Prologue

Willy Messerschmitt, a tall no-nonsense aircraft designer, was hunched over a drafting table conferring with a senior engineer about propulsion issues that were plaguing the Me-262 jet fighter. He had been working on overcoming design problems with mounting the new BMW engines, when his secretary, Hilde Schwartz, interrupted him.

“An urgent phone call for you, Herr Messerschmitt,” she announced.

“Who is it?” Willy nearly barked, while holding a protractor in his right hand. 

“Colonel Stahl.” 

The aircraft designer’s nose twitched, the only indication that the call and its messenger were an unwelcome interruption. 

Eine Minute, Fräulein Schwartz,” Messerschmitt replied. Then turning to face his engineer, he said in frustration. “Stahl again, Otto. I should have known. All he wants are progress reports. He doesn’t want to hear about delays.” 

Many a man would have thrown his hands up in frustration, but Willy Messerschmitt was no ordinary man. Almost reverently, he placed the protractor on the table and left his assistant to ponder the engine problem while he sought to soothe Stahl’s concerns.

Horten Ho-229 V3 prototype. Image obtained from Smithsonian archives.

                                                             

Göring, though concerned with aircraft losses, was pre-occupied with other more pertinent matters. His latest meeting with Hitler hadn’t gone well. Der Führer was particularly troubled over the lack of available bombers to maintain bombing runs over England, and he wasn’t going to let the matter rest. He could be very obstinate about such things. The Reichsmarschall still wasn’t sure why his boss was so interested, actually fixated on the bombers. A small nearly imperceptible smile formed on his lips. He thought back to a recent briefing conducted by General Adolf Galland on the feasibility of the Me-262 fighter. The general was a fine pilot, a decorated ace, much like Göring himself, and more important, was well-respected by his fellow officers—a natural leader. 

But that wasn’t what interested him at the moment. He was frustrated with the German designers’ inability to come up with something workable, more sustainable. Göring’s latest brainchild, the ‘3×1000’ project, was a daring and outlandish plan— considered desperate and unattainable by many—inviting designers to submit proposals for a revolutionary plane capable of flying at speeds up to 1000km/hr, while carrying a 1000kg payload over a 1000km distance. When Göring had first introduced—no shocked them—with the proposal, many engineers, Messerschmitt and Heinkel included, scoffed at it, naturally behind Göring’s back. But then his chief of staff, Kurt Diesing, had told him about two distinguished Luftwaffe pilots, Reimar and Walter Horten, who coincidentally were also aircraft designers. 

Göring’s initial reaction had been to dismiss the idea, based on the fact that he had never even heard of the Horten brothers and the notion crossed his mind that Diesing was paying him lip service. But when Diesing showed him some of their preliminary designs and advised him of their earlier work with gliders, Göring quickly reined in his skepticism and looked at their drawings with renewed interest. 

“Kurt, arrange for a meeting with those two designers—the Horten brothers.” Diesing saluted, and with his ‘Heil Hitler’, left the office to carry out Göring’s bidding.

He notified a subordinate to arrange a meeting at Karinhall, Göring’s private residence.  Propping up his big boots on the polished old mahogany table, the Reichsmarschall lit a cigar and gazed out the Reichschancellory window. If Diesing believes in them, he thought, the least I can do is take a closer look. It just might be the weapon I’ve been looking for to get Hitler off my back

And take a look he did. In fact, he was so impressed that he did more than that. He later awarded the Horten brothers with the contract and authorized the payment of 500,000 Reichsmarks – no small amount in those days – for their efforts. Following his meeting with the designers, Göring opted to forego further evaluation of their designs and gave the go-ahead for the development of a full-scale prototype, and pending his approval, the immediate production of twenty aircraft. Göring at last got what he desperately needed: hope. Hope for a desperate Germany… and hope for his sagging career.

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