Text: Richard Plos
Illustration: Adam Tooby
Cat. No. 84187
At the end of the war, the Me 262 jets pushed the boundary of flight performance above the level of all fighters of the time. Yet they were not invincible. In addition to the faulty deployment and the technical problems, surprise or disadvantageous position at the enemy encounter often dealt them a fatal blow. But the biggest trouble was the landing approach, during which the Schwalbe was most vulnerable. In any case, shooting down a jet was something special for any Allied fighter and by the end of the war, a good number of them had this valuable scalp to their credit.
One of the former pilots of the Me 262, Hubert Lange, said that the most dangerous opponent in his opinion was the Hawker Tempest. “It was extremely fast at low altitudes, very agile and heavily armed,” the German pilot recalled. Some Me 262s fell victim to a tactic known in No. 135 Wing as the “Rat Scramble”. In this scenario the scramble Tempests standed at the runway of the B-80 Volkel Air Base waiting for the notice about Me 262 in the air. Then they took off immediately, but the pilots made no attempt to engage the German jets. They instead headed straight for Rheine-Hopsten airfield where the Me 262 and Ar 234 were based. The aim was to attack the jets during their approach to land, when they were flying slowly with flaps deployed, so they were unable to accelerate. The German response to this tactic was a strong air defense system with more than 500 Anti-Aircraft batteries including over 150 four-barrel 20mm Flakvierling batteries specifically protecting the landing approach area. After seven Tempests were lost to flak fire at Hopsten within a week, the Rat Scramble tactic was abandoned.
On November 3, 1944, however, W/Cdr John B. Wray, commander of No. 122 Wing, was not in the air to hunt rats. He was up for an “air test” with his personal Tempest coded JBW. At the same time, he was going to try out the new anti-glare goggles. At 18,000 ft (5,500 m), he saw two Me 262s about 2,000 ft (700 m) below. They were not at their top speed, but spotting him, they turned tail. Wray dived on the nearest one and opened fire at 300 yards. Several 20 mm shells hit their target, which flipped onto its back and dived vertically into the cloud. Wray claimed it as a “probable” but was only credited with a “damaged”. But as post-war records revealed, this Schwalbe did not actually survive his attack.
More than a month later, on December 17, Wray took off again from Volkel Base and was steered by No. 83 Group Control Center to Weert, where several jets had been spotted. Shortly after he turned his Tempest at an altitude of just 2,500 ft (760 m) to the south, he saw a pair of Me 262s crossing his path, flying westwards. He began to pursue the leader of the pair while his wingman focused on the other Schwalbe. Although both were on full throttle, using maximum power of their Napier Sabre engines, the Me 262s were pulling away from them, gently descending. Neither of the men in the cockpits of the Tempests could have done anything about it had it not been for a surprising reversal. For some reason, the pilot of the leading Schwalbe decided to turn left and continued until he was heading east. This put him directly in front of Wray's guns.
It was perhaps only at that moment that the German pilot realized what a mistake he had made and began to maneuver wildly at low level. This was his second mistake, because instead of using full power to increase the distance between himself and the dangerous Tempest, he thus continued to lose his speed advantage and probably also lost sight of his surroundings, he subsequently hit a building with the wing and only a few seconds later crashed into the waters of the nearby Rhine. The moment just before the fatal collision with the building was captured by Adam Tooby on his boxart. We may never know why the pilot of the Me 262 made the unfortunate maneuver that put him in a very awkward position. He may not have known about the Tempest pair before. In any case, he was one of the twelve confirmed Me 262s lost in combat with the Tempests, sixteen more being acknowledged as damaged by the Allied pilots of these mighty fighters.