Messerschmitt aircraft Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A major make of German aircraft.

Origins

In 1923, engineer Willy Messerschmitt established an aircraft company in Bamberg, Germany. In 1927, he moved his firm to Augsburg, Germany, where he merged with another company and created the corporation of Bayerisch Flugzeigwerke (BFW). BFW, with Willy Messerschmitt as chief designer, initially produced gliders and sport and transport aircraft, but in 1933 it secured a contract from Adolf Hitler’s Reich air ministry and began to produce military aircraft (designated by the prefix Bf) for the Luftwaffe. In 1936, Willy Messerschmitt seized complete control of the company, renamed it Messerschmitt AG, and continued to focus production on military aircraft (now designated by the prefix Me). During World War II, Messerschmitt AG produced fifteen distinct series of aircraft, ranging from fighters and bombers, to the first jet-powered aircraft.

Bf-109 Series

The most famous of the Messerschmitt aircraft is the Bf-109; a single-seat fighter used by the Luftwaffe from 1935 to 1945 and produced in greater numbers (approximately 33,000) than any other World War II aircraft except the Russian Il-2. The Bf-109 was the first “modern” German fighter. It possessed such advancements as a light alloy stressed skin construction, low cantilever wings with trailing edge flaps, a retractable tail wheel landing gear, and an enclosed cockpit. The first version of this aircraft, the Bf-109A, was produced in 1935, but met with pilot resistance due to its limited agility compared with biplanes. Newer versions of the Bf-109, the Bf-109B, Bf-109C, and Bf-109D, added greater agility, horsepower, and armament and were delivered in modest numbers to the Luftwaffe in the late 1930’s.

By February, 1939, however, such variants were removed from front-line duty and replaced by the Bf-109E, known as the Emil. The numerous versions of the Emil saw the plane used as a fighter, fighter-bomber, and reconnaissance fighter. The Bf-109E-4 was the most widely used of the Emil aircraft. A fighter, weighing 4,685 pounds empty, it had a wingspan of 32 feet, 4.5 inches, was 28 feet, 4.2 inches in length, and 8 feet, 2.42 inches in height. Powered by one Daimler-Benz DB-601 Aa inverted-V piston engine, the Bf-109E-4 had a maximum speed of 348 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 300 miles per hour, a ceiling of 34,450 feet, and a maximum range of 410 miles. It was armed with two 20-millimeter MGFF fixed, forward-firing cannons built into the leading edge of the wing and two 7.92-millimeter MG17 fixed, forward-firing machine guns in the upper part of the forward fuselage with synchronization to fire through the propeller.

The Emil, however, was difficult to maneuver at high speeds, and production ceased in 1942 as the Luftwaffe sought a more aerodynamic and better handling plane. Efforts to provide such a plane resulted in the production of the Bf-109F, known as the Friedrich. The Bf-109F-2 was the best of this series. A fighter and fighter-bomber weighing 5,188 pounds empty, it had a wingspan of 32 feet, 6.5 inches, was 29 feet 3.9 inches in length, and stood 8 feet, 6.33 inches in height. Powered by one Daimler-Benz DB 601N inverted-V piston engine, the Bf-109F had a maximum speed of 373 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 348.88 miles per hour, a ceiling of 36,090 feet, and a maximum range of 547 miles. It was armed with one 15-millimeter MG151/15 fixed, forward-firing cannon and two 7.92-millimeter MG17 fixed, forward-firing machine guns with synchronization to fire through the propellers.

The Bf-109F was used throughout 1942, but was replaced in 1943 with the Bf-109G. The Gustav, as it was known, added a more powerful engine, a pressurized cockpit, and was used solely as a fighter by the Luftwaffe throughout the remainder of the war. Later versions of the Bf-109, the Bf-109H and Bf-109K, were introduced in 1945, and although both versions added new improvements to the Bf-109 line, they were produced in significant numbers. The Bf-109 series served the Luftwaffe over Spain during the Spanish Civil War and over Poland, France, England, and North Africa during World War II.

Bf-110 Series

The Bf-110 was produced by BFW on request from the Luftwaffe for a heavy fighter. As with the Bf-109, the Bf-110 was produced in several versions, with a total output of approximately six thousand aircraft. The most noteworthy version was the Bf-110C-4. This heavy fighter carried a pilot, navigator/observer, and radio operator/gunner in an enclosed cockpit. Weighing 11,354 pounds empty, it had a wingspan of 53 feet, 1.8 inches, was 39 feet, 8.33 inches in length, and stood 13 feet, 6.5 inches in height. Powered by two Daimler-Benz DB 601A-1 inverted-V piston engines, the Bf-110C-4 had a maximum speed of 348 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 304 miles per hour, a ceiling of 32,810 feet, and a maximum range of 680 miles. It was armed with two 20-millimeter MGFF fixed, forward-firing cannons, four 7.92-millimeter MG17 fixed, forward-firing machine guns, and one 7.92-millimeter MG15 trainable, rearward-firing machine gun.

A later version, the Bf-110G-4c/R3, was reconfigured to serve as a night fighter. Carrying the same three-man crew as the Bf-110C-4, it weighed 11,230 pounds empty, had a wingspan of 53 feet, 3.77 inches, was 42 feet, 9.78 inches in length, and stood 13 feet, 8.5 inches in height. Powered by two Daimler-Benz DB 605B-1 inverted-V piston engines, the Bf-110G-4c/R3 had a maximum speed of 342 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 317 miles per hour, a ceiling of 26,245 feet, and a maximum range of 808 miles. It was armed with two 30-millimeter MK108 fixed, forward-firing cannons, two 20-millimeter MG 151/20 fixed, forward-firing cannons, and one 7.92-millimeter MG81z trainable, rearward-firing two-barrel machine gun. This plane also carried several varieties of radar which, although increasing drag and hampering performance, enabled it to enter night service. The various versions of the Bf-110 served the Luftwaffe over Poland, Norway, England, North Africa, and Russia throughout World War II.

Me-163 Series

The Me-163 Komet was the first rocket-powered aircraft used in World War II. Although it did not come on line until 1944, the Me-163B-1a Komet was the best known of these rocket aircraft. It was a single seater that weighed 4,206 pounds empty, had a wingspan of 30 feet, 7.33 inches, was 19 feet, 2.33 inches in length, and stood 9 feet, 0.67 inches in height. Powered by one Walter HWK 109-509A-1/2 rocket motor, it had a maximum speed of 593 miles per hour, a climb rate of 15,951 feet per minute, and a ceiling of 39,370 feet. It was armed with two 30-millimeter MK108 fixed, forward-firing cannons or two 20mm MG151/20 fixed, forward-firing cannons. The Komet, however, had several problems. It functioned for only 7.5 minutes under power, and frequently suffered from premature engine shutdown at high altitude or immediately after takeoff. Such problems, combined with the late stage of the war when the Komet was introduced, resulted in only 279 of the aircraft actually reaching Luftwaffe service.

Me-262 Series

The world’s first operational jet fighter was Messerschmitt’s turbojet-powered interceptor fighter, the Me-262. The most popular of the Me-262 class was the Me-262A-1a. This was a single seater that weighed 9,742 pounds empty, had a wingspan of 41 feet, 0.5 inches, was 34 feet, 9.3 inches in length, and stood 12 feet, 6.8 inches in height. Powered by two Junkers Jumo 004B-1/2/3 Orkan turbojet engines, it had a maximum speed of 540 miles per hour, a climbing rate of 3,937 feet per minute, and a range of 652 miles. It was armed with four 30-millimeter MK-108 fixed, forward-firing cannons located in the nose cone. In 1944, Messerschmitt produced the Me-262a-2, a fighter-bomber, nicknamed Sturmvogel (storm bird). This aircraft was basically the same as the Me-262a-1a, with the notable exception that the Sturmvogel was equipped to carry one 1,102-pound (500 kilogram) bomb or two 551-pound (250 kilogram) bombs. Although unstable, difficult to fly, and used in limited numbers by the Luftwaffe, the Me-262 was a nearly unstoppable aircraft that changed the course of the aircraft industry by ushering in the jet age.

Me-323 Series

The most unique of the Messerschmitt aircraft was the Me-323 Gigant (giant). The Me-323E-2 Gigant was a heavy transport plane operated by a pilot, copilot, flight engineer, and radio operator on the flight deck, plus a load master and up to six gunners in its belly. Its empty weight was 65,256 pounds, but the Gigant had a maximum takeoff weight of 99,206 pounds. It could carry a payload of 120 troops or freight up to 34,000 pounds. The Gigant had a wingspan of 180 feet, 5.35 inches, was 93 feet, 6 inches in length, and stood 31 feet, 6 inches in height. It was powered by six Gnome-Rhone 14N-48/49 radial piston engines, which provided a maximum speed of 157 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 140 miles per hour, a ceiling of 14,760 feet, and a range of 808 miles. To protect this rather slow-moving aircraft, the Gigant was armed with one 20-millimeter MG151/20 trainable cannon in each of two power-operated EDL 151 wing turrets, one 13-millimeter MG131 trainable, forward-firing machine gun in each of two nose positions, one 13-millimeter MG131 trainable, rearward-firing machine gun in the rear of the flight deck, and one 13-millimeter MG131 trainable, lateral-firing machine gun in each of the two forward and two beam positions. The Gigant was used to support the Afrika Corps in North Africa and the Wehrmacht in Russia.

Me-210/410 Series

The Me-210 was constructed by Messerschmitt to replace the Bf-110 and to act as a dive-bomber. The Me-210, however, suffered from serious technical and aerodynamic problems from the beginning. These problems plagued the Me-210 throughout its production and it never acted as a serviceable aircraft. Messerschmitt never gave up on the craft, and in 1943, the Me-410 Hornisse (hornet), a modified version of the Me-210, entered Luftwaffe service. The best known of the Hornisse was the Me-410A-1/U2. This heavy fighter and fighter-bomber carried a pilot and radio operator/gunner, and weighed 16,574 pounds empty. It had a wingspan of 53 feet, 7.7 inches, a length of 40 feet, 11.3 inches, and stood 14 feet, 0.5 inches in height. It was powered by two Daimler-Benz DB 603A inverted-V piston engines, which provided for a maximum speed of 388 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 365 miles per hour, a ceiling of 32,810 feet, and a maximum range of 1,050 miles. It was armed with two 20-millimeter MG151/20 fixed, forward-firing cannons in the nose, two 20-millimeter MG151/20 fixed, forward-firing cannons in a ventral tray, two 7.92-millimeter MG17 fixed, forward-firing machine guns in the nose, and one 13-millimeter MG131 trainable, lateral/rearward-firing machine gun. The Me-410 served the Luftwaffe over France, Russia, and Eastern Europe during the last two years of World War II.

Postwar Messerschmitt

After the war, Messerschmitt AG briefly left the aircraft industry to produce products as varied as sewing machines and motor scooters. By the mid-1950’s, the company had returned to the aircraft industry to produce passenger, transport, and training aircraft. The company survived Willy Messerschmitt’s death in 1978 and, as a result of mergers and reorganizations, in the 1990’s Messerschmitt AG became Messerschmitt Bolkow-Blohm GmbH. The company continues to produce aircraft, but also produces missiles, parts for spacecraft, as well as railroad and highway vehicles.

Bibliography
  • Boyne, Walter. The Messerschmitt 262: Arrow to the Future. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980. A brilliant study of the first operational jet-powered aircraft.
  • Chant, Chris. German Warplanes of World War II. London: Amber, 1999. A thorough study of all the major German aircraft of World War II, including numerous illustrations and technical notations.
  • Ebert, Hans. The History of German Aviation. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer, 1999. An extensive study of the German aircraft industry, including pre- and post-World War II developments.
  • Ethell, Jeffery. The German Jets in Combat. London: Jane’s, 1979. A thorough survey of the major advances in jet technology made by the German aircraft industry.
  • Kobel, Fritz, and Jakob Mathmann. The Messerschmitt 109. Translated by David Johnston. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer, 1996. A detailed and well-illustrated study of the Messerschmitt Bf-109 series.

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