Messerschmitt Bf 110 – Harmless by Day, Lethal by Night

The Bf 110 was created to fulfill an entirely new role dreamed up by Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe, the long-range, heavily armed “strategic fighter.” While the short-ranged single-engine fighter was seen primarily as a defensive aircraft, what became known as the Zerstorer (Destroyer) fitted with the primarily offensive ethos of the Nazi armed forces.

It could be used to penetrate deep into enemy airspace and clear the way for bombers to attack their targets without the threat of interception.

Nazi propaganda hailed the Bf 110 Zerstorer as the cutting-edge of the Luftwaffe. For an ambitious young Luftwaffe pilot, there were more kudos to be gained in joining a Zerstorer squadron than any other.

That lasted until the Summer of 1940. During the Battle of Britain, Bf 110 losses became so serious that for a time, Zerstorer squadrons had to be given an escort of single-seat fighters.

The Bf 110 was used throughout the war in all theatre.
BF 110s flying over Budapest. Photo credit – -Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 669 7340 27 Blaschka CC SY-SA 3.0

Germany didn’t give up on either the strategic fighter concept or the Bf 110. New twin-engine fighters were developed (though none were particularly successful) and new roles were found for the Bf 110. Initially, it was used as a long-range strike fighter. Then, it finally found a role for which it was ideally suited: as a night fighter used to counter the growing RAF bombing night campaign against Germany.

Contents

Origin

The design of what would become the Bf 110 began in 1934 with a specification raised by the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM – German Air Ministry) for a Kampfzerstörer (bomber/destroyer), a twin-engine fighter that should have the equivalent speed to single-engine fighters, but with considerably more range and firepower.

Read More: Messerschmitt Bf 109 – The Best Fighter Ever Built?

The outcome was a design produced by Willy Messerschmitt who was then Chief Designer for the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Bavarian Aircraft Works).

Bf 109E "Emil" in London.
The Bf 109 E was used at the start of the war. Germany needed an aircraft with more range and firepower to complement it. Photo credit – Clemens Vasters CC BY-2.0.

That was why this aircraft was given the RLM designation “Bf.” The company wouldn’t become Messerschmitt AG until 1938 and only aircraft designed by the company after that time were given the designation “Me.”.

The design produced by Messerschmitt was for a sleek, all-metal, cantilever monoplane with twin rudders and a stressed alloy skin. Power was to be provided by a pair of the newly developed Daimler-Benz DB 600 engines, each producing around 900hp.

Flight testing of the first prototype, the Bf 110V1 began in May 1936, and the new aircraft proved vice-free in flight and in early trials achieved a speed of over 315mph, close to the speed of contemporary single-engine fighters. The first production version, the Bf 110B-1 began to be delivered in very limited numbers to the first newly created Zerstorergeschwader in the autumn of 1938.

Depending on the aircraft a Bf 110 would have either two or three crew memebers.
The cockpit of a later Bf 110 G-4.

This aircraft was initially designed for a crew of three: Pilot, navigator, and radio operator/air gunner. However, in service, most of the early Bf 110s carried just two crew, the pilot and the radio operator/air gunner.

The armament was fearsome, consisting of a battery of two, 20mm MG FF cannons and four MG 17 machine guns, all mounted in the nose, and a single MG 15 machine gun on a flexible mount in the rear cockpit.

The first true production version, the Bf 110C series, began to be delivered in early 1939. This version was powered by improved DB 601 engines provided with fuel injection and improved superchargers.

It was variants of this version that would see combat, with varying degrees of success, during the opening stages of World War Two.

Bf 110 armament consisted of cannons and machine guns.
The Bf 110 had heavy armament in the nose – notice the cannons protruding. This aircraft was a bomber’s worst nightmare.

In Service

Unlike many other Luftwaffe aircraft, the Bf 110 was not used during the Spanish Civil War, seeing combat for the first time during the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. In that campaign, as well as subsequent actions in Norway and Denmark, the Bf 110 performed well.

However, when the German invasion of Belgium, Holland, and France began in May 1940, the situation wasn’t quite so positive.

At that point, the Luftwaffe had around 350 Bf 110Cs. For the first time, the Zerstorer was opposed by modern single-seat fighters, including Hurricanes of the RAF, and it began to suffer increasing losses. In air battles over Dunkirk and during anti-shipping strikes in June/July, the Bf 110 met the RAF Spitfire for the first time, and it fared even worse.

This Bf 110 is carrying two 900 L drop tanks for increased range. They could be dropped if required.
Due to its size and weight, it stood no chance against traditional single-engine fighters. Photo credit – Andrea Nicola CC BY-SA 3.0.

In the Battle of Britain (August – September 1940), the Luftwaffe began with almost 240 Bf 110s available. By the end of the battle, fewer than 40 had survived and one of the pilots killed in action was Hans-Joachim Göring, Chief of the Luftwaffe Herman Göring’s nephew.

As a fighter, the Bf 110 had one major drawback: weighing almost four tons, it was heavy, and that gave it sluggish acceleration and poor manoeuvrability. These proved to be serious problems in combat with single-engine fighters and during the Battle of Britain, on occasion, Bf 109 fighters were used to escort formations of Bf 110s. It was becoming clear that the Zerstorer concept was fatally flawed.

However, the Bf 110 had proved effective in the anti-shipping and ground attack roles, and it was this type of mission that the next variants focussed on.

The Bf 110 excelled when there were no enemy aircraft around.
Quickly it was realised that this aircraft was more suited to ground attack and anti-shipping. Photo credit – Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-360-2095-23 Wanderer, W. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The Bf 110E (the D model was an attempt to provide more range by fitting an under-fuselage Dackelbauch (Dachshund Belly) auxiliary fuel tank) was proved with improved armour and racks for up to four 50kg bombs under each wing.

The Bf 110F was similar but provided with even more armour, powered by the improved DB601F engine and able to carry two 500kg bombs under the fuselage plus up to four 100kg bombs on wing racks.

Read More: Me 262 Schwalbe – Troubled Development

However, production of the Bf 110 was dropping. Over 1,000 examples were produced in 1940, but by 1942, this had declined to just over 500. Partly, this was in expectation of the arrival of a replacement, the Me 210.

The Me 210 had some huge technological advances over the Bf 110 including remote control turrets.
The Me 210 was going to be the replacement for the Bf 110. Photo credit – Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 363 2270 18 Honicke CC BY-SA 3.0.

However, that aircraft proved to have such unpleasant handling characteristics that no more than 200 were ever produced. Despite the lack of a viable replacement it seemed likely that the Bf 110 would be phased out of active service entirely but instead, it found a new and unexpected role.

The Bf 110 as a Night-Fighter

Due to unacceptable losses during daylight operations, in the Summer of 1940 RAF Bomber Command switched to a night bombing campaign against Germany that was to increase in scale and tempo for the remainder of the war. In response, in July 1940, the Luftwaffe created the first Nachtjaeger (Night-Fighter) squadron equipped with the Bf 110C.

The Bf 110 had a great deal to commend it as a night fighter. Its docile handling made it easy to fly and its powerful armament made it capable of destroying any RAF bomber. However, it wasn’t much faster than the bombers it was sent to intercept and crews in early night fighters relied on nothing more complex than their own eyesight to find their targets.

The radar meant the pilots didn't just have to rely on the mk.1 eyeball.
Later models like this G-4 were equipped with a very basic radar on the nose for night time operations.
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A Wuerzburg tracking radar would direct A Bf 110 towards an RAF bomber, but this could only be attacked if the fighter made visual contact. This worked, to an extent, on moonlit nights, but it was virtually impossible on dark nights.

It was clear that a more effective means of finding targets at night was needed. Initially, a few Bf 110s were fitted with the innovative Spanner-Anlage (Peeping Tom) infra-red sensor in the nose, but this proved to have such short range as to be almost useless.

Then, the first Bf 110 to be designed specifically as a night-fighter, the Bf 110F-4, entered service in the late Summer of 1942, equipped with the FuG 202 Lichtenstein air intercept radar.

A Bf 110 equipped with the FuG 220 in 1945.
The FuG 220 radar proved to have actual combat use.

This proved to be a much more effective night fighter, and soon after the Bf 110F-4/U1 was introduced, featuring not just air-intercept radar but also the new Schräge Musik (strange music) weapon system.

This comprised a pair of upward-firing MG FF 20mm cannons. This allowed an attack from directly beneath a bomber and, as RAF bombers had no ventral turret and lacked belly armour, it quickly proved devastatingly effective. The next model of the Bf 110 would be almost entirely focused on producing improved night fighters.

The Bf 110G-2 was introduced in early 1943 (the G-1 one a proposed new heavy day-fighter which never reached production). It featured uprated DB 605B engines, replacement of the MG FF cannon in the nose with two Mauser MG 151 20mm cannons and the single machine gun in the rear cockpit was replaced with a rapid-firing pair of MG 81 machine guns.

Getting to close and behind the Bf 110 could prove deadly.
The rear of the cockpit housed a gunner to defend the Bf 110 as well as Schräge Musik.

Several variants of the G-2 were introduced with minor variations in armament before the arrival of what would become the definitive night-fighter version of this aircraft, the G-4.

These aircraft began to reach front-line units in early 1945 and variants included the improved Lichtenstein C-1 air intercept radar, the Rosendaal-Halbe system which detected emissions from the Monica tail-warning radar fitted to some RAF bombers, and the Schräge Musik weapon system.

The Bf 110 proved to be the most lethal of all the night fighters used by the Luftwaffe. Very few were shot down in this role, with most losses coming from mid-air collisions, landing accidents, or damage caused by German anti-aircraft fire.

These types of accidents would mean replacement of the Bf 110s engines.
It wasn’t unusual for crash landings to happen…

At one point, it was estimated that 30 British bombers were being destroyed for every Bf 110 night-fighter lost, a kill ratio rarely equaled by any other aircraft type during World War Two. As a result of this success, production of the Bf 110 increased, with over 1,500 being delivered in 1943 and a similar number in 1944.

It is believed that the Bf 110s destroyed more British bombers at night than any other type. Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer destroyed 121 British bombers (including nine Lancasters destroyed in a single night), making him the most successful night-fighter ace ever. All his kills were achieved while flying variants of the Bf 110.     

Conclusion

The Nazi concept of the Zerstorer proved to be fatally flawed. Although reasonably fast, the Bf 110 proved no match for the single-engine fighters of the RAF.

Losses during the Battle of Britain led to the abandonment of this policy and subsequent Bf 110s were principally adapted for the ground attack role on the Eastern Front.

The Bf-110 was no match for the likes of a Spitfire or P-51.
Whilst effective in its own way, heavy fighters were not often the ideal solution. Photo credit – Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-377-2801-013 Jakobsen [Jacobsen] CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The Bf 110 did experience a brief renaissance as a day fighter when it was used against US daylight bombing attacks in 1944/1945. However, the same flaws that doomed it in the Battle of Britain, sluggish acceleration and poor manoeuvrability, left it easy prey to escort fighters.

If you were to judge the Bf 110 only as a day fighter, it was woefully inadequate. However, when employed as a night fighter this aircraft would prove to be outstanding. It was easy to fly and to land, more so than for example, the Ju 88 that was also used in the night-fighter role, and that minimized losses due to accidents.

Read More: Focke-Wulf Fw-190 – The Butcher Bird

Its powerful nose armament made it capable of destroying any British bomber. Its twin engines gave it the power needed to carry heavy air-intercept radar equipment and special weapons such as the Schräge Musik system.

Some military aircraft excel at the role for which they are designed. Some don’t. The Bf 110 falls into the latter category. By 1943 it was essentially obsolescent and it might have vanished altogether had it not, virtually by chance, found a new lease of life in a role that no one had envisaged when it was designed, as a lethally effective night-fighter.

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Specifications

  • Crew: 2 or 3
  • Length: 12.0714 m (39 ft 7.25 in)
  • Wingspan: 16.2497 m (53 ft 3.75 in)
  • Height: 4.128 m (13 ft 6.5 in)
  • Empty weight: 4,425 kg (9,755 lb)
  • Max takeoff weight: 6,749 kg (14,880 lb)
  • Fuel capacity: 1,272 l (336 US gal; 280 imp gal) in 4 centre-section tanks
  • Powerplant: 2 × Daimler-Benz DB 601A-1 V-12 inverted liquid-cooled piston engines, 780 kW (1,050 hp) each for take-off
  • Maximum speed: 475 km/h (295 mph, 256 kn) at sea level
  • Range: 774 km (481 mi, 418 nmi) at sea level with normal internal fuel at maximum continuous cruise speed
  • Service ceiling: 10,000 m (32,810 ft)
  • Rate of climb: 11 m/s (2,200 ft/min)