"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.
Manfred von Richthofen was the most famous ace of the war.
Georges Guynemer was France's most popular ace.
Rene Fonck was the highest scoring ace for France and the Allies.
The Flying Aces of World War I
For many, the "ace" is the most enduring image of World War I. The aces were the top pilots of each nation who had downed at least five enemy aircraft during aerial combat. Their governments promoted them to raise morale; civilians adored them for embodying courage, perseverance, and skill; and the press memorialized them as knights of the air.
The "ace" designation granted immediate recognition to pilots who had distinguished themselves in aerial battle. Although soldiers had received recognition for their heroism on the battlefield for many years, in Europe it was a fairly recent phenomenon for non-aristocratic soldiers to be named by other than their rank and the initial of their last name. In the United States, members of the military had been recognized for heroism since the Revolutionary War, when the Medal of Honor, or "Badge of Military Merit" as it was then called, was created by General George Washington. But this award required congressional action, and it could sometimes take a considerable period of time before worthy recipients received their medals. The "ace" designation was one way for the public to find out immediately about a pilot’s achievements.
Immediate recognition also served to buttress the morale of a nation quickly, and governments began to promptly acknowledge pilots who had amassed a certain number of victories. (Great Britain did not begin this practice until late in the war.) The press was the first to call these heroes "aces," and soon the military started using the title as well. Each country used different victory counts at different stages of the war to determine who qualified for the title. In October 1915, France became the first nation to use the term "ace" and release a pilot’s name after his fourth victory when the papers there celebrated the victories of Antoine Pegoud.
The origin of the term "ace" is not known. One theory is that the term comes from the plural of the letter "A" used to identify "aviateurs" in French military reports. Another theory, which followed a French newspaper eulogizing Pegoud as "l’as de notre aviation," is that the term as, or "ace" in English, was a trendy Parisian term meaning "best" or "top." Whatever the source, the term quickly stuck.
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 honor, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
World War I Aces With More Than 40 Kills
Fritzche, Peter. A Nation of Fliers: German Aviation and the Popular Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Kennett, Lee. The First Air War: 1914-1918. New York: Free Press, 1991.
Lawson, Eric and Jane. The First Air Campaign, August 1914-November 1918. Pennsylvania: Da Capo Press, 1996.
Morrow, Jr., John H. The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909-1921. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian University Press, 1993.
Pisano, Dominick A. et al. Legend, Memory, and the Great War in the Air. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992.
Wohl, Robert. A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination 1908-1918. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.
On-Line Sources and References:
"The Aces of World War I." http://www.theaerodrome.com/aces/index.html.
"Captain Boelcke’s Field Reports." http://www.jastaboelcke.de/aces/oswald_boelcke/boelcke_field_reports.htm
U.S. Air Force Museum: http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum
World War I Aviation: www.wwiaviation.com
World War I Aviation Page: http://members.tripod.com/~Whitehead/