Throughout World War II, thousands of combat aircraft filled the skies of Europe, the Pacific, Asia, and North Africa. Critical to the safety of bombers, fighter planes patrolled the zones of conflict, engaging in deadly duels as they fought for dominance in the air.
The pilots of these planes were brave soldiers who were well-trained. Some of them were gifted with natural abilities that made them the most dangerous men in the sky. Here are 7 of the top fighter pilots who flew during history’s deadliest conflict.
1. Erich “Bubi” Hartmann
With a kill count of 352 Allied aircraft, Erich Hartmann remains the most successful fighter pilot of all time, and it is highly unlikely that his score will ever be surpassed.
Later known as “Bubi” (The Kid) and Der Schwarze Teufel (The Black Devil), Hartmann started his aviation career in gliders before joining the Luftwaffe in 1940. He completed his training in 1942 and quickly racked up his record. He achieved his last kill mere hours before the German surrender on May 8, 1945.
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Erich Hartmann surrendered to the Americans but was turned over to the Soviets, who convicted him of war crimes and sentenced him to 20 years, which was later increased to 25 years imprisonment. He also spent ten years in a Soviet Gulag. The charges brought against him were likely false and designed to pressure him into serving for the East German Air Force. Nevertheless, he only served his sentence until 1955, when he was repatriated.
The following year, he joined the West German Air Force and later became a civilian flight instructor. Hartmann died in 1993 at the age of 71. In 1997, he was posthumously acquitted of all charges by the Russian Federation.
2. Hans-Ulrich Rudel
The most decorated German pilot of the war was Hans-Ulrich Rudel. He shot down nine enemy aircraft. While this feat isn’t spectacular in an age where his colleagues were shooting down tens and hundreds of enemy aircraft, what is spectacular is that he achieved this feat while flying a Junkers Ju-87 “Stuka” dive bomber. What’s even more spectacular is his claimed kill count against ground targets.
Rudel flew 2,530 missions on the Eastern Front and is credited with the destruction of 800 vehicles, 519 tanks, 150 artillery pieces, 70 landing craft, one cruiser, and a battleship. He was shot down 30 times and was wounded, losing a leg as a result. Despite his injury, he continued flying.
His career ended in 1945 with the destruction of the Third Reich. He surrendered to the Americans. An unrepentant Nazi till his death in 1982, he emigrated to South America, where he smuggled weapons for right-wing groups and helped his fellow Nazis escape, including sheltering Josef Mengele, the SS doctor at Auschwitz.
In 1976, the US military sought Rudel’s expertise in developing the A-10 Thunderbolt ground-attack aircraft.
3. Ivan Kozhedub
Ivan Kozhedub holds the record for being the highest-scoring Soviet and Allied fighter ace of the Second World War. Throughout his career, he achieved his victories while flying three different aircraft, the La-5F, the La-5FN, and the La-7.
Kozhedub joined the Red Army in 1940, and in January 1941, he graduated as a pilot. His initial duties included training other pilots. The German invasion, however, forced him to be relocated to Moscow. It wasn’t until March 1943 that his squadron was posted to the front, and Kozhedub saw his first action. It wasn’t until July 6, 1943 that he made his first kill. He scored his last kill on April 17, 1945, bringing his total to 64.
He is credited as one of the few pilots to have shot down an Me-262 jet fighter, and for being the first to do so.
In April 1945, he claimed to have downed two American P51 Mustangs during a friendly fire incident. He was mistaken for a German fighter and was forced to defend himself. The footage, however, was shot using Zeiss equipment, which was used primarily by the Luftwaffe, so the claim is highly suspect.
4. Marmaduke “Pat” Pattle
Flying for the Royal Air Force, Britain’s top fighter ace was not British but South African. At the age of 18, Marmaduke “Pat” Pattle attempted to join the South African Air Force in 1936 but was rejected. He traveled to the United Kingdom and joined the RAF instead, earning his pilot wings a year later.
He was stationed in Egypt when the war broke out, and in 1940, he saw his first action when the Italians declared war. In November 1940, Pattle was posted to Greece, where he saw his greatest successes. On three occasions, he scored five or more kills in a single day, gaining him the honor of “Ace-in-a-day.”
On April 19, 1941, Pattle claimed six victories, taking his total to more than any other Western Allied pilot for the rest of the war. He took off against orders the following day while suffering from a fever. He was last seen engaged in dogfighting with Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighters. While flying his Hawker Hurricane, Pattle crashed into the sea and was killed. He was only 26 years old at the time. He was one of 3,000 Allied pilots whose bodies were never recovered and who have no grave markers.
5. Richard Bong
Scoring all 40 of his kills while flying a P-38, Richard Bong was the highest-scoring fighter ace from the United States. He was awarded his pilot wings in January 1942, and in July 1942, he was assigned to the Pacific Theater. On December 27, Richard Bong claimed his first victories during the Battle of Buna-Gona by shooting down a Mitsubishi Zero and a Nakajima Oscar.
By December 17, 1944, he achieved his last victory. In January 1945, Bong was sent home, and in February, he married Marge Vattendahl, who had inspired him to name his aircraft “Marge.”
On August 6, he took to the air for the last time and lost his life while testing the P-80 jet fighter. The aircraft developed a fuel pump malfunction, and Bong ejected, but he was flying too low for the parachute to deploy.
His death shared front page news with the bombing of Hiroshima.
6. Ilmari Juutilainen
Of the top fighter aces of all time, the first 120 places are all held by Germans. Claiming the honor as the country with the top fighter ace of all time who isn’t German is Finland with Ilmari Juutilainen. He achieved all 94 of his victories against the Soviets. He claimed he had a total of 126 aerial victories, but the additional kills could not be verified.
Juutilainen entered military service in 1932 and became a pilot in 1935. He served in both the Winter War and the Second World War and flew three different aircraft: the Fokker D.XXI, the Brewster Buffalo, and the Messerschmitt Bf 109. His achievements include never having his plane damaged by enemy aircraft fire. He was once forced to land after being hit by friendly anti-aircraft fire.
After the war, Juutilainen continued to serve in the air force until 1947, thereafter becoming a commercial pilot, transporting passengers in a De Havilland Moth. His last flight was in 1997 in a two-seat F-18 Hornet of the Finnish Air Force.
He died on his 85th birthday on February 21, 1999.
7. Tetsuzō Iwamoto
The second-highest-scoring Japanese fighter ace, Tetsuzō Iwamoto, began his military career after joining the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1934. He became a pilot in 1936 in the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service and started flying missions over Imperial China during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
He scored 14 victories in China before being posted to the Pacific, where he scored the rest of his verified 80 kills. In the last stages of the war, Iwamoto served in home defense and trained kamikaze pilots.
After the war, shunned by Japan’s new society, Iwamoto struggled to find work. It wasn’t until 1952 that he found a job working at a spinning mill. In 1955, suffering from appendicitis, he underwent a series of surgeries for unknown reasons, including having three ribs removed without anesthetic. On May 20, 1955, he died from sepsis. He was just 38 years old.
Many Other Fighter Aces
There are many other fighter pilots who deserve to be mentioned for their exploits. The top fighter ace for Japan, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, scored 87 aerial victories and flew from 1936 to 1944.
Romania’s top fighter ace, Constantin Cantacuzino, scored 69 kills with another eight unconfirmed.
British pilot James Edgar “Johnnie” Johnson scored 38 kills and is known as the top Spitfire ace of the war.
The famous wing commander at Biggin Hill, Adolph “Sailor” Malan, was another South African who gained a prominent reputation, shooting down 32 enemy aircraft. He survived the war and, after returning to South Africa, became an outspoken critic of the apartheid regime.
The British pilot, Douglas Bader, became famous for the fact that he managed to score 23 kills. What was spectacular about his story is that he had lost both his legs in an air accident in 1931, and rigged his plane with a system of pulleys so that he could fly it without needing legs. He was captured in 1941 after bailing out over German-occupied France. While in captivity, he became good friends with the famous German ace Adolf Galland (who is credited with 102 kills).
The Second World War produced many hundreds of air aces as thousands of fighter pilots took to the skies. While some of these names have disappeared into obscurity, others have been marked as historical figures and will be remembered for their achievements for many years to come, even if those achievements are the skillful ways in which they killed.