The Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstörer (“Destroyer”) twin-engine heavy fighter was designed for the Luftwaffe to combat bombers and fighters alike. It seemed to offer it all when it was first flown on May 12th, 1936 and entered Luftwaffe service in 1937.
With the introduction of more powerful Daimler-Benz DB 601 engines in 1938, the Bf 110C was capable of speeds up to 541 km/h / 336 mph. This was 100 km/h faster than the earlier Junkers Jumo 210 powered A & B models.
Although the Bf 110 was a bit slower than the nimble 1939-1940 period Messerschmitt Bf 109E (560 km/h / 347 mph) and early Allied adversaries such as the British Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IA (571 km/h / 355 mph) and French Dewoitine D.520 (560 km/h / 347 mph), it was still quite fast for the time, especially given its size. For a time the Bf 110 was actually faster than some of the early model British Hawker Hurricane fighters (the Mk.II had a top speed of 518 km/h / 322mph).
In 1938 with a range of approximately 1,094 km / 680 miles the Bf 110 had a much longer range than the Bf 109 single seat fighter and packed a mean punch with 2 x 20mm cannons and 4 x 7.92mm machine guns in the nose plus a rear 7.92mm machine gun for self-defence. It was seen as an ideal stablemate to the Bf 109 as it could be used to escort bombers on longer range missions and engage fighter aircraft.
Battle of Britain
In the early stages of the war in Poland, France and Norway in 1939 to 1940 the Bf 110 did indeed see some success but in the summer of 1940 during the Battle of Britain against more maneuverable RAF Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricane fighters it was found to have vulnerabilities and heavy losses followed (especially on bomber escort missions where it had to fly slowly with the bombers and during surprise attacks was found to be too slow going from cruise speed to maximum speed, giving Allied fighters a distinct speed advantage). The Luftwaffe soldiered on with the type during the battle though as the Bf 109E did not have the required range or endurance to cover all bombing missions.
Despite the losses over Britain many variants were developed throughout the war including advancement as a heavy day bomber destroyer used in the air defence against Allied bombers over occupied Europe (Bf 110F-2, Bf 110G, Bf 110G-2) where its heavy gun firepower (many Bf 110G variants had the 2 x 20mm cannons replaced with 2 x 30mm cannons and the G also had a twin-barreled rear 7.92mm machine gun. The Bf 110G-2/R1 could also be fitted with a twin 20mm or single 37mm cannon conformal ventral gun pod ) plus 4 x 21cm Wfr.Gr. 21 underwing rocket tubes could cause much devastation against bomber formations but it was still very vulnerable to the Allied fighter escorts though and by late 1943 as more long-range Allied fighter escorts became available Bf 110 losses began to mount. The Bf 110 was also quite successful in the fighter-bomber role on other fronts (Eastern Front, Balkans and North Africa). Later wartime Bf 110 models were capable of speeds up to 595 km/h / 370 mph.
Night Fighter Variants
The greatest success for the Bf 110 though was as a night fighter. In late 1940 early 1941 they were more or less just converted over to flying at night with minimal aids to target enemy aircraft.
The aircraft was improved significantly in this role with the introduction in 1942 of FuG 202 Lichtenstein radar systems and antenna (greatly improved in 1943 with firstly the FuG 212 then the FuG 220) and then Schräge Musik from 1943 which was 2 x oblique angle upward firing 20mm cannons that were mounted to fire through holes in the canopy. Some aircraft had the Schräge Musik field modified to be fitted with 30mm cannons. The night fighters could also be fitted with twin 20mm cannon ventral gun pods for additional firepower.
The first dedicated night fighter variant was the Bf 110F-4 and then the Bf 110G-4 was the best equipped version with the FuG 202/220 Lichtenstein radar and Schräge Musik. The Bf 110G-4 had a crew of 3 (pilot, radio/radar operator and gunner). Many of the top Luftwaffe night aces flew the Bf 110.
Major Schnaufer – The Ace of the Night Aces
One Luftwaffe night fighter ace who found great success flying the Messerschmitt Bf 110 was Major Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer (February 16th, 1922 – July 15th, 1950) who amassed 121 air to air victories flying the type on 164 missions with Nachtjagdgeschwader 1 (NJG 1). All of his victories were at night against RAF bombers, mostly Avro Lancaster’s. He favoured opening fire at very close range and on one night he is said to have shot down 5 bombers in 14 minutes, and 7 on another in 17 minutes (figures from the Australian War Memorial)! 20-30 of his victories are believed to have been achieved using Schräge Musik.
Shnaufer joined the Luftwaffe in 1939 and following flight and night fighter training was posted near Hamburg with the 5th Staffel / Squadron of NJG 1 in November 1941. They transferred to Saint-Trond in Belgium in January 1942. He would become squadron leader of 12th Staffel now in Holland on August 13th, 1943 and Group Commander of IV./NJG 1 on March 1st, 1944) and Nachtjagdgeschwader 4 (he became Wing Commander of NJG 4 on November 4th, 1944). His regular crew consisted of Unteroffizier Fritz Rumpelhardt (radio/radar operator) and Oberfeldwebel Wilhelm Gansler (rear gunner).
Major Shnaufer was known as the “The Night Ghost of Saint-Trond” and claimed his first victory in June 1942 (bad weather in early 1942 meant the unit saw limited action). Schnaufer was presented with the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross on December 31st, 1943 for achieving 42 victories then following his 100th victory on October 9th, 1944 was presented with the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds (the highest German military honour at the time) on October 16th, 1944. He became a POW under the British in May 1945 and was released from captivity the following year. Schnaufer died aged just 28 though from injuries sustained in a car accident in France in July 1950 (he worked in the family wine trading business in southern Germany and was in France on a business trip).
At least 35-38 Australians died in the bombers shot down by Major Schnaufer. A right hand vertical stabiliser (tail fin – the rudder is missing) of his Bf 110G-4 aircraft of Nachtjagdgeschwader 4 showing symbols marking his 121 bomber victories (small roundels and four engined British bombers with the date of each victory underneath) is on display in the World War Two gallery at the Australian War Memorial and the other side with the same markings is part of the Imperial War Museum collection in the UK (although I do not recall seeing this on display at either the London or Duxford museums in 2012). They are a reminder to never forget those lost in battle.
Messerschmitt Bf 110 production continued throughout World War Two and in total 6,150 of all variants were produced between 1936 and 1945. Despite the large number produced, very few survive today and only two intact original aircraft are on display in public museums. I have been lucky enough to see both these aircraft plus other parts of Bf 110 aircraft around the traps in Europe. A third Bf 110 has now also been rebuilt by a private group in Denmark using parts from numerous airframes that were sourced from around the world.
Messerschmitt Bf 110F-2 (Werk Nr. 5052) is on display at the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin, Germany. The F-2 variant was a long-range Zerstörer that was used against Allied bombers (it appears this example could be fitted with a conformal ventral gun pod and underwing rockets). They also have parts of a Bf 110E-2 long-range Zerstörer (Werk Nr. 4502) which flew with M8+ZE LN+CR 1./(Z)JG5 that was used to restore the Bf 110F-2 and they also apparently have components of a Bf 110C-4 fighter-bomber (Werk Nr. 3235) which flew with LN+ER 1./(Z)JG77.
The Technik Museum Speyer in Speyer, Germany has parts from a Bf 110D heavy fighter/fighter-bomber (Werk Nr. 3154) that flew with NO+DS 2./ZG76 in northern Norway. The wings and tail section are displayed on a wall of the museum. During the winter of 1940 the aircraft was forced to make a landing on a frozen lake in Sweden. The ice melted in spring and the aircraft sank to the bottom where it remained until recovered 50 years later and taken to the museum!
The jewel in the crown! Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4/R6 (Werk Nr. 730301) is a 1944 night fighter on display at the RAF Museum London in Hendon, UK. I love the look of the night fighter and the camouflage scheme. Surrendered to the Allies in May 1945 at Grove airfield, Denmark it served with the 1st Staffel of Nachtjagdgeschwader 3 (1/NJG 3) in defence of Denmark and northern Germany. This type had a crew of 3 (pilot, radio/radar operator and gunner) and was fitted with a FuG 220b Liechtenstein SN-2 radar. Although not fitted to the aircraft on display you can see the attachments for where a twin 20mm cannon ventral gun pod could have been fitted. Long-range underwing fuel tanks are fitted to the Bf 110G-4/R6.
The Bf 110G-4/R6 is the only survivor of 5 that were taken from Denmark by the RAF for evaluation between 1945 to 1946 (believe it or not the RAF report a total of 37 Bf 110 variants were located in Denmark in 1945), when it was luckily flagged for preservation. For the next 30 years it was moved around various RAF units be it on display or in storage and has been on display at the RAF Museum since 1978.
Another interesting display related to the Bf 110 is at the Imperial War Museum in London where they have parts of the Bf 110D long-range heavy fighter/fighter-bomber (Werk Nr. 3869) flown by senior Nazi, Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Fuhrer, when he went on his misguided peace mission to Great Britain and bailed out over Scotland in 1941. In 2012 part of the rear fuselage and a Daimler-Benz DB 601A engine were on display. I believe the other engine is displayed at the National Museum of Flight in Scotland.
This was a bizarre moment in history – Hess, 47 at the time took off from Augsburg Airfield in Bavaria in the Bf 110D fitted with long-range fuel tanks at 6pm on May 10th, 1941 and by 11pm low on fuel, he had parachuted out over Eaglesham in Scotland where he was found by a farmer. Hess had suffered a broken ankle in the incident. The aircraft crashed nearby.
Upon capture Hess initially said he was Hauptmann Alfred Horn and had an important message for the Duke of Hamilton (who was perceived to be a high-ranking Englishman who Hess could negotiate with and who had contact with the King and Prime Minister) but was taken into custody. He did meet the Duke, who went on to speak to Prime Minister Churchill about the matter (once it was established it really was Hess), then I guess the interrogation began. By the time his capture had become public knowledge, Hitler declared Hess mentally unstable and Churchill probably agreed (although it has been said he went under Hitler’s orders and certain influential Brits knew he was coming, I don’t put much stead in that).
Hess did have a pretty strange peace proposal – all territory captured in western Europe would be returned other than two French provinces and Luxembourg (perhaps to be policed by Germany?). In exchange Great Britain would remain neutral towards Germany in the upcoming fight against the Soviet Union and Great Britain and France would then be able to produce armaments for use by Germany against the Soviets! Surely Hitler had no intention of endorsing this and we all know what happened next (Great Britain and the United States are said to have warned the Soviets of an impending attack but at the time they had a pact with Germany and chose to not believe it, or at least said as much).
Hess demanded to be returned to Germany as he had come as an emissary for peace but this was not something the British government were going to do (his peace deal was not brokered with the British Government before his arrival) and he remained a special prisoner of war spending the next 4 years held in a manor house with limited freedom to wander the grounds under guard. Hess was tried at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946 and found not guilty of war crimes but guilty of crimes against peace and conspiracy. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in Spandau Prison in West Germany. He committed suicide by hanging himself with a lamp cord at Spandau on August 17th, 1987 at the age of 93! His lengthy imprisonment (the longest of any of the Third Reich leaders) and death have always been the subject of much controversy!
In 2014 it emerged that a farmer had hidden away some parts of the fuselage of the Bf 110D Hess flew that had not been taken away by the British military in 1941. A section from the fuselage which included a riveted manufacturer’s assembly tag was sold by the farmer in the 1960s to the former assistant secretary of the Battle of Britain Association who subsequently passed it to the private collection of The War Museum in the United States. The fuselage part was sold at auction in 2014 to an unknown buyer for $8,125 USD (unknown to me at least).
Denmark (Updated September 2018)
After more than 10 years of hard work and dedication, the GillelejeGruppen in Gilleleje, Denmark have rebuilt a Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4 night fighter from parts of numerous airframes sourced from around the world. The wing is said to have bullet holes from World War Two. I will have to check this out some day!
Other Survivors of Sorts
I have also seen the tail section of a Bf 110F-2 long-range Zerstörer (Werk Nr. 5020) on display in the open in Russia, at Victory Park in Moscow in 2007. They are also said to have a wing section of this aircraft that served with LN+AR 13.(Z)JG5.
The following Bf 110 are in various states of preservation but I have not personally seen them:
Bf 110C Zerstörer (Werk Nr. 3115) in the UK. Publicly they have an unknown quantity of parts. It was recovered from Russia and had flown with 1./(Z)JG77.
Bf 110C-4 Zerstörer (Werk Nr. 3577) with upgraded crew armour, privately owned in Italy. They apparently have enough of the airframe to be able to fully restore it! This aircraft had flown with H8+FM 4.(H) 33.
Bf 110F-2 long-range Zerstörer (Werk Nr. 5048) at the Finnish AF Museum, Tikkakoski. This one flew with TI+LA but is apparently just a few parts in storage.
Bf 110F-2 long-range Zerstörer (Werk Nr. unknown) at the Flyhistorisk Museum, Sola in Norway. They have the wings, tail and parts of the fuselage of this Bf 110 that flew with LN+DR 10.(Z)/JG 5.