DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
May 2021 marks the 78th anniversary of the first flight made by the famous German air ace of the Second World War (1939 – 1945), Adolf Galland, in a prototype Messerschmitt Me 262. The Me 262 was the first operational jet fighter to enter front line service during the Second World War. It was more than 160km/h faster than any of its piston driven contemporary aircraft and, as such, changed the face of aerial combat overnight. The DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH) has a rare example of a two-seater Me 262 night fighter on display.
The Messerschmitt Me 262
Design work on the Me 262 commenced in 1939 and the production of the first airframes began in 1941. At first there was little priority given to the development of the new aircraft. Germany held the upper hand in almost every theatre of the war and these successes were achieved using conventional piston engine aircraft such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190.
At the time the development of the jet engine was still in progress and initial flights were carried out using a piston engine and a propeller fitted in the nose. As a result of the slow development of a suitable engine, aircraft production only began in earnest in July 1944. Problems continued after delivery as the engines only had a practical lifespan of ten to twelve hours between overhauls. The engines also became prone to ‘flame-out’ during manoeuvres or changes in throttle settings and were difficult to re-start in mid-flight.
Despite these problems, the Me 262 eventually became a fine engineering achievement. The jet fighter could climb to 30 000 ft (9,14 km) in less than ten minutes and outrun the fastest Allied fighters such as the Republic P 47 Thunderbolt, the North-American P 51 Mustang and the De Havilland Mosquito.
Adolf Josef Ferdinand Galland was born on 19 March 1912 in Westphalia, a region in north-western Germany, into a family of French Huguenot ancestry. He spent a brief period piloting flying boats for Lufthansa prior to being recruited into a programme started in 1933 to secretly build a new German air force. In 1937 he joined the German Condor Legion sent to Spain to support the Spanish Nationalist forces led by Francisco Franco in the Civil War (1936 – 1939). On his return to Germany Galland spent several months formulating policy for the German Air Ministry. This policy reflected his expertise in close air support of ground force operations and would later become known as Blitzkrieg.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Galland was allocated to a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter squadron. His successes in combat led to a number of promotions and he achieved the rank of Generalmajoor (Major General) at the age of 30. In January 1942 he was awarded the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves and with Diamonds for his achievement of 96 victories in aerial combat.
Galland and the Me 262
In May 1943, Willy Messerschmitt, Chief designer for Messerschmitt AG, informed Galland of the test flights taking place on Me 262 prototypes and requested that Galland fly the aircraft and evaluate it for himself. A favourable report from Galland would go a long way to convincing the German Supreme Command to mass produce the new aircraft.
Galland always remembered the day he first flew the jet fighter. He wrote that there was no engine vibration, no torque and no lashing noise from the propeller during take-off. The jet automatically shot through the air accompanied by a whistling sound. When later asked what it had felt like, Galland remarked “… it was like the angels were pushing” .
In a letter written to the Head of Production of Aircraft for the Luftwaffe, Galland stated the following:
“…The aircraft is a great hit. It will guarantee us a great advantage in operations while the enemy adheres to the piston engine. Its air worthiness makes the best impression. The engines are absolutely convincing, except during take-off and landing. This aircraft opens up new tactical possibilities” .
However, Galland later incurred the wrath of Adolf Hitler when he vehemently disagreed with the latter’s decision to deploy the Me 262 as a bomber. In January 1945 the differences reached a climax when Galland was dismissed from his position as Chief of Fighter Pilots. He immediately sought approval to return to active duty and was, surprisingly, granted permission to form his own unit which would be equipped with the Me 262.
The Messerschmitt Me 262 B-1a/U1 on display at the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
The aircraft on display at the Museum, designated Me 262 B-1a/U1, was a two-seater trainer aircraft modified further as a night fighter to cater for the urgent need for an aircraft capable of combating the night-raiding British De Havilland Mosquito. These modified aircraft remained in use until a re-designed night fighter version with a lengthened fuselage was eventually produced.
The aircraft bears the identification number ‘Red 8’ and was allocated to Staffel 10 of Nachjagdeschwader 11 stationed at Burg-bei-Magdeburg to the south-west of Berlin. During the final weeks of the war, this unit was forced to operate from improvised airfields which made use of autobahns as runways. On the ground the aircraft were dispersed between the tees extending along the roads which necessitated the aircraft being painted in locally-designed camouflage patterns that suited the surroundings.
 . A Galland, The First and the Last, p 331.
 . A Galland, p 333.
In April 1945, the unit moved north to Lubek before finally transferring to Schleswig in Denmark. The aircraft were surrendered to the Royal Air Force on 6 May 1945 and flown to Britain for evaluation. The Museum’s aircraft was sent to South Africa in 1947 and was kept by the South African Air Force at Dunottar. In 1972 the aircraft was donated to the Museum by the SAAF.
Adolf Galland’s first flight in a Me 262 in May 1943 heralded the beginning of the jet age. After the Me 262 had become operational, all aircraft producing nations began to develop their own jet aircraft. The operational history of the Me 262 was very short – a mere nine months. However, Galland’s prediction that the aircraft would open up new tactical possibilities would prove to be true. Not long after the conclusion of the Second World War, new jet fighters such as the British Gloster Meteor, the United States North-American F 86 Sabre and the Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich Mig 15 were emulating the Me 262 in aerial combat over Korea during the war that took place there between 1950 and 1953.
Eastaugh, D, “Me 262: The Beginnings of the Jet Age” on SA Flyer, October 2002.
Tillman, B, “Adolf Galland: The Luftwaffe’s Fighter General” www.historynet.com/adolf-galland.
Galland, A, The First and the Last (London, Methuen & Co, 1955).
Spear, J H A, A Catalogue of the Aircraft and Aircraft Engines on Display at the SA (Ditsong) National Museum of Military History (Johannesburg, DNMMH, 1991).