Fighter Aces – Erich Hartmann – 352 Aerial Victories

anil chopra, air power asia, Air Aces, Erich Hartmann

Erich Alfred Hartmann was a German fighter pilot, serving with Luftwaffe, during World War II and the most successful fighter ace in the history of aerial warfare. He flew 1,404 combat missions and faced 825 air combat engagements. He was credited with shooting down 352 Allied aircraft, which included 350 Soviet and 2 American. In his flying career, Hartmann had to crash-land his fighter 16 times, either due enemy action or technical failure. Hartmann, was a pre-war glider pilot who joined the Luftwaffe in 1940 and completed his fighter pilot training in 1942. He was posted to the veteran Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52) on the eastern front. He was fortunate to be placed under the supervision of some of the Luftwaffe’s most experienced fighter pilots. Under their guidance, Hartmann steadily developed his tactics.

          By 29 October 1943 he had already destroyed 148 enemy aircraft and was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Later he got Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross for destroying 202 enemy aircraft on 2 March 1944, and the Swords to the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, four months later for 268 enemy aircraft shot down. Ultimately, Hartmann earned the coveted Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds on 25 August 1944 for claiming 301 aerial victories. At the time of its presentation, this was Germany’s highest military decoration.

          Hartmann achieved his 352nd and last aerial victory at midday on 8 May 1945, hours before the German surrender. Along with the remainder of JG 52, he surrendered to United States Army, and was later turned over to the Red Army. Soviets wanted to use his expertise and initially induced him to join the East German National People’s Army, which he refused. He was tried for war crimes charges and convicted. He was initially sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment, later increased to 25 years, and spent 10 years in various Soviet prison camps and gulags until he was finally released in 1955. In 1956, Hartmann joined the newly established West German Air Force. He was retired in 1970, due to his strong opposition to the German’s procurement of the F-104 Starfighter. In his later years, after his military career had ended, he became a civilian flight instructor. Erich Hartmann died on 20 September 1993 aged 71.

Early Life and Career

          Erich Hartmann was born on 19 April 1922. His father was a doctor, and wanted him to become one. Hartmann flying career began when he joined the glider training program of the fledgling Luftwaffe and was taught to fly by his mother, Elisabeth Hartmann, one of the first female glider pilots in Germany. The Hartmanns also owned a light aircraft but were forced to sell it in 1932 as the German economy collapsed. The mother being a licensed pilot, used to take the children up and teach things. His father was not pleased that he wanted to be a pilot, he wanted the children to follow him in medicine. The rise of Nazi party in 1933 resulted in government support for gliding, and, in 1936, Elisabeth Hartmann established the glider club for locals and served as instructress. The 14-year-old Erich Hartmann became a gliding instructor in the Hitler Youth. In 1937, he gained his pilot’s license, allowing him to fly powered aircraft. During World War II, Hartmann’s younger brother, Alfred, also joined the Luftwaffe, serving as a gunner on a Junkers Ju 87 in North Africa. Alfred Hartmann was captured by the British and spent four years as a prisoner of war.

          Hartmann began his military training in October 1940. His advanced pilot training was completed in January 1942. By August 1942, he had learned to fly the Messerschmitt Bf 109. As a trainee in March 1942, during a gunnery training flight, he ignored regulations and performed some aerobatics in his Bf 109. His punishment was a week of confinement to quarters, and loss of two-thirds of his pay in fines. He was scheduled to go up on a gunnery flight that was now allotted to his roommate. Shortly after he took off, while on his way to the gunnery range, aircraft developed engine trouble and crashed killing the batch mate.

          Hartmann evolved his own credo and practices. “Fly with your head, not with your muscles” he said. During a gunnery meet in June 1942, he hit the target drogue with 24 out of the 50 rounds of machine-gun fire, which was considered outstanding. His training had qualified him to fly 17 different types of powered aircraft.

Messerschmitt Bf 109G JG 52. Picture Source: Wiki Commons

Initial Tactics and Grooming

          In October 1942, Hartmann was assigned to fighter wing JG 52, at Maykop on Eastern Front facing Soviet Union. Hartmann and other pilots were initially given the task of ferrying Junkers Ju 87 Stukas down to Mariupol. His first flight ended with brake failure, causing the Stuka to crash into and destroy the controller’s hut. He was assigned to experienced pilots to hone his combat skills. After a few days of intensive mock combats and practice flights, his senior Alfred Grislawski conceded that, although Hartmann had much to learn regarding combat tactics, he was quite a talented pilot. Hartmann was placed as wingman to Paule Roßmann, who acted as his teacher. Grislawski also taught Hartmann how to aim in combat. Hartmann eventually adopted the tactic “See – Decide – Attack – Break”. Roßmann taught him to “stand off”, evaluate the situation, then select a target that was not taking evasive action and destroy it at close range.

Early Aerial Combat

          Hartmann flew his first combat mission on 14 October 1942 as Roßmann’s wingman. When they encountered 10 enemy aircraft below, an impatient Hartmann opened full throttle and separated from Roßmann. He engaged an enemy fighter, but failed to score any hits and nearly collided with it. He then ran for cover in low cloud, and his mission subsequently ended with a crash landing after his aircraft ran out of fuel. Hartmann had violated almost every rule of air-to-air combat, and he was sentenced to three days of working with the ground crew. Twenty-two days later, Hartmann claimed his first victory, an Ilyushin Il-2. By the end of 1942, he had added only one more victory to his tally. As with many high-claiming aces, it took him some time to establish himself as a consistently successful fighter pilot. On 5 November 1942, an Il-2 shot up his Bf 109 G-2 engine resulting in a forced landing.

          Hartmann’s youthful looks got him the nickname “Bubi” (young boy in German language). Hartmann steadily improved. On 5 July Hartmann claimed four victories during the large dogfights that took place during the Battle of Kursk. Hartmann began to score successes regularly in a target rich environment. On 7 July he claimed four, including two Il-2s. On 8 and 9 July 1943 he claimed four on each day. A Soviet after-battle analysis acknowledged the engagement claims. From the third week of May 1943 to the first week of August, Hartmann’s number of claims rose from 17 to 60. On 1 August 1943 Hartmann became an ace-in-a day by claiming five victories. Another four followed on 3 August and five on the 4 August. Another five were claimed destroyed on the 5 August, a single on the 6 August, and a further five on 7 August. On 8 and 9 August he claimed another four Soviet fighters. Hartmann’s last claim of the month came on the 20th, when he accounted for an IL-2 for his 90th victory.

Fighting techniques

          Unlike Hans-Joachim Marseille, who was a marksman and expert in the art of deflection shooting, Hartmann was a master of stalk-and-ambush tactics, and fire at close range rather than dogfight. He held fire until extremely close (20 m (66 ft) or less), then unleash a short burst at point-blank range. This technique, reveal his position only at the last possible moment, and compensate for the low muzzle velocity of the slower-firing 30 mm cannon on some aircraft. It also resulted in accuracy and minimum waste of ammunition. Also adversary had no time for evasive action. His approach was summarised in “See–Decide–Attack–Reverse”; observe the enemy, decide how to proceed with the attack, make the attack, and then disengage to re-evaluate the situation. Once the attack was over, the rule was to vacate the area; survival was paramount. Another attack could be executed if the pilot could re-enter the combat zone with the advantage.

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross

On 20 September 1943, Hartmann was credited with his 100th aerial victory, having claimed four that day to end it on 101. He was the 54th Luftwaffe pilot to achieve the century mark. Nine days later, Hartmann downed the Soviet ace Major Vladimir Semenishin for his 112th victory. In October 1943, Hartmann claimed another 33 aerial victories. On 29 October, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, at which point his tally stood at 148. By the end of the year, this had risen to 159.

100 Victory. Picture Source:

Counter Check of His Claims

          In the first two months of 1944, Hartmann claimed over 50 Soviet aircraft. His spectacular rate of success raised a few eyebrows even in the Luftwaffe High Command; so his claims were double and triple-checked, and his performance closely monitored by an independent observer flying in his formation. By this time, the Soviet pilots were familiar with Hartmann’s radio call sign of “Karaya 1”,  and the Soviet Command had put a price of 10,000 rubles on the German pilot’s head. Hartmann was nicknamed the Cherniy Chort (Black Devil) because of his skill and paint scheme of his aircraft. This scheme was in the shape of a black tulip on the engine cowling; though this became synonymous with Hartmann in reality he flew with the insignia on only five or six occasions. Hartmann’s opponents were often reluctant to stay and fight if they noticed his personal design. As a result, this aircraft was often allocated to novices, who could fly it in relative safety. On 21 March, it was Hartmann who claimed his unit JG 52’s 3,500th victory of the war. Adversely, the supposed reluctance of the Soviet airmen to engage him caused Hartmann’s kill rate to drop. Hartmann then had the tulip design removed, and his aircraft painted just like the rest of his unit.

Drunk at Awards Ceremony

          In March 1944, Hartmann and three other German Aces were summoned to Adolf Hitler to be honoured with their awards. According to Hartmann, all four of them got drunk on cognac and champagne. On arrival, Hartmann was reprimanded by Hitler’s adjutant for intoxication and for handling Hitler’s hat.

Top Scoring Ace

          By end May 1944, Hartmann claims went up to 231. On 24 May 1944, Hartmann engaged United States Army Air Force P-51 Mustang for the first time over Romania. He made the only other claim against P-51 in 1945. On 17 August, Hartmann became the top scoring fighter ace, surpassing fellow JG 52 pilot Gerhard Barkhorn, with his 274th victory. On 23 August, Hartmann claimed eight victories in three combat missions, an ace-in-a-day achievement, bringing his score to 290 victories. He passed the 300-mark on 24 August 1944, a day on which he shot down 11 aircraft in two combat missions, representing his greatest ever victories-per-day ratio (a double-ace-in-a-day) and bringing the number of aerial victories to an unprecedented 301.

Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross

          Hartmann became one of only 27 German soldiers in World War II to receive the Diamonds to his Knight’s Cross. He was the youngest recipient of the Diamonds, at twenty-two. Hartmann was summoned to Adolf Hitler’s military headquarters to receive the coveted award from Hitler personally. Hartmann was asked to surrender his side arm, a security measure heightened by the aftermath of the failed assassination attempt on Hitler on 20 July 1944. Hartmann reportedly refused and threatened to decline the Diamonds if he were not trusted to carry his pistol. During Hartmann’s meeting with Hitler, Hartmann discussed at length the shortcomings of fighter pilot training. Allegedly, Hitler admitted to Hartmann that he believed that, “militarily, the war is lost,” and that he wished the Luftwaffe had “more like him and Rudel.”

          The Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross also earned Hartmann a 10-day leave. On his way to his vacation, he was ordered by the Luftwaffe Commander Adolf Galland, who was an ace pilot himself, for a meeting. Galland wanted to transfer Hartmann to the Messerschmitt Me 262 flight test program. Hartmann declined and wanted to continue in JG 52. Hartmann also argued to Göring that he best served the war effort on the Eastern Front. On 10 September, Hartmann married his long-time teenage love, Ursula “Usch” Paetsch.

Knights Cross of the Iron Cross With Golden Oak leaves Swords And Diamonds

Last Combat Missions

          In March 1945, Hartmann’s score stood at 336 aerial victories, was asked a second time by General Adolf Galland to join the newly forming Me 262 jet fighter units. Hartmann did attend the jet conversion program, but declined a permanent move. Hartmann claimed his 350th aerial victory on 17 April. The last wartime photograph of Hartmann known was taken in connection with this victory. Hartmann’s last aerial victory occurred over  on 8 May, the last day of the war in Europe. Hartmann saw a Yak-9, ambushed it from his vantage point at 12,000 ft (3,700 m) and shot it down. When he landed, Hartmann learned that the Soviet forces were within artillery range of the airfield. So the unit destroyed the 24 other Bf 109s, and large quantities of ammunition. Hartmann was ordered to fly to the British sector to avoid capture by Soviet forces. Hartmann chose to surrender his unit to members of the US 90th Infantry Division.

Prisoner of War

          After his capture, the U.S. Army handed Hartmann, his pilots, and ground crew over to the Soviet Union on 14 May. According to his account, Soviets attempted to convince him to cooperate with them. He was asked to spy on fellow officers, but refused, and was given ten days’ solitary confinement. The Soviets threatened to kidnap and murder his wife. During interrogations about his knowledge of the Me 262, Hartmann was struck by a Soviet officer using a cane. More subtle efforts by the Soviet authorities to convert Hartmann to communism also failed. He was offered a post in the East German Air Force, which he refused.

War Crimes Charges

          During his captivity, in December 1949, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was condemned for atrocities against Soviet citizens, the attack on military objects and the destruction of Soviet aircraft and thus having significantly damaged the Soviet economy. Hartmann protested multiple times against this judgment. In June 1951, he was charged for a second time, specifically the “deliberate shooting of 780 Soviet civilians” in the village of Briansk, attacking a “bread factory” on 23 May 1943, and destroying 345 “expensive” Soviet aircraft. Sentenced to 25 years of hard work, he refused to work, and was put into solitary confinement. In late 1955 Hartmann was released as a part of the last group of German prisoners sent back to Germany. In January 1997, more than three years after his death, Hartmann’s case was reviewed by the Chief Military Prosecutor in Moscow of the now Russian Federation, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and he was acquitted of all historical charges against him in Russian Law.

Post War Years

          During his long imprisonment, Hartmann’s son, Erich-Peter, was born in 1945 and died as a three-year-old in 1948, without his father ever having seeing him. Hartmann later had a daughter, Ursula Isabel, born on 23 February 1957. When Hartmann returned to West Germany, he reentered military service and became an officer in the west German Air force, where he commanded West Germany’s first all-jet unit from 6 June 1959 to 29 May 1962. This unit was equipped initially with Canadair Sabres, and later Lockheed F-104 Starfighters. Hartmann had to make several trips to the United States, for flying training on Sabres and F-104. Hartmann considered the F-104 a fundamentally flawed and unsafe aircraft and strongly opposed its adoption by the air force. Although events subsequently validated his low opinion of the aircraft (269 crashes and 116 German pilots killed on the F-104 in non-combat missions. Hartmann’s outspoken criticism proved unpopular with his superiors, and he was given early retirement in 1970.

          From 1971–74, Hartmann worked as a flight instructor in Hangelar, near Bonn and also flew in fly-ins with other wartime pilots. Hartmann died on 20 September 1993, at the age of 71. In 2016, Hartmann’s former unit, JG 71, honoured him by applying his tulip colour scheme to their current aircraft. Hartmann’s biography “The Blond Knight of Germany” was written by American authors Trevor J. Constable and Raymond F. Toliver in 1970.

Picture Source:

Assessment of the Enemy in the Air

          Hartmann felt that if an enemy pilot started firing early, well outside the maximum effective range of his guns, then he was an easy kill. But, if a pilot closed in and held his fire, and seemed to be watching the situation, then you knew that an experienced pilot was on you. Hartmann developed different tactics for various conditions, such as always turning into the guns of an approaching enemy, or rolling into a negative G dive forcing him to follow or break off, then rolling out and sometimes reducing airspeed to allow him to over commit. That was when you took advantage of his failing.

Favourite Method of Attack

          His favourite method of attack was coming out of the sun and getting close. Dog fight he thought was a waste of time. The hit and run with the element of surprise served best, as was the case with most of the high scoring pilots. Once a leader was shot down they became disorganized and easy to attack. This was not always the case, especially later in the war, and there were special units of highly skilled and disciplined pilots, such as the Red Banner units who would make life difficult.

Air Crashes

          Hartmann was never shot by an enemy plane, but he had to crash land fourteen times due to damage from my victories or mechanical failure, but never took to the parachute. He never became another pilot’s victory.

Skeptics About His Kills

          Goering could not believe the staggering kills being recorded from 1941 on. He was doing double checks on all the kills and could find no wrong. There were people in the airbase, like Fritz Oblesser, who questioned his kills. Hartmann requested such people to be transferred to fly as his wingman for a while. Oblesser soon became a believer and signed off on some kills as a witness, and he later started have regard and became friend.

Official Aerial Victories Authenticated

          Matthews and Foreman, authors of “Luftwaffe Aces – Biographies and Victory Claims”, researched the German Federal Archives and found records for 352 aerial victory claims, plus two further unconfirmed claims. All victory claims were logged to map-references. The Luftwaffe grid map covered all of Europe, western Russia and North Africa and was composed of rectangles. All victories for all pilots were plotted in time and place.

Impressions about Hitler

          When he met Hitler for the first time, he found him a little disappointing, although very interested in the war at the front and extremely well informed on events. He felt Hitler had a tendency to drone on about minor things. He was interesting yet not that imposing. He lacked sufficient knowledge about the air war in the east. He was more concerned with the Western Front’s air war and the bombing of cities. Of course, the Eastern Front ground war was his area of most interest. This was evident. Hitler listened to the men from the Western Front and assured them that weapons and fighter production were increasing, and history proved this to be correct. Then he went into the U-boat war, how we were going to decidedly destroy maritime commerce and all of that. Hartmann found him an isolated and disturbed man.

Picture Source:

Securing Release from Soviet Prison

          German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was very crucial in this. Hartmann’s mother had written Stalin and Molotov, but without any response. She wrote to Adenauer and he replied personally that he was working on the problem. The Soviets wanted a trade agreement with the West, especially West Germany, and part of this deal was the release of all the POWs.

Roll of Honour

          Of all the fighter aces in history, the first names that usually come to mind are the Baron von Richthofen, the “Red Baron” of World war I and Erich “Bubi” Hartmann. They are considered by many as the top two best fighter pilots in history. His 352 confirmed kills will probably stand forever as the benchmark of success in aerial warfare. However, Erich’s war in the air became a footnote to his life following the decade of Soviet imprisonment he experienced following the war. In his own words, Hartmann discussed his life, career, passions and survival in a world few have seen and even fewer survived. He gave a final interview just a  little while before he died in 1993.

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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