Top Ten Fighter Aces of World War II

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This month we decided to take a look at the Top Ten fighter aces of World War II. In other words, who achieved the most ‘kills’ during the war. An ‘Ace’ was anyone that shot down five or more enemy aircraft.

This, however, would have led to a very one-sided article. Mainly because the Top Ten fighter aces of World War II were all German.

In fact the top 120 fighter aces of World War II were all German. Between them they shot down 16,851 enemy aircraft.

No less than 448 German fighter pilots would go on to become aces during World War II.

A total of 116 German pilots achieved the incredible feat of shooting down more than 100 enemy aircraft. No other pilot from any country managed to get to triple figures in terms of number of kills.

Thirteen German pilots achieved more than 200 kills, and two of them more than 300.

The country that produced the most aces during World War II was the United States. They had a total of 834 aces from the  US Army Air Forces, US Navy, and US Marine Corps. 600 of their aces had less than 10 kills.

So instead of looking at the Top Ten fighter pilots of World War II, we decided to look at the Top Ten aces by country.

These then are our Top Ten Aces of World War II.

10. Pierre Clostermann
France
33 kills

Joining the Free French Air Force in Britain in 1942, Clostermann scored 33 recorded victories, earning the accolade “France’s First Fighter” from General Charles de Gaulle.

His many decorations included the Grand-Croix of the French Légion d’Honneur, the Croix de Guerre, and the DFC and bar. His wartime reminiscences The Big Show (Le Grand Cirque) became a notable best seller.

After the war, he worked as an engineer and became a député (Member of Parliament).

He died on 22 March 2006 at the age of 85.

9. James Johnson
Britain
38 kills

Nicknamed “Johnnie”, Air Vice Marshal James Edgar Johnson, CB, CBE, DSO & Two Bars, DFC & Bar was a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot.

Johnson was credited with 34 individual victories over enemy aircraft, as well as seven shared victories, three shared probable, 10 damaged, three shared damaged and one destroyed on the ground. Johnson flew 700 operational sorties and engaged enemy aircraft on 57 occasions.

Johnson continued his career in the RAF after the war, and served in the Korean War before retiring in 1966 with the rank of air vice marshal.

He died on 30 January 2001 at the age of 85.

8. Marmaduke Prattle
South Africa
40 kills

South African born Marmaduke Thomas St John Pattle, DFC & Bar, was better known as Pat Prattle.

He applied to join the South African Air Force at 18, but was rejected. He travelled to the United Kingdom and joined the RAF in 1936 on a Short Service Commission.

Pattle is sometimes noted as being the highest-scoring British Commonwealth pilot of the war. If all claims made for him are correct, his total could have been more than 51. It can be stated that his final total was at least 40 and could exceed this number.

Log-books and semi-official records suggest this figure, while personnel attached to his squadron suspect the figure to be closer to 60.

He is considered to be the highest-scoring ace on both Gladiator and Hurricane (35 victories) fighters.

On 20 April 1941 he took off against orders, while suffering from a high temperature, to engage German aircraft near Athens. He was last seen battling Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighters. His Hurricane crashed into the sea during this dogfight and Pattle was killed. He was 26 years old.

8. Richard I. Bong
United States
40 kills

Richard Ira Bong was a United States Army Air Forces major. He was one of the most decorated American fighter pilots and the country’s top flying ace in the war.

Among his awards was the Medal of Honour, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Air Medal.

He is credited with shooting down 40 Japanese aircraft, all with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter.

In January 1945 General Kenney, the Far East Air Force commander, sent America’s ace of aces home for good.

On 6 August 1945, 26 days before World War II ended, Bong was testing a P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter at the Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank, California.

The plane’s primary fuel pump malfunctioned during take off. He ejected but was too low for his parachute to deploy.  He was 24 when he was killed.

6. Mato Dukovac
Croatia
44 kills

Croatian pilots flew for the Zrakoplovstvo Nezavisne Države Hrvatske (Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia) and fought on the side of the Germans.

Mato Dukovac joined the Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia following the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941, and then the Luftwaffe, with which he flew combat missions on the Eastern Front.

His tours of the Eastern Front spanned October and November 1942, February to June 1943, and October 1943 to March 1944. He defected to the Soviet Union on 20 September 1944, and was returned to Yugoslavia in November 1944.

He worked as a flight instructor for the Yugoslav Air Force in Pančevo and Zadar before defecting to Italy in April 1945.

He left in 1946 and became a captain in the Syrian Air Force. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War he flew combat missions against Israel. Following the war, he emigrated to Canada.  

He died on 6 June 1990 in Torronto at the age of 71.

5. Ivan Kozhedub
Soviet Union
66 kills

Flying for the Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (Soviet Air Force), Russian pilots saw extensive action on the Eastern Front.

Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub was the Allied “Ace of Aces” in World War II. He is one of the few pilots to have shot down a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet. He was made a Hero of the Soviet Union on three occasions (4 February 1944; 19 August 1944; 18 August 1945).

In 1951, with the rank of colonel, he took part in the Korean War but was not allowed permission to participate in combat missions. He went on to become a general and was made an Aviation Marshal in 1985.

He died on 8 August 1991 at the age of 71.

4. Constantin Cantacuzino
Romania
69 kills

Romanian pilots were part of the Aeronautica Regala Romana (Royal Romanian Air Force). They fought on the side of the Germans.

Nicknamed Bâzu,  Constantin Cantacuzino came from a noble family. He was the captain of the Romanian ice hockey team at the World Championships in 1931 and 1933.  

In 1939 he won the national aerial aerobatics contest with his Bü 133 Jungmeister and in 1941 was named chief pilot of the Romanian national air transport company LARES. Even though this was a comfortable job, he managed to get in the front line as a fighter pilot in the 53rd Fighter Squadron (equipped with Hurricane Mk. I).

After August 1944, when Romania quit the Axis, the Luftwaffe started bombing Bucharest from airfields close to the capital which were still in German hands. The remains of the 7th and 9th Fighter Groups were brought in to protect the capital. Cantacuzino shot down 3 Heinkel He 111s on this occasion.

After the war ended, Cantacuzino was demobilized and returned to LARES. The USSR imposed a communist regime that confiscated private property and began imprisoning the old elite and opponents of the regime.

Cantacuzino lost all his land and soon his wife left him. In 1946 he married Nadia Gray. He managed to escape to Italy in 1947 and then he settled in Spain.

There he was helped by the Romanian community to buy himself an airplane, in order to earn his living at air shows. He died in Madrid on 26 May 1958 at the age of 52.

3. Tetsuzo Iwamoto
Japan
80 kills

Lieutenant Junior Grade Tetsuzō Iwamoto was a pilot with the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service (IJNAS). Depending on various totals cited, Tetsuzō Iwamoto or Hiroyoshi Nishizawa was Japan’s top ace.

He flew Zeros from the aircraft carrier Zuikaku from December 1941 to May 1942, including at the Battle of the Coral Sea. In late 1943, Iwamoto’s air group was sent to Rabaul, New Britain, resulting in three months of air combat against Allied air raids.

Subsequent assignments were Truk Atoll in the Carolines and the Philippines, being commissioned an ensign in October 1944. Following the evacuation of the Philippines, Iwamoto served in home defence and trained kamikaze pilots.

Like many Japanese veterans, Iwamoto was reported to have fallen into depression after the war. In summer 1953, he developed a stomach ache. A surgeon examined him and diagnosed enteritis. It was found later to be appendicitis.

After a series of operations, he complained of a backache. Doctors decided to operate on him again. With cause unknown, they removed three or four ribs without anaesthesia. This led to sepsis (septicaemia, blood poisoning). He died on 20 May 1955 at the age of 38.

2. Ilmari Juutilainen
Finland
94 kills

Eino Ilmari “Illu” Juutilainen (21 February 1914 – 21 February 1999) was a fighter pilot of the Ilmavoimat (Finnish Air Force), and the top scoring non-German fighter pilot of all time.

This makes him the top flying ace of the Finnish Air Force, leading all Finnish pilots in score against Soviet aircraft in World War II (1939–40 and 1941–44), with 94 confirmed aerial combat victories in 437 sorties. He achieved 34 of his victories while flying the Brewster Buffalo fighter.

Juutilainen entered the Finnish military on 9 September 1932 for his compulsory military service, serving as a pilot in the Finnish Air Force from 1935.

Eino Ilmari “Illu” Juutilainen (21 February 1914 – 21 February 1999) was a fighter pilot of the Ilmavoimat (Finnish Air Force), and the top scoring non-German fighter pilot of all time.

This makes him the top flying ace of the Finnish Air Force, leading all Finnish pilots in score against Soviet aircraft in World War II (1939–40 and 1941–44), with 94 confirmed aerial combat victories in 437 sorties. He achieved 34 of his victories while flying the Brewster Buffalo fighter.

Juutilainen entered the Finnish military on 9 September 1932 for his compulsory military service, serving as a pilot in the Finnish Air Force from 1935.

In 1943, Juutilainen was transferred to LeLv 34, which used new Messerschmitt Bf 109G-2s. With the Bf 109, he shot down a further 58 enemy planes.

He shot down six Soviet airplanes on 30 June 1944 (all confirmed on Soviet loss records), becoming an ace in a day.  

He ended the war with the rank of Lentomestari (Sergeant Major). Juutilainen refused an officer commission, fearing it would keep him from flying.

After the wars, Juutilainen served in the air force until 1947. He worked as a professional pilot until 1956, flying people in his De Havilland Moth. His last flight was in 1997 at age 83, in a double-seated F-18 Hornet of the Finnish Air Force.

Juutilainen died at home in Tuusula on his 85th birthday on 21 February 1999.

1. Erich Hartmann
Germany
352 kills

Erich Alfred  Hartmann was nicknamed Bubi (The Kid) by his comrades and the ‘Black Devil’ by the Soviets.  He is the most successful fighter ace in the history of aerial warfare.

He flew 1,404 combat missions and participated in aerial combat on 825 separate occasions. 345 of the aircraft he shot down were Soviet, while seven were American.

He was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.

After the war he surrendered to the Americans, but was handed over to the Red Army. He spent 10 years in various Soviet prison camps and gulags until he was released in 1955.

In 1956 he joined the newly established West German German Air Force in the Bundeswehr, and became the first Geschwaderkommodore of Jagdgeschwader 71 “Richthofen”.

He was retired in 1970, due to his opposition to the procurement of the F-104 Starfighter. In his later years, after his military career had ended, he became a civilian flight instructor.

He died on 20 September 1993 at the age of 71.

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