The Messerschmitt bf110 was intended as a strategic fighter capable of clearing a way for following bombers. It was optimistically called the Zerstörer (destroyer). It performed well during the early campaigns in Poland and France but during the Battle of Britain, when pitted against more nimble single seat fighters such as the Spitfire and Hurricane, it proved to be a disastrous failure and suffered heavy losses. Through development and adaptation it eventually found its true roles as a fighter bomber and night fighter.
rated at 1,085 hp (809 kW)
The development contract for the bf110 was placed with Messerschmitt in 1934 with work beginning in 1935. Two Daimler-Benz DB600 engines rated at 900hp were made available for the prototype, much better than the only other engine previously available, which was the Junkers Jumo 210 rated at 610hp. The first prototype flew on May 12th 1936 and achieved a speed of 316 mph. However, following flights showed that the type suffered from poor acceleration and manoeuvrability. Production of the bf110B commenced in the autumn of 1938. For its time the armament of two 20mm canon and four machine guns potentially made it a very formidable opponent. Due to development issues the type B never entered unit service.
The bf110 fuselage was constructed as an aluminium alloy monocoque made from two halves that met along the upper and lower centre line of the body. The wings were a single spar with an alloy stressed skin that was fixed using flush rivets. Self sealing fuel tanks were located in the inner wing. Automatic slots were attached to the front of the wing and the flaps were covered with stressed alloy. Ailerons were covered with fabric. The tail had twin fins with the fixed parts being covered with stressed alloy and the moving parts covered with fabric.
The intention was to test the bf110 in Spain with the Condor Legion but it wasn't ready in time. The first operational use was in Poland in 1939.
By the end of January 1939 the bf110C was in production. The type was fitted with the new DB601A engine and incorporated improvements and developments derived from testing the bf110B. The C model was developed into 7 sub types:
C-1 - the basic model;
C-2 - having an improved radio;
C-3 - having an improved FF/MG canon;
C-4 - having additional armour for the crew;
C-4/B - being a fighter bomber (Jabo) carrying two 250kg (551lb) bombs under the fuselage;
C-5 - being a reconnaissance aircraft with a camera replacing the two 20mm canon;
C-6 - having the two 20mm canon replaced by a single 30mm canon;
C-7 - being another Jabo version that carried two 500kg (1,102lb) bombs under the fuselage.
The bf110D was a long range Zerstörer intended to provide cover to shipping in the North Sea amongst other things. A 264 galleon belly tank made from fabric covered plywood was fitted to the underside of the fuselage that was meant to be dropped when empty or upon contact with enemy aircraft. There was a bout of unexplained losses. It became apparent that the belly tank separation mechanism became faulty with low temperature and, when empty, the tank was filled with fumes, which were causing the tank to dangle and explode. The solution to this problem was to mount a pair of drop tanks under the outer wings.
The bf110E was designed for use as a fighter-bomber and was capable of carrying 1,200kg (2,670lbs) of bombs on racks under the fuselage. The bf110E was fitted with the DaDB601N engine. It entered service during 1941 and saw service in the Mediterranean, North Africa and Russia.
The bf110 was supposed to be superseded by the Me210 but, as this aircraft was a downright failure. This resulted in the last version, the bf110G, being developed. The bf110G was designed to accept a series of modular field conversion sets, called Rüstsätze, that allowed it to use a variety of different armaments including 37mm cannon, rockets and bombs.
By 1943 Germany was under constant attack by the heavy bombers of the RAF and USAAF. The bf110F/G was used successfully in mass attacks against unescorted bombers but suffered heavy casualties when there was fighter cover, so much so that they were rapidly withdrawn from daylight attacks on bombers.
Sub-types included night-fighter variants equipped with radar and fitted with a variety of different antenna sets including the FuG202 and Lichtenstein SN-2b.
Night fighters were also fitted with Schräge Musik (Jazz music) gun installation consisting of two 20mm MG FF/M canon that fired upwards at an angle (Schräge literally means slanted)
On September 1st 1939 the German Wehrmacht initiated Fall Weiss (Plan White), the invasion of Poland. The bf110C was in action against Polish fighters and achieved substantial successes. As organised opposition from the Polish Air Force diminished Zerstörer squadrons engaged in ground attacks. After Poland Zerstörer squadrons were in action during the occupation of Denmark and Norway. The campaign in Denmark was a relatively quite affair. The Norwegian campaign by contrast proved to be a much harder slog, costing the Luftwaffe twenty or so bf110's.
Towards the end of the Norwegian campaign the Luftwaffe was withdrawn and redeployed along the border with France and the Low Countries. When the offensive began on the May 10th 1940 the Zerstörers were task with obtaining air superiority over the advancing army, keeping up with the army units by the simple expedient of using unprepared fields as airstrips. By September 20th the French Air Force had been crippled and by the end of May the Luftwaffe was engaged over Dunkirk attacking the evacuating British Expeditionary Force. It was at this point that the Luftwaffe started to encounter Spitfires and suffered a tremendous knock to the confidence of the Zerstörer pilots. Approximately 180 Luftwaffe aircraft, of various types, were lost over Dunkirk compared with only around 40 RAF aircraft.
After the evacuation of the BEF had been completed the Luftwaffe turned its attention to the elimination of the remaining French forces until France capitulated on June 22nd. The Battle of France complete, the Luftwaffe turned its attention to attacking shipping in the English Channel; once again the bf110's suffered high losses to the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the RAF.
During the lull between the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe began receiving Jabo (Fighter-bomber) versions of the bf110. In order for the Wehrmacht to invaded Britain the Luftwaffe had to eliminate the RAF. To do this they had over 2,500 aircraft, of which around 220 were bf110C's. The Battle of Britain showed all the inherent weaknesses of the design: the big profile was visible from a long distance, it was too slow and lacked enough acceleration and manoeuvrability to get out of trouble, the rear machine gun was virtually useless as a defensive weapon and the battery of forward firing guns were of no use whatsoever unless the target was in front, which was rare when up against Spitfires and Hurricanes.
During 1941 the Zerstörer units were withdrawn from frontline fighter service and were employed in ground support roles over various fronts where they would not be in contact with first class fighter opposition. Zerstörer units were last used during daylight against the massed bomber formations of the USAAF during 1943.
When the Luftwaffe was expanding its night operations in response to RAF raids during 1941, the bf110 became an obvious choice of aircraft for the new Nachtjagdgeschwader force. It was big enough to carry the necessary technology plus an additional crewman to man it and enough fuel for an extended flight. From 1942 bf110's were operating in co-ordinated night patrols, being vectored to their targets by ground based controllers using a networked system of radar. Equipped with Schräge Musik (Jazz music), an assembly of two cannon firing tracerless ammunition at an angle upwards and forwards, night fighters would approach the bombers blind spot from below and behind and fire into their belly. The resulting explosion was usually attributed to flak, the bf110 not even being seen. By mid 1943 however, things were beginning to change. Night fighter crews were being ordered to fly against the USAAF during the day as well as at night, severely stressing the crews. About this time the allies anti-radar measures were beginning to be implemented, progressively making the location of the bombers much more difficult. Bf110's still comprised the main element of the Nachtjagdgeschwader at the end of the war.