10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War

10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War

Larry Holzwarth - December 20, 2017

The Wright Flyer III, built by the Wright brothers in 1905, is considered to be the first airplane to be used for a practical, rather than merely experimental basis. Less than a decade later the airplane was put to use to kill people, using bombs against targets on the ground and helping to target artillery. In short order pilots and observers were looking for ways to knock down airplanes of the opposing side using pistols, rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, and occasionally chains and grappling hooks. Soon aircraft equipped with pusher props were being armed with forward firing machine guns. French, German, and British companies began working on a method of a pilot firing a machine gun through a tractor propeller.

The French were the first to succeed, using a combination interrupter gear and deflector wedges to fire through a propeller. Roland Garros, for whom the tennis center where the French Open is played is named, succeeded in shooting down three German airplanes before he was forced to land behind German lines and failed to destroy his airplane. The Germans had at the time been working on an interrupter gear to stop the machine gun from firing when the propeller was in the way, and quickly improved the French design. By mid-spring 1915 the Germans were ready to unleash a new form of warfare on the Allies.

10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War
The Wright Flyer III, looking as fragile as a box kite, soars in 1905. Ten years later the airplane was a formidable weapon of war. Wikimedia

Here are the top ten fliers of the First World War, based on the number of confirmed air to air victories they achieved.

10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War
Manfred von Richthofen, in the cockpit, with members of his squadron. Bundesarchiv

Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen. German Empire

The legendary Red Baron of Germany was the eldest of three sons (with one older sister) of an aristocratic Prussian family. He was well educated, an excellent hunter, and athletic. His military training began at the age of 11, and in 1911 he entered a cavalry unit of the Prussian Army. In the early days of First World War the battle lines were dynamic, and cavalry units were often engaged in reconnaissance duties. Richthofen served on the Russian front as well as in the Low Countries and France.

When the war bogged down into trench warfare the cavalry units were no longer able to perform their traditional functions, and Richthofen transferred to the Imperial German Army Air Service in May 1915. Richthofen was at first an observer on the Russian front before transferring to France. After meeting German ace Oswald Boelcke Richthofen applied for flight training, and convinced his younger brother Lothar to join him. When he returned to the front as a pilot he was assigned to two-seaters for a time.

Richthofen’s first confirmed aerial kill occurred on September 17, 1916, an event for which he ordered a silver cup to commemorate. He continued to purchase silver cups for each of his victories until he reached a total of sixty. By that point in the war Germany’s silver shortage was acute, and Richthofen refused to commemorate his victories with another, less valuable metal. The cups were engraved with the type of aircraft destroyed and the date.

In September 1917 Richthofen began his association with the Fokker Triplane, painted blood-red, for which he is most famously remembered. Most German fighter pilots developed distinctive colors or paint schemes for their aircraft. The German High Command recognized the propaganda value of the pilot’s individual records, and Richthofen became known as the Red Fighter Pilot, a term he used as the title for his autobiography, published in 1917. The book had been heavily modified by German censors, and before he died Richthofen repudiated it, saying that he was no longer as arrogant as the book made him appear.

Richthofen was wounded in the head in July 1917, returning to combat later that same month against the orders of his doctors. After an extended leave that fall he again returned, and it was clear that he was not the same man. In the spring of 1918, after he had refused the opportunity to remain in the service at a ground job he was killed in action. Shot through the heart and lungs, he managed to land the airplane as he died. Today it is generally agreed that the fatal shot came from troops on the ground. Richthofen shot down 80 enemy planes.

10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War
The sturdy SPAD VII and later SPAD XIII gave French pilots like Fonck and advantage over their German adversaries. Flickr

Rene Fonck. France

Rene Fonck was the leading Allied ace of the war, and the second leading of all fliers, with 75 confirmed kills. Fonck claimed a total of 142 enemy aircraft destroyed by his guns. He was conscripted by the French Army during the general mobilization in August 1914, and assigned to the combat engineers. Not until February 1915 would Fonck be accepted for and sent to flight training. In May he entered combat, flying an observation plane. Late that month his observer was killed by anti-aircraft fire. After claiming a kill and being told it was unconfirmed that summer, he attacked a German aircraft by circling it, avoiding return fire, gradually forcing it to land behind the French lines.

Fonck did not score again until the following March. The next month (which became known as Bloody April due to the high number of Allied aviation casualties) he joined a fighter wing flying the new SPAD VII. His kills total began to rise quickly. Fonck developed the reputation of being a cold-blooded, clinical tactician, obsessed with receiving credit for his victories, even when there was some question of the kill belonging to another flier. Three of Fonck’s victories were for shared kills.

In May 1918 Fonck lost a bet with an American flier over who would shoot down an enemy plane soonest. After the American won, Fonck changed the terms of the bet to be whomever shot down the most planes that day would win. The prize was a bottle of champagne. In two separate flights Fonck shot down six German reconnaissance airplanes, claiming the prize.

On July 19 Fonck shot down three German airplanes, passing the recently killed Georges Guynemer as the leading French ace. Fonck repeated the six aircraft in one day feat at the end of September 1918, three of them Fokker D VII fighters, the best German fighter of the war. Fonck refused to attack observation balloons or dirigibles, concentrating on enemy observation planes and fighters. By the end of the war his own aircraft had been struck by enemy fire only once.

Fonck survived the war and left the service, only to return to rise to the command of French Fighter Aircraft in 1937. He was accused of collaboration during and after the Second World War through the Vichy government, but a post-war investigation exonerated him. Towards the end of the German occupation Fonck was imprisoned at Drancy. He died in Paris 1953.

10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War
Billy Bishop poses with his Nieuport 17 somewhere in France. Wikimedia

Billy Bishop. Canada

Billy Bishop was a cadet at the Royal Military College of Canada when World War One broke out, and he quickly left the school and eventually went to Europe with a mounted infantry unit. Bishop’s keen eyesight made him an excellent rifleman, but he was soon fed up with the inactivity of the trench warfare in the summer of 1915. He applied to flight school and when there were no openings for pilots he applied again as an observer.

He was at the front as an aviator observer when his father suffered a stroke, and after leave in Canada he returned to training as a pilot in England. After completing training he was retained for a time in England to fly protective cover of London against the German Zeppelins. Not until March of 1917 did Bishop arrive at the front in France, at a time when the life expectancy of a newly arrived Allied pilot was 11 days.

By the end of March Bishop was a flight leader. Unlike the calculating Fonck, Bishop tended to plow ahead straight at the enemy, once taking so much enemy fire that his mechanic counted over two hundred bullet holes in his airplane when he returned to base. Bishop soon modified his tactics, preferring the advantage of surprise. Bishop became well known to the Germans, one German Squadron announced a bounty on the Canadian. In April Bishop and Richthofen encountered each other in the air, an event which they both survived.

Bishop often flew as a lone wolf. On one such mission he attacked a German airfield well behind the German lines and claimed to have destroyed several German airplanes on the ground as well as three in the air which had taken off to attack him. Despite there being no witnesses to the feat he was awarded the Victoria Cross for the action, based on his own report. When Bishop was under orders to return to England to set up the Canadian Flying Corps he disobeyed the orders to fly one more mission, destroying five German airplanes in a fifteen minute span.

Bishop claimed a total of 72 enemy aircraft destroyed, including two balloons, often the deadliest targets for the World War One aviator. Some historians, after comparison of German records and Bishop’s claims, find that total to be unlikely. He survived the First World War, served in the Second as the Director of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and offered his services again during the Korean War. He died in 1956.

10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War
Ernst Udet in his World War I days, with decorations. Bundesarchiv

Ernst Udet. German Empire

Ernst Udet literally had to buy his way into the German service. He tried to enlist in August, 1914 but was rejected because he was only 5’3″ tall. Learning that volunteers with motorcycles were being accepted in the reserves to be used as messengers (he had earlier received a motorcycle from his father) he volunteered, was injured, and before he could rejoin his unit the Germans canceled the program. After this he heard that trained pilots were immediately accepted. Having spent much of his youth hanging around the Otto Works airplane factory and being known there, he paid Gustav Otto the equivalent of $400 today to teach him to fly.

After receiving his civilian pilot’s license Udet joined the Imperial German Air Service and was assigned to pilot an observation plane. After several incidents with faulty aircraft Udet was court martialed for poor flying that caused the loss of an aircraft. Upon release from the guardhouse after a week there, Udet flew an observation plane when the observer tried to drop a bomb by hand, which became stuck in the airplanes undercarriage. Udet’s aerobatics shook it loose and he was then ordered to fighters.

Udet began his combat flying in the Fokker E-III, a monoplane, shooting down his first enemy airplane in March 1916. In January 1917 his unit re-equipped with the famed Albatross. Udet’s preferred tactic was to dive on his enemy out of the sun, and the Albatross was well suited to his method. By the end of 1917 Udet was in command of Jasta (hunting group) 37. He was highly regarded as a commanding officer for his concerns over his men’s welfare and his concentration on training. He also developed the reputation of being a hard drinking womanizer when not in the air.

Udet was personally invited to join the famed Flying Circus by the Red Baron himself, who put him in command of Jasta 11. By that point in the war, supply shortages were adversely affecting German morale and Richthofen traded autographed pictures of himself for luxuries from the black market for the benefit of his men. This earned him the complete devotion of his men, and Udet was no exception. In the summer of 1918 Udet survived the loss of his plane by the then novel means of parachuting, one of the earliest pilots to do so.

Udet’s 62 victories in the First World War was the second highest total for the German forces. Between the wars he worked as a stunt flyer and joined Herman Goering’s emerging Luftwaffe early on, leading in the development of the Stuka. He also developed an addiction to alcohol and drugs. Udet tried to inform Goering that the Soviet air capability was much stronger than believed, and that the Luftwaffe could not match them when the Germans invaded but his advice went unheeded. Udet committed suicide in 1941.

10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War
Mick Mannock in flying dress. He advocated causing his enemies planes’ to burn before dying himself in a fiery crash. Wikimedia

Edward “Mick” Mannock. England

Mick Mannock was in Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire) when World War I began, working as a telephone and telegraph mechanic. He was in the process of making arrangements to travel to England to rejoin his former unit in the Royal Army Medical Corps when Turkey joined the war on the side of the Central Powers. Mannock was interned. After several months in prison he was suffering from malnutrition, malaria, dysentery, and exhaustion by the time he was repatriated to England. He reported to the RAMC in May 1915.

Mannock was displeased with the necessity of tending to wounded German prisoners of war, and was embittered by his experience in the custody of the Turks. Anxious to prosecute the war rather than attend to the sick he applied for transfer to the Royal Engineers, and finding himself equally unhappy there, the Royal Flying Corps. In flight training he learned that he was older than most of his fellow trainees, and that he was a good pilot with natural instincts over the control of his aircraft.

Mannock entered combat in the spring of 1917. Older than most of his fellows, and less well educated, he tended to remain aloof, alienating the rest of the squadron. When he did speak his views were usually considered to be low minded. In combat, his kill rates rose quickly. Mannock liked to aim at the enemy fighter’s engine, rather than the pilot, increasing the probability of sending his opponent down in flames. He wrote fifteen rules of air to air combat, which he followed assiduously.

Between leaves in England and assignment to other temporary duty Mannock’s total of enemy planes destroyed continued to climb throughout 1918. So did his leadership responsibilities, which Mannock took seriously, counseling caution to new arrivals, and repeatedly warning all pilots, even the most experienced, of the hazards involved in following a diving enemy too close to the ground, exposing oneself to ground fire from the trenches.

On July 26 1918 Mannock promised to help one of his men obtain his first victory, with his usual counsel about retaining altitude so as not to be exposed to ground fire. During the subsequent action Mannock shot down a German two seat observation plane, which he then dove over to view, crossing the trench lines in the process. Hit by ground fire, Mannock’s airplane burst into flames. Mannock had always said that he would shoot himself rather than be burnt alive, but his body was recovered with no bullet wounds. Mick Mannock shot down 61 enemy aircraft in his career.

10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War
Although less famous than the German Fokker, the British Sopwith Triplane was favored by Naval Aviators. Wikimedia

Raymond Collishaw. Canada

Collishaw was a seaman from British Columbia, serving as a first officer and naturally applied to join the Royal Navy, in 1914 the world’s premier sea service. When he was not accepted he applied to the Royal Naval Air Service. Like the German Ernst Udet, he paid for his own flight training in order to enhance his credentials for his application. By January 1916 he was a pilot and he spent most of that year in defense patrols of the English coastline. In August he went to France to join the RNAS 3rd Wing. The Wing flew Sopwith Strutters both as bombers and configured as fighter aircraft. The fighters would often escort the bombers to their targets, a precursor for much larger bombing raids later in the century.

Collishaw usually flew in a fighter configuration, and he scored his first victory in October. His next two were witnessed by thousands of French troops, and earned him the Croix de Guerre. Almost immediately a rivalry developed between the Naval flyers and the members of the Royal Flying Corps, who used their superior access to the press to divert attention to themselves rather than on the sailors. The RNAS rapidly developed a healthy respect from their German opponents and were quite possibly better known for their exploits in Germany than in England.

The German Fokker Triplane made famous by Richthofen wasn’t the only three winged aircraft of World War One. Sopwith built one too, and the RNAS deployed it in France with the flight now commanded by Collishaw painting their aircraft all-black. They were also all manned by Canadian pilots. In their first two months of action Collishaw’s Black Flight destroyed more than eighty German opponents.

By January 1918 Collishaw was in command of the RNAS Number 3 Squadron, equipped with the iconic Sopwith Camel. In April of that year the RNAS was merged into the Royal Flying Corps and Collishaw found himself with the rank of major in the RFC. He later went to England to oversee the formation of the Royal Canadian Air Force and was there when the armistice ended the fighting on November 11, 1918. During the war he had scored 60 victories and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

Collishaw remained in the RFC and later the Royal Air Force (RAF) following the war, served in Russia during the Russian Civil War, and later in Abyssinia. He was in North Africa when the Second World War erupted and directed operations against the Italians, where he initiated a program of subterfuge to convince the Italians that he had more aircraft than he actually had available. He died in 1976. Some historians support evidence that he actually had more than eighty kills during World War I, which would make him the leading ace of the war.

10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War
The crew of a German Gotha bomber poses in front of their airplane. Although generally ineffective the British had minimal defenses against the Gotha. Imperial War Museum

James McCudden. England

James McCudden became an ace with his fifth kill in February 1917, having been flying in combat since the preceding June. Prior to flying as a pilot McCudden had been a trained observer and gunner, and had already received the Croix de Guerre from the French allies. After receiving the designation of Ace McCudden was sent back to England to train pilots and to build morale for recruiting aviators, as the life expectancy of new pilots was measured in less than two weeks.

While McCudden was in England the Germans launched raids against British cities using the Gotha bomber, a lumbering heavy bomber which flew at an altitude unattainable by most fighters of the day. The bombers did relatively little damage although they exposed the vulnerability of England, and other fronts, to high altitude bombing raids. British fighters had limited success against the Gotha raids, by the time their tactics and equipment improved to the point that they were slightly more successful McCudden had returned to France.

In June 1917 McCudden returned to the front with 56 Squadron RFC. The quality of the pilots in this unit, some of which McCudden had trained, increased the competition with each other. McCudden’s leadership skills were put to the test maintaining efficiency within the competitive spirit. McCudden had spent much of his time in England developing a deeper technical knowledge of the aircraft which they flew, information he shared with the younger pilots.

By January of 1918 McCudden had a total of 43 victories. By the end of February, one year after becoming an ace, it stood at 57. In March he was again sent to England, suffering from exhaustion, called in later war combat fatigue. By then the newer tactics and airplanes developed by the British and implemented by leaders like McCudden had significantly improved the survivability of British pilots.

In England he was feted as a war hero on a morale building tour. Upon his return to France, shortly following a German advance, he became confused about his whereabouts and stopped to ascertain the situation at Auxi-le-Chateau. Upon again taking off his airplane nose-dived into the ground. Alive when removed from the wreckage, he died later that night. He was credited with 60 enemy aircraft destroyed in the war, the second highest total of any pilot with the Royal Flying Corps.

10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War
Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor, known as Prockie, in the uniform of the Royal Flying Corps. Imperial War Museum

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor. South Africa

An often overlooked aspect of the First World War is the German South West Africa campaign, in which British and South African forces invaded the German colony of South West Africa. The Germans surrendered their colony and forces in 1915. Proctor, a native of South Africa, served in the campaign and was discharged after its successful conclusion. He returned to college at the University of Cape Town, completing his third year of study, before enlisting again, this time in the Royal Flying Corps. Proctor stood just 5′ 2″ in height, requiring special modifications to the cockpit of his plane to allow him to manipulate the controls.

Called Prockie by his fellow pilots, he arrived in France in September 1917, piloting the British SE5. He did not achieve a victory until January of 1918, and did not become an Ace until the end of February. Throughout his early days Prockie’s flying was heavily criticized as being poor, possibly due to the modifications to his controls. His shooting however was considered to be excellent.

By the spring of 1918 Prockie was concentrating on attacking observation balloons and aircraft. While observation aircraft had their own dangers inherent when attacking them due to the armed observer, balloons were considered a special hazard. Balloons were usually protected by both ground fire and escorting aircraft, due to their value in spotting ground based artillery.

Prockie, almost inevitably, was teamed for most of his service with a wing man who stood over 6′ 4″, although the two got along well and worked well together, in the air and on the ground. When attacking balloons his wing man would act to divert the fighters, allowing Prockie an unhindered attack on the balloon itself, if he avoided ground fire. By the end of the summer of 1918 Prockie had destroyed more than a dozen German balloons.

In October 1918 Prockie was wounded by ground based anti-aircraft fire and he was still recovering when the war ended. He shot down 54 enemy aircraft in the war, including 16 balloons, earning the Victoria Cross, the DSO, and the new award for aviators, the DFC. He remained in the RAF after the war and recovering from his wound, dying in the crash of a Sopwith Snipe in 1919 while rehearsing for an air show.

10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War
A German Fokker D-VII, widely considered the best German fighter of the war. Wikimedia

Erich Lowenhardt. German Empire

Erich Lowenhardt saw infantry service on the Eastern front as a seventeen year old when World War I began. Wounded twice in the Battle of Tannenberg he was rewarded with a commission and the Iron Cross. After recovering from his wounds he continued to serve in the east and later on the Italian front, from which he was determined to be unfit for further service and invalided out of the German Army.

In 1916 Lowenhardt applied to and was accepted by the Imperial German Aviation Service. He was trained as an aerial observer and served in that capacity in 1916. By late 1916 he had decided that he wanted to serve as a pursuit pilot, as fighter pilots were then called, and in January 1917 he began conversion training to serve in fighters. In the spring of 1917 he shot down his first enemy observation balloon in late March.

Lowenhardt earned his status as an ace in September. The Germans awarded their top pilots an award officially known as the Pour le Merite – unofficially known as the Blue Max – when they reached twenty victories; Lowenhardt received his in May of 1918. He had already been awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords. Lowenhardt was engaged in a personal competition with Ernst Udet and Lothar von Richthofen – brother of the late Manfred – for the highest score among the German pilots.

Lowenhardt was also spurred on – as were the others – by the emergence of another German airman who was rapidly increasing his own total, although he was as yet well behind. His name was Herman Goering. By the time the war ended Lowenhardt had destroyed 54 enemy aircraft.

Lowenhardt was killed in August 1918 during a dogfight with British planes, when he collided with another German aircraft. Equipped with a parachute, Lowenhardt bailed out but was killed when his chute failed to open.

10 Deadliest Fighter Aces of the First World War
Next to Richthofen’s red triplane, the Sopwith Camel is probably the most famous airplane of the war. Wikipedia

Donald MacLaren. Canada

Donald MacLaren grew up in western Canada, where he learned to speak Cree and helped run a family owned and operated fur trading post. Both Donald and his brother responded to Canadian mobilization by enlisting, with Donald joining the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. After flight training in Canada and England, Donald first entered combat in 46 Squadron, scoring his first victory in February 1918. By September of that year he held the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for his growing success conducting bombing missions and for his growing total of enemy kills.

All of Donald’s victories, which grew to total 54, came in the final nine months of the war. By then the tactics of air to air combat were well defined, with the use of a wing man to provide cover and support when attacking or evading enemy attack. Like earlier flyers, MacLaren helped to force a German plane to land behind allied lines, leading to its capture, a feat he shared with other members of his squadron.

The speed with which he amassed his victory total speaks to the changing nature of the air war, which by the summer of 1918 was clearly going in favor of the Allies, bolstered by superior production of aircraft and fresh American pilots. By October 1918 MacLaren was in command of his squadron, despite having less than one year in theater, and his total of kills continued to grow.

In October, less than one month before the armistice stopped the fighting on the western front in Europe, MacLaren fell victim to the friendly horseplay common among the Allied pilots throughout the war. He broke his leg in a wrestling match and was returned to England in early November. He was convalescing there when the war ended.

After the war he remained for a time in the service, helping to establish the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1920 he resigned from the RCAF and later helped to establish Pacific Airways. A novel of the air war in Europe was published by Victor Maslin Yeates in 1934. A character in the novel, which contains vivid and accurate descriptions of the air to air combat of the day, is known as Mac, the commanding officer of the novel’s protagonist. He is believed to have been based on MacLaren. MacLaren destroyed 54 enemy aircraft in just under 270 days of combat duty.