The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet was an ambitious and desperate project of the German war machine in World War Two. Send a Luftwaffe pilot screaming through the sky in a rocket powered, single engine, swept wing tailless interceptor at over 9oo km/h (close to 600 mph) to rapidly get above Allied bomber formations, then with the engine out of fuel (at maximum throttle the endurance was just 8 minutes giving an approximate operational range of 80 kilometres), glide down fast and get amongst the bombers to attempt to wreak havoc with two Mk 108 30mm cannons! The pilot could then descend by gliding to the ground and touch down on a landing skid (the wheels would be jettisoned following take-off). Sounds easy doesn’t it? The poor pilots!
If all this wasn’t death-defying enough, the rocket fuel propellants of T-Stoff oxidizer (hydrogen peroxide) and C-Stoff (methanol-hydrazine) used in the Me 163 were highly volatile, highly corrosive and deadly to touch. The fuel was just as likely to explode the aircraft following a fuel leak before it even reached its target (also if you landed with any fuel left it was likely to also explode!). This was not ideal in a tiny aircraft with an aluminium fuselage and wooden wings (to protect it from enemy gun fire it did have a strengthened nose and bullet proof glass in the cockpit though)!
The high-speed of the Me 163 Komet made it difficult for Allied bomber gunners to track and shoot at but although it was well armed, the 30mm cannons were too slow-firing for its speed which made them ineffective in actual combat. Pilots were going so fast they only had a brief moment to fire at an Allied bomber and with the gun issue they had to be very close to get an effective shot. The problem was they needed to get multiple hits to bring down a big bomber like a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress or Consolidated B-24 Liberator and there just wasn’t enough time or a chance to swing back on the target to get enough shots on target.
An Me 163 pilot had to be an expert marksmen to get an air to air victory. A tactic that was soon developed was to fly through the bomber formation shooting whilst still under rocket power, then glide back through the formation firing again after the engine cut out to maximise the potential damage that could be dished out.
Understandably given its limitations, the Me 163 Komet was the only rocket-powered fighter aircraft ever to have become operational. The prototype Me 163A with a Walter HWK RI-203 rocket engine first flew on September 1st,1941 (5 were built) and the Me 163A-V4 prototype flown by Heini Dittmar is said to have hit a top speed of 1,004.5 km/h (624.2 mph) and set a new world speed record on October 2nd, 1941!
Aeronautical Engineer Alexander Lippisch designed the Me 163. He had been experimenting with tailless delta winged aircraft designs since 1931. In 1939 the Reichsluftfahrtsministerium (RLM – Reich Aviation Ministry) transferred him to Messerschmitt to design an aircraft around the rocket engines that were being developed by Hellmuth Walter. By August 1940 they had test flown under rocket power the DFS 194 aircraft powered by a Walter RI-203 rocket motor producing 882 lb of thrust. It was flown by Heini Dittmar on several successful flights at Peenemunde and reached speeds up to 550 km/h (342 mph). The success of the DFS 194 lead to priority being given to the program and it formed a vital stepping stone to the development of the Me 163 Komet.
It took a number of years of testing and development to resolve many technical issues before the production Me 163B variant became fully operational with the Luftwaffe in July 1944 (it still wasn’t necessarily safe to fly and more pilots are said to have died in accidents than in combat!). The Me 163B Komet was powered by a Walter HWK 109-509A liquid fuelled rocket motor producing 3,800 lb of thrust and even with armament fitted was still capable of speeds up to 959 km/h (596 mph)!
Jagdgeschwader 400 was formed on February 1st, 1944 to become the only military unit in the world to fly operational rocket-powered fighter aircraft in July 1944. They were deployed in strategic locations to rapidly intercept Allied bombers enroute to their targets. Their first engagement of Eighth US Army Air Force Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers was on August 16th, 1944 whilst protecting the Leuna oil refineries near Leipzig in eastern Germany.
Around 370 Me 163 Komet interceptors were produced but nowhere near that number were ever operational at one time and with the numerous technical issues, fuel shortages and the dangerous nature of flying the aircraft, they did very little damage to Allied bombers with only 9 confirmed kills from July 1944 to May 1945. During that time up to 14 Me 163 Komets had been shot down, crashed or lost in accidents.
Although the Me 163 was still highly maneuverable in glide mode, Allied pilots and gunners learned to wait until the engine cut out and the speed dropped off before firing or hit them when they were landing/landed and had to await a removal tractor to tow them away, making them very vulnerable. By May 1945 the plans to deploy the Me 163 to various strategic locations and the concept of the rocket fighter itself were abandoned, and pilots were reassigned to fly the more capable Me 262 jet fighter.
The Australian War Memorial Me 163B-1a Komet (Work Number 191907) was produced by Messerschmitt AG at Klemm at Boblingen, Germany in 1945. It was captured by the Allies in May 1945, probably at Husum in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany and is believed to have been part of a group of aircraft stored as replacements for Jagdgeschwader 400. Given this particular airframe does not feature any unit marking and by 1945 rocket fuel was scarce, it is not believed to have been flown operationally.
Taken to the United Kingdom at the end of the war for further testing, by 1946 it was at the RAF No. 4 Maintenance Unit and allocated for shipping to be included in the Australian War Memorial collection. Until the 1980’s it was stored within the RAAF Museum at Point Cook, Victoria where it was repainted in 1978 based off the existing paint scheme and stencils.
Additional restorative work was completed by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in 1982 before being sent to the Australian War Memorial annex in 1986 for further restoration. It was painted again in 2003 and this is what you see in the Striking by Night exhibition in ANZAC Hall today.