The top fighter aces of all time are German. One statistic makes this clear; Germany has over 100 aces with over 100 kills. No other country has any aces with over 100 kills. And Erich Hartmann is at the very top of that list.
After the jump, a look the top ace of all time and one of his mounts.
So just a few other numbers to establish context.
Perhaps the most famous ace of all time, Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron had 80 kills in World War I.
The top British ace of World War II was Johnny Johnson with 34 kills.
The top Commonwealth Ace of the war was the South African pilot Marmaduke Pattle with about 50 kills (KIA in Greece, final unit records lost so total is approximate).
The top American pilots were Richard Bong of the Army Air Force (40 kills), David McCampbell of the Navy (34 kills) and Joe Foss of the Marines (26 kills). Francis Gabreski was the top American ace against the Germans (28 kills against the Luftwaffe, plus 6.5 MiG-15 in Korea).
The top Soviet Ace was Ivan Kozhedub with 64 kills. Lilia Litviak was the top woman ace with 12 kills.
The top Japanese ace was Hiroyoshi Nishizawa with approximately 80 kills (Japan kept no official records, which means there was no verification system).
The top non-German ace of all time is the Finn Ilmari Juutlainen with 94 kills.
Erich Hartmann is officially credited with 352 kills.
How can there be such a staggering disparity? There are many reasons, but a couple seem most significant. First, the Germans had the longest war. They started it on Sept 1, 1939. And they were active and aggressive from the very start. Other long time combatants like the British, were not ready to fight at first and took some time before their air units were deployed and ready. The German head start also meant they had early war experience to pass on to their next generation of pilots right from the start. When they attacked the Soviet Union in June of 1941 they went against a huge but inexperienced and obsolete air force. This meant many Germans built up large kill tallies against feeble opposition. And a final big issue; the Germans did not use a tour of duty system. There was some effort made to rotate pilots back periodically to pass on their experience to new trainees. But home rotations never lasted long, and as the war went on less and less effort was made to do this. Pilots flew until they died. And a number of them became extremely proficient.
Erich Hartmann entered the Luftwaffe in 1940 and completed his pilot training in 1942. This puts him on the scene at an opportune time. German flight training was at its very best; a thorough and realistic training program passing on the experience of two years of war experience. Soon, the training would suffer as the need for new pilots rapidly escalated. But Hartmann was able to enter combat at as high a proficiency level as any rookie could. He was assigned to JG52, an elite and experienced unit that hadn’t yet been horribly worn down. He benefited from entering action at the right time; Soviet pressure was relentless, which meant constant opportunity for a gifted pilot with a fast learning curve.
Erich Hartmann has several claims to fame, apart from just being the best. He was never shot down by enemy fire. He had to make 14 forced landings due to mechanical problems, or having hit part of a plane he had just destroyed. But he was never shot down. Hitting other planes was a recurring problem because, by his own admission, gunnery was not his strong suit so he liked to get very close before opening fire. He used mostly high speed hit and run tactics; except against Sturmoviks which he considered easy prey and would instead just shoot apart the entire formation. He never lost a wing man. Apparently one partial exception may be a young pilot he did not want to fly with, who was shot down but survived the experience. His final tally consists of 345 Soviets and 7 Americans (all Mustangs).
Post-War he spent several years in a Soviet prison, until he was released and joined the West German Luftwaffe in 1956. He served until 1970, and passed away in 1993.
This is the Hasegawa kit, with Cutting Edge decals.
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