In September 1941 a new shape began to appear in the skies above north-west Europe. While the principal adversary of the RAF’s fighter pilots up to that point had been the Messerschmitt Bf109, reports were now coming in of skirmishes with a radial engine, square winged machine.
This was no captured Curtis Hawk 75 or French Bloch 151 pressed into Luftwaffe service as a stop gap, but the German Air Force’s latest new fighter: the Focke Wulf Fw190.
The ‘Butcher Bird’
Named after the Wurger, or Shrike, a ‘Butcher Bird’ known for its propensity to impale and store its insect and reptile prey on thorns, the new machine was a powerful street brawler compared to the lithe but comparatively delicate Bf109.
The aircraft packed a heavyweight punch with four 20mm cannon and two 7.9mm heavy machine guns while a superlative roll rate, high top speed, excellent climb, dive and acceleration characteristics topped off the fighter’s impressive performance.
As the autumn of 1941 turned into the spring and summer of 1942, the ‘Butcher Bird’ lived up to its name. A string of one-sided combats began to cement the legend of the Fw190s supremacy in the minds of Fighter Command. In February the German Navy capital ships, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, sailed virtually unscathed through the Channel under heavy Luftwaffe fighter cover.
As a further example, over two days at the beginning of June the Fw190s of the Luftwaffe’s Fighter Wing 26 (Jagdgeschwader 26, or JG26 for short) shot down fifteen RAF Spitfire Vs for no loss.
In August Operation Jubilee, the fateful Dieppe amphibious operation, saw forty-eight squadrons of Spitfires – most equipped with Spitfire Vbs and Vcs – arrayed against the Fw190As of JG2 and JG26. In the resulting combats 90 RAF fighters were lost compared to the Luftwaffe’s 23.
The Spitfire V
The principal RAF fighter at this time was the Spitfire V. Conceived as a stop-gap measure when the Bf109F’s high altitude performance outstripped the Spitfire MkII and MkIII, the latter mark still being under development, the variant went on to become the most produced mark of Spitfire, with production eventually totalling 6,787 air-frames.
The main improvement came in the form of the Rolls Royce Merlin 45 engine. This was essentially the Spitfire MkIII’s Merlin XX with the low level blower deleted. This provided the aircraft a much better performance at high altitude, where it could take on the Bf109F on more equal terms.
However, the Fw190A was a step-change in performance. When a fully serviceable Fw190A-3 was landed at RAF Pembrey in Wales after a navigational error by the pilot, no time was wasted in sending the aircraft for tactical trials.
The Fw190A was of higher quality…
The subsequent report, published in August 1942, gave little comfort. In terms of one verses one performance it was found that the Fw190A was markedly superior to the Spitfire Mk V in the dive, climb and rate of roll and, most importantly, the German fighter was faster at all heights by between 25-35mph.
The Fw190 was found to have better acceleration under all conditions of flight. It could leave the Spitfire with ease in the dive, particularly in the initial stages, and, if in a turn, could flick roll into an opposing diving turn which proved almost impossible for the Spitfire to follow successfully.
In combat the Spitfire could still turn tighter, but the speed, dive and rate of roll differential meant that the Luftwaffe pilots could dictate when and where they wanted to fight, and disengage at will.
Matters became so bad that that the RAF’s top scoring fighter pilot, Air Vice Marshall James Edgar ‘Johnnie’ Johnson CB, CBE, DSO and Two Bars, DFC and Bar was forced to concede that,
“We could out-turn it, but you couldn’t turn all day. As the number of 190s increased, so the depth of our penetrations deceased. They drove us back to the coast.”
…but the Allies had numbers on their side
However, the Fw190As success on an individual level occurred in the context of the essentially defensive battle the Luftwaffe was now fighting. On the channel front, any qualitative advantage in aircraft performance had already been offset by the withdrawal – to the east – of the mass of fighter units employed for the invasion of Russia that had started the summer before.
There were now just the six Gruppen of JG2 and JG26 tasked with combating the growing RAF (and later USAAF) incursions across the entire western occupied zone that stretched across France and the Low Countries.
In combat the German machine could dictate terms, especially during the initial engagement and later disengagement; but once in a dogfight, the Spitfire’s superior turning circle meant that it could more than hold its own.
Ultimately for the Luftwaffe, the Fw190s success as a fighting aircraft was hampered by a significant number of factors that saw it fail to influence the outcome of the war.
These were issues of leadership, logistics and tactics, alongside a reliance on external and synthetic supplies of oil that were highly vulnerable to attack. This weakness was eventually fully exploited by the US strategic bombing force.
In addition, the sheer weight of numbers of the Allied forces, backed by a greater combined industrial and logistical capacity, meant that the the Luftwaffe was simply overwhelmed.
Having a passion for military aviation history for as long as he can remember, Andrew has contributed numerous articles and photographs to aviation magazines both in the UK and Europe since his first image was published in Flypast magazine in 2000. The result of an article idea that ran wild, A Tale of Ten Spitfires is Andrew’s first book, published by Pen and Sword on 12 September 2018
Sarkar, Dilip (2014) Spitfire Ace of Aces: The Wartime Story of Johnnie Johnson, Amberley Publishing, Stroud, p89.
Featured image credit: Supermarine Spitfire Vc AR501 served with 310 and 312 Squadron of the Czech Wing flying escort missions into occupied territory from 1942 to 1944. The aircraft survived the war and now flies with The Shuttleworth Collection. Andrew Critchell – Aviationphoto.co.uk