aviation during World War One

The Aces - Austria
The Aces - Belgium
The Aces - British
The Aces - French
The Aces - German
The Aces - Italian
The Aces - Russian
The Aces - USA

The Aces of WW1

Germany's top ace, Manfred von Richthofen America's top ace, Eddie Rickenbacker Belgium's top ace, Willy Coppens
France's top ace, Rene Fonck Britian's top ace, Edward Mannock Italy's top ace, Francesco Baracca
World War one aviators were seen as more than soldiers, they were the Knights of the sky The faces of the top rated aces on the Western Front

Top Row: Manfred von Richthofen, Eddie Rickenbacker, Willy Coppens
Bottom Row: René Fonck, Edward Mannock, Francesco Baracca

Roland Garros and the air Aces

At the opening of the war, France held the lead in the air with the most aircraft and the most experienced pilots. Aircraft were used mainly for reconnaissance, but in the early days of 1914 aerial reconnaissance reports (such as those detailing the German advance through Belgium as General von Moltke outflanked the French and British armies) were ignored.

The Allies were just barely able to recoup and, this time believing aerial reports, halted the German advance at the Maine River, along which both sides dug in for a long standoff. At first, spotters who rode as passengers waved to enemy aircraft; soon they used pistols and rifles to try and shoot down their adversaries. This was totally ineffective given all the buffeting and vibrations the spotter would experience even in a smooth flight. (The rotary Gnome engines were highly efficient and reliable, but the fact that the entire engine rotated with the propeller meant the aircraft experienced a great deal of vibration.)

The solution was thought to be machine guns. The French Hotchkiss, the Belgian Lewis, the British Vickers, and the German Spandau and Parabellum were all well-crafted weapons that allowed gunners to spray the enemy with a barrage of fire, increasing the chance of a hit. But this was a very limited solution, first, because the gunner was at the mercy of the pilot’s sudden manoeuvring, and second, because a very important target area right in front of the plane was eliminated from the gunner’s field of fire.

By 1915 Curtiss Jenny Trainers were outfitted with synchronized machine guns, but they were not as reliable as Fokker planes.

The Morane-Saulnier Type N planes were equipped with deflector plates

The British were already advanced in machine gun technology thanks to Maxim. Eventually, the Lewis gun gave airplane gunners lethal range and flexibility.

Some work had been done before the war in developing a mechanism that would allow the pilot to aim a machine gun through the whirling blade of a propeller without destroying it, but it had proven unreliable. The solution to the problem came about as a result of a collaboration between the French aircraft designer-builder Raymond Saulnier of the Morane-Saulnier firm and the world-famous aviator Roland Garros, who had been the first to fly solo across the Mediterranean in 1913, using a Morane-Saulnier Parasol.

These two men developed a deflector shield for the propeller blade that would deflect rounds. Garros tested the device on a Parasol airplane against four German fighters on April 1, 1915. The German fliers were stunned by Garros’ ability to simply aim his aircraft and fire in a direct line to wherever he was pointing. An added feature incorporated the firing mechanism onto the joystick, giving the pilot easy control of both the flight and the shooting. On April 19, Garros’ plane was forced down behind enemy lines and he was captured before he could destroy it. The Germans were now in possession of the secret, but there was no need to copy it, thanks to a capable airplane builder and entrepreneur named Anthony Fokker, with a lethal secret of his own.

The first “aces” (an unofficial title given to fighter pilots who had shot down five enemy aircraft) were Garros and Adolphe Pegoud, the aerobatic pilot who had demonstrated loops and dives before the war. Garros escaped in 1918 and returned to service, only to be shot down and killed later that year. Pegoud died on August 15, 1918, while on a reconnaissance mission.

The only German aviator in the early stages of the war was Ernst Udet, later to become the second highest rated German ace. Udet began the war in an Aviatik B, used mainly for spotting, and then flew the faster “D” planes built by Siemens-Schuckert. (Udet committed suicide in 1941 rather than continue as a spokesman for the Luftwaffe.)

The only British aviator to emerge at this stage was Lanoe Hawker, winner of the Victoria Cross for defeating three German aircraft from his Bristol Scout. Hawker was to become an important architect of Allied air power, but at this stage there was little a plane could do other than bombing and bringing down the air-ships (“sausages”) the Germans used to guide artillery fire, and a plane could do this only while heavily protected by ground-based anti-aircraft fire (“Archie”) and by fiery artillery shells (“flaming onions”).

The aces rapidly assumed important roles in strengthening public morale and bolstering support for the war effort. Their images sold war bonds, and they visited factories and schools. They were the subject of newspaper and magazine articles. Some published best-selling autobiographies, such as Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s The Red Battle Flier in 1917 and Oswald Boelke’s Hautpmann Boelckes Feldberichte published in 1916.

Other pilots who died in combat, such as Max Immelmann, had their collections of letters published. The ace symbolized everything people thought a warrior should be. They followed the moral code of war which many felt had been forgotten in the trench war by the land troops. In some ways this was true. Flyers respected each other’s abilities, even if they were the enemy, because each knew the difficulties and dangers that others faced in the sky.

In no country was this public role more important than in Germany. Before the war, the government had worked hard to promote the zeppelin as the aerial weapon of the German people, successfully gaining massive public support. But as the war progressed, the airplane proved to be a more effective weapon, and the government needed to shift popular support away from the zeppelin. For this they used the aces, promoting them as modern knights—brave, daring, and chivalrous--who embodied all that was best about the German warrior. The nation’s highest military honour, the Pour le Merite, was given to aces. They dined with princes. Children collected trading cards with their images. When Oswald Boelke died, he was given a funeral worthy of royalty. The German public loved the aces and threw their support behind the airplane.

In keeping with their image of modern knights, many of the public believed that aces would stop firing when his opponent ran out of ammunition or in some way could not fire back. But pilots said they rarely did this. In fact, in his autobiography, German ace Manfred von Richthofen (the "Red Baron") said he once made the mistake of allowing a pilot with a jammed machine gun to land in order to be captured instead of killed. When von Richthofen landed beside the plane, the downed pilot suddenly opened fire on him. Having been tricked once, von Richthofen decided never to be gullible again and always fought until the plane had crashed with a dead pilot.

Manfred von Richthofen was the most famous ace of the war.

Aces almost always preyed on two-seat reconnaissance planes or anyone else who was unlikely to defeat them. The picture of two knights jousting often depicted in stories of the aces, even on book covers and recruiting posters, was largely fictional. German doctrine said to attack only when there was an advantage. The aces who survived were always careful and never reckless. Thus, battles between two aces were rare, and even in those unusual cases where two pilots engaged each other in battle, the airplanes or machine guns involved were rarely equal.

The possibility of earning the title of ace was a strong incentive for these competitive and proud pilots to risk their lives repeatedly, spurring many through their first months of combat. Once they had become aces, the lure of medals and prestige continued to drive them. When compared to other military groups, combat pilots won a disproportionate number of military medals. Also, solo pilots, away from the eyes of a commanding officer or co-pilot, could engage the enemy without the threat of court martial or other punishment.

"Mick" Mannock of Great Britain routinely shared victories with other pilots or didn't bother submitting claims for enemy aircraft he'd shot down in combat. After selflessly sharing his 61st victory with Donald Inglis, a newcomer from New Zealand who had yet to score, Mannock was killed when his aircraft was shot down in flames by machine gun fire from the ground. Inglis was also brought down by ground fire but survived.

The downside was that many pilots took extreme risks. Of the 20 highest scoring aces, 12 were killed in action. (Incidentally, the top five American aces, led by Eddie Rickenbacker with 26 victories, survived the war.) The higher ranked an ace was, the more often he had placed himself in extreme danger to achieve his military goals, and the greater the probability that he would die fighting. For many pilots, death was the only way to stop their climb in the rankings.

Rene Fonck was the highest scoring ace for France and the Allies.

For many World War I aviators, however, death arrived not through the enemy but through the equipment that took them into battle. It was said that the Sopwith Camel killed more British pilots than the enemy did because of the airplane’s handling problems. The Fokker DR.V’s top wing had a tendency to peel off in flight. These dangerous airplanes, plus the lack of pilot experience and the absence of parachutes, made a deadly combination.

Georges Guynemer was France's most popular ace.

Whatever the realities, the aces became the heroes of the war. And they have passed into the pages of modern mythology. They presented a vision of war based on past virtues like chivalry and decorum. But they were also modern-day heroes: they flew machines instead of riding horses, and many were from the middle class, not the aristocracy. This new age meant men such as Georges Guynemer, a weak, sickly son of an insurance salesman, could become a national hero and be memorialized in the Pantheon with other French heroes like Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Marie Curie. And in his death, Guynemer reached an unsurpassed level of mythology--his airplane simply disappeared during a dogfight in September 1917. Neither the airplane nor Guynemer was ever found. In the minds of the French, their great hero simply flew into the heavens, like a Greek god.

aces with more than 40 kills





Manfred von Richthofen Germany


Rene Fonck France


Edward Mannock Great Britain (Ireland)


William Bishop Great Britain (Canada)


Ernst Udet Germany


Raymond Collishaw Great Britain (Canada)


James McCudden Great Britain


A. Beauchamp-Proctor Great Britain (South Africa)


Donald MacLaren Great Britain (Canada)


Georges Guynemer France


William Barker Great Britain (Canada)


Erich Loewenhardt Germany


Werner Voss Germany


Raymond Little Great Britain (Australia)


Philip Fullard Great Britain


George McElroy Great Britain (Ireland)


Charles Nungesser France


Fritz Rumey Germany


Albert Ball  Great Britain


J. Gilmore Great Britain


Rudolf Berthold Germany


Paul Baeumer  Germany


T. Hazell Great Britain (Ireland)


Joseph Jacobs Germany


Bruno Loerzer Germany


Georges Madon France


Oswald Boelcke Germany


Franz Buechner Germany


Lothar von Richthofen Germany


Godwin Brumowski  Austria-Hungary


Ira Jones Great Britain