It’s often overlooked that the United States didn’t declare war on Nazi Germany during the Second World War, rather Hitler performed that honour himself after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. This has been at times been listed as one of the great historical blunders, with some discussion held on what may have been had Hitler not jumped the gun like this.
Such speculation is essentially fiction, but it also overlooks one key fact. Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler was actively thinking about how the Germans would wage war on the United States.
Germany’s declaration of war wasn’t so much about supporting their distant Pacific ally, it was Hitler seizing an opportunity for events that he firmly believed were inevitable and, with Japan’s attack, now appeared the optimum moment to initiate.
Following Germany’s defeat of France in the summer of 1940, he boasted to Mussolini that the Luftwaffe would have a fleet of long-range bombers capable of hitting the east coast cities of the United States by late 1941. There is also documentary evidence that in October 1940 he was exploring the possibility of seizing islands in the Atlantic such as the Azores and Iceland for use against the United States in the event of war.
In fact, in March 1941 the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM), the Nazi German Aviation Ministry, issued an order for twenty-four new long-range bombers that were under development by Messerschmitt, with materials to be allocated for the immediate construction of six pre-production test aircraft.
This was actually part of the ongoing saga of what would become the Me 264 – one of the proposed Amerika Bombers. And this aircraft was both a product of, and beset by, the intrigues and personality clashes that scourged many of the development projects of the Third Reich.
What was ultimately to develop into the Me 264 had its roots in pre-war research projects and prototypes that Messerschmitt had been developing. Amongst these were aircraft like the Me 261, which had been designed with the idea of flying the Olympic flame from Germany to Japan without stopping – a distance of 5870 miles (9445 km).
In fact, Willy Messerschmitt had been angling for contracts to build super long-range combat aircraft since at least 1937, when he had, with his usual sense of razzamatazz, shown Hitler a mock-up of a four-engine long-range bomber. But though Messerschmitt had managed to win a huge number of critical contracts for supplying the Luftwaffe, he had also achieved the enmity of a particularly powerful enemy; Erhard Milch, who was Inspector-General of the Luftwaffe and would become head of aircraft production in November 1941.
Milch was not happy about Messerschmitt having so much Luftwaffe production and advocated strongly for restricting their involvement in the Amerika Bomber project, arguing (correctly, to be fair) that the company was at capacity already.
It seems as well that the RLM, after their somewhat excitable order placement, started to take a more measured view, probably in light of data coming from the other German aero manufacturers involved in building a trans-Atlantic bomber.
Messerschmitt had been talking about his aircraft having four engines, a bombload of 2,000kgs (c.4,400lb) and a range of 20,000km (c.12,500 miles). The problem was the other builders, companies like Junkers, Heinkel and Dornier who had years of experience building long-range designs, said this was completely impossible with the engines available.
In fact, they were all insisting that for their Amerika Bombers to work, they would need to have at least six engines or much more powerful powerplants then in service, and probably inflight refuelling.
The inability to build engines powerful and reliable enough would ultimately doom the Amerika Bomber project, but this was in the future and Messerschmitt was never one to let an opportunity slide. So, he proposed building a six-engine Me 264 as well.
He also, in mid-1941, promised that he would have the first prototype flying in a year, though he downgraded the aircraft’s potential performance to being able to bomb only as far as the East Coast of the United States; two promises that, if we are charitable, can be described as rather optimistic.
The Japanese attack and Germany’s declaration of war on the USA gave Messerschmitt another boost, and shortly after Pearl Harbor they laid out the various models that they proposed to build and the specifications. These were various long-range or heavy bombers, a very long-range reconnaissance aircraft and a transport, all equipped with either Jumo 213 or DB 603 engines.
Proposed bombloads were 8,400kg (c.18,500lbs) with ranges of around 11,500km (c.7,150 miles) for the long-range aircraft, and 14,000kg (31,000lb) and 8,000km (c.5,000 miles) for the heavies.
In fact, Milch’s predictions on both the Messerschmitt company’s capacity and its namesake’s tendency to be “overly optimistic” proved right, and by February 1942 with the company fully committed to building as many existing aircraft as it could with Germany now fighting in the Soviet Union, the construction of the prototype Me 264’s had slowed to a crawl. This led Milch to cut the order to just three prototypes.
He also ordered that Me 264 development be turned over to Dornier, but they too were operating above their capacity.
So, in April, Milch dispatched a commission to look into the proposals on the new long-range bomber, especially interested in what the reality was with the Me 264. This concluded that that in fact though the Me 264 would not be suitable as a bomber for attacking the United States, it would serve as a critical intermediate step design towards achieving that goal.
The report also pointed out that all the proposed Amerika Bomber designs were following exactly that course, with intermediate designs being built first, and that the Me 264 would actually be useful as a naval reconnaissance aircraft to liaise with U-Boats attacking the convoys in the mid-Atlantic.
The commission concluded that construction of the prototype Me 264s should proceed as quickly as possible.
With this, work at Messerschmitt resumed but delays carried on, though Messerschmitt continued to push an optimistic timeline, even telling Goring that he expected Me 264s to be available to begin bombing the Continental United States by 1944. But it wasn’t until the 23rd of December 1942, that the first prototype, the Me 264V1, made its first flight.
In terms of its construction, the aircraft had a very clean superstructure of circular cross section for minimized drag to improve fuel efficiency, a profile that looks superficially at least like the American B-29 heavy bomber.
Because of its intended role as a long-range aircraft, behind the cockpit was a rest area for the crew.
The huge wings had a span of 43 metres (141 ft) were shoulder mounted and featured a slight backwards sweep with a sharp taper towards the wing tips. They also housed the four engines, Junkers Jumo 211Js that produced 1,400hp each and the fuel tanks – nine per wing.
No armament was fitted as this aircraft was intended purely for flight trials.
The flight went smoothly until landing, where the brakes failed and Me 264V1 ended up running off the runway and stopping in a ploughed field. But the aircraft’s flight characteristics, aside from some minor problems, were generally favourable, though the very heavy wing loading of the aircraft meant that even the highly experienced test pilots found the aircraft something of a challenge.
As more flights were conducted with -V1 throughout the beginning of 1943, additional issues did surface. Then in March the left gear failed on landing, causing a failure in the other wheel struts and spinning the aircraft through 180 degrees on its belly.
Quite impressively, the big aircraft held together comparatively well through this, but repairs required two months to complete, where the opportunity was taken to fit dummy gun turrets for when flight testing resumed.
But things were once again turning against the Me 264, part of the pendulum of support that marked this aircraft’s development. With the aircraft languishing in a hanger being repaired, Milch once again began expressing his doubts, particularly on where capacity to build such a large aircraft would be found. This was backed up by a senior official from the RLM who flew the repaired -V1 in June.
His report expressed issues mainly around the heating of the cockpit from the glazed nose and advocated that effort should be focused on Focke Wulf’s proposed Ta 400 six-engine design and on the existing Ju 290 and He 177 designs.
Milch then announced that production of the Me 264 was never going to happen and that further development should stop, only for him to countermand this order on July 4th when Hitler, at a meeting with Admiral Donitz, assured the commander of the German Navy that there would soon be Me 264s in service providing reconnaissance for his U-Boats.
Hitler had almost certainly been gotten to by Messerschmitt, part of the ever-evolving game of party politics that largely marked German armament policy at this stage. But though Milch was thwarted, he still got the last word and decreed that only the three prototypes should be completed and used for testing and experimentation. Nothing daunted, Messerschmitt continued developing a range of options based on the Me 264, on top of the baseline design, some of which were proposals to build a variant with jet engines.
As it was, the Me 264 V1 finally received the more powerful BMW 801 radial engines that were now considered to be the most likely fit for any production variant, and which produced 1,700hp on take-off.
Certainly, the interest in the Amerika Bomber was still pretty lively, with the Japanese in August 1943 informing Berlin that, should the Me 264 be capable of attacking the Continental United States then they would offer all available assistance to the project.[i]
With Messerschmitt seeming to be getting ahead of himself once again, Milch had to step in and, at an official meeting later that month, spelled out that he believed Messerschmitt should devote all their efforts into the development and construction of the new Me 262 jet fighters.[ii]
As it was, Milch was once again correct on Messerschmitt being over stretched and the aircraft was still undergoing reengining when it suffered damage from an air raid by the USAAF on the 18th March 1944. Flight testing ultimately resumed on the 16th of April 1944.
This progressed reasonably well, with the Me 264 still having several niggles and issues to be resolved, many of them seeming to be quality control issues. Considering the circumstances that Germany was in at the time in the face of mounting pressures, this was understandable, but the Me 264 had got to the position that when it was flown by the new head of development at the RLM, he stated that he thought that the aircraft “could be bought straight off the peg.”[iii]
But as said, further development was still needed and then, on the 18th of July 1944 disaster well and truly struck when the USAAF managed to finish the job and destroy -V1, the only complete Me 264, in another bombing raid.
Now, you would think that this, finally, would be the end of the saga. But that underestimates both Messerschmitt’s and Hitler’s infatuation with the concept. Three weeks after the prototype’s destruction, with practically nothing physical to show for all the years of effort, Hitler ordered on the 5th of August that the “fastest possible production” of the Me 264 be made.[iv]
This appears to have led to the Henschel company receiving orders to build Me 264s, but they too had more than enough on their plate and seem to have rather practically ignored the idea.
The fact that Hitler, even after the loss of the French airbases that would been needed for the Me 264s to operate from, was ordering their production shows how delusional the Amerika Bomber had become. In late September Admiral Donitz was able to talk Hitler out of the idea, but it wasn’t until the 18th of October 1944 that Goring sent an unequivocal message to Messerschmitt ordering them to stop work on the remaining two prototypes.
Truly, there can be few aircraft programs that have such a convoluted history.
In terms of projected armament and performance, well, that literally bounced all over the place as different ideas and concepts were dreamed up. Initial conceptions were for the Me 264 to have a single 20mm cannon in the tail and two twin 13mm machine guns in dorsal barbettes, all remote controlled by the gunners.
But by the time of -V1’s destruction this was being reconsidered to possibly being 30mm cannon in all stations.
To be fair, people could say whatever they liked when it was basically just a pipe dream.
Bombload, if the aircraft had managed to get into production with BMW 801s, was expected to be 3,000kg (6,614lbs), and a top speed of 340mph (546km/h) but again all sorts of projections were made.
In fact, the histories of the Me 264 and the Boeing B-29 give a stark contrast between both the management and production capability differences of the Third Reich and the United States during the Second World War. Both countries recognised the potential use of a long-range bomber at around the same time and in fact the B-29 prototype first flew in September 1942, just three months before the Me 264 V1.
But from there the sheer capacity of American industry, and an admittedly different operational philosophy and prioritisation of the subject, was really demonstrated. Because by the time -V1 was destroyed in July 1944 and the Me 264’s future still yoyoing about, the B-29 was being used large scale on operations already.
[i] Forsyth, Robert; Messerschmitt Me263 Amerika Bomber; Osprey Publishing (Oxford); 2016, p.77
[iii] Ibid, p.66
[iv] Ibid, p.73
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