The Messerschmitt Me 262, nicknamed Schwalbe (“Swallow”) in fighter versions, or Sturmvogel (“Storm Bird”) in fighter-bomber versions, was the world’s first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft (it was operationally deployed in April of 1944, three months before British Gloster Meteor and six months before US P-80 Shooting Star).
Meteor saw a much more limited combat service during WW2 being used against V-1 cruise missiles and later in the war as a ground attack aircraft and the P-80 saw no actual combat in WW2 at all.
Not surprisingly, the world’s first aircraft to fly under turbojet power, and the first practical jet aircraft – Heinkel He 178, which made its maiden flight on August 27th, 1939 – was also designed and manufactured in Nazi Germany. As was the first turbojet-powered fighter aircraft – Heinkel He 280 – which due to problems with its engines never reached operational status (the project was canceled after just nine aircraft have been produced).
The Me 262 was faster and more heavily armed (with four 30mm autocannons) than any Allied fighter, including the British jet-powered Gloster Meteor. One of the most advanced aviation designs in operational use during World War II, the Me 262 was produced in fighter, interceptor, light bomber, reconnaissance and even experimental night fighter versions.
However, it was produced “too little too late” and in way too many versions to have any meaningful effect on the war. Only 1,430 have been built with just a little over 400 reaching the battlefields of Europe.
The only “natural” version of Me 262 was the “bomber killer”. Unfortunately, it was armed with a highly inefficient (for this purpose) autocannon – the short-barreled, slow-firing Mk 108 that had a low muzzle-velocity and thus were highly inaccurate beyond 600m.
Consequently, Me 262 pilots had to use a very different weapon – up to 24 unguided folding-fin R4M rockets – twelve in each of two underwing racks, outboard of the engine nacelle.
They approached from the side of a bomber formation, where their silhouettes were widest, and while still out of range of the bombers’ machine guns, fired a salvo of rockets with strongly brisant Hexogen-filled warheads, exactly the same explosive in the shells fired by the Me 262A’s quartet of MK 108 cannon. One or (at most) two of these rockets downed even the famously rugged Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
Some nicknamed this tactic the Luftwaffe’s Wolf Pack, as the jet fighters often made runs in groups of two or three, fired their rockets, then returned to base. This tactic was so successful that on 1 September 1944, USAAF General Carl Spaatz (then commander of Strategic Air Forces in Europe) expressed the fear that if greater numbers of German jets appeared, they could inflict losses heavy enough to force cancellation of the Allied bombing offensive by daylight.
Luftwaffe pilots eventually learned how to handle the Me 262’s higher speed and so the Me 262 soon proved a formidable air superiority fighter, with pilots such as Franz Schall managing to shoot down seventeen enemy fighters in the Me 262, ten of them famous American P-51 Mustangs.
Too fast to catch for the escorting Allied fighters, the Me 262s were almost impossible to head off. As a result, Me 262 pilots were relatively safe from the Allied fighters, as long as they did not allow themselves to get drawn into low-speed turning contests and saved their maneuvering for higher speeds.
Consequently, Allied pilots soon found that the only reliable way to destroy the jets, was to attack them on the ground or during takeoff or landing. The Luftwaffe countered by installing extensive flak alleys of anti-aircraft guns along the approach lines to protect the Me 262s from the ground – and by providing top cover during the jets’ takeoff and landing with the most advanced Luftwaffe single-engine fighters, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190D and (just becoming available in 1945) Focke-Wulf Ta 152H.
According to sources Me 262s destroyed from 300 to 450 enemy planes, with the Allies destroying about 100 Me 262s in the air – which made a highly successful kill ratio for the first operational jet fighter.