The Fw 190 “Sturmböcke” Interceptor was Designed to Take on the B-17 “Flying Fortress”

A German Focke-Wulf FW 190G-3 fighter plane goes through a USAAF evaluation at Wright Field, Ohio in 1944. (Photo Credit: Museum of Flight / Corbis via Getty Images)

In the early stages of WWII, aerial combat over Europe was dominated by the German Bf 109 and British Spitfire. Both of these aircraft received numerous upgrades, but the Spitfire edged ahead of the Bf 109 in many respects. However, in 1941, the RAF suddenly lost its air superiority when the Fw 190 arrived. This new aircraft was so good that the British had to bring out the Spitfire Mk. IX to have a chance of dealing with it. As the war went on Germany employed the Fw 190 in a wide variety of roles, one of which is the nicknamed Sturmböcke; a dedicated bomber hunter.

The Fw 190 quickly proved to be a formidably opponent for Allied aircraft. Its most numerous variant – the Fw 190 A-8 – was powered by a BMW 801 14 cylinder air-cooled radial engine that produced nearly 1,700 hp and allowed the aircraft to travel at over 400 mph. In terms of armament, it carried four 20 mm cannons and two 13 mm machine guns.

Furthermore, the Fw 190 was very maneuverable, able to keep up with the Spitfire, which was world-famous for its excellent handling. Its powerful engine meant it could carry impressive loads and therefore slip into a multitude of roles. It proved itself to be a proficient ground attack aircraft.

However, the aircraft’s excellent performance decreased at altitudes upwards of 20,000 ft. As a result, the one area the Fw 190 was actually quite poor in was in the high altitude interceptor role. This was a real issue for a German fighter, as Allied bombing missions were conducted from heights exceeding this.

To make bomber hunting worse, the Fw 190’s standard armament, while capable, wasn’t ideal for bringing down heavy bombers. Meanwhile, American bombers were bristling with machine guns. Flying in combat boxes, a group of B-17s could bring over one hundred .50 caliber machine guns to bear on a target.

The Germans were aware of the Fw 190’s drawbacks from the get go, and released different versions specifically designed to improve its high altitude handling as the war progressed. Initially, Germany sent the larger Bf 110Gs to shoot down bombers, but these were easy pickings for later Allied escort aircraft.

To help, Germany created Sturmböcke aircraft.

Fw 190 Sturmböcke
A squadron of fighter planes Focke-Wulf FW – 190 on an airfield in September 1944 (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

 

The Fw 190 had a number of traits that made it an ideal choice to be used in the anti-bomber role. Its air-cooled radial engine could sustain significant damage, as it didn’t have a vulnerable cooling system. Also, because it was a twin-row radial engine, it was a significant mass of metal at the front of the aircraft that served as a form of armor protection for the pilot.

The Fw 190 was a very stable aircraft, which helped the pilot accurately place shots into bombers.

The first Sturmböcke Fw 190 had its wings modified and two 20 mm cannons removed. Then, four 20 mm cannons were hung under the wings in pods. After the first aircraft was delivered in late 1943, it was decided that the two wing-mounted 20 mm cannons would be replaced with 30 mm cannons instead. These guns were enormously powerful, capable of ripping a B-17 apart in just a couple of shots. Despite their power, they didn’t add too much weight, as they were mostly comprised of stamped steel construction. This version was designated the Fw 190 A-6/R2.

An FW 190 German Aircraft
World War II German fighter bomber, Focke Wulf FW 190-F8 (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Further modifications added a nitrous oxide boost, which greatly increased engine power at high altitudes for short durations. Sturmböcke aircraft also received heavy armor plating around the cockpit, enabling the pilot to fly through the intense defensive fire coming from bombers. The aircraft were fitted with 30 mm of armored glass and a pair of heavy, unguided air-to-air rockets. A-7 and A-8 versions of the Fw 190 were made into Sturmböcke aircraft too, with the A-8/R2 being built in the largest numbers.

These changes transformed the Fw 190 into a deadly bomber hunter, needing just a couple of 30 mm rounds to knock a bomber out of the sky. However it also made them heavy, and as a result cumbersome. This weight negatively impacted their performance and made them vulnerable to Allied escort fighters. They needed to be escorted by Bf 109s.

Pilots who flew these Sturmböcke aircraft mentioned their deadly assortment of weapons. They also appreciated its heavy armor for keeping them alive through an onslaught of enemy fire. However, as mentioned, these modifications took a toll on the aircraft and made it sluggish at high altitudes.

Focke-Wulf produced another variant of the Fw 190, the Ta 152, which was optimized for higher altitudes. This version only carried a single 30 mm cannon and two 20 mm cannons, but it was able to fly at over 40,000 ft. It was also one of the fastest aircraft of the war, with a top speed of 470 mph.