The Heinkel He 219 Uhu ("Eagle-Owl") was a night fighter that served with the German Luftwaffe in the later stages of World War II. A relatively sophisticated design, the He 219 possessed a variety of innovations, including Lichtenstein SN-2 advanced VHF-band intercept radar, also used on the Ju 88G and Bf 110G night fighters. It was also the first operational military aircraft to be equipped with ejection seats and the first operational German World War II-era aircraft with tricycle landing gear. Had the Uhu been available in quantity, it might have had a significant effect on the strategic night bombing offensive of the Royal Air Force; however, only 294 of all models were built by the end of the war and these saw only limited service.
Development and production of the He 219 was protracted and tortuous, due to political rivalries between Josef Kammhuber, commander of the German night fighter forces, Ernst Heinkel, the manufacturer and Erhard Milch, responsible for aircraft construction in the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM — the German Aviation Ministry). The aircraft was also complicated and expensive to build; these factors further limited the number of aircraft produced.
When engineer Robert Lusser returned to Heinkel from Messerschmitt, he began work on a new high-speed bomber project called P.1055. This was an advanced design with a pressurised cockpit, twin ejection seats (the first to be planned for use in any combat aircraft), tricycle landing gear — featuring a nose gear that rotated its main strut through 90° during retraction (quickly orienting the nose-wheel into the required horizontal position for stowage within the nose, only at the very end of the retraction cycle) to fit flat within the forward fuselage and remotely controlled defensive gun turrets similar to those used by the Messerschmitt Me 210. Power was to be provided by two of the potentially troublesome, dual-crankcase DB 610 "power system" engines then under development, weighing on the order of about 1–â€Š1⁄2 tonnes apiece, producing 950 hp each, delivering excellent performance with a top speed of approximately 470 mph and a 4,000 km range with a 4,410 lb bomb load.
The RLM rejected the design in August 1940 as too complex and risky. Lusser quickly offered four versions of the fighter with various wingspans and engine choices in order to balance performance and risk. At the same time, he offered the P.1056, a night fighter with four 20 mm cannon in the wings and fuselage. The RLM rejected all of these on the same grounds in 1941. Heinkel was furious and fired Lusser on the spot.
About the same time as Lusser was designing the P.1055, Kammhuber had started looking for an aircraft for his rapidly growing night fighter force. Heinkel quickly re-designed the P.1055 for this role as the P.1060. This design was similar in layout but somewhat smaller and powered by two of the largest displacement (at 44.5 litres/2,700 cu. in.) single-block liquid-cooled aviation engines placed in mass production in Germany, the DB 603 inverted V12 engine. As designed by Heinkel, these engines' nacelle accommodations featured annular radiators similar to the ones on the Jumo 211-powered Junkers Ju 88A, but considerably more streamlined in appearance, and which, after later refinement to their design, were likely to have been unitised as a Henkel-specific Kraftei engine unit-packaging design. Heinkel was sure he had a winner and sent the design off to the RLM in January 1942, while he funded the first prototype himself. The RLM again rejected the He 219, in favour of new Ju 88- and Me 210-based designs.
Construction of the prototype started in February 1942 but suffered a serious setback in March, when Daimler said that the DB 603G engine would not be ready in time. Instead, they would deliver a 603A engine with a new gear ratio to the propellers, as the DB 603C with the choice of using four-blade propellers, as the similarly-powered Fw 190C high-altitude fighter prototypes were already starting to use into early 1943, with the DB 603. DB 603 engines did not arrive until August 1942 and the prototype did not fly until 6 November 1942. When Kammhuber saw the prototype on the 19 November, he was so impressed that he immediately ordered it into production over Milch's objections. Milch—who had rejected the He 219 in January—was enraged.
Stability problems with the aircraft were noted but Heinkel overcame these by offering a cash prize to engineers who could correct them. Further changes were made to the armament during the development of the prototype He 219V-series. the dorsal rear defensive guns—mounted atop the fuselage and firing directly rearward from a fixed, internally mounted, rear-facing dorsal "step" position, at a point just aft of the wing trailing edge — were removed due to their ineffectiveness.
The forward-firing armament complement of the aircraft was increased to two Mauser MG 151/20 20 mm auto-cannon in the wing roots, inboard of the propeller arcs to avoid the need for gun synchronisers, with four more MG 151/20 auto-cannon mounted in the ventral fuselage tray, which had originally ended in a rearwards-facing "step" similar to and located directly under the deleted rear dorsal "step" — this rearwards-facing feature was also deleted for similar reasons. The A-0 model featured a bulletproof shield, that could be raised in the front interior cockpit, hiding the entire bottom portion of the windscreen, providing temporary pilot protection and leaving a sighting slot by which the gunsight could be aimed at a bomber. Production prototypes were then ordered as the He 219 A-0 and quickly progressed to the point where V7, V8 and V9 were handed over to operational units in June 1943 for testing.
The earlier prototypes, with four-blade propellers for their DB 603 engines had blunt, compound-curvature metal nose cones also used for production-series He 219A airframes. The initial examples of these nose cones possessed cutouts for their use with the quartet of forward-projecting masts for the Matratze 32-dipole radar antennae on the noses of at least the first five prototypes, used with the early UHF-band Lichtenstein B/C or C-1 radar installation.
Milch repeatedly tried to have the He 219 program cancelled and in the process, Kammhuber was removed from office. Production ceased for a time, but was restarted because the new Junkers Ju 388s were taking too long to get into service.
The He 219 had an auspicious combat debut. On the night of 11–12 June 1943, Werner Streib flew the V9 and shot down five bombers between 01:05 and 02:22 hours, before crashing on landing. Claims have been made that over the next ten days the three Heinkel He 219A-0 pre-production aircraft shot down a total of 20 RAF aircraft, including six of the previously "untouchable" de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bombers. Greatly encouraged, Kammhuber continued to press for immediate production.
The He 219 was a capable fighter aircraft and the pilots were free to hunt down any detected Allied bombers. Ground control sent the aircraft into the right area, where the pilots took over and guided themselves towards the bombers with the Lichtenstein VHF radar's information. The SN-2 radar's 4 km (3 mi) maximum detection range was greater than the distance between the bombers. While the performance of the A-2 was not extraordinary—approximately 580 km/h (360 mph) speed—it was enough of an advance over the Messerschmitt Bf 110Gs and Dornier Do 217Ns, for the crew to chase several bombers in a single sortie.
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