The Buzz

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

Hartmann’s odyssey left his nerves in shreds, but it was another month before his superiors could spare him a rest. Autumn rains finally slowed the inexorable Soviet onslaught, and he was able to go on leave. German pilots on the Russian Front in 1943 were possibly the busiest men in history.

With an eye for aesthetics, Hartmann had had his plane decorated with an unusual and distinctive black tulip petal design on its nose cone. By year’s end the Soviets had not only figured out the menace of the call sign Karaya One but could recognize his uniquely adorned aircraft. They were calling him the “Black Devil of the South” and placed a bounty of 10,000 rubles on his 21-year-old blond head. No one seemed interested in claiming the reward, however, as whenever his plane was recognized Red airmen would avoid him like a leper. He tried to trick the enemy by having his wingman fly the black-nosed Me-109, but the Russians steered so clear of it that they were also too far from Hartmann’s borrowed plane for him to attack them. In January 1944, he had the artwork removed. No longer so recognizable, he quickly shot down another 50 warplanes in January and February despite being grounded by bad weather much of that time.

JG-52 tore through its hapless enemies early in 1944. By this time the group’s pilots were so battle tested that their aircraft were essentially extensions of the nervous systems of the young men flying them. Mechanically honed to operative perfection by expert ground crews, the machines reacted instantly and perfectly to the slightest touch at their controls. The cold Russian skies were filled with the smoke trails of crashing Soviet aircraft, yet sheer weight of numbers would be a major deciding factor. The vast Red Army advanced relentlessly westward. The same was true in the air.

Frantic to rid themselves of the hated and feared Black Devil of the South and unable to instantly recognize his no longer decorated plane, Soviet pilots adopted a measure that was literally suicidal. Throughout the sectors in which JG-52 operated, Russian airmen took to deliberately colliding with Me-109s they thought might be Hartmann’s. His closest call with these Red Air Force kamikazes came late in February.

Hartmann and a wingman were patrolling over Romania, far from the front, on watch for Soviet pilots who had been strafing German columns in the area. Hartmann was almost lulled into carelessness by the serenely empty sky, but instinct made him look over his shoulder. About 600 yards to his rear and slightly higher, a lone Yak-9 was bearing down on him.

Hartmann repeatedly swerved out of the Russian’s line of fire, but the Yak pilot did not shoot. Bubi realized in shock that the man was trying to ram him. Radioing for his wingman, a Lieutenant Wester, to climb to a safe distance, Hartmann began throttling back so he could bank his plane in a tighter than usual turning radius in hopes of making the enemy overshoot him, but the Red pilot was good. He would not let Hartmann get behind him. He suddenly yanked his plane upward, turned, and charged the Me-109. Both pilots opened fire simultaneously and missed. Hartmann did a split-s, dove to treetop level, and stayed there for the moment.

As Hartmann had hoped, his opponent lost sight of him, and after circling in a futile pattern while Bubi expertly stayed directly under him, the Russian turned eastward for home. With his Me-109’s camouflage blending in with the ground under it, Hartmann slowly ascended from under his unsuspecting foe, closing to just 50 feet before opening fire. The Soviet pilot turned his Yak over, dropped from its cockpit, and yanked his ripcord, floating to earth deep in German territory. Hartmann hurried back to base, commandeered a Fiesler Storch reconnaissance plane, flew back, and personally picked up his latest victim, flying him back to JG-52’s airfield.

Stalin had decreed that any Soviet soldier who allowed himself to be captured was, by falling alive into German hands, committing high treason and would be dealt with accordingly when and if he was “liberated” by his own side. When Hartmann presented his prisoner to his Luftwaffe squadron, the young Russian seemed delighted to have survived but became furious when his captors informed him he was not to be shot. The Germans eventually realized he had no motive to escape and allowed him to wander their airfield unchaperoned for two days before shipping him to wing headquarters for interrogation.

As another spring broke over western Russia, Hartmann continued refining his dogfighting techniques. He found that by refraining from reacting to approaching enemy aircraft until the last second he could often pick up critical information on his opponent that he would miss by responding too quickly. He learned that second-rate and inexperienced airmen tended to open fire from too far away. Such pilots invariably went down in flames under his gunfire. If the approaching Russian held fire until the last moment, though, it was certain he was a battle tested, competent veteran.

Bubi developed a tactic specifically for these situations.

As his adversary reached optimal firing range, Hartmann would twist his Me-109 into the tightest turn possible and then simultaneously shove the stick forward while kicking the bottom rudder, sending his plane downward. When his opponent would attempt to copy the difficult maneuver, he would be distracted by the abrupt shift from positive to negative G forces.

At this point Hartmann would pull up into positive G force just as his confused foe began to experience weightlessness. Before the Russian could regain his orientation, Bubi would dive beneath him, pull up, and drill his underside. Hartmann called this stratagem his “personal twist regulations,” and tried to teach it to his comrades, but few had the skill to master it.