Spitfires and Bf 109Es were rarely seen together in such close proximity on the ground in 1940, but when Pilot Officer Bill Caister’s Spitfire was damaged he was forced to down his aircraft in France.
On the morning of 23 May, Spitfires from No. 74 Squadron had engaged a Henschel Hs 126 observation aircraft and shot it down. However, defensive fire from the aircraft had hit the radiator of one of the fighters and forced its pilot, Squadron Leader F. L. White, to land at nearby Calais-Marck airfield. The latter was under threat from advancing German troops, so it was decided that a rescue mission needed to be launched, involving a two-seat Miles Master trainer and two escorting Spitfires from No. 54 Squadron. Flying the latter were future aces pilot officers Johnny Allen (who would be killed in action by Hauptmann Adolf Galland on 24 July 1940 – the first Spitfire downed by the German ace) and Al Deere.
Once over the French airfield, they were engaged by a number of Bf 109Es, but with the Master safely on the ground, the two Spitfire pilots entered combat and claimed three destroyed. Al Deere recalled:
This was my first real combat, and the first recorded combat of a Spitfire with a Bf 109. My abiding memory was the thrill of the action – there was no sense of danger at that early stage in the war. So much so that I stayed behind the second of the two Bf 109s that I encountered after I had run out of ammunition just to see if I could do so. I only broke off when petrol became a factor. My prolonged fight with this Bf 109 allowed me to assess the relative performance of the two aircraft.
In early engagements between the Hurricane and Bf 109 in France, the speed and climb of the latter had become legendary, and were claimed by many to be far superior to that of the Spitfire. I was able to refute this, and indeed was confident that, except in a dive, the Spitfire was superior in most other fields, and was vastly more manoeuvrable. My superior rate of climb was, however, due mostly to the type of Spitfire with which my squadron was equipped. We had the first Rotol constant-speed airscrews on which we had been doing trials when the fighting started. Other Spitfires were, at that stage, using a two-speed airscrew (either fully fine pitch or fully course), which meant they lost performance in a climb. The constant-speed unit changed its pitch as the engine revs went up.
There was a great deal of scepticism about my claim that the Spitfire was the superior fighter, but the big thing for me was that we shouldn’t have any fear of the Bf 109 in combat.
Deere’s experience on 23 May was the first recorded clash between the Spitfire and Bf 109, but it was not the first time that these machines had come up against one another in the air. On 22 November 1939, Feldwebel Karl Hier landed a Bf 109E-3 intact at an airfield in France, after he had become disorientated in thick fog. His Bf 109E was thoroughly tested by the Armée de l’Air, after which it was flown to the UK in May 1940 for trials at the RAE at Farnborough.
In a series of mock combats fought between the German fighter and a Spitfire I fitted with a two-speed airscrew, the Bf 109E was found to be superior in all aspects bar its manoeuvrability and turning circle. The margins reduced rapidly when the Spitfire was fitted with a constant-speed airscrew, however, as Al Deere proved over France later that month.
In level flight, the Spitfire had little trouble staying behind the Bf 109E, nor did a dive present the pursuer with many problems. When the Spitfire was being pursued in a turning fight at medium altitude, the trials proved that the RAF fighter was the superior aircraft. Thanks to its outstanding rate of roll, the Spitfire pilot could shake off the Bf 109E by performing a flick half-roll and quickly pulling out of the subsequent dive.
The Bf 109E drew praise from the RAF trials team for its excellent handling and response, good low-speed climb angle, gentle stall, lack of any tendency to spin and short take-off run. However, it was criticised for its control heaviness at the upper end of its speed range – the Spitfire was just as difficult to fly at around 400mph, losing any clear advantage in manoeuvrability that it enjoyed over the Bf 109E.
Dr Alfred Price, commenting on the results of this trial in Spitfire At War, noted:
Overall, the Spitfire I and Bf 109E matched each other fairly evenly. If they fought, victory would almost invariably go to the side which was the more alert, which held the initiative, which understood the strengths and weaknesses of its opponent’s aircraft, which showed better team work and which, in the last resort, could shoot the more accurately.