Messerschmitt Bf 109 E vol. II


For the Luftwaffe the war in Spain was a proving ground, where its latest designs could be tested under combat conditions. The Bf 109 E emerged as the best aircraft in the world in its class. Equally important for the Germans was the opportunity to work out and rehearse tactics. It was in Spain that Werner Mölders invented the Schwarm formation, which consisted of two mutually supporting pairs (Rotten) of fighters. Each pair comprised the leader (who was the attacker), and his ‘shield’, the wingman. Flying in line abreast, well spaced and slightly stacked up for ease of manoeuvre and a better field of vision, the Germans had a definite edge over their adversaries, who continued to use their tight, unwieldy ‘vics’ of three.
After the First World War the Germans were appalled by the harsh conditions imposed on them by the Treaty of Versailles. Barely a few years had passed before they were striving for revenge. As soon as Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany, the production of armament went into high gear. Factories churned out new weapons for the future Blitzkrieg – the lightning war. Taking advantage of its old enemies’ false sense of security, the Third Reich stealthily grew in strength. Without a single shot being fired, the Third Reich annexed the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda. Only when the Führer demanded territorial gains from Poland was he was turned down. In spring 1939 it became clear that another war was only a question of time. On 23rd August 1939 in Moscow, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Non-Aggression, commonly known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Notably, there was also a secret protocol to the pact, according to which Hitler and Stalin divided the states of Northern and Eastern Europe, including Poland, into German and Soviet spheres of influence. The war against Poland was planned for December.
In May 1939 most of the Luftwaffe’s units were grouped into four Luftflotten, two in eastern Germany, the other two in the western part of the country. Two of them, Luftflotte 1 (with 1,036 aircraft) and Luftflotte 4 (with 862), were slated for the invasion of Poland. Luftflotte 1, based in East Prussia, had 147 Bf 109 Es on strength, divided among I./JG 1, I.(J)/LG 2, II./ZG 1 and 6.(J)/186. The latter Staffel was formed as part of an air combat group earmarked for service aboard the “Graf Zeppelin”, the never-completed German aircraft carrier. Luftflotte 4, based in Silesia, could field 99 Bf 109 Es concentrated in I./JG 76 and I./JG 77. Hence, for the war against Poland the Luftwaffe amassed 246 Bf 109 E-1s and E-3s; 96 older models of Bf 109 and 102 Bf 110s further bolstered the number of available fighters. Curiously, it was the twin-engined heavy fighters, and not the Bf 109 Es, which bore the brunt of the fighting in the Warsaw area. Perhaps the RLM still feared that one of the Emils would fall into the enemy’s hands.
The Luftwaffe selected a total of 2,098 aircraft, most of them new designs, for immediate frontline service, out of which 1,895 were ready for action at dawn on 1st September 1939. It was a formidable force for the task it was to accomplish, two thirds the size of what the Germans were to launch against Great Britain the following year. Unlike the RAF, however, the Polish Air Force could field only 15 squadrons totalling 128 outdated PZL P.11 fighters and the even more obsolete PZL P.7s. The PZL P.11c was briefly considered the most advanced fighter design in the world in the mid-thirties, but only four years later was woefully outclassed. Pitted against the Luftwaffe, it was outperformed not only by the German fighters, but also by their bombers! Compared to the Bf 109 E, the PZL P.11 was over 200 kph slower and vastly outgunned. The only advantage of the latter was its high manoeuvrability, combined with the fact that superbly trained pilots flew it. Besides the PZL fighters, the Polish Air Force fielded 36 relatively modern PZL.37 ‘Łoś’ twin-engined medium bombers, 135 PZL.23 ‘Karaś’ single-engined light bombers and reconnaissance aircraft, and 84 archaic reconnaissance and liaison machines. This gave a total of 413 aircraft – 5:1 odds in favour of the Luftwaffe.
In the early hours of 1st September 1939 the dive-bombers of I./St.G 76 and I./St.G 77 pummelled the small, defenceless town of Wieluń, turning it into a sea of rubble. A couple of minutes later the German battleship “Schleswig-Holstein” opened fire at a small Polish garrison stationed at the Westerplatte peninsula in Gdańsk, on the Baltic Sea. The bloodiest war in the history of mankind had begun.
The first day of the war proved unsuccessful for the Luftwaffe, which lost nearly 50 aircraft. It failed to destroy even a single enemy aircraft on 1st September 1939 – quite unlike the situation during its subsequent campaigns in the West, the Balkans and in Russia. A few days earlier the Poles had moved their air force to camouflaged forward landing grounds. However, the permanent Polish airbases were heavily raided, with some 180 civilian, auxiliary and trainer aircraft destroyed on the ground. More importantly, the rear areas were badly hit, which in the following days seriously hindered the supply of fuel, ammunition and spare parts to units at the forward bases.