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FW 200 Condor vs Atlantic Convoy 1941-43

by Robert Forczyk, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, England, 2010, $17.95.

Up to now, the formula behind Osprey’s successful series of “Duel” books has usually been to compare two contemporary opposing aircraft, warships or armored fighting vehicles. Its latest release has broken the mold in pitting the combined air and seaborne defenses of Britain’s maritime convoys against the depredations of a single notorious type of German patrol bomber. Another unusual aspect of this story is that neither weapons system involves cutting-edge technical innovation so much as adapting existing technology to new uses for which it was never originally intended.

So effective was the Focke-Wulf Fw-200C Condor against Britain’s maritime trade that Winston Churchill dubbed it the “Scourge of the Atlantic.” Yet as Robert Forczyk explains, Germany’s four-engine maritime patrol bomber was really little more than a hasty military adaptation of a prewar civilian airliner. The result was that the Luftwaffe’s terror of the seas had a great many shortcomings: It was underpowered, structurally weak, poorly armed, vulnerable to enemy fire and had an awkward position for the bombardier. As it turned out, the biggest advantage the Fw-200 enjoyed when it first appeared over the Atlantic during the summer of 1940 was that the air defense arrangements provided to British convoys were even more inadequate. The Condor thus gained notoriety largely by virtue of having little or no viable opposition.

Forczyk’s fascinating book explores the measures taken by the British to redress, and eventually reverse, the balance of power over the Atlantic. As with the Fw-200’s development, it was largely a story of improvising new uses for existing technology. Long-range aircraft were pressed into service to counter the Condor threat that had never been designed for that role, such as the Short Sunderland, Lockheed Hudson and Consolidated Liberator.

One of the earliest anti-Condor measures can best be described as near-suicidal. The British fitted a number of merchant ships with catapults from which a Hawker Hurricane could be launched on a one-way interception mission if an Fw-200 appeared in the area. Once the fighter had shot down or driven away the Condor, the “Hurricat” pilot was supposed to bail out or ditch—hopefully to be picked up by one of the convoy’s ships. The loss of the fighter was considered a reasonable exchange for saving merchantmen.

Most important in this struggle was the British conversion of a captured German merchant vessel into the first escort carrier, making fighter cover available all the way across the Atlantic. Although the ship, christened HMS Audacity, was soon sunk by a U-boat, it survived long enough to validate the concept. Eventually enough were built, particularly in the United States, so that at least one escort carrier accompanied every convoy, providing effective air cover against both aerial and submarine attack.

For their part, the Germans developed new antishipping weapons systems of their own, most notably the Henschel Hs-293 glider bomb, essentially the first guided, air-launched stand-off missile. But the Nazi war machine assigned a relatively low priority to Fw-200 production, so that, despite their fearsome reputation, only 267 Condors were ever produced—and many were diverted to other duties, such as VIP transports. As a result, there was never a sufficient number of Condors to counter Allied anti-aircraft developments.

Worse still, the aircraft slated to replace the Condor, the Heinkel He-177, was never available in large numbers either, and proved mechanically unreliable. The Luftwaffe never entirely gave up its attacks on Allied shipping, but with fewer aircraft available, the effect of its efforts became negligible.

Aviation and World War II buffs should enjoy this latest Osprey release, which will prove particularly valuable to scholars of the Battle of the Atlantic.


Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here