Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Messerschmitt, Wilhelm "Willy" Emil (1898–1978)

German aircraft designer and developer of the most widely produced World War II aircraft. Born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, on 26 June 1898, Willy Messerschmitt developed a relationship with early German glider pioneer Friederich Harth. Together, they designed and built numerous gliders before Harth was mobilized for World War I. In 1916, Messerschmitt was drafted for military service but was discharged for medical reason a year later. Following the war, he continued his engineering studies and graduated from the Technische Hochschule in Munich.

Endeavoring to capitalize on the growing glider craze in Germany, Messerschmitt founded his own company, Flugzeugbau Messerschmitt. After some success with powered designs, he entered into a partnership with Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFW) in 1927. BFW's big opportunity came in 1934 after Adolf Hitler rose to power and began to rearm Germany. Messerschmitt's low-wing monoplane, the Bf-109, won a competition that also involved German aviation giants Heinkel, Arado, and Focke-Wulf. The Bf-109 became the most widely produced fighter of World War II. Between 1939 and 1945, more than 33,000 were built.

Messerschmitt's company also pioneered developments in jet- and rocket-propelled aircraft. The Me-163 Komet rocket-powered fighter was the first of its type in the war. On 28 July 1944, it attacked Boeing B-17s from the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) over Merseburg, beginning a new phase of air warfare. Much more successful was the Me-262. Entering service in the autumn of 1944, it was the world's first operational jet fighter. However, this plane appeared too late in the war and in insufficient quantity to have a major impact.

After the war, Messerschmitt was arrested and imprisoned for employing slave labor. Released after two years in prison, he began to rebuild his business, beginning with sewing machines, housing, and a compact car. In 1958, he resumed work in aviation, combining with two other manufacturers to form Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm. Messerschmitt was honorary chairman of this company until his death in Munich, Germany, on 15 September 1978.

M. R. Pierce


Further Reading
Pritchard, Anthony. Messerschmitt. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1975.; Van Ishoven, Armand. Messerschmitt: Aircraft Designer. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
 

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