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Erich Hartmann
by Larry Dwyer
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    Erich Hartmann was World War II’s greatest scoring fighter pilot achieving 352 victories during 1,404 combat sorties and engaging in aerial combat 825 times. 345 of his victories were against the Soviet Air Force of which 260 were fighter aircraft. Although he crashed 14 times, he was never shot down or forced to land by enemy aircraft. All of his crashes were the result of debris flying off aircraft that he had shot down, which had struck and damaged his aircraft or after running out of fuel.

    There has always been a big debate as to why the Germans scored more victories than the Allies. Part of the reasoning is that the German Luftwaffe didn’t rotate their pilots as often as the Allied air forces did. Although both sides wanted to protect their top-scoring pilots for reasons of propaganda and morale, the vast resources of the Allied men and equipment allowed them to do so more often. America's top scoring and most famous ace, Richard Bong who scored 40 victories, was often taken out of combat and assigned to go on PR tours to sell war bonds. For other Allied pilots after a tour of combat, there was months of rest and assignments in the rear as flying instructors. Additionally, after Germany invaded Russia in June of 1941, the Luftwaffe pulled out many of its bomber units from the Western Front, presenting fewer opportunties for the RAF to score victories.1 In contrast, Luftwaffe pilots fought almost every day while flying defensive, short flights, on their own territory, while the Allies flew long offensive missions deep into German territory. Four and even five missions per day on the Eastern Front were commonplace. These conditions allowed the German pilots to rack up more victories than Allied pilots, but the demand of operations also made it more difficult to survive the war.

    After completing flight training, Hartmann was posted to the Eastern Front, in October 1942, under the supervision of some of the Luftwaffe’s most experienced fighter pilots flying with the with Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52) (52nd Fighter Wing). JG 52 was the most successful fighter wing of all time, claiming more than 10,000 victories during World War II. After joining JG 52, he flew mostly as wingman for the squadron leaders. The top scoring pilots were selected as leaders whether they were officers or enlisted men. Although he was an excellent marksman, Hartmann began flying as a wingman, presenting fewer opportunities to score a victory. From November 1942 until March 1943 he scored only five kills. Conditions changed rapidly and as he moved into a position as an element leader. He scored a total of 148 victories from February to October 1943, scoring his 150th victory on October 29, 1943.

    On 7 July 7, 1943, he shot down seven enemy aircraft during the Battle of Kursk. Two were shot down two during a morning reconnaissance mission and then he shot down four additional planes on two more missions, on the same day. He developed a technique for scoring victories which was "See - Decide - Attack - Reverse, or 'Coffee Break.'"2 He would get right up close to his victim until the other plane filled his windshield and just as the aircraft went below his nose, he would fire a short burst with deadly accuracy.

    One tactic Hartmann developed was to fly 8,000 ft. above, in altitude, in a shallow descent towards a Russian flight (4 planes), to give the impression that the flight below wasn’t spotted from above. After the flights passed each other, in opposite directions, Hartmann's flight would roll over into a split-S, building up speed, and come back underneath the Russians planes and strike from behind, taking the Russians by surprise. The Russians studied German combat tactics and tried to counteract this maneuver, but it proved to be their undoing. In one incident after Hartmann did his Split-S maneuver, he came from behind a flight of low flying Il-2s and fired at one airplane. However, the Russians were expecting this and they performed the same altitude consuming split-S maneuver. Unfortunately for the Russians, their altitude was only 1,500 feet and they flew into the ground. Hartmann shot at one plane and was given credit for downing four.

    On August 19 1943, Hartmann was forced to land behind Soviet lines when his aircraft was damaged by debris during combat with Ilyushin Shturmovik, Il-2s. After shooting down two enemy aircraft, his fighter was hit by debris and he made an emergency landing. When Soviet soldiers arrived, he faked internal injuries and they put him on stretcher and then on a truck en route to a hospital. He was able to jump off the truck evading Russian soldiers and was finally able to get back to German lines.

    By the end of 1943, his total number of victories totaled 159. In the first two month of 1944 he achieved 50 more victories and on February 26, 1944 he scored his 200th victory after shooting down ten Russian lend-lease Bell Airacobra fighters.

    Hartmann's airplane displayed a black tulip design around the engine cowling near the spinner of his aircraft and he developed a notorious reputation with the Soviets who nicknamed him Cherniy Chort ("Black Devil"). Whenever the Soviets spotted his design they would break off contact and the reluctance of Soviet fighters willing to engage him caused his tally to drop off. Because his tulip design was so well know, he allowed newer pilots his plane to fly it. This allowed them to observe combat in relative safety while they gained experience. Hartmann finally dropped the tulip design and he achieved 50 more victories in the following two months.

Erich Hartmann's airplane displayed a black tulip design near the spinner.
    On May 8, 1944, the JG 52 was forced to withdraw from the Crimea and for a short period, operated over Rumania intercepting the American daylight bombing raids on Rumanian oil fields. On May 21, 1944, Hartmann engaged USAAF aircraft for the first time. He attacked a flight of four P-51 Mustangs over Bucharest, Romania, downing two. On June 1, 1944, Hartmann downed four P-51s in a single mission over the Ploiesti oil fields. Later that month, during his fifth engagement with American pilots, he shot down two more P-51s before being forced to bail out after his Messerschmitt Bf 109 ran out of fuel after being chased by eight P-51s.

    Hartmann had flown five missions against North American P-51 Mustangs in the spring of 1944 and briefly later on, downing a total of seven Mustangs. If he had flown more, it would have been extremely difficult for him to survive the war. In the encounter with the eight Mustangs chasing him at Ploiesti, the Americans had fired wildly and Hartmann had narrowly missed being shot down. If the Americans had employed his method of getting up close, it's unlikely he would have survived. In fact, they chased him until he ran out of fuel. After he bailed out, one Mustang passed by to photograph him and waved as he passed by. During this encounter, nearly half of the Gruppe's aircraft had been shot down, with two pilots dead and a number of others wounded.

    Hartmann wasn't a dog-fighter—90% of his attacks were surprise attacks.3 He would hit his target and then break off contact. However, when the Americans showed up with their technologically superior P-51 Mustangs, in overwhelming numbers, the deck was stacked against the Germans. Without methanol-water injection, the Bf 109s were at a serious disadvantage. The only advantage the Bf 109 maintained over the Mustang was its 20-mm cannon as opposed to the Mustang's six .50 caliber machine guns.

    A Russian counter-offensive took JG 52 back to the Crimea and, during May and June 1944, he accounted for 60 Russian aircraft to bring his score to 267. On August 17, 1944 his number of victories totaled 274 surpassing fellow JG 52 pilot Gerhard Barkhorn and on August 24, 1944 his total number of victories passed 300 after shooting down eleven aircraft during two combat missions.

    He shot down eleven enemy aircraft, on two missions, in a single day on August 24, 1944, becoming the first fighter pilot to record 300 victories. On August 25, 1944 he was awarded the Ritterkreuz mit Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillanten (Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds) and was summoned to the Führerhauptquartier Wolfsschanze, Adolf Hitler's military headquarters near Rastenburg. He was only one of 27 pilots with diamonds on his cross. After receiving his award from Hitler, General Adolf Galland requested that he transfer to the Me 262 test program, but Hartmann refused due to his deep attachment to JG 52.
Heinz "Bimmel" Mertens (left) was Erich Hartmann's crew chief. No one else was allowed to touch his plane without permission.
    By March of 1945, his total number of victories totaled 336 and on April 17, 1945 his total number of victories totaled 350. He scored his 352nd and last aerial victory over Brno, Czechoslovakia on May 8, 1945.

    At the end of the war he spent ten years in a Soviet prison and was released in 1955. After his release from prison in he joined the newly established West German Air Force in 1956 and became the first Geschwaderkommodore of Jagdgeschwader 71 "Richthofen". In 1970 he resigned early from the Bundeswehr in 1970 due to differences with his superiors regarding the Luftwaffe's deployment of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. He then became a flight instructor and died of natural causes on September 20, 1993.

1. Robert Jackson. Fighter Pilots of World War II. St. Martin's Press; New York, 1976. p. 56.
2. Raymond Toliver & Trevor Constable. The Blond Knight of Germany. TAB/AERO Books; Blue Ridge Summit, PA, 1970. p. 46.
3. Mike Spick. LuftWaffe Fighter Aces. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1996. p. 203.
1. Edward H. Simms. The Fighter Pilots. Corgi Books, Transworld Publishers Ltd.; Great Britian, 1967. pp. 170-190.
2. Robert Jackson. Fighter Pilots of World War II. St. Martin's Press; New York, 1976. pp. 100-111.
3. Raymond Toliver & Trevor Constable. The Blond Knight of Germany. TAB/AERO Books; Blue Ridge Summit, PA, 1970.
4. Aces of the Luftwaffe, Erich Hartmann, Major. October 9, 2012.
5. Wikopedia. Erich Hartmann. October 8, 2012.

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© Larry Dwyer. The Aviation History On-Line Museum. All rights reserved.
Created October 9, 2012. Updated January 5, 2013.