Slipping the Bonds
by George Paterson

Bf 109V-4 Jgr.88-Trautloft-Jan.1937

Introduction

In 1936 Johannes Trautloft was with 2.J/88 of the Condor Legion in Spain, in support of Franco's Nationalist forces against the Republican forces of the official Spanish government. Things were going badly for the Nationalists; J/88 was equipped with the He 51B, and these were manifestly inferior to the Soviet fighters of the Republicans. The new Bf 109 was just starting to come off the Messerschmitt assembly line at Augsburg, and desperate pleas were made to send some of these to the Legion.

The RLM was keen to try out their new toy under operational conditions, and on 9.December 1936 Trautloft was ordered to go to Seville and take charge of three Bf 109 prototypes that were just being off-loaded from a supply ship and re-assembled at Seville Tablada airfield. These were the Bf 109V-3, V-4 and V-5. He arrived to find that the V-3 had been seriously damaged the previous day, when the newly re-assembled aircraft had been taken for a short proving flight, and had ground-looped on take-off. Trautloft eventually took the V-4, W.Nr.880, up on 14.December. However, the plane was plagued with teething troubles, and it was to be only on 14.January that he could fly it up to the Madrid Front to start his operational trials. No combat engagements were recorded in the brief period of these initial trials, and by the end of January all three prototypes were back in Germany. Not a very auspicious start to the combat career of the Bf 109!

In March, J/88 received 12 brand new production Bf 109B's to form a full Staffel, designated 2.J/88, with Oberleutnant Guenther Luetzow as StaKa. Evaluation of the Bf 109 could now begin in earnest. They found that the 109B was superior to the Republican I-15's and I.16's (though not much!), and under Luetzow's leadership the Luftwaffe's future fighter tactics were codified. Unburdened by the outdated traditional tactics of the various air forces they later met, The Luftwaffe had a big advantage until each opponent in turn learned from bitter experience.

The Initial Image

This is a single photo from a model review, and the tag “lr5” tells me it is the fifth of a set of photos by someone whose initials are L.R. That's all I know!

The picture is well lit and evenly in focus, with a well-chosen pale blue backing. The pose is good, but the camera is too close to the model, so perspective issues will be a problem. I suspect this is a small model, probably 1:72, and the detailing is rather coarse. Nearly all the details will need refining.

Treatment of the Image

We have a lot of droop on the port wing, and I assume it's no better on the starboard wing. I sorted the port side by chopping the wing into several segments and jockeying each in turn till their leading edges were in a straight line tangential at the wing root; then smooth out the small local disjunctions. Tedious, but it works! The visible part of the other wing was selected, then moved out from the fuselage, and the resulting gap filled in from scratch.

I filled in the missing framing of the canopy, and then started the task of refining the details from end to end – a slow job.

The code “6-3” tells me this is intended to be the V-3, though some profiles say it's the V-5. We have several photos of the V-3, so we know that the upper line of the forward fuselage was smoother than is shown on the model. I therefore chose a new line, without the abrupt change of slope behind the spinner.

When this work was all done, I saved the image and created a new version by changing the décor to give an image of the V-4. I have several profiles of the V-4, showing it to be carrying the Green Heart emblem which was Trautloft's personal emblem. I also reinstated the more angular profile of the forward fuselage top side.

Conclusions

My final image shows Trautloft accompanied by the V-5 during their brief and uneventful ten days or so at the front around Madrid. When the Bf 109B's arrived a month later, they were painted light grey or a light tawny colour over all, and that finish was applied to most Legion planes up to the final Bf 109E's. At a glance, these prototypes look very like the later 109's, but I assume that they were actually in natural metal finish.

Traufloft's Green Heart motif later became the badge of JG54. It made its first appearance on this 109 – his He 51B carried only the Top Hat emblem of J/88.