Willy Messerschmitt seated at his desk, probably at Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB), in the early 1970s.
Willy Messerschmitt (right) looks closely at the wing of an aircraft under construction.
The Messerschmitt Bf 109 first entered combat with German units during the Spanish Civil War.
The Messerschmitt Me 163 "Komet" used a rocket motor that used hydrogen peroxide as a fuel.
The Messerschmitt Me 262 was the world's first operational turbojet aircraft. Its first flight as a pure jet was on July 18, 1942.
Willi Messerschmitt and His Company
The name Messerschmitt translates from German as "maker of knives." For several years, Messerschmitt aircraft slashed like knives through the enemies of Nazi Germany. However, Germany's leaders expected to win in a short war. When the war dragged on, the British, Americans and Soviets gained time to grow strong. They then went on the offensive and overwhelmed the Nazi state.
Wilhelm Messerschmitt was born in 1898. In 1912, at age 14, he became friends with Friedrich Harth, a builder of gliders. He went on to build and fly his own glider using one of Harth's designs. Both men served in the German army during World War I and continued to work together after the war ended in 1918. Messerschmitt also enrolled in a technical college in Munich, where he received his degree in engineering in 1923.
He set up his own company and began to build motorized aircraft in 1923. Seeking to expand, he sought a subsidy from the Bavarian state government. Its officials gave him the funds—and instructed him to merge with the existing firm of BFW. Messerschmitt's talent as a designer brought new strength to BFW, which built a number of successful planes.
BFW's big opportunity came in 1934. The Nazis had taken power a year earlier; now they wanted a fast new fighter plane. The ensuing rivalry pitted BFW against the competing firms of Arado, Focke-Wulf, and Heinkel. Messerschmitt crafted his design by working with the most powerful engine then available and building the lightest and most compact airframe possible around it. In flight tests it outperformed the planes of its rivals. This fighter, the Bf 109, became a key part of the new Luftwaffe, the Nazi Air Force.
The Bf 109 soon saw combat in the Spanish Civil War. This war, lasting from 1936 to 1939, pitted German and Italian aircraft against enemy planes built in the Soviet Union. This combat experience helped Messerschmitt and BFW improve the basic design, making this fighter still deadlier. It also gave them an advantage over the British, who did not intervene in Spain and whose own fighters thus did not face an early test of battle.
By 1938, the name of the designer Messerschmitt was far better known than that of his company. Accordingly, the directors of BFW changed the name of the firm to Messerschmitt AG—in effect, "Messerschmitt, Inc." This designer now became chairman of the board and general director. With strong support from officials of the Luftwaffe, he went on to build increasingly capable versions of his fighter. He also introduced a twin-engine fighter, the Me 110.
Adolf Hitler liked large production figures, and those who worked with him were eager to please. The Bf 109 was high on his list, with 33,675 Bf 109s being built between 1939 and 1945. It had one of the largest production runs in the history of aviation. Hitler believed that, with his huge air fleet, he would easily conquer his enemies. This strategy worked in France and Poland, which fell to his armies in a matter of weeks.
But in 1940, Hitler attacked Great Britain. That country's Royal Air Force proved strong enough to defeat the Luftwaffe, preventing the Nazis from invading. In 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union—and soon found his armies trapped within the vastness of its land. Messerschmitt responded by taking on the role of Germany's prime builder of new and advanced warplanes.
As early as 1939, the test pilot Fritz Wendel flew a specially built Messerschmitt prototype aircraft. He set a speed record of 469 miles per hour (755 kilometers per hour), a record for propeller-driven planes that stood for 30 years.
Messerschmitt also built the first really large transport plane, the six-engine "Gigant." Weighing 50 tons when fully loaded, it mounted up to 15 machine guns. It carried 22 tons of cargo or up to 120 fully-equipped infantrymen. Its wingspan of 180 feet (55 meters) approached the 195-foot (59-meter) span of the immense Boeing 747 airliner built nearly 30 years later.
The company also built an experimental four-engine bomber, the Me 264. Luftwaffe officials called it the America Bomber because they hoped it would have the range to attack New York City. But the Luftwaffe actually chose to use a rival bomber, the He 177, which was farther along in its development. This was a poor choice because the engines of the He 177 showed an unpleasant tendency to catch fire in flight. This meant that the Luftwaffe abandoned the Me 264 in favor of a plane that could not fly.
Messerschmitt pioneered in building jet- and rocket-powered interceptors. These were to wait until enemy bombers appeared, fly up swiftly to meet them, then attack them at high speed. The rocket plane was the Me 163 "Komet." It used a motor built by the inventor Hellmuth Walter, which burned hydrogen peroxide as a fuel. Alexander Lippisch, a brilliant aeronautical designer, crafted its streamlined shape. It reached 623 miles per hour (1,003 kilometers per hour) in a test in 1941, twice the speed of most fast fighter planes of the day.
Messerschmitt's most serious high-tech effort was the Me 262, the world's first jet fighter to fly in combat. Test flights began in March 1942, again with Fritz Wendel in the cockpit. Its top speed was 541 miles per hour (871 kilometers per hour). Postwar tests showed that it could outfly America's first jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80, which was designed several years later.
Fleets of Me 262s might have hurled back the Allied bomber offensive that brought Germany to its knees. However, its jet engines initially used heat-resistant metals: cobalt, nickel, and chromium. These were in very short supply, so the engine had to be redesigned to do without them. The new jet engine then tended to fail and to need replacement after as little as ten hours of use. The Me 262 indeed was unmatched in the air, but it spent very little time in the air. On the ground, it was a sitting duck for Allied attacks.
In ancient Greece, the philosopher Archilochus wrote, "The fox knows many things. The hedgehog, one big thing." The Nazis were hedgehogs; their big thing was the Bf 109. Entranced with the hope of a short war, they kept it in production even as the Allies arrived with better aircraft. The Allies, in turn, were foxes, armed with a number of fine warplanes. Messerschmitt built excellent aircraft as well. But the Nazis delayed their production until looming defeat made them desperate. By then it was too late.
Willi Messerschmitt was arrested and imprisoned after the war. He had used slave labor, with the Nazis having kidnapped people off the streets and sending them to Germany to work as slaves until they died. He regained his freedom after two years and went back into business. His firm of Messerschmitt initially built sewing machines and prefabricated housing. A resumption of work in aviation seemed far away.
In 1958, he returned to the production of aircraft, building a small Italian fighter plane under license. His company later produced an advanced American fighter, the Lockheed F-104. After 1960, the West German aviation industry consolidated into fewer but stronger companies that could compete effectively in the international market. In 1969 this led to the formation of a large combined corporation, Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm. Willi Messerschmitt was named honorary chairman, holding this position until his death in 1978.
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__________. Messerschmitt Bf 109 at War. New York: Scribner's, 1977.