It’s 1989, and some hikers are out for a ramble through the Russian backwoods close to Saint Petersburg. As the group pick their way through forest and marshland, though, one of them spots something chilling: what looks like a Nazi swastika through a dense stand of trees. Then, as the hikers draw closer, it becomes apparent that the insignia is painted on the tail fin of an almost entirely intact – albeit decaying – German WWII fighter plane. But how on Earth had the craft ended up there in the first place?
Well, although the fuselage and wings were both in good order, it seems that the plane had crash-landed into the marsh – an ordeal that the pilot would nevertheless have likely survived. And while the propeller had noticeably gone through wear and tear, the cockpit glass, on the other hand, remained curiously unbroken. Inside the plane, meanwhile, a leather flying helmet lay on the seat, and while the instrument dials were a little battered, they were nevertheless plain to see. Owing to the overall lack of combat damage, then, it really didn’t look as though the plane had been shot down.
And it’s not so much of a surprise to find a crashed German plane in this forest wilderness. After all, some of the fiercest fighting of WWII took place outside nearby Leningrad – which is now, of course, known once again as Saint Petersburg. From September 1941, the Germans besieged the city for 872 days before the Red Army finally forced them to retreat in early 1944.
For the hikers who stumbled across the plane in 1989, however, perhaps the most incredible aspect of the find was how well-preserved it was after decades spent lying in the woods. And enthusiasts soon identified the German aircraft as a Focke-Wulf 190, which is largely regarded to have been one of the most formidable fighter planes in service during WWII.
Ultimately, a helicopter would go on to remove the Fw 190 from the forest. Then, in the years that ensued, a painstaking reconstruction project would enable the plane to return to the air. And the restorers were not only able to identify the Fw 190 and its pilot Paul Ratz, but they also managed to piece together the story of the aircraft and its final moments before crash-landing.
We’ll get back to Ratz’s story shortly, but first, let’s learn about the fighter plane that he once helmed. The Fw 190 was known by those who flew her as the “Würger” – the German term for the bird known in English as the shrike. And the aircraft was one of two models of fighter plane principally used by Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe airforce; the other was the Messerschmitt Bf 109.
The origin of the Fw 190 lay, meanwhile, in a competition that was held by Germany’s Aviation Ministry in 1934 and 1935. During this period, the country was keen to show its military strength following the humiliating defeat of WWI. One element of this rearmament, then, was a determination to strengthen the German air force. And one of the entrants to this design contest was Kurt Tank.
A graduate of Berlin’s Technical University, Tank worked for Focke-Wulf from 1931 until 1945 as both a test pilot and aeronautical engineer; ultimately, he also ended up heading the company’s design section. Focke-Wulf was one of Germany’s leading aircraft designers and manufacturers at the time, and the company was the maker of the Fw 190.
However, the design that Tank entered into the Aviation Ministry’s competition was actually a plan for what was known as the Fw 159 – an early version of the Fw 190. But while the Messerschmitt 109 was subsequently deemed a superior model, the Luftwaffe authorities were nevertheless keen to have something even more advanced than the 109 in their arsenal. In 1937, then, the Aviation Ministry issued new tender documents.
This latest move was prompted by fears that foreign powers may soon design fighters outclassing even the Messerschmitt 109. So, Tank set to work again and came up with a number of new designs. There was one blueprint that caught the Air Ministry’s attention, too – perhaps because the plane in question was intended to be powered by a 14-cylinder BMW engine. Thus, the Fw 190 was born. An example of the craft would embark on her first flight in June 1939, with the model entering active service a couple of years later.
In essence, the Fw 190 was a single-piloted, single-engined fighter plane that, thanks to its powerful BMW engine, was capable of high speeds. It helped, too, that the Messerschmitt 109 was powered by a Daimler-Benz engine, as then the two models would not have to share spare parts.
Yet while speed is obviously an important factor when it comes to creating any fighter plane, Tank’s design philosophy focused on other elements, too. In his 2000 book Focke Wulf Fw 190 in Combat, Alfred Price quoted Tank as saying, “During World War I, I served in the cavalry and in the infantry. I had seen the harsh conditions under which military equipment had to work in wartime.”
According to Price, Tank continued, “I felt sure that a quite different breed of fighter would also have a place in any future conflict. [It would be] one that could operate from ill-prepared front-line airfields; one that could be flown and maintained by men who had received only short training; and one that could absorb a reasonable amount of battle damage and still get back.”
During the course of WWII, dozens of variants of the Focke-Wulf 190 were built, although the basic specifications of the 40 or so different models were either the same or very similar to one another. In general, an Fw 190 plane was just over 29 feet long and possessed a wingspan of a little less than 35 feet. The craft also had a range of about 500 miles along with a top speed of around 400 miles per hour. And by the war’s conclusion, Focke-Wulf had manufactured some 20,000 of these planes.
What’s more, Tank’s grasp of what was needed in a fighter plane was certainly accurate when it came to the chaos that prevailed on World War II’s Eastern Front. That was where our Luftwaffe pilot, Paul Ratz, was flying on combat missions in 1943, while Ratz’s squadron was engaged in the larger battle of the Siege of Leningrad.
And the restorers of that plane found in the forest were able to identify the craft as an Fw 190 A5 with the serial number 1227 and the call sign White A. Then, by cross-referencing this information with Luftwaffe records, the experts were able to say that the pilot had been Ratz. It appeared, too, that the plane had been part of a fighter wing called Jagdgeschwader 54.
That unit was otherwise known as “Green Hearts,” as it had originally been raised in the German region of Thuringia – also known as the “Green Heart of Germany.” Jagdgeschwader 54 first saw action in the invasion of Poland in 1939 before taking part in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Then in 1941 – and just months after Axis forces had invaded the Soviet Union – the Luftwaffe sent the fighter wing to the Eastern Front.
Furthermore, while Jagdgeschwader 54 started out flying Messerschmitt 109s, the unit was switched to the Focke-Wulf 190s in early 1943. And as it happens, the flight that ended in a mysterious crash-landing took place that year on July 19. On that day, Ratz was piloting a modified Fw 190-A5 variant aircraft that could carry a heavier payload than its unaltered counterparts.
More specifically, Ratz was carrying a Sprengbombe Cylindrisch 250 (SC 250) beneath his plane’s fuselage. This kind of 550-pound bomb was packed with explosive material – making it a formidable weapon indeed – and had been widely used by the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front. Such a device had also been used to pummel London when the city was heavily bombed during the Blitz.
So, Ratz took off from an airfield at a place called Siwerskaja – located not far from Leningrad and just a 15-minute flight from the front-line positions. He was accompanied by one other Fw 190, too, and both planes flew across the Dvina river and the front line. It seems that the two men’s mission was to intercept trains that were carrying supplies to the besieged city of Leningrad.
The two pilots subsequently flew eastwards to the Voibakala district, where they found a train to attack. That vehicle was armored, however, and responded to that ambush with heavy anti-aircraft fire. And the planes of Ratz and his fellow traveler may have sustained damage in that encounter. In any case, Ratz went on to radio his buddy, explaining that engine trouble meant he’d have to crash-land.
And that was the last that the Luftwaffe heard of Ratz for the time being. But who was this man who’d disappeared from the skies near Leningrad on that summer day in 1943? Well, in fact, we don’t know a great deal about him other than what can be gleaned from his military record. This document tells us that Ratz started out as ground crew with the Luftwaffe.
Then having attained the rank of feldwebel – the equivalent of being a staff sergeant – Ratz took to the skies in 1942. He mostly flew on assignments that entailed attacking targets on the ground – such as the train he had been chasing on the day that he had disappeared. That said, the pilot is reported to have shot down several enemy planes as well.
And in the summer of 1943, Ratz was certainly battle-hardened, as he had somehow survived no fewer than three crash landings. He’d started out as a pilot with Jagdgeschwader 54’s Squadron 1 but had transferred to Squadron 4 in July of that year – with the move coming just ten days before that final fateful flight when he seemingly went missing in action.
Following Ratz’s disappearance, in fact, his comrades in Jagdgeschwader 54 may very well have thought that the feldwebel was dead. That was hardly an unusual fate for those who had flown with the outfit, after all. During the course of the war, 491 of Jagdgeschwader 54’s pilots were killed in combat, while an extra 322 were wounded. The squadron also lost a total of more than 1,800 aircraft, although it apparently balanced that figure by bringing down in excess of 9,600 enemy planes on the Eastern Front.
But Ratz wasn’t dead. Yes, even though his plane had suffered catastrophic engine failure, the pilot had managed to accomplish an almost perfect crash-landing. For one – as those Russian hikers noticed – his aircraft remained almost entirely intact. Ratz had walked away apparently unscathed, too, or at the very least not seriously hurt.
And you may remember that the hikers had found Ratz’s flying helmet on the pilot’s seat where he’d left it. He’d even had time to take the first aid kit from its compartment in the plane’s fuselage. Perhaps, then, the pilot had suffered some minor injuries. But regardless of any cuts, sprains and broken bones, Ratz may have been very nervous. You see, following the crash, he was stuck in the middle of a forest on the wrong side of enemy lines.
So, Ratz began walking in a westerly direction in the hope that he’d come across some of his German comrades before any Soviet soldiers found him. He had good reason, too, as historically infantrymen are not always particularly sympathetic to pilots that they capture – particularly ones who had been trying to kill them from the air. And combat on the Eastern Front was also notoriously brutal – especially around Leningrad.
Yet while the Soviets did indeed pick up Ratz, they didn’t kill him out of hand. Instead, the pilot was shipped off to a POW camp, where he would stay until 1949. Then, finally, he returned to West Germany – where, as far as we know, he spent the rest of his life.
By a twist of fate, Ratz died in 1989 – the very year that his plane was found in the forest. Reports have claimed, in fact, that he never heard that the last aircraft he’d flown had been retrieved. Then, two years on from the discovery, the plane was hauled out of its marshy grave by helicopter, after which a private buyer transported it to England.
Eight years after that, the plane was purchased by Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Washington. Allen was, of course, the man who created Microsoft along with Bill Gates. And although the American billionaire passed away in 2018, he was fortunately still alive when the restored Fw 190 White A was revealed to the world.
There were snags when it came to the restoration process, though. You see, although a British company called JME Aviation took on the task of remaking the body of the plane, that firm’s owner, Jeremy Moore, ultimately decided to close his business in 2010. At that point, then, the Fw 190 was transported to the U.S. so that work on the craft could be finished off.
Over in the States, Tehachapi, California-based Mike Nixon went on to take the BMW 801 engine apart and return it to working order. And while Nixon has a reputation as a world-leading expert in the restoration of WWII airplane engines, it may have taken all of the skills that he possessed to successfully complete the job.
Then, with the project finally done and dusted, in December 2010 Ratz’s restored Fw 190 took to the air for the first time in 67 years. And, as it happens, this particular restored Fw 190 is completely unique, as it’s the only one to have flown with its original BMW 801 engine; other working examples have either modern engines or ones adapted from other planes.
During this 20-minute test flight, meanwhile, renowned aircraft racer Steve Hinton was at the controls of the Fw 190. And according to a 2010 post on the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum Facebook page, the pilot gave a very complimentary assessment of the newly refurbished craft’s performance.
Hinton reportedly said of the Fw 190, “The plane is very light, fast and responsive. This lived up to the history books.” And all in all, it’s truly amazing to learn that Ratz’s craft has taken to the air again – several decades after he was forced to ditch it in a Russian forest. Even so, one question remains unanswered: what exactly caused the plane’s engine to fail that day in 1943?
Well, we heard earlier that Ratz himself reported his engine had failed. There was speculation, too, that the armored train Ratz had attacked had possibly hit his plane with anti-aircraft fire. Yet when the Fw 190 was restored, no evidence of such damage was apparent. Certainly, if the plane had been hit by Soviet fire severe enough to bring it down, it should have been easy to spot.
And as Ratz’s plane had only been delivered from the factory in April 1943, it makes little sense that such a new engine would have failed so drastically. Yet something sinister was discovered during the refurbishment – and it very likely explains why the Fw 190’s engine stalled.
Tucked into the engine, you see, was a piece of cloth. It appears, too, that dirt – perhaps from the cloth – had gotten into the lubrication system and blocked a pipe. And owing to this obstruction, the engine may well have gone on to overheat and malfunction before cutting out altogether. But how did this rag end up in the engine of an almost brand-new Fw 190? The answer may lie with the factory workers that the Nazis used.
Indeed, many of the people who were working for the Germans – including some in the Focke-Wulf factories – were actually forced labor from countries that the Nazis had occupied. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, then, that one of those employees decided to take revenge on his oppressors. And if that was the case, the act had had dire consequences for at least one German, who spent six years during the war and after in a Soviet prison camp.