Night fighter personnel - a remarkable historical anomaly

Many if not most people know the Pareto Principle:

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.


This principle holds roughly true for fighter pilots: Few aces outshine the many more pilots who never really leave a dent in air war history. The contrast is even more marked because air combat is a deadly business, so an even smaller share of pilots has an even more out-of-proportion share of the air combat kills: These are the pilots who belong to the over-performing 20% both in regard to killing and in regard to surviving.

Junker Ju 88 G-2 night fighter

The air forces of World War 2 still had good uses or fighter pilots who didn't perform well. A formation of three regular pilots and one ace may encounter a hostile formation of four regulars or veterans. The three regulars dogfight for their lives without achieving much while the ace kills one or two enemies. In the end, there's likely a 1:0 or 2:0 balance. The ace on its own flying against four regulars would fare much worse (he could still score a kill surprisingly often thanks to surprise). Besides, he would have nobody for the confirmation of his kill claims.
It's similar to chess; the pawns are not very effective as individuals, but they play an important role. In the case of daylight fighters, the realistic optimum was probably 50% "ace"-quality pilots and 50% "veteran"-quality (survivable, but not really deadly) pilots.

This was different in night combat. The top night fighter aces were capable of impressive kill series (at times five to seven kills in one sortie, some of them had an average in excess of 0.5 kills per sortie).

Heinz Wolfgang Schnaufer, top night fighter ace of all times

Meanwhile, the lesser performing pilots were quite useless (sorry guys, most of you still gave your best!). Night fighters hunted alone (very rarely in pairs). The regular night fighter pilots took off, flew without a clue in the dark and then struggled to find back to base and make a safe landing in the dark. Many of these regular night fighter pilots (or crews) scored a single confirmed kill, many more none.

This was a very different situation than in the case of the daylight fighters. The waste was very serious because
(a) the ground-based night fighter advising system (telling the night fighters how to close in with bombers until the night fighters' short range radios picked up the enemy) wasn't capable of helping many night fighters at the same time. I'm not sure, but I suspect they focused on helping the aces and thus widened the gap in performance even more (the aces were identifiable by their call signs).
(b) most night fighters were expensive two-engined aircraft with expensive special equipment (overall approx. three times as expensive as a standard daylight fighter). This was even worsened by the fact hat the exhaust flame mufflers reduced the durability of the piston engines and thus increased the cost even more.

Bf 110 G-4 night fighter

We should keep this in mind when we read the next time about how Kammhuber's request for 300 night fighters per month was denied. Fact is that the personnel resources for effective night fighter units were very scarce and it was very difficult to add effective night fighter crews to the force. A larger night fighter force would have had a marginally better effectiveness than the historical one.
Sometimes you simply cannot succeed by throwing more resources at a problem.

It's a classic case of (scarce) quality trumping quantity.

The things that could have saved the historical inner cities of Germany and many civilian lives in the night bombing campaign against Germany in World War Two were a bit more luck in radar research & development and an early introduction of the dual fuze ("Doppelzünder") for heavy anti-air guns. "More night fighters" was no promising approach. To the contrary, there were probably too many night fighter crews already.



  1. I'm sure I remember reading that many of the aces were aces because they were assisted, rather than because they were overly talented.

    A pair, or a quartet of fighters would hunt, one of them, the ace, tasked with killing the enemy, the other 1 (or 3) tasked with keeping him alive.

    To kill an enemy, you would have to fly straight, which made you an easy target, sure to die, unless you have someone else worrying about keeping you alive and interfering with anyone trying to line up a shot on you.

    Obviously it makes sense for the best pilots to be given the kill role, but it also makes it more or less impossible for the others to score kills.

  2. Most daylight fighter vs. fighter kills happened with the element of surprise. there's no bias in favour of an ace pilot if a squadron of Fw 190 surprises a squadron of Spitfires from the sun. All of them had the opportunity to score.

    The assistance role was certainly true for the wingmen, but there's only one of them per ace and that one still got plenty opportunities for kills and many long-time wingmen of experts eventually became simple or double aces.

  3. Hm, ja. Certainly Germany was just one step away from Vietnam-era weapons technology in a lot of cases. Like radar or IR guided SAMs. Or the bomb. But ...

    Btw, the most successful night fighters: Wilde Sau with daylight fighters over Berlin. Shot down by far the most bombers once contact to a bomber stream was made.

  4. There was a proposal to end the nightly blackouts (which were causing many traffic accidents anyway) in favour of better vision for the night fighters once it became obvious that British/Canadian bombers were able to find their targets with radio tech (Gee, H2S and Oboe).

    The politicians weren't sure how the population would react and blocked the idea, but the Luftwaffe deployed so many sources of illumination in densely populated areas that the nightly blackouts were ineffective there anyway.

    The radar-less night fighter techniques were nevertheless no good for winter time and quite challenging for pilots and material. It was a niche technique. The single engine fighter's short range was furthermore adding to the navigation accident rate of inexperienced crews.