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Overkill: Guns of the He 219A Night Fighter

By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2021

“Some people embrace the night, because the rules of the day do not apply.”

— Bacardi Black rum slogan, 1991.

The Heinkel He 219A Uhu(“Owl,” actually the Eurasian Eagle-Owl) night fighter was one of the most-innovative (some even called it “radical”) and heavily-armed aircraft of World War Two, as the first military aircraft ever equipped with ejection seats (Katapultsitzen, in German, powered by compressed air) for aircrew survival, the first German military aircraft with modern, tricycle landing gear and swiveling (not steerable) nose gear, one of only two fighters (the other was the Northrop P-61 Black Widow) ever designed specifically for night combat, a pressurized cockpit for high-altitude flight, and advanced, nose-mounted, Lichtenstein SN-2 radar (with four protruding, dipole antennae) for tracking Allied (usually British) bombers at night. It also mounted up to six powerful, forward-firing, 20mm and 30mm cannon, and often a pair of upward-slanting, 30mm cannon for firing at aircraft from below, in their blind spots.

Its auspicious, combat debut occurred on the night of June 11 to 12, 1943, when Major Werner Streib, a Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4 Zerstörer (“Destroyer”) night-fighter ace with 50 confirmed kills to his credit already, and his radar operator, Sergeant Helmut Fischer, sitting back-to-back inside the cockpit, flew their He 219 pre-production prototype V9, recently upgraded to He 219A-0/R2 production standards, and marked “G9+FB” on the sides of the aircraft, on a nocturnal sortie from Venlo Airfield, in the German-occupied Netherlands. It was ably equipped with six forward-firing, MG 151/20 20x82mm cannon, including four in a ventral (belly) tray and two more in the wing roots beside the fuselage, and the new fighter was painted Pale Gray (RLM 77) overall, with no camouflage patterns yet, and no upward-firing guns at this early stage.

Streib quickly shot down a Royal Air Force (RAF) Halifax four-engine bomber at 1:05 AM, southeast of Roermond, then a second Halifax near Rheinberg at 1:20 AM, a third Halifax north of Mook at 1:55 AM, a four-engine, Avro Lancaster bomber southwest of Nijmegen at 2:16 AM, and a fourth Halifax bomber near Sambeek at 2:22 AM, for a total of five confirmed kills in a single mission, an astounding, “ace-in-a-night” accomplishment. They expended virtually all of their ammunition.

However, upon returning to Venlo after his amazing successes, the electronically-controlled flaps on his aircraft failed to lock down, and they instead retracted, so Streib’s airspeed was too high upon landing, and he misjudged his speed, flared the aircraft too high, and slammed it onto the runway. The cockpit and starboard engine were ripped away from the fuselage, but Streib and Fischer survived with only minor injuries. The very next night, flying a different, He 219A-0 model, they shot down a Lancaster bomber at 1:30 AM, bringing Streib’s total to 56 nocturnal victories, and over the next 10 nights, two more He 219A-0 prototypes shot down a total of 14 British bombers and six of the previously “untouchable,” Mosquito NF Mk. VIII night fighters.

On July 1, 1943, he was appointed as commander of Night Fighter Wing 1 (NJG 1) at Venlo, and developed a stellar reputation as the “Father of the Night Fighters,” eventually raising his official score to 68 aerial victories (including 67 at night) in 150 combat sorties, before being promoted to full colonel, and assigned as Inspector of Night Fighters for the remainder of the war. On March 11, 1944, Streib was awarded the prestigious Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves and Swords, equivalent to two U.S. Medals of Honor.

All told, 294 models of the advanced, He 219A Uhu were constructed by the end of the war, but fortunately for the Allies, they only saw limited service. The first major production variant was the He 219A-0, of which 104 were built, armed with two 20mm MG 151/20 cannon in the wing roots with 300 rounds each, and either four more in the ventral tray, also with 300 rounds per gun, or two 20mm MG 151/20s and two 30x90mm MK 108 cannon in the ventral tray behind the nose-wheel door.

Next came the He 219A-2/R1 model (the “R1” indicated Rüstsatz, or “field conversion”), of which 85 were produced, with upgraded engines, extra fuel tanks, the new, SN-2 radar system with an effective range of three to four miles, and twin, 30mm MK 108 cannon in an upward-firing, 65-degree-angled, Schräge Musik (literally, “Slanted Music”) installation within the rear fuselage with 100 rounds each, which was devasting (just three rounds could bring down a huge, Allied bomber, so the Owl’s six forward-firing cannon were essentially overkill in most situations) in practice, but exceptionally dangerous to employ, since a badly-damaged, British bomber could easily fall or spew massive chunks of debris downward and backward, striking the attacking He 219.

For the sake of cost-cutting in mass production, the MK 108 cannon had short barrels (just 23 inches long), low muzzle velocity, and limited range (just 200 to 300 yards effectively), so the He 219s had to approach very closely from below and behind their targets, using split-second timing as they fired their guns and then instantly banked away. In fact, the MK 108’s ballistic trajectory was so bad that its forward-fired, 30mm projectiles dropped 135 feet at only 1,100 yards (that’s 12 feet per 100 yards!), so it had to be employed at much-closer ranges.

Similar, Schräge Musik weapons in either 20mm or 30mm configurations were operated by fully one-third of the entire, German night-fighter force by late 1943, and RAF Bomber Command casualties increased considerably as a result, sometimes losing as many as 12 percent of their bombers on a single raid.

But the Schräge Musik weapon system was so inherently dangerous to use that by mid-1944, most He 219A crews demanded that either the short, MK 108 guns be removed and replaced by 20mm MG FF/M cannon, or the mounting angle should be changed. Nevertheless, the aircraft continued to be delivered with stubby, MK 108 guns, which were mostly removed in the field by frontline units for their own safety. In actual practice, two of the cannon in the ventral tray were also often removed to save about 500 pounds in gun and ammo weight, since the forward firepower was already quite substantial.

The He 219A-5 version used Daimler-Benz DB603E engines, 20mm MG 151/20 cannon on the wing roots, just two MK 108 cannon in the ventral tray, and a 30mm Schräge Musik system in the R1 variant, but there were four total variants.

The He 219A-6 was a proposed, stripped-down version of the He 219A-2/R1, with all unnecessary weight removed to make the aircraft lighter and faster, for hunting high-speed, RAF Mosquito night fighters, and it was armed only with four 20mm MG 151/20 cannon. None of these models were actually produced, but the simple, field modifications could all be performed at the unit level, if desired, and the aircraft could then attain a sustained, cruising speed of 404 miles per hour, nearly 18 percent faster than a standard, He 219A-2 night fighter.

The final production variant was the He 219A-7, powered by two improved, 1,800-horsepower, Daimler-Benz DB603G V-12 piston engines, with 210 ordered, but less than half of those were actually delivered. The awkward, 30mm Schräge Musik gun installation was now standard, but was frequently removed in the field.

In addition, the He 219A-7/R1 version mounted two 30mm MK 108 cannon in the wing roots, and two 20mm MG 151/20 guns in the ventral tray, alongside two long-barrel, brutally-powerful, 30x184Bmm MK 103 cannon. This was by far the most-effective variant.

The He 219A-7/R2 had the same armament, except that the longer, MK 103 guns in the ventral tray were replaced by shorter MK 108s. The He 219A-7/R3 reverted to 20mm MG 151/20 guns in the wing roots, with two more in the tray, together with two 30mm MK 108 cannon. Some He 219A-7/R4models were constructed, either with the A-7/R3 armament, or with just four MG 151/20 guns in total, and a tail-warning radar.

There was an He 219A-7/R5 variant, with the A-7/R3 armament, and high-altitude, 2,050-horsepower, Junkers Jumo 213E engines (from the high-performance, Focke-Wulf Fw 190D and Ta 152H fighters) with water-methanol injection, but only a half-dozen of these were built. The solitary, He 219A-7/R6 model produced had 2,500-horsepower, Jumo 222A/B engines.

Most He 219A night fighters were painted overall Light Blue (RLM 76, actually a light blue-gray), with Gray-Violet (RLM 75, technically a dark gray) spray-mottling on the upper surfaces only in a cloud-camouflage effect, although some early models were painted Black (RLM 22) on the undersides. The lower, German-cross insignia were the standard, high-visibility, black-and-white style, while the upper crosses were low-visibility, black outlines only, to maximize stealth and camouflage when viewed from above.

Although Major Werner Streib scored 17 confirmed kills while flying the He 219A-0/R2, there were other notable, Owl aces, as well. Captain Manfred Meurer, for example, already had 50 aerial victories to his credit as a BF 110G-4 night-fighter pilot, like Streib, and had won the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves from Hitler himself when he finally transitioned to the He 219Aas a group commander at Venlo in September 1943. He scored an additional 15 nocturnal victories as an Owl pilot that winter.

Meurer flew an He 219A-0, marked as “G9+BB’ on the sides, and on the night of January 21 to 22, 1944, together with his radar operator, Senior Sergeant Gerhard Scheibe, the first night-fighter radar operator ever to receive the Knight’s Cross medal, his He 219Acollided in mid-air with a British Lancaster bomber 12 miles east of Magdeburg, Germany. All seven bomber crew members were killed in action, and Meurer and Scheibe crashed nearby and died. He was officially credited with 65 aerial kills, including 40 four-engine bombers and two Mosquito night fighters, in 130 combat missions, and was the fifth most-successful night-fighter pilot in history. The He 219A Uhu program was cancelled in May 1944, however, ending all future production prospects.

The greatest He 219Aace pilot was Major Ernst-Wilhelm Modrow, age 36, who was trained as a night-fighter pilot in October 1943, and posted to NJG 1 at Venlo, which was then under Manfred Meurer’s command. After Meurer’s untimely death in January 1944, Modrow flew an He 219A-0/R6, marked as “G9+FK” on both sides, with standard, dark-gray over light-gray camouflage, but the underside of the right wing was painted black, for a disruptive appearance at night, there was no Schräge Musik gun installation, and the main armament consisted of six forward-firing, 20mm MG 151/20 cannon.

Modrow flew a total of 259 combat missions, including 109 sorties at night, and scored 34 total victories, including 33 while flying the He 219A, making him the greatest Owl ace, and leading proponent of the innovative, night fighter. Two of these kills were against Mosquito night fighters, plus five Halifax bombers, 25 Lancasters, and two more four-engine bombers of unspecified types. On April 22 to 23, 1944, he shot down three Lancaster bombers in a single sortie, and on June 21 to 22, 1944, he destroyed four more, earning the coveted, Knight’s Cross medal. He survived the war, and lived until 1990.

On November 2 to 3, 1944, a single He 219A-0/R6 (coded “G9+HL”) flown by Senior Sergeant Wilhelm Morlock of NJG 1 shot down six (possibly seven) British Lancaster bombers near Düsseldorf within the brief span of only 12 minutes, but by that time, the attrition of the German night-fighter force was increasing, and the He 219 program had already been cancelled. Morlock was, in fact, killed in action only two nights later, after scoring 17 total, confirmed kills with the He 219A. By January 10, 1945, NJG 1 had 64 Owls on strength, but only 45 aircraft (70 percent) were serviceable. The Luftwaffe was so desperate for extra night fighters at that point that six additional, unregistered He 219As were actually assembled in the field from spare parts.

In late April 2012, the substantial wreckage of a previously-unknown He 219A was salvaged from the North Sea in Tannis Bay, only 110 yards from a beach north of Hirtshals, Denmark, and was taken to  the Aalborg Defence and Garrison Museum in Aalborg. It was considered an exceptional find, with only the tail section and one engine missing. The pilot was presumably low on fuel and made a forced landing, being unable reach the Luftwaffe airbase at Karup (now the main air base of the Royal Danish Air Force), Jutland, Denmark. The rare aircraft was assembled and later exhibited in the military museum.

The He 219A Owl was arguably the best and most-effective, night fighter of World War Two, certainly the very best operated by the German Luftwaffe, widely considered to be a “first-class” aircraft by British aviators. It was fast, maneuverable, and carried devastating, overkill firepower in its heavy, cannon armament, inflicting staggering losses upon the Royal Air Force’s night-bomber raids.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe, with two fighter squadrons in Germany, and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.

 
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