Within the Striking by Night exhibition of the Australian War Memorial sits some of the most famous World War Two aircraft produced by German aviation company Messerschmitt AG. The jewel in the crown is a Messerschmitt Me 262A2 Schwalbe (Swallow), the world’s first fully operational jet aircraft. This example is known as “Black X” because of the distinctive Luftwaffe KG 51 unit markings on the nose wheel undercarriage door and fuselage.
Although the first jet engined prototype of the Messerschmitt Me 262A flew in 1942, it did not reach operational status until April 1944. The introduction of the jet fighter was delayed for a number of reasons but the main reason was that Hitler wanted them to carry bombs, while the Luftwaffe wanted them to be a fighter only, to intercept the Allied bombers raining destruction all over the Reich (which was also causing a shortage in parts and fuel and delaying production and deployment even further). It took a while to prove the advantages of a jet fighter.
With its high-speed, Luftwaffe General and air ace Adolf Galland with 104 aerial victories (7 victories flying the Me-262 whilst commanding JV44 between March 1945 and May 1945) described the Me 262 “as if angels were pushing“ (the two Junkers Jumo 109-004B axial-flow turbojets enabled a maximum speed of 900 km/h or 559 mph). With 4 hard-hitting 30mm cannons (plus some were fitted with R4M underwing anti-aircraft rockets) the Me 262 could inflict plenty of damage on Allied bombers but the delay in service entry was a mistake that cost the Luftwaffe dearly in deploying a technological edge in a timely manner to protect their airspace.
There was also an element of shock and awe amongst Allied pilots when they first saw the new jets slicing through the sky at incredible speeds, unleashing hell as they zipped through bomber formations. This advantage was short lived though and Allied tactics were soon put into action to deal with the German jet menace.
Luftwaffe Me 262 pilots claimed a total of 542 Allied air to air victories in their deployment from April 1944 to May 1945 but they were restricted by engine problems, fuel shortages and Allied attacks on their air bases (the best time to hit an Me-262 was when it was most vulnerable and that was when it was landing and short on fuel or already on the ground). Over 1,400 were manufactured with losses reported as only 100 in air to air combat but up to 1,200 Me 262’s were destroyed on the ground! The jet age had come and changed air combat forever but it was all too late to help the battered Luftwaffe turn the tide of the air war over occupied Europe and Germany.
Australian bomber crews flying with RAF Bomber Command encountered Me 262’s over Europe and an Australian pilot flying in the RAF, Squadron Leader F.A.O Tony Gaze OAM DFC and 2 Bars was the first Australian to shoot one down while flying Supermarine Spitfire Mk.XIV DW-F with RAF No. 610 Squadron on February 14th, 1945 (the Me-262A-2 of I./KG51 was flown by Fw. Rudolf Hoffman and was shot down over Emmrich on Rhine, Germany). Tony Gaze also shot down a Luftwaffe Arado Ar 234 jet bomber on April 12th, 1945 and became the first Australian to fly a jet in combat when he the flew a Gloster Meteor III jet fighter with RAF 616 Squadron in 1945. His final air to air tally was 12.5 victories (11 destroyed and 3 shared), 4 probables and one V-1 flying bomb (plus damage to 1 Messerschmitt Bf-109E and 4 Focke-Wulf Fw-190 fighters).
Given the link of the Me 262 type to Australian military operations, this example was presented to Australia as a war trophy following British testing at the end of the war. The Australian War Memorial Me 262A2 was manufactured by Messerschmitt at Regensburg-Obertraubling, Germany in March 1945 (Work Number 500200) as a fighter-bomber version and flew with the Luftwaffe Kampfgeschwader 51 (KG 51 – Battle Wing 51) in its final months of operation in 1945 in Czechoslovakia. KG 51 reportedly had less than 40 Me 262’s at any given time and were tasked with fighter-bomber and bomber intercept missions against Allied bomber formations from mid 1944 until May 1945.
In May 1945 the Me 262 was flown by pilot Lieutenant Froelich to Fassberg Airfield, Germany that was then in Allied territory and surrendered to the British. In late August 1945 it was flown out of Germany, arriving on September 6th, 1945 at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, UK for testing where it was flown nine times by test pilots before being sent to Australia.
The aircraft was displayed at the Australian War Memorial from 1955 until around 1970 and then loaned to RAAF Museum, Point Cook, Victoria. Following preservation work the aircraft was put back on display at the Australian War Memorial circa 1985.
The aircraft is said to have evidence that its guns were fired in combat (the spent cartridge chutes are apparently dented indicating shell ejection) and is unique in that it is the only one left with the original 1945 thin coating of German paint work. Additional paint work on the fuselage includes the 1945 British Air Ministry markings whilst under testing at Farnborough (“P” for prototype and “AIR MIN 81” – it also had British roundels painted over the German markings prior to restoration work) and a 1950’s era over-paint by the RAAF.