The Buzz

Nazi Germany's Focke-Wulf FW-190: The Best Fighter Aircraft of World War II?

On July 28, 1943, Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Erwin Clausen shot down another two B-17 Flying Fortresses to add to the two he had shot down the previous day. There were 15 other Focke-Wulf FW-190 pilots that claimed downing a bomber in defense of the aircraft works at Kassel and Oschersleben. It is believed that this was the first time that the Luftwaffe’s single-engined fighters had been able to employ under-wing rockets against the American bombers.

The following day, as 15 groups of B-17s attacked targets on the Baltic coast, it was the weather that provided the best cover for the bombers. The Luftwaffe response was relatively weak with only four Jagdgruppen FW-190s sent up to oppose the bomber force. The Focke-Wulf group was credited with four of the 12 claimed to have been shot down, which agreed with what the Americans stated they had lost.

The next day the B-17s were headed for a second strike against the aircraft factories in Kassel. On this occasion, the Luftwaffe reacted stronger than before. Among the planes sent up, there were at least five Focke-Wulf FW-190 units. The Focke-Wulfs of Jagdgeschwader 1 did not engage the bombers until after they had left the target area and were about to recross into Dutch territory. At that point, they would be under the protection of Allied fighters that would escort them back to the United Kingdom. Despite this development, the pilots of JG1 were able to claim six B-17s and two enemy fighters destroyed. The successes came at a high price: the loss of seven aircraft. Among the pilots killed were two Staffelkapitane and the campaign’s then-leading FW-190 four-engine bomber ace, Oberfeldwebel Hans Laun of 1.JG 1, who was shot down near Arnhem, Netherlands.

The Focke-Wulf FW-190 was widely believed to be the best fighter aircraft of World War II. As the war went on the FW-190 was manufactured in no fewer than 40 different models. The appearance of the new aircraft over France in 1941 was a rude surprise to the Allied air forces. The FW-190 was in service for the entire war, replacing a number of other aircraft including the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber. Possibly the plane’s biggest influence on the Allies was that it served to spur on greater advances in technology and aircraft design to counter the threat of the FW-190.

The Focke-Wulf FW-190 not only was a superb daytime fighter but was also used extensively as a night fighter, interceptor, and ground attack aircraft on the Eastern, Western, and Italian Fronts. The introduction of the FW-190 changed the capability of the Luftwaffe’s combat operations. This was especially the case with the introduction of the FW-190D in 1944. This new model offered superior handling with a top speed of more than 400 miles per hour.

During the first two years of World War II, the Messerschmitt Me-109 was the preeminent German fighter plane, there was simply nothing else. But in 1941, during cross-Channel aerial warfare between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe, a new challenger entered the fight on the German side. The Me-109 from that point forward would have a new partner in the air war.

Design History of the Fw-190

The development of the FW-190 began with a contract in 1937 from the Reichsluftfahrtministerium for a new single-seat fighter. The new plane was designed by Focke-Wulf engineer Kurt Tank, a German aeronautical engineer and test pilot. He was chief engineer in Focke-Wulf’s design department from 1931 to 1945. He was not only responsible for the development of the FW-190, but also the Focke-Wulf Ta-152 fighter-interceptor and the FW-200 Condor. The FW-190 was first developed as two different models, one using the water-cooled inline Daimler-Benz DB 601 engine and the other using the BMW 139 aircooled radial. The BMW 139 was selected for development in summer of 1938. The first prototype flew on June 1, 1939. The BMW 139 produced 1,550 horsepower, attaining a speed of 370 miles per hour. As the prototype was refined, the BMW 139 was replaced by the BMW 801, which was heavier but had greater potential for future development. Although the engine did have some problems to overcome, the FW-190 showed excellent handling characteristics and its wide undercarriage made takeoffs and landings less hazardous. Powered by the new BMW engine, which produced 1,600 horsepower, the FW-190A-1 was armed with four wing-mounted 7.92mm MG17 machine guns.

First impressions of the new BMW 801 engine were not good. “The new twin row, 14 cylinder, air-cooled radial engine gave us nothing but misery. Whatever could possibly go wrong with it, did. We hardly dared to leave the immediate vicinity of the airfield with our six prototype machines,” reported one pilot. This criticism of the new plane is sometimes credited with saving the FW-190 project from cancellation. Eventually, the problems were sufficiently corrected for the plane to be cleared for service in July 1941. One of the major changes made by Tank and his designers was in the FW-190’s armament. They replaced the inboard MG17s with two 20mm FF cannons. The modified fighter now had the designation of FW-190 A-2 and took the Royal Air Force completely unawares with descriptions of the plane being discounted by British intelligence.

In June 1942, a fortuitous event occurred for the Allies. A Luftwaffe pilot accidentally presented an intact FW-190A fighter to his enemies. Oberleutnant Armin Faber landed on what he thought was a Luftwaffe airfield on the Cotentin Peninsula that turned out to be the RAF airfield at Pembrey, Wales. As he slowly taxied to a stop, Faber was intensely surprised when someone jumped on the wing and pointed a pistol at his head. The pilot was so despondent that he attempted suicide.

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