Monday, August 23, 2010

Was the ME109 the better fighter aircraft in WWII?

I’m rather enjoying the current wave of Battle of Britain nostalgia, though possibly not as much as the editor of this section. News reached me from Ventnor, via a red Bakelite telephone, that this week’s issue would include a twin test of a Messerschmitt and a Spitfire. Crikey, I thought, in a voice from Pathe News. Then I discovered that they were only cars.

But this did get me thinking. Should it all kick off again, which fighter would you want to be in? Difficult to say. I’ve only tried a Spitfire, and then only from the back of a two-seater and with a dashing ATA gal up front to keep an eye on the boost gauge. But let’s try anyway.

Most people would dismiss the Hurricane quite quickly, but I’m not so sure we should. It was more like the last hurrah of the previous era of fighter design rather than part of the new dawn of stressed-skin, truly high-performance aircraft. It was built more like a TVR, around what we would call a space frame.

The wings of the earliest Hurricanes were actually fabric-covered, like those of the Hawker biplanes that preceded it. It was slower than either the Spit or the 109 but lightly wing-loaded and very manoeuvrable. It seems to have been benign and had a good gun platform, which was sort of the point.

I also sense that its designer, Sydney Camm, knew what he was doing, because he clearly wasn’t a chump. His legacy stretches from the interwar biplanes up to the Hawkers Hunter and Harrier. I think he knew that Britain needed a fighter that was easy to build using existing skills and tools, easy to maintain and repair in the field, and easy for hurriedly trained pilots to master. When things settled down, he gave us the incredible Tempest, after all.

But the early Spitfire was faster, and faster than the Messerschmitt once it had been given a decent constant-speed prop. And it could still out-turn the 109 at 12,000 feet, which we know because the Royal Aircraft Establishment conducted a genuine fighter group test in 1940 using a captured 109. The Spitfire narrowly outclimbed the Messerschmitt and it seems that the controls were lighter and the cockpit more comfortable.

So the Spitfire would look to have it. But I’m not so sure. The British seem to have clung to some outmoded ideas about aerial combat because the last air war they’d fought had finished in 1918. But the Luftwaffe sneaked in a full dress rehearsal in Spain, and knew that manoeuvrability and dogfighting would give way to a quick in-and-out approach coupled with maximum firepower.

So the 109 Emil had cannon as well as machine guns, while The Few had to make do with just the Brownings. Since a fighter’s job is to shoot stuff down, this puts the Jerry kite ahead in my book. I’d have the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke 109.


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