Erich "Bubi" Hartmann, the leading German fighter ace of World War II, is credited with 352 confirmed aerial victories between October 1942 and May 1945. Hartmann followed in the footsteps of another German fighter ace, Manfred von Richthofen, "The Red Baron," who had 80 confirmed kills during World War I.
Hartmann was born in Weissach, Wurttemberg, on April 19, 1922, the son of a physician. His mother, Elisabeth, a brilliant sportswoman, took up sport flying when Erich was at an early age. This suited the aviation minded Erich who built a glider from bamboo only to have it crash on his first flight. Soon after, his mother taught him to fly a glider and by age 11, Hartmann was flying powered airplanes.
Hartmann signed this wartime photo and the one below in January 1981. Hartmann-signed images sell for $40-$65.
In 1941, at the age of 19, Erich joined the German Luftwaffe. During his pilot training he had three crash landings, but did solo in a month. Following pilot training, he was sent to the Eastern Front in October 1942 where he was assigned to Jagdgeschwader 52 (Fighter Wing 52 denoted as "JG 52").
When Hartmann arrived at JG 52, he was assigned to Oberfeldwebel Edmund Rossmann, a fighter ace with 93 aerial victories and soon to be decorated with the Knight's Cross. Hartmann did everything wrong including separating from his leader, flying into the leader's firing position, and running out of fuel and destroying his airplane in a crash landing. But, under Rossmann's tutelage, Hartmann did learn.
Soon thereafter, Hartmann was assigned to fly as wingman for Walter Krupinski, another fighter ace who would, during his career, shoot down 197 aircraft and earn the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves. Krupinski taught Hartmann to get close to his adversary to be sure of a hit. Hartmann followed this advice closely. Krupinski also started calling him "Bubi" or boy, a name that Hartmann would retain throughout his career.
On November 5, 1942, Hartmann and his Schwarm (four aircraft) intercepted 18 heavily armored Russian Iluushin 11-2 Stormovik ground attack aircraft. He pulled in close behind a Stormovik as Krupinski had taught him, and began firing. His 20mm cannon shells just bounced off the airplane. He pulled up under the airplane and fired into the oil cooler from 200 feet. The enemy airplane caught fire and exploded, becoming his first victory. Unfortunately, his airplane was struck by debris and he had to make a belly landing.
In the early part of 1943, Hartmann concentrated on tactics. He learned to get close behind the enemy airplane--"until the enemy aircraft filled the windscreen"--then fire a short, quick burst. His excellent eyesight and lightning reflexes paid dividends in future combat.
Hartmann was slow to score but his confidence and ability grew. By April 1943, he had flown over 100 missions and was now an ace with seven kills (five kills being considered an "ace"). His score continued to mount and by July, his tally had risen to 34.
In 1943, while serving as a temporary escort for Hans Ulrich Rudel's "Immelmann" Geschwader (Wing), that his entire unit was attacked by about 50 Russian Lavochkin LaGG-5 and Yakovlev Yak-9 fighters. Hartmann shot down a Yak from 300 feet, but was hit by ground fire and was forced to make a belly landing.
After landing, Hartmann was surrounded by Russian infantry and captured. He was put in the back of a truck with two armed guards. As the truck bumped along the road, the unmistakable whine of a German Junkers Ju-87 "Stuka" dive bomber was heard. The driver drove the truck into a ditch and took cover. When the guards ran for safety in one direction, Hartmann ran in the opposite direction. After four hours, he made it back to the German lines, but was almost shot as an infiltrating Russian.
On October 29, 1943, Hartmann, now a lieutenant, flew his 386th mission and shot down his 148th airplane. For this, he was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on the same day.
As Staffelkapitan of the 7th Staffel (Squadron) of JG 52, Hartmann continuously flew combat missions. When his score reached 200 victories, he received the Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross on March 2, 1944. He was the 420th recipient of this esteemed award.
A little more than four months later, Hartmann was promoted to Oberleutnant and awarded the Swords to his Knight's Cross on July 4, 1944 (the 75th such decoration to be awarded). His string of victories continued, downing 78 Soviet aircraft in four weeks. Because his Messerschmitt Bf 109 was painted with a large black tulip on the nose, Russian pilots nicknamed him "The Black Devil of the Ukraine" and tried to avoid engaging in combat with him.
Hartmann's victories continued and on August 25, 1944, he was decorated with the Diamonds to his Knight's Cross to commemorate his 301 kills. He was the 18th recipient of the "Diamonds." The 7th Staffel had shot down 1,200 Soviet aircraft by this time, more than any other Staffel in the Luftwaffe.
Hartmann didn't only combat Russian aircraft. While over Romania, he shot down seven U.S. North American P51 "Mustang" fighters. Many scholars believe that during his combat with one of the U.S. fighter groups--the 334th--Hartmann shot down Lt. Ralph K. Hoffer, a U.S. ace with 16.5 kills.
On the morning of May 8, 1945--the day of Germany's surrender--Hartmann was leading a flight of four aircraft to spot advancing Russian troops. He saw a Russian airplane doing aerobatic maneuvers over the town of Brunn, Czechoslovakia, and quickly shot it down. This was his 352nd victory and his last of the war.
With the announcement of the end of hostilities, Oberstleutnant Hermann Graf, Commander of JG 52, along with Major Hartmann, were ordered to fly to the British sector. They disregarded the order because they felt a responsibility to the other pilots, as well as the ground crews and other people who had joined the squadron seeking protection. The Jagdgeschwader's aircraft were destroyed and the unit then moved west, surrendering to U.S. troops late on May 8, 1945. However, in a strange turn of events, the U.S. Army turned the German troops and civilians over to the Russians on May 17. Hartmann was sentenced to 50 years of hard labor and sent to Siberia. He remained in Russian captivity for 10 years and was only released in 1955 after the intervention of German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
After his return to Germany, other aces such as Gerhard Barkhorn (301 kills), Gunther Rall (275 kills), Walter Krupinski (197 kills) and Johannes Steinhoff (176 kills) asked Hartmann to return to flying. At first he refused, but later reconsidered and rejoined the new Luftwaffe in 1956. Major Hartmann qualified in the Lockheed T-33 "Shooting Star" trainer in the United States and then flew the Republic F-84 "Thunderjet." He took command of JG 71, the new "Richthofen" Geschwader. Hartmann retired as an Oberst (colonel) before passing away in 1993.