British airmen’s first encounter with a jet aircraft – 26 July 1944

British airmen’s first encounter with a jet aircraft – 26 July 1944

History rarely records the thoughts of those on the receiving end of a new ‘wonder weapon’ in battle – such as the first sailors doused with Greek Fire over 1,300 years ago, or those soldiers facing the first crossbow bolts over 2,500 years ago, or showered with arrows from the first fast-moving chariots 4,000 years ago.  Unquestionably there would have been panic and confusion when it became clear that a distinctly new weapon, never before experienced, was being used against them.  Here is the second of two rare accounts of witnesses to the moment when something about to change warfare forever suddenly and unexpectedly hoves into view…

26 July 1944 was a bright and clear day over Munich.  A lone RAF Mosquito reconnaissance aircraft peered down over the city from 28,000 feet.  Its pilot, Flight Lieutenant A E Wall of 544 Squadron, kept the aircraft steady.  Its navigator, Pilot Officer A S Lobban, lay in its nose and operated the camera which captured black-and-white images of the city’s key targets.

At this height they felt relatively safe from anti-aircraft fire and they were confident they could outrun any of the Luftwaffe’s Bf-109s and Fw-190s based at the nearby Flughaven Reim.  Nevertheless, their aircraft – unarmed and constructed almost entirely of wood – was vulnerable and they had remained keenly alert ever since taking off from their base at RAF Benson, Oxfordshire, early that morning.

After a few minutes of circling over the city they had got the imagery they needed; Lobban resumed his seat and they began to head for home.

Suddenly Lobban called out, “Hey what’s this?  Bandit at 6 o’clock!  And closing fast!”

Wall was surprised.  How could an enemy fighter have reached their altitude so quickly, without being seen?

There was no time to think about it – he had to pull away from the attacker in a hurry.  He shoved the throttles forward, and reset the fuel mixture to full rich.  The Mosquito’s powerful engines immediately responded, and they sprinted ahead.

The Mosquito’s official maximum speed was 420 mph, but Wall knew it could do better than that, when pushed.  No Messerschmitt or Focke-Wulf could overtake it.  All he had to do was keep the throttles wide open and fly straight and level, and the enemy would be left far behind.

He was wrong.

“Still closing on us!” Lobban shouted.

Wall could hardly believe it.  The Mosquito’s airspeed was now 430 mph, but their pursuer was rapidly closing down the distance between them.

To gain even more speed, Wall put the aircraft into a shallow dive.  The needle of the airspeed indicator whipped to 440 mph.  Then to 450, 460, 470.  The Mosquito vibrated roughly and was in danger of falling apart.  Wall drew the stick back and brought the Mosquito level.

Not only had the enemy aircraft stayed with them, it came closer still.  And then it began firing its cannons.  Tracers streaked past the Mosquito, inches above the cockpit canopy.

“Break!” yelled Lobban.

Wall backed off the throttles, and swung left.  The attacker flashed by, and as it did, they got their first good look at it.

“The bloody thing’s got no props!” Lobban exclaimed.

Indeed it hadn’t.  The enemy aircraft was a low-winged monoplane with two large engine pods, and a configuration unlike any they had seen before.

The strange aircraft was now turning towards them.  It didn’t seem to be all that manoeuvrable, perhaps because of its enormous speed.  At least, it seemed to require a great amount of space to turn about.

Wall knew that if he could turn more tightly than the other aircraft, he might be able to keep it from getting a clean shot at them.  He added power and reversed course, heading directly towards it.

The two aircraft began closing on each other at a combined speed of nearly 1,000 mph.  It was like flying towards a screaming bullet.  The enemy aircraft fired again, but was not lined up well enough to hit them.  At the last possible moment, Wall flicked the ailerons and sent the Mosquito past the attacker.  Then he continued to turn hard, G-forces pushing him deeper into his seat.

As he’d hoped, it took longer for the enemy aircraft to swing around.  Again, Wall headed directly towards it.  And again he flew by before fire from its guns could strike the Mosquito.  But on the next pass his opponent made a smart move, beginning his turn only a fraction of a second after Wall began his.  Then he dove, and climbed toward the British aircraft from underneath, firing his canons as he came.

There was a loud bang and the Mosquito lurched and shuddered.  Wall struggled to maintain control, but the aircraft was still flying.  The only response he could think of was to try another dive.  He pushed the stick forward, and as he did, he caught sight of cloud cover below.

He raced downward, and an instant later was inside the cloud’s solid white sanctuary.

Wall then began circling, so as to remain inside the protective vapour.  There was considerable turbulence, but it was infinitely preferable to explosive cannon shells punching more holes in the aircraft.

“See if you can check the damage,” Wall ordered.

Lobban left his seat and opened the inner hatch.  As he did, a strong rush of wind entered the aircraft.  After a few moments he closed the hatch and returned.

“The outer hatch is gone,” he reported.  “Blown clean off.”

“Anything else?”

“Not that I could see.  Although there could be.”

Wall went on circling for another minute or two.  Finally he said, “Watch it now, we’re coming out.”

When they emerged from the cloud, the two men rapidly scanned the sky.  The mysterious attacker had disappeared, which was just as well as the Mosquito’s vibrations were growing worse.

Wall reduced speed, but it was clear that the aircraft would not make it all the way back to England.  The engine’s cylinder head temperatures were dangerously high, which was unsurprising considering how hard the engines had been revved.  He asked Lobban where the nearest Allied airbase was.

Lobban consulted his charts.  “There’s Fermo, in Italy.  It’s near the Adriatic coast.”

Wall gently turned on their new course and nursed the shaking aircraft over the Austrian Alps.  Luckily, they encountered no further problems from either flak or enemy fighters.

What the hell had hit them?  The strange enemy aircraft had clearly displayed fantastic speed.  Usually when a new type appeared, it might be 20 or 30 mph faster than its rivals.  Yet this aircraft with no propellers was at least 100 mph faster.

Wall knew enough to conclude that the Germans had succeeded in developing jet aircraft.  What he probably hadn’t yet appreciated, as the Mosquito limped towards Italy, was the historical significance of their encounter.

They had battled with the Messerschmitt Me 262, the world’s first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft.  It’s pilot, Luftwaffe ace Leutnant Alfred Schreiber, would go on to claim their damaged Mosquito as the first aerial victory by a jet fighter in aviation history.

The Mosquito and the Messerschmitt Me 262 in flight
The Mosquito and the Messerschmitt Me 262 in flight

Source: Sharks Of The Air by James Neal Harvey

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