Entry into Combat
The British became aware of the new fighter in October 1940, and got their first detailed information from a captured German serviceman in January 1941. On 13 August 1941 the Air Ministry’s Weekly Intelligence Summary was able to report that the new Fw 190 was a low wing monoplane, with a two bank radial engine and estimated its top speed at 370-390mph.
On the following day the JG 26 took the Fw 190A-1 into combat for the first time, claiming two Spitfires of No.306 (Polish) Squadron. One of the German victors in this combat, Leutnant Heinz Schenk, became the first pilot to be shot down in a Fw 190, by German flak near Dunkirk.
During September 1941 the Fw 190 entered combat in significant numbers. During the month Fw 190s claimed 18 Spitfires, for only two losses.
On 18 September II./JG 26 lost its commander, Hautpmann Walter Adolph, probably short down by FO Cyril Babbage of No.41 Squadron, who reported shooting down ‘a Curtiss Hawk (or Fw 190)’. This was during an operation to protect three Bristol Blenheims that were attacking a tanker of the Belgium coast, and the Fw 190s did manage to shoot down two of the three Blenheims.
On 21 September No.315 (Polish) Squadron escorting Blenheim bombers to a power station near Bethune reported shooting down a radial engined fighter, probably the Fw 190 of Lt Ulrich Dzialas.
By the end of October the British still weren’t sure if they were facing the French Bloch 151 or the new Fw 190, and it was only clearly identified early in 1942.
The Fw 190s first major victory came on 8 November 1941 when JG 26 and the Bf 109s of JG attacked a large RAF force that was attacking a distillery at St. Pol and rail repair yards at Lille. The RAF committed two squadrons of Hurri-bombers supported by five squadrons of Spitfires to the attack at St. Pol and 12 Blenheims covered by 11 fighter squadrons to Lille. The Germans shot down seven Spitfires for the loss of three Fw 190s (with two pilots surviving). This was an unacceptable rate of loss, but came just before the RAF suspended major daylight operations over France for the winter of 1941-42.
These early versions were still suffering from overheating problems, and at one point they were forbidden to operate beyond gliding distance of the French coast.
When the RAF resumed its offensive sweeps over France in the summer of 1942 the Fw 190 was present in much larger numbers, and the results were very costly. On 24 March 1942 JG 27 shot down seven Spitfires taking part in Circus No.117A. On 1 June forty Fw 190s attacked four squadrons from the Debden Wing that were supporting Circus No.178, shooting down eight Spitfires for no loss. On 2 June No.403 (Canadian) Squadron was the victim, losing seven Spitfires. The Fw 190A had a clear edge over the Spitfire V
The RAF responded with new models of the Spitfire. During 1941 work began on a version powered by the Merlin 61 engine, which had a two stage supercharger and produced 50% more power than the earlier versions of the engine at high altitudes. A single Spitfire Mk.III was produced to test the engine, and work then began on the Mk.VIII, which featured a modified fuselage which required changes to the production line that would delay its entry into service. The need to counter the Fw 190 was too urgent to allow for this, and so an interim design, the Mk.IX, was produced. This used the standard Mk.V fuselage, with the Merlin 61 series engines. The first prototype flew on 26 February 1942 and it was in full production by June and entered service in July. Its performance was very similar to the Mk.VIII, and tests against a captured Fw 190 suggested that the gap had been closed.
The first clash between the Spitfire Mk.IX and the Fw 190 came on 30 July 1942. Circus No.200 involved six Douglas Bostons a with a heavy fighter escort, attacking JG 26’s base at Abbeville-Drucat. During the raid Fl.Lt. Donald Kingaby in a Mk.IX shot down a Fw 190, while a large number of Mk.Vs were lost.
The Fw 190A played a major part in the fighting during the Dieppe raid of 19 August 1942. The RAF committed a massive force to this battle, including forty two squadrons of Spitfire Vs, two of Spitfire VIs and four of Spitfire IXs. The German fighter response came from JG 26 and JG 2, both equipped with the Fw 190. At the time the British believed that they had won a significant aerial victory over Dieppe, and claimed 96 definite victories, 27 probable victories and 76 aircraft damaged, at a cost of 106 Allied aircraft lost – at least 32 to AA guns leaving around 70 for the German fighters.
The real figures were much less flattering. The Luftwaffe actually only lost 48 aircraft, of which half were bombers. JG 2 lost fourteen aircraft and eight pilots, JG 26 six aircraft and pilots, for a total of only twenty Fw 190s and fourteen pilots. However the Germans also over-claimed, with JG 2 claiming 67 victories and JG 26 38, a total of 105, only one below the total RAF loss for the raid. As with all of the RAF’s ‘circuses’ and other operations over North France, the Germans had all of the advantages that the British had benefited from the Battle of Britain – operating over ‘home’ ground, with radar support, against enemy fighters operating at a long distance from their base and with a dangerous trip back across the Channel to reach safety. Fortunately for the RAF this was the Fw 190’s most successful moment on the Western Front.
The summer of 1942 saw the fighter bomber versions of the Fw 190 enter service in the west, when 10.(Jabo)/JG 2 and 10.(Jabo)/JG 26 began to receive fighter-bomber versions of the Fw 190, carrying bombs under the fuselage. They took their aircraft into combat in July, starting with attacks on shipping around the Isle of Wight. They then expanded their range of operations to include factories close to the south coast, and RAF airfields. The low flying high speed fighter bombers were very difficult to intercept, and between July and October the two units only lost one pilot. The RAF was forced to post five squadrons of the new Hawker Typhoon along the coast to try and catch the raiders.
The fighter bombers could also be used on a larger scale. On 31 October a force of 68 bomb carrying and 62 fighter Fw 190s carried out a daylight raid on Canterbury. Half of the bombers were forced to drop their bombs off target, and only 31 hit the city. However the RAF was unable to mount an effective defence against this raid – by the time the Spitfires had been scrambled, the Germans were already on their way home. One Fw 190 was shot down over Kent and a second (piloted by Paul Galland, brother of the famous Adolf), was shot down on the way home.
After the relative success of these small scale raids it was decided to form a new dedicated fast bomber wing, Schnellkampfgeschwader 10 (SKG 10), with three Gruppen, each containing four Staffeln. The pilots were to be provided by Bf 110 heavy fighter groups that were no longer needed.
During the second half of 1942 the US Eighth Air Force began to carry out operations over occupied Europe, giving the two Fw 190 units a new and increasingly dangerous task. On 2 October the Germans attempted to intercept a force of 32 bombers, escorted by two US fighter groups – one with Spitfires and one with 38 Lightnings. The results of the battle were alarming even for the Germans, with seven Fw 190s shot down at the cost of six Spitfires and two P-38s. None of the bombers were lost.
The heavily armed B-17 formations were a dangerous opponent, especially when escorted by fighters. However the Germans soon discovered one weakness with the early B-17s – a lack of forward firepower. Hauptmann Egon Mayer, the leader of III./JG 2, decided to try carrying out frontal assaults, hitting the American formations at high speed from the front to reduce the amount of time the fighters were exposed to the defensive fire from the bombers. This tactic was tried out for the first time on 23 November 1942, and proved to be a success, with four B-17s shot down for the loss of one Fw 190. This technique did involve a great deal of skill and nerve on the part of the fighter pilot, who only had a second or so to fire.
The Fw 190 continued to act as a fighter bomber during 1943. These often had costly results, with 38 children and six teachers killed when a bomb hit Sandhurst School on 20 January. SKG 10 entered the battle on 8 March 1943, with an attack on a trawler near the Eddystone Lighthouse.
On 16 April the SKG 10’s two Gruppen attempted their first night raid. The pilots hadn’t trained for night operations, and the result was chaotic. Five aircraft were involved in collisions while taking off, with the death of two pilots. During the raid itself three pilots got lost and were captured after attempting to land at RAF airfields.
The Fw 190 had a brief but costly career as a night fighter. In the spring of 1943 the Germans were struggling to cope with Bomber Command’s increasingly large raids, especially after the British gained an advantage in the ‘battle of the beams’, starting to jam the German Lichtenstein radar in April 1943. Obersleutnant Hans-Joachim Herrmann suggested using single seat day fighters against large British formations, operating together with the German searchlights. The aim was for the searchlights to illuminate the British bombers, allowing the German fighters to attack from the dark. This became known as the Wild Boar (Wilde Sau) tactic. On 20 April Herrmann was given command of a small fighter unit, Nachtjadgversuchkommando Hermann. On 3 July this formation carried out its first operation, shooting down six British bombers during a raid on Cologne.
Hermann was then given command of a larger force, which included eight Fw 190As and 34 Bf 109s. This was originally named JG Herrmann, but in August became JG 300. It was later joined by JG 301 and JG 302, which like JG 300 mainly used the Bf 109. II./JG 301 shared some Fw 190s with a day fighter group, I./JG 11.
Although the Wild Boar units were able to shoot down large numbers of British bombers, their success came at a heavy cost. Night operations in the unmodified Fw 190 were dangerous, and a large number of experienced single seat pilots were lost in operations that they weren’t really trained for.
The Fw 190 entered service in North Africa just after the start of Operation Torch (8 November 1942), although they were actually committed to the theatre in response to British victories further to the east, where Montgomery had just gone onto the offensive at El Alamein (23 October-11 November 1942). Forty Fw 190 fighter bombers were used to equip III./ZG 2, which flew to Tunisia in mid-November. The new unit carried out its first operation, an attack on Bone Harbour, on 12 November. The unit was later renamed as III./SKG 10, joining the newly formed dedicated fast bomber wing.
Eventually three Fw 190 formations were committed to the final battles in North Africa. II./JG 2 was second to arrive, also coming in November 1942. Finally II./Schl.G 2 arrived in March 1943, after converting to the Fw 190 late in 1942. These moves demonstrate how the invasion of North Africa pulled German resources away from other fronts, with II./JG 2 coming from France and II/Schl.G 2 coming from the Eastern Front.
These units were equipped with a series of ground attack variants of the Fw 190. The Fw 190A-5/U8 entered service with III./SKG 10 in April 1943, but the under-wing fuel tanks were considered to be too vulnerable to ground fire. The armoured Fw 190F entered service towards the end of the North Africa campaign, and was much more popular. However the campaign still ended in defeat, and the last few Fw 190s were evacuated on 8 May 1943.
The main opponent for the Fw 190 in the west during 1944 was the Eighth Air Force, which had now grown into a very powerful force. The heavily armed B-17s and B-24s were escorted by swarms of long range P-38s, P-47s and P-51s, which made it increasingly difficult for the German day fighters to inflict any serious damage on their formations. To make it worse, the US aircraft normally flew at the higher altitudes where the Fw 190A was at its least effective. The Germans were often able to inflict heavier losses than they suffered, but were less able to replace those experienced pilots they lost in combat. In February 1944 the USAAF carried out a week of attacks on the German aircraft industry (Operation Argument, or ‘Big Week’). Although the bombing raids weren’t as effective as hoped, the Germans lost 240 fighter pilots dead and 140 wounded during the week.
In the summer of 1944 the Germans introduced a new tactic that gave them a brief advantage. The plan was to use a heavily armoured version of the Fw 190, the Fw 190A-8/R2 or R8 ‘Sturmbocke’ (Battering Ram) to attack the bombers in the hope that their heavy armour would allow them to get close enough for their 30mm cannon to be effective. The heavily armed Fw 190s would have been very vulnerable to fighter attack, so they needed a fighter escort of their own.
The new tactic was tried out on a large scale for the first time on 7 July 1944. On that day the 8th Air Force sent 373 B-24s and 956 B-17s to attack synthetic oil plants, protected by 756 long range escort fighters. The German plan was to use 36 Fw 190s from IV.(Sturm)/JF 3 to attack the bombers, while a larger force of Bf 109s from JG 300 protected them.
This first attack benefited from lucky timing. Just as the Germans were about to attack part of the B-24 equipped 492nd Bombardment Group, the American bombers were forced to take evasive action to avoid aircraft from the 44th Bombardment Group, who had in turn had to turn to avoid a group of B-24s heading home on the wrong route. As a result the 492nd was out of formation and lost its fighter escort. This helped the Fw 190s get to the close range required for accurate fire with the low velocity 30mm cannon. The Germans opened fire at about 100m, with devastating effect. In a few minutes they shot down 12 of the 492nd’s 21 B-24s. The nearby 392nd BG also lost five B-24s. In all the Americans lost 28 B-24s during the raid. However this success had not been without cost for the Germans, who lost nine Fw 190s during the battle and another three in crash landings, with five pilots killed.
The Sturmbock tactic had other good days – on 22 September JG 4 shot down 28 B-24s from the 445th BG, on 23 September JG 3 shot down 8 B-17s, on 6 October JG 4 and JG 300 shot down 14 B-17s and on 2 November JG 3 and JG 4 shot down 21 B-17s. However on most days the lumbering Sturmbock formations were unable to actually carry out their attacks, as they were intercepted by the US fighter escorts. Even when they did complete an attack, it was often at very high cost – on 2 November American escort fighters caught up with the Fw 190s after the attack and shot down 31 of the 61 aircraft involved, with the loss of 17 pilots. The Americans were also able to put effective tactics in place to stop the attacks, using roaming forces of fighters to find and disrupt the cumbersome German formations before they could reach the bomber stream. The German fighter units involved suffered very heavy losses, without having any long term impact on the American bombing campaign.
D-Day and onwards
On D-Day the two German fighter units in France, JG 2 and JG 26, only had 79 Fw 190s and 13 Bf 109s, while the ground attack, fighter bomber and night units had 37 Fw 190s.
The most famous image of the Luftwaffe on D-Day is of Josef ‘Pips’ Priller and Heinz Wodarczyk making a single attack on Sword Beach. This is often believed to have been the only Luftwaffe attack on the D-Day beaches, but that wasn’t the case. The first combat involved the Fw 190 on D-Day actually came several hours before Priller’s famous run, and saw aircraft from 3./SKG 10 shoot down four Lancasters from No.97 Squadron. Priller’s attack came at around 9am. Half an hour later Fw 190s from I./JG 2 carried out a rocket attack on landing craft. During the day the unit lost 11 of its 14 aircraft!
More Fw 190s, including aircraft from JG 1, JG 3, JG 11, JG 51 and JG 54 moved to France to join the battle, but when they were in the air they were always outnumbered, and when they were on the ground they were vulnerable to attack of roaming Allied aircraft. By now the Fw 190 had lost its advantage over Allied fighters – most improvements to the Fw 190A had involved giving it heavier firepower or more bombs, and not improving its performance, while the Allies had a range of newer improved fighters compared to 1942.
The Germans were unable to intervene effectively during the Allied breakout. One of the brighter spots of Operation Market Garden was the success of the Allied fighters, which prevented the Fw 190s of JG 26 from attacking the vulnerable airborne formation.
Speer’s production miracles meant that by the start of November 1944 Luftflotte Reich had nearly 2,200 fighters, including over 1,000 Fw 190s (mainly A-8s and A-9s). Adolf Galland wanted to use this force to carry out one massive ‘Great Blow’ against the US bomber stream, in the hope that he could destroy around 500 bombers. His hope was that this victory would force the Americans to pause their offensive and allow the Luftwaffe to build up its force of jet fighters.
However just as Galland was about to put his plan into operation, Hitler ordered it cancelled, and ordered the massive fighter force to prepare to take part in his Ardennes offensive. Elements from at least eleven Fw 190 groups took part in this battle, but in the first part of the offensive poor weather kept most aircraft grounded, and when the weather did improve that simply allowed the Allies to regain control of the skies.
On 1 January 1945 the Germans carried out a modified version of the ‘Great Blow’, but aimed at Allied fighters and fighter bombers. The aim was to use the massive German fighter force to wipe out the Allied aircraft at eleven airfields, in an attempt to end Allied dominance of the skies. A total of 490 Fw 190s took part in this attack, ‘Operation Bodenplatte’, and the Germans did manage to catch the Allies by surprise. A total of 305 Allied aircraft were destroyed during the raids, but most of those aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and the Allies lost far fewer pilots. New aircraft were quickly flown to the front, and the raid had no real impact on the RAF or USAAF. In contrast it effectively wiped out the Luftwaffe day fighter force. The Germans lost 144 Fw 190s out of a total of 271 losses, 143 pilots killed or missing, 70 taken prisoner and 21 wounded.
To make things worse, on 14 January the remaining fighter force suffered very heavy losses when attempting to intercept fresh Allied raids. Another 85 Fw 190s were lost in a single day (including 25 from JG 301). Soon after this most of the remaining fighters in the west were moved east to try and stop the final Soviet offensive into Germany.
In November 1941 a handful of Fw 190A-1s were sent to the Eastern Front for trials with II/ JG 54, but the type was rejected because of the engine problems, and didn’t arrive on the Eastern Front until late in 1942.
The first unit to convert to the type was I./JG 51, which was withdrawn from Orel to Konigsberg in August 1942 to convert to the Fw 190A, getting one A-1, ten A-2s and thirty-two A-3s. At the end of the month the group moved to a new base at Ljuban near Leningrad, and it was ready to enter combat by 6 September. II./JG 51 was next to begin to convert to the type, starting in October 1942, but before the work was complete most of the group moved to the Mediterranean theatre. In November III./JG 51 moved to East Prussia to convert to the Fw 190.
I./JG 51 and III./JG 51 underwent their first major test during Operation Mars, the Soviet offensive against Army Group Centre launched on 25 November 1942 in an attempt to take advantage of the German crisis around Stalingrad. The robust and heavily armed Fw 190 was a success on the Eastern Front, and in early clashes proved to be capable of taking on the heavily armoured Sturmovik. Operation Mars ended as a major Soviet defeat, and the Germans were able to restore some stability on the Eastern Front, allowing them to prepare for a fresh offensive in 1943.
At the start of 1943 I./JG 54 converted to the Fw 190. Next to join the fight was JG 26, which was moved from France to the Eastern Front in February. When the Fw 190 was present, it could score large numbers of victories, but by 1943 the Germans were stretched very thin on the Eastern Front, and three fighter groups were never going to change the balance of power.
The Fw 190 played a major part in Operation Citadel, the attack on the Soviet salient at Kursk that became the last major German offensive on the Eastern Front. JG 51 and JG 54, mainly armed with the Fw 190, operated on the northern part of the salient. To the south there were two groups equipped with the Bf 109G and Schl.G 1 with the Fw 190A-5 and F-3. On 5 July, the first day of the offensive, the Germans claimed to have destroyed 360 aircraft, of which 159 were claimed by Fw 190 units. Only 12 Fw 190s were lost. Real Soviet losses will have been lower, but still high. Hitler was forced to cancel Operation Citadel on 16 July, after it was clear that the ground attack had failed. In the air the Fw 190s had claimed a large number of victories, but at a high cost. JG 51 lost 63 aircraft by 15 July, with IV./JG 51 losing a third of its pilots and all of its aircraft. By the end of July the number of Fw 190s on the Eastern Front had halved. JG 51 and JG 52 claimed 1,250 victories, which even if halved was still impressive, but the Soviets could replace their losses more easily than the Germans.
For the rest of the war the Germans were on the defensive in the east. Plans to completely replace the Ju 87 with the Fw 190 were thwarted by a lack of available aircraft. At the start of 1944 the 14.(Jabo)/JG 5, I and III./JG 51 and 15./JG (51), Stab I./JG 54, II./SG 2, I. and II./SG 10 and II./SG 77 were equipped with the type. The Fw 190 was now being used as a ground attack aircraft just as often as it was as a fighter, but in either role was never present in enough strength. The Germans were able to achieve individual victories, and the top aces racked up massive scores on the Eastern Front, but the Soviets normally had command of the air.
The number of Fw 190s on the Eastern Front dropped to a very low level during the spring of 1944, with only JG 54 and the ground attack SG units operating the type. However in the summer a large number of Fw 190F-8s began to enter service, as a result of Speer’s production ‘miracle’ in Germany.
These aircraft arrived too late to have any impact on the major Soviet successes in the summer of 1944. On 22 June 1944, at the start of Operation Bagration, Luftflotte 6 had 173 Fw 190s – 17 fighters and 156 fighter-bombers, to face a massive Soviet aerial attack. They failed, and the Soviets won control of the skies over Army Group Centre. This powerful German army group was effectively destroyed in the battle, and the Fw 190 units involved all suffered heavy losses. The reinforcements that arrived later in the year did help the Germans create a new front on the Vistula, and to hold on in the Courland Pocket in the Baltic, but these were only temporary successes.
The final Soviet offensive began on 12 January 1945. The Luftwaffe was forced to rush its remaining Fw 190s east to try and stem the tide, but by the end of the month the Germans had lost 215 fighters. Although individual pilots continued to achieve successes during the last weeks of the war, most German fighters were now grounded by a lack of fuel. Speer might have been able to produce thousands of Fw 190A-8s and D-8s, but with no fuel they were entirely ineffective.
One of the more unusual weapon systems developed for the Luftwaffe was the ‘Mistel’ or mistletoe system. This originally was originally developed as a way to launch a glider with a very heavy load by mounting a powered fighter on top to increase lift. The first Mistel combination had a Bf 109E on top to provide the power and a DFS 230 glider underneath to carry the cargo, and provide extra fuel for the fighter.
In June 1943 it was decided to modify this system by making the lower aircraft an unmanned bomber filled with high explosives. The first version would have a Bf 109F on top and a Junkers Ju 88A-4 filled with 3.5 tons of explosives underneath. The pilot of the Bf 109 would control the combined unit, and would fly it to the target, set the autopilot on the flying bomb and then release it. The fighter would then escape from the scene, while the bomber crashed into its target.
The first Mistel were completed by April 1944 and the weapon entered combat with 2./KG 101 in June 1944. Although these early missions weren’t terribly successful, it was decided to produce a new Mistel combination using the Fw 190 as the fighter. This required a replacement for the Ju 88A-4, which used a different type of fuel to the Fw 190. The Heinkel He 177 was briefly considered, but the surviving aircraft were in poor condition. It was eventually decided to match a Fw 190A-8 or F-8 with a Junkers Ju 88G-1 night fighter, all using 95 octane fuel. Twelve of this Mistel 2 were completed by 21 December 1944, and went to 6./KG 200 later that month.
This wasn’t a good use of limited German resources. The Ju 88G-1 night fighter was urgently needed, while the sort of high value stationary targets that the Mistel had been designed to hit were now in short supply with the Allies camped on the German borders. Goring’s solution was a typically grandiose and rather pointless plan for an attack on the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet at Scapa Flow, Operation Drachenhohle (Dragon’s Lair). The Germans were unable to get their reconnaissance aircraft anywhere near Scapa Flow, so they would be attacking blind. The vulnerable Mistels would have to cross the North Sea from Tirstrup in Denmark without being detected. After the attack the Fw 190s were to fly east to Stavanger in Norway. The raid would be carried out by fifteen Mistel 2s from 6./KG 200 and twelve Ju 88s and Ju 188s from 5./KG 200 which would drop flares to illuminate the naval base.
The first aircraft reached Tirstrup in mid January without any problems. An attempt to fly four Mistel 1s to Tirstrup on 3 February to join the force ended in disaster when all four were shot down by Mustangs that chanced across them while returning from an escort mission. On 14 February two Mosquitoes attacked the airfield at Tirstrup, destroying two Mistels. On the same day the operation was cancelled.
A second, equally ambitious, plan was developed for an attack on 23 power stations around Moscow (Operation Eisenhammer or Iron Hammer). This would be carried out by 3./KG(J) with the aid of KG 200. Once again the mission didn’t take place – as the Soviets advanced west, the Luftwaffe lost its eastern bases and on 30 March the plan was cancelled. In mid April eighteen of the Mistels were destroyed by US bombs, ending any chance of reviving it.
The Mistel was also used on some more realistic, shorter range, missions. On 25 March 1945 four from 6./KG 200 were sent to attack pontoon bridges over the Rhine near Oppenheim. Some of the aircraft reached the Rhine, but they were very vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, and had no impact.
On 11 April some were used to attack bridges across the Kwisa and Bobr Rivers to try and slow down the Soviets. On 12 April eight attacked bridges at Kustrin on the Oder, which had fallen to the Soviets in the previous month. Five of the eight actually reached their targets, but once again no significant damage was done. On 14 April eight were used to attack more bridges, with unknown attacks. The same pattern continued to the end of the month, with a series of attacks on bridges mounted, and none succeeding.
Several other Mistel combinations were planned with the Fw 190 as the controller. One would have used a radio controlled Ta 154 Moskito fighter as the weapon, and was intended for use against bombers. The Mistel 3A was a training version, using a Fw 190A-8 and a Ju 88A-4. The Mistel 3B used a Fw 190A-8 and a long range Ju 88H-4. The Mistel 3C was to use a Fw 190F-8 and Ju 88G-10.