Messerschmitt Bf 109

Text by Divan Muller
The Bf-109 is without doubt the most famous German-designed aircraft ever used in combat. However, when looking at military history books, this remarkable fighter is usually overshadowed by more popular aircraft, such as the Spitfire and Mustang. Was this German fighter really that formidable?
Initial Development

When the requirement for a modern fighter for the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) was announced during the mid 1930s, requests for prototypes were sent to all major German aircraft manufacturers, except the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFW). This was primarily due to a feud between BFW’s chief aircraft designer, Willie Messerschmitt and Erhard Milch, who was in charge of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft procurement. Later, due to several high ranking officers objecting to Milch’s decision, BFW was allowed to compete against other companies, such as Focke Wulf and Heinkel, in designing a new fighter. Messerschmitt based his design on his Bf 108 Taifun, which performed extremely well in air races. The prototype aircraft, called the Bf 109 V1 would have been powered by a Junkers Jumo engine, but because of delays in developing the engine, an imported Rolls-Royce Kestrel VI engine was used instead. After its maiden flight in September 1935, the Luftwaffe awarded a contract to BFW, which required the company to build ten more prototypes. BFW was then officially awarded the contract to produce the fighter that would soon become the ‘backbone’ of the Luftwaffe.

In 1938, Germany’s Air Ministry decided that Willie Messerschmitt’s reputation had grown to such an extent, that it would be better for BFW to be renamed Messerschmitt. All aircraft types that were already in production would retain their Bf designations, whilst new types would have Me designations. In spite of this, Bf 109s were widely referred to as Me 109s, which was strictly speaking incorrect.

Messerschmitt’s first batch of Bf 109Bs was delivered to the famous JG.132 squadron, better known as the Richthofen Squadron. A few months later these fighters saw action during the Spanish Civil War, flown by Germany’s Condor Legion. The Bf 109 soon became a combat proven aircraft and experience gained in Spain was a tremendous help in developing succeeding variants of the 109.

When the Second World War started, the Luftwaffe had about 1 000 Bf 109Es ready for use in combat. The use of a fuel injection system meant that 109s could perform negative G manoeuvres without losing power. One 20 mm canon and four 7.9 mm machine guns gave the Bf-109E devastating fire power. Messerschmitt’s fighters were superior to all enemy fighters encountered during the first stages of the war, except for the Supermarine Spitfire. During combat over France and the Battle of Britain, it was realised that Bf 109Es were marginally better at air combat than the British Hawker Hurricanes. Spitfire Mk Is, however, had a better range, manoeuvrability and were faster, but the 109s performed better at higher altitudes. The more modern Bf 109Fs saw action on all fronts and were especially devastating on the Eastern Front and in North Africa.

Even though Focke-Wulf FW 190 was regarded as the best Axis fighter produced during World War II, Bf 109s remained the backbone of the Luftwaffe. Over 30 000 Bf 109s were built during the war. They were continually upgraded and many different variants served throughout World War II. Later variants were on a par with the most capable Allied fighters.

Adolf Galland is the first Bf 109 Ace that comes to mind. Werner Molders, another Luftwaffe pilot, flew a Bf 109F and became the first pilot in history to shoot down 100 enemy aircraft. Hans Joachim Marseille is believed to have shot down five enemy fighters in six minutes with his 109F. Three of these aircraft were flown by aces. The Finnish Air Force also used Bf 109s extensively during World War II and one of its pilots, Lentomestari Eino, scored 94 kills. The list of high scoring Bf 109 aces is very long indeed. The second 109 in this month’s gate fold poster was flown by Erich Hartmann. He was the top scoring ace of all time, shooting down 352 enemy aircraft during his time as a fighter pilot.

The Bf 109 E-7, which was used during the Battle of Britain, was powered by a 1 200 hp Daimler Benz twelve cylinder engine, allowing the aircraft to fly at a top speed of 312 kts. With a wingspan of almost ten metres and a length of just under nine metres, the 109E was about the same size as its British counterpart, the Spitfire.

Towards the end of the war, Bf 109s were used in Mistel operations. These fighters were mounted on top of unmanned bombers, which were filled with explosives. The pilot, seated in the Bf 109, essentially had to control both aircraft. The pilot would aim the bomber at a target, such as a bridge, and then jettison the bomber. The fighter would then return to its base, whilst the bomber would crash into its target, causing major damage.

Interestingly, 70 Bf 109Ts, with folding wings and arrestor hooks, were built as carrier based aircraft. The German aircraft carriers could not enter service in time for World War II, so all these aircraft were used as land based fighters.

Bf 109s were still in production in Spain more than a decade after World War II had ended, whilst the type remained in service with Spanish forces until the 1960s. Even Israel used Bf 109s in combat against Egypt in 1948, during the Arab-Israeli War.
The fact that Bf 109s have been credited with more air victories than any other fighter, is proof of how capable and lethal they were. History shows that a Bf 109 could be unbeatable in the hands of an expert. Love them or hate them, no one can argue that the Messerschmitt Bf 109 was indeed one of the greatest fighters of all time.