On December 11th 1941, Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. This was a very strange move on the part of the German leader – it has been called by historians Hitler’s “most puzzling” move of World War Two.
A few days earlier, on 7th December, aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy had attacked warships of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. This led to a declaration of war between the Japanese Empire and the United States. Japan, Italy and Germany had agreed on a loose alliance, the Tripartite Pact in 1940, but that pact did not require any signatory to join an aggressive war started by another – Japan had notably declined to declare war on the Soviet Union following the German invasion that began in the summer of 1941.
Hitler’s declaration of war on the US seems to have been spontaneous, almost casual and to have been done without consultation with his military leaders. Hitler seemed to view American military capacity with something close to contempt and he appeared to be confident that Germany could easily defeat America once the Soviet Union had been crushed. The only problem was that Nazi Germany had no means of attacking the Continental US…
Hitler clearly viewed war with the United States as inevitable well before the actual declaration of war. In April 1941, he told the Japanese Foreign Minister during a visit to Berlin that the US “would have to be dealt with severely.” However, what this meant in practical terms was far from clear.
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The East Coast of the United States was over 3,000 miles from Nazi-occupied Europe. Any form of transatlantic seaborne invasion was clearly beyond the capacity of Nazi Germany.
However, on the eastern seaboard were some of America’s largest and most important cities, including New York and Washington DC as well as major industrial and manufacturing plants. It seemed possible that a bombing campaign against this area might force America to sue for peace, or would at least impede US Government and industry. The problem was that Germany had no strategic bombers capable of undertaking such a mission.
In late 1941, the Luftwaffe was exclusively a tactical force, designed primarily for the close support of ground forces. Its medium bombers, dive-bombers and ground attack aircraft were lethally effective, but it did not possess a single operational strategic bomber capable of delivering a substantial bomb load to distant targets.
There was one German aircraft designer with a particular interest in range and speed: Willy Messerschmitt. Messerschmitt had led the design team that produced the Bf 109 fighter that would be used by Germany throughout World War Two as well as other aircraft such as the Bf 110 heavy fighter and was, in late 1941, working on the design of what would become the Me 262 jet fighter.
As early as 1932, Messerschmitt submitted a design for a very long-range aircraft powered by a pair of 400hp diesel engines. With a huge wing area and a cockpit buried in the leading edge of the vertical stabiliser, this lightweight aircraft would have had a range of over 20,000km, making it capable of flying non-stop to any location on Earth from Germany.
This proposal never went further than the creation of a scale model, but all Messerschmitt’s designs stressed light weight and streamlining to achieve the best possible speed and range.
In 1940, Messerschmitt created the Me 261, a four-engine aircraft capable of flying non-stop from Berlin to Tokyo. Only three prototypes were built but one of them completed a flight of 4,500km lasting ten hours and Messerschmitt was confident that the final version would have a range of over 11,000km.
However, the Me 261 had problems with its linked pairs of Daimler Benz engines and the undercarriage proved to be very fragile (a failing of many Messerschmitt designs) and this project was abandoned, partly because the Luftwaffe simply couldn’t see a need for an aircraft of such range in 1940.
While the capability of the Me 261 was impressive, it was still far short of what would be needed for a bomber to reach the East Coast of America. Such an aircraft would need a range of over 10,000 miles (over 16,000km).
In mid-1941, the Luftwaffe began looking for the first time at a long-range bomber. This wasn’t initially intended for bombing America but to support U-Boat operations in the Atlantic against British shipping.
Two existing aircraft were considered: the Fw 200 Condor and the He 177 Greif. However, the Condor (a converted airliner) was able to carry only a very small bomb load and the He 177, available only in prototype form, was suffering catastrophic problems with structural failures and engine fires. As a result, in March 1941, an order was placed with Messerschmitt to produce 30 long-range bombers.
That was surprising as Messerschmitt had never produced a bomber, but the lack of viable alternatives left little option but to hope for an improved Me 261. The new aircraft was given the designation Me 264.
The Me 264
During the latter part of 1941, design work on the new aircraft continued.
The fuselage was to be as streamlined as possible, with defensive armament provided both in the trailing edges of the wings and in retractable Ferngerichtete Drehringseitenlafette remote-controlled turrets (these were already in development by Messerschmitt for use in the disastrous Me 210 heavy fighter). An enclosed bomb bay would hold between two and five tons of bombs.
A great deal of consideration went into the engines that would power the new bomber. Initially, consideration was given to using linked pairs of Daimler Benz engines, the same arrangement used in the He 177.
However, that aircraft had continuing problems with engine fires and instead, the final design proposed either four or six 2,100hp, 12-cylinder Jumo 213 engines mounted in the shoulder wings.
The trapezoid wings (similar to the wings used on the Me 261) were massive, with a span of over 43m (141 feet) – in comparison, the US B-17 Flying Fortress had a wing span of just over 100 feet.
The crew of four would be housed in a pressurised compartment with the cockpit placed in a glazed nose section. A pressurised and heated crew rest area was provided with bunks and a toilet was provided in the rear fuselage.
Initially, Messerschmitt had claimed that a flying prototype could be available by May 1942. However, even when the declaration of war on America gave the project a higher priority, this proved extremely optimistic.
Messerschmitt was under pressure to produce as many Bf 109 fighters as possible, and resources were urgently needed to solve the ongoing problems with the Me 210. Due to these other pressures, it wasn’t until December 1942 that the first prototype, Me 264V1 was ready for its first test flight.
Due to problems with engine availability, it was fitted with four Jumo 211J engines, providing less power than envisaged for production examples. However, at least these engines would allow the new aircraft to fly to asses the airframe and flying characteristics.
On 23rd December 1942, the prototype Me 264 finally made its first flight. A senior Messerschmitt test pilot, Flugkapitän Karl Baur, took the aircraft for a short flight. Overall, there were no problems, but the brakes failed on landing and the Me 264 overshot the runway and came to rest in a field beyond, damaging the undercarriage and flaps.
The aircraft was quickly repaired and undertook several test flights during the first months of 1943. There were niggling problems with the cabin pressurisation system, the hydraulic wheel brakes and the undercarriage, but on one flight the Me 264 achieved a very respectable top speed of 600km/h (370 mph).
However, it was noted that the bomber required a very long (2,400m) runway both for take-off and safe landing.
Then, on 23rd March 1943, the undercarriage of the Me 264V1 collapsed during landing after only its 17th test flight. The badly damaged aircraft was repaired and resumed test flights in the summer.
In August 1943, Me 264V1 was taken out of service and placed in a hanger at Lechfeld to be re-equipped with more powerful BMW 801 air-cooled, 14-cylinder radial engines.
Work had by that time started on two more Me264s, the V2 which would include armour for the crew positions and engines and V3, which would be fitted with defensive armament and a bomb bay. Neither ever made it as far as completing a single test flight. The partly completed V2 was destroyed during a US bombing attack in late 1943.
By that time, the war situation had changed for the worse for Germany. Reverses in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, on the Russian front and the need to defend against growing Allied air raids on German industry shifted the priority to other weapons.
On 18th March 1944, the Me 264V1 was damaged during a US bombing raid on Lechfeld. The damage was repaired and the aircraft resumed test flights on 14th April.
By July 1944, several minor faults in the hydraulic system and rudder had been addressed when once again, the USAAF interrupted the development of the Amerika Bomber. US bombers operating from Italy bombed the airfield at Memmingen where the Me 264 was stored in a hanger.
Over 150 Luftwaffe personnel were killed in this raid and more than 30 aircraft were destroyed, including both the Me 264V1 and the partially completed V3.
With the destruction of the only flying Me 264 the Amerika Bomber project essentially ended in July 1944 though it wasn’t formally cancelled until September. A lack of resources and the fact that Germany was facing an increasingly defensive air war against Allied air attacks meant there was little official interest in continuing the development of what was purely an offensive weapon.
Could the Me 264 really have bombed America? The consensus, even in wartime Germany was: probably not. In the form of the V1, it would have lacked the required range. Consideration was given to rocket-assisted take-off (RATO), towing the Me 264 into the air behind another aircraft and even to in-flight refuelling to extend its range, but no practical work was done on testing these concepts.
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There were plans for improved, six-engine versions using more powerful engines. These might have had the range to bomb the US East Coast, but they got no further than the drawing board. The Me 262 was certainly an elegant and advanced design, but in its initial form, it could never have become an Amerika Bomber.
The Luftwaffe ended World War Two as it had begun, without a long-range strategic bomber. In 1943, Herman Goering angrily told a conference of major German aircraft designers: “Fun has been made of the enemy’s backwardness and his slow four-engined crates. Gentlemen, I would be extremely happy if you could produce one of these crates in the immediate future!”
During World War Two, Germany is estimated to have dropped a total of around 75,000 tons of bombs on all fronts. Allied bombers dropped almost 2 million tons of bombs on Germany alone. The failure to seriously develop strategic bombers such as the Me 264 was a serious mistake on the part of the Nazis and one that would help to ensure that they lost the war.
- Crew: 8
- Length: 20.8979 m (68 ft 6.75 in)
- Wingspan: 43.00 m (141 ft 1 in)
- Height: 4.2990 m (14 ft 1.25 in)
- Empty weight: 21,150 kg (46,627 lb)
- Max takeoff weight: 56,001 kg (123,460 lb)
- Powerplant: 4 × BMW 801D (or BMW 801G) 14-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engines, 1,300 kW (1,700 hp) each for take-off
- Maximum speed: 546 km/h (339 mph, 295 kn) at 36,000 kg (79,366 lb) at 6,101 m (20,015 ft)
- Range: 15,000 km (9,300 mi, 8,100 nmi) 333 km/h (207 mph; 180 kn)
- Service ceiling: 8,000 m (26,250 ft) at 36,000 kg (79,366 lb)
- Rate of climb: 2.00 m/s (393 ft/min)