The Messerschmitt Bf 109 (aka ME 109) is a legendary Luftwaffe fighter from World War II. If casual history buffs know any particular German aircraft from the period, this is likely to be it. The Bf 109 was the most-produced aircraft on the German side with 33,984 units, and it saw action everywhere, from the first day of the war to the very last. It unquestionably was the single most important Luftwaffe aircraft, and more aerial kills were made with it than with any other aircraft in history. While I personally do not think that it was the best or most important fighter of the war - I give that crown to the Mustang - opinions on that can vary. However, I do not mean to slight it. By several measures, the "Messerschmidt" as it became commonly known was the dominant aircraft not just of World War II, but of all time.
The German Aviation Ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium), headed by Hermann Goering, knew from the dawn of the Third Reich era in 1933 that it needed a single-seat fighter. All that were available at the time were biplanes, so the Bf 109 was a huge leap forward. Based upon a March 1933 technical document, Willy Messerschmidt and his chief designer Robert Lusser were allowed by the RLM to enter a competition against Arado and Heinkel (later joined by Focke-Wulf). The two designers began work on Project No. P.1034 in March 1934, and had a full mockup completed by January 1935. The first prototype was ready that May.
|Wind tunnel tests on an advanced version.|
|Good view of the armament and landing gear, which opened out from the wing root.|
|Some leftover Spanish (Hispano) versions. These may have been used for filming "The Battle of Britain" in 1969.|
|A member of Britain’s Home Guard inspects a Bf109 fighter shot down during the Battle of Britain, 1940. Note the distinctive unit markings on the fuselage.|
|Hans-Joachim Marseille with Willy Messerschmitt (Right) after trying out the new Gustav at the Messerschmitt plant. Hans-Joachim Marseille was a top Luftwaffe ace in North Africa, with 158 official victories, a very high total on the Western front.|
The Bf 109s remained superior in most situations on the Eastern Front to all challengers, though usually their area of superiority was limited to particular areas along the 2,000 mile front. You can only dominate airspace that you can effectively cover, and after 1942 there never were enough airplanes to dominate long stretches of the front.
|A 1940 Mercedes-Benz advertisement for aircraft motors. The Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter and its Daimler-Benz 605 inline engine are depicted.|
During 1942, Focke-Wulf, which had lost the initial competition against Messerschmidt, began producing the extremely efficient FW 190. It was a somewhat heavier fighter than the 109, more capable at low-level attacks and ground attack (Jabo) missions. After its introduction, the Bf 109 was used more for high-altitude bomber interceptions from that point forward, though the Luftwaffe was so overstretched that generally whatever plane was available handled operations. The Bf 109 was not ideally suited for missions against heavy bombers due to its light armament, but a well-handled Bf 109 could still take out a four-engined Allied bomber with a little luck or draw off the escort fighters so that heavier fighters could tackle the bombers.
|Production line of Bf 109s. Such factories were a major target of the Allied bomber offensive "Big Week" in February 1944.|
Many of the major aces of the Luftwaffe (Experten) spent their careers in 109s despite the availability of newer aircraft with better performance features. It was a nimble mount that could get you out of trouble fast.
Aerial dominance on the Eastern Front passed to the Soviets after the July 1943 battle of Kursk due to sheer numbers and attrition, though the Bf 109s individually remained superior to anything thrown at them throughout the conflict. On the Channel Front, the FW 190 took over after 1942, led by JG 26. The 109 became dominant in home defense and secondary theaters, but it still served in some capacity pretty much everywhere.
Toward the end of the war, many of the best 109 pilots were transferred to the new jet squadrons flying the Me-262, which served two purposes: it gave the most advanced planes to the best pilots; and it also effectively protected those pilots, as missions by jets were few and far between. The last thing the Germans wanted was one of their top aces shot down, with all the attendant publicity, so many of the pilots with the highest kill totals were gradually removed from active combat one way or the other. Putting them in the jet squadrons neatly solved that problem without diminishing them by relegating them to desk jobs. However, some of the Experten also gained further glory in the jets.
There are about twenty Bf 109s remaining, scattered across the globe in museums. A handful are on display in Germany, while a similar number are in the United States.
|German armorer loading ammunition into a Bf 109 fighter of JG 54 'Grünherz' fighter wing, Russia, Aug 1941. Those appear to be 20mm cannon rounds (Reiners, Federal Archive).|