World War II: Major Erich Hartmann

Major Erich Hartmann. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Erich Hartmann - Early Life & Career:

Born April 19, 1922, Erich Hartmann was the son of Dr. Alfred and Elisabeth Hartmann. Though born in Weissach, Württemberg, Hartmann and his family moved to Changsha, China shortly thereafter due to the severe economic depression that struck Germany in the years after World War I. Residing in a house on the Xiang River, the Hartmanns lived a quiet life while Alfred established his medical practice. This existence came to an end in 1928 when the family was forced to flee back to Germany following the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War. Sent to school in Weil im Schönbuch, Erich later attended schools in Böblingen, Rottweil, and Korntal.

Erich Hartmann - Learning to Fly:

As a child, Hartmann was first exposed to flying by his mother who was one of Germany's first female glider pilots. Learning from Elisabeth, he received his glider pilot's license in 1936. That same year, she opened a flying school Weil im Schönbuch with the support of the Nazi government. Though young, Hartmann served as one of the school's instructors. Three years later, he earned his pilot's license and was permitted to fly powered aircraft. With the beginning of World War II, Hartmann entered the Luftwaffe. Commencing training on October 1, 1940, he initially received an assignment to the 10th Flying Regiment in Neukuhren. The following year saw him move through a series of flight and fighter schools.

n March 1942, Hartmann arrived at Zerbst-Anhalt for training on the Messerschmitt Bf 109. On March 31, he violated regulations by performing aerobatics over the airfield. Sanctioned to confinement and fines, the incident taught him self-discipline. In a twist of fate, the confinement saved Hartmann's life when a comrade was killed flying a training mission in his aircraft. Graduating in August, he had built a reputation as a skilled marksman and was assigned to Fighter Supply Group, East in Upper Silesia. In October, Hartmann received new orders assigning him to Jagdgeschwader 52 in Maykop, Soviet Union. Arriving on the Eastern Front, he was placed in Major Hubertus von Bonin's III./JG 52 and mentored by Oberfeldwebel Edmund Roßmann.

Erich Hartmann - Becoming an Ace:

Entering combat on October 14, Hartmann performed poorly and crashed his Bf 109 when it ran out of fuel. For this transgression, von Bonin made him work for three days with the ground crew. Resuming combat flying, Hartmann scored his first kill on November 5 when he downed an Ilyushin Il-2. He shot down an additional aircraft before the end of the year. Gaining in skill and learning from skilled compatriots such as Alfred Grislawski and Walter Krupinski, Hartmann became more successful in early 1943. By the end of April he had become an ace and his tally stood at 11. Repeatedly encouraged to get closer to enemy aircraft by Krupinski, Hartmann developed his philosophy of "when he [the enemy] fills the entire windscreen you can't miss."

Using this approach, Hartmann began rapidly increasing his tally as Soviet aircraft fell before his guns. In the fighting that occurred during the Battle of Kursk that summer, his total reached 50. By August 19, Hartmann had downed another 40 Soviet aircraft. On that date, Hartmann was aiding in supporting a flight of Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers when the Germans encountered a large formation of Soviet aircraft. In the resulting fight, Hartmann's aircraft was badly damaged by debris and he came down behind enemy lines. Quickly captured, he feigned internal injuries and was placed in a truck. Later in the day, during a Stuka attack, Hartmann jumped his guard and escaped. Moving west, he successfully reached German lines and returned to his unit.

Erich Hartmann - The Black Devil:

Resuming combat operations, Hartmann was awarded the Knight's Cross on October 29 when his kill total numbered 148. This number increased to 159 by January 1 and the first two months of 1944 saw him shoot down another 50 Soviet planes. An aerial celebrity on the Eastern Front, Hartmann was known by his call sign Karaya 1 and the distinctive black tulip design that was painted around the engine cowling of his aircraft. Feared by the Russians, they gave the German pilot the sobriquet "The Black Devil" and avoided combat when his Bf 109 was spotted. In March 1944, Hartmann and several other aces were ordered to Hitler's Berghof in Berchtesgaden to receive awards. At this time, Hartmann was presented with the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross. Returning to JG 52, Hartmann began engaging American aircraft in the skies over Romania.

Clashing with a group of P-51 Mustangs on May 21 near Bucharest, he scored his first two American kills. Four more fell to his guns on June 1 near Ploieşti. Continuing to run up his tally, he reached 274 on August 17 to become the top-scorer of the war. On the 24th, Hartmann downed 11 aircraft to reach 301 victories. In the wake of this achievement, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring immediately grounded him rather than risk his death and a blow to Luftwaffe morale. Summoned to the Wolf's Lair in Rastenburg, Hartmann was given the Diamonds to his Knight's Cross by Hitler as well as a ten-day leave. During this period, the Luftwaffe's Inspector of Fighters, Adolf Galland, met with Hartmann and asked him to transfer to the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet program.

Erich Hartmann - Final Actions:

Though flattered, Hartmann declined this invitation as he preferred to stay with JG 52. Galland again approached him in March 1945 with the same offer and was again rebuffed. Slowly increasing his total through the winter and spring, Hartmann reached 350 on April 17. With the war winding down, he scored his 352nd and final victory on May 8. Finding two Soviet fighters performing aerobatics on the last day of the war, he attacked and downed one. He was prevented in claiming the other by the arrival of American P-51s. Returning to base, he directed his men to destroy their aircraft before moving west to surrender to the US 90th Infantry Division. Though he had surrendered to the Americans, the terms of the Yalta Conference dictated that units that had largely fought on the Eastern Front were to capitulate to the Soviets. As a result, Hartmann and his men were turned over to the Red Army.

Erich Hartmann - Postwar:

Entering Soviet custody, Hartmann was threatened and interrogated on several occasions as the Red Army attempted to compel him to join the newly formed East German Air Force. Resisting, he was charged with bogus war crimes which included killing civilians, bombing a bread factory, and destroying Soviet aircraft. Found guilty after a show trial, Hartmann was sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor. Moved between work camps, he was finally released in 1955 with the aid of West German Chancellor Conrad Adenauer. Returning to Germany, he was among the last prisoners of war to be released by the Soviet Union. After recovering from his ordeal, he joined the West German Bundesluftwaffe.

Given command of the service's first all-jet squadron, Jagdgeschwader 71 "Richthofen", Hartmann had the noses of their Canadair F-86 Sabres painted with his distinctive black tulip design. In the early 1960s, Hartmann vigorously opposed the Bundesluftwaffe's purchase and adoption of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter as he believed the aircraft to be unsafe. Overruled, his concerns proved true when over 100 German pilots were lost in F-104-related accidents. Increasingly unpopular with his superiors due to continued criticism of the aircraft, Hartmann was forced into early retirement in 1970 with the rank of colonel.

Becoming a flight instructor in Bonn, Hartmann flew demonstration shows with Galland until 1974. Grounded in 1980 due to heart problems, he resumed flying three years later. Increasingly withdrawing from public life, Hartmann died on September 20, 1993 in Weil im Schönbuch. The highest scoring ace of all-time, Hartmann was never downed by enemy fire and never had a wingman killed.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Major Erich Hartmann." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War II: Major Erich Hartmann. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Major Erich Hartmann." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).