The present-day German Air Force aka the Luftwaffe, though well-trained and highly capable, doesn’t have the numbers or notoriety that its predecessors of the first half of the 20th century enjoyed. (One could easily say the same thing about the present-day air force of another former Axis nation, Japan.)
But back in their heyday, i.e., the First and Second World Wars alike, German fighter pilots and their machines were arguably the most respected and feared in the world. Let’s run through some of the Luftwaffe’s top performers.
Messerschmitt Bf 109 aka Me 109
The most famous and iconic aircraft of the Second World War was notably the Messerschmitt. The name “Messerschmitt” is so heavily associated with WWII Luftwaffe fighters it’s practically become generic in popular culture, just like “Zero” has practically become a generic label for Imperial Japanese fighters of WWII.
As my 19FortyFive colleague, Peter Suciu notes: “The Messerschmitt Bf 109 is the most famous German aircraft of the Second World War … The Bf 109 would go on to become one of the most produced fighter in history, with a total of 33,984 airframes produced from early 1936 to April 1945. Only the Soviet Ilyushin IL2 was produced in greater numbers … The Bf 109 has been credited with more aerial kills than any other aircraft of World War II.”
Indeed, the highest-scoring fighter ace in history, Major Erich Alfred Hartmann (1922 – 1993), tallied the entirety of his mind-numbing total of 352 air-to-air kills in a 109.
Some semantic clarification is in order here: is the correct alphanumeric designation “Me 109” or “Bf 19.” To provide clarification: “The Bf designation was still used for the early aircraft designs, while Me was used for later aircraft such as the Me 262. According to various sources, the Bf designation would be correct for the 109 variants produced up until 1938, while those developed afterwards, including the highly praised109E, F and G models are technically Me 109s.”
Fokker Dr. 1 Triplane
And now for the most famous German warbird of the First World War. This was thanks to none other than the legendary Red Baron, Hauptmann (Captain) Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, who used this triplane to score the final 19 of his 80 total aerial victories. The Dr. 1 had exceptional maneuverability with light and powerful rudder and elevator control, along with a rate of climb that was remarkable compared to other platforms at the time.
Messerschmitt Bf 110
Going back to the generic nature of the Messerschmitt name during WWII, the manufacturer qualifies another plane on this list. The lone twin-tailed and twin-engined entry herein, the Bf 110 (unlike its 109 sister plane, only the “Bf” designation is technically correct, not “Me”) qualifies by virtue of being WWII’s most successful night fighter. Indeed, the highest-scoring night fighter ace in history, Major Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer (1922-1950), flew the 110 exclusively, scoring 121 kills in 164 sorties between June 1942 and March 1945, including two separate instances of attaining ace-in-a-day status. i.e., five aerial victories in a single day. At one point, the victory-to-loss ratio was 30 Royal Air Force (RAF) bombers downed for every Me-110 lost.
Focke-Wulf FW 190
Though not as famous as the Bf 109, the FW 190 – nicknamed the Würger (“Shrike”) by its own pilots – was arguably the deadlier of the two, so deadly that Allied bomber crews dubbed it “the Butcher Bird.” The “Shrike” was both more heavily armored and heavily armed than its Messerschmitt counterpart; the A-8 version packed four Mauser MG 151 20mm autocannons, with two mounted in the wing root and two mounted on the outer wing, whilst later models were even fitted with a 30mm cannon and air-to-air rockets.
The “Butcher Bird” proved especially effective against the U.S. Eighth Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress bombing raid against the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt and Regensburg on Oct. 14, 1943 (last month marked the 80th anniversary of this mission, which the Americans later referred to somberly as “Black Thursday”). Some 60 of the 291 attacking bombers were shot down, and the 190s attained the lion’s share of the kills.
So iconic was the Red Baron’s Fokker D.1 that it’s easy to forget that the majority of his 80 kills were attained in other warbirds. Matthew Gaskill sets the record straight in a November 2018 article for War History Online appropriately titled “The Red Baron’s ‘other’ Planes Yes He Had More Than Just One Fokker”: “His first seventeen kills, starting with his first officially confirmed kill, came while he was flying the Albatros D.II aircraft on September 17, 1916. This was equal to the number he shot down flying the Fokker Dr.1 … From kill number 18 to kill number 52, Richthofen flew a collection of various Albatros and Halberstadt planes. Each Albatros iteration made improvements on the last, and it was while flying an Albatros that Richthofen adopted the color red for his plane.”
The Albatros was instrumental in asserting German air superiority and inflicting severe losses on Britain’s Royal Flying Corps during the “Bloody April” of 1917.
Honorable Mention: Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (“Swallow”)
The world’s first operational jet fighter has to be on this list, right? After all, it did cause quite a scare and inflicted its fair share of losses against Allied aircrews during WWII, with a kill-to-loss ratio of 542:100. So then, why only Honorable Mention status?
For one thing, the Me 262’s growth potential was stunted by bureaucratic meddling, particularly Hermann Göring as well as der Fuhrer himself. Moreover, despite the speed advantages conferred by its jet engines, the Schwalbe was better suited for attacking heavy bombers than for dogfighting U.S. P-51D Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt prop-driven fighters. The Mustang and “T-Bolt” drivers discovered that the Me 262 was quite vulnerable when landing and seized upon this weakness; among the American fighter jocks who were able to kill the German jet was Chuck Yeager, who went on to become the first man to break the sound barrier.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).