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Archive Report: Axis Forces
1914-1918   1935-1945

Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.


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Why Did Certain Luftwaffe Pilots Record Such High Scores?

For a long time after WWII the Luftwaffe pilots’ claims of huge numbers of enemy aircraft shot down in combat were suspect. The real answer is simpler than we think.

Many publications of past times openly disputed the many 100+ victories claimed by Luftwaffe aces. Since Britain’s James 'Johnnie' Johnson had scored but 38 victories during the war on the Western Front along with American Richard Bong’s 40 in the Pacific, then Erich Hartmann’s 352 was thought to be Nazi propaganda.

It was reasoned early on that the 100+ scores included damaged and probables given by a liberal system. Some even went so far as to say that the numbers were points awarded by some Luftwaffe scoring system.

It is puzzling that no one in the 1950s-60s was casting doubt on Japan’s aces’ scores. Saburo Sakai’s 64 and Hiroyoshi Nishizawa’s 103 were never questioned. Sakai’s book about his combat experiences (Samurai) vividly depicted most of these kills from his war time flight logs. It was reasoned that since aces that survived many years of the war against a numerically superior enemy, they would have ample opportunity to score.

Japan’s pilots never rotated out of combat except for brief relaxation periods or hospital stays for wounds received.

Of course there were figures claiming that the top 35 Luftwaffe scorers had amassed 6,848 kills where the Japanese aces seem modest by comparison. Partly owing to the flammability of Japanese planes, not many aces survived to score more.

Allied pilots almost to a man were taken out of combat and posted to flight schools or given organizational duties after a certain number of missions were flown. Guys like Bong did fudge at times while on training flights in battle areas to shoot down aircraft that 'threatened the flight.' If he’d been sent to non-combatant areas to train men he would have scored less, of course.

The Japanese and German pilots had no such luxury. Both systems in place in the 1930s aimed at producing a few excellent pilots. By contrast Allied thinking was to produce a lot of very good pilots and give them very good or excellent equipment. By rate of attrition the latter theory would triumph as more men were fed into the training systems. Japan and Germany seemed to depend on a finite number of individuals with long, rigorous training bounded by very high goals.

So we know what worked to win the war.

On the other hands these very circumstances allowed skilled aces to excel in scoring. Most of the high scorers flew and fought for several years. Sakai’s score was cut short when in mid-1942 he was severely wounded. He had over two years of recuperation. In Germany it was the same. Pilots were needed for as long as the war would last.

During WWI Germany’s von Richtofen’s 80 victories were not later questioned nor were Britain’s Billy Bishop’s’ 72. There were far fewer planes in the air at any time since far fewer even existed. Perhaps the ratio between the top scorers on each side was not relatively lopsided. At any rate the opportunity to encounter enemy aircraft was much lower than WWII.

In WWI a rigorous two-part claim system dictated that the enemy aircraft be found on the ground after destruction and that the kill be witnessed by air or ground personnel. Obviously when ships crashed behind enemy lines confirmation was impossible. During the first three-fourths of the war the Germans were favored by the geography of things. By WWII a witness was still absolutely required for a claim to be awarded. German gun cameras were not widespread.

As we skip back to WWII we note that most Allied pilots flew 100-150 missions generally before being rotated to non-combatant duties. Dick Bong scored his 40 during 146 missions over 400 hours. Thunderbolt ace, Bob Johnson tallied 28 after just 91 missions. German pilots by luck and skill survived many more missions forced by the necessity of their country’s survival attempt.

As a point of contrast, American bomber crews were set 25 missions for their tours before going home. However, since the average plane and crew lasted just 15 missions before being shot down, the odds weren’t actually in their favour. But a growing number did make their 25 after long-range fighter escort became common.

Germany was fighting on two fronts early on. In the West several pilots excelled in the African desert against British and American enemies. A stand-out was Hans Marseille with 158 victories (151 in North Africa and 7 in Battle of Britain on the Western front) scored in 382 missions. But since we cannot determine on how many of these missions he or any pilot actually met enemy aircraft we must draw ratios from total missions flown and total victories produced. Before he struck the tail bailing out of his Bf 109G and died in September 1942 he’d been fighting for just two years.

Marseille (centre) by his Me109

When the African campaign closed Marseille’s group JG 27 went to the Eastern Front. It stands to reason that he could have doubled the number there if he’d survived. The point is that many did survive.

Now we must confront the core of the large claims. This was the state of affairs on the Russian Front itself. Most aces that ended up there had begun their scoring in the Battle of Britain, like Marseille, with a few even commencing in the Spanish Civil War. When the Luftwaffe entered the Eastern area it was easy pickings. This statement is not meant to diminish any ace’s score. (Many American aces in Europe figured their counterparts in the Pacific had it easier with so many flammable Japanese planes to shoot at).

Too many variables make serious comparison invalid. But when German fighters and bombers opened up operations, the Red Air Force was a sorry outfit. The quality of pilots and equipment was deplorable. Early Soviet aircraft were outdated, poorly armed and armored and had dubious maneuverability. Couple this with unskilled pilots and we have a formula for disaster. The formula was a windfall for Luftwaffe pilots. Their onslaught resulted in escalating kill totals for pilots that were just 'good' rather than being excellent. In other words, it was easier for the average pilot to rack up kills at this stage of the war.

This was a target rich environment at first until the Red plane’s ranks had been decimated. While things did not go as well in the long term on the ground for German forces, the Luftwaffe rarely failed to stay ahead in the aerial kill to loss ratios. Stalin responded to the losses by drawing in his manufacturing facilities just as a squid retracts its wounded tentacles. East of the Ural mountains plants were set up to manufacture weapons for the Soviet forces, plants which were out of range of Luftwaffe bombers.

With a full bore effort to modernize the Russian aircraft types better planes soon debuted to blunt the German war lance. Were they superior to Bf 109s and FW 190s? This opens an endless debate. Certainly they were produced in vast numbers, just as the Americans did with their planes. Both the USA and USSR had immense natural resources within their national borders and exploited the fact.

LaGGs, Yaks, Ilyushins and MiGs were assembled like so many Big Macs at the lunch rush. They swarmed en masse at the fronts to counter the Luftwaffe. But the elements of the big picture were still favouring the German ace. Relative to the time line of the war, the German aces were at the zenith of their strength. They enjoyed sufficient serviceable aircraft and spare parts and possessed the crucial ingredient- experience. It is quite detached to sit over half century hence and state that Luftwaffe aces rapidly escalated their scores. They did, but the intricate details of battles, living conditions and service of planes in the harsh conditions must be recognized. It was not a flight simulator experience of safely knocking down several Russian planes a day. Much fighting was over and behind moving battle lines that dictated a sad end if a plane made a forced landing or a bail out was needed. The danger was ever present from the large numbers of Red fighters and the constant threat of anonymous ground fire.

As stated earlier, the typical American pilot was in a combat arena for usually about a year to make his tour. Missions were long and not scheduled every day so the opportunity to encounter enemies to shoot at were reduced. The defenders, on the other hand, had short defensive missions and often flew several sorties a day for years.

In Russia even the offensive missions were of short duration due to the forward location of most combatant airfields in relation to the ground action. So, again, multiple missions could be flown in the span of a day. We can conclude that the Luftwaffe had their cake and ate it too with the best circumstances of encountering targets no matter how the war was going in the East or West.

So we are left with the maths. How many kills did a pilot achieve versus the number of missions flown? (This does not take into account any marksmanship or rounds expended per kill as most of this is unknown save for rare cases). We can develop a kill ratio by this method keeping in mind the wild card factor of missions flown where no contact was made. This is regrettable but necessary since those figures do not exist. Certain pilots probably have better Kill Ratios (KR) than stated but we’ll never know.

Official Luftwaffe Abschuss Claim Form (see Luftwaffe Grid explanation for location Quadrant)

The premier ace Erich Hartmann accumulated 352 kills (K), over an enormous 1,425 missions (M), and made his Combat Debut (CD) in October 1942 producing a Kill Ratio (KR) of 4.05. All his victories were on the Eastern Front (EF). Note that any ratio less that Hartmann’s 4.05 is better.

We divide the number of missions flown by the number of kills credited for our kill ratio. Hartmann got a kill on average every four missions. That’s our formula. See how some top, well-known Luftwaffe pilots rank:

Day Fighters

Gerhard Barkhorn- 301 K, 1104 M, CD 8/40, KR 3.67 EF

Gunther Rall- 275 K, 621 M, CD 1940, KR 2.26, 272 EF-3 WF

Otto Kittel- 267 K, 583 M, CD 10/41, KR 2.18, all EF

Walter Nowotny- 258 K, ??M, CD 2/41, KR ??, 255 EF- 3 WF

Wilhelm Batz- 237 K, 445 M, CD 12/42, KR 1.88, 232 EF- 3 WF

Erich Rudorffer- 222 K, 1,000+ M, CD 3/40, KR est. 4.50, 135 EF- 26 NA-60 WF

Heinz Baer- 220 K, 1,000+ M, CD 9/39, KR est. 4.54, 79 EF- 83 WF- 45 NA

Hans-Joachim Marseille- 158 K, 382 M, CD mid 1940, KR 2.42, 7 WF 151 NA

Werner Molders- 115 K, 300+ M, CD 1937, KR est. 2.61, 33 EF- 14 Spain- 68 WF

Adolf Galland- 104 K, 425 M, CD 1937, KR 4.09, WF

Night Fighters:

Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer- 121 K, 164 M, CD 4/42, KR 1.36, WF

Helmet Lent- 110 K (8 day), 300 est. M, CD 9/39, KR est.2.73, WF

Heinrich Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein- 83 K, ?? M, CD 8/41, KR ?? 29 EF-

The total number of victories does not mean the KR was high. Many were actually better than Hartmann. He excelled due to high number of missions flown. Others with the best KRs had fewer kills and missions flown but scored better in the ratio. Here are the best showing kills and kill ratios only:

Gunter Scheel- 71 K, 0.99 KR

Werner Schroer- 114 K, 1.73 KR

Walter Loos- 38 K, 1.74 KR

Wilhelm Batz- 237 K, 1.88 KR

Heinrich Setz- 138 K, 1.99 KR

Wolf Ettel- 124 K, 2.02 KR

Otto Kittel- 267 K, 2.18 KR

Gunther Rall- 275 K, 2.26 KR

Gordon Gollob- 150 K, 2.27 KR

Anton Resch 91 K, 2.31 KR

Relative to kill ratio Marseille at 2.42 KR ranks 17th and Hartmann at 4.05 KR is only 70th with Galland at 4.09 KR being 72nd.

Only a handful of fighter pilots flew 1000 or more sorties. Hartmann’s 1425 is the highest found recorded. It seems to correlate that more missions equals more total kills with all else being equal The best baseball players play in more games and have more at-bats to amass high totals. By the same token other players hit the ball in a higher ratio to times at bat but have played in less games so totals are lower. So it was in the Luftwaffe during World War II.

The few superb could not make up for the many average that were rushed through pilot training in Japan and Germany later on. Starting off the war with a 'few good men' system never allowed them to balance things out. The few that excelled were highly talented and lucky either by surviving or being immersed in target rich arenas of combat.

The reader can be the judge of whether all these claims are valid. Over 200 aces claim 60 or more. We know that confirmation is not always 100%. All nation’s pilots have over estimated kills in heated battles. Some 'probables' land and fly again. Some 'damaged' crash and burn. The area where most of these victories occurred is Russia and numbers have never been honestly established nor have simple production figures for all aircraft come forth. It is natural that the closed society of Russia in WWII would not publish that they lost so many planes on such and such dates all the while boasting of high production amounts. Basically by not saying much they are actually saying, 'we built a lot of planes but didn’t lose that many.'

Luftwaffe Major Werner Mölder was the first ace to reach 100 victories. Major Gordon Gollob was the first to reach the 150 mark. Hermann Graf and Walter Nowotny were first to get 200 and 250 respectively. The first ace to score 300 was Erich Hartmann. He was the first and only to reach 350 and ended up as the world’s ace of aces with 352.

The man with the best average per sortie was Leutnant Güther Scheel who scored 71 kills in 70 missions. Emil Lang scored the most in a day with 18. But the distinction of the most on one mission goes to Erich Rudorffer with 13 on November 6, 1942 over Russia. While Erich Hartmann had the greatest score in the Eastern Front Hans-Joachim Marseille got the most against Western enemies with 158.

Owing to the high number of missions flown and target rich environments, 107 German aces scored 100 or more. At night 23 German aces scored 50 or more with the top night fighter ace being Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer at 121. All were in multi-engine planes too.

Official Soviet figures state that over 36,000 IL-2s alone were built. Published figures for Yak, LaGG and others planes would make at least 100,000. Then with all the rest of the types we know of, a great many more aircraft were constructed. Is over 6,000 kills possible amongst the top 35 Luftwaffe aces against the Red Air Force? Absolutely.

Refer to Kracker Luftwaffe Archive for information on 31,000+ Luftwaffe aircrew.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: From personal interviews &

Baker, David Adolf Galland Windrow & Greene, London 1996

Caiden, Martin Me 109 Ballantine Books, NY 1968

Green, Wm. The Complete Book of Fighters Salamander Books Ltd., UK 1994

Green, Wm. Fighters Vol. Doubleday, NY 1962

Kenney, Gen. George C. Dick Bong Ace of Aces Popular Library NY 1960

Price, Dr. Alfred The Luftwaffe Data Book Greenhill Books, London 1977

Spick, Mike Luftwaffe Fighter Aces Ivy Books, NY 1996

NOTE: we have tried to locate the original author for this material but have failed. We have added minor editorial changes to the original to improve readability. If you are the author please contact us so that we can formally request your permission to reproduce this important analysis.


Additional Information

(Based on the work of Dominique Massard, to whom we offer our thanks)

Americans had on their side :

(1) the best technology (including 'the best fighter of WWII' namely the P51 Mustang)

(2) the world's strongest industrial infrastructure

(3) a large population

(4) an efficient organisation (including excellent training programs; operations tour limitations allowing fighter pilots rotation to mitigate stress, exhaustion etc)

All these parameters encourage the assumption that the USAAF can be considered as the strongest Air Force during WWII.

The top-scoring USAAF pilots against Luftwaffe opponents were R.S. Johnson and F. Gabreski who scored 28 victories.

The following table gives the list of the Luftwaffe pilots who exceeded 28 victories in the European theatre. It allows a quick and simple comparison between pilots from both sides for the same time period and the same battlefields.

The result is self-explanatory: it can be noted that at least 30 Luftwaffe aces achieved better than 28 victories against USAAF opponents.

Last but not the least: those victories against US opponents represent, for some of these Luftwaffe pilots, only a small part of their complete victories list. Most of them were indeed able to gain numerous other victories against British, Russian, Polish, French, Belgian, Greek, Yugoslavian or other foes.

The reasons for such individual successes are numerous.Some of them never stopped fighting during the entire 5 years of conflict! And no less than one third of these skilled and outstanding pilots, finally lost their lives too in this war of attrition.


Rank

First Name

Last Name

US kills

West Europe

Mediterranean / North Africa

Grand Total (incl. East)

Details of US downed aircraft

Awards

KIA date

Maj.

Georg-Peter

Eder

56

68

0

78

36 4-motors, 10xP47, 7xP51, 3xP38

RK-EL

-

Obstlt.

Kurt

Bühligen

51

67

45

112

At least 13xP38, 11 4-motors, 9xP47, 7 US Spitfire, 1xB26, 1xP51, 1xP39

RK-S

-

Obstlt.

Heinz 'Pritzel'

Bär

49

59

65

220

21 4-motors, 11xP51, 10xP47, 3xP38, 2xB25, 1xA20,1xP40

RK-S

-

Maj.

Anton 'Toni'

Hackl

47

55

6

192

34 4-motors (incl. 1 British), 6xP47, 3xP38, 2xP51, 3 "X"

RK-S

-

Obst

Walther

Dahl

41

41

0

128 ?

30 4-motors; at least 6xP51, 3xP38, 2xP47

RK-EL

-

Oblt.

Konrad 'Pitt'

Bauer

40

50

0

68

32 4-motors; at least 7xP51, 1xP38

RK

-

Obstlt.

Egon

Mayer

40

102

0

102

26 4-motors, 12xP47, 1xB26, 1xP38

RK-S (+)

2.3.1944

Ofw.

Heinrich

Bartels

39

28

24

99

14xP38, 11xP51, 9xP47, 2 4-motors, 2xB25

RK

23.12.1944

Hptm.

Siegfried

Lemke

39 ?

69

0

70

21? 4-motors, 8xP47, 6xP51, 2xP38, 2xB26, 1xB25, 1xP39

RK

-

Maj.

Werner

Schroer

36

41

61

114

26 4-motors, 8xP38, 1xP51, 1xP39

RK-S

-

Maj.

Rolf-Günther

Hermichen

35

53

0

64

26 4-motors, 3xP47, 2xP38, 1xP51, 1 US Spitfire, 2 "X"

RK-EK

-

Oblt.

Herbert

Rollwage

33

24

36

ca 85

14 4-motors, 8xP38, 6xP47, 2xB26, 1xP51, 1 Kingfisher, 1 Piper

RK-EL

-

Hptm.

Hans

Ehlers

33 to 35

42

0

52

24 4-motors; at least 4xP51, 3xP47, 2xP38

RK

27.12.1944

Maj.

Hermann

Staiger

33

49

0

63

25 4-motors, 5xP47, 3xP38

RK

-

Lt.

Anton-Rudolf

Piffer

32

35

u

35

26 4-motors, 2xP47, 2xP38, 1xP51, 1 Auster

RK (+)

17.6.1944

Oblt.

Wilhelm 'Willy'

Kientsch

31

12

41

53

20 4-motors, 9xP38, 1xB25, 1xP47

RK-EL (+)

29.1.1944

Oblt.

Ersnt-Wilhelm

Reinert

30

11

60

174

7xP51, 7xP40, 6xP39, 3xP38, 2 4-motors, 2xA20, 1xB25, 1xP47, 1 Auster

RK-S

-

Hptm.

Josef 'Sepp'

Wurmheller

30

93

0

102

22 4-motors, 3xP47, 2xP51, 2xB26, 1xP38

RK-S (+)

22.6.1944

Oberst

Gustav

Rödel

30

29

68

98

13 4-motors, 5xP38, 5xP39, 4xP47, 2xB25, 1xP51

RK-EL

-

Oblt.

Adolf 'Addi'

Glunz

30

68

0

71

19 4-motors, 9xP47,1xP38, 1xC47 (+ 1 british P51)

RK-EL

-

Hptm.

Heinz

Knoke

30

33

0

33

19 4-motors, 5xP51, 5xP47,1xP38

RK

-

Maj.

Friedrich-Karl 'Tutti'

Müller

29

34

19

140

23 4-motors, 4xP38, 1xB25, 1xP51

RK-EL

29.5.1944

Maj.

Klaus

Mietusch

29

50

10

75

16 4-motors, 6xP38, 6xP47, 1xP51

RK-EL (+)

17.9.1944

Oblt.

Wilhelm

Hofmann

29

43

0

44

13xP47, 10xP51 (incl. 5 British), 6 4-motors, 2xP38, 2 Auster, 1xC47

RK

26.3.1945

Oblt.

Waldemar

Radener

29 ?

37

0

37

15 4-motors, 11xP47, 2xP51, 1xP38 (some not confirmed)

RK

-

Hptm.

Rüdiger

von Kirchmayr

28 ++

41

0

50

21? 4-motors; at least 2xP51, 2xP47, 2xP38, 1xB26

RK

-

Hptm.

Fritz

Karch

28

47

0

47

21 4-motors; at least 4xP47, 3xP38

RK

-

Hptm.

Hugo

Frey

28

31

0

32

25 4-motors, 2xP47, 1xP51

RK (+)

4.5.1944

Ofw.

Eduard

Isken

27

-

-

56

17 4-motors; at least 5xP38, 2xP51, 2xP47, 1xB26

RK

-

Hptm.

Wilhelm

Steinmann

26 to 32

19

21

44

At least 11xP51, 7xP47, 6 4-motors, 1xB25, 1xP38

RK

-


Additional Reading

Killer Incentives: Status Competition and Pilot Performance during World War II (w22992.pdf)

Paper from National Bureau of Economic Research (Cambridge, Massachusetts USA)

German pilots strapped themselves into fighter planes and risked death with every flight in World War II. With a task that perilous, what could motivate them to try harder? A new research paper argues they were spurred by competition, and particularly a hunger for the praise showered on their successful colleagues.

When a German pilot was singled out for recognition in the armed forces daily bulletin—a high and rare honor in Nazi Germany—the performance of his peers increased. The effect was most dramatic among the best fighter pilots, the aces. When their fellow ace was recognized, the number of combat victories from other aces in his squadron climbed by two thirds, to three victories a month, according to the paper by a trio of economists from the University of Southern Denmark, the University of Zurich, and the University of Chicago.

Refer to Kracker Luftwaffe Archive for information on 31,000+ Luftwaffe aircrew.


SY 2019-08-21

Acknowledgements: Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives, Michel Beckers, Major Fred Paradie (RCAF) and MWO François Dutil (RCAF) - Paradie Archive (on this site), Jean Schadskaje, Major Jack O'Connor USAF (Retd.), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Archiwum - Polish Air Force Archive (on this site), Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Franek Grabowski, Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of CWGC, UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, New Zealand National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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