Me 262: The First Fighter Jet of WW2

At the outbreak of WW2, jet engines were usable, but mounting them on functional fighter aircraft was a different matter. Here, we’ll investigate whether or not the Germans had fighter jets in WW2.

The world’s first fully-functional fighter jet was the Messerschmitt Me 262, nicknamed Schwalbe, meaning swallow in German.

The World’s First Fighter Jet

Me 262 A in 1945
The Me 262 often stalled at high altitudes. This would force pilots to glide the aircraft to the ground.

The development of the Me 262 began in the early 1940s when the German leadership recognized the contribution jet engines could make to the Luftwaffe. True to the German war machine’s experimental reputation, they vastly upscaled research and development into jet-propelled fighters as the technology became available.

Read MoreRemains of Five B-24 Bombers Found in the Sea

The Me 262 was designed by the German aircraft manufacturer Messerschmitt, one of the country’s leading aircraft manufacturers. Research and development kickstarted in 1939, and the first prototype embarked on its maiden flight in April 1941, albeit with a conventional piston engine to test the shape of the aircraft, landing gear, and other components.

The prototype featured two BMW 003 turbojet engines, which proved unreliable and were vulnerable to seizing and stalling in flight. The engines were short-lived, and some had to be replaced after a single flight. They were eventually replaced by the more reliable Junkers Jumo 004 engines.

By mid-1943, the Junkers engines were passing 100-hour test flights, but Germany was already facing shortages of fuel, materials, and skilled labour, which slowed production – mainly due to scarcity of metals.

In July 1944, a special unit named Kommando Nowotn launched the world’s first jet fighter missions. Early skirmishes resulted in 19 Allied aircraft in exchange for 6 Me 262s – the kill ratio filled with the Luftwaffe with optimism. 

Finding its way Into the history books

It wasn’t until early 1945 – not long before the end of the war – that the Me 262 truly found its niche.

Despite several modifications, the fighter was simply too fast for dogfighting. The main issue was that the 30mm cannons mounted on the plane were inaccurate at distances greater than 600m, and since the plane was so fast, pilots had such limited time to fire on an enemy aircraft before they had to avoid a collision. In some cases, the Me 262 could fire for just 2 seconds per approach.

B-2 Stealth Bomber in Emergency Landing: Runway Closes After Fire

Captain Eric Brown, commanding officer of the Captured Enemy Aircraft Flight Royal Aircraft Establishment, said about the Me 262:

“Your closing speed was still high and since you had to break away at 200 metres [220 yd; 660 ft] to avoid a collision, you only had two seconds firing time. Now, in two seconds, you can’t sight. You can fire randomly and hope for the best.”

Spitting Rockets

While the Me 262 was extraordinarily hard to shoot down, pilots found it exceptionally difficult to combat other fast fighter planes like the Spitfire and Mustang. By this time, propeller planes were no slouch, either – the Mustang was capable of speeds of some 440 mph.

In 1944, the Luftwaffe began adapting the Me 262 for anti-bomber and air-to-ground operations, replacing the cannons with 24 unguided folding-fin R4M rockets.

Mid-March 1944 was marked by several high-profile dogfights, and aerial battles as the allies closed in on Berlin, launching vast aerial missions with thousands of bombers and escorting aircraft. On March 18th, a squadron of 37 Me 262s of JG 7 intercepted 1,221 bombers and 632 escorting fighters. They destroyed 12 bombers and lost three 262s – not bad – but hardly a sizable numerical impact on such a large squadron.

Me 262B-1a/U1
A Me 262B-1a/U1 Night Fighter complete with radar antennae on the nose cone and second seat for a radar operator.

Another notable operation in April targeted Soviet ground forces, destroying 65 supply lorries.

By this stage of the war, most of the Luftwaffe’s most experienced pilots had been killed, and the remaining top aces expressed disdain for the Me 262’s limited capabilities and high attrition rate.

The Luftwaffe’s top aces slowly became accustomed to the Me 262, but the volume of production was simply not sufficient to combat the Allied advance over Europe.

Controversial and Top Secret: Operation Paperclip 

Only 1,430 Me 262s  were ever built. For comparison, the US built 15,000 Mustangs in just 2 years between 1942 and 1945.

Me 262 Top Aces

Some of the Luftwaffe’s most prolific pilots operated the Me 262 between 1944 and 1945. By this time, most skilled pilots had been killed and only a handful remained.

Me-262 Shot down
A Remarkable photo of a Me262 being shot down by a USAAF P-51 Mustang. The cockpit is open suggesting the pilot has ejected.

The Luftwaffe didn’t have the manpower and facilities to train new pilots for the Me 262, which was partly why its impact was never truly realized.

Here are some of the plane’s notable fighter aces and their successes:

  • Franz Schall: Schall was a Luftwaffe fighter pilot posted to the specialist unit charged with training Me 262 pilots. Schall flew the Me 262 in multiple combat operations. He is credited with shooting down 17 enemy aircraft, including 10 P-51 Mustangs.
  • Georg-Peter Eder: Eder was another skilled Me 262 pilot who claimed 12 aerial victories. Among his victories were 9 P-51 Mustangs.
  • Erich Rudorffer: Rudorffer was a highly decorated fighter pilot who flew a variety of aircraft during the war, including the Me 262. He is credited with 12 aerial victories while flying the Me 262. Rudorffer was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds for his achievements.
  • Walther Dahl: Dahl claimed 11 aerial victories, including 3 Lavochkin La-7s and 6 P-51 Mustangs.
  • Heinz-Helmut Baudach: Baudach claimed 6 aerial victories flying the Me 262, including 1 Spitfire and 2 P-51 Mustangs. Baudach was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for his achievements.

Pilots’ sentiment towards the Me 262 was mixed. It’s fair to say that the aircraft eventually caught on with top Luftwaffe aces. However, by 1945, it was simply too little too late for the jet fighter. It failed to have a sustained impact on the German war effort.

Design and Performance

The Me 262 was a highly advanced aircraft with a top speed of around 900 km/h (560 mph). This made it faster than any Allied aircraft at the time.

It was some 50 mph faster than the Derwent IV-equipped version of the Gloster Meteor III. The Gloster was one of the Allies’ best jet fighters by the end of the war.

Me 262 cockpit
The Me 262 cockpit was complex and not very popular with Luftwaffe pilots. That said the jet had some successes.

Later versions of the Me 262 were powered by two Junkers Jumo 004 jet engines, capable of producing up to 1,950 kg (4,300 lbs) of thrust, which gave the Me 262 a significant performance advantage over any piston-engine plane. However, despite numerous modifications, the engines were prone to technical problems and had a relatively short lifespan.

They were especially vulnerable to stalling at high altitudes, forcing some pilots to glide their aircraft to the ground, leaving them extremely vulnerable to attack.

Also, the engines needed to be coaxed into action on the airstrip and were fairly slow during take-off. The Allies picked up on this and attempted to destroy the fighters before they attained top speed.

Other German Fighter Aircraft

While the Me 262 was the only German fighter jet to go into mainstream production, they produced several other prototypes and small-scale projects. The most notable aside from the Me 262 is the Heinkel He 162, a tiny jet fighter made primarily of wood.

By this stage of the war, the Luftwaffe had lost most of its experienced pilots. The 162 was intended for use by the Hitler Youth, hence why it was so small.

Despite numerous fatal accidents during testing, around 300 were produced. At least one RAF fighter was shot down by the 162. Some 13 were deployed, but at least 10 of these essentially self-destructed in mid-air before reaching combat. The plane was retired soon after and had an exceptionally short operational history.

Read More: The Largest Battles of World War Two

The Nazi’s appetite for experimental technology continued until the bitter end. For example, the Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg was a type of manned flying bomb for suicidal attacks that was discontinued in 1944, and the Horten Ho 229 was the first jet-powered flying wing, with prototype flights in early 1945.

Legacy of the Me 262

Despite its relatively brief operational career, the Me 262 significantly impacted the development of aviation technology.

It was the first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft, setting a new standard for speed and performance. The Me 262 also paved the way for developing other jet-powered aircraft, such as the British Gloster Meteor and the American Lockheed P-80. The Allies’ appetites for jet-powered fighters in WW2 were weaker than the Germans – the Me 262 pushed them to develop their own alternatives.

Captured German Me262
The 111711, was the first Me 262 to fall into Allied hands. Surprisingly its German pilot defected in March 1945.

The Me 262 profoundly influenced post-war aviation and, together with the Gloster Meteor and other late-war jet fighters, inspired a new generation of aircraft designers and engineers.

Much of the jet engine and rocket research undertaken in WW2 set the stage for the Cold War and Space Race, which rapidly escalated jet propulsion technology to new heights.

Overall, the Me 262’s sleek, streamlined design, advanced jet engines, and powerful armament made it a formidable opponent. It symbolizes the rapid technological advances of WW2 and the Nazi’s appetite for experimentation. However, the aircraft was hampered by technical problems and a shortage of experienced pilots, and it could not turn the tide of the war.