There is a surfeit of statistics concerning World War II. Concerning fighter pilots, the stats show that the Germans were the best. By my rough estimate, the average tally of kills by RAAF and USAAF aces was in the mid-teens. Pilots quibbled over who was the best, based on differences of a single digit. By contrast, German aces could number their scores in the hundreds. Erich Hartman is the world’s highest-scoring ace, with 352 planes shot down; Gunther Rall had 275; Walter Krupinski scored 197; Johannes “Macki” Steinhoff’s tally was 176; yet Adolf Galland, the commander of the fighter arm of the Luftwaffe, tallied only 104. Note that a “kill” refers to the aircraft, not the people in them. A bomber generally had ten people in it while a fighter had only one or two.

There are several reasons I surmise that German pilots had a higher number of kills. First, they had more experience. Even before the War began, the Luftwaffe was training its pilots under the guise of being a flying club. Pilots were sent to help Franco in the Spanish rebellion. By contrast, the Allies generally lacked that practical experience. It was a difference that was redressed toward the end of the War when, because of the lack of defenders, newer German pilots only received about 10 hours’ training.

Second, they spent more time in the air. They flew more frequently than the Allies; up to eight hours a day – the exception to this was the Battle of Britain (July to October 1940) when the British were overflown. Also, being the aggressors, German pilots were flying in the invaded countries before the British and Americans entered the War. Added to this, the Germans had to fight on two fronts – west and east – or three, if we include the Allied assault up through the Mediterranean.

A third reason for the higher scores of German pilots was technical superiority. After World War I, the Allies began a process of disarmament – in the case of Germany, forcibly – so that by December of 1941, the US military was only the 13th largest in the world. Hitler breached the restrictions in the Treaty of Versailles on the build-up of the German military, and in the early years of the War, the German navy threatened Britain’s rule of the Atlantic.

A corollary of disarmament is the lack of innovation in military defence. German rearmament enabled research into more effective weapons. Although the Allies would soon match German equipment and develop breakthroughs of their own (such as radar), the advantage gained by the German pilots in the interim helped them to damage the Allies’ air forces as well as become familiar with the limitations of their improved technology.

A fourth reason was that the Allied fighters in Europe were, for the most part, based in England. The fighters had to travel a long way – over the Channel – to reach Germany,
while the fighter bases of the Luftwaffe were closer to their targets: Poland, France, Greece, Russia and so on. Before the P-51 fighter, the Mustang, the Allies had no long-range fighters, and even the Mustang needed extra fuel tanks to be able to accompany the bombers to their targets in Germany.

Still, whatever the reasons, those scores are a phenomenal achievement.