To catch a 'Butcher Bird'
Throughout the history of warfare, there have been many occasions where a new military tactic, or use of the latest technology has allowed one of the belligerent nations to gain a slight advantage on the battlefield. As is often the case during times of conflict, these advantages often prove to be short lived, as the opposition will quickly attempt to improve their own technology and counter the advantage their enemy currently holds and even attempt to move ahead in this arms race themselves. With two huge and damaging world wars during the 20th century, military technology advanced beyond all recognition over this period, with many of the fighting nations holding a military advantage at one time or another.
In the latest edition of Aerodrome, we will be taking a look at an amazing incident which took place during the summer of 1942, at a time when a new Luftwaffe fighter began to appear in the skies above occupied Europe and began to cause serious concern back in Britain. Spitfire pilots operating over Northern France had started to report encountering a strange new fighter, which was much more capable than the usual Messerschmitts they were used to fighting and appeared to possess greater performance than any Allied fighter currently flying. As this strange new enemy aircraft began to take a heavy toll of RAF Spitfires which were conducting fighter sweeps over enemy territory, it became absolutely imperative that Britain secured more details of this fighter, ideally actually obtaining one for detailed examination. To this end, serious plans were drawn up to launch an audacious and extremely dangerous raid to try and steal one of the German fighters from right under the noses of the Luftwaffe and fly it back to Britain for evaluation. Thankfully, following a rather bizarre twist of fate, just as the plan was being considered by British Combined Operations and final preparations for the raid were being put in place, the Luftwaffe presented the RAF with an unexpected, but extremely welcome gift. Let’s take a closer look at the fascinating and highly unusual story behind the RAF’s first ‘Butcher Bird’.
Rhubarb, Circus and Rodeos
Rare colour image of an RAF Supermarine Spitfire Vb
In the months following the end of the Battle of Britain, both the RAF and the Luftwaffe were keen to replenish the heavy losses they had suffered as a result of this savage conflict. The main fighter aircraft of both air forces proved to be both extremely capable and highly adaptable, with improved versions already beginning to appear at front line Squadrons. The Luftwaffe were receiving their sleek and powerful Bf 109F ‘Friedrich’ fighters by the end of 1940 and the RAF were looking to introduce the thoroughbred Spitfire Mk.V, in anticipation of a new high altitude bombing campaign by Germany. With any immediate threat of invasion now passed, the RAF had started to mount fighter and bomber operations into occupied Europe, hoping to take out any targets of opportunity and to temp the Luftwaffe into a fight. These offensive sweep operations, which were given codenames such as Rodeo, Circus and Rhubarb, tested both pilot and aircraft to the maximum and with RAF units now operating on the other side of the Channel, the roles were reversed from the days of the Battle of Britain. Fuel management would be absolutely critical and if you encountered combat, or mechanical problems, you were likely to be stranded in enemy occupied territory.
As RAF fighter sweeps began to gain momentum, the latest Spitfire Mk.V was proving to be an excellent aircraft and in the hands of a competent pilot, was superior to the equivalent Luftwaffe fighters it was encountering. Throughout the spring of 1941, British military intelligence had received reports that the Germans had been developing a totally new fighter aircraft, but as the RAF was still enjoying great success over France and the Low Countries and Germany was preoccupied with their major invasion of the Soviet Union, it was a case of keeping an eye on the situation. It was not long before reports of an unusual new fighter began to circulate and more worryingly, Spitfire losses on the other side of the Channel began to mount.
The reign of the ‘Butcher Bird’
The aggressive profile of Germany’s new fighter aircraft
Unlike the earlier Messerschmitt Bf 109 and its rather slender fuselage, the Focke Wulf FW 190 fighter was powered by a huge 14 cylinder BMW 801 radial engine, which gave this new aircraft a distinctly different and much more sinister profile. With much greater power available to it, the FW 190 would prove to be a fast and agile fighter, capable of carrying much greater weight than the Messerschmitt, which was to eventually see it used successfully in a variety of different roles. If the Bf 109 was a greyhound, then the Focke Wulf was very much the pit bull and was every inch the dogfighter the Luftwaffe needed it to be. At lower altitudes, its combination of speed, power, manoeuvrability and heavy armament made it a devastatingly effective fighter aircraft, although its service introduction was not without its teething problems. As the first aircraft began to reach units in Northern France, the Luftwaffe were reluctant to introduce the Focke Wulf into combat, until pilots were completely familiar with all aspects of their new aircraft. Initially, pilots experienced problems with the BMW radial engine and the semi-automatic flight control systems that had been incorporated into the design of the new aircraft, but they soon began to master this exceptional fighter.
The initial reluctance to enter combat with RAF fighters only served to add to the mystery surrounding the new fighter. As many engagements resulted in the German aircraft breaking off and heading for home, many RAF pilots thought that this was nothing more than a stop-gap aircraft to bolster units stripped of the Messerschmitts for the Eastern Front and were possibly even captured French Air Force Curtiss Hawk 75 fighters pressed into Luftwaffe service. Indeed, the Focke Wulf also proved a tempting target for German ground and anti-aircraft units, as they too were unfamiliar with the strange new aircraft and regularly fired upon them.
The new aircraft were initially thought to be captured French Air Force Curtiss Hawk 75 fighters
By the middle of September 1941, the Focke Wulfs of JG26 were ready for action and they went in search of Spitfires. During many of the early skirmishes, it was clear that RAF pilots were confident in the capabilities of their Mk.V Spitfires and were also confident that this new German fighter was nothing to be too concerned about. This thinking was quickly shattered in a hail of bullets, as the Luftwaffe’s latest fighter proved to be a potent adversary and RAF aircraft were quickly being shot down in large numbers. On the 18th September, eight Focke Wulfs of JG26 attacked four Squadrons of Spitfires from the Debden Wing, over the Belgian coast – attacking from out of the sun, they shot down 9 Spitfires and damaged a further five, without suffering any loss to their own number. This was not to be an isolated incident and over the next few months, it became clear to the RAF that this new German fighter was superior to the Spitfire Mk.V in almost every respect and posed a serious threat to daylight operations over occupied Europe. With Spitfire losses mounting and the reputation of the Focke Wulf 190 increasing after each new sortie, the RAF were desperate to get their hands on the Luftwaffe’s prize new asset, but how on earth could they achieve this. With a relatively small number of fighter units remaining in France following the invasion of Russia, Reichmarshall Goering ordered his Focke Wulf pilots not to engage in combat over England and if pursuing RAF fighters fleeing back to their bases, they must turn back if they got half way across the Channel. He was acutely aware that the Luftwaffe had an advantage and he wanted to keep it for as long as possible.
To capture a Focke Wulf
The RAF were so desperate to obtain an example of Germany’s latest fighter, that they were forced to consider some rather bizarre ideas to achieve this. One such idea revolved around the use of a captured Bf109 and a suitably Luftwaffe attired RAF pilot. Wearing its original Luftwaffe markings and sporting some spuriously applied battle damage, the aircraft would land at a base known to operate the new FW190 fighter, under the cover of a massive RAF fighter sweep. During the confusion, the German speaking pilot would try to convince ground crews to let him take a serviceable fighter (obviously an FW190) and re-enter the fray. Once airborne, he would fly the fighter at high speed and at extremely low altitude back across the Channel, before landing at the nearest RAF airfield. It does not take long to pick holes in this plan, not least the fact that the RAF pilot would never have even seen a Focke Wulf, let alone attempt to safely get airborne from an active enemy airfield. Even if he did, he would surely be fired upon by every single gun in the vicinity, both friend and foe. This does, however, illustrate just how desperate the RAF were to get their hands on one of these fighters.
This 'new build’ Focke Wulf was the star of Flying Legends 2009
A much more considered plan was offered by Commando Officer Philip Pinckney and his close friend and accomplished test pilot Geoffrey Quill. Based on a successful commando raid that had been mounted against the German coastal radar station at Bruneval in February 1942, the plan involved a covert mission to place the two men in the vicinity of one of the airfields (probably Abbeville–Drucat) operating the FW190, which was near to the French coast. Once in position, the pair would remain in hiding, observing the daily activities on the airfield and selecting the most advantageous opportunity to steal a Focke Wulf that had been prepared for flight. Wrestling the unsuspecting pilot out of the cockpit, or removing his body, Quill would get airborne as quickly as possible, before heading across the Channel and the nearest RAF airfield. If he encountered enemy aircraft, he would do his best to evade destruction and if challenged by friendly aircraft, which should have been forewarned about his mission, he would lower the undercarriage to highlight his submission. Given the imaginative code name ‘Airthief’, the plan would hopefully see Quill arrive at an RAF airfield with a serviceable FW190 and Captain Pinckney trying to evade capture in Northern France. Although this may have seemed like a plausible plan on paper, the probability of it succeeding would have been highly unlikely and the lives of the men involved would have been in terrible danger. Thankfully, just as this high risk plan was actually being given official authorisation, an unbelievably dramatic aviation incident was about to take place in South Wales.
An unexpected gift
On the evening of 23rd June 1942 Spitfires of the Perranporth and Exeter wings were returning from an escort mission over Northern France, when they were bounced by Focke Wulf FW 190 fighters from III./JG2 and 7./JG2, off the coast of Devon. A frantic dogfight ensued, with a number of Spitfires being shot down or damaged and an FW190 crashing into the sea, after having its tail severed in a mid air collision. With both sides low on fuel and the situation becoming dangerously frantic, most aircraft broke off and made for home. For some reason, however, Oblt. Armin Faber in his Focke Wulf FW 190A-3 (Werke Nummer 313) was seen to head north, away from the other Luftwaffe fighters. It is suggested that following the frantic dogfight and witnessing the collision of the two fighters, Faber had become disorientated and headed in the wrong direction - he also had two Spitfires closing in on him. In the ensuing melee, the Luftwaffe pilot claimed to have shot down one Spitfire, before making a risky Immelmann turn and performing a head on attack on the second – with both aircraft closing at high speed and firing with everything they had, the Spitfire came off worst and the pilot took to his parachute. It is claimed that eye witnesses on the ground saw the German circling round the parachuting RAF pilot and they feared he may be about to fire on him. They were surprised when he appeared to check his adversary was ok, before saluting him and flying away.
Armin Faber’s pristine Focke Wulf FW190A-3 fighter at Pembrey
Now critically low on fuel and disorientated from combat, Faber headed for what he though was a friendly airfield, certain that he was over the Normandy coast. He approached the unfamiliar airfield and prepared for landing, with some reports claiming he performed an impromptu victory roll, even lowering his undercarriage whilst still inverted. Considering what had happened over the previous few minutes, this seems a little fanciful at best, but makes an already incredible situation even more unbelievable. As Armin Faber’s Focke Wulf came to a halt, he was unaware that he had made a huge error and had presented the RAF with a pristine example of the most feared fighter on the Western Front. He had landed his aircraft at Pembrey airfield, on the South Wales coast, which was an air gunnery school for the Royal Air Force. Hardly able to believe what he was seeing, the duty pilot at Pembrey grabbed a Very pistol from the control tower and ran out to the German fighter. Climbing onto the wing, he pointed the pistol at Faber and took him prisoner, making sure that he did not sabotage his aircraft and the RAF’s priceless acquisition.
Faber had presented the RAF with more than they could have hoped for – an absolutely pristine, fully serviceable and almost factory fresh Focke Wulf FW190A-3 fighter, which at that time was possibly the most valuable intelligence asset in Britain. It most definitely prevented many people from losing their lives in attempting to steal one from an active German airfield and certainly allowed the RAF to further develop the Spitfire to challenge the dominance of the Focke Wulf. There are a number of stories that circulated following the capture of Luftwaffe pilot Armin Faber. Some say that he was so disgusted with his mistake, that he spoke (and swore) only French for hours following his arrest, refusing to accept that he wasn’t in France - he was also reluctant to cooperate with officials attempting to interrogate him. Others state that he cheekily offered to take the aircraft back up and show the officials what the aircraft could really do – he even offered to perform mock dogfights against Spitfires if it would help. All they had to do was fill the aircraft up with fuel. As you may well imagine, this incredibly kind offer was graciously declined, as there was no way the RAF were going to give up their most valuable prize.
Another view of the captured Focke Wulf at RAF Pembrey
RAF officials quickly descended on Pembrey, hardly daring to believe their good fortune and desperate to clap eyes on this elusive German fighter. Indeed, South Wales became something of a popular destination over the coming few days, as word of this unlikely acquisition quickly got round and any RAF officer with the ability to Pembrey came to see this gifted example of their most feared adversary.
A Focke Wulf put to good use
In the days following the Pembrey incident, RAF officials photographed and inspected their new Focke Wulf, before it was dismantled and transported by road to the Royal Aircraft Establishment facility at Farnborough. Here it was re-assembled, given the RAF serial MP499 and repainted in RAF camouflage markings, but retained the distinctive cockerel’s head emblem of III./JG2. Still an extremely valuable asset, every aspect of the aircraft was tested and inspected, including performing extremely valuable flight trials against current Allied fighter aircraft. It also proved to be extremely popular with RAF fighter pilots, who would come and see the aircraft on their rest days and speak to the test pilot to try and glean any information that may help them the next time they were in combat with the feared Butcher Bird. The trials were also significant in the development of the Spitfire Mk.IX, which proved to be significantly superior to the Messerschmitt Bf 109F and more than a match for the Focke Wulf. The RAF had finally managed to produce a fighter that once again had the Luftwaffe on the run.
Profile artwork of the captured FW190 in RAF evaluation service
RAF Focke Wulf MP499 was flown extensively throughout the rest of 1942, amassing over twelve hours of test flying and providing a huge amount of valuable data. It was relegated to destructive ground testing on 29th January 1943, before being scrapped later the same year – such an ignominious end to an aircraft that was so highly coveted and acquired in such unbelievable circumstances.
As for Faber, he was never taken up on his kind offer to fly his aircraft in trials and after interrogation was sent to a prisoner of war facility in Canada. It was said that he was so distressed about his mistake that he attempted to take his own life, whilst other reports suggest that he was put on trial by his fellow prisoners in Canada, who had heard of his famous presentation to the British and had suspected a possible defection attempt. He was subsequently found not guilty, which really does add to the unbelievable nature of this entire incident and certainly confirms the luck of the Royal Air Force.
Faber managed to convince his captors that he was unwell and suffering from epilepsy and in 1944, he was repatriated back to Germany in a prisoner exchange. In line with the entire nature of this story, Faber resumed flying combat operations almost immediately!
The captured Butcher Bird was thoroughly inspected at Farnborough
Wearing the serial MP499, this captured FW190 would have one of the most important aircraft in Britain, during the last few months of 1942
This has to be one of the most amazing stories of the air war in Europe during the Second World War. The RAF were so desperate to obtain an example of the Focke Wulf FW190 that they were prepared to go to almost any lengths to get one. With all their incredibly dangerous plans surely destined to end in bloody failure, a pristine example simply dropped in at RAF Pembrey and immediately became the most famous aircraft in Britain and allowed engineers and technicians to asses the state of German industry and help to produce a Focke Wulf beater for the RAF. It is a shame that Faber’s machine did not manage to survive the war, as it would surely have remained as one of the most famous aircraft in Britain to this day.
Faber’s captured Focke Wulf in Corgi die-cast
Aviation Archive Collector Club ‘Captive Eagle’ AA34310. Image supplied courtesy of Aerodrome reader Michael Gosden
The amazing story of Armin Faber and his Focke Wulf gift for the RAF was immortalised by Corgi in die-cast metal back in 2006. As part of the Aviation Archive Collector Club range of models, AA34310 was produced in 1/72nd scale as a Collector Club exclusive and presented the aircraft in its new RAF evaluation colour scheme. A limited edition release of just 1000 certificated pieces worldwide, this unusual model was produced specifically to mark this fascinating WWII incident and also to benefit the Aviation Archive range as a whole. At the time, a 1000 piece run was quite small and this livery would probably not have been considered for the a standard range release. The unusual nature of the subject and the relatively low production run made AA34310 an ideal choice for the first of the ‘Captive Eagle’ models.
Another view of AA34310, again kindly supplied by Michael Gosden
Although Corgi’s RAF Pembrey Focke Wulf has long since sold out, the recently announced January to June 2016 catalogue does include the latest release announcement in the Focke Wulf FW190 series. AA34316 is a Focke Wulf FW 190F-8 ‘Black 3’, which was the mount of Eugen Lorcher, of II./SG.2, in May 1945. As Allied forces closed on Germany from all sides and the war in Europe was coming to an end, there was one thing that frightened German servicemen more than anything else – capture by the Red Army. Luftwaffe pilot Eugen Lorcher had no intention of letting this happen and on the evening of 8th May, he fuelled up his Focke Wulf and prepared to fly his fighter towards the west of the country and away from the Russians. Taking off from their home airfield in the Czech Republic, Lorcher had also bundled his fiancée into the radio compartment of the aircraft and they made their bid for relative safety. The aircraft was flying at very low level, to avoid being shot down by Allied fighters, but Lorcher feared destruction at any moment, as they were taking ground fire and in danger of simply striking the ground. Gaining height at the last moment, in an attempt to find a suitable landing spot, the Focke Wulf belly-landed in a field near the parental home of Lorcher – both he and his future wife walked away from this incredible incident, with their war finally over.
Due for release in March, this latest Corgi Focke Wulf tells the story of the last days of the Luftwaffe and how the glory days of the Summer of 1942 were far behind them.
Airfix have the Butcher Bird covered
It will come as no surprise that the fearsome Focke Wulf FW190 is well represented in the current Airfix line up, with some significant kits that are certainly worthy of a mention. As one of the most famous aircraft of the Second World War, the FW190 has long been a favourite with the military aviation modeller and Airfix have something for every Butcher Bird fanatic. With no less than five 1/72nd scale kits featuring a newly tooled version of the mighty Focke Wulf, there is a starter set option (A55110) which features an FW190A-8 of JG26 and comes complete with poly cement, paint and a brush to allow you to get modelling straight away. There are also two stand alone kits (A02066 and A01020), which both feature late war versions of the Focke Wulf, displaying its multi-role capabilities. There are also two of the highly popular Dogfight Doubles sets, A50136 which features the Butcher Bird with a Hawker Typhoon Ib and A50171, which pits the Focke Wulf against Coastal Command Bristol Beaufighter. All of these FW190 kits feature the newly tooled version of this impressive model and are available for inspection on the Airfix website now.
Perhaps the most impressive Focke Wulf FW190 kit in the Airfix line up is A16001A, which is the classic A-5/A-6 variant produced in the larger 1/24th scale. This spectacular kit is one for the real 190 aficionado and is a build project well worth getting stuck into. With livery options for two of the Luftwaffe’s most famous aces of WWII, Anton Hackl and Herman Graf, this hugely popular kit has been unavailable on the Airfix website for some time, but the big news is that a new supply is due to be delivered in the next few days. For more details of this magnificent kit, simply follow this link and reserve your kit, before it disappears from the website once more.
That’s it for the latest edition of Aerodrome. I am sure that many of you will already be aware of the incredible incident that took place at RAF Pembrey during the summer of 1942, but it is always worth re-visiting what has to be one of the most interesting aviation acquisitions of the war. It is just a shame that Faber’s aircraft did not survive the war, as it would surely be one of the most popular WWII exhibits in the world.
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