The highest-scoring German ace of WWII—and of all time—chalked up an incredible 352 aerial victories.
The Soviet pilot German warplanes. It was May 8, 1945—Adolf Hitler had been dead for over a week, and Germany was surrendering. Performing a one-man airshow for Russian troops of the Yakovlev Yak-7 was not looking for below in the German town of Brunn, the pilot climbed, dived and rolled. Suddenly, plunging unnoticed from above, a single Messerschmitt Me-109 screamed to the attack. Its pilot opened fire and riddled the Yak, sending it down in oily flames. The German airman was Erich Hartmann, and this was his last-ever kill—number 352.
Hartmann was born on the eve of Adolf Hitler’s 33rd birthday, April 19, 1922. It was not a good time for a baby boy to come into the downtrodden fatherland. Hunger, the worst inflation in history and bloody political upheavals following World War I made just-defeated Germany a hard place to survive, even for a little one whose father was in the secure profession of medicine. When Dr. Alfred Hartmann’s cousin, the German consul in Shanghai, came home on furlough he told the doctor he could live far more comfortably and securely in the Far East. Dr. Hartmann was not impulsive—he journeyed alone to China to see for himself if his kinsman’s picture was a true one.
It was, and there was another element that made the doctor right for this time and place. As a German, he was of a nationality not associated with the resented, crumbling colonial empires that were coming under increasing native violence. The German physician nevertheless decided it was time to get out when one morning in 1929 he found the impaled heads of three English acquaintances on stakes outside his office in China. The doctor, his wife and two little boys went home, and he set up a new practice near Stuttgart, in the town of Weil im Schonbuch. It was here that his older son Erich contracted the aviation bug from the glider craze then sweeping Germany.
During the ’30s, Elisabeth Hartmann and her boys spent every moment they could in glider cockpits, slicing through the air on silent wings. By the time the Nazis came to power and commenced rearming Germany, a new generation of young men was already addicted to the sky.
Erich Hartmann had just been conscripted into the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) when war erupted late in the summer of 1939, but there was no question about his wartime calling. He was headed for the sky. Enlisting in the Luftwaffe as soon as he could after graduating from high school in the spring of 1940, Hartmann, who was already engaged to 16-year-old Ursula Paetsch, joined Military Training Regiment 10 at Neukuhren, East Prussia. The free-spirited youngster would never completely adjust to life in the armed forces, and more than once his fun-loving impulses landed him in hot water. Yet his quick mastery of the contrary, unforgiving Messerschmitt Bf-109D in flight training kept him in the program, as instructors were swift to recognize his blossoming skills.
By the summer of 1942, he was ready for the crucial culmination of a flier’s combat training—aerial gunnery. In his first lesson, on June 30, 1942, he fired off 50 rounds at a drogue target towed by another plane. His mentors were stunned when their pupil scored 24 hits on the fluttering, hard-to-hit mark. None of them had ever seen an airman come near such a score in a first attempt. One of Hartmann’s future comrades, Wilhelm Batz, took years to master marksmanship to such an extent. Considering Batz would chalk up 237 kills before war’s end, Hartmann’s potential was evident.
Upon graduation, Hartmann was assigned to Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Wing) 52 on the Russian Front. His unit was stationed at Maikop, but when he and three other neophyte second lieutenants reported to the Luftwaffe’s Eastern Front supply base at Krakow, Poland, to be issued planes, they were told there were no Me-109s available there. However, the base commander had a consignment of Junkers Ju-87 dive bombers that needed to be delivered to Mariupol on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. If the youthful quartet was willing to fly these planes to their destination, there would be no difficulty finding transport from there to nearby Maikop.
The first two rookies lifted off without incident, but when Hartmann’s turn came his plane’s brakes failed and he plowed into the air traffic controller’s wooden hut at the end of the runway, wrecking it and the Stuka. Moments later the last JG.52 assignee got airborne only to have his engine catch fire. He plummeted in for an emergency landing, applied his brakes too hard and upended his aircraft.
The base commander hurriedly sent these “baby pilots” off to Maikop in the passenger seats of the cargo compartment of a Junkers Ju-52/3m transport plane before they could commit further mayhem. Hartmann’s introduction to the chaotic Eastern Front of autumn 1942 was as memorable as the gargantuan battles raging along its massive length.
JG.52 already had a lofty reputation when this youngster who would become the greatest ace of all time arrived. Hartmann was immediately impressed with his easygoing commanding colonel, 27-year-old Dietrich Hrabak, who had made over 60 confirmed kills and earned the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. The fire-tested commanding officer wasted no time instructing newcomers on some fine points of aerial warfare not taught at the faraway training schools: “Up to now all your training has emphasized controlling your aircraft on operations, that is, making your muscles obey your will in flying your aircraft. To survive in Russia and be successful fighter pilots you must now develop your thinking. You must act aggressively always, of course, or you will not be successful, but the aggressive spirit must be tempered with cunning, judgment and intelligent thinking. Fly with your head and not with your muscles.”
For a youngster with no experience in combat, Hrabak’s instruction was a great help. In addition, Hartmann liked the informality among the men on the forward airfields.
On October 10, 1942, he was posted to the wing’s III Gruppe (III/JG.52), based at Soldatskaya on the banks of the Terek River, north of the Caucasus Mountains. Hartmann was assigned to the 7th Staffel, commanded by Major Hubertus von Bonin. Again, the 20-year-old fledgling took to a veteran fighter flier who believed ability was more important than military protocol. Von Bonin informed his surprised newcomer that the pilot with the highest kill tally, not the highest rank, always led airborne elements. A lieutenant could insult his commanding colonel over the radio in the heat of battle, and once their landing gear touched the grass runway all was forgiven—a situation that ideally suited Hartmann.
On October 14, Hartmann lifted off on his first-ever combat flight. It was almost his last. He was flying as wingman to Sergeant Eduard Rossmann, who had 80 victories. Rossmann was as competent a teacher as he was a fighter, and he had a reputation for always bringing his wingmen home. It would take all his ability to save this one.
Leveling off at 12,000 feet, the pair followed the Terek River until they were passing over Prokhladny. At this point Rossmann spotted a flight of Soviet aircraft strafing German traffic outside the city and radioed Hartmann to follow him as he dived to attack. After a 5,000-foot plunge, the green wingman finally caught sight of the enemy Rossmann had been tracking all along. Seeing the Russians sent Hartmann into a dither of excitement. Slamming his Messerschmitt to full power, he leapt ahead of Rossmann and impatiently lined up on the rearmost Russian, opening fire at 300 yards. He was dismayed to see his tracers whizzing over and to the left of his target. Unable to get the aircraft in his sights, he had to yank his own plane upward at the last moment to avoid a collision. Momentarily leveling off, he later recalled that he found himself “surrounded on all sides by dark green aircraft, all of them turning behind me for the kill…ME!”
Frantically climbing into a layer of cloud, he lost his pursuers and was unspeakably relieved to hear Rossmann’s calm voice over the radio: “Don’t sweat it. I watched your tail. I’ve lost you now that you’ve climbed through the clouds. Come down through the layer so I can pick you up again.”
When Hartmann dropped from the overcast, he saw a plane coming at him from straight ahead. Panicky, he dived to treetop level and hurtled westward, screaming into his microphone that he was being pursued. By then Rossmann’s voice from the radio was so garbled that Hartmann could not make out his words, and the youngster continued full-tilt to the east until he outdistanced his pursuer.
By the time he was free of being chased and had regained his orientation, his red fuel warning light was flashing. Twenty miles short of Soldatskaya his engine sputtered into thirsty silence. After belly-landing in a cloud of dust, he was quickly surrounded by a unit of amused German infantrymen, who gave him an armored car lift back to his base. Von Bonin was waiting.
Hartmann’s “enemy” pursuer had actually been Rossmann, and bolting from his element leader was just one of seven serious combat flying infractions he had committed on his maiden flight. He had separated from his leader without orders, he had flown into his leader’s line of fire, lost himself in the clouds, failed to obey Rossmann’s order to rejoin, gotten lost and wrecked an expensive plane without damaging the enemy. Von Bonin banished the future supreme ace to three days with the ground crews, hoping to give him dirty hands and time to mull over his sins.
Following his penance Hartmann went back to flying with Rossmann and began absorbing his fighting techniques. Rossmann had suffered an arm wound earlier in the war and was unable to whip his plane around the sky in twisting dogfights like most of his comrades. Instead, he used his phenomenal eyesight to spot targets from a distance, assess the situation and then decide the best approach for his specialty—surprise attack. Rossmann’s victims seldom knew what hit them. He chalked up kills steadily and brought his plane home unscathed while his comrades waded into enemy formations as soon as they saw them, downed Russians in sporadic bunches, then sputtered home in smoking wrecks that often could not be salvaged for future fighting—provided they made it home at all.
Hartmann started copying Rossmann’s patient, methodical approach. He continuously rehearsed in his mind this style of airborne ambushing, but from point-blank range. All the while, he honed the crucial dogfighting skills that he, unlike Rossmann, was physically capable of performing. His preparations were put to the inevitable life-or-death test on November 5, 1942.
At noon that day he lifted off as part of a four-plane Schwarm to intercept a Red Army Air Force attack on Wehrmacht ground columns near the city of Digors. The first to spot the enemy, he was shaken by the numerical imbalance. There were 18 Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik ground attack planes escorted by 10 Lavochkin LaGG-3 fighters. Ordered by 1st Lt. Treppe to take the lead in the attack, Hartmann—followed closely by Treppe—took full advantage of his position above and behind the unsuspecting Russians and plunged through the escorts before they had a chance to react. Pulling into level flight, he opened up on the Shturmovik on the extreme left of the formation. Hartmann was stunned to see his machine gun bullets ricocheting ineffectually off the Il-2’s armor plating. The Germans called this steel-plated red bird the “flying tank,” but the rookie had been tipped off by one of the wing’s old-timers that the Shturmovik had a soft underbelly.
Banking sharply, he came around for another pass, swooping almost to the ground. Pulling up, he opened up on the Russian’s oil cooler from just 200 feet. With black smoke boiling from his underside, the pilot pulled his wounded plane out of formation and headed east in a shallow dive, looking for a place to crash land. Determined to make certain of his first kill, Hartmann followed.
As the excited young German drew a bead for the coup de grâce, the Il-2 suddenly exploded into a hail of large fragments, one of which hurtled into the Me-109’s engine cowling. With flames streaming from his plane, Hartmann made another belly landing just in time to see what was left of his victim slam into the dusty countryside a mile to the east. Again the neophyte was picked up and returned to base by an infantry patrol, but this time he was exultant. Even if he had so far destroyed two Luftwaffe aircraft versus one from the Soviets, he was at least on his way.
For the moment, though, Hartmann was assailed by a foe his warbird could not injure—a near-fatal fever that sent him for a month to the hospital at Piatigorsk-Essentuki. He would return to his outfit just as the massive Russian winter offensive came rolling into the overextended German lines. Hartmann’s opportunities for honing his swiftly developing talents were without counting as the dreary eastern heavens filled with Soviet formations. The pilots of JG.52 were, during daylight hours, seldom on the ground except to have their laboring Messerschmitts refueled, rearmed and fleetingly serviced.
Hartmann noticed how most of the higher-scoring aces closed in to point-blank range before firing, as opposed to imitating Rossmann’s rare skill for mortally wounding his victims from great distances. His own first victory’s coming at kissing range also made him consider the merits of this approach, so he began to close in for whites-of-their-eyes assaults.
In February Hartmann began flying as 1st Lt. Walter Krupinski’s wingman. Krupinski seldom bothered to maneuver—he simply charged bull-like into enemy ranks and opened fire. He was not very accurate, but he expended so much ammunition that quite a few Russians were hit in each engagement. He finished the war with 197 kills.
Hartmann soon found that by staying behind Krupinski he got in more shots than most wingmen—saddled as they were with protecting their element leaders’ tails. But the wildly firing lieutenant missed so many targets that his partner found himself with only a few seconds for “filling in the holes Kruppi left.”
Krupinski agreed with Hartmann’s ambition of becoming an expert ambusher, but the youngster kept unconsciously emulating Rossmann, prompting his element leader to keep repeating the same order over the radio: “Hey Bubi! Get in closer! You’re opening fire too far out!” The nickname, which means “lad” in German, was perfect for the boyish-faced warrior, and soon the whole squadron was using it.
By the end of April 1943, Hartmann had eight victories in 100 missions as a wingman, and he was made an element commander. He soon developed his own style of aerial combat, based on those of other pilots.
By May 25, he had six more kills, but that morning he had another close call when he collided with a LaGG-3 fighter and had to glide back to his own lines for yet another belly flop. He had now lost five planes in action, and his nerves were beginning to fray. Hrabak sent him to his parents in Stuttgart for a month’s leave, but his emotional state was not helped by the realization that his loved ones were no longer at a safe distance. Britain’s RAF and the U.S. Army Air Forces were sending mile-wide shoals of four-engine bombers over Germany. Hartmann returned to Russia with the sobering realization that he had become a part of this war just as the odds seemed to be turning against his country. Perhaps this gave him a desperation that made him utterly unstoppable, or perhaps he was simply trying to save German lives by flying his heart out against Josef Stalin’s vengeful legions. Whatever it was, something was different about Bubi when he returned to the Russian Front in the summer of 1943. His enemies would soon know him well.
On July 5, he downed four Lavochkin La-5 fighters, then four more two days later. He kept getting closer and closer to his targets before opening fire, and when he did press his firing button the Russian birds were smothered in hits and shot into smoking fragments.
At dusk on August 3 just outside Kharkov, Hartmann flamed another La-5 to bring his tally to 50. Earlier in the war this would have been enough to earn the Knight’s Cross, but by this time the requirements for such a reward had stiffened. Still, Bubi had overcome his amateurish impulsiveness and acquired the combat savvy every soldier needs to successfully prey on his foes.
At this point Hartmann was placed in command of the 9th Staffel (9/JG.52). Elated over this promotion, he frequently took to the smoky Russian skies, cutting a swath through the endless Soviet formations supporting the Red Army’s first summer offensive. Along with the rest of his wing he flew four sorties daily, fighting desperately to staunch the onrushing Red tide. These were the largest sky battles in history, and little changed with the arrival of another autumn.
On October 29, Hartmann knocked down his 150th Russian, earning the Knight’s Cross and a priceless two-week leave home to the waiting Ursula. He temporarily left behind a fine-tuned Me-109G-6 emblazoned with a red arrow-pierced heart labeled Uschi (Ursula’s nickname). In the air he used the call sign “Karaya One” (Sweetheart One). His fame was not limited to his own side of the front. By this time the opposition knew him well, and when they heard his moniker over the airwaves many would shamelessly quit his area. It would not save them for long.
His initiation into ground fighting had taken place back in August, when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Forced to skid into a field of sunflowers, Hartmann feigned being seriously injured, deceiving not only the Russian infantrymen who captured him but also a Red Army doctor. They took him to a nearby village. Pretending to be unconscious while being shipped eastward in a captured German truck, he was able to knock his guard senseless when the man was distracted by a flight of Stukas passing overhead. Galloping westward through fields of 6-foot-high sunflowers, he managed to elude his yelling pursuers and waited for dark. That night he spotted a Soviet patrol and followed it to the front. He made it to his lines, where he was nearly killed by a trigger-happy German sentry whose bullet tore through his pants leg.
Hartmann had stumbled upon an infantry unit that German-speaking Russians had bushwhacked a few days earlier, and he was lucky the picket had been so terrified of the darkness. The boy was shaking so hard that he missed Hartmann from 60 feet. After watching the footsloggers wipe out a drunken Russian patrol, Bubi was driven back to his airfield.
That behind-the-lines adventure left his nerves in tatters, but he would have to wait another month before his superiors could let him go home for a brief rest. By then autumn rains were slowing the Red advance, and he could finally be spared. A German pilot on the Eastern Front of late 1943 was kept very busy.
Hartmann’s plane was decorated with a distinctive black tulip petal design on its nose cone, and by year’s end the Russians had figured out that Karaya One and the flier they were calling the “Black Devil of the South” were the same soldier. Despite a bounty of 10,000 rubles placed on Bubi’s fair-haired young head, Red airmen avoided him like a leper. After his return from leave he tried to offset that by having his wingman fly the dusky-nosed Messerschmitt, but the Soviets steered so wide of it that Hartmann still could not get within range. He had the artwork removed at the first of the year. Cloaked in anonymity, he shot down 50 Russian machines despite being grounded by inclement weather for almost half the months of January and February.
During its first two winters in the East, the Luftwaffe had been bedeviled by unearthly cold that froze oil solid and turned fuel to slush within tanks and crankcases. Machine guns and automatic weapons were rendered useless when their lubricating grease froze and jammed their breech mechanisms. Captured Soviet pilots showed the Germans such tricks as mixing gasoline with a plane’s oil. The fuel liquefied the oily ice, enabling the engine to crank easily. As the motor warmed, the gasoline evaporated, eliminating any fire hazard. One captive flier lit a fire under a frozen Me-109, thawing it so that it started. The flames damaged nothing but the paint job. The same POW removed a Messerschmitt’s machine guns and dumped them into a tub of boiling water, which melted away the iced grease. Lubrication had the opposite effect at 40 degrees below zero, and without it the scalded guns worked perfectly.
JG.52 ripped through the surprised enemy early in 1944. Yet the massive Red Army still rolled irresistibly westward, and before long Hartmann found his call sign alone was enough to clear the air near him of targets. In addition, the Reds began to display great determination to be rid of Karaya One. The tactics he encountered in the New Year were seemingly spawned of madness.
One morning in late February he was on patrol over Romania, far from the front. It seemed like a milk run as he and his wingman, a Lieutenant Wester, kept their eyes open for aircraft that had been strafing German columns. Despite the almost-empty sky, something told Bubi to look over his shoulder. A lone Yakovlev Yak-9 was about 600 yards behind him and slightly above, and the pilot of the red-nosed fighter was beginning his pass.
As Hartmann repeatedly dodged out of the Russian’s line of fire, it seemed the man was trying to ram the Me-109. After ordering Wester to climb out of the way, Bubi commenced throttling back in his turns, attempting to make his adversary overshoot him on the outside. The Red pilot was good—he was careful not to let the German get behind him despite his tight turns. He surprised Hartmann by suddenly jerking his plane upward and charging the Messerschmitt in another ramming attempt. Both men opened fire simultaneously and missed, with Hartmann rolling out of the way, doing a split-S and diving to treetop level.
Sure enough, the Russian lost sight of him, and after whipping his plane around a couple times in fruitless search he turned eastward and headed home, never detecting the hunter lurking below him. The Me-109’s camouflage blended in well with the ground just below it. Two minutes later Hartmann had climbed to within 50 feet of his unsuspecting quarry and opened fire on his belly. The pilot flipped his blazing bird over and dropped from the cockpit, his parachute quickly blossoming. Bubi himself fetched the airman in a Fiesler Fi-156 Storch light reconnaissance plane and flew him back to JG.52’s airfield.
Stalin had made it clear that any Russian soldier who allowed himself to be captured would be treated as a traitor when “liberated” by his own side. When Hartmann’s young erstwhile adversary was first presented to the Luftwaffe squadron, he seemed delighted to be alive, but he later became furious when told he was not to be shot. He eventually calmed down enough so that the Germans were not forced to shoot him, and was allowed to wander the airfield unguarded for two days before he was shipped to wing headquarters for interrogation.
As western Russia entered spring, Hartmann continued refining his combat methods. He learned to hold off on reacting to approaching enemies until the last moment. In this way he could often glean vital information that might be missed if the target-to-be- reacted too soon. He noted that second-rate and green pilots invariably opened fire too early, and were easy pickings for his superior skill and seasoning. If his foe held fire and position until the last moment, it was certain a wily vet was at the stick.
In these cases Hartmann would employ an intricate maneuver in which he would surprise his opponent by jerking his Messerschmitt into as tight a turn as possible, then shoving forward on the stick while kicking his bottom rudder. The Me-109 would twist away downward, and as the Russian tried to copy the stratagem he would shift from positive to negative G forces and be tugged toward his canopy in disorienting fashion. Hartmann, however, would know precisely what was happening and pull back to positive Gs just as his foe was starting to experience weightlessness. Before the Red aviator could regain his bearings, Hartmann would pull up and drill him from below. Germany’s Blond Knight did his best to teach his “personal twist regulations” to all his wingmen, but few had the ability to master his technique.
When Hartmann received the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross from the Führer at the Eagle’s Nest headquarters on March 4, 1944, the Red Army was massing its limitless forces for the coming summer offensive. The boyish-looking, medal-bedecked 22-yearold returned to the front just when he was most needed. The summer of 1944 was the busiest time of his life.
During June and July, Stalin’s hordes pressed relentlessly into the sagging German lines, and Hartmann almost lived in his cockpit. His main assignment was opposing the gaggles of ground-attack Shturmoviks. He always managed to get under the flying tanks and hit them in their sole soft spot. On July 1, he fired just 120 rounds to down three Il-2s in a single brief dogfight, bringing his tally to 250. During that evening’s celebration of his feat, news came that he was to be awarded the Swords to his Knight’s Cross.
On August 3, the Blond Knight reported to the wooden barracks where his Führer had survived an attempt on his life two weeks earlier. He listened stunned as Hitler railed dementedly against the German officer corps, then tried to bolster Hartmann’s morale via reports of emerging weapons technologies. Like all Wehrmacht troops who had experienced the Russian Front, Hartmann realized that Hitler and his generals had fatally underestimated the Soviet Union three years earlier. Now the consequences were bearing down on Germany. Bubi again headed east, but the Swords around his neck gave him little joy as he again prepared to face an unbeatable foe.
Despite having taken some leave, Hartmann flamed 32 planes between July 20 and August 22. He had destroyed the equivalent of 15 squadrons of Russian warplanes, but there was no decrease in the number of red star–emblazoned aircraft droning endlessly from the East. For every one he and his comrades downed, 100 more appeared.
By late August, Bubi was crowding the 300 mark, which fell with amazing ease. On August 23 and 24, he shot down 19 planes despite contrary weather. Two days later he arrived at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in Insterburg to become the seventh day fighter pilot to receive the Diamonds to his Knight’s Cross.
Arriving at headquarters, Hartmann refused to surrender his sidearm, telling the astonished SS guards he would forego his award if Hitler insulted him by such a blatant display of distrust. Bubi was allowed to wear his pistol, and at luncheon after the ceremony he sat with the Führer and briefed him with sobering accuracy about Russian Front conditions, the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign (which he had witnessed on leaves to his home) and potential remedies to glaring deficiencies in strategy and the training of new pilots. Yet both men should have realized it was two years too late to implement reforms that might have rectified or avoided the deteriorating military situation.
By that time Hitler was banking on the Anglo-American-Soviet alliance breaking down and giving him time to perfect his emerging arsenal of revolutionary weaponry. In this hypothetical scenario the German leader believed he could gain a sufficient technological advantage to stalemate the war and perhaps negotiate a conditional cease-fire, with he himself remaining in power.
Hartmann had seen one and would see another indication that this situation appeared to be developing. On a mission when he and his squadron were intercepting Russian bomber formations over Budapest, North American P-51 Mustangs appeared and plunged into the fray only to be turned on by the Soviet escort fighters, whose pilots evidently thought the Americans were attacking them. Bubi and his fuel- and ammunition-short flight managed to escape due to this tragic family misunderstanding.
After receiving his Diamonds, Hartmann was informed that Luftwaffe paladin Hermann Göring had ordered his supreme ace grounded rather than risk his death in action. General Adolf Galland talked Göring into rescinding the order.
Then another set of orders reached Bubi, informing him he was to be transferred to a fighter group equipped with the new Messerschmitt Me-262A-1a jet. Hartmann was deeply attached to JG.52, and his impassioned pleas to be allowed to remain with his old outfit eventually changed the minds of those in power. He was allowed to stay on the Eastern Front. It was a decision he would regret long and deeply.
He subsequently consented to briefly visit the Luftwaffe’s rest and recuperation center at Bad Wiessee, where he suddenly came up with a great idea. He jumped the first train he could to Stuttgart, scooped up his beloved Ursula and took her back with him to Bad Wiessee. On September 9, 1944, they were married at the airmen’s center. Eight days later the groom set off back to the front. His bride was already pregnant with a son he would never see.
As the war’s last winter froze the front, Hartmann waded with typical havoc through the Soviet air force, leaving the 300 mark in the distance. Buoyed by news of the seeming success of the faraway Battle of the Bulge, he and his comrades fought with hope and renewed enthusiasm, but the report they were expecting, that the Western Allies had been pushed back toward the English Channel, never came. As another winter slowly melted, so did their faith in the turnaround so often promised by propaganda minister Josef Goebbels. Still, JG.52 never slackened its herculean efforts against the irresistible Red tide.
In March 1945, Hartmann was again transferred to a jet group. This time he was summoned by Galland’s Jagdverband 44, but he was no more interested in leaving his beloved Me-109 wing now than he had been the previous autumn. Flying as another man’s wingman was a situation he refused to accept. He yearned to remain at the point, dishing it out to his crumbling Reich’s deadliest, most vengeful enemy.
Yet soon after Hartmann reluctantly reported to the jet airfield at Lechfeld he was elated to be notified that the transfer was canceled and he was to return to JG.52, then based in Czechoslovakia. Colonel Hermann Graf had requested Bubi’s return because his command was miserably overworked as the Eastern and Western fronts neared each other.
By the time the Blond Knight made it back to JG.52, it was stationed at Deutsch-Brod. On his first patrol after returning, he and three of his men set out in their battered warbirds to intercept a huge flock of Russian bombers arrowing toward Prague. Arriving over the ragged pack of Petlyakov Pe-2s and Lend-Lease Douglas Bostons, the Germans formed up for a plunge through the covering Yak-9s. Just then Hartmann noticed another formation of approaching fighters. They were P-51 Mustangs, and they commenced circling just above the Red fighters. Bubi realized the Americans and Russians were too preoccupied with eyeballing each other to pay attention to much else, but their numerical superiority would limit the Messerschmitts to just one pass.
Diving full-throttle through the three tiers of targets, Hartmann knocked down two P-51s, passed through the Soviet fighters without firing on them, then riddled a Boston before fleeing at treetop level with his men close behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the Americans and Russians savagely dogfighting each other. The German attack had come and gone like a lightning bolt, before they could focus on their assailants. Both flights apparently thought the other had assaulted them. The Cold War was having a very hot birth.
As the European conflict burned itself out, Hartmann would encounter no more Americans. The seven he shot down were his only non-Russian kills. On May 8, he found the wildly maneuvering Yak-7 over Brunn. It was his 352nd victory, making him the highest-scoring ace in history. His JG.52 comrade, Gerhard Barkhorn, ended up in second place with 301.
Hartmann’s incredible eyesight, marksmanship and dogfighting ability brought him through World War II without a scratch. When he landed after the patrol over Brunn, he received word of his country’s surrender. The surviving soldiers of JG.52 burned their beloved, battle-scarred Me-109s and surrendered to the Americans. When the Allies learned that this batch of POWs had served on the Russian Front until the end of hostilities, they turned the captives over to the Soviets.
For 10 years the Blond Knight languished in POW gulags deep within the USSR. Ursula gave birth to a baby boy early in his imprisonment, but the infant died soon afterward. It became clear to Hartmann that his determination to stay with his outfit until the end was the worst mistake of his military career. Galland and his men had fought against and surrendered to the Allies, but they were quickly released after Germany’s capitulation.
Not until 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, was Hartmann’s release negotiated, after which he returned home to his wife. Ursula later bore him a beautiful daughter.
The famous ace subsequently became a central figure in building and maintaining the West German Luftwaffe so that it could stand watch against the same enemy to the East, but he had seen his last aerial combat. Erich Hartmann died on September 10, 1993.
Hartmann’s battlefield career versus the Red Colossus was finished, but his legacy as the most successful fighter pilot in history will likely endure forever. The great German ace’s breed has seemingly passed into history, but today’s and tomorrow’s soldiers may do well to study these incredible air warriors of yesterday.
Kelly Bell writes from Tyler, Texas. For additional reading, try: The Blond Knight of Germany, by Trevor J. Constable and Raymond F. Toliver.
Originally published in the January 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.