Which Allied Fighter scored the most victories in World War Two? I believe I know the answer

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c4/Supermarine_Spitfire_MkIIa_%26_North_American_P-51_Mustang_13_%285969192356%29.jpg
One of these fighter aircraft scored more air-to-air victories than any other Allied aircraft. Photo: Ronnie MacDonald/wiki

There is a popular idea that the P-51 or Hellcat scored the most victories of all the Allied fighter aircraft. What is the truth? Edward Rippeth believes he knows the answer to what many would consider an impossible question to answer.

By Edward Rippeth

For whatever reason, there is no published Spitfire count of victories – or at least not one I could find. It is in this apparent absence of this vital information, people have laid claim that the better documented Mustang (attributed 5599 kills) and the Hellcat (a very precise 5173 kills) are the top-scoring aircraft. However, it is my view that there is enough evidence to prove that the Spitfire achieved the edge in terms of total victories in World War II. And please note, this article is based on confirmed claims, not admitted losses by the Axis. Perhaps the real figures are lower, maybe by 25- to 30%, but that applies to both US air forces as well as the RAF. But my base assumption is that neither the RAF nor US Air Forces were more or less prone to over-claiming.

So the case for the Spitfire rests on four key elements.

1. The diminution of the Battle of Britain

8 Facts About Battle Of Britain You Should Know | Imperial War Museums
CREDIT IWM

Firstly, the Battle of Britain effect serves to negate the Spitfire’s overall contribution. The combination of the Spitfire’s apparently low and second-place tally (behind the Hawker Hurricane), combining with the unique importance of the Battle has overshadowed the Spitfire’s incredible overall contribution to the war. No air battle has been studied so intensely, and at no other point have victory claims been so thoroughly dissected. They were even the subject of UK Parliamentary debate in 1947, with full ‘official’ figures matched to German records published in the permanent Parliamentary record Hansard. This has inevitably brought the number down – with 2600+ claims whittled down to 1733, even though Luftwaffe records also record over 600 damaged aircraft. This means that the Battle history is based on documented Luftwaffe losses – and not confirmed pilot claims, unlike the big scores of the Mustang and the Hellcat. In addition, the more numerous Hurricane scored more kills in the Battle (with over 50% of kills to the Spitfire’s 42%), putting a question mark next to how effective the Spitfire could be. And finally, most tallies use an arbitrary cut-off at the end of the battle which reduces the number of kills significantly.

One measure counts the battle as the intensive period between 8 August and 30 September – during which time the Spitfire scored 529 kills confirmed against Luftwaffe losses, i.e. not a huge number. In fact, for the pilots involved, German raids over Britain started over the Channel convoys immediately following the fall of France towards the end of June, and continued to the end of the year (interestingly, the 1947 Hansard record shows that in the preliminary period and after the start of October, RAF claims were significantly less than Luftwaffe losses). Therefore, in terms of confirmed pilot claims, the Spitfire in fact should be credited with about 1,400 victories for this campaign. This, though, is only the start of the Spitfire’s stellar career, and indeed the major role that RAF and Commonwealth fighters played in the war. Just 23% of RAF fighter victories occurred during the Battle of Britain.

2. The Spitfire fought the whole war

It is a rarely acknowledged fact that uniquely, the Spitfire both started and finished the war as a front-line fighter; only its great rival the Messerschmitt Bf 109 comes close. While the only aircraft the Spit shot down in the first month of the war were Hurricanes in the unfortunate Battle of Barking Creek, it was off the mark within six weeks of World War II starting, with its final kill in its naval Seafire guise out in the Pacific on VJ-Day – six years in which it was, if not always the most numerous, always the pre-eminent fighter plane of the Royal Air Force. In that time the Spitfire fought at Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, had two years of battling over France before providing escort to the early USAAF raids; it also fought and won in North Africa, Malta, Italy, the reconquest of Burma, not to mention continuing to fight in western Europe until VE-Day. Spitfires had likely claimed over 3,000 victories before the Mustang or Hellcat even opened their accounts.

It’s probably fair to say wherever it turned up, the Spitfire won; it is perhaps no coincidence that Spitfires were not present during defeats like France, Greece, Crete, Singapore and the retreat from Burma. It couldn’t have served as the RAF’s number one fighter for so long, without knocking down lots of aircraft – and did so to decisive effect most notably in Malta and North Africa, where the course of the entire war changed dramatically. The pity is that the Spitfire hadn’t been deployed here sooner, which leads us to the one blemish on the record. The Spitfire’s bone-headed deployment in Sholto Douglas / Leigh Mallory’s Circus and Rhubarb raids of 1941 and 1942 with an unflattering loss ratio, due to using this brilliant short-range interceptor in large-formation fighter sweeps and strafing missions.

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By contrast, the Hellcat and the Merlin-engined Mustang both served for less than two years and joined the war when in both Eastern and Western theatres, the early offensive onslaught of the Japanese and the Luftwaffe had been blunted, defeated and put on the defensive – thanks to aircraft such as the Spitfire, the Hurricane, the P40 and the Wildcat. In both cases, these two aircraft were not the only widespread and high-scoring US fighters – the Mustang was sharing its kills with the Thunderbolt and Lightning during the Defence of the Reich, while the Hellcat was sharing with the Wildcat, Corsair and Lightning in the Pacific. Nonetheless, it needs stating – both Hellcat and Mustang ran up massive totals very quickly and achieved a level of dominance over enemy fighters which the Spitfire seldom managed. The Spitfire of course shared its early glories with the Hawker Hurricane, but by April 1942 onwards was replacing it and for the last three years of the war, the Hurricane was very rarely used other than as a fighter-bomber. Thereafter the Spitfire was the key RAF day fighter in all theatres except the open oceans and after nightfall.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b5/Wing_Commander_James_E_%27johnny%27_Johnson_at_Bazenville_Landing_Ground%2C_Normandy%2C_31_July_1944_TR2145.jpg

A lazy assumption I expected to see proven was that from the end of 1943, all the shooting down was being done over Germany by P51s and some by P47s, with Spitfires scarcely getting a look in. Undoubtedly the carnage inflicted by the US fighters was the major factor in the defeat of the Luftwaffe – but it doesn’t cover the whole story. It is clear from the scores of major aces (i.e. those with 12 or more kills) the Spitfire was a significant contributor, with 26% of the aerial kills in this group (the Mustang scores 39%). This was in the main due to the major role Spitfires played in clearing the skies of the Luftwaffe above the battlefields of western Europe post-D-Day. On the 29th June, 1944, the Canadian Fighter Wing led by Johnny Johnson destroyed 26 of the 34 aircraft shot down over the Normandy battle area that day. Further evidence is provided by the impressive number of Spitfire aces in the Northern European theatre between 1943 and 1945 – with Johnny Johnson himself claiming more kills than any other allied pilot (30 of his 38 total) in this campaign, with a pack of others including Canadians Don Laubman and William Kersley, Frenchman Pierre Clostermann, Englishman Stephen Daniel and Kiwi Johnny Checketts all achieving dozens of kills in Spitfires.

Defence of the Reich’ aces

Johnny Johnson (Eng, Spitfire) 30

Francis Gabreski (US P47) 28

Robert S.Johnson (US P47) 27

George Preddy (US P51) 26.83

John C.Meyer (US P51 / P47) 25

Pierre Clostermann (Spitfire / Tempest) 23.5

3. Statistics and more statistics – the scores of aces

Vue de l'avion.

While there isn’t a definitive ‘score’ for the Spitfire, the available statistical evidence points to the Spitfire shooting down more planes than its rivals. There are several ways to look at this. One available source is the scores of significant aces. While the top positions are broadly shared, significantly more RAF and Commonwealth aces than US aces have achieved more than 12 or more kills – 164 to just 125; a breakdown of totals for each of the aircraft types among these aces sees the Spitfire strikingly far ahead in terms of victories with the Hurricane in second. The Hellcat scores notably less on this measure, and is in fifth place behind the Mustang and Thunderbolt. Why the advantage to the RAF planes here? This is probably due to RAF aces being more likely to return to the fray than US aces and doing two or more tours over the course of a longer war. A lot of US pilots had only a short period of a few months to get their scoring in; this is reflected in the mission counts – for example, Robert S.Johnson flew 89 missions for his 27 kills – compared to Johnny Johnson’s 515 for 38 kills.

Total scores for 12-plus aces by aircraft type

Supermarine Spitfire1272.7
Hawker Hurricane919
North American P51 Mustang651.5
Republic P47 Thunderbolt375.2
Grumman F6F Hellcat328
Lockheed P38 Lightning293

Overall, the combined RAF total of aces is behind the US total (918 against 1,234). This is using the strictest criteria for RAF aces – i.e. at least five confirmed kills, with shared kills aggregated. However, the split by different aircraft types shows the Spitfire is top of the pile by number of aces, with the Hellcat ahead of the Mustang on this measure, the Hurricane and the Thunderbolt a little way behind. Another very telling split is that of the US aces, just 476 aced in the west; against 891 for the RAF. The Pacific was a much bigger theatre for US fighter aces.


Fighters listed by number of aces and their total kills

AircraftAcesAce Kills
Supermarine Spitfire3412967
Grumman Hellcat3052185
Mustang2742116
Hawker Hurricane2612230.5

If the victory totals of all aces are counted up, the Spitfire’s lead holds, but it’s closer. Thanks to the detailed breakdowns of individual ace scores in Shore / Williams Aces High, it is possible to very precise about the RAF ace scores and which aircraft the aces scored in which plane. This makes it very clear that one popular claim, that the Hurricane outscored the Spitfire, is incorrect. I’ve also added ace totals for the Mustang and the Hellcat, and this shows the Spitfire remains very clearly out in front on this measure – because more pilots became aces in the Spitfire, and of these aces, many more were high scorers. As you’d expect given the US has more aces, the combined total score of all RAF and Commonwealth aces is 7,983, significantly less than the US total – 9,341.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk - Wikipedia

What the research also shows is that RAF pilots tended to switch their aircraft type more often than US pilots. A lot of Hurricane pilots from the Battle of Britain converted to Spitfires, or in the Mediterranean campaign, moved from Gladiators to Hurricanes and / or Tomahawks, and in plenty of cases moved from day fighter squadrons to night fighter squadrons where they ended up in twin-engine Beaufighters and Mosquitos. So aces in other planes may also have scored in Spitfires. The Williams and Shore record doesn’t stop with aces, they also include ‘near’ aces or pilots with some kind of claim on five aircraft, including probables and shared victories. Counting the scores of aces in other planes and ‘near’ aces, the Spitfire’s score moves up to 3,593, with the Hurricane on 2,730. And that’s the limit for logged confirmed RAF claims in the public domain for these two aircraft without having to dig through gazillions of archives.

4. The missing statistic – the non-ace scores

Polish Pilots and the Battle of Britain
Hurricane pilots of the Battle of Britain

The ‘known known’ is the aces’ scores and for the Spitfire, the near aces’ scores; the unknown is a number for those under the waterline – all those hundreds, possibly thousands of pilots who shot down aircraft but not enough to achieve ace status. During the Battle of Britain, 2,937 pilots flew at least one sortie during the battle. Of these 178 were aces in the battle, and over 400 of these would become aces at some stage of World War 2, compiling over 3,500 kills. What of the other 2,500 pilots? What we do know is that 2,741 claims were registered up to October 31st, with about 400 more up to the end of the year. The Battle’s 178 aces scored 1,386 of these, and by my count, Shore and Williams logged 1,967 kills by WW2 aces and near aces. Therefore about 1,170 kills were claimed by non-WW2 aces – or 37% of the total. Is this ratio typical? Possibly not – very different circumstances may lead to a different ratio; pilots in a theatre like China-Burma-India with relatively little air combat (it saw just 20 RAF and C’wealth aces) are likely to see a proportionately much higher contribution by non-aces. But by getting to the non-ace percentage across the whole war, we can make an accurate estimate of all kills by the RAF and Commonwealth, including by plane type – and get to our Spitfire total.

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To do this, there is one further set of data. Squadron total claims, which are also available for many but not all RAF, RCAF, RAAF and SAAF squadrons. For example, the RAF’s second-highest scoring squadron, 92 Squadron, has 317.5 claimed scores, of which 204 are listed as by aces or near aces, i.e. 36% are ‘unknown’, i.e. very close to the Battle of Britain. However, some squadrons, like the South African 1 Squadron which fought primarily in North Africa, have over 50% unknown. A sample of ten squadrons shows well over 40% of kills are unlisted. Assuming this proportion is not affected by fighter type (and only two of the sampled squadrons did not use Spitfires at some time), this means that we can produce a final total for the Spitfire and Hurricane.

The victory totals of the US fighters accords with non-ace data for the USAAF Fighter groups and USN and USMC fighter squadrons. These show that non-aces for each squadron amount to about 62% of total kills – so the Mustang’s ace total of 2117 becomes 5570 – almost identical to the published number of kills for the Mustang (5599). So the squadron information effectively confirms the published numbers for US aircraft: the large gap between ace kills and total kills for the Mustang and the Hellcat has an explanation. The information on US aces doesn’t consistently include breakdown by aircraft type, and there’s no handy list of ‘near aces’, but I’ve put together a table including examples of US squadrons and fighter groups and RAF squadrons – including just the squadron ace totals, so it compares like with like. What it shows is that USAAF Fighter Groups tend to have higher non-ace scoring proportions than the RAF, which nonetheless tend to be greater than 50% of a squadron’s kills. What is also very clear is that high-scoring squadrons in all the air forces have a much lower percentage of kills by non-aces – notably David McCampbell’s high-scoring VF-15 US Navy squadron where they rack up just 31% of kills, even lower than the RAF’s 92 Squadron.

SquadronTotalAces totalNon-aces totalNon-aces %Notes
1 SAAF165.560.8310463.3%Fought mainly North Africa, top ace Kenneth Driver
92 ‘East India’ RAF317.5154163.551.5%17 aces headed by Kingaby, Duke, Tuck and Bartley
112 RAF2068811857.3%Shark’s teeth motif. 12 aces headed by Billy Drake.
264 RAF13875.3362.6645.4%First Defiant squadron; nightfighters from 1941.10 aces headed by Thorn, Cook and Young
331 RAF (Norway)114654942.7%All-Norwegian; 9 aces headed by Svein Heglund
23 Fighter Group62122040164.6%Top Asia-Pacific fighter group. Formed from Flying Tigers, China-Burma-India. 30 aces including Herbst, McComas, Older and ‘Tex’ Hill.
325 Fighter Group52018533564.4%North African and Mediterranean fighter group, headed by Herschel ‘Herky’ Green.
354 Fighter Group70132038154.4%Top European fighter group. 40 aces headed by Eagleston and Beerbower.
US Navy VF-14146519565.1%8 aces headed by William Knight (7.5k)
US Navy VF-15310214.595.530.8%Top-scoring US Navy squadron, headed by McCampbell (34), Chamberlain (13.5)
US Marines VMF-1212081149445.2%US Navy squadron, 22 aces

So how many victories did the Spitfire get? By adding the uncounted scores, the RAF and Commonwealth Spitfires scored 5,988 kills. This puts the aircraft just ahead of the Mustang on 5599.

However, there is one further set of scores that I could factor in, which is scores of the fighter types with other air forces. The Spitfire was flown by the USAAF, the Mustang by the RAF (as was the P47), and the Hellcat by the Royal Navy. Hurricanes were flown quite extensively by the Russians. Figures given for the USAAF Spitfire is 350, and the Royal Navy Hellcat 50. The Mustang has 110 kills listed for eight RAF aces and near aces (mainly Polish pilots but headed by the Greek pilot Bassilios Vassiliados with 5.83 kills), which translates into 185 kills using the 40% for unlisted kills. One last note – the Red Air Force flew Hurricanes in combat, although they weren’t popular. They had 17 aces, which suggests about 300 kills, not enough to close the gap (Red Air Force figures are very sketchy indeed, hence I’ve not included in this analysis). So the final listing is as follows – the Spitfire heading the Mustang and Hellcat. Hence my declaration that the Supermarine Spitfire is the highest-scoring Allied fighter type of World War II.

Aircraft typeKills
Supermarine Spitfire6,338
North American P51 Mustang5,784
Grumman F6F Hellcat5,223
Hawker Hurricane4,850
Republic P47 Thunderbolt3,786

Sources: Aces High Christopher Shore / Clive Williams (Grub Street); American Fighter Aces Association website; Stephen Sherman’s Acepilots.com; Aces of WW2.com; Wikipedia; Most Dangerous Enemy Stephen Bungay.

Edward Rippeth

Head of Primary Publishing, International schools
Cambridge University Press

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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c4/Supermarine_Spitfire_MkIIa_%26_North_American_P-51_Mustang_13_%285969192356%29.jpg
One of these fighter aircraft scored more air-to-air victories than any other Allied aircraft. Photo: Ronnie MacDonald/wiki

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