Staff Writer (Updated: 7/6/2016):
Messerschmitt Bf 109 Design
The Bf 109 design was attributed to German engineers Willy Messerschmitt and Walter Rethel. After World War 1, the German war machine was dismantled by the victors and, coinciding with Hitler's rise to power, the military was given complete attention to one day "right the wrongs" of the embarrassing Versailles Treaty that placed all of the blame of war solely on Germany. The German Air Ministry (RLM) sought to provide its Luftwaffe with Germany's first-ever modern monoplane fighter to replace the outmoded and outgoing models in the Arado Ar 68 and the Heinkel He.51 series. Both were biplanes and decidedly influenced by a world war that was already several decades removed. Both managed a dual-wing assembly, open-air cockpits and fixed undercarriages which would do little in a modern war. The RLM requirement was handed down to interested parties in the summer of 1934.
Up to this point, the Messerschmitt concern had recently developed the Bf 108 "Taifun" (Typhoon) as a sports and touring aircraft, The type featured all-metal stressed skin construction, an enclosed crew cabin with seating for four, a wholly-retractable undercarriage and low-set monoplane wings. It first flew in 1934 and was introduced in 1935 and went on to set several air records for endurance. Within time, it also went on to serve the German Luftwaffe in the liaison role as well as a personal transport for staff. Some 885 examples would ultimately be produced.
With that said, Messerschmitt focused on the strong inherent qualities of their successful Bf 108 series to produce the new German fighter. This included carrying over its all-metal skin construction as well as an enclosed cockpit, retractable undercarriage and monoplane cantilever wings. The goal was to fit the most powerful engine then available into the smallest possible airframe to produce both excellent speeds and handling. The aircraft was to be powered by the Junkers Jumo 210A inline engine developing 610 horsepower which was undergoing its own development at the time.
While Messerschmitt was hard at work on their submission, other notable firms were also involved in attempting to fulfill the RLM request. These included powerhouses Arado, Heinkel and Focke-Wulf. The odds of Messerschmitt winning the potentially lucrative defense contract were therefore quite low. Each of the involved firms put forth their attempts alongside the Messerschmitt fighter and all were evaluated against the stipulated requirements. Messerschmitt completed its prototype though the intended Junkers Jumo powerplant was not yet ready. In its place, ironically, the British Rolls-Royce Kestrel V inline engine of 695 horsepower was substituted. The initial Bf 109 prototype first flew on May 29th, 1935 - proving the design quite sound, rather excellent in fact. The second prototype was the one given the intended Junkers Jumo 210A series engine. After formal evaluations of the various systems, German authorities centered on the Heinkel He 112 and Messerschmitt Bf 109 submissions while the Messerschmitt design ultimately won out and an aviation legacy was formally born. The Bf 109 was introduced into Luftwaffe service in 1937. At the same time, work in Britain would produce the Bf 109's primary career rival in the Supermarine Spitfire - a classic in its own right and a modern aircraft introduced a year later.
The Messerschmitt Bf 109 Designation
Of note here is that the designation chosen for the aircraft utilized the "BF" marker. This was taken from the first production facility - "Bayerische Flugzeugwerke" of Bavaria - chosen to manufacture the type. Hence the full designation of "Messerschmitt Bf 109" which is sometimes incorrectly shown in some publications as "Messerschmitt Me 109". Similarly, the Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engine, twin-seat heavy fighter follows this same designation route.
Pre-Production and Messerschmitt Bf 109B
Messerschmitt was contracted to produced ten pre-production aircraft based on their design and these went under the designations of Bf 109V-1 through Bf 109V-10. Throughout its development, the Bf 109 changed its engines and armament configurations consistently allowing for a dizzying array of production marks to follow and even these major marks produced sub-variants within. The Bf 109A designation served primarily as a pre-production version. This provided the route for the first formal production model to emerge in February of 1937 - the Bf 109B ("Bertha"). In that summer, the German government sent several pre-series examples to fight in the Spanish Civil War under the German Luftwaffe "Condor Legion" banner on the side of the Nationalists. The war proved to be a perfect testing ground of sorts for new military advances concerning the German Army and Air Force. Tactics involving the new German fighter were honed whilst pilots and warplanners took on priceless experience in a war environment, a process which would serve them well in the world war to come. The Bf 109 was clearly the best fighter of the Spanish conflict and deemed the best fighter anywhere in the world by this time.
Messerschmitt Bf 109C and Bf 209D
Development of improved Bf 109 models continued as soon as production facilities took on manufacture of new types. In November of 1937, an airframe was fitted with a 1,650 horsepower engine and this served to set a new airspeed record of over 379 miles per hour. This undoubtedly served the German propaganda machine back home quite well in showcasing German technological superiority and ingenuity. Several more public displays of the power inherent in the new Bf 109 were noted at this time as rumors of war grew all across Europe.
The Bf 109B was eventually followed into service by the Bf 109C ("Clara") but both remained, for the most part, pre-series attempts to help work out kinks in the design. This version was given a new armaments configuration which was deemed lacking in early marks. Following the C-model, the Bf 109D ("Dora") arrived with a new Daimler-Benz DB 600A series inline engine and it was the C- and D-models that paved the way for the first quantitative models to take shape in the Bf 109E ("Emil").
Messerschmitt Bf 109E "Emil"
The Bf 109E was fitted with the Daimler-Benz DB 601 series inline piston engine of 1,050 horsepower. The Bf 109E-1 production model was given 2 x 7.92mm machine guns in the engine cowling with 2 x 7.92mm machine guns in the wings. The E-1B introduced a fighter-bomber capability to the family line. The E-2 was a limited-run mark bringing with it 1 x cannon in the nose as well as 2 x cannons at the wings and 2 x machine guns in the engine cowling. The E-3 was armed with 2 x machine guns in the engine cowling and 2 x cannons in each wing. Production of this mark totaled 1,276 examples. The E-4 came online next and used a new set of 20mm cannons at the wings. The E-5 and E-6 marks proved to be reconnaissance marks with photography equipment installed aft of the cockpit. The E-7 introduced provision for fuel drop tanks to help increase operational ranges which were restrictive in previous models. This mark could also double as a fighter-bomber which improved its tactical value. Engine output ranged from 1,100 horsepower to 1,175 horsepower depending on engine fit. The E-8 was a longer-range fighter sub-variant while the E-9 was another reconnaissance version with drop tank support and a DB 601A engine of 1,100 horsepower.
The Invasion of Europe
The first available E-models were made ready at the start of 1939. In September of that year, the Germans invaded Poland to formally begin World War 2. Over 1,000 Bf 109 fighters were available in inventory and quickly outclassed all available Polish types. From there, the fighter was used to spearhead the aerial advance upon lesser, ill-prepared enemies in Holland, Belgium and France as well as Norway. The only true threat to the air supremacy of the Bf 109 in the early going was the new French Dewoitine D.520 fighter which was not available in enough useful numbers. Within time, half of Europe fell under German control. Hitler then eyed the conquest of England across the English Channel and readied his army for its eventually invasion through Operation Sea Lion. The latest versions of the Bf 109 were delivered to veteran air groups of the Luftwaffe now stationed across northern France - within reach of the British Isles.