Heinkel He 219 Uhu (Eagle-Owl)
Twin-Seat, Twin-Engine Night-Fighter Aircraft
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 | Last Edited:
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.
The Uhu took on a very unique external appearance and became one of the more distinct Luftwaffe aircraft of the war. Her two-man pressurized cockpit was situated at the extreme forward end of the fuselage allowing for excellent vision of the oncoming terrain. The fuselage was curved along the upper and lower sections, sporting slab sides everywhere else. The pilot and his radar operator sat in tandem though they were interestingly seated in a back-to-back arrangement - no doubt as a space-saving move to make room for the applicable radar equipment in the second cockpit. The crew was covered over by a clear three-piece canopy system made up of the forward curved windshield, a rounded static rear covering over the radar operators station and the large main canopy access door. The main canopy was hinged over along the starboard side and divided in two sections by light framing. Both crewmen sat in high-backed ejection seats. The pilot controlled the aircraft via a centered control column immediately before him. The nose was dominated by a collection of antennae giving the Uhu something of a fragile appearance. Wings were high-mounted monoplanes set just aft of the cockpit and featured a straight leading edge, a polyhedral trailing edge and slightly-rounded wingtips. The wingroots emanated from the fuselage just forward of amidships and the entire wingspan measured in at a respectable 60 feet, 8 inches. Outboard of the wingroots were streamlined engine nacelles fitted ahead of the wing leading edges and tapering into conical assemblies well past the wing trailing edge. The wings featured dihedral (upward angle) outboard of each engine installation. Each engine powered a VDM three-blade constant speed airscrew propeller system seated with large conical spinners. The fuselage tapered off into a rounded point at the extreme rear to which was affixed the tail assembly. The tail assembly was made up of individual horizontal planes capped by two vertical tail fins to either end. The vertical tail fins were angled inwards towards centerline while each horizontal plane sported noticeable dihedral - moreso than the main wings themselves. The undercarriage was of a tricycle arrangement and made up of two main legs and a nose leg. The main landing gear legs were double-wheeled and retracted rearwards into the underside of each engine nacelle. The steerable nose landing gear leg was singled-wheeled and also retracted rearwards under the cockpit floor. The nose landing gear leg is of note for it rotated 90-degrees to fit inside of its bay, laying flat below the cockpit floor. At any rate, the tricycle wheel arrangement also gave the Uhu a pronounced high stature when at rest on the ground, noticeably towering over the average German pilot. The He 219 was tall enough to require a retractable access step ladder along her forward portside to help her crew aboard.
Power for the principle He 219 A-7 model was derived from a pair of Daimler-Benz DB 603E liquid-cooled inverted V12 inline engines delivering 1,900 horsepower each. Her maximum take-off weight was listed at just under 30,000lbs. A maximum speed of 385 miles per hour was reported as was a range of 960 miles. Her ferry range was an impressive 1,335 miles while her operating ceiling was near 30,500 feet, requiring the use of the aforementioned pressurized cockpit for both of her crew.
Any night-fighter was essentially only as good as her armament and the He 219 did not disappoint. Her armament suite centered around bomber-killing cannons stationed throughout the strong points of her airframe. 4 x 20mm MG 151 cannons were situated in an ventral fairing (also called a "gunpack") with 300 projectiles per cannon. An additional 2 x 20mm MG 151 cannons were fitted into the wing roots and also afforded 300 projectiles per cannon. 2 x 30mm MK 108 series cannons were fitted just aft of the cockpit in a "Schrage Musik" installation. This installation held each cannon at 65-degree angles to fire obliquely and were given 100 projectiles per cannon. The Schrage Musik installation allowed the He 219 crew to position the aircraft behind and beneath a targeted enemy bomber. From this vantage point, she could her to fire her guns in an upwards-forward angle against what was traditionally the least protected position of any Allied bomber design.
Of particular note in terms of the weapons arrangement of the He 219 was that all were set far away from the pilots field of vision. One can imagine how temporary blindness could set in for a pilot who was witness to the muzzle flash of his cannons in the dark of night. This blindness could leave a given night-fighter crew vulnerable for a time, as what was discovered in other night-fighters such as the British Boulton Paul Defiant and her four-gun powered turret seated directly behind the pilot. The He 219 weapons were set well aft of the cockpit and worked well to hide the interrupting flash patterns of her cannon from the pilot.
The He 219 A-0 became the pre-production/prototype Uhu which later gave birth to some 104 total production models fitting the Daimler-Benz DB 603A series engine of 1,750 horsepower. The He 219 A-1 was a proposed dedicated reconnaissance-bomber version that was ultimately abandoned. The He 219 A-2 followed along the same lines as the A-0 but featured revised engine nacelles that were extended and incorporated additional internal fuel for increased operational ranges. These were built in 85 examples and fitted with the Daimler-Benz DB 603AA engines of 1,650 horsepower.
The He 219 A-2/R1 became the two-seat night-fighter variant fully-armed with 2 x 20mm MG 151/20 cannons in the wingroots, 2 x 30mm MK 108 cannons in the ventral tray and a further 2 x MK 108 in an obliquely firing emplacement aft of the cockpit.
The He 219 A-5 was a proposed three-man Uhu design that only existed in prototype forms and was based on the A-2.
The He 219 A-6 was envisioned as a dedicated "anti-Mosquito" airframe, lighter than her previous forms, and armed simply with 4 x 20mm MG 151/20 cannons. The A-6 also had some of her radio communications equipment removed to help lighten her overall load and therefore help to increase performance - particularly in top speed. These modifications allowed the A-6 the capability of reaching near-400 mile per hour speeds at altitude.
The He 219 A-7 was an improved form of the base night-fighters already in circulation and ended up becoming the final Uhu production variant. Armament consisted of 2 x 30mm Mk 108 cannons in the wingroots, 2 x 30mm MK 103 cannons paired with 2 x 20mm MG 151/20 cannons in the underfuselage weapons tray as well as 2 x 30mm Mk 108 cannons in the Schrage Musik arrangement along the upper fuselage aft of the cockpit. Typically, the MK 103 cannons were nixed from in-the-field Uhus to help preserve a respectable operating weight and maximum speed. A-7s were powered by a pair of Daimler-Benz DB 603E series inline piston engines of 1,900 horsepower and some 210 were on order by late 1944.
The He 219B
The He 219B was the next logical evolution in the He 219 line but was never furthered. B-models would have been fielded with the Junkers Jumo 222A/B series engines rated at 2,200 horsepower for an impressive estimated speed of 440 miles per hour. High-altitude performance would have been addressed by longer-spanning wings (measuring up to 72 feet). The B-model only existed in a few "mutt" forms, these being either existing A-models with the developmental long-span wings or models with different high-performance engine configurations. At any rate, the He 219B was not to be for the history books.
The He 219C
The He 219C was another intended evolution in the He 219 line. This would have been a three-man airframe using the aforementioned long-spanning wing assembly for improved high-altitude performance as well as the Junkers Jumo 222 series powerplants. The fuselage would have been an all-new offering making room for a rear powered tail turret for one of the crew. Though plans were enacted and construction materials made ready, the He 219C was never even completed even as a prototype and the requested Jumo engines were never made available.
The He 219E
The He 219E existed only in paper form and was a proposed super-high altitude "stalker" with greater spanning wings measuring up to 93.5 feet. Engines would have been Daimler-Benz DB 614 series powerplants which were reportedly based on the DB 603C series, the new systems rated at about 2,000 horsepower a piece. The He 219E became one of the many Third Reich "paper projects" on file, never to see a workable prototype form.
He 219 A-2 "Uhu" (Wekummer 290202) was brought to the American mainland by the British Royal Navy vessel HMS Reaper sometime in 1945. Her restored fuselage is now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport while her wings are still undergoing restoration. She represents one of the few surviving Uhu's in existence today - a small testament to her limited legacy.
The He 219 was also captured and evaluated by the British after the war and photographed in RAF colors.
With so much working against the Uhu, it is a wonder that nearly 300 systems were ever produced. Internal wrangling surely played a part in the aircraft's limited reach and one was left to his/her imagination as to whether the He 219 would have had any sort of impact against the lethal night-time bombing campaign of the RAF. The He 219 fell in line with many of the other available aircraft projects for the Luftwaffe, destined to never realize their potential. As it stood, the He 219 was a promising design at its core and proven by her limited sorties and furthered in legacy only by the word of her crews. Beyond that, the Uhu played only a small role in what had become the all-out defense of the German homeland. Had German authorities been on the same page regarding its usefulness and fate, the Uhu might have played a greater role in extending the war for some time longer in favor of the Reich - this while more potent jet-powered designs of German origin were becoming available.