Some of the most famous figures of World War I were lethal fighter pilots.
THEY were lionized as heroes, portrayed as knights of the sky for their feats and daring. These pilots, who took down 20 opponents or more in the skies above the trenches of continental Europe in their canvas-and-wood steeds, have gone down in history as the top flying aces of World War I by virtue of their kill count, and therefore the first aces in aviation history. They have been ranked according to their official tally.
1. Manfred von Richthofen: This ace, more commonly known as the Red Baron, earned his place in the history books by shooting down 80 enemy pilots over a three year period, from October 1915, when he took his first solo flight, to his death on April 21, 1918, pursuing a pilot deep behind British lines where he was ultimately shot down and killed.
In his career, Richthofen was made the commander of a “Flying Circus” made up of Germany’s top pilots. This Flying Circus was devised to be highly mobile in responding to the spots along the Western Front where they were most needed, proving their worth in August and September 1917 over Ypres, France.
2. Paul Rene Fonck: Fonck, the top Allied and French ace brought down 75 enemy pilots in his World War I career, which spanned from basic flight training in 1915 to the end of the war. Fonck scored his first kill in August 1916, and consistently racked up kills through 1917 and 1918.
Fonck also surpassed his French contemporary, Georges Gunemeyer, with his kill tally, was never as popular as Gunemeyer due to his con-
replicas of a British ‘Sophwith 1 1/2 Strutter’
biplane (above) and a German Fokker dr1 triplane
(left) replay a dogfight at a commemorative aviation fair in the Czech republic earlier this
month. — ePa stant need to boast of his achievements in the media, leading to Fonck being branded a braggart and shameless self promoter by a friend and fellow pilot, Marcel Haegelen.
Fonck survived WWI and took up work as a demonstration and racing pilot after the end of hostilities, before working as an inspector of fighter aviation in the French Air Force. He died in 1953.
3. Edward “Mick” Mannock: Despite being blind in his left eye, Mannock rose to become Britain’s top ace, scoring 73 kills by the time of his death on July 26, 1918.
Mannock, who was 31 when he was killed by ground fire, won the Military Cross twice and the Distinguished Service order three times for his feats; he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross on the recommendation of his peers.
Mannock was known for his hatred of his German adversaries, commenting that he hoped Manfred von Richthofen “burned the whole way down” upon learning of the Red Baron’s death and machine-gunning the crew of a downed German fighter to finish them off.
4. William Bishop: This Canadian ended World War I as the highest scoring British Empire ace, with a total kill tally of 72 enemy aircraft. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for scoring 25 kills in 12 days, and a Victoria Cross for a one-man attack on the German airfield at Arras, France – he earned the moniker “the Lone Hawk” for his preference for solo missions.
Bishop was ultimately withdrawn from service in June 1918 to prevent the risk of him being shot down and killed – which would have caused a huge loss of morale, deemed the airforce. He wrote about that and his experiences in his memoirs, Winged Warfare.
After the end of the war, Bishop travelled the United States giving lectures before forming an airline that went bankrupt, and then becoming a sales director for Frontenac Oil in Canada. During WWII, the Royal Canadian Air Force made Bishop an honorary air marshal; his fame drew fresh recruits to the RCAF. Bishop died on Nov 9, 1956, in Florida.
5. Ernst Udet: Udet, who scored 62 kills during World War I, was the second-highest scoring German pilot after the Red Baron himself. Udet made his first kill on March 18, 1916, and proceeded to earn himself a place in Richthofen’s “Flying Circus”.
Udet was ultimately forced out of active service in September 1918 due to combat injuries, ending a World War I career that saw him become one of the first pilots to use a parachute to escape his aircraft.
Post-WWI, Udet worked as a stunt pilot before working with another ace, Hermann Goring, to rebuild the German air force for World War II. Udet was made a colonel in the German airforce, the Luftwaffe, in 1935 and rose to the rank of major-general when he was appointed the Director General of Equipment and then Head of the Office of Air Armament in February 1939.
However, a rival, General Erhard Milch, blamed Udet’s office for Germany’s failure in the Battle of Britain, and when Goring refused Udet’s request to resign, the ace committed suicide in 1941.
Information sourced from firstworldwar.com (tinyurl.com/ kgayu4y) and wwiaviation.com (tinyurl.com/kj63zmq). Pilot photos in the public domain.
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