German aviation designer Kurt Tank is best known for the fighters he created for Focke-Wulf, but he was also responsible for another aircraft the Fw 200. Originally designed as an airliner, that became Germany’s sole dedicated long-range maritime patrol and strike aircraft in World War Two.
The Battle of the Atlantic, the attempt by Germany to cut Britain off from its sources of supply around the world, became one of the most important battlegrounds during the early part of World War Two. The situation for Britain became critical and during the latter half of 1940 and 1941, Condors sank a great many Allied merchant ships.
This is the story of an often-overlooked German warplane that made a significant contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic despite suffering from fundamental flaws that led to it being almost completely withdrawn from combat operations later in the war.
When the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, they immediately began to look for opportunities to impress the world with Germany’s technical abilities. The German state airline, Lufthansa used the giant airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg to make several widely-publicised record-breaking international flights. But it was becoming obvious that airships were not the future of commercial air travel.
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The Douglas DC-2 airliner was introduced in America in 1934 and it revolutionised passenger air travel. A sleek, all-metal monoplane with retractable landing gear, the DC-2 showed that air travel could be both reliable and safe.
When the even larger DC-3 arrived in 1936, it became clear that America had taken the lead in commercial air travel, and airlines around the world began to buy Douglas airliners.
The only medium-sized airliner available to Germany was the Junkers Ju-52 tri-motor. But next to the modern DC-3, this looked antiquated and it had a rather short range. If the Third Reich was to impress the world, it needed a new long-range airliner capable of operating on transatlantic routes. The problem was, no German aviation company seemed interested in working on such a design.
Design of the Fw 200
In 1935 Lufthansa approached several German aviation companies to seek a design for a new, long-range, modern airliner.
Dornier showed no interest at all. Junkers made a half-hearted offer to resurrect their cancelled Ju-89 bomber as the Ju-90 transport aircraft/airliner but refused to commit to full-scale development work.
In desperation, Lufthansa turned to Focke-Wulf Flugzeugbau in Bremen. That was surprising because, at that point, Focke-Wulf had never designed any multi-engine aircraft.
However, Focke-Wulf did have a talented and enthusiastic young designer and test-pilot, Kurt Tank, who seemed willing to tackle any assignment, no matter how challenging.
In August 1936, members of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM – the German Air Ministry) met with the Focke-Wulf design team to discuss the new airliner.
Tank, seemingly undaunted by the fact that he had never designed anything larger than a single-engine aircraft, agreed not just to produce a design for a four-engine airliner capable of transporting up to 25 passengers over a range of 1,000 miles, he promised to deliver a flying prototype within 12 months!
The new design, which was given the designation Fw 200, was for an all-metal monoplane with the retractable landing gear. Power in the prototype was provided by four Pratt & Whitney Hornet radial engines, though production versions would use the BMW 132, a licence-built version of the Hornet.
Incredibly, the new aircraft made its first flight, with Tank at the controls, on September 6th, 1937. Lufthansa was sufficiently impressed that they immediately placed an order for two more prototypes and three production aircraft, which had now been named “Condor.”
In 1938 the Condor made a non-stop flight from Berlin to New York (a distance of 4,000 miles) that broke the existing transatlantic record.
It was clear that the Fw 200 was an outstanding airliner, but surprisingly, there was no consideration in Germany of using it for military work (though many other German airliners had been specifically designed for easy conversion to military duties).
Then, in early 1939, for the first time, there was interest in using the Condor as a long-range maritime patrol aircraft. But instead of the Luftwaffe, this came from the Imperial Japanese Navy! In response to this interest, Focke-Wulf began work on the Fw 200B, a version of the Condor armed with five light machine guns and provided with cameras but lacking any bomb-carrying ability.
When World War Two began in September 1939, Germany had no long-range bombers. An order had been placed in 1938 for the development of the He 177 four-engine bomber, but problems with its engines meant that it was not even close to being ready for service.
For most of the Luftwaffe, soon engaged in battles within Europe and Scandinavia, this wasn’t a problem. For Fliegerkorps X, the unit tasked with attacking British shipping, it was a notable issue.
Medium-range Ju 88 and He 111 bombers could attack shipping in the North Sea but lacked the range for operations beyond that area. In early September 1939, almost as soon as the war began, Hauptmann Edgar Petersen of Fliegerkorps X was ordered to look at existing airliners and to assess whether any could be quickly converted to undertake long-range maritime patrol and strike missions.
Militarising the Condor
Petersen discovered at the Focke-Wulf plant the six almost completed Fw 200Bs that were being prepared for shipment to Japan and two more in a similar configuration that was being sold to Finland.
These eight aircraft were rapidly requisitioned as the Fw 200C-0 and formed the basis of the first Fernaufklärungstaffel (long-range patrol squadron). However, though these aircraft had defensive armament, they had no strike capability. Kurt Tank immediately began work on a new military version of the Condor.
Adding a conventional bomb bay to the Condor airliner proved to be impossible in the short time available, so what became the Fw 200C-1 carried up to four 250kg bombs in a narrow bomb bay in a Bola ventral gondola that also provided a position for a bomb-aimer.
Additional armament was added to this gondola in addition to a small dorsal turret housing an additional MG 15 machine gun. Range was increased by the simple expedient of removing all the passenger seats and replacing them with internal fuel tanks.
The C-1 was quickly superseded by the C-2 version which was identical other than for the addition of hard points under the wings that allowed the carriage of either two additional 250kg bombs or additional drop tanks for extra fuel.
However, while this rapid development gave the Luftwaffe much-needed maritime strike capacity, there was a notable problem: the Fw 200 had not been strengthened for the carriage of heavy military equipment.
This fragility led to the loss of several aircraft when they broke up on landing. As a result, the new C-3 version became the definitive Fw-200, with a strengthened fuselage and more powerful Bramo 323 radial engines. Defensive armament was also increased in this model, and some versions were also provided with an additional hemispherical dorsal turret.
Subsequent versions were fitted with search radar (the C-4 and C-8) and a few condors were even converted to carry the Henschel Hs 293 radio-controlled glide bomb (the C-6 and C-8). A total of over 270 Fw-200 aircraft of all versions were produced during World War Two.
Given that it had very limited bomb-carrying capacity, the Condor performed very effectively in the shipping strike role in the early stages of the war. From August 1940, Condors began operating from a captured French airfield at Bordeaux-Merignac.
Fernaufklärungstaffel became 1 Staffel/KG 40 and undertook long-range maritime patrols, heading out over the Bay of Biscay, flying over the Atlantic to the west of Ireland and then east over the North Sea to land in Norway.
While on patrol these aircraft would attack any British shipping they encountered. In the first two months of these patrols, Condors sank over 90,000 tons of shipping. By February 1941, although there were never more than a dozen Condors available at any time, they had accounted for the sinking of more than 100 ships totalling 350,000 tons.
Little wonder that Churchill described the Fw 200 as the “scourge of the Atlantic.”
However, these early victories were scored against an almost complete lack of defences. In mid-1941 the first CAM (catapult aircraft merchant) ships began to appear. These carried a single, catapult-launched Sea Hurricane fighter.
This provided merchant ships with defensive fighter cover, though the Hurricane could not be recovered after it was launched and had to be ditched.
In late 1941, the Royal Navy introduced Escort Carriers, small aircraft carriers designed specifically for convoy protection and suddenly, the role of the Condor changed.
While it had many fine features, the Condor was essentially a fragile aircraft. Even with the introduction of the strengthened C-3 model, violent manoeuvring could cause the aircraft to break up in flight.
It had an almost complete lack of armour and the fuel tanks inside the fuselage were completely unprotected. Even with the uprated Bramo 323 engines, the Fw 200 wasn’t particularly fast with a top speed of a little over 170mph at sea level.
When attacking undefended shipping, the Fw 200 was lethally effective. In the presence of enemy fighters, it proved to be lethal only to its crews.
From the beginning of 1942, Condors were generally no longer used for shipping strike missions, instead shadowing Allied convoys at long range and transmitting directional radio signals that could be used to direct U-Boats to their targets.
From the end of 1942, Condors were withdrawn even from that role as the need for transport aircraft on the Eastern front, and particularly at Stalingrad, became critical. For the rest of the war, Fw 200s were used mainly in the transport role, though a few were used to undertake anti-shipping strikes using radio-controlled missiles.
One Condor that had been interned in Spain during the war remained in service with the Spanish Air Force until the 1950s. That was the last airworthy Fw 200. Only one Fw 200 remains today.
This was recovered as a wreck from Trondheim Fjord in Norway in 1999. It was subsequently rebuilt, using parts from other crashed Condors. Although it is not in flyable condition, this aircraft will become the centrepiece of a planned new aviation museum at the former airport at Tempelhof in Berlin.
The reign of the Fw 200 Condor as the “scourge of the Atlantic” was brief. Against largely undefended, unprotected shipping early in the war, it was effective, but as soon as Allied air cover was available in the Atlantic, its vulnerability became all too obvious.
This was a fragile airliner that was pressed into service for a military role for which it was fundamentally unsuited. Unprotected fuel tanks, a lack of armour and an airframe that could not tolerate violent manoeuvring led to unacceptable losses and it had to be withdrawn from the strike role.
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Kurt Tank would go on to design several extremely effective combat aircraft. But the hasty conversion of the Condor airliner into a maritime patrol/strike aircraft was not one of his success stories.
The Fw 200 was pressed into service for the simple reason that Germany had no other four-engine bomber available when the war began. Initially, it performed well, but this was never anything but a stop-gap solution to a short-term problem.
- Crew: Five
- 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: 6.3 m (20 ft 8 in)
- Empty weight: 17,005 kg (37,490 lb)
- Max takeoff weight: 22,714 kg (50,076 lb)
- Powerplant: 4 × Bramo 323R-2 9-cylinder single-row air-cooled radial piston engine, 809 kW (1,085 hp) each
- Propellers: 3-bladed variable-pitch propellers
- Maximum speed: 380 km/h (240 mph, 210 kn) at 4,800 m (15,700 ft)
- Cruise speed: 335 km/h (208 mph, 181 kn) at 4,000 m (13,000 ft) (Max cruise)
- Range: 3,560 km (2,210 mi, 1,920 nmi)
- Service ceiling: 6,000 m (20,000 ft)