Erich Hartmann was born in Weissach, Germany, in 1922. At that time, Germany was still recovering from World War I, because the Treaty of Versailles had put much pressure on its struggling economy. Erich’s father, who was a doctor, followed the advice of a relative and moved to China, where he ran a general practice. Thus Erich and his younger brother spent their childhood years in China. As the political environment in eastern Asia became unstable and unsafe, the Hartmann family moved back to Germany. Erich had always been fascinated by stories of aces of ‘The Great War’ and had his sights set on becoming a fighter pilot. His mother, who was a pilot, taught young Erich how to fly – fuelling his enthusiasm even more. At the age of fourteen, Erich held a glider pilot licence and he became a gliding instructor for ‘Hitler Youth’ cadets, when he was only fifteen years old.
World War II
During combat flight training, it already became evident that Hartmann was very self-confident and a definite individualist. Later, during his first contact with Russian aircraft on the Eastern Front, Hartmann abandoned his flight leader during a dogfight and tried to score a kill by himself. Not protecting one’s flight leader was a very basic mistake, yet Hartmann made another basic mistake as well - he underestimated his opponents by assuming that his own skills were far superior to those of Russian pilots. The outcome was predictable. Erich’s Bf-109 was badly damaged, and his sortie ended with a belly landing.
Erich Hartmann’s first kill came when he shot down an Il-2 Sturmovik. Due to their heavy armour, Il-2s were particularly difficult to shoot down. Hartmann managed to destroy the Sturmovik’s ventral oil radiator, ultimately destroying the whole aircraft. Unfortunately, Hartmann could not avoid flying into the debris of his stricken target, and again he had to perform another forced landing.
Regular maverick antics and immature decisions had earned Erich the nickname, ‘Bubi’, meaning ‘little boy’. However, looking at Hartmann’s career as a whole, one can see a distinct transformation in his character and fighting style. Flying with veteran pilots, such as Alfred Grislawski, certainly helped Hartmann become a more competent fighter pilot. He gradually became less individualistic and started using techniques and tactics that were very similar to those used by other Axis and Allied aces. Hartmann believed in getting as close as possible to his target, before firing his guns. He maintained that any target that filled his windscreen, would be impossible to miss. The element of surprise was another secret to Hartmann’s success. The overwhelming majority of aircraft that were shot down by Hartmann, did not even realise they were being attacked, until it was too late.
By 1943, the Russians were pushing the Axis ground forces towards the west. ‘Jagdgeschwader 52’ (JG52), Hartmann’s unit, continued flying fighter sweeps to hamper Russian efforts to provide close air support to its ground forces. However, more and more Soviet Yaks, MiG-3s and La-5s appeared on the front. These fighters were a definite threat, as they challenged German air superiority, but they also became targets for German aces, such as Walter Nowotny, Gerhard Barkhorn and the famous Gunther Rall – each scoring more than 200 kills. By then, Erich Hartmann had been consistently scoring kills on a regular basis.
The ongoing struggle between German and Soviet forces reached a climax at the Battle of Kursk. Well over 1 000 tanks participated in the largest tank battle of the war. Both sides strove to provide accurate and efficient close air support whilst maintaining air superiority. JG-52’s Bf-109 pilots flew as many sorties as possible, with Hartmann scoring kills at every opportunity. In the heat of battle, Hartmann scored seven kills in one day.
On 20 August 1943, Erich was tasked to escort Stukas that were executing a counter attack on Red Army targets. During the mission, Erich shot down two Russian fighters, before debris severely damaged his own aircraft. After force landing his Bf-109 in Soviet territory, Erich was promptly captured by enemy soldiers. He faked an injury and was carried to a truck on a stretcher. He grabbed the first opportunity to escape, and after evading his captors, eventually reached the German lines.
As World War II progressed, Hartmann became notorious amongst Soviet pilots. He discovered that enemy fighters avoided engaging him in a dogfight, whenever he flew his Bf-109 with its distinctive ‘black tulip’ colour scheme. Ironically, Joseph Stalin had put a 10 000 rouble price on Hartmann’s head, making him one of the most wanted Germans of the War. Meanwhile, Hartmann had scored over 300 kills and had been awarded the Knight's Cross to the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds – the third highest German military decoration of World War II. Erich had been offered the opportunity of flying Me-262 jet fighters, but he preferred staying with JG52, where he felt it was his duty to help new, inexperienced pilots survive air combat.
Towards the end of the war, Hartmann briefly saw combat against American pilots over Romania, where he shot down five Mustangs in one day. Erich Hartmann flew his last sortie on 8 May 1945: the final day of the war in Europe. By then, he had shot down 352 enemy aircraft – more than any other pilot in the war. A record which is likely to remain for ever.
Life after World War II
At the end of the war, Erich Hartmann and his men surrendered to an American armoured unit, which eventually handed the Germans over to the Soviet Union. Hartmann spent ten years in Soviet POW (Prisoner of War) camps, where he was often kept in solitary confinement. Initially, Hartmann had been sentenced to fifty years imprisonment for alleged war crimes, but West Germany managed to negotiate his release in 1955. Hartmann then became the commanding officer of West Germany’s first jet fighter squadron, which operated Sabres at that time. Erich Hartmann, aged 71, died on 20 September 1993 near Stuttgart, Germany.
This article was written by Divan Muller and first published in African Pilot Magazine in 2008 - www.africanpilot.co.za