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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