Junkers 290/390 the unproven flight

By Raul Colon
October 2nd 2008

More than sixty years had passed since Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies. In that time, witnesses, historians and researchers alike had painted a clear picture Germany’s activities during those bloody years. Much is known about the great land battles on the Eastern Front, the brave stand of a beleaguer Great Britain and the allied landings at Normandy to mention some events. As the years have passed by, many new facts have emerged, documents found and data de-classified, paving the way to recreate obscure events that took place more than six decades ago. One of those events had to do with one of the unsolved mysteries of World War II, the flight of a German four engine aircraft from its base in northern France to within sight of the United States’ East Coast in 1944.

The story of the mysterious flight had its origins in the spring of 1942 when the then all powerful Luftwaffe requested German aircraft manufactures design prints for a long range, heavy bomber capable of reaching the US mainland from Fortress Europe. The Junkers Corporation, with its track record of well designed aircraft such as the infamous Ju-87 Stuka Dive Bomber and the Ju-88 Level-Dive Bomber platform; was the most alluring participant in the competition. The company’s Design and Development team, used the experience gained on the Ju-290 project, the so called “America Bomber”, to design a completely new bomber platform. The whole 290 program was based on the concept made famous by an obscure German Air Force General, Walther Wever. In the summer of 1934, General Wever called for the immediate development of a massive four-engine, long range bomber; not to use against the US but against the Soviet Union’s industrial base located beyond the Ural Mountains. The Ju-290, known as the Ural Bomber to Luftwaffe’s officials, became Germany’s first true long range attack platform. The 290’s production run lasted only a few short years. In all, just a limited number of the 290s were ever produced by Junkers. The 290 never did make it as a true heavy bomber, but it did find a role as a long range maritime reconnaissance airplane.

During the life of the Ju-290 program, Junkers’ engineers performed several modifications to the original 290 airframe and onboard systems. The frame was lengthened, wingspan was added and two additional engines were installed to increase the aircraft’s overall horsepower output. The end result of all those modification was a nearly new airplane. This modified version was renamed the 390. The 390 was designed to carry a maximum crew load of ten men over an operational range of 6000 nautical miles (without re-fuelling) at speeds of just above 300 mph. Two airframes were actually built. Both were developed as troop and equipment transport planes. Another unit, the heavy bomber version (estimated to carry a payload of 3968 pounds), was scheduled to be completed by the winter of 1944-45. But by that time, nearly all of the Luftwaffe’s airframes were used as fighter platforms in an effort to beat back the vast allied air armada which was bombing the Third Reich.

Nevertheless, the 390’s design was sufficiently impressive that the Empire of Japan purchased a Junker’s license to develop its own version. It is known that one of the examples built, unit V-2, was modified directly for maritime reconnaissance missions. Once it became operational, the V-2 unit was assigned to the Kampfgeschwader Number 200, a special wing of the Luftwaffe. The 200 mission profile called for the dispatch of Abwehr infiltration agents deep behind enemy lines. Beside the V-2, the 200 operated captured Us B-17 and DC-3 aircraft, plus a complement of five Ju-290 units.

It has been speculated that in mid 1944 , a round trip was made by a Ju-390 aircraft from a Kampfgeschwader operational base on Mont de Marsan, France to nearly fifteen nautical miles outside New York City. Could such a flight had been made? Certainly, the 390, if re-modified to achieve its maximum range capability, was capable of it. Are there official records of such endeavor? No. But the fact that there’s no official German records on the subject does not mean the flight did not take place. In fact, there’s some supporting evidence that point towards it. During the last days of the war, as the allies moved from its beachheads in northern France and the Soviets were rapidly advancing from the East, Luftwaffe’s officials, sensing imminent defeat; commenced the ritual of burning priority documents at all of its facilities. Could some of those burned documents be related to or have contained information of this special flight?

The first real clue regarding this alleged flight was revealed to the public in November 11th 1995 in an article by historian-researcher Dr. Kenneth Werrell in Royal Air Force Flying Review. In the article, which was based on another subject, Dr. Werrell mentioned that he possessed “information” regarding the flight of two modified Ju-390 aircraft. The following year, the Review, on its March issue; published a letter from a British reader stating that instead of two 390s, the round trip was performed by a sole unit, thus lending credence to Dr. Werrell’s piece. In the before-mentioned article, Dr. Werrell states its case on a little known story that supposedly emanated from the British intelligence services. He made references to reports of captured Luftwaffe’s intelligence officials interrogated on August 1944. Out of those interrogations, the captured officials allegedly told their handlers about the “flight”. The mentioned reports, known as the General Report on Aircraft Engines and Aircraft Equipment, suggested that the two 390s did made the flight and even took pictures of Long Island. The article also made detailed references to the 390’s specifications. After carefully examining the aircraft’s profile window, Werrell was able to determinate that a round trip from northern France to Newfoundland was more than feasible. But after departing Newfoundland, the 390 would had needed to travel another additional 2380 nm, which would made an un-refuelled flight extremely difficult at best.

After Dr. Werrell’s article, there were a few other mentions of this alleged Trans Atlantic trip. The respected author William Green mentioned the incident in his 1968 book, Warplanes of the Second World War as well as on his following effort, Warplanes of the Third Reich published in 1970. In September 1969, the Daily Telegraph of London published an article titled The Lone Bomber Raid on New York Planned by Hitler. The article centred its claim around the testimony of retired Junker’s test flight pilot, Hans Pancherz. Pancherz stated that in early 1944, he flew one of the modified Ju-390 on a trial flight from Germany to Cape Town in preparations for a bombing run into the United States. The test flight went smoothly but the operation was soon cancelled due to lack of resources, said Pancherz. As with other claims of the mysterious flight, no factual data could be obtained.

There’s no reliable data connecting the 390 or any other version of it to a flight into American territorial waters. In fact, no data of any kind of a German aircraft invading the US air space exists. It is entirely possible, even likely, that the before-mentioned event never took place. Nevertheless, the absence of tangible data does not mean that there’s no data out there. As researchers and historians begin to examine classified Soviet-era documents, it is possible that evidence of this flight will be uncovered.

Great Untold Stories of World War I, Phil Hirsch, Pyramid Books 1968
The German Air Force General Staff, Andreas Nielsen, Arno Press 1959
Luftwaffe: Birth, Life and Death of an Air Force, Alfred Price, Ballantine Books 1969

Specifications: Junkers Ju 390 V1 (New York Bomber)

112.20ft (34.20m)
Width: 165.03ft (50.30m)
Height: 22.60ft (6.89m)

Max Speed:
314mph (505kmh; 273kts)
Max Range: 6,027miles (9,700km)
Climb Rate: Not Available
Ceiling: 19,685ft (6,000m; 3.7miles)

Accommodation: 10
Hardpoints: 0
Empty Weight: 87,083lbs (39,500kg)
MTOW: 166,449lbs (75,500kg)

6 x BMW 801D radial piston engines generating 10,200hpeach.