The first part of this what if series took a little imagination, it saw two German WW1 fighters in hypothetical combat. This made for an interesting, if unlikely comparison.
Todays situation is one that was much more likely to come to pass and would have presented the first jet against jet dogfight in history. While the ME262 and Meteor both saw service at the end of the Second World War, restrictions on the use of the Meteor meant that the two types never came across each other before VE day. This post will look at the specifications of each aircraft, along with pilots accounts to see which aircraft might have come out on top.
The Race for Jet Powered Flight
As detailed in this post from last year, the first British jet powered aircraft, the Gloster E28/39, took to the skies on the 15th May 1941 marking the start of a new chapter for aviation development. It would take near enough two more years before the first production jet powered aircraft took to the skies.
That would be another Gloster product, the Meteor. Prototype DG202/G (now on display the Royal Air Force Museum Hendon) first flew on the 5th March 1943. It would not be until July the following year that any front line squadrons took delivery of Gloster’s straight wing jet. The jets were initially based at Manston before moving to airbases in Europe, such was the secrecy of the design however, the Meteor was not allowed over German territory under any circumstances.
On the other side of the war, the Germans were ahead of the British in terms of Jet Powered flight. The eccentric Heinkel He178 had taken to the skies in August 1939, before the war had even started, giving the German design teams a head start on the development of high speed aircraft. The first German jet fighter, the Messerschmitt ME262 was under development as early as 1939 as well and it would ultimately complete its first flight a year ahead of the Gloster fighter, though it only entered service a few months earlier.
Looking at the two aircraft side by side, which is now easily done at the Royal Air Force Museum London, the differences are obvious. Germany clearly had high speed flight in their sights at a very early stage. The swept wing design of the 262 was way ahead of its time in comparison to the Meteor, Vampire and P-59 Airacomet, which the allies were developing. This wing sweep actually only came about due to the weight of the original BMW engines lined up for the fighter, the wing sweep was necessary in order to keep the Centre of Gravity in the correct position.
The 262 was originally planned to be powered by BMW 003 engines but these were plagued with problems, including a double engine failure during an early test flying attempt. Ultimately the Jumo 004 engine was selected, this presented a very different profile to the british engine designs, the latter being short bulky designs in comparison to the sleek profile of the Jumo. The Jumo engine was famously never particularly reliable with the best case scenario lifetime being around 50 hours, in practice pilots were lucky if they got as many as 20 hours before the engines needed a complete rebuild.
Where the German engines fell down was in the fact that the materials used within the engine could not withstand the heat generated by the engine. Whittle’s engine designs handled this better and as a result had an expected life in excess of 100 hours.
The ME262 A1a – the “definitive” version of the fighter, could reach a top speed of 559mph and reach over 37,000 feet a truly remarkable achievement in the middle of World War 2. By comparison to these figures the first production Meteors could only reach around 450mph albeit they could break the 40,000ft mark.
The Messerschmitt certainly saw more combat during the Second World War than the Meteor and the huge jump in speed initially proved to be a problem for the German pilots of the time. They were simply too fast to use traditional air warfare methods, with closing speeds, particularly on bombers being too high to achieve any consistent hits. Alternative methods were soon developed notably the “slashing” technique whereby the jets would dive diagonally across a formation of bombers, giving the best opportunity to land a hit on the enemy aircraft. Once this technique had been established the ME262s started to pose a real threat to the allied war effort. The faster piston aircraft of the day, such as the Hawker Tempest were still well below the top speed of the German jet, however they soon realised they could easily pick the jets off during their landing phase and would often wait for the 262s to return from their missions and pick them off on approach. One of the limitations of these early jets is the poor throttle responses, in the case of the Jumo 004 quick throttle adjustments could also result in engine failure of fire so the pilots really were sitting ducks once established on approach.
The Meteor, had a comparatively quiet and secretive service during the Second World War – being kept back in the UK to deal with the V1 threat, something which the jet saw great success in. As commented above once it was moved to the continent it was not allowed over the German lines and as such saw limited combat. The Meteor had very little speed advantage over the piston engine aircraft of the day and early versions did not handle particularly well either.
The 262 was certainly the faster of the two aircraft, it was already closing in on the 600mph mark while the Meteor could barely break 450mph, a part of this was no doubt due to the wing sweep in place on the 262.
Where the Meteor did have the advantage was with reliability, the Powerjet engines installed in the Gloster could run for longer without the need for a total strip back and were less sensitive to throttle movements unlike its German counterpart.
Had there not been such concern on both sides that their secret jet weapons would fall into the hands of their enemies it would not have been so unlikely for the Meteor and ME262 to meet in combat. Like so many things it seems quite inevitable that had the war continued the two aircraft would have met sooner or later.
Based on the technical data and practical experience covered above it certainly suggests that the ME262 would have come out on top more often than not. It certainly would have had the option of simply turning and running away from the fight, having an advantage of 100mph over the British fighter. However, the main German fighting tactic with the 262 was using an extreme speed advantage over bombers and slower piston engine fighters. They had no experience of jet to jet air combat which means new techniques would have to be carried out. While against unmanned aircraft, the British pilots would at least have their experience of intercepting the V1 Flying Bombs to draw on and while the Meteor could not outrun the faster pistons of the day it did have a more consistent top speed at all heights which would have worked to its advantage.
The Meteor could, theoretically have out-climbed the 262 as well, with a higher ceiling, this could have been put to good use in what would no doubt be high level combat. While a lot is made of the speed differences of the initial Meteor and the 262 it is worth noting that a modified F3 broke the world speed record in 1946 with a speed of 606mph, showing that there was potential for the Meteor to develop had it needed to under wartime conditions.
It certainly would have proved an interesting battle had the two types come across each other in 1945, the type of combat required had not been tested at the time and it would have put very different strains on the aircraft and pilots, it may well have been the unpredictable nature of the Jumo 004s would have been the undoing of the Messerschmitt in comparison with the Meteor. Certainly with the potential of allied fighters patrolling home bases it is likely that the 262 would still have suffered great losses.
Ultimately the difference in the development of these types could perhaps be summed up when put in context with what was required. Germany was desperate, in a difficult position and losing ground, they needed a fast powerful aeroplane in quick time, as such the 262 was developed at an accelerated rate, resulting in engine design problems. The Meteor was not treated as such an urgent priority once it proved capable of dealing with the V1 threat as the allies already had a strong position by the time it was ready for active service. I have no doubt that if the tables were turned we would have seen the Meteor develop much faster. Certainly an interesting thought and a very possible “What If?”