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The following article is a translation and adaptation of the original one written in Spanish language by Raul Larroque.

"An unlucky legend" by Raul Larroque

Planning and operational life of the German airplane Messerschnitt Bf 109.

The debuts

The evolution of the aircrafts from the end of the First World War until the Spanish Civil War was characterized by the predominance of two contrasted streams on the techniques of construction for the fight in flight. On one side, we can find the traditionalists that after having abandoned with reluctance the biplanes' models in favor of the most effective monoplanes, they didn't have any intention to grant other innovations to the new levers of engineers that proposed an audacious and inconceivable evolution for the builders educated to the prìnciples of the flight at the beginnings of the twentieth century. The hazard that they didn't want to do with obstinate slowness was the transformation of the streamlining of the airplanes with the use of a closed cabin and retractable landing carriages, at least for the machines that had their own bases on land. (For the hydroplanes and the airplanes transported by ships, the diatribe was for a long time still open.)

The reasons that pushed the innovators to operate so radical changes were mainly two. Firstly, with the quoted changes a greater aerodynamic control could be acquired that let the new models gain in speed and stability. Secondarily, the presence of a canopy, in many cases armored, removed a possible source of danger for the pilot who, surer in the maneuvers and in the aerial dogfight, acquired a liberty of action until then unknown. Although there were some evident advantages in planning the fight airplanes in this way, the oppositions of the traditionalists in Europe notably delayed the construction of the first flying prototypes.

Nazi Germany was shown particularly interested in the developments of the military aviation. With Hitler's conquest of the power, the denunciation of the agreements on the limitation of the Armed Forces and the increasing interference in the business of the small bordering states, the necessity to possess an efficient air military corp was well soon understood. In 1935, when Germany was still formally respecting the accords of Versailles, an engineer of the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke ( Bavarian Factory of Airplanes), Willy Messerschnitt succeeded in bringing in flight the first prototype of that that would have been known as Bf 109, from the name of the builder factory. The initial model was without heavy armament to disguise its real finality, but it was almost immediately definite to endow it with a machine-gun shooting through the propeller-boss of the helix, transforming it with the prototype D-IOQI in a perfect war aircraft.

As all genial ideas, also the Bf 109 had its denigrators that for several times affirmed its total ineffectiveness in fighting. It served therefore a test that put in relief the qualities of the machines. The propitious occasion was in 1937 with the Spanish Civil War. Germany and Italy from a part and the Soviet Union from the other one sent large military helps to the parts in conflict. The Luftwaffe, just reconstituted, sent the whole JaG (Jagdgruppe, fighter group) 88 of the Legion Condor armed with the Messerschnitts Bf 109. In the Spanish skies, the German airplane had to fight with the Soviet aircraft Polikarpov I-16. It was an evolution of the most elderly biplane I-15 that had fought in Spain in the first months of war, resulting too old for the active service. The new Russian model was founded on the same principles of the Messerschnitt, rather it was planned about ten months before its competitor, but really this prematurity had to mine its existence. Its radial motor, a Shvetsov from 745 kWs, disbursed an insufficient power, limiting the maximum speed to little more than 500 km/hs, 150 less than the Bf 109. This handicap would have been able to be forgotten in the fight at low height with the superb resistance of the Polikarpov if there was not a second insurmountable problem: the lack of agility. The superior maneuverability of the Bf 109 allowed having superiority in every direct clash, contributing in conclusive way to the birth of that that would have become a legend.

The experience matured in Spain also consented to understand what the intrinsic defects of the Messerschnitt were. The first one and the most important it was the scarce reliability of the motor Junkers Jumo that needed an elevated number of hours of ground standstill for reparations. The motor that had equipped the versions from A to C of the Bf 109 was replaced in the 1938 version D from the motor Daimler DB 600 that was surely more resistant than its predecessor. The winds of war already blew in Europe when the Luftwaffe brought an ulterior change reaching the version E (or Emil) on which was added a couple of light machine-guns that transformed the Bf 109 in a multi-role aircraft, even if it never became really effective in the ground bombardment.

Just this version started the Second World War. Sets in front of obsolete or badly planned airplanes as those of the military aviation of Poland and France, the Messerschnitt was clearly of another category dominating the skies in the first nine months of fight. With the defeat of France and the retreat of the British forces of the Expedition Corp, Hitler had the alternative between an armistice that would have consecrated him as master of Europe and the operation called Seelöwe (Sea Lion) that is the invasion of the British Islands. Refused disdainfully from the Great Britain the first hypothesis, the preparations for a landing in the coasts of the Sussex and the Cornwall were started. The air supremacy of the Luftwaffe was set as necessary condition to get success. The Feldmarshall Göring, in his well note haughtiness, had guaranteed the complete destruction of the Royal Air Force in the arc of only a month, confiding in the reliability of the airplanes of the German aviation. It was surely a wrong judgment.

The battle of England

Contrarily to what happened in other occasions, Göring in this case had some justification to his error. During the Country of France, the British Metropolitan Aviation, constituted for the greatest part from the new models Spitfire and Hurricane, had been maintained in reserve just to face the eventuality that the continental ally was defeated and it had had to defend the homeland itself. Only during the most convulsive phases of the retreat from Dunkirk, the loss of that precious aircrafts was risked. The large number of bombardiers lost over the beaches of the French town would have had to let the vertexes of the Luftwaffe reflect about the goodness of the machines of the enemy.

If this didn't happen for that that Göring concerns, who remained convinced of the absolute superiority of his own forces, the rest of the command of the German aviation modified the tactics of attack foreseeing for the raids above England a strong escort of Messerschnitt for the fleet of Junkers, Dornier and Heinkel that had to break up the British resistance. Unfortunately, for four orders of reasons, the German effort would never have been able to have success. Two of these motives were uncontrollable for the German command because they were referable to the qualities of the adversary aircrafts and two, instead, were directly connected with defects of the Messerschnitt and the strategic formalities with which the missions of bombardment were performed.

We start from the lacks on the German side. After the unpunished attacks to Berlin completed by the allies in the night on August 25, 1940, and in the followings, the objectives of the German bombardments deeply changed. English justified the bombs launched on the large German city with the retaliation for the serious damages suffered from London the preceding day, caused however, according to a German version told after the conclusion of the war, from the release of the war load from some German bombardiers damaged by the English antiaircraft protection system. However, it is, Hitler pretended, under the push of the popular rage, that London and the other English cities were “punished.” The abandonment of the Fighter Commands as primary bombardment target of the raids allowed allied forces having a little period of rest. In addition, the necessity to lengthen the flight to strike the big centers of the north of England as Manchester or Liverpool or to stop above the London urban agglomeration for more time to furnish suitable coverage to the bombardiers, showed the greatest defect of the Messerschnitt Bf 109E that was the limited autonomy that reduced the maximum range of action.

For the English, instead, two unfavorable to the Messerschnitt conditions happened, a first one of technical character corresponding to the better armament of the Hurricane and the Spitfires (from six to eight machine-guns from 7,6 mms against from two to four weapons of superior slightly caliber of the Messerschnitts) that in the second airplanes was added to the highest operational altitude that they could reach allowing the pilots of the RAF to attack from a most favorable position. The other element of favor for English was of psychological character and entirely unexpected either for the Luftwaffe either for the Fighter Commands. The ardor and the tenacity with which the English pilots fought to protect their own houses from the Nazi Terrorangriff (terrorist Aggression) was beyond every imagination, consecrating an indomitable spirit that Churchill had asked, but that hardly he would have expected to get so early.

It is necessary to remember his famous sentence in which he affirmed that “never the nation owes so much to so few men.” A similar behavior held by the pilots of the RAF could be also considered relatively normal, but it had to add to it the true fury with which they fought, from the moment in which they could do it, the hundreds of foreign refugee pilots. An unbelievable admixture of Polish, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, Czech, French that had seen their own country succumb in front of the German advance and of Australian, Canadian and American voluntaries that fought for ideal of liberty and justice were as brave as the members of the Metropolitan aviation furnishing the only good that the British war industries didn't succeed in replacing with quickness: the pilots.

The balanced clash between RAF and Luftwaffe was concluded in favor of the former one, but the Messerschnitt went out defeated, but not reappraised. All pilots that flew with it praised its great qualities, complaining a greater autonomy of flight and maneuverability at high altitude only. The suggestions were partially received in the project that brought to version F of the machine that was strengthened with the adoption of the motor DB 601F from the lower consumption and from 970 kWs of power.

The widening of the conflict

When the ground operations of the Second World War moved firstly in Africa of the North and then in Russia, the Messerschnitt Bf 109 was adapted to the extreme environmental conditions in which it had to act. In Africa, it came endowed with a special anti-sand filter that had to serve to limit its infiltration inside the motor with consequent abbreviation of the operational life. In Russia, in collaboration with the most recent Focke-Wulf FW 190, it became the exterminator of the Soviet airplanes during the offensive in the summer of 1941. It was, however, the winter of that same year hardly to test the resistance of the German aircrafts.

“General Winter” that had already defeated Napoleon transformed it elf in a nightmare for the aviators of the Luftwaffe. All hydraulic systems of the Messerschnitt risked the congelation, not only when they were on the ground during the standstills, but even in the first minutes of flight, when the -40° Celsius in the Russian lowlands were unbearable indeed for whatever mechanical part. An enormous research effort was necessary to originate good anti freezing-mixture for the Russian environment.

As if the problems given by the climate were not enough, the winter 1941-1942, was characterized by the appearance of a meaningless Russian airplane, the Lavochkin LaGG-3. At least, it was so if reference was made to the only performances. Less fast and less armed than the Messerschnitt and Focke-Wulf, however, it was built almost entirely by wood with exclusion of the mechanical parts. This allowed a lightness and a maneuverability without comparisons besides a facility of construction that the German machines didn't have. The Soviet factories built almost 5000 of it in the winter months, sufficient number for making up the losses of the summer. The fact that the Lavochkin was made out by wood also avoided a danger that the more provident German pilots eluded wearing a double pair of gloves and well-stuffed suits. On the Messerschnitts and on the other airplanes made by metal, the terribly low temperatures caused such a congelation of the streamlining and the cabin that, in some cases, the crystallization of the human skin could be reached to contact with the surface and the tools of the aircraft. The wood, a "warmer" material, eliminated from the mind of the Soviet pilots at least this worry.

The increase of production of the Messerschnitts Bf 109 F for the whole autumn-winter 1941-42 period showed the attainment of the structural limits of the mechanics of this model and the lesser armament in comparison to the type E didn't make an impression on the German pilots who knew the resistance of the Lavochkins also after several hits. To improve the project was planned the type G that entered in production and then in service toward the end of 1942. Originally thought as countermove for the oriental front, it was employed more diffusely, instead, in the skies of Germany, to defend the industrial apparatus of the Reich, seriously threatened by the allied air offensive. By now the war was entering in its crucial phase.

The last years of war and the twilight

From the beginnings of 1943, the allies had separated the assignments of bombardment on Germany. English, more prudent and conscious of the dangers to which went toward, handled the nighttime raids, while the Americans, aware of their own industrial and human strength, continued the diurnal missions, regardless of the remarkable losses of bombardiers. While at night the defense of the cities was entrusted to a mighty antiaircraft system (the famous FLAK) and to the fantastic nighttime fighters Messerschnitts Bf 110 and Heinkel 219 Uhu (Owl) gifted of advanced systems radar, the weight to prevent the complete destruction in the daytime weighed almost entirely on the squadrons of Messerschnitt Bf 109 G. The enemy could line up the maximum expression of its technology, represented by the bombardiers of class Flying Fortress and Liberator, accompanied by the fighters P-47 and P-51, perhaps the best aircrafts of the whole conflict.

Since the first raids, it was evident that the last finality of the Messerschnitts was to limit the losses. The armament of the model G, although superior to that of its predecessor, was entirely insufficient to shoot down the American bombardiers. It was looked out upon a difficulty choice for the pilots of the Luftwaffe: increasing the weapons adding a cannon of heavy caliber and the tracing rockets, the ideal to destroy the bombardiers or maintaining unchanged the war load to be able to face the escort fighters. Both things were not possible because the excessive weight of the cannon and the rockets decreased the agility and the speed of the Messerschnitt, unfavouring it towards the models type Pursuit quoted above. The final decision was left in many cases to the conscience of the German pilots, because opting for one or the other of the typologies of armament could involve the choice between their life and death.

The last year of war saw an enormous effort of the German war industry that under the direction of Speer knew how to compensate the losses of aircrafts caused by the Americans. However, as already remembered in the occasion of the Battle of England, the most precious and scarce good for the aviation in time of war are surely the pilots. In those awful months of agony of the Third Reich, aviators of younger and younger age were forced to fly on machines of unbelievable power with less and less experience of flight. The few ameliorations brought in the models H and K as an even more powerful motor and the introduction of a canopy with a 360° sight copied from the North American P-51 Mustangs didn't serve to avoid the defeat.

The goodness of the project and the constructive technique of the Bf 109 was shown from its postwar use in Switzerland, Spain and Czechoslovakia. Straight in Spain the last samples were withdrawn from the service in 1956 only. In twenty years of flight, the Messerschnitt had fought on all fronts and under all possible climatic conditions never disappointing its own pilots. Its unique, but decisive, adversity was that always to meet airplanes that constituted the apex of the efforts of research of the nations against which Germany fought. Despite this, it would be unfair to affirm that it was inferior to its adversaries, rather the fact that it has faced them all at the same level and in different temporal periods, it would have to testify which and how much the quality of the original project of the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke was.

Sources: “Combat Fighters”, Aerospace Publishing Ltd; “German and Allied aircrafts in World War 2”, Watson and Clever Edition.

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