I went to see my old friend Craig Charleston yesterday, who is one of – if not the – finest warbird restorers in the world. Craig has built three Spitfires and is responsible for the only two airworthy Messerschmitt 109s flying today. His third, now almost finished, will also soon be airborne.
It has been fascinating seeing this third 109 progress over the years. It now looks absolutely amazing, and sitting in the cockpit, one can’t help feeling it is more comfortable than that of the Spitfire. The bucket seat is lower slung, with the back tilted back and, unlike in the Spit, the legs are drawn up somewhat when placed on the rudder pedals. The control column is smooth and the grip more refined and modelled than that of the Spitfire. Admittedly, the canopy does feel a little cage-like, but inside, the cockpit just feels right: put your left hand on the throttle, right on the control column and immediately you feel balanced and in control.
I have been banging on for ages about the uselessness of the .303 bullet when used in isolation – as opposed to in conjunction with cannons – but looking at the giant one-ton Daimler-Benz 601 engine free of its cowlings, you can see just how ineffective those bullets would have been against it. A German cannon shell striking the brittle magnesium alloy Rolls Royce Merlin would have been terminal, but if a .303 hit the bulk of the DB601, the bullet would have been squashed like a pea. The only effective way to destroy a DB601 would have been to sever the glycol tubing.
The wings are not yet on Craig’s 109E, but at the roots, emerging from below the cockpit are cogs for the opening and closing of the radiator. As Craig pointed out, these are just one feature of what is a masterpiece of engineering, yet that was, in many ways, one of Germany’s weaknesses. Almost everything they touched was beautifully crafted, incredibly complicated and very, very expensive. Germany, resource poor, and finding herself fighting a long and attritional war, simply could not afford to keep placing quality over quantity.
Craig’s workshop is filled with warbird bits and pieces: old Messerschmitt cowling, an unearthed and remarkably intact DB601, boxes, tires, broken propeller blades. He’s got them. He dug out an old German wooden box and handed it to me. Even after more than seventy years, the key worked perfectly. Inside, different wooden compartments were hinged and fitted equally perfectly. ‘What do you think it’s for?’ Craig asked me. It was Luftwaffe, that much was clear, but it’s actual purpose was unclear to me.
‘It’s a tool box,’ Craig grinned. ‘Look, here.’ He showed me the metal brackets that would have kept each spanner, screwdriver and hammer in place. ‘We would have had a canvas bag,’ he said, ‘but the Germans have this.’ It struck me then that if anything demonstrated the over-engineering of the Germans, it was this old wooden box.