Top Aces of WWII
January 30, 2010 2:32 PM   Subscribe

This was going to be a post about japanese fighter ace Saburo Sakai(around 60 kills) while also mentioning Hiroyoshi "the Devil" Nishizawa, Japan's top WWII ace (around 110 kills). But while comparing them to aces of other countries I encountered something your average non-war buff american probably doesn't know. That is that about the top 60 fighter aces of WWII (and all time consequently) were all german. And where does the US rank on this list. You don't want to know.
posted by jake1 (50 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
That's editorializing against American exceptionalism. Don't you value your freedom?
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:36 PM on January 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

posted by mccarty.tim at 2:37 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Richard I. Bong

posted by Sys Rq at 2:40 PM on January 30, 2010

Well, it's important to remember that we flew a hell of a lot of (vulnerable) bombers into German fighter screens, and any kills by those bombers would be credited to the crewmember who did it.

Also, I seem to recall that the germans scored their kills according to how many engines the enemy plane had.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:41 PM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

the top 60 fighter aces of WWII (and all time consequently) were all german

and yet they still lost the war somehow....
posted by jonmc at 2:46 PM on January 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

No, they didn't score their kills by number of engines. Remember, for them the war lasted almost 6 years, and they flew 'til they were killed or too maimed to fly anymore.
posted by aquanaut at 2:46 PM on January 30, 2010

Did their elite air fighting units play homoerotic volleyball like ours do?

I just wondered if it was a tradition or something.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:46 PM on January 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yeah, WWII was a war of resources not really a war of skill. It didn't matter which side was better at fighting, it mattered which side had the resources to sustain their war efforts.

Thats why you have the axis setting all sorts of records...while the US kinda didn't do as well individually. Germany was running out of resources...and the allies were gearing up.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:48 PM on January 30, 2010

All elite fighting units play homoerotic volleyball.
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 2:48 PM on January 30, 2010 [18 favorites]

That is that about the top 60 fighter aces of WWII (and all time consequently) were all german.

Something mostly due to Stalin's main tactic of "throwing loads of terrified, poorly-trained, ill-equipped soldiers/sailors/airmen at the enemy and see how they cope with them". It's important to note that most of the victories of those fighter aces were in the Eastern front, mostly against such obsolete aircraft as the Tupolev SB or the Polikarpov Po-2.
posted by Skeptic at 2:53 PM on January 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

It's not all that surprising, really. Members of the German armed forces on average served much longer than those of the Allies, were consequently much more experienced than their opponents, and flew superior aircraft.

It should also be noted that the casualty rate for the Luftwaffe was nearly 5 times greater than that of the US Air Force. The Luftwaffe pilots flew and fought until they died, giving them the opportunity to amass much higher kill counts than their opposition, assuming they lived long enough.
posted by TBAcceptor at 2:55 PM on January 30, 2010

WTF: Everyone needs good information about credit cards, whether you're a pilot or not. There are some really great resources online that provide solid information about various airlines credit card offers. If you are in fact shopping around make sure to compare as many different credit card offers as you can find.

Weird advertising in a random paragraph on that last link (although neat article overall).
posted by cyphill at 2:56 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

That is that about the top 60 fighter aces of WWII (and all time consequently) were all german.

Looking at the link it looks more like top 122, with Eino Juutilainen coming in at 123rd, at least for WWII.
posted by Zalzidrax at 2:57 PM on January 30, 2010

(This said, it doesn't detract at all from the merit of those German fighter aces. Hartmann in particular certainly merits an entry in the Hardass of the Week site).
posted by Skeptic at 3:00 PM on January 30, 2010

The Wikipedia article on Erich Hartmann says
His favourite method of attack was to hold fire until extremely close (60 ft/20 m or less), then unleash a short burst at point-blank range ... firing at close range ran the risk of having to fly through the debris of a damaged or exploding aircraft, thereby damaging his own fighter in the process
posted by Nelson at 3:10 PM on January 30, 2010

No, they didn't score their kills by number of engines. Remember, for them the war lasted almost 6 years, and they flew 'til they were killed or too maimed to fly anymore.

^ For the award of decorations, the Germans initiated a points system to equal up achievements between the aces flying on the Eastern front with those on other, more demanding, fronts: one for a fighter, two for a twin-engine bomber, three for a four-engine bomber; night victories counted double; Mosquitoes counted double, due to the difficulty of bringing them down. See Johnson, J. E. "Johnnie", Group Captain, RAF. Wing Leader (Ballantine, 1967), p.264.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:16 PM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Landstraße zur Gefahrenzone! Gehen, eine Fahrt zur Gefahrenzone innen zu nehmen!
posted by WinnipegDragon at 3:17 PM on January 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Five seconds into clicking aroud on this I found two US fliers credited as Spanish Civil War aces, Frank Tinker and Albert Baumler, and down the rabbit hole I went.

Tinker is credited with the first combat victory over a BF-109, flying a tiny Polikarpov "Mosca" ("Fly").

Tinker appears to have ended his life in 1939 as a result of combat-related stress and rejection by the US Military for reinstatement on the eve of WWII.

I am a flyboy nerd spectator, and am amazed to have never encountered this story. Off to see if there is a Mosca ready to go for X-Plane - if it's any thing like the GeeBee the Wikipedia article references, that victory is quite a feat.
posted by mwhybark at 3:22 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

When an American pilot showed his skill they pulled him off the front lines and sent him to train other pilots, and something like 10,000 new planes a month required a lot of pilots. I do think this may reflect a greater appreciation for skill as well as human life than the Germans or Japanese.
posted by mearls at 3:26 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

The reason the Germans and Japanese have more kills is the same reason that they both lost the air war. The tactical issues had nothing to do with it.

The British and Americans had totally different systems of pilot training and deployment than everyone else. After a certain number of sorties, American and British fighter pilots were ordered out of the line and sent home to train pilots. No exceptions.

This did two things: first, it meant that new pilots were trained by experienced combat aviators. Second, it created a reserve of veteran combat aviators that could come back and fight again.

The German and Japanese air forces did not do this. They kept their pilots in all the time. Most were eventualy shot down. Their pilots were no more skilled--indeed, as a whole, British and American pilots were better on average than Allied pilots because of this system.

Indeed, the worst part of the Battle of Midway for Japan was that as the Americans sank three carriers in 90 seconds, they killed the vast majority of Japan's top combat aviators. A fourth carrier went down the next day. A titanic blow from which the Japanese Imperial Navy never recovered from.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:28 PM on January 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

Ah, yes Major Dick Bong.

One of the major bridges that connects Duluth MN to Superior WI (His home town, Poplar WI, is just outside Superior) is the Bong bridge, and there is a Bong memorial.

Suffice to say, it is a name that inspires out of town stoners, until they learn what it really is. Locals have grown pretty immune to the name.
posted by edgeways at 3:32 PM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

If Conservepedia is to be believed, the Germans loved volleyball. Lovely use of weasel words in that article, BTW.
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:32 PM on January 30, 2010

I remember quite vividly reading Sakai's autobiography as a WWII-obsessed ten year old.
What really stuck with me was the part where he limps home with a hole in his head, into which he had to stuff his silk flying scarf to staunch the flow of blood, drifting in and out of consciousness but still managing to fly and land his Zero.
posted by Flashman at 3:44 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow Lashman! I still remember that book too which I read when I was about 10. That's what the post was going to be about originally. As a finishing touch I was comparing his stats when I was just blown away and had to change course.
posted by jake1 at 3:48 PM on January 30, 2010

Flashman, sorry.
posted by jake1 at 3:50 PM on January 30, 2010

As an amateur historian of WWII aircraft, I support this post.

Let us not forget that the German aces got extremely high kill ratios from their war in the East (Russia and environs). The Russian pilots at the time were not well trained and had equipment that was inferior to the Me109s an FW190s.
posted by Drasher at 3:54 PM on January 30, 2010

And then there's Col. Frank Gabreski, the only American to be an ace in two wars. He shot down 28 Planes over Europe in WWII (plus three more on the ground), and missed his wedding because he was captured by the Germans. He then shot down 6 and a half MiGs in the Korean war (including one over China, which he wasn't supposed to do).
posted by tommyD at 4:22 PM on January 30, 2010

I think this says more about Britain than it does the US. But I'm no historian.
posted by cman at 5:35 PM on January 30, 2010

As others have posted, the Germans, unprepared or unable to fight a long war, lurched from emergency to emergency, had a tendency to send their elite fighter pilots into battle repeatedly (instead of sending them back as instructors), resulting in a small cadre of aces who survived, and a lot of new pilots who did not. (Similarly, see Panzer Lehr). Eventually, the odds caught up with even the aces.

After the Battle of Britain and the first year of the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Luftwaffe's reserve of trained pilots had been used up. Before 1942, each fighter Geschwader (equivalent to a USAF wing or a RAF group) had a training gruppen -- in early summer of 1942, these were disbanded, leading to even less operational training for increasingly inexperienced aircrew. Training standards continued to decline.

As losses at the front began to rise in 1943 and 1944, so the standards of training fell, and the pilots sent to the front during the latter part of the war lacked general flying experience; moreover, although the shortage of operational training aircraft improved out of all recognition in 1944 ... the fuel was then no longer available in sufficient quantities ... both General Hitschold and Galland maintained that there was a certain lack of coordination between the schools and the front, so that pilots proceeding to OTU's would find practices different to that which they had been taught. Finally, the few flying hours allowed during training resulted in pilots on operations being too concerned with the technicalities of flying and unable to concentrate on gunnery and tactics; this in turn imposed increased preoccupation on the more experienced unit and formation leaders and so further detracted from efficiency.

The Rise and Fall of the German Air Force 1933-1945

In Februrary the Luftwaffe lost one-third of its fighters and a fifth of its crews. In March, it lost more than half its fighter aircraft. In April 43 per cent were shot down and in May and June the loss rate hovered around 50 per cent. Over the first five months of 1944 the Luftwaffe's entire complement of fighter pilots was either killed or disabled. A few German aces survived long enough to notch up extraordinary tallies but the working life of the average Luftwaffe pilot was now measured in weeks.

Tooze, The Wages of Destruction.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:36 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Richard Ira Bong, who would become America's "Ace of Aces," was born on September 24, 1920, the son of a Swedish immigrant.

so he wasn't, like, an *American* american.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:43 PM on January 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

I like to think this thread is Pepsi Blue from the Pentagon, so that they could apply our expertise in overthinking to the issue of training and deploying ace pilots.

Come to think of it, it wouldn't be Pepsi Blue, as it's not comercial. Since it's military, maybe it's Pepsi Green.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:08 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I, too, read Samurai! as a boy, on recommendation from my dad, with particular emphasis put on a section where he detailed his (at the time) base of operations being bombed by American B-25 medium bombers, on one of which my great uncle happened to be the top turret gunner/flight engineer.

Was a great story about a remarkable pilot. An Ace indeed.
posted by rhythim at 6:10 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, as mentioned repeatedly above, the US, and to a lesser extent the UK, weren't as hammered by existential threat, so they had the ability to use more of their veterans as trainers, which resulted in higher-quality n00bs at the stick (one would think.)

Plus the Allies were on the offensive much of the war, and were venturing vulnerable bombers like a gambler who has a high chip count.

There's some really interesting analysis that could be done here (e.g., how did n00b pilots fair across the various nations?) but I (not being a true WWII geek) have not come across it, if it exists.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:24 PM on January 30, 2010

And then there's Col. Frank Gabreski, the only American to be an ace in two wars.

The list shows a bunch of others:

James P. Hagerstrom 6(8.5 Korea) WWII USA
John F. Bolt Jr. 6(6 Korea) WWII USA
Vermont Garrison 7.33(10 Korea) WWII USA
George A. Davis Jr. 7(14 Korea) WWII USA
Albert J. Baumler 18(13 Spain) WWII USA
William T. Whisner 15.5(5.5 Korea) WWII USA
Harrison R. Thyng 5(5 Korea) WWII USA
posted by Jahaza at 6:59 PM on January 30, 2010

That last link is a paper on Hagerstrom.
posted by Jahaza at 6:59 PM on January 30, 2010

An interesting number would be the average number of kills per pilot. That would seem to demonstrate the overall quality of a nation's pilot, and by association, the awesomeness of that nation as a result when compared to weaker, sad little nations who don't kill as well and are perhaps a little effeminate too.
posted by mecran01 at 7:31 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

After a foray to Wikipedia that explanation of superior planes vs. Soviets doesn't hold for case Finland and the findings were more interesting than I expected:

Winter War was fought with obsolete 'exportable' planes, scraped from countries that had already built something better for themselves. At beginning of the war, there was 700 Russian fighters and 800 bombers at the Finland front, against Finnish Air Forces with 146 aircrafts (including +50 reconnaissance and training planes), where main fighters were 15 Bristol Bulldog biplanes and 41 dutch Fokker D.XXI fighters.

During the war, deliveries begin to arrive, again obsolete export models:
30 British Gloster Gladiators (biplanes)
30 French Morane-Saulnier M.S.406
22 British Gloster Gauntlet biplanes, so obsolete that they were used as trainers (10 from South Africa)
10 Italian Fiat G.50 fighters
10 British Hurricane Mk Is (arrived just before end of the war)

Winter War's score for fighters ended up being 240 kills, 26 losses.

During peace before Continuation War, more planes arrived, including 44 U.S. Brewster F2A Buffalos, which became the main fighter force. It was an outdated model, deemed as a failure, 'the flying coffin', because it got a spanking from Japanese Zeros in Pacific Theatre. However, after few local modifications it redeemed itself or confused its original creators in Continuation War by having an impressive 32:1 kill ratio, with 459 kills and 15 losses.

At the beginning of the Continuation war, FiAF had 500 planes at its disposal, with a huge variety of different models and manufacturers, almost all obsolete or second- or third hand and some repaired fallen soviet planes from the Winter War. For example, German sold 44 Curtis P-36 Hawks captured from France and some in Norway that went to good use, with 190,3 kills against 15 losses.

Late at the Continuation War, 1943, FiAF finally got access to Bf 109s and it replaced the Brewster, which, like other old wings, suffered from a serious lack of spare parts (esp. all planes with Allied origins). FiAF also tried to keep its planes up-to-date by taking spare parts and engines from dropped soviet planes and built whole new variants based on mixing parts from various planes.

(Also, there was projects for building a plywood based fighter, VL Myrsky, a cheaper Brewster Buffalo out of wood, Humu and a plywood version of Bf 109, VL Pyörremyrsky. Arms race didn't go too well for us.)

Most of the kills were racked up with Bf 109s, but most of the top aces already had dozens with much worse planes, so yes, they had long careers. Yet, they survived quite well. Only one in top 10 of Finnish pilots died in service.
posted by Free word order! at 8:01 PM on January 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

I know we're talking about German aces in WWII here, but I think it's worth remembering that a decent number of German aces during WWI were Jewish. Some were among the top flyers in the Luftwaffe. Examples: Fritz Beckhardt, Wilhelm Frankl, Edmund Nathanael, Friedrich Rüdenberg, Berthold Guthmann. And Wilhelm "Willy" Rosenstein was actually Hermann Goering's wingman in Jasta 27 during WWI and saved his life in the air several times. (Oops.)

For obvious reasons, these guys were not able to fight for Germany during WWII, but it's interesting to speculate how it would have changed (or not) the stats that are being discussed here.
posted by Asparagirl at 11:01 PM on January 30, 2010

Hah, Asparagirl, that Rosenstein info is a new to me, I love finding out about stuff like that.
posted by mwhybark at 12:14 AM on January 31, 2010

but I think it's worth remembering that a decent number of German aces during WWI were Jewish.

I just finished watching The Red Baron (Der Rote Baron) and it was pretty damn good. They made it a prominent aspect that there were Jewish pilots who flew for Germany in WWI.

As a side note, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, Lee Archer recently died.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:03 AM on January 31, 2010

Ironmouth: A titanic blow from which the Japanese Imperial Navy...

I see what you did there
posted by DreamerFi at 1:13 AM on January 31, 2010

For obvious reasons, these guys were not able to fight for Germany during WWII, but it's interesting to speculate how it would have changed (or not) the stats that are being discussed here.

If Germany had been a country where jews were still serving in the air force, it's pretty unlikely there would have been anything we'd recognise as a WW II.
posted by rodgerd at 1:50 AM on January 31, 2010

Clearly the top fighter pilot in WWII was my father, but I might be a biased...
posted by alasdair at 6:38 AM on January 31, 2010

My favorite Richard Bong related place is of course the Bong recreation area. People who love it form the Bong Naturalist Association.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:17 AM on January 31, 2010

Fwo! While the Finnish Air Force complement was rather obsolescent at the outset of the Winter War, the Soviets fought with equally, or even more antiquated planes, like the Polikarpov I-15.

Even at the beginning of the Continuation War, the Soviets were still fighting with outdated material (of course, to launch an offensive against somebody who has already badly mauled your armed forces the year before, just when another enemy has attacked you by surprise and is pounding you something serious, is yet another example of Stalin's deep strategic thinking).
posted by Skeptic at 8:03 AM on January 31, 2010

Some of my friends have a Bong Recreation Area sign in their basement.
posted by box at 8:21 AM on January 31, 2010

During peace before Continuation War, more planes arrived, including 44 U.S. Brewster F2A Buffalos, which became the main fighter force.

The "Continuation War" is the euphemism Finnish historians use to hide the fact that the Finns were allied with Adolph Hitler's Nazi Germany during the Second World War. I cannot stand that euphemism. The Finns fought on the side of the Nazis during their genocidal campaign against Soviet Russia.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:21 PM on January 31, 2010

I've taken a look at the highest national conflicts for all wars, which also brings up some surprises (prepared in haste, so I can't vouch for 100% accuracy but I'm sure the figures are in the right ball park, with the caveat that there's confusion and argument over almost every ace's actual tally). In that table, I'm afraid the United States slides even further down the rankings of all time greats, with the inclusion of World War One aces from France, Canada, South Africa and Austalia.

I'm not trying to prove any point here by the way - some the nations who produced top-scoring aces just came as a surprise to me, brought up as a Brit on stories of Biggles, the Dam Busters and the Battle of Britain. And your guys did top our chaps in World War 2 (Richard Bong downed 40,our top scoring ace, Johnnie Johnson 38). Filed under Quite Interesting, here.
posted by Asking at 12:15 AM on February 1, 2010

non-Mefite correspondence pursuant to this thread brought a couple more things to my attention:

"Tinker was officially credited with 8 kills (putting him firmly into the Ace category) by the Spanish Republic's Air Force (FARE) which paid a bous and therefore was quite conservative in awarding kills. In addition he had 11 probables.

Baumler was credited with 4.5 kills and two probables in Spain. He went on to fly for the USAAF in China (have you read the story of his interrupted trip on the Pan Am Clipper and then his flight via Africa and Asia to China?) With his first victory in China he simultaneously became an Ace AND the first American pilot to down planes of all three Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan.)"

I responded and learned that there ate at lest two flying Polikarpovs, one in Spain (in Republican colors):

and one, heavens to betsey, just up the road in Paul Allen's collection (in Russian colors):

I was grumpy to note they call it the "Rata," which is what the fascists called it, instead of the "Mosca." You know who else was a fascist?
posted by mwhybark at 6:11 PM on February 2, 2010

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