The Messerschmitt Bf 109, commonly called the Me 109 (most often by Allied aircrew and even amongst the German aces themselves, even though this was not the official German designation), is aGerman World War II fighter aircraft designed by Willy Messerschmitt and Robert Lusser during the early to mid-1930s. The "Bf 109" designation was issued by the German ministry of aviation and represents the developing company Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (at which the engineer Messerschmitt led the development of the plane) and a rather arbitrary figure. It was one of the first truly modern fighters of the era, including such features as all-metal monocoque construction, a closed canopy, and retractable landing gear. It was powered by a liquid-cooled, inverted-V12 aero engine.
The Bf 109 first saw operational service during the Spanish Civil War and was still in service at the dawn of the jet age at the end of World War II, during which time it was the backbone of the Luftwaffe's fighter force. From the end of 1941, the Bf 109 was steadily being supplemented by the superior Focke-Wulf Fw 190.
Originally conceived as an interceptor, later models were developed to fulfill multiple tasks, serving as bomber escort, fighter-bomber, day-, night-, all-weather fighter, ground-attack aircraft, and as reconnaissance aircraft. It was supplied to and operated by several states during World War II, and served with several countries for many years after the war. The Bf 109 was the most produced fighter aircraft in history, with a total of 33,984 airframes produced from 1936 up to April 1945.
The Bf 109 was flown by the three top-scoring German fighter aces of World War II, who claimed 928 victories among them while flying with Jagdgeschwader 52, mainly on the Eastern Front. The highest scoring fighter ace of all time, Erich Hartmann of Germany, flew the Bf 109 and was credited with 352 victories (and also survived the war). The plane was also flown by Hans-Joachim Marseille, the highest scoring German ace in the North African Campaign, who scored 158 victories - 154 of which were against fighter aircraft flown by western-trained pilots. It was also flown by several other aces from Germany's allies, notablyFinn Ilmari Juutilainen, the highest scoring non-German ace on the type with 58 victories flying the Bf 109G, and pilots from Italy, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria and Hungary. Through constant development, the Bf 109 remained competitive with the latest Allied fighter aircraft until the end of the war.
Design and development
During 1933, the Technisches Amt (C-Amt), the technical department of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) ("Reich Aviation Ministry"), concluded a series of research projects into the future of air combat. The result of the studies was four broad outlines for future aircraft:
- Rüstungsflugzeug I for a multi-seat medium bomber
- Rüstungsflugzeug II for a tactical bomber
- Rüstungsflugzeug III for a single-seat fighter
- Rüstungsflugzeug IV for a two-seat heavy fighter
Rüstungsflugzeug III was intended to be a short range interceptor, replacing the Arado Ar 64 and Heinkel He 51 biplanes then in service. In late March 1933 the RLM published the tactical requirements for a single-seat fighter in the document L.A. 1432/33.
The fighter needed to have a top speed of 400 km/h (250 mph) at 6,000 m (19,690 ft), to be maintained for 20 minutes, while having a total flight duration of 90 minutes. The critical altitude of 6,000 metres was to be reached in no more than 17 minutes, and the fighter was to have an operational ceiling of 10,000 metres. Power was to be provided by the new Junkers Jumo 210 engine of about 522 kW (700 hp). It was to be armed with either a single 20 mm MG C/30 engine-mounted cannon firing through the propeller hub as a Motorkanone, or two engine cowl-mounted 7.92 mm (.312 in) MG 17 machine guns, or one lightweight engine-mounted 20 mm MG FF cannon with two 7.92 mm MG 17s. The MG C/30 was an airborne adaption of the 2 cm FlaK 30 anti-aircraft gun, which fired very powerful "Long Solothurn" ammunition, but was very heavy and had a low rate of fire. It was also specified that the wing loading should be kept below 100 kg/m2. The performance was to be evaluated based on the fighter's level speed, rate of climb, and manoeuvrability, in that order.
It has been suggested that Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFW) was originally not invited to participate in the competition due to personal animosity between Willy Messerschmitt and RLM director Erhard Milch;[nb 1] however, recent research by Willy Radinger and Walter Shick indicates that this may not have been the case, as all three competing companies—Arado, Heinkel and the BFW—received the development contract for the L.A. 1432/33 requirements at the same time in February 1934. A fourth company, Focke-Wulf, received a copy of the development contract only in September 1934. The powerplant was to be the new Junkers Jumo 210, but the proviso was made that it would be interchangeable with the more powerful, but less developed Daimler-Benz DB 600 powerplant. Each was asked to deliver three prototypes for head-to-head testing in late 1934.
Design work on Messerschmitt Project Number P.1034 began in March 1934, just three weeks after the development contract was awarded. The basic mock-up was completed by May, and a more detailed design mock-up was ready by January 1935. The RLM designated the design as type "Bf 109," the next available from a block of numbers assigned to BFW.
The first prototype (Versuchsflugzeug 1 or V1), with civilian registration D-IABI, was completed by May 1935, but the new German engines were not yet ready. In order to get the "R III" designs into the air, the RLM acquired four Rolls-Royce Kestrel VI engines by trading Rolls-Royce a Heinkel He 70 Blitz for use as an engine test-bed.[nb 2] Messerschmitt received two of these engines and adapted the engine mounts of V1 to take the V-12 engine upright. V1 made its maiden flight at the end of May 1935 at the airfield located in the southernmost Augsburg neighborhood of Haunstetten, piloted by Hans-Dietrich "Bubi" Knoetzsch. After four months of flight testing, the aircraft was delivered in September to the Luftwaffe's central test centre at the Erprobungsstelle Rechlin to take part in the design competition.
In the late summer of 1935, the first Jumo engines became available so V2 was completed in October using the 449 kW (600 hp) Jumo 210A engine. V3 followed, the first to be mounted with guns, but it did not fly until May 1936 due to a delay in procuring another Jumo 210 engine.
After Luftwaffe acceptance trials were completed at their headquarters Erprobungsstelle (E-Stelle) military aviation test and development facility at Rechlin, the prototypes were moved to the subordinate E-Stelle Baltic seacoast facility at Travemünde for the head-to-head portion of the competition. The aircraft participating in the trials were the Arado Ar 80 V3, the Focke-Wulf Fw 159 V3, the Heinkel He 112 V4 and the Bf 109 V2. The He 112 arrived first, in early February 1936, followed by the rest of the prototypes by the end of the month.
Because most fighter pilots of the Luftwaffe were used to biplanes with open cockpits, low wing loading, light g-forces and easy handling like the Heinkel He 51, they were very critical of the Bf 109 at first. However, it soon became one of the frontrunners in the contest, as the Arado and Focke-Wulf entries, which were intended as "backup" programmes to safeguard against failure of the two favourites, proved to be completely outclassed. The Arado Ar 80, with its gull wing (replaced with a straight, tapered wing on the V3) and fixed, spatted undercarriage was overweight and underpowered, and the design was abandoned after three prototypes had been built. The parasol winged Fw 159, potentially inspired by the same firm's earlier Focke-Wulf Fw 56, was always considered by theE-Stelle Travemünde facility's staff to be a compromise between a biplane and an aerodynamically more efficient, low-wing monoplane. Although it had some advanced features, it used a novel, complex retractable main undercarriage which proved to be unreliable.
Bf 109 E-3, c. 1939/1940