Written by Matthew Copes
Allied dominance in the skies over Europe reached new heights when the first daylight bombing raids were made on Berlin in the spring of 1944.
By the time of the amphibious landings at Normandy and elsewhere the following summer, the Luftwaffe’s situation had become so dire that the invasion went largely uncontested from the air.
The persistent bombing of key manufacturing centers, refineries and supply lines had caused logistical nightmares for the Kreigsmarine, Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, the latter of which found it increasingly difficult to replace lost aircraft and pilots.
Long-range escorts like P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs were taking heavy tolls on the aircraft that were scrambled to intercept the American bombers, and with Germany’s fate hanging in the balance, new machines and tactics were desperately needed to turn the tide of the war.
The idea for the Volksjäger or “People’s Fighter” emerged from the Emergency Fighter Program competition between various aircraft manufacturers, and would ultimately lead to the production of the Heinkel He 162.
Alternately known as the Salamander and Sparrow, the unique little 162 was one of the war’s least conventional aircraft, and to confuse Allied intelligence during its short development, the Ministry of Aviation classified the new airplane as a fast bomber.
Specifications called for a small, single-seat, jet-powered interceptor that could be built quickly and inexpensively using materials like wood and synthetic laminates instead of aircraft aluminum which was in particularly short supply.
As the war dragged on losses to Allied fighters and defensive fire from bombers flying in close formation continued to grow.
To counter these threats Germany initially relied on equipping existing aircraft with heavier weapons like 30, 37 and 50 mm cannons that allowed them to engage the bombers well beyond range of their .50-caliber machine guns.
On the downside, though bigger guns, increased ammunition loads and additional armor protection around cockpits and vital engine components did make the planes more effective in some respects, the increased weight resulted in poor performance which made aircraft like modified Focke-Wulf Fw 190s easy pickings for Allied escort fighters.
The Luftwaffe adapted by instituting new tactics, one of the most effective of which was having large formations of cannon-equipped aircraft attack the bombers from head-on.
This largely negated their defensive fire, and the attacks happened so quickly that the escorts had but a few seconds to engage.
The German planes often made just one pass before speeding away, but on the return trip this allowed Mustangs and Thunderbolts to peel off and strafe ground targets unhindered, of which Luftwaffe air bases were a favorite target.
In fact hundreds of Luftwaffe aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and in addition the 8th Air Force began sending waves of fighters into German airspace well ahead of the bombers to draw the German defenders out.
Heavily outnumbered and with few options other than to engage the Americans on their terms, within a relatively short time many of Germany’s most vaunted aces had been killed, aircraft were becoming increasingly scarce, and the young men who filled the void were generally ill-trained and inexperienced.
Though there was dissension within Luftwaffe ranks, it was determined that more advanced machines were needed to counter the Allies’ growing air superiority.
General Adolf Galland argued that all possible effort must be put into increasing production of the fighter variant of the Messerschmitt Me 262.
However, this couldn’t be done without significantly reducing the number of battle-proven propeller aircraft that were already being produced in large numbers.
In addition, though they were capable of outperforming anything in the air, 262s were expensive and time consuming to manufacture, and their power plants often had to be rebuilt or replaced after just ten hours of flight time.
What the Luftwaffe needed were effective yet inexpensive machines built with non-strategic materials that weren’t in such high demand.
If the aircraft were damaged or worn out, they could simply be discarded or used for spare parts, hence the “throwaway fighter” concept was born.
Galland and other senior Luftwaffe officers expressed vociferous opposition to this plan, while Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Armaments Minister Albert Speer supported it wholeheartedly.
Needless to say, Göring and Speer won out, and contract tenders were issued to various manufacturers.
Initial specifications for the new aircraft were issued in mid-September of 1944.
Due to the pressing nature of Germany’s predicament, designs were to be submitted 10 days later, and even more shockingly, large-scale production was scheduled to commence no later than early January of the following year.
Despite this unprecedented rush, various companies including Heinkel, Blohm & Voss and Focke-Wulf submitted proposals in the hopes of being awarded hefty production contracts.
But though the Focke-Wulf and Blohm & Voss designs were deemed to be technically superior, Heinkel had the upper hand because the company had been toying with similar concepts for years, and more than one of their designs had already undergone extensive wind tunnel testing.
Since the time to develop the other aircraft would’ve been prohibitively long, Heinkel was declared the winner in October of 1944.
Heinkel’s unorthodox design was most noteworthy for its BMW engine being mounted in a bulbous nacelle on top of the fuselage between the cockpit and a split tail, the latter of which was needed to accommodate the jet’s exhaust.
In addition, unlike most traditional fighters, its wings were mounted high on the fuselage and had straight leading and forward swept trailing edges.
Though it significantly added to the plane’s weight and complexity, Heinkel also included an ejection seat which was a necessity due to the dangers inherent to the plane’s proposed missions.
For strength and simplicity, 162s incorporated simple and robust retractable tricycle landing gears largely built with components from existing aircraft to speed production.
While the first prototype was under construction, a number of factories that manufactured glue and wooden components for the aircraft were bombed.
Since the glue factory was nearly obliterated, a last-minute adhesive change was made that would ultimately slow development and cause a number of aircraft to be lost.
Nonetheless, the first V-1 prototype flew on December 6.
The flight was relatively uneventful, with the exception that the replacement glue on the landing gear’s nose door failed, forcing test pilot Gotthold Peter to make an emergency landing.
Center of gravity and lateral stability issues were also noted, though neither was considered significant enough to warrant slowing or halting production.
However with the same airman at the controls on another flight in mid-December, faulty glue once again caused an even more serious structural failure that resulted in catastrophic wing damage, after which the plane rolled over and slammed into the ground instantly killing the pilot within view of Luftwaffe brass who’d been assembled to inspect the new aircraft.
Subsequent investigations revealed that the new glue actually ate into the wood to which it was supposed to bond.
Flight testing continued while a suitable replacement adhesive could be found, but in the meantime speeds were limited to just 310 miles per hour (500 km/h) until the second prototype flew just before Christmas.
Stability was still an issue, but since the plane was planned to enter production in just a few weeks there was no time for major design changes, though the addition of larger tail surfaces and ballast in the nose improved handling significantly.
The new and improved third and fourth prototypes flew in mid-January 1945, both of which included the 162’s characteristic drooping wingtips and twin 30 mm cannons protruding from recessed areas below and to the sides of the cockpit.
But though the cannons packed a nasty punch, their excessive recoil caused undue stress on the already questionable glue and wood airframes.
On later production models they were ultimately replaced with 20 mm cannons which were lighter and could carry nearly twice as much ammunition.
But though the aircraft’s weight was originally intended to be just 4,400 pounds (1,995 kg), by the time various improvements had been made it had ballooned to more than 6,000 pounds (2,720 kg), though with its high power-to-weight ratio performance remained exceptional.
However, one big drawback was that with just one 183 US gallon (695 L) internal fuel tank, flight duration was limited to just 30 minutes, though some later production variants had additional tanks located in each inner wing panel.
To minimize the likelihood of one lucky bombing raid halting production, manufacturing facilities were downsized and spread over a relatively large area.
Initial projections called for nearly 1,000 units to be built each month, but as was the case with everything from tanks and guns to aircraft and ships, actual production numbers were far less.
Measuring just 30 feet (9 m) long and 24 feet (7.5 m) from wingtip to wingtip, original design specs called for 162s to have maximum takeoff weights of just 4,400 pounds, while power would come from a single BMW 109 turbojet engine rated at approximately 1,800 pounds of thrust.
Though not particularly powerful by jet standards, the BMW power plants would be more than capable of propelling the small aircraft past 470 miles per hour (750 km/h), though later flight testing would reveal a significantly higher top speed approaching 560 miles per hour (900 km/h) with emergency boost.
Nearly 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) faster than anything the Allies had, 162s also had exceptional climb rates approaching 4,600 feet (1,400 m) per minute, compared to just 3,500 feet (1,060 m) per minute for Mustangs.
Unlike other aircraft, the 162’s frame and structural components would be made largely of wood, and though they weren’t free from bolts, screws and rivets, most were held together by the aforementioned glue, with which there were abundant issues.
Not only would the aircraft be light and at least theoretically strong, but they’d be able to be built by unskilled and in some cases slave labor.
But perhaps most importantly, since it was likely that many new pilots would come from the relatively inexperienced ranks of the Hitler Youth, above all else 162s needed to be easy to fly after just cursory training, much of which would be spent practicing takeoffs and landings.
Though originally intended to be flown by young unqualified pilots, the aircraft’s increased complexity made this a particularly foolhardy plan.
However, in the absence of a suitable alternative, both two-seat trainers and unpowered glider training variants were built, but as the Luftwaffe’s situation worsened production was shifted almost entirely to combat-ready machines.
The first aircraft were delivered to Test Unit 162 in January of 1945, after which they were briefly put through their paces and rushed into service.
The following February the first operational unit JG 1 that had previously flown Focke-Wulf Fw 190 As got their tiny but potent new jets.
The first He 162 saw combat on the 19th of April in 1945, when pilot Günther Kirchner downed an RAF fighter.
However Kirchner’s victory celebration would be short-lived, as he was killed later the same day by an English airman flying a Hawker Tempest.
Kirchner actually survived the barrage from the Tempest’s machine and ejected, but his parachute failed to open and he was killed instantly when he hit the ground.
Aircraft from JG 1 did make additional fighter kills and damage a number of bombers, but in the end they took far more punishment than they ever dished out.
All told 13 aircraft and 10 pilots were lost in less than a month, most of which resulted in structural failures, engine malfunctions, and in a few instances aircraft running out of fuel.
In the war’s waning days, surviving He 162s were spread too thin to make much of a difference, and when General Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg officially surrendered all German armed forces in the Netherlands, Northwest Germany and Denmark on May 5, all were grounded.
In the following days Allied troops took control of a number of key airfields across Europe, and dozens of 162s were packed up and whisked away to America, Britain and the Soviet Union where they underwent extensive testing and evaluation.
Dozens more had been destroyed by crews intent on preventing them from falling into enemy hands, but by the time of Germany’s unconditional surrender on March 8, only 120 had been delivered, though approximately 600 additional aircraft were discovered in various stages of completion.
Heinkel’s He 162s only served between January and May of 1945, and though official statistics are hard to come by, it’s likely that they weren’t solely responsible for the downing of a single Allied bomber.
As is the case with many of Nazi Germany’s most revolutionary weapons, their ineffectiveness wasn’t the direct result of inherent design flaws, but because they were rushed into service prematurely and built in too few numbers.
Both Luftwaffe airmen who’d piloted them in combat and Allied aviators who’d flown captured aircraft after the war considered them exceptional machines in many respects.
Fleet Air Arm pilot Eric “Winkle” Brown who purportedly flew nearly 500 aircraft said 162s were fast, stable and nimble, though shortly after making this statement one of his counterparts was killed while flying a People’s Fighter during a demonstration near Farnborough after one of the plane’s tail fins sheared off during a low-level roll.
At the Nuremberg Trials Herman Goering famously opined that, “when I saw Mustangs over Berlin I knew the jig was up.”
Likewise, after the war Ernst Heinkel categorically stated that it was wholly unrealistic to think that ill-trained teenagers could fly such complex high-performance machines, and that it went a long way toward highlighting the unbridled fanaticism that permeated the upper echelons of the Third Reich at the time, even when it should have been apparent that the war was unwinnable.