Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstorer (Destroyer)
Twin-Seat, Twin-Engine Heavy Fighter Aircraft
During World War 2, the German Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engine heavy fighter found periods of success - and failure.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
The Messerschmitt name was tied to many aircraft products during World War 2 (1939-1945) - the classic Bf 109 fighter, the Me 163 "Komet" rocket-powered interceptor, and the Me 262 "Schwalbe" jet-powered fighter quickly coming to mind. In the early years of the war, its name headed another of its classic aircraft alongside the Bf 109 - this being the twin-engine, two-seat Bf 110. The Bf 110 became part of the German rearmament program and military buildup of the 1930s, utilizing a two-engine heavy fighter design form that many national air forces of the period pursued in one form or another. Introduced in 1937, the Bf 110 saw consistent service over all of the fronts involving German forces and its allies. Total production reached 6,170 examples by war's end in 1945 and variants allowed the original design to evolve some throughout the war years. While it became less effective in daytime operations as the war wore on, the Bf 110 was pressed into other roles better suited to its strengths by the end.
Up to this point in military aviation history, the single-engine fighter was the mainstay of any major air service. However, with the utilization of only a single engine, operational ranges would always be limited which brought about the idea of a two-engine fighter design - something akin to a "bridge product" between the traditional fighter and a medium bomber. A twin-engine approach provided improved survivability over the warzone and theoretically could solve the problem of operational range. At the same time, a more powerful design could also be outfitted with more firepower through machine guns, cannon and bombs beyond what a single-engine airframe offered. This thinking gave rise to the "heavy fighter" which was also known in some circles as a "bomber destroyer" and many nations of the 1930s sought such a design.
The reemerging German Luftwaffe took an interest in a twin-engine heavy fighter and accorded a Reichsluftministerium specification in 1934 calling for a long-range escort fighter in the heavy fighter mold. The aircraft would have to integrate an internal bomb bay for carrying drop ordnance, feature a twin-engine arrangement, provide a cockpit for three crew, and be of a modern all-metal construction. While several companies put forth their various designs, it was Messerschmitt that out-dueled its competitors - showcasing much more performance, power, range, and firepower than its nearest challenger. Maneuverability was said to be its weakest quality.
Bf 110 Walk-Around
Messerschmitt engineers produced a solid, conventional-looking aircraft in their Bf 110 design. Monoplane wings were set low and well-ahead of midships as was the two-crew (seated inline) cockpit held under a long-running "greenhouse" style canopy offering good vision. Since the engines were carried in nacelles that were integrated into the wings, the forward section of the fuselage could be used for the cockpit, avionics, and nose armament. Internally, the fuselage was given a semi-monocoque arrangement and its external shaping saw it taper at the rear. The empennage carried a split vertical tail fin assembly. The powerplants were to be 2 x Daimler-Benz DB 600A series inline engines and a typical "tail-dragger" undercarriage was fitted. Interestingly, the internal bomb bay was not part of the Bf 110 design but this was overlooked due to the hugely promising nature of the Messerschmitt approach.
Original armament was 4 x 7.92mm MG 17 machine guns coupled to 2 x 20mm MG FF/M cannons in the nose. The rear cockpit featured a single 7.92mm MG 15 machine gun to help protect the aircraft's more vulnerable "six" position from trailing, intercepting aircraft. This armament load was excellent for the time for a short burst of fire was able to bring down most any aircraft the enemy could field - particularly bombers flying in tight formation. During the course of the Bf 110s flying career, only slight changes would be enacted to the armament suite - primarily to save on weight or to carry more mission equipment. A bomb-carrying capability was later added that only served to broaden the aircraft's tactical appeal in combat.
First flight of a Bf 110 prototype was on May 12th, 1936 and four pre-production aircraft were ordered under the Bf 110A-0 designation with the first coming in January of 1937. With the design finalized and formally adopted for production, serial manufacture began though issues with the intended DB 600 engines forces a reliance on the lower-rated Junkers Jumo 210B engines of 640 horsepower (each) for the interim. Naturally this switch in powerplant hampered the expected performance figures of the new aircraft which was not able to achieve more than 270 miles per hour. A later batch carried Junkers Jumo 210G engine of 700 horsepower (each).
Bf 110B Models
Since there proved no definitive Bf 110A production model to be had (the designation was used for preproduction aircraft), the initial production form became the Bf 110B and this encompassed three subvariants with slight changes between them - Bf 110B-0 being the group's preproduction representative. The heavy fighter version was Bf 110B-1 and carried an armament of 4 x 7.92mm MG 17 machine guns and 2 x 20mm MG FF cannons. Bf 110B-2 followed as a dedicated reconnaissance platform and had its cannon armament replaced with camera equipment. Bf 110B-3 was brought along as a modified trainer platform, its armament suite being replaced by an expanded communications set. Overall production of B-model was limited before attention switched to the C-model.
Bf 110C Models
It was not until the latter part of 1938 that the Bf 110 saw its originally-intended DB 600 engines fitted and this produced the first major production model in the Bf 110C of 1938 - maximum speed was now increased to 335 miles per hour. The series was led by the requisite Bf 110C-0 preproduction model which was followed by the Bf 110C-1 heavy fighter model. Then came the Bf 110C-2 which incorporated FuG 10 series radio sets and the Bf 110C-3 was a heavy fighter variant with 20mm MG FF/M cannons replacing the original 20mm MG FF models in use. Bf 110C-4 brought about increased armor protection at the cockpit and Bf 110C-4/B was a fighter-bomber version with bomb racks fitted for the carrying of 550 lb drop bombs while being powered by DB 601Ba series engines. Bf 110C-5 was a reconnaissance variant based on the preceding C-4 model and lost its MG FF cannons to house the Rb 50/30 camera unit with power from DB 601P engines. Bf 110C-6 served in the experimental role fitting a sole 30mm MK 101 series cannon under the fuselage while being powered by DB 601P engines. Bf 110C-7 was developed as a true fighter-bomber while being based on the C-4/B model. Two centerline bomb racks were installed for carrying 1,100 lb bombs and this model was powered by DB 601P engines as well.
Bf 110D Models
In late 1939, the Bf 110D production variant was realized and this version attempted to increase operational ranges of the aircraft. Bf 110D-0 was the preproduction model to which Bf 110D-1 arrived with a ventral rack set to accept a jettisonable fuel tank under the fuselage and support for underwing fuel drop tanks resulting in Bf 110D-1/R1 and Bf 110D-1/R2: Bf 110D-1/R1 was the standard form and Bf 110D-1/R2 replaced the ventral fuel tank with a jettisonable oil tank instead while also making use of underwing fuel drop tanks. Bf 110D-2 was a long range heavy fighter / fighter-bomber variant featuring a pair of wing-mounted drop tanks with a centerline bomb rack. Bf 110D-3 featured a lengthened tail unit which housed a Search and Rescue (SAR) dinghy for pilot recovery at sea. Underwing drop tanks were typical with this mark and bomb racks optional for fighter-bomber sorties. Bf 110D-4 was a long-range reconnaissance platform lacking the MG FF cannons and carried Rb 50/30 camera as well as a pair of underwing fuel drop tanks.
Bf 110E Models
Heading into 1941, the Bf 110 was expanded into the Bf 110E model line which was classified as a fighter-bomber - led by the preproduction Bf 110E-0. DB 601P engines were in use with the Bf 110E-1 model leading the way and Bf 110E-2 followed with an extended rear fuselage for a rescue dinghy. Bf 110E-3 became the long-range reconnaissance model with Rb 50/30 camera in place of cannons.
Bf 110F Models
Then followed the Bf 110F production model which incorporated DB 601F series engines of 1,350 horsepower. The extra output power allowed the aircraft to feature additional armor protection for the crew and the airframe was further reinforced. Bf 110F-1 was the fighter-bomber form, Bf 110F-2 was the long-range bomber destroyer, Bf 110F-3 was the reconnaissance mount, and Bf 110F-4 was modified for the night fighter role. In the latter, an antenna array was fitted to the nose and the crew increased to three. When the Bf 110 series began to fail in its original heavy fighter/bomber destroyer roles (especially in daytime sorties) it saw renewed service as a capable night fighter.
Bf 110G Models
The Bf 110G was developed as an improved form to fill the gap caused by the removal from service of the Messerschmitt Me 210 - the Bf 110's intended successor in Luftwaffe service. The G-model incorporated DB 605B series engines of 1,475 horsepower and some fuselage streamlining as well as an increase to the tail rudder's surface area for improved controlling. The canopy was slightly revised for the rear operator and nose armament improved. A G-model prototype first flew in June of 1942. There was no Bf 110G-1 model so production moved to the Bf 110G-2 which fulfilled the roles of fighter-bomber and bomber destroyer and could field aerial rockets to boot. Bf 110G-2/R1 carried the massive 37mm B,K 37 cannon under the fuselage for a truly lethal bomber destroying function. Bf 110G-3 was the reconnaissance form with camera equipment and three-seat Bf 110G-4 evolved into a night fighter with FuG 202/220 series radar system. Optional to the G-4 was the "Schrage Musik" upward-firing cannon armament which could be used against the more vulnerable undersides of enemy bombers.
Bf 110H Models
Bf 110H was only in the design stages before it met with cancellation, becoming the last official Messerschmitt Bf 110 production model to be worked on before the end of the war in 1945. It would have built upon the strengths of the G-model series which is regarded as the best of the Bf 110 line.
Bf 110 Operators
Beyond the German Luftwaffe, operators of the Bf 110 aircraft went on to include wartime allies Italy, Hungary, and Romania. The Independent State of Croatia operated the Bf 110 for a time and the British flew a single captured Bf 110 for evaluation through its 1426 Flight - the "RAFwaffe" - of the Royal Air Force (RAF). Likewise, the Soviets flew an unknown number of captured Bf 110s during the war.
The Bf 110 made its mark from early in the war to the last fighting days - such was its importance to the German cause in the many campaigns of World War 2. Initial operations saw it used to good effect against the Polish defense of September 1939. It was then pressed into service for the conquests of Denmark and Norway. In 1940, the Western Campaign pressed Bf 110s into further actions which help net the Axis the countries of Belgium and France. While effective on the whole during these early operations, the Bf 110 suffered when pressed into the escort role as it fell to more nimble Allied fighters. Losses mounted during the Battle of Britain campaign of 1940 where, on just one day, some 30 Bf 110s were felled by the enemy.
Following the Axis defeat over England, the Bf 110 saw more combat in the skies over the Balkans and, from there, the type was featured in the critical North African campaign as an air support platform for Afrika Corps during 1941. It flew missions around the Mediterranean theater as well as over the Middle East region showcasing the aircraft's ability to operate in a variety of conditions. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the Bf 110 was one of the attack aircraft on hand. Its final operational sorties were in the defense of Berlin and in night fighter operations where losses proved terrible for the type.