Bizarre Nazi Weapons – Reichenberg

103

Probably the biggest problem of Fi 103 (V-1) cruise missile was its totally unacceptable accuracy (actually, lack of thereof). Consequently, it simply could not hit any meaningful target (other than by pure luck).

To remedy this problem, the Luftwaffe decided to set up an all-volunteer “suicide squad”. Nicknamed the Leonidas Squadron after Leonidas I, the king of Sparta who in 480 BC resisted the invading Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae with 1400 warriors who fought to the last man against 100’000 Persian, it was officially known as 5th Staffel of Kampfgeschwader 200 (Luftwaffer special operations unit).

The squadron pilots were to fly the Fieseler Fi 103R, a manned air-launched version of the V-1 flying bomb. It was proposed that a Heinkel 111 bomber would carry either one or two Reichenbergs beneath its wings, releasing them close to the target.

The pilots would then steer their aircraft towards the target, jettisoning the cockpit canopy shortly before impact and bailing out. It was estimated that the chances of a pilot surviving such a bailout were less than 1% due to the proximity of the pulsejet’s intake to the cockpit

Consequently, all squadron volunteers were required to sign a declaration which said,

I hereby voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as part of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death

The project was given the codename “Reichenberg” after the capital of the former Czechoslovakian territory “Reichsgau Sudetenland” (present-day Liberec), while the aircraft themselves were referred to as “Reichenberg-Geräte” (Reichenberg apparatus).

The first real flight was performed in September 1944. However, it subsequently crashed after the pilot lost control when he accidentally jettisoned the canopy. A second flight the next day also ended in a crash, and subsequent test flights were carried out by test pilots Heinz Kensche and Hanna Reitsch. Reitsch herself experienced several crashes from which she miraculously survived unscathed.

On November 5th, 1944 during the second test flight of the Reichenberg, a wing fell off due to vibrations and Heinz Kensche managed to parachute to safety, albeit with some difficulty due to the cramped cockpit.

Volunteers trained in ordinary gliders to give them the feel of unpowered flight, then progressed to special gliders (R-I) with shortened wings which could dive at speeds of up to 300 kilometres per hour.

Training began on the R-I and R-II and although landing them on a skid was difficult, the aircraft handled well, and it was anticipated that the Leonidas Squadron would soon be using the machines.

It did not happen. When 28-year old Oberst (Colonel) Werner Baumbach assumed command of KG 200 in October 1944, he shelved the Reichenberg in favour of the Mistel project.

He and Speer eventually met with Hitler on March 15th, 1945 and managed to convince him that suicide missions were not part of the German warrior tradition, and later that day Baumbach ordered the Reichenberg unit to be disbanded.

Which was an excellent idea, because enormous circular error probable (and thus unacceptable inaccuracy) was only one of V-1 problems. The other three – which could not be solved by switching to a manned version – were (1) low mechanical reliability, (2) vulnerability to air defenses (AA guns and fighters) and (3) inability of the German industry already crippled by Allied bombings to produce V-1s in sufficient quantity to make any difference in the war.

Consequently, suicidal Reichenberg missions – much like Japanese kamikaze attacks – would have been only a waste of highly valuable human resources (trained aircraft pilots).

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