BATTLE OF BRITAIN ~ THE GERMAN ADVERSARY
In the interests of completeness, after my posts on the Spitfire and Hurricane, some information on Germany’s most important fighter of WWII, the Me / Bf 109. The 109 first flew in May 1935, saw service in the Spanish Civil War, fought with the Luftwaffe all through WWII, and was still in service with the Spanish Air Force up until the end of 1965. The 3 top scoring German aces of the war all flew the 109. Designed by Willy Messerschmitt and Robert Lusser the Bf 109 was the smallest and lightest airframe that could accommodate the largest engines under development in Germany, a pilot, and as it turned out not enough armament.
Lacking the grace of the Spitfire, or the rugged charm of the Hurricane, the Bf 109 looked like the killing machine it was. Straight line simplicity is about the best one could say about its shape. Or that it looks like a deformed glider, which is exactly what the Bf 109 was. It’s chief designer, Willy Messerschmitt, cut his aeronautical teeth designing gliders. His PhD thesis was accepted even though it was the plans for a glider.
In 1935 the Bf 109 did have all the elements for a cutting edge fighter; a low wing monoplane of flush-riveted stressed skin construction, retractable undercarriage, enclosed cockpit and ‘heavy’ armament. The Hawker Hurricane was not as up to date as the 109. The Hurricane was also much larger, slower, and mostly heavier. Even the Spitfire was a bigger aircraft than the Bf 109 ~ the 109 had a wing area of just about 70% of a Spitfire’s.
A quick look at a Spitfire in comparison with a Bf 109 shows that the RAF pilot had a sliding bubble canopy, which gave an excellent all-round view. Until the introduction of the slightly better ‘Galland Hood‘ the Luftwaffe pilot had a heavy framed cockpit canopy to contend with. Contemporary accounts from RAF pilots who sat in an 109, describe the pilots view as terrible.
Because there was a lot of glider in the fighter’s genetics, the 109’s small wings were beautifully thin, using leading edge slots and slotted trailing edge flats to increase the wing area. The wing was not stressed by the landing gear, as its loads were taken by the fuselage. This resulted in one of the 109’s operational weaknesses ~ a very narrow-track undercarriage. There were a large number of ground accidents during the 109’s operational career, the 109 was proving to be a fatally unforgiving aircraft
The thin, clean, wings would result in another operational weakness in the 109’s later life. Unlike the wings on most fighters of the time, the wings on a 109 were not designed to carry armament. The initial specification issued by the German Air Ministry had called for an armament of only 2 rifle caliber MG17 machine guns, mounted in the fuselage. When the news that both the Spitfire and Hurricane were 8 gun fighters, a third MG17 firing through the propeller hub was added to the Bf 109’s war load. The difficulty of installing heavier armament would result in later marques of the 109 sprouting lumps and bumps all over the wings and forward fuselage.
The very first 109 was powered by a Rolls-Royce Kestrel. Production models mostly used the Daimler-Benz DB605, an inverted V12 of 35.7 litres (2179 cu in), generating anything from 1,000 bhp to almost 2,000 bhp. Although the power output was remarkably similar to that of the 27 litre Rolls-Royce Merlin used in the Spitfire, there were two key differences. The 109 had fuel injection against the Spitfire’s carburetor, which meant the 109 could pull negative G and the Spitfire couldn’t. The smaller Merlin had better fuel consumption than the 35.7 litre DB605, which gave the Spitfire slightly longer operational endurance. There was a third difference, the DB605 caught fire a lot more often than the better-built Merlin.
The Luftwaffe found it extremely difficult to augment the 109’s limited internal fuel capacity with external drop tanks. Over England a mission lasting an hour was long. A mission lasting an hour and a half was to have an in-flight emergency. Many pilots were saved by the excellent glide characteristics built into the 109 by Messerschmitt, the erstwhile glider designer.
These then were the adversaries during the Battle of Britain. The Hawker Hurricane was outclassed by the Bf 109, which in itself was the equal of the Spitfire in the air.
The first contests between the fighters of the Luftwaffe and the RAF took place during the Battle of France. This was bad news for the RAF as its best fighter squadrons deployed to France were equipped with the Hurricane, a machine outclassed by the Bf 109. At least the Hurricane pilots had more chance than RAF pilots flying the obsolete Fairy Battle. (To be fair, the Fairy Battle was a fairly new design, it was obsolete while it was still on the drawing-board.) Resisting the call to send more and more Hurricanes to France, the battle was lost and the RAF prepared for the coming air assault on England.
The Bf 109’s greatest asset was its speed, but that came at a price. The small 109 was all engine, pilot, and fuel. The narrow track undercarriage was extremely dangerous on a grass airstrip, many young Luftwaffe pilots never got the chance of a second flight in a 109, and during the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe was often operating from grass airstrips.
One oft-forgotten disadvantage the Bf 109 suffered throughout its life was the petrol, (gasoline), it had to use. From early in the war RAF fighters used the 100 octane petrol first used by the 1931 Schneider Cup seaplane racers. This provided the Spitfire with an extra 34 mph in Emergency Boost. The 109, like the rest of the Luftwaffe, had to make do with 87 octane fuel throughout its life.
The Bf 109 fought in throughout WWII, its nadir coming with the advent of the North AmericanP-51 Mustang in the skies over Germany. This remarkable aircraft gained air superiority ~ having a performance the Bf 109 just could not match.
After the war the Bf 109 soldiered on as the Hispano Aviacion HA-1112, initially with Hispano engines and later with the Rolls-Royce Merlin. This variant was officially the HA-112-M1L, but is invariably known as the Bouchon. (These are the 109s seen in the 1969 film Battle of Britain.) The aircraft was retired from active service on 27 December 1965.
D-DAY COULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED WITHOUT THE SPITFIRE
Formed in July 1957 the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight commemorates the Royal Air Force’s Finest Hour. The iconic Vic formation of a Lancaster, Hurricane, and Spitfire is seen at air-shows, military, and Royal events all over the United Kingdom in the summer months, and will always be the stars of any air show. Of those three great aeroplanes, the most affection is afforded to the seek and elegant Supermarine Spitfire, and any small boy who has seen a low flypast by a single Spitfire will long remember the simple beauty of its elliptical winged form and the low, whistling drone of the supercharged 27 litre, (1,650 cu in) Rolls-Royce V12 Merlin engine.
Born out of racing seaplanes and the ugly Supermarine type 224, the Reginald J. Mitchell designed single-seat fighter has probably had more column-inches written about it, and more film shot, than any other British Aircraft. In all some 20,341 Spitfires of every marque and variant were built over a 12 year period, beginning with its first flight on 5th March 1936. That’s more than any other British combat aircraft, before or since. In contrast the Spitfire’s great rival, Messerchmitt Bf 109, was in production from 1936 to 1958 and 34,852 were built. Ironically some Bf 109s used a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the Hispano Aviacion 109 ‘Bouchon’ is often seen in movies and on TV. You can even buy a brand new Bf 109, built in Bavaria.
The Spitfire’s Finest Hour was undoubtedly during the Battle of Britain. This was Europe’s Last Stand, and England’s battle for survival against the expanding power of Hitler’s Germany. The Battle of Britain really began when war was declared on September 1939, but is usually taken to cover the period of strategic air war over England from July 10th 1940 to May 10th 1941. The heaviest fighting took place between July 10th 1940 and October 31st 1940. Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his Finest Hour speech to the House of Commons on June 18th 1940. An equally historic Churchillian moment was his Never was so much owed by so many to so few speech made on 20 August 1940. It should be remembered that Churchill was carrying the load of Britain’s continuing defiance in the war at that time. Many, including Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, wanted to negotiate a peace deal with Hitler.
The role of the Spitfire during the Battle of Britain has passed into legend, with some believing that it won the battle, almost on its own. Other respectable historians take a wider view and stress the importance of Radar, RAF Fighter Command’s brilliant command and control system, the steadfastness of the men at the top, and the Spitfire’s partner aircraft, the Hawker Hurricane.
Aguably, the very best Spitfire of all was the Spitfire Mk IX, which entered service in 1942. Dispassionately, the Spitfire wasn’t the best single seat fighter of the Second World War, most aircraft historians and aero angineers would probably give that award to the North American P-51 Mustang. Nor was the Spitfire the RAF’s most influential fighter during D-Day and the 77 days following, that accolade going to the Hawker Typhoon.
The Hawker Hurricane was the RAF’s most numerous single-seat fighter during the Battle of Britain, and the Hurricane was responsible for more enemy ‘kills’ than was the Spitfire. The Hurricane was also cheaper to buy, easier to build, much easier to repair after battle damage, and much more forgiving on or near the ground than was the thoroughbred Spitfire. However, the Hurricane had its limitations. Fighter Command’s normal tactic was to have the Hurricanes go after the Luftwaffe bombers, while the Spitfire flew top cover against the Bf 109’s. The Spitfire was a match for the little German fighter, but the Hurricane could not often meet the Messerchmitt on equal terms. Quite simply, the Bf 109 was better than the Hurricane.
In easily understood terms, the Hurricane was built with a separate chassis, (frame), like a Ford Model T, whereas the Spitfire was a complex duralumin / aluminium-alloy monocoque, like a Le Mans winning Ford GT40. Both British aircraft used the same 27 litre V12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, initially producing about 1,030 hp.
- Supermarine Spitfire IIA 355 mph @ 20,000 ft Ceiling 37,000 ft
- Hawker Hurricane Mk.II 330 mph @ 20,000 ft Ceiling 35,900 ft
- Messerchmitt Bf 109E 350 mph @ 20,000 ft Ceiling 35,000 ft
Arguments continue to this day as to whether the Messerschmitt Bf 109 or the Supermarine Spitfire was ultimately the better aircraft. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that with the Spitfire the Battle of Britain was won. Without the Spitfire, the Royal Air Force would most likely have lost the Battle of Britain. In that case there is little doubt that Britain would have sued for peace in advance of a German invasion of these islands. Hitler may then have occupied parts of mainland Britain, or not. The important point is that, without the United Kingdom’s continued resistance to the Axis forces, history would be very different. It is even possible that Hitler would not have invaded Russia when he did, and that Japan would not have attacked Pearl Harbor.
Certainly, if for want of the Spitfire the Battle of Britain had been lost, the Luftwaffe would have established air supremacy over Europe. The British Empire would have fallen easy prey to Italy, Germany and Japan. For the want of the British Empire there would have been no strategic bombing of Germany, no possibility of a second front and no possibility of D-Day happening on June 6th 1944. If the Luftwaffe had not been badly hurt over Southern England in the summer of 1940, it may well have held air superiority over Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans well into the 1950’s. The shape of the modern world would be very different from that which we know today.
The next time a duel in the skies took place that was comparable to the between the Spitfire and the Bf 109 was during the Korean War, when the North American F-86 Sabre took on the MiG 15. Both of these aircraft were jet powered, but remember the Luftwaffe had the world’s first operation jet fighter in 1944, the incomparable Me 262.
Conclusion; Without the Supermarine Spitfire, the Battle of Britain may well have been lost to Goering’s Luftwaffe flying the Bf 109. Consequently, the shape of the modern world would probably be very different.