A Brief History
On November 15, 1942, the Heinkel He 219, often called the “Uhu,” which is German for eagle-owl, made its first flight. A year later, the first editions became operational. Designed from the ground up as a night fighter to combat the British night-bombing raids, the He 219 had an innovative design which incorporated air-to-air radar and the first ejection seats installed in an operational aircraft. It was also the only German plane of World War II with tricycle-type landing gear.
The He 219 suffered what most German aircraft developed during World War II suffered from, that being bureaucratic infighting between various people and agencies, which hampered and slowed development and production of new planes. Originally conceived with special “coupled” engines, the idea was for it to reach a top speed of 470 mph, faster than any Allied airplane. Problems developing such motors resulted in more conventional ones being used, providing a top speed of only 360-385 mph. Although this was plenty fast enough to catch all Allied night bombers except the De Haviland Mosquito, modifications were still made to some He 219s to increase their speed to 400 mph by lightening their load through the removal of some guns and extra gear.
With 4 x forward-firing 20mm cannons and 2 x upward-firing 30mm cannons, the He 219 was able to shoot down Allied bombers. Furthermore, its advanced radar had a range of 3 miles, allowing the plane to find its own targets without relying on ground radar that was often jammed by Allied “chaff.”
Fortunately for the Allies, Germany only produced less than 300 of these capable planes. Their small numbers meant that they had minimal impact on the nighttime air war that was being fought over Europe. Instead, Allied bombers were usually attacked by other German fighters and medium bombers that had been adapted to serve as night fighters. The Allies also equipped some of their fighters with radar so that these could serve as night fighters and produced the P-60 Black Widow, a twin-engine night fighter and one of the coolest-looking planes of the war.
Most of today’s fighter planes are expected to be able to perform in the dark, and night interceptors specifically designed for this purpose are no longer needed. With U.S. advancements in “stealth” technology, it is unlikely that enemy planes would successfully intercept American night-attack bombers anyway. Back in World War II though, the night was a new frontier to be conquered, and conquered it was.
Question for students (and subscribers): Did anyone in your family fly planes during World War II? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Franks, Richard A. The Heinkel He 219 ‘Uhu’: A Detailed Guide to the Luftwaffe’s Ultimate Nightfighter (Airframe Album). Valiant Wings Publishing, 2012.