The Messerschmidt design bureau was responsible for some of the defining aircraft of the Luftwaffe. Originally the Bayerische Flugzeuge Werke (BFW, where the early "BF" designations came from,) the factory was renamed for Willi Messerschmidt in the late 1930s (leading to the change to "ME" designations.) Two of its designs, the ME-109 and ME-110, were used throughout the war, while the third featured here - the ME-262 - was the world's first operational jet fighter and still captures imaginations of aircraft enthusiasts.

The Messerschmidt bureau still exists as part of a larger conglomerate - MBB. This firm is responsible for design of airliners and part of the Tornado and Eurofighter designs, carrying on a legacy over half a century old.

Featured aircraft families


The ME-109

The ME-109 is probably the most popular, most widely modelled WWII Luftwaffe aircraft. This is not suprising, given the long run of the aircraft (first used in the Spanish Civil War in the later mid-1930s, last used in the 1950s as the "Buchon,") the large number of variants, and the number of users - including, ironcially, Israel.

The original ME-109s were powered by British engines, reverting (in the E-model) to German engines from Daimler-Benz. Early aircraft had rifle-caliber machine guns with provision for a cannon firing through the propeller hub. These were used by the Legion Condor in Spain, later turned over to the Spanish air force. German markings were removed and replaced with Nationalist markings. They were brought in to restore air superiority to the Germans and their allies after the HE-51 and AR-96 biplanes were shown to be hopelessly outclassed by the Soviet-supplied I-16 monoplane fighters. (See "Wings" in back issue for a good look at the story of the Legion Condor.) Several early Luftwaffe aces had their start fighting in Spain.

The E-model was widely used for quite some time, and with its wing cannon was one of the better-armed variants. Variants were used through the Battle of Britain, were part of the original Nachtjagd (Night fighter) arm, and served in North Africa. Still, with better-performing fighters coming through from Britain and the United States, improvements had to be made. This led to an increase in weight and decrease in performance that wasn't always met by an increase in power. Still, the aircraft evolved through the F model (available as a "jabo," or fighter bomber, through Hasegawa) and the just-as-widely produced G model.

The G-model was very widely produced, and had so many subvariants that a program was initiated to simplify production. The G-12 and G-14 were standardized - one pressurized, one not. The Erle Haube canopy (with much simplified framework) was standardized on, the larger tail was selected, and armament was (relatively) standardized (though it could still be changed with rustsatze - basically field add on kits.)

The last model produced in Germany was the K-series, which featured a fixed tailwheel and a taller wooden tail. The end of the war did not mean an end to development, however. Czechoslovakia was a major satellite production center for German industry, and after the war completed a number of ME-109s (renumbered as Avia S-99s) and ME-262s. Once the supply of inline DB engines ran out, however, a substitute had to be found. The result - using Jumo engines - was the Avia S.199, which due to its horrendous handling qualities was nicknamed the "mule." It's this version that the fledgling state of Israel used in its newly-formed air force to defend itself from its neighbors. These were gotten rid of as soon as better aircraft were made available.

Spain - the arena in which the BF-109 first was used - was destined to see the end of the line's life. The Spanish built "Buchon" - with English engines, sliding canopies, and Swiss cannon and rockets - were finally retired in the 1950s. Several of these were used in the making of the movie "The Battle of Britain," and others still have been rebuilt and re-engined with DB engines to bring back the look of the original ME-109.

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The ME-110/410

The ME-110 was selected as the "Zerstorer" aircraft - a long range, twin engined fighter/bomber that could attack targets in support of the Army, escort the Luftwaffe's medium bombers, and obtain air superiority on its own. The reality, bourne out by the Battle of Britain, was that these heavy aircraft could not defend themselves well and in fact needed a fighter escort of their own.

The ME-110Cs were used for a short while longer as day fighters, but really came into their own when transferred to the Nachtjagd, or night fighter, arm. The British Bomber Command had learned the hard way about the folly of sending bombers over enemy territory, unescorted, during the day and had switched to nighttime operations. The ME-110, with enough power to carry a punch (four 7.62 mm machine guns and two 20mm cannon) and fuel capacity to remain aloft for a long patrol, was shifted over and began a very successful career.

Later variants of the ME-110 were fitted with built in AI (Airborne Intercept) radar for searching out bombers in the dark. Most of these early sets had large, external antennae arrays that produced a great deal of drag. This, combined with the weight of the arrays and the need to carry a radar operator, precluded its use in single seat fighters, so most of the night fighters were twin-engine aircraft such as the ME-110, the JU-88G and DO-217Z (and the later, purpose built HE-219.)

The final piece needed to make the BF-110 (and the rest of the nightfighter force) a truly lethal force was a little invention known as "Schrage Musik" ("Slanting music," aka Jazz.) This device consisted of a set of two (in most instances, though many converted bombers used four) 20mm cannon, mounted upward at a slight angle (around 30 degrees.) These were not loaded with tracers, so Bomber Command had no idea what was causing their losses many times. This was a very effective weapon, and many times a bomber could be brought down with a very low expenditure of ammunition. The BF-110 was used in this manner until the end of the war.

This wasn't the end of the ME-110 family, however, though the 110 model remained in production until nearly the end of the war. Goering was enamored of the Zerstorer concept, and insisted on continuation of its development. This led to the ME-210, with a radically redesigned nose, an enclosed weapons bay, and other major design changes. Unfortunately, it was also very unstable and led to a number of problems and complaints. These were so bad they led eventually to the forced resignation of Willi Messerschmidt, and a study into how to fix the problems. Once the wing was redesigned and the fuselage lengthened (among other changes) the aircraft was able to live up to its potential. The number of changes and desire to distance it from the poorly regarded ME-210 led to its redesignation as the ME-410.

The ME-410 would have done much better if it were brought in earlier in the war, as by the time it reached front line units later marque Spitfires, Mustangs, and P-47s were in the theatre. While the 410 was more maneuverable and faster, it still had a hard time against these newer Allied aircraft. Still, it was heavily armed and could function well as a bomber destroyer, recon aircraft, or attack aircraft. The weapons bay could carry bombs for ground attack, cameras, rockets or even a large (50+ mm calibre) cannon for attacking bombers. With escorts to keep allied fighters off of it, it could be a deadly aircraft. Unfortunately, like other late-war German aircraft, it turned out to be too little too late.

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The ME-262

The ME-262 was not the first jet aircraft - the Heinkel HE-178, Gloster testbed aircraft, and Heinkel He-280 all beat it into the air. It was, however, the first operational jet fighter in the world. This, and the sleek, "sharklike" look has captured the eye of many a modeller and aviation enthusiast. It held a fascination of a different sort when it was unveiled - once-untouchable Mosquito crews found themselves unable to escape its pilots' attention, heavy bomber crews had a hard time shooting them down before their armament of four heavy 20mm cannon tore their aircraft apart, and the Nazi leaders mistakenly found in this interceptor their long wished for "blitz" bomber. While some people claim this really impacted production enough to speed Germany's defeat, it didn't make that big of a difference - and as Adolph Galland mentioned, if the slowdown did anything, it helped stop the war before the Russians took over more of Germany. Given the bad blood between the two nations at the time (the Eastern Front was a horrible place, even in comparison to the rest of the European war) and the Cold War that followed, this is probably a good thing.