German pilot and soccer player Hermann Graf was a Soviet prisoner for four years after V-E Day. (National Archives)

German Luftwaffe members Erich Hartmann, Adolf Galland and Johannes Steinhoff achieved a measure of immortality for their flying and fighting prowess during World War II. A name missing from many histories of that conflict, however, is Hermann Graf — with 212 confirmed victories, one of the most decorated aces in the Luftwaffe.

Born on October 12, 1912, in Engen im Hegau, Germany, Hermann was the youngest of three sons. Aviation fascinated him from his youth; he was only 12 when he made his first glider flight. While still in school, Graf earned his ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ glider certificates. According to Christer Bergström, author of Graf & Grislawski: A Pair of Aces, young Graf first worked as a locksmith apprentice, then later as a public assistance clerk apprentice. Many accounts incorrectly report he apprenticed as a blacksmith, emulating his father.

By 1936, Hermann Graf had applied for and was accepted as a reservist in the Wehrmacht. His dream was to qualify for the new Luftwaffe, which Adolf Hitler defiantly resurrected despite the strict military restrictions that the Treaty of Versailles imposed on Germany at the end of World War I. In 1939 Graf took the Luftwaffe NCO course, thus becoming a reserve officer candidate. He joined the Aibling Fighter Wing one month before the outbreak of World War II.

As a member of the Aibling Wing, Graf saw little action. He flew 21 missions over France without a single shot being fired, then was transferred to the 9th Staffel (Squadron) of Jagdgeschwader 52, or 9/JG.52, on October 6, 1940. His combat debut came in 1941 on the Eastern Front. On August 4, he shot down a Russian Polikarpov I-16 fighter for his first confirmed victory.

Graf went on to be the first fighter pilot to score 200 official victories — a feat he accomplished within the span of just 13 months. To put that into perspective, William Nagle, curator of the Commemorative Air Force in Mesa, Ariz., explained: ‘Most American pilots would have fewer than 30 kills in their careers. The German pilots would fly morning, noon and night for five years accumulating numbers in the hundreds. These pilots were absolutely courageous. With that many kills, I’d brand [Hermann Graf] top drawer.’

By January 24, 1942, Graf had scored his 41st victory and earned the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Four months later, on May 17, the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross were bestowed on him when he achieved his 104th victory. The Swords to his Cross came two days later.

That fall, Graf dominated the air over Stalingrad in his Messerschmitt Me-109. In 30 days, he shot down 62 Soviet aircraft. After his tally reached 172, Graf was awarded the Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross on September 16, 1942. One of only nine pilots to receive this enviable decoration, Graf was reportedly proud that every one of his kills, in the course of more than 830 missions, was in air-to-air combat.

As standard procedure, Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring banned Graf from flying combat missions after the pilot had received the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds. Early in 1943, Graf was assigned to France to head the Ergänzungs-Jagdgruppe Ost (Fighter Replacement Group East), an advanced training unit for novice pilots as well as a refresher school for veterans grounded due to injuries.

In July 1943, Göring asked Graf to set up a special high-altitude fighter unit to contend with British de Havilland Mosquito light bombers. Geschwaderkommodore Graf was granted the authority to select any member he wished for the new Jagdgruppe 50, which would operate out of Wiesbaden-Erbenheim Airdrome. Graf chose close friend and wingman Alfred Grislawski, as well as Ernst Sss and Heinrich Fullgrabe, to form the ‘Karaya Quartet.’

In addition to his love of flying, Graf harbored a passion for playing soccer. He was reportedly the best goalie in the Luftwaffe but could not be recruited into the German National Soccer Team because of a broken thumb. Thanks to his connections, Graf was able to arrange for the transfer of several drafted GNST players to JGr.50. From this group, he formed his own soccer team, the Red Fighters, to raise morale. Later on, when he became a Soviet POW, Graf’s soccer prowess may even have been a factor in saving his life.

JGr.50 started out with eight Messerschmitt Me-109Gs that were rumored to be equipped with specially boosted engines. In actuality, the aircraft were Me-109G-5s and Me-109G-6s modified for maximum speed and equipped with fuel tanks capable of using GM1 mixture (nitrous oxide), thereby increasing horsepower. Graf set a world record in high altitude flight — 46,885 feet — in one of the modified 109Gs.

At the time JGr.50 was deemed ready for combat, the focus was changed from hunting Mosquitoes to intercepting American heavy bombers. On August 12, 1943, 183 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses were sent over Germany’s Ruhr industrial valley, and Graf’s men rallied to meet the threat.

Five days later, JGr.50 was again dispatched on interception missions against American bombers. On September 6, the unit’s pilots shot down four Flying Fortresses over Stuttgart, two of them claimed by Graf, who was subsequently shot down and survived a forced landing.

The following month, JGr.50 was disbanded and merged with I Gruppe, JG.301. Graf was appointed commander of JG.11 on November 1. Although he spent less time flying Reich defense than touring Luftwaffe units, he managed to shoot down three bombers and a North American P-51 Mustang by March 8, 1944.

He took to the air again on March 29, and after shooting down a Mustang, he was severely injured after ramming another and having to bail out of his Me-109G-6 at low altitude. Göring then reassigned him to command his former unit, JG.52. He would complete his military tenure in that outfit.

By spring 1945 the war was all but over. When confronted by General George Patton’s Third Army, Graf surrendered. The Americans turned the POWs over to Soviet forces. It appeared Graf accepted his fate and because he cooperated with the Russians, he was labeled a traitor by the Germans.

In the early 1960s, Graf shared his POW experience with James Gniewkowski, who had married one of Graf’s relatives. Graf explained that he had been captured by American forces on the outskirts of Berlin, where he had landed his Me-109, the third Messerschmitt he had piloted in five years of combat. His fighter had just enough fuel to reach Berlin, and he had been told there would be more fuel and a plane awaiting him there.

Once in Berlin, Graf was supposed to fly Hitler to the Eagle’s Nest in the German Alps. Graf admitted he had no idea what the plan was after that, but it never came to fruition, as Hitler was already dead. Once he landed on the autobahn that night near his destination, the war ended for him.

Though he had no proof, Graf told Gniewkowski he believed that he had been traded by the Americans to the Russians in exchange for other imprisoned Germans. The Russians thought he was an engineer with significant aviation expertise.

He was held captive for four years after V-E Day — a period that took a great psychological and physical toll on him. While in captivity, Graf agreed to play soccer for the Russians, who promised he would be fed if he played for them. At that time, many in the Luftwaffe fraternity who heard about this viewed it as betrayal.

Graf was turned over to German authorities on December 25, 1949 — five years before most of his JG.52 comrades in Soviet captivity. Used as a bargaining chip for several Soviet prisoners the Russians wanted, he reentered a postwar Germany radically different from the fatherland he had left. He arrived at his late mother’s house only to find it had been ransacked by French liberation forces that had stolen many of his possessions, including his military medals and decorations. The death of his grieving mother shortly before his return left a huge void in his life.

While Germany was trying to bury its past and rebuild its future, Graf reportedly felt adrift, but with the guidance of fellow soldier Sepp Herberger, he managed to focus his considerable energies and enthusiasm on forging a new career for himself in the burgeoning electronics industry. With the help of former JG.11 pilot Berthold Jochim, he also penned an autobiography, 200 Luftsiege in 13 Monaten (200 Victories in 13 Months), which has never been translated to English.

Hermann Graf died on November 4, 1988, of Parkinson’s disease. He is buried in Engen, Germany, where his life began. In the postwar years, his brothers in the Fighter Pilot’s Association decided to make amends and accepted him back as a full-fledged, loyal countryman.

This article was written by Marielle D. Marne and originally published in the September 2005 issue of Aviation History.

For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!