Heinkel’s He 112 is a Forgotten Fighter

The Heinkel He 112 began its journey as a promising fighter aircraft that aimed to set new standards in warbird technology during the mid-1930s.

Despite its innovative design and potential, it remains a lesser-known chapter in aviation history, overshadowed by its contemporary, the Messerschmitt Bf 109.



The Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM), seeking to modernise the Luftwaffe’s ageing fleet, issued a specification for a new breed of fighter aircraft. This specification called for advancements that would eclipse the capabilities of contemporary biplanes, setting the stage for a transformative era in military aviation.

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Ernst Heinkel, a visionary in aircraft design, seized this opportunity to push the boundaries of what was technologically feasible.

The design team, led by the ambitious Walter and Siegfried Günter brothers, envisioned the He 112 not merely as an aircraft but as a harbinger of the future.

The He 112 prototype.
The He 112 prototype.

They incorporated a slew of innovative features that were revolutionary for the time. The aircraft emerged as a sleek, low-wing monoplane, a stark departure from the biplane designs that dominated military aviation.

Its retractable landing gear, an innovation aimed at reducing drag and improving performance, was among the first for German fighters. The enclosed cockpit offered pilots better protection and comfort, a critical factor during high-speed engagements and in adverse weather conditions.

In September 1935, the He 112 took to the skies for its maiden flight, a moment of great anticipation and pride for the Heinkel team.

The aircraft demonstrated exceptional aerodynamic efficiency and handling, signalling its potential to redefine aerial warfare. However, the journey from prototype to production proved to be fraught with challenges.

The competition for the RLM’s contract was fierce, with the Heinkel He 112 going head-to-head against the Messerschmitt Bf 109.

While both aircraft showcased the pinnacle of German engineering, the Bf 109 edged out primarily due to its simpler, more cost-effective design and marginally superior performance metrics. The decision was a significant blow to Heinkel, relegating the He 112 to a secondary role in the Luftwaffe’s expansion plans.

An early Bf-109A. This was the aircraft in direct competition with the He 112.
An early Bf-109A. This was the aircraft in direct competition with the He 112.

Despite this setback, the He 112’s development journey was a testament to Heinkel’s commitment to innovation.

The aircraft underwent continuous improvements, with subsequent prototypes exploring various engine configurations and aerodynamic tweaks. These efforts underscored the company’s dedication to refining the He 112’s design, even in the face of diminishing prospects for widespread adoption.

The He-112 was Advanced

The aircraft’s technical specifications not only reflected the cutting-edge capabilities of its era but also Heinkel’s vision for the future of aerial combat.

This section delves into the intricate details that made the He 112 a noteworthy, albeit underutilised, contender in the annals of military aviation.

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At the heart of the He 112’s design philosophy lay its engine, which was a critical determinant of its performance capabilities. Initially, the aircraft featured a Rolls-Royce Kestrel V engine, a choice that underscored the international collaboration prevalent in aviation development at the time.

However, in pursuit of greater power and autonomy in design, later prototypes and production models embraced a variety of engines, including the Junkers Jumo and Daimler-Benz powerplants.

These engines offered enhanced performance metrics, propelling the He 112 to higher speeds and granting it a competitive edge in agility and climb rate.

Aerodynamically it was advanced for the time.
Aerodynamically it was advanced for the time.

Aerodynamically, the He 112 was a masterpiece of its time. Its semi-elliptical wing shape, a characteristic that contributed to its sleek profile and agility in the air, was a testament to Heinkel’s commitment to aerodynamic efficiency.

This design feature not only enhanced the aircraft’s performance in combat manoeuvres but also improved its overall fuel efficiency, a critical factor in extended operations.

The incorporation of retractable landing gear and an enclosed cockpit in the He 112’s design were forward-thinking choices that significantly reduced aerodynamic drag and protected pilots from the elements and the hazards of high-speed flight.

These features, while now standard in modern aircraft, represented a significant leap in design philosophy and pilot safety considerations during the era of the He 112’s development.

Despite these advanced technical features, the He 112 faced challenges in production and operational deployment.

The complexity of its design and the costs associated with its cutting-edge technologies were factors that limited its appeal, particularly in comparison to its main competitor, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. This juxtaposition highlighted a critical tension in military procurement: the balance between innovation and practicality.

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Central to the He 112’s armament was its cannon and machine gun complement. The aircraft typically featured a combination of cannons and machine guns, a setup that allowed it to engage a wide range of targets with lethal efficiency.

The cannons, often mounted in the wings, provided a powerful punch capable of damaging or destroying enemy aircraft with a few well-placed hits. These were particularly effective against bombers and heavily armoured targets, where the penetrating power of cannon shells could inflict critical damage.

As with many of the Lufftwaffe's aircraft, armament was a mix of machine guns and cannons.
As with many of the Luftwaffe aircraft, armament was a mix of machine guns and cannons.

Accompanying the cannons were machine guns, usually mounted in the nose of the aircraft. These machine guns offered a higher rate of fire, making them ideal for strafing runs against ground targets and engaging enemy fighters in dogfights.

The placement of machine guns in the nose allowed for more accurate aiming, as the bullets followed a straight path aligned with the pilot’s line of sight, enhancing the He 112’s effectiveness in aerial combat.

The integration of both cannons and machine guns into the He 112’s design was a reflection of the evolving nature of air combat, where versatility and the ability to engage multiple types of targets became increasingly important.

This armament setup provided the He 112 with a balanced offensive capability, enabling it to perform a variety of combat missions, from air superiority to close air support.

Moreover, the He 112’s armament was part of a broader trend in military aviation towards heavier and more diverse weapon loads.

This trend was driven by the recognition that future air combat would demand more than just the ability to engage enemy aircraft; it would also require the capability to deliver precise and powerful strikes against ground targets, necessitating a mix of weapon types to effectively engage the full spectrum of potential targets.

Operational Use

Following the Luftwaffe’s decision to favour the Messerschmitt Bf 109, Heinkel sought international buyers for the He 112, transforming what could have been a story of obsolescence into one of global engagement.

Nations such as Hungary, Japan, and Spain saw potential in the aircraft’s advanced design and capabilities. The He 112’s export success, albeit on a smaller scale than anticipated, underscored its appeal as a modern and competitive fighter aircraft on the international stage.

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The Spanish Civil War provided the He 112 with an opportunity to prove its mettle in combat. Serving with the Condor Legion, the aircraft participated in a conflict that served as a proving ground for new tactics and technologies that would define future aerial warfare.

The He 112’s performance in Spain, while not game-changing, demonstrated its capabilities as a reliable and potent fighter. Its involvement offered valuable combat experience and insights into the aircraft’s operational strengths and limitations.

The 112 flew in the Spanish Civil War.
The 112 flew in the Spanish Civil War.

As the shadow of World War II loomed, the He 112 found itself increasingly sidelined. The rapid evolution of military aviation technology and tactics, coupled with the Luftwaffe’s focus on more advanced and numerous aircraft models, diminished the He 112’s role in Germany’s aerial arsenal.

Its operational use transitioned from a frontline fighter to roles that leveraged its strengths without overextending its capabilities.

The aircraft served as a trainer for pilots, imparting valuable flying experience that would be crucial in the coming conflict. Additionally, it undertook secondary roles where its performance and characteristics could still offer strategic value.

World Wide Reach

The Heinkel He 112, despite its limited production, found service across a variety of operators, each with its unique context and operational requirements.

The narrative of the He 112’s deployment beyond the borders of Germany speaks volumes about its appeal as an advanced fighter aircraft during a time of rapid technological change and geopolitical tension.

Spain emerged as one of the notable operators of the He 112, where the aircraft’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War provided a crucible for testing its combat efficacy.

The He 112 served with the Condor Legion, a unit composed of volunteers from the German Luftwaffe, supporting the Nationalist forces.

In this theatre of war, the He 112 showcased its capabilities in air-to-air combat and ground attack missions, offering invaluable lessons in the use of modern monoplane fighters in a conflict that many considered a prelude to the Second World War.

Hungary represents another chapter in the He 112’s operational history. The Hungarian Air Force, recognising the potential of the He 112 to bolster its fighter capabilities, acquired a small number of these aircraft.

In the hands of Hungarian pilots, the He 112 contributed to the country’s air defence and served as a platform for developing tactics and strategies that would be employed in the upcoming global conflict.

Hungary’s use of the He 112 underscores the aircraft’s role in the modernisation efforts of smaller air forces leading up to World War II.

A Romanian He 112.
A Romanian He 112.

The He 112 also made its way to the Far East, with Japan expressing interest in the aircraft’s advanced design and capabilities.

Japan acquired a small number of He 112s for evaluation, seeking to understand and potentially incorporate its technological advancements into its own aircraft development programs.

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While the He 112 did not see extensive use within the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service, its presence in Japan signifies the global recognition of the aircraft’s innovative design and potential for adaptation.

Romania, as well, became an operator of the He 112, integrating it into its air force to enhance its aerial combat capabilities.