This Killing Machine Defied the Odds and Became the Backbone of the German Air Force

After Hitler dismissed the 1919 Treaty of Versailles' prohibition on aircraft production, he quickly announced a call for a warbird and, despite all odds, Messerschmitt won against Arado, Heinkel, and Focke-Wulf. This is the story of the most successful aircraft in WWII.
ME 109 G4 9 photos
Photo: Ronnie Macdonald/Flckr
Archive photo ME 109 GArchive photo ME 109 GME 109 Afrika CorpsME-109G and P51DME 109 G4ME 109 G4ME 109 G4ME 109 International Air
With its constant updates, the Bf-109 remained competitive until the end of WWII. First, let's clarify the airplane designation. According to Luftwaffe (German Air Force in WWII) historians, the Bf reference was used for Bf-109B through D. Starting with the E versions, the official name was Me. Although, the manufacturer didn't bother to change the stamps used for the earlier models, and thus they appeared with the Bf lettering on them. But from the E versions on, the official name was Me-109.

In 1934, the Air Ministry launched a call for a new generation of aircraft. Herman Goering, the Aviation Minister and former ace pilot, announced Emil Messerschmitt about the idea of a "single-engine, low wing, high-speed courier aircraft." The plane manufacturer understood it was about a warbird and quickly reacted. He already had the Bf-108 Taifun in production, which was the base for the 109. But Messerschmitt installed a 675 hp Rolls-Royce Kestrel engine for testing. Only in October 1935 did the plane manufacturer finally fit the 610 hp Jumo 210A.

ME 109 Afrika Corps
Photo: Airwolfhound/Fflckr
Meanwhile, in Spain, Francisco Franco started the civil war. Germany immediately reacted and sent "volunteers" to help him. Thus, Messerschmitt planes could be tested in actual combat situations. The soviets, on the other hand, sent other "volunteers" equipped with Policarpov I-15 biplane and the modern I-16. While the former was an outdated airplane, the latter was the world's first low-wing fighter plane with retractable landing gear. Spanish ace fighter Andres Garcia Lacalle recalled that the Soviet aircraft was better up to 3,000 meters (9,840 feet). Still, above that, the reworked Bf-109B was a better weapon. Thanks to the Spanish Civil War, the Germans fighters also gained experience in tactics.

The overall construction of the Messerschmitt Bf-109, and later the Me-109, relied on a small aircraft with a 32.45 ft (9.85 m) wingspan, a 28.1 ft (8.55 m) long and 8 ft (2.45 m) height. Later versions, such as the G-6, were slightly longer. However, the airframe was so well designed that even if it started with a less than 700 hp powerplant, it remained the same even in later versions, which featured the mighty 1,475 hp Daimler-Benz DB 605AM powerplant. Moreover, a water-methanol injection system allowed the pilot to increase the engine power up to 2,000 hp for about a minute.

ME 109 G4
Photo: Ronnie Macdonald/Flckr
But all Bf-109 and Me-109 suffered from the same design flaw: the landing gear. Messerschmitt mounted it on the mainframe with an outboard retracting system. Thus, the track was narrow, and, moreover, the struts were fragile. Around 5% of the aircraft lost were due to landing. Also, as former German Ace fighter, Erich Hartman recalled. "the only problems occurred during takeoff. It had a strong engine and a small, narrow-tread undercarriage. If you took off too fast, it would turn [roll] ninety degrees away. We lost a lot of pilots in takeoffs."

During the Battle of Britain in 1940, Luftwaffe used mostly the Me-109E (Emil). It was there where it met the Royal Air Force. While it proved to be more successful against the Supermarine Spitfire at lower altitudes, it was outpaced on higher levels. Thus, the German pilots were targeted from above, and they couldn't defend too well. They had to rely on the earlier versions of the FW-190 for that, which in return were weaker on lower altitudes. Moreover, due to their small fuel tanks, they couldn't stay in a battle longer than 20-30 minutes, or the pilots couldn't make their way back over the English Channel. Those flaws were partially corrected with a new version, the Me-109F.

ME 109 G4
Photo: Ronnie Macdonald/Flckr
But the real backbone of the force was the Me-109G. It was made between February 1942 until March 1945 and accounted for about 52% of all 109s (Bf and Me) made. Total production varies between 33,000 to 35,000 units, depending on the sources. After WWII, Hispano-Suiza built the warbird in Spain as HA-1112. Czechoslovakia built it under the Avia S-199 name. The former communist country sold over 70 units to the incipient Israeli state, which needed airplanes to defend against the Egyptian air force, fitted with Spitfire. They also bought the re-badged Me-262 jet-fighter from Czechoslovakia.

Nowadays, there are only a few Me-109 aircraft in the world in private or museum custody. Some others might still want to be rescued from lakes or forests where they crashed-landed. During WWII, this aircraft was credited with more aerial kills than any other plane. The kill ratio was huge and climbed up to 21:1. But then, that ratio started to crumble. A new warbird entered the game: P51D Mustang. But, that's another story, for another time.
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About the author: Tudor Serban
Tudor Serban profile photo

Tudor started his automotive career in 1996, writing for a magazine while working on his journalism degree. From Pikes Peaks to the Moroccan desert to the Laguna Seca, he's seen and done it all.
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