The Luftwaffe’s Long Arm

German U-boats terrorized Allied ships during World War II, with the help of aerial scouts.

U-boats like this one had help from Junkers Ju 290 reconnaissance airplanes.

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This story is a selection from the September issue of Air & Space magazine

In his new book, Shadow Over the Atlantic: The Luftwaffe and the U-Boats: 1943–45, Robert Forsyth sheds light on the Luftwaffe’s FAGr 5, an obscure aerial reconnaissance unit tasked with helping German U-boats locate and destroy Allied shipping vessels in an effort to isolate and starve the United Kingdom during the late stages of World War II. Forsyth spoke with senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi in August.

Air & Space: Why did you decide to write this book?

Forsyth: It tends to be that fighter operations and fighter aces appeal primarily to readers’ interests. I understand that. But in the case of what became Shadow Over the Atlantic, here was an unsung unit, yet manned by incredibly skilled airmen flying an impressive aircraft on equally dangerous and draining missions.

What was the purpose of FAGr 5?

In the early stages of World War II, the Luftwaffe lacked adequate eyes with which to search the sea. Part of this, as I recount in the book, was attributable to an uncharacteristic German muddling of relatively scant maritime air assets. They made their air-arm infrastructure over-complex—not helped by personalities such as [Hermann] Göring and infighting among the German naval high command, which tended to engage in protectionist policies. Eventually, however, FAGr 5 was formed, as a necessary and late reaction to the need to assist the U-boats to locate and track convoys, at just the time the U-boat offensive was beginning to falter.

Was there direct communication between the FAGr 5 aircrews and the U-boat crews?

No, not direct. That was a goal that was never achieved. Once an Allied convoy had been observed either by visual sighting or by a Ju 290’s search radar apparatus, its details were signaled by radio back to U-boat command in France or Germany. This information was then relayed to the U-boats. It was a process, depending on factors such as weather conditions, that could take place quickly or frustratingly slowly, resulting in delays that compromised U-boat targeting of Allied ships. The Ju 290s could, however, drop radio-homing buoys into the sea on which the U-boats could beacon.

By 1943, was the Luftwaffe stretched thin? Or were skilled flight crews and aircraft readily available?

Yes, the Luftwaffe was becoming stretched by early 1943, but paradoxically, German factories were turning out aircraft in significant numbers, despite the growing Allied air offensive against the Reich. The problem was manpower. The war in the East, with debacles such as Stalingrad, and later Kursk, saw high losses in aircrews—especially among transport and ground-attack crews—and these had to be replaced. But simultaneously, the Allies were gaining control in the Mediterranean, and the Allied round-the-clock bombing campaign was reaching ever deeper into Germany. The priority became fighters, and that was reflected in training, aircraft development, factory output, and allocated resources. Irrespective of how important it was, for the Luftwaffe, the war at sea became a peripheral matter.

Nevertheless, just enough crews were found to man units such as FAGr 5, which needed pilots, navigators, flight engineers, radio and radar operators, and gunners. These were skilled crews—some of the most skilled. FAGr 5’s pilots were trained in blind-flying and long-range operations, and they were often veterans with pre-war, long-range flying experience.

What were some of the challenges faced by the FAGr 5 airmen?

Often appalling weather conditions, which made flying very challenging and the chance of spotting shipping convoys negligible. Mechanical or technical failure, hundreds of miles out to sea, could be fatal. Flights of 15 to 18 hours could result in exhaustion for the crews. And of course the constant threat of long-range enemy aircraft, able to range across the Bay of Biscay, and faster, more nimble fighters operating from escort carriers further out in the Atlantic.

Was the Junkers Ju 290 the right aircraft for the job?

Essentially, yes. But that has to be set against the question: What else was there? The four-engined Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor did not have the range. The giant Blohm & Voss BV 222 flying boat, which did have the range, was only available in tiny numbers. So, by default, the Ju 290, with a range of just under 4,000 miles, filled the role. However, it performed well. It was stable and hardy. With a competent crew it could carry out its task and defend itself. But the problem was one of numbers. It was rare for more than two aircraft to operate together.

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