German aircraft designer and manufacturer Willy Messerschmitt (1898–1978) played a significant role in the development of Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe, or national air force, during the 1930s and 1940s. The aviation pioneer's company was responsible for a legendary generation of fighter planes, such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Me 102. After Nazi Germany's defeat in World War II in 1945, Messerschmitt spent time in prison for employing slave labor in his factories in Bavaria.
Messerschmitt was born Wilhelm Emil Messerschmitt on June 26, 1898, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. His father, Ferdinand, was a wine merchant who relocated the family to Bamberg, a textile town in northern Bavaria, when Messerschmitt was around seven years old. As a youth, the future airplane designer was fascinated by flight, especially the spectacular rigid airships, or dirigibles, named after their inventor, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, that were capturing German public attention in the years before World War I. His first aircraft designs were for model gliders that were powered by rubber bands.
Teamed with Glider Pioneer
In his teens, Messerschmitt attended a Bamberg–area Realschule, the secondary school for those planning on a career in science or technology. The area was also home to Friedrich Harth, an architect and glider enthusiast. Gliders and sailplanes were built by early aviation enthusiasts and relied on wind to set them aloft. Harth was an early German pioneer in the field, and Messerschmitt joined him in designing, constructing, and testing the planes, which bore the designation "S" (for Segelflugzeug, German for "sailplane") and a number. When Harth was called into military service with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Messerschmitt remained behind and kept working on their S5 glider.
In the war's final half, Messerschmitt served in the Imperial Army of Germany, where he and Harth both were stationed at a military flight–training school near Munich, Bavaria's capital. The pair quickly resumed their glider experiments once they returned to civilian life, and Messerschmitt also began taking courses at Munich Technical College. Glider enthusiasts grew in number in Germany after the war years, and major competitions began to be held regularly. Messerschmitt and Harth's S8 glider broke a world duration record in 1921, though the time was not officially clocked. Unfortunately, Harth was forced to crash–land that day, and broke his pelvis. Other planes made by the pair and flown by others won contests and gave their fledgling business an occasional infusion of capital in the form of prize money.
Parted Ways with Harth
By 1922 Messerschmitt and Harth had started their own flight school, and they continued to build their own sailplanes. They argued over technical issues, however, with Harth asserting that Messerschmitt's designs made some of the aircraft unstable when in flight. They dissolved their business partnership around 1923, and Messerschmitt founded his own aircraft design and manufacturing firm in Augsburg, another city in Bavaria. His Flugzeugbau Messerschmitt soon moved on to motor–powered aircraft, the next frontier in aviation technology, and his Messerschmitt M 17 was the first in the class. It was an all–wood monoplane with an open cockpit, and its lightweight design and reliable British–import engine made it a favorite with the daring new pilot–celebrities in Germany. A well–known World War I pilot named Theo Croneiss flew the M 17 in contests and managed to reach a speed of 93 miles per hour. It gained further fame when the small plane made it across the Alps in a Bamberg–to–Rome contest called the Coppa d'Italia.
Both the M 17 and its successor, the M 18, boosted the reputation of Messerschmitt's fledgling company immensely, and he and Croneiss went into business together. The passenger airline service in Germany had recently been placed under one government–subsidized entity, Deutsche Luft Hansa, but Croneiss set up a service that took passengers to the airports that Luft Hansa served. The Nordbayerische Verkehrsflug in Bamberg carried passengers in four–seater M 18 planes built at Messerschmitt's plant. This and other opportunities forced him to petition the Bavarian government for some help; he had many orders for new planes, but lacked the line of credit necessary to obtain the raw materials. The Bavarian government set up a deal that involved the merger of his company with the assets of floundering Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Bavarian Aircraft Works, or BFW) outside Augsburg. The deal gave him access to a large manufacturing facility and added a number of highly skilled workers to his employee ranks.
Bankrupt by Unsafe Design
Messerschmitt was not yet 30 when he became one of Germany's youngest airplane manufacturers. His company adopted a stylized eagle, soaring upward, as its logo, and began taking more orders. His next major project was slated to be the Messerschmitt 20, a ten–passenger plane ordered by Luft Hansa. It crashed, however, on its first test flight in February of 1928 when the fabric used to cover the wing tore loose and disrupted its aerodynamic balance. The pilot jumped out and did not survive the 250–foot fall. Six months later, Croneiss flew a second prototype, and Luft Hansa recommitted to its order. But once delivered, two more M 20s crashed, one carrying eight officers of the Reichswehr, or German Army. Luft Hansa cancelled its order, demanded its deposit back, and the resulting cash–flow problem forced Messerschmitt's BFW company into bankruptcy in 1931.
The Reichswehr deaths gave Messerschmitt a powerful enemy: Luft Hansa chief Erhard Milch, whose friend was killed in the crash. Milch claimed the Messerschmitt planes were unsafe. But the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany to power in January of 1933 provided an unexpected boom to Messerschmitt and his business. Though Milch was put in charge of the newly created Reichsluftfahrtministerium (Reich Aviation Ministry, or RLM), Messerschmitt's company began to prosper once again, thanks in part to its willingness to come up with prototype planes that might be converted into military use at a later date. Germany was severely restricted from re–arming, thanks to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that forced it to concede responsibility as the instigator of World War I. The country was even banned from having any Air Force at all, but Nazi leader Adolf Hitler immediately began flouting the terms of Versailles once he became chancellor.
Profited from Luftwaffe Orders
Messerschmitt's friendship with Theo Croneiss brought him closer to the Nazi power base, in particular to the figures of Hermann Göring, a decorated World War I pilot, and Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy. That alliance kept Messerschmitt safe from Milch, who still retained control over government aircraft contracts. The most fruitful period of Messerschmitt's business came after a new prototype won a 1935 Luftwaffe contest for fighter–plane design. Known as the Messerschmitt M 37 and later by the RLM designation Bf 108 Taifun (Typhoon), the craft was a low–wing sports monoplane that could carry over 3,000 pounds and reach speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour.
Many of the Taifun's features, the work of Messerschmitt and his lead designer Robert Lusser, were incorporated into the next BFW project, the Bf 109 fighter plane, an all–metal flyer. It had retractable landing gear and was capable of speeds of 400 miles per hour. Another former World War I ace and fan of Messerschmitt's planes, Ernst Udet, became head of the Technical Office of the RLM. Udet urged a large–scale order of the Bf 109, and 35,000 of them would eventually be produced over the next decade. The plane became Messerschmitt's most enduring legacy in aviation history and made up a vital part of German airpower during World War II.
Messerschmitt was a prominent figure in German aviation during these years. He became chair and managing director of Bayerische Flugzeugwerke in 1938, which was then renamed Messerschmitt AG. He received numerous state honors, appeared frequently in the media, and met important figures like Charles Lindbergh, with whom he flew from Berlin to Augsburg. Once the war began, his factories churned out planes at stunning production rates, though in the early war years there was sometimes a midday concert break to bolster morale. One such event happened at the Messerschmitt AG Augsburg plant on March 13, 1940, and the boss spoke to his workers on the occasion. According to Armand Van Ishoven's Messerschmitt: Aircraft Designer, Messerschmitt asserted that though he realized many of the employees would rather be fighting for their country on the battlefield, factory work was important to the war effort, too. "Where we perform our duty is decided by our Führer alone," he told employees.
The Defection of Rudolf Hess
Messerschmitt's airfield next to the Augsburg plant was the origin point for one of the war's oddest incidents. Hess, as Hitler's deputy, had been officially barred from flying because of safety concerns once the war began, but began to visit the Messerschmitt plant, where he convinced Messerschmitt to let him take a Bf 110 out. Hess returned several times, and suggested fuel–tank and wireless radio modifications that Messerschmitt implemented. On May 10, 1941, Hess took off from the Augsburg airfield and disappeared. He parachuted down near Glasgow, Scotland, ostensibly on a mission to forge a secret peace treaty between Britain and Germany. Hitler claimed Hess was mentally ill, and Messerschmitt was immediately summoned to Munich by Göring. Messerschmitt claimed that it would have been difficult for him to say no to Hess, Göring, or any other high–ranking Nazi official, should they have demanded a plane.
With an increasing number of German men on the battlefield, finding labor for the factories became difficult, and Messerschmitt's plants were forced to rely on slave labor. Some of these workers were brought in from Nazi–occupied countries, like Belgium and France, but later workers were prisoners from Dachau, the concentration camp located near Munich. They produced the legions of Bf 109s and 110s, as well as many other aircraft. One was the Me 262, the first jet–powered fighter to enter service. The company also worked on the Me 264, a four–engine long–distance carrier nicknamed the "Amerika–Bomber" for Germany's planned air assault on the United States.
The Messerschmitt plants in southern Germany were relatively isolated from British bombing raids during the first years of the war, but the Regensburg factory was badly hit by Allied bombs in August of 1943. Over the next 18 months, Messerschmitt faced increasing difficulties in running his business, with labor and material shortages, transport lines disrupted, and further air raids. He had better success with the secret forest factory in Horgau between Augsburg and Ulm, which was a series of pine–camouflaged buildings that produced the Me 262 and went entirely undiscovered by Allied intelligence until the end of the war.
Built Cult – Classic Mini – Car
When Allied troops entered Bavaria in April of 1945, Messerschmitt was taken prisoner by the British. He spent time under virtual house arrest on his Bavarian property near Oberammergau, and was convicted in 1948 by a denazification tribunal of being a "fellow traveler." He spent two years in prison for employing slave labor, and was barred from working in aircraft industry upon his release. His company turned to producing consumer goods such as sewing machines and even small cars, including the cult–classic Messerschmitt KR200, a combination bubble–car/motorcycle. It can be seen in Terry Gilliam's 1985 futurist–absurd film Brazil.
Messerschmitt's company was eventually allowed to participate in the aviation sector once again, and made the Lockheed F–104 Starfighter for the West German Luftwaffe. The company merged with a competitor, Bölkow, in 1963, and then with Hamburger Flugzeugbau in 1969 to become MBB (Messerschmitt–Bölkow–Blohm). He served as its chair until 1970, when he officially retired. He died eight years later, in Munich on September 15, 1978. His company became DASA in 1989 after a merger with Deutsche Aerospace AG and the Daimler–Benz Aerospace divisions. In 2000, DASA joined with French and Spanish units to become European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS). Though Messerschmitt's legacy as a designer is sometimes in doubt—his designs were deemed unsafe in some cases, and his best successes came when he collaborated with others—the company he founded and led for so many years played a significant role in both German aviation history and that of the twentieth century.
Van Ishoven, Armand, Messerschmitt: Aircraft Designer, Gentry Books, 1975.