Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ace of Aces

Oberst Erich "Bubi" Hartmann
Deutsches Luftwaffe
(19 April 1922 – 20 September 1993)
In the late fall of 1993, I was sitting in my office with my NATO (primarily German) colleagues perusing Luftwaffe magazine, sort of the German equivalent of the American Air Force magazine. Not to brag or anything, but said magazine is written in German and back in those days I had a pretty good handle on speaking and reading German. It's amazing how much one's language skills atrophy over the years with lack of use. Aber ich schweife ab...

As I'm reading the latest issue of Luftwaffe I notice a small article indicating that the man in the photo above had died on the 20th of September. I mentioned to my German colleagues, "Hey, did you guys see that Erich Hartmann died?"

Three Teutonic blank looks followed by a "Who?"

Of course, you have to remember that World War II is something most Germans don't like to remember. Much evil was committed in the name of Germany. Spurred on by a "Bohemian corporal" who wasn't even German!

So in hindsight, I understand. After all, at said point in time, I had only been in Germany for slightly under two years. But at the time it seemed to me that a German airman not knowing who Erich Hartmann was was rather like an American airman not knowing who Eddie Rickenbacker was.

(As time passes, I realize that there are many Americans, including those wearing Air Force blue, who have no idea who Eddie Rickenbacker was. But again, I digress.)

For you see, Erich Hartmann was the top scoring ace of all time.

352 confirmed aerial victories.



Much was written in the post-war years about German victory claims being inflated. Later research showed that the Germans were extremely strict regarding victory claims. Whatever faults the Germans may have, impreciseness is not one of them!

From Wikipedia:

Erich Alfred Hartmann, nicknamed "Bubi" by his comrades and "The Black Devil" by his Soviet adversaries, was a German fighter pilot during World War II and is the most successful fighter ace in the history of aerial warfare. He flew 1,404 combat missions and participated in aerial combat on 825 separate occasions. He claimed, and was credited with, shooting down 352 Allied aircraft—the destruction of each termed an "aerial victory"—while serving with the Luftwaffe. During the course of his career, Hartmann was forced to crash-land his damaged fighter 14 times due to damage received from parts of enemy aircraft he had just shot down or mechanical failure. Hartmann was never shot down or forced to land due to enemy fire.
Hartmann, a pre-war glider pilot, joined the Luftwaffe in 1940 and completed his fighter pilot training in 1942. He was posted to Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52) on the Eastern front and was fortunate to be placed under the supervision of some of the Luftwaffe's most experienced fighter pilots. Under their guidance, Hartmann steadily developed his tactics, which earned him the coveted Ritterkreuz mit Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillanten (Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds) on 25 August 1944 for claiming 301 aerial victories. At the time of its presentation to Hartmann, this was Germany's highest military decoration.

Hartmann scored his 352nd and last aerial victory on 8 May 1945. Along with the remainder of JG 52, he surrendered to United States Army forces and were turned over to the Red Army. In an attempt to pressure him into service with the Soviet-friendly East German Volksarmee, he was convicted of false war crimes, a conviction posthumously voided by a Russian court as a malicious prosecution. Hartmann was sentenced to 25 years of hard labour and spent 10 years in various Soviet prison camps and gulags until he was released in 1955.

In 1956, Hartmann joined the newly established West German Luftwaffe in the Bundeswehr, and became the first Geschwaderkommodore of Jagdgeschwader 71 "Richthofen". Hartmann resigned early from the Bundeswehr in 1970, largely due to his opposition to the F-104 Starfighter deployment in the Luftwaffe and the resulting clashes with his superiors over this issue. In his later years, after his military career had ended, he became a civilian flight instructor. He died of natural causes on 20 September 1993.
Some have argued that since Hartmann's victories were all on the Eastern Front, that makes them less valid than kills scored on other fronts, against "Western" opponents. Notwithstanding that the two top scoring Allied aces were Russian (Ivan Kozhedub, 64 victories and Aleksandr Ivanovich Pokryshkin with 59 victories). The two top scoring "Western" aces were Dick Bong of the United States, 40 victories and Pat Pattle of South Africa (flying with the RAF) also with 40 victories. So the Russians were hardly "soft" or "easy" opponents. Then there's this -
On 21 May 1944, Hartmann engaged United States Army Air Forces aircraft for the first time. While flying "top cover" for another Schwarm, Hartmann attacked a flight of four P-51s over Bucharest, Romania, downing two, while the other two P-51s fell victim to his fellow pilots. On 1 June 1944, Hartmann shot down four P-51s in a single mission over the Ploieşti oil fields. Later that month, during his fifth combat with American pilots, he shot down two more P-51s before being forced to bail out, when eight other P-51s ran his Messerschmitt out of fuel. During the intense manoeuvring, Hartmann managed to line up one of the P-51s at close range, but heard only a "clank" when he fired, as he had run out of ammunition. While he was hanging in his parachute, the P-51s circled above him, and Hartmann wondered if they would take this opportunity to kill him. One of the P-51Bs flown by Lt. Robert J. Goebel of the 308th Squadron, 31st Fighter Group, broke away and headed straight for him. Goebel was making a camera pass to record the bailout and banked away from him only at the last moment, waving at Hartmann as he went by. - Wikipedia
I think that pretty much puts that argument to rest.

Hartmann was one of the best to ever fly in combat. His tally of victories marks him as perhaps the best to ever take to the air in a fighter plane.

Soviet LaGG-5 Falls to Hartmann's Karaya 1

Soviet Yak-9 Downed by Hartmann

Hartmann Post-War, Commanding JG-1 Richthofen

Note the paint scheme. The same "Black Tulip" design as used on Hartmann's Bf-109G Karaya 1

If you're ever in the McMinnville, Oregon area (about 40 miles southwest of Portland) the Evergreen Museum (which has a fine collection of aircraft, including Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose) has a Bf-109G painted in the "Black Tulip" design Hartmann favored.

Oberst Erich Hartmann, Ace of Aces


  1. I wasn't and airman and I know who Eddie Rickenbacker was.
    But I have to admit I know because I read his survival story and didn't know about the Medal of Honor or his piloting prowess until later.

    1. Oddly enough I knew a LOT about Captain Eddie's WWI experiences but didn't learn of his survival story until years later. He was one brave guy!

  2. Two things that I've learned about him. First, his most proud aerial accomplishment was not the 352 kills, but rather that he never lost a wingman. And second that he rarely shot from outside 50 meters. I remember the first time I shot the dart in the F-15 with the Radar Predicting Impact Point gunsite. I shot at about 1000' (minimum allowable range) and had the dart explode. Before I could even blink, I was through the debris, thankfully intact. So, 50 meters explains a lot about why he crash landed 14 times as well as his skill and courage in getting that close.
    AND, in anticipation of your response, yes, I seemed to have a propensity for flying through frag patterns!

    1. In Toliver and Constable's bio of Hartmann (The Blond Knight of Germany) I recall reading that Hartmann wouldn't pull the trigger until his opponent "filled the windscreen". That is close!

      And yes, you do like to get in close, don't you?

      As to never losing a wingman, almost, but not quite -

      It is often said that Hartmann was more proud of the fact that he had never lost a wingman in combat than he was about his number of kills; however, he did have at least one shot down. Major Günther Capito had joined the unit in the spring of 1943. Capito was a former bomber pilot who had retrained on fighters. After scoring his fifth victory, Capito asked to be Hartmann's wingman. Hartmann refused initially, believing Capito was insufficiently trained on Messerschmitts. On their first mission together, they were engaged by P-39 Airacobras:

      I called to him to turn hard opposite, so I could sandwich the Red fighters, but in his standard-rate bomber turn he got hit. I saw the whole thing and ordered him to dive and bail out immediately. To my intense relief I saw him leave the aircraft and his parachute blossom. I was happy to get this Airacobra, but I was mad at myself for not harkening to my intuition not to fly with Günther Capito.

      Not that there's anything wrong with being a bomber pilot. /snark

    2. Well, maybe he was talking in a more final meaning for "lost". Still 1400+combat missions and only one shoot down is pretty darn good.

    3. Well, he did stick around to make sure his wingie had a good 'chute.

    4. According to Ras' first book, even the US had a lot of bomber (and other non-fighter types) who learned the hard way the difference between a fighter pilot and a pilot who flies a fighter.

    5. I have got to remember to get copies Ras' books. The difference between the two types you mention can be deadly!

  3. (As time passes, I realize that there are many Americans, including those wearing Air Force blue, who have no idea who Eddie Rickenbacker was. But again, I digress.)

    And that is a crying shame but I know it to be fact, from personal experience. One of the best parts of my career was attending the ADCOM NCO Academy, which had a concentration of Air Force "Military Studies," which focused on our history. There's much to be said about honoring our past and I'll leave it go at that.

    1. Well, I'll say this, parts of our glorious service regard history as beginning in 1947.

      History lessons at NCO Leadership School (Yokota AB) were outstanding.

      History lessons at NCO Academy (Keesler AFB) history were okay, a little weak on anything other than enlisted guys.

      History lessons at OTS (at Medina Annex) were abysmal and sometimes completely wrong.

      A mixed bag in my experience. In the early '80s there was a thing called Project Warrior which (IIRC) was a move to convince us blue-suiters that the Air Force really was part of the military and not just a 9 to 5 job. You can check this link for details. It kinda petered out in the '90s for what I would call a sheer lack of interest. And I was in a position to know.

  4. Some of us grew up with Rickenbacker, Nungesser and Lufberry. We also got a good dose of Lindbergh, Bong and quite a few others. All of the books were in the big house library when I was little. By the time I got to the Air Force the only person they ever mentioned was whossname, Mitchell.

  5. I just loaded all kinds of cool no blocker software into firefox and some things are taking a bit of getting used to. I was also going to wonder if it is de classe´for Luftwaffe pilots to wear all their various Iron Crosses when flying for the post War German Air Force.

    1. There actually are (probably "were" by now) post-war, de-nazified (i.e. no swastika) versions of many WWII German decorations. The Iron Cross in particular, which was established in 1813 and based on the cross carried by the Teutonic knights in the 14th century. That particular medal has a long tradition in German military history, though the Nazis made a bigger deal out of than it was originally. In WWI the highest German decoration was the Pour le Mérite (the Blue Max) which had been established in 1740 by Frederick the Great. Rommel had been decorated with both the Blue Max (WWI) and the Knight's Cross (WWII).

    2. Dang, Sarge! You are just a FONT of knowledge!

    3. I try Juvat. I try. (It's the amateur historian in me!)

  6. Were I El CID (or as soon as I attain that status, lol) I'd require every flying squadron to have a library of paperbacks of every air combat title ever published to instill a sense of history in an increasingly unread population..

    1. Hear hear!

      (You got my vote. Er, would El Cid be voted in or would that be by acclamation?)

  7. BTW, FWIW once when I was on an accident investigation team down at Furstenfeldbruck outside Munich when one of our UK sister squadrons birds went off the end of the runway on t.o in heavy fog, the German ALO assigned to us was an old WW II 109 pilot. At the bar one night he related the following: "The first P-51 I ever see in my life, I shoot him down! Then I looked over my shoulder and see the second P-51 I'd ever seen in my life, and he was shooting me down!" LOL!

    1. Excellent tale Virgil!

      (Those things tended to travel in pairs didn't they?)

  8. PS: The guy was a character. He came from a farm just outside Garmisch and when the cease-fire was called he simply "demobed" by flying his plane home, landing and parking it in the field next to the family farmhouse and began farming again. It took the US occupation types about six months to notice that there was a perfectly serviceable combat-ready 109 sitting unsecured on a Bavarian farm on a mountainside. They finally sent a crew, crane and flat-bed to cart it off, lol.

    1. Amazing. Beautiful country down there around Garmisch. I spent a week in Oberammergau, not far away. Didn't see any 109s parked anywhere. Shame.


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