Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wulf?

by Major Nathaniel F Silsbee

Low-down on Nazi's Fw-190 indicates AAF and RAF pilots need to respect but not fear the Luftwaffe's formidable fighter

During the early autumn of 1941, Royal Air Force pilots shot down over Occupied France two German fighter planes which could not be identified. One peculiarity noted was the use of a radial engine. Hitherto in the European battle skies the flashiest sharp-nosed fighter planes, such as the Spitfires and Hurricanes, the Messerschmitts and Heinkels, have been powered by a Vee-type liquid-cooled engines of the Rolls-Royce Merlin and Daimler-Benz variety. About this same time, Army Air Forces intelligence reports mentioned a new fighter type on the Russian front, speedy, maneuverable, heavily armed and of unusually clean design.

From brief notes which appeared in German aeronautical journals, this was identified as the Focke-Wulf Fw-190. During the winter, many of them were shot down by the RAF in Spitfires and Hurricanes, and by Soviet pilots in IL-2 Stormovik and MIG-3 fighter planes. In the spring, the Germans announced the existence of the Fw-190. Photographs were released and an enthusiastic statement issued describing the plane as the world's best fighter. Incidentally, this procedure, similar to the British practice, of retaining a new military airplane on the secret list until it is in full production and battle operation, and even after a few have been shot down, definitely has not been carried out in this country. For example, the Republic Thunderbolt (P-47) , was hailed by the press early in 1941 as a powerful high-altitude fighter with 2,000-horsepower engine and turbosupercharger. This was months before the prototype had flown, and a year and a half before quantity production, not to mention actual combat operation. Maybe we shall do better with our new models now that we are up to our necks in all-out war. It is not encouraging, however, to observe that two of these, held closely under wraps by Army censorship with good cooperation by the aircraft industry and the press, already have been mentioned abroad by name and designation. The best way for Goering and Tojo to find out about our new aircraft and improvements in our present models is to overwhelm them in and from the skies. Note for the book: It has been reported that nearly 100 Jap pilots and planes had been KO'd by the stinger tail guns of the B-17, last spring's version of the Flying Fortress, before they woke up to what was cooking.

During the past summer, brief descriptions of the Fw-190 appeared in the American press, and increasing mention was made of it in action. As a part of the wave of criticism directed against our fighter planes in particular, the Fw-190 was often favorably compared with the British Spitfire, as well as with our Curtiss Kittyhawk (P-40) and Bell Airacobra (P-39). When Peter Masefield, aviation correspondent of the London Sunday Times, and technical editor of The Aeroplane, threw his hat into the ring with his list of twelve "best" planes, he included the Spitfire in the fighter category. Several aviation writers criticized this decision, naming instead the Focke-Wulf. Against such a background, then, let us have a good look at this airplane, all the more carefully in that we know hundreds of our boys are going to be meeting it in deadly win-or-lose combat during the next few months.

Design Detail

The "man behind the design" of the Fw-190 is Kurt Tank, the Nazi Armaments Industry Leader, creator of the Fw-189 short-range reconnaissance and ground-attack plane, distinguished by its twin booms, like our Lockheed Lightning (P-38) fighter. He was also responsible for the four-engine Fw-200 Condor transport, with its modification as the Kurier (Fw-200K) long-range bomber, used in the battle of the Atlantic against convoys to England and Russia.

How It Ticks

The Focke-Wulf 190 fighter is a low-wing cantilever monoplane with a wing span of 34 feet, 5 inches, and a length of 29 feet, 4 inches. Normal flying weight is 8,580 pounds. The wing area is 203 square feet which gives the fairly high wing loading of 42.3 pounds per square foot. (Me-109E, 31.4 lb per sq ft; Me 109F, 35.2 lb per sq ft) It is powered by a BMW (Bayerische Flugmotorenbau GmbH) 801D 14-cylinder two-row radial air-cooled engine of 1,600 hp (with supercharger 1,700 hp at 18,000 feet, which is the critical altitude). This means a power loading of 5.3 lb per hp. The design is unusually clean. Compared with other fighters using radial engines, such as the American Curtiss P-36, Brewster Buffalo (F2A), and the Russian I-16, it has a rather slim appearance. The landing gear is of wide track, which makes for safe landings on improvised fields, an improvement over previous German fighters.

The performance of the Fw-190 is specially marked by its good rate of climb. According to the engine data card found in the cockpit of one of these fighters forced down in England and captured almost intact, at 4,000 feet with supercharger in low gear it climbs at the rate of 3,050 feet per minute. As in the case of the Jap Zero, on the opposite side of the global air war, pilots in Fw-190s will climb up out of the way when hard pressed. The speed at 4,500 feet with supercharger in low gear is 326 mph, and at 18,000 feet with supercharger in high, the speed is 375 mph. It has been reported capable of pumping in an extra burst for a few moments which carries it to an absolute maximum of 390 mph.

A Heavy Punch

Reports, emanating from Germany and circulated in this country through British sources, that the 375 mph speed can be maintained to an altitude of 37,000 feet may be seriously discounted. Some aeronautical engineers who have examined the Fw-190 claim that its supercharger is hardly worth its extra weight above 25,000 feet, and that the Me-109F with its published service ceiling of 39,000 feet performs better at very high altitudes. At the other end of the performance scale, the approach speed of the Fw-190 is about 125 mph and the estimated stalling speed is a very reasonable eighty-five mph.

The armament of the Fw-190 is an indication of the recent trend toward heavier firepower in fighter planes. Even the comparatively new Me-109F1 mounts but one 20-mm cannon and two .312-caliber machine guns, and the Me-109F2 has one 15-mm Mauser cannon and two machine guns.

Secrets of Success

The Focke-Wulf is more heavily armed than even the newest British fighters, with its two Oerlikon 20-mm wing cannons firing at the rate of 450 rounds per minute, and two 20-mm Mauser cannons in the wings near the fuselage which fire at the very high rate of 850 shells per minute through the propeller arc, with interrupter gear. As if this was not enough, there are two Rheinmetall-Borsig 7.92-mm machine guns mounted above the engine, firing through the prop at the rate of 1,100 rounds per minute. All this adds up to a lot of lead, but in the opinion of American armament experts our latest fighters will outslug this with their six (Warhawk, Mustang) or eight (Thunderbolt) .50-caliber machine guns firing at the rate of 800 rounds per minute and effective at greater distances than the 20-mm cannon or light machine guns. Like the Focke-Wulf, our Airacobra and Lightning have a mixed firepower, with a combination of 20- or 37-mm cannon and .50-caliber machine guns. As we shall see presently, combat experience in every theater, with both American bombers and fighters, has proved the tremendous effectiveness of the .50- caliber machine guns.

Aeronautical engineers have reported that two secrets of the undoubted success of the Focke-Wulf are

  1. a new cowling design which overcomes the old objection that radial engines have a wind-resisting frontal area; and
  2. a new method of fuel injection which does away with the carburetor and injects fuel directly from the gas tank into the cylinder.

It is not impossible that the improved cowling idea came from this country. Our National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at Langley Field, in conjunction with manufacturers of high-powered aircraft radial engines, particularly Pratt & Whitney and Wright Aeronautical, had been working on this for some time before the outbreak of the war. However, it is more than likely that the DVL (German Research Establishment for Aeronautics) was also working along similar lines. In any case, the NACA low-drag cowling broke into the news in December, 1940, when the Navy's sensational Vought-Sikorsky fighter, the Corsair (F4U), was first test-flown. It proved to be the first military single-seater, single-engine airplane in the world to do better than 400 mph in level flight. (This ignores the racing stunt records of the specially designed Heinkel He-113 and Me-109 in 1939-1940.) The success of this Navy fighter was an important element in swinging the Army Air Forces back to the radial engine as a power unit for some of its new fighter planes, one of which is the Republic Thunderbolt. This powerful airplane and the F4U are both using the Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp 2,000-hp radial air-cooled engine with the NACA cowling, and the turbosupercharger for effective operation up to 40,000 feet.

The British are standing pat on liquid-cooled engines for their fighters and are continuing to use them on some of their bombers as well. The newest Spitfires and Hurricanes are using advanced models of the Rolls-Royce Merlin Vee-type engine, and the speedy, high-flying Hawker Typhoon is powered by the H-type 2,200-hp liquid-cooled Napier Sabre engine. Authoritative British aviation editors have even stated that the principal reason for the use of radial air-cooled engines on both the German Focke-Wulf and the American Thunderbolt is the lack of a liquid-cooled engine in the 2,000-hp class. This insistence on the superiority of the Vee- or H-type is largely based on the long-accepted idea of better streamlining. The new cowling as developed for radial engines on the Focke-Wulf, Corsair and Thunderbolt opens up the question as to whether a cigar or a raindrop is better streamlined for dropping through the air. Both types of engines have their advantages, possibly for bombers as well as fighters, and American air forces are going full steam ahead on development of both, with constantly increasing horsepower and decreasing pound-per-horsepower ratio.

Engine Features

The advantages of the Fw-190's BMW engine direct-fuel-injection principles are said to be that it operates at all altitudes without ever cutting out (very useful when coming in on a much lower level after a non-power dive), and that it permits the use of ersatz synthetic fuels to give power equivalent to that developed from the American high-octane gasoline. American engine designers have been giving considerable attention to this direct fuel injection method, and at least one powerful liquid-cooled engine is far advanced in experimental stages.

Other features of the BMW engine include a fan-assisted cooling, sliding leading edge of the cowling which controls the passage of air to the oil coolers, and a servo control unit which links the various components to the pilot's throttle. The major weight of engine tanks and pilot has been compressed within the smallest possible volume.

Taken altogether, there is no doubt that the Fw-190 is a very compact, attractively-designed aircraft, and one to be reckoned with in aerial combat. It has complete maneuverability, light controls and is quickly responsive. this, coupled with good rate of climb, makes it an excellent plane for evasive action, often necessary in face of better-armed fighters. Between 10,000 and 25,000 feet it may be regarded as the Luftwaffe's best fighter to date, but far from a world beater or war winner. A new version, powered by a BMW 802 radial turning up around 2,000 hp is said to be in the offing, and this will undoubtedly be faster and more powerful.

Its Limitations

One limitation in the Focke-Wulf fighter is the extremely short range. With fuel tanks containing fifty-five and sixty gallons, totaling 115, the operating radius is less than 100 miles. A serious failure in this connection turned up in the Dieppe raid. A squadron of twenty-four of the Luftwaffe's newest bombers, the Dornier Do-217E1, powered with the same engine as the Focke-Wulf, was escorted by two squadrons of 190s, above and below. They were on their way to bomb the invaders, but before reaching their objective the fighters ran short of fuel and had to turn back. The bombers continued on their course. but Spitfires took such good care of them that all but three or four were shot down, and these failed to reach their target.

Compared to American fighter planes. especially the Lockheed Lightning which has the longest range of any single-seater airplane now flying, the Spitfire itself is subject to this limitation of time in the air. At Dunkirk as well as Dieppe, Spitfire pilots had to repeatedly shuttle back and forth to tank up again.

Other limitations of the Focke-Wulf have been referred to in passing. These include firepower inferior to that possessed by American fighters and bombers, and lower speed and critical altitude as compare with the British Spitfire. One of the first reported encounters between the "Spitter" and the "Wulf" resulted in nine of the Nazi planes being shot down to three of the British. From 5,000 to 20,000 feet, the North American Mustang (P-51) is admittedly more than a match for both

Combat the Acid Test

After all, ability to take it and dish it out is what counts. Fighter planes are designed to intercept enemy bombers, shoot down enemy fighters escorting the bombers, and clear the way in escorting friendly bombers.

How well is the Focke-Wulf doing this threefold job?

Only a couple of innings have been played so the score should not be regarded as final, but the early returns are good enough for our side. Besides the example. already given, here are a couple more: The Second Eagle Squadron, now part of the AAF in England, met up with a lot of the Fw-190s during August and September. In a recent dog fight six of them were shot down, and a young lad from California who accounted for two of them said, "If they see you coming, they'll just climb right out of the sky, and you can't get anywhere near them; but if you come on them unawares at the same height, you can beat hell out of them." (Didn't some of our boys in Australia say something like this about the Jap Zeros?) These Eagles were flying Spitfires. In the Dieppe raid, another Californian was in a two-plane flight of Mustangs, when suddenly two Focke-Wulfs jumped on them from above. He reported, "I used evasive action, gave the 190 a spurt from my guns, turned off, and came back and gave him another. This time smoke poured out and he crashed."

Other Fighters

So much for Spitfires and Mustangs. Operational reports of the twin-engine Lockheed Lightnings (P-38) from the Aleutians indicate good results despite the atrocious weather conditions which keep a fast-climbing high-altitude airplane fighting at low levels. From the Southwest Pacific reports are enthusiastic as regard its performance against the Zeros. In both areas its high speed, heavy firepower and ability to stay a long time in the air are highly appreciated. There is little doubt that it will prove equally effective in the western theater of operations against the Luftwaffe's best. Republic Thunderbolts are now in good production and our squadrons are being trained in their tactical operation. No details are releasable. Senior AAF and RAF air officers who have flown it are highly satisfied with its performance. It is very heavily armed and may prove the deadliest fighter in the air, at all levels. We should know soon.

Air War Theories Upset

Our final point is one of the most satisfying of all. Fighter planes with their speed, maneuverability and firepower have always been regarded as able to shoot down bombers unprotected by friendly fighters. It just hasn't been cricket to have it the other way about, as Jap Zero pilots learned to their dismay. At Midway, for example, after their experiences at the Coral Sea engagement and elsewhere, they kept a healthy distance from our Flying Fortresses. History has been repeating itself in the western area. A few days after the Dieppe raid, during a longer run over the North Sea, the last five of eleven Fortresses were violently attacked by a swarm of Focke-Wulf 190s and Messerschmitt 109Fs as soon as the escorting Spitfires turned back to England. Net result: one Fortress severely damaged, but all returned safely after dropping bombs on their targets; three of the Luftwaffe's best fighters down in flames, and nine others damaged or ultimately lost.

No Flash in the Pan

That this was no flash in the pan is indicated by other outstanding achievements few weeks later. To meet the new menace, Reich Marshal Goering has been forced to use his prize Yellow Nose squadron and other crack Focke-Wulf 190 fighter units against the increasingly large daylight raids of our Fortresses and Liberators. This is something the RAF has been trying to accomplish for months, but up to now the daylight sweeps of Douglas Bostons and Hurricane IIbs ("Hurribombers") have been relatively unopposed by Nazi fighter planes.

Early in October. forty-eight Fortresses, escorted by some 300 fighter planes (both Spitfires and American types). set out for Nazi aircraft factory at Mealte, with diversionary raids on the airfield at St Omer and other targets. Bombs were dropped squarely on objectives, and on the way home thirty-five Fw-190s attacked six Fortresses. The concentrated fire of the guns blasted thirteen of the Focke-Wulfs out of the sky, with a dozen more probables. All Fortresses returned safely.

A few days later, 115 Fortresses and Liberators, with 500 fighters, raided Lille and other objectives in what was the biggest daylight bombing operation to that date, eclipsing in total bombs the raids of he Luftwaffe at the height of the Battle of Britain. Score: forty-eight enemy planes destroyed, thirty-eight probables and nineteen damaged for a total of 105 — all Fw-190s or Me-109Fs.

One squadron shot down fifteen out of fifty attackers without injury to a crew member. Two Liberators and two Fortresses were lost, bringing the total to six out of some 300 sorties in fifteen raids during the first sixty days of action over Europe, or about 2% in daylight operations. Compare this with the average 5% in night operations of the RAF Bomber Command; thirty out of 250 enemy planes in a recent raid over Malta (12%) ; and twenty-three out of twenty-five Jap planes over Guadalcanal one day in September. The British enthusiastically acclaimed the Lille raid as a brilliant achievement, supporting the claim that US heavy bombers are more than a match for any fighter the enemy is known to possess. The record is admittedly causing a readjustment of ideas as to aerial warfare. The toll of Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts has been terrific, and to date they simply have not been able to find a method of breaking up the formations and shooting down our big bombers. Hundreds of hits from their 20-mm cannon have been scored, but our heavyweights have proved sturdy enough to make their way home.

Disconcerting Success

Main reasons for this disconcerting success of bombers against fighters include:

  1. new technique of flying formation, providing a concentration of terrific firepower;
  2. the American high-velocity aerial machine gun which outranges the 20-mm cannon by a couple of hundred yards. It is highly destructive, flexible (including power-operated turrets at some points), uses a computing gunsight, and is fired from a thirty-ton bomber which provides a relatively stable platform;
  3. some damn good aerial gunners.

Ultimate Victory

Fighter planes, firing from fixed guns or cannon aimed by maneuvering the plane itself, have none of these advantages.

All this is causing plenty of insomnia in Berlin. To break up formations of our Fortresses and Liberators, the Luftwaffe requires a fighter plane which mounts much heavier cannon than those used at present — a plane which will remain outside the range of our big boys, manage to get in its own licks against them and, at the same time, defend itself against Allied fighters which run interference. We don't know enough about the new Focke-Wulf 290, which is powered by a 2,000-hp engine, instead of one of 1,600 hp. It certainly will fly farther and faster than the 190 and may be more heavily armed. Before they appear in considerable numbers, however, the newest models of our Fortress and Liberator heavy bombers (now in pooled production at several plants) will also be in action. They fly higher and faster, carry heavier loads than present models, and are even better protected. New and much larger super-bombers are just over the horizon. As the battle is taken deeper into enemy territory, it is inevitable that heavier losses will occur, and it is doubtful if the amazing box score to date can be maintained indefinitely. However, judging from the record so far, our bombers should be able to slug their way through any "Wulf" pack sent against them, and blaze the trail for Victory.

This article was originally published in the December, 1942, issue of Skyways magazine, vol 1, no 2, pp 14-17, 46-47.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of Kurt Tank and 7 photos.
Photos credited to United Artists, International News Photos, British Combine, Press Association, British Press Service.

Photo captions:

The discussion here of the Fw-290 highlights a problem with contemporary accounts — phantom aircraft types. None of Jane's Fighting Aircraft of World War II, Green Warplanes of the Third Reich, or The Encyclopedia of Aircraft of WWII (Eden) list a Focke-Wulf 290. Further, Jane's states that the 18-cylinder, 2000-hp BMW-802 engine that supposedly powered it never flew operationally. —JLM