I’ll just say it: I have a soft spot for World War II German aircraft. And this is one of my favorites. The Messerschmitt Me-163 was a unique, revolutionary aircraft that didn’t make it into full production. It was a fighter plane that could fly in as close as 500 feet and carry a massive bomb. It’s also the only aircraft that has ever used its engines as rocket boosters.
In 1943, Hitler’s Luftwaffe had already become a dominant aerial force in Europe, and by the end of the year, the Nazis had managed to develop a new jet bomber that could fly at speeds of up to 600km/h and could carry a payload of up to 1000kg.
The Messerschmitt Me-163 was a fast and maneuverable rocket fighter, capable of remarkable feats even the Germans could not achieve. In fact, the Me-163 is often called the “Bat” of its era, because of its incredible winged appearance.
Every other World War II combat aircraft was outclassed by the rocket-powered Me-163 Komet interceptor… if its pilots were still alive to battle
P-51 Mustang pilots who thought they were flying the greatest fighter aircraft over Germany were shocked in late July 1944.
“My eight ship section was providing close assistance to a Combat Wing of B-17s that had just struck Merseburg,” Colonel Avelin P. Tacon Jr. of the 359th Fighter Group stated. At six o’clock, someone called in contrails high.” Two stubby, sweptwing single-seaters launched an attack from more than a mile above the Americans. “I think, realistically, they were doing between 500 and 600 mph,” Tacon said as they ripped through his formation. One flew away, while the other climbed into the sun “like a bat out of hell,” as another 359th pilot put it. They were gone in an instant. “I had no time to get my sights anywhere near them,” Tacon admitted, “despite the fact that I had seen them start their dive and observed them throughout their attack.”
The Versailles Treaty, which ended World War I, featured a loophole that allowed Germany to manufacture fighters but not sailplanes or rockets. Designer Alexander Lippisch perfected tailless, delta-wing gliders in the 1920s and 1930s, and engineer Helmuth Walter built rockets that burned 80 percent pure hydrogen peroxide. This “T-Stoff” spontaneously burned anything organic, including human flesh, and disintegrated it. “If you stick your finger in there, you only get the bone out,” Lippisch cautioned.
Messerschmitt Me-163A of Lippisch Komet was a hybrid of a rocket and a glider. Its plywood bat wings were swept back like fins on a dart, not for streamlining (transonic airflow is still poorly understood), but to put their control surfaces far enough back. Heinrich Dittmar, a test pilot, said, “It just won’t spin.” “It can be flown by a child.”
At the Peenemünde-West field near Germany’s Baltic Sea coast, one of five V-series Me-163 test aircraft takes a low-level powered flight. (From the National Archives)
It was also quick. Dittmar attained 528 mph in a drop during one of the earliest unpowered glide tests. He was dragged up over 13,000 feet on October 2, 1941, cast off, and rocketed to 624 mph (approximately Mach.84) in level flight. He recalled, “And then things started to happen.” “…The plane was being forced down with tremendous force. Just keeping my hand on the stick required everything I had…. “The engine has broken down!” Negative lift was caused by compression shockwaves (airflow over the wing surpassing Mach 1), which cut off fuel flow and speed. Dittmar’s record, however, despite being top-secret, lasted over six years.
With extra fuel and wing cannons, Lippisch was already working on a battle version, the Me-163B. Walter created a new motor that combined T-Stoff and “C-Stoff,” a 30% hydrazine hydrate solution in methanol. While traditional prop-driven fighters had to make do with around 2,000 horsepower at low altitude, the tiny rocket interceptor would have up to 9,000 horsepower in thin upper air. However, C-Stoff shortages and dependability difficulties (flameouts, explosions) would cause the “Hell Machine” to be delayed by a year.
Rocket fighter training was unlike that of any other aircraft. Pilots in their unpressurized cockpits experienced the bends when nitrogen bubbles accumulated in their bloodstreams due to the rapid ascents. Diet was restricted to prevent them from blowing up like balloons due to intestinal gas. Pilots learnt to glide back to base and land on a belly skid after dropping their main wheels shortly after takeoff to save weight when their rockets burned out in minutes. On one flight, Dittmar landed too forcefully, injuring his back and forcing him to sit out for two years. He was quite fortunate. Detonation was instantaneous and total if leaky T-Stoff collided with C-Stoff in an accident. Pilots of the Me-163 had to become specialists in dead-stick landings quickly, or they would perish.
Captain Wolfgang Späte, a prewar gliding champion and 80-victory ace, flew the first production Me-163B in late 1943, saying, “Now I was about to find out what the Walter engine and my small Me-163 had in them.” The Komet could reach 40,000 feet in 312 minutes. Späte observed, “This was a special kind of airplane, an incredibly nice feeling aircraft, a beautiful, lightning fast, easily controllable dart…. With this bird, you could intercept any other aircraft.”
Its Walter motor, on the other hand, was far from flawless. Späte was nearly killed when a gasoline line ruptured on takeoff, he lost power, and abandoned ship in the middle of a roll, sliding off the wing. “It was unfathomable to consider sending a single airplane into battle with such an unreliable engine, let alone a whole squadron,” he wrote.
Nonetheless, the training unit was renamed Jagdgeschwader 400 in the spring of that year (JG.400). Captain Rudolf “Rudi” Opitz, a test pilot, delivered one of the fighter wing’s first combat aircraft. “Long strings of tracer bullets flew at me from all directions when I focused in on [the] field for a high-speed low-pass,” he added. Local flak crews had never seen anything like the Komet before, and it was a difficult target for them. “… We viewed the fact that they hadn’t managed a single hit on the plane as a favorable omen.”
By removing the one-piece rear fuselage and tailfin, the Walter rocket engine was easily accessible. (Bundesarchiv Bild I101-1965-011) (Bundesarchiv Bild I101-1965-011) (Bundesarchiv Bild I
Späte’s ground crew sent him a rocket aircraft painted entirely in Richthofen red in May. He was not amused: “I would be easy to spot from miles away if I tried to make it back to the airstrip gliding without a drop of fuel left.” As fate would have it, four Allied fighters approached early that day. Späte climbed up beneath them in minutes, although he added a touch of negative g as he changed his ascent angle. His rocket was cut off right away. It took two minutes to relight in mid-flight. The Americans drew away as the drifting rocket jet slowed, having apparently missed the small red bat-wing behind them. Späte had to race to catch up by the time he re-fired the burner, so much so that his Komet hit the sound barrier, causing him to stop attacking. “I’m more than curious to discover what happened to those pilots who may owe their lives to the lack of a Mach warning device [in the Me-163],” he subsequently pondered.
JG.400 bombers flew out of Brandis, a bomber base east of Leipzig, to safeguard vital synthetic fuel and rubber industries. Few bomber raids penetrated Germany that deeply at that stage in the war. When they did, the Komet pilots swiftly discovered the one tactic they hadn’t trained enough: air-to-air combat intercepts. Even a tail chase means approaching at over 350 mph and pulling the trigger in a fraction of a second. Späte discovered, “There just wasn’t enough time to fire off a well-aimed shot.” “Whenever our pilots had the opportunity to fire, they were either out of gun range or already too close.”
The Komet, as agile as it was, was too fast for dogfighting. The greatest strategy for a rocket pilot was to avoid battle. Captain Arthur J. Jeffrey of the 479th Fighter Group, flying four P-38J Lightnings, observed a Komet attacking a wounded B-17 at 11,000 feet the day after Colonel Tacon’s inconclusive July 1944 tangle. Jeffrey stated, “I closed with him and began fire, witnessing strikes on the Me 163.” “… With me fire-walled behind him, he slid over and fell right down.”
Lieutenant Richard G. Simpson, his wingman, confirmed: “The Me 163 plunged into the clouds, which were at roughly 3,000 feet, continuing in an 80 degree or better dive. He must have been going 550-600 mph because he showed no signs of slowing down. I’m not sure how the German managed to get out of that hole.”
Despite the fact that there are no surviving German records of a Komet being lost that day, Jeffrey claimed a probable and was famously awarded the first rocket-fighter kill of the war. The svelte 163 could out-plummet Allied fighters diving at full power even with its engine off and tanks empty, and with its huge bat wings, it could also pull out later. “Our bird stays in there, steady as a rock,” Lieutenant Hartmut Ryll said. The Americans call a halt to their assault pretty early on. And by the time the airspeed drops below 900 km/h [560 mph], you’ve already returned to the local region and are protected by our own flak.”
On August 16, Ryll shot down a 305th Bomber Group B-17 so badly that he was credited with a kill, despite the fact that the plane struggled back to England. He then zeroed in on a lone Fortress of the 91st BG, but was cut off by the accompanying 359th’s Lt. Col. John B. Murphy. Murphy stated, “I opened fire from around 1,000 feet and held it until I overshot.” “On the left side of the fuselage, I scored a few hits.”
Lieutenant Cyril W. Jones Jr., a wingman, had a burst as well. “On the adversary aircraft, the entire canopy seemed to vanish… The pilot was almost certainly killed.” Murphy returned to the Komet as it spiraled down, “seeing continual impacts the entire length of the fuselage.” Components began to fall off, which was followed by a large explosion with even more parts falling off. As I followed through the smoke from the explosion, I noticed a weird chemical fume in my cockpit.” Ryll did not make it.
Steve Karp created the illustration.
Sergeant Siegfried Schubert and Lieutenant Hans Bott led two pairs of Komets past 36,000 feet, turned off their rockets, and dove a mile to attack a group of over 1,300 B-17s and B-24s eight days later. Schubert fired a shot up the left wing of a 92nd BG formation’s leader. It became disoriented and refused to return to base. “As soon as I began firing my MG 151 machine cannons, one of them jammed, but the other continued to fire, and I witnessed my shells hit the aircraft,” Bott wrote. The bomber’s crash was witnessed by flak crews. Bott had only been in the air for seven minutes.
Meanwhile, Schubert’s plunge had pushed him into the dangerous Mach zone. He pulled up in front of the 457th BG and came back down from 12 o’clock high to bleed off speed. Although his head-on pass landed with minimal hits, Schubert swung back for a tail attack, apparently firing only three rounds from a B-17’s tail section.
It would be the rocket fighters’ crowning achievement. Späte recalled, “After that, we had a sequence of failures and aircraft losses.” “…October 7th was a horrible day of desperation!” At noon on that day, Schubert and Bott led a mass rush of up to 20 Komets. Bott claimed a kill after blowing a five-foot piece off of the right wing of a 95th BG Fortress. Then Schubert made another head-on pass, and with only a few seconds to spare, he made the most of it. Six parachutes were thrown from a B-17 as it spiraled down. With his third kill, Schubert became the war’s leading rocket-fighter pilot.
He and Bott landed at Brandis and boarded brand-new Komets. “The engine in Schubert’s plane broke out halfway down the runway,” another pilot recalled, “and he slid onto the grass to get out of the way of the other planes that were pursuing him.” As the aircraft flown by Bott passed him, one of his wings impacted the ground, and his plane somersaulted and then exploded. ” Another pilot was killed when two additional Me-163s crashed on landing.
The rocket fighter’s lack of endurance and firepower was still being worked on. A spare 163A got underwing racks with two-dozen unguided R4M rockets—a rocket-firing rocket—that month, but they provided no additional range, trajectory, or explosive power over 30mm guns. The Jägerfaust, or “fighter fist,” featured ten recoilless 50mm wing guns that automatically fired upward when the Komet crossed beneath a bomber. The 163B’s canopy was first blown off by the force of the simultaneous salvo, thus a sequential delay was added into the trigger system. Walter, on the other hand, was developing a new rocket with a rather long-range cruise capability. It was supposed to go into the stretched-fuselage Me-163C, but it was passed over in favor of the Me-163D with retractable wheels, and then the Me-263 with cruise rocket, landing gear, and a pressurized cockpit. By the conclusion of the war, however, only three prototypes had been completed.
When Germany attacked Russia, the Soviets ramped up their own missile-defense systems. Their Bereznyak-Isayev BI had a more conventional layout than the Komet, but its rocket, which burned kerosene and red fuming nitric acid and contributed to airframe corrosion, was no more reliable. One pilot was slightly hurt in a motor explosion, while another was killed in a crash near the sound barrier when he lost control. The BI was never involved in any warfare. The Russians, like the Germans, became more fond of aircraft.
Rocket fighters also piqued the interest of Germany’s B-29 allies, the Japanese. They created their own license-built Komet, the Mitsubishi J8M1 Shusui (“Powerful Sword”), despite various designs and components being lost in transit aboard sinking U-boats. However, during its first powered test in July 1945, the prototype’s engine failed and the plane fell, killing the pilot.
JG.400 saw little combat during the winter of 1944-45. The Americans had figured out that the best way to evade rocket fighters was to avoid Brandis. Späte dispatched squadrons to remote sites, but they were quickly encircled by advancing Allied ground forces. Germany’s lone C-Stoff facility had also been destroyed. Späte was told, “Our sole supply…is what’s left in storage at the various airfields and depots.” “At Brandis, we have enough for perhaps another 50 fully loaded flights.”
Because there was a scarcity of gasoline, there was limited flying and training. More than 1,400 bombers blasted objectives surrounding Brandis on February 22, 1945, but only seven Komets were ready to resist the danger. None of their planes even attempted to engage the adversary. The Me-163B was one of the few German planes that could, and did, capture RAF Mosquitos in level flight, limiting combat operations to lone Allied reconnaissance aircraft. After 364 Komets had been completed, Germany decided to stop production after the cost of pilots had far surpassed their results—and with much more planes and pilots lost to accidents than to enemy activity. Only about a fifth of them had ever witnessed a fight.
The National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center houses a surviving Me-163B-1 with its rocket engine. (Photo courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum)
Lieutenant Fritz Kelb dared to fly a Komet with a 50mm Jägerfaust until the end. On the evening of April 10, Brandis’ men witnessed him hurry up in the face of 100 bombs descending on Leipzig. “Kelb approached the bomber formation’s lead aircraft and flew past underneath it at very close range,” Späte recalled. “The aircraft vanished in a cloud of smoke and fire at that very moment.” Kelb placed the Komet’s nose down and sprinted for home after being jumped by Mustangs. “On the upper side of the plane, he had taken a lot of hits…shrapnel from the massive explosion that had torn his target to shreds. This was the only time this weapons system had ever been utilized in the air…. ‘It’s too late!’
JG.400 was disbanded that month. Their Me-163 Komet is still the only rocket-powered combat aircraft in service today. The pilots who made it out alive had the satisfaction of knowing they had flown the hottest plane in the sky. B-17 pilot Edward F. Reibold was shocked to see a rocket fighter flying off his wing, just beyond of machine-gun range, in the last weeks of the war. “He slid into within a few feet of our left wing tip without changing direction,” the bomber pilot recalled. “At the time, we were flying at a speed of about 285 miles per hour. The German plane’s pilot paused off our wing, nodded, gave us a ‘Highball,’ pushed his throttle ahead, and surged forward in flight, leaving us’standing’ in mid-air.”
Späte recalled of his pilots, “They were all filled with an inexorable desire to serve their Fatherland in a special way.” “… They were willing to give their lives to achieve their goal of flying in a rocket.”
Don Hollway, a frequent writer, suggests Jeffrey L. Ethell’s Komet: The Messerschmitt 163 and Stephen Ransom and Hans-Hermann Cammann’s Jagdgeschwader 400: Germany’s Elite Rocket Fighters. Donhollway.com/me-163 has more information, photographs, and video. Click here to learn more about the Bachem Ba-349 Natter, the Luftwaffe’s other rocket fighter.
The tale “Bat out of Hell” was first published in the November 2017 issue of Aviation History. Today is the last day to subscribe!
Click here to learn how to make your own Me-163 Komet!
For those who know nothing about the Me-163, it was one of the most radical aircraft of the Second World War. It was not your average bomber or fighter plane—it was a very fast, high-altitude, flying missile. Its biggest downside was its suicide mission, but that didn’t stop it from being one of the most effective weapons of the war.. Read more about me 163 propeller and let us know what you think.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why did the Me 163 have a propeller?
The Me 163 was a jet powered aircraft, and the propeller was used to help keep it in flight.
Was the Me 163 successful?
The Me 163 was not successful, as it never entered mass production.
Did the Me 163 break the sound barrier?
The Me 163 did not break the sound barrier, but it did reach a speed of about 1.5 times the speed of sound.
This article broadly covered the following related topics:
- me 163
- me 163 komet
- me 163 top speed
- me-163 cockpit