In the history of military aviation, there have been many stories about aircraft projects that have been touted as brilliant concepts, but the resultant prototype is found to be sadly lacking in performance or difficult/expensive to manufacture.
Such is the sad tale of the Focke-Wulf Ta-154 ‘Moskito’ heavy night fighter, a workmanlike design that had great potential.
But it failed to meet expectations due to internal wrangling within the German aviation industry, a protracted prototyping process, and a lack of resources caused by Germany’s worsening strategic situation after 1942.
A heavy twin-engine aircraft, the Ta-154 was originally conceived as a high-speed light bomber. Changing Luftwaffe priorities though saw a contract being awarded to Focke-Wulf for a heavy night fighter to combat the growing menace of British night bombing raids.
A good basic design that was intended to be constructed out of wood to save on scarce resources, the project was delayed by an ugly dispute with the Heinkel company over its rival He-219 proposal, a prolonged testing process and component supply issues.
The program was finally abandoned due to the fact that the necessary glue for the assembly of the wooden components became unavailable; ironically, due to British night bombing raids the Ta-154 was intended to halt.
Genesis & Development and (very brief) Service History
The Royal Air Force had experienced heavy losses in daytime bombing raids during the early period of the Second World War. As a consequence they had switched to night attacks to take the war to the continent and the German heartland.
In contrast, the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) believed that their heavily armed Flying Fortress and Liberator heavy bombers could operate in daylight raids even without fighter escort. As a result both services chose different operational approaches in the bombing campaign against German cities and industry.
The Luftwaffe, therefore, had to deal with two separate types of air raids. Different tactics and equipment were utilised for combatting each different type of aerial assault in the most efficient and lethal way possible
When interdicting daylight raids by the 8th Air Force, the Luftwaffe were able to throw in multitudes of single-seat fighters along with heavier twin-engine aircraft. Until long-range escort fighter like the P-51 Mustang became available the Germans had inflicted heavy losses on American bombers.
But night raids by the RAF were unable to be intercepted by single-engine day fighters, and that is where the twin-engine night fighter enters the story.
A twin-engine airframe is needed for employment as a night fighter, as a single pilot would not be able to scan/observe for enemy bombers at night and also safely fly the aircraft at the same time. Hence the extra space and performance needed to accommodate an observer/radar operator.
A larger airframe is also required for the carriage and use of rudimentary airborne radar sets, and also for having the fuel tankage to allow flying operations stretching over many hours of night interceptions.
As most encounters between heavy bombers of the RAF and Luftwaffe night fighters were often of a fleeting, momentary nature, heavy armament was required to enable the night fighter to effectively cripple/destroy its target in these abrupt aerial encounters.
The Luftwaffe initially used existing twin-engine aircraft for conversion into heavy night fighters, such as the Me-110 and the Ju-88 (which was a particularly successful night fighter, like most tasks this versatile aircraft was capable of undertaking). But the need for a specialised night fighter was realised early on in the war.
Accordingly, the German Air Ministry invited proposals from German aircraft manufacturers for a twin-engine heavy night fighter in August 1942, and both Heinkel and Focke-Wulf submitted designs for consideration.
The He-219 was the design most favoured by the Luftwaffe in the early stage of the procurement process, as the use of wood in the construction of the TA-154 was thought to be potentially problematic.
However, the appearance of the British Mosquito fighter-bomber, with its wooden construction and high performance had impressed the Germans, and the TA-154 was given the nod for further development as a possible counter to the Mosquito as well as night fighting duties.
It was at this time that the aircraft got the official name ‘Moskito’, in recognition of the British aircraft.
The Moskito was perhaps one of the most prototyped aircraft ever. Circumstances were to dictate the sad fact that production aircraft were almost outnumbered by the large array of test models and prototype airframes.
There were also as many proposals for new variants after production had commenced, which combined with the prototypes and test models to give a total of nearly thirty possible configurations.
Most of these were different variations of armament and crew, along with the fitting of different types of airborne interception radar. The majority of these proposals never went beyond conceptual technical drawings.
While the prototype Ta-154 had greater performance and potential than the He-219, and had been specifically ordered by Erhard Milch to counter the Mosquito, a massive squabble broke out over the night-fighter contract.
This infighting by German aviation companies and the Luftwaffe caused so much delay to the development of the Ta-154 project, that Milch personally intervened in the conflict and cancelled the He-219 despite vociferous protest from Heinkel and some sections of the Luftwaffe.
The project’s original light bomber concept was envisaged to be powered by the Jumo 211R engines, which were uprated versions of the power plant in the He-111 bomber, of which production was winding down providing an excess of Jumo engines.
While this produced adequate performance in night-fighter prototypes, production difficulties led the few production aircraft to be fitted with the more powerful Jumo 213 engine instead.
A major drawback was quickly identified when radar aerials were fitted to prototype TA-154s; the assemblage drained nearly 70 mph off the aircraft’s top speed due to increased drag.
Production of combat aircraft was held in abeyance while a drawn-out series of ground and air tests were completed, and sufficient numbers of the Jumo 213 engines were being procured to enable the construction of operational airframes to commence.
However, it was not until June 1944 that ample units of the power plant became available, and a small production run was authorised.
This small number of production aircraft, stated in some accounts as numbering only 50 airframes, was doomed to operational failure and eventually discontinued use because of an incident during the bombing campaign that was especially redolent with irony.
In June 1944 the only factory making the specialised adhesive for use in the Ta-154 was heavily damaged in a night raid by the RAF, and a substitute glue compound was used for the main production run.
This replacement adhesive was not nearly as strong as was needed, and several of the production A-1 aircraft came apart in flight causing pilot fatalities.
The head designer at Focke-Wulf who formulated the Ta-154 design was Kurt Tank, who was known for his design work in the Fw-190 fighter and the Ta-152 high-altitude interceptor.
He immediately grounded all Ta-154 flights to investigate these crashes of operational aircraft and established that the inferior adhesive used in the construction process was found to react in a corrosive way when applied to wooden surfaces.
As the correct glue could no longer be sourced within the Reich, Tank halted all further manufacture of the Ta-154 in August 1944, and the German Air Ministry cancelled the entire project in September of that year.
The very few production aircraft and small numbers of pre-production aircraft that remained were reported to have served briefly with a Luftwaffe night-fighter wing, and some were used as training aircraft for prospective jet pilots.
The Ta-154 had a crew of two, consisting of a pilot and an observer/radar operator. The Moskito had a length (without radar aerials) of 12.45 metres (40 feet 10 inches), a height of 3.5 metres (11 feet 6 inches) and a wingspan of 16 metres (52 feet 6 inches).
Empty, the Moskito tipped the scales at 6,600 kg (14,500 lbs) and the gross weight was 8,930 kg (19,680 lbs). The MTOW of the TA-154 was recorded at 9,550 kg (21,050 lbs).
The Ta-154 was fitted with two Junkers Jumo 213E V-12 liquid-cooled engines, which each developed 1,320hp at full power, but had an emergency/take-off setting that produced 1,750hp when required.
These engines drove 3-bladed wooden propellers and provided a top speed at an altitude of 650 km/h (400 mph), and the aircraft could attain 530 km/h (330 mph) at sea level.
The two fuselage tanks held a total of 1,500 litres of fuel, which gave the Moskito a range of 1,360 kilometres (840 miles), though when under-wing drop tanks were fitted the aircraft could reach 1,860 kilometres (1,160 miles). The service ceiling of the TA-154 was 10,900 metres (35,000 feet).
Night fighters were equipped with very heavy armament, as heavy and rapid firepower was needed for the typical fleeting encounter with a British bomber in the Stygian blackness over continental Europe.
The Moskito was no exception to this rule, and the production A-1 variant was fitted with multiple heavy cannons, consisting of two MG 151 20 mm autocannons with 200 rounds supplied for each gun, and two massive MG 108 30 mm cannons with 110 rounds supplied per weapon.
The MG 108 was a beast of a gun, shooting relatively low-velocity rounds that had a short range, but were absolutely devastating against heavy bombers.
Even the stoutly-constructed and rugged B-17 Flying Fortress was known to disintegrate when hit with as little as four MG 108 rounds, and the more lightly constructed RAF Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers were even more susceptible to fatal battle damage from this weapon.
A variant of the Moskito which was prototyped but never put into production was the TA-154C, which was fitted with additional weapons.
This version had an extra two MG 108 cannons in a Schrage Musik (literally ‘Slanted Music’ or Jazz) configuration, where the cannon was braced in the fuselage to fire upwards and slightly forward.
Other German night fighters had reported great success with this weapon system. As most RAF heavy bombers were not fitted with belly turrets or dorsal gun positions, and German night fighters with ‘Jazz’ MG 108 cannons were able to sneak up on RAF heavy bombers and destroy them without their crews sensing or reacting to this threat.
Anybody who believes that weapons procurement and strategic decisions are made with greater clarity and efficiency in a totalitarian dictatorship is basically just deluding themselves, as the sorry tale of the Third Reich can stand eloquent testimony to.
The German war effort is littered with proposals of great merit that were scuppered by misplaced priorities, supply difficulties or internal infighting.
The production of sufficient heavy night fighters to protect Germany against the growing scourge of RAF night raids was one of these, and the Ta-154 ‘Moskito’ is but one chapter in this sad story.
The production Ta-154 never scaled up to the promise shown by the test prototypes, and cannot be said to be a war-winning weapon or even a war-saving one.
Several hundred Moskito night fighters may have had the potential to seriously disrupt or even halt night bomber raids by the RAF, but the modest number of production models had no chance of turning the tide of the Allied bombing campaign.
On such happenings and circumstances, campaigns are won or lost, and British heavy night bombing raids did much to ensure the eventual defeat of Germany in 1945.
- Crew: 2
- Length: 12.45 m (40 ft 10 in) (without radar antennae)
- Wingspan: 16 m (52 ft 6 in)
- Height: 3.5 m (11 ft 6 in)
- Empty weight: 6,600 kg (14,551 lb)
- Gross weight: 8,930 kg (19,687 lb)
- Max takeoff weight: 9,550 kg (21,054 lb)
- Powerplant: 2 × Junkers Jumo 213E V-12 inverted liquid-cooled piston engines, 1,305 kW (1,750 hp) each for take-off 984 kW (1,320 hp) at 10,000 m (33,000 ft)
- Maximum speed: 650 km/h (400 mph, 350 kn) at 7,090 m (23,260 ft) 534 km/h (332 mph; 288 kn) at sea level
- Range: 1,365 km (848 mi, 737 nmi) at 7,000 m (23,000 ft)
- Service ceiling: 10,900 m (35,800 ft)
- Rate of climb: 15 m/s (3,000 ft/min)