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Ace, when used in the context of military propaganda, denotes a successful military professional. The ace achieved success with "skill and luck, and if victorious won the accolades of the patriotic public". The usage of the term in popular culture evolved to include "tank aces" ("Panzer aces") and "submarine aces".
The term is most commonly applied to military aviators, especially fighter pilots, who are often described as "flying aces". The term "ace" in relation to individual military success originated with French military propaganda of World War I. The as de l'aviation (the flying ace) was used for fighter pilots who had shot down a certain number of enemy aircraft, usually five or more. It has been picked up particularly by the United States Army Air Service and its propaganda.
The emergence of the solo "flying ace" can be traced to the introduction of the single-seater fighter airplane in 1915. The image created by the state propaganda was that of "chevalier of the skies", the successor of the medieval knight at a joust. According to Nicole-Melanie Goll, the popular perception of one-on-one duels was divorced from reality, however, as planes rarely broke formation.
The ace was supposed to be in control of his destiny, and could only be defeated by an equally skillful opponent. Hence, being shot down by ground anti-aircraft fire was considered to be a dishonour. According to historian Peter Fritzsche:
The ace in combat is an immediately recognizable image. In control of his fate, handling his airplane with great courage and skill but also with an envied recklessness, the aviator appeared to be a genuine war hero, comparable to cavalrymen in Napoleon's era or chivalrous knights in the Middle Ages. [...] To this day, myths opposing the individual, distinctive combat of the aces to the industrial mass war on the ground remain deeply embedded in Western folklore.
Tank and submarine "aces"
The term "tank ace" is occasionally applied to tank crew. For instance, Sydney Radley-Walters' obituary published in the Globe and Mail in 2015 described him as the "best Canadian front-line tank ace" of World War II. Robert Kershaw in his book "Tank Men" refers to a "Tank Ace" being the minority of tank commanders that accounted for the most amount of destroyed enemy armour, saying it is roughly analogous with flying ace.
Many German U-boat commanders of World War II, especially Gunther Prien, Otto Kretschmer and Wolfgang Lüth, have been popularised in German war-time propaganda and popular literature. According to historian Michael L. Hadley,
Literature of World War II heightened the features that earlier cults of the hero [of the German U-boat arm] had promoted. This was the era of the "grey wolves" and "steel sharks", when wolf packs, officially designated by such predatory names "robber baron" and "bludgeon", attacked the Allies' convoys. Widespread popularization of the U-boat aces, of their images and deeds propagated the cult of the personality which even today finds resonance in the popular market.
- Fritzsche, Peter (1992). A Nation of Fliers: German Aviation and the Popular Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674601222.
- Goll, Nicole-Melanie (2011). "Godwin von Brumowski (1889–1936): The Construction of an Austro-Hungarian War Hero during World War I". In Marija Wakounig; Karlo Ruzicic-Kessler. From the Industrial Revolution to World War II in East Central Europe. LIT Verlag. pp. 139–56. ISBN 978-3643901293.
- Hadley, Michael L. (1995). Count Not the Dead: The Popular Image of the German Submarine. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 978-0-7735-1282-5.
- Kershaw, Robert (2009). Tank Men: the Human Story of Tanks at War. London: Hodder. ISBN 9781444714838.
- Robertson, Linda R. (2003). The Dream of Civilized Warfare: World War I Flying Aces and the American Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press. ISBN 9780816642700.