As two obscure fighter pilots fought for their respective countries in the skies above Poland, neither was aware he was making history. Within days after Germany’s September 1st, 1939, invasion of Poland, Luftwaffe pilot Hannes Gentzen and Polish Air Force pilot Stanislaw Skalski had each blasted five of his enemy’s aircraft from the sky. They were the first “aces” of World War II, and thousands more would follow.
The First World War produced history’s first aces—more than a thousand of them. When the next great air war came about, a new generation of this elite breed emerged, but in even greater numbers than the previous war. The aces of 1939-45 dominated the skies—as well as the headlines—with almost the same glitter and aura that the likes of Richthofen, Guynemer, Ball, and Rickenbacker had enjoyed in the first war of aces.
Although exact numbers are elusive, at least 5,000 pilots earned the title “ace” during the Second World War. And of the twenty-five-plus countries producing aces, the most prolific by far was Germany. There were more than 800 Luftwaffe aces—perhaps considerably more—many of which had incredibly high scores. More than 100 German pilots recorded over 100 “kills,” and 15 managed to score over 200. No other nation produced even a single three-digit ace.
The greatest ace of all time was German Messerschmitt Bf-109 pilot Erich Hartmann, with an amazing 352 victories in 1,425 missions. Some downplay this achievement by arguing—admittedly, with some justification—that most of his kills occurred against inferior opposition on the Eastern Front. Even so, Hartmann also once downed five American P-51 Mustangs in one day—hardly “inferior” opposition. There can be no doubt he is one of history’s greatest aces—if not the greatest of all.
The leader of Germany’s Western Front experten was Hans-Joachim Marseille, with 158 victories. Most notably, on September 1st, 1942, in the course of a single day, he destroyed an incredible 17 British aircraft—all front-line fighters. He was destined to die only a month later while attempting to bail out of his stricken Bf-109 fighter.
Germany also produced the top aces in two “specialty” categories. Luftwaffe pilot Heinz Schnaufer became the leading night-fighter ace with 121 kills, while Heinz Baer scored 16 victories in a Messerschmitt Me-262, making him the top jet ace. There were a total of 22 jet aces in World War II, all German.
Germany’s allies also produced their share of aces, although not on the same scale. Accurate Japanese aerial combat statistics are lacking, but certainly, hundreds of aces flew under the flag of the Rising Sun. The highly regarded pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy led the way, the best of which was Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, with 87 kills. Better known, however, was another Naval ace, Saburo Sakai—thanks to his classic 1957 autobiography, Samurai!, and the Keith Ferris painting of the same name. He is credited with 64 victories.
Italy produced over a hundred aces before its premature exodus from the war. Perhaps the most impressive of these pilots achieved acedom the old-fashioned way—in a biplane. Flying a Fiat CR.32, Mario Visintini scored 16 victories before dying in a 1941 flying accident. At least six other countries—Belgium, Britain, China, Finland, Japan, and the Soviet Union—also produced biplane aces, but none was more successful than Visintini.
Finland produced almost 100 aces in World War II, with Eino Ilmari Juutilainen leading the way. Flying against Russian invaders, he accumulated 94 victories. Notably, 34 of these were achieved in the Brewster B-239 “Buffalo” fighter. Rejected by the U.S. Navy as substandard, it was used with great effectiveness by the Finns. Another Finnish ace, Eino Luukkanen, even managed to shoot down a Soviet-flown “Spitfire” in his Brewster. He signified this victory the same way he did all his other 55 kills—with a beer bottle label glued to the tail of his fighter.
Other Axis countries contributing aces were Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. One of the most successful of these pilots was Romanian ace Constantin Cantacuzino. By the end of his war—uniquely affected by ever-changing political fortunes—he had gone the full cycle by including in his five dozen victories German, as well as Soviet and U.S. aircraft.
Most of the Allied aces came from the “Big Three”—the U.S., Soviet Union, and Britain—but several other countries also contributed. These included France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Belgium, Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Denmark, Yugoslavia, and China. Many of the aces from these countries scored the bulk of their victories flying with Britain’s Royal Air Force.
The highest scoring Allied aces came from the Soviet Union. Their top-scoring pilot was Ivan Kozhedub, with 62 kills—including a Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter. By far, the two most unique aces emerging from Russia, however, were Lydia (Lilya) Litvak and Yekaterina Budanova. As best friends and squadron mates in an otherwise all-male unit, these two female fighter pilots downed 12 and 11 Nazi aircraft, respectively, during the fierce Battle of Stalingrad. One of Litvak’s captured victims, himself a recognized German ace, was astounded when introduced to the attractive little blond fireball that had ended his wartime career. She was so tiny that her mechanic had to specially adjust the rudder pedals in her Yak fighter so she could reach them. Both Litvak and Budanova—history’s only female aces—died in combat in 1943.
The British Commonwealth also produced many significant aces during World War II. Leading the pack was a little-known South African with the improbable name of Marmaduke Thomas St. John Pattle. “Pat” had more than 50 confirmed victories, 15 of these in a Gloster “Gladiator” biplane. He scored all of his kills in the first few months of the war, before dying in combat over Greece in 1941.
RAF pilot Joseph Berry was an ace of a different class. He had the distinction of being the top V-1 “Buzz Bomb” interceptor ace of World War II. Flying a Hawker Tempest, he managed to destroy 59 of the unmanned, but dangerously explosive, “Doodlebugs,” before being killed in 1944 while strafing a German airfield in Holland.
Of all the British aces, none was more celebrated than the inimitable “legless wonder,” Douglas Bader. After losing both legs in a 1931 crash, he fought his way back into the RAF on two artificial limbs—eventually to lead a fighter wing during the Battle of Britain. After being credited with 22.5 enemy aircraft, he had the misfortune of colliding with a Luftwaffe fighter over German-occupied France. He barely managed to parachute from his mangled “Spitfire”—only after detaching and leaving one of his crushed “tin legs” wedged in the cockpit. He finished the war as a POW.
Uncle Sam produced some 1,200 aces in World War II, between the Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marine Corps. It is debatable which of these was the “greatest,” but the highest scoring was Army ace Dick Bong. He tallied an even 40 victories in the Pacific, flying his Lockheed P-38 “Lightning.” At the end of his tour, he was brought home and awarded the Medal of Honor—only to die in an accident six months later, flying one of the country’s first jets. He remains America’s “Ace of Aces.”
The top two U.S. Marine Corps aces were Gregory “Pappy” Boyington with 28 kills, and Joseph Foss with 26. Each was also a Medal of Honor awardee, and among the best fighter pilots of all time. Rounding out the top U.S. aces of the Second World War was David McCampbell, who led the U.S. Navy with 34 confirmed victories. He too earned the Medal of Honor for his performance above and beyond the call of duty.
The least known of the World War II aces were the enlisted aerial gunners. These air crewmen from the various belligerent nations are typically not included in ace lists, even though they destroyed literally thousands of enemy aircraft. The reason for this apparent lack of recognition was practical rather than discriminatory—at least in the U.S. Army Air Forces. With hundreds of gunners in a large bomber formation blasting away at the same enemy fighter, it was just too difficult to determine who had fired the lucky bullet.
Some of these gunner aces did gain recognition, however. Many consider the most successful to be B-17 tail gunner Michael Arooth. He is believed to have downed 17 German fighters in only 14 missions, before a serious wound ended his combat career. For his bravery and skill, he was awarded the nation’s second highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross.
The fierce global aerial combat, so characteristic of the Second World War, made this conflict truly the premiere “war of aces.” In this respect, it eclipsed all other conflicts in history put together—and will probably never be equaled. The feats of these illustrious aerial warriors will be debated forever, but with only one certainty—they will never be forgotten.