The Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor was the Third Reich's only effective four-engine bomber. It was used in a variety of roles, which was quite common for effective German aircraft of the period such as the Junkers Ju-88, He-111, Bf-110 and Ju-52. While the Condor could not do all the things that the Allied bombers could do as effectively as they could, and had several major drawbacks in its design that were never really addressed, what it could do, it did very well.
The Condor was an all-metal four-engined monoplane. As was often the case with German military aircraft, it had its origins as a long-range airliner.
Kurt Tank was one of the top aircraft designers in history. He had to his credit the Focke-Wulf 190, widely considered the most effective German fighter of the middle years of World War II, along with other top aircraft such as the Ta 152.
During the early 1930s, he proposed to Lufthansa, headed at that time by Dr. Rudolf Stuessel, the creation of a trans-atlantic passenger airliner. It was a novel idea for the time, but the airline company agreed, and in June 1936 issued the specifications.
Design chores were handled by Ludwig Mittelhuber. Wilhelm Bansemir served as project director. Tank himself took the first prototype, V1, into the air on 27 July 1937. It was powered by four American 875 hp Pratt & Whitney Hornet radial engines.Two more prototypes were built, V2 and V3, these using German 720 hp BMW 132G-1 radial engines.
Ostensibly, the FW 200 was still a civilian aircraft, despite the gathering clouds of war. However, the Japanese military liked the plane's flight characteristics and ordered a re-design for search and patrol duties. Tank dutifully prepared V10, which was loaded with military equipment.
However, by the time it was ready, war had broken out, and the military design was used by the Germans instead. This may in part have been simply a ruse by the Germans, with Japanese assistance, to be open about a military re-design of this widely known civilian airliner: the Japanese had very capable long-range seaplanes of their own for reconnaisance purposes.
The military version of the FW 200 differed from the civilian version by virtue of having bomb racks, a lengthened and strengthened fuselage, and gun positions. The small gondola was greatly expanded and converted into a bomb bay.
This version of the Condor could carry either a 900-kilogram (2,000 lb) bomb load or naval mines to use against shipping. All of these modifications of course added tremendous extra weight to the frame, and one of the black marks against the aircraft throughout its service was that the undercarriage had a tendency to collapse upon landing. This was not a crippling problem, but many aircraft were lost or damaged due to this inherent structural defect. In addition, the brakes had a tendency to catch on fire when landing. This also was not disabling, but the undercarriage went right under the fuel tanks when in the "up" position, so this had many possibilities of disaster. In one famous incident, the brakes on Hitler's own fancy Condor burst into flames upon landing in Finland for a meeting with Marshal Mannerheim.
Strangely enough, the FW 200 remained in civilian use throughout World War II and even afterwards. Regularly scheduled flights continued to Spain even after the Allied re-conquest of France in 1944. One imagines that these were harrowing flights that veered well south across the Mediterranean. These flights increasingly had a quasi-military purpose of ferrying military or diplomatic officers to neutral Spain, from which they could travel to Lisbon and continue onward anywhere in the world. Brazil, Denmark, and even the United Kingdom (operating an impounded FW 200) used the aircraft for civilian purposes.
The last such flight was on 14 April 1945, when Spanish leader Francisco Franco finally halted them due to the military/political situation. Other airlines such as Danish Air Lines and Cruzeiro do Sol of Brazil continued to use the FW 200 during the post-war period, including Spain, which confiscated several which landed on its territory during the conflict. Incredibly, there were still Lufthansa flights within German after that.
A FW 200 made a first when it flew non-stop from Berlin to New York in August 1938. It also flew back a couple of days later. Regular flights from Berlin to Tokyo, with stops in Basra, Karachi and Hanoi, began a few months later.
|Armaments Minister Albert Speer (third from left) at the airfield in front of Hitler's personal FW 200 (Federal Archive).|
The FW 200 also was used by German leaders for their own personal use. Adolf Hitler had been using a Junkers Ju 52 throughout the 1930s, but in 1939 switched to a FW 200 after his personal pilot, Hans Bauer, noted that its fast speed would offer more protection. Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop used one to fly to Moscow in August 1939 and finalize the non-aggression pact that began World War II.
The FW was a fast bomber with long range - it was not a heavy bomber, despite the four engines. Its cruising speed of 335 km/h (181 knots, 208 mph) was comparable to that of a fighter aircraft at the start of the war. While eventually fighters could outrun them, the margin of difference remained small enough that the defensive gunners on the Condor retained a better chance of zeroing in the slower-moving (relative to the bomber) fighters than with slower bombers trying to defend against fighters whizzing past them. It was all about relative speeds. The FW 200 was used by the Luftwaffe to interdict convoys which were England's lifeblood. Condors would make great traverses of the Atlantic until they found merchant ships, and then bracket them with three bombs in order to score a hit. Despite the fact that bombing shipping is extremely difficult, and that the Condor had a very crude bombsight, the aircraft proved extremely deadly at this mission.
The first Condor 200 (bomber) squadron was in Denmark, from which it could fly out into the north sea. This gave it a limited radius of action, especially since the Soviet Union was not yet an enemy and there were no convoys to Murmansk to interdict. After the conquest of France, though, the base moved to Bordeaux-Merignac, France, which opened up the entire Atlantic Ocean. The plane remained effective in a reconnaissance role even after it ceased attacks on shipping, continuing its sweeps across the Atlantic and reporting on shipping positions to U-boats, vectoring them in to their targets. This led British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to label the FW 200 the 'Scourge of the Atlantic' in addition to their less-fearsome Allied sobriquet of 'Kurier.'
The Condor operated against shipping in 1940 until mid-1941. It was claimed that they sank 331,122 tonnes of shipping during this period. Eventually, though, the British developed counter-measures, including merchant ships that could fly off a fighter ('Cam ships').
The Condor was extremely vulnerable to fighter attack despite its defensive armament, so the Luftwaffe ceased low-level attacks on shipping. Instead, the Condors would shadow convoys and report their positions to wolf packs of U-boats.
Condors flew far afield. In fact, the first United States kill of a Condor on 14 August 1942 was over Iceland. Eventually, the Condor was pressed into service solely as a transport aircraft, as the Wehrmacht faced more and more encirclements that required air supplies.
|Even if you don't really study old planes, this is a beautiful shot.|
As was often the case with German aircraft during the closing years of the war, the Condor was used in roles to which it was not suited, and its reputation suffered as a result. They remained difficult to bring down until the end, though, and it is notable that the Condor became one of the best-known aircraft of the conflict despite the fact that only 276 were built.
Germany developed other four-engine bombers, such as the troublesome 'Flying Fireworks' He 177 and various late-war attempts that had varying levels of success. In terms of effectiveness as a weapon in combat, though, the Condor outclassed all of them and made a real impact on the early stages of the war.
One intact copy remains, re-assembled from a Condor recovered from the Trondheimsfjorden in Norway in 1999 and another that crashed on the Kvitanosi mountain near Voss in Norway.
Characteristics of the FW 200:
Capacity: 30 fully armed troops in transport configuration
Length: 23.45 m (76 ft 11 in)
Wingspan: 32.85 m (107 ft 9 in)
Height: 6.30 m (20 ft 8 in)
Wing area: 119.85 m² (1,290 ft²)
Empty weight: 17,005 kg (37,490 lb)
Max. takeoff weight: 24,520 kg (50,057 lb)
Powerplant: 4 × BMW/Bramo 323R-2 nine-cylinder single-row air-cooled radial engine, 895 kW (1,200hp) each
Maximum speed: 360 km/h (195 knots, 224 mph) at 4,800 m (15,750 ft)
Cruise speed: 335 km/h (181 knots, 208 mph) at 4,000 m (13,100 ft) (Max cruise)
Range: 3,560 km (1,923 nmi, 2,212 mi)
Endurance: 14 hrs
Service ceiling: 6,000 m (19,700 ft)
1 × 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon in forward gondola
4 × 13 mm MG 131 machine gun (dorsal and waist positions)
Bombs: Up to 5,400 kg (11,905 lb) of bombs