The Buzz

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

Hartmann received the oak leaves to his Knight’s Cross from the Führer himself at the Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden on March 4, 1944. At this time the Red Army was massing its resources for the coming summer offensive, Operation Bagration. The baby-faced, 22-year-old pilot prodigy, his tunic heavy with decorations, returned to the front just in time for the most intense fighting of his career.

Throughout June and July, while the Allies landed far to the west in Normandy, the Red colossus tore apart the Wehrmacht in the east. Hartmann and his comrades of JG-52 seldom left their cockpits as they did their best to stem the unending stream of ground-attack Shturmoviks. By now it was second nature to the Blond Knight to swoop under the flying tanks and hit their sole weak spot. On July 1, he expended just 120 rounds in flaming three Il-2s in one dogfight of just a few minutes’ duration. This brought his tally to 250, and that night while he and his brother pilots were celebrating this lofty score, they received a radio message that he was being awarded the swords to his Knight’s Cross. His second meeting with Hitler was unforgettable.

It was August 3, 1944, when Hartmann reported to the Wolf’s Lair, the East Prussian headquarters where the Fuhrer had survived an attempt on his life two weeks earlier. The frail Hitler had lost all affability.

Hartmann listened in shocked silence as Hitler ranted hysterically against Germany’s professional officer corps, calling them all traitors and incompetents. Then he attempted to reassure Bubi that all was not lost, that new weapons systems would soon be jumping from the drawing boards and into combat, where they would send the Third Reich’s teeming enemies into headlong retreat. Hartmann wanted desperately to believe this, but he had been at the Eastern Front long enough to realize Hitler and his high command had mortally underestimated the Soviet Union three years earlier. Apart from its seemingly endless reservoir of men and material and the copious supplies it received from the Western Allies, it was simply too big to be completely occupied. Even if Germany somehow managed to reverse the front’s westward movement, there would always be plenty of room for Stalin’s legions to fall back and stage counterattacks. This realization made him forget his new decoration as he headed back to fly against impossible odds.

Despite the time he missed by going on leave, Hartmann scored 32 more kills from July 20 to August 22. Fifteen squadrons could have been made from the number of warplanes he had now destroyed, and his JG-52 comrades were also knocking down multitudes of planes. Yet for every one they torched, 10 more Soviet aircraft came droning from the east.

On August 23-24, Hartmann ignored terrible weather while downing 19 more planes. He was summoned to Wolf’s Lair to receive the diamonds to his Knight’s Cross. Arriving at the compound he amazed the Führer’s hulking SS bodyguards by refusing to surrender his sidearm before being ushered into Hitler’s presence, telling the SS he would sacrifice his lofty award rather than be insulted by such palpable distrust from the leader he had served. He was allowed to keep his pistol and became only the seventh day pilot to receive the diamonds.

At the luncheon following the ceremony, Hartmann sat to Hitler’s right, and the two men discussed the situation in the East, the Allies’ strategic bombing offensive, possible changes in flying strategy, and modifications to the training of new pilots. Both of them likely realized, however, that any such major changes should have been made at least two years earlier.

By this time Hitler’s main hope was that a political rift might break down the Allied coalition, slowing the inexorable advances from east and west and giving Germany’s brilliant scientists time to perfect the next generation of revolutionary weaponry. By this point Hitler had given up hopes of outright victory but thought perhaps his new wonder weapons might stabilize the fronts and enable him to negotiate an armistice.

Because of an incident he had personally witnessed, this scenario did not appear particularly far fetched to Hartmann. He and his squadron were finishing an interception mission against Soviet bombers over Budapest when a formation of American P-51 Mustangs suddenly dove into the melee. The astounded Germans watched as the Russian escort fighters turned and attacked the Americans, enabling all the fuel- and ammunition-bereft Luftwaffe fighters to escape.

Before Bubi could return to his unit, he received notification that Reich Marshal Hermann Göring had decreed that he was to be reassigned to a ground posting rather than risk being killed fighting for what Göring evidently realized was a lost cause. General of Fighters Adolf Galland talked Göring into retracting the transfer.

Hartmann then received another set of orders informing him he was to be reassigned to a group equipped with the new Me-262 jet interceptors. By then he was implacably attached to JG-52, and his desperate pleas to stay with his outfit led to these orders, too, being rescinded. He would spend 10 miserable years bitterly regretting this decision.

Realizing his state of physical exhaustion, military doctors managed to convince Hartmann to report to the Luftwaffe rest and recuperation center at Bad Wiessee. After he arrived there he got a great idea. Braving swarming Allied ground attack aircraft, he hopped a train to Stuttgart, gathered up Ursula, and returned with her to Bad Wiessee, where they were married on September 9, 1944. Eight days later he bade her farewell and returned to the front. Although neither of them knew it yet, Ursula was already pregnant with a son Erich Hartmann would never see.