Forget the P-51 Mustang or Zero: This Was the Best Fighter Plane During World War II

January 12, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIB-17Royal Air ForceNazi GermanyLuftwaffe

Forget the P-51 Mustang or Zero: This Was the Best Fighter Plane During World War II

The Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighter aircraft helped to even the odds against enemy fighters.

The Bomber Killer

The FW-190 first saw action over the English Channel in 1941. In February 1942, it was providing cover for the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisinau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen as they tried to reach northern German ports. In one engagement, the 190s destroyed all six attacking Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers. The new fighter was a shock to the RAF, faster and more agile than the Spitfire. The FW-190 was a stout opponent in a dogfight with its extremely heavy armament. The FW-190 pilots tended to work in pairs, giving each other good tactical support in battle. The excellent visibility provided by the plane’s cockpit assisted the pilots in supporting one another. As time went on, the FW-190 became a terror to Allied aircraft in every region where the Luftwaffe was active. It inflicted huge losses on B-17 Flying Fortress and Consolidated B-24 Liberatorbomber crews, and was almost impossible to stop until the long-range P-51 Mustang came into service in 1944 and began escorting bombers to their targets.

One of the more important roles played by the FW-190s was in the defense of the Reich, a strategic defensive aerial campaign. The Luftwaffe had set up a chain of fighter bases in northwestern Europe. These stretched from the Bay of Biscay to the Kattegat. By late summer 1942, the American Eighth Air Force was beginning to make its first forays into northern France. The first attack by the Eighth took place on January 27, 1943. Despite all the time, effort, and resources put in by both sides, the first fighting in the defense of the Reich was inconclusive. The FW-190s’ first attack was on several Liberators of the 44th Bomb Group. Two of the Liberators went down into the shallows between the Dutch coast and the offshore island of Terschelling. One source suggests that one of the bombers was lost as a result of a mid-air collision with a battle damaged FW-190, which tore off the B-24’s port wing and tail assembly. This action, like many of the claims made by pilots during the 27-month campaign, was never confirmed. If anything, this problem worsened as the number of aircraft involved in the never-ending air battles in the skies over Germany grew from dozens to the hundreds and eventually thousands.

The first month of the air campaign ended with the raid on Wilhelmshaven on February 26, 1943. In this phase of the campaign, the fighting ended in favor of the Luftwaffe, which downed 15 heavy bombers from the U.S. Eighth Air Force while it suffered seven pilots killed and one wounded. On March 4, the FW-190s played a major role in attacking a group of B-17s whose target was the marshaling yards at Hamm in North Rhine-Westphalia. Four of the five bombers were shot down in the Eighth Air Force’s first appearance over the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. On April 17, the Eighth Air Force returned to Bremen, but this time its target was the city’s Focke-Wulf aircraft factories. These were producing the very FW-190 fighters that the Americans were fighting in the air. During this raid the Americans lost 16 B-17s with 10 falling to the FW-190s. These losses were at least part of the reason that the Eighth Air Force did not reappear over the Reich for nearly a month. The attacks of June 25 brought to an end the first half of the fighting in the air campaign of 1943.

The opening rounds of the campaign had produced only mixed results. The overriding factor for this period was the absence of a fighter escort for the bomber formations. The final outcome was still far from certain. In the second half of 1943, the Eighth Air Force suffered catastrophic casualties, but the defenders’ losses would begin to escalate as the year wore on. In this period, the U.S. Army Air Forces lost 87 bombers and had more than 500 damaged mostly due to Luftwaffe attacks, many of which involved FW-190s.

The air campaign would soon become a different arena of battle entirely. The arrival of U.S. escort fighters in ever increasing numbers would dramatically change the situation. The Luftwaffe pilots would no longer have the luxury of remaining unmolested beyond the range of the bombers’ defensive fire and then deciding how to deliver the attack. Protected by their fighters, the bombers would be much more difficult to approach, and kills would become more difficult to achieve with losses inevitably becoming much higher.

The number of fighters escorting Eighth Air Force bombers was truly alarming to the Germans. The number would eventually exceed 500. One method which the Luftwaffe began to develop to counter the increased number of enemy fighters was to have the Me-109s keep the enemy fighters occupied while the FW-190s attacked the bombers. The Luftwaffe also transferred many of its most successful pilots closer to Germany to defend the Reich in the most critical campaign of the European air war.

By the end of 1942, the FW-190 was fighting in North Africa, on the Eastern Front, and in Western Europe. In the Soviet Union, the FW-190 was effective in low-flying ground attacks on vehicle convoys and tanks. In this theater, the FW-190 carried 250- and 500-pound bombs, either of which could knock out a tank. One major issue on the Eastern Front was keeping the FW-190s and other aircraft supplied. This was at a time when many of the planes were flying up to eight sorties a day. On the Eastern Front, the FW-190’s reliable air-cooled engine and wide-track landing gear were well suited for service in the extremely harsh conditions. Operations on the Eastern Front led to a number of changes that resulted in the FW-190F fighter-bomber designed with a special emphasis on ground attack. This particular version carried 794 pounds of armor, which included sections of steel plate located behind the pilot’s head, on the lower engine cowling, and in the wheel well doors. The F-8 version turned out to be the most important model of the “F” series. Frontline units, using kits supplied by the factory, could adapt these aircraft to carry various combinations of heavy cannons, bombs, rockets, and even torpedoes.

As the war went on, the different models of the FW-190 were in almost constant contact with enemy bombers. This led to improvements in the form of more cannons and underwing rockets. Later, bomb racks were fitted to the FW-190 airframe under the fuselage and under the wings to broaden the capability of the fighter for attacking ground targets. By the end of the war, German fighter airfields were forced back closer to Berlin for fear of being bombed, which resulted in the FW-190 becoming more of a ground attack and support aircraft as German air power dwindled in the final days of the war. In spite of this situation, the beleaguered German air crews fought on with their FW-190s despite mounting losses. The Allied bombing campaign reduced the number of FW-190s, and the added issue of pilot attrition only made the situation for the Luftwaffe much worse. In the end, the FW-190 had played its role well in defeat as the war came to a close.

20,000 FW-190s Built

By the end of the war, more than 20,000 FW-190s had been built for the Luftwaffe. At peak production, 22 FW-190s were being produced daily. When hostilities ended in Europe, the Luftwaffe had more than 1,600 FW-190s, of which more than 800 were ground-attack variants. After the war, Tank, the primary developer of the FW-190, negotiated with the United Kingdom, the Nationalist government of China, and the Soviet Union for his services. However, negotiations with all three countries proved to be unsuccessful. He later accepted an offer from Argentina to work at its Aeronautical Institute under the pseudonym Dr. Pedro Matthies. Tank spent two decades designing aircraft abroad, including work in India, before returning to Germany in the late 1960s to work as a consultant for Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm. The heavy demand for his services was a testament to his genius as an aircraft designer.

Originally Published January 9, 2018

This article by William F. Floyd, Jr. originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikipedia.