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The Messerschmitt Bf 110 From Under the Canopy: Poland, the Battle of Britain and After

Part 1

For all of the 70-year-later speculation about World War II aircraft, few planes get a wider mix of reviews than Germany’s Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstorer (Destroyer). It was 2,000-plus horsepower-worth of flying contradictions and strategic design that probably seemed logical before the outset of the war. But as the war drew on, the 110 proved to be unsuited to the role for which it was designed. Instead, it found its strength in the niche roles of battlefield attack aircraft and night fighter.

Between the world wars, Germany unquestionably came out with some of the best designs for the next generation of warplanes. Aircraft like the Junkers Ju 88 and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 seemed to be constantly rolling off the drafting tables and into testing. The Bf 110 was part of that generation of warplanes and initially seemed quite formidable. Everything seemed to come in pairs on the aircraft: Two crewmembers, two large engines, and two vertical tails. Though it looked sleek and muscular on the outside, the plane lacked the agility of a fighter. Reports of early tests showed that it was sluggish compared to single-engined fighters.

The airplane wasn’t replaced with a suitable successor until it was too late to be effective.

From the beginning, the Bf 110 was outfitted with a heavy complement of weapons. The forward guns of the early variants included four 7.92mm machine guns and two 20 mm cannon. As the plane evolved into different roles, so did its armament. Later iterations saw versions with both 20mm cannon and 30mm cannon, and even two 20mm cannon fitted in nightfighter versions to fire upward at an angle, the Shrage Musik (slant music) installation. You can only assume that designers understood the Bf 110 couldn’t keep up in a rolling dogfight, but they wanted to give it, in its later role, the ability to take down any aircraft or armored vehicle with just a few well-placed shots.

The rear-facing crewmember controlled a flexible 7.92mm machine gun mounted at the rear of the canopy.

A Bf 110 of Zerstorergeschwader 1 in flight. Wikimedia Commons

A Bf 110 of Zerstorergeschwader 1 in flight. Wikimedia Commons

Designed in the mid-1930s, the Bf 110 was seen as an integral part of Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering’s redesign of air warfare. As a bomber escort, it was supposed to fly farther than a single-engined fighter but still offer superior air combat performance. And in all fairness, it was effective in Germany’s opening campaigns.

The problem was that those early campaigns saw it flying against airplanes that were not designed with World War II-grade air warfare in mind. Against the earliest Polish, French, and British fighters, it was faster, if not as maneuverable. But it became quickly outclassed once Allied airplane manufacturers rolled out their next generation of fighters, built with the new paradigm in mind.

That’s when the Bf 110 found its best uses in Germany’s war effort, earning its reputation as a night fighter. Its cockpit was large enough to house the bulky first-generation radar equipment that helped it to track down British bombers in the dark. What’s often forgotten was that the Bf 110 was also a highly competent ground-attack aircraft, giving close air support to Axis troops on the attack – and on the retreat.

But due to some serious missteps on the part of the Luftwaffe’s contractors, the airplane wasn’t replaced with a suitable successor until it was too late to be effective. And every month that the Bf 110 was left in the fight, it became more and more outclassed by other airplanes in the sky – to the detriment of its crews.

And every month that the Bf 110 was left in the fight, it became more and more outclassed by other airplanes in the sky – to the detriment of its crews.

Today, only a few intact Bf 110s still exist, and there are not many people left who sat under its canopy. Fortunately, we were able to sit down with someone who spent most of the war with this aircraft. “Luther Haarte” flew the first half of the war as a radio operator/gunner, seeing firsthand the Blitz over England  –  and later during the invasion of Russia. After being wounded twice in Russia, he was grounded. He served as a ground-based radio operator in Germany before being reassigned to his former unit, which had moved to Italy and then back to Russia. (Writer’s note: The subject’s name has been changed at his request. While he wanted to share the experiences of a typical German airman in World War II, the subject preferred to remain anonymous. No other details have been changed.)

His story, which will be told here over the course of multiple installments, is a first-person account of the aircraft and what it meant to be in a military campaign that suffered setback after setback due to poor planning, inadequate logistical support, and a seriously over-extended military.

Eric Seeger: What group did you fly with?

Luther Haarte: My flying group was one part of the groups flying the Messerschmitt 110. ZG 1. “ZG” (pronounced “ZetGe”) means Zerstorergeschwader, which means “destroyer squadron” [although a geschwader is equivalent to a combat wing in U.S. terms] I’m not sure how the squadrons translate into English, but our squadrons had three groups [or gruppen, equivalent in U.S. parlance to a squadron]. Our group had about 70 planes, all 110s. When I was drafted in Sept. 1939, I was assigned to ZG 1, 1 Gruppe. Later on, we were transferred into ZG 26, which had taken heavy losses in Africa.

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