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 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
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
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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