Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron
Art depicting him closing on one of his eighty victims in a Fokker DR-1 Triplane.
Though the Red Baron is a household name, Erich Hartmann will always be the Ace of Aces.
After achieving 352 aerial victories, Erich Hartmann was awarded Nazi-Germany's highest honor: the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.
Historically, fighter pilots have scored a "kill" when their air force gives them official credit for the aerial destruction of any enemy aircraft. Official kills are confirmed by gun cameras, or independent confirmation from another pilot, but all participants followed the same rules as they do today.
Several Luftwaffe pilots shot down more than 200 Allied airplanes. By comparison, top U.S. aces of World War Two averaged about twenty-five. The highest American ace, Major Richard Bong, shot down 40 Japanese planes with his P-38 Lightning. Top Russian and Japanese aces averaged about sixty kills. While the 200+ kills Luftwaffe pilots flew on the Eastern (Russian) Front, many of the Western Front pilots scored over 100 kills. So herein lies the question: how did they do this?
The difference lay in the conditions of combat. On the Russian Front, most aerial combat occurred at the battle lines; it was all about tactical air support, not long range strategic bombing. Short distances permitted Luftwaffe pilots to fly two or three sorties in a day against invading Allied bombers and fighters while an American fighter pilot flew one escort mission. By policy, many American fighter groups were assigned bomber escort duty. Their responsibility was to protect the bombers, not to seek out enemy planes. The 332nd Fighter Group, the famed Tuskegee Airmen, is a good example. The group's highest scoring pilot, Lee Archer, was credited with "only" 4 kills, but the group never lost a bomber to enemy fighters.
Also the Nazis had a 'fly till you die' policy. No rotation home for training duty. No limit on missions or combat hours. While this policy hindered the Luftwaffe's ability to turn out well-trained pilots later in the war, it permitted fighter pilots to fly more missions, hence more aerial victories. One Luftwaffe ace, Erich Rudorffer, flew over 1,000 missions and was shot down sixteen times.
American pilots who survived a tour of duty rotated home for training, command, or flight test assignments. American pilots could and some did extend their combat tour, but extensions had limitations.