A Messerschmitt too far – Bf109G-2 Trop, Royal Air Force Museum
Tags: 1426 Enemy Aircraft Flight, 8th Army, Afrika Korps, Air Show, aircraft, Australia, Aviation, Bf 109G-2, crash-landing, Daimler Benz 605, Duxford, El Alamein, England, German, Germany, Hendon, Imperial War Museum, Luftwaffe, museum, RAF, RAF Museum, Rolls-Royce, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, Second World War, Sir John Allison, warbird, Willie Messerschmitt, WW2
Conceived in the early 1930s, bloodied in the skies over Spain during their disastrous Civil War – three of the prototypes, Bf 109 V4, V5 and V6, and a small production batch of the type, were sent to fight on the side of General Franco from December, 1936 – the Messerschmitt Bf 109 was in continuous production until the last day of World War Two in Germany, and as the Spanish-built HA-1112-M1L “Buchon” until 1954. By way of explanation, the correct designation for this aircraft is ‘Bf 109’, not Me 109. This is because, despite it being designed by Professor Willie Messerschmitt, the company name at the time was Bayerische Flugzeugwerke A.G., hence the ‘Bf’ designator; even when the company changed its name to Messerschmitt A.G., the design name for the aircraft stayed the same! Of the 33,982 total of Bf109 variants built, the vast majority, of course, saw service with the Luftwaffe; however, the type was also supplied to Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Romania, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Switzerland and Yugoslavia.
As with almost all fighter aircraft of WW2, the Bf 109 was subject to a process of continuous development. The earlier versions had included the famous Bf 109E, or ‘Emil’, which had seen action in the German ‘Blitzkrieg’ across Western Europe, then famously against the RAF’s Hurricanes and Spitfires in 1940, during the Battle of Britain.
By the Spring of 1940, with one of its main opponents, the Spitfire, showing signs that it was being developed further, it was decided to improve the 109. The Daimler-Benz DB601 engine was uprated to 1,200 hp; a much larger, rounded spinner was blended into the nose contours; the drag-inducing struts supporting the tailplanes removed, and shallower coolant radiators fitted. The further reduce weight, the armament of the new model was reduced to just two 7.9mm machine guns in the nose and one 20mm MG FF cannon firing through the hollow propeller shaft. The resulting aircraft was known as the Bf109F (or ‘Friedrich’), and despite complaints about the reduced armament from the previous mark, it was generally acknowledged as being the best-handling and ‘nicest’ member of the Bf 109 family. It could definitely hold its own with the Spitfire V, and was far superior to the Hurricane II and P-40 Warhawk.
By 1942, the Luftwaffe was asking for more performance, extra specialist equipment and as a matter of some urgency, heavier armament. These demands were being driven by the needs of the Russian Front where V-VS aircraft had proved to be faster and more agile than expected, and the combat operations in Europe by the VIII Bomber Command, USAAF which began on 17th August 1942. Consequently, the DB601 was replaced by the DB605A, twelve-cylinder, inverted-V, liquid-cooled engine of 1,475 hp, but with more armament (2 x 13mm MG131 machine guns, plus 1 x 20mm MG151 cannon, plus optional 2 x 20mm cannon in underwing ‘gondolas’) and extra equipment, the Bf 109G had ground and low-speed handling characteristics that could be best described as difficult, and nowhere near as good as the ‘Friedrich’. Indeed, the ‘Gustav’ was downright nasty in inexperienced hands, particularly during the take-off and landing phases of flight. It is said that between 15 – 25% of ALL 109’s were damaged or destroyed in accidents!
The aircraft you can see above is a rare one. There are just 21 Bf 109 aircraft which have survived, worldwide; of these only 8 are the early G-2 variant, similar to those initially used to such good effect by the Finnish Air Force during the latter stages of the Continuation War with the Soviet Union (25th June 1941 – 19th September 1944).
This aircraft was built in late 1942 by the Erla Maschinenwerk GmbH, at their Leipzig plant; one of more than 9,000 of these fighters built by Erla. It started life as a Bf 109F-3, but was converted on the production line into an early version of the ‘Gustav’, a G-2/Trop. The ‘Trop’ stood for ‘Tropical’, a designation used by the Luftwaffe to indicate aircraft which were capable of operating in desert or extremely dusty conditions; if you look above the engine exhaust stubs on the port side of this aircraft, you will see one of the Trop. ‘mods’, a much longer air filter.
Finished in RLM79 ‘Sandgelb’ (Sand Yellow) over RLM78 ‘Himmelblau’ (Sky Blue) and with white wingtips and spinner – the correct markings for North Africa, this aircraft was ferried to Tobruk. Here it was assigned to JG77 (and marked as ‘Black 6’) then flown to a landing ground just behind the battle front in Egypt, where General Erwin Rommel’s ‘Afrika Korps’ were locked in battle with the General Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army (the famed ‘Desert Rats’) and other Commonwealth and Allied Forces. In the general retreat by German and Italian units following the Allied victory after the Second Battle of El Alamein (23rd October – 11th November 1942), ‘Black 6’ was abandoned at LG139 Gambut Main, and found by No 3 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, whose Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawks had been used fighter-bombers in the decisive battle. Quickly painting the Squadron’s code letters of ‘CV’ on the aircraft, and using parts from other wrecks to make it serviceable, the newly acquired Bf 109G was flown back to the Canal Zone, where Allied experts began the task of assessing its flying characteristics, as it was one of the very first ‘Gustavs’ to fall into Allied hands.
Soon, the Messerschmitt was crated and dispatched to England, where it was ‘taken on charge’ by No. 1426 Enemy Aircraft Flight, and assigned the RAF serial ‘RN228’. No. 1426 EAF operated a number of Axis types including examples of the Ju 88, Fw 190, and He 111. These formed a ‘flying circus’ which toured around RAF and USAAF bases, in order to familiarize Allied aircrew with aircraft they were likely to meet in combat. Care was taken, of course, to always provide an escort of ‘friendly’ fighters, in order to prevent embarrassing incidents en route! As well as this, mock combats were flown against a wide range of aircraft operated by the RAF’s Air Fighting Development Unit, including Tempest V, Mustang III, Spitfire IX, and Spitfire XIV fighters and a Hellcat, Corsair, and Seafire III of the Fleet Air Arm’s Naval Air Fighting Development Unit.
Following VE-Day, the Air Historical Branch of the Royal Air Force became interested in preserving ‘RN228’, along with a selection of other Axis aircraft and missiles. ‘RN228’ was one of the ‘enemy’ aircraft which featured in the famous exhibition on Horse Guards Parade in London, during September, 1949, and was shown at various ‘Battle of Britain’ displays and other public events for many years afterwards. In 1962, an attempt was made by an RAF unit to restore the aircraft to flying condition, but this failed, due to lack of funds and specialist expertise, and the aircraft went back to being a static exhibit at various events.
It wasn’t until 1972 that a true, properly planned and funded attempt to restore ‘Black 6’ to flight status was finally started. Engineering staff at RAF Benson, RAF Lyneham and RAF Northolt were all involved, and Rolls-Royce Bristol undertook a complete rebuild of the Daimler-Benz DB605. This long, long process was at last brought to a successful conclusion on the 17th March, 1991, when Group Captain Reg Hallam, RAF, (a test pilot, who had won ‘The Sword of Honour’, given to the best cadet of his/her year at RAF College, Cranwell) lifted off from RAF Benson, for the Bf 109’s first fight for 46 years!
After acquiring a British civil registration, G-GUSTV, the aircraft was flown to the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, and cleared to undertake display flying. Unfortunately, there then followed a number of technical ‘snags’, which occurred after its first display at the Duxford Air Show, in September, 1991.
A period of display flying now followed, which was extended until 1997, with the intention being that the aircraft would be retired at the end of that season, and take its place on permanent display at the RAF Museum, Hendon. Unfortunately, the Gustav crash landed following its very last display flight, due to an oil leak and partial engine failure (white vapour was seen streaming from the aircraft and was reported by radio to the pilot). It nosed over onto its back in a field, and trapped the pilot, Air Marshal Sir John Allison, RAF (the Patron of The People’s Mosquito organization) in the cockpit. Despite fuel leaking around him, Sir John asked for a crane to brought so the aircraft could be lifted, rather than have the fire crew who had reached the scene cut into the aircraft structure. He was eventually released, without injury.
Following the accident, a decision was made to restore the airframe ready for static exhibition, and this was managed by the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. Finally, in March, 2002, the much-travelled Bf 109G-2 arrived at the RAF Museum, Hendon, where it was reassembled and placed on display in the Bomber Hall. In January, 2003, it was selected as one of the exhibits to be put on display in the ‘Milestones of Flight’, at Hendon, which is where I took the photograph you can see above. After nearly 9 years in this position, it has been now been moved back to the Bomber Hall.
The Messerschmitt Bf109G-2, a fine example of a potent WW2 fighter, and one which flew in both Allied and Axis markings!