Propelled to fame by good teachers and fearful enemies.
With 352 aircraft kills to his name, Erich Hartmann (1922-1993) is the most successful fighter ace in history.
Hartmann’s mother was one of the first female glider pilots in Germany and her love of flight rubbed off on him: he was already a glider instructor at her mother’s school at 14 and earned a license for powered aircraft at the age of 17.
He began military training in late 1940. His youthful recklessness once saved his life. After breaking the rules by performing aerial maneuvers, he was confined to his quarters for a week. On the day his confinement began, the plane he was originally supposed to take on a gunnery training lesson developed an engine failure and fatally crashed with another pilot. Had Hartmann not been under punishment, he would have been flying the faulty machine.
In 1942 he was assigned to the Eastern Front but it took some time to match his obvious talent with actual success. On his first flight, a ferry mission for Junkers Ju 87 dive bombers, he crashed into a building during landing due to a break failure.
On his first combat mission, he and his veteran wing leader spotted 10 Soviet planes below them. Eager for glory, Hartmann violated all rules of air combat. Leaving his wing leader behind, he dove on the targets at full speed, failed to shoot any of them down and almost collided with one. He retreated into the clouds, ran out of fuel and crash landed on the way home.
Thanks to the tutorship of several highly experienced aces, he slowly started getting more effective. He got the nickname Bubi (kid) from a teacher who always told him “Bubi, get in closer!” He took the instruction to heart and developed a highly effective tactic. He concentrated on achieving surprise and getting extremely close to the enemy before opening fire, claiming that 80% of his victims never even knew he was there. Unlike some pilots, he shunned dogfighting, preferring to use the Messerschmitt Bf 109’s superior speed to retreat and attack again later.
Hartmann obviously had great talent but his success was also due to other factors. For one, German kill scoring was very lax, with planes merely damaged often chalked up as a kill, making the actually number of planes he destroyed probably lower, but still very impressive. It also helped that he had numerous targets, but Soviet pilots had spotty training and equipment. Early in the war, Soviet fighters typically didn’t even have a proper gunsight, forcing pilots to “aim” with a targeting sight hand pained on the windscreen.
Nevertheless, Hartmann’s prowess was formidable and he became ace-in-a-day (5 kills in a single day) several times and double-ace-in-a-day (10 kills) once. On the latter occasion, he was grounded by Göring, who was afraid of the moral blow Hartmann’s potential death might cause, but the pilot successfully petitioned for reinstatement.
In March 1944, Hartmann and three other pilots were summoned to the Berghof to receive awards. They showed up drunk: an intoxicated Hartmann picked up a random officer’s hat and tried it on. Fortunately, Hitler wasn’t in the room just then but his adjutant was and he told Hartmann in an upset tone to put it back, since it was the Führer’s hat. Hartmann was also decorated by Hitler a second time, in the same Wolf’s Lair where the Valkyrie assassination attempt had failed earlier. Due to security measures after the attempt, officers meeting Hitler had to surrender their pistols. Hartmann refused to do so and threatened to decline his award until he was given special permission to carry the gun in the Führer’s presence.
Bubi was just as feared by the Soviets as he was adorated by the Germans. By early 1944, Soviet Command placed a bounty on his head. At the time, he decorated his plane with a black tulip motif around the engine cowling, which made him easily recognizable. Soviet pilots refused to attack him, and he often lent his plane to green pilots, so they could rack up some flying time without fear of being attacked. He did, however, eventually realize that he couldn’t score more kills if the enemy fled on sight, so he removed the tulip to make himself unrecognizable.
Shortly before the end of the war, Hartmann and a comrade were ordered to fly to the British zone and surrender there rather than to the Soviets. He disobeyed the order as he felt unable to flee t, o safety while his subordinates were left behind to be captured by the Red Army. On May 8, 1945 he scored his last kill, shooting down a Soviet plane that was entertaining ground troops with aerial maneuvers. Six days later his unit surrendered to American troops, but Hartmann was handed over to the Russians. His captors tried to turn him by everything from solitary confinement and threats to murder his wife to soft methods like offering him a position in the new East German Air Force. He refused to budge. Hartmann was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor on trumped-up war crime charges and served 10 years before being released to West Germany in 1955.
Later in life, he commanded the first all-jet unit in the West German Air Force but resigned over the adoption of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, which later proved to be as unsafe as Hartmann feared.