dead in the cockpit with a bullet hole in his head. The bullet had passed right through his seat armour. (pp. 68-9)
That was in January 1945, when the Third Reich was close to final defeat. In February, the Luftwaffe High Command “ordered that production of the Me 163B cease”. As Treadwell notes, of the 364 Komets built, “only 70…ever saw combat”. Like its celestial namesake, the Komet blazed briefly and then faded to black. It was an astonishing aircraft built and flown in atrocious conditions and a worthy choice for chapter one.
Chapter two is devoted to an even stranger aircraft: the Bachem Ba-349 Natter, a vertical take-off rocket-plane designed to fly, attack a bomber formation, then fall apart in mid-air and descend to earth on parachutes. The first manned test-flight killed the pilot, Oberleutnant Lothar Siebert, but the programme continued and ten Natters were eventually “assigned to an operational air defence site at Kircheim, east of Stuttgart” (pg. 82). The pilots waited more than a week to intercept a “heavy bomber formation”, but encountered an “American tank unit” instead. The Natters were destroyed “to prevent them falling into the hands of the Allies” (pp. 83-5). Three were nevertheless captured intact elsewhere, lasting proof, as Treadwell puts it, that “ingenuity could be born of desperation”.
The remaining eight chapters of the book describe more ingenuity and more desperation: the near-suicidal Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg, a piloted version of the pulse-jet V1 Doodlebug; the Arado Ar-234, “regarded as the world’s first pure jet bomber”; the Junkers Ju-287, with its revolutionary swept-forward wings; and so on. The tenth and final chapter is about the most important aircraft of them all: the Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe, the “twin-engined jet fighter” that might have altered the outcome of the war if it had been delivered sooner and in greater numbers. The Reich might have won or forced a truce, rather than being battered into unconditional surrender.
But because the Me-262 is more important, it’s received much more attention from historians of military aviation and Treadwell is right to leave it till last. It’s the most attractive aircraft here too: Schwalbe, Swallow, is an appropriate name. Despite its deadliness – at least when its engines worked and its airframe held together – the Me-262 doesn’t seem to belong with the sinister, bat-like Me-163 and the stub-winged, embryo-like Ba-349. Those are alchemical aircraft, born of fire, blood and flesh-eating chemicals. They belong to the final days of the Third Reich and aeronautically speaking they’ve stayed there. Rocket aircraft never became routine and captured Me-262s were the great prize carried off at the end of the war by the Americans, Russians and British.
So the strange and sinister come first, the significant comes last. That’s the way readers of this book will want it. The prose here is functional rather than polished, but that suits the subject and there’s a well-judged balance of text and photos. Rocket and Jet Aircraft of the Third Reich is an excellent introduction to those aircraft, describing both highly advanced technology and age-old politicking, as the Luftwaffe and SS compete for control of aviation in a collapsing empire. Bombs fall, cities die, and bats rise out of hell in a way that is still fascinating and disturbing more than seventy years later.