The Messerschmitt Bf 109 E, commonly known as the Emil, ushered in a new era in the quest for the air supremacy. It was one of the first low-wing cantilever monoplane fighter designs with retractable undercarriage and enclosed cockpit.
During the first two years of the war the Emil outclassed every fighter it was pitted against, and performed on a par with the legendary Spitfire. It was also the longest-serving model of the Bf 109 E family. It saw service during the Spanish Civil War, over Poland, Scandinavia, in the West, in the Balkans, the North Africa and in Russia. Phased out from fighter units in 1941, it soldiered on as a fighter-bomber and ground-attack aircraft until the debacle at Stalingrad. Although it served one of the most atrocious regimes known to the mankind as a means of waging a war, it secured a prominent place for itself in the history of aviation.
The Bf 109 E debuted operationally in December 1938 with the Condor Legion, during the Spanish Civil War. Notably, the RLM (Reichsluftfahrtministerium – Reich Air Ministry) was not keen on deploying the then latest model of the Messerschmitt 109 in Spain. However, Hermann Göring overruled the RLM’s inhibitions. On his personal orders, the first Bf 109 E-1s to roll off the Augsburg factory’s assembly line were crated and shipped to Spain. The Luftwaffenführungsstab went as far as issuing an official protest against the order. It argued that the new fighters ought to equip Reich-based units first. Besides, it was believed at the time that the war in Spain was practically over, and deploying the Bf 109 Es would show little benefit. On the other hand, it was feared that the enemy might capture an example of the new fighter and hence the secrets of the Luftwaffe’s latest equipment would be prematurely revealed.
The protests were in vain, and by late February 1939 the Condor Legion was issued a total of 44 Bf 109 E-1s and E-3s; nearly one third of all Messerschmitts to see service in Spain. The first two or three aircraft arrived at Cadiz by sea about 20th December 1938, and once assembled flew to La Sénia airfield.
During that period the situation at the front was relatively quiet. Both sides were recuperating after the bloody Battle of the Ebro, which raged from 25th July until 16th November 1938. It resulted in the Republican Army being pushed back to its staging areas and practically destroyed as a fighting force. The Germans took the opportunity to reinforce and rotate the personnel of their contingent. Gen. Maj. Wolfgang Freiherr von Richthofen became the new commander of the Legion, with Obst. Seidemann as his chief of staff. Jagdgruppe 88, the Legion’s fighter component, also underwent some changes in the chain of command. Oblt. Kroeck relinquished command of the 2. Staffel to Oblt. von Lojewski, whilst Hptm. Mölders handed his 3. Staffel over to Oblt. von Bonin. At that time, 1./JGr 88 was led by Oblt. Siebelt Reents, with Hptm. Walter Grabmann at the head of JGr 88.
The weather in December 1938 was far from what one would expect of sunny Spain. Therefore, the final assault on Catalonia was postponed several times. The main target was Barcelona. JGr 88 contributed 37 Bf 109s, of which 32 were stationed at La Sénia, and another five at León. Nevertheless, only a few of them were E models. Overall, the Condor Legion could field 98 aircraft, the Spanish Nationalist air force 146, and the Italians a further 134, for a total of 378. Meanwhile the Republican air force had ten fighter squadrons equipped with Polikarpov I-15s and I-16s, and some Tupolev SB-2 bombers on strength.
Initially the date of the offensive was set at 10th December, but due to unfavourable weather conditions it was delayed for a week, then for another six days. Finally, on 23rd December 1938 the Republican positions were subjected to a heavy bombardment, which heralded the start of Gen. Franco’s ultimate thrust into the heart of Catalonia.
Over the first few days the Republicans were notably inactive in the air. German aircraft roamed the skies unopposed, their fighters escorting bombers as they raided Barcelona and the city’s environs. It was not until 28th December that 2./JGr 88 chanced upon a formation of SB-2s covered by I-16s - known to the Germans as ‘Ratas’ - over the frontline. It took the Germans less than a quarter of an hour to knock down three bombers and a like number of fighters. The following day four Republican fighters fell prey to the Messerschmitts, including one ‘Curtiss’ (I-15) claimed by Lt. Lippert for his fifth victory, and a Rata by Lt. Tietzen for his seventh. On 30th December the string of German successes continued, for the pilots of 2./JGr 88 accounted for five enemy fighters, with a sixth falling to the guns of Lt. Hörmann of Stab JGr 88. On 31st December Fw. Schott added an I-16.
The conversion of Jagdgruppe 88 to the new fighters was swift. As soon as the Emils arrived at the airfield, the older Bf 109 models were withdrawn from frontline service and handed over to the Spanish Nationalists.