In early 1942, the British had a severe fighter problem. The German Focke-Wulf 190 had been cutting up Royal Air Force planes for nearly a year, and when the new A-3 model took to the skies, it dominated.
So the British began looking at some crazy plans to steal one for study.
The British relied heavily on the Spitfire, a capable design, and the Typhoon, which was visually similar to the 190 but was still outclassed. Neither of the fighters could hold up in aerial combat against the new German plane.
The Spitfire was a capable fighter that struggled to keep up with the Fw-190 when it debuted over the skies of Europe. (Photo: Public Domain)
Royal Air Force pilots suffered heavy losses against the A-3 and immediately schemed to get one of their own. One early plan was probably the craziest.
Ace pilot Paul Richey proposed that a German-speaking British aviator be found. He would put on the uniform of a German fighter pilot and then take off in a captured Bf-109, decorated with battle damage, during a British fighter sweep.
After the British fighters engaged in heavy combat with a German formation, the Bf-109 and pilot would join the German forces headed home. He would land at a Fw-190 base and request a new plane so he could rejoin the fight. Since no Bf-109s would be available, he would accept an Fw-190 and then fly it low and fast back to England.
Yeah, they were literally hoping that Germany was just giving these away like it was a bargain bin sale. (Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)
The plan glossed over a lot of potential problems. If the pilot screwed up any of his German or the base had a Bf-109 or it refused to let an emotional pilot take off in one of their cutting-edge machines, the pilot would've been stuck at a German base with a ticking clock counting until he was caught.
A more probable, but still gutsy, commando plan was laid out in June 1942. The operation, dubbed "Airthief," was a repeat performance of a successful operation launched the previous February to steal a German radar station.
British commandos weren't known for saying "no" to many things. (Photo: Sgt. Norris via Imperial War Museum)
In the late February operation, a British radar tech went with a group of commandos to a coastal radar station. As the commandos protected him, he grabbed the parts they wanted and then the group exfiltrated.
Airthief would work the same way but with a pilot instead of the radar tech.
Luckily for the British, the operation became unnecessary the same day it was supposed to be submitted for approval.
An aerial battle between Spitfires and Fw-190s ended with little damage to either side on June 23, but the Germans wanted another crack at the Brits before heading for home. The Fw-190 wing stalked the Spitfires back to Britain and then ambushed them from the clouds.
Even Supermarine Spitfires struggled against the Fw-190 until new engines were incorporated. (Photo: Royal Air Force)
One of the pilots, Oberleutnant Arnim Faber, downed a Spitfire but became disoriented while maneuvering against him. As soon as he killed his enemy, he turned to follow what he thought was the English Channel south to France, but he was actually following the Bristol Channel north.
Desperate for fuel, he landed at the first airstrip he could find only to see a Royal Air Force officer sprinting towards him with his pistol drawn. Faber had landed at a British base and they were only too happy to take his plane for study.
Faber generously offered to show off what the plane could do if the British would be kind enough to refuel it for him, but the Royal Air Force decided to let their pilots do the flying instead. The British flew it on 29 short flights for just over 12 hours of total flight time before they disassembled it and subjected the pieces to destruction testing.
The destruction testing told the British the best vectors to attack the planes from and the flight testing told them where the Fw-190s' weaknesses were. They found that the Fw-190's performance suffered greatly at altitude, and so increased their operational heights to give some advantage back to the Spitfires.
They also incorporated elements of the Fw-190 design into future British planes, allowing later Spitfires and other planes to gain a quality edge.