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German Ju 290 Was an Unusual Sight at U.S. Air Shows

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At air shows in Ohio and Indiana in the triumphant months after World War II, visitors saw an odd-looking, four-engined aircraft with a swastika on its tail.

The Junkers Ju 290 was a “might have been,” a large and awkward-looking machine with strong potential that was only partly realized. Postwar American air-show audiences saw it in the markings of the now-defeated Nazi Germany – a wartime belligerent that lacked strategic airlift capability and never fielded a successful four-engined bomber.

Only forty-seven Ju 290s were built, in transport and maritime patrol/bomber versions. But what if the Third Reich had invested in four-engine heavies on the same vast scale as the British and Americans? If a thousand Ju 290s had been available for the Nov. 24, 1942-Jan. 31, 1943 German airlift to Stalingrad – in which 266 smaller and less capable Ju 52 tri-motors were lost in battle – the rash promise of a successful supply effort made by Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe’s ineffectual commander in chief, might have been fulfilled. The outcome of one of history’s largest battles might have been different.

 

‘Might Have Been’ Ju 290

Ju 290 in U.S. markings

Before German markings were restored for the air show circuit in 1945 and 1946, the captured Junkers Ju 290 wore hastily applied U.S. insignia as shown here. Robert F. Dorr collection

The Ju 290 was a tailwheel-equipped aircraft similar in configuration to the U.S. B-17 Flying Fortress or the British Handley-Page Halifax – but about 20 percent larger than either. Long after 1936, when the Reich abandoned a more ambitious project for a “Ural bomber” capable of striking Soviet targets to the east beyond the Ural mountain range, the Ju 290 was developed from the Ju 90 airliner and made its first flight on July 16, 1942.

The prototype Ju 290 V1 and the first eight Ju 290 A-1s were unarmed transports and were rushed into service, but only one was available to participate in the Stalingrad airlift. The Ju 290A-2 was a maritime patrol/bomber warplane with low-band UHF search radar and cannon armament. A Ju 290 A-3 version followed with more guns, giving the Junkers a mantis-like appearance with cannons protruding in all directions. A Ju 290 A-4 weapons test ship – the plane that eventually reached the United States – was followed by Ju 290 A-5 and Ju 290 A-7 versions with heavier armament and self-sealing fuel tanks.

The Ju 290 A-5 carried a crew of nine, had a wingspan of 137 feet 9 inches, and was powered by four 1,700-horsepower BMW 801G/H 14-cylinder radial engines. It was credited with a maximum speed of 273 miles per hour, and, more importantly, a range of more than 3800 miles, which made it a candidate for an “Amerika Bomber” to attack the United States, and led to a six-engined variant.

Ju 290 in flight

In a rarely seen image, the “war prize” Junkers Ju 290A-7, wearing German markings but with U.S. serial number FE-3400, flies over Ohio or Indiana, late 1945. Robert F. Dorr collection

A Ju 290 A-5 was among many new aircraft and weapons shown in a display for Adolf Hitler at Insterburg, East Prussia, on Nov. 26, 1943. Hitler was impressed and told Göring and his personal pilot Hans Baur that he wanted one for his personal fleet. One was assigned to the Führer’s personal flight, replete with a parachute-equipped downward ejection seat for its VIP passenger to use in an emergency, but Hitler never flew in the plane. Baur took the aircraft to Munich on a visit to his home on March 24, 1945 and U.S. bombers destroyed it later that day.

The Ju 290 appears to have been a more than adequate performer, more robust and longer-legged than the Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Kondor. So why were there so few? The limited number of Ju 290s produced – including a pair of the six-engined variants designated Ju 390 that came too late to influence the war – was partly the result of a decree by Albert Speer that was intended to divert all aircraft industry resources to the manufacture of fighters to confront the Allied bombing campaign.

 

Air Show Artifact

The Ju 290 seen by U.S. audiences fell into American hands more or less by accident.

Col. Harold E. Watson, commander of the Army Air Forces’ Air Technical Intelligence Group, dubbed “Watson’s Whizzers,” was in Germany right after V.E. Day, rounding up aircraft to be taken home and evaluated by U.S. intelligence. The Allies were eager to study scientific advances in the Third Reich, especially Germany’s jet- and rocket-powered aircraft.

The captured Ju 290 shown on the air show circuit. Robert F. Dorr collectionåç

Watson shipped several dozen German aircraft back to the United States by sea. Many contributed knowledge that helped with early U.S. jets. For example, access to the Messerschmitt Me 262 directly assisted the design team working on the North American XP-86 fighter, which became the F-86 Sabre.

The Ju 290 was impressive but was hardly a technical treasure. It fell into Watson’s hands more or less by accident. On May 8, 1945, a Luftwaffe pilot landed the plane at Munich-Riem Airport, which was in the hands of U.S. troops. The pilot surrendered himself, the plane, and a planeload of women auxiliary members of the German air arm. All had flown to Munich from Czechoslovakia, eager to be captured by the Americans rather than the Soviets.

Watson decided to take the Ju 290 to the United States as part of his Operation Lusty – a word derived from “Luftwaffe Secret Technology.”

It’s not clear why Watson valued this aircraft as a war prize. It was a sturdy, practical machine but hardly the latest technology. At best, it might give U.S. experts a look at how Germany had designed a very large aircraft.

Watson and his men confronted a steep learning curve with a plane designed and built in another country. With help from the German pilot, Watson flew the Ju 290 to an airfield near Nuremberg on May 10, 1945.

He 162 and Ju 290

Looking diminutive in comparison with the massive Ju 290, a Heinkel He 162 Salamander is one of the captured German aircraft exhibited at various air shows after World War II. Robert F. Dorr Collection

Watson and others made several test hops in the big plane. Surprised to find the Ju 290 in relatively good condition, Watson decided that his “Whizzers” team could fly the Ju 290 back to Wright Field, Ohio.

With Capt. Fred McIntosh as co-pilot and eight more crewmembers aboard, Watson departed Orly Field, Paris, France, on July 28, 1945 to fly the Ju 290 to the United States. By this time, the Americans had painted the name Alles Kaputt (Everything’s Lost) on the nose and had replaced German insignia with U.S. markings.

At their first stop during the flight, Santa Maria Island in the Azores, Watson and McIntosh had a chance to show the Ju 290 to Army Air Forces boss Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, who happened to be passing through. The flight continued to Bermuda, and proceeded directly to Wright Field.

The day after arrival, Watson ferried the Ju 290 to Freeman Field, Indiana, where he made demonstration flights for an assembled crowd of U.S. military observers. The plane was then returned to Wright Field, re-painted in German markings for display purposes, and tested exhaustively.

The Ju 290 was displayed at open houses and air shows in 1945 and 1946. By the end of 1946, however, this unusual plane was grounded and was being dismantled for specialized study.

The Air Force was still a branch of the Army at that time, and there was no museum program that would provide a resting place for this unusual example of war booty. “Alles Kaputt” was scrapped on Dec. 12, 1946.

Operation Lusty also resulted in flight-testing of German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters, Arado Ar 234 jet bombers, and several other types. A few of these survive in museums today, but the Ju 290 was not so lucky.

The Spanish government recovered a Ju 290 A-5 and used it for flight training until it was scrapped in 1957. “Alles Kaputt” was the only one of the 47 Ju 290s to fall into American hands. “It would be of interest to a lot of people today,” said a former employee of the Air Force Museum. “It’s a pity that an intriguing aircraft like this couldn’t have been preserved.”

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

  • The Ju-290 had a wartime far more interesting than the article hints at, since it is reputed to have made flights to Harbin during WW2 in Manchuria. Some of the last missions were to Japan via Parumshiro in the Kuril Islands. At an Island just south of Parumshiro there are German fuel drums of 1943 manufacture rotting beside an airfield on Matua Island, an island which also had extensive underground mines contaminated by Plutonium and today flooded by the departing Japanese.

    It is also not generally known but from 1944 there were numerous flights by Ju-290 to Barcelona. The aircraft which fell into Spanish hands was damaged landing there on the night of 5/6 April flying U-boat records (or 1945 movements) from Flensberg into hiding in Spain. The Spanish also operated two Focke Wulf FW200 Kondors to Argentina via Vila Cisneros on the Spanish Sahara coast. A team of Japanese engineers who came to Japan on a scientific mission in 1940 were repatriated to Japan in 1941 by a flight via Vila Cisneros and it appears flights were not merely limited to the FW200 Kondor aircraft but also included clandestine Ju-290 operations aswell.

    The type was developed into the six engined Ju-390 and at least one diver reports recovering the constructors plate from a wreck off a six engined Junkers 2.5 miles SW of Owl’s Head Maine. Local residents who recall it’s crash into the sea and subsequent recovery of drowned Luftwaffe aviators date the crash to 17/18 September 1944. This would raise the tally to at least three Ju-390 built.

    Whilst the Ju-390 had both the range and payload capacity to reach USA, it was remarkably slow flying and fuel consumption of the BMW-801D/E engines which it used rose dramatically if it attempted to climb above 21,000 feet making it very vulnerable to fighters and unable to cruise high enough to escape fighter activity.

    The real four engined german bomber was the Heinkel He-177 A8 version, better known as the He-277 about to go into mass production in April 1944 when the Vienna Schwechat factory was bombed. According to company records before production was cancelled in favour of the Emergency Fighter Program in July 1944 at least eight He-177 A6 prototypes were converted at Reichlin into the He-277 standard. What ultimately became of these aircraft is unknown, as is the reason they were never used against England?

    The He-277 had a service ceiling of 49,500ft making it virtually invulnerable to attack by Allied fighters over the UKhad it been used this way in 1944. Possibly the problem was a lack of aviation fuel however that did not become an issue until after September 1944.

  • Really interesting stuff. I would love to learn more about the crashed Ju 390 off of Maine, especially if there is documentation of the crash site. The Ju 290 was a favorite of KG 200, and anyone who has followed that unit’s exploits wouldn’t be surprised by these stories, but the flights to Harbin have been disputed, and many experts today don’t think they occurred. I am not necessarily one of them. A lot of desperate missions took place in the latter part of the war, and records were lost or destroyed, if they ever existed. Most witnesses are long since deceased.

    I added the Ju 390 information to the story. I didn’t intend for it to be taken as an endorsement of the Ju 390 as an Amerika Bomber, but rather to show the German government’s interest in the type’s potential for that mission. Obviously there were others like Kurt Tank’s design or the Me 264, that were under consideration or testing as well.

    The He 177 of course constitutes its own hard luck story. Had the problematical engines been abandoned earlier in favor of a four-engine configuration, the Greif might have been a “great plane” along the lines of the Lancaster that was developed from the Manchester, which had its own engine debacle.