The Buzz

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

Krupinski encouraged Hartmann to continue practicing his ambushing skills, but the youngster kept unconsciously emulating his idol Rossmann by opening fire from too great a range. Krupinski was constantly yelling over his radio, “Hey Bubi! Get in closer! You’re opening fire too far out!”

“Bubi” means “lad” in German, and it was perfect for the young airman. Before long the entire fighter group picked up on it. The Russians, however, would soon hang other monikers on him.

By the end of April 1943, Hartmann had completed his 100th combat mission and had eight kills. He was promoted to element leader but was still absorbing the methods of the other senior pilots in his group, combining them into a single, unique fighting style that would make him a legend.

By May 25, his tally had risen to 14, but that morning he had a near death experience when he collided with a LaGG-3 fighter and had to glide back to his own lines for a crash landing. He had been at the front for six months now, and the honeymoon was over. Still weak from the near-fatal fever, his nerves were starting to fray from the strain of constantly flying into massive swarms of Soviet warplanes. Also, the front had reversed direction—moving west instead of east. The realization that his side was going to lose did little for his morale. Hrabak sent him back to Stuttgart for a month-long reunion with his parents and Ursula, but rather than rejuvenate the young pilot the leave would have the opposite effect.

Hartmann returned to a Germany that was being scorched by mile-wide shoals of four-engine bombers of Britain’s Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces. For the first time in history it was possible to completely destroy cities from the air, and while the threat to his loved ones disheartened him mightily it also infused him with a burning determination to do everything in his power to cut into the inexorable advance of his country’s enemies. Maybe his family could not fight the aerial menace, but he certainly could.

When he returned to JG-52, his comrades could see the change in him. He was no longer the happy-go-lucky, bubbly Bubi who was everybody’s precocious little brother. He was a silent, grim young warrior who could hardly wait to get into the air and destroy the enemy. Marshal Josef Stalin’s air legions were now facing their greatest one-man nemesis.

On July 5, Hartmann knocked down four Lavochkin La-5 fighters. He added four more two days later. Krupinski no longer had to tell him to close to within kissing distance before opening fire. Only when Hartmann’s targets filled his sights did he press his fire button, smothering his marks in hits and sending them down in flames.

He had fully overcome his amateur’s impetuousness and was possessed by the skill every wily veteran needs to successfully prey on his enemy. Late on the afternoon of August 3, he shot down another La-5, bringing his total to 50 aerial victories. Earlier in the war many German pilots had earned the Knight’s Cross for this achievement, but by this point the tottering Reich’s requirements had risen. Still, he would be recognized for his heroism.

At this point Hartmann was given command of the Group’s 9th Staffel (9/JG.52). He was almost constantly airborne during daylight hours, tearing gaps into the huge formations supporting the Red Army’s first major summer offensive. His whole wing was flying four sorties daily and downing Soviet machines in bunches. Still, the red star-emblazoned airplanes droned endlessly from the east. These were the biggest air battles in history, and they just kept growing with the arrival of another autumn.

Hartmann finally earned his Knight’s Cross by downing his 150th plane during a patrol on October 29. The two-week leave he received thrilled him more than his medal. Out of respect for his accomplishment, no one flew his finely tuned Me-109G while he was gone. The machine was emblazoned with a bleeding heart pierced by an arrow and the word “Uschi,” Ursula’s nickname. While in the air he used the call sign “Karaya One” (Sweetheart One), and by now the enemy knew this sobriquet as well as did his own side. The Russians even recognized his voice, and when they heard it or his call sign over the airwaves they would prudently give him a wide berth. They would not deprive him of targets for long, though. He had had another incredible adventure.

Late in August antiaircraft fire downed him over Russian lines. Belly landing in a field of sunflowers, he was quickly surrounded by Soviet infantrymen. He did such a masterful acting job of feigning serious internal injuries that he not only fooled the infantrymen, but also a Red Army doctor the soldiers delivered him to in a nearby village. Pretending to be comatose, he lay still as death as he was loaded onto a captured German truck and sent eastward, presumably to one of the notorious Soviet POW gulags.

When his guards were distracted by a formation of Stukas passing overhead, Hartmann leaped from the vehicle and pelted westward amid a barrage of small-arms fire, losing his pursuers in a field of six-foot-tall sunflowers. When he spied an enemy patrol that night, he followed it to the front and under cover of darkness made it to German lines. He was not out of danger yet.

A trigger-happy, teenaged German sentry shot at Hartmann, putting a Mauser bullet through his pants leg. The boy was so nervous because a few days earlier German-speaking Russians had ambushed his unit. There was no way he could get back to his outfit that night, so the German infantrymen he had come upon handed him a rifle. He helped them wipe out a patrol of drunken Russians that had strayed into German territory.