In March 1, 1945, a young test pilot became the first human to lie on his back and wait for a rocket engine to blast him toward the heavens. Like those who would dare ride the fire after him, he believed in his cause and was confident in the success of his mission. He was mistaken on both counts. The development of the aircraft he was “piloting” is one of the more bizarre stories of the last desperate days of the Third Reich, but it began long before the Nazi war machine had collapsed, with a proposal from Wernher von Braun.
In 1937, von Braun developed a concept for a rocket-powered interceptor that would launch vertically, attack Allied bombers, and glide to a landing. Two years later, he submitted his proposal to the Luftwaffe’s Ministry of Aviation (RLM), and the ministry responded with a sincere nein thanks. In 1941, von Braun tried again—same proposal, same ministry, same answer: “We’ll call you.” The ministry’s reviewers had assessed the concept as “unnecessary and unworkable,” but the idea circulated around the German aircraft industry, reaching the company Gerhard Fieseler Werke (later known for the Fieseler Storch and the V-1 buzz bomb). Fieseler’s technical director—Erich Bachem—thought a vertically launched interceptor was a capital idea.
Three very long years later, Bachem had his own company, the Bachem-Werke GmbH, a supplier of spare parts for the manufacturers of combat airplanes. But Bachem never forgot the idea for a rocket-powered interceptor, and in the summer of 1944, he saw his opportunity to build one.
In February of that year, the Allies intensified the bombing of German cities and of the country’s aviation industry, forcing the Luftwaffe into the air to fight. The air campaign was costly to both sides, but the United States and Great Britain were able to replace the aircraft they lost; the Germans were not. With strategic supplies for the German war effort extremely tight, the RLM issued requirements that July for an inexpensive fighter to be made of non-essential materials that, with the least expenditure of effort, would bring down enemy bombers and defend important strategic targets.
In August, German industrialists Junkers, Heinkel, and Messerschmitt submitted plans. And so did Bachem. According to David Myhra, author of a series of books on Germany’s World War II experimental aircraft, the staff of the air ministry’s technical division reviewed Bachem’s uninvited submission, with its simple plans for a rocket interceptor made of wood pieces nailed together, and laughed him out of the room. But Bachem had connections—made perhaps through his work on the V-1 terror weapon—and through them, he presented his idea to Germany’s most sociopathic and least aeronautically discerning powerbroker: the head of the Nazi SS, Heinrich Himmler.