Heinkel He 219 Uhu (Eagle-Owl) Night-Fighter
The Heinkel He 219 was an excellent German night-fighter for its time, limited in part by inherent complexity as well as internal dissension within the German ranks.
Authored By Dan Alex; Content Â©www.MilitaryFactory.com
The advanced Heinkel He 219 "Uhu" (meaning "Eagle-Owl") was an impressive dedicated night-fighter platform serving the interests of the Third Reich - albeit in limited numbers - during World War 2. Though a capable aircraft and proven in combat, many factors worked against this fine machine, keeping the He 219 from achieving any level of quantitative usefulness. Less than 300 of the type were ever produced and these appeared in a few varied forms. During her recorded actions, the He 219 revealed an impressive ability to obliterate enemy bombers at night but was ultimately done in by her technical complexity and - like other promising Luftwaffe implements - internal dissention and general decision-making ineptitude on the part of German authorities. The Uhu did settle a few "firsts" in her short production life - she became the Luftwaffe's first aircraft to feature a tricycle landing gear arrangement (all aircraft to this point has been of the "tail-dragging" variety) as well as becoming the first Luftwaffe aircraft to make standard use of AI radar. Beyond that, the He 219 also became the first operational aircraft anywhere in the world to make use of ejection seats for her crew. Approximately 294 He 219 Uhu examples (some sources state as low as 268) were produced in whole. Her impact on the RAF night-time bombing campaigns was minimal at best, but a glimpse of what could have been possible.
German General Josef Kammhuber served as the experienced "General of the Night Fighters" of the Luftwaffe throughout World War 2 and was credited with the creation of the first truly effective defensive night-fighter system known as the "Kammhuber Line". Although deciphered and ultimately defeated by the RAF, such development showcased the need for such defense. On the other side of the table sat Field Marshal Erhard Milch, an officer serving as the director of the RLM (Reich Air Ministry) during World War 2. Milch oversaw the re-armament of the Luftwaffe following Germany's defeat in World War 1 and subsequent dismantling. The two men found each other quickly at odds and these conflicts remained throughout their respective tenures until Kammhuber was removed from his position in 1943. Before his relocation, General Kammhuber was convinced of the need for German night-fighter defense and signed off on the production of the He 219. However, Milch had destined this particular project for cancellation due to its complexity and cost and chose other more feasible projects at hand. This ultimately led to a final showdown in which Kammhuber was reassigned to an outdated fighter group outpost in distant Norway. Kammhuber did survive the war to the end and ultimately returned to the burgeoning Luftwaffe of West Germany as its Inspekteur der Bundesluftwaffe, serving in this capacity from 1956 to 1962.
With that being said, the development of the Uhu was in doubt from the outset, despite the type showcasing capabilities on par with its British counterpart - the de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito. Very few German aircraft of the time could match the British twin-engine fighter pound for pound and any other night-fighting implements fielded by the Luftwaffe were more often than not outdated fighters of little value in the day. The He 219 seemingly fulfilled a glaring need.
Origins of the He 219 placed it as a Heinkel private venture centering around a high-speed, high-altitude bomber aircraft design under the prototype designation of P.1055 appearing in paper form sometime in 1940. The bomber was to have ejection seats for the crew (a first for any aircraft), a fully-retractable tricycle undercarriage landing gear system (a first for any German aircraft) and a cockpit pressurization system for high-altitude work. Additionally, the type was to be defended by remotely-controlled defensive gun turrets - this approach becoming the norm in advanced high-level bombers by the end of the war (as in the massive Boeing B-29 Superfortress). The P.1055 was estimated to provide a top speed of 470 miles per hour with a 2,500 mile range, both extremely impressive statistics - at least on paper. Though the initial design and several subsequent revisions of said design were rebuffed by the RLM as being too "technologically complex", Heinkel revised the P.1055 into a new designation of P.1060 when General Kammhuber became interested in stocking a fleet of dedicated night-fighters for his new defense group.
By 1941, the late-night RAF bombing campaign was beginning to take its toll on the German war machine infrastructure so a reactive measure was due on the Luftwaffe's part. The new Heinkel P.1060 design was submitted to the RLM in January of 1942 but a Junkers Ju 88 variant and the Messerschmitt Me 210 design were selected instead, pushed forth by General Milch. Regardless, Heinkel continued private development of his P.1060 for the time being and, after some lengthy delays in obtaining the needed Daimler-Benz engines, the completed prototype was made available in November. First flight was achieved on November 6th, 1942, and proved promising though some inherent stability issues needed to be addressed. The armament suite was also revised. General Kammhuber saw the completed prototype fly on November 19th and quickly moved to secure production orders, this despite General Milch's orders to the contrary. Later evaluation using a second prototype pitted the type against the twin-engine Dornier Do 217N night-fighter and Junkers Ju 88S high-speed bomber in mock air battles. The He 219 came out on top against both classes of aircraft. Production began on the He 219 A-0 (now dubbed the "Uhu") and the aircraft was officially introduced into the Luftwaffe ranks in 1943.
The Uhu in Action
Such was the excitement around the He 219 that officials quickly placed it into action in pre-production prototype forms. The He 219 A-0 was first fielded in April of 1943 with the I/NJG 1 (Night Fighter Wing) out of Venlo, Netherlands, with some 300 Uhus then on order (General Kammhuber ultimately envisioned some 2,000 in his stables). In one night-time sortie alone, this occurring on June 11th, 1943, German Major Werner Streib accounted for the downing of no less than five RAF Lancaster heavy bombers in the span of just 30 minutes. While cannon armament generally offered up a slower rate-of-fire when compared to machine guns, there was no denying the devastating destructive capabilities of their ilk. Heavy airborne cannon against the lightly-armored British bombers quickly reduced the airframes to a Swiss-cheese type appearance. A single cannon projectile was often enough to cause serious damage to a single engine, causing a nightmare for enemy bomber pilots and crewmembers alike. The He 219's formidable armament was wholly proven as was its onboard advanced airborne interception radar. Though Streib fielded the Uhu in a successful first sortie, his landing was marred by a non-responsive flaps which forced him to overshoot the runway. His He 219 crashed, breaking apart into three main pieces. Fortunately, both he and his radar operator escaped with minor injuries.
In just six total missions, He 219 crews could attest to the validity of the Uhu's design for the night-fighter accounted for some 20 total enemy aircraft including 6 of the fabled British de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito twin-engine, two-man night-fighters. By all accounts, the He 219 proved quite favorable to both her pilots and ground crews. It would seem an unshakable legacy was in the making.
The Beginning of the End
Despite the promising nature of the base He 219 Uhus, the type was never pressed into service in usable numbers. Some German authorities still remained skeptical in the use of the large fighter platform - this in spite of the regular occurring night-time losses on the ground at the hands of the RAF. As such, several more, seemingly time-wasting developments, were constructed to further validate and test the design. By this time, the DH.98 Mosquito had evolved well past the Uhu's original performance capabilities resulting in a requirement for an improved He 219. This "improved" Uhu would be fitted with better performing engines and less armament, making up for a better overall top speed to at least meet that of the British Mosquitos.
More delays soon greeted the potential reach of the He 219 for General Milch, charged with overseeing all of the aircraft production for the Luftwaffe, convinced the German Air Ministry to instead focus on developing the Junkers Ju 388J "Stortebeker" heavy fighter and Focke-Wulf Ta 154 "Moskito" night-fighter. As always, these two designs were both equally promising on paper but wrote a different sort of story once in practice. The Ju 388 came online late in the war and production issues saw that only 69 examples were delivered. Likewise, the Ta 154 arrived late in the war and saw limited production thanks to poor performance (even less than that of her prototypes) and inherent structural failings- leading to only 50 examples made available.
Adding insult to injury in July of 1944, zero priority was being given to the development or production of night-fighting aircraft such as the He 219. The Third Reich sought to stave off its compounding losses by enacting the "Fighter Emergency Program" instead. This program put an end to all production centering on piston-driven bombers and the like and chose instead to focus all available attention and resources to supplying the Luftwaffe with more advanced and defensive-minded fighter types - mainly the new-fangled, jet-powered Messerschmitt Me 262A and high-speed jet-powered bombers such as the Arado Ar 234. The advanced twin-engine, piston-powered Dornier 335 was also developed at speed. As such, the Heinkel He 219 was only fielded with its initial air group (I/NJG 1) as well as a few other loose He 219 attachments in limited operation elsewhere.