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.
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.
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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.
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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.