The Mistel was an innovative wartime weapon system, consisting of a crewless bomber laden with explosives and controlled from a single-seat fighter attached above it.
The concept was for the fighter’s pilot to steer the bomber toward the target, precisely align it, and then disconnect his plane, allowing the pilotless bomber to continue on and strike the target while the pilot returned securely to base.
This concept evolved from a pre-war strategy intended to enhance the performance of a lower aircraft, particularly aiding heavily loaded transport planes in taking off, and was akin to a Soviet concept that used a glider as the subordinate craft.#
British Ministry of Aircraft Production
In a bid to turn the tide during the last phase of the war, the Luftwaffe resorted to innovative yet desperate measures, repurposing excess JU-88 Night Fighters and bombers as improvised guided missiles.
As World War II drew to a close, the JU-88 became the aircraft of choice for conversion into an unmanned aerial bomb, forming the lower component of the Mistel composite weapon system. Concurrently, the concept of aerial torpedoes saw a resurgence.
In 1940, UK’s Miles Aircraft developed a concept called the “Hoop-la,” a compact high-wing craft designed around a 1,000-pound bomb, powered by a Gipsy Major engine, with a wingspan of 14 feet, and projected to reach speeds over 300 MPH.
Although the Hoop-la’s precision was expected to be limited, Miles Aircraft theorized it could be effective against urban targets, especially if deployed in large numbers under cover of darkness to overwhelm German air defenses.
Despite the potential, the British Ministry of Aircraft Production dismissed the Hoop-la, possibly due to initial hesitations about widespread bombing of urban areas—a hesitation that would soon dissipate as indiscriminate bombing runs became standard for the RAF Bomber Command. Nevertheless, the Hoop-la project was shelved.
Inspired by Soviet explorations in the 1930s into “composite” aircraft, where large bombers would carry smaller fighters, the Germans began their own investigations into such technology.
In 1941, the German Air Ministry explored the concept, leading to the proposal of a fighter guiding an explosive-laden, worn-out Junkers Ju-88 bomber to its target.
Despite initial skepticism, successful tests involving a tandem aircraft towing a glider validated the concept of composite aircraft, bolstering interest in using a fighter-bomber pair as a precision-guided weapon.
Innovative Weapon System
The German Air Ministry initiated a project dubbed BEETHOVEN to create an innovative weapon system, resulting in the “Mistel (Mistletoe)” composite flying bomb.
The name was aptly chosen, as mistletoe is a parasitic plant, reflecting the attachment of one aircraft to another. In July 1943, the first Mistel took to the skies, consisting of a Messerschmitt Bf-109E fighter mounted atop an unmanned, explosives-laden Ju-88A bomber.
The fighter was tethered to the bomber, allowing the pilot to control its engines and flight path. The pilot would steer the duo to the target, aim, and then disengage the fighter, leaving the bomber to continue on autopilot towards its intended destruction.
While there were mentions of radio control for some bombers, this was not commonly implemented.
Subsequent Mistel variants included the pairing of a Focke-Wulf Fw-190A fighter with either a Ju-88G or Ju-88A bomber. The operational design featured a modified Ju-88A-4 with its nose and cockpit removed, replaced by a massive hollow-charge warhead designed to penetrate reinforced concrete or battleship armor.
The Mistel concept garnered significant interest from the Luftwaffe, who planned to deploy them in a substantial concerted attack named OPERATION EISENHAMMER (IRON HAMMER). They entered service in June 1944, with a few engaging Allied naval targets by the month’s end, though none proved ship-sinking.
Various Mistel configurations existed, including adaptations for heavier take-off weights and extended range. Some even featured piloted Ju-88s for escort and pathfinding purposes.
Despite producing over 250 Mistels, with some even based on new Ju-88s, the grand scheme of Operation Eisenhammer was never realized. The Mistels were used in smaller-scale attacks, primarily targeting bridges to impede the advancing Allied forces.
Notably, the Germans also successfully deployed a jet-powered flying bomb, the Fi-103, better known as the V-1.
Future Mistel concepts were explored, including a jet variant using the Me-262 jet fighter. This involved a manned Me-262 fitted with a transparent bombardier’s nose, mounted over an unmanned Me-262 packed with explosives. They were to launch with the aid of a jettisonable trolley.
Another idea from Blohm und Voss featured a Dornier Do-217 bomber carrying a long, ramjet-powered missile, which in turn carried a small, piloted ramjet aircraft. The bomber would release the missile, and the pilot would then direct it to the target, activate the missile’s ramjet, and disengage to fly back.
Mistletoe Program to Target Scapa Flow
At the onset of the war, the Kriegsmarine was effectively stifled by the British Home Fleet, anchored in Scapa Flow, which obstructed German maritime access to the Baltic and North Seas.
This necessitated a strategic imperative to neutralize Scapa Flow. While Günther Prien’s submarine raid in October 1939 did boost German morale, it did little to solve the strategic impasse. The Luftwaffe, lacking heavy bombers suitable for a direct assault on Scapa Flow, was at an impasse.
This challenge led Flugkapitän Siegfried Holzbauer, the chief test pilot for Junkers, to revisit and adapt the innovative yet abandoned concept by Robert Mayo for the Luftwaffe’s needs.
By 1942, with the blockade of Scapa Flow ongoing, a radical solution was proposed: sending obsolete, unmanned Junkers Ju-88s loaded with explosives on a one-way mission.
These aircraft would be guided to their target by a fighter plane, initially a Messerschmitt Bf-109, attached above the bomber in a tandem reminiscent of the Mercury atop the Maïa.
The mission was for the fighter pilot to steer the explosive-laden bomber toward its target, then detach at the critical moment, allowing the bomber to continue its final, destructive descent.
Intrigued by this potential solution, the RLM (Reich Air Ministry) greenlighted Junkers to begin trials in the spring of 1943, pairing a Ju-88A with a Messerschmitt Bf-109F, preceded by tests using a DFS 230 glider.
This arrangement demanded innovative technology, notably electric flight controls, which enabled the fighter pilot to command the bomber from his perch. The fighter was affixed to the bomber with steel struts and would detach using explosive bolts.
Takeoff required three engines—the fighter drawing fuel from the Ju-88 to ensure it had enough for the return journey.
However, this fuel-sharing system proved incompatible when the Focke-Wulf FW-190A was introduced, due to its different fuel requirements. To evade radar, the aircraft pair would initially fly at low altitude and ascend to 800 meters for the final attack four kilometers from the target.
During the assault, the pilot initiated a 30-degree dive at 650 kilometers per hour. Once the target was secured in the sights, the pilot would activate the Ju-88’s autopilot using the electric controls and detonate one jettisoning bolt to angle the fighter slightly upward relative to the bomber.
Then, the pilot would trigger the remaining bolts to release the fighter and return to base. The innovative nature of this weapon system intrigued the German High Command, who saw its potential against prominent targets such as the harbors of Leningrad, Gibraltar, and of course, Scapa Flow.
To Target 120 Bridges
Compiling a fleet of Mistel aircraft proved to be a time-consuming process. The operations were further hampered by unpredictable weather conditions, which postponed the mission so extensively that the designated launch bases were either decimated by Allied bombings or seized by advancing Soviet forces.
By the spring of 1945, the window for grand-scale operations had closed, compelling a shift toward more immediate and pragmatic tactics aimed at hindering the Soviet push forward.
On March 1st, 1945, the commander of KG 200 was instructed to target and destroy 120 bridges spanning the Oder, Neisse, and Vistule rivers. While the aircraft had the capability to perform such tasks, the sheer number of targets made the operation overly ambitious.
The attacks did yield some success, but they ultimately had little impact on the Soviet advance. The Red Army’s engineering corps rapidly constructed temporary pontoon bridges, which negated the effects of the Mistel attacks.
The final sortie took place on April 26th, 1945, against the Oder. Out of seven participating aircraft, only two Fw 190 fighters returned. The following day, II/KG 200 was disbanded, and its remaining members were assimilated into infantry roles. This marked the end of an era, the “Twilight of the Gods” for the once-feared aerial unit.
Clandestine Luftwaffe Facility
The initial trial of the “Father and Son” formation took place at the clandestine Luftwaffe facility in Peenemünde, located along the Baltic coast, a location constantly monitored by Allied reconnaissance aircraft.
In April 1944, aerial photos captured by an Allied reconnaissance flight revealed a peculiar aircraft pair: a Ju 88 bomber with a Bf 109 fighter attached. This sighting aligned with reports from a German prisoner of war who claimed to have seen such a craft airborne.
The British, already enduring the relentless strikes of the V1 rockets, were significantly concerned that these hybrid aircraft might soon be deployed against their urban centers.
Speculation among Allied military thinkers about the quantity of these composite aircraft was rampant. To evade detection, the Germans frequently moved these machines from one base to another, leading to varied sightings by Allied surveillance flights.
Concerns escalated when a Mistel crashed in Great Britain, likely due to pilot error or a technical fault. This incident stirred up public alarm, but it also presented British technicians with a rare opportunity to closely examine the wreckage.
Despite the initial trepidation surrounding the Mistel units, their potential threat never fully materialized. In May 1945, American forces uncovered approximately fifty such contraptions abandoned near the Junkers factory in Merseburg.
However, post-war, they did not undergo extensive analysis. The Mistel, a weapon born out of necessity, failed to garner the sustained attention of Allied forces, which swiftly turned their focus to other technologies and innovations captured in the aftermath of the war.
Junkers Test Pilot Siegfried Holzbauer
In 1943, the multifunctional Ju 88 was further adapted into an innovative missile concept, involving a pilotless craft equipped with a sizeable hollow-charge warhead and guided by a single-seat fighter perched atop its fuselage.
This concept was reportedly introduced by Junkers test pilot Siegfried Holzbauer in 1941, inspired by the pre-war Short-Mayo composite aircraft trials. Initially, the RLM rejected the idea due to its unconventional nature.
However, in 1942, Fritz Starner from the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug (German Research Institute for Gliding) spearheaded experiments with the Huckepack (piggyback) system, primarily to explore the potential for carrying transport gliders.
These early experiments involved mounting a Klemm Kl 35 and a Focke-Wulf Fw 56 on top of a DFS 230 glider, with subsequent trials including a Bf 109E fighter as the Huckepack element. The promising results resurrected Holzbauer’s concept, and in early 1943, the Technische Amt authorized the development of a prototype.
The DFS devised the superstructure, leveraging their prior Huckepack experience, which involved a pair of steel-tube struts secured to the wing main spars of the Ju 88, forming an inclined support framework.
The tips connected to a fuselage frame via a V-strut, with connections intended to join with the fighter’s main spar. A single, spring-operated strut supported the fighter’s tail and was designed to retract and lock into place upon disengagement, simultaneously triggering the release of the main attachment points.
Popular German Comic Strip
Nicknamed Mistel (Mistletoe), alluding to the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the two aircraft components.
Officially also dubbed “Vater und Sohn” (Father and Son) after a popular German comic strip, the term Mistel soon became the standard reference for the lower component in all such assemblies.
By July 1943, Junkers was tasked with converting 15 Ju 88A frames for Mistel purposes, codenamed Beethoven.
Successful prototype trials led to a transfer of the Beethoven project to Nordhausen, where, in the spring of 1944, pilots from the operational squadron of IV/KG 101 trained for conversion under Junkers’ guidance.
The initial version, Mistel I, paired a Ju 88A-4 with a Bf 109F-4, with early models designed as Mistel S1 trainers for instructional use.
These Misteln flew with a standard nose section, providing minimal crew space for two. The nose could be swapped out rapidly for an 8,380-pound hollow-charge warhead, tested effectively against naval and concrete targets, including the retired French battleship L’Ocean.
Final warhead evaluations took place at Peenemünde in mid-1944, followed by the operational deployment of Mistel Is by IV/KG 101 at St. Dizier to engage Allied invasion units.
The operational Mistel I mirrored the initial prototype but had reinforced support struts, and two tactics were proposed.
One involved flying to the target using only the lower component’s power, with the upper fighter’s propeller feathered and its engine activated only for the final target approach.
The more common approach utilized both components’ engines from takeoff, with the fighter drawing fuel from the bomber until separation. Upon reaching the target, the fighter pilot would set a shallow glide path, detach, and veer off, leaving the pilotless bomber to continue towards its intended target.
Mosquito Night Fighter
The operational squadron of IV/KG 101, under the command of Hauptmann Horst Rudat, possessed five Mistel composite aircraft when they arrived at St. Dizier. Their inaugural operational mission took place on the night of June 24, 1944, with one of these crafts.
However, the mission did not go as planned because the lower bomber component had to be jettisoned early due to the unexpected intervention of a Mosquito night fighter. Subsequently, the squadron’s four remaining Mistels were deployed for a nighttime assault on the Allied naval presence in the Seine Bay, flanked by Bf-109G fighters for protection.
The attack unfolded with flares illuminating the skies, but despite the aggressive engagement, the targets were obscured by protective smoke released by the vessels. Daylight reconnaissance showed that while all Mistels had reached their targets, no ships had been destroyed.
Nonetheless, the performance of the Mistels in these operations was deemed a validation of their capabilities, and an order was placed with the Leipzig-Mockau facility to modify 75 Ju 88G-1 fighters, which were in the queue for repairs, to integrate into the Beethoven project.
Mistel 3 Series
These aircraft were to be paired with Fw 190A-6 or F-8 fighters, both components using 95 octane fuel, in a configuration dubbed Mistel 2, with the training variant being named S 2.
The initial Mistel models faced significant difficulties, especially during takeoff from uneven airstrips, where the impact often caused tire blowouts. To mitigate this, the Mistel 3 series was equipped with a detachable third wheel under the fuselage to prevent takeoff incidents.
By October 10, 1944, it had been determined that the remaining Mistels should be conserved for a single, decisive attack. Among the strategies devised was a planned assault on the British Fleet harbored at Scapa Flow scheduled for December 1944.
Approximately 60 Mistels were amassed at Danish airbases for this operation, with the additional support of 5./KG 200, a squadron equipped to light up the target area with flares.
Unfortunately, persistent adverse weather conditions postponed the operation, and when weather finally cleared, the bright moonlight reduced the chance of success significantly.
The slow-moving Mistels, limited to speeds of 235 mph at an altitude of 14,765 feet and without any maneuverability or defensive mechanisms, would have been vulnerable and easy prey for enemy interceptors.
Throughout the war, around 250 Mistel units, featuring a variety of aircraft pairings, were constructed. However, their effectiveness in combat was modest.
These aircraft saw their first action during the Normandy invasion, with one of their initial targets being the British-controlled port at Courseulles-sur-Mer.
The first Mistel to be downed in Normandy was at the hands of RCAF pilot Walter Dinsdale, who, flying a Mosquito, caused a Mistel to crash on the opposite side of the front line, resulting in a massive explosion. Dinsdale later recounted that the combined Bf 109 and Ju 88 were cumbersome and easily targeted for destruction.
Although Mistel pilots reported successful strikes, these claims are not corroborated by Allied records.
It’s possible that some of the attacks were actually on the obsolete French battleship Courbet, which had been strategically placed as part of the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches and camouflaged by the Allies to act as a decoy.
On June 24, HMS Nith, a River-class frigate being utilized as a command vessel, sustained significant damage from a close detonation. The blast killed nine and injured 26 crew members, necessitating the ship’s return to England for repair.
Scapa Flow 2.0
The Mistels were slated for another major assault on Scapa Flow in 1944, but the operation was scrapped following the sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz, which prompted the British Royal Navy to move their significant vessels away from the area.
In the frame of Operation Iron Hammer during late 1943 and early 1944, Mistels were chosen for crucial strikes on Soviet armament production sites, particularly targeting power stations in Moscow and Gorky due to their vulnerability and significance.
But before these raids could take place, the advancing Red Army had breached into German territory, prompting a shift in focus for the Mistels to the Soviet bridgehead at Küstrin.
On April 12, 1945, Mistels launched an offensive on the bridges there, yet the resulting damage was minimal and only managed to stall the Soviet advance by a day or two. Further Mistel operations targeting the newly erected bridges over the Oder also proved to be futile.
Where to See the Survivors
The Royal Air Force Museum Cosford houses a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 (with the serial number 733682), which served as the fighter component in a Mistel configuration during World War II. This particular aircraft was among a quartet of Mistels seized by British troops at Tirstrup, Denmark, in 1945.
During its operational period, it was part of a squadron responsible for training Mistel pilots. Post-capture, these aircraft were flown in tandem under Allied control as they were transported to Schleswig Air Base, accompanied by two other confiscated Mistels.
The Fw 190 was subsequently flown to the United Kingdom for preservation, whereas its Ju 88 counterpart was presumably dismantled.
This Fw 190 still features its original “Kugelverschraubung mit Sprengbolzen,” the specialized connectors that allowed it to join with the Ju 88. Ownership of the aircraft was transferred to the RAF Museum from the UK Ministry of Defence in 1998.
After initially being on extended loan to the Imperial War Museum, the Fw 190 was finally exhibited at the RAF Museum Cosford in 2013, where it remains on display.