First encounters with the RAF
Early clashes with the RAF
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.