When speaking of German fighter aces, one name immediately springs to mind: Manfred Von Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron’, who shot down 80 enemy planes during WWI. But his achievements, at least in terms of raw numbers, pale in comparison to the number of victories of today’s protagonist.
From 1942 to 1945 he flew 1,456 combat missions, always outnumbered and outgunned, during which he was credited with shooting down 352 Allied aircraft, 350 Soviet and two American. He was forced to crash land 16 times. But, surprisingly, he was never shot down by his enemies. Instead, he suffered mechanical failures or was hit by flying debris.
Even more surprisingly, in his many missions he never lost a wingman.
And his adventures did not end after the war, as he survived imprisonment in a Soviet Gulag and later opposed the corruption of the industrial military complex.
This is the story of Erich Hartmann, known as ‘The Blonde Knight’ or ‘The Black Devil’: the deadliest fighter ace of all time.
The Glider Youth
Erich Hartmann was born on April 19, 1922 in Weissach, near Stuttgart, South-Western Germany. His father Alfred, a doctor, wished for Erich and his younger brother Alfred Jr to follow his footsteps into medicine. But the boys would find that their mum Elisabeth’s occupation was way more fun: she was one of the first glider pilots in Germany!
When Erich was just three, the Hartmanns relocated to China, to escape the lethal mix of economic depression and inflation that had ravaged the Weimar Republic. But in 1928, the family returned to their homeland, chased out by the chaos of the Chinese civil war.
Erich progressed successfully through school, while taking glider lessons from his mother. In 1936, Mrs Hartmann had formally established a gliding school in the town of Weil im Schönbuch. Erich, aged 14, was already proficient enough to become an instructor for a local knock-off of the Boy Scouts, much in vogue at that time: the Hitler Youth.
The National Socialist Party had in fact risen to power in 1933, and as part of its rearmament policies, the Luftwaffe encouraged and funded glider schools throughout the country.
Erich honed his flying skills, and in 1937, he obtained a pilot’s license, which allowed him to fly powered aircraft.
In the meanwhile, he did not neglect more formal studies. In 1937, he entered the Gymnasium, equivalent to the last three years of High School, graduating in April of 1940.
By then, WWII had already kicked off. But Erich was more preoccupied with the early courtship of a charming classmate, Ursula Paetsch, known as ‘Usch’ or ‘Ushi’. Nonetheless, an 18-year-old talented pilot could not be kept away from the military for long, especially in times of conscription!
It must be said that none of the Hartmanns were sympathisers of the Nazi regime, and Dr Alfred especially opposed the war unleashed by Hitler’s delirious designs of hegemony.
And yet, Erich saw it as his duty to serve his country in a moment of need.
On October 1, 1940, Erich began his military training with the 10th Flying Regiment. He then moved onto advanced pilot training, learning combat techniques and gunnery. He graduated as a lieutenant in January 1942, and between March and August he learned how to pilot what would become his signature fighter craft: the Messerschmitt Bf 109.
While getting to grips with the Bf 109, he could not help himself from showing off. On March 31, against all regulations, he performed a series of acrobatics maneuvers over the Zerbst airfield, Eastern Germany.
Upon touching land, he was scolded by superiors and confined to his quarters for a week. As he later recalled, the incident saved his life. While he was in ‘detention’, Erich’s roommate took on a flight mission originally scheduled for him. But the plane experienced a crash due to mechanical failure. The unlucky pilot died instantly.
The event marked Hartmann.
From then on, he avoided shenanigans, practicing diligently, and adopting a credo which he passed on to younger pilots: “Fly with your head, not with your muscles.”
After several more weeks of gunnery practice, Hartmann was finally sent to the front. His posting was Fighter Wing 52, or ‘JG 52’, based at Maykop, in the Caucasus region of today’s Russia.
In other words: The Eastern Front.
Erich Hartmann would be part of the titanic struggle of the Axis versus the Soviet Union.
At JG 52, Erich was assigned as a wingman to Sergeant Edmund Rossmann.
Technically, Hartmann outranked him. But amongst fighter pilots, official ranks meant little. What mattered was experience, and Rossmann had plenty of wisdom to impart upon the rookie officer.
Rossmann suffered from an old arm injury, which made it impossible for him to perform the maneuvers typical of a protracted ‘dogfight’. The sergeant preferred to stalk his prey from above, evaluating the situation. If an enemy craft did not take evasive action, Rossmann dove in, shooting at extremely close range.
Hartmann later adopted and perfected this tactic, which he called “See – Decide – Attack – Break”
But on his first combat mission, youthful impatience prevailed.
On October 14, 1942, Rossmann and Hartmann spotted 10 Soviet planes. Rossmann urged caution, but Erich went full throttle and engaged an enemy fighter.
It was a debacle.
Not only did he fail to score a single hit, but he almost collided with the enemy! Hartmann then hastily soared above the clouds to escape retaliation, consuming all his fuel.
With a dry tank, all he could do was to crash land and hope for the best.
He survived unscathed, but his commanding officer grounded him – literally – for three days of hard labor.
Once again, he learned from the experience and started to listen to Rossmann’s advice. This allowed him to claim his first two victories in November and December, shooting down two fighter-bombers, the IL-2 Sturmoviks.
In early 1943, Erich was assigned to a new mentor, Captain Walter Krupinski.
The older officer gave Hartmann the nickname ‘Bubi’ or ‘young boy’, due to his youthful appearance. During missions, Krupinski would constantly egg on Erich to get in the thick of the action with calls of “Hey Bubi, get in closer!”
Under the Captain’s guidance, Bubi’s tally increased to 17 victories, and continued to rise.
From the 5th of July to the 23rd of August 1943, the Germans and the Soviets clashed at the Battle of Kursk. This engagement is remembered as the largest tank battle in history, with some 6,000 armored vehicles involved. But the presence of aircraft should not be overlooked, as 4,000 fighters and bombers participated in total.
Hartmann and Krupinski were there, too.
Unfortunately for Krupinski, the first day of the battle was not a propitious one. He was shot down and wounded. But by now Bubi was more than capable of holding his own: over the first five days of the battle, he shot down 17 enemy craft.
By the first week of August, Hartmann’s tally stood at 42. But his unit, JG 52, and the Wehrmacht as a whole, were on the defensive, as a red tide of Soviet forces launched offensive after offensive.
Over August, Hartmann continued to perfect his technique, which allowed him to claim an astounding number of victories at every mission.
Hartmann’s rate of success was surprising even when compared with other top aces of the time.
So, what made him so lethal?
The first factor to consider is the sheer quantity of enemy craft, which flew in large formations, thus providing plenty of targets to an experienced pilot.
Moreover, the Soviet pilots were surely capable, but their fighter craft was fitted with inadequate gunning equipment. Their gun sights were so poor that some pilots preferred to draw their own sights by hand on the windscreens!
Finally, Hartmann was not a traditional ‘dog-fighter’ and did not engage his adversaries in protracted aerial duels. He was more of a predator, waiting out of sight for the perfect occasion to ambush his quarry.
He would stalk enemy squadrons from above. Then, he would select a target, plunge from above and approach the enemy from behind, slightly beneath its tail. He flew extremely close to the enemy craft, 20 meters or less, and then he squeezed his trigger in short bursts, before disengaging to reassess the situation. If it was favorable, he would dive in for another kill.
See – Decide – Attack – Break!
And if possible, attack again!
These tactics are best exemplified by one of Hartmann’s most dangerous actions, and the one that got him closest to death. Ironically, it was due to friendly fire.
On August 19, 1943, Hartmann led a squadron of seven fighters against a formation of 80 Soviet fighter-bombers, dangerously close to JG 52.
Bubi and his pilots soon sighted their foes.
Tailing an IL-2, he let off a burst of 20mm rounds, scoring a direct hit. He then banked away sharply, lining his sights with the second catch of the day.
Another squeeze of the trigger, another kill.
But this time, the ace flew too close to his downed foe, and debris from the explosions crashed onto his engine. Suffering a mechanical failure, Hartmann crash landed on a field of sunflowers. The downed pilot was reassured by the sight of a German truck approaching. Only too late he realized that the two soldiers on board were Soviets, manning a captured vehicle.
Improvising, Hartmann threw himself on the ground, feigning a leg injury. His acting was so convincing that the Soviets loaded him onto a stretcher, and then onto their truck.
When the sound of incoming German planes distracted the two soldiers, Hartmann sprung to his feet, knocked out one of the guards and jumped off the moving truck.
Chased by the cries and bullets of the fooled guards, the pilot was able to hide in the nearby woods.
As darkness fell, Hartmann’s compatriots back at JG 52 were restless. They knew he had been downed, but still hoped he could be rescued. One man in particular could not just stand by and wait.
This was Bimmel Mertens, chief of Hartmann’s ground crew. More importantly, he was Erich’s best friend. Against all orders, Bimmel grabbed a rifle and set off on a one-man mission beyond enemy life to rescue his bro.
Unbeknownst to him, Hartmann was on his way back!
Under the cover of darkness, he followed a Soviet recon patrol, guessing they would be heading towards the German lines.
After a two-hour trek, a loud cry startled him: “Halten!”
It was a German sentry!
But before the pilot could state his identity, the soldier fired a shot.
The bullet tore through Erich’s trousers, very, very close to his … well … jewels.
Miraculously, he was unharmed! Hartmann quickly shouted “I’m a German pilot … For God’s sake, let me come through!”
The sentry was not convinced yet, fearing Hartmann to be a Soviet impostor. It was only after long and tense questioning that Erich’s identity was confirmed, and he was driven back to JG-52. That morning, Mertens returned to base, too. He had lost all hope of finding his best friend and could not believe that he had made it back alive!
This was one war-time bromance that did not end in tragedy.
Ace of Aces
In September 1943, at the age of just 21, Erich Hartmann was promoted to Captain, and continued with his relentless streak of successes
On the 20th of the month, he recorded his 100th aerial victory.
By the end of October, his tally had reached 148, and he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
By the end of February 1944, close to 200 aircraft had fallen to Bubi’s bullets. Soviet pilots by now feared the distinctive markings of his Bf-109: a red heart bearing the nickname of his sweetheart ‘Usch’. And a black, tulip-shape motif painted on the engine cover.
It was this black marking that earned Hartmann the nickname of ‘Black Devil of the South’.
Soviet commanders even placed a 10,000 Ruble bounty on the Devil’s head. But Soviet pilots preferred to immediately disengage upon noticing the black tulip! Unwilling to scare off his prey so easily, Hartmann adopted a plain color scheme.
More victories and more awards followed.
In March 1944, Hartmann, his former mentor Krupinski and two more aces, Barkhorn and Wiese
were summoned by the Fuehrer himself to receive the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves. According to Erich, the four pilots showed up completely drunk, and Hartmann was told off by an officer as he wore Hitler’s hat by mistake!
Hartmann walked away from the meeting with the impression that Hitler was an unimpressive, boring, and disturbed individual. Most of the pilots in his unit shared the same view, and in general considered “all the Nationalist Socialist idiocy a little sickening.”
Hartmann agreed with his commanding officer Commodore Hrabak, when he warned new pilots that “if they thought they were fighting for National Socialism and the Fuehrer they needed to transfer to the Waffen SS … [they were] fighting a war against a superb enemy.”
That superb enemy was, by that time, winning the war.
When Erich and friends returned to the East, the German defenses were collapsing. In May of 1944, JG 52 was relocated to Romania, where they would be employed in the defense of the strategically vital Ploiesti oil fields.
It was in this theater that Hartmann faced the US Army Air Forces for the first time.
On the 24th of June, the ‘Black Devil’ claimed the first victory against a P-51 Mustang. Later in the month, he shot down his second Mustang, but he did not have time to celebrate, as eight American fighters gave chase.
Hartmann dodged their bullets in a series of evasive maneuvers, until he ran out of fuel. With no other option, he released the canopy of his Bf 109 and bailed out with his parachute.
As he was floating down, a P-51 approached menacingly at speed. At the last moment, it banked away sharply. The American pilot and the downed German ace saluted each other, a sign of respect amongst knights of the sky.
If the American had known he had had the Black Devil in his sights, maybe he would have decided otherwise.
But Hartmann lived another day to fight on.
On August 17, 1944, he officially became the top scoring ace of all times, when he downed his 274th plane.
One week later, he surpassed the 300-mark, by performing his most astonishing feat. On a single day, he flew two missions during which he shot down a total of 11 (!) Soviet planes.
The Last Victory
By now a celebrity, the pilot was invited to receive the Diamonds to his Knight’s Cross at Hitler’s Rastenburg headquarters, the ‘Wolf’s Lair.’ During the meeting, Hitler admitted to Hartmann that the war was lost.
What little hope was left, rested on the last ditch ‘wonder weapons’ developed by the Third Reich. Weapons like the Messerschmitt Me 262, the early prototypes of fighter jets.
Luftwaffe General Adolf Galland asked Hartmann to join the Me 262 test programme, but the ace declined, as he preferred to continue fighting with his unit, JG 52. Plus, he had just earned a 10-day license, which he put to good use by marrying ‘Usch’ on the 10th of September.
By then, Hitler’s maniacal empire was crumbling, besieged on three fronts. And yet, JG 52 continued fighting to the bitter end, even after the suicide of the Fuehrer.
May 8, 1945 was the last day of war in Europe. But on that morning, hostilities had not ceased yet. That’s when, over the skies of Brno, modern day Czech Republic, Erich shot down his 352nd prey, a Soviet Yak-9.
Upon landing, he learned that his airfield was within range of incoming Soviet forces. By now a Major, Hartmann ordered his men to retreat Westwards, to surrender to US Infantry.
He felt that they would be safer with the Americans than with Soviets. What he could not know is that, according to the Yalta Agreement, all Wehrmacht personnel deployed on the Eastern Front were to be handed over to the Red Army.
And this is exactly what happened on the 14th of May.
As a PoW of the Soviets, Hartmann was initially pressured to cooperate with them, by spying on fellow officers. An offer which he could, and did, refuse, earning 10 days of solitary confinement.
More harsh treatment followed, as NKVD interrogators tried to extort information on the Me-262 programme. Hartmann did not cooperate, and a frustrated officer struck him with a cane. Hartmann replied in kind, smashing a chair onto the Soviet’s head!
Several months had passed and Hartmann was being held without charges. These came only on December 27, 1949, when Soviet authorities sentenced him to 20 years in prison as a war criminal.
He was charged with the killing of 780 Soviet civilians in Briansk, which he vehemently denied.
He was also condemned for having destroyed 345 Soviet aircraft.
Which of course, he did not deny. But then again … it was war, wasn’t it?
Hartmann was doomed to serve years of hard labor in the hellish gulag system. Unwilling to yield, he refused to perform his duties, and was thrown again into solitary.
His mistreatment led other fellow prisoners to organize a riot. They even managed to briefly overpower the guards and free him from his cell. They were about to escape to freedom, but Hartmann convinced them to stay put: once beyond the gates, they all risked being shot on sight.
Order was eventually restored. Hartmann took the occasion to file a complaint with the Commander of the camp, requesting an international inspection and an appeal trial. Both requests landed in the appropriate filing cabinet – the waste-paper bin – and the ace was dispatched to the Novocherkassk gulag, for a five-month stint of confinement.
At this point, the Soviets surprisingly accepted to hold a new trial!
Unsurprisingly, they confirmed the original sentence and sent Hartmann to an even harsher camp on the Ural Mountains.
Luckily for him, in 1955, the normalization of relationships between the Soviet Union and West Germany led to the release of the last German PoWs.
Erich Hartmann was one of them.
He was finally able to return home to his wife Ursula. Unfortunately, he was never able to hold in his arms their first-born child, Erich-Peter. The boy had been born in 1945, and had subsequently died in 1948, while his father was in captivity.
The Last Defeat
Once reunited, Erich and ‘Usch’ could finally lead a ‘normal’ life. They welcomed a daughter, Ursula Isabel, on February 23, 1957. And he was reinstated in the West German Air Force, as commander of Fighter Wing 71.
This unit was initially equipped with Canadair Sabres, scheduled to be replaced by the Lockheed F-104 Starfighters.
Hartmann had had the occasion to fly the Starfighters, during a trip to the US. While he admired their performance, he noted their frequent engine problems and maintenance difficulties. Overall, he considered them to be unsafe, especially if flown by inexperienced pilots.
He voiced his concerns to an old friend, General Kammhuber, inspector of the German Air Force.
The General appeared sympathetic, but eventually cautioned Hartmann from talking about the subject to anyone else. The purchase of the Starfighters was a done deal, a political decision taken by Defense Minister Strauss, which overruled the advice of experienced officers.
By July 1960, West Germany had become the largest market for Lockheed’s craft, and pilots had already begun training.
Sadly, they also started dying. Over the span of just five years, 35 pilots perished in non-combat missions. By the early 1980s, when the F-104 were finally decommissioned, 116 pilots had lost their lives.
Hartmann’s predictions had been proven right, but no one thanked him. Quite the opposite: his relentless criticism had made him many enemies within the Air Force and the Ministry.
When he neglected to renew his pilot’s license due to an oversight, his detractors took the occasion to bring him to a military tribunal on disciplinary charges. Hartmann was absolved, but he was relieved of his operational command and ‘kicked upwards’ to a desk job in Cologne.
He eventually opted for an early retirement from the military in September of 1970, working as a civilian instructor until 1974.
Two years later, in February, 1976, a US Senate Subcommittee heard that Lockheed had been routinely bribing foreign governments to secure contracts for their F-104s. $24 Million, $167 Million in today’s money, had been allocated by the corporation as bribe money!
The scandal had mainly involved The Netherlands, Japan and Italy. But according to a New York Times article of September 1976, German Defense Minister Herr Strauss had been receiving kickbacks to the tune of $12 Million from Lockheed as early as 1961!
But it was too late to undo what was arguably Erich Hartmann’s greatest defeat. Even the ace pilot who had never been shot down by enemy fire, could not triumph against the machinations of the industrial military complex.
Hartmann spent his last years in relative obscurity, occasionally being interviewed and celebrated by his old foes of the USAF.
He died of a heart condition on 20th September 1993, at the age of 71 in Weil im Schönbuch.
Four years later, the Russian Chief Military Prosecutor posthumously acquitted him of all charges as an alleged war criminal.
Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe in World War II, by Philip Kaplan. Published by Pen & Sword Aviation. ISBN 978-1-84415-460-9
‘Scandal on Lockheed Shakes Germany, too’, The New York Times, 12 Sept 1976