David Porter on military history’s doomed inventions
By mid-1944, the Allied bombing offensive was inflicting such serious damage on German war industries that the Luftwaffe set up the Emergency Fighter Programme (Jägernotprogramm). This halted all production of conventional bombers and shifted production to fighters, with priority given to advanced piston-engined fighters such as the Do 335, together with jet- and rocket-propelled aircraft .
One of the most bizarre types to be developed under this programme was Eric Bachem’s ‘Natter’, which had the enthusiastic support of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler.
This tiny point-defence interceptor was largely of laminated-wood construction and was powered by a Walter 509A-2 rocket motor. It took off vertically from a 15m (50ft ) launch tower, with four jettisonable solid-fuel Schmidding rocket boosters blasting it to 700km/h (435mph) in ten seconds. As G-forces could cause the pilot to temporarily black-out on take-off , the Natter was launched on auto-pilot.
The pilot took control on reaching a position above and ahead of enemy bombers, and jettisoned a plastic nose cone covering a battery of 33 55mm R4M rockets. These were aimed by a simple ring-sight, and fired in a single salvo at close range as the Natter dived towards the bombers.
The R4M was a highly effective weapon that also armed some Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters – one of their pilots recalled the effects of a salvo on a formation of B-17 Flying Fortresses: ‘Shattered fuselages, broken-off wings, ripped-out engines, shards of aluminium and fragments of every size whirled through the air. It looked as if someone had emptied out an ashtray’.
It was originally intended that, after firing the rockets, the Natter would be set on a ramming course before the pilot bailed out, but this near-suicidal requirement was dropped.
Bailing out was, in any case, quite hazardous enough – the pilot unfastened his harness, then released catches that freed the entire fuselage forward of his seat. The aircraft then broke apart, with the pilot and rear fuselage landing under separate parachutes.
In theory, this would allow the Walter rocket motor to be reused, but dregs of the highly unstable fuels often exploded as soon as the fuselage hit the ground.
Several prototypes were used in manned and unmanned gliding trials between November 1944 and February 1945, and proved to have surprisingly good handling characteristics. However, the SS were becoming impatient, and insisted on a fully powered test-flight.
This took place on 1 March, but the test pilot, Oberleutnant Lothar Sieber, was killed when the aircraft went out of control and crashed after one of the booster rockets failed to ignite.
Despite the design’s obvious shortcomings, 10 of the 36 completed examples were deployed for operational trials near Stuttgart in April 1945, but were destroyed to prevent their capture by rapidly advancing Allied forces.
This article appeared in the November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about receiving the latest cutting-edge military history research and analysis delivered to your door, click here.