The Messerschmitt Bf 109
By Chuck Hawks
The Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter was flown by many of the top scoring Luftwaffe fighter pilots during WW II. The top fighter pilot of all time, Erich Hartmann (who flew 1,400 missions, shot down 352 enemy planes--mostly on the Eastern Front--and was proudest of the fact that he never lost a wingman), and the second highest scoring fighter pilot of all time, Gerhard Barkhorn (301 victories, all on the Eastern Front), both flew the Bf 109. So did the third highest scoring ace of all time, Gunther Rall (275 victories). The top scoring German ace of the Western front, Hans-Joachim Marseille (158 victories), also flew the Bf 109. As did the first "General of Fighters", Werner Molders (115 victories), and his famous successor in that job, Adolf Galland (104 victories).
Squadron Commander Heinz Knoke, who wrote the fascinating book I Flew For the Furher had 33 victories (plus 5 that were not confirmed before the end of the war), 19 of them 4-engine bombers. Knoke logged over 2,000 flights and over 400 combat missions, all in the Bf 109.
The prototype Messerschmitt Bf 109 first flew in 1935. It participated in trials to become the new fighter of the expanding Luftwaffe and won decisively. The successful new fighter prototype was a low wing, all metal monoplane with an enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear; the type of fighter that became the mainstay of all sides in WW II. But the Bf 109 was the first such fighter to appear in service.
Conceptually, the Bf 109 was basically the smallest airframe that Willy Messerschmitt could devise attached to the most powerful engine. This was intended to be the Daimler-Benz DB 600 series, but that great engine was not yet ready and Jumo 210 series engines were used in the initial Bf 109 production models. This concept proved to be a very successful formula that could be progressively upgraded. The Bf 109 remained a formidable air superiority fighter throughout WW II.
But the type was not without its flaws. Notable among these were its narrow track undercariage that made ground handling tricky. Its small cackpit was cramped, and the hood had too many metal braces and a poor field of view aft. (It was to be years before the "Galland" canopy solved that problem.) Another problem that plagued the type throughout its production life was that its control forces became progressively heavier as speed increased. Manuverability was very good at low and medium speed, but deteriorated greatly at high speed. And the type's short range was to prove its downfall on both the Western and Eastern Fronts, severely limiting its tactical utility.
In February 1937 the Messerschmitt Bf 109B, the first production version, started coming off the assembly line. About a year later the similar Bf 109C came into service. The B and C models were powered by a liquid-cooled, 720-730 h.p., inverted V-12 Jumo 210 engine. They had a top speed of about 290 m.p.h. at 14,765 feet. The 109B's armament was two 8mm machine guns mounted in the forward cowl above the engine. In the C model this was augmented by the addition of an additional 8mm MG in each wing.
The small, fast Messerschmitt fighter first proved its worth in Spain, during the Civil War. There the Condor Legion's 109B's quickly achieved air superiority over the Russian I-15 and I-16 fighters used by the other side. Werner Molders, the first German pilot to score over 100 victories, scored 14 victories during the Spanish Civil War.
By 1938, the "D" model had arrived. This model had a top speed of about 304 m.p.h. at altitude, still powered by the Jumo 210 engine. Armament was 4-8mm machine guns. Before the end of that year, the German fighter squadrons were entirely equipped with "D" models. During the Blitzkrieg across Poland, Belgium, Holland, and France in 1939-40, the 109D series bore the brunt of the air fighting, and proved more than a match for the first line fighters of those nations, quickly achieving aerial superiority. By then, the latest version of the 109D-1 had the superior DB 600 inverted V-12, 960 horsepower engine for which the ME 109 had been designed. The D-1 had a top speed of about 320 m.p.h.
In France, the 109D first met the Hurricane Mk. I of the British Royal Air Force, and serious opposition. The Hawker fighter suffered slightly on paper compared to the Messerschmitt 109D, but in actual combat the German fighter's margin of superiority was slender indeed. The Hurricane I had a top speed of about 316 m.p.h.
The Messerschmitt model that bore the brunt of the Battle of Britain was the Bf 109E. It started coming into service in 1939, and by 1940 was the first line Luftwaffe fighter. Power for the "E" model was the improved, fuel injected, supercharged, Daimler-Benz DB 601A engine. It developed 1,175 hp (at 2,400 r.p.m.). This was one of the finest engines of its time, and it gave the "E" a top speed of 354 m.p.h. and a best climb rate of 2,990 ft./min.
The 109E compared very closely in performance to the British Spitfire I and II, and was clearly superior to the Hurricane I and II, the principal fighters on the British side of the Battle of Britain. It was also usually better armed than the 8-gun British fighters, with two cowl mounted 8mm machine guns and a 20mm cannon in each wing. Its main drawback as a bomber escort was its limited range, which led directly to the British triumph in the Battle. Purely as a fighter, the Bf 109E was second to none.
Bf 109E variants included tropical, photo-recon, and fighter-bomber versions. The E-7 had provision for a 66 gallon external drop tank, but this appeared too late for the Battle of Britain, where it might have made all the difference. Horsepower was incrementally increased to 1,350 in the E-8, which used a DB601E engine.
The basic specifications of the Bf 109E follow (from The Fighter Aircraft Pocketbook by Roy Cross.
By the early part of 1941, German squadrons were receiving the Bf 109F, powered by the up rated DB 601N, which incorporated a power boost system for brief emergency use. This engine was nominally rated for 1,200 hp. The "F" model probably represents the high water mark for the 109 fighter. Its more streamlined nose, retractable tail wheel, rounded wing tips (rather than the "clipped" tips of the earlier models), cantilever horizontal stabilizer, and 900 r.p.m. 20mm cannon made it, briefly, the best fighter in the air. Maneuverability was enhanced, and top speed was up to 382 m.p.h. at 17,000 ft. Best rate of climb was a sizzling (for the time) 3,640 ft./min. The F was Gerd Barkhorn's favorite model. He is quoted as saying that it was lighter than other 109 variants, and could turn and climb "like hell."
The next version, the "G" or Gustav, first appeared at the end of 1942. This was to became the most numerous ME 109 model of all, produced in many variations, but the basic design was starting to show its age. Performance was again up (max. speed slightly over 400 m.p.h. at altitude), but the addition of various improvements, for which the airframe was never designed, caused bulges to appear in unlikely places on the cowling of the aircraft (hence its slang name "the bulge"). Power was provided by a bored out DB 601 called the DB 605, and this engine, which had some early reliability problems, was rated at 1,475 hp at takeoff. The Gustav was used on all fronts for the rest of the war, although later models did appear. Not only an air superiority fighter, the Gustav also performed ground attack, bomber destroyer, and photo recon missions. The most common contemporary Spitfire model was the Mk IX. It was also the Gustav that encountered the American P-38, P-47, and (later) P-51 fighters when they began to escort the heavy bombers on their daylight raids.
The final Messerschmitt production variant was the "K," deliveries of which began in September of 1944. The K was powered by an 1,800 hp DB 605D engine (2000 hp with methanol-water injection) that gave it a top speed of 452 m.p.h. at 19,685 feet. Best climb rate was a sensational 4,820 ft./min. Armament was two 13mm cowl mounted machine guns and one engine mounted 30mm cannon firing through the propeller boss. Two 20mm cannons were mounted beneath the wings in the K-4/R4 variant.
The "K" was the final effort to clean up the aerodynamics of the Bf 109 and standardize the various factory and field improvements that had appeared in previous models. In this it was similar to the previous "F" model, which it resembled. Gone were the unsightly cowl bulges of the Gustav. The most numerous variant, the K-4 of which over 700 were produced, featured a pressurized cockpit and the improved visibility "Galland" canopy. It was a formidable fighter, comparable to the best Allied fighters at the end of the war. An astonishing achievement when you think about it. The K was to outlive the Third Reich, serving in the Spanish Air Force into the 1960's (by which time it had been re-equipped with Rolls Royce engines!).
In all an estimated total of 35,000 ME 109's were produced (including those built outside of Germany) by the end of WW II, making the Bf 109 the most numerous fighter of that conflict. Messerschmitt 109's were operated by Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia in addition to Germany/Austria. Some of those countries built 109's under license. In addition, Japan and the USSR each purchased 3 Bf 109E's for testing. If I had to guess, I would say that Willie Messerschmitt's little 1935 creation is second only to the Spitfire as the most famous fighter plane ever built.
Copyright 2003, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.