Spitfire vs. Messerschmitt Bf 109

And now for some out-of-schedule aviation geekiness:

Yesterday I encoutnered an off-hand comment about whether the Spitfire or the Messerschmitt (understood to be the Bf 109) was the superior fighter. This is a matter of debate that arises any time aircraft aficionados gather, but it’s Saturday, and I’m slightly bored, so I feel for writing something lighter.

The aircraft that came to be the Supermarine Spitfire was the brainchild of R. J. Mitchell, a talented engineer that had designed some of the most iconic racing seaplanes of the interwar years. Willy Messerschmitt’s bird had a rather different background, with Messerschmitt learning the trade by designing sailplanes. Much (too much) has been made of these different pedigrees, and how they shaped the fighters that came to be. Still, both designs had much in common, being powered by large liquid-cooled V-12 piston engines, relying on all-metal monocoque structures, and having a single low-slung set of wings. In fact, the Spitfire and the Bf 109 were amongst the first mature fighters to discard the biplane design in favor of the single low-mounted wing that has since dominated the world of fighter aircraft.

Spitfire Mk I being rearmed during the height of the Battle of Britain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The engines of the aircrafts deserve a closer study, as these played an integral part in the development of both series. The Messerschmitt prototype flew with a rather unlikely powersource, namely a British-made Rolls-Royce Kestrel. In the early pre-war versions of the Bf 109 this was then replaced with a Jumo 210 V-12 engine (Jumo standing for Junkers Motoren), but by the time the war broke out the E-version of the Bf 109 had introduced the excellent Daimler-Benz DB 601. By mid-42 a further upgraded version of the DB 600-series had been launched in the form of the DB 605. This would then power the two final versions of the Bf 109, namely the Bf 109G ‘Gustav’ and the Bf 109K ‘Kurfürst’.

The Bf 109E ‘Emil’ of Battle of Britain-fame, here in Swiss colours. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sandstein

Compared to the Bf 109, the Spitfire had a more straightforward development, with the engine forever associated with the aircraft being the Rolls-Royce Merlin. This powered the prototype (as well as the early Spitfire Mk I in the Battle of Britain), and in refined form it powered the Mk VIII that roamed the skies of Burma in 1945. In parallel, a number of late-war Spitfire variants were also powered by the markedly bigger Rolls-Royce Griffon.

It is easy to overlook exactly how huge these improvements were. The Spitfire Mk I that went to war in 1939 featured a Merlin II, giving it 775 kW of power for a top speed of 580 km/h. The aircraft was armed with eight light machine guns in the form of the 0.303 Browning (7,7 mm). Only four years later, the Merlin 60-series (61, 63 and 66) gave Spitfires of the marks VIII, IX and XVI some 1280 kW of power, for a top speed in excess of 650 km/h. The armament consisted of two 20 mm cannons backed up by two heavy .50 calibre machine guns (12,7 mm), and for ground attack up to 450 kg of bombs could be carried. This remarkable increase in power and speed was taken even further by the late- and post-war Griffon-engined versions, in which the final version of the Spitfire, a carrier-based version named Seafire F.Mk 47 mounted a 1752 kW Rolls-Royce Griffon 88 driving a contra-rotating prop, propelling the aircraft to a top-speed of almost 730 km/h! In the meantime, the Bf 109 had progressed from the pre-war Bf 109A ‘Anton’ with its 493 kW Jumo 210D to the Bf 109K-4 ‘Kurfürst’ featuring a Daimler-Benz DB 605DC with a boosted output of 1470 kW.

The sleek lines of the Griffon -powered Seafire F.Mk XVII, one of the last variants of Mitchell’s classic fighter. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Adrian Pingstone

Herein lays the true remarkability of the aircrafts, the fact that they could take on ever larger amounts of power, and still maintain their fighting capability. Extremely few front-line aircraft stayed in production throughout the Second World War, and both the Spitfire and the Bf 109 belong to this exclusive club.

A classic picture of a Bf 109G-2 ‘Gustav’ in Finnish service. Source: Wikimedia Commons/SA-kuva

This puts the question of greatness into perspective. Both planes evolved continuously during their long careers, and any attempt at an answer will have to include a reference to the timeframe in question. There is no doubt that the post-war Griffon-powered Spitfires in the form of the land-based F.Mk. 24 and the carrier-based F.Mk 47 were the all-out finest fighters, as the development of the Messerschmitt had (almost) ended by that time. During the late-war years the Spitfire also held the edge, with the Mk IX being a finer plane than the Bf 109G/K, which were starting to show signs of the airframe not being able to absorb the vast increases in power while maintaining the fine handling in the same way the Spitfire could. During the early war years, the question is harder to answer. The Bf 109F ‘Fredrich’ probably held a slight edge over contemporary Spitfires when it came out, especially over the North African desert, were the Messerschmitt’s dust covers hampered its performance less than the corresponding items on the Spitfire. During the battle of Britain, it is impossible to pick one over the other. The Bf 109E had heavier armament, and a slightly higher top speed, but the thin wing discouraged pilots from taking the aircraft ‘to the limit’ in dogfights, as overstressing the wings could have fatal consequences. In capable hands, both aircraft could more than hold their own against any aerial adversaries.

Still, the final word would go to the Messerschmitt, and in a very unlikely way.

After the war, the Czechoslovak aircraft industry had to find a way to supply the country’s reborn air force with fighters. As the Bf 109G had been produced in the country during the German occupation, it was a natural choice. The ‘new’ fighter was named Avia S-99, but after only a minor batch had been delivered, a warehouse fire destroyed the stored stocks of DB 605 engines. A new engine had to be found if production was to continue. This was solved when it was decided to mate the Jumo 211F engine and propeller used by the Heinkel He 111 to the airframe of the Bf 109G, a decision based more on availability than any finer points of engineering.

The resulting aircraft, dubbed the Avia S-199, was probably the worst version of the whole Bf 109-family to reach production. The large paddle-bladed propeller caused a huge amount of torque, making the aircraft extremely difficult to handle on take-off and landing. The layout of the Jumo-engine also meant that the fearsome 30 mm cannon that had been firing through the propeller hub on the Bf 109 G/K had to be discarded. All in all, it would most probably have slipped off into the pages of aviation history largely unnoticed, if not for developments in the middle east.

An Israeli S-199 showing its huge propeller and redesigned engine cowl. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Upon Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948, the country faced a massive attack from all sides by neighboring Arab states. One of the major problems was that the young state lacked any kind of combat aircraft, and due to an arms embargo, acquiring them proved difficult. Czechoslovakia was eager for any influx of dollars it could find, and was willing to part with a number of S-199’s. The aircrafts enjoyed a brief but eventful career in Israeli service, sporting an extremely high accident rate, but also scoring the first kills of the new air force when Mordechai “Modi” Alon, squadron commander of the sole Israeli fighter unit at that time, managed to shoot down two converted C-47 transport planes that were bombing Tel Aviv (Alon would later die in a non-combat accident with the S-199). However, of the (circa) seven kills attributed to the Avia in Israeli hands, at least one is confirmed as being a Royal Egyptian Air Force Spitfire. In a weird twist of irony, the Messerschmitt won the last of countless of duels. And it did this flown by a Jewish pilot, who had shot down two Bf 109’s while flying for the US Army Air Force during the Second World War.

Epilogue:

There was yet another chapter in the story of the Bf 109. During the latter part of the war, Spain had secured license production rights of the Bf 109G from Germany, but they too found that the DB 605 where not available. In this case, the Germans desperately needed all available engines for themselves. For their homebuilt HA-1109 they therefore used French-made Hispano-Suiza 12Z, but soon a need for more power (and less torque) was evident. Although the plane was outdated as a fighter by this time, the Spanish Air Force decided that an improved version could be useful in counter-insurgency operations in their North African colonies. Thus was born the final version of the Bf 109, the dedicated ground-attack HA-1112-M1L “Buchon” of 1954-vintage, fitted with a, you guessed it, Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.

39 thoughts on “Spitfire vs. Messerschmitt Bf 109

    1. Yes, the ‘Frankenfire’ was one of the weirder things to come out of the war. It usually appears when someone wants to give people a hard time in “Name-the-plane” quizzes 🙂

  1. Geeky Man

    It’s hard but I think the Spitfire MK IX was the ultimate dogfighter between the two, I have a real liking of the 109 but it did not age and improve in the same way the Spitfire did.

  2. Russell Orsborn

    Seems like it came down to several things. 1. Who each pilot was, the training, experience and personality that accompanied each individual pilot. 2. Which variant of the plane each pilot was flying, was one the best Spit made and the other a bomber interceptor.

    It appeared that it came down to one pilot, making one mistake and the other pilot either taking advantage of that mistake or not. Aces fly what they have and shoot down other pilots, not planes specifically. Study the plane and the pilot if possible, but shoot down the pilot was the goal. Attrition of quality pilots turned the tide in the air as much as any evolution of fighter design. By the end of the war, there were many well trained, experienced Allied fighter pilots shooting down young Germans pilots with glider training and little fuel or ammo to defend themselves.

  3. One factor that is seldom considered in these ‘which was best’ scenarios was ease and cost of manufacture and maintenance. Here the 109 had a clear edge. It was both cheaper and faster to build than the Spitfire (those beatiful eliptical wings were a real problem when it came to mass production). The 109 was also designed so that the engine could be quickly and easily removed, and the wings could be rapidly detached to allow for easy transport by rail.
    On the minus side, the 109 was a real handful to land. Almost one in five 109s produced were written off in landing accidents, with an associated loss of pilots. The Spit wasn’t faultless in this respect either, but the 109 was a real killer.

  4. Steve twede

    Griffon MK 24 was anything but the finest, pilots that flew Griffons hated em. 109 K-4 would have got wood prop 459 mph, still improving late war, no comnparison, 109 all the way

    1. The late-mark Spitfires certainly had lost some of the crisp handling of the earlier marks, but the same holds true for the Bf 109 as well. The Kurfürst was far from the finest, with most pilots (and historians) usually ranking the Friedrich as the most well-balanced of the lot.

  5. steve twede

    Not true, G-10 was easier to handle than G-6. Italian pilot Fausto
    After that I flew the G-10 and K versions of the Messerschmitt, but flying was not much different than in the G-6 even if these planes were a bit more docile, faster and with larger guns.

  6. stevetwede

    Also flettners began to appear on K-4making rolls easier, wider wheel base make takeoff & landings easier, wood propeller makes takeoffs also easier. The chain linkage was shortened on G-10 from stick to elevators making elevator operation more effective.

    Griffon engined Spitfire by comparison had directional instability issues, tail problems, & Griffon weighed 300 pounds more than Merlin, all of it at the nose, which would affect turning performance adversely.

  7. stevetwede

    http://www.spyflight.co.uk/iafvraf.HTM MK 9 Spit vs Griffon Spit

    “The Spit 9 proved to have better manoeuverability”

    We broke out of a sandy mist at 10,000ft, but I could not gain close proximity to the Spit 18 due to lesser power in my Spit 9. At about 16,000ft the Spit 18 rolled over and dived back towards me at an impossible deflection angle, with machine guns blazing and exhaust smoke rolling out under both wings. I immediately engaged my opponent in an old-fashioned dogfight scissors. The Spit 9 proved to have better manoeuverability and I was able to get into an ideal firing position. I saw strikes on my opponent’s engine cowl just before he rolled over and bailed out about ten miles south of Al Arish. I only recognised the RAF roundel after the Spit 18 had fired on me, when we were in the scissors engagement and I had no alternative but to fight back to save my own bacon.”

  8. stevetwede

    Duncan Smith, Spit pilot wrote a book titled Spitfire into Battle

    Duncan does offer some small chat about Griffon Spits,..
    Mk 12, To me this was the end of the line, the power had outgrown the airframe.

    Mk 24, good fighter bomber, new tail made aiming much better.

  9. stevetwede

    Johnny Johnson; After flying the Mk. XIV for the first time Johnnie Johnson said that it was a nice and fast aeroplane, which wasn’t a Spitfire any longer. Dive pullouts were a hair raising experience

  10. steve twede

    MK 14, ( Griffon ), Spit………………………………During a turning combat the effectiveness of the outboard machine guns was low because if the aircraft was pulling ‘G’ the flexing of the wings meant that the rounds scattered in a large cone.

    By contrast, the later 109’s had 13 mm machine guns with exploding bullets on 1/1/10th second delay and 30 mm cannon which was decided to be best weapon fitted to any fighter in WW 2 by Tony Williams

    1. steve twede

      Spit 20 mm cannon vs German

      the Hispano was almost twice as long as and double the weight of the German gun; unwelcome features for wing-mounted weapons.

  11. stevetwede

    wood prop weights 200 pounds plus less than metal ones do.

    . It takes a bunch of weight off the nose and dampens the vibration so that the airplane definitely feels smoother and lighter on the controls. It also makes power faster — it spins up right away. For what it’s worth, there is one on Jim Richmond’s personal Cub.

    http://www.supercub.org/forum/archive/i … 23107.html

    G-14 had enlarged rudder pedals and unbalanced elevators for better dive pulkllout

  12. stevetwede

    the Spitfire IXB was supreme, and undoubtedly the best mark of Spitfire produced, despite later and more powerful versions.
    Alan Deere, Nine Lives, (Crecy Publishing, Manchester, 1999), p. 258.

    Jeffrey Quill commented that “The AFDU were quite right to criticise the handling of the Mark 21

    1. Dear Steve,

      You have dug up a 2½ year old post, and now posted fifteen comments on that one, trying to prove a point that remains somewhat unclear to me. Let’s take it from the beginning:

      Is your argument that the increased power was absorbed better by the Bf 109 than by the Spitfire, and that the fact that earlier mark Spitfires had better handling characteristics than late-mark ones made them superior fighters?

      In that case, the basic premise is wrong. If maneuverability was the deciding factor for if a fighter is better, this comparison would have been won by the Fokker Dr.1/Sopwith Triplane. There is a reason that we today have fighters flying at supersonic speeds instead of biplanes which feature far better maneuverability. Speed counts, which is why the crisp early-mark Bf 109’s and Spitfires were replaced by heavier late-mark versions. If the Mk.IX or some other Merlin-powered one would have been objectively ‘better’, don’t you think RAF would have stuck to them?

      For the comparison of cannons, the destructive power of the 30 mm cannon is undisputable, but the large calibre combined with short barrel meant that the bullet drop was a real issue, especially together with the slow(er) rate of fire. As such, the long 20 mm guns with their faster rate of fire and their higher V0 often held an edge in fighter on fighter combat, especially in the hands of average non-ace pilots.

      I also find it interesting that some of your anecdotes actually support mine rather than your point (“Mk 24, good fighter bomber, new tail made aiming much better.”, “After flying the Mk. XIV for the first time Johnnie Johnson said that it was a nice and fast aeroplane”).

      An interesting point is that by the time the F.24 was delivered in 1948, the F-86 Sabre was already flying. This if anything shows the fact that RAF still valued the fighter in its later versions.

  13. stevetwede

    No Spit 9 was too slow, they had to move on, but it’s replacement, the Griffon was not good in handling. Just how it was. Clostermann mentioned the MK 9 had not enough power, the problem was, they didn’t have a great solution to this problem, Tempest aside, it was a problem that didn’t get an adequate solution.

    it was part of the major production streamlining and overall redesign effort that finally lead to the Me 109K.

    According to Radinger/Otto, “Me 109”, Bölkow’s design office for that consisted of 140 heads, including the original Me 109 chief designer Richard Bauer, 10 experienced Me 109 design engineers, and the Me 109 series production office. They started in earnest in early 1943 in the Wiener Neustadt works.

  14. stevetwede

    Pierre Clostermann…
    The Spitfires were powerless. There was only one Wing of three Spitfire XIV Squadrons and the rest were equipped with Spitfire IXs or Spit XVIs (Spit IXs with Rolls-Royce engines built by Packard in the U.S.A.). In any case all the Spit IX Squadrons operated most of the time as fighter-bombers. The Huns, knowing the Spits quality in dogfight, carefully avoided taking them on, and the poor Spits had neither the speed nor the range to force the new German fighters to fight.[79]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supermarin … al_history

  15. stevetwede

    The DB 605 was the same engine block as the DB 601, it was just bored out, so the 109 did not have the same overweight issue the later Spit did.

  16. stevetwede

    How was (I to know this was 2 plus yrs old? is it the normal custom to attack newbies? as to 30 mm, the problem was isolated regarding jams, the shells were of poor construction often due to slave labor, after this was discovered, a major fix was put in & this largely addressed this issue, as to distance, Goerg Peter Eder says 300 yards here.

    Georg Peter Eder

    The Aces Talk page 220.. I opened with the 20’s at 500 yards. At 300 yards I opened with the 30’s. It was a short burst, maybe 10 shells from each cannon, but I saw the bomber explode & begin to burn

    as an asides,an upgraded version of this cannon was perfected with higher rate of fire at war’s end according to Tony Williams.

  17. stevetwede

    In “Rapid Fire”, Tony Williams notes:

    “At the end of the war, work on a modified version (referred to by one source as the MK 108A or MK 108 n A – presumably standing for neuer Art or new type) was achieving around 900 rpm on test, but was too late to see service.” (p. 167 f)

    as to 13 mm exploding rounds, Rall makes comment here;

    “our excellent ammunition got the job done. It had high explosive power”

    I preferred three guns in the center of the aircraft, right along the longitudinal axis. This mean you had to aim very carefully, but when you did, our excellent ammunition got the job done. It had high explosive power, and when you hit an enemy aircraft that was “good night.”

    Gunther Rall, in Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe,
    Constable and Toliver, 1977.

  18. stevetwede

    Last thought.s the Seafang & Seafire were replacements for Griffon Spit, if there were not a need, these likely would not have been pursued.. They used stuff from American & German fighters, laminar flow wing, & raised rudder pedals & angled seat like ME 109 & chains & cable replaced from stick to ailerons like FW 190, these plane’s didn’t work out, but the attempt was made. The solution arrived in the form of Seafury after the war.

    Accordling to Ludwig Bölkow as quoted in the above book, the Me 109K had a reduced ground angle to improve handling, indicated as 12 degrees in one drawing and as 11.9 degrees in another.

  19. stevetwede

    oops I meant Spiteful. There are a few more upgrades that went into K-4 that have no sources that I have even seen, rebalanced ailerons & all steel slats, but the K-4 was not just a G-6 with more is the point.

  20. stevetwede

    G-10 elevator travel different than G-6, this means more bang for the buck when one pulls on the stick. Better sustained turn & dive pullout.

    It seems Mermet gives in his book:
    33° +/-3° up and 34° +/-3° down, and
    27° +/-3° up and 24° +/-3° down

    The reduction of elevator range of movement for the same stick travel would imply a greater mechanical advantage and therefore, a lower stick-force per G, and so at high-speed it would be easier for the pilot to apply G and, if control loads were previously limiting(as they were in the 109 and most similar aircraft),then greater G loads would be possible.

  21. stevetwede

    later 109’s also had a 3 & 1/2 inch thick windscreen, P-51 & Spit I think retained thin ones. Also G-10 had electronic ignition like P-51 so one could re-start the motor in mid air.. The oil pan was made from roughly 1 quarter inch steel, armored in other words, to protect against ground fire. Radiators also had small armor protection. So the latter 109’s were indeed much improved over 43 era G-6 models. Even the Erla Haube canopy was more streamlined than previous birdcage designs. Wheels doors added, gun bumps smoothed over, radiator bypass reduced for better speed, the list goes on & on.

  22. stevetwede

    Dive also was one way the 109 did better than Spit in late war development. G-2 British tested at 467 mph in dive, here we have 560 mph TAS from tall wood tail Roland. Beaumont said Lall Spits dangerous past 4-450 mph

    Versuchs-Bericht Nr 109 05 E 43 – Date 15.4.43
    This original German test document refers to dive tests of 109s with the tall tail. Result of this test was that the new tail reduced highspeed diving ozillations (which sometimes appeard with the old tail). More interesting is the fact, that in this tests, which had not the aim to estimate the highest mach number or to test the structure, they reached
    max. Mach 0,805@7.0km
    max. TAS 906km/h@5.8km
    http://www.virtualpilots.fi/feature/art … s/#109hard

  23. stevetwede

    both of them became difficult to control laterally in roll about 400mph. These days historians always go by the word of retired personnel who always claim that Spitfires are capable of 450mph in a dive. That’s what its design speed was, but its actual capability was limited to 400 because the airframe went solid at 400. It wasn’t practical to try and make it go faster.

    http://www.secondworldwarforum.com/my-o … e-beamont/

    J: Did you fly in a Spitfire?
    Some people ask me this question in the same context and they seem quite surprised when I tell them that there were 22 marks of Spitfires in service between 1940 and 1945 and I flew every one of them.

    Now there was 1 experimental Spit that hit 600 mph in a dive, it was a writ off afterwards, wings bent fuselage wrecked. So one must understand operational Spits were not the same thing at all.

    1. Dear Steve,

      I politely pointed out that spamming a two year old post with comments is not considered proper internet etiquette. Following this, you have posted ten additional comments on this thread.

      Now, I highly value open discussion, and discussion include people voicing different opinions. You clearly seem interested and well-read in WWII aviation, which is nice to see. I recommend you writing an article or forum/blog post with your arguments, and then posting the link to that one as a comment. The internet has many different aviation related pages, I am sure you will find a suitable one if you look around.

      Now, these one fact/one comment snippets are unfortunately not that useful, and are swamping the page. As such, future such comments will unfortunately have to be banned. Instead, I hope you opt for the way forward as described above, as I am sure a longer coherent defence of the Bf 109 from you would be interesting reading.

      Regards,
      Robin

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