Choking on fear, he pulled up into a cloud, where he was thankful to hear Rossmann’s calm, matter-of-fact voice over the radio telling him, “Don’t sweat it. I watched your tail. I’ve lost you now that you’ve climbed through the clouds. Come down through the layer so I can pick you up again.”
Easing lower until he was just beneath the overcast, the first thing Hartmann saw was a single-engine fighter coming straight at him. Thinking it was another Russian, he threw his Me-109 into a steep dive while yelling into his microphone that he was being chased. Leveling off just over the treetops he listened for a response, but by then Rossmann’s voice over the radio was too garbled for him to understand. Terrified, he churned full speed to the west until he lost his pursuer.
After outrunning the other plane, he continued to hurtle toward friendly airspace until his engine suddenly sputtered into fuel-starved silence. At such low altitude he did not have time to lower his landing gear. A full 20 miles short of his airfield, he belly landed in a choking cloud of dust. A squad of German infantrymen was passing by in an armored car. Amused at how shaken he was, they gave him a lift back to Soldatskaya. By the time he got there, Rossmann had landed and informed the colonel of Hartmann’s actions on the patrol. Bonin was waiting when the armored car arrived.
The “enemy” aircraft Hartmann had fled from in terror after dropping from the clouds had been Rossmann’s, and this was just one of seven major flying misdemeanors Hartmann had committed on this single flight. He had detached from his element leader without authorization, flown into Rossmann’s line of fire, gotten lost in the clouds, disobeyed Rossmann’s order to rejoin him, gotten lost while returning, and destroyed a valuable plane without inflicting any damage on the enemy. As von Bonin’s voice grew hoarse from shouting, he banished the unhappy amateur to three days of toiling with the ground crews. At the end of his sentence, Hartmann had grease-caked hands and a new regard for discipline in combat.
After getting back into the air, Hartmann resumed flying with Rossmann and studied the veteran’s fighting philosophy. Early in the war Rossmann had suffered a severe arm wound and was thus unable to yank his plane through the tight gyrations required for close-in dogfighting. His incredible eyesight saved his career, making it possible for him to pick out targets at extreme distances, diagnose each situation according to its unique characteristics, and then plot how he would carry out his personal unorthodox specialty of long-range surprise attack. His victims seldom saw him, exploding in flames before he was close enough for them to realize he was targeting them. He used these sniper’s tactics to bag Russians with monotonous regularity while his brother pilots charged bull-like into Soviet flights, downing victims in erratic bunches while taking almost as much abuse as they dished out. They would then coax their smoking machines back to base, barely making it there if at all. Rossmann, unscathed, would be waiting in the canteen.
Hartmann commenced copying Rossmann’s style of approaching aerial battlefields in a patient, methodical fashion, but unlike his mentor Hartmann had no lame arm and was able to whip his Me-109 through tight turns, climbs, and dives. With his own phenomenal marksmanship he was able to meld Rossmann’s rare ability to mortally wound victims at long range with the other pilots’ favored tactic of point-blank gunnery. Erich Hartmann received his first taste of blood on November 5, 1942.
He was part of a four-plane formation called a schwarm that took off at noon to oppose Red Air Force attacks on Wehrmacht armored and supply columns outside the city of Digors. Hartmann was first to spot the enemy formations and was shaken by their numerical superiority. He counted 18 Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik ground attack aircraft escorted by 10 Lavochkin Lagg-3 fighters. Hartmann’s little formation was commanded by a 1st Lt. Treppe, who ordered him to lead the charge.
With Treppe following closely, he took advantage of his optimal position above and behind the enemy. Diving through the surprised escorts before they could react, he pulled up and opened fire on the Shturmovik at the formation’s extreme left. He was dismayed as his machine-gun bullets and 20mm cannon shells bounced harmlessly off his target, which the Germans ruefully called the “Flying Tank.” One of JG-52’s veterans, however, had informed Hartmann that the Shturmovik had a vulnerable underside.
Simultaneously banking and diving, he almost hit the ground before pulling up, closing to just 200 feet, and opening fire on the Russian’s thinly protected oil cooler. As thick black smoke gushed from his underbelly, the Shturmovik pilot dropped from formation and headed eastward in a shallow dive in hopes of finding a clear area to belly land. Hartmann was right behind him.
As the thrilled young German drew a bead to finish off his first kill, the Il-2 suddenly blew up in a hail of debris. One of the twisted fragments plunged into the Me-109’s engine cowling, and flames now erupted from his own plane. He crash landed and climbed from his aircraft’s wreckage just in time to see his maiden kill hit the ground in a cloud of smoke, flames, and dust a mile to the east. Again he hitched a ride with a squad of infantrymen. He regaled them with the narrative of his first aerial victory, completely forgetting that although he had now downed a Russian machine he had also destroyed two German airplanes. Even so, he would barely survive an illness.
Hartmann contracted a fever that almost killed him. He spent the next month in the military hospital at Piatigorsk-Essentuki, being discharged the second week in December just as the Red Army closed its massive jaws around the hapless German 6th Army in Stalingrad. Germany’s “Blond Knight” would have no shortage of opportunities to whet his swiftly developing talents as the cold, cloudy Russian heavens filled with Soviet aircraft. Hartmann and his comrades spent few daylight minutes on the ground except to have their toiling Me-109s rearmed, refueled, and briefly serviced.
As he developed his fighting style Hartmann was able to get closer and closer to his targets before opening fire, fatally damaging them, and then sheering aside to safety at the last instant. He came to further appreciate this whites-of-the-eyes approach after he began flying as wingman for 1st Lt. Walter Krupinski, who carried the point-blank method to its extreme. Flying with total abandon and without bothering to maneuver, Krupinski would hurtle like a charging bull into Russian formations and spray ordnance into every target he could get in his sights. His marksmanship was marginal, but he fired so many rounds that numerous targets were inevitably hit in each shootout. By war’s end he had 197 kills.
By following Krupinski, Hartmann had more targets of opportunity than were normal for a wingman, who typically was tasked with protecting his element leader’s tail. This trigger-happy lieutenant missed or barely nicked so many aircraft that his wingman was constantly, as he described it, “filling in the holes Kruppi left.”
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.