Eight Focke Wulf 190s were powering west wards, climbing smoothly, thundering over the fields and woods below.
The vivid shades of green on the ground contrasted with and highlighted the red tile-colored roofs of the dwellings in the French villages and small towns dotted here and there. Railroad tracks snaked from east to west to disappear below the horizon.
Major Kurt Bühligen, the tenth Kommodore of the famous Richthofen Geschwader and an Eichenlaub (Oakleaves) winner, was carefully scanning the sky and the ground, in anticipation of the classic bounce by enemy fighters. It was 7 June 1944. Just the previous day a huge Allied invasion force had arrived off the coast of Normandy and started landed on the beaches. Fierce combat was taking place both in the air and on the ground. After a whole day of sorties, Bühligen’s JG 2 could put no more than eight serviceable machines into the air. It was no surprise therefore that the most experienced pilots were at the controls of these 190s following the order to fly to Carpiquet airfield east of Caen. According to the command post, enemy fighter-bombers were attacking German positions, the ground troops putting up desperate defensive action. There was no time to lose.
The western horizon was hidden by clouds of smoke. Fires small and large could be distinguished in the distance. Moments later, the pilots saw artillery cannonades on the ground, the blasts raising fountains of earth, and tanks, small and box-like to the fighters, flashing fire from their guns time and time again. It was an unmistakable sign – they had arrived at the frontline.
Agitated voices could suddenly be heard in the earphones. Someone was announcing the beginning of an attack. There was no doubt that fighters had tangled in a whirling melee close by.
“Abschuß! Got one!”
Bühligen recognized the voice. It was “Pips” Priller, Kommodore of the Schlageter pilots.
“Pips, where are you?” he said via the throat mike...
“Is that you, Kamel?”
“Couldn’t leave you alone,” Bühligen laughed. “I’m not leaving you behind!”
Everyone knew that these two Kommodoren were closing on the magic number of 100 victories. The other pilots of both JG 2 and JG 26 were closely following the unofficial competition.
“I’m in UC 36. Damn! There’s more and more of them!”
“Keep going! Leave one for me!”
Bühligen looked at the map. Quadrant UC 36 was not far. He turned north and after a while saw aircraft engaged in a swirling dogfight.
“Fight, one o’clock, Hanni 40,”1 this was only pro forma – all the pilots knew their task.
Major Bühligen felt a shiver of excitement down his spine, the first sign of “hunting fever”. He saw a whirl of aircraft before him. He easily recognized the FW 190s and silver Thunderbolts with black-and-white bands on the wings. There were many of the latter – too many!
“Gunsights on! Release weapon safety! Attack on my signal!”
The other Focke Wulfs waggled their wings. Hptm. Huppertz, flying next to the Major, glanced across at him. At the same moment he noticed another group of Thunderbolts approaching from the south.
“Indians at nine o’clock!”
“Victor!” he heard Bühligen. “Take care of them. Horrido! ”
The Kommodore of JG 2 banked his Focke Wulf over and swept in with the sun on his back. The fighter was accelerating fast. It was becoming less responsive to the movements of the stick. Bühligen had already selected his target. His eyes glaring at the gunsight, he counted down the distance: 500 m, 400 m, 300 m… The glinting wings of a Thunderbolt quickly filled his gun sight as he bore in on his quarry. The enemy did not react. Then the P-47 veered to port and prepared to attack one of the JG 26 pilots. Bühligen repeated his maneuver like a shadow. 150 meters. Not yet. Closer, closer! The German could already see the code letters on the opponent’s fuselage. 80 meters! He squeezed off a burst of fire. The FW 190 shook as the machine guns hammered. Within a fraction of a second, he registered the salvo slamming into the Thunderbolt. Bühligen pulled back hard on the stick to avoid a collision with the enemy. He shot a glance to the rear. The P-47 was going down trailing a long banner of smoke. After a moment, the bulky form of the pilot tumbled away from the falling aircraft. The white canopy of a parachute mushroomed open in the sky.
“Abschuß!” he shouted happily.
“Victor!” said his wingman.
Huppertz claimed a victory at the same time as he did.
“Katschmarek, form up!” the commander’s voice was now calm.
The wingman at once took up position behind his leader. In the meantime, Bühligen began to look around in every direction. They had unexpectedly gotten into cloud, losing sight of their enemies. They turned back to the location of the recent fight but could not see anything. The excited voices of fighters could still be heard in the headphones.
“Turn right,” he ordered.
This maneuver probably saved his wingman’s life. An accurately aimed burst drummed against the Focke Wulf’s left wing.
“We’re under attack!”
“Evade! Turn, turn!”
As if linked by an invisible thread, both FW 190s broke hard right, escaping the fire of the unseen enemy. Bühligen continued banking around until he noticed two diving Thunderbolts. So these were the culprits. Let’s see, then, who’s got the upper hand now!
He switched on the “Ha-Ha”2. His Focke Wulf immediately jumped forward, leaving the wingman behind. The rapid increase of power pushed the pilot into the seat. The silver enemy fighters were quickly growing bigger ahead of him. The Americans turned north, toward the other fighting aircraft.
It was then that they noticed him. Turning rapidly, one dove almost straight down while the other racked up into a climb.
“Watch the upper one!” the wingman heard.
The Major was getting very close to the Thunderbolt’s tail. Perhaps the American was unaware that below 5,000 m the FW 190 was clearly superior to his P-47. Extra power was no longer necessary. Bühligen switched the MW 50 off so as not to overstrain the engine. He was just 200 m from his prey. The American pulled his aircraft up. The German slightly readjusted his direction and had him in his gunsight again. 100 m away. Fire! Bursts of tracer bullets snapped out at the target. As the enemy presented a small deflection shot, Bühligen readjusted his course maintaining constant fire. At the same instant his quarry threw his kite into an evasive action and dove. It was too late, though. Small cannon shell explosions danced across the P-47’s fuselage. Fragments of sheet metal ripped and spun into the air. A trail of dark smoke appeared immediately behind the fighter’s tail. The Thunderbolt fell off a wing into a tight spiral. A second later, tracers whizzed past the Focke Wulf’s cockpit. Bühligen kicked the rudder and dived rapidly. A P-47 followed him like a shadow. The German ace had to use all the tricks he knew in order to get rid of the persistent enemy. Five minutes later, he finally managed to fly into cloud. He was tired. Without lingering any longer, he headed for the airfield.
“Pips” Priller heard Bühligen claim two victories over the radio. He decided to be the first to congratulate him. He landed at the JG 2 base, jumped out of his cockpit and, taking off his gloves, asked the approaching mechanics: “Is your Kommodore in?”
“Not yet, Herr Oberst.”
“Let’s wait for the lucky guy, then.”
In the meantime, there was a festive atmosphere at the JG 2 command post. Mechanics had already prepared a wreath and a plate with the inscription “Congratulations on your 100th victory”. All were impatiently awaiting Major Bühligen. At last, aircraft were spotted heading in from the west. The Focke Wulfs landed one by one at the Creil airfield, but the most important one was still missing.
Suddenly, two German fighters hurtled over the field; one was green, the other gray. The green FW 190 waggled its wings twice signaling two victories. Caps were thrown into the air. Deploying its gear the Focke Wulf came back around for a perfect three-point landing.
When a smiling Bühligen stopped his aircraft at the end of the runway, the mechanics refused to let him climb down from the cockpit. They rolled their Kommodore’s machine into the hangar, and only then did they let him clamber out of the cockpit. Officers and airmen immediately surrounded him. Someone quickly handed him the plate with congratulations. Photographs were taken. The Kommodore of JG 2 had not just reached the magic 100, he had passed it. Among the assembled men was also the Kommodore of JG 26, Obstlt. “Pips” Priller.
“You old fox, you’ve outdone me!” he shouted with a smile.
“Now it’s your turn to do the hundred, Pips,” Bühligen replied. He was still wearing his life vest.
“If you don’t open the champagne at once, I will do it today!”
Everyone burst out with laughter. Champagne and glasses were brought out from somewhere. Bühligen, of course, had to describe his fight to everyone and the entire company soon moved to the officers’ mess. However, unlike previous celebrations, this one was soon curtailed. Everyone knew that there was another day of hard fighting ahead of them.
Operations in Western Europe
A veritable air force of pre-production Focke Wulf 190s, designated A-0 were tested by the manufacturer before the type entered service (Focke Wulf in Bremen was the sole factory building the FW 190 up until the A-2 variant). Some of these aircraft were subsequently converted to A-1 standard and other examples were provided with Umrüst Bausätze and served as trials machines. Initial operational evaluation of the design was carried out by the Erprobungsstaffel 190 at Rechlin in March 1941 using personnel from II./JG 26, the first Luftwaffe fighter Gruppe to re-arm with the type. An initial complement of pilots coverted onto the machine at Le Bourget, Paris, under Gruppenkommandeur Hptm. Walter Adolph, assigned FW 190A-1 WNr. 028 during August 1941. The summer of 1941 saw the RAF making more and more daring escapades to the continent and, in excellent weather conditions, the FW 190s sortied alongside Bf 109Es and Bf 109Fs. With the launch of Barbarossa in the East, Jagdwaffe forces in the west comprised just two Geschwader (JG 26 and JG 2). Perhaps to camouflage the fact that fighter units had been removed from the Kanalfront for the invasion of Russia, the Focke Wulf 190 aircraft of JG 26 based in northern France never carried their famous Schlageter S script badge. Equally later on, the FW 190s of JG 2 would never be adorned with the Richthofen badge below the cockpit. In the event the new machine would prove a timely addition to the defenders along the Channel Front. On August 14, the Staffelkapitän of 6./JG 26 Oblt. Schneider and Lt. Schenk shot down two Spitfires in a dogfight with the Polish 306 Sqn, achieving the first victories on the FW 190. Paradoxically, it was Heinz Schenk himself who became the first frontline loss in a Focke Wulf. After a fight with Spitfires on August 29, Schenk came within range of German flak near Dunkirk, which immediately opened fire on him. The hit FW 190 (W. Nr. 008) crashed on a beach south of town, killing the pilot.
The II./JG 26 pilots were careful at first in dealing with the new machine. Aware of the fighter’s teething troubles, few risks were taken in initial encounters with the enemy. This may be one reason why their adversaries who saw the unfamiliar radial-engined fighter reported clashes with American Curtiss Hawk 75s. It was thought that the Germans were pressing the Hawks into service following the fall of France in order to fill the gaps in the strength of their own units. The early combat history of the FW 190 was punctuated by problems with the revolutionary new engine management system (Kommandogerät) and frequent engine fires, with the overheating problems only cured some six months down the line with the introduction of the A-4. The first serious accident occurred on August 21 when Ofw. Meyer of 6./JG 26 crash-landed near Overheluestraat in his “Brown 2” (W. Nr. 002). The badly wounded pilot was dragged from the wreckage and taken to Courtrai hospital by Belgian farmers.
British fighters managed to shoot down their first FW 190 on September 18. The Kommandeur of II./JG 26, Hptm. Walter Adolph, was leading nine Focke Wulfs on shipping escort duties. While patrolling off Ostende on the Belgian coast, three Blenheims appeared near Blankenberge covered by Spitfire Mk.Vs of 41 Sqn. Ofw. Roth shot down a bomber in a short fight, but Adolph himself failed to return. Nobody had seen him go down. A search proved fruitless, and his body was found only three weeks later on a Belgian beach. It turned out that 88 Sqn lost two Blenheims in this engagement, the second having fallen to Adolph, who was attacked by F/O Babbage and shot down at once while circling above his own victim. The Blenheim he shot down would have been his 26th kill. In the event, the English pilot reported having downed a radial-engined aircraft, possibly a Curtiss Hawk (or an FW 190).
The truth about the existence of the new machine came out on October 13 when the RAF engaged German fighters while flying a two-formation Circus 108. The famous Polish 303 Sqn was part of this operation. Near Hardelot, F/O Jan Zumbach dealt quickly with a Bf 109F, before latching onto the tail of an unfamiliar aircraft. He shot it up with two short bursts and claimed damage to an unidentified fighter. His gun camera shots aroused the interest of intelligence officers, for whom this was the first opportunity to see Kurt Tank’s creation. In this engagement the new Kommandeur of II./JG 26, Hptm. Joachim Müncheberg, claimed his first victory with the FW 190. The Spitfire that he shot down near Samer was the 57th enemy plane to fall to this skilled pilot.
In the meantime, on October 19, III./JG 26 under Hptm. Gerd Schöpfel left Liegescourt airfield for the winter base of Coquelles, south-west of Calais on the Channel coast. There, the personnel took instruction in the maintenance of the FW 190, while the pilots began training flights.
The last major battle of 1941 took place on November 8, when the English deployed two squadrons of Hurri-bombers to the St. Pol distillery with a cover of five Spitfire squadrons. The attack had another stage – Circus 110, i.e. twelve Blenheims escorted by eleven fighter squadrons, deployed to bomb the Lille rolling stock repair workshops. The entire strength of JG 26 and JG 2 were scrambled to fight off the raid, engaging the RAF fighters in wild swirling dogfights. II./JG 26 gave their opponents a foretaste of future battles by scoring seven times, Hptm. Müncheberg claiming two of these kills. Among the other scorers were such aces as Fw. “Addi” Glunz and the Staka of 4 Staffel, Oblt. Ebersberger. Polish pilots of the Northolt Wing, who were flying top cover, were the only contributors to the FW 190s’ losses in this combat – Uffz. Kern died near Dunkirk, while the adjutant of II./JG 26, Oblt. Lindemann, crash-landed his burning FW 190, suffering serious injuries in the process. Not long afterwards the first FW 190A-2 fighters were delivered to II./JG 26.
1941 ended dramatically for 6 Staffel. The German warships stationed at Brest were frequent targets of Bomber Command, and to defend against these raids, elements of JG 2 were posted to Brittany. The relinquished field at Abbeville-Drucat was now taken over by II./JG 26 in order to fill the gap in the Channel defenses. The move from Wevelghem took place on December 22. The FW 190s were airborne in appalling weather conditions, powering southwest at low altitude behind the Staka 6./JG 26, Oblt. Walter Schneider in an FW 190A-2 (W. Nr. 217, “brown 1 + -”). When the aircraft arrived in the Artois sector, they flew into dense fog banks and “Jap” Schneider lost his bearings. The pilots pressed on with the formation soon spread out in the ever-worsening conditions. Unfortunately, four pilots crashed into hills around Boulogne sur Mer and died. A fifth pilot also crashed in poor visibility. Among the dead was Walter Schneider, very popular with his comrades. He had accounted for twenty British aircraft shot down, and his machine was the first FW 190A-2 to be lost by JG 26. His replacement as Staka of 6./JG 26 was Oblt. Otto Behrens.
The winter period was spent re-arming Stab and I./JG 26 with FW 190s. Now a sufficient number of the new and improved fighters were stationed at the Channel to pose a real threat to British pilots.
The first major combat test for the FW 190 was provided by Operation “Cerberus-Donnerkeil”. The Brest-stationed German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as well as the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were to be re-deployed to ports on the Baltic. A high level decision was taken to send them via the English Channel right under the noses of the RAF and the Royal Navy, with the Jagdwaffe providing a continuous fighter ‘umbrella’ to screen the convoy. With the vessels slipping their moorings before dawn, the first British reaction did not take place until 13h30, when out of the gloom, six biplane torpedo Swordfish of No. 825 Sqn were sighted escorted by ten Spitfires of No. 72 Sqn. 9 Staffel engaged the escorts. Ofw. Koslowski and Uffz. Stavenhagen were shot down and Ofw. Starke of 9./JG 26 failed to return, having probably clipped the wave tops. Losses were thus quite considerable but this allowed the FW 190 pilots of III./JG 26 and Bf 109 pilots of II./JG 2 to attack the biplanes, which pressed on towards their targets under withering fire. All of the latter were shot down within two minutes. The Germans had to resort to an unusual combat tactic against the slow biplanes: dropping their gear and flaps, they juddered on the edge of the stall in order to remain on the tails of the torpedo-bombers flying at 170 km/h. Nine Swordfish were claimed in the mess. III./JG 26 pilots claimed three (two Oblt. Naumann and one Lt. Paul Galland), whereas JG 2 reported six victories.
Having repulsed the first attack, the German pilots grew more watchful. Patrols over the vessels changed in regular intervals, driving away groups of British fighters. The Bf 109F-equipped I./JG 26 shot down one Spitfire but lost one pilot, too. A funny incident happened in which a late Fw. Glunz of 4 Staffel caught up and joined a Spitfire formation, mistaking them for his own Gruppe. Only by some miracle did he escape from this predicament and return to base.
Before 16.00 British bombers arrived on the scene protected by groups of Spitfires; however, the FW 190s of 7./JG 26 quickly launched into attack, shooting down three of them, and two Wellingtons (The OKL did not credit these victories). Subsequently Hudson and Beaufort torpedo aircraft put in an appearance, their escorts clashing with FW 190s from III./JG 26. One of the Spitfires fell to Oblt. Ragotzi. Fw. Glunz’s unlucky streak was gone with another Spitfire, which plummeted into the water.
The German warships headed for German harbors. Neither the Royal Navy nor the RAF were able to inflict any damage or loss. The only damage resulted from mines. JG 26 claimed seven confirmed victories (including five by FW 190s) and two unconfirmed for the loss of four pilots (three of these in FW 190s). The RAF lost a total of 43 aircraft.
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