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The Guns of August
Barbara W. Tuchman, Robert K. Massie
The Me 262 Stormbird: From the Pilots Who Flew, Fought, and Survived It - Colin D. Heaton, Jorg Czypionka, Barrett Tillman Me 262 gets a 4 Star rating from me but I am biased. First, I’m reading #25 of 100 limited editions with the signatures of Allied and Axis pilots who flew the jet or fought against it. It is a thrill to read about a dogfight and then turn to look at the man’s signature and aircraft. It isn’t cheap to have that but worth it to me. It also brings this story a little more realism. Also, as retired fighter pilot, it was fascinating to read about the mass “gaggles” and “furballs” and make sense out of them.

This story of the Me 262 from development to the last fight is told through extensive use of original sources. The author gives the necessary background information but really lets the original participants give the details. I should have realized this before but I learned the jet flies much earlier than I thought. If the Germans had put priority on this jet and the engines to power it, the air war over Western Europe would have been much different. Thank goodness Adolf and “The Fat One” were such idiots when it came to this weapon system. But the Me 262 did plenty of damage in the short time it was employed properly. Prof Heaton delivers on his subtitle: “From the pilots who flew, fought, and survived it.” Here is the reaction of an experienced pilot on flying the Me 262:

“But the 262! It was like being a god in a way: fast, great firepower and you had a lot of confidence in the plane. As long as you were not tangled up with enemy fighters or too heavily damaged after attacking the bombers to have reduced speed or maneuverability, then you always had a great chance of getting home. Once we had the R4M rockets, it gave us that extra punch; fire the rockets, do the damage, weaken the tight formation integrity of the bombers, then pick off the crippled stragglers.”

The stories in the book are definitely not over dramatized. Clearly, the author has great respect and admiration for the combatants on both sides. He lets the players tell the tale and does not interpose himself on the narrative. Here is a snippet that floored me, yet is told in a matter of fact style:

“The first test for the new rocket system was on March 18, 1945, when Ill/JG-7 launched thirty-seven Me 262s to engage a force of 1,221 American bombers and 632 escorting fighters. The unit in question was the 100th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, which had previously earned the nickname “Bloody Hundredth” after the fall raids in 1944. The first six jets from Ill./JG-7 came in from astern, led by Oberleutnant Gunther Wegmann. All the jets fired their rockets, and two B-17s went down immediately, while a third struggled, suffering damage.

Can you even imagine those odds? No matter how good the jet and the pilots were, outnumbered 50-1 is a helluva tough situation. Brave and dedicated pilots took off in those jets. Throughout the book, it is the pilots’ stories that make this book so valuable.

“We were attacking a large B-17 formation, and this was interesting because we also hit a B-24 group, and I was the fifth aircraft to attack. The first four had scored hits on perhaps three bombers, and two were falling out of formation. Another later exploded. As I came in I saw the tracers hitting the front of my fighter, I could feel the impact, but I heard nothing. I sighted quickly, stayed focused, fired, and saw the left wing catch fire, and men started bailing out.

“Unfortunately the gunners hit my right engine, which just stopped, and the canopy shattered. The tail was shot up as I banked right and pulled up, and then I felt many strikes against the underside, just under my armor plated seat. Then I lost power, the left engine blew up internally, and I was then nothing more than a heavy glider and out of control. I decided to try and roll the fighter upside right, stabilize it, and then roll slightly after dumping the canopy. This would then allow me to pull up, bleed off airspeed, and climb out to jump clear of the tail section.

“I was at about twelve thousand feet when I left the jet; my oxygen mask had been blown off, along with my left boot, as the flash of fire that I had felt was in fact the oxygen bottle exploding, which was what blew me out of the jet in the first place, and not the fuel cells. I managed to correct myself as I fell. I just hoped the thing held together. I came in for my landing and I was hit again, the rest of the jet just fell apart, and I hit the ground rolling, then bumping along when the nose wheel collapsed, then the jet slowed to a stop, but I was not in it. I was already out, wounded again.”

Eventually, new combat tactics were developed to counter the Allied bombers’ defenses. Me 262s that were equipped with R4M rockets would approach from the flanks of a bomber formation, where their silhouettes were widest, and, while still out of range of the .50-caliber guns, fire their rockets, often leading the targets accordingly. The high-explosive warhead of only one or two of these rockets was capable of downing even the famously rugged B-17; a strike on an enemy aircraft meant its total annihilation. This method was effective against bombers, and even without the rockets, the four 30mm cannons could take care of business, as stated by Capt. Eric Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, RN, Chief Naval Test Pilot and Commanding Officer for the captured aircraft.

The book is “pack-jammed” with information. Any aviation buff is going to be satisfied with the amount of detail. The last 60 pages are lists of the pilots, the kill and damage claims by both sides, ranks, medals, etc. One complaint, this book is another war history that comes without a map.