With the Second World War looking increasingly unwinnable, in early 1944 a six-engine Junkers Ju-390 “Amerikabomber” lumbered skyward from a Luftwaffe airstrip near Bordeaux, France.
Droning unescorted over the Atlantic Ocean for more than 3,600 miles (5,798 km) on a grueling 16+ hour voyage, the weary crew of the German wonder weapon finally spied the New York skyline less than 10 miles in the distance.
Ironically however, final preparations didn’t include crewmen lining up their complex sites and opening their aircraft’s immense bomb bay doors before dropping a high-explosive payload on the Big Apple.
Instead, they apparently congratulated one another, snapped a few quick photos to mark the occasion, then swung their immense bird around 180 degrees and headed for home.
As scary as this scenario is, there are a few glaring problems.
Neither the photos nor any official records have ever been found.
In fact, flight logs seized after Germany’s surrender showed that the only 390 that ever flew was undergoing preliminary testing in Czechoslovakia at the same time of the purported mission to New York.
The truth is, it was probably little more than a fairytale concocted by Nazi PR men.
One based entirely on testimony gleaned from postwar interrogations of the Luftwaffe pilots and navigators who claimed to have been onboard.
For their part, the Allies found it difficult to fathom that the Nazis would send an expensive, untested and relatively defenseless protoype on such a dangerous mission to within miles of America’s heavily defended East Coast, simply because they could.
The Plan to Bomb America
The Amerikabomber project was an initiative of the German Ministry of Aviation that was purportedly on the drawing board years before World War II actually began.
Along with upper echelon Luftwaffe brass, Ministry officials were keen to get their hands on a strategic bomber capable of crossing the Atlantic, striking New York City, and returning home safely.
With a round-trip distance of about 7,200 miles (11,600 km), it was a particularly ambitious scheme considering the technology of the day.
But original specs mandated that the machines have the stamina to reach America from bases in the Azores, not continental Europe.
This would have cut nearly 900 miles (1,448 km) off the trip, but when Portugal’s dictator Antonio Salazar – who’d had a historically cozy relationship with the Nazis – leased a base in the Azores to the Allies, this became in impossibility.
Regardless of where they could and couldn’t fly from, many designers and Luftwaffe officers considered the plan sheer folly, arguing that even if a plane could be built with enough range to make the round-trip, it would need to be packed almost entirely with fuel, and the resulting bomb load would be laughably small.
Even before 1940, Messerschmitt designers had been tinkering with large multi-engine bomber designs behind the scenes, despite being ordered to focus esclusively on more conventional aircraft which were seen as a much greater priority.
Nonetheless, the plan was submitted to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring at the end of April 1942, after which he discussed the matter with other Luftwaffe bigwigs and Adolf Hitler himself.
By that time Germany had what looked like a world-beating air force, one that was more than capable of doing its part in the conquest of Europe.
Though the Luftwaffe had everything from iconic single-engine fighters like Me-109s and Fw-190s, to twin-engine destroyers, the world’s first operation jet fighter-bomber, and dozens of ground attack, reconnaissiance, and medium bomber aircraft already in production, unlike America and Britain, they never had an effective, mass-produced, four-engine long-range bomber.
Focke-Wulf’s Fw-200C Condor arguably fit the bill, but it was little more than a hastily converted airliner of which less than 300 were built, and their overall contribution to the war effort was minimal.
Nazi high command knew that at least in the early going, most of the aerial combat in which their pilots would be engaged would take place within the relatively small confines of Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa.
In these instances, medium-range bombers were usually adequate, but with the increasing likelihood of America entering the war, it became evident that larger and more capable machines would be needed.
Perhaps even ones large enough to deliver heavy conventional, and possibly even nuclear payloads to cities like New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC, as well as factories vital to the war effort.
Some of America’s largest defense contractors – companies like the Aluminum Corporation of America, American Car & Foundry, Chrysler, Colt, Pratt & Whitney and Curtis-Wright had facilities spread along the Atlantic coast and Midwest from Connecticut to Michigan, Pennsylvania to Indiana, and nearly everywhere in between.
As the global conflict raged, B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators were already hammering Axis targets around the globe.
Boeing’s massive B-29s that would ultimately deliver atomic payloads on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were close to being ready for production, while on the other hand, Germany’s Amerikabomber hadn’t gotten out of the concept phase.
That said, the German plan to bomb America was never about pounding the country into submission.
Even if the planes had been built in large numbers, everyone knew that their effectiveness would be limited, and that after the first mission the skies over the American coastline would be swarming with fighters and interceptors that would have had a field day with the lumbering behemoths.
Much like V-1 and V-2 rockets, even when successful the bombers would have inflicted little damage to American cities and industry.
However, they would have terrorized civilians and caused the military to use valuable resources to defend against subsequent attacks, and if they did actually destabilize the country’s war industries even a little, all the better.
In this respect the scheme was also similar to the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo.
Though Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 Mitchells did scant damage, their attack terrified Japanese citizens, and as a result the military was forced to divert anti aircraft batteries and fighters from other theaters where they were vitally needed.
Proposals and Designs
Focke-Wulf, Heinkel, Horten, Junkers and Messerschmitt submitted proposals for the Amerikabomber project, but of the initial concepts put forward, most were ultimately abandoned because they were too expensive, incorporated untested systems and power plants, and would require gobs of time, money and resources to develop, all of which were in painfully short supply.
Though most of the specifics were left up to the discretion of aircraft engineers, the planes would need to fly high enough to put them out of range of US fighters and interceptors, hence it was envisioned that defensive armament wouldn’t be needed.
The most promising proposals were based on relatively conventional designs that would have resembled the Allied bombers of the day, though many were significantly larger and heavier.
Horten’s flying wing design was among the most revolutionary proposal submitted.
Powered by six turbojets, the futuristic tailless bomber might have had the range and payload necessary to carry out missions to America, but development costs would have been astronomical, and it would have been years before production models were ready to fly.
Not surprisingly, only three prototypes were built before the project was canceled.
With its He-177/Dornier Do-217 setup, Heinkel submitted another radical proposal.
The larger He-177 bomber would carry a crewed Dornier Do-217 on its back out into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where the two planes would detach.
Then, the Dornier would continue on alone on the last leg of the mission to America.
However, 217s were never intended to make the return trip to Europe.
Instead, after dropping their payloads, crews would ditch their planes at sea, and if all went according to plan, be rescued by U-boats before they drowned, were devoured by sharks, or died of hypothermia.
Though it was the center of much discussion between Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine officers, this setup was never tested.
In a classic case of “inter-branch” squabbling and rivalry, the Kriegsmarine refused to have one of its submarines act as a rescue ship, and the project was nixed.
Famed Austrian aerospace engineer Eugen Sänger may have secretly scoffed at his competitors designs, because what he envisioned was a suborbital rocket bomber unlike anything the world had ever seen.
Before the war he’d been tinkering with this groundbreaking concept, which was akin to a manned V-2 rocket with wings and a fuselage.
Preliminary tests were carried out 1944, but again the technology was in its infancy and time was of the essence.
If Sänger’s design had been developed, it was estimated that the lifting body would launch itself into orbit, skip through the upper reaches of the nearly airless atmosphere at an astonishing 14,000 miles per hour (22,530 km/h), after which it would drop an 8,000-pound (3,630 kg) bomb on New York.
Junkers’ Ju 390 proposal was submitted in May of 1942, and unlike most of the other company’s designs, it was actually selected for production, though in the end only two prototypes were ever built.
Based on Junkers’ Ju 290, 390s would be crewed by ten airmen and have theoretical bomb loads exceeding 20,000 pounds (9,071 kg).
In addition, they’d be bristling with defensive armaments including three cannons and four machine guns that would have given the slow birds at least some degree of defense against the American aircraft that would have intercepted them.
With wingspans of 165 feet (50 m) and powered by six 1,800-horsepower BMW radial engines, 390s would technically be capable of making the round trip between Europe and America, thanks largely to their low cruise speeds and fuel capacity of slightly more than 9,000 US gallons (7,500 Imperial gallons).
On the downside, this would never have been possible with a full payload, much of which would have needed to be dedicated to additional fuel.
Like many of the proposed Amerikabombers, the 390’s designers were trapped in a particularly vicious circle.
First, more engines and greater fuel loads were needed for long range flight.
These of course added weight and drag, both of which limited range and payload, thereby making most of the aircraft wholly unsuited for the jobs for which they’d been designed.
Designed by Kurt Tank of Fw-190 fame and incorporating elements from a number of existing aircraft, Focke-Wulf’s Ta-400 featured shoulder-mounted wings and six BMW 801 radial engines, to which Tank proposed adding jet engines to increase range, speed and payload.
Like Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress, Ta-400s would feature tricycle landing gears, pressurized cabins, bubble cockpits at the front of their fuselages, and a number of remotely operated cannon and machine gun turrets.
Fuel would have been distributed to the engines from nearly three dozen individual tanks strategically placed around the aircraft for optimal weight distribution, and at 53,000 pounds, (24,040 kg), the proposed bomb load was in a class by itself.
Cruising at just more than 200 miles per hour (325 km/h), Ta 400s driven by piston and jet engines may have had ranges exceeding 8,000 miles (12,875 km).
But though Focke-Wulf was considered a legitimate contender in the Amerikabomber competition, its Ta-400 was never anything but an unfinished prototype.
Messerschmitt’s Me-264 was another conventional if relatively promising design of which only three aircraft were built.
Based on the company’s long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft, 264s were all-metal, four-engine, high-wing airplanes powered by BMW radials producing 1,700 horsepower, and later Daimler-Benz inverted V-12s rated at 1,900 horsepower each.
With maximum takeoff weights of 123,000 pounds (56,000 kg) and top speeds of approximately 340 miles per hour (295 km/h), 264s were among the fastest of the Amerikabombers that ever flew, though cruise speed was more than 100 miles per hour slower.
Features included a number of remotely operated turrets, as well as crew beds and a small galley for preparing in-flight snacks.
Defensive armaments and creature comforts aside, with service ceilings of just 26,250 feet (8,000 m) they weren’t capable of flying out of reach of American fighters and interceptors, and though their ranges exceeded 9,000 miles (14,484 km), bomb loads on long-distance missions would have been less than 6,000 pounds (2,721 kg).
As such, the Luftwaffe favored other Amerikabomber designs, namely the Ju 390, Ta 400 and Heinkel He 277.
Of the three units built, two were destroyed during Allied bombing raids before they’d ever taken to the air.
Other Claimed Amerikabomber Flights
In addition to the aforementioned 390 flight to America, there were other uncorroborated and probably fictitious accounts of long-range Amerikabomber missions.
The second Ju-390 prototype was said to have flown non-stop from Germany to South Africa in 1944, but again there’s little evidence that it did, aside from a hazy story told by the test pilot.
It was also claimed that the sole Me-264 made multiple flights between Berlin and Tokyo, though these stories probably sprouted from the rumor that the plane was kept in reserve to transport Hitler and his cronies to Japan if the plot to assassinate him led by Claus von Stauffenberg couldn’t be thwarted.
Stories also arose about the Me-264 being retrofitted with a 5,500+ horsepower steam turbine engine that would turn a single propeller nearly 18 feet (5.5 m) in diameter.
In the end however, the story’s fanciful nature pegs if for what it was, a tall tale.
The Amerikabombers That Never Were
In the days before aerial fueling when engines were relatively anemic and consumed tons of fuel, bombers capable of flying nearly 10,000 miles with massive payloads were more dream than reality.
Had adequate resources been earmarked for the project, German designers could have conceivably pulled it off, but as more than a few noted historians have pointed out, Germany lacked a clear central authority to oversee concepts like the Amerikabomber.
In addition, piston engines of the day were lucky to crank out 2,000 horsepower, but though more powerful power plants were available, most were relatively unreliable.
To the consternation of his subordinates, throughout the war Hitler was inclined to waste vast resources on projects that had little chance of success.
Likewise, in the mid-war years Allied bombing severely disrupted German manufacturing and supply chains, which meant that everything from steel and aluminum to gasoline and ammunition became increasingly scarce.
As the war drew to a close and enemies closed in from nearly every side, Nazi Germany was forced to recall greater quantities of men and material for the defense of the Fatherland.
Perhaps if Germany been farther along in its development of nuclear weapons, the program may have taken on a new urgency, but the truth was that the cost for delivering small conventional bomb loads on New York City just wasn’t justified.
Ultimately, each proposed Amerikabomber was abandoned, but after the war their advanced design elements became of great interest to aerospace engineers in Europe and America.
In fact Eugen Sänger’s lifting body would be the foundation on which America’s Space Shuttle program was built.