Aviation History

The only time a Me 163 used the SG 500 50mm vertically-firing anti-bomber recoilless rifle in combat this Lancaster had the rear gun turret and starboard rudder shot away

The Me 163 Komet

The German Me 163 Komet was the end result of a long line of tailless research aircraft designed by Dr. Alexander Lippisch. The first Me 163A prototypes were tested in 1941, but powered flight testing of the more advanced Me 163B was delayed until August 1943 due to engine and fuel problems. Although the Komet’s rocket engine gave it an exceptional climb rate, range was severely limited by its high fuel consumption. Furthermore, the fuels used were extremely hazardous and sometimes exploded without warning, killing a number of pilots.

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However, the Me 163 is remembered for having been one of the most unusual aircraft of World War II. Fortunately, its potential impact was minimized by technical problems and the small number produced.

The Sondergerät SG 500 Jagdfaust

Among the weapons used by the Komet there was the incredible Sondergerät SG 500 Jagdfaust (“hunting fist”) or Jägerfaust (“hunter’s fist”) experimental airborne anti-bomber recoilless rifle.

As explained by Robert Forsyth in his book Me 163 vs Allied Heavy Bombers Northern Europe 1944–45, this vertically-firing volley weapon comprised a variable number of rifled tubes that were to be fitted into the wing of an aircraft. Upon the triggering of a photoelectric cell close to a radio aerial near the aircraft’s ammunition bay, shells would be fired upwards and into the underside of a bomber as the carrying fighter passed below. The tubes would then be jettisoned downwards. With the 50mm-caliber muzzle velocity of the SG 500 being limited to 400m per second, range to the target had to be reduced to just 50m in order to improve operational efficiency.

Luftwaffe Me 163 attacking RAF Lancaster

The SG 500 was used in combat on Apr. 10, 1945. During the early evening, in clear weather, 230 aircraft of RAF Bomber Command attacked the railway yards at Engelsdorf and Mockau in the outer districts of HASAG’s base city of Leipzig. At least one Me 163B of 2./JG 400, with Leutnant Friedrich Kelb at the controls, was scrambled from Brandis (an airfield on low-lying land just a few kilometers east of Leipzig) to intercept them. Kelb was observed to climb sharply above the trees at the end of the runway and then head towards the lead bombers, which were thought to be flying at an altitude of around 8,000m. Such was Kelb’s speed and course toward the RAF formation that one observer on the ground viewing events through a long-range Flak telescope feared he would ram one of the bombers.

Me 163B-0 of 1./JG 400 fitted with 50mm SG 500 Jägerfaust four-barrel, single-shot installations.

In fact, Kelb fired his SG 500 at Lancaster B III ME315, a Pathfinder Force bomber flown by Montreal-born Sqn Ldr Campbell Haliburton Mussells of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s No. 405 “Vancouver” Sqn as it completed its first pass over the target and was about to commence another. The projectiles from the special weapon shot away the Lancaster’s rear gun turret and starboard rudder, shattered the port rudder, and damaged both elevators so badly that they were rendered useless. The rear gunner, Flt Lt Melborn Mellstrom, was in his turret at the time of Kelb’s attack and was killed. Damage was also caused to the H2S set and mid-upper turret, the gunner being seriously wounded.

The first and only time that the SG 500 was used in combat

The stricken Lancaster fell 4,000ft, with Mussells having to use all his strength to lash back the control column with a length of rope to keep the nose of the aircraft up. Escorted by P-51s, and with the assistance of his flight engineer, he flew the crippled bomber as far as the British coast, after which he ordered his crew to bail out. Mussels remained with the aircraft and was able land it at Woodbridge, in Suffolk. He was awarded the DSO for his actions during this mission.

Despite his fuel being spent, Kelb was able to evade the Mustang escort and land back at Brandis. It was the first and only time that the SG 500 was known to have been used in combat.

Me 163 vs Allied Heavy Bombers Northern Europe 1944–45 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

The shattered rear of ME315, with its missing tail turret, after being hit by a projectile from an SG 500 fired by Leutnant Kelb’s Me 163. Sqn Ldr Mussells managed to fly the bomber back to East Anglia, landing at Woodbridge

Photo credit: Robert Forsyth, Gareth Hector, Jim Laurier via Osprey

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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