The fighter, fast and powerful, has always dominated the skies as the “glamorous” aircraft in aviation history. For me the most interesting period of aviation history was World War Two. This war saw the introduction of high-speed all metal monoplanes and eventually jet fighters. All the major nations in the conflict introduced an amazing array of combat aircraft but many of the fighters still remain some of the most recognizable aircraft in aviation history. The men who flew them became heroes to their respective nations and sadly while many of their names may have been relegated to the history books, the names of the aircraft and manufacturers like the Spitfire, Mustang, Hellcat, Corsair, Messerschmitt, Focke-Wulf, Zero etc. always spring to mind.
So what is my favourite fighter from World War Two? For me it is the Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow) from Germany.
The Me-262 was the first operational jet fighter (1944) and with its high-speed of 870 kmh / 540 mph and a heavy punch of 4 x 30 mm MK 108 cannons and up to 24 x 55mm underwing rockets it sent shock waves through Allied ranks! To see these fast jets screaming through bomber formations must have been terrifying for the Allied aircrews. Their mission was to strike hard and get away fast!
Although not the best fighter of that era, to me the shape and form of the Me-262 (like a shark), the innovative design and the impact of the fighter on history has always captured my imagination. Plus to add to the mystique of the Me-262, it was flown in combat by many of the top Luftwaffe air aces. General Adolf Galland (104 air to air victories with 7 in the Me-262) described flying the Me-262 “as if angels were pushing”.
The very elite Jagdverband 44 (JV-44) squadron made up mostly of air aces led by Galland flew the Me-262 in the latter stages of the war. Galland selected experienced pilots whom he knew would be able to quickly convert from piston engine aircraft to a jet and make an immediate impact – men such as Gerhard Barkhorn (301 victories), Heinz Bär (220 victories) and Johannes Steinhoff (176 victories). The top 5 aces in this squadron had over 1000 aerial combat victories between them (through the duration of the war) making it the most experienced combat squadron ever formed! This was like the old Flying Circus days of World War One (“Der Galland-Zirkus” – The Galland Circus)!
Eric “Bubi” Hartmann the top air ace of all time (352 victories) was brought back to Germany from the Eastern Front to conduct some trial flights in the Me-262 with the plan for him to join JV-44 but after a few flights he opted to go back to the front and fight it out with his comrades in JG-52 (52nd Fighter Wing – the most successful of all Luftwaffe squadrons with over 9,000 air to air victories in World War Two). Hartmann didn’t want to leave them in the lurch and given he had some clout being a national hero, his wish was granted. Unfortunately for Hartmann he would end the war as a POW and spend the next 10 years in a Soviet prison. He was not released to Germany until 1955 (he rejoined the post war Luftwaffe)!
Despite all of that experience in JV-44 their impact was minimal though due to the squadron not becoming fully operational until just before the end of war in 1945 (they shot down approximately 50 enemy aircraft – in credit to the pilots this is said to have been a 4:1 victory ratio). Fuel shortages and airfields being shot up all the time did not help either (the jet was an easy target during landing). Despite this the Me-262 helped shaped the future of combat aviation and started the dawn of the jet age.
I am interested to hear from you about what your favourite fighter from World War Two is? I am sure this will provide some interesting discussion!