Designed in 1934 by Willy Messerschmitt’s Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Bf ), the first Bf 110 V1 prototype flew in May 1936. An aircraft of very mixed fortune, the wartime-production Bf 110C joined the German air force in early 1939. The strategic fighter was intended to perform as a heavily armed escort fighter to accompany bombers deep into enemy territory, blasting a path through all opposition, and raiding deep into enemy heartland. Seen as offering a multi-role capability, and complementing their primary force of single-engined light fighters, the heavily armed twin-engined Bf 110 raised considerable enthusiasm and high expectations. Special Zerstörer (destroyer) wings were formed, and regarded so highly that most of the best fighter pilots were posted to them. The two-seat, twin-engined monoplane Bf 110 had a span of 16.25 m (53 ft 5 in), a length of 12.1 m (39 ft 8.5 in), a height of 3.5 m (11 ft 6 in) and an empty weight of 4,500 kg (9,920lbs).
Powered by two 1,100-hp Daimler-Benz DB 610A engines, it had a speed of 562 km/h (349 mph), and a range of 850 km (528 miles) but this could be significantly increased to 700 miles by jettisoning underwing fuel tanks. Armament was formidable, including two forward-firing 20-mm Oerlikon MGFF cannons (placed in ventral position), four forward firing Rheinmetall 7.92-mm MG 17 machine guns (fixed in the nose), and one 7.92-mm MG 15 manually aimed in rear cockpit. Four 250-kg (551-lb) bombs could be carried in underwing racks. Right before the war a photograph appeared in the German press, showing the new Messerschmitt bomber Me 210 Jaguar; this was an elaborate hoax (in fact a Bf 110 with a glazed nose photographically superimposed) to fool the British and the French. Too late to be tested in the Spanish Civil War, the Messerschmitt Bf 110 met its requirements and, despite unimpressive maneuverability, performed extremely well in the close-support role in the Polish, Norwegian, Dutch and French campaigns. The Battle of Britain, however, proved a turning point in the Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighter’s career. Lacking a powerful rear defensive armament, agility and acceleration ability to cope with the opposing fast, agile and modern single-engine British fighters, it proved itself almost as vulnerable to Spitfires and Hurricanes as were the bombers it was suppose to protect. Suffering heavy losses, the result was that the escort Bf 110s themselves had to be escorted by Bf 109 fighters. As a long-range fighter/light bomber, the Bf 110 was a flop. Despite this setback and its ultimate failure in its originally intended role, the Messerschmitt Bf 110s continued to serve in all theaters. Improved D and E versions with many improved sub-types performed in various roles in 1941 and 1942, in less dangerous skies in the Balkans, North Africa and Russia, including ground and shipping attacks, light bomber runs, glider tug work, and long-range reconnaissance. By 1942, production was scheduled to end, and the aging Bf 110 was supposed to be replaced by the new Messerschmitt Me 210. The failure of the latter led to the Bf 110 being reinstated (G version) and modified well beyond its original design. Though outdated in 1943, the Bf 110 G was built in larger numbers than all other versions combined. The type found its true niche in the defensive role in which its heavy armament, long range, and ability to carry airborne radar made the Bf 110 useful again. Away from opposition fighters, its destroyer capabilities could work once more. Mainly used as night fighter, the improved G version was powered by two 1,475-hp Daimler-Benz DB B engines, and fitted with flame dampers on the exhausts. Mounting Lichtenstein radar, heavy MG 151 oblique-firing Schräge Musik guns (and eventually 21-cm rocket tubes), the Bf 110 achieved remarkable successes as much as a night fight as day interceptor. That was to change when the Bf 110’s nemesis, long-range escort single engine fighters (P-47 or P 51 for example), returned to the scene. By March 1944, due to heavy losses, the Bf 110 was forced to with draw from the daylight air war above Germany. A final version (Bf 110 H ground attacker) was produced in February 1945, after a total of 6,050 of all types had been manufactured.
By the end of 1938 the DB 600 had been dropped and the DB 601 B-1 engine chosen to power the next Bf 110 variant – the C series. The DB 601s’ radiators were fitted under the aircraft’s wings, slightly outboard of each engine nacelle. Beneath the nacelles themselves were small oil coolers and air scoops. Rounded wingtips, which had been a feature of all previous Bf 110s, were replaced with squared off tips.
A series of 10 pre-production C-0s were built, followed by the full production C-1. The first of these were delivered to Luftwaffe units in early 1939 and a total of 195 were made up to the beginning of the Second World War. Further variants of the C series included the C-2, which had a FuG 10 radio fitted, the C-3 which had its MG FF cannon upgraded to MG FF/Ms, the C-4 which had better armour protection for the crew and the C-4/B which added a pair of bomb racks to the basic C-4. The line was further extended with the C-5 reconnaissance version, which had both MG FFs removed and an Rb 50/30 camera installed, the C-6 with a single MK 101 30mm cannon attached via an under-fuselage mount and a C-7 based on the C-4/B but with centreline bomb racks able to carry double the payload – two 500kg bombs compared to the earlier design’s two 250kg bombs.
Work on the Bf 110 D long-range variant had begun during the second half of 1939. This was designed, initially, to extend the standard Bf 110 C’s operational range by adding a large and ungainly-looking fuel tank to the aircraft’s underside. This streamlined tank extended from halfway back under the nose to the rear of the crew canopy and could hold 1050 litres of additional fuel. Its bulbous appearance resulted in it receiving the nickname `Dackelbauch’ or dachshund’s belly and the huge additional drag it created meant it was largely dropped after the initial run of Bf 110 D-0 pre-production machines, which had been converted from existing C series aircraft.
The D-1 was set up to accommodate a pair of 900 litre drop tanks, one under each wing, but was also designed with fittings for an improved Dackelbauch. Those that actually received the tank were designated D-1/R1, while those that had the drop tanks instead were the D-1/R2 – the `R’ standing for Rüstsätz.
The D-2 kept the drop tanks but added centreline racks for a pair of 500kg bombs, while the D-3 featured a lengthened tail so that a rescue dingy could be installed. Either 300 litre or 900 litre drop tanks could be added with the two bomb racks as an optional replacement. The final `D’ variant was the D-4, which again retained the drop tanks but had both MG FFs removed and an Rb 50/30 camera fitted.
The Bf 110 had proven itself a capable enough fighter up to the beginning of the war but during the Battle of Britain it struggled to match the capabilities of the nimble Spitfire and Hurricanes fielded by the RAF. By the end of 1940 Messerschmitt was already lining up its replacement, the Me 210, which was expected to offer true multirole capability as well as far exceeding the abilities of the Bf 110 in all of its existing roles. However, the Me 210 was dogged by developmental problems that kept it from entering front line service in any great numbers. Messerschmitt therefore continued to work on the Bf 110 – which had by now also begun a new career as a night fighter.
Starting during the summer of 1940, night fighter units were equipped with a mixture of Bf 110 Cs and Ds and enjoyed some measure of success against increasingly obsolete RAF types such as the Hampden, Vickers Wellington and Armstrong Whitley. Initially, the night fighter Bf 110s were unmodified and sought out their prey with the aid of searchlights on the ground but they were quickly fitted with features such as exhaust flame dampers and improved radios.
The Bf 110 was particularly well suited to operations against the RAF’s bomber fleet after dark because its large canopy offered much better visibility than that of a Bf 109, it could stay in the air longer to stalk the enemy, and it packed a powerful enough punch to quickly disable or destroy a large aircraft. At night, its relative lack of manoeuvrability was not a problem.
Bf 110 C
First major production series, DB 601 engines.
Bf 110 C-0
Ten pre-production aircraft.
Bf 110 C-1
Zerstörer, DB 601 B-1 engines.
Bf 110 C-2
Zerstörer, fitted with FuG 10 radio, upgraded from FuG III.
Bf 110 C-3
Zerstörer, upgraded 20 mm MG FFs to MG FF/M.
Bf 110 C-4
Zerstörer, upgraded crew armour.
Bf 110 C-4/B
Fighter-bomber based on C-4, fitted with a pair of ETC 500 bomb racks and upgraded DB 601 Ba engines.
Bf 110 C-5
Reconnaissance version based on C-4, both MG FF removed, and Rb 50/30 camera installed, uprated DB 601P engines.
Bf 110 C-6
Experimental Zerstörer, additional single 30 mm (1.18 in) MK 101 cannon in underfuselage mount, DB 601P engines.
Bf 110 C-7
Fighter-bomber based on C-4/B, two ETC 500 centreline bomb racks capable of carrying two 250, 500, or 1,000 kg (2,204 lb) bombs, uprated DB 601P engines.
Bf 110 D
Heavy fighter/fighter-bomber, extreme range versions based on C-series, prepared to operate with external fuel tanks. Often stationed in Norway.
Bf 110 D-0
Prototype utilizing C-3 airframes modified with 1,050 L (277 US gal) belly-mounted tank called Dackelbauch (“dachshund’s belly” in German).
Bf 110 D-1
Long-range Zerstörer, modified C series airframes with option to carry Dackelbauch belly tank and underwing drop tanks.
Bf 110 D-1/R1
Long-range Zerstörer, Dackelbauch ventral tank, option to carry additional wing mounted 900 L (240 US gal) drop tanks.
Bf 110 D-1/R2
Long-range Zerstörer, droppable 85 L oil tank under the fuselage instead of Dackelbauch ventral tank, two wing mounted 900 L (240 US gal) drop tanks.
Bf 110 D-2
Long-range Zerstörer, two wing-mounted 300 L (80 US gal) drop tanks and centreline mounted bomb racks for two 500 kg (1,100 lb) bombs.
Bf 110 D-3
Long-range Zerstörer, lengthened tail for rescue dinghy. Either two wing-mounted 300 L (80 US gal) or 900 L (240 US gal) drop tanks could be fitted. Optional fitting of ETC 500 bombracks (impossible with 900 L drop tanks).
Bf 110 D-4
Long-range recon, both MG FF removed, and Rb 50/30 camera installed, two wing-mounted 300 L or 900 L drop tanks.