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
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 kilometres 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
favour 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 kilometres per
hour) in a test in 1941, twice the speed of most fast fighter planes of
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 out fly 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 labour, 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.