Aerial Combat Ace: Erich Hartmann

Erich Hartmann

Aerial Combat Ace: Erich Hartmann
Erich Hartmann

During the Second World War, Allied pilots came to know of Erich Hartmann through his daring and his skill as a fighter pilot. Such was his status that his comrades called him Bubi, but to the Soviets he hunted and destroyed he was known simply as ‘The Black Devil’. Hartmann’s successes in the air have become legendary. He flew 1,404 combat missions and is credited with shooting down 352 Allied planes making him the most successful ace in the history of aerial warfare.

Born in Weissach on April 19, 1922 during the height of Germany’s economic depression, Erich Alfred Hartmann was taken by his doctor father Alfred to Changsha in China where he worked as a missionary. The Chinese Civil War saw the family flee back to Germany in 1928. Fascinated by flying from an early age Hartmann joined the glider flying school of the fledgling Luffwaffe and was actually taught by his mother Elisabeth who was a noted glider pilot. Following the Nazi’s rise to power funding for flight training was forthcoming and the Hartmann’s established a flying school at Weil im Schönbuch where the 14-year-old Erich became an instructor. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Erich Hartmann earned his flying licence. He immediately enlisted and joined the 10th Flying Regiment at Neukuhren on October 1, 1940 for initial training. He completed his advanced pilot training on January 31, 1942 and was soon in the cockpits of Messerschmitt Bf 109’s.

On August 21, 1942 Hartmann was posted to Ergänzungs-Jagdgruppe Ost (Supplementary Fighter Group, East) in Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, where he remained until October 10, 1942. From there he joined fighter wing Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52), based at Maykop on the Eastern Front in the Soviet Union where he flew his first combat mission on October 14, 1942 which ended with no victories and crashing his aircraft after it ran out of fuel. His first kill would come twenty two days later with the destruction of an Ilyushin II 2 Sturmovik of the 7th Guards Ground Attack Aviation Regiment. During the Battle of Kursk, Hartmann shot down seven Russian aircraft. By the start of August 1943 Hartmann’s success in the air had seen fifty enemy aircraft destroyed. His bravado and skills in the air would see another forty eight added to the total before the end of the same month. Hartmann’s favoured attack was to come in extremely close to the enemy, perhaps as close as 20 metres, and unleash a short burst at point blank range. This method did, however, open him up to being hit by debris from damaged or exploding aircraft and Hartmann had to crash land on fourteen occasions because of just this. On August 19, having just destroyed an II-2 his aircraft was struck by debris and he crash landed in Soviet territory. Hartmann couldn’t avoid being captured but faked internal injuries. Moved by stretcher to an ambulance Hartmann waited for the right opportunity to make his escape. After attacking his single guard Hartmann ran into a field of giant sunflowers and made it back to the front line and was reunited with his unit.

Erich Hartmann’s tally of aerial victories rose to 100 on September 20 and had joined only 53 other Luftwaffe pilots with that achievement. The following month he added another thirty three kills. By December his scorecard showed 159.

His spectacular success was celebrated by the German High Command, but even they were suspicious of such high scoring and Hartmann’s victories were checked and double checked before being credited to his account. On March 2, 1944 his victories had risen to 202. His reputation with the Russian’s was such that they had started to call him Cherniy Chort or Black Devil and had placed a price on his head of 10,000 Rubles. Soviet airmen who saw Hartmann’s distinctive nose cowl design in flight would invariably shy away from a fight with him and accordingly the German’s kill rate fell in early spring. Once his aircraft was repainted and the cowl design removed the kill rate climbed once again.

Hartmann first encountered American P-51 Mustangs whilst over Bucharest in Romania on May 21, 1944. The Americans were no match for the Germans and all four were destroyed with Hartmann claiming a pair. Later in the month he was forced to bail out of his aircraft when it ran out of fuel. On August 17, he became Germany’s highest scoring ace when he downed his 274th victory. He passed the 300 mark on August 24, 1944 when he shot down eleven aircraft in two combat missions—making him a double ace in a day.

Such was Hartmann’s reputation that Herman Goring immediately grounded him fearing the effect of losing such a national hero would have on public and military moral. To Hartmann being grounded was tantamount to an insult and he successfully lobbied to be reinstated. Hartmann was one of only 27 Germans to receive the Diamonds to his Knights Cross, which was presented to him personally by Adolf Hitler at the Wolf's Lair.

By early 1945 the war was effectively over for the Germans and General Hans Seidemann ordered Erich Hartmann and fellow pilot Hermann Graf to leave the rest of their comrades in JG 52 squadron and fly to the British sector to avoid being captured by the Soviets. Hartmann refused the order believing it to be dishonourable and the worst kind of leadership for the men under his command. Hartmann’s last kill occurred on 8 May when he shot down a Yak-9 over Brno in Czechoslovakia. A second escaped when American P-51’s entered the fray. When he landed he discovered that Russian artillery was within range of the afield and he took the decision to destroy sensitive equipment as well as the squadron’s aircraft. He noted after the war that: “We destroyed the aircraft and all munitions, everything. I sat in my fighter and fired the guns into the woods where all the fuel had been dropped, and then jumped out. We destroyed twenty-five perfectly good fighters.”

Despite the war having been lost Hartmann fought on to the last. At midday on May 8, 1945, his 352nd and last victory was claimed only hours before a cessation of hostilities were announced. JG 52 subsequently surrendered to the US 90th Infantry Division and he was handed over to the Red Army to face trial for his alleged war crimes. During his interrogation he was brutalised by the Soviets who later charged him with war crimes including the ‘deliberate shooting of 780 Soviet civilians’ in the village of Briansk on May 23, 1943. Hartmann spent many months in solitary confinement after his 25 year conviction and steadfastly refused to do the prescribed hard labour complaining of the unlawfulness of his conviction. Only the intervention of the West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer and a trade deal between Russia and West Germany secured his release in 1955 along with 16,000 other German internees.

The following year he joined the Bundeswehr (German Air Force) in West Germany. In 1970 he resigned his commission in protest over the introduction into service of the American F-104 Starfighter which came to be known in Germany as the Widow Maker after 282 crashes and 115 deaths. In civilian life he continued flying as an instructor until close to his death on September 20, 1993.


“Of all my accomplishments I may have achieved during the war, I am proudest of the fact that I never lost a wingman.”

“Once committed to an attack, fly in at full speed."

“Combat flying is based on the slashing attack and rough manoeuvring.”

“If he is superior then I would go home, for another day that is better.”

“Every day kill just one, rather today five, tomorrow ten—that is enough for you. “

“I opened fire when the whole windshield was black with enemy… at minimum range.”

“One thing I’ve learned is this: Never allow yourself to hate a people because of the actions of a few. Hatred and bigotry destroyed my nation and millions died…Never hate it only eats you alive. Keep an open mind and always look for the good in people. You may be surprised at what you find.”

"In the early days, incredible as it may seem, there was no reason for you to feel fear if the Russian fighter was behind you. With their hand-painted "gunsights" they couldn't pull the lead properly or hit you."

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Patrick Boniface
Patrick Boniface
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