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Spitfire I and Bf 109E-4 side plans
Scale drawings of the Spitfire I and Messerschmitt Bf 109E-4 to scale, showing the Spitfire to be the slightly longer fighter
The Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane: RAF Icons
A Spitfire Mk IIa flies alongside a Hawker Hurricane Mk IIC. Both aircraft are from the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
Which is better, the Supermarine Spitfire or the Hawker Hurricane? That question has been asked by pilots, historians and air enthusiasts since 1940. It does not have a definitive answer, however, each aircraft had its strong points and its disadvantages. Although both aircraft played a decisive role in the Battle of Britain they could not have been more different from one another. Each was created under a completely different set of circumstances and came from totally different backgrounds and antecedents. The Spitfire owed its famous graceful lines and speed to its early ancestors, evolving as a fighter from a series of extremely successful racing seaplanes that were designed in the 1920s–and 1930s. All of those racers were built by the firm of Supermarine Ltd. and were designed by one man–Reginald J. Mitchell. The innovative Mitchell has been called one of the most brilliant designers Britain has ever produced. His designs really were ahead of their time. In 1925, when he began building racing airplanes, streamlining was considered more a theoretical exercise than an engineering possibility. But Mitchell made engineering theories more than just possibilities he turned them into brilliant successes.
Mitchell’s efforts at streamlining produced aircraft that were not only graceful but also among the fastest in the world. In 1927, his S.5 racer won the Schneider Trophy with a speed of 281.65 mph. Four years later, his elegant S.6B captured the Schneider Trophy outright for Britain with a speed of 340.08. Later, on September 29, 1931, his S.6B, fitted with a special ‘Sprint’ engine with its horsepower upgraded to 2,550, pushed the world speed record to 407.5 mph.
During that time, Britain’s Air Ministry began looking for a replacement for the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) standard fighters, the Bristol Bulldog and Gloster Gladiator, both of which were biplanes. Knowing he had the experience and the reputation he acquired by designing his Schneider Trophy winners going for him, Mitchell decided to make a bid for the Air Ministry’s contract to design this new fighter. The Supermarine firm had been taken over by the industrial giant Vickers by this time the new corporation was known as Supermarine Aviation Works (Vickers) Ltd.
The first prototype of the aircraft that would become known as the Spitfire was an odd-looking affair. Officially designated the F.7/30, it was a gull-winged monoplane with an open cockpit and spatted undercarriage. It looked more like a German Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber than the Battle of Britain fighter. Mitchell was not satisfied with his F.7/30 for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was underpowered–its Rolls-Royce Goshawk II engine gave it a speed of only 238 mph. So he began to experiment. He added a larger engine, enclosed the cockpit, and gave his new fighter a retractable undercarriage with smaller, thinner wings. These thin, elliptically shaped wings would become the fighter’s most recognizable feature. Mitchell continued to modify his design in 1933 and 1934. The larger engine he had in mind was supplied by Rolls-Royce–a new, 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled power plant called simply the PV-12. Rolls-Royce would rename this engine the Merlin–a name that would become legend among aircraft power plants. The new fighter, now designated the F.10/35, developed into a low-wing interceptor with retractable undercarriage, flaps, enclosed cockpit, and oxygen for the pilot. The Merlin engine promised to give it all the speed Mitchell wanted and the Air Ministry would require. For armament, he gave his fighter four wing-mounted .303-caliber machine guns. Air Vice Marshal Hugh ‘Stuffy’ Dowding, Air Member for Supply and Research, had been in charge of the RAF’s technical development since 1930. He was favorably impressed by Mitchell’s F.10/35 except for one item-he wanted eight machine guns. Recent tests had shown that the minimum firepower needed to shoot down an enemy bomber was six or, preferably, eight guns, each capable of firing 1,000 rounds per minute. With that armament, it was estimated that a pilot would need only two seconds to destroy an enemy bomber in the air-the time during which a fighter pilot would be able to keep the enemy in his sights, it was thought.
Dowding had the future in mind. He knew that the German Luftwaffe was expanding and that Adolf Hitler’s ambition would probably lead to an armed conflict between Britain and Germany. His farsightedness would pay off eight years later, in 1940, when he was chief of RAF Fighter Command.
Because of his aircraft’s elliptical wings, Mitchell was able to fit four Browning .303 caliber machine guns into each wing without increasing drag or radically altering the design. With that armament, along with the RollsRoyce Merlin engine and the other features he had designed, Mitchell knew that his fighter would be a match for any aircraft the Luftwaffe might produce. Now all he had to do was convince the Air Ministry.
Mitchell’s fighter first took to the air on March 5, 1936. It had been given a name-the Spitfire-by Vickers and made official by the Air Ministry. (Mitchell himself did not like the name very much he called it ‘a bloody silly name.’) This Spitfire was flown by J. ‘Mutt’ Summers, chief test pilot for Vickers and Supermarine, out of the Eastleigh airport in Hampshire. It was unarmed and fitted with a fixed-pitch wooden propeller. After landing from his test flight, Summers told his ground crew, ‘I don’t want anything touched.’ Although some alterations would be made, he realized from just one flight that the Spitfire was an outstanding fighter.
Following some persuasive arguments from Air Vice Marshal Dowding, the Air Ministry agreed with Summers’ assessment. With a maximum speed of 342 mph, the plane was classed as the fastest military aircraft in the world. Less than three months after Summers’ test flight, on June 3, 1936, a contract was placed with Supermarine for 300 Spitfires. Six hundred more were ordered the next year. By the time Britain went to war with Germany on September 3, 1939, the war that Air Vice Marshal Dowding had foreseen, 2,160 Spitfires were on order for the RAF.
But R.J. Mitchell never lived to see the success of his creation. In 1937, at the age of 42, he died of cancer.
Although the Spitfire was the product of one man’s imagination, the Hawker Hurricane did not owe its origins to any single individual. It was the result of an evolutionary process that began with the fabric-covered biplanes of World War I. Revolutionary for its time-it was the RAF’s first monoplane fighter and its first fighter to exceed 300 mph-the Hurricane was still a wood-and-fabric airplane. It was once referred to as ‘a halfway house between the old biplanes and the new Spitfires.’ Sidney Camm, Hawker Aircraft’s chief designer, was the leading force behind the Hurricane’s development. In the early 1930s, when the Air Ministry began looking to replace its biplanes with a more modem fighter, Camm already had a design for what he called his Fury monoplane, a modification of the graceful and highly maneuverable Fury biplane. The Fury was the direct descendant of Sopwith’s Pup, Triplane, Camel, Dolphin and Snipe-fighters of World War I. Hawker Aircraft Ltd. had begun its life as Sopwith Ltd.
Apart from the fact that the Hurricane was a monoplane, its major differences from the Fury were its power plant and armament. The Fury was powered by the Rolls-Royce Kestrel, which gave it a maximum speed of 184 mph. But the Kestrel was much too small for the Hurricane. When Camm heard about RollsRoyce’s PV-12 engine, the Merlin, he modified his new monoplane to accommodate it.
The original armament of the new Hawker monoplane consisted of two .303-caliber Vickers Mark V machine guns mounted in the fuselage, and two .303-caliber Browning machine guns in the wings. But when Dowding decided that eight guns would be needed to destroy an enemy bomber, Camm changed his design. Just as Mitchell had done with his Spitfire, Camm incorporated eight Browning machine guns in his new fighter, four in each wing. But while Mitchell spaced the guns across the wing’s leading edge, Camm grouped four guns together on each wing this made for a tighter and more destructive concentration of fire.
When the Hawker plane made its first test flight on November 6, 1935, it was still without a name-the Air Ministry did not approve ‘Hurricane,’ the name suggested by the manufacturer, until June 1936. The Hurricane’s maiden flight impressed the Air Ministry, but there were still some who had their doubts about such an ‘unconventional’ airplane-one that had eight machine guns and an enclosed cockpit. The first order of 600 Hurricanes was not placed by the Air Ministry until seven months after the initial test flight.
Enclosed cockpits, retractable landing gears and other features that would become standard for World War II-era airplanes were considered too unorthodox by many authorities, even as late as the mid-to-late 1930s. High-ranking officers who had flown during World War I were accustomed to open cockpits, fixed wheels, struts and supporting cables. Wood and fabric biplanes were familiar monocoque monoplanes were new and strange to them. And the ‘old school’ types had a good deal of influence in the pre-1939 RAF.
Some World War I pilots even insisted that the monoplane would always be outclassed by the biplane, because a biplane could always outmaneuver any monoplane. If those officers had had their way, the RAF would have faced the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf-109s with obsolete Gloster Gladiators in the spring and summer of 1940. It was that line of thinking that made Dowding’s job of upgrading and modernizing the RAF more difficult.
The first production Hurricanes were delivered to No. 111 Squadron at RAF Northolt in December 1937. (Imperial War Museum)
The first RAF unit to be equipped with the Hawker Hurricane was No. 111 Squadron, which received its new fighters late in 1937. Production went into high gear during the following year, after the Air Ministry realized that the coming conflict was not far off. By the time war was declared, just under 500 Hurricanes had been delivered. Eighteen squadrons had been equipped.
Although it may appear from their close completion dates that the Hurricane and Spitfire were developed in parallel, the fact that they appeared on the scene at roughly the same time was purely coincidental. Work on the Spitfire design actually began several years before the Hurricane, but because it was a more complex and innovative airplane, it took longer to develop. Eventually, 14,000 Hurricanes would be built and 22,000 Spitfires (including Royal Navy Seafires).
During the Battle of Britain, between July and September 1940, 19 squadrons of Supermarine Spitfires (372 aircraft at peak on August 30) and 33 squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes (709 aircraft on August 30) faced the Luftwaffe from airports throughout southern England. Other fighters were also employed, such as the grossly underpowered Boulton Paul Defiant, which was no match for the Messerschmitt Bf-109 in spite of its four-gun power turret (neither was the twin-engine Bristol Blenheim). A squadron of Gloster Gladiator biplanes was actually assigned to defend the Royal Naval dockyards at Portsmouth. But the brunt of the fighting was taken on by the Spitfire and the Hurricane.
The Luftwaffe had tried to destroy the RAF, especially the RAF Fighter Command, during the Battle of Britain and had conspicuously failed. This failure was almost entirely due to the ‘unconventional’ creations of Reginald J. Mitchell and Sidney Camm. Dowding’s insistence upon equipping the RAF with these two fighters while he was still attached to Supply and Research paid large dividends in the skies over the south of England during the summer of 1940. But the question persists as to which was better, the Hurricane or the Spitfire. Pilots have been making comparisons between the two airplanes for more than 50 years. Wing Commander Robert Stanford-Tuck said the Spitfire was like ‘a fine Thoroughbred racehorse, while the dear old Hurricane was rather like a heavy workhorse.’
‘After many years of reflection,’ said a former Spitfire pilot during the 1980s, ‘I take the view that it took both of them to win the Battle of Britain, and neither would have achieved it on its own.
As a more stable gun platform, many have said that the Hurricane was better suited to go after the Luftwaffe bombers. (Imperial War Museum)
For attacking formations of bombers, the Hurricane offered better visibility and much greater steadiness for shooting. The Spitfire was a slightly higher performance airplane-faster, a better rate of climb, and much more responsive to the controls, according to StanfordTuck. In other words, each had its good points and bad points. Or, as another pilot said, ‘The Spitfire and the Hurricane complemented each other.’
A former pilot of No. 65 (Spitfire) Squadron observed that the Hurricane inflicted greater damage on the enemy bombers than did the Spitfire but without the Spitfire squadrons to fight the Messerschmitts, the Hurricane-inflicted casualties might not have been enough to win the battle.
By 1939, the Spitfire was significantly faster and had a higher rate of climb, according to Dennis Richards and Richard Hough in The Battle of Britain, and they noted, ‘In handling, there was little to choose between the two,’ The authors went on to point out that the Hurricane’s twin batteries of four Brownings closely grouped together in the wings was preferred to the ‘widely scattered’ guns in the Spitfire’s wings. Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, who became an ace in spite of losing both legs in an air accident, added that the Hurricane ‘had more room in the cockpit and a better view, and the Spit’s much trickier to land … on that little, narrow undercarriage.’
Peter Townsend, who flew both Spitfires and Hurricanes, said that Spitfires were ‘faster and more nimble, the Hurricane more maneuverable at its own speed and undoubtedly the better gun platform.’ One of Townsend’s fellow Battle of Britain pilots defended the Spitfire: ‘Our Spits were so well balanced they would fly themselves. Many pilots owe their lives to this property …. If a pilot passed out through lack of oxygen, the Spitfire would fall away in a dive and correct itself’ But another of Townsend’s contemporaries spoke up for the Hurricane: ‘ [It] was built with the strength of a battleship, had an engine of great power and reliability, and was throughout an excellent and accurate flying machine.’ Some of the Hurricane’s detractors (or Spitfire’s defenders) point to the Hawker fighter’s wood-and-fabric construction as one of its failings. But author Len Deighton claimed that this ‘old-fashioned’ construction was actually one of the airplane’s advantages. He noted that the exploding cannon shells of the Messerschmitt Bf- 109, which inflicted heavy damage to metal skin, had less effect on any sort of girder work-in the same way that bomb blasts so often failed to topple the skeletal British radar towers. He pointed out that the RAF had very few men who understood the complexities of the Spitfire’s stressed-metal construction, but that its airframe and flight mechanics had spent their lives servicing and rigging wood-and-fabric aircraft like the Hurricane. In consequence, many seriously damaged Hurricanes were repaired in squadron workshops while badly damaged Spitfires were being written off.
Deighton also noted that the Hurricane had a tighter turning radius than the Spitfire-800 feet for the Hurricane compared with 880 for the Spitfire. This meant that the Hurricane could turn inside the Spitfire, like a sports car outmaneuvering a sedan–a vital attribute in air combat.
An iconic Battle of Britain photo, Spitfires from, No. 610 Squadron, based at Biggin Hill, Kent, fly over South East England. (Imperial War Museum)
The Spitfire’s job was to engage the enemy’s fighters, to draw the Messerschmitts away from the German bomber formations. Then, when the Bf-109s were out of position, the Hurricanes would attack the bombers. That was the plan, but it didn’t always work out that way. Hurricane pilots found themselves fighting Messerschmitts as often as did the Spitfire pilots.
German pilots had a great deal more respect for the Spitfire than for the Hurricane. The standard wisecrack among Luftwaffe fighter pilots was that the Hurricane was ‘a nice little plane to shoot down.’ But this could be attributed to Spitfire snobbery-no German fighter pilot wanted to admit that he had been badly shot up by a fighter made of fabric and wood.
Some Spitfire pilots shared that bias in regard to the Hurricane. A former pilot of No. 65 Squadron admitted that he had become slightly partisan on the relative merits of the Hurricane and the Spitfire, and noted ‘I would not like to have been a Hurricane pilot in 1940 and greatly respect the courage and achievements of those who were.’ Among RAF pilots, the Spitfire-vs.-Hurricane controversy went on and on, with no quarter given by either side. And the argument was not always confined to the officers mess.
Shortly before the Battle of Britain began, a practice air raid had been arranged between a Spitfire squadron and a Hurricane squadron. The Hurricanes were to make a mock bomb run over the Kenley airfield in Surrey. Number 64 Squadron was to send six Spitfires to intercept the incoming ‘bombers.’ It all looked like a nice, easy practice drill on paper, but whoever planned the exercise had not reckoned on the rivalry between Spitfire and Hurricane pilots.
Each side thought its own airplane was the best. Now they had their golden opportunity to demonstrate which fighter really was superior, once and for all. The exercise began according to plan-the Spitfires patrolled above their aerodrome, and the Hurricanes showed up flying in bomber formation. But when the Spitfires dove to the attack, the plan quickly fell apart. When the Hurricane pilots saw their adversaries closing from behind, they broke formation and turned to meet their attackers–a highly unbomberlike maneuver! For the next several minutes, the two squadrons chased each other for miles in all directions. The strain of dogfighting quickly wore down the pilots’ enthusiasm, and both squadrons landed after several minutes of wild aerobatics. Despite the great effort, however, nothing was accomplished by the little drill. Nobody’s skills at breaking up bomber formations had improved, and neither side could brag about a clearcut victory over the other. But at least it had given the pilots something else to argue about.
The pilot at the controls of either a Hurricane or Spitfire was not the most comfortable person in the world. Both machines may have had their good points and bad points, but no one ever praised either one for its comfort or luxury. According to Wing Commander Raymond Myles Beacham Duke-Woolley, who flew with the all-American Eagle Squadrons, a fighter pilot was a lonely man. The cockpit was so narrow that his shoulders brushed against the sides whenever he rubbernecked for enemy fighters (which was constantly) his flying helmet, with his radio headset, covered his ears his nose and mouth were covered by an oxygen mask, which also contained his microphone. He could not hear very well-even the engine roar was muffled his vision was severely restricted, and his entire body was boxed in by the confines of the cockpit. He was, in short, not only lonely but also extremely uncomfortable.
In spite of their differences, it would be the combination of Hurricane and Spitfire, together that turned the tide in that Summer of 1940. (Imperial War Museum)
The pilot’s disposition was not improved by the fact that he was traveling at speeds in excess of 300 mph, and he felt even more anxious when a pilot in another machine-probably just as uncomfortable-began shooting at him.
Die-hard defenders of the Hurricane are quick to comment that the Hawker aircraft is credited with shooting down more enemy aircraft than the Spitfire. The Air Ministry confirmed this with its statement, ‘The total number of enemy aircraft brought down by single-seater fighters was in the proportion of 3 by Hurricanes to 2 by Spitfires,’ and also noted, ‘the average proportion … of serviceable [aircraft] each morning was approximately 63 percent Hurricanes and 37 percent Spitfires.’ A cynic might be tempted to say that the Hurricane did most of the work, but the Spitfire got most of the glory. And the cynics would have a point. For in spite of all the facts, it is the myth that is best remembered-the myth of the Spitfire taking on the air fleets of the Luftwaffe single-handedly. In their jubilee edition of The Battle of Britain, Richard Hough and Denis Richards give their own version of the Spitfire myth: ‘The Battle of Britain, despite Fighter Command’s being down to its last few aircraft, was won by unfailingly cheerful young officers flying Spitfires … and directed by ‘Stuffy’ Dowding ……
The reason for the Hurricane’s second-class status was that it was competing not with another fighter, but with a genuine legend. William Green wrote: ‘The Supermarine Spitfire was much more than just a highly successful fighter. It was the material symbol of final victory to the British people in their darkest hour, and was probably the only fighter of the Second World War to achieve legendary status.’
The fact that the Hurricane was responsible for more enemy aircraft destroyed is eclipsed by the Spitfire’s graceful silhouette and romantic legend. Glamour usually outshines performance, in war as in love.
Both aircraft were modified many times as the war progressed they were given larger engines, more spacious cockpits, and 20mm cannons. Both also saw active service until World War II ended in August 1945. Although they served on other fronts from Malta to Singapore, they reached their pinnacle during the high summer of 1940, when the Spitfire and Hurricane joined forces to thwart the Luftwaffe over the green fields of southern England.
In spite of their differences, both in origin and in performance, the two fighters became counterparts. Together, they turned the tide of history’s first great air battle.
This article was originally published in the November 1994 issue of Aviation History Magazine. For more great articles subscribe today!
The prototype Bf 109V-1 was ready in August, 1935, Like its predecessor, the Bf 108, it was a low wing, all metal construction monoplane, with flush rivets, leading edge slats, and retractable landing gear. Its single-seat cockpit had a fully enclosed canopy. While none of the developments were revolutionary in 1935, Messerschmitt first put them all together in the Bf 109. Powered by a 695 HP twelve cylinder Rolls-Royce Kestrel engine, the Bf 109V-1 first flew in September of that year.
At first, the Luftwaffe pilots, from Ernst Udet on down, distrusted the aircraft. It seemed frail its enclosed canopy was disconcerting it had a very high wing loading and its narrow track landing gear was prone to failure. (On this last point, their concerns were well founded. Landing gear troubles plagued the 109 its entire career.)
But its speed and agility impressed the Luftwaffe skeptics even Udet came around to support the plane. Even before the results of the competition were known, Messerschmitt pushed on with the second and third models. The Bf 109V-2 was powered by a 610 HP Junkers Jumo 210A but was otherwise similar to the V-1.
The V-3, the third prototype, was the first Bf 109 to be armed, carrying two 7.9mm MG17 machine guns and 1000 rounds of ammunition, as called for in the RLM spec. Otherwise similar to the first two examples, its first flight was delayed until May 1936, due to teething problems with the Jumo 210A engine.
Meanwhile, the Arado and Focke-Wulfe entries had foundered on poor performance and mechanical problems, and Heinkel’s He 112 could not match Messerschmitt’s entrant. Reports of the technologically advanced British Spitfire development added to the Bf 109's favor. Throughout the 1936 trials, the BFW fighter looked better and better, prompting the RLM to order ten Bf 109s. Udet's stunning performance in a Bf 109 at the Rechlin air show confirmed the decision. In front of Generalfeldmarschall Goering and other Luftwaffe brass, Udet intercepted four He 51s in a mock air battle, "destroyed" them, and then turned on a force of bombers and "destroyed" them as well.
In November 1936, the Bf 109V-4 flew. It mounted a third machine gun in the nose and otherwise resembled the V-3.
With production now guaranteed, BFW finished the prototyping with two more airplanes: the Bf 109V-5 and the Bf 109V-6, both equipped with an improved Jumo 210B engine.
With Nazi Germany committed to the Fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War, the Germans rushed these last three pre-production aircraft to Seville in December, 1936. Essentially, the final field-testing of the Bf 109 took place in actual combat, as the German “volunteers” of the Condor Legion immediately began flying missions.
2. Supermarine Spitfire
The Spitfire remains one of the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War. Although their turnaround time was longer than the Hurricane (29 minutes), they were faster. This made them a good match for the Messerschmitt bf 109s. In an attack on a German formation, the Hurricanes would focus their fire on the bombers while the Spitfires dealt with the fighter escort.
A Spitfire Mark IIA of No. 65 Squadron RAF parked on the ground at Tangmere, Sussex, 1940.
The Spitfire was helped in aerial dogfights by a tight turning circle, which meant they could sometimes outmanoeuvre Messerschmitts. However, the two aircraft were very evenly matched, so their engagements were decided by the tactics and skill of the pilots.
Many Spitfires were bought by private individuals or communities after the war, and around 60 are still in airworthy condition.
The Spanish Civil War
In the summer of 1936 the Luftwaffe had dispatched a multi-role combat force, the Condor Legion, to assist the Nationalist forces fighting in the Spanish Civil War. In a counter-move the Soviet Union began supplying modern aircraft to the Republican Air Force.
The Bf 109 received its baptism of fire in July 1937, when Republican forces went onto the offensive west of Madrid. During the air actions that followed, the primary mission mission of the Bf 109s was to escort Junkers Ju 52 bombers which were attacking targets in the battle area.
Some of the fiercest aerial fighting of the war in Spain took place during the Republican offensive in the Teruel area early in 1938. On 7 February Hauptmann Gotthardt Handrick, now the commander of Jagdgruppe 88, was leading the Bf 109s from both Staffeln on a bomber escort mission. Near Teruel he sighted a format a formation of 22 Soviet built Tupolev SB-2 bombers, and a careful search of the sky revealed no sign of Republican fighters in the area. Handrick led his fighters in an attack on the enemy aircraft and several bombers were shot down before a score of Polikarpov I-16 fighters arrived on the scene and a swirling dogfight followed. When the action ended the Messerschmitt fighters had destroyed ten enemy bombers and two fighters for no loss to themselves.
The Polish Campaign
Contrary to the popular legend, only a small proportion of the Bf 109 force took part in the Polish campaign – five Gruppen, with less than 200 serviceable aircraft, out of 24 Gruppen then equipped with the type. The bulk of the force was held back in western Germany to meet a possible onslaught by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the French Air Force – a threat that never materialized.
The 200-odd Bf 109s that did support the attack on Poland proved to be sufficient to counter the weak Polish Air Force. The latter possessed only about 150 fighters and a similar number of bombers, most of the obsolescent types. The best Polish fighter, the PZL 11, had a maximum speed of only 242 mph (389 km/h) at 16,200 ft (4,900 m) and was no match even for the early versions of the Bf 109. Completely outclassed by the “Emil”, these fighters fell as easy prey whenever the two met in combat.
Within a couple of week the Polish Air Force was virtually out of the fight, and before the land campaign ended on 28 September the Luftwaffe felt sufficiently to pull two Messerschmitt Gruppen out and re-position them for the defence of Germany.
The Battle of France
The German attack on the Low Countries and France proved to be virtually a repeat of the previous successful campaign against Poland. Only one French fighter, the Dewoitine D.520, was capable of meeting the Bf 109E on anything like equal terms, but due to mismanagement this aircraft never reached L’Armée de l’Air in any numbers. The RAF had six Hawker Hurricane squadrons in France and these were joined by another four by another four by 12 May, 1940. Although fighting bravely, the British squadrons were unable to combat the well-organized Luftwaffe units successfully, and by 28 May they had all been withdrawn to southern England. On the previous day, over the beaches of Dunkirk, Supermarine Spitfire fighters clashed with Messerschmitt fighters for the first time, showing that at last an aircraft had appeared which was at least the equal of the BF 109.
The Battle of Britain
The action during the period which became known as The Battle of Britain opened in July 1940 with attacks on shipping passing the English Channel. Typical of the scrappy actions of the time was that on the afternoon of 13 July when a convoy freighters passed through the Straits of Dover. Half dozen of Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers from Sturzkampsgeschwader 1 were in the process of dive-bombing the ships when they came under attack from eleven Hurricane of No 56 Squadron. Major Josef Foezoe was leading the Staffel of Messerschmitt fighters of II/JG 51 escorting the Stukas. No 56 Squadron lost two Hurricanes destroyed and two damaged. On the German side two Ju 87s were seriously damaged but JG 51 suffered no losses.
Six days later, on 19 July, the Bf 109 established its superiority over the RAF’s Boulton Paul Defiant turret fighter. As nine of these fighters belonging to No 141 Squadron were moving in to protect a convoy under attack, they were “bounced” from out of the sun by Bf 109s, again from JG 51. A one-sided action followed and only the timely arrival of a squadron of Hurricanes saved the Defiants from complete annihilation. Only three turret fighters survived the encounter, one with serious damage, while one Bf 109 was shot down. Following this action the Defiant played a minor part in the daylight air battles over the south of England.
During the initial phase of the Battle of Britain, the Bf 109 units flew several “Freijagd” or free hunting sweeps over southern England, aiming to draw RAF fighters into action. Initially, these operations had some success, but when the nature of the German tactics became clear the defending fighter-controllers received orders to engage only against those formations thought to contain bombers. Whenever possible, the fighter sweeps were left well alone.
On 13 August the German attack shifted to airfields in southern England but the early actions brought home to the Luftwaffe the clear lesson that unescorted bombers operating by day over southern England could expect short shrifts if they were caught by British fighters. During the action, the strengths and weaknesses of the Bf 109E, when compared with the RAF’s Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, quickly became evident. Both British fighters could out-turn the Messerschmitt aircraft, and below 15,000 ft (about 4,600 m) the Spitfire was the faster. Above 20,000 ft (6,100 m) the Bf 109E was faster than the Spitfire, and it could outrun the Hurricane at any altitude. A further advantage enjoyed by the Bf 109 pilots was that the fuel injection system of the DB 601 engine allowed them to fly manoeuvres involving negative gravity (G) with no risk of the engine cutting out.
British fighters were fitted with float carburettors, and if their pilots attempted to imitate these manoeuvres the engine would cut out due to fuel starvation. Thus a common method used by Bf 109s to rid themselves of pursuing British fighters was to push hard on the stick to bunt the aircraft, and then dive away. Such marginal differences could decide a few combats, but they should not cloud the overall picture.
Range was also a factor. The BF 109E variant had shortcomings in this area and the long-range Messerschmitt Bf 110 was supposed to fly protective escort for the bombers in reality the Bf 110 was a failure. The Bf 109, however, soon came into service with the suitably equipped the BF 109E-7 version in August 1940 and this proved a success, although many actually had to protect the Bf 110!
One cliché image of the Battle of Britain is a sky full of Bf fighterss and Spitfires and/or Hurricanes engaged in turning combats with individual enemy fighters. That makes for a spectacular painting with lots of room for artists’ licence, but it is far from the truth. Any pilot who concentrated his attention on one enemy fighter for too long ran serious risk of setting himself up for a surprise attack by another. On both sides, the really successful fighter pilots stalked their prey using the sun and/or cloud to remain unseen for as long as possible, and then announced their presence with an accurate burst that usually ended the encounter. Again, contrary to the cliché image, chivalry had little place in such an action.
At 03.15 hr on 22 June, 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the massive attack against the Soviet Union over a 2,000-mile front by three army groups and four Luftflotten. The Luftwaffe’s fighter force comprised JG 3 under Maj Günther Lützow equipped with the Bf 109F II. And III./JG 27 under Maj Wolfgang Schnellmann with the E JG 51 under Mölders with the Bf 109F, II. And III./JG 52 under Maj Hans Trübenbach with the Bf 109E JG 53 under Maj Günther von Maltzahn with the BF 109F JG 54 under Maj Hannes Trautloft with the Bf 109F and JG 77 under Maj Bernhard Woldenga with the E version. In addition, I.(Jagd.)/LG 2 was operational under Hptm Herbert Ihlefeld, this unit being redesignated as the new I./JG 77 on 24 January, 1942.
The opening attacks were directed mainly against Soviet aircraft on the ground, many Messerschmitt aircraft carrying 2 kg (4 ½ lb) SD fragmentation bombs. During the first day of the campaign, the Luftwaffe claimed the destruction of no less than 1,811 Soviet aircraft for the loss of 32 of its own machines. Success followed success, and on 30 June, 1941, JG 51 claimed its total of enemy aircraft to 1,000 on 31 July, followed by JG 54 on 1 August and JG 3 on 15 August.
These were great times for the German fighter pilots and the more talented “Experten” built up huge scores. There were plenty of opportunities for everyone, however, and even the inexperienced pilots could notch up victories.
North African Campaign
During the early autumn fo 1941, I./JG 27 under Hptm Eduard Neumann was transferred to North Africa to supplement the small Luftwaffe force operating in that area under X.Fliegerkorps. This unit was still equipped with the BF 109E-4/Trop and was based at Ain-el-Gazala. By the end of 1941, the other two Gruppen of Jagdgeschwader 27 had been transferred to North Africa, the Geschwader now being equipped with the Bf 109F-4/Trop. On 24 September 1941, Lt Hans Marseille of 3./JG 27 claimed the destruction of five enemy aircraft, and he was shortly to become the most celebrated German pilot of this war theatre.
The early months of 1942 proved most successful for JG 27 in North Africa. Opposed only by obsolescent Hawker Hurricane and Curtiss Tomahawks, the Bf 109F-equipped unit was able to destroy a large number of Allied aircraft.
After the war, various design variants of the German fighter were to continue in production in two countries. In Czechoslovakia the production lines set up by Germans were brought back into operation and turned out a much-modified Bf 109G-14 powered by a Jumo 211 engine. Designated the S 199, the fighter entered service with the Czech Air Force in 1948. Twenty-five S199 were purchased by the fledgling state of Israel for its new air force and these saw action during the first Arab-Israeli war.
Meanwhile, the assembly had begun at Hispano Aviation in Spain of a batch of twenty-five Bf 109G-2 airframes bought from Germany during the war. The deteriorating war situation prevented the Germans from supplying the DB 605s, so the aircraft were flown with Hispano Suiza HS 12Z engines and designated as HA-1109s. Hispano set up a production line to build a further 200 of these aircraft from scratch, some of them two-seaters which were designated the HA-1110. In 1953, the decision was taken to modify the aircraft to take the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, and this gave a significant improvement in performance. As a result, all HA-1109s and HA-1110s in service with the Spanish Air Force were fitted with the Merlin, being redesignated the HA-1112 M1L and the HA-1112-M4L respectively. A few examples would remain in service until 1967, more than 30 years after the Bf 109 prototype had first flown over that country.
The Me109 v Spitfire Debate Keeps Going
Or rather, it does for some but not for me! I’ve recently written an article for Fly Past Magazine comparing the two marks that were available in 1940, the Me109E and the Spitfire Mk I, in which I came down in favour of the Messerschmitt. This has prompted a number of letters to Fly Past’s editor, Ken Ellis, two of which he has published in this month’s edition, one agreeing with my argument, the other vehemently not so. The latter is from Mark Laity in Belgium. ‘The idea that after 70 years anyone is going to come up with anything truly new about the Battle of Britain is unlikely, although with so much literature already available the need to appear to offer something different is also self-evident!’ he begins. I completely disagree – there’s tons of stuff out there, because for the most part, people have only ever looked at comparatively narrow sources and generally only from one side. I wrote the book equally from the German and British perspective not because I was desperate to appear to offer something new but because I wanted to have a clearer picture of what was going on myself. I can assure you, I’m a Spitfire lover and it pained me greatly to say that the Me109E was better. I wasn’t doing it to be alternative and unnecessarily provocative but because those were the conclusions I drew having examined the evidence.
‘I cannot recall any Battle of Britain pilot saying the Bf 109 was better than the Spitfire – and there is no shortage of such memoirs,’ Mark continues. Well that was because most people never got the chance to find out. Only a handful of British pilots ever had a chance to fly the Me109. He is right, though, that the Spitfire was a more graceful bird to fly, but that is missing the point. The Me109E could climb faster and dive faster than a Spitfire, two key facets of air-to-air fighting. You don’t need to turn in tight circles if you can dive out of the fray faster than anything else in the sky. The third crucial advantage was its fire-power – 55 seconds’ worth of ammunition compared with 14.7, and 20mm high explosive cannon shells as well as machine-guns, cannons that even without their explosive charge packed a punch 200% heavier than a .303 bullet. People can argue all they like about handling, wing-loading, under-carriage widths etc etc, but the bare-faced facts are these: the Me109 could climb faster, had considerably greater fire-power, and could dive faster. That made it the best air-to-air fighter of 1940. That’s not a debate, it’s a fact.
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I recently read some parts of your book, specifically i glanced over your very intelligent analysis of the Bf 109 E (or as you correctly point out now known as the Me 109 E). I have been studying an aerospace technology degree for some time but more importantly i have been exceptionally interested with this aircraft and have been researching it for in excess of 5 years now. I must say to see words such as this is a breath of fresh air in the ignorance of many who have claimed the Spitfire to be always superior despite what detailed rational reasoning is used. In fact i am writing a book myself specifically on this aircraft, based on its development, design, tactics and detailed information for flight simulation enthusiasts. Can i just say that i havent seen a word that could be possibly thought to be ill-placed about the aircraft and its rival and im glad someone has confronted this hideously long debate with some actual facts. Thankyou for your work and best of luck with your future ones!
I have always found this a fascinating debate.
The ME109 was, in terms of technical performance, a superior aircraft particularly the fuel injection enable a push the stick dive without the need for a half roll.
The Spitfire was undoubtedly the better plane to fly in terms of cockpit, manoeuvrability, easy of flight.
So it depends how you want to categorise best and in aircraft terms that means power, rate of climb etc. etc. and in that sense the ME-109 wins……but I rather have a squadron of Spitfires at my disposal!
“That made it the best air-to-air fighter of 1940. That’s not a debate, it’s a fact.”
given that the then German fighter tactic was to attack from or in a dive and then dive away, then dive characteristics were vital.
the hurricane outshone the spitfire and me 109 in that aspect, after all, no one ever tore the wings off a hurricane pulling up.
turning seems to have played a major part in dogfights at that time, so it mattered then, even if revisionist theorizing suggests otherwise.
the hurricanes tighter turning circle (and many other points), made the hurricane the best fighter in that particular battle.
as for fire power, German aircrew did remark on the “shredding” power of an RAF fighters weapons.
On armament, the most numerous 109E subtype in service during the height of the BoB was E-1, which didn’t has cannon, only 4 7.92mm MG 17 mgs, in fighter units there were 375 E-1s on 31 Aug 40, that is 35% of the 109Es in fighter units on 31 Aug 40, excluding planes of JG 77, info on which is missing. The 2nd most common was E-4, 339 a/c, again without JG 77. It had two effective 20mm FFM cannon in wings plus the two cowling MG 17s, but cannon had only 60rounds magazines, so E-1 had firing time of 55sec for its 2 cowling mgs, ie long time but weak firepower and 25 sec for its wing mgs, so 70% more firing time than Spitfire Mk Ia had for its 8 mgs, but only for 4 mgs. E-4 had effective cannon but ammo for them only for 6½ sec, after that its pilot could use only 2 synchronized mgs.
On climb, what I have read Spitfire Mk I using +12lbs boost, which was allowed for 5 minutes when 100oct fuel came into use in Fighter Command, climbed at least as well as 109E-1, -3 and -4.
109E dived better, had fuel-injection engine and most of them had effective cannon armament but with very limited ammo supply. When we look results, tactics used and circumstances of the battle, IMHO it seems that there wasn’t much difference in quality between Spitfire Mk I and 109E.
And after all IIRC those British WWII pilots who had flew both thought that Spitfire Mk I was better fighter than Bf 109E but the German fighter pilots who had flew both thought that 109E was superior.
And now for some out-of-schedule aviation geekiness:
Yesterday I encoutnered an off-hand comment about whether the Spitfire or the Messerschmitt (understood to be the Bf 109) was the superior fighter. This is a matter of debate that arises any time aircraft aficionados gather, but it’s Saturday, and I’m slightly bored, so I feel for writing something lighter.
The aircraft that came to be the Supermarine Spitfire was the brainchild of R. J. Mitchell, a talented engineer that had designed some of the most iconic racing seaplanes of the interwar years. Willy Messerschmitt’s bird had a rather different background, with Messerschmitt learning the trade by designing sailplanes. Much (too much) has been made of these different pedigrees, and how they shaped the fighters that came to be. Still, both designs had much in common, being powered by large liquid-cooled V-12 piston engines, relying on all-metal monocoque structures, and having a single low-slung set of wings. In fact, the Spitfire and the Bf 109 were amongst the first mature fighters to discard the biplane design in favor of the single low-mounted wing that has since dominated the world of fighter aircraft.
Spitfire Mk I being rearmed during the height of the Battle of Britain. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The engines of the aircrafts deserve a closer study, as these played an integral part in the development of both series. The Messerschmitt prototype flew with a rather unlikely powersource, namely a British-made Rolls-Royce Kestrel. In the early pre-war versions of the Bf 109 this was then replaced with a Jumo 210 V-12 engine (Jumo standing for Junkers Motoren), but by the time the war broke out the E-version of the Bf 109 had introduced the excellent Daimler-Benz DB 601. By mid-42 a further upgraded version of the DB 600-series had been launched in the form of the DB 605. This would then power the two final versions of the Bf 109, namely the Bf 109G ‘Gustav’ and the Bf 109K ‘Kurfürst’.
The Bf 109E ‘Emil’ of Battle of Britain-fame, here in Swiss colours. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sandstein
Compared to the Bf 109, the Spitfire had a more straightforward development, with the engine forever associated with the aircraft being the Rolls-Royce Merlin. This powered the prototype (as well as the early Spitfire Mk I in the Battle of Britain), and in refined form it powered the Mk VIII that roamed the skies of Burma in 1945. In parallel, a number of late-war Spitfire variants were also powered by the markedly bigger Rolls-Royce Griffon.
It is easy to overlook exactly how huge these improvements were. The Spitfire Mk I that went to war in 1939 featured a Merlin II, giving it 775 kW of power for a top speed of 580 km/h. The aircraft was armed with eight light machine guns in the form of the 0.303 Browning (7,7 mm). Only four years later, the Merlin 60-series (61, 63 and 66) gave Spitfires of the marks VIII, IX and XVI some 1280 kW of power, for a top speed in excess of 650 km/h. The armament consisted of two 20 mm cannons backed up by two heavy .50 calibre machine guns (12,7 mm), and for ground attack up to 450 kg of bombs could be carried. This remarkable increase in power and speed was taken even further by the late- and post-war Griffon-engined versions, in which the final version of the Spitfire, a carrier-based version named Seafire F.Mk 47 mounted a 1752 kW Rolls-Royce Griffon 88 driving a contra-rotating prop, propelling the aircraft to a top-speed of almost 730 km/h! In the meantime, the Bf 109 had progressed from the pre-war Bf 109A ‘Anton’ with its 493 kW Jumo 210D to the Bf 109K-4 ‘Kurfürst’ featuring a Daimler-Benz DB 605DC with a boosted output of 1470 kW.
The sleek lines of the Griffon -powered Seafire F.Mk XVII, one of the last variants of Mitchell’s classic fighter. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Adrian Pingstone
Herein lays the true remarkability of the aircrafts, the fact that they could take on ever larger amounts of power, and still maintain their fighting capability. Extremely few front-line aircraft stayed in production throughout the Second World War, and both the Spitfire and the Bf 109 belong to this exclusive club.
A classic picture of a Bf 109G-2 ‘Gustav’ in Finnish service. Source: Wikimedia Commons/SA-kuva
This puts the question of greatness into perspective. Both planes evolved continuously during their long careers, and any attempt at an answer will have to include a reference to the timeframe in question. There is no doubt that the post-war Griffon-powered Spitfires in the form of the land-based F.Mk. 24 and the carrier-based F.Mk 47 were the all-out finest fighters, as the development of the Messerschmitt had (almost) ended by that time. During the late-war years the Spitfire also held the edge, with the Mk IX being a finer plane than the Bf 109G/K, which were starting to show signs of the airframe not being able to absorb the vast increases in power while maintaining the fine handling in the same way the Spitfire could. During the early war years, the question is harder to answer. The Bf 109F ‘Fredrich’ probably held a slight edge over contemporary Spitfires when it came out, especially over the North African desert, were the Messerschmitt’s dust covers hampered its performance less than the corresponding items on the Spitfire. During the battle of Britain, it is impossible to pick one over the other. The Bf 109E had heavier armament, and a slightly higher top speed, but the thin wing discouraged pilots from taking the aircraft ‘to the limit’ in dogfights, as overstressing the wings could have fatal consequences. In capable hands, both aircraft could more than hold their own against any aerial adversaries.
Still, the final word would go to the Messerschmitt, and in a very unlikely way.
After the war, the Czechoslovak aircraft industry had to find a way to supply the country’s reborn air force with fighters. As the Bf 109G had been produced in the country during the German occupation, it was a natural choice. The ‘new’ fighter was named Avia S-99, but after only a minor batch had been delivered, a warehouse fire destroyed the stored stocks of DB 605 engines. A new engine had to be found if production was to continue. This was solved when it was decided to mate the Jumo 211F engine and propeller used by the Heinkel He 111 to the airframe of the Bf 109G, a decision based more on availability than any finer points of engineering.
The resulting aircraft, dubbed the Avia S-199, was probably the worst version of the whole Bf 109-family to reach production. The large paddle-bladed propeller caused a huge amount of torque, making the aircraft extremely difficult to handle on take-off and landing. The layout of the Jumo-engine also meant that the fearsome 30 mm cannon that had been firing through the propeller hub on the Bf 109 G/K had to be discarded. All in all, it would most probably have slipped off into the pages of aviation history largely unnoticed, if not for developments in the middle east.
An Israeli S-199 showing its huge propeller and redesigned engine cowl. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Upon Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948, the country faced a massive attack from all sides by neighboring Arab states. One of the major problems was that the young state lacked any kind of combat aircraft, and due to an arms embargo, acquiring them proved difficult. Czechoslovakia was eager for any influx of dollars it could find, and was willing to part with a number of S-199’s. The aircrafts enjoyed a brief but eventful career in Israeli service, sporting an extremely high accident rate, but also scoring the first kills of the new air force when Mordechai “Modi” Alon, squadron commander of the sole Israeli fighter unit at that time, managed to shoot down two converted C-47 transport planes that were bombing Tel Aviv (Alon would later die in a non-combat accident with the S-199). However, of the (circa) seven kills attributed to the Avia in Israeli hands, at least one is confirmed as being a Royal Egyptian Air Force Spitfire. In a weird twist of irony, the Messerschmitt won the last of countless of duels. And it did this flown by a Jewish pilot, who had shot down two Bf 109’s while flying for the US Army Air Force during the Second World War.
There was yet another chapter in the story of the Bf 109. During the latter part of the war, Spain had secured license production rights of the Bf 109G from Germany, but they too found that the DB 605 where not available. In this case, the Germans desperately needed all available engines for themselves. For their homebuilt HA-1109 they therefore used French-made Hispano-Suiza 12Z, but soon a need for more power (and less torque) was evident. Although the plane was outdated as a fighter by this time, the Spanish Air Force decided that an improved version could be useful in counter-insurgency operations in their North African colonies. Thus was born the final version of the Bf 109, the dedicated ground-attack HA-1112-M1L “Buchon” of 1954-vintage, fitted with a, you guessed it, Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.
“I heard all kinds of horror stories before I flew the Messerschmitt Bf 109E”, says John Romain. “I was told it always wants to ground loop, should never be flown in a crosswind, overheats very quickly, handles horribly and will lull you into a false sense of security on landing – that didn’t exactly paint a positive picture of an aircraft I had long admired!”
He is one of few pilots to accumulate extensive experience on both Bf 109s of different marks and Spanish-built Merlin-powered Buchóns, amounting to nearly 300 hours’ flying time over more than a decade. He describes the Bf 109E as one of the most rewarding vintage aeroplanes he has flown, and has approached the type from a testing and engineering background over a number of years to understand the causality of the aircraft’s many interlinked design and handling idiosyncrasies. “Some of the stories are true”, he muses, “but in many cases we have found ways to tackle those issues.” Nevertheless, John says, “You do walk out to the Bf 109E with a level of apprehension. Even with knowledge of why it behaves the way it does, there are so many stories linked with bad handling characteristics on the ground that you can’t help but approach it every time thinking, I need to be ready for this aeroplane.”
The Bf 109E sits on the ground with the coiled gait of a boxer. Its profile is tense, almost sinewy, with terrific strength built into its compact airframe. Though combat performance was broadly comparable to contemporary fighters, volatile handling characteristics cultivated a disparaging reputation that lingers to this day, and there are some alarming wartime accounts of Bf 109Es being written off in take-off and landing accidents. Almost 80 years ago, these aeroplanes were flown in combat by pilots with varying degrees of experience, operating from forward airstrips in variable weather conditions under extreme pressure. With hindsight, we can recognise factors influencing the reputation and identify how to mitigate against these in modern day operation.
John Romain was at the forefront of that movement. His introduction to the Bf 109E came in the late-1990s as he worked alongside Ed Russell to broker the deal for the Russell Aviation Group’s acquisition of rare Bf 109E-4 Wk-Nr 3579 ‘White 14’, a former 1.(J)./LG 2 machine with Battle of Britain and Eastern Front combat history, restored to flying condition in the UK before it was airfreighted to Los Angeles, CA. Reassembly at Chino, CA followed and the aircraft flew for the first time on 29 September 1999. Four years hence, ‘White 14’ was purchased by the Russell Aviation Group and exported to Niagara South Airport, Canada where it flew semi-regularly until the aircraft changed hands. It was exported once more in November 2014, this time to the UK, where it is chartered to the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar, Kent.
Romain has now piloted both of the 1940-era Bf 109Es restored to airworthiness in the present day. Many hours of testing and air displays were flown in ‘White 14’, the opportunity allowing him to explore the aircraft’s flight envelope whilst learning the particulars of the Daimler-Benz engine. More recently, John has test flown the combat veteran Bf 109E-3 (manufactured in 1939 with Mk-Nr 1342, flown in combat by JG 51, shot down over Dover in late-July 1940, discovered on the Calais coast on 1988 and returned to flight in 22 March 2008) operated by the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum (FHCAM) in Everett, WA.
Its 12-cylinder Daimler-Benz DB 601A “inverted vee” engine notably boasted direct fuel injection, the carburettor having been discarded during redesign. Two MG FF (Flug-Fest, or ‘wing-mounted’) 20mm cannon and a pair of staggered 7.9mm light machine guns gave the Bf 109E considerable armament, particularly compared to the Browning .303in (7.7mm) rifle calibre machine guns mounted in the Spitfire and Hurricane. The DB 600-series engine was manufactured to accommodate the fitment of an additional 20mm cannon in the ‘V’ between the cylinder blocks, firing through the propeller reduction gear’s hollow shaft. Numerous redesign attempts culminated in the removal of the carburettor, and the introduction of direct injection whereby 12 injection pumps spray fuel directly into the cylinders, producing the fuel/air mixture in the cylinders themselves as opposed to the carburettor, as was customary at the time. These pumps, arranged in four groups of three between the cylinder blocks, were controlled by an induction manifold pressure sensitive diaphragm, altitude pressure sensitive capsule stack and induction temperature sensitive capsule. The offshoot of direct fuel injection was improved combat performance – including the ability to push into a negative-g bunt, which the Merlin engine’s float carburettor was unable to cope with – reduced fuel consumption and the avoidance of carburettor icing.
The engine drives a three-blade controllable pitch Vereinigte Deutsche Metallwerke (VDM) propeller, operating in ‘auto’ and ‘manual’ settings sans propeller governor. In ‘auto’, manifold pressure and rpm are controlled in tandem by throttle input. The ‘manual’ setting allows the pilot to control the rpm during throttle and airspeed changes with an electric rocker switch mounted on the throttle quadrant. Manipulation of the switch adjusts the angle of the propeller blades between 22.5° and 90° (fully feathered) via an electric motor mounted on the engine crank case, with the angle of the blades indicated on a clock-like instrument in the cockpit. The DB 601A was heavier and more powerful than the Junkers Jumo engine mounted to the Bf 109D, necessitating a comprehensive redesign of the airframe. The D model’s nose-mounted radiator would have added further weight and drag to the airframe, nullifying the Daimler-Benz engine’s additional power, and the radiator was accordingly relocated under wing (the twin radiators counterbalancing the substantive combined weight of the DB 601 and VDM propeller), with the oil cooler occupying a streamlined duct beneath the nose. The Bf 109E’s wing structure was also modified as a result of the new engine, with several inboard ribs aft of the spar cut down to accommodate the radiator ducting. The redesigned structure gave the wings tremendous strength. High loading was offset by the short, square-tipped cantilever wings, each containing roughly half-span leading edge slats, aerodynamically and inertially actuated to increase the size of the wing, channel airflow over the upper wing surface and maintain airfoil effectiveness.
The main gear legs are attached to the base of the fuselage aft of the firewall to allow easy disassembly and transport, and are splayed forward and outward with tyres mounted “crooked” on the gear legs at an inward-facing camber of around 25°. If the aircraft taxies with an equal download on both main undercarriage wheels, the forces remain symmetrical and the aircraft rolls straight ahead. Break that symmetry by exerting greater force on one undercarriage leg (for example, centrifugal forces produced on take-off) and the corresponding tyre will ‘bite’ into the ground and create directional instability as the wheel attempts to turn inwards. Directional changes created by torque, rudder input, crosswind or even poor runway conditions can force the aircraft into a severe ground loop, potentially at high-speed on take-off or landing where the gyroscopic forces are more pronounced. To mitigate against this, common practice with Bf 109s and Buchóns is to overcharge the pressure on the left oleo to the equivalent of 100 psi. That, John says, “Reduces the ‘give’ on the left leg on take-off and landing. On the Battle of Britain film, the Spanish pilots would taxi back if they had a soft left leg. It’s a learned technique, and thank goodness there are people who have experienced it and have done that themselves – it’s nice not to have to go through a steep learning curve before you learn it yourself”.
Uniquely for a V12 engine, the “inverted vee” design of the DB 600 series causes oiling issues in the lowermost engine components, requiring considerably more preventive maintenance than contemporary power plants such as the Rolls-Royce Merlin. If the Bf 109E has sat idly on the ground for some time, oil will have dissipated into the cylinder heads and a hydraulic lock on start-up, whereby the piston hits oil settled in the cylinder, may be symptomatic and can inflict long-term damage on the engine. To mitigate against this, pre-flight preparation includes removing the plugs at the end of the induction tubing and turning the propeller through by hand to drain oil from the system. The altitude pressure-sensitive capsule stacks within the fuel injection pumps will also be drained of oil to avoid impairing capsule movement. Oil is likely to have coated the spark plugs (of which there are two per cylinder), and these will be removed and cleaned in advance of an engine run to prevent a mag drop. On the day of the sortie, the total-loss oil supply system of the fuel injector unit will be topped up with around a quarter of a litre of oil.
A scan of the matte black cockpit panel suggests a considerate, utilitarian approach, with magnetos and flying instrumentation positioned directly in front and to the left of the pilot, engine instrumentation to the right and temperature, pressure and fuel gauges laid out neatly beneath – a far cry from the more scattershot approach of British cockpits. Manifold pressure (MAP) is measured in atmospheres, marked as ‘ATA’ on the MAP gauge and indicated in tenths of an atmosphere, from 0.6 to 1.8 ATA, with 1 ATA equating to 0psi boost or 30in Hg. Airspeed is measured in kilometres per hour (km/h) and the altimeter is in metres. A quadrant to the pilot’s left contains the throttle lever and electric propeller control. Radiator doors, flaps and trim are all manual systems operated by hand via series of levers and wheels. Only the primer, tucked alongside the pilot’s right thigh beside the seat, can be considered to be a little ‘out of the way’. The canopy framing is light and thin, a world away from the heavy grade steel structure of the later model Bf 109s and Buchóns. Visibility is described as excellent, albeit the view forward is impaired by the long nose and cowling fairings. “You don’t get that ‘locked in a coffin’ feel with the E model”, John remarks. “It’s more of a greenhouse-type feeling with plenty of ambient light and few obstructions.”
Start-up is uncomplicated. The electrical mains are switched on, fuel tanks selected and a manual wobble pump used to build fuel pressure up to 0.5 kg/cm² before the fuel pump is activated. Up to ten primer strokes inject a fuel/oil mixture directly into the engine from a small capacity primer tank that sits independently to the main fuel cell. The throttle is cracked by ¾ of an inch and the radiator doors are cranked fully open – coolant temperature rises quickly on the ground, albeit not to the extent of an early Spitfire. The rocker switch on the throttle quadrant is then used to adjust the propeller blade angle to 12:00 (full fine) on the “clock” for start-up with the propeller in ‘manual’. Restored Bf 109Es flying today are fitted with electric starters, replacing the wartime hand cranks used by ground crews to manually wind up the starter flywheel. Accordingly, the starting handle is pulled to engage the flywheel to the engine, and the magnetos selected on as the engine fires. Oil pressure is an immediate concern, and this will often sit high outside its green range if the aircraft has been started “cold” as oil and engine temperatures increase, pressure will gradually lower into the normal range as the oil thins. With the engine ticking over at 800 rpm on idle power, oil and coolant temperatures of 40°C and 60°C respectively are desired, and the throttle is advanced to 1200 rpm for the warm-up.
The centre of gravity sits aft of the Bf 109E’s main undercarriage, and ground handling calls for a combination of power, forward stick, full rudder and braking to unload the castering tail wheel and move the aeroplane the same technique would put a Spitfire on its nose. A quick tap of the brakes as the aircraft moves off will identify the need for adjustments (not uncommon in the Bf 109E), and some gentle weaves should illustrate any loss of pressure in the oleos. Pre-take-off checks see the pilot set the propeller blade angle to 11:45 and run up to 1750 rpm for sequential magneto and propeller checks, with coolant temperature rising to 90-100°C and oil temperature to around 50°C prior to take-off. If the engine has sat at idle power for a prolonged period, the pilot can engage a spark plug cleaner to produce a momentary ‘hot burn’ to clear excess oil off the spark plugs (preventing a potential mag drop), which reduces rpm for up to 20 seconds before full performance is restored. Grass runways are the preference for departure, and it’s essential to roll the aircraft onto the runway centreline at a walking pace to straighten and then lock the tail wheel using the mechanism mounted to the left canopy rail this prevents free castering during the take-off, and makes the aircraft eminently more controllable at the most critical part of the sortie.
“Before I flew the Bf 109E, I had the opportunity to sit down with Oscar Bösch, ex-Luftwaffe fighter pilot with over 600 sorties in 109s”, John remembers. “One of his tips was to slowly increase the power and let the tail come up of its own accord, to avoid putting too much pressure on the undercarriage. His view was not to fight it, and to let the aircraft fly itself off the ground in a tail-low attitude.” This approach was shared by Buchón connoisseur Connie Edwards. “I had visited Connie’s farm many years ago, and we talked Buchóns over a few beers. He was of the opinion that Buchóns were far better than Spitfires, and it was one of his favourite aeroplanes. His ground rules were to give plenty of power on take-off, keep the stick over to the right and don’t be too eager to coax it off the ground. I kept this advice in mind the first time I flew the Bf 109E, and it served me well.”
With full right aileron and neutral elevator pitch, power is fed incrementally to take-off boost of 1.4 ATA. “Bring in the power in gently, allow the aircraft to come alive and make small adjustments with the rudder to maintain positioning”, John says. “As the tail begins to come up of its own accord at around 60km/hr, you become aware of the geometry of the undercarriage, and you’re into what is potentially the most dangerous part of the flight.” The gyroscopic forces exerted on the aeroplane as the throttle is opened produce a significant amount of yaw, and compress the left oleo to the extent that the pilot will experience a pronounced left wing drop. That, John says, can be disconcerting for a pilot unfamiliar with the Bf 109E’s handling characteristics: “If you apply too much power, the left wheel will bite into the ground and the aircraft diverges to the right because of the camber. You might start thinking you’ve overcompensated with counteracting rudder, so you relax the pressure on the rudder pedals – that in turn aggravates the torque and the aircraft yaws heavily to the left. You can easily get yourself into a situation where you have induced enough oscillation for the aircraft to depart the side of the runway in a high-speed ground loop. The geometry can really upset your thought process”.
Dampening rudder input, accepting a few degrees of deviation and allowing the aircraft to settle in a tail-down attitude to keep the pressure off the main undercarriage will mitigate against pilot-induced oscillations. “The only thing to do is to back off on the power and let the aeroplane settle. Once the airspeed has increased and it’s calmed down a little, advance the throttle and let the aircraft fly itself off the ground. Knowing what the aircraft is doing and why will ensure that you don’t get yourself into what could be a fatal situation.” Once airborne at around 110 km/hr, select the brakes on then off, retract the gear using the T-handle on the instrument panel and coarsen the propeller to avoid rpm overspeeding as the airspeed increases to 250 km/hr in the climb. To prevent overheating at climb power of 1.4 ATA and 2400 rpm, the radiator doors are cranked up half-way to stabilise coolant temperature before settling into the cruise at 0.6 ATA/1600 rpm (with the propeller set to 10:30 on the clock). Typically, the radiator is left in that half-open position for the majority of the flight and the coolant should sit quite comfortably in the 90°C region.
“When I started flying the E model in Canada, there were a lot of stories about oil temperatures hitting the redline”, recalls John. “It became clear once I had made a couple of flights in the aircraft that other pilots had seen the oil temp rising and had fully opened the radiator doors. The Bf 109E does run with hot oil temps compared to other aircraft and the temptation on seeing that is to fully open the doors. All that does is increase the drag and the engine is then working harder – coolant temperature will drop, but oil temperature will actually increase as a result. The best course is to bring the power back, keep the airspeed up, keep the drag as low as possible and you’ll see that oil temperature start to decrease.” With its manual systems, German instrumentation and well-documented vices, the Bf 109E demands a high workload from the pilot. “You know you’re flying an aeroplane with quite a delicate engine, and that is a real handful on take-off and landing”, says John. “You’re very conscious of that before and during any flight.” Sympathetic engine management translates in-flight to conservative power settings and gentle power changes. “It’s a powerful, big bore engine that needs a lot of care – it’s a reliable and reassuring engine, but you certainly wouldn’t consider opening or closing throttles rapidly as it wouldn’t cope with rapid momentum changes and high acceleration or deceleration will only shorten its life.”
Performance is by no means dissimilar to contemporary fighters, though in some arenas the Bf 109E exhibits demanding handling characteristics with a number of notable peculiarities. The stall is generally benign and forgiving in both ‘clean’ and landing configurations, with a pronounced buffet below 110 km/hr followed by a light pitch and wing drop. The aeroplane is cleared for standard aerobatic figures and comfortably flies loops, half-Cubans, barrel rolls and aileron rolls. Light and responsive ailerons give the Bf 109E what John describes as a phenomenal rate of roll, particularly below 400 km/hr, to the extent that, “You feel you could roll it on the climb-out from take-off”. Well-harmonised controls make flying barrel rolls a delight, and light pressure on the rudder pedals will keep the aircraft in balance during any rolling manoeuvres. Holding the aircraft inverted and pushing the stick forward to induce negative-g sees no change in engine performance. Conservative power settings of 1.3 ATA and 2400 rpm and a minimum of 450 km/hr are sufficient for vertical aerobatics, but Romain identifies that there are ground rules to adhere to. Airspeed and energy decay rapidly in the ascent due to the high wing loading and drag from the under wing radiators, and unlike the Spitfire and Buchón, successive looping manoeuvres are not possible in the air display environment, expect to see a marked loss in energy after a single Cuban-eight. With minimal pressure on the stick, the aircraft will fly itself over the apex of a loop at 200 km/hr and 1.5-2g with a gentle slat deployment as the aircraft approaches the stall.
“With the propeller set to ‘manual’, you could adjust the blade pitch to achieve a top end of 2400 rpm for aerobatics and you would know that the rpm won’t exceed that,” John adds. Doing so would likely see the propeller slow to 1200 rpm at the apex of a loop or half-Cuban, reducing yaw as the aircraft pitches into the vertical. “You can do a lot with that propeller to improve performance, if you know how to use it. Though you have the ability to fine off the prop at the top of a vertical manouevre to increase or maintain rpm, you’re adding to your own workload and you’re going to see the rpm going through the redline on the dive if you don’t coarsen the blades on the descent. It’s much better to set the maximum rpm before beginning aerobatics and leave it there.” The Bf 109E’s propeller pitch control was a source of consternation among some Jagdwaffe pilots those who used the controllable propeller pitch to their favour enjoyed a marked advantage over their RAF counterparts when facing Spitfires equipped with the early two-stage propeller. For less experienced pilots, however, the ‘manual’ system could be burdensome. Oberleutnant Ulrich Steinhilper of III./JG 52 recounted one such incident as his flight of Bf 109Es crossed the French coastline: “It was obvious that [the pilot] wasn’t manipulating the pitch control with the skill of the more seasoned pilots to produce the same power as our machines. We tried to tell him what to do on the radio, but to no avail” 1 . Half-way across the English Channel, the young pilot was ordered to leave the formation and return to base. Leutnant Erich Bodendiek, II./JG 53, was equally disparaging of the Bf 109E’s automatic propeller setting, describing the aircraft as “un-manoeuvrable… swaggering through the air like a pregnant duck” 2 .
As the war progressed, the firepower housed in the Spitfire’s wings increased. The Spitfire I was equipped with the so-called “A” wing, which accommodated eight .303in Browning machine guns – each with 300 rounds. The “C” wing, which was introduced in October 1941, could take eight .303in machine guns, four 20mm cannon or two 20mm cannon and four machine guns.
Eager to help thirsty D-Day troops, resourceful Spitfire MK IX pilots modified the plane’s bomb-carrying wings in order that they could carry beer kegs. These “beer bombs” ensured a welcome supply of altitude chilled beer to the Allied troops in Normandy.
While the Spitfire VB is favored at times by some because it retains an extremely tight turning ability, the Mk IX is really the pinnacle of the line even if it doesn’t turn quite so tight as its older sister. It can still turn tighter than anything else that can go as fast and it enjoys a climb rate unmatched by any other plane in the game. Even the vaunted Bf 109F needs to watch out after the Allied RDP factories introduce the Spitfire Mk IX to a Battleground Europe campaign, since this Spitfire bests it in both speed and climb, the precise advantages it holds before the IX makes its debut.
Packing 120 rounds per gun for each Hispano 20mm cannon (twice the loadout of the Mk V) and having speed and climb rate second to none in the game, the Spitfire Mk IX is the epitome of the air-superiority fighter. It does, however, have a few foibles that may bother the unwary combat pilot, not the least of which is the ability to black out its pilot relatively easily as it carries a lot of speed and engine power into what is still a very tight turning circle. Remember to slow down before committing to a maximum rate turn. This actually applies to any aircraft capable of speeds of 650 km/h or more but because the Spitfire's low-drag elliptical wings retain energy so well, it may seem pronounced to a higher degree while flying this aircraft in combat. The Spitfire's traditional light elevator further complicates the matter.
While the wing twist that causes aileron reversal in the earliest versions of the Spitfire is much reduced in this later version, the high speeds to which the Merlin 66 engine could push the sleek airframe may still produce this undesirable effect. Be careful rolling the aircraft while traveling at the extremely high speeds gained in dives from higher altitudes while in pursuit of enemy aircraft.