Erich Hartmann – The Unyielding Ace of the Skies

In aviation history, few names command as much respect and intrigue as Erich Hartmann.

Known as the ‘Black Devil of Ukraine,’ Hartmann was a German fighter pilot during World War II and is considered the most successful fighter ace in the history of aerial combat.

He claimed an astonishing 352 victories, a record yet to be surpassed. Despite the turbulent and controversial circumstances of his life and career, Hartmann’s remarkable prowess as a pilot is undeniable.

We delve into Hartmann’s life, his extraordinary career during WWII, the aircraft he piloted, and the war crime charges he faced post-war.


Early Life

Erich Hartmann was born in Weissach, Württemberg, in the Weimar Republic (now part of Germany) on April 19, 1922. He was the son of Doctor Alfred Erich Hartmann and his wife, Elisabeth Wilhelmine Machtholf.

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His father, a military doctor, served on the Western Front during World War I. His mother, a sportswoman and flight instructor, played a significant role in shaping young Erich’s life.

Doctor Alfred Erich Hartmann and his wife, Elisabeth Wilhelmine Machtholf.
Doctor Alfred Erich Hartmann and his wife, Elisabeth Wilhelmine Machtholf.

Hartmann’s affinity for flying started at an early age. His mother was one of the first female glider pilots in Germany, and she fostered in him a love for aviation.

Elisabeth took Hartmann on his first flight when he was just two years old. By the time he was 14, he was part of the glider club in his town, showcasing impressive skill and control.

When Hartmann was about ten, he and his family moved to China following his father’s work assignment there.

The family lived there for about five years, and it was during this time that Hartmann witnessed the aggressive tactics of the invading Japanese forces, an experience that significantly influenced his understanding of combat and warfare.

Upon returning to Germany, Hartmann joined the Hitler Youth program like many boys of his age.

Hartmann, however, was not particularly interested in the political aspect of the program; his attention was primarily focused on the glider training that the program offered. It was a part of the Luftwaffe’s strategy to build a strong future air force, and Hartmann took full advantage of it.

His training in the Hitler Youth program eventually allowed him to join the Luftwaffe, where he continued his flight training. Even in these early stages of his career, Hartmann showed considerable promise as a pilot.

He quickly moved on from gliders to powered aircraft, and by the time he finished his flight training, he was a highly skilled pilot, setting the stage for his remarkable career during World War II.

Career & WWII

At the outbreak of World War II, Hartmann was drafted into military service, specifically the Luftwaffe. He initially served as an infantryman, but his desire was always to fly.

In 1940, he began his advanced flight training and was eventually transferred to Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52), a fighter wing that operated mainly on the Eastern Front.

The JG 52 emblem. Photo credit - Midnight bird CC BY-SA 3.0.
The JG 52 emblem. Photo credit – Midnight bird CC BY-SA 3.0.

Hartmann’s early career was not without hiccups. He faced reprimands for his reckless flying style and struggled to adapt to the harsh realities of aerial combat.

However, over time, he developed his signature combat style of stalking his enemy closely before firing—a method that led to high success rates but was not without significant risks.

Hartmann’s first aerial victory came in mid-1942. From there, his tally steadily increased.

The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, known as “Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes” in German, was one of Nazi Germany’s highest military decorations. It was awarded for extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership.

Hartmann was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, the highest level of the award. His distinction is particularly notable because only 27 people received this top-level award during World War II.

Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

Hartmann was initially awarded the Knight’s Cross on October 29, 1942, after achieving 148 aerial victories.

Following this, he was awarded the Oak Leaves (his 202nd victory) on March 2, 1944, the Swords (his 239th victory) on July 2, 1944, and finally, the Diamonds (his 301st victory) on August 25, 1944.

He was the last of 27 recipients of the award with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, and the youngest, at just 22 years old. His award of the Diamonds was personally presented by Adolf Hitler.

Despite the political and ethical implications of his service under the Nazi regime, Hartmann’s tactical brilliance and resilience in aerial combat are historically notable. His record of 352 confirmed kills remains unbeaten, underscoring the deadly effectiveness of his aerial combat skills.

Hartmann’s reputation as a pilot has continued to spark discussion and analysis among military historians and enthusiasts.

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His military career, marked by both impressive achievements and the controversial circumstances under which they were made, offers a complex perspective on individual excellence and its historical context.

Aircraft Flown

Throughout his career, Hartmann flew a variety of aircraft. However, the plane most associated with him is the Messerschmitt Bf 109, a German World War II fighter aircraft that was the backbone of the Luftwaffe’s fighter force.

Hartmann flew several variants of the Bf 109, but the Bf 109 G-6, fondly referred to as the ‘Black Tulip,’ remains the most famous due to its unique black and white tulip pattern on the nose.

A Bf 109 painted in the same colour scheme as Hartmann's.
A Bf 109 painted in the same colour scheme as Hartmann’s. Photo credit – Clemens Vasters CC BY 2.0.

The Bf 109 was known for its agility, speed, and firepower, and Hartmann utilized these characteristics to their maximum potential.

His intimate knowledge of the aircraft, combined with his bold tactics and unparalleled situational awareness, made him an adversary to be reckoned with in the skies.

The G-6 model often referred to as the “Gustav,” was introduced in 1943 as an improvement on earlier 109s, and quickly became the Luftwaffe’s primary fighter variant.

It was produced in larger quantities than any other model of the Bf 109, with nearly 12,000 units built by the end of the war.

The Bf 109 G-6 was powered by a Daimler-Benz DB 605A engine, offering improved performance at high altitudes, which was crucial in aerial dogfights.

It was armed with two 13 mm MG 131 machine guns above the engine, a significant upgrade from the 7.92 mm MG 17s used on earlier variants.

A 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon or 30 mm MK 108 cannon was also mounted in the propeller hub, firing through the centre of the propeller spinner.

The Bf 109 G had deadly armament.
The Mk 108 30mm cannon. Also known as the “pneumatic hammer”. Photo credit – Rept0n1x CC BY-SA 3.0.

This variant could also carry a variety of additional equipment based on mission requirements, including drop tanks for extended range, bombs for ground-attack roles, or additional cannons and rocket launchers for increased firepower.

Hartmann favoured the aircraft for its agility and firepower, using it to devastating effect in his engagements on the Eastern Front.

War Crime Charges

Hartmann’s life took a drastic turn after the fall of the Third Reich. In May 1945, he surrendered to American forces but was handed over to the Soviet Union under the Yalta Agreement’s stipulations.

The Soviets accused him of war crimes, specifically relating to the alleged ordering of the shooting of 780 Italian prisoners of war in Taganrog, Russia, while he was stationed there.

Hartmann steadfastly denied these allegations, insisting he had never been stationed in Taganrog and had never been involved in any actions against Italian PoWs.

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Nevertheless, the Soviets sentenced him to 25 years of hard labour, and he ended up spending ten years in various prison camps and prisons before being released in 1955.

Upon his return to West Germany, Hartmann was exonerated by a German court, which found no evidence of his involvement in any war crimes. The controversial charges and his subsequent imprisonment remained a contentious part of his legacy.

Post War

Upon returning to Germany, Hartmann set about rebuilding his life. His experience and knowledge made him a valuable asset to the newly formed West German Air Force (Luftwaffe).

In 1956, he joined the Air Force as part of the rearmament of West Germany. Hartmann took on a variety of roles, including training other pilots, helping shape the structure of the new Air Force, and advising on aircraft procurement.

Hartmann held strong opinions on the type of aircraft the Luftwaffe should be equipped with, favouring American planes over the British or French designs.

Hartmann opposed the F-104s introduction, citing it was dangerous.
Hartmann opposed the F-104s introduction, citing it was dangerous.

He also famously opposed the adoption of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, citing safety concerns and its unsuitability for the Luftwaffe’s needs.

However, his objections were overruled, leading to a significant number of accidents and fatalities, validating Hartmann’s concerns.

In 1970, after a controversial career in the post-war Luftwaffe marked by political disputes and disagreements with his superiors, Hartmann retired with the rank of colonel. After retirement, he became a civilian flight instructor and devoted his efforts to protecting the environment.

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Erich Hartmann passed away on September 20, 1993.

His legacy as the most successful fighter ace in the history of aerial warfare, the controversies surrounding his life, and his significant impact on modern air combat tactics continue to be subjects of study and discussion.

A German Eurofighter Typhoon in Hartmann's colours.
A German Eurofighter Typhoon in Hartmann’s colours. Photo credit – Clemens Vasters CC BY 2.0.

Today, his tale serves as a potent reminder of the complexities of history and the extraordinary feats—and falls—individuals can achieve within it.

For a more detailed look at the BF 109, see our article on it here – Messerschmitt Bf 109 – The Best Fighter Ever Built?

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