The Italian Air Force, the Regia Aeronautica, fought mainly in North Africa and the Mediterranean region. Its leading ace, Teresio Vittorio Martinoli, started the war flying an obsolete Fiat biplane, graduating to a Macchi C. 202, and later a C. 205, the latter two being more advanced fighters. The Regia Aeronautica was the air force of Fascist Italy; it disbanded after the Italian surrender, with many of its pilots joining a new organization, the Aeronautica Co-Belligerent. Martinoli joined the new air force following the Armistice in 1943, effectively changing sides to support the Allies.
At first, he continued to fly Italian-built aircraft, gaining his 22nd and final air-to-air victory over Yugoslavia in November. In 1944 the Allies decided to equip the Aeronautica Co-Belligerante with American P-39 Airacobras, considered a superior ground attack aircraft. Martinoli went to Camp Vesuvio for training in the new (to the Italians) aircraft. During training, several aircraft were lost in accidents, due to the unsuitability of the terrain around the site, and poor maintenance procedures. Martinoli was killed in a training accident, one of three pilots to suffer similar fates during the program. Italy’s ace of aces at the time, his total later was surpassed by another Italian ace, Franco Lucchini.
15. One German ace shot down 18 Soviet aircraft in a single day
German fighter ace Emil Lang holds the record for the most kills in a single day. His first air-to-air victories occurred over the Eastern Front in March 1943. By the end of that year, his tally stood above 100 victories, including a spurt in the fall which remains unsurpassed, and likely will never be achieved again. On October 13, Lang claimed ten victories, all confirmed. On October 21 he achieved 12 victories, over the course of the three missions he flew that day. As the Battle of Kiev began on November 3, Lang flew four separate missions, shooting down 18 Soviet aircraft in the course of a single day. During October and November 1943, Lang destroyed 72 enemy aircraft.
He was celebrated in German magazines and newsreels. In April 1944, following an awards ceremony at Hitler’s residence in Obersalzberg, Lang transferred to the Western Front. At the time his score stood at 144 enemy aircraft destroyed, all of them on the Eastern Front. He gained another 29 against the British and Americans during the heavy fighting before and following the Normandy landings. On September 3, 1944, Lang and his wingman engaged a flight of American P-51 Mustangs. Lang had already experienced mechanical problems with his aircraft, a Focke-Wulf 190, unable to retract his landing gear. During an attempted evasive maneuver he was hit and crashed in flames. He achieved his tally of 173 victories in just 18 months.
16. Another German ace shot down 13 enemy planes during one mission
Emil Lang’s multiple victories often came in more than one mission, with the indefatigable pilot flying several sorties per day. Another German flyer, Erich Rudorffer, shot down 13 Soviet planes over the course of a single mission. Rudorffer achieved ace status before deploying to the Eastern Front in 1943. He flew against the British and French in the Battles of France and Britain. He participated in the German response to Operation Torch, and attacks against American bombing raids. Several times he completed missions in which he shot down five or more enemy aircraft, though never reaching double figures in a single mission on the Western Front.
When Rudorffer transferred to the Eastern Front, he brought with him his combat experience against pilots flying aircraft superior to those presented by the Soviets. His experience served him well. On October 11, 1943, he claimed his 100th enemy aircraft was destroyed. On November 6, during the fighting around Kiev, Rudorffer shot down 13 Soviet fighters in an action which lasted but 17 minutes, bringing his total to 122. His final victory tally over the course of the war included 222 enemy aircraft. He achieved his last twelve flying the Me 262 jet fighter, making him one of history’s first jet aces. He survived the war, dying in 2016 at the age of 98.
17. Douglas Bader became an ace despite having lost both of his legs before the war
Douglas Bader first joined the RAF in 1928, achieving Pilot Officer status two years later. He quickly developed the reputation of being a daredevil, contemptuous of regulations limiting acrobatic flying at lower altitudes. In 1931 he engaged in some acrobatics which led to a crash causing significant injuries. Both of his legs were amputated, one above the knee and the other just below. After recovering, and being fitted with artificial legs, Bader attempted to remain in the RAF, with flying status. In 1933, over his vehement objections, he received a medical retirement from the service. When World War II began he successfully lobbied to be returned to active service.
Bader received credit for 22 aerial victories and several probable victories in the Battle of France and Battle of Britain. In August, 1941, he became the victim of a German fighter, bailing out over occupied France. He had to detach one of his artificial legs to free himself from the aircraft. The Germans provided another by special request from England, and Bader became such a persistent escape artist he eventually found himself imprisoned at Colditz Castle. He remained there until the American Army liberated the camp in 1945. When Bader died of a heart attack in 1982, German ace and former adversary Adolf Galland attended his funeral.
The British bombing campaign against Nazi Germany favored night-time wide-area bombing rather than the daylight precision bombing practiced (at first) by the US Army Air Forces. British bombers were less heavily armed than their American counterparts, and Bomber Command believed night raids meant fewer casualties. To counter them, the Luftwaffe developed night fighters, vectored to British bombers detected by ground-based radar via radio. Eventually, airborne radar made the night fighters even more effective. Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer developed night fighting skills which led to him becoming the leading night fighting ace of the war.
Schnaufer claimed 121 victories during the war, nearly all of the British heavy bombers, and nearly all of them shot down in the dark. During 1943 the Germans developed several tactics for following the British bomber streams (the RAF eschewed formation flying). One included placing a fighter within the bomber stream, from which it radioed direction, heading, altitude, and other information to waiting fighters. Schnaufer was just 22 years of age when he achieved his 50th victory in 1944. On February 21, 1945, Schnaufer became an ace-in-one-day for the second time, destroying 9 Lancaster heavy bombers, two in the early morning, and seven that same evening. He survived the war, restoring and running a family winery in West Germany until his death in 1950.
19. The Imperial Japanese Army produced its own aces during the war
The leading Japanese Army Air Force ace is disputed, with some counts beginning with the launch of the war in China. Others consider the outbreak of the Pacific War in December, 1941, as the starting point. If considering the latter, credit as the leading Japanese Army ace goes to Satoru Anabuki. Satoru scored his first victory during the invasion of the Philippines in 1941. Most of his war record is extracted from his own diaries, though cross-matching with Allied records confirms most of his claimed kills. He fought in the Philippines, Burma, India, China, the Philippines again after the Americans invaded, and finally in defense of the Japanese Home Islands.
Long duty in the China Burma India (CBI) Theater meant most of his opponents were British Empire aircraft. He claimed victories over several British aircraft types, including Hurricanes and Spitfires, as well as American aircraft in the Philippines. His last victory occurred over Japan when he shot down an American B-29 Superfortress. He claimed 51 victories, 39 of which have been confirmed, and his final count may have been somewhere in between. After the war, he joined the Japan Self-Defense Force in 1950 as a helicopter pilot and later worked for Japan Air Lines.
20. The US Navy produced the highest-scoring American ace to survive the war
US Navy Commander David McCampbell became an ace in a day on June 19, 1944, during the action which Naval Aviators nicknamed “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot“. He flew two sorties that day, shooting down five Japanese dive bombers during the first, and adding two fighters in another mission later in the day. In October, 1944. McCampbell became the only American aviator of any branch of the service to become ace in a day twice. During the early movements of the Battle of Leyte Gulf off the Philippines, McCampbell shot down nine Japanese aircraft, seven of them the formerly greatly feared Zero fighter.
McCampbell’s nine kills on a single mission remain a record for American airmen. He landed on USS Langley following the action, to discover he had only two rounds of remaining ammunition. During the attack, his wingman shot down an additional six Japanese aircraft, which normally would have brought wide acclaim, but which McCampbell’s tally overshadowed. Commander McCampbell received the Medal of Honor for the two ace in a day missions. His wartime total of 34 Japanese aircraft destroyed marked the most for the US Navy, and he was the highest-scoring American ace to survive the war. McCampbell retired from the Navy in 1964, after career spanning 30 years.
21. One American ace later served as a Commissioner of Professional Football
The United States Marine Corps’ Joe Foss had to fight to receive training as a fighter pilot, since the Corps considered his age of 26 to be too old for the role. His persistence paid off, and in 1942 he and his air group, VMF-121, arrived at Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field. As part of the famed Cactus Air Force, as it came to be called, Foss endured shelling from the Japanese Navy, strafing and bombing attacks by enemy aircraft, and near-daily combat operations. His victory total rose steadily. In November he was shot down, ditching at sea. Rescued, he soon contracted malaria, and evacuated to Australia to recover. In 1943 he returned to Guadalcanal.
He became the first American pilot to match Eddie Rickenbacker’s score of 26 enemy planes, receiving the Medal of Honor in March, 1943. After the war (in which he contracted malaria a second time) Foss returned to his native South Dakota, entering politics. Eventually, he served two terms as Governor. In 1959 he became the first Commissioner of the new American Football League, and engineered the lucrative television contracts which ensured the league’s success. John Wayne attempted to make a film based on Foss’s war years in 1955, but the project fell through. In 2002 Foss was stopped at Sky Harbor in Phoenix, and his Medal of Honor was confiscated. Eventually, it was returned, following a national furor over TSA’s failure to recognize America’s highest military award.
Official recognition has never been given to scores of airmen directly responsible for five or more aerial victories over enemy aircraft. These were the men who served as aircrews, in the Air Forces and Naval Aviation units during World War II. Several men who flew in heavy bombers operated machine guns, destroying enemy fighters attacking their groups. In the US Navy, rear gunners in torpedo planes, dive bombers, and assault aircraft defended their craft and others. Frederick Barker of the RAF destroyed 13 German airplanes, serving in a Bolton-Paul Defiant. Staff Sergeant Michael Arooth received credit for 17 aircraft destroyed as a tail gunner in B-17s.
Regardless of the side on which they served, they endured frigid conditions, anti-aircraft fire, and the high-speed fighters puncturing the thin skins of their aircraft with heavy-caliber bullets and shells. In recent years, some attempts have been made to identify them and compile accurate lists of their contribution to their nation’s respective war efforts. In the United States 8th Air Force alone, gunners on B-17s and B-24s destroyed over 6,000 enemy aircraft, with another nearly 2,000 listed as probably destroyed. America’s list of aviation aces, which demands five kills for entry, ignores the names of the many gunners who meet that criteria.
23. An ace known as the Knight of Malta came from Canada
The most successful Canadian fighter ace of the Second World War, George Beurling, first attempted to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, only to be rejected. His parents then denied permission for him to journey to Finland and enter the Finnish Air Force during the Continuation War. He journeyed to Britain intent on enlisting in the RAF, but he forgot his passport, forcing him to return to Canada to retrieve it. When he finally entered the RAF in 1940, the British took note of his several hundred civilian flying hours. He qualified for fighter training, eventually entering combat at the controls of a Supermarine Spitfire in 1941.
During the siege of Malta in 1942, Beurling operated his Spitfire from bases on the island, after flying to it from the deck of the aircraft carrier, HMS Eagle. Chiefly operating against Italians, Beurling destroyed a remarkable 27 aircraft in 14 days, earning the appellations “Knight of Malta”, and “Eagle of Malta”. Eventually, his total for the war reached 31.5 enemy planes destroyed. Beurling’s military service, dotted with disciplinary issues over his penchant for stunt flying and aerobatics over aerodromes, came to an end in April, 1944. Over the course of his flying career, Beurling suffered 10 aircraft crashes, the final being fatal on May 20, 1948. He had been recruited to deliver P-51 Mustangs to Israel from Rome. He died in the crash of his transport plane as he attempted to land at dell-Urbe Airport in the Italian capital.
24. Female combat aces fought in the Soviet Air Force
Several women fought in all branches of the Soviet military during the Second World War. Soviet pilot Lydia Litvyak accounted for a total of 12 German aircraft destroyed during her war service. In doing so she claimed several firsts. She was the first woman to shoot down an enemy airplane, the first to claim the title of ace, and the first to achieve twelve victories. Her record for women aviators still stands. Lydia, a Russian from Moscow, learned to fly at an early age. Her father became a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge, vanishing in 1937. By then Lydia was already an accomplished pilot, training others to fly. By the time of the German invasion, she had trained more than 40 students to fly.
Lydia falsified her flight log, adding more than 100 hours to her time, in order to join an all-female aviation unit. She first flew in combat in 1942, scoring her first victories in September. Wounded in several attacks, and forced to perform at least one belly landing in a badly damaged aircraft, her tally reached 12 victories by the late summer of 1943. On August 1, 1943, flying her fourth mission of the day, Lydia’s aircraft fell prey to a pair of bf 109s. Lydia failed to see them as she prepared her own attack on a formation of German bombers. A mere 21 years of age at the time of her death, she received the title Hero of the Soviet Union from Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.
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