They are seen by many as two of the finest fighter planes of world war 2 and yet both had rather inauspicious beginnings but through upgrades, both large and small they became formidable fighting machines that were feared and admired by both sides but how did the Focke-wolf FW-190 stack up against the North American P-51 Mustang.
The tale of these two planes that would ultimately battle it out in the skies over Europe starts in the mid-1930s with a competition run by the German Ministry of Aviation for a modern fighter to rearm the Luftwaffe. Kurt Tank led the design team for Focke-Wolf and entered the FW 159 against the Arado Ar 80, Heinkel He 112 and Messerschmitt Bf 109. The FW-159 which was high wing design was quickly knocked out and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 went on to win the competition in 1936.
However, the air ministry was fearful that newer foreign designs might outclass the Bf109 so they looked for an alternative backup. Tank came up with several designs but one which was based on a radial engine caught interest at the Air ministry.
At the time it was thought that a large radial engine would create too much drag for a high-speed fighter compared the streamlined fuselages using narrow V-12 engines. Both the Bf109 and Spitfire used this design philosophy which was to basically to fit the largest engines into the smallest airframes for the greatest speed.
Tank likened the Bf109 and the Spitfire which were the fastest fighters in the world at the time to racehorses which given ideal conditions could outrun everything else but if conditions became difficult they struggled. He thought that an alternative more akin to a cavalry horse than a racehorse would be better suited to a future of ill-prepared runways, easier to fly by novice pilots and able to take more battle damage and still return home combined with high performance.
The obsession of using V-12s in fighters also created a shortage of the main engine, the V12 Damlier Benz DB-601. Tank had seen the US Navy successfully using large radial engines and thought with the right kind of streamlining the drag could be overcome as well as tapping into a ready supply of large powerful Radials he lobbied the air ministry until they gave him the chance to prove it.
The result was the FW-190 powered initially by a BMW 139 radial this was soon changed to the 1600hp, 41.8 litre, 14 cylinder BWM 801 radial which was determined to have more development potential.
In initial testing, it was found that the FW-190 performed well matching the Bf109 in many areas but the engine was a problem and an aerodynamic engine shrowd which was key to reducing drag caused it to overheat, it took months to iron the problems but eventually it became a reliable power plant.
Design features of the FW-190 included, more armour protection, greater weapons carrying capacity and a much wider undercarriage than that of the Bf109 making it much more stable on takeoff and landing something that ended up killing many novice Bf109 pilots. It also made extensive use of electrically controlled flight surfaces rather than using hydraulics, making it more reliable if the hydraulics were damaged in battle. The FW-190 was also designed to be built in pieces in small distributed factories rather than single large ones. This meant that it would be much harder to target the source of production by air raids.
By June 1941 the FW-190A was approved for service and in their first encounter with the RAF they completely outclassed the Mk5 Spitfires shooting many of them down over the coming months. Being air-cooled, it could also withstand small arms damage to the engine much better compared to the liquid-cooled Bf109 when doing ground strafing missions.
The main weakness was that at altitudes above 6000 meters 20,000ft its performance dropped much more than the Bf109 which remained the primary high altitude interceptor.
However, a stroke of luck arrived for the RAF in June 1942 when an FW-190A3 landed at an RAF base by mistake. The pilot, Armin Faber had became disoriented and separated from his fighter group during dogfights with Spitfires over the English Channel. He ended up flying to England instead of his base in northern France and mistakenly landed at RAF Pembrey in South Wales. He was captured and the plane was stripped and examined in detail then rebuilt and painted in RAF colours and flown for about 90 hours in tests and mock trails against the new against Spitfire Mk9 and other allied fighters to find its strengths and weaknesses. This was the first and only FW-190 fighter to be captured intact during the war and was a major breakthrough for the allies.
Whilst the FW-190 and Bf109 were dominating the skies and the RAF struggled to catch up, on the other side of the Atlantic a plane was in development that would change the course of the later air war and the daylight bomber raids of United States Army Air Force and allow them to take on the Luftwaffe on an equal footing.
That plane was the P-51 Mustang. In 1940 the British were struggling to build enough Spitfires and Hurricanes and so they looked to the US to build a fighter to their specifications but in large numbers. Although the British Purchasing Commission approached NAA, North American Aviation to build a Curtiss P-40 fighter under license, NAA decided to build a newer more modern design and in little over 100 days from the contract being signed the first plane was ready for testing.
The Plane performed well and even with the 1200 hp Allison V12 it was as fast and manoeuvrable as the Spitfire at low level, it carried twice as much fuel and thus had a much greater range and could be equally well-armed. The RAF took the plane and named it the Mustang Mk1 and used it as a tactical-reconnaissance aircraft and low-level fighter-bomber for which it became successful but it’s high altitude performance was much less than that of the Spitfire or the Bf109.
During 1942 and as the USAAF increased its daylight bomber raids into Germany, the FW-190 became a deadly opponent, especially when fitted with 20mm cannon and underwing rockets. The Bf109’s would take on the bomber escorts and the FW-190 would attack the bombers.
But on longer missions deep into Germany, the P-47 Thunderbolt escorts had to turn back just as the bombers reached German airspace due to their limited fuel capacity. The German fighters would wait until the bombers were alone and then attack them to and from the target inflicting so many casualties that the USAAF were forced into calling off the bombing raids.
At this time P-51 Mustang was considered as a bomber escort due to its already excellent range and with extra drop fuel tanks it could reach from England to Berlin and back but it’s lack of high altitude performance meant that it couldn’t protect the bombers at altitude.
A test pilot at Rolls Royce, Ronald Harker suggested replacing the Allison V12 with the new Merlin 61 which was fitted to the Spitfire Mk9 and which was now able to outperform the FW-190. With its two-stage supercharger, the Merlin 61 not only had more power at 20,000ft than the Allison had at takeoff it used about half the amount of fuel. Tests of the new configuration showed that it transformed the performance of the Mustang Mk1 not only increasing its top speed by 80km/h to 710km/h but increasing its flight ceiling to 42,000ft or 13,000 meters.
The new P-51 B/C and eventually D models were powered by a US-built Packard Merlin made under license from Rolls Royce. Now it escort the bombers to the target and back and were more than a match for existing FW-190s which struggled with its heavy armaments at the altitude where the P-51 and B-17 operated.
One of the main reasons why the P-51 was faster than the FW-190 and the Bf109 was not only because it was better aerodynamically with less drag but it could produce more power even with a smaller engine, 27 litre compared the 42 litre of the FW-190 and 34 litre of the Bf109 and it could do this at the high altitudes where the bombers flew.
This was because the fuel available to the allies was a much higher quality at up to 150 octane compared to the 95 octane for the germans because of the allied bombing raids on their oil production facilities. This high-quality fuel allowed the Merlin engine and other similar allied engines to have much high boost pressures from their superchargers, effectively giving them the power of a much bigger engine but for a lot less weight and without detonating and damaging the engine.
In 1944, due to a disinformation program put out by the US that the new high altitude B-29 would be used in Europe and the need to counter the P-51D bomber escorts, the need to increase the FW-190s performance at high altitude led Kurt Tank to look at other engines and in particular, the inverted V-12 Jumo 213 engine fitted to Junker Ju 188 bomber which was more readily available than the DB-601. With the addition of a two-stage supercharger and methanol-water injection, the Jumo 213s peak power output rose to 2050hp and once fitted into the lengthed fuselage of the FW- 190D and with a pressurised cockpit it increased its flight ceiling to match that of the P-51D at 42,000ft.
The Germans started to overcome the fuel octane issue in the FW-190D around 1944 with various ingenious design changes including water-methanol injection and nitrous oxide injection to give the boost in power when needed even with poor fuel. In the end, various V-12 engines were used including the DB-601, DB-603 as well as the Jumo 213.
This also led to the Focke-wolf Ta-152C, a high-performance high altitude version of the FW-190-D. This had a much wider wingspan and even longer fuselage and gave it the superior high altitude performance to combat the supposed deployment of the B-29s.
But for all the high altitude capabilities of the FW-190D and Ta-152, by the time they entered service later in the war, there were just too few of them to really make a difference against the mass of allied fighters, a total of about 700 FW-190Ds were produced and about 70 Ta-152’s.
However, in a change of tactics brought in by the new US airforce European commander, James “Jimmy” Doolittle, the german hunters became the hunted.
In preparation for the D-Day landings, it became essential that the Luftwaffe fighter force be eliminated so that the allies could land without fear of attack from the air. To achieve air superiority, large raids of 100’s of bombers and fighter escorts were sent deep into Germany and used to draw out the Luftwaffe.
Doolittle told the pilots of the P-51s to go after the German fighters rather than just defend the bombers and they would often lead well ahead of the bombers to attack the german fighters as they came up. Although the production of FW-190s reached over 20,000 compared to the 15,000 of the P-51 the numbers of experienced Luftwaffe pilots over this time dropped dramatically.
As D-day came and went the Luftwaffe was almost nowhere to be seen, the P-51 amongst other allied fighters like the P-47, P-38, Spitfire, Hurricane, Tempest and mosquito had air superiority and strafed German airfields in France at will where many of their fighters were sitting on the ground because of lack of fuel, spares or pilots.
As the allies advanced, The FW-190 became more of a ground attack plane for which it was very well suited and with experience from the Russain front they remained a potent weapon right up until the end of the war.
As far as which one was the best plane its difficult to say, both were adapted and upgraded throughout the war and both were equally well-liked by their pilots with many aces clocking up their greatest number of kills in their respective P-51 or FW-190. The later versions of both planes were vast improvements on their earlier incarnations but the circumstances in which they were made and used played as bigger role as their design.
The two had different design philosophies, the P-51D was designed with high performance at high altitude in mind and mass-produced in world-leading factories in the US with top quality materials, machine tools and a labour force safe from the fear of bombing by the enemy.
The FW-190 was designed to be rugged and dependable rather than chasing every last hp but in the end it was hampered by shortages of quality materials, skilled labour, skilled pilots and poor fuel, looking at it this way it’s a bit of a miracle they made that far.
Towards the end of the war and due to the severe lack of fuel, the German fighters were only sent up when really necessary and most were pulled back from their forward positions to defend Germany itself. The last great battle of the western front where they were used in large numbers was as the battle of the Bulge to support the panzer divisions and although they performed well destroying over 100 allied fighters they were being shot down far quicker than they could be replaced. The safe mass production of the allies easily out trumped the bombed-out factories of the Riech.
But its probably safe to say that if the FW-190D’s had been available at the beginning of the war things like the battle of Britain could have been very different with all the implications that would have had.