In 1944, Captain Diether Lukesch test flew and helped develop the Arado Ar 234, the world’s first jet bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. In that same year, he made history’s first jet bomber attacks, in an attempt to stop the Allies’ advance in Western Europe. Lukesch was fascinated with aviation as a young boy in the 1920’s, when aircraft flying the first regular route between Munich and Vienna would pass directly over his family home in Austria. Gazing up at the planes, Lukesch swore he would become a pilot. By 1937, at the age of 19, Lukesch had earned his glider permit. The next year, he joined the Luftwaffe. In early 1940, as lieutenant, Lukesch was assigned to the famous Kampfgeschwader (bomber wing) KG 76.
In 1940-41, flying the Dornier Do 17Z and the Junkers JU 88, Lukesch attacked targets throughout the United Kingdom–from the southern coast of England, to Scotland and Northern Ireland. By mid-1941, Lukesch was flying on the Eastern Front. At times using maps captured from the Soviets, he flew to the very gates of Moscow. He devastated a Soviet headquarters, and twice made it back to his unit after being shot down behind enemy lines. For overall skill and bravery, Lukesch was awarded the Ritterkreuz (Knights Cross). As the war progressed, Lukesch was promoted to oberleutnant, then staffelkapitän.
As a squadron commander, he flew missions all along the Eastern Front–from Leningrad in the north to Stalingrad in the south. Lukesch dive-bombed fortifications at Sevastopol, provided close air support for the army’s drive to Stalingrad, attacked oil refineries and storage sites along the Volga and in the Caucasus, destroyed armament factories in Gorky, and attacked troop transports along the Siberian Railway. Lukesch flew two low-level night attacks against aircraft factories in Rybinsk on the Volga. After another attack at Rybinsk, his target, a petroleum facility, burned for days. Lukesch is credited with sinking 14 tankers and 2 cargo ships on the Volga, and even shooting down 6 aircraft, with a bomber! In the Mediterranean Theater, he attacked harbors from Libya to Algeria.
In May 1944, when Lukesch was stationed in Italy, his commander told him and other officers they would return to Germany and transition to a new bomber–one with no propellers. Suppressing smiles, the men said, “The old mans gone crazy once again!” Soon, however, Lukesch was test flying the experimental jet “wonderbird,” the Arado Ar 234. In October 1944, as his Arado training proceeded, Lukesch was awarded Eichenlaub (Oak Leaves) to his Ritterkreuz. On the day before Christmas 1944, Lukesch led nine Ar 234 B-2’s in the first jet bombing missions ever, supporting the German counterattack out of the Ardennes.
The target was a factory complex at Liege, Belgium. Returning home, Lukesch came up behind a patrolling British Spitfire. The Spitfire pilot had no way of knowing that the Ar 234 carried, as yet, no defensive armament–only Lukesch and his pistol–and the Spitfire veered off. In the days that followed, Lukesch and the Arado pilots attacked Allied troops, rail yards, and other positions. On New Year’s Day 1945, Lukesch led history’s first jet, night-bombing sortie, attacking targets at Brussels and Liege. He concluded the war with a total of 436 bombing and long-range reconnaissance missions. After the war, Lukesch worked at first for US Armed Forces in Austria. He then became a commercial airline pilot, flying for 18 years first with KLM, and later Lufthansa.