Projekt Natter: Last of the Wonder Weapons
The Luftwaffe's Vertical Take-off Rocket Interceptor

Brett Gooden

"So these were the Government's famous 'wonder weapons' so long trustingly awaited by the German people! In the few months that could be left to us in the prevailing military situation they could not even postpone the catastrophe, much less turn the scales..."
In January 1945, Generalmajor Walter Dornberger summarised the current efforts to break the Allied air supremacy. There were around 76 guided missile designs in development at the time, "none were yet complete and all required months of steady application before their usefulness could be definitely established", as Gooden puts it. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realise the problem - it's not unusual for Wunder Waffen to be better on paper than in reality, not to mention the harsh reality of military operations, and every step in between requires, among many other things, time; and if there was anything the Reich lacked in 1945 (and it sure lacked a lot of things), it was time.

Had there been more time, we probably would have a picture of the Natter as a fighting aircraft, for better or worse; as it is, we don't, since it never got beyond the testing stage.

The Natter concept was, briefly, a manned SAM. As enemy bombers approached, the rocket  aircraft took off vertically and went up to the altitude in question (10-12 km) in about 1 minute (60 seconds), by autopilot and/or radio. It then levelled out and gave the pilot a chance to manually home in on the enemy and fire at him, with the limited firepower available (surviving examples were fitted with 24 rocket tubes, to be fired in a single salvo within half a second). The main mission was then over - the pilot dives, the propellants are supposed to be exhausted anyway. At 3,000 m, the craft disassembles in mid-air; the front of the cockpit comes off, the unseated pilot tumbles out, opens his parachute, and safely reaches the ground. A parachute in the main section of the craft made recovery possible, only the cockpit front and the solid-propellant rocket boosters were disposable. The entire operation, from take-off to touch-down, took just a few minutes.

This idea was possibly not as ludicrous as it might sound. Though the chances of each individual Natter to down a bomber appears rather slim, it was never supposed to work alone, but to attack in swarms located all over Germany; even if only a fraction of them succeeded, it was far better than the current air defence (the state of which was, of course, the reason why around 76 guided missile designs were being developed at the time). The aircraft demanded little in manufacturing (low-grade wood and even cardboard was used, very little rationed material was necessary), ground equipment (no air strips that could be bombed) or pilot competence (though not quite as little as originally thought), and could thus be used on a large scale, at least much larger than other, far more complex, interceptor designs at work. At one stage, a monthly output of 500 Natters was planned.

Though the concept of manned anti-aircraft missiles had been conceived years earlier, the very first crude sketches of what would become the Natter were drawn in mid-July 1944 by Erich Bachem of Bachem-Werk, Waldsee. That the first manned vertical take-off (which, as the author points out, was the first manned rocket VTO ever) took place 32 weeks later, on 1 March 1945, gives an idea of not only the intensity with which Bachem & co worked with the project, but also how simple most of the technology involved actually was. The Natter wasn't really high-tech, not in the way the V-1, the Me 163 Komet or the V-2 were high-tech; it was mostly decidedly low-tech, but low-tech in so many novel ways that it still required a lot of development and testing. It took, for example, several months to figure out whether the pilot should be in a prone or seated position; the physiological effects of positive and negative g forces, which played a major role in this fundamental issue, were only beginning to be understood at the time. The effects of decompression sickness which could be caused by the very fast though brief ascent was another. Whether the pilot after firing at the enemy should attempt to ram him as well was another. And so on. Had the project been initiated only a year earlier, the Natter might have evolved into a very real problem for the Allied air forces - this is at least the feeling the book gives, and it probably was present among the people who worked with it, until the very last days in April and May 1945.

This book have to be the definitive work on the Natter. It is carefully referenced, follows nearly all aspects of its development; construction, armament, testing, bureaucracy, et cetera, including the post-war fates of the project, its participants and even the few recovered crafts. (At times, the details are perhaps more impressive than readable; e.g. the description of the construction, which leaves little to the imagination.) Considering the lack of reliable sources on the subject, the author must have used pretty much all there is, including photographic evidence.

Since no Natter was ever involved in any fighting, the book isn't really about World War II as it was fought - instead, it is a deep and thorough insight into an industrial/military project, that happened to take place not only during the war, but during the last months on the losing side. The fact that it was on a comparatively small scale makes it far easier to grasp than many other similar projects. As an introduction to German research in World War II, it is excellent.

A final note: Leslie E. Simons German Research in World War II from 1947 features the silhouette of a Natter on the cover (with a strange over-sized landing gear which Gooden identifies as the wheels of a trailer one unit captured by the Allies happened to have been photographed on; the Natter itself had no landing gear at all). This is by far the most widespread image of the aircraft, since the cover is reproduced in the Tintin album The Calculus affair. In Michael Farrs comprehensive Tintin - The complete companion, he mentions it as a Messerschmitt. The real irony, however, is that the Natter isn't mentioned once in Simons book. It seems to be the fate of the Natter to be stuck between reality and imagination.

(Reviewed by Peter O.)
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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