Acquiring information about an enemy’s latest weapon often involves top secret and carefully planned spy operations, but in June 1942 the unbelievable happened.
The British were presented with a real-life example of a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, a fighter aircraft which was shrouded in secrecy and became infamous to RAF pilots for its performance and deadliness in combat.
This was not through an act of espionage or defection, but thanks to a spectacular navigation blunder made by a Luftwaffe officer Armin Faber.
At the start of the Second World War, the Royal Air Force (RAF) had a tactical advantage in air-to-air combat with the technologically advanced and fast Supermarine Spitfire. However, the situation was drastically altered with the arrival of the German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in August 1941.
In aerial dogfights, the Fw 190 quickly proved lethal to the Allied pilots who encountered it and was able to outperform the Spitfire at low to medium altitudes. The aircraft’s BMW 801 radial engine was powerful and enabled the Fw 190 to lift heavier loads in comparison to other Luftwaffe fighter planes.
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Compared to both Allied and other German aircraft, the Fw 190 also possessed greater versatility for its multiple uses as a fighter, light bomber, and ground attack aircraft.
Although the RAF were able to regain some air superiority with the updated Spitfire Mk. IX in July 1942, the Fw 190 was still considered a dangerous adversary that continued to chalk up kills against RAF pilots.
Until improved Spitfire models like the Mk. IX was introduced, the British government discussed using any means possible to understand the Fw 190’s successful design and to exploit any weaknesses that could be found by capturing a working example.
The Luftwaffe maintained a strict code of secrecy around the Fw 190 for this reason, even to the point of Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Herman Goering issuing orders forbidding Luftwaffe pilots from flying the Fw 190 directly over British soil to prevent shootdowns and the recovery of an intact example.
British military intelligence brainstormed various schemes to capture an Fw 190 and bring it back to Britain. These included sending a German-speaking RAF officer disguised as a Luftwaffe pilot into occupied territory to stage engine trouble in a different plane, and then request to switch into an Fw 190 once they had landed, to launching a commando raid on the French coast to steal one by force.
However, none of these plans was ultimately needed thanks to a spectacular error made by Luftwaffe pilot Amin Faber.
Armin Faber was an Oberleutant (Upper Lieutenant) in the Luftwaffe but was assigned to work as an Adjutant: essentially an officer with flight experience but mainly tasked with performing desk-bound administrative jobs and handling paperwork for the Luftwaffe group commander at Nazi-occupied Morlaix Aerodrome in Brittany, Northern France.
On June 23rd, 1943 Faber requested and was granted special permission by his superiors to fly a combat sortie with the Fw 190 squadron of 7th Staffel.
As soon as permission was given, Faber’s unit was scrambled to intercept an RAF squadron of Douglas Boston bombers sent to attack Morlaix. The bomber squadron was accompanied by an escort of Spitfires flown by a Czechoslovakian unit and a raging battle in the sky commenced between the opposing fighter units.
In the ensuing dogfight, Faber and his squadron were able to demonstrate the deadly capabilities of the Fw 190 by shooting down seven of the Spitfires while only losing two aircraft in their own unit; one of which crashed in a midair collision with a Spitfire as opposed to being shot down.
However, Faber found himself in the sights of a Spitfire piloted by Czech Sergeant František Trejtnar who pursued him even after the fight had died down.
Faber flew north towards Star Point, Devon in an attempt to lose Trejtnar. He performed various acrobatics to shake the Spitfire off, but Trejtnar remained in a determined hot pursuit. Faber finally gained the upper hand with his manoeuvres, flying at Trejtnar from the direction of the sun and successfully shooting the Spitfire down.
Trejtnar parachuted out with shrapnel wounds and Faber turned his Fw 190 back in the direction of what he assumed was towards Northern France to head back for a hero’s welcome.
While Faber’s evasive flying techniques had scored him a kill, they had also drained the Fw 190’s fuel tank and left him catastrophically disorientated. Instead of flying to the south above the English Channel in the direction of France, he had instead turned his plane north over the Bristol Channel and began flying towards Southern Wales. With his fuel running low, he spotted an airfield which he thought was on the French coast.
Faber performed a victory roll with his wings before deploying the wheels and making his final approach.
The victory display turned out to be an ironic statement as the airfield Faber had selected was RAF Pembrey. Below, a group of bemused British air force personnel were standing in wait as an Fw 190 in Luftwaffe markings came in for a landing and taxied to a halt.
As Pembrey was a training college and had no weapons on site, the duty pilot Sergeant Jeffreys armed himself with a flare gun and ordered the men watching to direct Faber’s plane to a nearby holding area. Jeffreys waited until Faber had opened the canopy before taking him, prisoner.
After the excitement of taking part in an aerial battle and finding what he thought was a safe spot to land, it reportedly took Faber a moment to notice that those greeting him were not fellow Nazi officers in familiar uniforms, but men dressed in blue and talking in a completely different language.
By the time his mistake had dawned on him, it was too late to turn the Fw 190 around and make for the runway. He had inadvertently helped the British to capture the fighter plane they had been desperate to get their hands on by delivering it to their doorstep.
A despondent Faber was transported at gunpoint for interrogation at RAF Fairwood Common before he was shipped to Canada as a Prisoner of War.
The Fw 190
Faber’s navigational error was a colossal blunder for the Luftwaffe by compromising the secrecy of the Fw 190 but it also provided Allied air forces with invaluable information on the plane that had menaced them in air-to-air battles.
It was also the first working Fw 190 fighter model to be successfully captured fully intact by the Allies.
Faber’s Fw 190 had its serial number changed from its original German Werk Nr. 313 to an RAF number MP449, denoting it as an experimental aircraft, and it was repainted in RAF colours. It was initially presented to RAF Group Captain Hugh Williams, who had expertise in flying captured enemy aircraft with the offer to transport it to a test facility on the condition he could not crash the plane under any circumstances.
However, Williams decided that it was not a promise he could make and crashing or damaging an intact Fw 190 was not something he wanted to risk. Instead, the plane was carefully taken apart by mechanics and driven away in a truck.
It was first delivered to the Royal Aircraft Establishment facility in Farnborough, Kent where it was meticulously reassembled for initial test flights in July 1942. Once airworthy again, the Fw 190’s speed, agility and handling were carefully recorded by test pilots.
The Fw 190 was then presented to the Air Fighting Development Unit at RAF Duxford where it was studied by British aeronautical engineers and RAF pilots. It was put through comparative speed and simulated combat tests with other fighter aircraft.
One such test was putting Faber’s Fw 190 into mock dogfights with the new Spitfire Mk. IX, enabling RAF pilots to not only get to grips with their new aircraft but to directly compare it to an enemy fighter and practice how to outmanoeuvre the Fw 190.
From July 1943 to January 1944, it was part of the No. 1426 RAF Flight squad (sometimes jokingly referred to as the Rafwaffe) of enemy aircraft, where the RAF pilots would perform examinations on captured Luftwaffe planes. Faber’s Fw 190 was the first in and was later joined by three other Fw 190s whose pilots had also mistakenly landed at British airbases because of disorientation.
In final reports after testing and simulations were concluded, RAF engineers and pilots concluded that the Fw 190 was a well-designed fighter plane but struggled at higher altitudes. This discovery was credited with turning aerial combat back in the RAF’s favour and in doing so, Faber’s mistake likely saved lives.
Faber’s Fw 190 remained in service as an RAF test plane until 1943. Although some of the other surviving aircraft from the 1426 RAF Flight were donated to museum displays after the war, Faber’s plane was mostly dismantled and withdrawn from experimental use, although the engine was transported back to Farnborough for additional studies until the war ended.
Faber himself unsuccessfully attempted suicide after his capture and then made two unsuccessful attempts at escaping from the Canadian PoW camp. He was subsequently repatriated back to Germany close to the end of the war due to health reasons.
Parts of Faber’s Fw 190, including the cockpit and flight control panel, were displayed at Shoreham Air Museum, along with pieces of Trejtnar’s crashed Spitfire. In 1991, Faber visited the museum where he donated his Luftwaffe pilot’s badge and a ceremonial dagger.