Last defence of the Reich
Fw 190 to the end of the war
The final year of the Second World War saw the Allies landing in Normandy and pushing east, while the Soviets drove the battered German armies westwards. Above it all, the Fw 190 continued to fight on the front line during increasingly desperate battles against the American, British and Russian air forces…
During the spring of 1943, as both American daylight bombing and British night bombing intensified, the Luftwaffe came under increasing pressure to prevent it. While effective tactics had been developed which enabled the Fw 190 to tackle American B-17s and B-24s, the RAF’S bombers were more difficult to stop. When combined into a single stream, it was impossible for German controllers on the ground to direct twinengined two-seater Messerschmitt Bf 110, Junkers Ju 88 and Dornier Do 217 night fighters on to individual targets. In addition, from April 1943, the British were able to jam the German Lichtenstein B/C radar and then the C-1 that followed it. While the ‘battle of the beams’ went on, with both sides trying to improve their radar and radar jamming technology, German night fighter production failed to keep pace with the sheer number of bombers that the RAF was able to field night after night. An innovative solution was devised by Luftwaffe pilot Oberstleutant Hans-joachim Herrmann. He thought that single seat day fighters, working closely with searchlights and flak on the ground, could be sent up at night individually to spot enemy bombers by sight alone. This, he thought, would not be too difficult when faced with a huge formation. The Fw 190 was his weapon of choice for these operations, which were dubbed Wilde Sau or ‘wild boar’. An improvised unit was set up, Nachtjagdversuchskommando Hermann, on April 20-22 and training of pilots began. The first major Wilde Sau operation took place on July 3, 1943, over Köln. The flak and searchlights completely ignored their instructions, lighting up the bombers and Hermann’s fighters indiscriminately while the flak seemed to fire at random. Nevertheless, the Wilde Sau operation successfully shot down six British bombers including a Lancaster and a Halifax. Now Hermann was given a mixed force of eight unmodified Fw 190s including A-4s, A-5s and A-6s, plus 33 Bf 109G-6s and a single Bf 109T. The unit was initally dubbed ‘JG Herrmann’ but renamed JG 300 on August 20, 1943. Operations continued from the end of July through to September 26 when two additional units were formed – JG 301 and JG 302. The only Gruppe of these to fly the Fw 190, however, was II./JG 301 and it shared its aircraft with I./JG 11, which used them during the day. Flying a single seat fighter at night without the aid of radar and with radio frequencies often heavily jammed was extremely dangerous and losses were high. Pilots were trained to simply bail out if they became confused, ran out of fuel or suffered damage, rather than risk a crash landing in darkness. Kurt Tank was reportedly impressed by this previously unforeseen use for his fighter and set about developing a version of the Fw 190A-6 equipped with a FUG Neptun airborne intercept radar. Successful experiments were conducted with the FUG 216 Neptun V, the aircraft fitted with it being able to independently detect enemy bombers in any weather.
A number of these experimental airframes were used in combat by 2./JG 2 to shoot down a number of Halifax bombers in November 1943. In December a Fw 190A-5, WNR. 181703 CI+PU, was fitted with the FUG Neptun 216 R tail warning radar.
‘Big Week’and Berlin
A new air fleet, Luftflotte Reich, was formed on January 1, 1944, and it included Fw 190equipped Gruppen of JG 1, JG 11, JG 300 and JG 302. Four days later JG 1 and JG 11 were in action against Eighth Air Force heavy bomber formations, and their fighter escorts, attacking targets across both France and German. Further raids took place on January 7 and 11 but by far the largest was on January 29 when more than 800 bombers and 630 fighters targeted Frankfurt. Fw 190-flying I./JG 26 and II./JG 26 intercepted them over France both on the way there and on the way back, claiming just 11 B-17s, five B-24s and five fighters destroyed. Three Fw 190 pilots were killed. Another raid the following day had a similar outcome for the Allies but this time with 11 German pilots killed. Frankfurt was hit again on February 4 and again on February 8. Further raids followed and on February 19 the Americans launched ‘Big Week’ or Operation Argument. This involved 1000 bombers and hundreds of fighters – every operational fighter available to the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces. The goal was to cripple the German aircraft manufacturers and targets included the works of Arado, Heinkel, Erla, Junkers and Ago. I./JG 11, I. and II./JG 1, and II./JG 26 all attempted interceptions with their Fw 190s but together they only managed to destroy 21 bombers and four fighters. The following day, more than 860 bombers hit more factories and this time Luftwaffe airfields were also attacked. The pounding continued until February 25 with a grand finale attack on Messerschmitt’s factories at Augsburg and Regensburg with a force of 754 bombers and 899 fighters. ‘Big Week’ did not have the overall impact that the Allies hoped, and although German aircraft production was affected for a few weeks, by late March 1944 most of the damage had been repaired. The German fighter force, on the other hand, had not faired well. Around 240 pilots were killed and another 140 had been wounded across all units. The majority of four-engined bombers shot down had been dispatched by Messerschmitt Bf 109s. There was no time for reflection however, as the Americans next turned their attention to attacks on the German capital, Berlin. The city was bombed by 730 B-17s and B-24s on March 6, escorted by 801 fighters, and a total of 345 civilians were killed. The Americans, however, paid a high price for this attack, with 69 bombers shot down, a staggering 347 damaged and 11 fighters destroyed. One of the B-17s had even been rammed by a Fw 190 of Sturmstaffel 1. The Luftwaffe believed it had inflicted a telling blow on the enemy but two days later there was another attack on Berlin, this time with a depleted force of 470 bombers but 891 fighter escorts. On March 18 there was a large-scale bombing raid on airfields in the Munich area and I./JG 11 managed to destroy 10 B-24s without losing a single Fw 190. Berlin was attacked again on March 23, this time by 768 bombers. The Fw 190 units continued to score victories but it was clearly not enough since the Americans were able to replace every lost aircraft and every lost crew with another in a matter of days. This pattern continued throughout April and May, when the Americans switched their attention again, this time to German oil production. The end of May saw Allied bombers hitting targets up and down the French coast in preparation for the operation that would signal the beginning of the war’s final phase – Operation Overlord.
With the carnage going on over Germany and on the Eastern Front, the Luftwaffe in France had been thoroughly drained of its strength by June 6, 1944. JG 2 and JG 26 could boast just 92 serviceable fighters when the Allies began their landings at Normandy – 79 of them Fw 190s and the rest Bf 109s. Ground-attack, fighter-bomber and night fighter Fw 190s amounted to another 37. The first Fw 190 victory of D-day came when Hauptmann Helmut Eberspächer of 3./SKG 10 shot down four Avro Lancasters of 97 Squadron just after 5am. Four hours later, Oberstleutnant Josef Priller and Unteroffizier Heinz Wodarczyk of Stab/jg 26 flew over Sword Beach in Fw 190A-8s. On seeing the hundreds of vessels arrayed before him, Priller reportedly said: “What a show! What a show!” The pair famously made a single strafing pass before fleeing into the clouds as dozens of antiaircraft guns opened fire on them. Half an hour later, I./JG 2 Fw 190A-8/R6S attacked landing craft at low level with underwing WGR. 21 rocket tubes. Starting the day with around 14 serviceable aircraft, I./JG 2 ended it with just three. Units from Germany began moving to France to cover ground forces attempting to contain the landings but these suffered too, with III./SG 4 losing four aircraft while moving to Laval. Fighter units equipped with the Fw 190 that moved up to oppose the Allies included elements of JG 1, JG 3, JG 11 and JG 54. Attempts to actually fight the British and Americans were hampered by continual air raids on their airfields, which frequently damaged the Fw 190s often even in their dispersed positions. A few days later, 7./JG 51 also moved to France from Russia, having been freshly reequipped with Fw 190A-8s. Leutnant Günther Heckmann of 7./JG 51 described the situation his unit found on
arrival: “We quickly learned the rules for survival in Normandy. Mustangs and Thunderbolts continually circled and dived as soon as they saw their prey. The only possibility of escaping them was to bank and engage them in a turning dogfight. “Nerves of steel were required. Pilots who tried to flee had no chance – the Americans would catch them in seconds. Typhoons, Tempests and Spitfires were the aircraft which were capable of dogfighting.” It was chaos and although the Germans managed their share of successes, for example when Hauptmann Emil ‘Bully’ Lang of II./JG 26 shot down four P-51 Mustangs in four minutes on June 20 and destroyed another four on June 24, it was clear that they were struggling to combat the roving Allied fighters effectively. After the Americans achieved a breakthrough with Operation Cobra on July 27, German forces began a general retreat from western France and the exhausted fighter units were removed from the front line, one at a time, for rest and re-equipment at bases in Germany. Another two Fw 190 Gruppen were formed at the end of the month when heavy fighter units I. and II. ZG 26 were redesignated I. and II./JG 6 and began conversion to the Fw 190A-8. It proved longer than expected to bring the various Fw 190 units back up to strength however, and JG 6 was not ready for action until August 22, when II./JG 6 was finally transferred to its new base at Reims in eastern France. During its first operation, on August 25, its 40 Fw 190s ran into a large formation of P-38 Lightnings from the 367th Fighter Group. In the ensuing melee the Germans came off substantially worse, with 16 Fw 190s being destroyed compared to 11 P-38s. By this time, SKG 10’s fighter-bomber Fw 190s had flown almost 3000 sorties over the invasion area and then across France as the Allies began to rapidly advance. Both its pilots and its stock of aircraft had been severely depleted. III./SG 4 had been almost wiped out. When the Operation Market Garden landings took place in Holland on September 17, 1944, the two closest Fw 190 units, I. and II./JG 26, tried to intercept the waves of transports and gliders as they made for the drop zone but were headed off by RAF Spitfires and USAAF Mustangs. Further clashes during the course of the operation saw the German fighter forces again coming off worst. On the last day of the action, September 27, 1944, I. and II./JG 26 shot down five Spitfires, but lost six Fw 190s. During late September and early October, the first Fw 190A-9s and D-9s were introduced and the Wilde Sau night fighter Gruppen of JG 301 began converting from the Bf 109 to Fw 190A-8s, which by now were being churned out in prodigious quantities – far larger quantities than of any previous version of the aircraft. While the units that received it regarded the Dora 9 as a new and more powerful version of the Fw 190, Focke-wulf viewed it as an unfortunate compromise, brought about by necessity rather than any particular desire to see the Fw 190’s lifespan prolonged. Chief designer Kurt Tank had his heart set on introducing the Ta 152 but this goal was slipping away from him. As noted elsewhere in this publication, one of the first tasks of the Dora 9-equipped 9./JG 54 and 12./JG 54 was to watch over the Messerschmitt Me 262s of Kommando Nowotny as they were taking off and landing at Achmer and Hesepe. The jets were extremely vulnerable during these stages of flight due to their poor acceleration.
Just over two weeks after the beginning of Operation Overlord on the French coast, the Russians launched their largest offensive to date on the Eastern Front. Operation Bagration began on June 22, 1944, and this time it was the Germans who were caught off guard. The sheer weight of Bagration was as staggering as it was unexpected when it hit Army Group Centre. The supply chain keeping front line German units stocked with food and ammunition was severed during a concentrated bombing campaign. The Soviet Air Force put up hundreds of aircraft – swarms of fighters and fighter-bombers the like of which had not been seen before. With units having been transferred to the west to fight the Allies in Normandy, Luftflotte 6 had 173 Fw 190s to fight back – but just 17 of these were dedicated fighters, the remainder being fighter-bombers. These suffered heavy losses as they were called upon to act as fighters in an effort to prevent wave after wave of Il-2s from destroying German ground forces. By the second week of July, Army Group Centre was disintegrating and another major assault was under way in Ukraine which the Luftwaffe was again ill-equipped to deal with, resulting in significant losses to the Fw 190s of II./SG 2, II./SG 10, SG 77 and 1./NAGR 32. Critical fuel shortages, thanks to the ongoing American campaign to annihilate Germany’s oil refineries, also meant that the number of sorties that could be flown, even when serviceable aircraft were available, had to be limited. Nearly all available Fw 190 fighter-bomber units, including SG 1, SG 2, SG 3, SG 4, SG 10 and SG 77, had been transferred to the Eastern Front by September 1944, since it was recognised that the Soviets now represented an even greater threat than the western Allies. Both Finland and Romania were now effectively out of the war but with a last ditch effort the Soviets were held back and a shaky front line was established along the River Vistula in Poland.
By mid-october, the Soviets had overrun the headquarters of the 3rd Panzer Army and advanced as far as the Baltic, cutting off what remained of Army Group North and Luftflotte 1 in the northwest of Latvia – an area that became known as the Courland pocket. Among the units operating the Fw 190 in the area were II. and III./SG 3 in their groundattack role with the fighters of I. and II./JG 54 engaging Soviet single-seaters and bombers alike. Ferocious battles were fought over and around the pocket, with the two fighter Gruppen shooting down 31 enemy aircraft on October 9 alone. The Russians tried repeatedly to crush the pocket throughout the month and on October 29 they launched an attack with 1800 bombers and fighter-bombers. Even this seemingly overwhelming force failed to dislodged the well dug in German ground forces however. JG 54 continued to shoot down Il-2s, Pe-2s and Yak-9s, notably destroying 42 on December 21, 1944.
the ‘Great Blow’
On the Western Front, the German army had finally managed to halt the Allied advance by October and the Luftwaffe was able to
concentrate on the problem of the waves of heavy bombers still regularly pounding German industry. General der Jagdflieger Generalleutnant Adolf Galland used this opportunity to lay plans for what he called ‘the Great Blow’ – an attack en masse that would inflict catastrophic damage during one of the Eighth Air Force’s larger bombing raids. If half of the B-17s and B-24s taking part in a 1000 bomber raid could be destroyed, Galland reasoned, the Americans would need time to recover. This would allow Messerschmitt time to produce large numbers of Me 262 jets and Focke-wulf time to finally get its Fw 190 replacement Ta 152 into service. By the start of November 1944, Luftflotte Reich had more than 1000 Fw 190s in hand, most of them A-8s and A-9s, plus 56 D-9s, while the front line units in France saw their numbers dwindle correspondingly. Overall, including other types, Galland had nearly 2200 fighters prepared. Everything was ready by November 12 but then Galland was ordered to prepare these huge reserves for a new offensive on the front line to the West against British and American fighters and fighter-bombers. The General der Jagdflieger was astonished. All his units now had too many aircraft – at least 70 apiece – to fit on to front line airfields and the new pilots he had been gathering were trained to fight bombers, not fighters. So the Great Blow never fell and the Luftwaffe was forced to begin dismantling its attack fleet.
Watch on The rhine and Baseplate
Leaving JG 300 and JG 301 to fight the American bombers, elements of JG 1, JG 2, JG 3, JG 4, JG 6, JG 11, JG 26, JG 54, SG 4 and NSGR 20 were moved into position to support and attack on Allied ground forces to the west. At 5.30am on December 16, Operation Watch on the Rhine began with a huge artillery barrage against an 80 mile section of the Allied front line. Then the 5th and 6th Panzer Armies and the 7th Army drove into the line, and smashed through. Allied aircraft were grounded by snowstorms but the German tanks continued to advance. The 6th reached Bastogne in Belgium before the attack was finally blocked by Allied forces. As the month dragged on, the weather improved and the USAAF, RAF and Luftwaffe were suddenly able to commence offensive operations again. Now the Luftwaffe decided to launch a modified version of Galland’s ‘Great Blow’ – Operation Bodenplatte or ‘Baseplate’. The target would be 11 Allied forward fighter and fighter-bomber airfields in France, Holland and Belgium, rather than high-flying heavy bombers. Some 490 Fw 190s were available for the attack. These included A-8s and A-9s from JG 1, JG 3, JG 6 and JG 11, A-8s and D-9s from JG 2 and JG 4, D-9s from JG 26 and JG 27, and A-8s, A-9s and D-9s from JG 54. The fighters took off at dawn on January 1, 1945, and made for their targets. It wasn’t quite the lightning hit and run strike that the Germans had intended however. The Allies were caught off guard but the German fighters encountered heavy flak, fighters that were already in the air and generally far stiffer resistance than expected. Overall, 305 Allied fighters were destroyed, most of them on the ground and without their pilots being harmed. The Germans, on the other hand, lost 271 aircraft, 144 of them Fw 190s. Losses among pilots were appalling – 143 killed or missing, another 70 taken prisoner after bailing out or crash landing and 21 wounded. Allied manufacturing was able to make good the losses of aircraft within a matter of days but the Luftwaffe never recovered from losing so many pilots in one go. A series of clashes with Allied fighters on January 14 resulted in still more grievous losses. JG 301 lost six Fw 190A-8s, 10 A-9s and D9/R11s and nine A-9/R11S while fighting off the Mustangs that were escorting a formation of 650 bombers en route to a fuel depot in Germany. Total losses for the day were 85 Fw 190s destroyed.
The road To Berlin
With the Russian winter finally relenting, the last great Soviet offensive of the war began on January 12, 1945, and this time there was no stopping it. Much of what remained of the Luftwaffe’s fighter strength in the west had to be hurriedly transferred to the east in an attempt to stop the Russian Il-2s from inflicting devastating casualties on the German army. Those flying the remaining Fw 190s and Bf 109s were mostly raw recruits, led by a handful of highly experienced but utterly exhausted veterans. The Soviets reached the River Oder on January 23 – just over 50 miles east of Berlin – and by the end of the month the Luftwaffe had lost yet another 215 fighters. When the RAF bombed Dresden on the night of February 13/14 there were few German fighters to oppose them but when the Americans sent 311 bombers to carry out a second attack on the city on February 14, II./300 and JG 301 tried to oppose them. Neither was successful but both lost four Fw 190s. By February 25, most of III./JG 54’s D-9s, protecting the Me 262s at Achmer and Hesepe, had been destroyed and it was absorbed into JG 26. The situation was desperate but even so, with the last of the Luftwaffe’s strength now committed to stopping the Russians from crossing the Oder, it was able to gain some successes. Some 14,000 sorties were flown against the Soviets from February 1 to February 10. As this resistance continued, the Americans reached the River Rhine to the west. Amazed to find a bridge intact at Remagen, they quickly began to bring forces across it. Twenty-four Fw 190 fighter-bombers were brought in to try and destroy it on March 9 but their attempts were not immediately successful and the Americans had, in any case, quickly built several pontoon bridges nearby. The noose was tightening by the beginning of April and by the middle of the month the Soviets had a staggering 150 divisions massed along the Oder, supported by some 7500 combat aircraft of all types. The Luftwaffe had just over 2000 remaining and precious little fuel to put in them. The Russian attack on Berlin itself commenced on April 16 and encirclement began on April 24. Among the Fw 190 units defending the capital were JG 3, I./SG 1 and II./SG 1. When the Soviets finally took the city, those remaining Luftwaffe personnel with sufficient fuel left to fly their aircraft made a desperate attempt to fly westwards and surrender to the British and Americans. Others attempted to escape westwards on foot or by road vehicle. Still others had no choice but to surrender to the Russians. The Fw 190’s time in the service of the Third Reich was over.
A Focke-wulf Fw 190 lies broken and upside down amid the wreckage around the Reichstag building in Berlin.the fighter was flown by several units during the last defence of the city.
Fw 190A-6 WNR. 550143 ‘White 11’ fitted with the FUG 217 Neptun radar – its aerials protruding from both wings and the fuselage fore and aft of the cockpit.the radar was an attempt to further improve the aircraft’s effectiveness during Wilde Sau night fighter operations but few saw service. Josef ‘Pips’ Priller poses with his BMW 335 in front of one of his many Fw 190 ‘Black 13’ aircraft in 1943. A year later, his was one of the few Luftwaffe aircraft to attack the invasion beaches on D-day – June 6, 1944.
A Luftwaffe training model shows the B-17’s fields of fire and how a Fw 190 might approach without being shot down. Attempting to stop American and British bombers from causing major disruption to German industry was a key goal of many Fw 190 units during the last year of the war. The Fw 190A-8 of Walter Wagner was hit by flak while attacking St Trond airfield in Belgium on January 1, 1945, during Operation Bodenplatte. Wagner made an emergency landing after his engine died and was captured. American engineers fixed his A-8’s engine and ran it for the camera – all its weapons have been removed.
A Fw 190A-9 of II./JG 4 at Delitzsch, south-west of Berlin, during 1945. Previously a Sturm unit, II./JG 4 fought until the end of the war during the last desperate battles to defend the Reich from both the Allies and the Soviets. As the Allies advanced eastwards they captured an ever growing number of aircraft that had been abandoned by the Germans. This Fw 190D-9, WNR. 631444, was photographed at Eschwege near Kassel, Hesse, Germany, in April 1945. When the Allies overran Lechfeld on April 29, 1945, they found, among other aircraft, Fw 190A-8 ‘White 40’.