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