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
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.
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.
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.
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.”