Me 163 Developing a Rocket Fighter
Me 163B first armed fighter after landing
Me 163B-1A at Brandis
Sourve: Flying Review International Sept. 1965
As told to Robert W. Randell in a series of interviews with Rudolph Opitz
Developing a Rocket Fighter
RUDOLPH OPITZ was born in Landeshut/Silesia on the ninth of August, 1910. Gliders held a fascination for him from an early age and he soon joined one of the many clubs which flourished in pre-war Germany. After completing high school, Herr Opitz went on to engineering school for two years. In 1934 he was employed as an instructor at the famous glider club at Wasserkuppe, later becoming a member of the Darmstadt aerobatics and towing school.
In 1936, Opitz joined the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug as a test pilot, working with the designer, Alexander Lippisch, and his chief test pilot, Heini Dittmar. Hanna-Reitsch and Wolfgang Späte flew for the DFS as well. Only some twenty people were employed by the Lippisch division on a regular basis and all assisted in the building and servicing of the designs which were, for their time, quite revolutionary. Mastery of the flying wing was the goal of Lippisch, and the test flights were highly dangerous. Test pilot Deutschmann was badly injured and Wiegmeyer destroyed two aircraft before the DFS 39, a really sound design, appeared. This aircraft was never damaged. Despite its modest 80 hp engine and the fact that it was a single prototype, it received a commercial licence.
Having solved the problems of stability and handling, Lippisch now turned his attention to high speed flight. However, because of limited facilities and the interest of the government in the military uses of the flying wing, the project was eventually transferred to the large Messerschmitt plant at Augsburg. Lippisch and Dittmar accompanied the project. Opitz joined "Zappel" Zitter to manage a test flying school, a glider school, and a training research group. These were all part of the DFS organization. A great variety of aircraft was used in the test pilots' school, the first of its kind in the world. The DFS continued to distinguish itself, but it heard little concerning its top secret flying wing project at Messerschmitt.
In September 1939 the Luftwaffe drafted some of the civilian test pilots and instructors, including Opitz, and placed them as Fliegers (private, no class!) in a certain Sonderkommando Koch for "six weeks only". This unit was concerned with assault training with the DFS 230, a glider. The personnel were paratroopers and did not take to gliders readily. The high command itself distrusted the new methods. The plan for employment was to saturate thoroughly the target area with bombs and then hopefully release the gliders. The lowly' Fliegers disagreed and instead supported a surprise night drop in formation. These ideas were stifled as impossible until General Ritter yon Greim visited the Kommando to investigate a complaint made by one of the "civilian" Fliegers concerning the forthcoming operation. A trial was ordered to test the merits of the radical civilian idea. Flieger Bräutigam and a regular service pilot were towed aloft one moonlit winter's night and released without navigational aids several miles from the designated "target". The Luftwaffe pilot missed by more than two miles, but Brautigam was but inches short of the exact spot!
The forty glider pilots and the tow pilots of Blind-flying School 4 trained hard all winter. The frequent last minute postponements kept nerves taut. But on May 9th, the unit was ordered to the secret airfields from which the mission would be flown. This time there would be no postponement. Each man knew his job to perfection. All targets had been assigned long ago, though no one would know the geographical names of the landing points until the mission was completed. Pitz's target was the northernmost bridge across a deep canal.
There was little difficulty during take-off and approach. Searchlights strung out in a line from Köln were used as navigational aids all the way to the target. A different story was the heavy flak that was experienced as soon as the frontier was crossed. One group of the Ju 52 towplanes had overshot the target and the defences were alerted. Despite the early time, the flak drove the Fliegers to attempt a pitch black landing. All three gliders in Pitz s unit landed safely, one of them sliding into the bridge itself. The guards were quickly captured or 'dispersed and ten minutes after landing the area could be declared secure. Dawn brightened the day. At that moment, one of the regular Luftwaffe piloted groups slipped by overhead, rigidly holding to schedule. Losses were heavy and their bridge was blown up by its defenders. Opitz's unit fought off attacks during the day and night. The next morning the Wehrmacht's tanks and guns poured over the secured bridge-the Veldwezelt Bridge across the Belgian Albert Defence Canal-to help outflank the Allied forces and bring defeat to Belgium, France, and the BEF. The Fliegers received a promotion to Feldwebel (Sergeant) and the Iron Cross First Class.
Opitz was now assigned, along with many other Fliegers, the job of setting up a school for this highly successful form of warfare. Kraft, Schubert, and Bräutigam reported to the old Hildesheim Glider School in order to set up this programme. In the summer of 1940, this school was moved to Braunschweig and in late 1940 to Konigsburg in East Prussia. Feldwebel Opitz was in charge of all flight operations on the thirteen airfields controlled by the unit, now designated "Flieger Schule 4 für Lastensegler". This was the only military glider school in Europe, and hundreds of pilots were trained. youngsters and veterans, glider pilots and future pilots. The commander of the school was Major Reps, a highly respected old-timer who had flown in the First World War.
A move to Frankfurt on the Oder River in May, 1941, brought "Pitz" closer to Peenemünde. There his old friend, Lippisch, was working on the DFS 194 and the Me 163A with Messerschmitt. In early fall of 1941, Opitz, now a Leutnant, received a telephone call from his old employer requesting that he again fly for him. Lippisch explained that he had only one test pilot at the time and if an accident occurred, his designs would be set back many weeks while a new test pilot was initiated. Major Reps, however, would not part with his air control officer, and Opitz was released from his Luftwaffe assignment only after Udet interceded on Lippisch's behalf.
At Peenemünde, Leutnant Opitz and Heini Dittmar, the chief pilot, worked on the radical Me 163. In late 1942, Dittmar made his usual approach and landing in the Me 163A but the hydraulic skid, as often happened, did not extend. Although the landing did not seem unusual, Dittmar s spinal chord was damaged. Due to the solidity and compactness of this aircraft, the shock of skid-up landings was directly transferred to the pilot. Leutnant Opitz thus became the chief and temporarily only test pilot of the programme. The Me 163B was flown without an engine by Opitz in the summer of 1942 and proved to be an outstanding aeroplane. Gliding characteristics were exceptional and even without an engine, the Me 163 could outdive anything in the air. Manoeuvrability was of a high order. Handling was excellent.
More old glider specialists soon joined Opitz. The highly successful fighter pilot, Hauptmann Wolfgang Späte, was made Luftwaffe liaison officer of the project. Early in 1943 four service pilots reported to Späte for flight training with the Me 163. All were outstanding aviators: Hauptmann Toni Thaler, veteran flight instructor and ferry pilot; Oberleutnant "Joshi" Poehs, Ritterkreuzträger: Oberleutnant Kiel, Ritterkreuzträger; and Leutnant Herbert Langer, veteran from the Pikas Jagdgeschwader.
Under Späte, the men set up the operational testing unit, Erprobungs Kommando 16. EK 16 had five purposes: to participate in the construction work at Messerschmitt/serve as the rocket test pilot centre; to act as co-ordinator between the Air Ministry, Messerschmitt, and the Luftwaffe Test Centre; to develop the combat potential of the aircraft, and to train the first service pilots to fly the Me 163. Small clippedwinged gliders were flown first-instruction in a two-seater, and solo in a tiny single-seater. The unpowered Me 163A was flown next, followed by the powered A and unpowered B. Only then were the pilots allowed to fly the B fighter model with "live" rocket motor.
After Peenemünde was heavily bombed in July 1943, the Kommando was forced to move to Zwischenahn, and the entire project was seriously delayed. It was not until autumn that the first thirty service pilots, all experienced men, could begin their training. Thanks to the exceptional characteristics of the Komet, the pilots quickly mastered the little craft-but with the result that overconfidence was common when flying the still technically immature Me 163B.
The first "operational" Staffel, I/JG 400, was not formed until May 1944, at Wittmundhaven, with no rocket-powered craft. EK 16 continued to test and train, now under Thaler as Spate had been re-posted to JG 54 as a Gruppenkommandant. As Oblt Olejnik's I/JG 400 had little to do, Thaler decided to turn the weapons testing programme over to them. Opitz was assigned the task of delivering the first armed Me 163B to Wittmundhaven. Since the First Staffel had no aircraft, the flak units there had no idea of what swooped down at them vertically from 8,000 ft (2 440 m), and they promptly opened fire. "Pitz" was able to flash into a fast landing before the gunsights could be adjusted properly for the 550 mph (885 km/h) to 100 mph (160 km/h) reduction in their target's speed. The flak commander was more amazed than chagrined!
Staffel 1/JG 400 was now "operational" but no satisfactory plans for the use of the capabilities of the new interceptor existed. The absent Späte had evolved theories for the. employment of the radically new fighter. A long string of airfields would be prepared along the western border of the Reich. Flights of Komets would take off to engage the bombers and would never have difficulty finding landing areas. The limited range of the Komet would be fully utilized. However, the new General of Jet Aircraft, Gollob, favoured a concentrated effort because of the lack of air superiority and the recent invasion of the European mainland by Allied forces. Thus all Me 163s were ordered to one airfield, Brandis. The principal reason for the shift to Brandis was 31 miles (50 km) to the west--the Leuna distillation works.
As there were no usable facilities at the airfield for the unstable fuels, I/JG 400 and EK 16 had great difficulty even in maintaining routine training flights. Fuel had to be kept in the railroad cars that delivered it. The airfield was too short. The repair shops were inadequate. The air control system was insufficient. Brandis was no combat field. The Leuna plants were at the very edge of the Komet's limited range and little contact with the enemy could be made as a result. The USAAF formations merely avoided Brandis while pounding the distillation works, the rocket planes faltering short of the big formations due to lack of fuel. Thus most interceptions were limited to gliding attacks through the Germans' own flak directly over the target, a method which could be effective in the gifted Komet but which severely restricted combat time. Hence only nine kills, two of these being probables, were claimed by JG 400 during its entire period of employment. Feldwebel Schubert scored two kills in one mission, but most flights were unsuccessful in even making contact.
Olejnik, who never scored in the Komet, was injured in a flame-out before transfer to Brandis and was sent by Gollob to command of the Erganzungsstaffel/JG 400 in Silesia (later III/), a training establishment with no rocket-powered aircraft. Opitz took over the newly formed I Gruppe_ The First Staffel was commanded by Hptm Fulda, an old glider comrade who held the Ritterkreuz for his accomplishments at Crete. The Third Staffel was commanded by a "Wilde Sau" and combat glider veteran, Hptm Falderbaum. The Second Staffel. formed at Venlo, was transferred to Brandis under Hptm Boehner. Despite the excellence of its pilots and commanders, I/JG 400 remained an unsuccessful unit. When ll/JG 400 was formed in December at Stargard, Opitz, now a Hauptmann, was made Kommandeur. Späte returned to become Kommodore of the completed Geschwader, but only I Gruppe, now under Fulda, was operational. Shortage of proper fuel from the south restricted all flying. Training was seriously delayed. Bombing destroyed airfield facilities. JG 400's problems multiplied.
The combat problem was attacked diligently. New methods were used to ensure success in the very short flight time available. The aircraft flew on a beam to the target and then attacked using 30-mm cannon, and, in one case, upward firing rockets of the Panzerfaust type. Five of these projectiles were mounted in each wing root to fire upward at an angle. A photo-electric cell was installed which would fire the rockets automatically when the shadow of the target was overhead. Using a B-17 wing suspended from a pair of barrage balloons as a target, Lt Hachtel of EK 16 proved that this weapons system could be highly successful in combat. He scored a direct hit in three straight attempts. Previously, not even the ace pilots posted to JG 400 had been effective against the B-17 due to the extremely rapid closure rate of 213 m/sec when attacking the target. Moreover, the old fashioned hand-adjusted gunsight and the relatively slow firing 30-mm cannon made the possibility of attaining a hit infinitesimal. Pilots posted from the schools had little gunnery training and thus had virtually no chance to score. However, with this new armament an inexperienced pilot could still be guaranteed a hit and probably a kill. The system was highly accurate in a wide range of approaches and speeds plus or minus 50 km/h range in speed and a 30 to 80 m range in distance beneath the target. Maximum speed was retained throughout the attack. EK 16 tried this method of attack in combat and Lt Fritz Kelb shot down a B-17G on one occasion. However, only twelve aircraft were modified and due to the deteriorating situation, these were never used by the operational units. Hence many of their problems continued. Several pilots of I/JG 400 became so frustrated by the fire control problem that they throttled down to the speed of the bombers to make their attacks, thus losing their advantages and often being shot down in consequence.
In the late spring of 1945, Spate's ideas concerning several airfields were at last put into operation. However, the fuel supply situation was now critical and few flights could be made. Moreover, the quality of the new pilots was very poor, because of inadequate training. One young and enthusiastic pilot whom Opitz checked out lost his way on no fewer than three different occasions and lost his Komet each time. The number of accidents increased, and for the first time became a serious problem. However, Opitz noted that the Bf 109 had a far higher rate of accidents even at this time. EK 16 eventually disbanded because of the lack of fuel and constant bombings, and its highly qualified personnel were scattered. Its commander, Hauptmann Thaler, fell over Berlin in a Ta 152 in May, 1945. The Geschwaderstab-Schwarm was disbanded as early as February 1945, Il and III Gruppen never became operational, even being forced to use towplanes to evacuate their Komets from Nordholz.
The only combat loss of II/.IG 400 came in April, when this evacuation took place. Feldwebel Nolte and his observer in a Bf 110 towplane were shot down and killed by a Tempest after take-off. The towed Komet escaped. II Gruppe was then up to operational strength with 450 personnel including 100 women, and 80 aircraft, some still on railroad cars in the final stages of re-assembly. Its Staffelkapitäne were first-rate: Oberleutnant Woidich having 110 victories, and Leutnant Gerth, Oberleutnant Medicus and Leutnant Reinhardt Opitz all being combat veterans with considerable experience in the Me 163. But the Gruppe ended the war at Husum, having never scored a victory or flown a combat flight. In fact, Hauptmann Opitz, who deservedly held the Deutsches Kreuz, had only one combat mission to his credit, that flown against the Belgians five years before to the day, May 10, 1940-eloquent testimony to the frustrations of trying to bring the Komet into combat.
Me 163 V33 landing at Zwichenahn