Key Point: The Me-262 was well ahead of its time. If the Nazis had had greater access to refined metals for the jet engines, more fuel reserves, and more time, then things might have played out somewhat differently toward the end of the war. The fact remains that the ground-breaking jet truly set the course for the future of aviation history.
The Germans knew the bombers were coming, and they prepared even as the U.S. 457th Bomber Group first assembled in the early morning sunlight over faraway London. That March 18, 1945, raid on Berlin included more than 1,220 Allied bombers and scores of North American P-51 Mustang fighters contending with heavy German flak and tangling with fast-flying German Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighters employing air-to-air rockets operationally for the first time.
It was the last great air battle of the European war, one that would be a final, deadly encounter for many American flyers and nearly so for Oberleutnant Gunther Wegmann, commander of Jagdgeschwader 7’s 9th Squadron of Me-262 jets. Wegmann led his squadron in a loose formation toward the incoming bombers. He and his two wingmen fired their R4M rockets into one tight formation of some 60 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers from a distance of 3,000 feet. The scores of rockets created devastation, with bits of aircraft, smoke, and flame erupting from the formation of bombers.
The squadron then scattered for the homeward flight. That was when Wegmann spotted another formation of enemy bombers and swung around to take a pass at them with his MK 108 “machine cannons.” He swooped in from astern and came within 600 yards of one bomber before opening up with a staccato of fire that ripped away the cowling from one of the target’s engines.
Wegmann was jubilant and started to transmit his victory to home base when a stream of enemy fire struck his jet, splattering his canopy, tossing instruments from their panels, and studding his plane with bullet holes. Worse yet, his right leg was numb. Reaching down, he discovered a large hole just below his knee. But he felt no pain at that point as his plane streaked along at 18,000 feet above war-torn Germany.