In Von Richthofen’s Shadow – Few Can Name History’s Other Great Flying Aces

A spitfire unleashes a salvo of gunfire at a pair of German bombers.

Gun camera footage of a Spitfire unleashing a salvo of bullets at a pair of German bombers during the Battle of Britain. (Image source: public domain)

“To this day, von Richthofen’s credentials as the ‘greatest combat pilot of all time’ are firmly established… while, other great military aviators have been all but relegated to the margins of history.”

The Red Baron may be history's most famous fighter pilot, but was he the best?

The Red Baron may be history’s most famous fighter pilot, but was he the best?

MANFRED VON RICHTHOFEN WASN’T THAT DARING A FIGHTER PILOT, particularly when compared to other First World War fliers.

The aristocrat turned aviator attained his enviable 80-kill record largely by playing it safe. Rather than boldly charging into dogfights against equally matched fighter planes, the so-called Red Baron preferred to prey on much slower and lightly armed reconnaissance aircraft. In fact, his reputation as a fearsome warrior was just as much a by-product of German wartime propaganda as it was attributable to his uncanny airborne marksmanship.

Yet to this day, von Richthofen’s credentials as the ‘greatest combat pilot of all time’ are firmly established. His exploits have been the subject of feature films, computer games and hit songs. Even a pizza maker and a bicycle manufacturer have appropriated his legendary nickname. And all the while, other great (and superior) military aviators have been all but relegated to the margins of history. Consider these often overlooked flying aces and their astounding areal feats.

Military propagandists were eager to celebrate the exploits of flying aces during World War One -- anything to distract the public from the horrors of trench warfare. (Image source: WikiCommons)

First World War flying aces were the celebrities of their day. As far as the public was concerned, their exploits made for far better reading than the horror and drudgery of trench warfare. (Image source: WikiCommons)

No one even knew what a flying ace was before Adolphe Pégoud. He was the first combat pilot to bring down five enemy aircraft.

No one even knew what a flying ace was before Adolphe Pégoud, the first combat pilot to bring down five enemy aircraft.

The First Top Guns

The Red Baron may have been the highest scoring pilot of the First World War, but the one-time cavalry officer was actually a relative latecomer to the air war over the Western Front. Von Richthofen didn’t even score his fifth confirmed victory (the requirement for “ace” designation) until late 1916. In fact, dozens of other pilots were breaking the five-kill barrier well before the famous Fokker-jock was even in flight school.

In July 1915, a 26-year-old French aviator by the name of Adolphe Pégoud downed his fifth German aircraft. Eager for war heroes, the press christened the new champion an “ace”, thus coining the now-ubiquitous term. Interestingly enough, the former flight instructor was killed just a few weeks later by one of his own pre-war students: A German aviator by the name of Walter Kandulski.

In August of 1915, Lanoe Hawker became the Royal Flying Corps’ first ace — although at the time the British used the term “star-turn” to describe their country’s five-time killers.

Von Richthofen’s own mentor Oswald Boelcke was the first to score five for Germany. Newspapers in Berlin called him a Überkanonen or “super gun”. [1]

Baby-faced killer -- Erich Hartman destroyed more than 350 Allied warplanes in World War Two, more than four times as many as the Red Baron.

Baby-faced killer — Erich Hartman destroyed more than 350 Allied warplanes in World War Two, more than four times as many as the Red Baron.

Breaking 80

While a number of First World War aviators came close to topping the Red Baron’s 80 kills, it took more than 20 years for other fighter pilots to shatter the 1918 record. But shatter it they did – and spectacularly too.

Mitsubishi Zero ace Hiroyoshi Nishizawa of the Imperial Japanese Navy reached 87 kills during the Pacific War becoming his country’s all-time leading scorer.

Nazi Germany’s Werner Mölders broke the then-unheard-of 100-kill barrier on the Russian Front before being promoted to colonel and transferred out of combat in July of 1941. Despite his new duties on the ground, the Battle of Britain vet secretly took to the skies where he claimed 30 additional kills that weren’t officially added to his tally. He died following a plane crash in late 1941.

The Luftwaffe’s Gordon Gollob was far luckier. The Austrian-born aviator downed more than 150 Allied planes, survived the war and lived to the ripe old age of 75.

Then there were Germany’s Hermann Graf and Walter Nowotny who broke 200 and 250-victories respectively.

But none topped Erich Hartman. Dubbed “The Black Devil” by Soviet fliers, the 23-year-old Württemberg-native claimed a staggering 352 kills making him the highest scoring ace in the history of air warfare. Yet unlike von Richthofen, Hartman’s name hasn’t inspired a brand of beer and not a single cartoon dog has ever cursed his name (as far as we know).

Spitfire ace, Johnnie Johnson.

Spitfire ace, Johnnie Johnson.

The top American ace of World War Two was Richard Bong of the U.S. Army Air Corps. A veteran of the Pacific War, the Lockheed P-38 pilot bagged a total of 40 Japanese planes. After a successful tour of duty, the 24-year-old Wisconsin-native became a test pilot. He died in a stateside jet crash on the same day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Meanwhile, Britain’s James Edgar Johnson, aka Johnnie Johnson, amassed 34 kills making him the United Kingdom’s leading ace of World War Two.

The all-time top Allied fighter pilot of the war was Grigoriy Rechkalov of the Soviet Union. He defeated 56 Axis warplanes before VE Day.

A German pilot bails out of a Focke Wulfe 190 somewhere over Western Europe. (Image source: Youtube.com)

A German pilot bails out of a Focke-Wulf 190 somewhere over Western Europe. (Image source: Youtube.com)

Emil Lang holds the record for most kills in a single 24 hour period.

Emil Lang holds the record for most kills in a single 24-hour period.

One-Day Wonders

While von Richthofen shot down more planes than any other flier of his day, he never managed to achieve the coveted status of “ace in a day” – that is scoring five air-to-air victories in a single 24-hour period.

The first to accomplish the feat were Austria’s Julius Arigi and Johann Lasi. On Aug. 22, 1916, the pilot/observer duo brought down five Italian planes in a single mission in their two-seat recon bird.

Germany’s Fritz Otto Bernert was the first lone flier to blot out five enemy craft in a single day. He did it in less than 20 minutes on April, 24, 1917.

Then there was John Lightfoot Trollope of the British Royal Flying Corps who downed a whopping seven enemy planes on March 24, 1918 – a record for the First World War. By way of comparison, on the Red Baron’s best day in April of 1917, he downed just four planes.

Amazingly, more than 100 World War Two fliers made ace in a day, including Clive Caldwell of Australia who destroyed five Axis aircraft in as many minutes over North Africa in 1941.

It took Jorma Sarvanto all of four minutes to nail six Soviet bombers over his native Finland during the 1939 Winter War.

And what about Germany’s Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, 23, who blasted nine British Lancasters in two missions in single day on Feb 21, 1945? RAF bomber crews dubbed him “The Spook of St. Trond”. [2]

Another Luftwaffe star, Erich Rudorffer, scored a staggering 13 victories in just one sortie over the U.S.S.R. on Oct. 11, 1943.

But the record for the most kills in a single day belongs to Germany’s Emil Lang. He defeated 18 Russian planes over a 24-hour period in November, 1943.

A tail-gunner on an RAF Boulton Paul Defiant became one of Britain's earliest aces of the war. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A tail-gunner on an RAF Boulton Paul Defiant became one of Britain’s earliest aces of the war. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Aces That Didn’t Fly

Amazingly, not all air combat aces were even pilots. Consider Michael Arooth. The B-17 tail gunner obliterated 17 German fighters during the daylight bombing campaign over Nazi-occupied Europe.

Then there was Britain’s F.J. Barker. He chalked up 13 kills in 1940 while in the rear gunner’s seat of a Boulton Paul Defiant, arguably one of the worst fighter aircraft of the Second World War.

Lydia Litvyak was history's highest scoring female ace.

Lydia Litvyak was history’s highest scoring female ace.

Female Aces

Only two women in history have achieved ace status – both were Soviet.

Lydia Litvyak was only 20 when the Nazis invaded the U.S.S.R. The young Muscovite was already a pilot when she signed up to drive the enemy from her homeland. By the time of her death in 1943, she’d downed 12 Axis warplanes.

Only Yekaterina Budanova came close to topping Litvyak (who was her squadron-mate). The 26-year-old nanny from Smolensk claimed 11 victories while flying over Stalingrad and Rostov. She died in action on July 19, 1943.

A Me-262 pilot became history's first jet ace in 1944. (Image source: German Federal Archive)

A Me-262 pilot became history’s first jet ace in 1944. (Image source: German Federal Archive)

Aces of the Jet Age

Alfred Schreiber scored history’s first ever victory with a jet fighter. He also became the first flying ace of the jet age. The 23-year-old Me-262 pilot downed a RAF Mosquito over southern Europe on July 26, 1944. During the next two months he’d bring down four other warplanes in his Schwalbe jet (three Spitfires and a P-38 Lighting) before perishing in a crash landing.

America’s first jet ace was James Jabara. The North American F-86 pilot splashed six North Korean MiG-15s during a two-month period in the spring of 1951. By the end of the war he’d amassed an impressive tally of 15 kills. Another Korean War Saber pilot, Joseph C. McConnell topped the record with 16 victories.

The only known communist pilot to make ace in Korea was Russia’s Sergei Kramarenko who brought down five American jets. The 29-year-old MiG pilot flew his last combat mission on Jan. 17, 1952. During an intense dogfight over the 38th Parallel, Kramarenko’s plane was riddled with machine gun fire forcing the Russian flier to bail out. He later claimed that the American pilot even opened fire on the dazed aviator as he descended to earth in his parachute. [3] He survived the ordeal and is still alive to this day.

A painting by the artist Rehan Siraj of the Saiful Azam of the Pakistani Air Force shooting down an Israeli bomber over Iraq in 1967.

A painting by Rehan Siraj of Saiful Azam of the Pakistani Air Force shooting down an Israeli bomber over Iraq in 1967.

As the jet age progressed, the soaring cost of frontline interceptors and the advent of long-range air-to-air missiles led to a precipitous decline in dogfights. As a result aces became fewer and further between.

Only two American pilots made the cut during the Vietnam War: air force flier Richard S. Ritchie and Randy Cunningham of the United States Navy.

Saiful Azam of Bangladesh won up an impressive five victories in two different wars: First in 1965 when flying against Indian jets for the Pakistani air force and then while taking on Israeli aircraft as a volunteer to the Arab forces during the 1967 Six Day War.

History’s top scoring jet ace is Giora Epsiten of Israel who between 1967 and 1973 downed an unprecedented 17 enemy aircraft.

(Originally published by MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Nov. 5, 2014)

4 comments for “In Von Richthofen’s Shadow – Few Can Name History’s Other Great Flying Aces

  1. Ian Skinner
    5 November, 2014 at 8:36 am

    You left out Marmaduke Pattle, who shot down at least 40 and possibly 60 axis aircraft
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marmaduke_Pattle

  2. Larry Ludwig
    31 December, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    Hans Marsailles scored 17 kills in 9 hours (one day Sept 1, 1942) so if you want to count a 24 hour period, he got another 3 the next morning for a total of 20 and 6 hours after the 24 hour time period he had added 2 more. His armorers reports also confirmed he had the lowest rounds expended per kill *period.*

    • admin
      31 December, 2014 at 7:14 pm

      Thanks for the update.

  3. Steve Twede
    22 January, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    The Red baron put 26 bullet holes in James Mcudden’s tail, he didn’t just chase easy kills. as to 2 seaters, He was ordered to shoot down these as they were more valueable military targets. & they had guns facing forwards and backwards, they were not less armed than single seaters. He also shot down Lanoe Hawker who was the more experienced flier at the time of their meeting.

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