US Pacific fighters versus the Luftwaffe Bf 109 and Fw 190

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A reader of our site asked us how US Pacific fighters would fare against the Luftwaffe’s finest – the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Curious to know more we asked HushKit contributor Edward Ward to consider the matter. 

The interesting thing about the F4F, F6F and F4U is that we do have a tantalising hint of their efficacy against late Luftwaffe fighters as all three were used by the Fleet Air Arm in Europe. Sadly (in a way) the Corsair never met a German fighter in combat but both the Grummans did and the results were positive. Oddly, despite never actually engaging in air-to-air combat over Europe, a Corsair was captured by the Luftwaffe and extensively tested by them. The results for the Grummans were more interesting. Surprisingly the first American-built aircraft to score a kill in British service was a Wildcat (then named a Martlet) when two Martlet Is of 804 sqn Fleet Air Arm shot down a Junkers 88 on Christmas Day 1940. Later Martlets operated in the Western Desert in a shore based role. Finding out detailed information abut this period is difficult. About the best I can manage is that they operated in “ground attack and escort missions” so one would have thought they would have met the Luftwaffe however I can only find records for one FIAT G.50 and four Ju 88s shot down. More research needed. There is an Osprey ‘Aircraft of the Aces’ volume on Royal Navy aces of WWII that would I suspect give an excellent account of this period but alas I don’t own it… All this occurred before the US had even entered the war.

This is what Eric Brown had to say about the Martlet/Wildcat and its chances against the Luftwaffe. It is worth noting that although more famous as a test pilot, Eric Brown had flown the Martlet in combat from escort carriers against Fw 200 Condors.
Martlet II Versus Messerschmitt Bf 109F

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The Wildcat, although faster and more manoeuvrable than the Sea Hurricane, was still some 60mph slower than the German fighter. The lower the altitude the less the odds favoured the Me109F. The Wildcat also had a heavier punch to deliver.

Verdict: As a dogfighter the Wildcat was superior to the Me 109F, but the initiative always lay with the German because of superior performance. At low altitudes the Me109F had the edge over the Wildcat, but not by much.

Martlet IV Versus Focke-Wulf 19A-4 and A-4/U8: The only superiority that could be claimed by the Wildcat was its ability to outturn the German fighter, but turning doesn’t win battles. In every other department the Fw 190 was in command. Even in the fighter-bomber role the German faced minimal danger, and he could always jettison his bombs in an emergency to defend himself.
Verdict: The superiority of the Fw 190A-4 and A-4/U8 was so comprehensive that the Wildcat had little or no chance to do anything more than perhaps harry the German enough to make him jettison his bombs prematurely.

However by the time the Wildcat VI was on the scene (1944) his assessment was rather less rosy: “Wildcat VI Versus Messerschmitt 109G-6: The agile little Wildcat could outmanoeuvre the latest version of the Me 109, but the performance differential had widened and the German could run rings around the Wildcat. If the Me 109G-6 was tempted to mix it in a dogfight, the Wildcat had a better than even chance of success.Verdict: The Wildcat was no real match for the Me 109G-6, but the German could not afford to take liberties with his angry little opponent.”

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The formidable Fw 190 held all the advantages in this contest, and there was really no way out of the dilemma for the Wildcat. Even in a turning circle it could not evade the German fighter for the first 120 degrees, and that was more than enough time for the powerful armament of the Fw 190 to take effect.

Verdict: The Wildcat had little chance of surviving single combat with the Fw 190. Its only hope lay in overwhelming the German by force of numbers.

Ultimately most RN Martlets and Wildcats saw service on escort carriers, far from German fighters. However, despite its apparent performance shortfall, In March 1945, Wildcats shot down four Messerschmitt Bf 109Gs over Norway. These were the FAA’s last victories with Wildcats.

With regard to the Hellcat, only the Royal Navy actually flew it in combat against Luftwaffe fighters. US Hellcats did see service over Europe when they operated off USS Tulagi during Operation Dragoon (the invasion of Southern France) in August 1944. During Dragoon, USN Hellcats shot down eight German aircraft but all were bombers or transports. A year or so earlier, four British Hellcats were bounced by a mixture of Fw 190s and Bf 109Gs off the Norwegian coast. One Hellcat was lost but the other three each claimed the destruction of one German fighter each. Hardly much to go on but the Hellcat came out on top in that action at least.

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If I were to speculate on what would have happened had the two later Navy aircraft been deployed in numbers in Europe I suspect a similar situation as that which developed with the P-47 and P-51 would have developed, the Hellcat is slower than the Corsair (and very much slower than either a Thunderbolt or a Mustang) but is a very forgiving aircraft and also insanely rugged (a proportionately much greater number of F6Fs survived being hit by flak for example than did F4Us) and thus it would seem likely that the Hellcat would be employed more as a fighter bomber rather than a straight air-to-air fighter. If intercepted the Hellcats exceptional manoeuvrability (it could follow the A6M Zero through most manoeuvres, and that aircraft may well have been the most agile of the war) would have proved difficult to deal with for both German fighters but they would have been able to break off at will.

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The F4U was a rather different prospect, with a significantly better performance than the Hellcat it is likely that any service it might have given against the Luftwaffe would have been impressive. There are caveats however – the afore-mentioned Eric Brown said he would prefer the Hellcat in a dogfight, however during the second world war pilots in every nation (except maybe Japan) were desperately trying to avoid dogfighting wherever possible and use dive and zoom climb tactics. This would have favoured the Corsair which excelled in the vertical plane. Whether it would have done as well as it did against the Japanese is unlikely however. The Luftwaffe, although a shadow of its former self by 1945 was still a dangerous foe and did not suffer the same technological disparity (in general) as did the late war Japanese fighters compared to their principal American adversaries. It is possible of course that it may not have fared so well, the P-39 Airacobra was generally regarded as unsatisfactory in the Pacific theatre yet was extremely successful against the Germans over the Eastern Front (of US built fighters only the P-51 would score more air to air kills) However, we do have at least a glimpse of what might have transpired in reality as the US tested the Fw 190 against the F4U and F6F and the results are here. It is worth noting however that the Focke Wulf in this case was an early model and not indicative of the models that the Corsair and Hellcat would have actually met in combat had they been committed to the European theatre.

In short, what would actually have transpired is anyone’s guess. The American fighters were formidable but then, so were the German aircraft. It may have depended a great deal on when they were committed. Corsairs fist flew into combat in August 1942, at that point the Luftwaffe was still probably the most powerful, best trained, most experienced and arguably best equipped Air Force in the world. Any fighter thrown at them at that time would have suffered. Had the Luftwaffe of early 1945 been their foe though it would have been a different story as most of the veterans were either dead or wounded, there was precious little fuel for operations and the training programme had collapsed.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying it’s pretty much anyone’s guess what would have actually happened.

Edward Ward

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