A Heavyweight Dogfight

Text by Divan Muller
The term ‘dogfight’ conjures images of nimble Spitfires, Mustangs or Bf-109s rolling and diving in aerial combat, but how would heavy four-engined bombers fare in this sphere of warfare, typically reserved for high performance, single-engine fighters
Focke-Wulf FW-200 Condor

During the 1930s, airlines relied on large flying boats, such as the Boeing 314 Clipper and Short Empire, to serve long distance routes. As the number of large runways near major world cities increased, airlines began to realise the need and advantages of large landplanes. Although unable to land on water, these new airliners were aerodynamically more efficient, able to reach inland cities and avoided the need to operate in a corrosive environment. One of the first large ‘land airliners’, the German Focke-Wulf FW-200 Condor, was developed for Lufthansa during the mid-1930s. When it first flew in 1937, the Condor impressed aviation analysts around the world. In a way, this advanced airliner symbolised the surprising technical advances German engineers had made in preceding years.

Ironically, Danish Airlines became the first operator of the Condor, but Lufthansa was quick to follow suit. In August 1938, a Condor became the first heavier-than-air aircraft to fly non-stop between Berlin and New York City.

Shortly before World War II began in September 1939, several of the Condor airliners on Focke-Wulf’s production line were converted to military transport and maritime reconnaissance aircraft. From then on, Focke-Wulf concentrated primarily on developing military maritime reconnaissance variants of the Condor. Armament consisted of more than 2 000 kg of bombs, or two large naval mines, whist six machine guns were fitted for self-defence. Condors truly excelled in anti-shipping missions. Despite the fact that they only saw service in small numbers at any given time, Condors sank hundreds of thousands of tonnes of Allied shipping. During the Battle of the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to the Condor as the ‘scourge of the Atlantic’, illustrating the impact this aircraft type had on the war, despite its small production numbers. By the time production ended in 1944, only 276 examples had been built.
Consolidated B-24 Liberator

Meanwhile, in the United States, Consolidated Aircraft developed its B-24 Liberator. In a 1941 Popular Science Magazine article, journalist Andrew Boone wrote, “No one, not even her makers at the Consolidated plant in California, where she was born, is proud of her appearance. She looks fat and awkward indeed and sits squat on an airfield, with husky .50 calibre machine guns sticking out like pinfeathers from her nose, belly, back, sides and tail.”

However, Boone continued, “Do not let her seeming clumsiness fool you. She is one of the deadliest and most devastating weapons ever created by the hand of man”.
The next few years proved these comments to be true. The B-24 could carry up to 3 600 kg of bombs and relied on eleven .50 calibre machine guns for self-defence. With the help of mass production mastermind Henry Ford, a record-breaking number of more than 18 000 Liberators were built in less than five years. At its peak, Ford’s Willow Run plant, which had just one of several B-24 assembly lines, produced one Liberator every hour.

The Royal Air Force’s Coastal Command used Liberators with great success against German U-Boats in the Battle of the Atlantic, but the bomber was best known for its role as a strategic bomber, primarily used by the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF). B-24s played a significant role in all theatres of World War II. Operation Tidal Wave was perhaps one of the better-known B-24 missions. It involved more than 170 Liberators attacking German-controlled oil refineries in Romania. It was a costly mission, with more than fifty B-24s shot down.
A Heavyweight Battle

On 17 August 1943, a B-24D Liberator of a USAAF Anti-Submarine Group took off from its base in Morocco, to escort a convoy of British ships sailing from Gibraltar to Scotland. Whilst en route to the convoy, the Liberator’s pilot, Hugh Maxwell, was informed by radio of two approaching Condors. His navigator calculated that the enemy aircraft would arrive at the convoy at the same time as the Liberator. Therefore, if they failed to engage the Condors, the ships would be in danger of being bombed. The B-24 had been modified for anti-submarine warfare. Armour plating had been removed to allow it to carry more fuel and depth charges, making it vulnerable to aerial combat. Nevertheless, Maxwell was determined to drive the enemy aircraft away from the convoy.

“We dove out of the clouds onto the tail of the lead Focke-Wulf 200,” Maxwell told his local newspaper, The Daytona Beach News Journal, during a 2015 interview. The Condor entered a diving turn whilst firing at the Liberator, severely damaging it. As Maxwell closed the gap between his aircraft and the Condor, his gunners returned fire, shooting the German bomber down. Meanwhile, the second Condor opened fire from behind the B-24. Maxwell’s crew returned fire, but by then the B-24 had lost two engines and its starboard wing was engulfed in flames. Its flight instruments, intercom and hydraulic systems had also been rendered useless. With damaged control surfaces, the B-24 was rapidly losing altitude.

“I knew I was going in and I knew that when that right wing hit, we were going to cartwheel and explode and burn,” Maxwell recalled. “So in a last desperate effort, I kicked right rudder and threw the airplane into a skid and sure enough, when that right wing hit first, instead of a cartwheel and exploding, it put out the fire and the plane broke in three pieces.”

Seven of the Liberator’s ten crew members survived and were rescued by a Canadian ship. Three of the lead Condor’s crew members were rescued by the same ship. Although damaged, the second Condor was able to safely return to its base in France. Maxwell was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for “heroism or extraordinary achievement whilst participating in an aerial flight.”

Interestingly, although air combat between bombers might seem strange, it was not entirely uncommon. In 1943, Liberator gunners shot down at least nine enemy maritime reconnaissance aircraft. In that same time period, three maritime Liberators were lost in air combat. In fact, a few weeks before encountering the two Condors in the aforementioned dogfight, Maxwell’s gunners had shot down yet another Condor. On that occasion, the B-24 and Condor flew abreast, firing at each other like two Elizabethan era warships. Maxwell died on 2 July last year at the age of 101.