A Brief History
On May 29, 1935, the brainchild of Willy Messerschmitt, the Bf-109, made its first flight. The most produced fighter of all time, the Germans built 33,984 of them, while Czechoslovakia and Spain also built a few hundred more until 1958. The main German fighter of the pre-war period and early in the war, it was to be superseded by the more modern and more heavily armed FW-190, but the ease of manufacture and maintenance kept the Bf-109 in production during the entire war. Constantly updated and refined, the aging airframe remained competitive with allied fighters throughout the war. Many German pilots preferred it over the FW-190. Its main deficiency was its short range, one thing Germany somewhat corrected by developing drop tanks. Of all the fighter planes used by Germany during World War II, 57 % were Bf-109’s. (Note: You might be tempted to point out that more Il-2 Sturmoviks were built, but those were ground attack planes, not fighters.)
Of the great fighter aircraft of World War II, the Bf-109 was the first to fly, amazing in an era where airplanes became obsolete almost as fast as they were built. The classic nemesis of the Bf-109, the British Supermarine Spitfire, first flew and became operational a year after the Bf-109. The American Curtiss P-40 did not fly until 1938 and did not begin production until a year later. The North American P-51 Mustang, the classic American opponent of the Bf-109 was not operational until 1942, and even then, in its infancy.
When the Bf-109 made its combat debut in the Spanish Civil War as part of the German Condor Legion it was a sensation. The military world was breathless that the new German airplane was clearly the finest fighter extant in the world. New standards for airplane specifications had to be set immediately. The design concept that made the Bf-109 perform so well was creating the smallest and lightest possible airframe wrapped around the most powerful engine available. The inherent drawback to this philosophy was a light armaments package and minimum fuel carrying capacity, resulting in limited range and loiter time. Another drawback of the Bf-109 design was the landing gear located so close to the centerline that the plane was highly unstable on the ground, and that take offs, landings, and taxiing was about as dangerous to the pilot and plane as combat!
The original weapons package was kept in the frontal fuselage to avoid complicating the wings and to reduce drag. A 20mm cannon firing through the hub of the propeller was complimented by 2 cowl mounted 7.92 mm machine guns. Although adequate for dogfighting against fighters, the armament suite was a bit light for attacking heavy bombers. Adding guns to the wings, either machine guns or 20 mm cannon was tried, and later versions increased the lethality of the planes by replacing the rifle caliber machine guns with 2 X 13 mm machine guns (similar to the US .50 caliber Browning machine gun) and retaining the 20 mm cannon or replacing the cannon with a larger, 30 mm model. For ground and bomber attack a pair of pod mounted 20 mm cannons could be mounted under the wings. As with almost all fighter planes, the Bf-109 was sometimes pressed into fighter bomber service, carrying a single 250 kilogram bomb or 4 X 10 kilogram bombs. Another armament option was 2 X 8 inch rockets for attacking large bomber formations. Later models could be fitted with an auxiliary fuel drop tank, something that would have been useful during the Battle of Britain. The 80 gallon drop tank virtually doubled the range of the Bf-109 from about 500 miles to about 1000 miles.
The small wing area desired to allow for the highest possible speed creates a trade-off in poor low speed performance. Thus, the engineers cleverly designed leading edge slats into the wings that were spring loaded to extend during low speed and retract automatically for high speed flight. Larger than usual flaps were incorporated on the trailing edge of the wings to further enhance take off, landing, and low speed flight. The use of liquid cooled in-line engines meant that radiators had to be used, creating a vulnerability to damage where even a single bullet hole could down a fighter plane so powered. (Mustangs, Spitfires, and many other fighters had the same problem.) The partial solution was to create twin radiators where either could be shut off if needed, flying on only one radiator. If both were hit, the Bf-109 was designed to shut them both down, allowing for several minutes of flight before the engine would quit.
During the early part of World War II, the Bf-109 clearly outclassed its opponents in Poland, France and other countries, with only the British Spitfire presenting a viable enemy. When Germany took the fight over England, the Bf-109’s design for short range operations became a tremendous liability, leaving no fighter cover for long range bomber missions and only a few minutes worth of fighting time over Central England. Many Bf-109’s were lost because of running out of fuel.
Despite the development of later German fighters such as the Fw-190 and the turbojet powered Me-262, production of the Bf-109 continued throughout the war, the upgrades in engines and weapons keeping the basic design viable throughout the war. Initially with a top speed of around 350 mph, the Bf-109G used late in the war could fly at 398 mph and cruise at 365 mph. The latest models produced were capable of 422 mph at altitude. A small number of Bf-109H models were built that were capable of an astounding 470 mph, exceedingly fast for a piston engine propeller driven airplane. Despite appearing dated by late in the war, the Bf-109 accounted for more aircraft shot down than any fighter of World War II. Many German pilots preferred the Bf-109 over its more modern contemporary stablemate, the Fw-190. Erich Hartmann, Germany’s top ace of World War II with 352 Allied planes shot down flew the Bf-109G. A proposed model marrying 2 Bf-109’s together into a twin engine, twin fuselage heavy fighter armed with 5 X 30 mm cannons for attacking bombers never came to production. (The US tried and produced a similar concept, the Twin Mustang P-82.)
Finland and Romania continued flying Bf-109s into the mid-1950’s, while in Spain the plane was produced until 1958 and flown until the 1960’s. Some of the first fighter planes flown by the early Israeli Air Force were Bf-109’s! The Bf-109’s built by Spain were equipped with Hispano-Suiza engines and later with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, the same type that had powered the Spitfire and Mustang.
Based on the criteria of ground breaking innovation, long service at the top end of performance, largest production run of any fighter plane, and having shot down more planes than any other fighter in history gives the Messerschmitt Bf-109 serious consideration as the greatest fighter plane of all time.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think? Does this little work horse deserve such an accolade? Give us your opinion on the subject of greatest fighter plane in the comments section below this article. (See our article, “10 Greatest Fighter Planes,” for addition insights.)
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Forsgren, Jan. Messerschmitt Bf 109: The Design and Operational History. Fonthill Media, 2017.
Prien, Jochen and Peter Rodeike. Messerschmitt Bf 109 F, G, and K Series: An Illustrated Study. Translated by David Johnston. Schiffer Publishing,1992.
Radinger, Willy and Walter Schick. Messerschmitt Bf 109: The World’s Most Produced Fighter From Bf 109 A to E. Schiffer Publishing, 1999.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Kogo of a Hispano Aviación HA-1112 (c/n 156 C.4K-87 (D-FMBB), “FM+BB”), a license-built Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2, rebuilt by the EADS/Messerschmitt Foundation, Germany with a Daimler-Benz DB 605 engine as a G-6, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.