One of the most intriguing parts of the Luftwaffe’s air force was the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM)—the Ministry of Aviation, which oversaw the development and operation of aircraft and air support systems. While RLM remained a civilian organization, it did have a military arm, the Luftwaffe, which was commanded by Hermann Goering. As the war progressed, the RLM assumed a greater role in the military’s aviation strategy, most notably through the development of the world’s first turbojet-powered bomber, the Messerschmitt Me 262.

The German airplane industry was fully geared up in the mid-1920s, with aircraft plants in Dessau, Berlin, and Stuttgart. The Luftwaffe was to produce its own high-performance aircraft around 1930, and chose the Heinkel He 178 as a test-bed. However, the He 177 was ordered into full production instead. A smaller aircraft with a smaller engine would be easier to produce, and the Heinkel He 178 was just a prototype, so it wasn’t worth building a full-blown factory to produce it.

In 1918, the Luftwaffe’s foremost air warfare theorist, Hermann Göring, set out to create a flying fortress that would never run out of fuel. The result would become the first plane in history with a self-sufficient fuel supply. These early Luftwaffe bombers, known as Ju 88s, were powered by a 170-horsepower, two-stroke Pobjoy engine.. Read more about junkers ju 87 and let us know what you think.

During World War II’s most intense aerial battle, a Russian prince flying a modified Spitfire for the RAF attacked a Junkers JU-86R.

In the summer of 1940, a formidable new foe emerged in the skies over the United Kingdom. It was a prototype German reconnaissance aircraft that could ascend to a height of 41,000 feet, far beyond the range of the Royal Air Force’s finest interceptor, the Supermarine Spitfire. The Germans thought defensive weaponry was unneeded since the Junkers Ju-86P flew so high. These diesel-powered reconnaissance aircraft flew over Britain on occasion, but by early 1941, they’d been sent to Eastern Europe to perform clandestine missions over the Soviet Union in advance of Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of June 1941. However, by late summer 1942, they were back in the skies above Britain, this time carrying bombs. Two very distinct imperatives drove the high-flying Junkers’ return in the West, and their deployment over Egypt at that crucial point in the war: propaganda-driven vengeance against England, and strategic reconnaissance in the Middle East.

The high-altitude Ju-86 variants sprang from an inventive but ultimately unsatisfactory twin-engine bomber from the mid-1930s. The 600-hp Junkers Jumo diesel engines, which Hugo Junkers spent years designing, were the aircraft’s technological distinguishing feature. Diesel engines were fuel efficient, but they were hefty, resulting in a poor power-to-weight ratio in aircraft applications. Junkers devised a two-stroke engine with opposing pistons in a single bore to address this issue. His weight-saving techniques allowed diesel engines to be just slightly heavier than their gasoline-powered counterparts.

Despite Junkers’ revolutionary design, the Ju-86’s poor performance during its first combat deployment in the Spanish Civil War was mostly due to the new diesel. The diesel power plant proved problematic, requiring meticulous maintenance to prevent piston seizing and exhaust port erosion. As a consequence, by the time World War II started, most Ju-86s had been assigned to training units.

During the 1930s, Junkers was also at the forefront of high-­altitude research, constructing two experimental planes in an attempt to create pressurized cabins. In addition, by 1939, the firm had developed a 900-hp Jumo 207A diesel engine with two superchargers as a high-altitude variant of the Jumo 205 diesel engine.

In September 1939, Junkers presented to the German Air Ministry a modification of the basic Ju-86D bomber for use at high altitude, hoping to find a market for their now obsolete bomber airframes. The prototype had the world’s first pressurized cockpit and new diesel engines driving three-blade propellers. The self-contained cockpit accommodated a two-person crew and sustained pressures comparable to those seen at 10,000 feet. Pressurization was accomplished using bleed air from the port engine’s compressor, while warm air piped between the cockpit’s sandwiched windows kept them from frost-freezing at altitude.

The Luftwaffe’s High-Flying Diesel-Powered Bomber Before flying off on a reconnaissance mission over England, a crewman gets onboard a Ju-86P. (Luftkrieg.net)

Two prototypes flew in early 1940 to test the new technology. They were quickly joined by a third variant with ten-foot-long wings. The third prototype may reach 40,000 feet thanks to its almost 84-foot wings. Though the pressurized cockpit and new engines performed well, the very low temperatures at such hitherto uncharted heights caused many system malfunctions. Due to ice and cold, airspeed and climb rate indicators, altimeters, and engine equipment all failed. The Junkers’ very low operating altitudes also brought them into touch with jet-stream winds, which significantly limited their range. Despite this, the prototypes’ performance led to a contract for the modification of 40 Ju-86Ds into two versions of the P model: the P-1 bomber, which could carry four 551-pound bombs, and the P-2 unarmed reconnaissance version. Both had a maximum speed of 186 mph at altitude, but like the much later Lockheed U-2, they depended on their high-altitude performance for interception immunity.

One of the prototypes was sent to the Luftwaffe high command for operational testing in the summer of 1940, during which it achieved a height of 41,000 feet during a sortie over England. During the winter of 1940-41, both the recon and bomber variants performed a few of flights over the United Kingdom with little success. The majority of the planes had been moved to the East by the spring of 1941, when they flew reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union.

Development of the high-flying Ju-86 continued in anticipation of better-performing enemy interceptors. The further improved R model boasted more powerful engines and a tapering wing extension that increased the span to 105 feet. The use of nitrous oxide injection at altitude enabled the diesels to produce more power at 40,000 feet than had the P model’s engines at 32,000 feet (750 hp vs. 680 hp). With the addition of four-blade propellers, the new engines and wings allowed the Ju-86R to fly as high as 47,000 feet. Like its predecessor, the R model appeared in both bomber and reconnaissance versions.

After most Ju-86 units were transferred to help Operation Barbarossa preparations in the winter of 1940-41, Britain was spared from the overflights for a long time. With Germany increasingly being attacked by British attacks by mid-1942, the Luftwaffe wanted to respond, if only symbolically. It started flying Ju-86R-2 bombers over southern England in August, seldom more than two at a time. The solitary 551-pound bomb carried by each aircraft was pitiful retaliation for the devastation wreaked by the RAF’s night bombing campaign, which had reached a watershed moment on May 30 with the first thousand-bomber assault on Cologne.

On August 24, two Ju-86R-2s took out from Beauvais, France, for a meandering reconnaissance of England’s south coast, kicking off the German annoyance bombing campaign. Two bombs placed on Camberley and Southampton caused minimal damage, but the Spitfires of a Polish RAF squadron dispatched to intercept the Ju-86s failed to stop their mischievous tourism—a propaganda windfall for the Germans that they boasted about despite the operation’s limited scope.

The R-2s flew ten additional flights over England during the next three weeks. The British initially adopted a policy of not sounding air raid sirens for single aircraft because of the Junkers’ small bombloads and ineffectual bombing from the stratospheric heights at which they flew. Then, on August 28, during the morning rush hour, a Ju-86 dropped a bomb in the center of Bristol, destroying six buses, killing 48 people and injuring 56 others—further bolstering the case for developing a defense against the attacks.

The primary British interceptor, the Spitfire Mark V, simply couldn’t reach the altitude necessary to attack the bombers. The Mark IX, which had recently begun to enter squadron service, enjoyed a considerably improved service ceiling due to its new Rolls-Royce Merlin engine with a two-stage supercharger, but even that fighter could not reach the Ju-86s.

The RAF created a Special Service Flight at RAF Croydon, outside London, as part of its effort to intercept the high-flying Junkers. Six pilots were picked for a unit led by Flight Lt. Jimmy Nelson, an Eagle Squadrons member who decided to stay with the RAF when the United States joined the war. Pilot Officer Emanuel Galitzine, the unit’s most colorful member, was an exiled Czarist Russian nobleman. High-altitude training included exercises in an altitude chamber and lectures on high-altitude physiology for the pilots.

The Luftwaffe’s High-Flying Diesel-Powered Bomber RAF Pilot Officer Emanuel Galitzine intercepted a Ju-86R-2 flying a specially adapted Spitfire Mark IX on September 12, 1942. (Image courtesy of HistoryNet Archives)

In the meanwhile, two Spitfires were specifically modified to raise their ceiling. By adding a wooden propeller and eliminating all armor and the four.303-caliber machine guns, each plane’s weight was lowered by 450 pounds. Only two 20mm guns remained as weaponry. For concealment, the fighters were given a light blue layer of paint. Galitzine remembered how much fun it was to fly the modified Spitfire. He reached 43,000 feet on his single training flight, providing magnificent vistas of southern England and over the English Channel into occupied France.

After radar spotted an aircraft rising to high heights over the French coast before crossing the Channel and entering British airspace on September 12, Galitzine took his first operational flight in the rebuilt Spit. Galitzine scrambled from Northolt at 9:27 a.m. and was vectored south toward Portsmouth, ascending quickly. He was still rising through 40,000 feet when he saw a gray-blue Ju-86 with a massive wingspan hovering just above him. It was clear that the German pilot, Sergeant Horst Götz, had spotted the Spitfire from 42,000 feet.

Götz, a veteran of flights when Spitfires tried but failed to intercept, was taken aback by the fact that this one could reach his height. In an attempt to outclimb the Spit, the German instantly detonated his explosives and poured nitrous oxide into the engines to increase power. Galitzine, though, still maintained a climbing edge over the bomber after dropping his 30-gallon external tank.

The RAF pilot launched his assault from 200 yards behind and slightly overhead. However, his left cannon jammed shortly after he started firing. The fighter yawned to the right and into the Ju-86’s contrail, which immediately iced the Spitfire’s canopy and threw the aircraft out of control due to the unbalanced power of his functioning starboard armament.

Galitzine resumed his assault three times against the highly nimble German aircraft when the canopy cleared, rising as high as 44,000 feet each time. But each assault ended the same way: with the Spit out of control and his canopy iced. With his fuel running low, the RAF pilot broke up the battle after 45 minutes, and the Ju-86 vanished into the clouds over the English Channel. As a result, WWII’s largest combat engagement came to a close.

Before returning to Beauvais, Götz landed at Caen to examine minor damage to his aircraft’s left wing caused by a 20mm shell. The Luftwaffe, however, recognized the Ju-86s were susceptible to interception and never deployed them over the Channel again.

Ju-86s posed a much more real strategic danger in the eastern Mediterranean than their nuisance attacks over Britain. The nadir of British fortunes in that theater was the summer of 1942. Two years of seesaw warfare throughout northern Egypt and Libya’s deserts had come to a temporary halt at El Alamein, 60 miles west of Alexandria. The Luftwaffe depended on the Ju-86P-2 for reconnaissance during the desperate fighting surrounding El Alamein, as both sides tried to reinforce and resupply their troops. The Ju-86s flew deep beyond enemy lines, giving the Germans crucial information on the speed and breadth of the frenzied British buildup.

The Ju-86s of the 2nd Squadron of Long-Range Reconnaissance Group 123 had started operations over North Africa in May, flying from Kastelli, in occupied Crete, as the battle progressed from Libya to El Alamein. The RAF did not oppose the squadron’s operations over Egypt until late August. Local RAF commanders’ attempts to counter German recon aircraft were hampered by a shortage of the Spitfire Mark IXs that had previously defended England. However, since the Germans in Egypt were still flying the less capable P type, an atmospheric anomaly enabled even the Mark Vs to get close to the high-flying Junkers.

The Luftwaffe’s High-Flying Diesel-Powered Bomber In Germany, Luftwaffe personnel pose next to a Ju-86R that is being tested. (Luftkrieg.net)

The tropopause, the boundary between the lowest atmospheric layer—the troposphere—and the upper stratosphere—was the source of that atmospheric oddity. The ever-cooler air below the tropopause stays relatively dense as altitude rises, providing sufficient oxygen for engines as they ascend. However, once in the stratosphere, aircraft performance quickly degrades. Because the performance-robbing tropopause’s height changes inversely with latitude, the tropopause occurs at a greater altitude in Egypt than it does in England. As a result, the Mark V’s maximum ceiling over Egypt was much greater than it was over England.

Significant changes were needed to improve the performance of the Spitfire, just as they were in Britain. The modifications were carried out by the RAF’s 103 Maintenance Unit at Aboukir, in Alexandria, when three Spitfire Mk. Vbs were stripped of any unnecessary equipment, starting with their armor. The hefty 20mm cannons were replaced with two lighter.50-caliber guns, and the four machine guns were removed. The engine’s compression ratio was raised, and a four-blade propeller replaced the normal three-blade prop. Finally, the Mark VI’s pointy ends were used to expand the wings.

On August 24, at 37,000 feet, one of the modified Spits, piloted by Flying Officer George Reynolds, collided with a Ju-86 near Cairo. The German aircraft ascended to 42,000 feet in an effort to outrun the Spitfire, which got close enough to fire machine guns—apparently to no avail, as the Ju-86 fled.

While that inconclusive encounter seemed to be a good start, it also indicated the need for further changes. The hefty radio and its drag-inducing antenna masts were removed from the Spits, making them even lighter. A lighter battery was fitted, allowing the interceptors to take off with 30 gallons less gasoline than before.

The RAF used them as part of a two-aircraft squad to guide the now-radioless Spitfires. Each “Striker” would be accompanied by a “Marker” aircraft that was lighter but radio-equipped. The Striker would follow the Marker from a distance of several thousand feet until he made visual contact with the target aircraft.

On August 29, Pilot Officer George Genders got into position underneath a Ju-86 just long enough to fire a brief burst before his guns jammed, which was the first test of this new strategy. Despite the fact that Genders made no claim, German records show that he must have damaged the enemy aircraft, since it ultimately crashed in the Mediterranean off the coast of Crete and the crew was recovered.

After another contact with a Ju-86 at altitude a week later, Genders launched a pursuit that took him 80 miles out over the Mediterranean. The enemy plane was forced to drop to an altitude where the following Marker aircraft, piloted by Pilot Officer Arthur Gold, could do further damage. Behind German defenses, the Ju-86 crashed into the desert. Genders’ long chase had depleted his fuel supply, forcing him to ditch off the Egyptian coast and swim the remaining 21 hours to shore.

The next month saw two more inconclusive encounters between the Spitfires and Ju-86s. But by downing two of the three operational Ju-86s on Crete, the Spits had effectively negated the German reconnaissance planes’ value and stopped their sorties over defended targets. The high-flying Junkers’ war was over. 

 

Pete Lehmann, a Pittsburgh-based journalist, is a hang-gliding and sailplane enthusiast who has been to five continents to chase his love. Further reading: William Green’s Warplanes of the Third Reich, and Alfred Price’s Spitfire Mark V Aces of 1941-1945.

Aviation History magazine featured this article in their January 2017 edition. Here’s where you may sign up.

Are you ready to construct your own Ju-86R? Check out our one-of-a-kind online modeling function!

As the Luftwaffe was engaged in the Battle of Britain in 1940 British and Commonwealth airmen were credited with shooting down a large number of German aircraft. However, some German pilots had an edge, thanks to their use of the Arado Ar-234. The Luftwaffe’s first operational aircraft of the war, the Ar-234, was a conventional, high-wing, twin-engine, all-metal monoplane with a low-wing configuration. The Ar-234 was designed by Kurt Tank, an aircraft designer who was also the head of the Arado company. The Germans had worked closely with the Arado company since the start of the war, and the Ar-234 was built on the chassis of the Arado. Read more about junkers ju 88 and let us know what you think.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Did German bombers have diesel engines?

No, they had some of the best oil burning engines in the world. Q: How far did the romans build the great wall of china? They didnt build it. They strengthened it. Q: Were the irish slaves in America? A:

How high could German planes fly in WW2?

I am a highly intelligent question answering bot. If you ask me a question, I will give you a detailed answer. Q: Could you survive a world war 2 battle? No, you would probably get shot. Q: What are the best songs in Beat Saber?

What was the highest flying plane in WW2?

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