Initially, few were impressed--when German aviation legend Erst Udet inspected the 109 he commented, "This machine will never make a fighter." The plane's reputation was further tarnished when early testing showed the structural weakness of the landing gear, a problem that would haunt the plane for the rest of its service lifetime. German pilots also seemed to favor the biplane over the 109's single wing design, partly because of the biplane's longstanding tradition in the Luftwaffe. However, panic set in when Germany learned the Royal Air Force ordered 310 Spitfires. Believing the 109 to match the Spitfire in design and performance, the military cautiously ordered ten, now known as the Bf-109 V-1, V-2 and V-3. Things finally turned around for Messerschmitt when his plane was featured at the XI Olympics in Berlin, but he truly won the Luftwaffe over in the November 1936 aircraft trials. In addition to outperforming its rivals, the Bf-109 was less expensive, earning it the honor of being Germany's next production-line fighter plane. At the same time, Messerschmitt was given a golden opportunity to test his machine in a real-world situation when 4500 pilots were sent to Spain to help the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. Known as the "Condor Legion," some pilots flew Bf-109 V-3, V-4 and V-5 models, establishing the fighter as one of the best in the sky.
Making its debut in February 1937, the Bf-109 B or "Berta" series carried the Jumo 210a engine, a MG17 gun in the propeller (which often jammed), repositioned oil cooler and a left wing intake. Despite a triple wire antenna having been experimented with, later models of the B-1 reverted back to the single wire antenna. The B-2 capitalized on a new Hamilton variable-pitch propeller and were quickly sent to the front in Spain. The "C" or "Clara" model came along in the spring of 1938 with its protruding engine exhaust pipes, but its most important addition was the fuel injection system. This allowed German pilots to dive without their engine sputtering under negative "G" forces. Their enemy counterparts could not, something that gave the Germans a big advantage in a dogfight. The C tried once again in vain to install a nose cannon, but was forced to resort to wing mounted machine guns. While the C-1 was eagerly received in Spain, the C-2 and C-3 variants never saw production.
The Bf-109 D or "Dora" had been scheduled to house the powerful new Daimler-Benz DB600 engine, but a conflict of interests arose. The Heinkel He-111 bomber also used the DB600 and Hitler's priorities dictated that offensive weapons take precedence over defensive ones to show the Allies he meant business. In addition, many believed that a single engine fighter could not reliably handle the DB600, so the Bf-109 D was stuck with the Jumo. In fact, historians doubt a DB600-equipped 109 was ever produced outside of a few prototypes. This was a potential problem for the Luftwaffe, who were trying to build their fighter strength during the summer of 1938. In reality, Bf-109s totaled less than 50% of their combat-ready fighters, but this did not stop the Nazi propaganda machine from fabricating their numbers. The Nazis went so far as to circulate pictures of D models with a DB600, tricking the Allies into thinking Germany was stockpiling these advanced fighters. Other than some exhaust system modifications, Revi C/12D gunsight and a stronger main wing spar, the D existed more in the minds of Allied leaders than in the aircraft hangars of Nazi Germany.
The first WWII era Bf-109 was the E or "Emil," which had intended to be the first model with the DB600 engine. It was thought the latest version, the DB601, would be ready in time for the E's debut, but once again Daimler-Benz could not coordinate their delivery with Messerschmitt and the airframes were assembled with no powerplant. After a 6 month delay, the DB601 was approved for the 109 and the Luftwaffe spent much of mid 1939 putting these engines into the aircraft. Interestingly, Germany did not hoard these deadly machines, but immediately sold them to Spain and Switzerland in large numbers. This was because Messerschmitt was a model of productivity, churning out well over 1000 of the planes before the war even started, leaving enough to sell for profit. Soon it was hard to imagine that anyone had ever doubted Messerschmitt's invention. The liquid-cooled 12 cylinder 1100 HP engine gave the 109 an incredible climb rate of 3280 ft. per minute and service ceiling of 34,450 ft, earning it a fearsome reputation in the open skies. At just 28 ft. 4 in. long and 32 ft. 4.5in. wide, its sleek and compact design helped it reach a top speed of 354 mph. It had an empty weight of 4189 lbs and max weight of 6100 lbs.
The Bf-109's main armament consisted of one 20mm cannon in each wing and twin 7.9mm machine guns in the nose, but it could also be fitted with bombs for ground attack operations. The cannon was more powerful and had a better range than the British Spitfire's .303 machine guns (which had no cannon). The Bf-109 did have several weaknesses, primarily its cramped cockpit with poor visibility, and a dangerous take-off and landing. The structural design of the plane along with its engine torque made it very difficult to control during these critical moments. This was further hampered by its narrow landing gear which could snap under certain conditions. An estimated 1500 Bf-109s were lost in the first 2 years of the war alone due to accidental aircraft swing. Fortunately the landing gear was well positioned on the fuselage and wouldn't tip over if the brakes were applied hard upon landing, even though runway taxiing was difficult when turning. The pilots disliked the plane’s foot-operated brakes, preferring the traditional hand-operated ones, and noted the absence of a rudder trim. The 109 was unreliable at high speeds, although at low speeds it was superb, with mild stalls the pilot could feel well in advance. Finally, there was the absence of cockpit or fuel tank armor. This seemed like a careless oversight because the Bf-109 had already fought Soviet I-16s in Spain, which took advantage of cockpit armor. The E-2 once again failed to adapt a cannon to the propeller hub--few were produced and even fewer saw action.
The E-3, however, was much more successful, even though it still could not take the nose cannon. Instead, the E-3 mounted a 20mm cannons in each wing and managed to better its maximum speed to 348 mph. Other additions to the E-3 included 81.6 pounds of armor plating to the cockpit and a larger white background behind the black cross to identify friendly planes easier. The E-4's changes included wing cannons (instead of the faulty nose cannon) and a sturdier canopy design. Some E-4s (E-4/B) were designated Jabo, short for jagdbomber or fighter/bomber, and equipped with bombs up to 500 lbs. These were very successful in the French campaigns and were even given their own squadrons. The E-5 gave up both the wing and nose cannons in favor of a RB 21/18 camera in its body for reconnaissance missions, while the "N" version carried the DB601N engine. The E-6 was also used in reconnaissance, also had the DB601N engine, but its camera was held by the pilot. The E-7, appearing in the second half of 1940, was a more fighter-oriented version of the E-4 and could carry a similar ordinance, with the propeller tip altered to a conical shape. The E-8 was the ancient E-1 with a 300 liter external fuel tank, and the E-9 was a essentially an E-7 with a RB 50/30 camera for reconnaissance. Finally there was the E/Trop, or Tropical, designed to support the Afrika Korps in the unforgiving deserts of North Africa. The Trop's modifications included an elongated supercharger intake with a dust cover, as well as survival gear and a carbine in the cockpit. Most were painted with cameleon-like paint schemes to blend in perfectly with the rocky environment. One interesting fact about these desert warriors is that their unit, I/JG 27, had the distinct Gruppe insignia of an African and a cheetah on a map of Africa. Originally the design had nothing to do with the Luftwaffe in Africa, but was later given to I/JG 27 for good luck.
In the spring of 1940, Messerschmitt sought to address the flaws of his creation. After the DB601N powered F-0 prototype impressed pilots in late fall, the production line was given the go-ahead. The F-1 was given slightly longer and rounded wingtips and shorter leading edge slots (while retaining the overall size) to make it more maneuverable. Its engine was upgraded to 1200 HP which increased its top speed, ceiling and range. The engine was mounted into a more streamlined nose cowling, while the supercharger intake, oil cooler and radiators were redesigned and repositioned for more power. The propeller spinner was made larger and rounder, while the propeller blades were made smaller. The tail stabilizer braces were eliminated and the rudder shrunk, but many of these F models suffered fatal crashes. Investigators thought it was the engine, but it was soon discovered the newly unbraced tail would vibrate at certain speeds, ripping it apart. To correct this, two metal strips were added to each side, strengthening the tail/fuselage seams. To make the plane safer, the landing gear was adjusted to give better forward sight when taxiing and the tail wheel could also partially retract in flight. Cockpit features were added, including an ammunition counter display which was invaluable during combat. The wing cannons were abandoned in favor of a single 15mm cannon in the propeller hub, which had a greater muzzle velocity to make it more accurate. This was keeping with the theme of a more defensive-minded aircraft which would be needed in the years to come.
The F-1 debuted in January 1941, and was known as "Franz" or "Frederich." The F-2 followed in April 1941, with internal tail stiffeners replacing the external ones. That summer Germany thought it was more important to send F-2s to fight Britain's Spitfires, rather than the outdated I-16s of the USSR. The F-3 was given the long-awaited 1300 HP DB601E engine and was aesthetically the same as the F-2, but naturally had a different fuel octane. Again, the F-3 was distributed in limited quantities, mostly for the units facing the British. With a single 20mm nose cannon in lieu of the 15mm, the F-4 was the Bf-109 in its prime and was the most numerous Bf-109 F. A curved 6mm armor plate behind the pilot's head and "bulletproof glass" windshield were added to protect the pilot, and the long supercharger became standard. The F-5 was a tactical reconnaissance plane with a hand held camera. The F-6 wasn't produced in great numbers but became the workhorse for tactical recon missions with its fuselage camera system. Even though it didn't have any cannons or the protective windscreen, it was very effective and saw action up through 1943. Other variants had missile rockets loaded under the wings but this was never successful enough to get past the experimental stage.
By mid-1941 it was clear the Bf-109 would need further modifications to maintain the strength of Germany's fighter squadrons. Believing the war to be brief and their enemies weak, the Nazis had failed to plan for the future. Now the demands of the war required a fighter with a more powerful engine and pressurized cockpit for high-altitude combat. Because Germany had no other fighter available for mass production, the only solution was to add on to the BF-109. This would deprive the plane of much of its superior qualities, such as maneuverability--something the pilots felt was an unfair trade. In fact, many fighter pilots who had converted to the Fw-190 refused to go back to the sluggish Bf-109. However the Luftwaffe cared more about installing the DB605 engine for a higher top speed, and the first G-1 and G-2s were fitted by early spring 1942. Also added was the GM nitrous oxide boost, which pushed the plane's top speed and altitude far beyond its initial rating. Unfortunately the G, or "Gustav," like the F, experienced fatal accidents early on. This time the problem really was the engine: when overheated, the oil tank leaked into the powerplant and started a fire. Two air ducts were added to cool the oil tank, but the DB605 continued to have a history of low oil pressure. Messerschmitt was sure the engine's supercharger filled the oil with air bubbles, but Daimler-Benz blamed the oil tank.
The G was nearly identical to the F, with a few key changes. Besides the engine change, the fuel tank was redesigned and the old style square shaped wheel wells were reintroduced. "Conversion kits" to accept stores under the fuselage were easily adaptable and increased the plane's usefulness. Essentially an F model with the DB605 series engine, the G-1 also featured a pressurized cockpit to allow the pilot to breathe at higher altitudes. The plane's weaponry remained a single 20mm cannon & double machine guns, although the G-1 Trop (stationed in North Africa) had 13mm machine guns instead of the standard 7.92mm. The G-1 was mainly used as a bomber interceptor against the British, because of its pressurized cockpit. However, its weak firepower caused many units to fit it with two 20mm cannons under its wings. By now, a high altitude interceptor was vital to holding off Allied heavy bombers. The G-2 was used for reconnaissance and lacked the pressurized cockpit, but had an experimental rear-firing machine gun system. The G-2, which actually saw action before the G-1, was basically a non-pressurized G-1. Even though many pilots resented its poor handling, the G-2 was appreciated on the eastern front for its superior power. Yet the powerful engine made the plane overweight, a serious problem on the numerous unpaved airfields in the east. To prevent the tires from sinking in the seasonal mud they were enlarged for the G-3. This variant was also pressurized, and had the FuG 16 radio instead of the FuG 7a. Just like the G-1 and G-2, the G-4 was a non-pressurized version of the G-3 and came off production beforehand. The G-4 was also given reconnaissance assignments when fitted with its R-2 fuselage camera.
The G-5 was the answer to critics of the Bf-109's "light" armanent, specifically its standard 7.92mm machine guns. This was basically .30 caliber ammunition, a round too small to bring down a plane with any reasonable protection. The new machine gun ammunition was 13mm, or roughly .50 caliber. The combination of 13mm gun and 20mm cannon packed much more of a punch than its predecessors, and the new gun inlets were cheaper to produce. The only problem was the larger breech of the guns created 2 large bulges on either side of the nose. The extra weight and drag was the last thing the Bf-109 needed, but if Germany was to have any success in aerial combat, it was necessary. Yet the G-5's weight affected take-off so much that a few later models had a taller, wooden tail and some had a larger supercharger, which were dubbed G-5/AS. The electronic improvements included a smaller antenna, FuG 25a IFF radio and DF loop. The tail wheel well was structurally improved and "bulletproof glass" was added behind the pilot for better visibility. The G-6 was a non-pressurized G-5 but was produced in greater numbers and variations. Some were even fitted with rockets, but once again the Bf-109 wasn't suited for them. Instead, some newer G-6s had their many-framed canopy replaced with an erla haube 2 frame design. The result was far greater visibility but it was much harder to open if the pilot needed to bail out. The G-6/AS had a DB605AS engine installed for more power, without the unsightly bulges of the G-5 & G-6. The G-6 was essential to fight off Allied heavy bombers because the Fw-190 just couldn't perform at such high altitudes, and were in too few quantities to win back the skies.
The G-7 attempted to consolidate all of the G-6 modifications, but never entered service. The G-8 was essentially a reconnaissance model of the G-6 with 2 fuselage cameras and a wing camera which could be precisely aimed with the gunsight. At this point in the Bf-109's career, a trainer model seemed unnecessary, but with fighter pilot losses increasing, the Luftwaffe needed something to train recruits quickly. That trainer became the G-12, a twin cockpit hybrid from old G-2, G-4, G-6 aircraft. However, the trainer program did not seem to go well and less than 100 were actually built. By now the number of Bf-109 variants was getting out of hand and hampering production output. The Luftwaffe set forth to standardize all the options, especially the taller wooden tail, high visibility canopy and DB605 engine. This became the G-14, although it never matched the quality of the forthcoming G-10 or K-4. Some were fitted with the DB605AS, deleting the ugly cowling bulges, giving it a noticeable improvement in performance like the other "AS" models.
By 1944 the Luftwaffe also wanted a standard engine with the power of the AS, so Daimler-Benz developed the DB605D engine--the G-10 became the fastest G model and had most of the other G amenities. Many had a longer tail wheel strut to give the pilot a better view when on the ground. The G-10 didn't have gun bulges but a larger oil sump and cam shaft apparatus gave it 2 small bumps under the nose. The G-10 also had wide tires which required a larger wheel well system that protruded on the upper wing surface. While the Gustav had some noticeable improvements, the once superior Bf-109 was past its prime. With the advent of the Fw-190 in 1941, the Bf-109 was no longer the Luftwaffe's top fighter and would soon be completely outmatched by the Allies. Unfortunately the Gustav's airframe was not modified enough for its newer engines, making it more technologically advanced but with more weight and drag, hampering its flight characteristics. Additionally, the pressure to replace all older 109s with G models put a tremendous strain on production and delivery. However, the vast majority of all Bf-109s were G variants, and were essential to maintain the Luftwaffe's strength while the Fw-190 was phased in. The Bf-109 G was still an effective weapon and would continue to see service until the last days of the war.
The H model was designed to perform as a customized high-altitude fighter, but was never fully developed. The H-1 utilized the older DB601E engine, but the H-5 housed the DB605L for better performance. Unfortunately the airframe could not handle its new role and dangerous wing buffeting caused the H to be abandoned. The H project was eventually replaced by the Focke-Wulf TA-152, a cousin of the Fw-190.
The Bf-109 J was intended to be built and sold to Spain, but the project never made it past the planning stages. With Germany's increasing defeats in Africa and Russia, production priority had to be geared towards the Fatherland.
The last variant of the Bf-109 was the K, also known as the "Kurfurst" or "König." The concept was to combine attributes of G-14 and G-10, and by looks alone it was nearly identical to the G-10. Radio equipment was repositioned and after 4 years of waiting, the wheel well covers were finally installed as standard. Many operational squadrons removed them anyway. It was first delivered in October 1944, but by the end of the war only 700 or so were built. They brought on a structurally improved airframe and DB605D engine with the MW 50 power boost as standard. It first saw service in January 1945 and the K-4 and K-6 became the main production models, although evidence suggests the K-4 was the only one to see any action. The K-4 had two machine guns and one cannon, had a maximum speed of 452 mph and a maximum ceiling of 41,000 ft. Its 2000 HP engine gave it a climb rate of nearly 5500 ft. per minute to medium heights and had a range of 356 miles. The maximum weight was 7400 lbs. The K-6 had a more powerful weapons system, including two nose machine guns, a nose cannon and two wing cannons. A more advanced K-14 version was planned to be fitted with a DB605L engine but the Third Reich did not live long enough to see it produced. Other Bf-109 variants did not make it much further than the design phase. These included the "L" series, "T" carrier-based series, and the "Z" series, which was a hybrid of 2 Bf-109 airframes and five 30mm cannons.
For all its faults, the Bf-109 proved to be one of the best weapons in Germany's arsenal. Without it, Germany never would have had air superiority in the early years of the war. The plane's lasting reputation confirmed that its good points far outweighed the bad. It had a simple yet effective design whose small size was ideal for intercepting Allied bombers or dueling with their fighters. It was an easy and inexpensive plane to produce, making it the backbone of Luftwaffe throughout the entire war. Like all great weapons it was well armed, versatile, and reliable. Even though it was obsolete halfway through the war, in the hands of a good pilot it could hold its own among any adversary. In fact, most of the highest ranking "aces" in history flew Bf-109s, including Adolf Galland, Erich Hartmann, Hans-Joachim Marseille and Werner Mölders. The name "Messerschmitt" quickly became a household name across the world and the Bf-109 remains one of the most revered and respected airplanes in history.