Messerschmitt Bf 109
Single-Seat, Single-Engine Fighter Aircraft
The exceptional German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter was more than a handful for Allied fighter pilots and bomber crews alike during World War 2.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
In the years leading up to and during World War 2, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 was the principle fighter of the German Luftwaffe fielded along all fronts where the German war machine raged. Upon its inception, the type immediately became the most advanced and capable fighter platform anywhere in the world, rendering all previous type (these being largely biplane in their design) obsolete. The Bf 109 became a symbol of pride for the recovering German nation, led by the charismatic Adolf Hitler who had risen through the German political ranks to ultimately consolidate his power and bring an entire nation under his brutal control. The Bf 109 was available in such large quantitative figures during the war that it bore the brunt of all aerial warfare for the German Luftwaffe - seeing combat actions in the Spanish Civil War, the invasion of Europe proper, the Battle of Britain, the Mediterranean Campaign, the North African Campaign, the West front and the East Front. It was helped by the arrival of the equally excellent Focke-Wulf Fw 190 but still operated in larger numbers and in numerous variants throughout her wartime career. Amazingly, the type continued production for another decade after the end of the war in 1945 and was even selected as the primary fighter for the growing Israeli Air Force. One of the most celebrated fighter platforms of her era, the Bf 109 was respected by all sides, making many aces of those who flew her, and earned its place in the annals of military history as one of the top aircraft designs of all time. Even with the arrival of the newer Fw 190 series of fighters, the Bf 109 line continued production and wide scale use unabated.
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.
The Battle of Britain
The Luftwaffe sprung into action once more during the summer of 1940 to begin the Battle of Britain. Air superiority would be a key ingredient to the downfall of the heart of the British Empire and the Bf 109 would certainly play a pivotal role in the upcoming battles. On the other side lay the capable Hawker Hurricane monoplane fighter as well as the only true Bf 109 counter - the Supermarine Spitfire. The Bf 109 was initially used in the dedicated fighter sweep role and with great success against RAF aircraft. However, the limitations of the Messerschmitt Bf 110 two-seat, twin-engined heavy fighters proved lacking for the bomber escort role they were utilized for and this forced use of the Bf 109s in the same role - taking away their effectiveness as dedicated fighters. RAF aerial doctrine also improved over time and the staunch determination of the British peoples only exacerbated matters for the Germans. Key to the survival of the British was the island's efficient network of radar and communications which alerted awaiting RAF airbases of the incoming German swarms. By this time, the tactical advantages of the Bf 109 were slipping away as more and more restricted roles were being brought forth. As for the Bf 109 and Spitfire, engineers on both sides of the Channel consistently attempted to better the other through constant evolution of their respective series - a throwback to the days of World War 1 flight where technology would quickly outmode new aircraft that were only months old. Ultimately, the Germans lost the Battle of Britain and Hitler shelved his grand invasion plans indefinitely. The main Bf 109 model of the battle remained the Bf 109E series and this was further improved with subsequent sub-variants in a short amount of time. The Bf 109E-7 was powered by a Daimler-Benz DB 601N liquid-cooled inverted-V 12-cylinder inline piston engine of 1,200 horsepower and armed with 1 x 20mm cannon in the propeller hub, 2 x 7.92mm machine guns in the engine cowling and 2 x 7.9mm machine guns in the wing leading edges. The Battle of Britain ended on October 31st, 1940 with nothing more than a defeat for the mighty German Luftwaffe. Hitler now turned his attention to the Soviet Union in the East - the feeling being shared among German leaders that a campaign in the east would last no more than a few weeks. E-models would continue to be the principle adversary against British RAF Kittyhawks (P-40 Warhawks) in the North African Theater. The improved F-model -detailed below - saw only limited exposure in the Channel Theater after the arrival of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in August of 1941.
Messerschmitt Bf 109F "Friedrich"
An improved form - though initially available in October of 1940 - was delayed in quantitative production until the spring of 1941 and this became the Bf 109F ("Friedrich"). A new more powerful inline piston engine (Daimler-Benz DB 601E/N) was fitted and aerodynamic refinements were introduced all about the fuselage to help streamline the design for the better. The tail wheel was now fully retractable which improved airflow under the empennage and a new large spinner was added as a cap over the three-bladed propeller assembly. The wings were revised with rounded tips to help improved edge airflow and new ailerons and high-lift devices were added for improved handling overall. Armament included 2 x 7.92mm machine guns in the engine cowling and a cannon firing through the propeller hub. Testing of the F-models ensued in the latter half of 1940 before serial production ramped up. As in previous Bf 109 marks, F-models saw their fair share of subvariants, armament arrangements and engine fittings. It would be this mark that most historical observers would note as the best all-round Bf 109 fighter developments - certainly a great evolutionary step for the breed. A lightly-armed reconnaissance version (Bf 109F-5 and F-6) was also born of the F-models. There existed the F-0 through F-6 sub-variants overall.
The East Front and North Africa
Through Operation Barbarossa, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in a surprise attack against their former ally. Initial gains were excellent as the German Army steamrolled its way to the doorsteps of Moscow thanks to air superiority, technological advantages, combat experience and an unsuspecting enemy. However, strained supply lines and the Soviet winter had set in grinding the German advance to a halt and allowing the Red Army time to recoup and mount a massive counteroffensive within time. Large numbers of Soviet aircraft were destroyed by Bf 109F models in the initial fighting and many German aces were made in the process - air superiority clearly in the hands of the invaders. During the important Battle of Kursk, Bf 109s were used alongside Fw 190 fighters though the effort resulted in a decisive Soviet victory and a turning point in the war along the East Front. Additional Bf 109s were utilized by German allies from Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia during the fighting against the Soviet Union. Bf 109Fs also made an impression in subsequent fighting over Libya beginning in April of 1941 against airmen of the Royal Air Force. Due to the hot-and-dry conditions encountered in this part of the world, it was necessary to modify participating aircraft with "tropicalization" kits. The primary adversary of Bf 109s in North Africa became the British Kittyhawk - based on the American Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.
Even as the German invasion of the Soviet Union was underway, work began on yet another improved type - the Bf 109G model. The Germans eventually lost their initiative in the east and were on the defensive for the rest of the war - the Soviets now having introduced more competent fighter types to contend with the masses of Bf 109s and Fw 190s. The German involvement in North Africa was only hurried by the lack of Italian success in the theater - as was the case with Crete, the Balkans and Greece.
Messerschmitt Bf 109G "Gustav"
The next evolution in the German series brought about the aforementioned Bf 109G ("Gustav") of 1942 - largely appreciated by her pilots and marked by students of the war as the most prolific of the series as a whole. By now the Bf 109 was committed to multiple fronts including the war against the Soviet Empire in the East and over Africa. As such, the G-model represented the most-produced mark of the Bf 109 series as a whole and therefore became its definitive version. The mark introduced the Daimler-Benz DB 605 series inline piston engine of 1,475 horsepower. The powerplant brought along with it increased performance specifications which, therefore, allowed for a more potent armaments loadout. The Bf 109G-1 mark was completed with a pressurized cockpit and supercharged engine for high-altitude work. The Bf 109G-2 brought along the same impressive performance and armament but with a loss of the complex pressurization system. These were fitted with the Daimler-Benz DB 605 A-1 series engines of 1,475 horsepower and an armament of 1 x 20mm cannon in the nose and 2 x machine guns in the wings. The Bf 109G-5 was given an 1,800 horsepower engine with emergency fuel injection system for short bursts of power at altitude. The Bf 109G-6 utilized a lethal armament loadout of 1 x 30mm cannon in the propeller hub, 2 x 20mm cannons under the wings and 2 x 7.9mm machine guns in the upper fuselage. This form could be used as a fighter-bomber with a 1,102lb loadout as well. It was the G-6 mark that went on to become the definitive Bf 109G sub-variant mark. The Bf 109G-14 was given provision for externally-mounted 210mm WGr-21 high-explosive air-to-air rockets and conventional drop bombs as well as underwing gun pods. The Bf 109G existed from the G-1 through to the G-16 sub-variants. and this included reconnaissance marks. Many German aces fought behind the controls of the Gustav marks.
The Bf 109 is Challenged Like Never Before
Mounting losses and the relentless Allied air bombing campaign soon took their toll on the German war machine and its war-making facilities. The involvement and improvement of American airmen to the fray also worsened conditions for the Germans as their sphere of influence grew ever smaller. Italy was ultimately invaded as was northern France (after the removal of Axis forces from North Africa) and captured territories served to provide useful Allied airbases that could strike within Germany with impunity. Air superiority of the Luftwaffe was formally challenged by the likes of Spitfires, North American P-51 Mustangs, Lockheed P-38 Lightnings and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts arriving in droves. Additionally, these aircraft could be used in the strike role and clear out railway stations, key bridges, armored columns and air defense networks.
Messerschmitt Bf 109H
The Bf 109H became a high-altitude development based on the Bf 109F series in 1943. The wingspan was increased for the required role and the more powerful Daimler-Benz DB 601E series engine with supercharger was fitted. While the performance specifications proved strong, development was ultimately dropped when vibration issues threatened the wings and tail. The Bf 109H proved one of the final operational-level Bf 109s to be developed before the end of the war in 1945. It only existed as through the H-0 and H-1 marks, representing preseries and intended production aircraft respectively.
The End in Sight
With so many tides turned and fortunes now shifted, German high command focused on the defense of Germany itself. Bf 109 production remained uninterrupted despite the Allied bombing campaign and further evolved fighters were introduced. Additionally, jet technology ushered in a breed of all-new aircraft but these would only make a slight imprint on the direction of the war itself. This placed much of the pressure upon the likes of the Bf 109 and Fw 190 platforms for the duration of the war - though now being relegated to roles they were never initially intended for. Ultimately, Allied air superiority was in play and German ground forces became fodder for Allied strike aircraft, particularly on clear-weather days. To make matters worse, German forces were running low on spares and fuel shortages were apparent. Additionally, the Luftwaffe lacked experienced pilots due to mounting losses. Converted Bf 109 night-fighters were deployed as desperate measures in defense of the Reich against British night raids. It would seem that time had run out on Hitler's "1,000 Year Reich".
Messerschmitt Bf 109K "Kurfurst"
The final operational Bf 109 became the Bf 109K ("Kurfurst") and this version was based on the Bf 109G series with further aerodynamic improvements. The initial K-model production mark appeared in September of 1944 and these were identified by their larger propeller spinners, revised fuselages, increased vertical tail fin area and new cockpit canopy with improved all-around vision. The engine of choice became the Daimler-Benz DB 605 ASCM series which promised 2,000 horsepower output in extreme circumstances. The initial production variant was the Bf 109K-2 appearing in November of 1944. The K-2 mark was joined by the Bf 109K-4 which brought along a cockpit pressurization system. The K-4 was armed with 1 x 30mm cannon in the nose and 2 x 15mm cannons under the wings and could reach and altitude of 41,000 feet. The Bf 109K-6 was developed as a bomber interceptor and appropriately armed for the role with 1 x 30mm cannon in the nose, 2 x cannon pods under the wings and 2 x 13mm machine guns in the upper fuselage. The Bf 109K-14 was given a Daimler-Benz DB 605L series inline piston engine of 1,700 horsepower and intended for high-altitude fighting. Armament was 1 x 30mm cannon in the nose and 2 x 13mm machine guns in the upper fuselage. The Bf 109K-6 began delivery in January of 1945 while the Bf 109K-14 entered service in the remaining weeks of the war - however the end of the conflict came all too soon for these marks - Germany would capitulate in April of that year, the war in Europe being formally over in May. Thusly, the final Bf 109 forms saw only limited service and restricted combat exposure despite their impressive performance qualities.
Messerschmitt Bf 109Z "Zwilling"
One rather interesting Bf 109 development became the Bf 109Z "Zwilling" twin fuselage aircraft design. The type was nothing more than a pair of Bf 109F aircraft fused together at a shared inboard wing assembly. The remaining fuselage and wing assemblies of the original Bf 109 aircraft remained largely intact and only the left-side cockpit was manned, the right being covered over. The type was intended as a heavy fighter that could be used for long-range interception of bombers or for strike sorties against ground targets. The design utilized the strong inherent qualities of the proven Bf 109 airframe times the power of two, allowing for more internal fuel volume to be carried and improved armament options to be considered. Power was through 2 x Daimler-Benz DB 605 series inline piston engines held in their conventional front-fuselage locations while armament would have been a series of light-and heavy-caliber cannons as well as an external bomb load of up to 2,200lbs. Despite the promising nature of such an endeavor, the Bf 109Z was only ever completed in one prototype form and never achieved flight. It was damaged beyond repair during an Allied bombing raid and the project never picked up after 1944. Interestingly, the Americans managed a similar successful venture in their joining of two P-51 Mustangs to create the F-82 Twin Mustang which saw combat in the Korean War.
Primary Bf 109 Strengths
The Bf 109 airframe proved highly adaptable for all manner of fighting forms. The type was principally a fighter first but later variants allowed the platform to be a successful fighter-bomber, close-support aircraft, bomber escort, bomber interceptor and high-altitude interceptor. As such, the armament configuration of the Bf 109 changed throughout its career though she remained one of the most well-armed fighters of her time. The mix of cannon and machine gun allowed pilots to engage fighters and bombers with equal fervor. The addition of air-to-air, high-explosive rockets only made a lethal weapon that much more deadly over time. It was through the initial vision that the Bf 109 found its success for if the original airframe were never designed for such adaptability, the legacy of the Bf 109 would have turned out to be something less worthy to be sure. Another oft-forgotten quality of the Bf 109 was its fuel-injected powerplant which allowed the pilot to undertake violent maneuvers without fuel being cut off from the engine. Conversely, early Spitfires suffered from this limitation.
Primary Bf 109 Weaknesses
The Bf 109 pilot enjoyed many inherent benefits of his aircraft especially when the type was evolved to compensate for the changing nature of war. However, one of the true detrimental aspects of its design was in its "narrow-track" undercarriage which was specifically centered under the fuselage to take on most of the aircraft's weight when on the ground or taxiing. In other contemporary fighter types, the main landing gear wheels were typically fitted under the wings near the stronger wing roots for better ground handling but this inevitably placed much weight upon the wings themselves. The German initiative was a novel one, all things considered, but the fact remained that this narrow-track undercarriage proved highly fatal to many Bf 109 pilots during the operational service life of the aircraft. It is said that roughly 5% (1,750 aircraft) were lost to undercarriage accidents during the war. As such, a steady hand and much experience at the controls were necessary in maneuvering the aircraft about. However, once in the air, the sheer power of its inline took over and the Bf 109 proved a pleasure to fly - this considering the myriad of additions the military required of the design, defeating some of the pure handling qualities of the original Messerschmitt vision of 1935 when compared to the late-war additions to the line.
Messerschmitt Bf 109 Operators
The Bf 109 served beyond the German Luftwaffe. Operators included Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland and Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union received five examples of early versions at some point. Czechoslovakian-based Avia produced the Bf 109G mark as the SS-99/SS-199, its factories were surprinsingly untouched by the Allied bombing campaign. Israel procured some Czech-originated models for its fledgling air force in 1948 giving rise to 101 Squadron. Spain received a license for local production of the Bf 109 in 1942 and knew these as the Hispano Ha-1109/Ha-1112. After the war these were fitted with the British Rolls-Royce Merlin series inline engines in a bit of irony. Production of Spanish Bf 109s lasted until 1958. While German Luftwaffe use of the Bf 109 ended in 1945, the Spanish Air Force managed their Bf 109s until 1965 before retiring them in full.
Messerschmitt Bf 109 Production
All told, 33,984 Bf 109s were produced while some sources state as many as 35,000 when presumably including all succeeding foreign types. Without a doubt, the Bf 109 represented Germany's most important fighter of the war through both number and tactical deployment. It was the most-produced fighter of World War 2 and most-produced German fighter of the war accounting for thousands of enemy aircraft destroyed during the conflict. It even made aces of non-German pilots in Finland, Romania, Croatia and Hungary.