As I am sure you are all very much aware, after Hitler came to power in 1933 the Germany military got a pretty substantial overhaul. Much of the attention, then and now, focuses on the army and air force, who all got lots of shiny new toys. But the German navy, the Kreigsmarine was also involved in this new spending bonanza, and they drew up some pretty extravagant plans, principally for a brand-new battle fleet.
The final form of this grandiose scheme was eventually settled on with Plan Z which, when approved by Hitler in January 1939, would see the German navy have a battle line strength of ten battleships, three battlecruisers and hundreds of smaller vessels. It would also have four aircraft carriers.
In fact, Hitler had decreed in 1935 that the Kreigsmarine was to have carriers, and preliminary work had started immediately. Because they didn’t have any experience in building or operating carriers, the Germans turned to the Japanese for help, with whom relations were beginning to get extremely cosy. This led to plans for the construction of Germany’s first aircraft carrier, the Graf Zeppelin, which was laid down in 1936.
But of course, you don’t have an aircraft carrier without aircraft, so development of these had to happen as well. Selected to be the carrier’s new fighter and dive bomber were specialist versions of the standard Luftwaffe Bf 109 and Ju 87. But aircraft carriers of the day also carried torpedo bombers, which represented one of their most formidable attack assets.
And the German’s didn’t build anything suitable for conversion. So, in early 1937 they issued a specification for a new, carrier torpedo bomber. The aircraft needed to be of all-metal construction, have excellent slow take-off and landing capabilities and be capable of a top speed of no less than 186mph (300km/h).
Any of Germany’s aircraft manufacturers were offered the chance to tender but only Arado and Fieseler entered bids. I suspect this was because the big boys had better things to do than bid for what was going to be a very limited niche contract, but of the two, Arado’s Ar 195 didn’t meet the requirement and so Fieseler’s Fi 167 won effectively by default.
But that isn’t to denigrate a design which was, arguably, one the finest torpedo aircraft in the world at the time.
The Fi 167 was constructed entirely of metal and built around a tubular structure that was skinned in light alloy. The two-man crew were composed of the pilot and an observer/rear gunner, who both had a 7.92mm machine gun, the latter’s on a flexible mount. In addition, the Fi 167 could carry a 1,000kg (2,205lb) bomb on its centreline or a torpedo, as well as four 50kg (110lb) bombs under its wings.
In appearance the aircraft might look like something from a previous era, with its biplane layout and spindly undercarriage. But said undercarriage was cunningly designed to be both extremely rugged, allowing for heavy landings on carriers which would be expected operating in the northern oceans, but was also jettisonable.
This would allow the Fi 167 to ditch safely and, should such an event occur, the aircraft was designed with watertight compartments in the wings that should keep the aircraft afloat for enough time to allow the crew to abandon it safely.
Plus, its biplane planform may seem anachronistic but wasn’t particularly unusual for aircraft of its type and time. First flying in 1937 and being selected for production in 1938, the Fi 167 was only a couple of years behind the Fairey Swordfish and a couple of years in front of that aircraft’s replacement, the Albacore.
And the biplane wings, with the extra lift that they provided, apparently gave the Fi 167 exceptional Slow Take Off and Landing (STOL) capabilities, something that the Fieseler company had established themselves as masters of with their Fi 156 Storch, which entered service in 1937.
I haven’t been able to confirm this, but there is a much-cited story of a test flight conducted by Gerhard Fieseler himself in which he was able to make a fully controlled descent from about 10,000 feet (c.3,000m) to just 100 feet (c.30m) while keeping the aircraft over the same spot on the ground. Obviously, such an event would need exactly the right conditions in terms of head wind to achieve, and as said though the story is very well known, I can’t say if it is true or not.
But it is conceivably so, as the Fi 167 wings did have an absolute mass of flaps to optimise its slow speed performance – an excellent trait for a carrier aircraft.
Plus, despite the extra drag of the biplane configuration, the Fieseler was in fact much faster than either of these British contemporaries, with the Fi 167 having a generally listed top speed of 202mph (325km/h). Key to achieving this pretty respectable performance was that the aircraft’s engine was the Daimler-Benz Db 601B V-12, the same engine as used on the Bf 110 heavy fighter, and which produced 1,100hp. This was considerably more than most other carrier torpedo aircraft, and gave the Fi 167, despite its old-fashioned appearance, its very respectable performance.
In fact, a fair comparison can be made to the American Douglas Devastator, an aircraft that entered service in 1937 and which had a top speed of 206 mph (332km/h). The Devastator has a terrible reputation largely because of what happened to it at the Battle of Midway, where they were shot down in droves.
But to be fair that was more to do with the nature of torpedo aircraft, which had to make low-level and comparatively slow approaches to their target which meant that, if the enemy was competent and equipped to deal with the threat, the carrier torpedo aircraft was horribly exposed.
The Devastator was simply one of those aircraft, like many others at the start of the hostilities, that was thoroughly modern but which wasn’t up to the demands made of it.
It’s possible the Fi 167 may well have shared a similar fate had it actually had to face fighter opposition during a torpedo attack. But it wasn’t enemy fighters that proved the biggest danger to the Fi 167 – it was changing realities.
As said, the Fi 167 was selected to be the Graf Zeppelin’s new torpedo bomber in 1937, and orders were placed for prototypes and production aircraft, with possibly as many as eighty aircraft to be built to equip the proposed aircraft carriers. But in April 1940 the carrier program was stopped, with the construction of Graf Zeppelin halted when the ship was 85% complete.
Quite frankly, the German military realised they had far more pressing priorities and the carriers, indeed much of the surface fleet program, was not the best investment. But this left the Fi 167 as something of an afterthought, and that probably explains why so many details about the aircraft are so nebulous. For example, there is some disagreement on how many exactly were built, with it generally being said that in total there were two prototypes plus fourteen production aircraft, but it is possible that three prototypes were built and perhaps additional numbers of production aircraft.
As said, various sources give different numbers, and the same follows for much of what happened to the aircraft actually built. With the cancellation of Graf Zepplin, the Fi 167s were sent to a Luftwaffe evaluation unit in the Netherlands.
There they spent several years, before in 1943 being returned to Germany.
At this point the decision to resume work on the Graf Zeppelin had been taken, but it was already too late for the Fi 167. Because of the advances in aircraft in the previous few years the originally intended aircraft designed for use on the German carriers were recognised as outdated already.
It is also entirely possible that the German’s, evaluating the wartime experience of torpedo aircraft on both sides of the conflict, had come to an appreciation of their vulnerability in combat because no alternative torpedo-equipped attacker was requested, with the new carrier attack wings to only have dive bombers. As a result, the Fi 167 was not now considered worthy of a place in the ships complement and so were surplus to German needs. The decision was made to pass them off onto one of Germany’s allies, who were always in need of aircraft.
Here again the sources conflict. Some state that they were sold to Romania, others to the Croatian Air Force. It’s possible batches went to both, however there doesn’t seem much evidence to support the Romanian assertion, but there are pictures of the Fi 167 in Croatian colours.
Here they acted as supply and attack aircraft from 1944 onwards, plus also appear to have seen use in the hands of Yugoslav partisan forces that took in aircraft flown by defectors.
Action with both the partisans and the Croats led to encounters with allied aircraft, though it does appear that the Fieseler’s had some success in dodging attacks because of their excellent low speed handling. Again, sources are all over the place on their service records, but it is possible that one of the Croatian aircraft even managed to damage an attacking Mustang so badly that the aircraft subsequently crashed trying to land.
As said, there is a lot of different accounts of what happened to the Fi 167’s, but regardless the last of them appear to have been integrated into the Yugoslav air force with the end of the war and served with that nation for an unknown length of time before being scrapped, as none are now known to exist anywhere.
And so, with mystery over their numbers, service careers and their ultimate fates, the Fieseler Fi 167 really does make for an intriguing forgotten aircraft. That holds up especially true when we consider that when it first entered service in the earliest days of the war, it was possibly the best aircraft of its type flying anywhere.