Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Messerschmitt Me163 Komet. Part 3: Operational history - Compiler: Luis German Dzib Aguilar

The initial test deployment of the Me 163A, to acquaint prospective pilots with the world's first rocket-powered fighter, occurred with Erprobungskommando 16, led by Luftwaffe Major Wolfgang Späte and first established in late 1942, receiving their eight A-model service test aircraft by July 1943. Their initial base was as the Erprobungsstelle test facility located at the Peenemünde-West field, then departed
permanently following an RAF bombing raid on the area on August 17, 1943. The next day the unit moved out, southwards to the base at Anklam, near the Baltic coast. Their stay was brief, as a few weeks later they were placed in northwest Germany, based at the military airfield at Bad Zwischenahn (at 53°12′16.48″N 7°59′37.20″E) from August 1943 to August 1944. EK 16 received their first B-series armed Komets in January 1944, and was ready for action by May while at Bad Zwischenahn, first seeing combat flights on the 13th of the month. (31) As EK 16 commenced small-scale combat operations with the Me 163B in May 1944, the Me 163B's unsurpassed velocity was something that the Allied fighter pilots were at a loss to counter. The Komets attacked singly or in pairs, often even faster than the intercepting fighters could dive. A typical Me 163 tactic was to zoom through the bomber formations at 9,000 m (30,000 ft), rise up to an altitude of 10,700–12,000 m (35,100–39,400 ft), then dive through the formation again. This approach afforded the pilot two brief chances to fire a few rounds from his cannons before gliding back to his airfield. The pilots reported that it was possible to make four passes on a bomber, but only if it was flying alone. (32) As the cockpit was unpressurized, the operational ceiling was limited by what the pilot could endure for several minutes while breathing oxygen from a mask, without losing consciousness. Pilots underwent altitude-chamber training to harden them against the rigors of operating in the thin air of the stratosphere without a pressure suit. Special low fiber diets were prepared for pilots, as gas in the gastrointestinal tract would expand rapidly during ascent.
Following the initial combat trials of the Me 163B with EK 16, during the winter and spring of 1944 Major Wolfgang Späte formed the first dedicated Me 163 fighter wing, (Jagdgeschwader 400 (JG 400) ), in Brandis near Leipzig. JG 400's purpose was to provide additional protection for the Leuna synthetic gasoline works which were raided frequently during almost all of 1944. A further group was stationed at Stargard near Stettin to protect the large synthetic fuel plant at Pölitz (today Police, Poland). Further defensive units of rocket fighters were planned for Berlin, the Ruhr and the German Bight. (33)

The first actions involving the Me 163 occurred on 28 July 1944, from I./JG 400's base at Brandis, when two USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress were attacked without confirmed kills. Combat operations continued from May 1944 to spring 1945. During this time, there were nine confirmed kills with 14 Me 163s lost. Feldwebel Siegfried Schubert was the most successful pilot, with three bombers to his credit. (34) Allied fighter pilots soon noted the short duration of the powered flight. They would wait, and when the engine exhausted its propellant supply, pounce on the unpowered Komet. However, the Komet was extremely manoeuvrable in gliding flight. Another Allied method was to attack the fields the Komets operated from and strafe them after the Me 163s landed. Due to the skid-based landing gear system, the Komet was immobile until the Scheuch-Schlepper tractor, could back the trailer up to the nose of the aircraft, place its two rear arms under the wing panels, and jack up the trailer's arms to hoist the aircraft off the ground or place it back on its take-off dolly to tow it back to its maintenance area. (35)
Establishing a defensive perimeter with anti-aircraft guns ensured that Allied fighters avoided these bases. At the end of 1944, 91 aircraft had been delivered to JG 400 but a continuous lack of fuel had kept most of them grounded. It was clear that the original plan for a huge network of Me 163 bases was never going to be realized. Up to that point, JG 400 had lost only six aircraft due to enemy action. Nine were lost to other causes, remarkably few for such a revolutionary and technically advanced aircraft. In the last days of the Third Reich the Me 163 was given up in favor of the more successful and threatening Me 262. In May 1945, Me 163 operations were stopped, the JG 400 disbanded, and many of its pilots sent to fly Me 262s. (32) In any operational sense, the Komet was a failure. Although it shot down 16 aircraft, mainly expensive four-engined bombers, that did not warrant the effort put into the project. With the projected Me 263, things could have turned out differently, but due to fuel shortages late in the war, few went into combat, and it took an experienced pilot with excellent shooting skills to achieve "kills" with the Me 163. The Komet also spawned later weapons like the Bachem Ba 349 Natter and Convair XF-92. Ultimately, the point defense role that the Me 163 played would be taken over by the surface-to-air missile (SAM), Messerschmitt's own example being the Enzian.