During World War II, American bomber formations constituted the Brennpunkt, or focal point, in the struggle between the Luftwaffe and the Army Air Forces. There were at least two reasons for this.
First, AAF doctrine told American airmen that strategic bombing was the key to victory in modern war between industrialized nations. By bombing critical nodes in an enemy’s industrial network, one might destroy his ability to make war and thus bring on his defeat. A successful bombing campaign would also demonstrate the unique role that air-power could play in war, thereby justifying organizational independence of the air arm and adding significance to the bombing campaign. Second, the damage that American bomber formations were inflicting on Nazi targets ensured that the Germans would do all in their power to drive American bombers from the skies.
In the face of determined defenses by German fighters, tight bomber formations were the key to the success of this bombing campaign. American airmen developed formations in which the guns of the individual bombers could be combined to produce withering defensive firepower. The basic formation was the combat box of about twenty bombers, this size being a reasonable compromise between the formation’s needs for self-defense and for precision bombing. Too large a formation would spread the bomb delivery over too large an area, preventing concentration against such relatively small targets as factories, refineries, and railroad marshaling yards.
If the Germans could break up this formation, they could concentrate on individual bombers and destroy enough of them to make the strategic bombing offensive too costly for the Americans. The Germans tried to accomplish this in a number of ways. They bombed American formations from above, lobbed rockets with time-fuzed warheads into the formations from outside the range of the bombers’ .50-caliber machine guns, and put heavier guns and armor on their fighters.
This increase in armament and armor presented the Germans with a dilemma once Americans began to employ long-range fighter escorts for the bombers. Powerful guns and enough armor to provide reasonable protection from the concentrated firepower of a bomber formation made the German fighters sluggish and easy prey for American fighters, which were only lightly armored. Germany’s conventional fighters were inferior to the American P-51 and P-47 and were also outnumbered by six or eight to one by April 1944.
The solution to this dilemma was a revolutionary type of aircraft, the jet fighter, principally the Messerschmitt Me-262, which theoretically possessed the speed to slash through escorting American fighters and which carried enough armament—four 30-mm cannon and air-to-air rockets—to destroy the B- 17s and B-24s with relative ease.
Jets in the Air
Allied air force leaders were not surprised in July 1944 when their airmen first encountered German jet fighters in air combat. The Germans had been flying jet aircraft for almost five years, the British for about three years, and the Americans for more than a year and a half.
Readers of AIR FORCE Magazine may recall from Lee Payne’s article (“The Great Jet Engine Race And How We Lost,” January ’82 issue) that the British and Germans developed turbojet engines independently of each other. Although the British were the first to begin work on a jet engine, it was the Germans who flew the world’s first jet aircraft, a Heinkel He-178, on Au gust 27, 1939. In fact, the Germans flew a second jet aircraft, the Heinkel He-280, before a British jet, the Gloster E28/39, made its maiden flight in the spring of 1941.
One of the early flights of the Gloster jet was observed by Maj. Gen. H. H. “Hap” Arnold, Chief of the AAE When he returned to the United States, he immediately set the AAF to work developing its own jet. This was the XP-59A Airacomet, which flew for the first time on October 1, 1942, with General Electric Type I-A turbojets, developed from the British Whittle engine, as its power source. The XP-59A quickly showed itself unsuited for its intended role as a fighter. Not only was it slow, but it also had handling problems. To bring the aircraft out of a spin, the pilot had to deploy a drag chute. Furthermore, the controls had a tendency to freeze at high speeds. As if these problems were not bad enough, rearward visibility from the cockpit was poor.
About the time the problems of the XP-59 were recognized, the AAF had begun development of another jet aircraft, the Lockheed XP-80. On January 8, 1944, the prototype made its first flight, powered by the de Havilland Halford H-I turbojet. American reliance on British engine technology pointed to a basic weakness in the American jet fighter program that would hinder the United States until the end of the war.
The He-280 that flew in April 1941 was a fighter prototype, Heinkel’s entry for a competition with Messerschmitt. The Messerschmitt entry first flew on July 18, 1942. This was the Me-262, which achieved a speed of 530 mph in later trials. It was to become Germany’s principal operational jet fighter.
Beginning of a Crisis
As the summer of 1944 approached, anxiety increased among AAF leaders. Their intelligence repor4s advised that the appearance of German jets in combat was imminent, but there would be no operational Allied jet for some time. Furthermore, jet prototypes had been pitted against conventional aircraft in development and testing, and AAF leaders knew the performance of the jets was superior.
The first contact with German jets in late July marked the beginning of a crisis that lasted until the end of the war. The jets gave the Luftwaffe technological superiority. These aircraft were seventy to 100 miles per hour faster than the Allies’ best conventional fighters, and neither the United States nor Britain would have a true operational jet capability until just before the war was over.
The depths of this crisis were reached in January and February 1945, following the major, surprise counteroffensive that the Germans had launched in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. From their first battles with the jets, American airmen were afraid that the Germans might be able to build enough of these new aircraft to regain control of the skies over Germany and force an end to the American strategic bombing campaign. This fear was intensified by the surprising resilience the Germans had displayed in their Ardennes offensive. Now AAF generals like Carl Spaatz and Jimmy Doolittle believed that the war might last until the end of 1945. If so, General Doolittle thought that the Luftwaffe would have enough jets by summer to keep American bombers from making deep raids into Germany.
This appraisal by Doolittle throws into sharp focus the significance of Hitler’s insistence that the Me-262 be used exclusively as a “Blitzbomber” to attack with impunity such Allied targets as cargo ships supporting the invasion of Europe. Who knows what might have happened if the Germans had begun concentrating on the air defense role for the -262 in July 1944 instead of in the early part of 1945
Responding to the Crisis
To deal with the possibility that Doolittle’s appraisal might be correct, General Spaatz sought and secured Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s approval for a two-pronged strategy. First, Spaatz enlisted the support of his superiors to accelerate America’s jet program. P-80 production was given the same top priority accorded the B-29.
Spaatz also sought a higher bombing priority for jet targets, the goal being to place 10,000 tons of bombs on such German assets as jet factories and jet training facilities. This, AAF planners estimated, might set back enemy jet production about three months. Spaatz’s strategy was to get an American jet into operation about the time the German jet threat matured in the summer of 1945. The AAF would accelerate its jet production program while retarding that of the Germans by three months. This should give the US a chance to catch up.
This strategy was only partially successful. Bomber attacks did reduce jet production somewhat, but measures taken by the Germans to protect their jet-manufacturing system made these targets very difficult to attack. By the beginning of 1945, jet factories had been dispersed or placed underground, and the jets were being assembled in temporary structures hidden in wooded areas and such places as road tunnels. Furthermore, the -262s could operate from grass strips, which made it hard to destroy their base structure. Not only did it prove impossible to impede German jet production to the extent desired, but the United States was also unable to accelerate its own jet program. The projected operational date for the P-80 remained late summer or fall of 1945, as had been predicted in 1944.
Information on German jet production was hardly consoling to AAF leaders. In January 1945, US intelligence estimated that production for the Me-262 would reach 125 to 150 for that month and that it would be 500 a month by June. The P-80 schedule called for monthly production to reach sixteen in June 1945, with thirty-one to have been produced by that time. The US was having trouble producing jet engines even in small numbers, but a captured German document indicated that production of the Jumo 004 engine for the -262 would reach 7,200 by July. By the end of the war, the Germans had produced more than 1,400 Me-262s, while the Army Air Forces had only forty-five P-80s seven months after the war was over.
In January and February 1945, AAF leaders were beginning to think of the American copy of the German V-1, the JB-2, as an alternative to strategic bombing. If the Germans succeeded in knocking American bombers out of the German skies, the AAF would continue the campaign by using these air-breathing, guided missiles against German targets. Plans called for as many as 500 JB-2s per day to be launched against Nazi Germany. Because of its heavy demands on shipping and resources, this ambitious plan was revised, specifying 1,000 missiles a month to be launched by January 1945. Even this scaled-down plan was not implemented.
Conventional vs. Jet Trials
The description of Spaatz’s January strategy has taken us a little ahead in the story of the AAF response to the German jets. It is now necessary to return to the spring of 1944, about three months before the combat debut of the Me-262, to pick up another major thread of the story. Since AAF leaders knew they would not have an operational jet of their own with which to meet the German jet, they were forced to seek nontechnical solutions to their crisis.
In April 1944, General Arnold directed the AAF Board to use some of the few early American prototype jets for trials that would pit the prototypes against conventional fighters. The objective was to develop tactics for conventional fighters to use against jets.
When the test report appeared, Arnold was displeased. The report recommended that the conventional fighter “force the jet fighter into a slow speed bracket, where the standard aircraft should be superior in maneuverability, acceleration, deceleration, rate of climb, and initial rate of dive.”
General Arnold ridiculed this finding. This was, he said, the same as saying that “the horse that finishes last in a race will force the horse that is winning the race to slow down until the last horse catches up and wins.”
In Arnold’s view, the jet had “one idea and mission in life and that is to get at the bombers, and he is going by our fighters so fast that they will barely see him, much less throw out a sky hook and slow him up.” Arnold directed that the test be run again. In the meantime, however, he sent the report along to USSTAF (United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe) for whatever use could be made of it.
Arnold’s perception of the mission of the jets was typical of that held by top AAF leaders. The bombers were the focus of their thinking on aerial warfare. American bombers posed the gravest danger to Germany and would naturally be the target for the jets. This explains why these leaders seem to have been unconcerned by the fact that the Germans used the Me-262 principally in the ground-support role until early 1945.
Results of the second test of jets vs. propeller-driven fighters became available August 12, about the time the German jets appeared in combat. Among other things, the report said that jets were clearly superior in virtually every way. The best answer to the German jet was an American jet. Thus, Spaatz’s effort to raise the priority of the P-80 is not surprising.
There is one other aspect of the operational trials of jets vs. conventional fighters that is of interest here. Before the second set of tests, Generals Doolittle and Spaatz asked for three American jets so they could run their own operational trials in England. If this were not possible, then tests should be run in the United States using Eighth Air Force veterans who would return to Europe with their firsthand knowledge of the trials and help USSTAF get ready for the jets. Furthermore, Spaatz told Arnold, the Stateside trials in the summer of 1944 should be slanted toward the operational problems faced in the European theater and include test engagements between jets and conventional bombers. While Arnold could not furnish the requested jets, he did agree to Spaatz’s suggestions on the Stateside testing.
Doolittle told Spaatz that it would definitely be better for Eighth Air Force to run its own operational trials. This would allow Doolittle’s force to develop techniques that could be immediately tried in combat. Two YP-80s would eventually be sent to England and another two to Italy for use in operational tests. One of the jets crashed in England in January 1945, killing its pilot. Little seems to have been gained from this program.
In addition to conducting special operational tests, pushing the development of the P-80, and bombing German jet-related targets, AAF leaders settled on several other measures for dealing with the German jets. At least some of these derived from the jet-conventional fighter trials of the summer of 1944.
For one thing, American airmen decided to push their long suit—numbers. They would make minor modifications to existing aircraft, but would do nothing to disrupt production rates. Thus, Doolittle wrote to Arnold in August 1944: “Development of new equipment is extremely important, but should not interfere unduly with the production and improvement of existent equipment as we hope that we can win this war with continually improved conventional aircraft.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by General Spaatz in March 1945. If the jets were used against American bombers before an American jet was available, he wrote to Gen. Barney Giles, “the German technical advantage must be countered by overwhelming numbers of conventional fighters manned by pilots trained to both outthink and outshoot the German.”
One AAF tactic called for the use of a substantial number of conventional fighters, perhaps as many as ten for every jet engaged, to box in attacking jets so that they could not escape without passing through the sights of an AAF fighter or two. This method aimed to neutralize the jet’s advantage in speed, which normally allowed the Me-262 to disengage from combat if its pilot found himself at a disadvantage.
Another tactic involved optimum positioning of escort fighters to defend the bombers from jet attacks. In general, the conventional fighters would have to fly close cover for the bombers. This meant that they should be no more than about 2,000 feet from the formations they were trying to protect. Otherwise, a jet might get through the fighter screen and attack the bombers before conventional fighters could intercept it.
Another measure called for some of the escorting fighters to be positioned about 3,000 feet above bomber formations to pick off jets that might try to zoom through the formations from below, strike and destroy some of the bombers as they passed through the formations, and then use their superior climb rate and speed to escape. If German jets tried this maneuver, they would find conventional fighters at full speed above the formation waiting for them as their speed dropped during their climb.
Also, American fighter pilots were instructed on how to cope individually with German jets. A conventional aircraft should never attempt to outrun a jet. Instead, the pilot of the propeller-driven aircraft should turn into the attacker and try for a head-on shot, since deflection shooting at such high speeds was difficult. Furthermore, because the conventional fighter could turn tighter than a jet at slower speeds, the propeller-driven fighter would wind up in an excellent firing position if the jet attempted to maneuver—an unlikely prospect, since the jet would almost surely break off the engagement.
Finally, when all else failed, an American fighter pilot might down a jet by catching it while it was landing or taking off. With its gear down and at a slow speed, a jet was an easy target, although as Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager points out in his autobiography, antiaircraft defenses around enemy airfields made this a dangerous practice. It was in this manner that Yeager, then a captain flying a P-51, got his jet kill.
The Most Important Factor
Nevertheless, in spite of numerical superiority and tactical innovations, knocking down a jet remained at best a difficult task. The superior speed of the jets allowed German pilots to control engagements. However, once engaged, a German pilot, regardless of how good he and his machine might be, could become careless and forget to watch his own tail for enemy aircraft while he was pressing an attack. Such poor situation awareness seems to have been the downfall of no less a pilot than Adolf Galland during his last attack on a formation of B-26s.
While shooting down one of the B-26s, he failed to see a flight of P-47s that was closing on his rear until it was too late. Galland was seriously wounded, but did manage to land his badly damaged Me-262. The downing of a pilot like Galland points to a conclusion of special significance about the American effort to defeat German jets: The capabilities and alertness of pilots was an extremely important factor, perhaps the most important factor, in determining the outcome of air-to-air combat. At a January 1945 meeting, an intelligence officer remarked on the relative unaggressiveness of some German jet pilots in a particular engagement and said that the jets had knocked down an American fighter by attacking a formation that failed to see the jets coming. He added that “if our pilots see the jets, they do not have so much trouble.”
German jets continued to take their toll of AAF aircraft right up to the end of the war. A concerned Gen. Jimmy Doolittle reported at a commanders’ conference that German jets had already downed almost as many bombers (twenty-one) in the first eleven days of April as they had downed (twenty-four) during the entire month of March.
These statistics and Doolittle’s continued anxiety make one wonder what might have happened had Hitler not intruded into the employment decision for the Me-262. Most likely, earlier deployment of this aircraft in its air-superiority role would not have changed the war’s basic outcome. In the end, the extensive Allied land and air forces would still have combined with massive Soviet military forces to overwhelm Nazi Germany.
The story of the AAF response to the German jets suggests that success in war depends on a complex interaction among a number of factors, no one of which has a privileged position in the calculus of combat. A superior number of very good fighters and bombers, smart tactics and strategy, highly trained and experienced pilots, and solid leadership combined to enable the AAF to overwhelm the Luftwaffe, with its relatively small number of superior jet fighters, which were flown largely by inexperienced German pilots whose leadership was strife-ridden.
All other factors being equal, superior technology or better leadership does give an edge to the side that has it—but so does an advantage in any other area. What makes prediction so difficult is that “all other factors” are never equal. Success comes to the commander who best understands his strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis those of the enemy and capitalizes on these while denying the enemy commander the opportunity to do the same.
Lt. Col. Donald R. Baucom received his B.S. degree from the Air Force Academy in 1962 and his Ph.D. in the History of Science from the University of Oklahoma in 1976. His primary career field in the Air Force has been communications-electronics. He has served as an associate professor in the Air Force Academy History Department and as a member of the Air War College faculty. Other important assignments have been Director of Research, Airpower Research Institute, and Editor of the Air University Review. He is currently in the Office of Air Force History in Washington, D. C., where he is at work on a history of the Air Force and its response to research and development from 1941 through 1961. This article is a version of a paper presented to a seminar at the Air and Space Museum in November 1986.