Messerschmitt Bf 109
Germany's Memorable Fighter of WWII
By Stephen Sherman, July 2003. Updated July 6, 2011.
Unwanted at its inception, the Bf 109 became the most widely produced, the most respected, and the most varied Luftwaffe fighter. Over 30,000 of the nine major variants of Willy Messerschmitt's versatile aircraft were built. From its introduction in the Spanish Civil War, until the last Bf 109 model retired from the Spanish (!) Air Force in 1967, the 109 served for thirty years.
From the late 1920's, Dr. Willy Messerchmitt antagonized Erhard Milch, eventually Hitler's Secretary of State for Aviation, and thus Messerchmitt's company, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFW), could not get much support from the German government.
At one point, the Gestapo even called on Messerchmitt to question him about his contracts with the Romanian government. In 1933, his luck changed, when the Luftwaffe invited BFW to design a sports plane for an upcoming international air race. Messerschmitt, under tight deadlines, based his new aircraft on the work he had done for the Romanian sports plane.
The resulting Bf 108, the forerunner to the 109, flew in February, 1934, with a top speed over 200 MPH. Its performance at the races showed real promise, but due to Milch's influence, the Luftwaffe's request that year for a fighter was given to Focke-Wulf, Arado, and Heinkel, but not to BFW. By 1935, though, Messerchmitt was granted a development contract, something of a gamble. As a development-only contract, it represented a gamble. Milch made it clear that no production contract would follow. Messerchmitt relied on the superior qualities of his design, the Bf 109, to overcome Milch's opposition.
The prototype Bf 109V-1 was ready in August, 1935, Like its predecessor, the Bf 108, it 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. While none of the developments were revolutionary in 1935, Messerschmitt first put them all together in the Bf 109. Powered by a 695 HP twelve cylinder Rolls-Royce Kestrel engine, the Bf 109V-1 first flew in September of that year.
At first, the Luftwaffe pilots, from Ernst Udet on down, distrusted the aircraft. It seemed frail; its enclosed canopy was disconcerting; it had a very high wing loading; and its narrow track landing gear was prone to failure. (On this last point, their concerns were well founded. Landing gear troubles plagued the 109 its entire career.)
But its speed and agility impressed the Luftwaffe skeptics; even Udet came around to support the plane. Even before the results of the competition were known, Messerschmitt pushed on with the second and third models. The Bf 109V-2 was powered by a 610 HP Junkers Jumo 210A but was otherwise similar to the V-1.
The V-3, the third prototype, was the first Bf 109 to be armed, carrying two 7.9mm MG17 machine guns and 1000 rounds of ammunition, as called for in the RLM spec. Otherwise similar to the first two examples, its first flight was delayed until May 1936, due to teething problems with the Jumo 210A engine.
Meanwhile, the Arado and Focke-Wulfe entries had foundered on poor performance and mechanical problems, and Heinkel’s He 112 could not match Messerschmitt’s entrant. Reports of the technologically advanced British Spitfire development added to the Bf 109's favor. Throughout the 1936 trials, the BFW fighter looked better and better, prompting the RLM to order ten Bf 109s. Udet's stunning performance in a Bf 109 at the Rechlin air show confirmed the decision. In front of Generalfeldmarschall Goering and other Luftwaffe brass, Udet intercepted four He 51s in a mock air battle, "destroyed" them, and then turned on a force of bombers and "destroyed" them as well.
In November 1936, the Bf 109V-4 flew. It mounted a third machine gun in the nose and otherwise resembled the V-3.
With production now guaranteed, BFW finished the prototyping with two more airplanes: the Bf 109V-5 and the Bf 109V-6, both equipped with an improved Jumo 210B engine.
With Nazi Germany committed to the Fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War, the Germans rushed these last three pre-production aircraft to Seville in December, 1936. Essentially, the final field-testing of the Bf 109 took place in actual combat, as the German “volunteers” of the Condor Legion immediately began flying missions.
Bf 109B – Bertha
The RLM had ordered 30 production aircraft, designated the Bf 109B. Carrying the latest 680 HP Jumo 210D engine, a wooden two-bladed prop, and only two cowling-mounted guns (the engine-mounted gun had caused overheating), the 109B began to be delivered in February 1937. These too were promptly shipped to Spain. At low altitudes, the maneuverable Russian Polikarpov I-15s and I-16s danced around the 109s; the Condor Legion pilots quickly learned to stay at high altitudes.
Back in Germany, both production and development of the design moved ahead. To augment BFW’s factories, the Fieseler company began license-production at the end of 1937. An improved, metal, variable pitch propeller, licensed by Hamilton Standard, was used in the later Bertha’s, as the Bf 109B was nicknamed. 700 HP Jumo 210G and 210Ga engines with fuel injection and two stage superchargers, powered the next development prototypes, the Bf 109V-7 and Bf 109V-8, respectively. Significantly, the V-8 carried four 7.9mm machine guns. While still equipped with the relatively light rifle-caliber weapons, at this point the Bf 109 began to resemble the heavily armed fighters of WW2. A V-9 variant carried 20mm cannons in the wings, but they 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 379.38 MPH.
Bf 109C - ClaraFrom March 1938, as soon as the first Claras rolled off the Augsburg assembly lines, they were rushed to Spain. Capable of 290 MPH at altitude, the Bf 109C overmatched its Soviet adversaries in Spain. The C-1 added a pair of wing-mounted 7.9mm guns, included an FuG 7 radio, and visibly increased the radiator intake. Three more experimental models the C-2, C-3, and C-4 tested other, heavier gun configurations.
Bf 109 or Me 109 ?
What is right: Bf 109, Bf-109, BF-109, Bf109, Me 109, Me-109, ME 109, or ME109?
In 1938, during the production of the C version, Messerschmitt's global reputation has grown to the point where the Air Ministry suggested changing his company's name from Bayerische Flugzeugwerke 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."
In German usage at the time, "Bf 109" was correct. No dash, lower case "f," not "Me 109," and including a space between "Bf" and "109." But confusion persists to this day. Try a web search on "Messerschmitt Me 109." You'll get almost as many hits as with the proper abbreviation.
Bf 109D - Dora
Daimler Benz’ state-of-the-art DB 600 series promised to be the ideal engine for the Bf 109. Not only was it powerful, but its fuel injection would not stall out during sharp aerial maneuvers, as carburetor systems could. With other programs, notably the He 111 also demanding the 600 series engines, the Bf 109D, “Dora,” was an interim solution, equipped with the Jumo 210 powerplant.
About 200 Doras were built, with subvariants identified with different armaments: D-1 tried the engine-mounted 20mm cannon with no more success than earlier models. D-2 reverted to four 7.9mm guns (two in the wings, two in the cowling). D-3 substituted 20mm cannon in the wings.
The Spanish Civil War
While sources vary on the number and type, most agree that 130-140 Messerschmitt Bf 109’s served in Spain: approximately 4 prototypes, 40+ Berthas, 5 Claras, 35 Doras, and 44 Emils. By early 1939, when the 109E’s arrived, the Republican opposition had nearly collapsed; twenty of these models were left behind for Spain’s air force. Read more at The Messerschmitt Bf 109 in Spain
Bf 109 pilots like Werner Moelders and Wolfgang Schellmann distinguished themselves in Spain. Moelders is credited with developing the “finger four” formation, which became the standard fighter formation for decades. Moelders scored 14 kills in Spain, the top German ace of that conflict. Over 200 German pilots flew with the Condor Legion, gaining precious combat experience that would serve them well in WW2. See the full list at Luftwaffe Aces of the Spanish Civil War
Bf 109E - Emil
Willy Messerschmitt’s promising fighter finally achieved its potential with the Bf 109E variant, powered by the cutting edge DB 601A. The Emil progressed through numerous subvariants. The prototypes Bf 109V-13 through Bf 109V-20 were considered as “E-0” types.
The Bf 109E-1, delivered in early 1939, introduced a three-bladed, variable pitch propeller and twin underwing radiator intakes. It was very fast and arguably the best fighter in the world at that time. By later WWII standards, it was still lightly armed, with four rifle caliber machine guns, two in the cowling and two in the wings.
By September 1939, when Germany attacked Poland, the Luftwaffe had almost 1,000 Bf 109’s in service, mostly “E” models. 200 took part in the Polish campaign, a third of them lost, mainly to ground fire.
During the ensuing “Phony War” on the Western Front, a hapless Luftwaffe pilot set his 109E down on the wrong side of the lines. The Brits rushed the plane back to Britain for a complete evaluation; the aircraft was startlingly superior to the Hawker Hurricane under all conditions and superior to the Supermarine Spitfire at lower altitudes. Today this aircraft sits on display at the RAF Museum at Herndon.
With a top speed of 350 miles per hour at altitude, the Bf 109E-3 took good advantage of the latest Daimler Benz motor, the 1200 horsepower DB 601Aa. It incorporated a stronger canopy and more cockpit armor. It upgraded the E-1’s weaponry by replacing the wing machine guns with MG-FF 20 millimeter cannons. Interestingly, the E-3 weighed under 6,000 pounds, less than half the weight of an American P-47. (Note: the Bf 109E-2 never reached production.)
With an improved, softer recoil mechanism, the MG-FF/M cannon which appeared on the Bf 109E-4 distinguished the E-4 from the earlier E-3. The MG-FF/M could also fire highly effective explosive shells.
The “Me 109” outclassed its opponents in the blitzkrieg against France of May 1940. Needing a fighter-bomber, Jagdbomber or Jabo, the Luftwaffe fitted some Emils with bomb racks and they effectively struck Channel shipping and land targets. Jabo modifications to the 109 were denoted with a “/B” suffix, for example, Bf 109E-1/B and Bf 109E-3/B.
Battle of Britain
For three months, the Bf 109 engaged the Hurricanes and Spitfires of the RAF in a momentous struggle for air superiority over the Great Britain.
The airplane performed as required, but the distances from bases and the need to use the Messerschmitt in a bomber escort role took their toll. Early on the Bf 109 ranged freely while the Me 110's shepherded the bombers, but when the "shepherds" were mauled as badly as their flock by the RAF wolves, the Bf 109's were called on. Downed German pilots who parachuted safely, nonetheless, were lost for the duration as POWs; British pilots who hit the silk promptly returned.
By the end of October 1940, the British had lost 1,149 airplanes, mostly fighters. The Luftwaffe lost almost 1,800 aircraft, one third of them Bf 109s. For the first time, Hitler had been checked and a few months later he turned East, with devastating consequences.
Later Bf 109E's
Several more variations of the Emil followed. The DB 601N delivered 1,200 HP at take-off and permitted a one minute burst of 1,250 HP at 15,000 feet. The Bf 109E-4/N incorporated the new engine. Two fighter-reconnaissance variants, the 109E-5 and the 109E-6, reduced their armament (and weight) and added a Rb 21/18 camera. A Jabo variant, the E-7, was the E-4/N with a center mounted bomb rack.
The Bf 109E-8 and the Bf 109E-9 appeared late in 1940. Intended as a long-range fighter, the E-8 resembled the basic E-1 with a rack added for a drop tank. The E-9, another fighter-reconnaissance variant, incorporated many previous enhancements, notably the DB 601N engine. Both of these were built in small quantities, the last of 4,000 Emils.
With the Luftwaffe committed to the North African campaign, "tropicalized" versions of the Bf 109E-4, -5, and -7 were introduced, with the suffix "/Trop." These modifications for desert warfare included filters over the air intakes and a desert survival kit.
Bf 109F - Friedrich
Early in 1940, Messerschmitt designed a major improvement to the Bf 109. The "F" model was planned to include structural and aerodynamic changes and a higher performance powerplant, the 1350 horsepower DB 601E. By tucking the radiators more tightly into the wings, the designers reduced drag and improved lift. The cowling was streamlined, the spinner enlarged, the propeller blades widened and shortened, the wingtips rounded, and the tail plane bracing struts removed. The prototype models V-21, V-22, V-23, and V-24 tested early versions of the DB 601E engine, the new wings, and other changes.
Armament for the 109F standardized on two cowling mounted 7.9mm machine guns and a 20mm cannon firing through the propeller shaft. The wing guns were eliminated, based on combat reports that the concentrated firepower of the fuselage guns was more effective than the converging bullet streams from the wings. As a bonus, the airplane's handling characteristics improved.
Deliveries of the Bf 109F-1, still powered by the DB 601N due to delays in the 601E, began in November 1940. Shortly the Luftwaffe test units reported losses, following violent vibrations and loss of control. The removal of the tail bracing struts had caused the problem, remedied by fitting reinforcing plates in the tail plane. The Bf 109F-2, introduced in February 1941 differed from the F-1 only in an improved MG 151 15 millimeter cannon. When Operation Barbarossa began in June 1941, the Friedrich was the Luftwaffe's frontline fighter; it had a field day against obsolete Soviet planes like the Polikarpov I-16.
Finally in 1942, the DB 601E was installed in the Bf 109F-3 and the Bf 109F-4. While the F-3 was otherwise like the F-2, the F-4 carried a larger caliber MG 151 20mm cannon, self-sealing fuel tanks, and better pilot armor. The F-4 was the ultimate Friedrich; it weighed 6,880 pounds, made 390 MPH at altitude, with a service ceiling of 39,400 feet. Several subvariants and modifications of the F-4 were built, notably the F-4/R6 which (at the insistence of Adolph Galland, fitted an extra pair of 20mm cannon in underwing gondolas. The plane's handling was adversely affected and they were limited to bomber interceptor roles. Another notable modification was the Bf 109F-4/Trop, which Hans Joachim Marseilles used to achieve most of his 158 victories in North Africa.
About 2,200 Friedrichs were built.
Bf 109G - Gustav
By 1942, the Bf 109 was getting long in the tooth; the Fw 190 would equip the Luftwaffe top fighter squadrons. But there weren't enough Fw 190's, and the Messerschmitt factories were tooled up for Bf 109 production. As a stopgap, the Gustav was designed around the latest Daimler Benz engine, in this case, the 1450 horsepower DB 605A. It also featured a pressurized cockpit for high altitude flight. The increased power and weight came at a price. The Bf 109, never easy to handle, in the "G" variant, became difficult for experts and hazardous for neophytes.
The Bf 109G-1, which first rolled off the lines in March 1942, was fitted with a pressurized cockpit, an engine-mounted 20mm Mauser MG 151 cannon, a pair of cowling-mounted 7.9mm MG 17 machine guns, and a pair of small air scoops just aft of the propeller. These directly cooled the DB605 engine, which was prone to overheating. (Overheating the DB605 caused oil to seep out and over the hot engine block, and catch fire. If in the air, the pilot had to bail out.)
With 24,000 Gustavs produced, the number of variants is truly bewildering, and complicated by Umruest-Bausatze (factory) and Ruestsaetze (field) modification kits.
Various suffixes distinguished Gustavs equipped as long-range fighters, recon fighters, and bomber destroyers. The Luftwaffe armed them with ever larger, more numerous weapons: extra 20mm or 30mm cannon in under-wing pods, 21 cm Dodel rocket launchers, and a short-barreled MK-108 30mm cannon that fired a low-velocity, but devastating, mine shell.
In the details of the Gustav variants, we can see the resource limitations of the Reich in 1944. The Bf 109G-2 differed from the G-1 only in its unpressurized cockpit. Tellingly, many more of them than the G-1 were built. Other modification kits substituted wood in the tail assembly for scarce aluminum. Such an array of pods, scoops, and bulges disfigured the Gustav that it also earned the nickname “Beule,” or “Bump.” Even the awkward efforts to cram oversize rockets and cannon into the small fighter, rather than developing an appropriate airframe for such big weapons, betrayed the desperation of German aviation late in the war.
The Bf 109G-6, the most numerous of the Gustavs, was the first to mount large caliber (13mm) machine guns, comparable to the 50 caliber Brownings found in most U.S. fighters. It also carried an engine-mounted 20mm cannon. Throughout the development of the Bf 109, Messerschmitt, unlike American designers, retained guns in the fuselage that fired through the propeller arc and were necessarily synchronized. U.S. fighter planes typically had guns in their wings, thus avoiding the extra hassle of synchronization gear. Like the G-2 and G-1, the G-6 and G-5 were nearly identical, except that the G-6 and G-2 omitted cockpit pressurization, and were built in larger numbers than their pressurized counterparts.
As further adaptations to the “G” version proliferated, the Bf 109G-10 was an attempt to standardize Gustav production and also introduce the latest DB 605D engine, a powerhouse that permitted a top speed of 429 MPH at altitude.
Bf 109K – Konrad
Based on the G-10, the Bf 109K was another attempt to bring some order to the chaos of variants, sub-variants, and modification kits which was disrupting supply and maintenance. The Konrad wielded the same weapons as its forerunner, two 13mm machine guns and a 20mm cannon, and only offered some minor changes to the canopy, tail wheel, tail plane, cowling, and spinner.
The first production models, the K-2 and K-4 (a pressurized version), arrived in October 1944. The K-6, a bomber destroyer, carried three 30mm cannon and two 13mm machine guns, a remarkably heavy armament. By this time the Reich was near collapse and very few K-6s or later Konrads were built.
Experimental Bf 109s
In its long life, the Bf 109 served as a platform for numerous experimental and radical ideas, from skis to a twin fuselage to the bizarre “Mistel” arrangement. A carrier version, the Bf 109T, actually reached production, 40 being built. After the cancellation of the German carriers, Peter Strasser and Graf Zeppelin, the Bf 109T’s were assigned to Norway and Heligoland, where their short take-off capabilities were useful. The Bf 109H was a high altitude fighter based on the Friedrich, adding a pressurized cockpit, extended wings, and a modified engine. The “H” did not progress beyond the prototype stage. A jet version, the Bf 109TL, was considered, as was a twin fuselage design, the Bf 109Z. The “Mistel” scheme mated a Bf 109 to a worn-out, pilotless Ju 88, which was packed with explosives. The Messerschmitt pilot flew the joined aircraft to the target and released the Ju 88, a primitive cruise missile. The Germans actually used this scheme in combat, against Scapa Flow and some Leningrad bridges.
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By war’s end, only a few hundred Bf 109 G’s and K’s were left to face the massive Allied air fleets. Over 34,000 of Willy Messerschmitt’s fighter had been built and consumed in furtherance of Hitler’s destructive ambitions.
Messerschmitt Bf 109 by Robert Grinsell, Rikyu Watanabe (Illustrator) - an oversize hardback. While only 48 numbered pages, it includes many color profiles, B&W period photos, and diagrams. The text covers all the major and minor variants and sub variants. It's large color illustrations are its main attraction, especially the multi-page foldouts (really big!).
The Messerschmitt BF 109 by Greg Goebel, an excellent web article, more detailed than mine. He too relied on Grinsell's book.
The First and the Last by Adolph Galland. This book is a history of the air war over Europe from the German perspective, with a fair amount devoted to aircraft development, internal Luftwaffe problems, and such events as the Channel Dash. Even the Russian campaign and the American bombing strategy are surveyed. Relatively little on Galland's personal activities, dogfights, etc.
The Luftwaffe Fighter Force: The View from the Cockpit, by Adolf Galland (Editor), Dave C. Isby (Editor)