The Messerschmitt 109 symbolizes German airpower in World War II for most Americans. This aircraft, designed by Willy Messerschmitt, was referred to, in German documents, as the Bf 109 after the company which built it: the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke or Bavarian Aircraft Factory.
The aircraft was first flown in September 1935 with a Rolls Royce Kestrel engine (the same engine that powered the Supermarine Spitfire prototype) because the proposed power plant, the Junkers Jumo 210 was not ready.
The Bf 109, powered by the Junkers Jumo 210, was first used in combat by the Condor Legion in Spain in 1938. Armament in the B model was three 7.9 mm machine guns mounted on the engine, one of them firing through the propeller boss. The C model carried two additional 7.9 mm machine guns, one in each wing.
The Daimler Benz engine was the definitive power plant for the Bf 109. The first aircraft to fly with the Daimler Benz engine in the nose was the Bf 109D. Daimler Benz was in the process of changing production from the unreliable DB 600 to the DB 601 so the engine change caused a change in designation to Bf 109E. Like any long lived aircraft the engine and the armament of the Bf 109 changed progressively. In most cases the changes improved the aircraft’s combat capability.
The Bf 109 performed well in every venue in which it was used from Norway to North Africa and from Great Britain to Russia. Its performance matched or exceeded any aircraft it met and, in the hands of the ‘experten’, the aces, it seldom disappointed. This was not an aircraft for the novice. At high speeds the control forces were so heavy both hands were needed on the stick, and the narrow undercarriage made it tricky to land. The forward positioning of the main wheels allowed for fast taxiing and aggressive braking.
The most famous ace to fly the Bf 109 was Erich Hartmann, veteran of 825 combat missions on the Eastern Front. Flying with Jagdgeschwader 52 he scored 352 victories. As the Soviets drove the Luftwaffe back into the Balkans he included a number of Mustangs in this total. No other fighter pilot has ever matched this score.
The Bf 109G was the definitive example of this fighter, with more produced than any other variant. A total of nearly 35,000 Bf 109s of all variants were produced over 21 years. After the war they were flown by the Israelis in the 1948 war where they served alongside Spitfires. The final examples were Hispano and Merlin powered aircraft. The last were built in Spain in late 1956. The Spanish Air Force flew their Rolls Royce Merlin powered Hispano Ha1112s until they retired them in 1967.
Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NY 1970. Augsburg Eagle, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NY 1971. Combat Aircraft of World War II, Bill Gunston, Salamander Books, LTD., London, UK, 1978. The Messerschmitt Bf 109G, j. R. Smith and J. Primmer, Profile Publications, Surrey, England, No Date. The Blond Knight of Germany, Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable, Ballantine Books, New York, 1970.