Flight of Fantasy-Late War Research and Development

While preparing these aircraft for production, German designers started working on the next generation of military aircraft. Among them were—again—numerous variants of the Me 262 and the Ar 234, but also a host of futuristic designs. One of the most popular topics of the “what if” school of aviation and military history are those secret advanced aviation projects carried out by aviation firms, research organizations and the Luftwaffe towards the end of World War II. The number of advanced aviation projects carried out while Germany rapidly lost the war is indeed striking, and the topic cries for a closer look and some analysis. Historian Lutz Budrass saw in this “projects inflation during the last weeks of the war the best sign of the fact that the armaments industry finally lost faith in Germany’s victory.” He argued that during the last phases of the war, large numbers of designers unemployed by the destruction of aviation factories tried to escape last-minute conscription by inventing valuable projects. While capturing the mood of 1945, this argument does not explain why so many projects appeared in 1944, while aircraft factories still functioned, or why many of these projects were fully supported or even initiated by the RLM. Furthermore, the Entwicklungs-Hauptkommission (Main Development Committee)—which included top representatives from the aviation industry and from the RLM—discussed in detail many of these projects. Committee members included prominent designers, executives and officials like Kurt Tank of Focke-Wulf, Walter Blume of Arado, Heinrich Hertel of Junkers, Roluf Lucht and Siegfried Knemeyer of the RLM. They served high enough in the hierarchy to feel safe from being drafted for front-line service. In March 1945 they still met regularly to discuss future projects, like a new jet-propelled all-weather and night fighter. This business-as-normal attitude of these top-ranking experts makes the question of proliferarating new projects even more interesting. Experienced designers and top executives like Kurt Tank knew very well that it took 3.5 to 4 years to develop a conventional piston engine aircraft and make it ready for operational use.So why were they still at work on such projects so late in the war? Why did the RLM, the Jägerstab and the Rüstungsstab fail to impose stricter control on research and development activities at times of growing rationalization? The amount of investment in research and development in the last two years of the war is particularly striking. Between 1943 and early 1945 the budget allocated to these activities increased from around 340 million RM to around 500 million RM. The number of personnel allocated to research and development also increased significantly at the same time: from around 7,000 in 1943 to around 8,000 in early 1945. Large percentages of these people worked in fairly large firm-based research and development teams. Next to the aircraft production boom in the 1930s there was a marked increase of patents submitted by aviation firms. The firms invested much of their increased profit in development work. Therefore, research and development became an integral part of the expansion of the aviation industry and this trend continued during the war. Messerschmitt’s research and development department, which moved in June 1943 from the firm’s main offices at the Augsburg factory to a new facility at Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps, numbered some 1,400 workers—around 600 of them involved directly in research and development. British intelligence officers who inspected the facility immediately after the war noted the strong team spirit prevailing among members of the staff there. This “dream team” was one of the strongest firm-based research and development teams, and it was responsible for numerous wartime developments—including some late-war advanced “fantasy” projects. Kurt Tank, who functioned in parallel as Focke-Wulf’s general director, chief designer and senior test pilot, led another strong research and development team based at Bad Eilsen. The mere existence of such large teams dedicated to research and development contributed to the proliferation of advanced development programs. The firms continued investing in these teams because their work sometimes brought large contracts. Henschel’s Abteilung F, for example, had since the late 1930s been developing different guided weapons using rocket engines. It was relatively low-risk development work compared to the development of manned rocket aircraft, and by summer 1941 the result of this work—the Hs 293 radioguided missile—was ready for production. By the end of 1943 Henschel delivered 24,720 missiles of this type, worth almost 200 million RM. This was the largest single contract in Henschel’s history and it helped secure the firm’s financial status after years of insecurity.This and other teams continued their work almost undisturbed up to the last days of World War II, and therefore kept streaming proposals and blueprints. Other factors contributing to this influx of projects were also deeply rooted in the structure and institutional culture of the German aviation industry, and were not related only to the late-war period. The story of some projects connected to the Ar 234 jet bomber exemplifies these factors quite well. Arado engineers and aerodynamicists Rüdiger Kosin and Walther Lehmann developed in 1942 a new type of crescent-shaped swept-back wing for high-speed flight, but were forced to put it aside because they were busy designing the Ar 234. After finishing their work on the Ar 234 they suggested a heavier four-engine version of this aircraft. This design soon received the internal project number E395, and on 16 January 1944 the RLM gave the project a go-ahead under the impressive priority level Nationale Aufgabe (National Task). The aircraft was viewed as a potential replacement for the He 177 as the Luftwaffe’s future heavy bomber. Some RLM officials even proposed to terminate the He 177 production immediately in order to free production capacity for the E395. The new aircraft was supposed to fly for the first time at the end of 1944. It should be remembered that by January 1944 only 5 early configuration prototypes of the Ar 234 existed and that the aircraft and its engines were at least 6 months away from series production. Following “Big Week” and Arado’s assignment to increased conventional fighter production, the E395 project was abandoned. However, as Kosin later recalled, “One day in May 1944 Siegfried Günther (Heinkel’s chief designer) came to my office in Landshut, under orders from the RLM, to obtain the complete preliminary design drawings for the airplane. Heinkel was to design and build it under the designation He 343. We were not angry when this happened, but as far as I know, the project was scraped eventually because its engines never became ready for installation.