The War in the Air - Air Aces of World War One

British air ace Captain Albert Ball The First World War introduced a new form of battleground: to ground and sea warfare could now be added aerial conflict.  Nascent aircraft technology was quickly and relentlessly developed to produce machines capable of serving each country initially in reconnaissance missions (ideal in conditions of trench warfare) and later in fighter and bombing raids.

The air war threw up a new breed of fighter, and in general the Allied and Central Powers' governments proved quick in exploiting the successes of their airmen for propaganda purposes (although the British were less inclined to trumpet the Royal Flying Corps' achievements, with one or two notable exceptions).

The French government was the first to award the distinction of 'ace' to those of their fighters who had demonstrably downed five enemy aircraft.  Independent confirmation was a strict requirement however, which often posed a practical difficulty in crowded dogfight circumstances.

Charles Nungesser, French air aceThe German government quickly followed, specifying however that eight (later sixteen) 'kills' were required for a pilot to be considered an ace and eligible for the prestigious Pour le Merite award.

Britain - and later the U.S. - followed the French example, although both were more lenient in allowing 'probable' victories to count.  The British Distinguished Flying Cross was available to those pilots who had scored at least eight victories.

Most victories were scored in the crowded skies above the Western Front.  Even then reliable statistics are not easy to come by: figures for the other fronts (e.g. the war in the East) are even more unreliable.

It was routine for pilots to claim 'kill' figures notably higher than their official figures.  Some units also instated regimes whereby 'easy' targets were to be left to the leading aces, thus further boosting their totals (much to the resentment of junior pilots).

The table below lists the top twenty airmen of the war.  The 'Red Baron', Manfred von Richthofen, scored the highest number of victories of the war, although Frenchman Rene Fonck was the highest scorer to survive the war.

Links are provided to pages containing biographical sketches of individual pilots.  Click here for a full listing of those available on this site.  Click here to view this site's section specific to the air war.

Top 20 Fighter Pilots

Pilot Score
Manfred von Richthofen 80
Rene Fonck 75
William Bishop 72
Ernst Udet 62
Edward Mannock 61
Raymond Collishaw 60
James McCudden 57
Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor 54
Georges Guynemer 54
Erich Lowenhardt 54
Donald MacLaren 54
William Barker 52
Josef Jacobs 48
Werner Voss 48
George McElroy 47
Robert Little 47
Charles Nungesser 45
Fritz Rumey 45
Rudolf Berthold 44
Albert Ball 44-47

Top Aces by Nation

Country Pilot Score
Germany Manfred von Richthofen 80
France Rene Fonck 75
Canada William Bishop 72
UK Edward Mannock 61
South Africa A. Beauchamp-Proctor 47
Australia Robert Little 47
Ireland George McElroy 47
Belgium Willy Coppens 37
Austria-Hungary Godwin Brumowski 35
Italy Francesco Baracca 34
USA Eddie Rickenbacker 26
Russia Alexei Kazakov 17

By 1918 the percentage of women to men working in Britain had risen to 37% from 24% at the start of the war.

- Did you know?

War in the Air