Messerschmitt Bf 110C

The first major production of Messerschmitt’s famous “Zerstorer” was in extensive use from the start of the War.

Let’s look at an example that fell, along with the type’s reputation, during the Battle of Britain.

This was one of the very first aircraft I could identify easily in any picture as a kid, and one of the very first things I knew about it was that it was a “disappointment”.
But I think my understanding has become a little more sophisticated and nuanced in 50 years! I’m not completely comfortable with the old “disappointing” verdict. Let’s take a little deeper look.

The specification for what would become the Bf 110 started in 1934 as an order for a fast attack airplane. That was revised to “Zerstorer” by the time the prototype flew in 1936, which directly translates as “destroyer” but was a Luftwaffe euphemism for a heavy fighter. That name change may be the origin of the type’s problems with reputation. But the twin engine design was seen as important, it was the only way to get enough power to satisfy fuel needs and build a long-range fighter. The “A” and “B” models of the type were (under)powered by the Jumo 210 engine. When the new Daimler-Benz DB 601 engine came available it was applied to the Bf 110C. This would be the first major type with 169 built, the last delivered in September 1939.
The idea for the type was as a long-range escort fighter. It would accompany the bombers on all penetrations of enemy airspace, while the light fighters (Bf 109) would serve a more defensive role or operate over the front. From the start, carrying bombs was seen as an occasional part of the type’s mission so the ability to carry load was already there.
The Spanish Civil War had led to the Germans favoring hit and run, or “yo-yo” tactics; keep at attitude and keep your speed up, make a diving attack on enemy aircraft, then climb away and repeat. Do not get drawn into old style dogfights. This tactic would serve the Germans well in the opening moves of the War. The Bf 110 was initially quite successful in this role; it was fast, especially in a dive, had good firepower and a second crewman to help with navigation and radios.
One shortcoming revealed in the Polish Campaign was the type’s barely adequate range. Ironic as this was sort of the type’s defining purpose. But that meant the follow-on “D” model was built to carry more fuel, initially in a streamlined blister underneath the fuselage but later with a more familiar sort of drop tanks. The “E” model offered better engines and several other refinements, the “F” had the same sort of aerodynamic refinements that the Bf 109F had (mainly cowling and propeller spinners).

There is no doubt the Battle of Britain provided a shock to the Luftwaffe. In particular, the Bf 110 could simply not function like it had. Thanks to radar the British could be the ambushers instead of the ambushees! And the Bf 110 simply could not mix with Hurricanes and Spitfires, especially when the British saw them first. Further, it wasn’t as fast as these types; either could outrun it or chase it down. It was quickly obvious the escort fighter needed its own escort. And reaching as far as London was at the limit of what a lighter fighter could manage.
The Bf 110 did however see some success as a light bomber/fighter-bomber, especially later in the Battle.

Interesting gun mount. The rear light machine gun is carried in a shallow recess to starboard when stowed. The rear canopy opens up completely for deploying the gun.

Meanwhile, as newer models of the Bf 110 entered service the “C” models were pulled back to Reich defense. This led to an important second life for the type. It had heavier firepower than the lighter fighters which was useful against bombers. More importantly, since the British had switched their bombing to nighttime, the Bf 110 proved very effective at night. Again, the second crewman was an advantage. Even more, when the first airborne radars came along, the Bf 110 could carry one and still chase down enemy bombers. The night fighter role would come to be the greatest success of the design and it remained in this service to the end of the War.

The Germans had some interesting nose art! A British plane is getting its tail chewed off by a fire breathing something? And that looks like a command chevron bisected by a pencil? Interesting.

The ultimate testament to the Bf 110 is that it replaced the type meant to replace it, the most complete example of this I can think of during the War. Messerschmitt’s new Me 210 was to replace the Bf 110. Bf 110 construction was halted with the “F” model and factories switched over. But the Me 210 had serious stability, strength and aerodynamic problems. So it was withdrawn. The Bf 110 was re-engined with the new DB 605 engine and entered production and service as a “G” model (exactly parallel again with the Bf 109). The Bf 110G was built for three primary missions. First was fighter-bomber/close support (mostly on the Eastern Front), next was bomber destroyer (mostly Reich defense), and finally radar equipped night fighter. It was successful in all three roles. In time, the Me 210 design was “fixed” and returned to production as the Me 410. But this only replaced the Bf 110 in those first two roles, never as a night fighter. The He 219 was meant to replace the Bf 110G, but enough were never built and the Bf 110 served to the end. One of a handful of types to do so.
I’d say, not bad for a disappointment.

Early War offensive punch of the Luftwaffe.

This example was attached to the headquarters flight of ZG 26. On August 18, 1940 it was being flown by Oblt. Rudiger Proske with Hans Mobius in the back seat, when it was shot down by 64 Squadron Leader McDonnell. Both crewmen finished the War as POWs.

The Bf 109 was seen as having a more traditional and defensive role. While the Bf 110 was for offense. Zerstorer crew assignments were considered more elite.

This is the Eduard kit. It was one of their first kits with really “modern” detail, but the molding and engineering are not quite up to modern levels. Which means it is fussy! Lots of fiddly little parts and things that require careful attention. And maybe steadier hands than I have! The nose and engine nacelles are often pointed out as big problem areas, so I proceeded slowly and with caution. I also left out a lot of little detail pieces that were impossible to see anyway. I’m really pretty happy with how most of it came out, even individual radios and machine gun magazines are all molded separately! There were two areas that caused me some frustration; first was the landing gear, fiddly and not very strong. Next, what caused even more frustration, was the exhaust pipes. All 24 are separate pieces! The right and left engines use different pipes, and each engine has 3 pipes that are completely unique parts! In the future, I think I will use available replacement exhausts that replace each row (four total) with a single piece. Replacements naturally made by Eduard. I could get really cranky about that, but to be fair, they represent 15 years newer technology. Eduard and their molding capabilities have come a long way (I believe the newer parts are 3-D printed).

German dreams for an effective long-range escort went down in flames when faced with radar guided single seaters.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
This entry was posted in Fighter, Germany and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Messerschmitt Bf 110C

  1. jfwknifton says:

    Thanks for ma very interesting blog post about an aircraft that found a second life as a night fighter equipped with the Schräge Musik cannon and a diagram of where the fuel tanks were on a Lancaster!

    • atcDave says:

      Hah! Yes, it was unfortunately very effective in its later role! And the Germans did like to be thorough about such things.

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    I have this one in my unbuilt collection Dave.
    This review will be so helpful if I ever build it.
    Having so many parts is really testing our resilience.

  3. mike w. says:

    The Bf110 is one of my favourite a/c. i’m curious about that Bf109 in RAF markings.

    • atcDave says:

      The Bf 110 is an attractive airplane. I think one reason I knew it so well even as a kid is I was disappointed it was a disappointment!

      The Bf 109 was captured by the French during the Phoney War, and passed over to the British before the Invasion. I did a post on it here.

      • mike w. says:

        i have seen a photo of a ‘109 under RAF flight evaluation, its canopy was removed, according to the caption, because the test pilot was too tall in the cockpit. Probably the same plane you modeled here. Thanks!

      • atcDave says:

        That’s funny!
        The Spitfire wasn’t exactly large either. I remember reading that USN pilots testing captured Zeros were glad it was roomier than a Spit!

  4. It certainly had a promising start being used well in the early days of the war. It’s shortcoming we’re all too soon apparent through, but like other models, it found a more suitable niche in other roles. A very interesting read.

  5. Ernie Davis says:

    Interesting history and build. The “heavy fighter” was a concept so compelling that nearly every major power had invested in the idea in the pre-war design frenzy, only to be educated at some cost that it really wasn’t a match for the faster more nimble single engine fighters. Most found some utility, mostly as night fighters, or in the German’s case for home defense, for a time.

    • atcDave says:

      Quite right! Many of them also proved useful for close support, much better with a load than smaller types. A mission less frequently mentioned that heavies proved valuable for was maritime patrol/escort. With a good loiter time, and enough performance to take on recon aircraft and maritime strike, heavy fighters were over water to the end of the War (Beaufighter, Mosquito, Ju 88). I could also mention that late War single engine types were often more powerful than the pre-War twins. A Bf 109E could only carry a very light bomb load… Compared to a Typhoon or Thunderbolt!

  6. Ernie Davis says:

    Good point, an often neglected aspect of the air war was the war at sea. I seem to remember reading an account of a British flying boat (can’t remember the type) taking on an infamous group of Ju 88’s that were causing havoc off the coast of France and thinking Ju 88’s ?

    Still you also mention probably the best expression of the heavy fighter concept was actually a “light bomber”, the Mosquito.

    And I’d certainly agree that by the end of the war the heavy fighter did find it’s expression best as single engine planes!

    • atcDave says:

      I think the aircraft you’re thinking of was a Sunderland? Generally a heavy fighter was more than a match for such a thing, but there a few examples of well defended large aircraft acquitting themselves very well.
      The Mosquito Mk VI was generally classified as a “fighter-bomber”, which more than anything illustrates the difficulty of NAMING such things!

      But I believe the biggest problem with “heavy fighters” was just figuring out how to use them. And not making the mistake of thinking they can do air-to-air with the same sort of effectiveness as a true fighter.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Yes, it was a Sunderland! Thanks, that was bugging me that I couldn’t remember.

        I pretty much agree with all the rest. There were also some who considered the Typhoon and the Thunderbolt to be fighter-bombers, which highlights your point.

  7. In his book Thunderbolt!, Col. Robert Johnson recounted a bomber escort mission; they were to strike a target deep in Germany. Because of the T Bolt’s appetite for fuel, they couldn’t escort them into Germany; having to turn back, he noted “the sky darkened with German fighters”.
    The BF 110 was used to attack the B-17’s from behind, out of range of their guns. It would fire rockets into the formations, while FW’s and 109’s made hair raising frontal attacks, knowing that was the B-17’s only weak spot. On one occasion, Col. Johnson described his first encounter with the 110 as “an all white aircraft, like a ghost; long streamers of flame coming from its wings. ” He proceeded to shoot it down, noting a huge fireball. (I forget how wide)
    It was much later in the campaign when Thunderbolts, having a drop tank and other modifications, could finally penetrate into Germany.
    Searching the web, I never found posts on this tactic, they all reference its role as a fearsome night fighter, or operations on the Eastern front.

    • atcDave says:

      As the Daylight Bomber Offensive gathered steam the German’s absolutely used Heavy Fighters as bomber destroyers. That meant Bf 110 and Me 410. They could carry multiple cannons and rockets that broke up formations and brought down bombers in large numbers.
      But of course that same heaviness meant they were easy prey as fighter escort ranges increased. Of course that most famously meant Mustangs, but even Thunderbolts and Lightnings were carrying more fuel. By spring of ’44 there was no place the Luftwaffe could hide.

      The “all white” 110 was almost certainly a night fighter, the Germans had concluded very light grey was an ideal night camouflage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s