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Heinkel He 219

The Heinkel He 219 Uhu (Owl) was a famous night fighter used late in World War II by the Luftwaffe. The plane had been requested in 1942 and eventually developed into superb aircraft that many speculate would have had a huge effect on RAF night bombing plans. In the end however, very few ever saw service due to a huge political battle between Josef Kammhuber[?], General of the Night Fighters, and Erhard Milch[?], director of aircraft construction.

When Robert Lusser returned to Heinkel in 1940 after a brief time at Messerschmitt, he immediately began work on a new high speed bomber project called P.1055. This was an advanced design with a pressurized cockpit, twin ejection seats, nose wheel landing gear, and remote control defensive guns like the Messerschmitt Me 210's. It was to be powered by two Dailmer-Benz DB 610[?] "coupled" engines with 2,870hp each, giving it excellent performance around 750km/h (465mph) and a 4000km range with a 2000kg bombload.

The RLM (the German Air Ministry) rejected the design in August 1940 as being too complex and risky. Lusser quickly offered four versions of the plane with various wingspans and engines in order to balance the performance and risk. At the same time he offered the P.1056 dedicated nightfighter with four 20mm cannons in the wings and fuselage. The RLM rejected all of these on the same grounds in 1941. Heinkel was furious and fired Lusser on the spot.

But about the same time as Lusser was designing the P.1055, Kammhuber had started looking for a dedicated aircraft for his rapidly growing night fighter force. Heinkel quickly re-designed P.1055 for this role as the P.1060. This design was similar in layout but somewhat smaller, and powered by the smaller and simpler Dailmer-Benz DB 603[?] engine. This engine wasn't known for its altitude performance, which was a problem for this design with its short wings, but Daimler offered a new "G" version with a three-speed supercharger that addressed that issue. Heinkel was sure he had a winner and sent the design off to the RLM in January 1942 while he funded the first prototype out of pocket. Nevertheless the RLM again rejected the plane in favour of new Junkers Ju 88[?] and Messerschmitt Me 210 based designs.

Construction of the prototype started in February, but Daimler let them down in March when they said that there was no way the 603G would be ready in time. Instead they would deliver the exiting 603A with a new gear ratio to the props and call it the 603C. Even these took until August to arrive, so the prototype didn't fly until the 6th of November 1942. When Kammhuber saw the prototype on the 19th he was so impressed he immediately ordered it into production over Milch's objections. Milch was furious; he had already rejected the plane earlier, and of course, he was always right.

Several stability problems cropped up but Heinkel gave out a huge cash prize if they could be fixed quickly, and they were. Another set of changes involved the rear defensive guns which simply didn't work, so they were removed and the forward firing armaments were upgraded to two 20mm guns in the wings and four more guns of any sort in the belly pack. Production prototypes were then ordered as the He 219A-0 (V-series planes) and quickly progressed to the point where V7, 8 and 9 were handed over to operational units in June '43 for testing.

And suddenly the 219 looked like the ultimate night fighter. On its very first use in combat Werner Streib flew the V9 and shot down five bombers in a single mission. In the next ten days the three planes would shoot down a total of twenty RAF planes, including six of the previously untouchable de Havilland Mosquito fighters. Kammhuber was beside himself and continued to press for immediate production.

Production finally got underway with the He 219A-2 model which included a longer engine nacelle containing an extra fuel tank, and typically included the R1 kit with two MK108's 30mm cannons installed as Schrage Musik. But production problems due to continued bombing meant the A-2/R1 did not reach Luftwaffe units until October 1943. The first 10 to 15 planes were delivered with the FUG 212 (Lichenstein C-1) radar, but later versions used FUG 220 (Lichenstein SN-2) radar with its greatly improved performance.

Milch repeatedly tried to have the program killed, and in the process Kammhuber was shoved from his office. Production actually ended for a time, but then restarted because the new Junkers Ju 388's were taking too long to get into service. But these games ended when Milch was dismissed and replaced by Albert Speer. He immediately ordered a slightly upgraded He 219A-5 model (some with 603E engines) and finally the He 219A-7 with the original 603G engines which were finally available.

The plane was a capable fighter, allowing the pilots a large degree of autonomy. Ground control simply got them into the right area and then the pilot took over and hunted down the bombers on their own – the SN-2's 4km range was longer than the distance between the bombers. The performance of the plane wasn't great – about 580km/h, or 360mph – but it was enough of an advance over the Messerschmitt Me 110[?]'s and Junkers Ju 88[?]G's that the plane could chase down several bombers per sortee.

The He 219 gained an almost mythical reputation. However, until the 603G engines finally arrived in the A-7 version, the plane was clearly underpowered and certainly not the Mosquito killer it's generally known as. Nevertheless it's equally clear that the plane should have been allowed to continue to be produced, and an NJG armed with this plane instead of their motley collection of outdated heavy fighters and converted light bombers would have been considerably stronger opposition for the RAF.

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