“In personally facing the RAF in the air over the Dunkirk encirclement, I found that the Bf 109 E was faster, possessed a higher rate of climb, but was somewhat less maneuverable than the RAF fighters. Nevertheless, during the campaign, no Spitfire or Hurricane ever turned inside my plane.”
— Herbert Kaiser, German fighter ace. 68 victories. Source:The Great Book of WW2 Airplanes, page 470.
Speed – The top speed of 334 mph is very good for an early war fighter.
Climb Rate – The Bf-109s all had superior climb rate over their competition.
Firepower – The four 7.9mm machine-guns were only half as many as mounted in the Spitfire and Hurricane.
Durability – The 109 was a small plane and not capable of absorbing much combat damage.
Willy Messerschmitt’s masterpiece, the Bf-109, was the prototypical modern fighter at the beginning of the war and was still going strong at war’s end six years later. Ironically, the plane was almost rejected before it was submitted. Due to several previous run-ins over a previous transport design, Erhard Milch, the Reich Commissioner for Aviation, flatly stated that Bayerische Flugzeugwerke and Willy Messerschmitt wouldn’t be allowed to build anything but other peoples’ designs.
Despite assurances he would never get a contract, Messerschmitt went ahead and entered the competition to provide a new front-line fighter for the Luftwaffe. Besides using the most advanced technology available in 1934, the Bf-109A was designed to be able to use either the Junkers Jumo 210 or the Daimler-Benz DB-600 engine, both of which were under development at the time.
With the new engines undergoing developmental delays, a Rolls Royce Kestrel engine was installed in the prototype and the Bf-109V-1 first took to the air in September 1935. A month later the Jumo 210A became available and was used to power the second prototype, which commenced flight testing in January 1936. With the completion of the third prototype with the Daimler Benz engine in June, the Luftwaffe was impressed enough to order ten pre-production machines.
By the time the fourth prototype was undergoing testing, the guns had been installed and the Bf-109 was officially a fighter. The initial guns arrangement consisted of a pair of MG-17s in the cowl and another MG-17 firing through the propeller hub.
In late 1936 the third, fourth, and fifth prototypes were sent to Spain for combat evaluations against the Polikarpov I-15 fighters, which were outclassing the older He-51 biplanes. After three months of successful testing, the prototypes were returned to Messerschmitt to allow continuation of the development program.
The first official production machine, the Jumo 210Da powered Bf-109B-1, was delivered in February 1937. The planes were assigned to JG 132 Richtofen and after hasty training, the unit was sent to Spain to counter the I-15s and the new I-16 Ratas that were just starting to appear. Throughout 1937 B models were hurriedly produced, brought into service, and shipped off to the Condor Legion in Spain.
Using the more powerful Jumo 210Ga, the Bf-109C-1 made its first appearance in the early spring of 1938. Originally intended to mount an MG-FF 20mm cannon in the propeller hub, problems with the gun required another alternative to be used, resulting in the installation of an MG-17 in each wing, outboard of the wheel wells.
Thinking that the new Daimler Benz DB-601 was ready for production, the new ìDî model was introduced, but engine production delays meant that the Jumo 210Da had to be used for the Bf-109D-1 “Dora”. In the summer of 1938, the DB-601A-1 was ready and the first Bf-109E-1 “Emils” started to roll off the production line by the end of the year. As with the C-1 and D models, the E-1 was fitted with a pair of MG-17s with 1000 rpg in the cowl and another pair of MG-17s with 420 rpg in the wings.
The more heavily armed E-3 version, with a pair of 20mm MG-FF cannon in wings in place of the MG-17s, began to reach front-line units in the fall of 1939. However, the E-1 remained the primary version in service throughout the war in Poland, Scandinavia, the Lowlands and France in 1940. By the time of the Battle of Britain, most of the E-1s had been replaced by the E-3 and E-4 models and were thus relegated to training duties. However, the machine-gun armed Emil filled an important gap and helped seed the reputation that would soon enshroud Willy Messerschmitt’s little fighter.