By Robert F. Dorr
A man who was close to Adolf Hitler—and hardly impartial—later said that the Führer had “a mood of merriment” for a brief period that day.
It was Friday, November 26, 1943. A carefully arranged collection of the Third Reich’s most advanced weapons stood ready—almost—to be demonstrated to Hitler. The location was the German military airfield at Insterburg in East Prussia.
Traveling to Insterburg from Berlin with his leader aboard a Junkers Ju-52 tri-motor transport plane, Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring hoped his orders to set up an impressive display had been followed to the letter.
One observer commented that Göring looked “like a child with a new toy” as he prepared to claim credit for Germany’s recent scientific advances. The Führer was especially interested in a new jet aircraft called the Messerschmitt Me-262, the reason for his “merriment.” Today Göring would be certain the Me-262 was showcased to good advantage. This was his chance, he believed, to restore his on-again, off-again status in good standing with the Führer. It was also a grand opportunity to outshine his rival, Field Marshal Erhard Milch, who held the title of Air Inspector General.
Several “black,” or secret, aircraft and items of equipment were ready for Hitler’s inspection. None looked more deadly basking in the winter sun than the Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow), the wunderwaffen, or “wonder weapon,” that was soon to become the world’s first operational jet fighter. Although he was his country’s highest ranking military officer, wearing an elaborate uniform of his own design dripping with awards and decorations, Göring was not as well informed about the Me-262 as he thought.
This was soon to be apparent as the Ju-52 landed at Insterburg just past noon, taxied to a halt in front of the top brass at the military airbase, and disgorged its very important passengers. Emerging from the transport were Hitler, Reich Minister of Armaments Albert Speer, Göring, Milch, and an entourage of officers of the Luftwaffe. Hitler’s personal pilot, SS Major General Hans Baur, said that he flew from Berlin, taking off from Tempelhof airport and making the short flight in good weather, so there was no problem in having the transport plane overloaded with so many notable persons.
Waiting to greet them on arrival was Germany’s most important aircraft designer, Professor Willy Messerschmitt. The tall, thin, balding Messerschmitt wore his title handily even though he possessed no academic degree. He had made certain his name was indelibly attached to the new Me-262 jet, even though he had not worked on the engineering team that designed it. In fact, Professor Messerschmitt had had almost nothing to do with the plane, a Messerschmitt that was going to ensure the Reich’s deliverance.
And there is every reason to believe that the Führer was here only because of his interest in the Me-262; the other weapons were of little or no interest to him. He was initially curious and inquisitive when Willi Messerschmitt and others began showing him around, but he soon began to appear impatient. Hitler may not have been that interested in the V-1 robot bomb, two anti-shipping missiles called the Hs-293 and Fritz-X, and film of the new panoramic radar sets and the Korfu receiver stations tracking British bombers by their radar emissions during a night attack on Berlin a few days earlier. A six-engined Junkers Ju-390, the largest land plane ever built in Germany, was on display and was mostly ignored. Baur later said that it clearly involved developmental and operational costs that were unrealistic.
Eager to increase Hitler’s interest and to upstage Milch, Göring attempted to take the Führer’s arm. Hitler shook off the gesture but could not prevent Göring from acting as chief guide, speaking loudly, claiming credit for many of the technical achievements for his own staff. Göring talked while Milch looked on, infuriated and embarrassed.
Signing Off On the Arado
The star of the show was of course the Me-262 jet fighter, but the Insterburg exhibit also included an Arado Ar-234 twin-jet reconnaissance aircraft and bomber, which was transported to the event with great difficulty. While the Me-262 was at the event to show its flying skills, the third airframe in the Arado jet series, the Ar-234V3, was dismantled and transported by road to Insterburg, where technicians hurriedly pieced it back together for static display. The Arado was parked unceremoniously between a pair of Junkers Ju-88 twin-prop warplanes, one of which carried special equipment for laying smoke screens.
According to Arado company records, Hitler immediately gave the planemaker Arado—now nationalized—carte blanche to obtain factory personnel, raw materials, and funds so that the company could build 200 Ar-234s by the end of 1944. Some former members of Luftwaffe bomber units, who had been scheduled for reassignment as ground troops, possibly to the horrors of the Soviet front, were diverted to Arado to become workers on the project.
It did not help that an Me-262 took off as part of the demonstration, flamed out, and had to limp back to the runway for a dead-stick landing with pilot Fritz Wendel at the controls. Hitler appeared impatient as a second Me-262, with Gerd Lindner in the cockpit, took off with its imperfect Jumo 004 turbojet engines howling, circled over the visitors, and flew overhead with no apparent flaw. This was the moment when Hitler’s face changed and his eyes brightened.
The Me-262 as “Blitz Bomber”
One member of Hitler’s coterie who knew nothing about aviation, Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann, later wrote of a “sparkle” in the Führer’s eyes.
Hitler had had a question in mind ever since he learned about the new weapons. Now, he posed the question not to Göring but to the ever servile Messerschmitt. The pair walked side by side. “Tell me,” Hitler said. “Is this aircraft able to carry bombs?”
Messerschmitt was clearly uncomfortable and seems to have improvised with his quick answer. “Yes, my Führer. It can carry for sure a 250-kilogram bomb, perhaps two of them.”
No one involved in the design of the Me-262 had ever considered such a thing.
“Well!” Hitler beamed. “Nobody ever thought of this!” He was certainly right on that point. “This is the Blitz bomber I have been requesting for years.” Another listener heard Hitler used the word Schnellbomber, or fast bomber, a concept that had been on his mind for some time.
It was the right moment for Messerschmitt to say, “This aircraft is a fighter my Führer. It has the potential to reinforce our command of the air over the Reich.”
But Messerschmitt said nothing.
“No one thought of this,” the Führer repeated. “I’m going to order that this 262 be used exclusively as a Blitz bomber, and you, Messerschmitt, have to make all the necessary preparations to make this feasible.”
Overlord Looms Overhead
In a Monday, December 20, 1943, speech to Wehrmacht officers, Hitler revealed the priority he placed on the Me-262 as an anti-invasion weapon: “Every month that passes makes it more and more probable that we will get at least one group of jet aircraft. The important thing is that they [the enemy] get some bombs on top of them just as they try to invade. That will force them to take cover, and in this way they will waste hour after hour! But after half a day our reserves will already be on their way. So if we can pin them down on the beaches for just six or eight hours, you can see what that will mean to us.”
This was the speech in which Hitler predicted an Allied invasion two or three months hence, much sooner than it actually happened. This was also the date of a letter in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed with Prime Minister Winston Churchill that an announcement could be made at the first of the year that General Dwight D. Eisenhower would command Operation Overlord, the code name of the invasion for which the Führer was preparing.
Hitler’s fixation on using the Me-262 to carry bombs may have delayed the jet’s entering service, but technical glitches with its jet engines were probably equally responsible. Galland believed that if the Me-262 could have been gotten into battle a year earlier (its first combat mission was on July 25, 1944), it would have swept the skies of Allied bombers and forced a postponement of Overlord. But was a single conversation with Willi Messerschmitt at the big weapons display the reason the Me-262 did not arrive sooner? It was not.
There were other repercussions after the big weapons display for the Führer at Insterburg. One was a difficult experience for unrepentant Nazi and personal pilot Hans Baur. Sixteen months later, one of Baur’s last wartime acts was to fly the Ju-290 intended for Hitler’s use to Munich-Riem airport on March 24, 1945. Baur parked the aircraft in a hangar and went to his home. The next morning, he learned that Allied bombing had destroyed the magnificent four-engined transport and its hangar.
The Third Reich soon suffered a similar fate, despite the wonder weapons that so infatuated Adolf Hitler during his big weapons display.
The merriment was over.