Type: single-seat fighter; Powerplant: 1 x 1,475hp Daimler-Benz DB 605AM 12-cylinder inverted-vee piston engine; Performance: 385mph / 620kph at 22,640ft / 7,000m or 379mph / 610kph at 13,125ft / 4000m (maximum speed), 37,895 ft / 11,550m (service ceiling), 373 miles / 600km or 621 miles / 1000km with drop tanks (maximum range); Weight: 5,952lbs / 2,700kg (empty), 7,055lbs / 3,200kg (maximum take-off); Dimensions: 32ft 6.5in / 9.92m (wing span), 29ft 7in / 9.02m (length), 8ft 6in / 2.59m (height), 174.38sq.ft / 16.2m.sq (wing area); Armament: 1 x 30mm MK108 or 20mm MG151 cannon firing through the propeller shaft and two 13mm (0.51in) MG131 machineguns above the engine firing through the propeller disc – some aircraft carried 20mm or 30mm cannon beneath the wings; Used: Germany, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland.
During the mid-1930s, the expansion of the Luftwaffe provided the impetus for the modernization of the bomber and fighter fleets. Like most countries at that time, German fighter aircraft were of biplane configuration but Willy Messerschmitt was already well advanced with the development of the design for the Bf108 touring monoplane, a very advanced design of aircraft for its time. Just before it flew, he had also started the design work on a single-seat fighter to meet a possible military requirement. Prototypes of this aircraft, the Bf109 were constructed to compete with other designs by Arado, Focke-Wulf and Heinkel. The design from Heinkel (He 112) was the only serious contender in trials carried out in October 1935 and so orders were placed for ten prototypes of each plane. It is indeed ironic that the first prototype and final production version (made in Spain) were powered by Rolls-Royce engines. The first prototype flew at Augsberg in September 1935 with a 695hp Rolls Royce Kestrel engine while the second had a 610hp Junkers Jumo 210A for which the aircraft had been designed. The prototypes had various combinations of armament and the first three eventually became known as the Bf109A variant, while later prototypes became the Bf109B. Even at this stage, sub-variants began to appear with the Bf109B-1 having a 635hp Jumo 210D engine and the B-2 having a 640hp Jumo 210E engine with a license-built Hamilton variable-pitch metal propeller. This latter engine quickly gave way to a 670hp Jumo 210G engine.
Production Bf109B-1 aircraft began to be delivered to the Luftwaffe’s top fighter unit, Jagdgeschwader 132 ‘Richthofen’, in early 1937, and like several German aircraft, was bloodied during the Spanish Civil War where a number of Bf109s replaced the Heinkel He51 biplanes in the Condor Legion. The Bf109s did well, but the German Propaganda Ministry didn’t want to publicise their involvement with Spain and so five aircraft were sent to the International Flying Meeting held in Zurich during the summer of 1937. Competing in various events, the Bf109s were a complete success, winning the international ‘Circuit of the Alps’ contest, a speed-based team event, as well as a climb and dive competition. The Bf109s were not the standard production model and two were equipped with prototype versions of the 950hp Daimler-Benz engine then still at the development stage. One of the aircraft was destroyed due to a forced landing following an engine failure although the pilot, Ernst Udet, escaped without injury.
In July 1938, Willy Messerschmitt was appointed Chairman and Managing Director of the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke and the name of the company was changed to Messerschmitt AG – any new designs from that point onwards would have Me instead of Bf designations. The first aircraft with this new designation was the Me209, which bore no relationship to the Bf109 but was built purely to establish a new world air speed record, which it succeeded in doing in April 1939, flying at 469.22mph (755.13kph). Meanwhile, production continued of the Bf109B series which was gradually supplanted by the Bf109C-1 variant, equipped with a 700hp Jumo 210Ga engine and two extra wing-mounted machineguns. Overall industrial output was being increased and the aircraft were now being built by Arado, Erla, Focke-Wulf and Fieseler. By September 1938, almost 600 aircraft had been built including some of the Bf109C-2 which featured engine-mounted machineguns, although deliveries of the Bf109D series with the Daimler-Benz engine were held up due to a delay in the supply of engines that meant that the earlier Jumo-powered models had to be kept in production. The C series also proved to be the first export model with Switzerland taking ten aircraft between December 1938 and January 1939.
The D series proved merely to be a stop-gap as its engine was not particularly reliable and so the aircraft finally entered full-scale production with the Bf109E variant which was the main Luftwaffe single-seat fighter in the opening stages of World War II, seeing large-scale action during the Battle of Britain. It featured the 1,075hp DB 601 engine that had several advantages over the DB 600 such as having a fuel injection system which kept up a constant supply of fuel under conditions of negative-G enabling pilots to break off an engagement and dive away from their opponents in float carburettor-equipped aircraft, a feature that was to prove crucial in the forthcoming battles. Bf109E aircraft were coming off the production lines in early 1939 so Arado and Focke-Wulf had moved on to different projects, with the bulk of the production being carried out by Erla and Fieseler who built nearly 1,400 aircraft in 1939. Messerschmitt’s production facilities had been transferred from Augsberg to Regensberg and so only about 150 aircraft had come from there during 1939. Nevertheless, the large number of aircraft from the two subcontractors was due to there being a large number of surplus airframes that were merely awaiting engines. Additional exports included a number of Bf109E-1 aircraft that were delivered to Spain in February 1939 to serve in the Condor Legion and these, along with the survivors of the earlier variants that had seen service were transferred to Spanish ownership after the end of the civil war. Additional Swiss contracts for eighty aircraft were fulfilled between April 1939 and April 1940.
At the start of World War II, the Luftwaffe had over 1,000 Bf109s in service and almost 140 were being produced every month, although production declined slightly after the war had started. Average monthly production increased slightly in 1940 to 156 but little more was done as the Germans considered the war virtually over after the fall of France in June 1940. Various combinations of armament had been tried on the aircraft since its inception and the hollow propeller shaft on the Bf109D had been designed to take a 20mm cannon. Tests showed however that a vibration problem existed when this was fired and in most cases the cannon was never fitted. Similar tests with the Bf109E showed the problem was still there, although not quite as bad and so many E series aircraft merely had the two machineguns in the fuselage above the engine and two cannon in the wings. A number of sub-variants entered service including some modified for service in North Africa and others that could carry 551lbs (250kg) of bombs, but an unusual variant was the Bf109T, designed for service on the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin that was under construction at the time. In the event, the carrier was never completed but the sixty Bf109Ts (built by Fieseler) had their carrier equipment removed and saw service in Norway and Heligoland as their increased wing area made them suitable for operations on short airstrips. A major airframe redesign in late 1940 led to the Bf109F series with four prototype and ten pre-production aircraft built, designed to be powered by the 1,350hp DB 601E engine – but deliveries of this engine were at least a year away and so they had to be equipped with DB 601N engines. It was decided at this point to abandon wing-mounted guns and concentrate on an armament of two fuselage-mounted 7.92mm (0.31in) MG17 machineguns above the engine and a Mauser cannon firing through the propeller shaft. Earlier vibration problems with this mounting had finally been cleared and the first variant to mount it was the Bf109F-2 which had a 15mm cannon. The Bf109F-3 had a DB 601E engine and a similar armament but the F-4 had a 20mm cannon. The Bf109F-5 and F-6 were armed and unarmed reconnaissance variants.
By 1941, the Bf109 had a rival – the Focke-Wulf Fw190, which was in production with not only Focke-Wulf but also with Arado and Ago, both of whom had previously built Bf109s. Fieseler had also ceased production so this left only Messerschmitt, Erla and WNF (Austria) building the Bf109. A great number of variants and sub-variants appeared before the production of the Bf109F ceased with over 2,000 having been built. As development continued, so the weight gradually increased, with the final production model appearing in 1942 which was the Bf109G. Powered by a 1,475hp Daimler-Benz DB 605A engine, the Bf109G-1 had a pressurised cabin (while the G-2 did not) and a GM-1 nitrous oxide injection system which gave a power boost at higher altitudes although this was generally considered inferior to supercharging. Different armaments were carried by different variants, for example, the Bf109G-1/Trop used in North Africa had two 13mm (0.51in) machineguns firing through the propeller arc as well as the 20mm cannon firing through the propeller shaft while some of the Bf109G-6 variants had a 30mm Rheinmetall-Borsig MK108 motor cannon with sixty rounds of ammunition – a lethal weapon that was said to be able to destroy a fighter with one round.
Bf109 production reached 2,700 during 1942 and in 1944 reached 14,000 despite heavy Allied bombing with production also taking place in Hungary from 1943 onwards. Although no complete figures exist, it is thought that around 35,000 Bf109s were built – a figure second only to the Ilyushin Ir-2 / Ir-10 series which were reported to have reached 42,330. The Bf109G was by far the most prolific variant but a few later models need to be mentioned. The Bf109H was a high-altitude fighter with a pressurised cockpit, a DB 605A engine with a GM-1 nitrous oxide injection system, giving a service ceiling of 47,505ft (14,480m). Enlarged tail and wing services were fitted and several aircraft undertook experimental testing but the type never went into production. The Bf109J was the designation given to a license-built version of the Bf109G-2 to be built in Spain by Hispano but this was not to fly until 1947. The Bf109K was the final German production version, being an improved version of the Bf109G series with a 2,000hp DB 605 engine and with many variants produced, reaching the Bf109K-14 designation.
Gunston, Bill. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Combat Aircraft of World War II, Salamander, London, 1978.
Kay, A L & Smith, J R. German Aircraft of the Second World War, Putnam Aeronautical Books, London, 2002.
Mondey, David. The Hamlyn Concise Guide to Axis Aircraft of World War II, Bounty Books, London, 2006.
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