Here Is the Shocking Story of Nazi Germany's Greatest Fighter Ace
As the war’s final winter descended on the Eastern Front, Bubi and his comrades in the air and on the ground were thrilled by news of the faraway Battle of the Bulge, but the news the Nazi propaganda organs kept promising, that the Western Allies had been pushed back into the English Channel, never came. As reality set in, the pilots of JG-52 stopped fighting with the hearty vigor this brief glimmer of hope had given them. It was replaced with resigned desperation.
In March 1945, Hartmann was ordered to report to Jagdverband 44, a newly organized jet unit. Because of his unfamiliarity with the Me-262 he was to fly as a wingman rather than remaining at the point. Flying behind another pilot was totally unacceptable to Bubi, who had no desire to leave his beloved Me-109 outfit. As soon as he reported to Galland’s new jet airfield at Lechfeld, he was delighted to receive new orders to return to JG-52, where he resumed cutting into the crumbling Reich’s deadly enemy. From the group’s base in Czechoslovakia, Colonel Hermann Graf had repeatedly requested Hartmann’s return to his miserably overworked outfit.
By this time the Blond Knight’s outfit was stationed outside the town of Deutsch-Brod. On his next patrol he got another taste of the tension between Germany’s enemies. He and three other pilots were all that were available to intercept a huge gaggle of Red Air Force bombers and escorts bound for Prague. Positioning their patched-up Me-109s above the ragged formation of Petlyakov Pe-2 and Lend-Lease American Bostons, the foursome prepared to make a plunge through the escorting Yak-9s and into the bombers. At this moment Bubi glimpsed another large flight of approaching fighters. They were American P-51 Mustangs, and they warily took up a position just above the Yak-9s.
With the Americans and Russians suspiciously eyeing each other, Hartmann realized they were too distracted to notice the tiny Luftwaffe formation lurking over them, and when the Germans attacked their foes would not notice in time to head them off. Still, the vast numerical imbalance would limit Hartmann and his men to just one pass.
Plunging full speed through the three tiers of targets, Bubi flamed two Americans, passed through the Russian fighters without firing, and then knocked down a Boston. Continuing downward until leveling off just above the treetops, the Germans looked back to see the Yaks and Mustangs tearing into each other in a massive, swirling dogfight. The Me-109s had hurtled through the hostile formations at such speed that the Americans and Russians did not recognize them as German. With each side thinking the other had attacked, it they turned on one another. For the moment the embryonic Cold War was quite hot.
In the closing months of the war in Europe, the Western and Eastern Fronts drew so close together that Hartmann encountered numerous Allied warplanes. The Blond Knight shot down seven Mustangs for his only non-Soviet kills. On May 8, 1945, he shot down the Yak-7 over Brunn for victory number 352, making him the highest scoring ace in military history.
With far fewer military aircraft being deployed by modern air forces, it is highly unlikely that any pilot will even threaten Erich Hartmann’s status as warfare’s supreme aerial ace. His JG-52 comrade Gerhard Barkhorn is second with 301 victories. Hartmann’s phenomenal vision, accuracy, and flying skill not only made him the most successful dogfighting military aviator in history, but also brought him through the horrors of the World War II without a scratch.
After landing following his last patrol, Hartmann learned of Germany’s surrender. He and the remaining pilots and ground personnel of JG-52 burned their Me-109s and surrendered. Along with the Third Reich, this greatest of all fighter groups had passed into history.
Kelly Bell is a long-time writer on the topic of World War II and resides in Tyler, Texas.
This article originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / D. Miller