How Sure are You?

The Value of a Claim and Combat Intelligence

In a swirling, twisting dogfight a highly trained but inexperienced fighter pilot gets his first shot at an enemy aircraft.  He fires, and after seeing a burst of smoke the unfortunate target snaps out of control and plummets towards the Earth.

The excited pilot gets home and reports his success.  How sure should we be things happened like the pilot saw?  How sure are we he destroyed the target he just claimed?

Join me for brief look at accuracy and reliability of claims during World War II.

Regular readers will remember we had some of this talk in the discussion on the Il-2 Sturmovik a few weeks ago.  Accuracy in World War II was very different from today.  At the start of World War II many combatants used a ring and bead site that was mostly unchanged from the First World War.  Early on, the major industrial powers, and by this I mean Germany, Britain and France had equipped most of their fighters with a reflector sight that provided a simple sort of heads up display; but it still provided about the same data as the ring and bead.  With these weapons it was said gunnery was the hardest pilot skill to teach.  Those with prior hunting experience, who knew how to lead a target, generally did best.

Towards the end of the war, the US, Britain and Germany were making use of “computing” gun sights.  This was still before the digital age.  But simple calculations could be made by these sights to aid in deflection shots (anything other than dead astern or ahead).  But even with this marksmanship was difficult skill.  Anything other than gun fire straight ahead was even more difficult yet.  Bombs were mostly gravity types with no on board guidance at all; all aiming was done before release and variables like altitude, bomb trajectory and target movement could make hitting anything very difficult.  Rockets were somewhere in between; they could be aimed with the gunsight and hit hard, but they were slower and less precise than bullets.

For this post I mostly want to look at gunfire, but issues of accuracy effect everything.  A few initial thoughts about fighter pilots; hitting a moving aircraft from another moving aircraft is a reasonably rare talent.  Only a small number of pilots ever became good at it.  If the target was another aircraft aware it was being hunted, especially another fighter, it would lead to that most spectacular and chaotic of things, a dog fight.  Two or more fighters chasing around the sky looking for opportunity to inflict fatal damage on each other.  Most encounters never came to that; pouncing from ambush was by far the most common way of scoring a kill.

Even when that chance for a killing shot seemed right there is a lot to consider.  A most basic thing is just that multiple pilots may fire on the same target at about the same time.  If four pilots fire at the same airplane that is seen to explode, who gets credit?  Even worse, from an air intelligence officer perspective, how do you know if one or four different kills were scored?  Sometimes this sorts itself out when multiple pilots have good awareness of what they all were up to.  But often they could be out of touch with other, even from different units.  Sometimes too, a target will meet its end in such a distinctive way it makes the intelligence officer’s work easier.  If bullets were seen to enter the port wing, ignite the fuel tank on that side causing a large fire, which led to the pilot bailing out over the right side but striking the tail on the way down; well, an intelligence officer hearing four pilots recount that same spectacular kill will quickly figure out four guys got a piece of the same plane.

Another thing to consider with many claims though is the possibility nobody got anything.  I’m thinking the scenario I introduced this post with was a non-kill.  Because here’s the thing, when a pilot knows he’s being shot at, what does he do?  He jams the throttle forward and takes fast evasive action as he dives away.  That fast application of “war emergency power” will certainly cause a large, dark burst of smoke, possibly with an initial burst of flame from an engine tuned more for pure power than noise abatement or environmental concerns.  Violent evasive action may look “out of control” too.  So the intelligence officer says “good try kid, let me know when you have a witness.”

The problem of defensive gunners, whether they are defending a naval base or the bomber they are flying in, is even worse.  Instead of four pilots from the same section arguing over “who got it”; there may 100 or more gunners all shooting at once.  If the target actually explodes or hits the ground you know every single one of those 19 year old boys shooting is just positive they are the one who got him! And sad to say for those enthusiastic gunners, giving proper credit is not the highest priority of the intelligence section; they mostly want to know how much damage was done.  There is one fairly famous incident during the attack on Pearl Harbor where the attacker was shot down into a dock side crane; this made the job pretty easy to say every one of the 40 guys who claimed they got him destroyed precisely one Japanese bomber.  Intelligence officers were often the most unappreciated men in any unit…

So far I’ve mentioned “intelligence officers” several times.  Generally speaking it is important for any military unit to know how well they are doing.  They want to sort out how much damage has been done on the enemy.  Britain, Germany and The US in particular treated this with serious professionalism.  Even to the point all three of these Air Forces introduced gun cameras later in the war designed to film when the guns fired so as to improve the assessment process.  At least for pilots, determining who got credit for which kill was a part of this process that easily translated into propaganda/publicity as well.
The Japanese never had an official mechanism for awarding kills and most often treated all pilot claims as true.  This caused them serious trouble late in the war when they often found themselves fighting units or ships that they thought they had already destroyed.  It rippled all the way up to strategic planning as headquarters often had unrealistic notions of what the reality actually was.
The Soviets are more opaque to me.  I believe they kept okay internal records.  But any attempts at investigation were often hampered the tendency of executing officers and soldiers who were believed to be slacking or showing cowardice.  Pilots and commanders were well motivated to spin their reports in ways that gave the most credit to themselves.  Soviet propaganda was even worse.  Of course many country’s propaganda was shamelessly self serving, but Soviet secrecy has made it difficult to know what they knew.  If any reader knows more about this subject I’d love to hear about it in comments.

Most combatants had a pretty good idea of what their own losses were.  Again, we need to keep this apart from propaganda which is often meant to keep up domestic morale while damaging the enemy’s (obviously this could be a whole post of its own, but its a little outside of my specific focus).  For internal consumption any military will want to know how capable its units are.  This could include experience, morale and health of personal; serviceability of all equipment; and what tactics and weapons are effective and in what ways and to what degree.
An airplane is an expensive and complicated asset. Higher up headquarters will need to know what parts are needed and when an aircraft is damaged or destroyed.  So even if “public information” may proclaim “70 enemy destroyed for only five of our own losses”; internal records will show exactly how many planes were actually lost and how many are down with damage (probably including exact model and serial numbers on those planes too).
Casualty figures are also hard to fudge completely.  Military personal are real people who need to be fed and taken care of; with families that need to be notified if the worst happens.  Even Japan, which was fairly primitive on such things compared to a bureaucratic power house like the United States, still made family notifications and interred remains.
A complicating factor on this is just that such records are not always available to us.  American and British records usually are.  But German and Japanese records were often destroyed in the climactic end and aftermath of the war; its best to say they’re available if they exist.  Russian records were made open to researchers in the early 1990s, which really opened up whole new areas of historical writing.  But I believe that has gone back the other way in the last few years and I’ve seen a few researchers complain they can no longer get what they want.  Again, if any readers know specifics I’d love to hear.

That last section may seem tangential to many readers, but its not.  Its actually the most exciting and exacting source for an accurate assessment of combat effectiveness.  For me, as a reader of history but not original documents (that is often stated as, I read secondary sources but not primary ones), this first became clear in the mid 1980s when I read “The First Team” by John B. Lundstrom.  This was an exciting revelation to me, and the first book of its kind as far as I know.  Apart from being a terrific accounting of US Navy fighter operations in the first six months of the Pacific War, the writer cross referenced the combat reports of US Naval Aviators with those of their Japanese counterparts.  In one electrifying section titled “The 1st Chutai Meets Butch O’Hare” he breaks apart one of the most famous early encounters of the war.  He puts names on the pilots and crew of every bomber in the 1st Chutai and where they were placed in formation on February 20, 1942.  He proceeds to plot every attack, every firing run Butch O’Hare made against them. John Lundstrom was the first writer to change O’Hare’s claims from the five he was credited with during the war to three kills and two damaged.  And he can name names to prove it.  I was first mildly disappointed to see a hero “downgraded”.  But the more I read, well, that is silly.  Actual combat losses rarely exceed half the “confirmed kills”.  And O’Hare’s accomplishments actually become more extraordinary the deeper we look at the situation.
Other writers, like British historian Christopher F. Shores have made a science of this sort of writing.  We now have highly accurate accounts of aerial campaigns in the Mediterranean, Singapore and elsewhere thanks to his team.

Modern standards of research have become extremely high.  We can often identify victors and victims, even on an epic scale, with reasonable accuracy.  The overall trend seems to be about two officially confirmed kills for every actual kill.  Some cases are wildly different.  Big, confusing scrapes may cause many overstated claims.  Japanese claims seem to more out of proportion than other combatants and it hurt them.  Other commanders (Famously Bill Halsey at Leyte Gulf) got themselves in some trouble by accepting pilot claims without a thorough vetting process. Most modern books will do a good job of separating the wheat from the chaff.  Serious combat intelligence is often reasonably accurate.  But beware of books, especially wartime books, that rely too much public information or press accounts (propaganda).
Wartime accuracy claims were often as marginal as the weapons themselves, but accurate information is usually available if you look.
The best summation would be that credited kills typically ran about two to one* over actual destroyed opponents; but this was generally much worse early in the war and improved over time. British and American air forces seem to have done the best, especially later in the war.  My inclination is to rate the Luftwaffe similarly but some recent information suggests they were less capable than I had assumed (see discussion below).  Japanese accuracy was pretty dismal.  I’m uncertain about Soviet accuracy.

  • – The more I’ve read about this, I think “three to one” may be closer to accurate. Although there is a great need to know, for internal purposes, what an accurate accounting of things is; there is also a morale and propaganda motive in promoting top aces. Often, as a pilot gains fame/notoriety the claims were less closely examined. Not only only that, but no surprise that often the top aces are thoroughly aggressive personalities. Although presumably most pilots gave their honest best accounting of events, there are a number of well documented braggarts and liars too (in every air force).

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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25 Responses to How Sure are You?

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Just read the introduction and I already like it…

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Just read this…
    Next week I expect to have a post up on my FM-1 Wildcat. I hope to eventually do a companion piece to this essay on “the Value of an Ace”; that is, just how much the “hot” pilots actually contribute compared to the “average” pilot.

    Just can’t wait…

  3. A really interesting and thought provoking post. I guess there will never be a truly accurate account of numbers, particularly where more than one ‘shooter’ claims the kill. This begs the question why do we keep such records, yes morale of the crew is important and it may even encourage ‘competition’ between them, but who uses it at the end of the day? Historically speaking, it is a valued way to recount battles, moments and successes, but that is only as accurate as the information you have. Cross referencing is one way, but records, particularly German ones, are few and far between. This could go in and on. I look forward to the next instalment. Andy

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah it really is impossible to know what was accomplished in many cases.
      As far as what it’s good for, I think it’s really vital in many cases to those making plans. It provides an accounting of what works and what doesn’t. And it’s the starting point of knowing how strong your opponent is. When we get down to assigning credit for kills it’s a little more esoteric. But morale DOES matter, and it provides an official measure of who’s doing it right and providing recognition. Since recognizing kills is usually a by-product of the assessment there’s little reason not to.
      As for latter day writers taking it a step further by comparing records I think it accomplishes two main things; 1) is just about the credibility of the writer, it proves they aren’t just accepting one version or account and are making the effort to reconcile multiple accounts of an event and 2) establishing credibility of the event itself. So many people respond to written history with cynical or glib words about bias or power; but by reconciling the records of everyone concerned we can end up with a more thorough history that honors all participants.

      Thanks for a thought provoking reply to my post! It makes things interesting when we have to dig a little deeper.

      • You’re right of course on both accounts. I have found myself, that the figures quoted between sources is often so very different and it is necessary to dig much deeper to get a clear and accurate picture of what truly went on. That in itself is difficult, but both a challenge and very rewarding when you do substantiate the facts. I look forward to more!

      • atcDave says:

        Cool, I look forward to posting more!

  4. jfwknifton says:

    A really interesting post. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  5. …good stuff Dave.. although you allude to it, you managed that whole article I think without once mentioning the word ‘overclaiming’ – claims by themselves are worthless IMHO – it is losses that historians need to study as you suggest. In the heat of combat the ability to attribute specific losses to specific claimants, and thus tally up a score, becomes increasingly problematic as the O’Hare re-assessment indicates. By the same token, many claims were probably made in good faith and yet were entirely without any real foundation. ‘Friendly fire’ is also a not insignificant factor in air combat. Trying to work out “who got who” and who really “got the most” is pretty much a futile task. For example of the high Luftwaffe scorers there were doubtless a number who over-inflated their tallies. Thus Michulec in ‘Luftwaffe Fighter Aces in the West’ (Greenhill) refers to Helmut Wick – JG 2 Kommodore for a brief period during the Battle of Britain- as the ‘greatest liar in the Luftwaffe’. While JG 2 may have been one of the Luftwaffe’s leading fighter units, over-claiming was endemic in this unit as detailed at this link for the summer of 1941.

    And when everyone and his dog continues to state that Erich Hartmann had ‘352 kills’ I just groan inwardly.. here’s a piece I wrote about his ‘overclaiming’ in the Luftwaffe..

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah there are some notorious cases of over-claiming. Didn’t Marseille once claim like 17 kills in a day, that exceeded total RAF losses for the day theater wide? Or the famous Barbour/Lanphier feud over who got Yamamoto. Of course much of this was flat out lying (Lanphier almost surely knew he didn’t score the kill). In a case like Erich Hartmann I’m willing to say he’s “officially credited” with 352 kills and just know it may be significantly in error.
      And you know there’s also pilots like John Thach, Jim Howard and Richard Bong who peers claim scored MORE than they ever claimed.
      I was actually trying to avoid the trouble making! I think during wartime the 2 to 1 inflation rule works well enough once the initial assessment is done; that is, it’s wise to assume you actually got about half of what the intelligence assessment says you got. That covers MOST of those unknown events including lying.
      Gun cameras helped with this a lot, and in the later part of the war it was generally a required part of a kill confirmation, at least for US (and RAF?) it was.

      Post war we can do a lot better sorting out the details, although as mentioned, German and Japanese records will be incomplete forever. And Soviet records seem to only be available at the whim of the current regime. So much we can never be sure of, but at least in the current climate we can know pretty well what we know and what we don’t know.

      BTW, your comments shouldn’t normally go to moderation. But multiple links often trigger the spam filter so I had to approve it manually. No big deal, just wanted you to know what happened.
      I do have your site book marked, but I wish you posted on Word Press! The Word Press site reader and following utilities are pretty spiffy, but they don’t work with Blog Spot!

    • atcDave says:

      I would say both of your provided links are fascinating. I hadn’t realized how exaggerated Hartmann’s claims may be. Its funny, I knew the higher levels of Luftwaffe Intelligence were pretty poor, but I’m surprised that’s true down to the operational level. Its seemingly at odds with their generally high capability and professionalism.
      Especially since the staggering destruction they did to the VVS at the start of Barbarossa is confirmed by Soviet records. Its easy to think of them as a soft target throughout. But of course, much like the US experience against the Japanese, early operational weakness is not a good indicator of what came later.

    • atcDave says:

      Oh hey, I heard Hartmann later went to work on clean diesels for Volkswagon…

      That might have been funny if I’d been a little quicker with it!

  6. Great post Dave. ‘Kills’ are certainly a contentious subject. The system for recording them has always been of interest to me, especially the methods used to confirm a kill (the US Air Force Vs Luftwaffe and their very different methodology being a good example). Ilmari Juutilainen scored 94 confirmed aerial combat victories, and was the highest scoring ‘non-German’ ACE of WW2, the Finns used quite an accurate system to confirm kills when compared to other nations, I wrote an article on his combat career when I lived in Finland:

    • atcDave says:

      Finnish professionalism is extraordinary on so many levels. They get my vote for most over-achieving combatant of WWII.

  7. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Most interesting comments made.

  8. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Reblogged this on Lest We Forget II and commented:
    Another interesting article by Plane Dave.
    Check out the comments section also.

  9. Pingback: The Value of an Ace | Plane Dave

  10. Pingback: Minor Update | Plane Dave

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