Erich Alfred Hartmann (1922-1993) was the highest scoring ace in the history of military aviation. He fought as a fighter pilot on the Eastern Front during World War II, shooting down 352 Soviet aircraft. Serving with the Luftwaffe, Hartmann flew 1,404 combat missions, engaged the enemy in combat 827 times and was never shot down. Known as “Bubi” or the “Blond Knight”, and to the Soviets as The Black Devil, he was an audacious and determined man with full control of himself and steel nerves.
Erich Hartmann was born in Weissach, Württemberg, Germany, on April 19, 1922. His father was Alfred Erich Hartmann and his mother, Elisabeth Wilhelmine Machtholf. As his father was a physician and had been sent to work in China, Erich spent part of his childhood in the Far East. When the Chinese Civil War broke out, they returned to Germany in 1928. In the early 1930s, Erich Hartmann was taught to fly gliders by his mother, who was the first female pilot of Germany. Then, he joined the gliding training program of the future Luftwaffe. In 1939, Erich obtained his pilot’s license, which allowed him to fly powered aircraft.
In October 1940, he joined the Luftwaffe where he learned combat techniques and gunnery skills. When his advanced pilot training was completed in January 1942, Hartmann was assigned to a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka at the fighter wing Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52), based at Maykop on the Eastern Front in the Soviet Union. Erich was placed under the supervision of some of the Luftwaffe’s most experienced fighter pilots, such as Walter Krupinski, Oberfeldwebel Edmund “Paule” Roßmann, and Alfred Grislawski. Hartmann flew his first combat mission on October 14, 1942, as Edmund “Paule” Roßmann’s wingman, flying a Messerschmitt Bf 109. By August 1944, Erich Hartmann had claimed 301 aerial victories and earned the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.
Erich Hartmann scored his last aerial victory, the 352th, on May 8, 1945. He and the remainder of JG 52 surrendered to United States Army forces and were turned over to the Red Army. In an attempt to pressure him into service with the Soviet-controlled East German air force, he was convicted of fabricated war crimes, a conviction posthumously voided by a Russian court as a malicious prosecution. Hartmann was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor and spent 10 years in various Soviet prison camps and gulags until he was released in 1955. In 1956, Hartmann joined the newly established West German Luftwaffe and became the first Wing Commander of Jagdgeschwader 71 “Richthofen”. Hartmann resigned from the Bundeswehr in 1970, largely due to his opposition to the F-104 Starfighter deployment in the Bundesluftwaffe and the resulting clashes with his superiors over this issue. Then, he worked as a flight instructor. Erich Hartmann died in 1993.
III./JG 52’s commander, Major Hubertus von Bonin, placed Hartmann under Oberfeldwebel Grislawski’s wings. The miner’s son Alfred Grislawski found a particular pleasure in teaching this newcomer the name of the game. He made a few mock combats with Hartmann. This relieved Hartmann of some of his ambitious ideas, but Grislawski had to admit that although Hartmann had a lot to learn about
combat tactics, he was quite a talented pilot. The trouble began when they started flying combat missions together. Grislawski immediately noticed that the newcomer was one of those who thought they were going to “shoot together a Knight’s Cross” in no time. During one incident, Hartmann had barely started to leave his place behind Grislawski to go after an I-16, when his earphones seemed to explode: “You bloody idiot! What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’m your leader! Get back in place or I’ll shoot you down myself!” Grislawski kept cursing over the R/T all the way back to base, and when they had landed, the Oberfeldwebel gave the Leutnant a dressing down that he would never forget. Then, in front of the sweating Hartmann, Grislawski turned to his friend “Paule” Rossmann and said: “Oh man, this is too much! What a baby they have sent us! Just look at his face - like a cute little boy!” From then on, Grislawski never addressed Hartmann as anything but Bubi, “little boy”.
Hartmann indeed proved to be extremely individualistic, and von Bonin definitely knew what he was doing when he assigned a vigorous and harsh worker’s son like Alfred Grislawski as his teacher. The men at Soldatskaya used to gather around the radio equipment and listen to the R/T communication with amusement when Grislawski and Hartmann were out on combat missions.
"Are you so anxious to die, Bubi?"
"I’m sorry, sir!"
"Don’t you ‘sir’ me, look after your tail instead!"
"I’ll nail you for this, Bubi!"
"Your mother will be sorry!"*
-Erich Hartmann on Hauptmann Alfred Grislawski
"Once I was in a duel with a Red Banner flown Yak-9, and this guy was good, and absolutely insane. He tried and tried to get in behind me, and every time he went to open fire I would jerk out of the way of his rounds. Then he pulled up and rolled, and we approached each other head on, firing, with no hits either way. This happened two times. Finally I rolled into a negative G dive, out of his line of sight, and rolled out to chase him at full throttle. I came in from below in a shallow climb and flamed him. The pilot bailed out and was later captured. I met and spoke with this man, a captain, who was a likeable guy. We gave him some food and allowed him to roam the base after having his word that he would not escape. He was happy to be alive, but he was very confused, since his superiors told him that Soviet pilots would be shot immediately upon capture. This guy had just had one of the best meals of the war and had made new friends. I like to think that people like that went back home and told their countrymen the truth about us, not the propaganda that erupted after the war, although there were some terrible things that happened, no doubt."
-Erich Hartmann on his foes on the Eastern Front
"Once I attacked a flight of four IL-2s and shot one up. All four tried to roll out in formation at low altitude, and all four crashed into the ground, unable to recover since their bomb loads reduced their maneuverability. Those were the easiest four kills I ever had.
However, I remember the time I saw over 20,000 dead Germans littering a valley where the Soviet tanks and Cossacks had attacked a trapped unit, and that sight, even from the air was perhaps the most memorable of my life. I can close my eyes and see this even now. Such a tragedy! I remember that I cried as I flew low over the scene; I could not believe my eyes.
Another time was in May 1944 near Jassy, my wingman Blessin and I were jumped by fighters, he broke right and the enemy followed him down. I rolled and followed the enemy fighter down to the deck. I radioed to my wingman to pull up and slip right in a shallow turn so I could get a good shot. I told him to look back, and see what happens when you do not watch your tail, and I fired. The fighter blew apart and fell like confetti.
However, separate from Krupinski’s crash the day I met him, one event is clear and comical. My wingman on many missions was Carl Junger. He came in for a landing and a Polish farmer with horse cart crossed his path. He crashed into it, killing the horse and the fighter was nothing but twisted wreckage. We all saw it and began thinking about the funeral, when suddenly the debris moved and he climbed out without a scratch, still wearing his sunglasses. He was ready to go up again. Amazing!”
-Erich Hartmann on memorable moments
"Then there was the American Mustangs that we both dreaded and anticipated meeting. We knew that they were a much better aircraft than ours; newer and faster, and with a great range. On 23 June 1944. In the defense of Ploesti, Bucharest, and Hungary when the bombers were coming in with heavy fighter escort and “Karaya 1” was commander of I/JG52. B-17s were attacking the railroad junction, and we were formed up. We did not see the Mustangs at first and prepared to attack the bombers. Suddenly four of them flew across us and below, so I gave the order to attack the fighters. I closed in on one and fired, his fighter coming apart and some pieces hit my wings, and I immediately found myself behind another and I fired, and he flipped in. My second flight shot down the other two fighters. But then we saw others and again attacked. I shot down another and saw that the leader still had his drop tanks, which limited his ability to turn. I was very relieved that this pilot was able to successfully bail out. I was out of ammunition after the fight. But this success was not to be repeated, because the Americans learned and they were not to be ambushed again. They protected the bombers very well, and we were never able to get close enough to do any damage. I did have the opportunity to engage the Mustangs again when a flight was being pursued from the rear and I tried to warn them on the radio, but they could not hear. I dived down and closed on a P-51 that was shooting up a 109, and I blew him up. I half rolled and recovered to fire on another of the three remaining enemy planes and flamed him as well. As soon as that happened I was warned that I had several on my tail so I headed for the deck, a swarm of eight Americans behind me. That is a very uncomfortable feeling I can tell you! I made jerking turns left and right as they fired, but they fired from too far away to be effective. I was headed for the base so the defensive guns would help me, but I ran out of fuel and had to bail out. I was certain that this one pilot was lining me up for a strafe, but he banked away and looked at me, waving. I landed four miles from the base; I almost made it. That day we lost half our aircraft; we were too outnumbered and many of the young pilots were inexperienced."
-Erich Hartmann on his encounter with American Pilots
"Goring could not believe the staggering kills being recorded from 1941 on. I even had a man in my unit, someone you also know, Fritz Oblesser, who questioned my kills. I asked Rall to have him transferred from the 8th Squadron to be my wingman for a while. Oblesser became a believer and signed off on some kills as a witness, and we became friends after that."
Goring wasn’t the only one who didn’t believe the claims coming out of Russia. The scores reported were so high, a very strict system was put into place to verify a claim. Not only were pilots required to sign off on their wingmate’s kills but independent ground confirmation was needed as well. When a pilot shot down a plane he would call out over the radio, “Horrido.” At this point pilots or ground crew in the area would look about and see if they saw the event. Most often on the eastern front, there were many on hand to see the victim smash into the ground, and thereby make the kill “official.”
A few other things deserve to be mentioned here too…
Shared kills were not individually counted by the pilots involved, but they did count toward the squadron’s score as a whole. You won’t see a score of 50.5, for example, for a German Ace.
And, points were awarded depending on the number of engines a plane had that was destroyed. 1 point for a single engine, 2 for a twin, 4 for a four-engined bomber and so on. These points were added up and when a pilot achieved a certain number of points he was awarded a medal (the points required for a given medal was much higher on the eastern front than it was on the western front).
These points are in no way related to a pilot’s total score of victories. Bringing down a 4-engined bomber may have gotten a pilot 4 points, but it only got him 1 victory.
So make no mistake, Erich Hartmann’s score of 352 does not refer to engines but 352 individual planes shot down.
-Erich Hartmann on his score.