The Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighter first entered service with the Luftwaffe in 1937 with the Me 210 first taking to the skies only two yeara later. There were high hopes for the “Zerstörer” that lasted right up to the point it faced the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the RAF in combat in 1940.
There wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong with the Bf 110. It was docile and stable to fly, it proved reliable and fairly rugged in service and it was generally liked by its pilots. The problem lay with the whole heavy fighter concept.
These aircraft certainly had good speed and fearsome armament, but they proved vulnerable when they were required to fight single-engine fighters that had much better acceleration and manoeuvrability.
The Bf 110 would go on to find a new role as the most successful German night fighter of World War Two. But even before the war began and just as the Bf 110 was entering service, Messerschmitt began work on the design of its successor. This wasn’t a completely new design, it was based on a proven and tested airframe and the plan was to create not a different aircraft but simply a better, faster, Bf 110. What could possibly go wrong..?
Origin & the Bf 110
In 1938, Waldemar Voigt, Messerschmitt’s chief designer, had already begun working on a replacement for the Bf 110. The overall design was similar to the Bf 110 with two engines, a mid-wing and twin vertical control surfaces in the tail. As in the Bf 110, the crew of two would be housed under an extensively glazed “greenhouse” canopy. However, the new aircraft would feature some notable improvements over its predecessor.
The cockpit would be placed further forward in the fuselage, giving the pilot excellent visibility. A pair of 1,300 hp Daimler-Benz DB 601F engines would replace the 1,150 hp DB 601B engines in the Bf 110.
Where the Bf 110 carried bombs on external racks, the new aircraft would be provided with a small enclosed bomb bay capable of holding a pair of 500 kg bombs. It was anticipated that the new aircraft would have a top speed of around 390 mph, a useful improvement on the top speed of the Bf 110 and equivalent to the top speed of many contemporary single-engine fighters.
From the beginning, this was intended to be a true multi-role aircraft. When it was to be used in the heavy fighter role, the fixed armament of two 20mm Mg151 cannons and two 7.92mm MG17 machine guns in the nose could be supplemented with four more 20mm cannons fitted as a pack in the bomb bay.
To make it as effective as possible when used in the ground attack role, the new aircraft was fitted with dive brakes on the wings and a Stuvi dive bombing sight in the cockpit. Even the rear armament in the new aircraft was novel.
In the early models of the Bf 110, the rear gunner controlled a single 7.92mm MG15 machine gun on a flexible mount in the rear cockpit. In the new aircraft, the rear gunner controlled a pair of Ferngerichtete Drehringseitenlafette FDSL 131/1B turrets on the fuselage sides.
Each turret mounted a single 13mm MG131 machine gun and these were remotely controlled, aimed and fired from the gunner’s position in the rear of the cockpit. This allowed traverse and elevation of the remote turrets and the canopy was bulged to give the gunner excellent vision to the rear.
A mechanical cut-out was installed to prevent the gunner from inadvertently shooting off the tail of his own aircraft.
The Luftwaffe was keen to take delivery of an aircraft that could replace not just the Bf 110 but perhaps also the Ju 87 Stuka as well as some twin-engine bombers and the specification offered by Messerschmitt looked so promising that an order was placed for 1,000 examples before the first prototype had even flown. The new aircraft was given the designation Me 210.
German aircraft designations in the early part of World War Two were based on a two-letter abbreviation of the manufacturer’s name. Although they were colloquially known as “Messerschmitts” the Bf 109 and Bf 110 entered service while Willy Messerschmitt was Chief Designer for the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Bavarian Aircraft Works) so these were given the “Bf” designation.
In 1938 Messerschmitt bought over the company which was re-named Messerschmitt A.G. All Messerschmitt aircraft that entered service with the Luftwaffe after that time were given the “Me” designation.
The first prototype Me 210 flew in September 1939, less than 24 hours after the beginning of World War Two. Delays in production of the DB 601F engine meant that it (and most early Me 210s) were fitted with the less powerful DB 601B engines. That was an issue but It soon became apparent that, despite its impressive specification on paper, the new aircraft had an even more fundamental problem: it flew like a brick!
Where the Bf 110 was renowned for its vice-free handling, the Me 210 suffered from just about every possible problem in terms of flight performance. In level flight, it “snaked” constantly making it impossible to aim the guns or drop ordnance accurately. When turning, it was unstable.
The centre of gravity was too far to the rear and in a turn, this caused the nose to rise. If speed was allowed to decay, the aircraft could snap into a stall and a vicious spin. Weight-saving meant that the fragile undercarriage could collapse during a heavy landing.
The German pilot in charge of flight testing later said that the Me 201 had “all the least desirable attributes an aeroplane could possess.” Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown, a Royal Navy test pilot who flew more captured German aircraft than any other Allied pilot, wrote that a later development of the Me 210 which he flew had “inherently dangerous flying characteristics.”
An immediate redesign saw the twin tails replaced with a large single vertical stabiliser and rudder. This made little difference. Despite these major problems, limited manufacture of pre-production versions of the Me 210 began at the Messerschmitt works.
Given the obvious handling issues encountered in test flying, it was decided that the first 15 examples produced would be used for further testing and that a special unit, Erprobungsgruppe (Test Group) 210, would be formed to carry out an operational evaluation of the new aircraft.
In September 1940, the second prototype Me 210 broke up in the air during dive-bombing trials, though the pilot was abler to bail out safely. A senior officer of ErG 210 died when the Me 210 he was testing at the Luftwaffe Flight Test Centre in Rechlin near Berlin crashed.
Despite the evident problems with the Me 210, the Luftwaffe urgently needed a replacement for the Bf 110 and full-scale production began in 1941 at the Messerschmitt works at Augsburg and Regensburg.
Two versions were produced. The Me 210A-l was a bomber-destroyer fitted with cannon and machine guns and the Me 210A-2 was a bomber capable of carrying up to 2,000 kg of bombs in the bomb bay and on external racks.
Most pilots reported that both versions of the Me 210 were horrible to fly and that inherent instability made it unsuitable for combat operations. Messerschmitt responded by tinkering with the design and introducing automatic leading-edge slats, as fitted to the Bf 109. This did seem to help tame the nasty stall/spin characteristics but did nothing to improve stability. These slats were subsequently retrofitted to all existing Me 210s.
In April 1942, the Luftwaffe made an extraordinary decision: they requested that the production order be cancelled, that all production of the Me 210 end and that instead, production of the elderly Bf 110 be re-started while further improvements to the Me 210 were considered. Around 200 Me 210s were produced from 1941 – early 1942.
What are the variants of the ME 210?
The ME 210 had various versions. One involved extending the rear fuselage and adding more powerful DB 603A engines. Due to its poor reputation, it was renamed Me 410 “Hornisse” with some improvements. A version called Me 210C had leading-edge slats and saw use in both the Royal Hungarian Air Force and the Luftwaffe.
The Me 201C and 410
Messerschmitt modified the design of the Me 210 by introducing a deeper rear fuselage which was also lengthened by 3ft. This moved the centre of gravity aft and did seem to improve the handling characteristics of the aircraft a little, though it remained challenging to fly and prone to stalls and spins.
It was decided to further improve the performance of the Me 210 by providing it with more powerful 1,750 hp DB 6O3A engines.
Although this really led to a slightly improved Me 210, this aircraft had gained such a dreadful reputation with the Luftwaffe that it was given a new designation and name: Me 410 “Hornisse” (hornet).
A number of unfinished Me 210s on the Messerschmitt production lines were modified to the new standard and all subsequent production was of the Me 410. Production of the Me 410 ended in September 1944 after a total of over 1,000 were produced. These were mainly used as bomber destroyers against growing US daylight bombing raids. Plans for night fighter and torpedo bomber versions of the Me 410 were not completed by the time that the war ended.
Confusingly, one aircraft produced to the new specification retained the Me 210 designation. The Dunai Repülőgépgyár Rt. (Danube Aircraft Factory) in Hungary produced over 250 examples of what was designated the Me 210C.
This featured the automatic leading edge slats and modified rear fuselage of the Me 410 but it was fitted with licence-built Daimler Benz engines. Production of the Me 210C was split, with one-third of the completed aircraft going to the Royal Hungarian Air Force and two-thirds to the Luftwaffe.
As a combat aircraft, the Me 210 was a disaster. It was unstable and had dangerous flying characteristics. The modified Me 410 and Me 210C were better, but both were still challenging aircraft to fly and neither proved particularly effective in combat. How did that happen?
Willy Messerschmitt was a capable designer with a great design team who contributed to the development of some outstanding combat aircraft. But he and his team seemed as baffled as everyone else when the Me 210 proved to have inherent instability and lethal handling.
As a direct result of the failure of the Me 210, Messerschmitt was forced to resign as head of Messerschmitt A.G. and instead took on the role of Technical Director. The head of the Luftwaffe, Herman Goering, was later to say that his own epitaph should read: “He would have lived longer but for the Me 210.”
Perhaps what this illustrates more than anything else is that there is a surprisingly fine line between a great design and a flawed design. The British DH98 Mosquito was in many ways a similar design (though it used mostly wooden construction) that evolved at around the same time as the Me 210, but it was a vastly superior aircraft.
The Bf 110 was robust, reliable and easy to fly and it evolved to become an outstanding night fighter. The Me 210 should have built on the strengths and positive features of the Bf 110, but it didn’t.
Despite its impressive specification on paper, the Me 210 was a failure and subsequent tinkering with the design was intended to overcome its inherent problems rather than to create a truly effective aircraft. The conclusion is clear: if the basic design doesn’t work, no amount of modification can make a poor aircraft great.
- Crew: 2
- Length: 12.2 m (40 ft 0 in)
- Wingspan: 16.3 m (53 ft 6 in)
- Height: 4.2 m (13 ft 9 in)
- Empty weight: 7,069 kg (15,584 lb)
- Max takeoff weight: 9,705 kg (21,396 lb)
- Powerplant: 2 × Daimler-Benz DB 605B V-12 inverted liquid-cooled piston engine, 1,085 kW (1,455 hp) 1475 PS each for take-off
- Maximum speed: 580 km/h (360 mph, 310 kn)
- Range: 1,818 km (1,130 mi, 982 nmi)
- Service ceiling: 8,900 m (29,200 ft)