German Pilot Reported 352 Kills : Hope of Top WWII Flier: No Need for New Air Aces

Times Staff Writer

"I hope nobody ever beats my record," mused Erich Hartmann in the library of his home here. "I hope nobody ever has to beat my record."

The mild-mannered but iron-willed Hartmann is the world's ace of aces; as a Luftwaffe fighter pilot in World War II, he shot down 352 enemy planes--eight American, the rest Soviet.

More than 40 years ago, he was known to his countrymen as "the Blond Knight of Germany" and to the opposing Soviet pilots on the Eastern Front as "the Black Devil of the South" because of the black-painted nose of his Messerschmitt 109.

For his aerial feats, he was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds by Adolf Hitler, and for that same prowess in the skies, he was imprisoned for 10 1/2 years by the Soviets at the end of the war.

His wartime and postwar experiences have apparently left no scars, physical or mental, and at 63 he lives in quiet semi-retirement in his hometown here, south of Stuttgart. He still works as an aviation consultant and entertains former comrades-in-arms, both those from the war and those he met as an officer of the postwar West German Luftwaffe.

Among his friends are many U.S. pilots and military historians who respect the professional views of the most successful combat pilot of all time.

Hartmann was instrumental in setting up the new German air force under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He taught the pilots tactics and had a thing or two to say about dealing with the Soviets because he has observed them closely.

"Watch out when they smile and are pleasant to you," he said of his experiences in the various concentration camps where the Soviets tried to break his spirit and force him to admit to being a war criminal. "That's when they are going to lean on you. I prefer them when they appear to be angry."

To appreciate Hartmann's record of 352 confirmed aerial kills, it is necessary to remember that the top American ace of World War II, Maj. Richard Bong, shot down 40 enemy planes, and that the leading British pilot, the RAF's James E. Johnson, was credited with destroying 38 German aircraft. The World War I ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron of Germany, shot down 80 enemy planes, and the highest U.S. scorer in that conflict, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, scored 26 kills.

Immediately after World War II, some Allied critics suggested that the German pilots on the Eastern Front had deliberately miscounted their kills--that, among other things, squadron commanders took credit for all the planes shot down by their pilots. Some critics also said the Germans were matched against vastly inferior aviators and planes.

But, later, such respected military historians as retired Air Force Col. Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable detailed the meticulous accounting methods of the Luftwaffe and declared that German aerial victories appear to have been genuine.

Further, these historians point out that the Soviets flew first-rate planes, not only Soviet MIGs, Yaks, and Laggs, but also U.S.-built Airacobras and Lightnings.

Proficient Soviet Pilots

Many Soviet pilots were also proficient in combat. The top Soviet ace, Ivan Kozhedub, for instance, shot down 62 German aircraft, while 15 Soviet pilots shot down 40 or more planes during the war, almost all of them from the Luftwaffe.

Thus, historians say, Hartmann's performance can in no way be demeaned. His total may be higher than that of his American or British counterparts because the Germans flew at a grueling pace, often three or four missions a day; Allied pilots usually flew only daily or every other day and were rotated home after 25 or 50 missions.

As Toliver and Constable point out in their book on Hartmann, "The Blond Knight of Germany": "Fighter aces were able to keep alive, for a few brief decades, albeit in tenuous form, the now archaic concept of a fair fight. Man-to-man encounters in which individual martial skill and fighting spirit could affect the outcome disappeared from land and naval battles even as they became the central element of aerial combat. Chivalry thus found a modern echo among air fighters."

Hartmann himself, his once-flaxen hair now brown though not gray, tends to shrug off his accomplishments, but he is proud of the fact that he was never shot down (although he had to parachute or make forced landings).

"I had time to become well-trained before combat," he recalled recently, while sipping a glass of beer. "And I had very fine pilots to go into combat with."

Hartmann, the son of a physician who wanted him to become a doctor, joined the Luftwaffe at 18, fresh out of high school. Two years later, he was assigned to the famed Fighter Wing 52 on the Eastern Front in October, 1942.

Had to Crash-Land

On the very first of his 1,400 missions, he fouled up by not following his flight leader's instructions while tangling with Soviet planes; he ran out of fuel and had to crash-land behind German lines in the Caucasus foothills.

"Luckily, I learned my lesson," he recalled.

Tactically, Hartmann combined tricks learned from more experienced pilots: He always tried to reach higher altitudes than opponents before engaging in a dogfight; and he always flashed into very short range before opening fire.

"It is always better to go from upstairs (to) downstairs, than downstairs upstairs," he said. "And if you shoot from long range, you are usually just wasting bullets."

Because Hartmann, with his pale features, fair hair and bright blue eyes, was very boyish, the other pilots dubbed him Bubi, or Boy.

Hartmann scored his first victory, against an Ilyushin 2 fighter-bomber, on Nov. 5, 1942. But it was in early 1943, as the Germans pulled back and the Soviets pressed their attacks, that Hartmann, then a second lieutenant, began scoring heavily. By August, 1943, he had shot down his 50th enemy aircraft--an achievement that had made earlier Luftwaffe pilots eligible for the coveted Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.

But then the stakes were raised. Fifty was not enough. So he did not win the Knight's Cross until October, when his victory string had reached 150 planes.

Valentine's Heart

By then, he was a flight leader in the squadron that had as its emblem a pierced, red Valentine's heart; he inscribed his childhood sweetheart's name, Usch for Ursula, above the arrow. His call sign was "Karaya (Sweetheart) One."

Soon after that, he fired at a Soviet plane, which blew up in mid-air, with pieces of the debris disabling his own ME-109, and he crash-landed on the Soviet side of the front. He was captured but pretended to be unconscious and managed to jump off a truck taking him to Soviet headquarters.

Hartmann was aware that the Soviets had dubbed him the "Black Devil" and put a 10,000-ruble price on his head; that amount was to be paid to any Soviet pilot who shot him down.

He crossed back to German lines that night and was flying again the next day.

'The Fuehrer's Hat'

With his 200th victory, he was awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross, but was still only a second lieutenant. He was taken to Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden and, having had some brandy en route, was clowning around with three fellow pilots, putting on a cap in the Nazi warlord's lair, when a staff officer said in horror: "Give me that! That is the Fuehrer's hat!"

Hartmann was made a first lieutenant in July, 1944, and, three days later, with 250 victories, he was awarded the Swords to his Knight's Cross by Hitler.

"He (Hitler) complained that the Western nations should be fighting the Bolsheviks," Hartmann recalled.

Hartmann continued his string of victories while his squadron was transferred to defending Romania's Ploesti oil fields. On that assignment, he shot down eight U.S. Mustang P-51 fighters accompanying the U.S. bombers conducting daylight raids. They are the only non-Soviet planes among his kills.

Once, surrounded by a half-dozen Mustangs, he ran out of fuel and had to bail out. An oncoming U.S. fighter made a pass at him but did not shoot. Rather, he recalled, the pilot simply waved at him gallantly and sped off.

By then, he was a squadron commander. Toliver and Constable, in their book on Hartmann, cited the reaction of one senior officer, a bomber pilot unaccustomed to the informal ways of fighter pilots:

'Sloppy Young Man'

"The first impression of Bubi Hartmann was not earth-shattering. What stood in front of me was a gangling, sloppy young man with untamable blond hair under a completely wrinkled cap. He had a tedious, slow drawl. I thought to myself he deserved his nickname, and I asked myself, 'This is supposed to be a commander?' "

Nevertheless, Bubi Hartmann was a fine commander, imparting his mastery of the air to the new pilots arriving with much less training than he had had. He insisted that they follow one of his key maxims--that they must never lose a wing man, that gaining a victory at the expense of a wing man on a mission was a defeat.

"I also decided against aerial acrobatics, against what traditional pilots would call dog-fighting," he recalled. "Acrobatics are a waste of time and therefore dangerous. You have to move in quickly, picking off stragglers if necessary, but not flying into the middle of an enemy formation just because it's there. Basically, you've got to fly with your head, not just your muscles."

On one memorable day in August, 1944, he downed six Soviet planes, refueled, and soared skyward to shoot down six more.

Final Visit to Hitler

That gave him 300 victories, for which he was awarded the Diamonds to the Knight's Cross and a final visit to Hitler.

Hartmann complained to Hitler that pilots were being sent into combat without enough training and that many fliers' lives were lost by ordering them up against Allied bombers on the Western Front in atrocious weather conditions. A gaunt-looking Hitler only nodded, as if preoccupied with other matters, Hartmann recalled.

During this leave, Hartmann married Usch, then returned to the Eastern Front.

As his victory tally continued to mount, Hartmann, by then a captain, was asked to test the new jet-powered ME-262. Accepting that job would have kept him in Western Germany. He tried out the new craft but, by then a group commander with the 52nd Fighter Wing, he insisted on returning to his command.

Col. Hermann Graf, a brilliant ace with 212 victories, was his wing commander, and they both fought a rear-guard action in the skies against the Soviet advance.

Hartmann shot down his last plane--the 352nd kill, a Yak 11--on the last day of the war.

He and Graf received instructions from the German fighter command to fly to Dortmund to turn themselves over to the British, who presumably would have treated them as captured Luftwaffe officers.

Instead, the two airmen decided to remain with their unit, to help lead the pilots, crewmen and ground personnel away from the advancing Soviet army so they could surrender to American troops in western Czechoslovakia.

All Taken Prisoner

The Americans, however, quickly handed the flight personnel over to the Soviets, who soon realized that they had in hand two pilots who together had shot down more than 500 Soviet planes. All members of the wing were taken prisoner. Over a period of years, the Soviet intelligence services tried to brainwash Hartmann into signing a declaration that he was, as they charged, a war criminal, having killed defenseless civilians.

"I told them I was a German officer, a fighter pilot, who had never fired on civilians and who was only doing his duty in the air," Hartmann said.

The Soviets kept trying to break his spirit and, over the years, his refusal to knuckle under to them is reminiscent of both the fictional British Col. Nicholson in "Bridge on the River Kwai" and the real-life senior American military pilots who withstood torture and brainwashing in North Vietnamese prisons.

At one point, Hartmann refused to do manual labor because officers, under the Geneva Conventions, did not have to work. He insisted that he was a prisoner of war and not a war criminal. He was thrown into solitary confinement in a filthy bunker. But the rest of the German prisoners in the camp revolted until Hartmann was released and all were then accorded more humane treatment by camp officials.

Word spread throughout the network of prison camps, and Hartmann became a hero even to many German POWs who were unfamiliar with his aerial exploits. To them, he was the symbol of resistance.

The Soviets, realizing they could not break him, then tried to persuade him to speak out on behalf of the Soviet regime or even to join the East German air force.

Laudatory Article

To Hartmann's shock, his old commander, Graf, decided to cooperate with the Soviets and wrote a laudatory article in a POW newspaper about the Soviet air force. For this, Graf was repatriated to Germany in 1950.

Hartmann continued to hang tough, however, despite the fact that he learned that a son whom he had never seen had died in 1947 and that his father, too, was dead.

Finally, in 1955, with the intervention of West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Hartmann was released. He refused an arrival celebration--until all German prisoners were released later that year by the Soviets.

After a few months' recuperation, he was asked to join the new Luftwaffe and did so, training pilots to fly jet fighters--after he himself mastered the new planes.

"If you're a pilot, you're a pilot," he recalled of his jet training. "There's not much difference."

Because he was associated with the new Luftwaffe, whose pilots received instruction in the United States, Hartmann managed to escape the taint that attached to some other German aces after the war because of their continuing connections with Nazi sympathizers.

Remained Outspoken

But, as always, Hartmann was outspoken in the new German air force, as he had been in Soviet prison camps and to Hitler himself.

He became commander of the Richthofen Wing of F-86 Sabres, the new air force's first all-jet fighter unit.

But he opposed the introduction of the supersonic interceptor, the American-built F-104 Starfighter, on the grounds that German pilots were not yet ready for it, that they hadn't built up enough postwar experience flying jets.

Hartmann was overruled by senior officers on the grounds that it was a "political" decision. However, his judgment turned out to be correct: The West German air force lost dozens of the planes in training accidents in what grew to be a national scandal.

Retired as Full Colonel

But Hartmann decided that a hell-for-leather fighter pilot was out of place in the upper ranks of the new German Luftwaffe, dominated by bureaucratic generals, and he retired as a full colonel.

Today, he seems a man without rancor, as he tends to his house here, builds a swimming pool and entertains air-minded friends from many countries.

His wife, Usch, poured another beer for Bubi Hartmann and a visitor and pulled out a scrapbook she kept during the war years and the decade that she waited while he remained a Soviet prisoner.

He was dashing as a young pilot, hard-living and hard-flying, and still looks several years younger than his 63 years.

"Our new German pilots are quite as good as we were, I think," he reflected. "And NATO is much the stronger because of it.

"In combat, you must be well-trained first. But you must, too, survive your first few missions to get the hang of it. Then, good tactics pay off--seeing the other pilot first, getting in close, shooting accurately and avoiding action when judicious.

"But with all of that said, luck still plays a role in whether you survive or not. And fate."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°