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.
On 1st January 1939 the fighters of JGr 88 set upon Valls aerodrome, destroying four I-15s on the ground. During the scrap that followed, Lt. Ensslen shot down an I-16 for his seventh victory. Over the next ten days German fighters claimed five enemy aircraft. Raids against various airfields were repeated on 12th January, with Valls, Villafranca del Panades and El Vendrell as targets. Each time the attackers achieved complete surprise. The Bf 109s strafed at will at Villafranca and destroyed four I-15s, and eight I-16s at the other two airfields. Besides this, several hangars were set on fire. The Germans returned to base with no losses of their own.
On 17th January 1939 the pilots of 3./JGr 88 bagged four I-16s. German fighters flew both escort missions and strafing sweeps. On 21st January JGr 88 relocated to Valls, and soon afterwards to Sabadell. On 26th January the Nationalists captured Barcelona. Among the 13 victories scored by JGr 88 in January was the unit’s 300th, claimed on the 21st by Lt. Bolz (an I-15). On 29th January, Lt. Karl-August Bötticher was killed in action over Mollet.
Actions in February followed suit. On the 3rd two I-15s were shot down, with another the day after. On the afternoon of 5th February, JGr 88 teamed up with Italian Fiat CR.32s of 23o Gruppo “Asso di Bastoni” to attack an airfield at Figueres, not far from the border with France. The following day the fighters of JGr 88 strafed a nearby aerodrome at Villajuiga and destroyed 11 ‘Ratas’ and ‘Curtisses’ there. One I-15, which attempted to get airborne, was promptly shot down by Hptm. Reents flying a Bf 109 E-1 coded 6-119.
In the afternoon the Germans returned to the airfield, destroying more enemy aircraft on the ground, but not without cost. Overall, they hit 37 machines; the Republicans soon set fire to those damaged beyond repair. During the afternoon raid several scraps developed in the air. On his way to the target, Uffz. Hans Nirminger shot down a reconnaissance machine that had strayed across his path. Over the airfield I-15s of 3a Escuadrilla skillfully bounced the Germans. Teniente José Falcó swooped down out of the sun, and before the Germans even knew what had hit them, he had shot down two Emils! One, coded 6-96, crashed in the middle of the airfield, instantly killing its pilot, Uffz. Nirminger. Uffz. Heinrich Windemuth, the pilot of the other Bf 109 E (6-98), also perished. In return, Uffz. Halupczek brought down one I-15.
After the capture of Valencia, JGr 88 escorted bombers raiding Valencia, and in late February prepared for the thrust against Madrid. During that period the Germans chalked up five more victories, at the expense of the last remaining Republican aircraft, which were tasked with strafing Nationalist troops. On 6th March 1939, Oblt. Hubertus von Bonin, the Staffelkapitän of 3./JGr 88, shot down an I-15 over Rebasa near Alicante. Its pilot, Sargento Augustin Maestro Romerales of 2a Escadrilla, was killed. It was von Bonin’s fourth, and Jagdgruppe 88’s 314th and last victory.
From 10th March, JGr 88 operated in the Madrid area. The following day JGr 88 pulled its older Bf 109 models out of the line, and henceforth solely operated Emils. The Nationalists’ last offensive proved short and decisive. It was launched on 26th March, and after two days Madrid surrendered. During the last days of the war in Spain JGr 88 mainly carried out ground-support missions. On 29th March 27 Emils circled for an hour over Madrid, as a sign and symbol of Gen. Franco’s victory and the end of the bloody civil war.
On leaving Spain the Germans passed their aircraft to their allies, including several Bf 109 Es, which were designated C5 by the Spaniards. Due to their three-bladed propellers, the Emils were locally nicknamed Tripalas.
Blitzkrieg in Poland
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.
During that period the Bf 109 Es flew mostly escort missions, but scraps with Polish fighters were very rare. This was mainly due to the fact that Polish squadrons were scattered along borders that were far too long to be covered by such a meagre force. Still, when they did slug it out, the Germans were not always on the winning side. On 1st September the Emil pilots not only failed to score any victories but also suffered their first losses. A formation of He 111s heading for Poznań was intercepted by three P.11s of 132. EM, and the escorts – Bf 109 Es of II./ZG 1 – attempted to bar the way. The Germans must have found the result of this early skirmish somewhat disturbing, for in the course of a fierce dogfight which lasted for a dozen or so minutes, the three Poles shot down two Emils. The victors were Ppor. [Second Leutnant) Kostecki-Gudelis and Kpr. [Corporal) Jasiński. One German pilot was killed, and the other captured. Although their names are unknown (the unit’s combat diary has not survived), many independent witnesses observed their duel and both wrecks were found.
The 6./186 unit, which participated in the attacks on Polish Navy ships in the Bay of Gdańsk, encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire and lost two Bf 109 E-3s. I.(J)/LG 2 also lost two Emils.
Soon the Polish Air Force found itself overwhelmed. The Emils scored their first victory over Poland on 3rd September, in the operational area of Luftflotte 4. At 16:20 hrs Lt. Rudolf Ziegler of 1./JG 76 shot down a PZL.23. Five minutes later another fell to Uffz. Willi Lohrer of 3./JG 76. On his first pass Ziegler learned that when attacking such a slow opponent, a special technique was required:
“The Pole violently broke off to port. He was chased by two of my comrades, but they too overshot. I bored in for a second firing pass. I knew by then that I needed more time for aiming. I lowered my landing flaps. I was 200 metres away when the rear gunner opened up on me. His bullets were whizzing past my cockpit, but I paid no attention to them. The Polish pilot dropped down as low as he dared, and now he was going flat out right on the deck. I was barely 25-50 meters above the ground when I cut the distance to 50 meters and let go a few bursts. I must have hit him with my starboard machine gun, for I saw a thin trail of smoke coming out of his starboard wing. Then I saw a red flame, which quickly spread. When the fire had engulfed the cockpit, the Polish machine rolled over and went straight down. A flash from the impact and a pall of smoke billowing up marked its end”.
Despite their hopeless situation, the PZL.23s of 1. EB (Bomber Squadron) fought back with determination. Their rear gunners hit Ziegler’s machine several times. Oblt. Dietrich Hrabak, the Staffelkapitän of 1./JG 76, was forced to belly-in when the engine of his fighter was riddled with bullets. He returned to his unit three days later. A third PZL.23 fell that day to Lt. Karl-Heinz Nordmann of 2./JG 77, who also learned to slow down before engaging a ‘Karaś’ (due to its fixed undercarriage, the cruise speed of the PZL.23 was barely 240 kph, its maximum speed 304 kph). Nordmann lowered not only his landing flaps, but the machine’s landing gear as well. His quarry – a PZL.23 of 2. EB - attempted a crash landing and at 17:45 hrs it nosed over.
On the afternoon of 4th September the pilots of I.(J)/LG 2 put up a fight in defence of their charges - some Stukas of III./St.G 2. Mixing it up with P.11s of III/4 DM, they knocked down two Polish fighters, one each credited to Fw. Hugo Frey and Ofw. Hermann Guhl (a third claim by Lt. Klaus Quaet-Faslem was not confirmed). One Bf 109 E was badly shot up by the Poles and eventually written off. On the same day Hptm. Wilfried von Müller-Rienzburg, the Kommandeur of I./JG 76, claimed a PZL.23.
On the morning of 5th September Hptm. Hannes Trautloft, the Staffelkapitän of 2./JG 76 and a Condor Legion veteran, opened his scoring over Poland. His Schwarm cornered a PZL.23 of 32. ER (Reconnaissance Squadron) and made short work of it.
In the afternoon 1./JG 76 claimed two ‘P.24s’ (this more advanced model, similar in appearance to the P.11, was exported to several countries, but didn’t see service in Poland). Victories were credited to Lt. Hans Philipp and Fw. Karl Hien. Phillip reported that before he opened fire, the pilot of the engaged fighter bailed out. It is possible that the Polish pilot had simply forgotten to fasten his seat belt and during the ensuing aerobatics fell out of his open cockpit.
Over the next few days further scraps with Polish fighters were inconclusive. The highly manoeuvrable P.11s, especially in the hands of skilled pilots, proved very difficult to pin down. On the other hand, the P.11’s armament of two 7.92 mm machine guns posed no real threat unless a Polish pilot scored a lucky hit in a Bf 109 E’s engine or radiator.
The afternoon of 9th September 1939 saw the biggest engagement of Emils during the entire campaign in Poland. In the vicinity of Lubień the Germans had detected a forward landing ground operated by III/3 DM, and the entire strength of I.(J)/LG 2 was despatched to neutralize it. On the way to the target Uffz. Fritz Geisshardt jumped a young pilot of 131. EM. and shot him down in flames. Twenty minutes later the Germans approached the airfield. Realizing that their base had been discovered, the Poles scrambled seven P.11s. Although at a severe disadvantage, they put up a gallant fight. The pilots of the Lehrgruppe claimed five ‘kills’ – Lt. Harro Harder, Lt. Klaus Quaet-Faslem, Lt. Hans-Wedige von Weiher, Fw. Erwin Clausen and Uffz. Gerhard Haag claimed one apiece. In fact III/3 DM lost only two fighters; several others were badly shot up. For the Germans even this meagre victory came at a cost, for Uffz. Geisshardt was shot down and taken prisoner, whilst another Emil pilot belly-landed his damaged machine behind friendly lines.
On the morning of 10th September the Emils scored their last victory of the campaign, when Lt. Roloff von Aspern of 1./JG 76 flamed a PZL.23 of 1. EB. The following day two Emils of 2./JG 76 ran into a lone PZL P.7 on a sweep over the frontlines. This type, deemed too obsolete to serve as a fighter, was relegated to reconnaissance duties. Nevertheless, the daring pilot of 151. EM not only outmanoeuvred the two assailants but also sprayed the machine flown by Lt. Schulten with bullets, forcing him to crash-land! The other Messerschmitt gave up and flew away. Meanwhile, the Polish pilot landed in a field, fixed his failing engine and triumphantly returned to base.
By that time most Polish fighter outfits were grounded due to lack of fuel – very much like the Luftwaffe in the spring of 1945. Finding no opposition in the air, the Emils resorted to strafing attacks against ground targets. The last recorded air engagement during the 1939 campaign in Poland, which involved Bf 109 Es, took place on 14th September. Four machines of 2./JG 77 led by Hannes Trautloft bounced eight PZL.23s but failed to bring down any of them.
On 17th September 1939 Soviet Russia, by then allied to the Third Reich, attacked Poland from the east and effectively sealed the country’s fate. The surviving Polish aircraft were evacuated to Romania. The last Polish troops fought on until early October.
German pilots flying Bf 109 Es claimed a total of 19 victories over Poland for the loss of seven (in aerial combat). Overall, the campaign cost the Jagdwaffe 54 aircraft, including 19 written off in crashes (notably, 16 of them were Bf 109 Es).
France and Great Britain, Poland’s western allies, were not eager to engage in another war with Germany, for which the two countries were actually ill prepared. Consequently, their declaration of war on Germany, issued on 3rd September 1939, was followed by a period of inaction known as the ‘phoney war’, or Sitzkrieg (a sitting war) to the Germans. On 7th September, elements of the French 3rd and 5th Armies advanced, without any resistance, across the Franco-German border to a depth of eight kilometres, but the half-hearted offensive was soon halted. Having seized the Warndt Forest - three square miles of German territory - a few days later the French withdrew. Henceforth the ‘frontline’ was to remain unchanged until the late spring of 1940.
During that period Germany’s western borders were defended by 806 fighters, this number including 433 Bf 109 Es, which equipped the following units: Stab, I./JG 2 Richthofen; Stab, I./JG 3; I./JG 20; Stab, I., II./JG 26 Schlageter; I./JG 51; I./JG 52; Stab, I., II./JG 53 Pik-As; I./JG 71; II./JG 77.
France might have seemed a much tougher opponent for Germany than under-armed Poland had been. However, the Armée de ľAir was, in many respects, years behind the Luftwaffe. The French Air Force was still tied down to its old-fashioned, support role for the army. Furthermore, it lacked the logistics needed to wage a modern air war – an early warning ground network, reliable radar stations, communications and control systems – and had too few airfields to operate from. The French DEM (détection électromagnétique) radar system proved useless because of its short range and ongoing problems with communication. Thus, the widely dispersed fighter units of the Armée de ľAir, very much like those of the Polish Air Force before them, found it exasperatingly difficult to locate and intercept Luftwaffe raids in time. Furthermore, the new generation of French combat aircraft had not advanced beyond the prototype stage, and were still far from mass production. Some aircraft were purchased abroad, mainly in the USA, which offered Curtiss Hawk 75 fighters as well as Martin 167 and Douglas DB-7 bombers. At the outbreak of war the French could field 271 Morane Saulnier MS.406 and 88 Curtiss H-75 fighters. Deliveries of more Hawks and American-built bombers were expected over the following months. At the same time preparations for production of the French-built Dewoitine D.520 and Marcel Bloch MB.152 fighters were intensified.
Great Britain was also well behind the Luftwaffe in the latest armament race. The doctrine operative in the Royal Air Force called for defending British territory with pre-emptive strikes against German naval bases, which would probably harbour an invasion fleet and submarines. Afflicted by a firm, and as time would prove, unfounded belief that “the bomber will always get through”, the RAF did not foresee the need for long-range escort fighters. The crews of many Wellington bombers were to pay the price for this error. The mainstay of the British Fighter Command was the Hawker Hurricane. It was armed with eight wing-mounted machine guns and attained a speed of 520 kph. At the outbreak of war there were 497 Hurricanes grouped in 17 squadrons. At that time the Hurricane’s vastly superior successor, the Supermarine Spitfire, equipped only five squadrons. In October 1939 the RAF ordered as many as 4,000 Spitfires into production. For the time being the Spitfires were held back for the defence of the British Isles. Only four Hurricane squadrons were relocated to France as part of the AASF (Advanced Air Striking Force).
First blood in the West was drawn on 4th September 1939. In the evening a formation of Wellingtons of No 9 Sqn had attempted to bomb some German warships and was intercepted by Bf 109 Es of 6./JG 77. Fw. Alfred Held and Fw. Hans Troitzsch shot down two bombers apiece. On 8th September the fighters of both sides scrapped for the first time. A brief skirmish between four Emils of 1./JG 53 and six H-75s of GC II/4 proved inconclusive. One damaged Messerschmitt, flown by Hptm. Mölders, nosed over whilst touching down at a waterlogged forward landing ground.
During that period German fighters were mainly tasked with intercepting allied reconnaissance aircraft. The Saarland, which borders France and Luxembourg, was an area of unusual activity in the air. This region was the operational responsibility of JG 53, which quickly scored its first victory. It was credited to Ofw. Walter Grimmling of 1. Staffel, who on 9th September 1939 claimed a ‘Blenheim’. His debriefing report reads:
“At about 11:25 hrs I spotted an enemy bomber to the southeast of Saarbrücken. It flew at 5,900 metres, with me 200 metres higher. When the enemy noticed our aircraft – Uffz. Bezner’s and mine – he immediately broke to starboard, heading for the border. I was 300 metres behind and closing fast. At a distance of 250 metres I opened up with my four machine guns. Shortly before reaching the border, in the area southwest of Saarbrücken, the bomber’s starboard engine began to belch smoke. I broke off and turned towards some enemy fighters circling above the bomber. The fighters did not intervene during my attack”.