The Buzz

Here Is the Shocking Story of Nazi Germany's Greatest Fighter Ace

Although utterly unfamiliar with the Ju-87, the first two lieutenants managed to lift off safely, but Hartmann and his last companion were another story. As Hartmann taxied down the dirt runway, his plane’s brakes failed, and he crashed into the air traffic controller’s wooden hut at the end of the landing strip, destroying both shed and plane. When the last youngster attempted to get airborne, his engine caught fire. When he tried to make an emergency landing, he somersaulted his Stuka.

The commander, knowing he would be held responsible for the destruction, rushed the two “baby pilots” into the cargo bay of an eastbound Junkers Ju-52 transport plane before they could inflict more havoc. Hartmann’s introduction to the convulsing Russian Front was as chaotic as the massive battles raging along its endless length that autumn of 1942.

JG-52 was already established as a top Luftwaffe unit upon Hartmann’s arrival. His commanding officer, 27-year-old Colonel Dietrich Hrabak, was immediately impressed with the fearless confidence of this new arrival. Considering Hrabak already had 60 kills and wore the Knight’s Cross, his opinion carried weight. He instantly had a high estimation of Hartmann. Hrabak immediately commenced versing the newcomers on all the aspects of combat flying not covered in the flight schools—fine points that could only be gleaned and honed in battle.

“Up to now all your training has emphasized controlling your aircraft on operations, that is, making your muscles obey your will in flying your aircraft,” Hrabak said. “To survive in Russia and be successful fighter pilots you must now develop your thinking. You must act aggressively always, of course, or you will not be successful, but the aggressive spirit must be tempered with cunning, judgment, and intelligent thinking. Fly with your head and not with your muscles.”

Hrabak’s instructions to just arrived neophytes were always a great asset to them, saving many of their lives. Also, the free-spirited Hartmann liked the informality of the airmen at the front. Germany had been at war for three years by this point, and the tide was about to start turning. Never before had the Third Reich needed such young men as Erich Hartmann. Unfortunately for the Fatherland, there were far too few of his caliber.

On October 10, 1942, Hartmann was assigned to the wing’s III Gruppe, III/JG.52, which was based on the banks of the Terek River north of the Caucasus Mountains. Posted to 7th Staffel, the 20-year-old neophyte reported to the squad’s commander, Major Hubertus von Bonin, who was much in Hrabak’s mold, believing flying skill was more valuable than military modus operandi. Bonin informed the surprised recruit that rank did not determine which pilot commanded during combat operations. Whoever held the highest kill tally was in command while the units were airborne. A higher scoring lieutenant could chew out his commanding colonel in the heat of aerial battle, and not one word would be said about it after the planes landed. This state of affairs was perfect for Hartmann.

His first dawn patrol was October 14, and it was almost his last. He flew as wingman for Sergeant Edmund Rossmann, who had 80 kills at that time. Rossmann could teach as well as he could fight and usually managed to bring his rookie wingmen home. He had barely enough skill to save this one, though.

After climbing to 12,000 feet, the two-plane element followed the Terek River to the city of Prokhladny, where Rossmann spied a formation of Soviet aircraft strafing a German supply column that was trying to leave the city. Radioing for his green wingman to follow, Rossmann dove at the Russians while a confused Hartmann (who still had not spotted the targets) followed close behind. After a plunge of almost a mile, he finally picked out the Red Air Force flight that Rossmann had been zeroing in on all along.

Instantly livid with excitement, Hartmann overreacted and rammed his plane’s throttle up to full speed, rashly cut in front of Rossmann, and drew a bead on the closest Russian, pressing his fire button at 300 yards. Cleanly missing his target high and to the left, he found himself closing too fast to correct his aim. Pulling up at the last instant, he barely avoided a collision and managed to level off, but found himself “surrounded on all sides by dark green aircraft—all of them turning behind me for the kill … ME!”

Choking on fear, he pulled up into a cloud, where he was thankful to hear Rossmann’s calm, matter-of-fact voice over the radio telling him, “Don’t sweat it. I watched your tail. I’ve lost you now that you’ve climbed through the clouds. Come down through the layer so I can pick you up again.”

Easing lower until he was just beneath the overcast, the first thing Hartmann saw was a single-engine fighter coming straight at him. Thinking it was another Russian, he threw his Me-109 into a steep dive while yelling into his microphone that he was being chased. Leveling off just over the treetops he listened for a response, but by then Rossmann’s voice over the radio was too garbled for him to understand. Terrified, he churned full speed to the west until he lost his pursuer.

After outrunning the other plane, he continued to hurtle toward friendly airspace until his engine suddenly sputtered into fuel-starved silence. At such low altitude he did not have time to lower his landing gear. A full 20 miles short of his airfield, he belly landed in a choking cloud of dust. A squad of German infantrymen was passing by in an armored car. Amused at how shaken he was, they gave him a lift back to Soldatskaya. By the time he got there, Rossmann had landed and informed the colonel of Hartmann’s actions on the patrol. Bonin was waiting when the armored car arrived.