8 of the Greatest Fighter Planes of World War II

The Second World War ushered in a new era of flight and produced some of the most memorable and deadly fighter aircraft.

Jan 12, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
greatest fighter planes world war ii


From 1939 to 1945, the skies over Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific buzzed and roared with the propellers and jet engines of deadly fighter aircraft. With a steely-eyed gaze, the pilots of these airplanes hunted their quarry, battling for supremacy of the air.


On the ground, huge factories churned out the frames for these aircraft to replace the losses in the skies as the deadly rain of bullets chewed up metal and took its toll on the air forces of the combatants.


Many of these airplanes will be remembered for their contribution to the war. Their deadly designs still evoke powerful feelings of respect and admiration today.


Here are 8 of the greatest fighter planes to take to the skies during the Second World War


1. Mitsubishi A6M Zero

mitsubishi a6m zero
Mitsubishi A6M Zero, via Commemorative Air Force Southern Californian Wing


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With its excellent maneuverability and considerably long range, the Japanese Zero was considered the best carrier-based fighter aircraft of the entire war. For the first few years after the US entry into the war, the Zero outperformed all American counterparts. It was well respected and feared by American pilots, especially since the first few months of the American war against the Japanese in the Pacific saw the Zero achieve a kill ratio of 12 to 1!


The Americans adapted quickly and introduced measures to level the playing field and, by mid-1942, had achieved par with the Japanese aerial kill ratio. By 1944, the firepower, armor, and speed of the Zero was eventually matched. Better versions of the plane were difficult to organize in the face of production delays and American bombers being able to reach the Japanese Home Islands.


Nevertheless, the Mitsubishi A6M was used till the very end of the war, frequently being employed as a kamikaze weapon.


The backbone of the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service in the Second World War, the Zero is honored as a classic and deadly fighter airplane.


2. Hawker Hurricane

hawker hurricane raf
The Hawker Hurricane, the unsung hero of the Battle of Britain, via BAE Systems


With its first prototype flight as early as 1935 and 14,487 planes built in the following years, the Hawker Hurricane formed the bulk of the RAF’s fighter fleet.


With its light frame built primarily from a wooden box girder supported by high tensile steel and duralumin, the Hurricane was inexpensive to produce, and a number of versions were completed during the war for different purposes.


Its main intention, however, was to be a dogfighter against the German Messerschmitt Bf-109, the main fighter of the Luftwaffe. This was a daunting task, and the Hurricane was aided in its fight by the Supermarine Spitfire (#5 on this list).


Despite inflicting 60% of all the German casualties during the Battle of Britain, the spotlight went to the Spitfire. A superior aircraft with an attractive design, the Spitfire overshadows the Hurricane in public memory.


It should never be forgotten that the Hawker Hurricane, an unsung underdog, was the real hero of the Battle of Britain.


3. Messerschmitt Bf 109

messerchmitt bf 109
Messerschmitt Bf 109, via D. Miller/Wikimedia Commons via sofrep.com


When the Messerschmitt Bf 109 entered service in 1937, it was one of the most advanced fighters at the time. Built from an all-metal structural skin, this aircraft went into combat as soon as it was invented, seeing action during the Spanish Civil War as part of the German Condor Legion that supported Franco’s Nationalists.


The Bf 109 was produced in vast quantities, with a total of 34,248 being built until April 1945. With such a huge number being active in the skies over Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean, it is also the fighter plane with the most kills in history. Over 20,000 kills have been attributed to the Bf 109, including all 352 planes shot down by Erich Hartmann, one of the most prolific fighter aces of all time.


With their distinctive nose cone, generally painted yellow, these fighter planes were easily recognizable and terrified their enemies for eight years before being retired by the Luftwaffe in 1945 upon the defeat of Nazi Germany.


Ironically, the aircraft found a new lease of life as part of the Israeli Air Force and saw action during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.


4. Focke-Wulf FW-190

fw 190 luftwaffe
The Focke-Wulf FW-190 is regarded by many to be one of the best fighters of the entire war, via the Smithsonian Institution


Inarguably one of the best fighters of the Second World War, the FW-190 was introduced into the German Luftwaffe in 1941 and was produced in significant quantities, augmenting the Bf 109, which formed the Luftwaffe’s backbone. With a large BMW engine, the plane could hit a top speed of 410 mph.


The main feature of the FW-190 was the excessive armament. It had a nose-mounted machine gun, 0.8-inch cannons on the wing roots, and two more cannons mounted on the mid-wing.


It was a far more powerful machine than the Bf 109, and German pilots who flew both aircraft favored the FW-190 as being far superior.


Continued development throughout the war made the FW-190 even more powerful, and its extreme popularity led to over 20,000 being built.


5. Supermarine Spitfire

supermarine spitfire raf
Supermarine Spitfire, an iconic and much-loved symbol of the RAF, via Ultimate Warbird Flights


Regarded (at least by the British) as one of the most beautiful fighter aircraft of the war, the Supermarine Spitfire became a symbol for the RAF, and it is, by far, the most famous RAF fighter of the Second World War.


This short-range, high-performance interceptor was the hunter of the skies designed to eliminate enemy fighters quickly and efficiently. After the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire was adopted as the main fighter aircraft of the RAF, replacing the Hurricane. Over 20,000 Spitfires were built and continued to serve long after the war ended, eventually retiring in 1961.


With their trademark elliptical wing shape, these aircraft are still flying. Around 70 of them are still airworthy and take to the skies in regular airshows. Many others are displayed in museums in Britain and around the world.


6. P-51 Mustang

p 51 mustang
The legendary North American Aviation P-51 Mustang, via the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Dayton


Designed in 1940 and entering service in 1942, the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang played an undeniable part in ensuring the defeat of the Axis forces. This was the deadliest and most capable fighter to come from the United States. When it appeared over the skies of Europe, it helped finish off what was left of the Luftwaffe.


The original aircraft had limited performance at high altitudes and was delivered to the RAF to help in the war in Europe. The British replaced the Allison engine with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. This solved the problem and greatly enhanced the performance of the aircraft. With this development, the Americans thereafter built the plane with a Packard V-1650-7 engine, which was a licensed version of the Rolls-Royce Merlin.


Throughout its life during the Second World War, Mustang pilots claimed 4,950 kills. After the war, the Mustang formed part of the US Air Force during the Korean War before being replaced with the F-86 Sabre.


More than 15,000 Mustangs were built, and it entered the history books as a memorable part of Americana, still flying in air shows and being widely depicted in art.


7. Yakovlev Yak-3

yak 3 soviet
The Soviet Yak-3, via Commemorative Air Force Southern Californian Wing


The Soviets had several very good fighter planes in the latter stages of the war. The debate over which one constitutes the best fighter plane is hotly contested. The Yakovlev Yak-3 is a powerful contender for that top spot, given its track record.


Heavily outclassed in the air until the end of 1942 and well into 1943, the Soviets still managed to turn the tide of the war on the ground. To capitalize on their successes, they needed to be able to take on the Luftwaffe, and the wooden-winged Yak-1 was no match for the fighter aircraft at the disposal of the Germans. In the summer of 1944, the Yak-3 took to the skies and proved an easy match for the German aircraft. The Yak-3 was a very light aircraft and was exceedingly fast.


On June 16, 1944, 18 Yak-3s went up against 24 German aircraft and destroyed 15 of them, in the process only losing one Yak-3 destroyed and one damaged. The following day, eight Yak-3s attacked a formation of 60 German aircraft, including a fighter escort. In the ensuing dogfight, the Germans lost three Ju 87s and four Bf 109s, while none of the Yak-3s were lost.


The Yak-3 became a fast favorite of the fighter squadron Normandie-Nieman group and later a regiment of three squadrons of French pilots who fought on the Eastern Front against the Germans. They even favored the fast and maneuverable Yak-3 over Western aircraft.


8. Messerschmitt Me 262

messerschmitt me 262
Messerschmitt Me-262, via Rene Folvarcny/European Air Shows via the Eurasian Times


Powered by two Junker Jumo 004B turbofan engines, the Messerschmitt Me 262 was the first operational jet-powered fighter, and it had an incredible top speed of 560 miles per hour.


It was so fast that the Allies really could not compete with it in the air and doubled up on efforts to find where the aircraft were parked to destroy them on the ground before they had a chance to take off.


Fortunately for the Allies, they had almost complete air superiority in terms of numbers, and the Me 262 Wunderwaffe arrived far too late in the war to effect any significant change.


spitfire and hurricane
A Supermarine Spitfire (left) and a Hawker Hurricane of the RAF, via BBC


The Second World War was a period of revolutionary advances in aerial technology. At the beginning of the war, many air forces were equipped with outdated biplanes. The RAF’s (and the Western Allies) leading air ace, Marmaduke “Pat” Pattle, scored most of his kills in a Gloster Gladiator biplane before taking up the Hawker Hurricane and thereafter being shot down over Greece in 1941. By the end of the War, the skies were ablaze with the blast of jet engines as Nazi Germany tried to stave off inevitable defeat.


Today, these aircraft are all appreciated by aviation enthusiasts as beautiful machines that defined a bloody era in human history.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.