Beverley Shenstone: On Messerschmitt

In 1937, Willy Messerschmitt and Daimler-Benz engineers prepared a special Me109, called the 109R to make an attempt on the World Airspeed Record. Using a specially prepared DB601A, boosted on special fuel to 1600bhp, the Me109R broke the record at 379mph.

The first Messerschmitt record plane based on the Bf109. Dubbed the Bf 109R, it had a lot of careful cleaning up, including a new canopy, a radiator duct with turning vanes added, altered engine air intake and a new propellor spinner, together with vastly more power. It was marketed as being “almost standard”.

Supermarine and the British Government decided to embark on a plan to regain the record, with the SPEED SPITFIRE, which would use, like Willy Messerschmitt, an almost standard fighter but with heavily boosted engine output. Suspecting that the Germans had another step-up in power waiting already prepared, Rolls-Royce were informed they would need at least two thousand horsepower to really convincingly take back the record. However the Merlin engine, was 9 litres smaller than the record breaking “Type-R” engine that had smashed all three world records 7 year before, and detonation set in.

While battling with piston breakage, and liners cracking they began the Bi-Fuel project to inject water & methanol. But before it was completed the German government invited all of the finest minds in British Aviation to Germany, the idea (or, part of the idea according to the CIA archives) being to convince them that war with Germany was technologically futile.

In the famous 1956 film chronicling the trials of Supermarine chief designer R. J. Mitchell, he is pictured visiting Germany and being swayed into action by his shock at the resources and plans the new Nazi government had – and especially so after talking to Professor Willy Messerschmitt himself.

R. J. Mitchell (creative commons licence) – an interesting aside: MItchell was inducted as a Freemason on 13th May in Jasper Lodge, #3934, in Hanley by a Grand Master, the Duke of Connaught.

In actual fact, despite his high level connections, it was not Mitchell who met Messerschmitt in Germany, but Supermarine Aerodyanamicist Beverly Shenstone who really spent a day at the Messerschmitt Works, and his report made sober reading.

“May 27, 1938

I was received by Messerschmitt at his works, I was not allowed to see inside the factory — the interview being conducted in his office overlooking the works and aerodrome … the record-breaking plane was quite standard except for some cleaning-up. Messerschmitt stated that the record could now be improve but that no steps would be taken to do it until we (or someone else) had taken a shot at it, he was not able to discuss the speed of 440mph published for his newest type. All BFW aircraft are completely flush riveted. The main five-storey building just completed is very imposing… no expense has been spared to make the conditions of work pleasant and efficient … and such an interest here could easily improve our own conditions immensely.”

B. S. Shenstone — June 3, 1938
The original second page of Shenstone`s report.

. Buchanan at British Air Technical Intelligence A.I.2.(g), said the British record attempt should be scrapped, but the Deputy Technical Director of engines research disagreed, and Rolls-Royce carried on their high-boost research, which eventually became the Merlin III engine, which powered most of the Spitfires during the Battle of Britain – and relied on 100 Octane fuel.

“It seems clear that it is inadvisable to go forward with a record attempt with the Spitfire. I have suspected for some time that Germany was waiting for us to do so in order to do a better one immediately afterwards.”

J. Buchanan A.I.2.(g) July 6, 1938.

The Directorate of Technical Development did not
share the view:

“I disagree entirely, it is a matter of development which we must pursue regardless of ‘records’. We should continue with the Spitfire/Merlin as if nothing had happened”.

D.T.D. July 18, 1938.

In the end the attempt by the Speed-Spitfire did not go ahead, it was judged that the engine power available was not enough to “convincingly” beat the German record, however much of use was learned as a result of trialling the aircraft.

.The Speed-Spitfire