Monday, April 13, 2015

Operation Airthief - the plan to hijack an Fw 190A

By the spring of 1942 the Fw 190 had become an uncomfortably sharp thorn in the side of RAF Fighter Command. Obviously, if an airworthy example of the Fw 190 could be captured and its secrets probed, that would be of inestimable value. Capt. Philip Pinckney, a British commando officer, hatched a daring plan to gain that end.

In an operation of this type, two men might succeed where more might fail. Pinckney suggested that his good friend Jeffrey Quill, chief test pilot at the Supermarine Company, should accompany him on the enterprise.

The essentials of the plan were as follows. On Night 1 a Royal Navy motor gunboat, equipped with direction-finding radio, was to carry the pair to a point within about two miles of a selected beach on the French coast, where they would disembark into a folding canoe. The pair would paddle ashore, hide their boat in sand dunes and lie up during the following day. On Night 2 the pair would move inland to within observation range of the selected Fw 190 airfield, and hide up before dawn. During the daylight hours the pair would keep the airfield under observation and plan their attack. On Night 3 the pair would penetrate the airfield defences by stealth, and conceal themselves as near as possible to one or more Fw 190s at their dispersal points. The pair would then wait until the next day, when the ground crew arrived to run the engine of one of the fighters.

The pair would then break cover, shoot or drive away the ground crewmen, and Jeffrey Quill would jump into the cockpit and taxi the machine to the runway. As he did so, Pinckney would be outside the plane warding off any attempt to interfere with the operation. Once Quill was safely airborne, Pinckney would withdraw to a previously prepared hide. On Night 4 he would return to the hidden canoe. Just before dawn he would launch the craft and paddle out to sea, making radio transmissions so that the motor gunboat could home on the craft and pick him up.

Yet in a remarkable coincidence, on the very day Pinckney submitted his proposal, the need for this risky operation disappeared. On the afternoon of 23 June an Fw 190 pilot had become disorientated in a dogfight with Spitfires over southern England. He mistook the Bristol Channel for the English Channel and made a wheels-down landing at Pembrey airfield, south Wales [above]. Thus, the RAF gained the coveted example of an Fw 190, without having to resort to the risky 'Airthief operation.

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