For our Long War alternative history setting – the one with Second World War at Sea: Plan Z as its centerpiece – we’ve given the navies of Great Britain and Germany three extra years to prepare themselves. That allows us to posit the completion of a number of warships laid down (or sometimes just designed) but never built, and send them to sea. It also allows for some advances in technology that did not see combat until the very end of the actual war.
Germany flew the world’s first prototype jet aircraft in August 1939, the Heinkel He178. It was not an impressive flight; the new jet only slightly out-matched the performance of piston-engined planes, with a very limited endurance. The Air Ministry turned down the aircraft, but Ernst Heinkel would not be easily discouraged. The company continued to develop the concept as a private venture.
Where the He178 had been a test bed, the next Heinkel jet, the He280, was designed as a fighter plane. It eventually gave good performance in trials alongside the piston-engined Focke-Wulf FW190, but only after several years of engine development. The plane first flew in 1941, but did not take its final form until the spring of 1943 when the design team finally abandoned the balky Heinkel jet engines for the Junkers Jumo 004. These were much larger and heavier than the Heinkel power plant, greatly degrading the He280’s performance and the Air Ministry ordered the project cancelled in favor of the promising Me262.
For Plan Z we’ve resurrected the He280, giving the plane its projected performance with the HeS 30 jet engine, which gave similar output to the Jumo 004 but weighed much less (390 kilograms for the Heinkel engine, 719 kilograms for the Junkers) and took up much less space (the Heinkel engine was 2.72 meters long against 3.86 meters for the Junkers). Those extra kilos added about 20 percent to the He280’s empty weight, an enormous extra burden that naturally degraded its performance.
Alternative history games are pretty easy to write and design: you just make stuff up and metaphorically wave your hands around to explain how these events came to pass. They get a whole lot harder if you want to keep the alternative-ness within the bounds of actual possibility, something that Plan Z is already straining pretty heavily by allowing Germany the industrial and financial capacity to build the huge Plan Z fleet.
The idea of workable jet engines arriving a little sooner is far less of a stretch. The aircraft designs themselves appear to have been pretty solid, but making the engines work took a great deal of development time especially with other more needful projects commanding attention and resources. The Long War setting (which includes Plan Z) posits a Second World War in which Germany first fought and defeated the Soviet Union before turning its attention to the Western Allies, and therefore did not fight a two-front war. That allows extra years, and additional resources, for constructing the Plan Z fleet – and for jet research and development.
The He280 in its intended form is a fine airplane, better than most of the late-generation piston-powered fighters. It does have some drawbacks: it’s not fitted as a fighter-bomber, though the German Air Force has plenty of conventional planes to fill that role. It has pretty short range, but this is a common failing of German fighters no matter what their propulsion (the early models of the Bf109 are no better in this regard, thought he later ones do improve greatly).
The Me262, though a great deal larger and heavier, is also a much better fighter plane. Development began in 1939, but similar problems to those of the He280 developing reliable engines delayed its first jet flight until the summer of 1942. Minister of Armaments Albert “I was just an architect not an accessory to genocide” Speer would later claim that Adolf Hitler delayed the potentially war-winning program due to his desire to produce the jet as a fast bomber instead of a fighter. But like many of Speer’s assertions in his post-war apologia, this appears to have little substance. Regardless of Hitler’s fantasies, continued problems refining the Jumo 004 jet engine would have kept the plane out of service as either a fighter or fighter-bomber. By the time the engines worked properly, Hitler had rescinded his fighter-bomber directive.
Once the engines worked (though they still had many problems, not least of them a need for frequent replacement) the Me262 was a fast, powerful fighter plane bearing a quartet of 30mm cannons in its nose. In the hands of a good pilot it outclassed any piston-engined fighter, though some of the late-model planes nearly matched it.
Would more resources and engineers have brought the Jumo 004 into reliable service sooner? That’s difficult to determine, but in Plan Z we’ve given the German Air Force a fairly large contingent of Me262 fighters. Like all the German jets in the expansion set, they are land-based planes. Their range is better than the other German jet fighters but still fairly short – they are not going to fly out over the Atlantic to escort the massive German battleships. But within their umbrella they are formidable fighters on CAP duty.
Ernst Heinkel never gave up on designing a jet fighter, despite orders to do just that. In 1944 the Air Ministry asked for proposals for a lightweight jet fighter to be built using a minimum of strategic materials. Heinkel and his team easily won the resulting competition: their design not only had been fully drafted, it had already undergone unauthorized wind-tunnel testing. In a remarkably short time, even given the head start, the He162 was ready for production. A small fighter powered by a single BMW003 jet engine, it was made mostly of wood and designed to be flown by inexperienced pilots – insane plans, even by Nazi standards, called for Hitler Youth to fly the plane in combat after a few jaunts in gliders to familiarize them with flight.
As presented in Plan Z, the He162’s extremely short range makes it little more than a point-defense fighter, and it is effective in that role. We have posited that in this setting it would have been flown by actual trained adult pilots.
Finally the German Air Force wields a jet bomber, the very effective Arado 234B. Design work began in 1940 in answer to an Air Ministry request for a fast, jet-powered reconnaissance aircraft. Like the Me262, problems with the Jumo 004 jet engine delayed the plane’s development, and the proprtypes did not fly until the fall of 1943. When they finally did take to the air the design proved very promising, and the Air Ministry asked for a fast bomber versions, the 234B. Production began in June 1944, with over 200 of them completed by the war’s end though many saw no service at all due to fuel shortages.
That last is not a serious problem in the Plan Z setting, as the Soviet Union’s oil reserves are now controlled by Germany. And as mentioned before, the setting also waves away the Jumo 004’s painful development delays. The Ar234B has a very short range, but is very difficult to shoot down – based in northern France, it poses a grave threat to the ports along the English Channel. The plane is present in good numbers, and a very potent adversary.
Even more potent is the Me1099, a jet attack plane initially derived from the Me262, though in its final form it did not resemble its parent very much. Design work began in the summer of 1943, and would be shelved a year later as the design team moved on to sketching emergency jet fighters in the Nazi regime’s last months. The Me1099 (it was never assigned an airframe number, so our game piece retains the design designation) is very tough to shoot down, and retains some capability as a fighter-bomber. It’s very dangerous within its short range, but in this theater most German and British planes are relatively short-ranged as well.
And those are the German jets of Second World War at Sea: Plan Z.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.