It may seem ghoulish to use the metric of total ‘kills’ (enemy aircraft destroyed) to determine the most successful squadron of the Second World War, and though in that world of blood and fire it is a meaningful determinant, Eddie Rippeth has also considered other factors. As with any top 10, this is a discussion starter rather than a definitive answer. The squadrons mentioned here certainly displayed extraordinary bravery and skill, and were also in the right time and place to accrue heavy losses on the enemy.
Which fighter squadrons were most successful for the allies? This top ten started as an attempt to list the top squadrons by numbers of kills. However, that would mean six of the top seven scorers would be RAF, and would squeeze out US squadrons, which of course fought a shorter war. In addition, most of the information available on the USAAF is at fighter group level. Fighter groups contained three squadrons, so in order to compare like with like, the top ten includes the best individual squadrons within US Fighter Groups. With at least five USAAF fighter groups exceeding 600 victories, logic suggests that there’s a lot of USAAF squadrons hidden in the 200-250 kill range. So our three chosen USAAF squadrons are representative of a number of high-scoring squadrons, and are chosen partly out of interest, similarly with the inclusion of Polish and Canadian RAF squadrons.
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So this isn’t strictly a top ten by scoring alone. All of the squadrons mentioned had a significant strategic impact and are worthy of consideration for that reason alone. And of course, a caveat must always be made for the ‘confirmed’ victories assigned to each squadron. Over-claiming happened, but the numbers here assume this wasn’t a particular problem with any of the squadrons. And of course, the numbers matter less than the fact that they all helped achieve real strategic success.
The Soviet Air Force is unfortunately not represented, simply due to the lack of information available. That said, honorary mention should be made for the Red air force’s Normandie fighter wing, where exiled Free French pilots flew Yaks with great success from 1942 onwards. An honorary mention also goes to one of the most iconic fighter units of all, the American Volunteer Group, the Flying Tigers. The Flying Tigers were subsumed into the USAAF’s 23rd Fighter Group, but it’s very difficult to track the continuity of a single squadron in such a situation. And a final honorary mention to 332nd Fighter Group – the Red-Tails, whose successful formation and operational achievements marked a great step in the US civil rights movement. All three of these units merit a place on a list about fighting units, but with the information available, it’s difficult to make a case for one of their constituent squadrons. But I’d be happy to be corrected on this score.
So the rundown, from number 10:
10. RCAF 401 Squadron – 186.5 kills
401 Squadron was the top Canadian outfit, which arrived in England as Number 1 squadron in June 1940. It saw some action in the Battle of Britain, although its first kills were Bristol Blenheims in a friendly fire incident. Nonetheless, it ended the battle with 30 kills. The squadron was renumbered 401 in 1941 and was heavily involved in Channel sweeps, with occasional heavy losses, including on one occasion being bounced by Adolf Galland’s Staffel, losing five aircraft. However, the conversion to the Spitfire IX meant an uptick in 401’s fortunes and saw this squadron through to the end of the war. As part of the Canadian Fighter Wing (commanded by Johnny Johnson), it was heavily involved in clearing the skies above Normandy in June, and the squadron would prove to be the highest-scoring RAF and RCAF squadron in the campaign, with 112 kills, including one bag of three Arado Ar234 jets shot down over their airfield. The squadron’s top scorers were William Kersley (14.5 kills) and John McKay (12).
9. No. 303 ‘Warsaw’ Squadron, RAF
Like the Tuskegee Red Tails, 303 Squadron has recently been immortalised on celluloid with the movie Hurricane, following a short cameo in the 1969 film Battle of Britain. The squadron was formed in early August by assembling Polish veterans who’d escaped after the 1939 invasion under the leadership of Durham-born Squadron Leader Ronald Kellett. 303 famously got off the mark on August 30th when a training flight led by Kellett encountered some Luftwaffe bombers, with Ludwig Paszkiewicz shooting one down (actually a Bf 110 heavy fighter). They were made officially operational the following day, when they scored four more victories. Highly motivated, skilful and aggressive, 303’s Hurricanes tore into Luftwaffe formations day after day, with several aces emerging in the battle – led by Czech Josef Frantisek (17 victories), Witold Urbanowitz (14), Jan Zumbach, Zdzislaw Henneburg and Eugeniusz Szaposznikow (8 apiece). On both 15th and 27th September, the squadron claimed 15 kills, although it would suffer the loss of its top scorer, Frantisek in a flying accident on 8th October shortly before it was rested. In its 42 days of action, 303 had achieved 126 kills, highest scoring squadron in the battle. 303 remained in England as part of the Home Defence, switching to Spitfires and taking part in circuses and rhubarbs and air cover for the disastrous Dieppe raids. It had several new aces in this period, such as Boleslaw Drobinski and Miecyzslaw Adamek, and ended the war flying Mustangs as bomber escorts. The squadron achieved 204 kills, by some way the highest-scoring Polish squadron in the RAF.
8. USMC VMF121 ‘The Green Knights’
The US Marine Corps had as early as 1912 begun experimenting with aviation as an essential part of the Marines’ armoury, and their raison d’etre of amphibious and maritime assault. The first great test of this aviation arm came at Guadalcanal, with the establishment of the so-called ‘Cactus air force’ at Henderson Field in August 1942 (alas, the evocative name owes its origins to a code-name not the tropical vegetation surrounding Henderson). VMF-121 and its F4F Wildcats joined the fray in October 1942, having been catapulted off the decks of escort carriers from 350 miles away. The Green Knights immediately joined battle with Japanese army pilots and aircraft at their peak, with Joe Foss emerged as a leading ace as Marine pilots gradually got the upper hand. Foss would go on to be the first American to match Eddie Rickenbacker’s WW1 score of 26 kills (and got sent home). VMF121 fought in many of the Marines’ great Pacific island-hopping campaigns, ending the war at Peleliu flying Corsairs. The squadron totalled 208 kills in the war, with Foss leading 13 other aces, with Bill ‘Guts’ Marontate next (13 victories).
7. USAAF 431 Fighter Squadron – 212 kills
The premier P-38 Lightning squadron in the Pacific, the 431st was part of the 475th Fighter Group, set up in Queensland Australia in May 1943 to support the campaign in western New Guinea, at the time teaming with Japanese army aircraft. After several uneventful escort missions that month, the ‘Twin-tailed devils’ ravaged a Japanese formation, claiming its first 12 victories. This was the first of a number of engagements with large Japanese formations in which the Lightnings scored highly, and this trend continued as action moved to New Britain and Bougainville.
Within 431st squadron, two pilots emerged as leading aces – the squadron commander, Thomas B. Maguire and Charles F. McDonald. During August 1944, the group hosted celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh, who asked MacDonald if he could join a ‘milk run’ mission with 431st. Unfortunately their formation was attacked and Lindbergh ended up nearly colliding with an Oscar, which then crashed. Poor MacDonald got the rap for endangering the national hero, and a one-month grounding. In October 1944, the Group moved to Morotai to take part in the invasion of the Philippines, where once again they scored highly, with Maguire becoming the second leading US ace of all time (behind Richard Bong of the 49th Fighter Group). Tragically Maguire was killed executing a low level combat manoeuvre in action in January 1945, with 38 kills. The 431st served out the remainder of the war in the Philippines, with MacDonald reaching 27 kills, all with the squadron.
6. USAAF 61st Pursuit Squadron, ‘Zemke’s Wolfpack’ – 232 kills
The first US fighter group to start bossing the Luftwaffe around over Occupied Europe was 56 Group, with the huge and rugged P47 Thunderbolts. The group would prosper under the brilliant leadership of Hubert Zemke, and of its three squadrons, the most successful was the 61st Pursuit, whose members included the two top US aces in the European Theatre, Robert S.Johnson and the squadron’s leader, Polish-American Francis Gabreski. Flying out of Debden in Suffolk, its first missions were fighter-bomber sweeps along the lines of the generally ineffective Circus and Rhubarb missions, and escorting the earlier 8th Air Force raids as far as Belgium.
An early shock was the first meeting with Fw190s, with heavy losses but Zemke’s influence would quickly reverse this, and by the end of 1943, 56 Group was by far the highest scorer in the 8th Air Force. Uniquely, Zemke and his pilots refused the opportunity in the New Year to switch to P51s. Escort duties continued, thanks to new fuel tanks, but following D-Day, more and more emphasis was given to ‘targets of opportunity’ on the ground, and the group’s P47s ran up an impressive total of vehicles, trains and aircraft strafed to destruction – a task for which the tough and hefty ‘Jug’ was very well suited – but not invincible. On 5 July, and Gabreski was brought down by flak while strafing, and he spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft I. With Johnson already dispatched home to sell war bonds after grabbing his 27th kill, both Group and squadron’s prodigious rate of scoring aerial kills slowed a little, although by the end of the war, the 61st Pursuit Squadron had managed 232 of 56 Group’s 665 kills.
- USAAF 487th Pursuit Squadron – 235 kills
The 487th Squadron was the top USAAF Mustang squadron, and part of the US 352nd Fighter Group of the US 8th Air Force. They were soon nicknamed the ‘Blue-Nosed Bastards of Bodney’, after the tiny, unassuming hamlet in Norfolk where they were based from July 1943. Initially flying P47s, the first kill for the 487th came in November for John C.Meyer, who would become the squadron’s commander and one of its two outstanding aces. The squadron and group operated mainly in providing escort for the growing 8th Air Force bombing campaign, being heavily involved in the pivotal Big Week in March 1944.
It was after this that the squadron switched to Mustangs, and scores really started to mount, notably for John C.Meyer and a recent arrival from the 49th Fighter Group in the Pacific, George E.Preddy, who would score six kills in a day on August 6th. Preddy was rewarded with command of the 328th Fighter Squadron, and was killed when shot down by friendly anti-aircraft on Christmas Day. In the meantime, the whole group had said goodbye to Bodney and been moved to Asche in Belgium in time for the Battle of the Bulge. On New Year’s Day 1945, the 487th had its day of days, after John C.Meyer managed to get his squadron in the air to tackle the huge Luftwaffe surprise attack on Asche air base (part of Operation Bodenplatte). While the group’s other Mustangs were being bombed, the 487th had shot down 24 of their assailants and was awarded a Distinguished Unit citation. 487th squadron flew its last mission on May 3, 1945 with Preddy and Meyer classed as the two top Mustang aces, with 26.83 and 25.5 kills respectively (Meyer’s all with the 487th).
4. No. 85 Squadron RAF – 278 kills – Nocto Diuque Venamur
(“We hunt by day and night”)
The RAF’s 85 Squadron had a remarkable record both in daylight and after dark. It began the war as one of the BEF squadrons based in France, flying Hurricanes with South African ace Albert Lewis top-scoring before being thrown into the Battle of Britain, with new Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, later of Princess Margaret fame. With pilots exhausted and Townsend injured, the squadron was withdrawn for conversion to night fighting. In short order, it used Hurricanes, Defiants and even boasted the only Douglas Havoc ace, Canadian Gordon Raphael, in fighting the Night Blitz of early 1941.
However, it would be the conversion to Mosquitos that would bring the squadron its greatest successes. This occurred as the Luftwaffe mounted a series of short night bombing offensives in 1942 and 1943, with the great nightfighter ace John ‘Cats Eyes’ Cunningham in command during this period. In early 1944, 85 played a key role in the defeat of the final German (piloted) bomber campaign – Operation Steinbock, helping to decimate the remaining Luftwaffe bomber fleet. They then turned to night intruder missions, supporting RAF bombing raids for the remainder of the war. Branse Burbridge dispatched no fewer than 16 Luftwaffe ‘nachtjagers’, including an incredible four in one night over Bonn in November; partly as a consequence, RAF Bomber Command losses would tumble in late 1944. Burbridge managed 21 kills in total and was by some way 85 Squadron’s top scorer – he was also the top allied night-fighter ace, just pipping Cunningham. Among 85’s numerous other aces were Alan Owen (9 kills in Mosquito night-fighters) and the top German-born RAF ace, Manfred von Czernin, who scored 5 of his 15 kills with 85 Squadron during the fall of France.
3. US Navy VF15 Squadron – 315 kills (‘Fighting Aces’)
The US Navy’s remarkable VF15 Fighter Squadron was in being for scarcely two years in its entirety, being formed in September 1943 and disbanded in October 1945. Almost all of its action took place within a six-month period from May 1944, after being assigned to operations on board USS Essex. Its commander at inception, David McCampbell, was a 33-year-old pilot who had been serving as a signals officer on the USS Wasp – where he’d have waved off Spitfires heading to Malta during Operation Bowery, and had survived its sinking just five months later. In February 1944, McCampbell was given command of a whole air wing – the so-called ‘Fabled Fifteenth’, including torpedo and dive bombers. Nonetheless, he kept flying his Hellcat, the US Navy’s brutally effective new fighter to extraordinary effect.
VF15’s first operations were over Saipan and Wake Island, with several pilots, including McCampbell, opening their accounts in early June. However, the June 19th clash with the Japanese at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, saw VF-15 fully involved in perhaps the greatest air battle in the Pacific, with the squadron racking up an incredible 68.5 victories in a single day (US Navy fighters claimed 388 kills that day). The legend of the ‘Great San Marianas Turkey Shoot’ was born. Very much at the heart of this was McCampbell, who shot down five ‘Judy’ dive bombers in his first sortie of the day, and rounded off with two Zeros. Two other VF15 pilots, George R.Carr and the squadron leader, Charles Brewer, shot down five each, although in Brewer’s case he was one of the few US casualties of the day. The IJN would be crippled by the losses inflicted on the day, but further opportunities for the men of VF-15 arose over the next couple of months over Guam and the Philippines. McCampbell’s score reaching 19 by the end of September, and James Rigg and George Duncan both achieving ace status. October saw the great sea battle at Leyte Gulf and VF-15’s Hellcats blitzed the remnants of the IJN’s air force, with McCampbell destroying 9 Japanese fighters (the highest total in a day by any US fighter pilot) and his wingman Roy Rushing getting six. The air battle continued in the Philippines for several more weeks, before moving to Iwo Jima, Okinawa and finally off the coast of Japan in the last months of the war. By this time, Japanese aircraft were far less numerous – but more deadly in the form of kamikazes, one of which struck the Essex on November 25th, removing VF15 from action for a month while it was repaired. A result of this was more emphasis on strafing attacks on Japanese airfields, which VF15 proved adept at. The appropriately nick-named ‘Fighting Aces’ ended the war with 315 victories, with McCampbell (34 kills) heading 28 aces, including Rushing (13.5), Duncan and Wendell van Twelves on 13.
2. No. 92 Squadron RAF – 317.5 kills
Aut pugna aut morere
(Latin for ‘Either fight or die‘)
How does a squadron which began the war with Bristol Blenheims end up as second-highest score of all? The answer is to quickly switch to Spitfires – which was done in May 1940, and they stuck with them throughout the war, except for one short period in the desert. After a very quiet Phoney War, the war came to life with 92 Squadron on May 23, 1940 with its first two patrols near Dunkirk. The squadron was bounced twice, losing four aircraft, including its squadron leader Roger Bushell, who would find immortality as ‘The Big X’ of The Great Escape fame. Nonetheless, this was a squadron blessed with talented pilots, including Robert Stanford Tuck, Brian Kingcome and Tony Bartley (continuing the Hollywood theme, Bartley became a film producer who would later marry actress Deborah Kerr). As a result, they emerged from Dunkirk with an impressive record, not least on the final day of the evacuation where they mauled a formation of Heinkel 111s, claiming 11 victories.
The Battle of Britain saw them continue as one of the RAF’s best fighter squadrons, with the arrival of another great ace, Donald Kingaby, and by the end of 1940, the squadron had amassed well over 100 victories for the year. 92 Squadron spent 1941 flying circuses and rhubarbs over the Channel, a time of pointless losses and questionable victory claims. In April 1942 the squadron was posted to Egypt – although their Spitfire VBs only followed about three months later, and their initial ops were flown in Hurricanes. Once reunited, 92 Squadron was the most effective of the 244 Desert Fighter Wing’s squadrons, with Jeff Wedgewood the leading ace until his death in December. Wedgewood had been on board a Halifax en route home for leave and a new posting, which crashed near Malta in December. The desert ace Neville Duke arrived in January as a flight commander, and he and the squadron scored heavily in the final battles over Tunisia, taking part in the ‘Palm Sunday massacre’ of Luftwaffe transports over Cap Bon. 92 then fought all the way through Sicily and the Italian campaign, and counted 17 aces and 317.5 kills by the end of the war, with Kingaby (an aggregated 17.16 victories) edging Neville Duke (16) as top scorer.
- RAF 249 Squadron – 320 kills
Motto: Latin: Pugnis et calcibus – With fists and heels.
All of the squadrons listed here made exceptional contributions to winning the war. Our winner, 249 Squadron, might just have been the single squadron that made the difference at the pivotal time and place when the war (at least in Europe) turned in the allies’ favour. 249 Squadron was created in a hurry in May 1940, initially being equipped with Hurris, then slated for Spitfires, and finally Hurricanes in time to play a role in the Battle of Britain. The squadron had an intense baptism of fire during the Battle of Britain, where it was one of the most effective Hurricane squadrons, with Tom Neil and Robert Barton leading scoring. One of its pilots, James Nicholson would win Fighter Command’s only Victoria Cross when despite his aircraft being in flames, he pressed home his attack to destroy a Me 110. Another outstanding effort came from Albert Lewis, fresh from 85 Squadron, who shot down six Luftwaffe aircraft in a single day on September 27th. Unfortunately, like Nicholson, Lewis’s battle was ended a few days later after suffering severe burns when shot down. The squadron then took part in some of the early Circuses in 1941, but in April was given a posting to Malta, which had been suffering the attentions of the Luftwaffe as well as the Regia Aeronautica since the turn of the year. To get there, 249 Squadron’s Hurricanes were shipped to Gibraltar, where they were transferred to the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, and flown off to Malta, without losses. For the first few months, things were relatively quiet, as the Luftwaffe withdrew its squadrons to fight in the Balkans, Greece and then the Soviet campaign.
However, the Luftwaffe returned with a vengeance at the turn of the year. A more welcome arrival was 249’s new Squadron Leader, Canadian Stan Turner, whose withering assessment ‘either we get Spitfires here within days, not weeks, or we’re done,’ contributed to Sholto Douglas finally releasing Spitfires for overseas usage. Spitfires were flown in several batches from carriers Eagle and Wasp from March onwards. The Spitfires arrived in time to counter three massed Luftwaffe offensives against the island, with the first in April and May, in which 249’s aces included Kiwi Raymond Hesselyn, Australian Adrian Goldsmith and Greek-Rhodesian John Plagis. The next few weeks saw two significant new arrivals, a young Pilot Officer, George Beurling, joining 249 and a new AOC for Malta, Keith Park, just as the Luftwaffe campaign was ratcheting up again. Both had an immediate impact – Beurling scoring 15 kills in the month of July, while Park implemented a thorough shake-up in fighter tactics from 25th July which caused such losses that Kesselring gave up the bombing campaign just six days later. It wasn’t the last of the Luftwaffe – they would launch a last gasp major offensive in October, which once again was beaten back with heavy losses by 249 and the other Spitfire squadrons. Beurling and two more Canadian pilots, McElroy and ‘Timber’ Woods all scored heavily in these later air battles. As a result, Malta was saved, Rommel’s supply lines were cut, leading to German and Italian defeat in North Africa.
One inevitability in such an intensive environment where air battles were interspersed with bombardment day and night on the ground was the need to rest and replace pilots every three or four months during the height of the siege in 1942. Hence the aces of Spring, like Hesselyn and Goldsmith gave way to a new cast of aces for the July and October offensives, like Beurling and McElroy. However, flying out pilots on leave on large transport aircraft from the besieged island was fraught with risk – and on 31st October, a number of pilots and ground crew were killed when their B24 Liberator crashed on take-off from Gibraltar, with George Beurling one of the few survivors. 249 Squadron continued to fly from Malta into 1943, with pilots like Californian John Lynch, who led the way in helping decimate Junkers Ju52 transports evacuating Tripoli, and who scored the RAF’s 1000th victory from Malta. Thereafter the Squadron fought over Sicilly, before being posted to Brindisi in southern Italy, flying ops over the Yugoslav coast – a much quieter sector, although one which saw the loss of ‘Timber’ Woods at the end of 1943. The squadron ended the war with over 320 victories, and 21 aces altogether, led by Buerling (27.33), Tom Neil (12.58) and Ray Hesselyn (12).
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Sources: Aces High Christopher Shore / Clive Williams (Grub Street); American Fighter Aces Association website; Stephen Sherman’s Acepilots.com; Aces of WW2.com; Wikipedia; Air Battle over Dunkirk, Norman F.Franks; 475 Fighter Group website; John Foreman RAF Fighter Command Claims 1939-40; 1941-42..