Did you know about the aerial rockets seen in Masters of the Air?

A rocket attack depicted in Masters of the Air. Note that the episode shows an unusual attack from the side of the bomber formation, rather from behind.
(Image: Apple Studios)

In our third short article reflecting on the currently running miniseries Masters of the Air, we'd like to talk about the air-to-air rockets used by German planes against Allied bomber formations, as depicted in the third episode. The weapon briefly seen in the show was the Werfer-Granate 21, the same rocket that was also used in the Nebelwerfer infantry rocket launcher. Like the frontal attacks described in our previous reaction article (Read our earlier article), this rocket was also an attempt to defeat the overlapping fields of fire Allied heavy bombers protected each other with.

A German rocket narrowly missing a B-17
(Photo: unknown photographer)

German single-engine planes such as the Bf 109 (Read our earlier article) or the Fw 190 could have one rocket, held in a tube, strapped under each wing, while two-engine heavy fighters such as the Bf 110 had two per wing. (Photographic evidence indicates that German heavy fighters serving in the Hungarian air force were sometimes armed with three rockets per wing.) The weight and shape of the rockets and their launch tubes decreased the plane's speed and maneuverability, but gave it a weapon that could be launched from outside the range of the .50 caliber Browning machine guns (Read our earlier article) U.S. bombers were armed with.

A German ground crew arming a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 with rockets
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Since the rocket outranged machine guns, single planes or groups could safely approach bombers from behind and fire a volley at the formation from up to 1,300 yards (1,200 meters) away. The weight and relatively slow speed of the rocket gave it a significant ballistic drop. This was counteracted by installing the launch tubes at a 15° upwards angle, but aiming was still difficult, and each individual rocket only had a 15% chance of a hit. However, even misses were useful: shrapnel would still hit bombers, and pilots would often break from the formation in an attempt to get away from the lethal ordnance. Once a bomber was out of formation, it was no longer protected by the others' guns, and was a much easier target.

Two launcher tubes under the wing of a heavy fighter
(Photo: Nevington War Museum)

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