Messerschmitt Bf 109E "Emil"


The Bf 109E was the standard Luftwaffe fighter at the start of the Second World War. It was the only single engined Luftwaffe fighter in use during the Battle of Britain, where it proved to be the equal of the Spitfire, and superior to the Hurricane. Like all early versions of the 109, it was relatively short lived, being replaced by the 109F in 1941.

Messerschmitt Bf 109E from the front
Messerschmitt Bf 109E
from the front

The 109E was the first version of the fighter to be based around the Daimler Benz 601 engine, giving it significantly superior performance to the earlier Jumo 210 powered machines. Its top speed rose by 60 miles per hour, its service ceiling by nearly 5000 feet! The DB 601 engine used direct fuel injection instead of a carbouretter, meaning that it performed much better under negative G than the Spitfire or Hurricane, or than earlier models of the 109 (apart from the 109C, which has a similarly designed Jumo 210G engine).

Work on the 109E began in the summer of 1938. The first prototype of the new variant, the 109V-14, flew then. It was powered by the DB 601A engine, and armed with two nose-mounted MG 17s and two wing mounted MG/FF cannon. A second prototype, the V-15, soon followed, this time armed with a single nose-mounted cannon.

Production of the Bf 109E-1 was delayed by problems with the DB601 engine. The pre-production E-0s were ready by December 1938, by which point complete 109E-1 airframes were being made. However the engine did not appear until the spring of 1939. This partly explains the sudden rapid appearance of the 109E in Luftwaffe service over the summer of 1939 – all that was left to do was fit the engine to the aircraft. 850 Bf 109E-1s were delivered in the first eight months of 1939, in time for the outbreak of war. 

Work began on the 109F in the spring of 1940, just as the early E-1s were finally coming off the production line. The first 109Fs began to join their units in March-April 1941. The summer of 1941 also saw the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 enter Luftwaffe service, ending the 109’s reign as the only single-seat fighter in the Luftwaffe. Despite this short service career, it was the 109E that took part in most of the most significant air battles of the war in Europe.

Bf 109E-0

This was the pre-production variant and was identical to the E-1.


The first production model of the Bf 109E. The E-1 started off with four MG-17 machine guns, two over the engine cowling and two in the wings, and a DB 601A engine. Production began at the start of 1939 when the engine became available.

Some sources suggest that later Bf 109E-1s had the wing guns replaced by two MG/FF cannon. However, the cannon equipped fighters can be easily identified in pictures – the larger cannon needed a small bulge to be added under the wings and the barrel of the cannon protrudes from the front of the wing.

Bf 109E-1/B

A fighter-bomber version of the E-1. The Bf 109 E-1/B was a dive bomber, capable of carrying either four 50-kilo/ 110 pound bombs or one 250-kilo/ 550 pound bomb (some sources suggest it could only carry the larger bomb). The bomb was aimed using the standard gun sight. Accuracy was poor. One Staffel in each Jagdgeschwader was equipped with the jabo version during the Battle of Britian.


The Bf-109 E-2 was a short lived attempt to mount a single MG/FF cannon inside the engine, firing through the propeller hub. It also had two MG 17 machines guns. This design was not a success – the engine mounted cannon caused too many problems – and it did not enter mass production.

Bf 109E-3:

The E-3 was the second main variant of the 109E. It appeared towards the end of 1939. It had an MG FF/M cannon firing through the airscrew hub, and mounted inside the engine. The engine was also changed to the DB 601Aa, providing another 76 hp of power. The extra cannon was not popular with the pilots, and was often removed once the aircraft reached front line units. Its position inside the engine had produced massive vibration, which caused the gun to be inaccurate and jam. Most E-3 models had the machine guns in the wing replaced by 20-mm MG FF cannons, giving this model much greater firepower than the E-1, even without the engine mounted gun.

Bf 109E-4:

The E-4 saw the engine mounted cannon finally abandoned. The wing mounted cannons were upgraded to the MG FF/M, which gave a higher rate of fire. The cockpit canopy was also modified. It first appeared in July 1940, and played a significant role in the Battle of Britain. German figures for fighter losses show 249 E-1s, 32 E-3s and 344 E-4s lost in the second half of 1940. It would have been relatively easy to upgrade a 109E-3 to the E-4 specifications, and this is what may have happened to many of the older fighter.

Bf 108E-4/B “Jabo”

The fighter-bomber variant of the E-4, first used against shipping in the Channel during July 1940. It could carry one 250kg or four 50kg bombs. It was not popular amongst pilots, but one Staffel in each Jagdgeschwader was converted to the E-4/B.

Bf 109E-4/N

Similar to the standard E-4, but with a DB 601N engine. This engine provided slightly increased horsepower, and could be boasted to 1270 h.p. for one minute to provide extra power in emergencies.

Bf 109E-4/Trop

A version equipped with special tropical equipment, designed for use in the desert. Trop versions had sand filters for the engines.

Bf 109E-5:

A reconnaissance fighter, identical to the E-4, but with the wing mounted cannons removed and a RB 21/19 camera mounted in the fuselage. This was a great improvement on the E-6.

Bf 109E-6:

A reconnaissance fighter made by adding the DB 601N engine to an E-3 airframe, equipped with the four MG-17s of the E-1. Photographs were taken with a hand-held camera. Something of a stop-gap as a reconnaissance aircraft.

Bf 108E-7:

The E-7 was a long range fighter derived from the E-4/N. Like that aircraft it had the DB 601N engine, two MG-17 machine guns in the engine cowling and two MG/FF cannon in the wings. However, it also had attachments for a 300 litre drop tank, giving it a significantly extended range. The same attachments could also be used to fit a SC 250 bomb rack, allowing the E-7 to carry a single 250 kg bomb.


The E-7/U2 was designed for low-level ground attack work. It had a larger oil cooler, and improved engine armour to protect it against enemy fire when operating at lower level.


The E-7/Z was an E-7 equipped with a GM-1 nitrous oxide injection system that could provide increased power for a short period.


This appears to have been a long range conversion of the original E-1 model, still equipped with the DB 610A engine and four MG-17 machines guns, but with the added ability to take the same 300 litre drop tank as the E-7.


A reconnaissance version of the E-7, with the same DB 601N engine and a Rb 50/30 automatic camera mounted in the fuselage. As such it was armed with the standard combination of two MG-17 machine guns and two MG/FF cannon in the wings.

Bf 109 T-0

The German Navy intermittently experimented with an aircraft carrier. More progress was made on aircraft for this vessel, the Graf Zepplin than on the ship itself, which was never completed. Ten T-0s (T for Trager or Carrier) were made by converted E-3s. They were given catapult spools and arrestor hocks to equip them for carrier work. Their wing span was increased by 42.5 inches (102 cm). Other changes were made to decrease the distance they needed to take off and land.

Bf 109 T-1

The T-1 was the production version of the 109T. Sixty of them were built before the carrier programme was cancelled.

Bf 109 T-2

With the cancellation of the Graf Zepplin, the sixty T-1s were no longer needed. Accordingly, they had their catapult spools and arrestor hocks removed and were re-designated as the T-2. They were given to I./JG77 for use from small airfields, where their short take off and landing ability would be useful.

Combat record


A total of 45 Bf-109Es were sent to join the Legion Condor in Spain. However, although they arrived well before the end of the Spanish Civil War, by the time they reached Spain, the Republican air force had been almost entirely eliminated. The 109E saw very little active combat in Spain.


There were roughly 850 E-1s on the Luftwaffe’s first line strength at the start of the war, along with a small number of older models. Of those, about 200 were involved in the attack on Poland in September 1939. The Polish air force was small and its aircraft obsolete. The Luftwaffe won an easy victory but not one from which it could learn any lessons for the battles to come.

France and the Low Countries

Although the French air force was much more modern than the Polish, its fighters were not up to the standard of the Bf 109E. The same was true of the R.A.F. Hurricanes that were sent over the France between 1939 and the German invasion. The much superior Spitfire was only just coming into front line service in Britain, and could not be risked in France. The Luftwaffe was able to field nearly 1,000 Bf 109s for the invasion of the west, the largest number available at the start of any campaign.

When the German invasion began, the Luftwaffe quickly dominated the skies. French and British squadrons were able to win temporary control of small areas, but the rapid progress of the German advance meant that the allies repeatedly had to abandon their air fields. More Allied fighters were lost to ground attack, or abandoned in the face of the German army than were shot down by the 109E. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe pilots had no reason to believe that the time of easy victories was over until they reached Dunkirk. Here for the first time the Bf 109 came up against small numbers of Spitfires, based in southern England. In these first clashes between the two aircraft there was no clear winner, but the Luftwaffe was unable to dominate the air over the Dunkirk beaches. This was their first tactical failure. Bomber losses over Dunkirk were unexpectedly heavy.

Battle of Britain

The 109E was the only single engined fighter used by the Luftwaffe during the battle of Britain. The fighting in France had taken its toll of the 109 – only 800 were available at the start of the Battle of Britain, and of those nearly 200 were under repair. Over Britain the 109E outclassed the Hurricane, just as it had in France, but now came up against the Spitfire in large numbers for the first time. The two fighters were incredibly evenly matched as aircraft. Fortunately for the R.A.F., the 109 was operating under several disadvantages over southern England. London was at the absolute edge of its operational range (it could spend no more than 20 minutes over the city), while any drawn out fight over southern England would lead to a nervous flight back across the Channel watching the fuel gauge. Every 109 lost over Britain meant the loss of a pilot, while many Spitfire and Hurricane pilots were able to bail out of damaged aircraft and soon be back in the air again (the R.A.F. would soon be suffering from similar problems over France). Finally, the 109 was forced to act as a close escort to the bomber fleet. It had been expected that the Bf 110 would be able to perform this duty, leaving the 109 free to range around the battle zone. Instead, the Bf 110 turned out to be nearly as vulnerable as the bombers it was meant to be guarding, forcing the 109 into a role for which it was poorly suited. To balance this, the British fighters often concentrated against the German bombers, leaving them vulnerable to surprise attack. During the Battle of Britain the Bf 109 shot down 219 Spitfires and 272 Hurricanes. The Spitfire claimed 180 109s, the Hurricane only 153. However, in the battle as a whole the R.A.F. shot down twice as many aircraft as they lost. In the skis over Britain the Luftwaffe, and the 109, met their first defeat.


By the middle of 1941 the 109E was becoming outdated. The 109F had replaced it on the production lines, but the 109E still made up nearly one third of the 440 Bf 109s allocated to the attack on Russia. It was still perfectly capable of dealing with the generally quite poor fighters encountered early in the campaign. However, by the end of 1941 most fighter units had been reequipped with the 109F. It is worthy of notice that far fewer 109s were available for the attack on Russia than had been used in any of the previous German campaigns. This demonstrates well the dangers of fighting a war on two fronts – a large number of the best German fighters had to be kept in the west to defend against the R.A.F. 




In Action




1175 at takeoff
1000 at 12,140 feet


32 ft 4.5 inch/ 9.86m


28 ft 4.5 inch/ 8.64m

Speed, fully loaded

290 mph at sea level
307 mph at 3,280ft
322 mph at 6,560ft
348 mph at 14,560ft
336 mph at 19,685ft
Cruising speed 300 mph at 13,120 ft


410 miles

Rate of climb

3280ft/min 17.83 m/sec


34450 ft/ 10500 meters

The 109E-3 reached its maximum speed at 12,000 feet, where it could reach 354 mph or 570 k/ph. The Spitfire I was slower at this height, but could match or possibly beat this speed at 19,000 feet. As the attacking force, the Germans were largely able to control at what height the battles between these two aircraft occurred, giving the Bf 109E a slight speed advantage.

Bf 109B - Bf 109C - Bf 109D - Bf 109E - Bf 109F - Bf 109G - Bf 109H - Bf 109K
Bf 109D/E Blitzkrieg 1939-40, Malcolm V. Lowe. Looks at the development and combat record of the Bf 109D and Bf 109E from the Spanish Civil War through the invasion of Poland and onto the campaign in the west in 1940, a period in which the Bf 109F in particular proved to be as good or better than any contemporary fighter, and had the advantage of superior fighter tactics developed in Spain and a core of pilots with more experience than their rivals (Read Full Review)
cover cover cover
Messerschmitt Bf 109: Pt. 1, John R. Beaman, Jr. This work provides a good technical history of the 109, tracing the development of the fighter from the early prototypes up to the 109E, the model used during the Battle of Britain. [see more]
cover cover cover
Bf 109B - Bf 109C - Bf 109D - Bf 109E - Bf 109F - Bf 109G - Bf 109H - Bf 109K
Introduction - Variants - Combat Record

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (26 March 2007), Messerschmitt Bf 109E "Emil",

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