World War II: Messerschmitt Bf 109

Messerschmitt Bf 109 on an airfield
Messerschmitt Bf 109. Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

A backbone of the Luftwaffe during World War II, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 traces it roots to 1933. That year the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM - German Aviation Ministry) completed a study assessing the types of aircraft required for air combat in the future. These included a multi-seat medium bomber, a tactical bomber, a single-seat interceptor, and a two-seat heavy fighter. The request for a single-seat interceptor, dubbed Rüstungsflugzeug III, was meant to replace the aging Arado Ar 64 and Heinkel He 51 biplanes then in use.

The requirements for the new aircraft stipulated that it be capable of 250 mph at 6,00 meters (19,690 ft.), have an endurance of 90 minutes, and be armed with three 7.9 mm machine guns or one 20 mm cannon. The machine guns were to be mounted in the engine cowling while the cannon would fire through the propeller hub. In assessing potential designs, RLM stipulated that level speed and rate of climb were of critical importance. Among those firms which wished to enter the competition was Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFW) led by chief designer Willy Messerschmitt.

BFW’s participation may have been initially blocked by Erhard Milch, the head of RLM, as he had a dislike for Messerschmitt. Utilizing his contacts in the Luftwaffe, Messerschmitt was able to secure permission for BFW to take part in 1935. The design specifications from RLM called for the new fighter to be powered by the Junkers Jumo 210 or the less developed Daimler-Benz DB 600. As neither of these engines were available yet, Messerschmitt's first prototype was powered by a Rolls-Royce Kestrel VI. This engine was obtained by trading Rolls-Royce a Heinkel He 70 for use as a test platform. First taking to the sky on May 28, 1935 with Hans-Dietrich "Bubi" Knoetzsch at the controls, the prototype spent the summer undergoing flight testing.

Competition

With the arrival of the Jumo engines, subsequent prototypes were built and sent to Rechlin for Luftwaffe acceptance trials. Upon passing these, the Messerschmitt aircraft were moved to Travemünde where they competed against designs from Heinkel (He 112 V4), Focke-Wulf (Fw 159 V3), and Arado (Ar 80 V3). While the latter two, which were intended as backup programs, were quickly defeated, the Messerschmitt faced a stiffer challenge from the Heinkel He 112. Initially favored by test pilots the Heinkel entry began to fall behind as it was marginally slower in level flight and had poorer rate of climb. In March 1936, with the Messerschmitt leading the competition, RLM decided to move the aircraft to production after learning that the British Supermarine Spitfire had been approved.

Designated the Bf 109 by the Luftwaffe, the new fighter was an example of Messerschmitt's "light construction" approach which emphasized simplicity and ease of maintenance. As a further emphasis on Messerschmitt's philosophy of low-weight, low-drag aircraft, and in accordance with RLM's requirements, the Bf 109's guns were placed in the nose with two firing through the propeller rather than in the wings. In December 1936, several prototype Bf 109s were sent to Spain for mission testing with the German Condor Legion which was supporting Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War.

Messerschmitt Bf 109G-6 Specifications

General

  • Length: 29 ft. 7 in.
  • Wingspan: 32 ft., 6 in.
  • Height: 8 ft. 2 in.
  • Wing Area: 173.3 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 5,893 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 6,940 lbs.
  • Crew: 1

Performance

Power Plant: 1 × Daimler-Benz DB 605A-1 liquid-cooled inverted V12, 1,455 hp

  • Range: 528 miles
  • Max Speed: 398 mph
  • Ceiling: 39,370 ft.

Armament

  • Guns: 2 × 13 mm MG 131 machine guns, 1 × 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon
  • Bombs/Rockets: 1 × 550 lb. bomb, 2 × WGr.21 rockets, 2 x 20 mm MG 151/20 underwing cannon pods

Operational History

The testing in Spain confirmed Luftwaffe's concerns that the Bf 109 was too lightly armed. As a result, the first two variants of the fighter, the Bf 109A and Bf 109B, featured a third machine gun that fired through the airscrew hub. Further evolving the aircraft, Messerschmitt abandoned the third gun in favor of two placed in strengthened wings. This re-working led to the Bf 109D which featured four guns and a more powerful engine. It was this "Dora" model that was in service during the opening days of World War II.

The Dora was quickly replaced with the Bf 109E "Emil" which possessed the new 1,085 hp Daimler-Benz DB 601A engine as well as two 7.9 mm machine guns and two wing-mounted 20 mm MG FF cannon. Built with a greater fuel capacity, the later variants of the Emil also included a fuselage ordnance rack for bombs or a 79 gallon drop tank. The first major redesign of the aircraft and the first variant to be built in large numbers, the Emil was also exported to various European countries. Ultimately nine versions of the Emil were produced ranging from interceptors to photo reconnaissance aircraft. The frontline fighter of the Luftwaffe, the Emil bore the brunt of combat during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

An Ever-Evolving Aircraft

During the first year of the war, the Luftwaffe found that the Bf 109E's range limited its effectiveness. As a result, Messerschmitt took the opportunity to redesign the wings, expand the fuels tanks, and improve the pilot's armor. The result was the Bf 106F "Friedrich" which entered service in November 1940, and quickly became a favorite of German pilots who praised its maneuverability. Never satisfied, Messerschmitt upgraded the aircraft's power plant with the new DB 605A engine (1,475 HP) in early 1941. While the resultant Bf 109G "Gustav" was the fastest model yet, it lacked the nimbleness of its predecessors.

As with past models, several variants of the Gustav were produced each with varying armaments. The most popular, the Bf 109G-6 series, saw over 12,000 built at plants around Germany. All told, 24,000 Gustavs were constructed during the war. Though the Bf 109 was partially replaced by the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in 1941, it continued to play an integral role in the Luftwaffe's fighter services. In early 1943, work began on a final version of the fighter. Led by Ludwig Bölkow, the designs incorporated over 1,000 changes and resulted in the Bf 109K.

Later Variants

Entering service in late 1944, the Bf 109K "Kurfürst" saw action until the end of the war. While several series were designed, only the Bf 109K-6 was built in large numbers (1,200). With the conclusion of the European war in May 1945, over 32,000 Bf 109s had been built making it the most produced fighter in history. In addition, as the type had been in service for the duration of the conflict, it scored more kills than any other fighter and was flow by the war's top three aces, Erich Hartmann (352 kills), Gerhard Barkhorn (301), and Günther Rall (275).

While the Bf 109 was a German design, it was produced under license by several other countries including Czechoslovakia and Spain. Used by both countries, as well as Finland, Yugoslavia, Israel, Switzerland, and Romania, versions of the Bf 109 remained in service until the mid-1950s.