Type: three-seat night fighter; Powerplant: 2 x 1,475hp Daimler-Benz DB 601B-1 12-cylinder inverted-vee piston engines; Performance: 340mph / 550kph at 22,900ft / 6,980m (maximum speed), 317mph / 510kph at 19,685ft / 6,000m (cruising speed), 26,245 ft / 6,780m (maximum ceiling), 1,305 miles / 2,100km (maximum range with drop tanks); Weight: 11,222lbs / 5,090kg (empty), 21,805lbs / 9,890kg (maximum take-off); Dimensions: 53ft 3.75in / 16.25m (wing span), 42ft 9.75in / 13.05m (length), 13ft 8.5in / 4.18m (height), 413.35sq.ft / 38.4m.sq (wing area); Armament: 2 x 30mm MK108 cannons and 2 x 20mm MG151 cannon in the nose with twin 7.92mm (0.31in) MG81 machineguns in the rear cockpit; Used: Germany, Hungary, Romania & Italy.
During the mid-1930s when the Luftwaffe was building up its strength with a number of new warplane designs, the Bf110 was Messerschmitt's design submission for a twin-engined fighter, along with designs from Henschel and Focke-Wulf. They were first and foremost to be considered heavy fighters but with a secondary capability of being a high-speed bomber. Changes to the requirement meant that Messerschmitt was the only contender and so three prototypes were built, the first flying on 12 May 1936. They were equipped with 910hp Daimler-Benz DB 600A engines that were very unreliable, however a speed of 314mph (505kph) was recorded during flight testing and the overall performance was considered reasonable although the prototypes were prone to some swing on both take-off and landing. Engine unreliability plagued the three prototypes and the pre-production batch of Bf110A-0 aircraft had to make do with 680hp Junkers Jumo 210Da engines and suffered a considerable performance penalty as a result but Messerschmitt were waiting for the new DB 601A engines with fuel-injection. The engine's development period continued to lengthen however with consequent delays to the Bf110 programme and after Messerschmitt had completed the fourth prototype in March 1938, it switched to the Bf110B, a modified variant with two 20mm FF cannon in the nose, to supplement the four 7.92mm machineguns found in the Bf110A-0. A total of forty-five Bf110Bs were completed, all mounting Jumo engines. While most were B-1s, there were a few B-2s that had their 20mm cannon removed and cameras installed and a few B-3s that were earlier aircraft converted to be trainers.
With the arrival of the DB 601A engine, the Bf110C was developed with some minor airframe changes and new radiators. Ten C-0 pre-production aircraft were delivered for evaluation in January 1939 with Bf110C-1 production aircraft following soon after. As production ramped up, both Focke-Wulf and Gotha joined the programme and by the end of August 1939 some 159 models had been delivered with a production rate of thirty per month. By the end of the year, 315 aircraft had been produced. The new fighter proved its abilities in the Polish campaign and in December 1939, destroyed nine out of twenty-four Vickers Wellingtons on a mission over the Heligoland Bight, enhancing its reputation as a bomber destroyer. The priority afforded the Bf110 production reflected in its monthly production average of 102 aircraft per month in 1940 but it was in this year that the aircraft began to encounter single-engine fighters that would start to highlight its shortcomings. While its abilities as a day fighter, even with the improved C-2 and C-3 models, came into doubt, there were plenty of others roles that it could be put to. The Bf110C-4 had up-rated 1,200hp DB 601N engines and additional armour for the crew and could carry two 551lbs (250kg) bombs underneath the centre section. In this role it became the Bf110C-4/B and operated against British shipping in the Channel during the summer of 1940. The Bf110C-7 was an improved version that could carry up to 2,205lbs (1,000kg) of bombs while the C-5 was a reconnaissance version. A few aircraft were converted to Bf110D-1/R-1 and Bf110D-1/R-2 aircraft to fly long-range escort missions from Norway but on their first mission they were mauled by Spitfires and took seven casualties, some through their inability to drop their extra fuel tanks. As the Battle of Britain started, the Bf110s were used to decoy the RAF fighters into coming to battle in order that the bombers would arrive over their targets while the fighters were on the ground refuelling. The idea was a failure however as the Bf110s could not really compete with the single-engine fighters and could not adequately defend themselves with only a single rear-firing machine gun. The resulting battles cost the Bf110 fleet dear (120 lost in August alone) but the shortage of Bf109s meant that the Bf110s were kept on, switching to the fighter-bomber and reconnaissance roles.
Towards the end of 1940, the Bf110 gradually found itself a new role - that of a night fighter, although the early versions had no specialised equipment and had to rely on the eyesight of the crew to intercept bombers. Soon after, a short-range infra-red sensor became available, fitted to the nose of the Bf110D-1/U-1. Things gradually improved, with the setting up of the ground control radar stations in mid-1941 but the much-improved Me 210 was expected to be available soon after and production of the Bf110 was cut back. It is somewhat ironic that the Me 210 and its developed version, the Me 410 proved to be failures and that the Bf110 continued in production after those programmes were abandoned. Eventually in spring of 1942, the Bf110C was phased out of production and the Bf110D series brought in, with the Bf110D-2 long-range fighter bomber based on the Bf110D-1/R-2 aircraft and the Bf110D-3 convoy protection with special over-water provision and additional fuel. This variant evolved into the Bf110E-0 and E-1 production aircraft which could carry 2,645lbs (1,200kg) and 4,409lbs (2,000kg) of bombs respectively, the Bf110E-2 fighter-bomber and Bf110E-3 long-range reconnaissance version with two rearward facing 7.92mm (0.31in) MG17 machineguns. With the appearance of the 1,350hp DB 601F engines, the Bf110F series came into being, fitted out with extra armour and could carry a variety of bombs either under the fuselage or under the wings. The variant had only been in production a short time when it was phased out in October 1941 to make way for the Me 210, but was quickly phased in again in February 1942 as a stop-gap until the Me 210 could be redesigned. Additional weaponry was tested on the Bf110F-2, including two rocket launching tubes mounted between each wing and the RZ65 rocket shell fired from a battery of twelve 73mm tubes. The final F series variant was the Bf110 F-4a which carried the cumbersome Lichtenstein intercept radar in the nose and therefore lost much in performance.
With the failure of the Me 210, development of the elderly Bf110 airframe continued, the next variant being the Bf110G series, with the G-1 being a heavy day fighter equipped with 1,475hp DB 605B-1 engines. There were many other variants though, with the Bf110G-2/R-1 having a 37mm cannon in place of the under-fuselage bomb racks (but no 20mm cannon), the Bf110G-2/R-3 had two 30mm MK108 cannons in place of the four 7.92mm machineguns, while the Bf110G-3 was a long-range reconnaissance variant with cameras replacing the cannons. The final variant was the Bf110H which was produced in parallel with the Bf110G, which it differed from in a few details such as having a strengthened fuselage and landing gear. Total production of this aircraft amounted to just over 6,000 aircraft with the last example being completed in March 1945. Whatever its shortcomings as a day fighter, it found a niche within Germany's night fighter defences and outlived some of its intended replacements, such as the Me 210 and He 219.
Gunston, Bill. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Combat Aircraft of World War II, Salamander, London, 1978.
Kay, A L & Smith, J R. German Aircraft of the Second World War, Putnam Aeronautical Books, London, 2002.
Mondey, David. The Hamlyn Concise Guide to Axis Aircraft of World War II, Bounty Books, London, 2006.
Photos courtesy of: