World War II; float-plane; observation; black and blue.
The Arado Ar 196 was the last combat floatplane built in Europe. It was obsolescent by the end of World War II but during the war, this airplane served Germany well in all theaters of operation. The type flew in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean, Baltic, Aegean, Black, and North Seas. When the Third Reich came to power in 1933, the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) was equipped with the Heinkel He 60 biplane. This type served through the Spanish Civil War and had excellent seagoing performance but it was slow, weakly armed, and very vulnerable by the start of World War II. An interim type, the Heinkel He 114, had poor water-handling characteristics and only slightly better performance in flight than the He 60.
During the fall of 1936, the Reichs Air Ministry (RLM) Technical Office released a specification that called for a 2-seat aircraft powered by a single 800-900 horsepower engine with either a single- or a twin-float arrangement. Heinkel choose to continue trying to improve the He 114 but Arado, Dornier, Gotha, and Focke-Wulf responded to the specification. Arado offered an advanced monoplane design designated the Ar 196 and the RLM ordered four prototypes. However, conservative elements in the Technical Office continued to favor biplanes over monoplanes and awarded Focke-Wulf a contract for two, more conservative, Fw 62 aircraft. The RLM later canceled the Fw 62 when the Ar 196 design showed clear superiority over its biplane rival.
Arado delivered the first two prototypes during the summer of 1937. Both were equipped with twin floats. Two more prototypes soon followed but these airplanes carried a single, large, central float and two small outrigger floats. Testing in the laboratory and on water did not conclusively prove that one configuration was significantly better than the other. The single float withstood rough seas during a landing better than the twin floats because it attached directly to the fuselage, the strongest part of the airplane. However, the twin floats had more stability when taxiing and maneuvering. Weight and drag were comparable, too, so the RLM directed Arado to ready both types for production.
Officials at the RLM awarded a pre-production contract for 10 twin-float Ar 196A-0s and Arado built the first one at its Warnemünde facility and delivered it to the Kreigsmarine in November 1938. Shakedown tests left naval authorities very pleased and by June 1939, Arado began delivering the first production floatplanes (designated Ar 196A-1) to the fleet. By the start of hostilities, the Kreigsmarine had selected many of their finest warships to upgrade to the new airplane including Admiral Graf Spee, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Deutschland, Admiral Scheer, and Prinz Eugen.
Production Ar 196 floatplanes flew well-armed with one 20 mm MG FF cannon in each wing, a 7.9mm MG 17 forward-firing machine gun in the fuselage nose, and one or two 7.9mm flexible guns in the aft cockpit. The floatplane could also haul a 50 kg (110 lb) bomb under each wing.
The Arado Ar 196 first put to sea aboard "Admiral Graf Spee" when the commerce raider set sail from Wilhelmshaven in August 1939. For four months, the ship cruised the South Atlantic searching for merchant ships and launching its complement of two Ar 196s from catapults set amidships. The Arados projected the battlecruiser's "eyes" hundreds of miles to look for prospective targets. They found most of the battlecruiser's 11 British victims.
Many Ar 196s flew coastal patrol missions from land bases. A notable action occurred on May 5, 1940, when two Ar 196A-2s from Aalborg, Denmark, captured a British submarine. The HMS "Seal" was sewing mines in a narrow waterway called the Kattegat when it struck one of its own mines. Drawn to the commotion, patrolling Arados attacked the sub with guns and bombs and inflicted such damage that the boat could not submerge. One of the Arados landed alongside the stricken sub and her captain surrendered to the pilot. Other Ar 196 units that operated along the French coast of the Bay of Biscay successfully intercepted RAF Whitley bombers attacking German U-boats sailing to and from their pens.
These operations typify the Arado floatplane's roles and capabilities. This is not the most famous German aircraft of the war but the Ar 196 served ably, if quietly, nearly everywhere that German forces put to sea. It was the primary German maritime reconnaissance aircraft and its counterpart in the U. S. Navy was the Vought OS2U Kingfisher.
Slow but steady production continued throughout the war and the Kriegsmarine accepted only 94 aircraft during in 1942. The Germans prepared a French factory at St. Nazaire to augment Warnemünde's efforts, but this firm built just 10 airplanes before transferring production to the Fokker facility in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. By the end of 1943, Fokker had become the primary builder. The Ar 196 became increasingly vulnerable to faster, better-armed, Allied airplanes that ranged deeper and deeper into German-held territory. Tthe RLM finally terminated production in August 1944. In addition to the German Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine, Romania and Bulgaria also used the aircraft in limited numbers. The final and definitive version was the Ar 196A-5. NASM's collection contains this type of aircraft.
Only three Ar 196 floatplanes still exist from the total production run of 526 aircraft, excluding the prototypes and pre-production aircraft. The Bulgarski Vozdushni Voiski Muzeum in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, displays an Ar 196A-3, one of twelve the Bulgarian Navy operated during World War II from Varna on the coast. The Allies recovered two others aboard the German battlecruiser "Prinz Eugen" when she surrendered at Copenhagen, Denmark. The U. S. Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, owns one and the other belongs to the National Air and Space Museum.
When the US Navy took custody of "Prinz Eugen," they were more interested in the catapult system used to launch the floatplane rather than the Ar 196 but they nonetheless saved the two floatplanes. The NASM airplane has only 14 hours of operational flying time and U. S. Navy pilots added just four more hours during testing and evaluation at the Naval Air Materiel Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The '196 Werk-Nummer (serial number) is 623167 however the Navy evidently repainted the airplane with markings copied from a different aircraft. That floatplane bore the code letters GA+DX and Werk-Nummer 68967. Today, the NASM Ar 196A-5 still carries the bogus paint and markings of GA+DX. After years in storage, the Navy transferred the airplane to the NASM in 1961. It is now on display at the Paul E. Garber Facility in Silver Hill, Maryland.