Bf 109E-4 Specifications

Crew: Pilot only

Powerplant: One 1,150 hp Daimler Benz DB601 twelve-cylinder liquid-cooled engine

Span: 32 ft 4½ in (9.87 m)

Length: 28 ft 8 in (8.74 m)

Max Speed: 357 mph (575 km/h) at 12,300 ft (3,749 m)

Armament: Two synchronized 7.92 mm (.312 in) MG 17 machine guns mounted on top of the engine cowling, firing through the propeller arc and two 20 mm MG-FF/M cannons mounted in the wings

Photo Description: Messerschmitt Bf 109Es of Jagdgeschwader 26 in August 1940.

The Messerschmitt Bf 109 (commonly called the Me 109) is a German single-seat fighter that served with the Luftwaffe throughout the Second World War. The aircraft was designed by a team led by Willy Messerschmitt and Robert Lusser at the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Bavarian Aircraft Company or BFW) in response to a specification issued in 1933 by the German Ministry of Aviation (Reichsluftfahrtministerium, or RLM) for a new single-seat fighter that would replace the Arado Ar 64 and Heinkel He 51 biplanes then in service. Messerschmitt’s goal was to produce the lightest possible airframe that could accommodate the most powerful engine under development in Germany. The result was a slender all-metal, low-wing monoplane with a fully enclosed cockpit, automatic leading edge slats, and retractable landing gear. Many features were inherited from the earlier Messerschmitt Bf 108 Taifun (Typhoon) sports and touring aircraft.

The first prototype, the Bf 109V1, made its maiden flight on 28 May 1935 at Haunstetten, near Augsburg. The aircraft was powered by an imported Rolls-Royce Kestrel V liquid-cooled inline engine in place of the Junkers Jumo 210A engine, which was not yet available. In September 1935 the V1 was sent to the Luftwaffe Erprobungsstelle (testing centre) at Rechlin where it successfully completed acceptance trials before proceeding to Travemünde to compete head-to-head against rival designs. BFW meanwhile continued work on two further prototypes. The Bf 109V2 was completed in October 1935, fitted with the new Junkers Jumo 210A engine. This was followed by the similarly-powered Bf 109V3, which first flew in June 1936 and included two 7.92 mm (.312 in) MG 17 machine guns mounted on top of the engine cowling, synchronized to fire through the propeller arc. The Bf 109 was initially met with skepticism by Luftwaffe test pilots who complained about its cramped, enclosed cockpit, the very high wing loading, and the narrow track landing gear. However, its speed and agility in the air were unmatched by the other prototypes and ten pre-production aircraft were ordered. Support for the Bf 109 grew dramatically in March 1936 when news reached Germany about the new British technologically-advanced fighter, the Supermarine Spitfire. The RLM was under pressure to make a decision and in November 1936, the Bf 109 was officially pronounced the competition winner after a final series of tests.

The original armament selected for the Bf 109A production version comprised two synchronized MG 17 machine guns mounted on top of the engine cowling. When the RLM discovered that the Royal Air Force was planning to arm its new fighters with eight machine guns, the Bf 109A was abandoned in favour of the more heavily armed Bf 109B (‘Bertha’) variant, which included a third engine-mounted MG 17 firing through the airscrew hub. This was later replaced by a 20 mm MG FF cannon but the additional armament proved unreliable due to overheating and excessive vibration inside the engine. The Bf 109B-1 entered service with the Luftwaffe in February 1937 and first saw action with the German Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War. The experience in Spain provided the Luftwaffe with an opportunity to evaluate its new fighter in actual combat, leading to a number of new variants. The Bf 109C-1 (‘Clara’) was introduced in the spring of 1938, powered by the fuel-injected Junkers Jumo 210Ga engine. This version included an additional pair of MG 17 machine guns mounted in the wings, outboard of the wheel wells. The Bf 109D (‘Dora’) was the first major production variant. It was fitted with the interim Junkers Jumo 210Da engine due to a shortage of Daimler-Benz DB 600 engines, which were being used in the Heinkel He 111 bomber. By late 1938, the Daimler-Benz DB-601A-1 engine became available, resulting in the Bf 109E (‘Emil’) variant. The new engine featured direct fuel injection and significantly improved performance. The Bf 109E-1 entered service in early 1939 and included a three-bladed, variable pitch propeller and twin underwing radiator intakes. The armament comprised four MG 17 machine guns, two in the cowling and two in the wings. This was followed by the Bf 109E-3, which replaced the wing-mounted MG 17s with 20 mm MG-FF cannons. The Bf 109E-4 appeared in the spring of 1940 and included the improved 20 mm MG-FF/M cannon in each wing that fired the highly effective Minengeschoss (mine-shell) rounds.

The Bf 109E was the only single-engined Luftwaffe fighter in use during the Battle of Britain, where it proved superior to the Hawker Hurricane and the equal of the Supermarine Spitfire in overall performance. By August 1940, twenty-three Gruppen were equipped with the aircraft. During combat, the fuel-injected DB 601 engine allowed the German fighter to perform negative g-force maneuvers, such as a quick “bunt” into a dive, without the engine cutting out. This gave the Bf 109 an advantage over both British fighters, which were powered by the carburettor-equipped Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The wing-mounted cannons also proved more destructive than the British .303 in (7.7 mm) Browning machine guns. The chief disadvantage of the Bf 109 was its short range. The aircraft was forced to provide close escort for the bombers, a role originally intended for the twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf 110 long-range Zerstörer. However, limited maneuverability and poor acceleration made the Bf 110 just as vulnerable as the bombers it was meant to protect. The Bf 109 only had around 10 – 15 minutes of fuel for combat over southern England before having to turn back and head for France. During the latter stages of the Battle, the Bf 109 was used as a fighter-bomber (Jagdbomber or Jabo), carrying a 250 kg bomb underneath the fuselage.