Key point: Throughout June and July, while the Allies landed far to the west in Normandy, the Red colossus tore apart the Wehrmacht in the east.
By May 8, 1945, Adolf Hitler had been dead for more than a week. Germany was in the act of formally surrendering to the Soviets and the Western Allies, so occupying Red Army troops in the eastern German town of Brunn were not expecting to witness what may have been World War II’s last dogfight over Europe.
They were watching entranced as a Red Air Force pilot entertained them with a one-plane air show. He expertly put his Yakovlev Yak-9 single-engine fighter through a series of intricate rolls, climbs, dives, and stalls while the infantrymen below applauded. Suddenly, a lone German Messerschmitt Me-109 dove on the unsuspecting Russian, riddling his Yak with machine-gun bullets and 20mm cannon shells and sending it spinning toward the German countryside. As the stunned soldiers gathered around the oily bonfire that seconds earlier had been a lethal flying machine, the Luftwaffe pilot banked westward toward his final landing. Erich Hartmann, aerial warfare’s supreme ace, had just scored his last kill—number 352.
(This first appeared in June 2019.)
The son of a doctor, Hartmann was born on April 19, 1922. It was a hard time to be German. Just 31/2 years after its defeat in World War I, the Fatherland was helpless before its victorious, unsympathetic enemies. Political upheaval, poverty, and the worst inflation in history made life in Germany difficult, destitute, and dangerous. Jumping at the opportunity to escape this situation, Dr. Alfred Hartmann moved his practice to China. Despite the language barrier he got on well with his new patients, who were grateful to have such a skilled physician to tend their many maladies. They gathered at his office daily and gladly paid their bills on time. Being German, Dr. Hartmann was not generally associated with the European colonial powers that Asian nationalists were increasingly resisting. Nevertheless, when he found the severed heads of three British acquaintances on stakes outside his door one morning in 1929, he decided to gather up his beautiful wife Elisabeth and two little boys and return home, where he set up a new practice in Stuttgart.
During the 1930s, while their country underwent drastic changes, Elisabeth and her sons embraced the national craze of gliding. Her eldest, Erich, developed a passionate love of flying, becoming one of many young Germans addicted to the sky. By the time Hitler came to power in 1933, an entire generation of Germany’s young men were yearning to be aviators.
Erich Hartmann was born too late to participate in the Third Reich’s early period of conquest from 1939 until mid-1942. In fact, when the European war broke out in September 1939, he had just been conscripted, at age 17, into the Hitler Youth. Still, he was enthusiastic about the war. It would give him the opportunity to pursue his dream of flight, so as soon as he graduated from high school in the spring of 1940, he enlisted in the Military Training Regiment based at Neukuhren, East Prussia. A free spirit, he would never completely conform to the restrictions of Nazi German military life. Also, he was emotionally distracted. He was madly in love with 16-year-old Ursula Paetsch, and the two were planning to marry as soon as possible.
Hartmann’s fun-loving inclinations and determination to stay closely in touch with his fianceé frustrated his regulation-bound flight instructors, but his flying ability became apparent as he quickly mastered the deadly but notoriously difficult to fly Me-109D. Unwilling to wash out such a terribly gifted student, the instructors tolerated his lack of self-discipline as he continued to impress them in training.
As the pivotal summer of 1942 broke over war-torn Europe, Hartmann approached his final stages of training with typical brilliance, scoring 24 hits on a small, fluttering, infamously hard to hit drogue target towed by another plane on June 30. This was by far the best his instructors had ever seen from a trainee in his first attempt at aerial gunnery. One of Hartmann’s future comrades on the Russian Front, Wilhelm Batz, literally took years to achieve such marksmanship. Considering Batz would finish the war with 237 kills, Hartmann’s ability was apparent.
After graduating from flight training, Erich was allowed a short visit to Stuttgart to see his parents and Ursula. Then, his superiors, anxious to get this deadly young hawk into action, rushed him to the Russian city of Maikop, where he joined Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Wing) 52, or JG-52. He would spend the rest of the war in the East, but first he had to overcome a shaky start.
En route to their posting, he and three other novice second lieutenants passed through Krakow, Poland. There were no Me-109s stationed at the local Luftwaffe airfield, but the base commander had four Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers he needed delivered to Mariupol on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. He told the rookies that if they flew the Stukas to their destination they would have no trouble arranging transportation to nearby Maikop.
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!”