At the beginning of the 20th century, a new theater of war opened up, as flying machines were appropriated for military use. The famous fighter pilots of the First World War were hailed as dueling knights, jousting in the cloudy corners of the sky, while below, men were ground up into blood and dirt in the muddy fields that claimed millions of lives.
For the fighter pilots, however, the skies were no less dangerous, especially when the top fighter aces were on the prowl, looking to increase their tally of aerial victories.
1. The Red Baron
Undeniably one of the most famous fighter pilots of all time, and without a doubt the most famous fighter pilot of the First World War, Baron Manfred von Richthofen has passed into legend as the subject of many books and films.
In the skies above the battlefields of Europe, Richthofen was immediately recognizable in his all-red Fokker Dr.I triplane – a sight that struck fear in the hearts of all his adversaries.
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His induction into the realm of air combat happened by chance. In 1915, he met fighter ace Oswald Boelcke and their conversation led Richthofen to begin training as a fighter pilot. His start in this career path was not particularly good. He was considered an average pilot, and on his first outing at the helm of his plane, he crashed. Nevertheless, he persevered.
On April 26, 1916, Richthofen shot down his first aircraft over Verdun, although he was never credited with the kill. His first confirmed victory was scored on September 17, when he shot down Second Lieutenant Lionel Morris and his observer Tom Rees over Cambrai in France. Richthofen wrote in his diary, “I honoured the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave.”
From his first to his sixtieth kill, the Red Baron memorialized his victories by having a silver cup engraved for each. When silver became difficult to obtain in Germany, he discontinued the practice. He nevertheless continued to score victories. On April 21, 1918, the Red Baron flew his last mission. He was fatally wounded while dog fighting over Morlancourt Ridge near the Somme. Canadian pilot Arthur “Roy” Brown was credited with the kill, although later investigations suggest that the Red Baron died from a wound sustained from anti-aircraft fire from the ground. This theory is generally accepted by historians as bearing the most truth.
By the time of his death, Richthofen had 80 confirmed kills, although with unconfirmed kills, his total could be well over 100 total aircraft shot down.
2. René Fonck
Leading the Entente powers and earning the title of All-Time Allied Ace-of-Aces, Frenchman René Fonck was the top fighter pilot on the Allied side. With 75 confirmed kills and many unconfirmed kills, it’s possible his total was over 100 and in the same region as the Red Baron.
Fonck was conscripted in August 1914, and at the age of 20, he applied to join the air service but was rejected. He then spent five months doing basic training to become a combat engineer, but it didn’t take long for his efforts to join the air service to bear fruit. In February 1915, he was finally accepted and began training.
Fonck began his combat duties by flying a Caudron G III observation aircraft. While not flying fighter aircraft, he had a slow start racking up his impressive tally. He scored his first victory in July 1916, but it was unconfirmed. His first confirmed victory was scored the following month, for which he earned the Médaille militaire. It wasn’t until March 1917 that Fonck scored his second confirmed victory.
However, he had racked up over 500 hours of flight time, which was an incredible feat for the time, and he was invited to join the Groupe de Combat 12, the world’s first dedicated fighter wing. From then on, he began making a name for himself, accelerating his confirmed victory count considerably. Although surpassing the score of the legendary Georges Guynemer, the famous fighter pilot that had captured the hearts of the French people, René Fonck did not become as well-celebrated. He was shy and made up for this by telling stories of his exploits, which led many to see him as a braggart.
Georges Guynemer was killed in combat on September 11, 1917, so the honor of holding the flag of the French Air Force went to Fonck.
Fonck’s style of combat was clinical. He preferred not to engage in dogfights and instead was able to down enemy aircraft with almost inhuman precision. He preferred to stalk his enemies from above, watching and patiently gathering information before leading the target with a short burst.
His accuracy was phenomenal, so he conserved ammunition that allowed him to move on to other targets. During his entire career, his aircraft was only damaged by a single bullet.
3. Hermann Goering
Most famous for his career in the Nazi regime, Hermann Goering was an incredibly powerful man who became the head of the Luftwaffe and the Vice-Chancellor of Germany. Being in charge of the Luftwaffe, however, was born on merit. He was one of Germany’s most famous fighter pilots from the First World War.
In the initial days of the war, Lieutenant Hermann Goering proved to be a daring soldier, leading a cavalry-style bicycle raid into enemy trenches. As a soldier fighting in the trenches, however, Hermann Goering began suffering from severe rheumatic fever, which led to his being hospitalized. While in recovery, his friend Lieutenant Bruno Loerzer, who was training as a pilot at the time, convinced Goering to apply for the air service as well.
He forged transfer papers and effectively deserted his regiment. He would have been court-martialed if not for the intervention of Dr. Hermann von Epenstein, an aristocrat with considerable influence who had helped raise the young Hermann Goering.
Like many of his contemporaries, he flew as an observer, shooting with cameras rather than with guns. When fighter planes were introduced, he transitioned quickly and made a name for himself.
Hermann Goering came from an aristocratic background and carried himself as such. He had a standoffish attitude toward his comrades, and by the time he was in command of his own wing, he was known for his arrogance and sense of superiority.
Nevertheless, he was an excellent pilot and is credited with 22 aerial victories. Although not particularly famous during this time, his career in the Nazi government pushed his First World War exploits into more prominence. And so, despite not achieving the same victory record as many others, Goering has become one of the most famous fighter pilots of the First World War.
4. Billy Bishop
The top British Empire ace during the war hailed from Canada. With a record of 72 confirmed victories, William Avery Bishop was the third-highest-scoring ace of World War I.
When war broke out in 1914, Billy Bishop was in the hospital with pneumonia. After he recovered, however, he was transferred to the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles. The first few months of the war plagued Bishop; he was dogged with misfortune. He suffered a series of accidental injuries and sicknesses. And on the trip over the Atlantic, his convoy was attacked by German U-Boats, which claimed the lives of 300 of his comrades.
He took the first opportunity he got to join the air service.
The first part of his flying career was spent as an aerial observer, directing artillery fire. In November 1916, he received his pilot wings and began flying combat missions. His first duty was flying over London at night searching for airships, and he requested a transfer. In March 1917, he was transferred to Arras. At the time, the average lifespan of an Allied pilot upon arrival to the region was 11 days, and the Germans were shooting down the Allied planes at a rate of five to one. Nevertheless, Bishop scored his first two aerial victories the same month and continued to rack up victories as the war dragged on.
Bishop gained considerable fame back home, and the Canadian government started to worry about the effect on morale if Bishop were to be shot down. He was ordered to return to England to organize a new flying corps, and on the morning he was to leave, he decided to take a solo patrol. In the space of 15 minutes, he shot down five enemy aircraft.
Bishop survived the war and became an air marshal in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II.
5. Mick Mannock
Irish-born Edward Corringham “Mick” Mannock was the top-scoring British ace of the First World War and claimed the fifth-highest number of aerial victories.
At the outbreak of the war, Mannock was in Turkey working as a telephone engineer and was interned by Turkish authorities. After being badly treated and falling ill, Mannock was repatriated to England, where he recovered and joined the Royal Engineers before transferring to the Royal Medical Service and then to the Royal Flying Corps.
In May 1917, he claimed his first victory. Compared with his famous fighter pilot contemporaries, Mannock had a slow start. By February 1918, he had 16 victories to his name before going on leave. After he returned, he scored 36 victories in his second tour of duty. During his third tour of duty, he scored nine victories before being killed in combat while dogfighting too close to the ground. Ironically, a few days before, he had warned a fellow pilot of the dangers of doing such.
By the time of his death on July 26, 1918, Mick Mannock had scored 61 victories.
Other Top Aces
Of course, there were many other aces with massive tallies of aerial victories who became famous heroes. The German Ernst Udet scored 62 victories and was the fourth-highest-scoring ace of the war. Another Canadian, Raymond Collishaw, scored 60 victories, and the British James McCudden scored 57 victories before being killed in combat.
The leading ace from South Africa and with the eighth-highest tally of victories, was Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor, with 54 victories.
The highest-scoring Australian ace was Robert A. Little, with 47 victories.
The First World War produced many famous fighter pilots. It was an age where the sky was filled with chivalry and honor. The pilots on all sides had much respect for each other and frequently sang their praises. While this dynamic continued into the Second World War, it wouldn’t last much longer.