Heinkel He 177 Bomber was a ‘Flying Tinderbox’ during World War II

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Heinkel He 177

Adolf Hitler talked about the Heinkel He 177 Greif (Griffin) bomber in a meeting with his military staff on Feb. 1, 1943.

Speaking to Generaloberst (Colonel General) Hans Jeschonnek, chief of staff of the Luftwaffe as part of a rambling exchange about tanks and aircraft, the Führer said:

“I have to say again and again: I consider the whole 177 model a mistake because it was demonstrated already during the Great War that the problem of installing two engines on one shaft is extremely difficult to solve, and has led to constant difficulties.”

The Heinkel He 177 may not have been Hitler’s biggest mistake – there is a long roster of candidates – but it was a mistake on the part of planemaker Ernst Heinkel’s design team and the Luftwaffe. It personifies the failure of the wartime German air arm to equip itself with long-range bombers.

It was classified as a heavy bomber. Its promised performance was better than any bomber in the world, carrying two tons of bombs to targets 1,400 miles inside enemy territory at 225 miles per hour. It would have enabled the Luftwaffe to reach Allied convoys in the Atlantic and Soviet installations beyond the Ural Mountains.

A Heinkel He 177 V5 heavy bomber prototype in flight, 1942/43. (Credits: U.S. Navy)

A Heinkel He 177 V5 heavy bomber prototype in flight, 1942/43. (Credits: U.S. Navy)

Instead of enhancing the offensive striking power of the Luftwaffe the Heinkel He 177 became renowned for structural flaws, engine issues (including frequent engine fires) and an overall lack of reliability. The tail surfaces had to be redesigned and enlarged. There were constant problems not only with the coupled engines but with the complex, 14-foot, 8-inch, four-bladed propellers.

Strong Specifications

Developed beginning in 1939, the He 177 was designed to a German Air Ministry specification calling for a heavy bomber with an ordnance load of at least 4,400 pounds. While it was being prepared for its first flight, Generaloberst Ernst Udet, perhaps Germany’s most famous pilot, persuaded the Luftwaffe to decree that all combat aircraft should be capable of dive-bombing in the manner of the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. Jeschonnek continued this policy after Udet’s death in 1941. This impossible requirement for a heavy bomber dictated the twinned-engine configuration that was at the heart of the Greif’s multitude of troubles.

Developed beginning in 1939, the He 177 was designed to a German Air Ministry specification calling for a heavy bomber with an ordnance load of at least 4,400 pounds. While it was being prepared for its first flight, Generaloberst Ernst Udet, perhaps Germany’s most famous pilot, persuaded the Luftwaffe to decree that all combat aircraft should be capable of dive-bombing in the manner of the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. Jeschonnek continued this policy after Udet’s death in 1941. This impossible requirement for a heavy bomber dictated the twinned-engine configuration that was at the heart of the Greif’s multitude of troubles.

The He 177 looked like a twin-engined bomber. Its twinned engines were contained in each of two nacelles making it a four-engined bomber – sort of. The concept relied on the Daimler Benz DB 606 twin engine, which took two 1,350-horsepower DB 601A-1/B-1 inverted V inline engines and placed them side by side, with the inner cylinders almost vertical, producing an inverted W. The engines were prone to overheating and in-flight engine fires were common. Six of the original eight aircraft were lost, most due to engine fires, and many of the first 35 production aircraft (with Ernst Heinkel in disfavor, the planes were built mainly by Arado) also suffered the same fate.

The He 177V-1 prototype made its initial flight on Nov. 9, 1939, with Leutnant Carl Francke, chief of the Rechlin flight test center, at the controls. The flight ended abruptly after 12 minutes because of overheating engines. Francke spoke favorably about the bomber’s general handling characteristics but complained of vibration in the propeller shafts, inadequate tail surfaces, and flutter that accompanied any vigorous movement of the elevators.

He 177A-3 Suzy of 2./KG 100, 1944. Note the flaps cover the entire trailing edge. (Credits: Bundesarchv)

He 177A-3 Suzy of 2./KG 100, 1944. Note the flaps cover the entire trailing edge. (Credits: Bundesarchiv)

This was the beginning of a long series of fires, accidents and crashes. In June 1942, Luftwaffe air inspector Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) Erhard Milch and Armaments Minister Albert Speer were visiting a base for a different purpose when they watched a new He 177 take off with a full bombload. After it flew from sight, the Greif banked steeply and sideslipped into the ground from 500 feet up, killing everyone aboard. Milch learned afterward that he had not been told of several other fatal accidents.

In The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe, a biography of Milch, author David Irving wrote of Luftwaffe chief Reichsmarschall (Marshal of the Realm) Hermann Göring complaining about Jeschonnek’s requirement for dive-bombing capability. “It is straightforward idiocy to ask of a four-engined bomber that it should dive,” said Göring. “Had I been told of this for one moment, I should have exclaimed at once: what kind of nonsense is that?” But the design was set in place by then or, as Göring put it, “Now we are stuck with it.”

Changing Configurations

As engineers kept redesigning the He 177, they introduced new versions of the bomber, which were then modified further in the field. Front-line armorers at Stalingrad, which was re-supplied at great cost by a half-dozen He 177As used as transports, installed a 50 mm BK-5 anti-tank gun under the nose. A separate effort to install a 75 mm cannon produced new aerodynamic problems and was cancelled after five He 177A-3/R-5s received the guns.

A He 177 having an engine maintenance overhaul - note the second cylinder's exposed exhaust stub being even with the leading edge, an indication of the rearwards location of the "power systems". (Credits: Bundesarchiv)

A He 177 having an engine maintenance overhaul – note the second cylinder’s exposed exhaust stub being even with the leading edge, an indication of the rearwards location of the “power systems”. (Credits: Bundesarchiv)

None of the changes could overcome the inherent faults in the Heinkel He 177, including a tendency to swerve sharply sideways on takeoff. Troops called it the “Luftwaffe Lighter” (referring to a cigarette lighter) or the “Flying Tinderbox.”‘

Until manufacture of all aircraft other than fighters was virtually halted in October 1944, Heinkel and Arado built about 1,100 He 177s, including 826 examples of the He 177A-5 model, which was much improved over earlier versions. The usefulness of the bomber did not improve. On one occasion, Göring watched 14 aircraft taxi out for late-war attacks on London. Thirteen took off. Eight returned immediately with overheating engines, one diverted elsewhere and four actually reached London, but one was shot down.

The He 177 was the largest German aircraft operated over Britain during the war. Aviation archeologist Julian Evan-Hart is excavating the site of an He 177 that was shot down by a Royal Air Force Mosquito in 1944 near the Essex town of Saffron.


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About Author

U. S. Air Force veteran (1957-60), a retired American diplomat (1964-89) and an author (since 1955) of thousands of magazine articles and about 75 books, all of them non-fiction except "Hitler's Time Machine."

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