We Are Trying To Sink Your Ship: (However, If You Shoot Us Down, Kindly Rescue Us From Drowning)

One of the anomalies of World War Two at sea was how often ships picked up the surviving crewmen of enemy planes which had just tried to sink them but instead ended up being shot down. The ancient custom of the sea is to rescue a person or persons from drowning if you can do so without danger to yourself. It is a measure of the strength of this custom that both German and Allied naval forces often made efforts to rescue pilots and crew from enemy planes which had been attacking them moments before but which had been shot down and ditched in the ocean.

Last weekend I read FW 200 Condor vs Atlantic Convoy by Robert Forczyk. This is a new book from Osprey Publishing in the UK which publishes dozens of short books on World War Two, each book focused on a highly specific subject. I think they do a fine job most of the time. The FW 200 Condor was actually designed as a civilian airliner and not a military plane. It had four engines and a very long range depending on how it was configured. But airliners aren’t built with self-sealing fuel tanks or heavy armor in critical parts of the aircraft.

Focke-Wulf Fw 200 C Condor

Since the Condor was an airliner, it had to be jury rigged to carry bombs. This modification was successfully carried out. But the major problem which plagued the Condors were this: they were not designed as military planes and couldn’t take much punishment in the form of anti-aircraft fire. In the beginning, that wasn’t an issue. British merchant ships and British escort vessels lacked sufficient anti-aircraft armament to protect themselves from hostile aircraft. One of the things war planners in the 1930s never thought about was how dangerous to shipping aircraft would become. Hence, they did not arm ships with sufficient batteries of anti-aircraft guns.

After the fighting had been going on for a year or so, that began to change and British merchant ships and escorts began to be heavily armed with anti-aircraft batteries. They quickly discovered this: if you hit one of the Condors with a quick stream of anti-aircraft fire, you knocked it out of the sky. If you hit one of the fuel tanks in the Condor, some of which were in the wing, the plane often exploded in mid-air. Since the Condors usually attacked convoys and thus were over water, the German crew could ditch in the water which really means a “controlled crash” if that isn’t an oxymoron. If enough of the fuel tanks were empty, which they would be after long hours of flight, they provided enough buoyancy for the Condor to float long enough for the crew to get out.

If they got out, they were normally rescued by a British escort ship, or one of the specially equipped rescue ships which began to accompany convoys by late 1941/42.

A few months back I reviewed, FW 200 Condor: the Airliner That Went To War. This book is the history of the plane itself: when it was built, how it was designed, what happened to each one of the Condors along with some information on the missions the planes carried out. FW 200 Condor vs Atlantic Convoy (three stars) is about specific missions which specific squadrons made and what the results were. That’s the difference between the books.

Luftwaffe at War: Airwar Over the Atlantic (three stars) is mainly a series of photographs with detailed captions. If you like details, like I do, and you really want to know what different planes looked like when they were in combat, then you will find this book of interest. It’s 72 pages.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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