The Bachem Ba 349 was technically the first manned rocket to be launched. Codenamed the “Natter” (meaning Viper), it was constructed and launched by Germany in the closing stages of the Second World War in March 1945.
The concept was originally thought of by noted rocket scientist Wernher von Braun in the late 1930s, but along with other pioneering concepts, it was deployed by the Nazi military in the closing stages of the war in a last-ditched attempt to turn the tide of the conflict.
The rocket had been intended as an interception aircraft for the Luftwaffe. The test pilot chosen for the operation was Lothar Sieber. Sieber’s flight in the Ba 349 was the first and only launch performed and ended in tragedy when it crashed.
The origins of the Natter’s development first came from an idea by aerospace engineer and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. He first proposed a concept for a rocket-powered interceptor aircraft for the Luftwaffe in 1939. However, the idea was rejected by the German Aviation Ministry as too experimental and unnecessary.
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By the early 1940s, the tide of the war had turned against Germany as the Allies began to establish air superiority over Europe before launching ground liberation offensives in Nazi-occupied countries. The Nazi high command decided more radical solutions would be needed to counter growing Allied successes.
Research and experiments into surface-to-air missile technology to shoot down Allied bombers were conducted, but missiles or rockets at the time lacked sophisticated guidance systems. Instead, the idea of creating a manned rocket was considered where a pilot would at least have control over the rocket.
In 1944, the Luftwaffe put out a specification call for new high-speed interceptor designs under a program known as the “Jägernotprogramm“ (Emergency Fighter Program). Various design ideas, including early jet fighter and missile proposals, were submitted in response to the call.
German engineer Erich Bachem recalled Wernher von Braun’s earlier ideas before the war and drew upon them to create a fast but relatively simple rocket plane that could be deployed in interception roles which would become the “Natter.”
Bachem previously had experience making gliders before the war and became interested in rocket technology while working for the Fieseler aerospace company.
By this stage of the war, Germany had been depleted of skilled pilots, building materials and many of its military runways.
Bachem chose to construct his design with simplicity but effectiveness in mind. The rocket would mostly be made from plywood, which was still relatively obtainable in Germany, and glued together under an armour-plated bulkhead. A small cockpit with bulletproof glass would be fitted for the pilot.
The rocket would also not require a runway for take-off and could be launched from a tower built from scaffolding. Unlike jet fighter proposals, the Ba 349 was intended as a single sortie-use rocket where whole squadrons would launch together to attack in a single wave and parts of the rocket could be reused after.
Bachem envisaged that after shooting at an Allied bomber, the rocket’s pilot would then eject himself from the wooden cockpit by parachute. The fuselage would then disintegrate, with the wooden part intentionally crashing while the rocket engine would detach and parachute down to earth where it could be reused.
Bachem also intended for the rocket to be flown for short periods by inexperienced or new pilots who could be quickly trained. The rocket’s launch and early stage of flight would be controlled by radio from the ground before the pilot would take over for the attack run.
Initially, Bachem had trouble convincing German military chiefs that his idea would work. At this stage, jet or rocket-powered interceptors that followed a more traditional plane design such as the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet and the Heinkel P.1077 were favoured. However, Bachem was able to convince Nazi SS chief Heinrich Himmler that his design had merit.
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Timing also favoured Bachem’s project as the SS were by this point able to conduct their own research outside of Luftwaffe or army jurisdiction and Himmler gave Bachem’s idea the go-ahead.
Sticking with his principles of simplicity, Bachem built the rocket’s short wings from wooden panels without ailerons or flaps.
The power plant would be a Walter 109-509A rocket motor which was taken from the Komet. However, the Walter unit was found to produce insufficient power for the initial liftoff so initial power was to be provided by four Schmidding 109-533 solid-fuel rockets. These were attached to the tail of the rocket and were to burn for about 10 seconds during the launch before detaching themselves.
The engines would, in theory, power the rocket to the height bombers typically flew at before the controls for the pilot would activate.
Armament was provided by 24 Henschel Hs 217 Föhn rocket cannons fitted in the nose cone. The pilot would bring the Natter within range of the bomber before firing. The Föhn was an unguided missile originally designed as an anti-aircraft rocket, but in the Natter, it was intended as an early air-to-air missile.
The first Ba 349 unit completed was completed in October 1944. Early test flights began in 1945 with the Ba 349 being towed unmanned into the air from behind a plane and released. A launch with a dummy in place of a human pilot also took place, only the fuel tank exploded during the landing stage and destroyed the prototype.
During the setbacks, the Allies were advancing and Bachem was under political pressure from Berlin to finish the rocket’s development. The Nazi high command called for manned tests to begin as soon as possible, even though putting a pilot behind the controls was considered a high-risk demand.
The pilot who took the task of performing the first live test was Lothar Sieber, who would set an impressive but tragic record.
Sieber had been born in April 1922 and had been interested in flying since a young age and was inspired to become a pilot after a chance meeting Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring. He enlisted in the Luftwaffe at the age of eighteen.
By his early 20s, Sieber was already considered a highly skilled pilot and was promoted to Second lieutenant in 1942. As well as German aircraft, Sieber also acted as a test pilot for captured examples of Allied aircraft including the Boeing B-17 and the Soviet Tupolev TB-3.
However, his flying career was blemished when he was accused of going Absent Without Leave and showing up to work intoxicated. As a punishment, he was demoted to private and sentenced to four months in prison.
Sieber’s father personally wrote to Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, highlighting his son’s previously commendable record and asking for the sentence to be reduced. Göring complied and the sentence was cut to six weeks with a minimum security arrangement, but the Luftwaffe kept the demotion in place.
Keen to redeem himself, Sieber returned to flying and worked as a test pilot on the new Arado Ar 232 cargo aircraft in April 1944, including piloting it for rocket booster-assisted tests. He also undertook risky sortie work on the German frontlines during the Eastern Front campaigns. His work impressed his superiors who offered Sieber the chance to be the test pilot for the Natter.
The Launch of the Natter
The rocket’s launch was scheduled for the first of March, 1945. The Natter unit was given the registration Ba 349A M23.
The rocket was fitted with an advanced FM transmitter to give flight data to the military observers monitoring the launch and an intercom from a glider was fitted for Sieber to communicate with the launch crew. Sieber was advised to roll the rocket and parachute out in the event of an emergency.
The rocket was launched precisely at 11 am. The initial launch went according to plan, but as the military chiefs and scientists watched, it reached 1,600 feet and the canopy flew off. Both the monitor and the intercom failed.
The Ba 349 was believed to have reached a height of 4,900 feet before it reappeared through the clouds and plummetted towards the ground before exploding on impact.
Sieber had established a new record and become the first man to take off in a manned rocket flight from a vertical position, but the flight also cost him his life.
In the aftermath of the crash, Bachem argued that excessive g-force likely rendered Sieber unconscious or caused him to inadvertently pull back too far on the control stick. An investigation also determined the canopy may not have been fastened properly and that Sieber would have likely fallen unconscious or broken his neck before the rocket hit the ground.
Although the exact cause of the crash remains subject to debate, Bachem argued that it showed the need for an automated takeoff system before the pilot took control in the air. Changes were also made to the cockpit canopy design.
Despite the crash, both the Luftwaffe and the SS ordered 200 Natter units each, but none were completed or delivered before the end of the war.
According to Bachem, most of the Ba 349 units were either damaged in accidents or intentionally destroyed by the Nazis to prevent their capture by the Allies.
One intact example of a Natter rocket was shipped to the United States where it is owned by the Smithsonian Institute.
Unlike other German rocket scientists, Bachem was not clandestinely taken to America as part of Operation Paperclip. He instead escaped to Argentina in 1947 along with other Nazi officials where he owned an electric guitar factory. He returned to Germany in the 1950s and became the managing director of a company making industrial machinery where he worked until he died in 1960.
After Sieber’s death, he was posthumously promoted to Oberleutnant, the highest rank within the Luftwaffe.