Top 10 RAF fighter aircraft of World War II ranked by number of ‘kills’
Top 11 RAF & Commonwealth warplanes of World War 2 Ranked by Total number of air-to-air victories
Which Royal Air Force aircraft type scored the most kills in World War 2? We ranked RAF and Commonwealth warplanes of the Second World War using a brutally simple metric: how many enemy aircraft they shot down. Assembling the information for this proved fiendishly complicated, but Eddie Rippeth (Hush-Kit’s tamed numbers-man) did it*. The results are extremely surprising in several cases.
Mired in the morass of war and the chaos of counterclaims, the exact numbers are up for debate. Some numbers are crude estimations based on best available sources, while others are well documented. If you can offer solid data that can improve this list, please add it in the comments section along with information about the source. These are best estimates based on the victory records of aces and near-aces, checked against squadron numbers – exactly as I did with the Spitfire count. And obviously these are confirmed victory claims – not confirmed enemy losses. Though sporting words like ‘score’ and ‘victories’ may put us in a cooly comparative or even recreational frame of mind, it must be remembered that any score was marked in gore and grief.
*A little more on how he did it at the end.
Before we start with the RAF aircraft, let’s get the Royal Navy’s top scorer out of the way, the Fulmar.
- Fairey Fulmar (1940) – 112
Aces: Stanley Orr 9 (of 10.5); Jackie Sewell (Eng) 8 (of 9.5); Graham Hogg (Sco)
The very similar cousin of the disastrous Fairey Battle, the technical performance of the Fulmar was every bit as modest, yet it outscored the Corsair, the Hellcat, the Wildcat and carrier versions of the Hurricane and Spitfire. As a concept, the long-range two-manned carrier fighter proved effective in the North Atlantic, and surpassed any reasonable expectations when it got embroiled in the air battles around Crete and Malta in early 1941. Only once, taking on Zeros in the attack on Ceylon, did it take anything like a beating. Elsewhere in the hands of superb FAA aces like Orr, Sewell and Hogg, it downed a good number of Italian and German bombers with minimal losses.
We cheated and added a number 11…
11. Boulton Paul Defiant (1937) – 148 victories
Leading aces: Edward Thorn 12.33; Nicholas Cooke 10; Michael Young 9.83
Opinions vary on the Defiant. Some see it as the one of the worst fighters of World War 2; others regard it as a very well-designed aircraft servicing a flawed concept – that as a bomber destroyer it only needed rear-facing guns. Some even argue that it was the victim of a conspiracy led by Keith Park and Hugh Dowding. The Defiant had one spectacular day of success over Dunkirk on May 29th, 1940, with 39 (or 38) claimed victories, but it was soon found wanting and after heavy casualties in the Battle of Britain, both squadrons were withdrawn. The Defiant then found work as a night-fighter, to which it was far more suited. It was a top scorer in the Blitz of 1940/41 until the development of on-board radar, where its single-engined layout precluded effective adaptation. Nonetheless, on its day of days, Nicholas Cooke and his air gunner, Albert Lippert, claimed eight victories plus two shared – an RAF record.
10. North American P-51 Mustang (1940) – 185 victories
Leading aces: Maurice Pinches 6.33; Basilios Vassiliados (Gr) 5.83; Eugeniusz Horbaczewski (above) (Pol) 5.5 (of 16.5)
The RAF commissioned the Mustang and was its first user. The RAF deployed Mustangs in cross-channel operations (including Dieppe) to modest effect, but a number of squadrons, including 122 and the Polish 315, were equipped with the new Mustang IIIs in early 1944, where their main tasks were tackling V1s and escorting Coastal Command Beaufighters. Their finest moment came when 315 Squadron, led by the great Polish Battle of Britain veteran Eugeniusz Horbaczewski tackled 60 Fw 190s. 16 Fw 190s were shot down, but Horbaczewski was killed in the battle.
9. Hawker Tempest (1942) – 239 victories
Leading aces: David ‘Foobs’ Fairbanks (US) 12.5, Pierre Clostermann (Fr) 12; Warren ‘Smokey’ Schrader (NZ) 9.5
The Tempest, built as a thin-winged and more reliable successor to the Typhoon, was fortunately free of the Typhoon’s vices, and was among the fastest fighters of WW2. Initially deployed in 1944 as a V1 hunter, it shot down more pilotless bombs than any other type (638). It was also active in post-invasion Europe, where it was used to great effect by aces like Fairbanks, Clostermann and Schrader, who led the highly successful 486 RNZAF squadron. Tempests were also notable for the number of Me262s they shot down.
8. Hawker Typhoon (1940) – 246 victories
Leading aces: John Baldwin (Eng) 15.5, Charles Detal (Bel) 6.5, Remy van Lierde (Bel) 6
The troubled replacement for the Hurricane, the Typhoon’s excellent low-level performance meant it did two things rather well: ground attack, particularly during the invasion of Normandy; and intercepting low-level fighter-bomber ‘Jabo’ raiders. However, it suffered heavy casualties in this role – which, when coupled with early technical failings, gave the Typhoon an unenviable reputation. Of the aces, John Baldwin stands out, although his superb record of aerial kills was interrupted by involvement in two tragedies. First, he led his squadron in an attack on a mine-sweeping flotilla, sinking two vessels and crippling a third, only to discover that they were RN ships that had failed to identify themselves. Second, on 3 May 1945, Baldwin’s wing was involved in another anti-shipping operation, sending three liners believed to be packed with German troops to the bottom of the Baltic. Instead, several thousand concentration camp prisoners were drowned.
7. Avro Lancaster (1941) – 320 victories
There are three Lancaster air gunner aces: Wallace McIntosh 8, C. Sutherland 7; Bradford 6
Not a fighter, but with participation in so many massive raids, coming under relentless attacks by a highly effective night fighter arm, the Lancaster bomber with its three air gunners did claim some successes.
The 10 best fighters of World War 2 here
This is a crude estimate of claims, based on actual Luftwaffe night fighter losses. These were surprisingly high, with at least one nachtjager lost for every four RAF bombers shot down, even during the Battle of Berlin, which is regarded as their biggest victory. By the end of 1944, more night fighters were being lost than bombers. The majority of these were through accidents, with the rest split between air gunners and ‘bomber support’ Mosquitos and Beaufighters, although the latter became much more significant from mid-1944. While air gunner claims in daylight tend to lead to massive overclaiming (sometimes of the order of 10 to 1 and higher), paradoxically night claims tend to be more accurate, as actions tend to be one-to-one (rather than involving large formations, leading to many gunners making multiple claims on the same aircraft); and serious damage (involving explosions / flames) is easier to see, while light damage much more difficult to discern. For this list, I’ve not included other numerous bomber types like the Halifax (with one air gunner ace) the Wellington and the Bristol Blenheim (which had some fighter kills as well as one air gunner ace), which probably also amassed over one hundred claims, but I would be happy to receive more information on this (please add verifiable sources in the comments section).
6. Gloster Gladiator (1934) – 304 victories
Leading aces: Marmaduke ‘Pat’ Pattle (SAf) 15; William Vale (Eng) 11; Joseph Fraser (Eng) 9.25
Obviously, everyone knows everything already about the Gloster Gladiator, don’t they?
So, what nationality was the first pilot to score a kill in a Gladiator?
That’s right: American. John ‘Buffalo’ Wong, flying in the Chinese Air Force in 1938, shot down a Mitsubishi A5M, long before the ‘Flying Tigers’ had even been thought of. This kind of cosmopolitanism is typical of Britain’s last fighting biplane, as the Gladiator was little more than a convenient stop-gap to keep fighter numbers up until sufficient quantities of Hurricanes and Spitfires came on stream and was thus released for export at a fairly early date.
Curiously, the Gladiator pops up in an unusual number of far-flung and unequal conflicts where it was forced to operate (invariably heroically and to great propaganda value) in the face of numeric and technological superiority – thus conveniently mirroring the general experience of the biplane fighter in World War II. Flying for the Chinese against the Japanese, for the Finns against the Soviets, for the Belgians against the Luftwaffe and, most famously, for the RAF against the Italians over Malta, the Gladiator stoically defied the odds. More prosaically, when operated in numbers against a similarly equipped enemy, it performed excellently. A similar situation to the CR.32/I-15 situation in Spain developed over Africa, where it clashed regularly with the Fiat CR.42, which, though slightly faster, did not handle as well as the Gloster. Despite being the RAF’s last biplane fighter, it was also that service’s first fighter to sport an enclosed cockpit. There are not many aircraft that were simultaneously in the vanguard of development while being totally obsolete.
The Gladiator biplane produced the RAF’s first ace of the war, the Rhodesian Caesar Hull, during the Norwegian campaign. The biplane fighter went on to run up quite a total in the Mediterranean and in East and North Africa, usually against Italian biplane opposition, with two squadrons, 80 and 33, standing out. By the time the Luftwaffe got involved, the Gladiator had largely been replaced by Hurricanes, and escaped any serious maulings by the far more potent Me 109.
The 10 worst British aircraft here
5. Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk / Kittyhawk (1938) – 680 victories
Clive Caldwell (Aus) 20.5 (of 28.5); Billy Drake 17.5 (of 24.5); James Edwards 15.83 (of 19.08)
The best early-war American fighter made a major difference in the harsh environment of North Africa, where its low-level performance and ruggedness contributed to its success as a fighter-bomber. All its RAF scores were achieved in North Africa, where it supplanted, and in some squadrons replaced, the Hurricane as a fighter and fighter-bomber, particularly following the arrival of the Kittyhawk in 1942. Caldwell was just pipped as top ace in the theatre by Lance Wade (Hurricane / Spitfire). The ‘Star of Africa’ Hans-Joachim Marseille claimed to have shot down 96 P-40s – the highest number of any single type shot down by a single pilot.
4. de Havilland Mosquito (1940) – 835 victories
Branse Burbridge (Eng) 21; Charles Scherf (Aus) 14.5; John Watson Allen (Sco) 14
The fast, elegant Mosquito entered service a little later than the Beaufighter, and finished the war as the greatest night fighter of all time. Low drag, a light airframe and a high power-to-weight ratio combined with heavy firepower to create an aircraft that was both versatile and survivable.
I’ve seen figures of 478 and 600 attributed to the Mosquito, however my analysis of confirmed claims shows 523 ace kill claims, with aces accounting for, on average, 63% of kills in key Mosquito squadrons like 85, 418, 488 and 219 – so this higher number is solid. Mosquitos as night fighters had a much lower overclaim than single-seat fighters. The lower published figures might allude to night fighters only (Mossies flew Day Ranger missions with some success as well), or perhaps a measure of confirmed Luftwaffe losses.
Note that John Watson Allen aced in a day in Sicily in a Mossie in June 1943, destroying four Ju 88s and a CANT Z.1007 Alcione, although arguably more impressive was Canadian Robert Kipp’s haul of four Focke-Wulf Fw 190s in a single night intruder mission over Munich (top Mossie ace Branse Burbridge also destroyed four Me110 night fighters in a single mission).
3. Bristol Beaufighter (1939) – 965* victories
Leading aces: John ‘Bob’ Braham 19 (of 29 on all types flown); John Cunningham 16 (of 20); Robert ‘Moose’ Fumerton 13
The biggest upset in this list was the startlingly high score of the Bristol Beaufighter.
It was the most heavily armed fighter in the world when it entered service, with four 20-mm cannon and six .303 machine guns. The twin-engined Beaufighter was a malevolent thug of a plane, causing carnage in all theatres on land, sea and air. Beaufighter pilots became aces all over – as premier night fighters from 1940-43, taking part in daring night intruder missions; as Coastal Command long-range fighters over Biscay and Atlantic; in Burma; and as a key element of the RAAF against the Japanese in the Pacific. In the Mediterranean they were used to great effect as a heavy fighter, notably intercepting air transport during daylight and scoring heavily against German and Italian bombers by night over Malta, North Africa, Sicily and Italy. On April 30th, Alwyn Downing aced in a day by bringing down five Ju 52s in one of these massacres.
For a British aircraft it was surprisingly easy to escape from in an emergency. Both crew had a large entry hatch in the fuselage floor. When opened it also served as a windbreak. The pilot simply lowered the rear of his seat and could then just drop out backwards, while the observer rotated his seat to the rear and could leap straight down and out. Page 38 in the pilot’s notes has an explanatory diagram.
Then there’s the alleged Japanese ‘Whispering Death’ nickname…which was made up. “And it was in Burma that the Beaufighter acquired its legendary nickname, ‘Whispering Death’ – a soubriquet which, despite the many versions of its origin published in the past, actually originated as the whimsy of an RAF officers’ Mess in India.” – Beaufighter at War, Chaz Bowyer, 1976, Ian Allan
The Air Ministry tried to royally fuck it up by fitting a turret to it (they did that to the Mosquito too). What else? I love the Beaufighter – the Mosquito was obviously better but the Beaufighter is so brutally unsubtle, it’s compelling. I want one. I hope that the one that’s been under restoration at Duxford seemingly forever actually gets to fly eventually.
*The total figure here is higher than I’ve seen published, but I’ve checked in some detail the individual squadron scores, so it is likely to be pretty accurate.
2. Hawker Hurricane (1935) – 4540 victories (RAF only)
Leading aces: Marmaduke Pattle (SAf) 37 (of 51); Frank Carey (Eng) 26.5; Michael Crossley (Eng) 21
261 aces with RAF, RAAF, RN, SAAF, etc. Not included are 300-plus victories with the Red Air Force.
Hurricanes gained more aces in a day than any other RAF aircraft – and arguably had the first ace in a day of any country in World War 2, with Australian Les Clisbie in France on May 12 edging the first Luftwaffe pilot (unless one includes Sino-Japanese and Finnish Winter Wars). South African Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis was first to ace-in-a-day twice, nine days before Helmut Wick. And the top RAF ace of all, Pat Pattle, scored the bulk of his victories in the Hurricane. Not only that, but Germany’s top ace for the allies, Manfred Czerzin, scored all of his 15 victories in a Hurricane, while the fabulously famous children’s author Roald Dahl achieved acedom in a Hurri too, as recounted in his autobiography, ‘Going Solo’.
The Spitfire’s rugged partner, which some claim was the real winner of the Battle of Britain, struggled without its more photogenic brother-in-arms in Greece and Malaya.
- Supermarine Spitfire (1936) – 5950 victories (RAF only)
The beautiful Spitfire divides opinion between those who view it as an actual war-winner and those who see it as a shameless attention-grabber always turning up to claim credit for someone else’s victories. But contrary attempts to knock its from it perch can’t deny it was a potent interceptor, a beast of a dogfighter and future-proofed to the point that it fought with ferocious efficacy from 1939 to 1945.
It was a front-line fighter throughout the war, with notable campaigns in Dunkirk, Britain, the Channel, Malta, North Africa, Sicily / Italy, Burma, Australia, and from Normandy all the way to Berlin. Top aces include J.E. ‘Johnny’ Johnson (Eng) 36.91, George Buerling (Can) 31.33 and Adolphus Malan (SAf) 29.5.
Notably, it fought in most theatres where British forces won – and was absent during defeats, with some of the last aces of World War 2 flying the godlike Spitfire XIV. Top British ace of the War, Johnny Johnson, and created two aces in a day – Kiwi Brian Carbury, during the Battle of Britain, and Canadian Richard Audet in a Spitfire IX on 29 Dec 1944.
USAF and Red Air Force kills are not counted here (440 in all).
Disclaimers These are best estimates based on victory records of aces and near aces and checked against squadron numbers – I used exactly the same system I did with the Spitfire count. And obviously these are confirmed victory claims – and not confirmed enemy losses.
No unmanned aircraft/missiles included in scores – but I have figures for V1 victories by type here
Tempest – 638 (Joseph Berry 59, Remy van Lierde 36.5)
Mosquito – 623 (Francis Mellersh 39, Edward Crew)
Spitfire XIV – 305 (R.S. Nash 16.5)
Mustang – 232
Others – 158 (including Gloster Meteor with 14)
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Thanks for a very well researched article. Your writing skills made it a pleasure to read; an attribute less common these days
My late father was an electrical fitter in the RAAF during the second world war. He said the Beaufighter was one of the easier aircraft to service, although, as with many British aircraft, it had its share of knuckle scraping crevices to contend with. No doubt training on the Beaufort first helped in this regard.
Reblogged this on Calgary Recreational and Ultralight Flying Club.
I would be curious to see a comparative analysis of victory ratios i.e. kills to numbers of aeroplanes in service
It’s a bit unsurprising that the list is dominated by the longest-serving fighters. They had many more opportunities to get kills than, eg, the Mustang.
Correction requested in the comment about Polish fighter Horbaczewski. His last name was mispelled several times.
Thanks for flagging this, will check it now.
rugged hawker hurricane
I ship hurricane and spitfire