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Bachem Ba-349 Natter
The Smithsonian's Ba-349 NatterClick thumbnail to view full-size
Bachem Ba-349 Natter History
The Bachem Ba-349 Natter (Viper) didn’t see combat, but came very close. Erich Bachem designed the Natter as a low cost point defense fighter. Theoretically the aircraft addressed many of the drawbacks of other aircraft. Instead of a runway it would take off from a near vertical rail. In wind tunnel tests up to Mach 0.95 it didn’t show any compressibility problems. Since the aircraft wasn’t meant to land it didn’t need a runway. Prior to attacking the bomber formation the pilot would jettison the rocket boosters. After completing the attack the pilot was to jettison forward section of the aircraft. This would enable the pilot to parachute to earth. The rear of the aircraft, which contained its rocket engine, would descend by parachute for reuse. The rear of the aircraft would be mated with a new forward section and be ready to fly another mission.
The Germans began glider tests with the Natter in November 1944. The unpowered Ba-349s were dropped from He-111s and the pilots tested the Natter’s handling characteristics. A test pilot named Zübert reported the aircraft had excellent flying characteristics. Pilotless launches of the aircraft began on December 18, 1944. The first two launch attempts were failures. The first successful launch was on December 22, 1944. Over Erich Bachem’s objections the Germans made the first piloted test launch of the Natter on February 28, 1945. The plane crashed killing the test pilot, Leutnant[i] Lothar Siebert. There were six other piloted test flights. In April 1945 at Kirchheim, the Luftwaffe put 10 Natters on launch rails. Each had 33 x 55-mm R4M air-air missiles in their nose.[ii] A single R4M rocket could destroy a heavy bomber. There they awaited the arrival of an Allied bomber stream. The bombers never came. When the Allied ground forces came the Luftwaffe personnel destroyed the aircraft on their rails.
[i] Equivalent to a USAF 2nd Lieutenant. Lothar Siebert was posthumously promoted to Oberleutnant.
[ii] Warplanes of the Third Reich by William Green © 1970 p68-69.
Had the bombers come before the tanks and if all went according to the Luftwaffe plan. The Natters would have launched from their rails with an initial climb rate of 37,400 ft/min. Radio control would have taken the Ba-349s to within a mile of the bombers at speeds up to 620mph. Then the Natter pilots would make their attacks and unleash their salvo of rockets against the bombers. They would have shot down 6-8 heavy bombers and then the Natter pilots and the rear sections of the aircraft, with the Walter HWK 509C-1 rocket engines, would parachute to earth. Germany would have surrendered on May 8, 1945 and the mission would have been a deadly footnote to the air war over Germany.
A Doomed Concept?
How would the Ba-349 concept have played out had the war continued? What if the Germans had the time to produce large numbers of these aircraft? A hundred Ba-349s with their fantastic speed and enormous firepower could make attacking the target area they’re defending too costly. Since they would be launched from rails the Allies would not know with confidence which targets the Ba-349s were defending on a given day. These factors would seem to make the Ba-349 a weapon system with a reasonable chance of defeating a strategic bombing campaign.
One key element with the Ba-349 concept was the behavior of American fighter pilots. The Natter pilots would fire a barrage of missiles at the bombers then promptly make themselves Hors de Combat[i] . Would the American fighter pilots, and their superiors, have accepted the Hors de Combat status of the Natter pilots or would they have viewed this as a manipulation of the rules and the Natter pilots fair game as they hung in their parachutes? This would make Natter pilots suicide pilots. The descending rocket engines would be legitimate targets while descending in the parachutes and while they lay on the ground. It is an academic exercise to consider which tactics or weapons systems could have stopped the World War II Allied bombing campaign. The question of honoring the laws of war against an enemy that attempts to manipulate those laws is an ongoing question. In this theoretical Ba-349 scenario strict obedience to the laws of war means losing the campaign.
[i] Literally – out of Combat. The laws of war prohibit someone who is incapable of fighting from being attacked.
24X73mm rockets, or 33x55mm rockets, or 2x30mm cannons