Review: Focke-Wulf FW 190a: An Illustrated History of the Luftwaffes Legendary Fighter Aircraft

If a poll were taken of avid aviation readers, I believe that it would show that something like 90 percent would say that more than enough has been written about the famous Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter, and I would ordinarily be included in that percentage. Yet we 90% would be wrong, for a new book, devoted only to the Fw-190A has appeared, and it is not only worth publishing, it is worth buying, reading, and retaining.

The book’s value lies in several areas. The first of these is the devotion of the authors to the task of commemorating not only the 60th anniversary of the June 1, 1939 flight of the Fw 190 but to commemorating the pilots who tested it, particularly the chief test pilot, Hans Sanger. They achieved both goals with the books’ publication in Germany. Now the U.S. audience has an opportunity to see a well-translated version.

The second area in which the book excels is in personal reminiscences, from those of the famous designer, Kurt Tank, to the test pilots themselves, including such famous names as Sanger, Heinrich Beauvais, and the famous 150 victory ace, Hauptman (later Colonel) Gordon Gollob. (Gollob is infamous to some, for he was appointed to be General of the Day Fighters in 1944, replacing the much admired Adolph Galland.)

Third is the extraordinary quality of the photos, reproduced here on glossy paper and so completely detailed that any modeler—or any potential Fw-190 reproduction—can benefit enormously.  As an interesting footnote, the book has a handsome cover painting by the admirable Steve Ferguson of an Fw 190 sailing through a formation of B-17s. That cover painting also forms a remarkably attractive hardcover for the book, a little bit of extra expense for the publisher, no doubt, but one that adds greatly to its shelf appeal.

The book is unusual in the way that it combines a fascinating balance of engineering description and personal accounts, from the early days of the Focke Wulf company to the operations conducted by the Fw 190A.  Too many books today adopt the Stephen Ambrose technique of using serial personal accounts, which lends them an episodic quality, while others concentrate so heavily on the engineering that they are difficult to read. This book splits the difference beautifully.

The Fw 190 and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 were the standard equipment of the German fighter arm in the Second World War. Both have their proponents, but the Fw 190 is generally considered the more aesthetic of the two aircraft. The authors provide an extremely interesting official German report comparing the two airplanes. For the test pilots involved (Beauvais and Gollob) the Fw 190 had much greater appeal, because of its roll-rate (probably the best of all World War II fighters), its broad-track landing gear, and superior visibility, especially to the rear.

The authors cover many of the shortcomings experienced by the Fw 190 in testing, including engine-over heating, a too-hot cockpit and gear-retraction troubles. Designer Kurt Tank provides his own memories of the conception of the aircraft, and details the inevitable weight growth of his pet project as new requirements were added. His memories show that Tank was a big man, for he takes special care to give credit to his twelve-man design team, particularly Willi Kaether, Ludwig Mittlehuber and Rudi Blaser. He credits Blaser with designing the air frame. Tank also cites test pilots Sander and Kurt Mehlhorn for their early contributions to the design from a pilot’s point of view.

As aesthetically attractive as the Fw 190 was, it is interesting to note that Tank himself regarded it as a “Service Horse”, i.e. a work-horse designed to do as many jobs as possible. This it did, serving in the air-superiority, close-air support, reconnaissance and torpedo-plane roles.

Upon reflection, perhaps the most notable thing about this book is how closely the development of a fighter in Nazi Germany paralleled the development of fighters elsewhere. There was the same trouble with specifications, changes in mission, equipment and schedules, and especially with government furnished equipment. As a classic example of the latter, Tank was driven to desperation by the BMW Kommandogerät (control device) intended to relieve the pilot of the need to manually change the mixture, boost pressure and propeller pitch) and so on. The nature of aircraft, and the nature of war, forces the same rules on all countries, regardless of their political or economic situations.

The authors have done an excellent job with this book, and even though you may know a great deal about the Fw 190, I’m sure that you’ll find some new information and surprises in the very readable text.

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