erial combat during the Second World War was brutal. The fight for aerial dominance meant that each side sent over pilot after pilot in search of an advantage over the enemy. Sometimes these pilots were shot down during their first mission, sometimes, they became aces, and, on rare occasions, they became legends. Today we will look at one of those rare cases. The German fighter ace known as Erich Hartmann. The most successful pilot in all of history.
A family of fliers
It seemed that flying was part of the blood of those in the Hartmann family. Ever since Erich’s birth in 1922, his mother pushed him to pursue flying. As his father was a doctor, the family could afford the luxury of owning their own light aircraft, a commodity used well by Elisabeth, Erich’s mother, to teach the yet-to-be ace about flying.
As the German economy collapsed due to the worldwide Great Depression, the family was forced to sell their aircraft in 1932, briefly putting a stop to Erich’s progress in the world of aviation. With the rise of Nazism, he was able to get back into flying.
The Nazis promoted all flying endeavors throughout the Reich, be it big or small. This allowed Erich’s mother to create a gliding club in 1936, where she served as its instructor. Due to his previous experience, Erich rose up the ranks in the Hitler Youth, himself becoming a glider instructor the same year his mother set up her gliding school at the age of 14.
It didn’t take long for young Erich to progress further, receiving his full flight license in 1937 at the age of 15. Germany declared war on Poland 2 years later, leading to the start of the Second World War. Erich was conscripted and, due to his flying talent, started training to become a fighter pilot on 1 October 1940. His brother was also conscripted into the Luftwaffe, later becoming a back gunner on a Junkers Ju 87.
The beginnings of a legend
It took just over two years for Erich to finish his fighter pilot training. In October 1942, he was assigned to the Jagdgeschwader 52 fighter wing and flew his first mission on the 14 of that month, accompanying Edmund Roßmann, a fighter ace credited with 93 victories throughout the war.
During the mission, the young Luftwaffe pilot was impatient and dove into a 10-plane formation at full throttle, leaving his wingman behind. Due to the speed of his dive, he was unable to score any hits on the enemy, nearly colliding with one of the planes as his Bf-109 pieced the formation.
Erich had to run away, finding cover in a nearby cloud formation. After getting clear of the enemy, he tried to make his way back to base but ran out of fuel, forcing him to perform the first of 16 crash landings he would have to do during his time in the Luftwaffe. Upon returning to his airbase, he was reprimanded, being forced to work with the ground crew of the base for three days.
During his time at the airbase, he would earn himself his first nickname, ‘Bubi,’ the german diminutive name for “child.” Soon after, ‘Bubi’ would get his first air victory against a Soviet Ilyushin Il-2. He doubled his tally by the end of the year. With a not-so-impressive list of air victories by the end of the year, Erich sought to improve; Walter Krupinski, another of Germany’s greatest fighter aces with 197 victories on his belt by the end of the war, would help him.
2 years, 350 victories
At the beginning of 1943, unbeknownst to Erich, he had just over two years to achieve the historical record of 352 aerial victories, with 350 of those to go. In 1943 Erich developed his own flying technique, favoring a more close-range approach rather than trying to snipe the enemy from far away.
Erich didn’t instantly turn into a flying ace by realizing this technique. It took him the entire year to perfect this unusual tactic, as seen in May of that year when his technique backfired, leading to him colliding with a Soviet aircraft forcing him to crash-land his Bf-109 once again.
Even so, his victory count slowly rose as the year passed. By early August, the young pilot had achieved 60 aerial victories. The intense aerial fighting of the Battle of Kursk (5 July 1943–23 August 1943) and the subsequent battles allowed ‘Bubi’ to use his strategy to the fullest against the masses of unsuspecting pilots present at the battle.
He stalked the distracted Soviet pilots, who, in the chaos of the battle, didn’t notice the relatively small Bf-109 and, once in a favorable position, struck down, disabling the aircraft.
This, combined with the target-rich environment, led to Erich finishing the year with 159 victories. For his feats, just before the end of 1943, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
To the last minute
Erich, now known by the allies as ‘The Black Devil’, continued to fight for the Luftwaffe as Germany slowly descended into chaos. Being pushed from all sides meant that defeat was ensured for the fascist Reich. This didn’t put off the ace. For all, he knew, he had one purpose, to down enemy aircraft, a job he did with finesse and efficiency.
As the Wehrmacht retreated, aerial battles continued to rage above the ever-changing front line. During the early stages of 1944, even those at the Luftwaffe High Command started to doubt his daily claims. With every mission came back a claim that ‘Bubi’ downed another 5 Soviet aircraft. The high command ensured his wingmen doubled checked the results, and no discrepancies were found.
He was so successful that the Soviets placed a bounty of 10,000 roubles on his head. Even with this incentive, few rose up to the challenge of facing the expert ace. At a point in early 1944, his trend for victories started to drop. This was attributed to him flying a very distinctive-looking aircraft decorated in a dark hue with a tulip-like scheme decorating his engine.
After he saw that Soviet pilots were reluctant to engage him, he ditched the decorations, opting to fly a Bf-109 with the same color scheme as the rest of his squadron.
On 17 August, Erich became the top-scoring ace of all time, surpassing his fellow squadmate Gerhard Barkhorn. On 24 August 1944, ‘Bubi’ would surpass 300 victories as well as performing a “double-ace-day.” This meant that he was able to gain 10 victories in one day, an achievement few have ever performed.
His conquest of the skies of the Eastern Front in 1944 caught the eye of Hitler, who decided to award the then-22-year-old the Diamonds for his Iron Cross. Erich was summoned to the “Wolf’s Lair,” where Hitler personally presented him his award, remarking that the war would be going differently if he had people “more like him and Rudel.” Rudel is another talented fighter ace.
After he received his award, he caught the attention of general Adolf Galland, who wanted to move Erich to the Me 262 project. There he would be given the experimental jet aircraft to test fly and eventually take into combat against Allied bombers. Erich refused the offer saying that his talent was much better put to work on the Eastern Front with his squadron.
Until the last days of the war, Erich continued to fight with his squadron against the advancing Soviets, even meeting some American-flown aircraft during the later stages of the war. He would get his final 352nd kill on the afternoon of the day Germany surrendered, swooping down on a Soviet aircraft that was performing aerobatics for the troops below. Bringing his career as a fighter pilot for the Luftwaffe to an end.
After the war ended, Erich’s squadron surrendered to the American army. Erich was sent to the Soviet Union as the western Allies agreed that all German troops which engaged in combat with the Soviets must be persecuted by the Soviets. The leadership of the Red Army unsuccessfully tried to persuade the ace into joining the Soviet Airforce as an instructor and pilot.
Even after being blackmailed, Erich didn’t yield. He was sentenced by a military tribunal first in 1949 for crimes against the Soviet state and the destruction of vital Soviet infrastructure, crimes which led to him getting 10 years in the Soviet gulags as punishment.
Again he was sentenced in 1951, this time for the destruction of 345 Soviet aircraft as well as other claims of mowing down the citizens of a small Soviet village, a claim found later to be untrue. For these crimes, he was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in the gulag camp system once again. He would be released in late 1955 following the death of Stalin in 1953 and the subsequent change in attitude towards the gulag system.
After his release, he immediately rejoined the military offering his service to the West German Bundeswehr. There he became the officer of the only all-jet squadron of the West German Air Force. He would remain in this position until 1970 when arguments over the acquisition of F104 jets from America placed him in early retirement.
Bubi’s’ flying career would end in 1974 after 4 years of flying commercial jets. The legendary ace would live the rest of his life with his childhood sweetheart and their child, dying on 20 September 1993 at the age of 73, although in my opinion, saying that this man lived for only 73 years is incorrect as in the 73 years he lived he probably experienced several lifetimes worth of stories and events.
To this day, Erich Hartmann’s record of 352 aerial victories remains unbeaten. In my opinion, the record will remain unbeaten for a long time as the scale of aerial fighting that Erich experienced will probably never happen again.
As a result, Erich Hartmann will remain in the annals of history as perhaps one of the most sophisticated and talented fighter pilots of history.