Designed in 1934 by Willy Messerschmitt’s Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Bf), the first Bf 110 V1 prototype flew in May 1936. An aircraft of very mixed fortune, the wartime-production Bf 110C joined the German air force in early 1939. The strategic fighter was intended to perform as a heavily armed escort fighter to accompany bombers deep into enemy territory, blasting a path through all opposition, and raiding deep into enemy heartland. Seen as offering a multi-role capability, and complementing their primary force of single-engined light fighters, the heavily armed twin-engined Bf 110 raised considerable enthusiasm and high expectations. Special Zerstörer (destroyer) wings were formed, and regarded so highly that most of the best fighter pilots were posted to them. The two-seat, twin-engined monoplane Bf 110 had a span of 16.25 m (53 ft 5 in), a length of 12.1 m (39 ft 8.5 in), a height of 3.5 m (11 ft 6 in) and an empty weight of 4,500 kg (9,920 lbs). Powered by two 1,100-hp Daimler-Benz DB 610A engines, it had a speed of 562 km/h (349 mph), and a range of 850 km (528 miles) but this could be significantly increased to 700 miles by jettisoning underwing fuel tanks. Armament was formidable, including two forward- firing 20-mm Oerlikon MGFF cannons (placed in ventral position), four forward-firing Rheinmetall 7.92-mm MG 17 machine guns (fixed in the nose), and one 7.92-mm MG 15 manually aimed in rear cockpit. Four 250-kg (551-lb) bombs could be carried in underwing racks.
Right before the war a photograph appeared in the German press, showing the new Messerschmitt bomber Me 210 Jaguar; this was an elaborate hoax (in fact a Bf 110 with a glazed nose photographically superimposed) to fool the British and the French. Too late to be tested in the Spanish Civil War, the Messerschmitt Bf 110 met its requirements and, despite unimpressive maneuverability, performed extremely well in the close-support role in the Polish, Norwegian, Dutch and French campaigns. The Battle of Britain, however, proved a turning point in the Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighter’s career. Lacking a powerful rear defensive armament, agility and acceleration ability to cope with the opposing fast, agile and modern single-engine British fighters, it proved itself almost as vulnerable to Spitfires and Hurricanes as were the bombers it was supposed to protect. Suffering heavy losses, the result was that the escort Bf 110s themselves had to be escorted by Bf 109 fighters. As a long-range fighter/light bomber, the Bf 110 was a flop. Despite this setback and its ultimate failure in its originally intended role, the Messerschmitt Bf 110s continued to serve in all theaters. Improved D and E versions with many improved sub-types performed in various roles in 1941 and 1942, in less dangerous skies in the Balkans, North Africa and Russia, including ground and shipping attacks, light bomber runs, glider tug work, and long-range reconnaissance. By 1942, production was scheduled to end, and the aging Bf 110 was supposed to be replaced by the new Messerschmitt Me 210. The failure of the latter led to the Bf 110 being reinstated (G version) and modified well beyond its original design. Though outdated in 1943, the Bf 110 G was built in larger numbers than all other versions combined. The type found its true niche in the defensive role in which its heavy armament, long range, and ability to carry airborne radar made the Bf 110 useful again. Away from opposition fighters, its destroyer capabilities could work once more. Mainly used as night fighter, the improved G version was powered by two 1,475-hp Daimler-Benz DB B engines, and fitted with flame dampers on the exhausts. Mounting Lichtenstein radar, heavy MG 151 oblique-firing Schräge Musik guns (and eventually 21-cm rocket tubes), the Bf 110 achieved remarkable successes as much as a night fight as day interceptor. That was to change when the Bf 110’s nemesis, long-range escort single-engine fighters (P-47 or P 51 for example), returned to the scene. By March 1944, due to heavy losses, the Bf 110 was forced to withdraw from the daylight air war above Germany. A final version (Bf 110 H ground attacker) was produced in February 1945, after a total of 6,050 of all types had been manufactured.