Focke-Wulf Fw 190
Germany's Radial Engine Fighter of WWII
By Stephen Sherman, Aug. 2003. Updated May 6, 2012.
Jagdgruppe I./JG.51 left the front lines in August 1942, for East Prussia to convert to the new Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-3, the first unit from the Russian Front to adopt Kurt Tank’s radial engine fighter. The BMW engine offered two big advantages over the Bf 109’s water-cooled Daimler Benz. First, its massive bulk up front helped protect the pilot. Second, it could absorb a lot of battle damage and keep running; like the American P-47, tales spread of Fw 190’s making it back to base with a cylinder head shot away.
But when the engine did fail, the Fw 190 had the gliding ability of a brick. Dead-stick landings were extremely hazardous, although belly landings, with the big engine clearing away almost all the obstacles, frequently letting the pilot walk away unharmed.
The plane’s ground handling was a mixed bag. The wide track landing gear offered excellent stability in the muddy, snowy surfaces of the Russian airfields. On the other hand, the large engine cowling obstructed the pilot’s forward view. Three point take-offs were called for; raising the tail too soon caused the propeller to dig in and flip the aircraft.
The Fw 190’s performance fell off at altitudes above 20,000 feet. While this limited its effectiveness in the West, where the Allied bombers flew high, in the East, with its preponderance of low-level combat, the 190 was ideal. It was rugged, maneuverable, stable, and, with its two 7.9mm machine guns and four 20mm cannon, powerfully armed.
Hermann Krafft’s I./JG.51 pilots learned about the airplanes vicious stall characteristics. Below 200 kilometers per hour (127 MPH), the port wing would abruptly fall off. In a tight turn, it could flick over and go into a spin. Properly controlled and with sufficient altitude, a spin could even offer an escape; no Soviet plane could match it.
The pilot climbed into the Focke-Wulf using retractable stirrups and handholds. Inside the cockpit he saw many familiar controls, similar to those in the Bf 109, plus many new electric devices, notably the Kommandogerat, a primitive computer that automatically set propeller pitch, air/fuel mix, and RPM. Electric motors also raised and lowered the landing gear and controlled the flaps. Other buttons armed the guns, with a required three-second delay between each pair, so as not to overload the battery.
When everything was set for take-off, the mechanic jumped off the wing. Then, “Clear?” … “Yes, all clear ahead.” … “Contact,” then the radial BMW spat blue smoke and rumbled into life. The pilot gave it twelve degrees of flaps, let off the brakes, accelerated to 180 KPH, and lifted off the airstrip.
After two or three weeks of such familiarization, the fliers of I./JG.51 returned to battle on the Eastern Front.
In 1937, even as the Bf 109 was just beginning to realize its potential, the the RLM, Reichsluftfahrt Ministerium, prudently issued a request for a next generation fighter plane. The Focke Wulf company's initial responses (based on the DB 601 engine) drew little interest, but their designer Kurt Tank proposed to use the eighteen-cylinder, air-cooled, radial BMW 139 in a fighter. This idea resulted in an order for four prototypes, and soon, forty production aircraft. By June 1939, the first prototype, the Fw 190V-1, had flown over Bremen airport. During the early test flights, Tank gave it the nickname "Wuerger" or "Shrike." These flights revealed carbon monoxide leaking into the cockpit, landing gear problems, and overheating of the engine and cockpit. The overheating, which raised cockpit temperatures to 55 degrees Celsius (130 F.), proved difficult to resolve. Despite these problems, Luftwaffe pilots enthused over the type.
Even though the V-1 aircraft was fast and agile, it needed a better engine. The BMW 801, more powerful and heavier than the BMW 139, powered the Fw 190V-5 prototype. With the much heavier BMW 801, Tank moved the cockpit back to maintain the correct center of gravity. This change also reduced the heat in the cockpit and allowed more room up front for weapons.
Focke-Wulf delivered seven copies of the pre-production version, the Fw 190A-0, to the Luftwaffe in March 1940. The A-0 frequently failed and caught on fire; it was so troublesome that the RLM almost canceled the Fw 190 program. But after more than 50 changes, production was approved.
With a 1600 horsepower BMW 801C engine powering a three-bladed variable pitch propeller, the Fw 190A-1 made a top speed of 388 MPH. The wide-track landing gear folded in toward the fuselage, was extra strong to accommodate future weight growth, and offered good stability on the ground. The bubble-style plexiglass canopy offered excellent visibility in all directions; when it proved difficult to jettison, an ejection mechanism was devised. The Fw 190 was built in a modular fashion, for easy repair and replacement in rough field conditions.
For weaponry, the Fw 190A-1 carried four rifle-caliber machine guns, two in the cowling and two in the wing roots; all fired through the propeller arc.
In September 1941, the Fw 190A-1 first appeared in battle against the RAF. At first, the British weren't sure what they were facing. They soon found out, as the FW 190 bested the Spitfire Mark V. However, the four 7.9mm machine guns were not adequate firepower; an upgrade to heavier armament had been planned as soon as the guns were available.
The next version, the Fw 190A-2, replaced the machine guns in the wing root with belt-fed 20mm cannon. Some A-2's added two more 20mm cannon further outboard in the wings. Oddly, these were drum-fed guns, whose ammunition was incompatible with the cannon in the wing roots.
An uprated BMW 801C-2 engine powered the A-2, which began to be delivered in the fall of 1941.
The Channel Dash
In February 1942 the Germans determined to bring the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen from Brest, where the RAF regularly bombed them, to better protected anchorages in Norway.
On the night of February 11, the big ships slipped out of Brest. While the British had the harbor under close watch, a series of accidents and mistakes allowed the German ships to get out undetected.
By dawn, they were off Cherbourg where German fighters began to escort them. Further British mis-judgments hindered accurate identification of the warships until mid-day. By that time, they were nearly at the Straits of Dover, under heavy escort by Fw 190's and Bf 109s of JG.2 and JG.26.
Few British strike aircraft were ready and they launched a pitifully small group of Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers, led by Lt. Cdr. Eugene Esmonde. Despite Spitfire fighter cover, the Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts destroyed all seven Swordfish; Esmonde earned a posthumous Victoria Cross. As Adolf Galland put it in The First and the Last,
"For two hours in full daylight German warships had been passing along the English coast, following a route which in the history of British sea supremacy no enemy has dared to take since the seventeenth century."
Later that afternoon, many more British bombers went after the battle cruisers, but the German fighters and bad weather prevented them from hitting their targets. The three ships made it to German ports that evening, in no small way thanks to the Fw 190.
In the spring of 1942, the A-3 began rolling off the Focke-Wulf production lines at Cottbus, Marienburg, Neubrandenberg, Schwerin, Sorau, and Tutow. Driven by the latest BMW 801D, with 1700 HP and carrying four 20mm cannon and two machine guns, this version of the Fw 190 threatened to outclass all Allied fighters.
The British were working on a commando operation to snatch one when an errant Luftwaffe pilot saved them the trouble. On June 23, 1942, Oblt. Armin Faber landed his A-3 at an RAF airfield. British flight tests revealed few weaknesses with the airplane. To cope with this threat, the British rushed into production the Spitfire Mark IX, basically a Mark V with a new Merlin 61 engine. At Dieppe, the RAF looked to take the measure of Luftwaffe fighter defenses, especially the Fw 190. The Focke-Wulf's mauled the Spitfires; one German pilot downed seven Spitfire Mark V's that day.
By injecting a water-methanol mixture into the cylinders, WW2 engines (and some auto racing engines today) could briefly sustain a compression over the redline and get a little more horsepower. The Fw 190A-4 incorporated such a scheme, its only real difference from the A-3. The A-4 also added a short radio antenna atop the tail. It was the first Fw 190 to see significant service on the Russian Front.
Introduced in April 1943, the A-5 was virtually identical to the A-4, except that longer engine mounts added six inches to the length of the fuselage.
Modifications and Upgrades
As with the Bf 109, subvariants and modifications to the Fw 190 were numerous and identifying all of them would require a level of detail beyond the scope of this web site. Some were adapted for desert warfare, indicated with the suffix "/Trop." Umruest-Bausatze (factory) and Ruestsaetze (field) modification kits were designated by "U" and "R" codes, respectively. Fw 190's were modified as Jabos (fighter-bombers), Zerstorers (bomber destroyers), and reconnaissance fighters.
The A-6 standardized the cannon, using the MG-151/20 in both the outer and wing root positions. This model also was designed for ground attack, Shlacht, missions; in this role it slowly replaced the obsolete Ju 87 Stuka. The A-6 allowed for a maximum of flexibility in its adaptability to many different Ruestsaetze, or field modifications.
While only eighty Fw 190A-7 were built, this subvariant introduced 13mm machine guns in the cowling, replacing rifle-caliber weapons.
The heavier machine guns likewise armed the Fw 190A-8 (generally similar to the A-7), which was the most numerous 190 subvariant, more than 1,300 produced. It could reach a top speed of 408MPH.
While the radial BMW 801 engine was great below 20,000 feet, it had always performed poorly at higher altitudes. Kurt tank and his team tried the inline Daimler Benz, DB 603 in prototypes 190B and 190C.
For the Fw 190D, they settled on the Jumo 213A-1, another inline engine, for the proposed high-altitude fighter. The "D" model or "Dora" needed a longer nose to accommodate the Juno 213, and was visibly different from the "A" model.
The first production version, the Fw 190D-9, caem out in the summer of 1944. (The disposition of codes D-1 through D-8 is unclear.) Armed with two 13mm machine guns in the cowling, and two 20mm cannon in the wing roots, capable of 425MPH, with great climbing ability, the Dora was the best prop-driven, production Luftwaffe fighter of the war.
By late 1944, it was too late for the Dora to have an impact. Shortages of fuel and trained pilots constrained everything. While many Fw 190D-9's were built, relatively few saw combat, frequently covering the Me 262 airfields.
The last notable Focke-Wulf 190 variant was identified as the Ta 152, the "Ta," denoting Kurt Tank's design influence. The definitive version was the Ta 152H, a long-winged, high-altitude fighter.
Over 20,000 Fw 190's were built. While no flying models are extant, many survive in aviation museums.
Great Aircraft of the World, Len Cacutt (editor), 1986
The Focke-Wulf Fw 190 by Greg Goebel, an excellent web article, more detailed than this.
The First and the Last by Adolph Galland. This book is a history of the air war over Europe from the German perspective, with a fair amount devoted to aircraft development, internal Luftwaffe problems, and such events as the Channel Dash. Even the Russian campaign and the American bombing strategy are surveyed. Relatively little on Galland's personal activities, dogfights, etc.
The Luftwaffe Fighter Force: The View from the Cockpit, by Adolf Galland (Editor), Dave C. Isby (Editor)