First en­coun­ters with the RAF

Early clashes with the RAF

Aviation Classics - - CONTENTS - Art­work by Claes Sundin Art­work by Claes Sundin

When Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers first re­ceived re­ports con­firm­ing the ex­is­tence of a new ra­dial-en­gined Luft­waffe fighter to­wards the end of 1940 they had no way of know­ing how it would mea­sure up against the most ad­vanced RAF fighter then in ser vice, the Su­per­ma­rine Spit­fire Mk.vb, but they were about to find out...

Although re­ports of a new Ger­man fighter with a ra­dial en­gine had been re­ceived in Oc­to­ber 1940, it was not un­til Jan­uary of the fol­low­ing year that th­ese were con­firmed as re­fer­ring to a ma­chine pro­duced by Focke-wulf known as the Fw 190. Crit­i­cal in­tel­li­gence came from a cap­tured Ger­man ser­vice­man which was then as­sessed against pre­vi­ously gath­ered in­for­ma­tion. The re­port on his in­ter­ro­ga­tion, in Jan­uary 1941, stated: “The fighter, which he called the Fw 190, had a typ­i­cal Focke-wulf wing plan, a very short fuse­lage, and a very high un­der­car­riage, which agrees with pre­vi­ous in­for­ma­tion, when a POW said that it was so high that a lad­der was nec­es­sary to climb in. “The en­gine was the same as to be fit­ted to the Do 217, the BMW 801 dou­ble-row ra­dial, which ap­peared to him to be sur­pris­ingly com­pact. On trial, the air­craft was said to have reached a speed of 435mph. “The visibility of the pi­lot should be very good, as the curved Plex­i­glas hood has no brac­ing struts. The ar­ma­ment con­sists of two ma­chine guns and two can­non. It is said to be al­ready in pro­duc­tion, and the story is told that both Mölders and Gal­land are al­ready fly­ing them.” Fur­ther ev­i­dence, how­ever, was lack­ing for some time un­til the Bri­tish be­came aware that the Fw 190 was about to en­ter ac­tive ser­vice. On Au­gust 13, 1941 – the day be­fore the Fw 190 was used op­er­a­tionally for the first time

by the Luft­waffe – the Air Min­istry’s Weekly In­tel­li­gence Sum­mary, is­sued to all RAF units and passed on to air crew, in­cluded a re­port head­lined ‘Fw 190 Fighter’ which read: “A cer­tain num­ber of th­ese new fighters have been pro­duced, but in­for­ma­tion avail­able is very scant. The gen­eral de­sign is said to be based on Amer­i­can prac­tice and the air­craft is prob­a­bly a low-wing mono­plane with a fairly short fuse­lage and a span of about 30ft. “This new air­craft is fit­ted with a two-bank ra­dial, an en­gine of the same type as that in the Dornier 217. It is def­i­nitely known that this par­tic­u­lar ma­chine had to be fit­ted with an aux­il­iary me­chan­i­cally-driven fan to keep the en­gine tem­per­a­tures within rea­son­able lim­its. “It is also re­ported that it is equipped with a very large airscrew and that the un­der­car­riage is ex­traor­di­nar­ily high in or­der to give the nec­es­sary ground clear­ance. Rough es­ti­mates show that the speed of the Fw 190 is some­where be­tween 370 and 380mph at 18,000-20,000ft.” The next day, Au­gust 14, two Spit­fires of 306 (Pol­ish) Squadron were shot down by two JG 26 pi­lots – Ober­leu­tant Wal­ter Sch­nei­der and Leu­tant Heinz Schenk – fly­ing Fw 190A-1s on their first op­er­a­tional sortie. As well as be­ing one of the first pi­lots to shoot down an en­emy ma­chine while fly­ing the Fw 190, Schenk also has the du­bi­ous distinc­tion of be­ing the first pi­lot to be killed in one. He was shot down by a Ger­man flak bat­tery near Dunkirk on Au­gust 29 af­ter his air­craft was misiden­ti­fied as a tar­get. On Septem­ber 18 a com­bat re­port by 41 Squadron pi­lot Fly­ing Of­fi­cer Cyril Bab­bage stated that he had de­stroyed “a Cur­tiss Hawk (or Fw 190)”. This was in fact the Fw 190A-1 of II./JG 26’s leader, Haupt­mann Wal­ter Adolph. Bab­bage, fly­ing a Spit­fire Vb, had been es­cort­ing three Bris­tol Blen­heim bombers as they at­tacked a tanker off the Bel­gian coast. Adolph and seven of his men, all pi­lot­ing Fw 190s, had been as­signed to pro­tect the tanker. In the battle that en­sued, two of the Blen­heims were de­stroyed. None of Adolph’s men saw what hap­pened to him and it was only when his body washed ashore at Knokke three weeks later that they knew he was dead. He was the first Fw 190 pi­lot to be killed in ac­tion. Just three days later, a pi­lot of 315 (Pol­ish) Squadron re­ported that he had shot down “one un­known en­emy air­craft with a ra­dial en­gine”. This is may have been Leut­nant Ul­rich Dzialas of 8./JG 26 who was killed that day or an air­craft of 4./JG 26 which crash landed at St Omer af­ter suf­fer­ing en­gine fail­ure fol­low­ing com­bat. By the end of Septem­ber, II./JG 26 pi­lots fly­ing Fw 190s had de­stroyed 18 Spit­fires for only two con­firmed losses. On Oc­to­ber 13, dur­ing an­other Blen­heim es­cort mission, this time over the Fon­tinettes boat lift on the canal at Arques, near Calais, the gun cam­era of a 129 Squadron Spit­fire took an im­age of what was clearly a Fock­eWulf Fw 190 – rather than a Cur­tiss P-36 Hawk. JG 26 had 34 ser­vice­able Fw 190A-1 out of 55 in to­tal by Oc­to­ber 25 and a sec­ond Gruppe, III./JG 26, had started con­vert­ing to the type. It al­ready had 38 air­craft but just seven of them were ser­vice­able. Yet the Air Min­istry’s Weekly In­tel­li­gence Sum­mary for Oc­to­ber 29, 1941, stated: “In re­cent weeks a ra­dial-en­gined type of fighter has been en­coun­tered by the RAF and has been re­ported as a French air­craft, the Bloch 151, and as a new type of Ger­man fighter, the Fw 190. There is as yet in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to say with cer­tainty what the new air­craft is.” That un­cer­tainty van­ished on Novem­ber 8, 1941, when the en­tire strength of JG 26 and Bf 109-equipped JG 2 was scram­bled to in­ter­cept a dou­ble raid by the RAF. Two squadrons of Hurri-bombers had been sent to tar­get a dis­tillery at St Pol, cov­ered by five Spit­fire squadrons, while 12 Blen­heims cov­ered by 11 fighter squadrons at­tacked the rail re­pair yard at Lille. The en­su­ing se­ries of dog­fights saw seven Spit­fires de­stroyed for the loss of only three Fw 190s. Pi­lot Un­terof­fizier Karl­heinz Kern of 4./JG 26 was killed and two other Fw 190s had to make forced or crash land­ings how­ever. This was to be the last ma­jor fighter battle of 1941 on the West­ern Front. On De­cem­ber 22, a sin­gle ac­ci­dent saw as many Fw 190s de­stroyed at a stroke as the RAF had man­aged all year. Ober­leut­nant Wal­ter Sch­nei­der was lead­ing 6.Staffel on a trans­fer flight from Wevel­gem to Abbeville-dru­cat at low level through heavy fog when he be­came dis­ori­en­tated. He dove down over the Ar­tois hills, in­stead of fly­ing up over them, and crashed into the ground along with four of his pi­lots. All five were killed. Sch­nei­der was re­placed by Ober­leut­nant Otto Behrens – who had pre­vi­ously led Er­probungsstaffel 190 in March 1941 as the Fw 190 was pre­pared for ser­vice.

Don­nerkeil and the a-3

In the wake of the attack on Pearl Har­bor, Ger­many had de­clared war on the US on De­cem­ber 11, 1941, and the US had de­clared war on Ger­many in re­turn. Up to this point, the only op­po­nent fac­ing the Fw 190 on the West­ern Front had been the RAF and this would re­main the case un­til the late sum­mer of 1942, when the first Amer­i­can units joined the fight. As 1942 be­gan how­ever, poor weather meant that JG 26’s fighters were only in­volved in oc­ca­sional clashes with their Bri­tish op­po­nents. The Grup­penkom­man­deur (group com­man­der) of III./JG 26, Josef ‘Pips’ Priller scored one of the unit’s few vic­to­ries of the pe­riod when he shot down a Hur­ri­cane north-west of Calais on Jan­uary 3 – his 59th vic­tor y. The first ma­jor air op­er­a­tion of 1942 in the west was to cover a trio of Ger­man war­ships – the Scharn­horst, the Gneise­nau and the Prinz Eu­gen – in what later be­came known as the Chan­nel Dash. All three ves­sels had been docked at Brest har­bour on the French coast for some months, the first two since March 22, 1941, and the Prinz Eu­gen since June 1, 1941. This put them within easy reach of Bri­tish bomber bases and nearly 3000 sor­ties had been flown against the im­mo­bile ships by Fe­bru­ary 1942.

Fear­ing some of his best war­ships could soon be lost, Hitler him­self or­dered that they be moved to Ger­man har­bours and re­paired. Af­ter much de­bate, it was de­cided to risk sail­ing the trio up the English Chan­nel. The plan was dis­cussed by Hitler and his com­man­ders on Jan­uary 12, 1942. Hitler said the fleet was “like a pa­tient with can­cer who is doomed un­less they sub­mit to an op­er­a­tion. An op­er­a­tion, on the other hand, even though it may have to be dras­tic, will at least of­fer some hope that the pa­tient’s life may be saved. The pas­sage of our ships is such an op­er­a­tion. It must be at­tempted.” The Chief of the Luft­waffe Gen­eral Staff, Hans Jeschon­nek, who was present at the meet­ing, promised fighter cover of 250 air­craft. This rep­re­sented nearly ev­ery fighter avail­able to the Luft­waffe in the west at that time – since most fighter units were en­gaged in Op­er­a­tion Bar­barossa to the east. Be­tween them, JG 26, JG 2 and JG 1 had just 252 ser­vice­able fighter air­craft. While the op­er­a­tion to move the ships was co­de­named Cer­berus, the aerial de­fence be­came Op­er­a­tion Don­nerkeil (Thun­der­bolt) and was planned in de­tail by Gen­eral of the Fighter Forces Adolf Gal­land. Di­ver­sion­ary raids were planned and the route the ves­sels would take was di­vided into sec­tors so that a min­i­mum of 16 fighters could re­main above them at all times. The RAF had kept a close eye on the three Ger­man ships and knew that they were about to be moved. In­for­ma­tion sup­plied via Ul­tra in­ter­cepts con­firmed this. How­ever, it was be­lieved that the most haz­ardous part of the jour­ney would be made un­der cover of dark­ness and the Bri­tish were caught off guard when the Ger­mans planned the jour­ney to cover this sec­tion in day­light in­stead. The fleet set off at around 9pm on Fe­bru­ary 11 and was not de­tected by RAF pa­trols through a com­bi­na­tion of poor weather, me­chan­i­cal fail­ure and radar jamming. It was not un­til 11.30am on Fe­bru­ary 12, af­ter a pair of Spit­fire pi­lots had sighted the fleet and flown home to warn their su­pe­ri­ors, that a Bri­tish re­sponse was or­dered. At 12.16pm, re­al­is­ing that the game was up, Gal­land al­lowed the Scharn­horst to break ra­dio si­lence and Fw 190 and Bf 109 units were di­rected to meet the com­ing RAF at­tack­ers. Six Fairey Sword­fish tor­pedo bombers of 825 Squadron took off to attack the war­ships at 12.25pm but two of the three Spit­fire squadrons or­dered to pro­tect them ar­rived too late. Only 72 Squadron made it on time. As the Sword­fishes and Spit­fires ap­proached the tar­gets, they were met by Fw 190s of 8. And 9./JG 26 led by JG 26 Geschwaderkom­modore Ma­jor Ger­hard Schöpfel. All six of the Sword­fishes were downed and although some man­aged to launch their tor­pe­does, none scored a suc­cess­ful hit. JG 26 also man­aged to de­stroy three Spi­fires, two Han­d­ley Page Ham­p­dens and a Hawker Hur­ri­cane dur­ing the day. The Bri­tish, in re­turn, de­stroyed three Fw 190s from 9./JG 26 and four other air­craft. The Scharn­horst, the Gneise­nau and the Prinz Eu­gen reached Ger­man ports on the evening of Fe­bru­ary 12. All three had been dam­aged, the Scharn­horst se­ri­ously, dur­ing the voy­age but the worst of it had been caused by mines rather than aerial attack. In the wake of Op­er­a­tion Don­nerkeil, JG 2 be­gan to re­ceive its first Fw 190A-2s. The first of its squadrons to con­vert from the Bf 109F was 6./JG 2 based at Beau­mont-le-roger. This proved to be a dif­fi­cult process for the unit, how­ever, and 11 Fw 190s were lost in ac­ci­dents be­tween Fe­bru­ary and May 1942. Two pi­lots were killed. On April 17, the RAF launched an au­da­cious day­light raid against the Maschi­nen­fab­rik Augs­burg-nürn­berg U-boat diesel en­gine plant at Augs­burg. Twelve of Bri­tain’s new­est bomber, the four-en­gined Avro Lan­caster, from 44 and 97 Squadrons

flew in two groups of six at tree­top level across France to avoid Ger­man radar. A se­ries of di­ver­sion­ary raids had been mounted else­where in­volv­ing dozens of bombers and up to 800 fighters to en­sure that the Lan­cast­ers had a trou­ble-free trip. How­ever, the tim­ing of the Ger­man re­sponse to th­ese raids meant that Fw 190s of JG 2 were just com­ing in to land at their Beau­mont-leRoger base when their pi­lots spot­ted one of the Lan­caster groups. Be­tween 25 and 30 Fw 190s swiftly drew up their land­ing gear and gave chase, still hav­ing enough fuel in their tanks for an in­ter­cep­tion at such short range. Four of the Lancs were shot down and only two made it to Augs­burg – and only one of th­ese made it back to Bri­tain. By now, a small num­ber of Fw 190A-3s had be­gun to en­ter ser­vice too. The A-3 had im­proved ailerons to re­duce flut­ter and a more pow­er­ful and more re­li­able en­gine than the BMW 801 C of the A-2, the BMW 801 D-2. Among other mod­i­fi­ca­tions, the 801 D-2 in­cor­po­rated the ex­haust re-rout­ing de­vised by Oblt Rolf Schröfter which pre­vented the lower rear cylin­der from over­heat­ing. Focke-wulf built the first batch of three A3s in Novem­ber 1941 and had turned out 74 by the end of March 1942, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­tin­u­ing to build Fw 190A2s us­ing up ex­ist­ing stocks of BMW 801 C en­gines. The com­pany’s sub­con­trac­tors, Arado and Ago, also con­tin­ued to build A-2s but both started A-3 pro­duc­tion in April 1942 and in May were joined by a third com­pany, Fieseler, which built its first A-3 that month. Also that month, a third Jagdgeschwader, JG 1, be­gan con­vert­ing to the Fw 190. II./JG 1 based at Woens­drecht and Katwijk in Hol­land be­gan re­ceiv­ing A-2s and A-3s on May 12, 1942.

Poor build qual­ity

It was read­ily ap­par­ent to front line Luft­waffe units that the rapid in­crease in Fw 190 pro­duc­tion had re­sulted in cor­ners be­ing cut and by mid-may the RLM had had enough of poorly fin­ished and faulty air­craft be­ing de­liv­ered to front line units. It called two meet­ings, first with BMW on May 22 and then with Focke-wulf on May 27, to de­mand that the sit­u­a­tion be im­proved and the is­sues with build qual­ity re­solved. A list of 24 com­plaints about the Fw 190s be­ing de­liv­ered had been com­piled by JG 26 tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer Ernst Battmer. Among the prob­lems he listed were ir­reg­u­larly sized wings made by con­trac­tors, poor wheel brakes, fuel pump fail­ures, over-large con­trol sticks, weak un­der­car­riage bolts, leaky valves, poorly fit­ting cock­pit canopies, too-short starter han­dles, woe­ful ex­ter­nal paint fin­ish and fre­quent en­gine fail­ures. This re­port was sent to Focke-wulf’s de­sign team as a fol­low-on from the meet­ing and they quickly set to work rec­ti­fy­ing each is­sue. Around a third of the prob­lems iden­ti­fied by Battmer were cured in the Fw 190A-4, which had a BMW 801 D-2 en­gine with pro­vi­sion for GM-1 ni­trous ox­ide in­jec­tion and pro­duc­tion of which be­gan in July 1942. Nearly all of them were ad­dressed in the A-5, which en­tered pro­duc­tion in Novem­ber 1942. Shot down by Spit­fires six miles south of Dun­geness on July 26, 1942, Leut­nant Horst Benno Krüger of 5./JG 2 told the RAF in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers who in­ter­ro­gated him that the en­gines of his unit’s Fw 190s had had to be de-rated to keep them go­ing for longer. He also said that the Fw 190s sup­plied to 5./JG 2 from the Arado pro­duc­tion line were gen­er­ally in­fe­rior to those pro­duced by Focke-wulf it­self. In spite of its prob­lems, how­ever, the Fw 190 was su­pe­rior to any other fighter then in ser­vice – as the RAF would dis­cover once again dur­ing the dis­as­trous raid on Dieppe on Au­gust 19, 1942.

The Fw 190A-2 flown by Ober­leut­nant Egon Mayer of 7./JG 2 from Beau­mont le Roger, France, on Au­gust 19, 1942. Mayer shot down a Spit­fire and a Hur­ri­cane that day, his 25th birth­day, dur­ing the dis­as­trous Al­lied land­ings at Dieppe. Later that year, Mayer pi­o­neered the head-on attack as the best means of avoid­ing the massed fire­power of Amer­i­can bomber for­ma­tions.the fol­low­ing June, Mayer re­port­edly en­coun­tered Amer­i­can P-47 Thun­der­bolt ace Robert S John­son limp­ing home in a badly dam­aged air­craft. He pulled up along­side the air­craft, looked it over, then pulled back and made two passes, fir­ing into the Thun­der­bolt, be­fore run­ning out of ammunition hav­ing failed to shoot it down. He pulled up along­side again, saluted John­son, and flew away. John­son, when he landed, counted more than 200 bul­let holes in his ma­chine. Mayer was killed in ac­tion on March 2, 1944.

The first ex­per­i­men­tal Focke-wulf Fw 190 air­frame – Fw 190 V1 – as it was first flown by com­pany chief test pi­lot Flugkapitän Ing. Hans San­der at Bre­men, Ger­many, on June 1, 1939.The V1 was fit­ted with BMW’S 139 ra­dial en­gine and though it proved to be more than suf­fi­ciently pow­er­ful, it rapidly over­heated both it­self and the cock­pit be­hind it. San­der found the rapidly ris­ing tem­per­a­ture bear­able but very un­com­fort­able and was forced to don his oxy­gen mask when fumes from the en­gine be­gan to seep into the poorly sealed cock­pit.there were also prob­lems with the un­der­car­riage, which re­fused to lock cor­rectly into the ‘up’ po­si­tion. San­der con­tin­ued to test fly Focke-wulf air­craft for most of the war. He died in 2000.

Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion

The very first pro­duc­tion Fw 190A-1, coded SB+KA, was de­liv­ered to II./JG 26 and served un­til April 18, 1942, when it was crash-landed at Abbeville and suf­fered se­ri­ous dam­age. JG 26 con­tin­ued to make use of the A-1 well into 1942 though all had been writ­ten off, de­stroyed or re­built be­fore the end of the year.

Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion Bun­de­sarchiv Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion

The Fw 190 played a piv­otal role in aerial cover for the bat­tle­ship Scharn­horst, as well as its sis­ter ship Gneise­nau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eu­gen, dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Don­nerkeil in Fe­bru­ary 1942. One of the most fa­mous pi­lots to fly the Fw 190 in the west was Josef ‘Pips’ Priller, pic­tured here as a ma­jor. He be­came Grup­penkom­man­deur of III./JG 26 in De­cem­ber 1941 and scored his 59th victory, his first in a Fw 190, on Jan­uary 3, 1942. Dur­ing the war, Priller shot down more Su­per­ma­rine Spit­fires than any other pi­lot. The first Fw 190 pi­lot to die in com­bat was the leader of II./JG 26 – Haupt­mann Wal­ter Adolf. He was shot down by Bri­tish ace Fly­ing Of­fi­cer Cyril Bab­bage of 41 Squadron on Septem­ber 18, 1941. Bab­bage recorded the air­craft he de­stroyed as be­ing a Cur­tiss Hawk (or Fw 190).

Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion

Leut­nant Horst Benno Krüger of 5./JG 2 was fly­ing this Fw 190A-2 when he was shot down by Spit­fires six miles south of Dun­geness on July 26, 1942. Cap­tured by the Bri­tish, he re­vealed that Focke-wulf’s sub­con­trac­tors were pro­duc­ing Fw 190s that were gen­er­ally of in­fe­rior qual­ity. A row of un­marked Fw 190A-2s or A-3s fresh from the fac­tory. Rapid ex­pan­sion of pro­duc­tion left Focke-wulf and its con­trac­tors strug­gling to main­tain build qual­ity. II./JG 1 was in­tro­duced to the Fw 190 in March 1942.This for­mer JG 26 Fw 190A-1 ex­am­ple is painted with the unit’s un­usual nose mark­ings. Un­der­car­riage fail­ure was not un­com­mon among early pro­duc­tion Fw 190s, par­tic­u­larly those man­u­fac­tured by Focke-wulf’s sub­con­trac­tors. KE+XQ, pic­tured here hav­ing suf­fered a col­lapsed un­der­car­riage leg, was built by Ago.

Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion

Six Fairey Sword­fish air­craft of 825 Naval Air Squadron were sent to attack a trio of Ger­man war­ships be­ing cov­ered by Fw 190 units dur­ing the Chan­nel Dash in 1942.Their top speed of 139mph was close to the stall speed of the Fw 190, mak­ing them dif­fi­cult tar­gets by virtue of their sheer slow­ness, but in the end all six were de­stroyed.

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