A Brief History
On June 1, 1939, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, a plane designed by the German aeronautical engineer Kurt Tank, made its first flight and would go on to bedevil the Allies throughout the rest of World War II. With upgrades throughout its service life, the “Butcher Bird” (or Shrike) as it was known due to its heavy firepower, would remain on the leading edge of piston-engine performance.
With its introduction to combat over the English Channel and France in 1941, the Fw 190 became an obvious game changer, requiring Allied designers to upgrade existing Spitfires and come up with better fighters in general.
Like other WW II fighters, various engines were tried and various armament suites were mounted with more or fewer guns and different combinations, including bombs and extra cannon mounted in pods. Unlike other German and British fighters, the Fw 190 was initially equipped with a radial engine which gave it a distinct profile until the introduction of the American P-47 Thunderbolt. Later models were given an inline engine that allowed for better high-altitude performance when intercepting Allied heavy bombers.
Initially, the Fw 190 had suffered at high altitudes, whereas at low and medium altitudes it was supreme. This racy-looking fighter also had a hidden advantage over its fellow fighters in that instead of cables and pulleys to move control surfaces, it used rigid rods and ball-bearings. This feature provided reduced force needed to move controls and more precise control of the airplane.
Heavily armed with 2 x 13mm machine guns and 4 x 20mm cannon (early models had 4 x 7.92mm machine guns and 2 x 20mm cannon), the Butcher Bird certainly earned its name. Its speed would be eventually increased to 426 mph to allow it to keep up with Allied fighters.
A high-speed, high-altitude version of the Fw 190 known as the Ta 152 was designed, but only 43 were produced, which is lucky for the Allied pilots that faced this machine because the Ta 152 could zip along at 472 mph! (The Ta 152 was also armed with either 1 x 30mm cannon and 2 x 20mm cannon or 1 x 30mm cannon and 4 x 20mm cannon, very heavy armament designed to take down large and rugged Allied heavy bombers.)
The wide undercarriage was part of Kurt Tank’s plan to create an easy-to-maintain war machine equipped for the rigors of front line duty on primitive fields in primitive conditions. Access to the engine and other important parts were made to be easily accessed by ground crews.
Though not quite able to turn with a Spitfire, the Fw 190 did have the fastest roll rate of any WW II fighter, while its rugged build, radial engine (less vulnerable than water-cooled inline engines) and heavy firepower made it a great ground-attack fighter-bomber.
Despite persistent Allied bombing of the Focke-Wulf production facilities, over 20,000 Fw 190s were built, and some still served after the war until 1949 with the Turkish Air Force.
To this day, pilots and airplane enthusiasts still debate whether the Fw 190 really was better than the Messerschmitt Bf 109. Partisan proponents from the countries involved in World War II usually favor examples from their own country, but national leanings aside, the Fw 190 needs to at least be considered in any discussion of the best fighter aircraft of World War II.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which do you think was the best of the World War II fighters? Let us know in the comments section below this article. (For reference, please see our articles: “10 Greatest Fighter Planes” and “10 Greatest Enemy Fighter Planes.”)
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For more information, please see…
Creek, Eddie and J. Smith. Focke-Wulf Fw 190, Vol. 1: 1938-1943. Crecy Publishing, 2011.
Creek, Eddie J. and J. Richard Smith. Focke-Wulf Fw 190, Vol. 2: 1943-1944. Crecy Publishing, 2012.
Creek, Eddie and J. Smith. Focke-Wulf Fw 190, Vol. 3: 1944-1945. Specialty Pr Pub & Wholesalers, 2015.
The featured image in this article, photograph MH4190 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums showing a German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A-3 of 11./JG 2 after landing in the UK by mistake in June 1942, is in the public domain. This is because it is one of the following:
- It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
- It was published prior to 1971; or
- It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1971.
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