Messerschmitt – The Great German Aircraft Maker of World War II – Bf 109, Bf 110 and Me 262

anil chopra, air power asia, Messerschmitt, Germany

Messerschmitt AG was a German share-ownership limited, aircraft manufacturing corporation named after its chief designer Willy Messerschmitt from mid-July 1938 onwards, and known primarily for its World War II fighter aircraft, in particular the Bf 109 and Me 262. The company survived in the post-war era, undergoing a number of mergers and changing its name from Messerschmitt to Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm before being bought by Deutsche Aerospace (DASA, now part of Airbus) in 1989.

Messerschmitt aircraft manufacturer logo. Image Source: redbubble.com

The Company Forms During WW I

          In February 1916, the south German engineering company MAN AG and several banks purchased the unprofitable aircraft builder Otto-Flugzeugwerke, starting a new company, “Bayerische Flugzeugwerke AG” (abbreviated BFW). The company then had an equity capital of RM 1,000,000 as on 7 March 1916. 36% of the capital was provided by the Bank für Handel und Industrie, Berlin, 30% by MAN AG and 34% by Hermann Bachstein, Berlin. Due to the need for immediate aircraft production for the ongoing war, there was no time for development work and BFW manufactured aircraft under licence from Albatros Flugzeugwerke. Within a month of being set up, the company was able to supply aircraft to the war ministries of Prussia and Bavaria. However, major quality problems were encountered at the start. The German air crews frequently complained about the serious defects that appeared in the first machines from BFW. The same thing had happened with the aircraft from the predecessor company run by Gustav Otto. It was only organizational changes and more intensive supervision of the assembly line that succeeded in resolving these problems by the end of 1916. BFW then started turning out over 200 aircraft a month, with their workforce growing to 3,000 and becoming one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in Bavaria.

Albatros C3. Image Source: http://www.militaryimages.net

Post War Demand Collapse and Reconstitution

          The end of the war hit BFW hard, since military demand for aircraft collapsed. The company’s management were forced to look for new products with which to maintain their position in the market. Since World War I aircraft were largely built from wood to keep their weight down, BFW was equipped with the very latest joinery plant. What is more, the company still held stocks of materials sufficient for about 200 aircraft, and worth 4.7 million reichsmarks. It therefore seemed a good idea to use both the machinery and the materials for the production of furniture and fitted kitchens. In addition, from 1921 onwards, the company manufactured motorcycles of its own design under the names of Flink and Helios.

Helios Motorcycle of Bayerische FlugzeugWerke. Image Source: cybermotorcycle.com

          In the autumn of 1921, Austrian financier Camillo Castiglioni first announced his interest in purchasing BFW. He was supported in this by BMW’s Managing Director Franz Josef Popp. In May 1922, the Italian-born investor was able to acquire BMW’s engine business from Knorr-Bremse AG, and merged BFW and the engine builders BMW.

BMW’s Managing Director Franz Josef Popp showing BMW Engine Plant to Hitler. Image Source: alchetron.com

Willy Messerschmitt – The New Chief Designer

          Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFW) (Bavarian Aircraft Works) was reformed in 1926, and changed into a joint-stock company. Willy Messerschmitt joined the company in 1927 as chief designer and engineer and formed a new design team. One of the first designs, the Messerschmitt M20, was a near-catastrophe for the designer and the company. Many of the prototypes crashed, one of them killing Hans Hackmack, a close friend of Erhard Milch, the head of Deutsche Luft Hansa and the German civil aviation authorities. Milch was upset and eventually cancelled all contracts with Messerschmitt and forced BFW into bankruptcy in 1931. However, Messerschmitt’s friendship with Hugo Junkers prevented a stagnation and restarted again in 1933. Milch still prevented Messerschmitt’s takeover of the BFW until 1938, hence the designation “Bf” of early Messerschmitt designs.

BFW Messerschmitt M20. Image Source: aviastar.org

Light Weight Construction -Bf 109 Evolves

          Messerschmitt promoted a concept he called “light weight construction” in which many typically separate load-bearing parts were merged into a single reinforced firewall, thereby saving weight and improving performance. The first true test of the concept was in the Bf 108 Taifun sports aircraft, which would soon be setting all sorts of records. Based on this performance the company was invited to submit a design for the Luftwaffe’s 1935 fighter contest, winning it with the Bf 109, based on the same construction methods.

Light Weight Construction -Bf 109. Image Source: Wikipedia

Favourite of Nazi Party

          From this point on Messerschmitt became a favorite of the Nazi party, as much for his designs as his political abilities and the factory location in southern Germany away from the “clumping” of aviation firms on the northern coast. BFW was reconstituted as “Messerschmitt AG” on 11 July 1938, with Willy Messerschmitt as chairman and managing director. The renaming of BFW resulted in the company’s RLM designation prefix changing from “Bf” to “Me” for all newer designs. Existing types, such as the Bf 109 and 110, retained their earlier designation in official documents, although sometimes the newer designations were used as well.

Willy Messerschmitt with Theo Croneiss, who initially test flew many Messerschmitt aircraft. Image Source: enacademic.com

World War II – Great Aircraft

          During the war Messerschmitt became a major design supplier, their Bf 109 and Bf 110 forming the vast majority of fighter strength for the first half of the war. Several other designs were also ordered, including the enormous Me 321 “Gigant” transport glider, and its six-engine follow on, the Me 323. However, for the second half of the war, Messerschmitt turned almost entirely to jet-powered designs, producing the world’s first operational jet fighter, the Me 262 “Schwalbe” (Swallow). They also produced the DFS-designed Me 163 “Komet”, the first rocket-powered design to enter service.

Six-engine follow on, the Me 323. Image Source: Wikipedia

Slave Labour – Excesses

          Messerschmitt relied heavily on slave labour to produce much of the parts needed for these aircraft during the second half of World War II; these parts were assembled in an enormous tunnel system in Sankt Georgen an der Gusen, Austria. Slave labour was provided by inmates of the brutal KZ Gusen I and Gusen II camps, and by inmates from nearby Mauthausen concentration camp, all located near the St. Gorgen quarries. 40,000 inmates from Spain, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, France, Russia, Hungarian Jews and twenty other nationalities were murdered during the production of these aircraft at KZ Gusen. Messerschmitt officials maintained barracks at the concentration camp to oversee the work being done by the inmates. Messerschmitt, and its executive Willy Messerschmitt also occupied the famed Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich in the 1920s; the Messerschmitt aircraft factory office and the Gestapo occupied the property during the war.

Prisoners undertaking forced labour in an aircraft plant. Image Source: alphahistory.com

Bf 109 – The Great Success

          The Messerschmitt Bf 109, officially shortened to Bf 109, was the iconic German fighter of WWII. An argument could be made that the Bf 109 was the most successful fighter platform of the war. Which is not to say that the 109 was the best fighter of the war, but that its design was the most solid and serviceable of WWII. With initial plans dating back to 1934, first prototype flown in 1935, and the first model entering operational service in 1937 and seeing combat in the Spanish Civil War, the Bf 109 was the only fighter, aside from the Spitfire, that was deployed in front line service at war’s beginning in 1939, and with incremental improvements, remained in front line service, effective and competitive against newer fighters, until war’s end. The prototype that flew in 1935 was the world’s first low wing, retractable wheels, all metal monoplane fighter – a basic design subsequently used by all sides during WWII.

Bf 109 world’s first low wing, retractable wheels fighter. Image Source: simple.wikipedia.org

          At its most basic, the essence of the Bf 109 was to take the smallest feasible airframe, and attach to it the most powerful engine possible. The design had flaws, such as a cramped cockpit, a poor rear view, and a narrow undercarriage that rendered ground handling hazardous to inexperienced pilots. Moreover, small size translated into limited fuel capacity, reducing its range – which proved problematic during the Battle of Britain, when Bf 109s were typically limited to 15 minutes’ worth of fighting over Britain, before dwindling fuel forced them to disengage and fly back home. Nonetheless, the basic concept of small airframe married to big engine proved successful, allowing as it did for progressive upgrades as more powerful engines became available, and allowing the Bf 109 to remain competitive throughout the war. The adaptable design allowed the plane to progress from the 109D model in 1939, with a top speed of 320 m.p.h., to the 109K model at war’s end, capable of 452 m.p.h.

Much Faaster Bf 109 K variant. Image Source: digitalcombatsimulator.com

          Eric Hartman, the war’s top ace with 352 kills, flew the Bf 109. Indeed, the top three aces of the war, with over 900 kills between them, flew 109s, as did the top scoring ace against the Western Allies. In addition to the interceptor and escort role for which it had been originally designed, the 109 was sufficiently adaptable to serve in other roles, including ground attack, and reconnaissance. With nearly 34,000 manufactured between 1936 and 1945, the Bf 109 was the most produced fighter aircraft in history.

Erich Hartmann with Bf 109 g6 after 100 kills. Image Source: http://www.flickr.com

Bf 110/Me 110

          The Messerschmitt Bf 110, often known unofficially as the Me 110. was a twin-engine “Zerstörer” (Destroyer, heavy fighter) and fighter-bomber developed in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and used by the Luftwaffe during World War II. Hermann Göring was a proponent of the Bf 110. It was armed with two MG FF 20 mm cannon, four 7.92 mm (.312 in) MG 17 machine guns, and one 7.92 mm (.312 in) MG 15 machine gun (later variants’ rear gunner station would be armed with the twin-barreled MG 81Z) for defence. Development work on an improved type to replace the Bf 110, the Messerschmitt Me 210 began before the war started but its teething troubles resulted in the Bf 110 soldiering on until the end of the war in various roles, with its replacements, the Me 210 and the significantly improved Me 410 “Hornisse”.

Messerschmitt Bf 110. Image Source: Wikipedia

          The Bf 110 served with considerable success in the early campaigns in Poland, Norway and France. The primary weakness of the Bf 110 was its lack of maneuverability, although this could be mitigated with better tactics. This weakness was exploited when flying as close escort to German bombers during the Battle of Britain. When British bombers began targeting German territory with nightly raids, some Bf 110-equipped units were converted to night fighters, a role to which the aircraft was well suited. After the Battle of Britain the Bf 110 enjoyed a successful period as an air superiority fighter and strike aircraft in other theatres and defended Germany from strategic air attack by day against the USAAF’s 8th Air Force, until an American change in fighter tactics rendered them increasingly vulnerable to developing American air supremacy over the Reich as 1944 began.

Messerschmitt Bf 110 ‘Zerstörer’ (‘Destroyer’) was truly a jack of all trades, but it was as a night fighter it did best. Image Source: hushkit.net

          During the Balkans and North African campaigns and on the Eastern Front, it rendered valuable ground support to the German Army as a potent fighter-bomber. Later in the war, it was developed into a formidable radar-equipped night fighter, becoming the main night-fighting aircraft of the Luftwaffe. Most of the German night fighter aces flew the Bf 110 at some point during their combat careers and the top night fighter ace, Major Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, flew it exclusively and claimed 121 victories in 164 sorties.

Major Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, flew Bf 110 exclusively and claimed 121 night victories. Image Source: http://www.luftwaffe.cz

Me 262

          The Messerschmitt Me 262 Flying at 540 miles per hour, and armed with four 30 mm cannon, the Messerschmitt Me 262 was faster and better armed than any other fighter in WWII. Its arrival ushered the dawn of the jet age and revolutionized aerial warfare, but it came too late to stave off Germany’s defeat. First flown in 1942, technical difficulties, coupled with inadequate support or understanding of its potential by high ranking German leaders, delayed the Me 262’s deployment until 1944. Goering thought the war would be won with the planes Germany already possessed, rendering the investment in projects such as the Me 262 superfluous, while Hitler gummed up the works by supporting the development of the jet as a fast bomber rather than an interceptor.

Major Walter Nowotny in his Me 262 after Victory Number 2115. Image Source: http://www.luftwaffe.cz

          The Me 262 first saw combat with an experimental trial unit in July of 1944, but it was not until November of 1944 that the jet fighter first attacked one of the bomber formations that by then were roaming Germany’s skies at will. Results were mixed, with two escorting P-51s shot down but no bombers, for the loss of one jet fighter and the death of its pilot, an irreplaceable Luftwaffe ace with over 250 kills, Major Walter “Nowi” Nowotny. The first Me 262 wing was formed in January of 1945, by which point Allied armies were already on German home soil in both the Eastern and Western fronts. The Me 262 units’ effectiveness was hampered by organizational flaws, a dearth of experienced pilots capable of taking full advantage of the plane’s capabilities, lack of fuel for adequate training, and frequent Allied attacks on their airfields.

Messerschmitt Me 262. Image Source: warbirdsnews.com

          It was not until March of 1945 that a glimpse of what might have been was seen, when Luftwaffe general Adolf Galland formed an Me 262 unit comprised of elite and highly experienced pilots. Mounting coordinated large scale jet attacks on the bomber formations, the results were impressive, if too little and too late. In the first such attack, 37 Me 262s took on a formation of over 1000 bombers, protected by over 600 fighter escorts, and shot down twelve bombers and one fighter, for the loss of only 3 jets.

          While such a 4:1 kill ratio was impressive, it was a pinprick, and Germany went down to total defeat a few weeks later. But if more Me 262s had been available a year earlier, and had been organized into units staffed with experienced pilots rather than novices as was too often the case, a 4:1 kill rate could have seriously complicated matters for the Allies, and the course of the war, if not its final outcome, might have gone differently.

Me 262. Lechfeld Airfield 1945. Image Source: in.pinterest.com

          The Allies, aware of the Me 262’s disruptive potential, devoted considerable resources to contain it. Allied fighters were at a severe disadvantage in taking on the jets at high altitude, as they were significantly faster than any piston driven plane. However, the Me 262s were vulnerable at takeoff and landing, and parked on their airfields they were sitting ducks. So Allied fighters patrolled the vicinity of Me 262 airfields to try and catch them taking off or landing, and bombed them with mounting frequency. Shooting them down might have been difficult, but destroying them on the ground and wrecking the infrastructure needed to send them up in the first place was well within Allied capabilities.

Some Failed Designs

          Messerschmitt had its share of poor designs as well; the Me 210, designed as a follow-on to the 110, was an aerodynamic disaster that almost led to the forced dissolution of the company. The design problems were eventually addressed in the Me 410 “Hornisse”, but only small numbers were built before all attention turned to the 262. Later in the war, in competition with the Junkers Ju 390 and the un-built, February 1943-initiated Heinkel He 277, Messerschmitt also worked on a heavy “Amerika Bomber” design, the Me 264, which flew in prototype form — with three prototype airframes built, the first of which flew in December 1942 — but was too late to see combat.

“Amerika Bomber” design, the Me 264. Image Source: Wikipedia

Post War Years

          For ten years after World War II, the company was not allowed to produce aircraft. One alternative the company came up with was the three-wheeled motorcycle/bubble car or Kabinenroller (cabinscooter) KR175 / KR200, designed by an aircraft engineer, Fritz Fend. The cars were actually made by Fend’s own company in the Messerschmitt works at Regensburg, and Willy Messerschmitt had very little to do with the vehicles other than ruling that they carried his name. Production of the KR200 ceased in 1964. The Messerschmitt factory also produced prefabricated houses, which were designed as “self-building-kits” mainly based on an alloy framework.

Three-wheeled motorcycle/bubble car or Kabinenroller (cabinscooter) KR175 / KR200. Image Source: Wikipedia

Return to Aviation

          On 6 June 1968, Messerschmitt AG merged with the small civil engineering and civil aviation firm Bölkow, becoming Messerschmitt-Bölkow. The following May, the firm acquired Hamburger Flugzeugbau (HFB). The company then changed its name to Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB). In 1989 MBB was taken over by DASA. DASA later operated as “EADS Germany”, which is now Airbus.

Aircraft Built By Messerschmitt

          The aircraft building began with the M17 sports aircraft’s first flight  in January 1925. Till 1934 and the M36 aircraft, most were sports and a few passenger aircraft. Bf 108 “Taifun” (Typhoon) was a trainer and transport aircraft. Bf 109 first flew in September 1935 and was a fighter, bomber interceptor; later versions sometimes mistakenly marked as “Me 109”. Bf 110 flew in May 1936, at it was a twin-engine heavy night fighter. Bf 162 “Jaguar” was fast bomber based on Bf 110. Me 163 “Komet” first flew in 1941 and it was a rocket-powered interceptor. Me 2110 was a twin-engine heavy fighter; also used for reconnaissance. Me 262Schwalbe” (Swallow) first flew in July 1942 was a twin-engine fighter & attack aircraft, and the first operational jet-powered fighter of the world. Me 262 “Amerika” flew in October 1942. It was a strategic bomber, developed under Amerika Bomber program in competition against Ju 390 and un-built He 277. Me 321 was a large transport glider. Me 323 “Gigant” was a powered variant of Me 321. Me 410 “Hornet” built in 1943 was twin-engine heavy fighter and fast bomber; development of Me 210. The company, as early as 1941 had visualized and built a flying wing strategic bomber project called P.08-01. The P.1101 was a swing-wing jet interceptor which later inspired the Bell X-5. P.1112 was a prototype tailless jet fighter; later inspired Vought F7U Cutlass. There were many other designs which were never put into production.

Scale Model of P.1101 swing-wing jet interceptor. Image Source: fantastic-plastic.com

Aircraft Produced in Large Numbers

AircraftTypeNumbers BuiltRemarks
Bf 108Trainer885Many Exported
Bf 109Fighter33984Many Exported
Bf 110Fighter6170 
Me 163 KometInterceptor370Rocket
Me 210Fighter108 
Me 262Fighter1400Twin jet
Me 321 GigantTransport200Glider
Me 323 GigantTransport198Powered Variant
Me 410 HornisseFighter/Recce1189Improved Me 210
Information Source: Wikipedia

Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) 

          Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB), was a West German aerospace manufacturer. It was formed during the late 1960s as the result of efforts to consolidate the aerospace industry; aircraft manufacturer Messerschmitt AG merged with the civil engineering and aviation firm Bölkow during 1968, while rival aircraft manufacturer Hamburger Flugzeugbau was acquired by the company in the following year. The company was responsible for the development and manufacture of various aircraft during its existence. Among its best-known products was the MBB Bo 105 light twin-engine helicopter and its enlarged derivative, the MBB/Kawasaki BK 117. MBB was also a key early partner on the Airbus A300, a wide-body twin-jet airliner; the company’s involvement in the A300’s development and production led to it forming a key component of the multinational Airbus consortium. It was also involved in numerous experimental aircraft programmes, such as the MBB Lampyridae, an aborted stealth aircraft. The ownership and assets of MBB changed drastically throughout its roughly two decades of existence. The company was bought by Deutsche Aerospace AG (DASA) during 1989; following several mergers and restructures, the assets of what was MBB presently form a part of Airbus Group.

Airbus A300. Image Source: Wikipedia

          Perhaps the most successful product produced primarily by MBB Bo 105 helicopter. This rotorcraft, the design of which was headed by German engineer Ludwig Bölkow, made use of a revolutionary hingeless main rotor composed of fibreglass. Following its introduction to service in 1970, the Bo 105 quickly proved to be a commercial success. Production continued until 2001; by the end of production, 1,406 rotorcraft had been manufactured and delivered to operators in 55 nations worldwide. A more advanced derivative Bo 108’s production version was introduced as the Eurocopter EC135 during the early 1990s which, like its Bo 105 ancestor, achieved similar commercial success.

MBB Bo 105 helicopter. Image Source: Wikipedia

          Perhaps the most important partnership that MBB was involved in was the Airbus A300. On 26 September 1967, the British, French, and West German governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding to start development of the A300. Under the terms of the memorandum, Britain and France were each to receive a 37.5 per cent work share on the project, while Germany received a 25 per cent share. Airbus A300, was the world’s first twin-engine wide-body airliner. This project paved the way for the Airbus Group. Airbus Industries next big project was the Airbus A310. In 1989, MBB was taken over by Deutsche Aerospace AG (DASA), which was renamed “Daimler-Benz Aerospace” during 1995.

Airbus A310. Image Source: Wikipedia

To Summarise

          The company will always be remembered more for its very successful fighter aircraft of WW II, especially Bf 108, Bf 109, Bf 110 and Me 262, each of which were built in large numbers they all saw significant action, achieved the highest number of aerial victories and produced the largest many Air Aces.  

Information Sources Credits:  This Article has used information mostly from Wikipedia and other open sources. Credit is given to historycollection.com for coverage of top World War II fighters from where the write up on the Bf 109 and Me 262 is sourced. 

Picture Source: You Tube

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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