Top 10 USAAF warplanes of World War 2
Over 21,000 Axis aircraft were claimed destroyed in flight by the Army Air Force of the United States in 1941-1945. The vast majority of these were by the top 5 aircraft in this list. Mired in the morass of war and the chaos of counterclaims, the exact numbers are up for debate. And obviously these are confirmed victory claims – not confirmed enemy losses. Though sporting words like ‘score’ and ‘victories’ may put us in a coolly comparative or even recreational frame of mind, it must be remembered that any score was marked in gore and grief.
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15. Seversky P-35 (1935) ‘Thundercrap’
Number of aerial victories: 1 or zero
Despite featuring most of the latest technologies, the first modern monoplane fighter of USAAC had rather pedestrian performance for its time. It was markedly inferior in almost all measurable qualities to the most potent fighter of 1935, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. The P-35 was operated by the Far East Air Force (FEAF) a part of the United States Army in the Philippines (then a colonial territory or protectorate) formed a few weeks prior to the US entry into World War II in 1941. Despite having taken its first flight three months later, the P-35 was far inferior to the best fighter of its time, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. It was the first USAAC single-seat all-metal fighter with retractable landing gear and an enclosed cockpit, but despite these modern features by 1941, the War would reveal the P-35 to be horrifically obsolete. Unlucky pilots of the 34th and 21st Fighter Squadrons of the 4th Composite Group were based at Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines.
Slow, lightly armed with neither sufficient cockpit armour or self-sealing tanks the P-35 was nether-the-less the frontline of defence for the Philippines. As the Japanese invasion began, this lack-lustre monoplane would face the formidable Mitsubishi Zero with predictably dire results. The P-35 force was smashed to pieces on the ground and in the air. Some sources cite a single aerial victory in the defence against Japan, whereas other put the figure as zero. The US was seemingly slow to realise the importance of armour, and the absence of armoured fuel tanks, or any meaningful armour, made the P-35 particularly vulnerable. Some reports credit the P-35 with one kill, others with none. This bitter lesson in survivability was certainly taken onboard by the manufacturer, who under a new name were then developing the astonishingly tough P-47 Thunderbolt.
Intriguingly, both the USAAC and the Japanese Navy had operated the type. In what was seen by many as a ‘dick-move’, the US company Seversky (later Republic) secretly sold 20 2PA-B3s to the Japanese Navy in 1938. Used in the the Second Sino-Japanese War, this two-seat variant of the P-35 was known as the Navy Type S Two-Seat Fighter or A8V1 (Allied codename ‘Dick’).
This is clearly not the place to mention it served with the Swedish air force, but as it looked so beautiful in Swedish colours (colors) I am compelled to share a photo.
14. de Havilland Mosquito ‘Wooden Oner’
Number of aerial victories: 1
An aircraft that managed a single kill in US colours was the magnificent de Havilland Mosquito. The story of it losing a performance trial against the P-61 Black Widow in front of American General Carl Spaatz is somewhat controversial, with some saying the RAF rigged the Mosquito to lose as it didn’t want hand over its brilliant night fighter to the US in large names. Others note that a second trial also saw the P-61 prove superior. Regardless, the exceptional Mosquito did little air-to-air fighting with the two Night Fighter Squadrons (416th and 425th) it served with from 1944.
13. Douglas P-70 ‘Nighthawks in the death diner’
Number of aerial victories: 2
Radars were essential equipment for night fighters, but the US had none of its own. As an interim measure Douglas P-70 Havoc, a cumbersome A-20 bomber fitted with a U.S. version of the British Mk IV radar. The type was unfit for purpose, and largely used for training, but managed to notch up two victories before standing aside for the far superior Beaufighter
Which leads us to the Douglas P-70 Havoc/Nighthawk/Boston/A-20/A-20B/ DB-7 – which had many more names than victories; the P-70 Nighthawk served as a night fighter and managed all of two victories.
12. Boeing YB-40 (1942) ‘Flying Fortmess’ – 3 victories
Number of aerial victories: 3
This fighter is, as you have no doubt spotted, a B-17. Imagine ‘mixing it’ with the 109s in this. In 1942 the Eighth Air force thought they might create an effective escort by slinging a massive amount of guns into a bomb-free Flying Fortress. No aircraft has ever flown with such a formidable defensive armament. Unfortunately this made the aircraft so draggy and heavy that it couldn’t keep up with the bombers it was supposed to be protecting.
11. Boeing P-26 Peashooter (1932) ‘Jesus versus the Zeroes’
Number of aerial victories: 4
The P-26 deserves an honourable mention for this tiny, trail-blazing monoplane fighter of the 1930s fought tenaciously for the Chinese Air Force in the Sino-Japanese War with John Buffalo Huang and John Wong Panyang both using the type on the way to acedom. Almost all the P-26s had been decommissioned by Pearl Harbor but there was a squadron left on the Philippines commanded by Jesus A.Villamor, which valiantly fought a massed formation of Zeros and a G3M. They shot four aircraft down and Villamor was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Oak leaves cluster. A magnificent way for a historic plane to bow out, as the aircraft would soon after be burned to prevent capture.
10. Curtiss P-36 Hawk ‘Curtis may field overly conservative fighters’
Number of aerial victories: 6
Flying 23 days before the Messerschmitt Bf 109, Curtiss were pretty quick into the game of modern fighters with all the mod-cons. Here was a high-performance stressed-metal monoplanes with retractable undercarriages. If anything they were perhaps a little early, arriving before the great Merlin engine was readily available. Our number 10 entry Curtiss P-36 Hawk scores only in single figures. The Hawk proved an excellent fighter for the French – but managed just 6 victories for the US, all during the Pearl Harbor attack, before it quickly stood aside for the superior P-40.
9. Bristol Beaufighter ‘The Bristol Bastard’
Number of aerial victories: 31
When the USAAF formed its first radar-equipped night fighter squadron in January 1943, the only American aircraft available was the rather unsuitable Douglas P-70, a cumbersome A-20 bomber fitted with the U.S. version of the Mk IV radar. The P-70 proved lacklustre, but there was no suitable indigenous design to replace it. Buying British was the solution, and the US adopted the most successful British twin-engined fighter of all time, Thus the first USAAF night fighter squadrons went to war in the Bristol Beaufighter. It proved excellent as a night fighter during the first US deployment in North Africa, Sicily and Italy but was phased out when US night fighter models became available, notably the P-61 Black Widow.
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8. Northrop P-61 Black Widow ‘The Night of the Hunter‘
Number of aerial victories: 126.5
Aces: Eugene Axtell 5, Herman Elliott 5, Paul Smith 5
The first purpose-designed night fighter was the Black Widow, a sinister deathly cathedral of a warplane. Towering above just about anything, fully loaded it was around six tons heavier than a similarly maxed-out Mosquito. The biggest and heaviest true fighter of the War carried an arsenal of four 20-mm cannon, and for the first time since the legendary Boulton Paul Defiant, a four-machine gun turret behind the pilot. But, unlike that of the Defiant, this turret was low-drag, remote-controlled and could fire forwards. The Black Widow scored victories in the West and the Pacific, and created three aces. One of its most notable missions was to fly acrobatics over a prisoner-of-war camp on the island of Luzon, Philippines where hundreds of US prisoners awaited execution – this distracted the guards while a force of US Rangers got into place for a successful seizure of the camp, saving hundreds (this event is depicted in the 2005 film The Great Raid but in the absence of an airworthy P-61, the film has to make do with a Lockheed Hudson instead).
7. Bell P-39 / P-400 Airacobra ‘The Cursed Bell-end’
Number of aerial victories: 320.5
Aces: Bill Fiedler 5; Tommy Lynch 3 (of 20); George Welch 3 (of 16)
The unconventional Airacobra, with its engine mounted behind the pilot, found a desperately unreceptive audience when trialled with the RAF, who promptly sent the aircraft on to the Soviet Union for evaluation. The USAAF weren’t too impressed either and nor were its pilots. A slightly upgraded version called the P-400 became the butt of a joke that it was ‘a P-40 with a Zero on its tail’. In North Africa, the type was primarily used for ground attack, and suffered heavy losses while scarcely scoring. Yet the joke was on the RAF (and USAAF) when the Soviets decided to use it instead of the Spitfire and eventually took delivery of over 4,700. The low-level performance and the large cannon in the propellor hub were ideal for the air battle on the Eastern Front, and the Airacobra is credited with about 6000 claims. Bearing in mind Luftwaffe losses were lower on the Eastern Front than even North Africa and the Med in 1943-44, this is very likely to reflect a very high overclaim factor. Only one pilot aced for the USAAF, Bill Weidler, although a couple of major aces scored with it, including the Pearl Harbour hero, George Welch.
6. Supermarine Spitfire ‘The defaming of the Shrew’
Number of aerial victories: 379
Aces: Frank Hill (7 kills)
Featuring well up the charts is the plane that is obviously the greatest fighter of all time and which equipped two US fighter groups, the 31st and the 52nd, through late 1943 and 1944 in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. In the air battles following Torch, they were involved in probably the last battle when the Luftwaffe was still at its peak, with Focke Wulf Fw190s, Me109Gs and a host of great aces like Muncheberg, Bar, Reinert and Rudorffer. The new American groups did well, the 135-victory Muncheberg was lost in a collision with a US Spitfire, and several aces were created in the Med campaign before the groups switched to Mustangs in mid-1944.
5. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress ‘Fort Knocks’
Number of aerial victories: approximately 2500
“Against 20 Russians trying to shoot you down, or even 20 Spitfires, it can be exciting – even fun. But to curve in towards 40 Fortresses, all your past sins flash before your eyes,” Hans Philipp, JG1 Kommodore, with 206 victories.
B-17 air gunner aces: Michael Arooth 17 (tail); Donald Crossley 12 (tail); Benjamin Warner (waist) 9; Thomas Dye 8 (ball).
While victories by fighter type have been calculated and published, there’s nothing to go on with regards bombers, who undoubtedly shot down a lot of Luftwaffe and Japanese aircraft. So this is a very crude number.
As Hans Philipp’s quote shows, attacking formations of B-17s, each with 13 50-cal heavy machine guns wasn’t a pleasant proposition for fighters – another Luftwaffe ace famously likened the experience to having sex with a porcupine. However, it became rapidly evident during World War 2 that air gunners are much more prone to overclaiming than fighter pilots, probably to the tune of about seven to ten to one actual claim. One anecdote perfectly illustrates this. On an early B-17 bombing mission escorted by Spitfires, the Spitfire pilots reported that no German fighters were encountered, while several Spitfires had been hit (although all returned) by gunners who claimed 25 fighters shot down. However, there is very little doubt B-17 and B-24 gunners did shoot down a lot of Luftwaffe (and Romanian, Italian and Hungarian) fighters and sensible estimates suggest they were responsible for about 12-15% of all Luftwaffe fighters shot down during the ‘Defence of the Reich’, with escorts claiming the bulk of the rest.
I’ve included just one bomber type on this list – but it is highly likely that others could feature in this top ten – like the B-24 Liberator, the B-25 Mitchell and B-26 Marauder. However, information is scant compared to that for fighters. Interestingly the US Navy classifies 306 victories for the Privateer (the naval version of the Liberator) – only the Hellcat, Wildcat and Corsair scored more highly. There are a few B-17 gunners who qualify as aces – and while he didn’t achieve this status, the most famous air gunner of all was one Clark Gable, who flew several missions in a B-17 as a waist gunner. Another noteworthy air gunner was John P Quinlan (tail gunner) who aced with the Memphis Belle (earning a depiction by Harry Connick Jr.). He also flew as tail gunner in a B-29, claiming three more.
4. Curtiss P-40 Warhawk ‘The Carolina Killer’
Number of aerial victories: 2225.5
Aces: Bob Neale 13; John F.Hampshire 13; Bruce Holloway 13; Dave ‘Tex’ Hill 12.25
The one competitive single engine army fighter at the start of the war, its Allison inline engine replacing the Twin Wasp of the surprisingly effective P-36 which was the most effective French fighter in 1940. In fact, the P-40 was the most successful export fighter for the war, performing well for the Soviets, the RAF, South African Air Force, RAAF in North Africa (and the latter in the Pacific), and of course the legendary American Volunteer Group’s Flying Tigers in China. Pearl Harbor famously saw just two P-40 pilots* get in amongst the attacking Japanese – Kenneth Taylor and George Welch, who had been partying until 6 the night before (and wearing part of their tuxedo outfit in the rush to get to their plane). The P-40 also had the best nose art – the Flying Tigers sported the famed shark’s teeth copied from 112 Squadron in the Libyan Desert.
*This apparently is a myth – as many as fourteen US aircraft may have got into the air, while Welch and Taylor were able to do two sorties, scoring at least four victories.
3. Lockheed P-38 Lightning ‘Hits from the Bong’
Number of aerial victories: 3785
Top aces – Richard Bong 40, Tommy Maguire 38; Charles MacDonald 27
Like the British Mosquito, the Lightning was a light low-drag twin-engine aircraft of extremely high performance. Once you’ve decided to go twin-engined, and wish to include the bulky US exhaust-driven turbo-superchargers of the day, each engine pretty much needs a fuselage of its own. A twin-boom arrangement was far simpler than the only other option, the push-pull configuration later adopted by the Do 335. The slightly earlier Dutch Fokker G1 had successfully adopted the same twin-boom solution.
This was the first design in what would become known as Lockheed’s Skunk works, a lean hived-off secretive design practice which would later produce the SR-71. As a fighter the P-38 was upgraded throughout the war but found its place in the battles around New Guinea and the Philippines, where the top two US air aces of all time, Richard Bong and Tommy Maguire flew it to great effect. Both sadly would die shortly before the end of the conflict. However, it was less effective in the western theatre, where it struggled against Focke-Wulf Fw 190s in particular and would be by and large replaced by the P-51. It was used extensively in the Mediterranean campaign, where it got to run up high totals against the Luftwaffe and Regia air transport fleet during the Axis evacuation of Tunisia while RAF Spitfires ‘deloused’ the escort fighters.
2. Republic P-47 Thunderbolt ‘Jugular vane’
Number of aerial victories: 3795
Top aces – Francis Gabreski 28; Robert S.Johnson 27; Dave Schilling 22.5; Neel Kearby 22
The greatest fighter ever designed by a Georgian was the titanic Thunderbolt. There is a loud school of aviation historians that regard this agile behemoth as the best fighter of all time. It has a strong claim, not as the best fighter, but the best fighter-bomber. Its toughness was a vital commodity when flying through flak where water-cooled fighters like the Mustang and Spitfire were more vulnerable (though it should be noted that even radial fighters have a potential weak-spot in the oil cooler system). Seversky, renamed Republic, in 1939, learnt a lesson from the failures of their earlier rather fragile fighters. They identified speed and a tough battle-resistant construction as essential for survivability, and so created a vast flying bruiser able to soak-up brutal ill-treatment and return home.
The decision to use a turbocharger instead of supercharger, and the routing of the ducting for it for optimal performance of it dictated the large tubby appearance, much of the airframe essentially becoming a turbocompressor housing.
The survivability of the P-47 meant that only one of its top ten aces, Neel Keerby, failed to survive the war. Kearby was the top P-47 ace in the Pacific and was shot down by an Oscar.
1. North American P-51 Mustang ‘Fangs of the ‘Stang’
Number of aerial victories: 5944
Top aces – George Preddy 23.83 (of 26.83); John C.Meyer 25.5
We looked into why the Mustang was so brilliant here. It served in all four theatres of war, but the decisive aspect in its ranking in this list was the fighting over Northern Europe, where it scored 4,239 victories. Note the figure here includes victories scored by the A-36 ground attack version of Mustang, which was essentially a P-51A with airbrakes. This takes its overall score (including RAF) to 6,209, about 130 behind the Spitfire. The quality of the P-51 meant that it amassed a huge number of victories despite the relatively modest scoring of its aces – just three, George Preddy, John C.Meyer and John Voll scored over 20. One Mustang ace, Kenneth Dahlberg, would find infamy later as a Republican apparatchik named in the Watergate scandal.
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10A. Republic P-43 Lancer
With leaky wing fuel tanks, an unreliable turbo supercharger and less than stellar manoeuvrability it would be easy to write off this ‘missing link’ – or perhaps cul de sac – in the long painful evolution that would culminate in the P-47. Another factor that counted against it: the US was generally slower than Britain to incorporate self-sealing fuel tanks or sufficient armour in fighters, and the P-43 was no exception. In air combat its fuel tanks proved considerably more vulnerable than those of the P-40. It was generally considered obsolete a year after its 1940 service entry. It did however boast good roll rate, and an exceptionally high service ceiling making the only available USAAF type able to effectively meet the ‘Dinah’ at height prior to the P-38. It served in relatively small numbers, and someone managed six kills before it was pushed aside by better machines.
Figures cover USAAC/USAAF and not Navy
By Eddie Rippeth, Joe Coles and Edward Ward