Willy Emil Messerschmitt designed planes that were to make a major impact on World War Two. Messerschmitt’s planes fought in most major campaigns in Europe from 1939 to 1945. Along with a few others, such as Reginald Mitchell and Sidney Camm, Messerschmitt helped to revolutionise the design of fighter planes. Messerschmitt 109’s and Messerschmitt 110's both fought in the Battle of Britain – that the Luftwaffe lost this battle was due to the incompetence of tactics as opposed to the planes that fought in it. By the war's end, the Messerschmitt 262 was to re-define the way fighter planes were designed.
Willy Messerschmitt was born in 1898. At an early age he became fascinated by airships, having seen a Zeppelin. This sparked a general interest in aviation and Messerschmitt was soon working for Friedrich Harth – the German gliding pioneer. During World War One, Messerschmitt worked at a military flying school. In 1921, Harth flew a glider – the S8 – for 21 minutes, a world record for the time. Harth and Messerschmitt jointly designed the S8 and it was the first success Messerschmitt had with regards to designing any form of craft that left the ground.
However, as with anyone involved in aircraft design, Messerschmitt had his ups and downs. In 1925, he took to the air himself (for the first time) in M17. It crashed and put Messerschmitt in hospital for some time.
In the late 1920’s, Messerschmitt had his own works based in Augsburg – the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Bavarian Aircraft Works). His designs were simple and cheap. But they had one serious problem – many crashed. As a result, his company went bankrupt in 1931.
Messerschmitt was saved by the Nazi Party that came to power in January 1933. Probably the most important man in German civil aviation was Erhard Milch. Between 1931 and 1933, Milch had done all that he could to stop Messerschmitt getting any form of contract. He blamed Messerschmitt for the death of one of his best friends who had died when his M20 had crashed. The M20, a transport plane, was one of Messerschmitt’s planes. Milch was a supporter of Hitler, yet it was the Nazi Party that saved Messerschmitt.
Milch may have been important in civil aviation. But Messerschmitt had spent time constructing good relations with one of the most important of all Nazis – Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy. He had also become a friend of Theo Croneiss, a World War One fighter pilot and associate of Hermann Göering – the future head of the Luftwaffe.
Messerschmitt’s first major success came in 1934 when he, aided by Robert Lusser, designed the Bf108 – a four-seat touring plane. In 1935, Nazi Germany announced its intention of rearming. This gave Messerschmitt and his company the opportunity to show Hitler what the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (hence the Bf in plane names) was capable of doing.
The result was the Bf109. It was a revolutionary design – the plane had a monoplane metal construction, retractable undercarriage, enclosed cockpit and devices that gave the plane high lift. By the standards of the time, Messerschmitt had produced a one-off.
The development of the Bf109 also coincided with a major decline in the power of Milch. Ernst Udet, a World War One fighter ace, had been appointed the Luftwaffe’s head of air force development. Udet was less than impressed when he first sat in the Bf109. He found the plane to be cramped and not pilot-friendly. However, when he flew it, Udet realised that Messerschmitt and his team had designed something that took fighter plane design to another level. In 1937, Udet himself flew the plane at the Zurich air races.
The Bf109 was used throughout World War Two. It was produced in huge numbers and became, along with the Focke-Wolf 190, the principal fighter for the Luftwaffe.
Messerschmitt and his team also designed the Bf110. This plane was originally used as a fighter but became a fighter-bomber and was one of the main night-fighters used by the Luftwaffe against night-flying Allied bombers on their way to German targets.
Towards the end of the war, Messerschmitt designed a plane that was truly revolutionary – the Me262. The 262 was the first production jet fighter. It was capable of astonishing speeds for its time. Had it been used more effectively, it would have made more of an impact on World War Two – though it would not have changed the course of the war. However, Albert Speer claimed in his book “Inside the Third Reich” that Hitler got it into his head that the 262 would do best as a fighter-bomber. By carrying the extra weight of bombs, it could not operate at its best. However, short of fuel, short of ammunition etc, the Nazis were doomed to failure and Messerschmitt’s 262, though a massive development in aviation, had little impact on the war.
Messerschmitt also suffered his fair share of failures. The Me210 was meant to replace a whole variety of bombers and fighter-bombers. The Me210 was unstable and its undercarriage was liable to collapse on landing. However, such as Messerschmitt’s prestige in the war, that the Luftwaffe ordered 1000 even before a prototype had flown! Hermann Göering claimed that his power as head of the Luftwaffe would have been longer had the Me210 been successful.
When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Messerschmitt was arrested and put on trial for allowing the use of slave labour in his factories. He was sent to prison for two years. When he was released from prison, Messerschmitt never achieved his former status. Messerschmitt attempted to get his company going again but the stigma of the association with Hitler and the Nazis effectively ended this.
Messerschmitt retired in 1970 and died in 1978.