Erich Alfred "Bubi" Hartmann (19 April 1922 – 20 September 1993), also nicknamed "The Blond Knight of Germany" by friends and "The Black Devil" by his enemies, was a German fighter pilot and still is the highest scoring fighter ace in the history of aerial combat. He scored 352 aerial victories (of which 345 were won against the Soviet Air Force, and 260 of which were fighters) in 1,404 combat missions and engaging in aerial combat 825 times while serving with the Luftwaffe in World War II. During the course of his career, Hartmann was forced to crash land his damaged fighter 14 times. This was due to damage received from parts of enemy aircraft he had just shot down, or mechanical failure. Hartmann claimed never to have been shot down or forced to land due to fire from enemy aircraft.
Hartmann, a pre-war Glider pilot, joined the Luftwaffe in 1940 and completed his fighter pilot training in 1942. He was posted to Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52) on the Eastern front and 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 which would earn him the coveted Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds on 25 August 1944 for claiming 301 aerial victories.
He scored his 352nd and last aerial victory on 8 May 1945. He and the remainder of JG 52 surrendered to United States Army forces and were turned over to the Red Army. Convicted of false "War Crimes" and sentenced to 25 years of hard labour, Hartmann would spend 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 Geschwaderkommodore of Jagdgeschwader 71 "Richthofen". Hartmann resigned early 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. Erich Hartmann died in 1993.
Erich was educated at the Volksschule in Weil im Schönbuch (April 1928 – April 1932), the Gymnasium in Böblingen (April 1932 – April 1936), the National Political Institutes of Education in Rottweil (April 1936 – April 1937), and the Gymnasium in Korntal (April 1937 – April 1940), from which received his Abitur. It was at Korntal that he met his wife-to-be, Ursula "Usch" Paetsch. She was 15 years old, and initially her parents disapproved of the relationship.
Hartmann's flying career began when he joined the glider training program of the fledgling Luftwaffe, and was taught to fly by his mother, 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 rise to power of the Nazi party in 1933 resulted in government support for gliding, and in 1936 Elisabeth Hartmann helped set up a flying school at Weil im Schönbuch, where fourteen-year-old Erich became an instructor. In 1939 he gained his pilot's license, allowing him to fly powered aircraft.
Hartmann's time as a trainee pilot did not always go smoothly, and on occasion he ran foul of his superiors. On 31 March 1942, during a gunnery training flight, he ignored regulations and performed some aerobatics in his Bf 109 over the Zerbst airfield. His punishment was a three-month period of confinement to quarters with the loss of two-thirds of his pay in fines. Hartmann later recalled that the incident saved his life:
That week confined to my room actually saved my life. I had been scheduled to go up on a gunnery flight the afternoon that I was confined. My roommate took the flight instead of me, in an aircraft I had been scheduled to fly. Shortly after he took off, while on his way to the gunnery range, he developed engine trouble and had to crash-land near the Hindenburg-Kattowitz railroad. He was killed in the crash.
Afterwards Hartmann practiced hard. During a gunnery practice session in June 1942, he hit a target drogue with 24 of the allotted 50 rounds of machine gun fire; a feat that was considered difficult to achieve. His training had qualified him to fly 17 different types of powered aircraft, and following his graduation he was posted on 21 August 1942 to Jagdergänzungsgruppe Ost (Fighter Supply Group, East) in Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, where he remained until 10 October 1942.
Hartmann flew his first combat mission on 14 October 1942 as Rossmann's wingman. When they encountered ten enemy aircraft below, Hartmann, obsessed by the idea of scoring his first kill, opened full throttle and became separated from Rossmann. He engaged an enemy fighter, but failed to score any hits, and nearly collided with it instead. 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 von Bonin sentenced him to three days of working with the ground crew. Twenty-two days later, Hartmann claimed his first kill, an Il-2 of the 7th Guards Ground Attack Aviation Regiment, but by the end of 1942 he had added only one more kill to his tally. As with many top aces, it was to take some time to establish himself as a consistently scoring fighter pilot.
Hartmann's youthful appearance earned him the nickname Bubi (the hypocoristic form of "young boy" in the German language), and the ace Walter Krupinski, to whom Hartmann was assigned as wingman, would constantly urge him: "Hey, Bubi, get in closer". On 25 May he shot down a LaGG-5 before colliding with another Soviet fighter, but was able to maintain control of his damaged aircraft. On 7 July 1943, in the massive dogfights that occurred during the Battle of Kursk, he shot down seven enemy aircraft. At the start of August 1943 his tally stood at 50, and by the end of the month he had added another 48 kills. The following month he was appointed Staffelkapitän of 9./JG 52.
In the first year of service Hartmann felt a distinct lack of respect towards Russian pilots. He recalled that most Soviet fighters did not have proper gunsights, and their pilots resorted to drawing them on the windshield by hand.
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
The Germans did learn a few tricks from their enemy. Oil freezing in the Daimler-Benz DB 605 engines of their Bf 109G-6s made them difficult to start in the extreme cold of the Russian winter. A captured Soviet airman demonstrated how pouring fuel into the aircraft's oil sump would thaw the oil and allow the engine to start first time. Another solution to this problem, also learned from the Soviets, was to ignite fuel under the engine.
Hartmann patiently waited for the right moment to escape, then, using the distraction of the Stukas attack, he attacked the single guard. Hartmann "bailed out" the back of the truck and ran into a large field of giant sunflowers; evading the pursuing soldiers, Hartmann hid and waited for nightfall. In the dark, Hartmann followed a Russian patrol heading west to the front. As he approached the German position, a sentry challenged him and fired a shot which passed through Hartmann's trousers. When Hartmann's Crew Chief, Heinz "Bimmel" Mertens, heard what had happened, he took a rifle and went to search for Hartmann.
In March 1944, Erich Hartmann, Gerhard Barkhorn, Walter Krupinski and Johannes Wiese were summoned to Adolf Hitler's Berghof in Berchtesgaden. Barkhorn was to be honoured with the Swords while Hartmann, Krupinski and Wiese were to receive the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross. On the train, all four of them got drunk on cognac and champagne. Supporting each other and unable to stand, they arrived at Berchtesgarden. Major Nicolaus von Below, Hitler's Luftwaffe adjutant, was shocked. After some sobering up, Hartmann was still intoxicated. Hartmann took a German officer hat from a stand and put it on, but it was too large. Von Below became upset and told Hartmann it was Hitler’s and ordered him to put it back.
On 17 August 1944, Hartmann became the top scoring fighter ace, surpassing fellow JG 52 pilot Gerhard Barkhorn, with his 274th kill.
He became one of only 27 German soldiers in World War II to receive the Diamonds to his Knight's Cross. Hartmann was summoned to the Führerhauptquartier Wolfsschanze, Adolf Hitler's military headquarter near Rastenburg, to receive the coveted award from Hitler personally. On arrival, he was asked to surrender his side arm – a security measure caused by the aftermaths of the failed assassination attempt on 20 July 1944. Hartmann refused and threatened to decline the Diamonds if he were not trusted to carry his pistol. After consulting Oberst Nicolaus von Below, Hitler's Luftwaffe adjutant, Hartmann was allowed to keep his side arm and accepted the Diamonds.
During Hartmann's meeting with Hitler, Hartmann discussed at length the shortcomings of fighter pilot training. Allegedly, Hitler revealed 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 him a ten day leave. On his way to his vacation, Hartmann was ordered by General der Jagdflieger Adolf Galland to attend a meeting in Berlin-Gatow. Galland wanted to transfer Hartmann to the Messerschmitt Me 262 test program. Hartmann requested that the transfer be cancelled on the grounds of his deep attachment to JG 52. Galland, valuing comradeship and seeing the merit in Hartmann's request, cancelled the transfer to the jet squadron and rescinded the order that had taken him off combat operations. Galland then ordered Hartmann to the Jagdfliegerheim (vacation resort for fighter pilots) in Bad Wiessee. It is here that on 10 September 1944, Hartmann married his long-time teenage love, Ursula "Usch" Paetsch. Witnesses to the wedding included his friends Barkhorn and Batz.
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. By his own account he was convinced that 80% of the pilots he downed did not even realize what hit them. He relied on the powerful engine of his Messerschmitt Bf-109 for high-power sweeps and quick approaches, occasionally diving through entire enemy formations to take advantage of the confusion that followed in order to disengage. His favourite method of attack was to hold fire until extremely close (60ft/20m or less), then unleash a short burst at point-blank range – a technique he learned while flying as wingman of his former commander, Walter Krupinski, who favoured this approach. This technique, as opposed to long-range shooting, allowed him to:
However, firing at close range ran the risk of having to fly through the debris of a damaged or exploding aircraft, thereby damaging his own fighter in the process (much of the damage Hartmann sustained in combat was caused by collision with flying debris). If it was dangerous to dog-fight further he would break off and content himself with one victory. His careful approach was described by himself by the line "See – Decide – Attack – Break": observe the enemy, decide how to proceed with the attack, make the attack, and then disengage to re-evaluate the situation.
Hartmann's last kill occurred over Brno, Czechoslovakia, on 8 May 1945, the last day of the war in Europe. Early that morning, he was ordered to fly a reconnaissance mission and report the position of Soviet forces. Hartmann took off with his wingman at 08:30 and spotted the first Soviet units just forty kilometres away. Passing over the area, Hartmann saw two Yak-9 fighters performing aerobatics for the Soviet columns. Determined to "spoil the party", Hartmann dove upon the fighters from his vantage point at and shot one down from a range of . As he lined up the second fighter, Hartmann noticed a flicker of shiny dots above him coming from the West: they were P-51 Mustangs. Rather than make a stand and be caught between the Soviets and the Americans, Hartmann and his wingman fled into the pall of smoke that covered Brno at low level. When he landed, Hartmann learned that the Soviet forces were within artillery range of the airfield, so JG 52 destroyed Karaya One, 24 other Bf 109s, and large quantities of ammunition. Hartmann's last violent action in the war was to fire the guns on his fighter, while on the ground, into the forest that surrounded the airfield. Hartmann later recalled 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. They would be nice to have in museums now.
As Gruppenkommandeur of I./JG 52, Hartmann chose to surrender his unit to members of the US 90th Infantry Division.
After being handed over to the Soviets, the German group was split up into groups according to gender. Hartmann witnessed widespread rape and murder of civilians. When the outnumbered Americans tried to intervene the Soviet soldiers charged towards them, firing into the air and threatening to kill them. Order was later restored, and some of the guilty soldiers were hanged "on the spot" by a Soviet commander.
Initially, the Russians tried to convince Erich to cooperate with them. He was asked to spy on fellow officers and become a "Stukatch" or "stool pigeon". He refused and was given 10 days solitary confinement in a four by nine by six foot chamber. He slept on a concrete floor and was given only bread and water. On another occasion, the Soviets threatened to kidnap his wife and murder her (the death of his son was kept from Hartmann). During similar interrogations, about his knowledge of the Me 262, Hartmann was struck by a Soviet officer using a cane, prompting Hartmann to slam his chair down on the head of the Russian, knocking him out. Expecting to be shot, Erich was transferred back to the small bunker.
Hartmann, not ashamed of his war service, opted to go on hunger strike and starve rather than fold to "Soviet will", as he called it. The Russians allowed the hunger strike to go on for four days before force feeding Hartmann. More subtle efforts by the Soviet authorities to convert Hartmann to Communism also failed. He was offered a post in the Luftstreitkräfte der Nationale Volksarmee (East German Air Force), which he refused:
If, after I am home in the West, you make me a normal contract offer, a business deal such as people sign every day all over the world, and I like your offer, then I will come back and work with you in accordance with the contract. But if you try to put me to work under coercion of any kind, then I will resist to my dying gasp.
During his long imprisonment, Hartmann's son, Erich-Peter, was born in 1945 and died as a three-year-old in 1948, without Hartmann ever seeing him. (Hartmann later had a daughter, Ursula Isabel, born on 23 February 1957). In 1955, Hartmann's mother wrote to the new West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer to secure his freedom. Hartmann's release, and that of another 16,000 German military personnel, was obtained as part of a trade agreement between the two countries. After spending ten and a half years in Soviet POW camps, he was among the last batch of prisoners to be released in 1955 and returned to West Germany, where he was reunited with his wife Ursula, to whom he had written every day of the war.
In January 1997, the Russian government, as a legal successor to the Soviet Union, exonerated Hartmann, by admitting that his conviction for war crimes was unlawful.
When he returned to West Germany, Hartmann reentered military service in the Bundeswehr and became an officer in the West German Air Force (Bundesluftwaffe), where he commanded West Germany's first all-jet unit, Jagdgeschwader 71 "Richthofen", which was equipped initially with Canadair Sabres and later with Lockheed F-104 Starfighters. He also made several trips to the United States, where he was trained on U.S. Air Force equipment. He had the JG 71 aircraft painted with the same spreading black tulip pattern used by Karaya 1 on the Eastern Front.
Hartmann considered the F-104 a fundamentally flawed and unsafe aircraft and strongly opposed its adoption by the Bundesluftwaffe. Although events subsequently validated his low opinion of the aircraft (282 crashes and 115 German pilots killed on the F-104 in non-combat missions, along with allegations of bribes culminating in the Lockheed scandal), Hartmann's outspoken criticism proved unpopular with his superiors. General Werner Panitzki, successor to General Josef Kammhuber as Inspekteur der Luftwaffe, said "Erich is a good pilot but not a good officer" and this relationship with his superiors forced Hartmann into early retirement in 1970.
After retirement, from 1971 to 1974, he worked as a flight instructor in Hangelar, near Bonn. Hartmann also flew in an aerobatics team with "Dolfo" Galland. Hartmann had a sudden change in his lifestyle when in 1980 he had caught a cold, which developed into angina pectoris that had killed his father at the age of 58. He recovered and by 1983 had passed the medical examinations for flying and resumed instructing at the various flying schools. However, fearing a second attack, he became overly cautious and limited the number of public appearances. He stated: "I am retired and I am a civilian, and now I like to have my rest and peace. I do not live for exhibitions. After that, he decided to relax and enjoy life. Erich Hartmann died on 20 September 1993, at the age of 71, in Weil im Schönbuch.
I called to him to turn hard opposite, so I could sandwich the Red fighters, but in his standard-rate bomber turn he got hit. I saw the whole thing and ordered him to dive and bail out immediately. To my intense relief I saw him leave the aircraft and his parachute blossom. I was happy to get this Airacobra, but I was mad at myself for not harkening to my intuition not to fly with Günther Capito.
Hartmann destroyed both the Soviet fighters soon afterwards.
|Date||Original German Wehrmachtbericht wording||Direct English translation|
|24 August 1944||Oberleutnant Hartmann erhöhte am gestrigen Tage mit dem Abschuß von 8 Sowjetflugzeugen die Zahl seiner Luftsiege auf 290||First Lieutenant Hartmann yesterday, with the shooting down of 8 Soviet aircraft, raised the total of his aerial victories to 290.|
|25 August 1944||In Luftkämpfen und durch Flakartillerie verloren die Sowjets gestern 58 Flugzeuge. Hiervon schoß der mit dem Eichenlaub zum Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes ausgezeichnete Oberleutnant Hartmann, Staffelkapitän in einem Jagdgeschwader, allein 11 Flugzeuge ab und errang damit seinen 301. Luftsieg||In aerial combats and through anti-aircraft fire, the Soviets yesterday lost 58 aircraft. Of these, First Lieutenant Hartmann, decorated with the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and Staffelkapitän in a Jagdgeschwader, alone shot down 11 aircraft and thereby gained his 301st aerial victory.|
|31 March 1942:||Leutnant|
|1 July 1944:||''Oberleutnant' (First Lieutenant)|
|1 September 1944:||Hauptmann (Captain)|
|8 May 1945:||Major (Major)|
|12 December 1960:||Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel)|
|26 July 1967:||Oberst (Colonel)|
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