Surprisingly, when the Messerschmitt Bf 109 was first developed and
entered production in the mid to late 1930s, it was considered an
inferior aircraft by the Allies who compared it to the Spitfire and
other RAF fighters of the period. However, the Bf
109 subsequently became the most widely produced, the most
respected, and the most varied Luftwaffe fighter. Over 30,000 of the
nine major variants of the aircraft were built. It was so successful
that the Spanish Air Force was still using them up until 1967
(allowing them to be borrowed by the production team on the MGM film
"The Battle of Britain" which went into production in 1968, some 30
years after the first prototypes had gone into production prior to
the Spanish Civil War (1937).
Initially, its developer, Dr Willy Messerschmitt wanted to develop a
new fast super plane. However, in the 1920s, Erhard Milch -
Hitler's Secretary of State for Aviation - would not give his
support or the finances to support its development.
Messerschmitt ended up developing his plane for the Romanian
government. But in 1933 the newly formed Luftwaffe suddenly
contacted him and asked him to design a sports plane for an upcoming
international air race.
The result was the first prototype, the Bf 108, which flew in
February 1934 with a top speed over 200mph. It flew well
enough in the races - but it took time for Messerschmitt to win the
kind of contract from the Luftwaffe he had wanted. It was
therefore not until August 1935 that the prototype Bf 109V-1 first
appeared, called a "Bf" after the company name at the time:
The Bf 108 was a low wing, all metal construction monoplane, with
flush rivets, leading edge slats, and retractable landing gear. Its
single-seat cockpit had a fully enclosed canopy. It was powered by a
695 HP twelve cylinder Rolls-Royce Kestrel engine. Despite some
teething problems with frailty, high wing loading and narrow track
landing gear being prone to failure, its speed and agility impressed
the Luftwaffe top brass to allow Messerschmitt to press on and
perfect the design. V-2 and V-3 variants soon followed: the
V-3 being the first to carry armaments - two 7.9mm MG17 machine guns
and 1000 rounds of ammunition.
Throughout 1936, further refinements were made in response to the
Allies progressing with their Spitfire. The V-4, V-5 and V-6
appeared that year: the V-4 had a third machine gun in the nose,
whilst the latter variants were equipped with improved Jumo 210B
engines. As Germany offered to help the Spanish Civil War effort, it
was these variants which were rushed into service with the Condor
Legion. The first actual production aircraft were designated the Bf
109B - Bertha, the first 30 of which saw service in Spain, but their
engines were not as powerful as the more maneuverable Russian
Polikarpov I-15s and I-16s used by the opposition.
After 1937, the aircraft underwent yet more improvements to its
performance with newer, faster engines and yet more machine guns,
for example, the V-8 had four 7.9mm guns. The V-9 trialled
20mm cannons in its wings, but these proved unreliable. The
Daimler Benz powerhouse engine, the DB 600, powered four later
developmental models: the V-10, V-11, V-12, and V-13. The V-13
(equipped with the DB601) set the world speed record in November
1937, at 379.38mph.
The Bf 109C - Clara rolled off the assembly line in March 1938 and
was also rushed to Spain where its newer engines capable of 290mph
turned the tide against the opposing Russian-built aircraft. It was
also during 1938 that, as people really began to take notice of the
aircraft and Messerschmitt's capabilities as a designer, it was the
Air Ministry who suggested changing the company name to
"Messerschmitt A.G.". Subsequent aircraft would be identified
with the "Me" prefix; those already in production, the 109, would
retain the "Bf" designator. Nonetheless, many people began referring
to the "Me 109," including the USAAF; contemporary air combat
reports are filled with references to the "Me 109."
late 1938 the Bf 109D - Dora appeared, powered with the with Daimler
Benz state-of-the-art DB 600 series engines with a fuel injection
system that would not stall out during sharp aerial maneuvers.
In early 1939 it was the Bf 109E - Emil powered with the cutting
edge Db 601A engine that was the latest stage of development - and,
with four rifle calibre machine guns (two in the cowlings and two in
the wings) it was with this model that Germany entered WWII
following their attack on Poland. In September 1939, the
Luftwaffe had almost 1,000 Bf 109ís in service, mostly E models: 200
took part in the Polish campaign and about one third of them were
lost, mainly to ground fire.
The Bf 109 proved a superior aircraft, easily outclassing its
opponents in the blitzkrieg against France of May 1940. During
the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940, however, as the Bf
109 engaged the Hurricanes and Spitfires of the RAF in a momentous
struggle for air superiority over the Great Britain, it was the
large distance from bases and the need to use the Messerschmitt in a
bomber escort role which took their toll. By the end of October
1940, the British had lost 1,149 airplanes, mostly fighters, but the
Luftwaffe had lost almost 1,800 aircraft, one third of them Bf 109s.
the time the Luftwaffe had been virtually defeated by the Allies, in
the later war years, KG55 were assigned a number of Messerschmitt
models, including the Bf 109G- Gustav. Powered with the latest 1450
horsepower DB 605A engines, some 24,000 of these aircraft would be
built from 1942 onwards. Some variants had pressurized
cockpits for higher altitude flying; engine mounted 20mm Mauser MG
151 cannons, a pair of cowling mounted 7.9mm MG 17 machine guns.
Some of the numerous, more obscure variants were even armed with
larger and more numerous weapons such as extra 20mm or 30mm cannons
in under-wing pods, 21cm Dodel rocket launchers, and a short-barrelled
MK-108 30mm cannon that fired a low-velocity mine shell. The
Bf109G-10 variant had the latest DB 605D engine that could reach a
top speed of 429mph.
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