Attained the Peak of Radial Engine Fighter Designs
The Nazis brought radial engine fighter designs to their peak with the Focke-Wulf FW-190. It was a low wing fighter, powered by a BWW air cooled radial engine, first ordered in 1937. It had been intended as backup and insurance against possible shortages in the liquid cooled Daimler engines that powered the Luftwaffe’s mainstay fighter, the Bf 109. However, once it was introduced in late 1941, the backup stole the show.
The FW-190 turned out to be more rugged than the 109. The huge radial engine, mounted up front, acted as extra shielding for the pilot, and could absorb far more damage than the Bf 109’s liquid cooled engine and still keep working. It also proved superior to the 109 in most tasks, except high altitude dog fighting. So the FW-190 ended up replacing the Messerschmitt as Germany’s main fighter, with over 20,000 produced by war’s end.
The FW-190 was maneuverable, and heavily armed with a standard configuration of four 20mm cannon, plus two machine guns. It proved itself an excellent fighter airplane, and during the middle war years, was the best air to air fighter. It gained an ascendancy over enemy fighters that lasted until the Spitfire IX restored parity in July of 1942.
However, the Spitfire lacked the range to penetrate deep into Reich territory. Thus, when American bombers began conducting daylight raids into Germany, the FW-190s’ heavy armaments made it an excellent bomber destroyer. Wading into the bomber formations, FW-190s inflicted heavy losses and established an ascendancy over German skies. That lasted until long range American fighter escorts finally became available to shepherd US bombers in 1944.
In addition to its fighter role, the FW-190 platform was well suited to a variety of other missions, such as reconnaissance and ground attack. It was also an effective fast light bomber, capable of carrying a respectable 4000 bomb load. And when it was equipped with 37mm cannons, it proved itself an exceptional tank buster. That kind of versatility is what made the FW-190 one of the war’s best airplanes.
The FW-190s supremacy over Germany’s skies was first challenged by the appearance of American P-38 Lightnings and P-47 Thunderbolts. Their range, already good, was extended even further by the use of drop tanks. That allowed them to escort American bombers to targets in Germany that fell within their enhanced range, and at least part of the way to those targets deeper inside Germany that lay beyond.
The FW-190’s radial engine could not hope to match the turbo supercharged engines of American fighters at high altitudes. As a result, FW-190s were forced to retreat deeper into Germany, effectively giving Allied bombers free reign over the territory that lay within Allied escort fighter range. Alternatively, FW-190s would shadow the bomber formations and wait until the escorting Thunderbolts or Lightnings reached their maximum range. When the escorting fighters had to turn back, FW-190s pounced on the now undefended bombers.
The appearance of the P-51 Mustang, which had the range to escort US bombers to targets anywhere inside German held territory, put the FW-190 at a permanent disadvantage, and ended its ascendancy as a bomber destroyer. The introduction of the liquid cooled FW-190D variant in September of 1944 restored some degree of parity, but by then it was too late. German factories did not produce enough FW-190Ds to go around, and by the time they came out, the Luftwaffe had suffered severe pilot attrition. Thus, even when there were enough FW-190Ds, there was a shortage of experienced flyers capable of taking full advantage of their capabilities.