At the start of the Battle of Britain, the German Luftwaffe thought they had the perfect weapon. It had been especially designed as a "destroyer" and its role was to be an offensive fighter. It had range, speed, forward and rearward firing guns, and it had already proved its value in the fight against Poland. It was the Me110:
The Me110 had been designed by Messerschmitt to specifications from 1934. It had a speed of 350 mph at 22,000 feet, roughly the same top speed of a Spitfire and marginally faster than the Hurricane. It was armed with two forward-firing cannon and four forward-firing machine guns as well as an additional machine gun that faced backwards and was manned by a dedicated gunner. Serving an aggressive dictator, the Luftwaffe confidently ordered enough of these "Destroyers" (Zerstörer) to outfit a third of their fighter squadrons.
When war came in September 1939, the Luftwaffe's fighter force during the invasion of Poland was composed almost exclusively of the Destroyers, while the smaller Me109s were left in the Reich for air defense purposes. The Destroyers' job in this campaign was two-fold -- to destroy the enemy's air force and to protect the Luftwaffe's bombers. In the first role, the Destoryer rapidly proved to be a formidable bomber-killer. It was fast enough to catch or even over-take contemporary bombers (including RAF Wellingtons that ventured too far into German airspace), while its fire power was sufficient to destroy them. As an escort fighter, it likewise appeared to do good work because the Polish Air Force was largely destroyed on the ground and the Destroyers did not have to contend with defending fighters.
During the offensive in the West in 1940, the situation was largely repeated. The majority of enemy aircraft were caught on the ground and there were never enough RAF fighters around to effectively challenge the dominance of the Luftwaffe. Victories in individual dogfights sometimes went to one side or the other. There was no evidence of clear advantage for one fighter or another -- especially since no Spitfires had been deployed to France.
Even during the evacuation at Dunkirk, the weaknesses of the Me110 did not become apparent. While the British mounted a massive defense of the airspace over the beaches of Dunkirk, they had only 200 fighters to the Luftwaffe's 550 and to deploy over Dunkirk they ate up a lot of fuel crossing the Channel, which left them little time for dog-fighting. Furthermore, the need to destroy the bombers before they reached their targets was paramount and so the RAF concentrated on bringing down bombers, not engaging fighters unless absolutely necessary.
Not until the so-called "Kanalkampf" of July 1940 did the first inklings of problems with the Me110 emerge. When the Luftwaffe started to probe British defenses, it soon discovered that both Hurricanes and Spitfires in the hands of skilled and motivated pilots did not have much difficulty evading -- if not shooting down -- the vaunted "Destroyers." The problem was that while the Destroyers were fast, they did not accelerate rapidly. To make matters worse, they could not turn tightly and, like most multi-engined aircraft, they didn't particularly like rolling. What this meant was that any competently flown Hurricane or Spitfire could easily evade the massive firing-power fixed facing forward and maneuver onto the tail of the Me110 -- where they equally easily made a mockery of the Me110's rearward-firing guns. Rather than destroying much, the Destroyers were rapidly becoming the prey.
To stay alive, the Me110s devised the tactic of forming a defensive circle that slowly lumbered across the sky in one direction or another. The idea was that the Me110's could use their forward guns and cannon to protect the tail of the aircraft ahead of it. It worked -- up to a point. Spitfires and Hurricanes were so nimble they could turn inside these circles, shooting up one Destroyer after another. That, or they merrily swooped down from above or up from below to take pot-shots at the flying merry-go-rounds robbed of all offensive abilities.
Far from protecting the bombers (except in the sense that they may have distracted some RAF fighters from them), the Me110 was a itself vulnerable in an engagement with modern single-engine fighters. Still the Luftwaffe believed it's long range would enable it to play a role in attacks launched against the North of England from Norway. The Luftwaffe presumed that Scotland and northern England were denuded of fighter defense and so, they calculated, the Me110s would have a field day. The Luftwaffe was wrong. When the attack was made on August 15, casualties were so high among the Me110 squadrons that Goering gave orders for them to be protected -- i.e. the "super" fighter needed a fighter escort. Altogether, the Luftwaffe lost 223 Me110s during the Battle of Britain -- essentially their entire Order of Battle at the opening. While replacements meant entire units were not wiped out, aircraft strength was in some cases reduced to nearly 50%.
Yet it would be wrong to dismiss the Me110s as worthless. On the contrary, they proved highly effective -- in different roles. The Me110 demonstrated its worth as a low-level, precision bomber even during the Battle of Britain itself, when as part of the Test Wing 210, it was responsible for some of the most devastating attacks on airfields or radar installations. However, it was as a night-fighter that the Me110 found its true niche.
The Me100 was equipped for instrument flying and its cockpit was large enough to accommodate a radar operator, making it suitable for night fighting. More importantly, however, it was strong enough to be outfitted with twin, upward-firing 20 millimeter cannons. So equipped, the Me110s found it easy to slip in undetected below the RAF's night bomber streams, maneuver to a point where the obliquely upward-slanting guns were directed at the wing tanks of the bomber and fire away. Because they did not use tracer, the RAF didn't know the Me110 was there unless or until they were hit. One experienced Luftwaffe pilot destroyed seven Lancasters in this fashion in a single night -- and then quit because he was tired of killing. It has been estimated that the kill-to-loss ratio of the Me110 vs RAF bombers was 30:1.
“Where Eagles Never Flew” shows the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel by following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The British characters are members of the fictional No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron based at Tangmere. The German characters are the pilots and women auxiliaries of a Me109 Gruppe based in Northern France. Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or watch a video teaser at: