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Top Secret Bird: The Luftwaffe's Me-163 Comet: The Luftwaffe's Me-163 Comet
Synopses & Reviews
Wolfgang Späte is in a unique position to write about the Me 163 because he was the pilot chosen by the Luftwaffe to bring the radical and extremely dangerous rocket fighter into operational service. Späte began his flying career with gliders in 1927, and by 1937 he was employed as a test pilot by the Deutsches Forschungsinstitut für Segelflug (DFS). In 1938 he won the 19th Rhon Glider Competition. He enlisted in the Luftwaffe and flew an Hs 126 with 2./H 23 in Poland and France. Späte converted to fighter aircraft and joined 5./JG 54 on 1 June 1941 just prior to the attack on the Soviet Union. He enjoyed immediate success and was awarded the Knight's Cross on 5 October 1941 with 45 victories and the Oakleaves on 23 April 1942 with 72 victories.
It was Späte's experience with gliders that led to his appointment in early 1943 as the Luftwaffe liaison to the Me 163 program at Peenemünde tasked with forming a development and tactical evaluation unit designated Erprobungskommando 16. Official interest in the Me 163 had been marginal at best until the spring of 1940 when test pilot Heini Dittmar made the first rocket-powered take-off in the DFS 194 which was a precursor to the Me 163. The tailless aircraft had been designed by Alexander M. Lippisch and the rocket engine was the creation of Hellmuth Walter. In spite of the radical appearance of the aircraft, Lippisch's design exhibited excellent flying characteristics. Walter's rocket engine, however, was extremely volatile. The ultimate variant of the engine was designated the HWK R II-211 and was fueled by T-Stoff — hydrogen peroxide plus oxyquinoline or phosphate as a stabilizer — and C-Stoff — hydrazine hydrate solution in methanol. If for any reason the two fuels came into contact at an improper ratio, the result was an extremely violent explosion. The volatility of the motor caused significant delays in bringing the Me 163 to operational status.
Lippisch requested the services of Rudolf Opitz to assist Dittmar in the flight testing program, and Opitz joined them at Peenemünde in August 1941. Like Späte, Opitz was an experienced glider pilot. This experience was necessary because the Me 163 was designed to glide back after the rocket fuel was expended. Opitz had been trained before the war as a joiner and cabinet maker specializing in wooden aircraft construction. He became a proficient glider pilot and was an instructor and test pilot at the DFS. When the war broke out, he enlisted in the Luftwaffe and served with Sonderkommando Koch.
On 10 May 1940 he participated in the famous attack using DFS 230 gliders on Fort Eben Emael and the bridges over the Albert Canal for which he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class. When he joined the Me 163 program he became the second pilot, behind Dittmar, to fly the hazardous rocket fighter. Späte joined the program in early 1943, and in July of that year the HWK R II-211 was finally cleared for flight testing, though it was still far from safe. Opitz made the first powered flight test in the Me 163B V-2 later that month, but soon thereafter was hospitalized for three months when the landing skid of a Me 163B he was ferrying to their new base at Bad Zwischenahn failed to extend. Testing and training of pilots continued, and some pilots lost their lives.
Späte left the program in May 1944, much to the dismay of the pilots of EKdo 16, and took command of IV./JG 54 just in time for the great Soviet summer offensive in 1944. Späte was wounded during the difficult fighting, and his unit was transferred to the West and built back up to strength only to be virtually annihilated during the Allied attempt to take Arnhem. Späte returned to the Me 163 program on 1 December 1944 to take command of the first operational Me 163 unit — JG 400. Opitz was given command of II./JG 400. It had long been understood that the Me 163 had a serious disadvantage (aside from occasionally blowing itself to bits), and that was the duration of powered flight. The speed of the Me 163 was unprecedented, and the rate of climb in particular was phenomenal. However, the fuel was expended at a very high rate, and the pilot had but a few minutes to intercept enemy bombers and shoot them down. Another critical problem revealed itself when the Me 163 was committed to combat. The rocket fighter was armed with two 30mm cannons. These were formidable weapons, and one hit was usually sufficient to bring a bomber down. However, these large weapons had a relatively slow rate of fire. The high speed of the Me 163 and the relatively slow speed of the enemy bombers resulted in a very high closing speed, and the slow rate of fire from the cannons meant that the Me 163 pilot had about a second and a half to aim and fire. Even for the best of pilots, hitting a target under these circumstances amounted to a lucky shot.
At any rate, shortage of pilots and fuel severely restricted the number of Me 163 sorties. Opitz's II./JG 400 completely ran out of fuel and flew no sorties during the last weeks of the war. JG 400 was broken up, with many of the pilots being assigned to fly the Me 262. Späte commanded III./JG 7 and shot down five B-17s, including three on 25 April 1945. He finished the war with 99 victories. Ultimately, the Me 163 claimed nine enemy aircraft destroyed and actually killed more Germans due to accidents. Nevertheless, the Me 163 remains one of the most famous aircraft of the war due to the sheer audacity of the design and the bravery of the pilots who dared to fly it.
This book was a part of the amazing collection assembled by Greg Dortch over the course of about thirty years. He is a member of the American Fighter Aces Association, British and Canadian Fighter Pilots Associations, Gemeinschaft der Jagdflieger, Battle of Britain Association, and various unit associations. He personally met many of the veterans, and he sent labels to those he could not meet in order to obtain their signatures. David Armstrong, Powells.com
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