The Messerschmitt Bf 110 (often erroneously called Me110) was a twin-engine heavy fighter ('Zerstörer' - German for 'Destroyer') in the service of the Luftwaffe during World War II. Later in the war it was changed to fighter-bomber (JagdBomber-Jabo) and night fighter operations, and it became the major night fighter type of the Luftwaffe.
Design and development
In 1934 several countries in Europe began research and design of long-range strategic fighters. The RLM
, pushed by Hermann Göring
issued a request for a new multipurpose fighter, called the Kampfzerstörer
(battle destroyer). Specifically, the request called for a twin-engined, three-seat, all metal monoplane that was armed with cannon as well as a bomb bay. Only three companies out of the original seven responded to the request. These included Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Messerschmitt), Focke-Wulf
. Due to Bayerische Flugzeugwerke ignoring most of the Kampfzerstörer
specifications by RLM, only Focke-Wulf and Henschel were given the funds to build several prototype aircraft. By luck (and pressure by Ernst Udet
) RLM reconsidered the ideas of the Kampfzerstörer
and began focus on Zerstörer
. Due to these changes the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke design better fitted RLM's requests. On 12 May 1936
, Rudolf Opitz took flight in the first Bf 110 out of Augsburg. But, as many pre-war designs found, the engine technologies promised were not up to acceptable reliability standards. Even with the temperamental DB 600
engines, the RLM found the Bf 110, while not as maneuverable as desired, was quite a bit faster than the RLM original request specified, as well as faster than the then current front line fighter the Bf 109 B-1. Thus the order for four pre-production A-0 units was placed. The first of these were delivered on January 1937. During this testing, both the Focke-Wulf Fw 187
and Henschel Hs 124
competitors were rejected and the Bf 110 was ordered into full production.
The initial deliveries of the Bf 110 encountered several issues with delivery of the DB 600 motors, which forced Bayerische Flugzeugwerke to install Junkers Jumo 210B engines, which left the Bf 110 seriously underpowered and able to reach a top speed of only 268 mph. The armament of the A-0 units was also limited to four nose mounted MG 17 machine guns.
Even without delivery of the DB 600 engines, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke began assembly the Bf 110 in the summer of 1937. As the DB 600 engines continued to have issues, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke was forced to continue using Jumo motors, the 210G, which supplied 700 hp each (versus the 610 supplied by the 210B). Three distinct versions of the Bf 110B were built, the B-1, which featured a total of four MG 17 and two MG FF 20 mm cannons. The B-2 reconnaissance version, which installed a camera in place of the cannons, and the B-3 which was utilized as a trainer, with the cannons replaced by extra radio equipment. Only 45 Bf 110Bs were built before the Jumo 210G engine production line ended. The major identifier of the A & B 110s was the very large "mouth" bath radiators located under the engine.
In the later months of 1938, the DB 601 B-1 engines finally became available. With the new engine, the design teams removed the radiators under the engine, and replaced them with a water/glycol radiators located under the wing, to the outside of the engines. With the DB 601 engine, the Bf 110's maximum speed increased to a respectable 336 mph with a range of approximately 680 miles.
A total of at least seven major revisions of the Bf 110C existed, as listed below. The Bf 110C was the first Bf 110 to see widespread combat and enjoyed some success in the Polish and French campaigns.
The Bf 110 Zerstörerwaffe (Destroyer Force) saw considerable action during operation Operation Weserübung the invasion of Denmark and Norway. Two Zerstörergeschwader (1 and 76) were committed with 64 aircraft.
The Bf 110 destroyed 25 Danish military aircraft stationed on the Værløse airbase on 9 April through ground strafing. One Danish Fokker D.XXI did manage to get airborne but was immediately shot down.
During this campaign, Victor Mölders, brother of the famous Werner Mölders, took the official surrender of the town of Aalborg after landing at the local airfield. Dressed in flying gear, he was given a lift into the town centre by a milkman to find suitable quarters for I.ZG 1's Bf 110 crews.
In Norway the Bf 110s helped secure the Oslo-Fornebu airport, escorting Junkers Ju 52 transports loaded with paratroops (Fallschirmjäger). The Germans were engaged by several Gloster Gladiators and machine guns manned by troops on the ground; in the ensuing battle both sides lost two aircraft.
The Messerschmitt pilots did not know that many earlier waves of transports had turned back and the airport was unsecured. Landing their cargoes, many transports were destroyed. The remaining Bf 110s strafed the airfield and helped the ground troops take the airfield; the air support provided by the Zerstörer was instrumental, and it was to perform well as a fighter-bomber in the coming campaigns. During these battles, a future 110-kill Luftwaffe ace, Helmut Lent, scored his fifth and sixth victories against Norwegian opposition.
With experience fighting in Norway, efforts were made to extend the combat range of the Bf 110; these became the Bf 110D Long Range (Langstrecken) Zerstörer. Several different external fuel tanks, in the shape of 900 litre underwing-mounted and 1050-litre centerline ventral fuel tanks, resulted in no less than four versions of the Bf 110D, including the enormous Dackelbauch tank, which owing to cold weather and limited knowledge of fuel vapours, sometimes exploded, leading to unexplained losses during the North Sea patrols. As a result, the aircrews came to dislike this version. The handling characteristics were also affected; the Bf 110 was not maneuverable to begin with and the added weight made it worse.
Luckily the Zerstörerwaffe encountered mostly British bombers, and it performed well. On 13 June 1940, eight Skua dive-bombers were shot down in as many minutes; among the victors was Herbert Schob who survived the war as one of the most successful Bf 110 pilots. Total losses during this campaign amounted to only 20.
The campaign in the west that followed in 1940 demonstrated the Bf 110 was vulnerable in hostile skies. It performed well against the Belgian, Dutch and French Air Forces, suffering relatively light losses, but was quickly outclassed by increasing numbers of Hurricanes and Spitfires. In the Western Campaign, 60 were lost.
Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain
revealed the Bf 110's fatal weaknesses as a daylight fighter against single-engine aircraft. A relatively large aircraft, it lacked the agility of the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire and was easily seen. The World War I-era Bristol Fighter
had done well with a rear gunner firing a rifle-caliber machinegun, but by World War II, this was insufficient to deter the eight-gun fighters facing the Bf 110. Its size and weight meant that it had high wing loading
, which limited its maneuverability. Furthermore, although it had a higher top speed than contemporary RAF
Hurricanes, it had poor acceleration. However, it was unique at the time as a long-range bomber escort, and did not have the problems of restricted range that hampered the Bf 109E
. Although outclassed, it was still formidable as a high escort for bombers using the tactic of diving upon an enemy, delivering a long range burst from its powerful forward-facing armament, then breaking contact to run for it.
On 10 May 1941, in a strange episode during the aftermath of the Battle of Britain, Rudolf Hess, the deputy leader of the Nazi party, used a Bf 110 to fly from Augsburg, north of Munich, to Scotland, in an attempt to broker a peace deal between Germany and Great Britain.
After the Battle of Britain, Bf 110 units were largely moved to the Russian
theatres of war. The production of the Bf 110 was put on a low priority in 1941 in expectation of its replacement by the Me 210
. During this time, two versions of the Bf 110 were developed, the E and F models. The E was designed as a fighter bomber (Zerstörer Jabo
), able to carry four ETC-50 racks under the wing, along with the centerline bomb rack. The first E, the Bf 110 E-1 was originally powered by the DB 601B engine, but shifted to the DB 601P as they became available in quantity. The E models also had upgraded armor and some fuselage upgrades to support the added weight. Most pilots of the Bf 110E considered the aircraft slow and unresponsive, one former Bf 110 pilot commenting the E was "rigged and a total dog."
The Bf 110F featured the new DB 601F engines which produced 1,350 hp (almost double the original Jumo engines provided), which allowed for upgraded armor, strengthening, and increased weight with no loss in performance. Three common versions of the F model existed. Pilots typically felt the Bf 110F to be the best of the 110 line, being fully aerobatic and in some respects smoother to fly than the Bf 109, though not as fast.
Although the Me 210 entered service in mid-1941, it was eventually withdrawn for further development. There were insufficient aircraft to fully replace the Bf 110, so it fought until the end of the war. In the wake of the failure of the Me 210, the Bf 110G was designed. Fitted with the DB 605B engines, producing 1,475 hp in "War Emergency" setting, and 1,355 at altitude, the Bf 110G also underwent some changes which improved the aerodynamics of the aircraft, as well as improved nose armament. No Bf 110 G-1 existed, as the Bf 110 G-2 became the baseline Bf 110G and was fitted with a large number of Rüstsätze, making the G the most versatile of the Bf 110. Pilots reported the Bf 110G to be a "mixed bag" in the air, in part due to all changes between the G and F series. However the Bf 110G was considered a superior gun platform with excellent all-around visibility, and considered, until the advent of the He 219, the best of the Luftwaffe nightfighters.
Eventually withdrawn from daylight fighting, the Bf 110 enjoyed later success as a nightfighter, where its range and firepower stood it in good stead for the remainder of the war. The airframe allowed for a dedicated radar operator, and the open nose had space for radar antennae, unlike the single-engined fighters. As the war wore on, the increased weight of armament and radar detection equipment (along with a third crew member) took an increasing toll of the aircraft's performance.
It was also used as a ground attack aircraft, starting with the C-4/B model, and as a day bomber interceptor, where its heavy firepower was particularly useful. Later on, there were dedicated ground attack versions which proved reasonably successful. The Bf 110 served the Luftwaffe extensively in various roles, though not in its intended role as a heavy fighter.
Another role the Bf 110 took on was as a potent bomber-destroyer. The extreme power of the Bf 110's weaponry could cripple or destroy any Allied bomber in seconds. Without encountering an Allied escort, it was capable of wreaking immense destruction. When encumbered with a total of four Werfer-Granate 21 (Wfr.Gr. 21) rocket tubes (firing a 210 mm converted mortar rocket), with two of these under each outer wing panel, and additional armament, the 110 was vulnerable to Allied escort fighters. In late 1943 and early 1944 Bf 110 formations were frequently decimated by the roving Allied fighters.
Luftwaffe night fighter ace Heinz-Wolfgang Schnauffer ended the war with 121 aerial victories, virtually all of them achieved while flying examples of the Bf 110.
The Bf 110's main strength was its ability to accept some extreme weaponry. Early versions had four MG 17
machine guns in the upper nose and two 20 mm MG FF/M
cannons fitted in the lower part of the nose. Later versions replaced the MG FF/M with the more powerful 20 mm MG 151/20
cannons and many G-series aircraft, especially those who served in the bomber-destroyer role, had two 30 mm MK 108
cannons fitted instead of the MG 17. The defensive armament consisted of a single, flexible mounted MG 15 machine gun
. Late F-series and prototype G-series were upgraded to a 7.92 mm MG 81 machine gun
with a higher rate of fire and the G-series was equipped with the twin-version MG 81Z
. Many G-series night fighters were retrofitted or factory-built with the Schräge Musik
off-bore gun system for shooting down bombers while passing underneath, frequently equipped with two MG FF/M, but field installations of the MG 151/20 or MK 108 cannons were also utilized. The Schräge Musik cannons were typically mounted to the back of the rear cockpit.
The Bf 110G-2/R1 was also capable of accepting armament such as the Bordkanone series BK 37 cannon. A single hit from this weapon was usually certain death to any Allied bomber.
The fighter-bomber versions could carry up to 2,000 kg of bombs depending on the type.
Bf 110 A
Prototypes with two Jumo 210
engines.Bf 110 A-0
- The designation of the first four pre-production aircraft.
Bf 110 B
Small scale production with two Jumo 210
engines.Bf 110 B-0
- First pre-production aircraft, similar to B-1.Bf 110 B-1
- Zerstörer, four MG 17 7.92 mm machine guns and two MG FF 20 mm cannons, nose mounted.Bf 110 B-2
- Reconnaissance, both MG FF cannons removed, and various camera models added.Bf 110 B-3
- Trainer. MG FF cannons removed, and extra radio gear added. Some war weary B-1 were later refitted as B-3s.
Bf 110 C
First major production series, DB 601
engines.Bf 110 C-0
- Ten pre-production aircraft.Bf 110 C-1
- Zerstörer, DB 601 B-1 engines.Bf 110 C-2
- Zerstörer, fitted with FuG 10 radio, upgraded from FuG III.Bf 110 C-3
- Zerstörer, upgraded MG FFs to MG FF/M.Bf 110 C-4
- Zerstörer, upgraded crew armor.;Bf 110 C-4/B
- Fighter-bomber based on C-4, fitted with a pair of ETC 250 bomb racks and upgraded DB 601 Ba engines.Bf 110 C-5
- Reconnaissance version based on C-4, both MG FF removed, and Rb 50/30 camera installed, uprated DB 601P engines.Bf 110 C-6
- Experimental Zerstörer, additional single 30 mm MK 101 30 mm cannon in underfuselage mount, DB 601P engines.Bf 110 C-7
- Fighter-bomber based on C-4/B, two ETC-500 centerline bomb racks capable of carrying two 500 kg bombs, uprated DB 601P engines.
Bf 110 D
Heavy fighter/fighter-bomber, extreme range versions based on C-series, often stationed in Norway
.Bf 110 D-0
- Prototype utilizing C-3 airframes modified with 1200l (316,8 US gallon) belly-mounted tank called Dackelbauch.Bf 110 D-1
- Long-range Zerstörer, modified C series airframes with Dackelbauch belly tank.;Bf 110 D-1/R2
- Long-range Zerstörer, removed Dackelbauch tanks and replaced with wing mounted 900l (237,6 US gallon) drop tanks.Bf 110 D-2
- Long-range Zerstörer, two wing mounted 300l (79,2 US gallon) drop tanks and centerline mounted ETC 500 bomb rack.Bf 110 D-3
- Long-range Zerstörer, lengthened tail for rescue dingy. Either two wing mounted 300l (79,2 US gallon) or 900l (237,6 US gallon) drop tanks could be fitted. ETC500 was optional.
Bf 110 E
Mostly fighter bombers, strengthened airframe, up to 1,200 kg bombload.Bf 110 E-0
- Pre-production version, DB601B engines, pair of ETC50 bomb racks fitted outboard of engines, armament as C-4. Bf 110 E-1
- Production version of E-0, DB601P engines.Bf 110 E-2
- DB 601P engines, rear fuselage extension same as for D-3.Bf 110 E-3
- Long-range reconnaissance version.
Bf 110 F
Same as the E, again strengthened airframe, better armor, two 1,350 hp (1,010 kW) DB 601F
engines.Bf 110 F-1
- Fighter-bomber.Bf 110 F-2
- Long-range Zerstörer, often used against allied heavy bombers.Bf 110 F-3
- Long-range reconnaissance version.Bf 110 F-4
- The first real night fighter (specially designed for this usage, 3-crew).
Bf 110 G
Improved F-series, two 1,475 hp (1,100 kW) DB 605B
engines, tail rudders increased in size.Bf 110 G-1
- Not built.Bf 110 G-2
- Fighter-bomber, fast bomber, destroyer, often used against allied heavy bombers. (often equipped with rockets).Bf 110 G-3
- Long-range reconnaissance version.Bf 110 G-4
- 3-crew night fighter, FuG 202/220 Lichtenstein radar, optional Schräge Musik, usually mounted midway down the cockpit with the cannon muzzles barely protruding above the canopy glazing.
Bf 110 H
The final version, similar to the G, prototype/design stage only, cancelled.
Three intact Bf 110 are known to exist, although one of them is rebuilt from rescued parts from several different airframes. One, a Bf 110 G-4 night fighter, is displayed at RAF Hendon in London, UK. Another Bf 110 is on display in the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin. A third is displayed in a private museum northwest of Helsingoer, Denmark.
The largely intact fuselage of a Bf 110 (type unknown) is on display at the lower station of the Cairngorm Mountain Railway
Specifications (Messerschmitt Bf 110C-4)
- Crawford, Jerry L. Messerschmitt BF 110 Zerstörer in action. Carrollton, Texas: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1977. ISBN 0-89747-029-X.
- Deighton, Len. Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain. London: Pimlico, 1996. ISBN 0-71267-423-3.
- Donald, David (ed.). Warplanes of the Luftwaffe. London: Aerospace, 1994. ISBN 1 874023 56 3.
- Geust, Carl-Fredrik and Petrov, Gennadiy. Red Stars Vol 2. - German Aircraft in the Soviet Union. Tampere, Finland: Apali Oy, 1998. ISBN 952-5026-06-X.
- Weal, John. Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstörer Aces World War Two. London: Osprey, 1999. ISBN 1-85532-753-8.