During the 1940 Battle of Britain, German and British planes shot down each other at roughly a one to one rate. This gave an advantage to the British because all of the surviving German pilots shot down over Britain became prisoners of war, while most of the surviving shot-down British pilots were "recycled," and with greater experience under their belt.

In 1943-1944, the shoe was on the other foot. The "strategic bombing" initiatives featured roughly one to one losses of British and German planes (the Americans did better and inflicted casualties at closer to a two to one rate).

Even so, I would expect the Germans to get a benefit in relative experience from recycling surviving pilots falling in their territory, while Allied pilots became POWs.

Apparently, the Germans did not gain this benefit. That is, relative German experience levels fell, rather than rose over time. Why might that be the case?

Did the Allies do a better job of "destroying" enemy planes (and pilots) as opposed to shooting them down than the Germans in the Battle of Britain? Did the Allies successfully attack e.g. fuel supplies and other infrastructure that the Germans needed for the training of pilots?

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    numbers. I would suggest that the allies had much greater superiority in numbers, so a relative 1:1 exchange of losses , the overall percentage losses of the Luftwaffe were much greater.
    – pugsville
    Jun 28, 2016 at 1:18
  • @pugsville: So given the larger Allied pilot pool and an adequate quality and quantity of airplanes, even a one to one casualty rate would enable the Allies to destroy the German airforce. Just like on the ground.
    – Tom Au
    Jun 28, 2016 at 2:16
  • @TomAu That's not what I've understood. The comment states that the ratio of losses was relatively 1:1, but that the greater number of allied pilots and airplanes did make the overall percentage of losses of the Luftwaffe much greater. Jun 28, 2016 at 8:06
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    @Mikel: If the Allies have 2 and the Germans have 1 and they both lose 1, the Allies have lost 50% but the Germans have lost 100%. That's an extreme example but it illustrates the point that I think Pugsville was trhing to make.
    – Tom Au
    Jun 28, 2016 at 8:52
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    Your last point is also true: The shortage of fuel became a massive factor toward the end of the war, both for training and for actual combat missions. Eventually, Germany also ran out of uncontested airspace -- even training flights might come under attack by allied fighters. (I don't know how much of a factor the latter became, though.)
    – DevSolar
    Jun 28, 2016 at 9:00

7 Answers 7


The biggest factor was the scale of pilot training. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan appears to have trained around 110,000 pilots and claimed to have produced a surplus that caused the program to start scaling back in 1944 (RAF Museum link below).

I can’t find exact figures on the American pilot training programs but I assume it dwarfed the British program. The only data point I can find now is that U.S. contracted flight schools produced about 250,000 pilots during the war, but I can’t tell what percentage of the total that was. In any case, it was very sizable.

I can’t find specific figures for the rates of Luftwaffe pilot training. Most sources say there was a shortage of pilots and fuel, but don’t give numbers. On the whole the Luftwaffe bureaucracy was not far-sighted nor very efficient and so training, tactics, R&D and strategy all lagged. It is well known that Germany lacked access to many war-essential materials on the volume necessary for a great war, which impacted the Luftwaffe in terms of production and fuel (Hart). If you read Hart’s excellent book you will find that for most of the war Germany was fighting from a position of scarcity.

Edit: In Hart's book, he states that around mid/late 1944, the Luftwaffe aircraft fuel request for full operation was 160,000 tons per month, asked for a minimum of 30,000 tons per month, and actually got 10,000 tons per month. Some anecdotes say this meant training was essentially stopped.

On the face of it, by 1943 the Allies were dominant in pilot training, aircraft production and had the logistics and resources to make use of them.

In terms of the balance in combat, the couple examples of aerial war of attrition in WW2 point to the trend that both the attacker and defender will be ground down, but the attacker will be ground down at a faster rate unless there is some other factor that is completely out of balance, like relative pilot skill or relative aircraft capabilities. The attacker must seek those key advantages while also relying on a larger scale of combat power in order to survive attrition and remain viable by the time the defender capitulates.

During the Battle of Britain in 1940, the attacker’s committed forces were larger than the defender’s committed forces, but both were grinding each other down at roughly an equal percentage (Price). In other words, both were on track to be depleted at about the same time, despite the quantitative disparity between the opposing forces. The attacker’s pilot losses are greater because they were losing more airplanes per day, and could not recover any pilots lost over the defender’s territory.

The same trends applied during the strategic air war in the West, although the scales became so lopsided in the favor of the Allies that they became dominant in the skies despite losing more pilots in action compared to the defender.


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    Also, the Allies had a tactical advantage. The Luftwaffe was tasked with stopping the bombers and advoiding the escorts. Of course the interceptors had to deal with the escorts –sometimes as cover for the dedicated interceptors- but in general the Allied escorts were the hunters. Doolittle authorized the Allied escorts to leave the bombers to hunt down Luftwaffe planes. The pilot attrition was the prime downfall of the Luftwaffe.
    – TomO
    Aug 31, 2017 at 17:41
  • During the Battle of Britain, the German fighter aircraft were ordered to maintain close defence of the bombers, en route to the target, which hampered their flexibility. Also, because the fighter aircraft were not designed for Cross-Channel operations, they had relatively low fuel capacity: this generally meant they could only engage in combat operations over the target for about 20 minutes, or risk running out of fuel on the way back to France -- in every case, such a fate meant the loss of the aircraft in the sea, even if the pilot survived, since the entire flight path lay over the sea.
    – Ed999
    May 6, 2020 at 18:04

Answer to this question is same with the answer of the question "Why Allies doesn't have fighter aces scoring as high as Germans?"

National policies. German pilots tended to return to the cockpit over and over again until they were killed, while very successful Allied pilots were routinely rotated back to training bases to educate cadet flyers.

  • The list of WW2 fighter aces is dominated by German pilots. It is clear that you can't reach these numbers if you are doing combat tours with a finite number of missions, like the US air crews did. Maybe someone could dig out some information on the regulations of combat tours of the Allied Air Forces.
    – Dohn Joe
    Apr 29, 2020 at 9:13

The Germans were enormously outnumbered. They were fighting an opponent with over ten times more oil production. At the time, the US was the largest oil producer in the world.

Furthermore, the Allies were the ones focusing on strategic bombing. Germany didn't invest as much resources in air defense because it had a land war in the East going on which was much more threatening.


Because they had the same planes they started the war with and Hitler also insisted that all new types be multifunction airplanes. All had to be able to dive bomb. Our P51D was several generations ahead of the ME109 and FW190.

  • they didn't start the war with the FW190, and the ME262 was a game changer. Sep 14, 2018 at 7:53
  • Actually the Germans did develop new planes, they just didn't produce them in large numbers. Some of the planes they did develop, while interesting, were almost as dangerous to the pilots as to the enemy. For instance the rocket-powered Me 163 Komet: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messerschmitt_Me_163_Komet
    – jamesqf
    Apr 27, 2021 at 4:46

One reason was a difference in German and Allied air doctrines. The Germans prioritized bombers, and the Allies, fighters.

For instance, the Germans had a very good fighter, the ME 262, by mid-war. But Hitler delayed the production of this fighter in favor of bombers. When they attacked in 1943-1944, the Allies used their best fighters, but the Germans had few M262s. During the whole war, the M262s collectively shot down "only" 542 allied planes, while the Allies shot down tens of thousands of German fighters.

Then there was the issue of battle doctrine. The German fighters were given the (relatively) easy task of shooting down bombers, while the Allied fighters were specifically ordered to chase German fighters, even at the expense of leaving their bombers unprotected. The idea was to gain complete air superiority. The result was that the Allies suffered disproportionately high bomber losses, while essentially all the German losses were fighters. The Allied pilots gained more and better experience fighting the German fighters than the Germans did fighting Allied bombers.

As to the causes of American air superiority, there were several factors. One was, as the question cited, the attacks on oil and other infrastructure that the Germans needed to train their pilots. Another factor was that the Americans managed to inflict casualties at a 2 to 1 rate. Even allowing for the "recovery" of some shot down figher pilots, the Germans were losing them faster than the Americans, especially when one takes into account, that "some" of the American losses were bombers, not fighters.


I believe a lot of truth in the comments BUT there is a scarcity of hard data. The secondary histories and even the autobiographies which came out in the 50-70's did not address the data but generalities and misinformation created a fog that is only being cut through in the past 20 years due to greater access of information for a lot of reasons. One issue may be German Government reticence in allowing German wartime documents to be reprinted making research more difficult. Access is allowed but copying is restricted.

A fascinating YouTube account of a single German squadron (ground attack Fw-190s) taken from 1st person reports written by the actual unit is amazing illustrative over what happened to the Luftwaffe during the first days of Normandy...many of the planes were caught transferring from one field to another, in some cases carrying mechanics in the fuselages (a common German practice) and many were shot down by marauding allied fighters looking for them all over France. This kind of attrition is not covered by the continued reliance of historians covering the stats of Big Week in March which may have been only the tip of the iceberg covering allied and German sorties and small scale actions.

And training aircraft were being found and shot down which must have put a severe limitation on German training. On top of that the fuel shortage was miserable, fuel could be obtained for some operations but there is no way the Germans could expend a lot of fuel for training. And of course the German bureaucracy created a shambles of EVERYTHING when under stress. The Germans were having a hard time training tank drivers for their easily broken tanks that required significant driving skill to remain unbroken.

  • Naming your sources and providing links would improve your answer. Apr 27, 2021 at 4:13

Pratt and Whitney Double Wasp engine.

All German and British aircraft engines were water cooled...one hit to the cowling and their planes were done. The US Aircraft and their pilots kept being able to be sent back into theater, and given the emphasis on land battle and the vastness of Russia, the entire "air space" of Western Europe was ceded to the Americans. A good primer is how little the United States used its very formidable Navy in World War 1. In the Interwar Years (1919-1941) the USA concentrated on perfecting an air cooled radial engine (Curtis Wright had the other) and then concentrated on building a heavy bomber (the B17) with that engine (a "Superfortress") and then battle trained their "Air Force" in China against the Japanese.

The USA was never under threat of a sea or ground invasion during World War 2.

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    Worth noting that the finest US fighter of the war, the P-51 Mustang, only became successful when it was fitted with a British-designed Merlin engine. Jun 28, 2016 at 20:04
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    This answer is completely inaccurate. One of the best engines of WWII was the BMW 801 powering the Fw190, which is a massive air-cooled engine. It was specifically known for its robustness in the face of damage. As other answers indicate, the limitations of the Luftwaffe was fuel, not engine designs.
    – Eric Urban
    Aug 9, 2016 at 21:27
  • B17, B29, P47, Vought F4U Corsair, the DC 3, etc...not to give short shrift to Curtiss Wright either. The P-51 was a noticeable exception. About the only one I can think of though. Lockheed Lightning in the Pacific was a big deal. Aug 10, 2016 at 1:05
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    So the air-cooled radial engine, which was used in only a tiny fraction of the aircraft doing battle over Germany (and on both sides), was solely responsible for the shift in experienced aircrew losses? Your answer is horribly US-centric and short-sighted.
    – DevSolar
    Nov 25, 2016 at 15:32
  • The comment may be referring to the U.S. Allison engine that did not have the high altitude capability to escort bombers. When Packard stated mass production of the Rolls Royce-designed Merlin engine the long-range P-51 was fitted with this high altitude engine as mentioned above. It started escort duty in early 1944.
    – TomO
    Aug 31, 2017 at 17:50

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