The Me109 v Spitfire Debate Keeps Going

Or rather, it does for some but not for me!  I’ve recently written an article for Fly Past Magazine comparing the two marks that were available in 1940, the Me109E and the Spitfire Mk I, in which I came down in favour of the Messerschmitt.  This has prompted a number of letters to Fly Past’s editor, Ken Ellis, two of which he has published in this month’s edition, one agreeing with my argument, the other vehemently not so.  The latter is from Mark Laity in Belgium.  ‘The idea that after 70 years anyone is going to come up with anything truly new about the Battle of Britain is unlikely, although with so much literature already available the need to appear to offer something different is also self-evident!’ he begins.  I completely disagree – there’s tons of stuff out there, because for the most part, people have only ever looked at comparatively narrow sources and generally only from one side.  I wrote the book equally from the German and British perspective not because I was desperate to appear to offer something new but because I wanted to have a clearer picture of what was going on myself.  I can assure you, I’m a Spitfire lover and it pained me greatly to say that the Me109E was better.  I wasn’t doing it to be alternative and unnecessarily provocative but because those were the conclusions I drew having examined the evidence.  

‘I cannot recall any Battle of Britain pilot saying the Bf 109 was better than the Spitfire – and there is no shortage of such memoirs,’ Mark continues.  Well that was because most people never got the chance to find out.  Only a handful of British pilots ever had a chance to fly the Me109.  He is right, though, that the Spitfire was a more graceful bird to fly, but that is missing the point.  The Me109E could climb faster and dive faster than a Spitfire, two key facets of air-to-air fighting.  You don’t need to turn in tight circles if you can dive out of the fray faster than anything else in the sky.  The third crucial advantage was its fire-power – 55 seconds’ worth of ammunition compared with 14.7, and 20mm high explosive cannon shells as well as machine-guns, cannons that even without their explosive charge packed a punch 200% heavier than a .303 bullet.  People can argue all they like about handling, wing-loading, under-carriage widths etc etc, but the bare-faced facts are these: the Me109 could climb faster, had considerably greater fire-power, and could dive faster.  That made it the best air-to-air fighter of 1940.  That’s not a debate, it’s a fact.

5 replies
  1. Aurora Stealth
    Aurora Stealth says:

    Hi James,

    I recently read some parts of your book, specifically i glanced over your very intelligent analysis of the Bf 109 E (or as you correctly point out now known as the Me 109 E). I have been studying an aerospace technology degree for some time but more importantly i have been exceptionally interested with this aircraft and have been researching it for in excess of 5 years now. I must say to see words such as this is a breath of fresh air in the ignorance of many who have claimed the Spitfire to be always superior despite what detailed rational reasoning is used. In fact i am writing a book myself specifically on this aircraft, based on its development, design, tactics and detailed information for flight simulation enthusiasts. Can i just say that i havent seen a word that could be possibly thought to be ill-placed about the aircraft and its rival and im glad someone has confronted this hideously long debate with some actual facts. Thankyou for your work and best of luck with your future ones!

  2. chrislawton
    chrislawton says:

    I have always found this a fascinating debate.

    The ME109 was, in terms of technical performance, a superior aircraft particularly the fuel injection enable a push the stick dive without the need for a half roll.

    The Spitfire was undoubtedly the better plane to fly in terms of cockpit, manoeuvrability, easy of flight.

    So it depends how you want to categorise best and in aircraft terms that means power, rate of climb etc. etc. and in that sense the ME-109 wins……but I rather have a squadron of Spitfires at my disposal!

  3. bilbo
    bilbo says:

    “That made it the best air-to-air fighter of 1940. That’s not a debate, it’s a fact.”

    given that the then German fighter tactic was to attack from or in a dive and then dive away, then dive characteristics were vital.
    the hurricane outshone the spitfire and me 109 in that aspect, after all, no one ever tore the wings off a hurricane pulling up.
    turning seems to have played a major part in dogfights at that time, so it mattered then, even if revisionist theorizing suggests otherwise.
    the hurricanes tighter turning circle (and many other points), made the hurricane the best fighter in that particular battle.
    as for fire power, German aircrew did remark on the “shredding” power of an RAF fighters weapons.

  4. Juha
    Juha says:

    On armament, the most numerous 109E subtype in service during the height of the BoB was E-1, which didn’t has cannon, only 4 7.92mm MG 17 mgs, in fighter units there were 375 E-1s on 31 Aug 40, that is 35% of the 109Es in fighter units on 31 Aug 40, excluding planes of JG 77, info on which is missing. The 2nd most common was E-4, 339 a/c, again without JG 77. It had two effective 20mm FFM cannon in wings plus the two cowling MG 17s, but cannon had only 60rounds magazines, so E-1 had firing time of 55sec for its 2 cowling mgs, ie long time but weak firepower and 25 sec for its wing mgs, so 70% more firing time than Spitfire Mk Ia had for its 8 mgs, but only for 4 mgs. E-4 had effective cannon but ammo for them only for 6½ sec, after that its pilot could use only 2 synchronized mgs.

    On climb, what I have read Spitfire Mk I using +12lbs boost, which was allowed for 5 minutes when 100oct fuel came into use in Fighter Command, climbed at least as well as 109E-1, -3 and -4.

    109E dived better, had fuel-injection engine and most of them had effective cannon armament but with very limited ammo supply. When we look results, tactics used and circumstances of the battle, IMHO it seems that there wasn’t much difference in quality between Spitfire Mk I and 109E.

    And after all IIRC those British WWII pilots who had flew both thought that Spitfire Mk I was better fighter than Bf 109E but the German fighter pilots who had flew both thought that 109E was superior.

  5. biggles2100
    biggles2100 says:

    Having been a life long Spitfire lover and spent most of my life believing the Spitfire in 1940 was superior to th 109E its really does pain me to say that the 109E was just as good as the Spitfire.However i believe both planes had qualities that the other didnt and once laid out i believe that the 109E just edges it.This is mainly due to its fuel injectied supercharged engine which allowed the 109 to dictate the fight.
    The weaponary debate is still open.Alot of the German pilots complained about the cannons jamming and in general 8 machine guns were ample to deal with a single engined fighter.However cannons were the way ahead as seen in the best of the Spifires the VIII and IX.

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