Although the story of the most famous German combat aircraft – Messerschmitt 109
– goes back to 1933, its star began to shine in earnest over five years later. Hailed as the perfect weapon by Nazi propaganda, the Augsburg product was everything but, at least in its early days.
The real breakthrough in the Bf 109 history came when an attempt was made to give that small, simple fighter one of the best powerplants of the time. The attempt, as history so clearly showed, was a complete success.
The early models of Messerschmitt fighter design – designated B, C and D – were ill-equipped to meet the challenges of the war to come. They had poor armament, fragile design and seriously underpowered engines.
Early reports from the fighter’s tests in Spain all mentioned poor performance of its Junkers powerplant. The armament fit, originally consisting of two MG 17 machine guns, was also criticized as inadequate. The first attempts to modernize the “109” included the introduction of a two-bladed, variable pitch metal VDM propeller in place of the wooden Schwartz unit on the B model aircraft. The C-1 and C-3 variants were also upgraded with the addition of wing-mounted armament. Junkers provided its new engine, Jumo 210 G, which featured a modern fuel injection system in place of a carburetor used in earlier models. Additional improvements including small adjustments to the airframe and manufacturing methods introduced in the Bf 109 D-1 model did little more than show that further development of the Jumo powered fighter was in fact a dead-end proposition.
Work to develop a modern aircraft engine began at Daimler-Benz in the mid 1930’s. The designers focused their attention on creating a small, compact powerplant with high power output. The ultimate goal was to deliver a high capacity engine that would be compact enough to power small fighter aircraft. The 600 series engines eventually emerged as a twelve cylinder, in-line inverted V design. What made the new powerplants stand out was their high capacity, use of light alloys in the design and a high degree of automation. Additionally, the engines were designed to be easily mass-manufactured.
1936 saw the introduction of the DB 601 A powerplant. The engine was a state of the art design: it featured direct fuel injection, automatic boost air pressure control and could accommodate internal weapon between its cylinder blocks. DB 601 delivered 1,175 HP, almost 40 percent more than the Junkers unit used on the earlier Messerschmitt 109 models and it was only marginally bulkier than its predecessor.
Prototypes and the art of “advertising”
The Daimler installation was tested on the “109” in summer of 1937. Three Bf 109 B airframes were modified for that purpose. Aircraft designated V-14 and V-15 (the latter was flight tested in winter of 1937) were equipped with DB 600 and, later, DB 601 engines. In spite of the need to radically re-design engine cooling system on the test aircraft, the airframe modifications and subsequent tests progressed swiftly. At the same time another Bf 109 B airframe was modified and designated V-13. That machine was specifically designed to take on the prestigious world speed record for a conventional landing gear aircraft. To that end the fighter was equipped with a modified, high performance DB 601 engine, tuned up to deliver 1,600 HP instead of the standard 1,100 HP. All aircraft were demonstrated at a Zurich air meet in July 1937. After the return from Switzerland the V-13 prototype was fine-tuned and took off for a record-breaking flight on November 11, 1937 with Dr Hermann Wurster at the controls. To the delight of German designers, the V-13 bettered the American record by 45 km/h. The new record now stood at 610.95 km/h. The purpose of the whole affair was clearly a one-off demonstration of the aircraft performance (or the prowess of its designers) and a huge propaganda impact that it produced, all at a cost of subjecting the airframe to maximum loads and practically running the engine to destruction.
E stands for Emil
The first ten Bf 109 E examples were ready in early 1938 as the so called “0” series. Among the characteristic features of Bf 109 E-0 aircraft were elongated booster air intakes inherited from the record-breaking V-13, covered MG 17 barrel troughs and fake markings based on the paint schemes used by training units. The aircraft were part of the deception scheme masquerading as Bf 109 D variants.
The new engine installation forced the Messerschmitt engineers to partly re-design the airframe. To minimize drag the cowl was very tightly wrapped around the new DB 601 powerplant. Booster air intake scoop was moved from above the engine cowl to its port side. The most prominent feature, however, was a completely re-designed engine cooling system. A scoop underneath the engine, much smaller than in the earlier Jumo models, now served as oil cooler air intake, while two engine coolant radiators were placed under the wings. The new wing could now accommodate both types of armament designed for light fighter aircraft – MG 17 machine guns and 20 mm MG-FF cannon. The engine drove a three-bladed, variable pitch VDM propeller. Internal fuel capacity also increased from 337 liters to 400 liters. Bf 109 E went into production in the fall of 1938 in two armament variants – E-1 and E-3.