- The German Army  1657-1945

AUTHOR: Millenium Editores
Editor: Millenium Editores
Date of Publishing: 1996
The Henschel Hs 129 was a World War II ground-attack aircraft fielded by the German Luftwaffe. Its nickname, the Panzerknacker (tank cracker), is a deliberate pun—in German, it also means "safe cracker". In combat service the Hs 129 lacked a sufficient chance to prove itself; the aircraft was produced in relatively small numbers and deployed during a time when the Luftwaffe was unable to protect them from attack.

"The Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 was politically the opening stage of an overall world conflagration. From a military point of view, the conflict was a unique chance for the involved parties to experiment with the latest war doctrines, particularly the large-scale use of air power. Spain was also an ideal testing ground for a large variety of innovative warfare technologies, including combat aircraft. It was also in Spain that the need for close air-support for one's own advancing or retreating combat troops had first emerged.

The task of destroying fixed or slowly moving smaller targets such as ships, for example, was solved by employing the dive-bombing technique with its pinpoint accuracy, carried out by the Sturzkampfflugzeug, or Stuka - as the famous, or infamous, Junkers Ju 87 is widely known. However, the neutralization of fast and manoeuvrable small objects - tanks and other armoured or soft-skinned vehicles, as well as groups of mounted enemy troops - had been only partially resolved by the use of biplanes of older types - for example, the Heinkel He 51, or the Henschel Hs 123 (the initial Stuka) - as ground attack aircraft. As proven in Spain, these obsolescent airplanes were not fully suited to the task assigned to them, being rather slow, lightly armed and non-armoured, thus vulnerable to ground fire. The experience in the Spanish war theatre highlighted the need for a well protected and heavily armed specialized Schlachtflugzeug (ground attack aircraft). The existence of such a dedicated aircraft type was fully justified by the apparent necessities of the modern, fast-changing battlefield with flexible front lines, in contrast to the mostly fixed trench warfare, which characterized the 'Great War'.

Recognising early on the importance of the concept of close-support aircraft, which had been confirmed by experiences gained in the opening stage of the Spanish Civil War by the expeditionary Legion Condor, manned by German personnel, the Technisches Amt (Technical Bureau, LC or C-Amt) of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM, or the Reich's Air Ministry), issued a specification in April 1937, which addressed this particular topic. The directive called for a small, twin-engine aircraft, armed with a combination of 20 mm cannon and heavy machine guns, which also had to be capable of delivering a bomb load. The suggested, but not mandatory, powerplant was the pre-production Argus As 410 A-0. However, the performance of this in-line engine was less than ideal for this task. Although theoretically rated at 465 hp (346.7 Kw) for take-off, the actual power was only 430 hp (320.6 Kw) - rather underpowered for an all-metal heavily armed and armoured aircraft.

Since it was assumed that this new type of aircraft would operate at low-level over the battlefield, in areas where air supremacy had already been achieved, no rear defence armament was prescribed, albeit it was not clearly excluded either. Besides saving on manpower, the lack of a rear gunner would also help to keep total weight down while allowing an increase in payload. However, proper armour protection for the pilot and engines from ground fire was considered crucial. Protection for the pilot in case of a forced landing was also regarded as important. Due to its intended role as a close support and ground-attack aircraft, the type was anticipated from the very beginning to operate from improvised airfields, close to the front line. Therefore, ruggedness and simplicity of the airframe construction, as well as easy maintenance and serviceability were paramount. No other requirements were formulated, the assigned companies being given a free hand to finalize the details.

The tender was issued to the following aircraft manufacturers: the Focke-Wulf Flugzeugbau G.m.b.H., the Gothaer Waggonfabrik A.G., the Hamburger Flugzeugbau G.m.b.H, and the Henschel Flugzeug-Werke A.G. By 1 October 1937 - the deadline set up by the C-Amt - Gotha had not submitted any proposals, while Focke-Wulf and Hamburger. Flugzeugbau (which emerged as Abteilung Flugzeugbau der Schiffswerft Blohm & Voss during 1938) offered modified versions of their ongoing reconnaissance aircraft projects, the Fw 189 and Ha 141, respectively. Henschel was the only participating company to submit a totally new design, specifically developed to meet the requirements of the tender.
Design engineers at Hamburger Flugzeugbau planned to meet the Schlachtflugzeug requirements by modifying their existing Ha 141 type (later renamed BV 141). The project - an unconventional design - featuring an asymmetrical configuration, was tentatively allocated the designation Hamburg P 40. The single 1,050 hp Daimler-Benz DB 600 in-line engine was mounted on the front of a single-boom fuselage, situated to the left of the aircraft's theoretical centreline, while the crew of two was housed in a separate nacelle offset to the right. Besides offering outstanding, all-round visibility for the crew, this unusual construction also presented a solution to the effect of propeller torque, present in every single-engine aircraft (for example, the well-known tendency of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 to swing during take-off and landings, the cause of frequent accidents).

Focke-Wulf's project was based on the Fw 189 reconnaissance aircraft, already under development. While the powerplants and twin-boom fuselage structure remained identical, the cockpit was reduced in size and heavily armoured. In contrast to the recce version, the number of crew was reduced from three to two- pilot and rear gunner-seated back-to-back. A 75 mm-thick armoured glass windscreen protected the pilot, while the gunner could look out through a narrow, rectangular, horizontal slot cut in the armoured nacelle. Armament would consist of a pair of forward firing 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon and a pair of 7.9 mm MG 17 machine guns, mounted in each side of the front fuselage. The rear gunner would operate a single 7.9 mm flexible machine gun.

Henschel's conventional design was apparently more suitable for its intended task. It was approximately 20 per cent smaller than the Focke-Wulf project - its main competitor - with a corresponding reduction in weight. Therefore, despite the identical Argus As 410 powerplants, the calculated top speed of Henschel's project was higher. Crew consisted of the pilot, no rear gunner being considered necessary. The truncated triangular fuselage cross section with rounded bottom was  atypical,   but   it   offered   a   small   target.

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