The Messerschmitt Me 264 was intended as a long-range aircraft and reconnaissance platform that was to supply the German Luftwaffe with a bomber capable of hitting targets within America as well as support Kriegsmarine U-boat operations in the Atlantic. However, an underperforming prototype and subsequent construction delays soon pushed the Me 264 into the background as German authorities moved their focus to more promising projects. Development of the Me 264 spanned some eight years, culminating in only three prototypes - only one of which was able to achieve flight (this being the Me 264 V1). Design of this interesting aircraft was credited to Wolfgang Degel, Paul Konrad and Waldemar Voigt of Messerschmitt.
Successful long-range, multi-engine bombers with ideal payloads were hard to come by for the German Luftwaffe during World War 2. Much of their production efforts had always been placed into their fighter lines and this became evermore important as the war turned into a defensive fight for the Vaterland. As such, development of a heavy-hitter comparable to the what the Allies were fielding in their Avro Lancasters and Consolidated B-24 Liberators proved quite elusive to the most powerful military in the world. The most competent of the German crop became the multi-role Focke-Wulf Fw 200 "Condor" - a large four-engine design achieving first flight in 1937 and only seeing production totals of 275 aircraft. Another front-runner of note was the Heinkel He 111, but this was a 1930's-era twin-engine medium bomber with limited range and equally-limited ordnance-carrying capabilities. Comparatively, the He 111 was produced in over 6,500 examples.
The Fw 200 Condor was assigned to work alongside the Kriegsmarine, becoming active across the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean as Germany's territory expanded. The Fw 200 proved a vital component in disrupting the Allied shipping lanes during the "Battle of the Atlantic" to the point that Winston Churchill himself tagged the German aircraft as the "Scourge of the Atlantic". However, the limited numbers of the Condors would soon restrict their direct combat activities as the war began progressing in favor of the Allies. By the end of 1943, the aircraft was relegated almost exclusively to the transport role. The Allied invasion of France further removed the Condor from any type of maritime operations. In the reconnaissance role, the Fw 200 was ultimately replaced by the newer Junkers Ju 290, this coming late in the war.
Development of a long-range reconnaissance platform began in 1937. The German declaration of war against the United States began to advance the project. Hitler envisioned hitting targets within America from territories under German (and Japanese) control. In effect, Hitler wanted "harassing" actions against the country in an effort to disrupt production and instill fear into the American populace. At the same time, the German Navy was also looking for a long-range aircraft for use in maritime reconnaissance and bombing. Messerschmitt developed their P.1061 model and, by 1941, the type was ordered in six prototype forms (later reduced to three) as the Me 264. The prototypes were committed to this endeavor in three developmental forms as the Me 264 V1, Me 264 V2 and the Me 264 V3.
After a protracted construction period, the Me 264 V1 achieved first flight on December 23rd, 1942, with 4 x Jumo 211J series liquid-cooled inline piston engines of 1,340 horsepower each and was built sans armor or weapons. By the end of 1943, the powerplants were replaced by 4 x BMW 801G radial piston engines of 1,750 horsepower each. It was hoped that the V1 would be ready for flight testing as early as October 10th 1942, but this proved optimistic to say the least. In-flight testing revealed some inherent faults in the design with the major factor being high wing loading - this itself leading to a host of handling and performance issues. Wing loading essentially represented the loaded weight of the aircraft divided by the area of its wings. A fully-loaded Me 264 was soon found to exhibit a poor rate-of-climb and equally degraded maneuverability - this before armor and weaponry were even added to the mix. Performance from the BMW 801 series (G or H) radial engines netted the Me 264 a top speed of 350 miles per hour with an impressive range of 9,500 miles. The service ceiling was a reported 26,000 feet with a rate-of-climb equaling 390 feet per minute.
The Me 264 V2 was constructed with armor in place though sans its defensive guns but was not fully completed. The Me 264 V3 was given its guns and full armor (this one too never fully completed) but by this time, German interest in the project had waned. The Me 264 faced a slew of material delays and underperformed in tests despite claims made by the people at Messerschmitt. The German Navy (and the RLM for that matter) instead decided to focus their attentions on using the Junkers Ju 290 in the preferred roles and wait on its intended long-range, six-engine cousin - the Ju 390 - to achieve operational status. The official call for cancellation involving the fruitless Me 264 program came to an end in Reichsmarschall Technical Order Nr. 2. The Me 264 program was closed down officially on September 23rd, 1944.
The Me 264 V4 would have been fitted with BMW 801 E turbocharged engines and a GM-1 boost system. Other visions saw the Me 264 in an armed transport role, fitted with a remote-controlled turret. Still other developments could have been powered by jet engines and turboprops or fitted with drop tanks or a bevy of reconnaissance cameras. An armed, long-distance reconnaissance platform was designated as the Me 264A while a long-range bomber variant was to take on the designation of Me 264B.
The external appearance of the Me 264 was not unlike that of the upcoming American-produced Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The aircraft sported a torpedo-like, all-metal, tubular fuselage with a streamlined and heavily-glazed forward area housing the cockpit. The fuselage quickly tapered off into an empennage and topped by a "T" style tail assembly sporting a pair of rounded vertical tail fins (ala the B-24 Liberator). The main, large-span wings were high-mounted assemblies extending out just aft of the cockpit and ahead of the fuselage center. Each wing housed two radial piston engines in streamlined nacelles emanating from the wing leading edges. The wing leading edges themselves were swept while the trailing edges were straight. The undercarriage was fully retractable and made up of single-wheeled ("donut" style) main landing gear legs and a single-wheeled nose landing gear leg. The main landing gears recessed into underwing wells while the nose landing gear recessed rearwards under the cockpit floor. The nose gear was further complicated by rotating some 90 degrees to lie flat underneath the cockpit floor.
Defensive armament was to have been comprised of 4 x 13mm MG 131 machine guns complimented by a pair of 20mm MG 151/20 cannons in remote-controlled turrets (ala the B-29 Superfortress). The offensive internal bomb load was limited to 6,614lbs.
The End of the Line
Junkers eventually won out in the long run with their large Ju 390 - a design that could take advantage of the existing Ju 290 parts already in circulation and production. In all, only the three Me 264 airframes were produced, with the V1 only ever achieving flight and this eventually being fielded in a limited role with Transportstaffel 5. Under German orders, Messerschmitt's focus then turned on developing their Me 262 twin-engine, jet-powered fighter. Hitler's dream of harassing the American East Coast was dead.
While the V2 and V3 prototypes were destroyed in subsequent Allied bombing raids, the V1 forged on until suffering a direct hit in another Allied air raid. The V1 was not repaired, however, and therefore left out of operational service for the duration of the war.
Some reports based on the interrogation of a German POW based at Lechfeld in 1943 revealed that a Sonderkommando Nebel Me 264 flew a regular route from somewhere in Finland to locations in Japan. This is of particular note for it showcases the range inherent in the Me 264 design as well as possible future German plans to field the Me 264 in the Pacific Theater against the Australian mainland and regionally-located American and British forces.