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The encyclopedia of British WWII aces

Aces High Christopher Shores began by writing the occasional book about military aviation, then quickened the pace as he grew older. By now, readers and reviewers are hard-pressed to keep up with him. Meanwhile, he pursued a career as a land surveyor and director of one of Europe's largest firms of property advisers.

It helps, I suppose, that Shores generally works with a collaborator--or a stable of them, as in his two-volume Bloody Shambles, which had co-authors from just about every nation with an air force in Southeast Asia during the opening year of the Pacific War, including Japan.

In 1966, Shores teamed with history student Clive Williams to compile an encyclopedia of British Commonwealth fighter aces from World War II. "There is little doubt that we were a couple of rank beginners," Shores says of that early effort. Williams also prospered in private enterprise, and also became a grandfather, and now the two men have crafted a new edition of their classic work.

The new Aces High (1994) is distributed in Britain by Grub Street, in the U.S. by Seven Hills, and in Canada by Fortress Publications. It weighs in at a wrist-wrenching 730 pages, including 64 pages of photographs, and costs a wallet-busting $65 for the American edition.

The money buys three short narrative chapters, followed by a sketch of each British Commonwealth fighter squadron that saw service from 1939 to 1945, followed by the biography of every pilot with a substantial claim to having shot down at least five enemy planes in air-to-air combat.

Since there are roughly 1,200 entries, you probably won't sit down to read their histories in alphabetical order. More likely you'll look first for familiar names: Adolf "Sailor" Malan, with 27 victories in the Battle of Britain; the gallant, legless Douglas Bader; Frank Carey, who joined the Royal Air Force as a boy apprentice, earned his wings as a sergeant-pilot, and ended as a wing commander with 28 victories. . . .

Since I'm partial to the first Burma campaign, I turned first to the saga of my favorite "British" pilot, John Barrick from Texas, U.S.A. Toward the end of 1940, Barrick traveled to Ontario and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was sent to Britain and posted to 17 Squadron (Hurricane) just before it was ordered to North Africa.

Meanwhile, Japanese Imperial forces stormed ashore in Malaya, threatening not only that British colony but the one next door. So pilots, mechanics, and clerks from three fighter squadrons were diverted to Burma, and their Hurricane IIB fighters were ferried across 4,000 miles of desert, ocean, and tropical rain forest to Rangoon. (The first arrivals went into combat on January 23, 1942, with external fuel tanks still bolted to their wings.)

Flight Sergeant "Tex" Barrick fought alongside Claire Chennault's American Volunteer Group in the defense of Rangoon, credited with shooting down three fixed-gear Nakajima Ki-27 fighters. He was credited with another Ki-27 after the fall of Rangoon, and with a retractable-gear Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa after the Allied squadrons were forced to withdraw into China. He was then shot down, evacuated to India, and awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal--the enlisted man's DFC.

So the leading British ace of the first Burma campaign was a 23-year-old from Sweetwater, Texas. I've read most of the books about the Flying Tigers, including all the extant diaries, and almost never do they take notice of the fact that many RAF pilots--taking off from the same runways, twisting and turning in the same battles, and drinking at the same bars--hailed from Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and even from Texas.

The same was true of British air forces generally. There were fighter units from most Commonwealth nations, and there were designated RAF units for foreign pilots: Canadian, Dutch, French, Norwegian, Belgian, Czech, Polish, and three American "Eagle" squadrons. But even the mainline units, like RAF 17 Squadron of the first Burma campaign, often contained a medley of nationalities.

As a result, Britain's aces represent a total of 16 nationalities, which contributes no little to the fascination of reading their biographies. For example, the final entry in Aces High belongs to Major Jan Zumbach. Born in Poland, he was a citizen of Switzerland, credited with 12 confirmed victories in the Royal Air Force plus a one-third share gained in French service.

Shores and Williams come up with a grand total of about 1,200 aces--just over 5 percent of the fighter pilots who wore British Commonwealth uniforms during World War II. Incredibly, this tiny fraction accounted for more than 60 percent of all confirmed victories.

Which brings up the problem of how much faith to place in those victory totals. More than any other writer, Christopher Shores has sifted through combat reports from all nations, and his judgment deserves to be quoted at length: "Over-claiming in fighter combat is endemic--certainly in the conditions appertaining in World War II. Rarely does this seem to have been deliberate, but . . . we are dealing here with confident, aggressive young men who can hardly be blamed on occasion for seeing what they expected and hoped to see!"

Over-claiming was worst in combat involving large numbers of fighters, especially when a pilot was flying over hostile territory. "In such circumstances, through much of the war," he concludes, "experience shows that one loss for two claims represents a reasonable degree of accuracy. Frequently this can be shown to degenerate to one loss for three or four claims."

(Interestingly, the RAF knew that its pilots were over-claiming during the Battle of Britain and especially on their "rhubarbs" over occupied France. The British were reading German radio traffic about their losses and replacements. The claims weren't corrected, however, because to have done so would have hurt morale and perhaps betrayed the code-breaking operation.)

Should we therefore deflate Tex Barrick's score, leaving him with just the two victories that he statistically seems entitled to? Shores and Williams choose not to make that jump. Several pilots from the original Aces High are missing from this edition, but only because the evidence didn't stand up to further scrutiny. For the rest, the authors present the claims as they were confirmed at the time, even though this may exaggerate the accomplishments of those who fought in the early years, before gun cameras came into use.

Britain's greatest ace therefore remains Squadron Leader Marmaduke Thomas St. John Pattle of Butterworth, South Africa, and his provisional record remains 50 aircraft destroyed in the Mediterranean theater, and probably another over Eleusis Bay on April 20, 1940, when Pattle himself was shot down and killed at the age of 25.

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