America’s first aerial victory against the Luftwaffe came far from Europe, off Iceland.
Major John W. Weltman was on alert in the operations building on August 14, 1942, when he received a report that a German Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condor had just been spotted over Iceland’s southwest coast, heading for the airport at Reykjavik. Weltman, commanding officer of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 27th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group, pulled on his helmet and goggles as he ran to his Lockheed P-38F, which was fueled and ready on the flight line, followed by his wingman, Second Lieutenant Elza E. Shahan. There was no time for the usual routine walk-around; Weltman started the Allison engines, gave the thumbs-up sign to the ground crew to pull the chocks and taxied onto the runway. He was soon airborne, followed by Shahan in another P-38F. Two Curtiss P-40Cs from the 33rd Fighter Squadron were already in the air, and Operations immediately radioed them a vector on which they could intercept the intruder. It was 10:15 a.m., and the chase was on!
The U.S. Army and Navy had arrived in Iceland in July 1941 to relieve the British in the defense of this strategic North Atlantic island and to protect American aircraft flying to the British Isles. On August 14, the Condor’s crew was no doubt intent on gathering intelligence and taking photos to document the American deployment. Long-range Luftwaffe bombers had been flying near or over Iceland since 1940, and an Fw-200C had dropped bombs in February 1941. Despite the best efforts of the RAF and later the USAAF, the Condors had always managed to escape, often disappearing into overcast skies and continuing on over the icy North Atlantic, where they attacked merchant ships and cooperated with U-boat wolf packs preying on Allied convoys. By August 1942, an improved warning system was in place to better protect the island.
Unlike the Heinkel He-111 and Junkers Ju-86, which were intended to serve as both commercial transports and bombers, the Fw-200 Condor was specifically designed in 1936 by Kurt Tank as a long-range passenger transport for use by Deutsche Lufthansa and airlines world-wide. With its 26-passenger capacity, it proved to be a commercial success. Focke-Wulf’s transport gained widespread publicity on August 10, 1938, when a Condor dubbed Brandenburg flew nonstop from Berlin to New York in 24 hours and 56 minutes. A few years later, in the confusion and uncertainty following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, some American officials—remembering that flight—worried about a German air attack on the eastern United States.
The German high command decided in the mid-1930s to equip the Luftwaffe with fast twin-engine bombers and dive bombers, primarily to support ground forces. When World War II began in September 1939, Luftwaffe leaders realized they had no aircraft capable of long-range reconnaissance that could also be used against shipping—an essential weapon in a war with Britain, a seafaring nation with vital supply lines across the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Since the only four-engine aircraft then in production in Germany was the civilian Condor, Luftwaffe technical experts soon visited the Focke-Wulf factory at Bremen. They determined that the Condor’s light airframe would require considerable modification to make it suitable for military use, to include low-level bombing and vigorous maneuvering. Despite those concerns, the Focke-Wulf engineers proposed a military version, the Fw-200C, which was quickly approved. Civilian production ceased, and manufacture of the Fw-200C began on priority basis. Modifications included strengthening the airframe, installing more-powerful engines, fitting external bomb racks under the new outboard engine nacelles and in a ventral gondola, and adding several defensive gun turrets as well as long-range radios and radar. After that, improvements were continually made based on operational experience.
Deliveries began in the early spring of 1940 to the newly organized I Gruppe, Kampfgeschwader 40 (I/KG.40), a bomber group intended especially for antishipping operations. The Germans began attacking British ships in April, as soon as air bases were available during the invasion of Norway. After the fall of France in June, KG.40, which received Fw-200C-1s, was transferred to Bordeaux-Merignac, on the Atlantic coast. Condors flew combat patrols far out over the Atlantic and around Ireland, landing at Trondheim-Vaernes and Stravanger-Sola, Norway. Their ability to locate Allied ships and convoys proved very valuable to U-boat wolf packs.
The improved Fw-200C-4 version entered production in February 1942. More of this model were produced than all the others, although only 84 were delivered that year. Despite the urgent need for Condors at the front, two of the first C-4 models were modified for use as transports by Adolf Hitler.
On August 14 (according to a formerly confidential intelligence report prepared three days later by Navy Operating Base, Iceland), Weltman and Shahan climbed rapidly and started searching for the Condor along the coastline. They soon spotted the big Fw-200 heading east, but then it vanished into the clouds. At the time the Americans had access only to general information about the Condor, though Luftwaffe loss records later identified that airplane as Fw-200C-4 Werke Nr. 000125, markings FB-BB, from Kampfstaffel 2 of I/KG.40, a squadron flying from Vaernes, Norway. It was piloted by Master Sgt. Fritz Kühn, who had been awarded the Iron Cross First and Second Class.
Major Weltman radioed the initial sighting to Patterson Field (the name the Americans had given to their Icelandic base), and cruised through tall cloud canyons searching for his elusive foe. The Condor reappeared about 15 miles east of the field, after it first flew over the air base. With a speed of almost 400 mph, Weltman’s P-38F easily caught up to the intruder, then heading north. He charged his guns and closed in to attack, but anti-aircraft fire from a U.S. Navy ship, approximately three miles offshore, forced him to break off contact. The enemy again disappeared into a cloud bank.
Weltman and Shahan were determined to catch the Condor. They did so just after 10:40, when the clouds once more parted. Weltman attacked while it was making a steep evasive turn to the left. The American knew the German pilot had seen him because tracers were heading his way even before he got into firing range. According to the 27th Squadron’s unit history, Weltman engaged in drastic maneuvers to avoid the defensive fire. No hits were claimed on the Condor in the first pass, but both Weltman and Shahan scored hits on two successive passes. The two P-38s expended a total of 35 rounds from their 20mm cannons and 1,800 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition on the Condor.
Suddenly Weltman’s plane shuddered and jerked. One of the Condor’s bullets had struck a propeller blade, and his nose guns were damaged and jammed, forcing him to reluctantly return to base. Shahan then lost contact with the Condor, which had again taken refuge in the clouds—but he kept up the chase.
At 11:13, when Shahan again spotted the enemy emerging from the clouds, he also saw a Bell P-39D Airacobra attacking, along with two Curtiss P-40Cs, all from the 33rd Fighter Squadron. The P-40s apparently scored no hits, but 2nd Lt. Joseph D.R. Shaffer, piloting the P-39, managed to hit the Condor with shells from his 37mm cannon, and tracer, incendiary and armor-piercing bullets from his four .30-caliber machine guns.
Shaffer saw the Fw-200’s left inboard engine catch fire and begin trailing smoke. Meanwhile Shahan was dodging back and forth to avoid defensive fire. The P-38 pilot then executed a chandelle and swept in closer for a deflection shot, closing in from below to only about 100 yards, and scoring direct hits in the fuselage. Shahan intended to attack again from above, but suddenly the Condor’s left wing crumpled and exploded, practically in his face. There was no time to turn; Shahan flew on through pieces of flying wreckage that scarred his plane, while the doomed German aircraft tumbled toward the sea in a flaming death-spiral. No parachutes were sighted, and there were no survivors.
On landing at Patterson Field, Shahan and Shaffer were welcomed with cheers. Though both pilots were pleased that they had managed to track down and destroy the Condor, their satisfaction was tempered by the realization that they had just sent seven men to their death in the icy North Atlantic. Shahan and Shaffer both received the Silver Star and were jointly credited with the aerial victory. Major Weltman’s contribution was not included in reports of the August 14 action, but he would be credited with destroying an enemy plane in the Mediterranean theater on December 4, 1942. Master Sergeant Kühn, the German pilot, would be posthumously awarded the German Cross in Gold on September 25.
The Navy sent a fast boat to the scene of the crash, but searchers found only an oil slick, a notebook and minor debris. They did discover half a boot—which strangely enough, according to the 27th Squadron history, bore the trademark of an American manufacturer. It was presented to Major Weltman, who thereafter carried it in his plane for good luck.
The destruction of one enemy airplane may seem minor, considered against the vast backdrop of operations in the European theater. But the Condor was the very first German aircraft shot down by an American pilot, in American uniform, in WWII. According to a July 1945 air intelligence report, the U.S. Army Air Forces destroyed a total of 30,152 German combat aircraft by the time the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, compared with 18,418 USAAF aircraft destroyed. It should be noted, however, that most of the Luftwaffe losses were single-engine fighters, while many of the USAAF aircraft downed were two-or four-engine bombers.
The Condor’s significant achievements in WWII as a commerce raider and long-range reconnaissance plane prompted Prime Minister Winston Churchill to call it the “scourge of the Atlantic.” Although the loss of German air bases in France in 1944 curtailed the use of Condors, they continued to operate from Norway, contributing to the destruction of Allied shipping by U-boats. A total of 276 Condors were produced, including prototypes and civilian airliners, with 263 Fw-200Cs delivered to the Luftwaffe. Compare that with U.S. production of 12,725 Boeing B-17s, in several models, for the USAAF.
C.G. Sweeting, a U.S. Air Force veteran and former curator for the National Air and Space Museum, is the author of Hitler’s Squadron and Hitler’s Personal Pilot. Further reading: The Fw200 Condor, by Jerry Scutts; and Fw 200 vs Atlantic Convoy: 1941-43, by Robert Forczyk.
Click here to build your own Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condor.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.