Erich in cockpit of his deadly weapon - Messerschmitt 109. Please note the "Karaya- red heart" sign on the board. The profile of this machine was shown on the bottom.
Erich Hartmann arrived as a Leutnant to 7./JG 52 in the Caucasus on 10 October 1942.Ofw. Alfred Grislawski, the veteran who was assigned to teach the novice Leutnant the realities of the air war, found Hartmann to be a talented by highly individualistic pilot. Hartmann was intended to achieve a large number of victories, and he displayed a most unhealthy contempt toward his Soviet adversaries. Grislawski, who knew better after serving on the Eastern Front for more than one year, told Hartmann straight forward that unless he changed attitude, he would be a corpse in a matter of weeks.
Erich Hartmann's first acquaintance with the Soviet airmen also told him not to underestimate them; his Bf 109 was shot up, and he was lucky to survive a belly-landing. It took the veterans of 7./JG 52--most notably Alfred Grislawski and Edmund Rossmann much hard work to teach the young Hartmann the name of the game. It was during this time that Grislawski invented the nick-name for Hartmann - "Bubi", "Little Boy."
Hartmann achieved his first aerial victory against an Il-2 of Soviet 7 GShAP on 5 November 1942, but he got himself shot down on that occasion. When he returned to base, he was punished with three days of ground service work for violating the rules as a wingman. During the following weeks, Hartmann was involved in a large number of air combats. Over and over again, he thought he had the Soviet planes in his gunsight and opened fire--only to see his tracer bullets pass by in empty sky. It was not until on his 41st combat sortie, on 27 January 1943, that Hartmann managed to down a second Soviet aircraft - reported as a "MiG-1", in reality probably a misidentification for a Yak-1 or Yak-7. Grislawski repeatedly told Hartmann to approach the enemy aircraft much closer before opening fire, but this tactic took much nerves, and that was something "Bubi" Hartmann had to learn the hard way.
In March 1943, when Oblt. Walter "Graf Punski" Krupinski arrived to assume command of 7./JG 52, things got even worse to "Bubi" Hartmann. Krupinski was a totally "wild man" in the sky, and he picked Hartmann as his wingman - because all the NCO veterans refused to serve as his wingman. Krupinski never avoided any air combat, and on repeated occasions, he led Hartmann against Soviet aircraft formations from a terribly disadvantageous position. The story behind Krupinski was that he had served under Hptm. Johannes Steinhoff's harsh command in 1941, and Steinhoff had threatened to shift Krupinski to a reconnaissance unit if he didn't shape up as a fighter pilot. Krupinski was a notoriously bad gunner, and he made up for that by attacking the enemy on every possible occasion. It was sheer luck that he managed to survive the war. Flying together with Krupinski meant air combat on almost every mission, and slowly Hartmann's victory tally began to rise. But both Hartmann and Krupinski got themselves shot down several times. This was during the air battle over Kuban - the northwestern corner of the Caucasus where the Germans had been squeezed by the Red Army during the winter of 1942/1943 - and the Soviet aviation opposed to JG 52 in this sector counted some of the best Soviet aces at that time. Notable are Aleksandr Pokryshkin, Grigoriy Rechkalov, and the Glinka brothers. JG 52's Helmut Lipfert later wrote the following words about the air battle over Kuban:
"Things did not go well. (.) There were few contacts with the enemy but many losses. And it was not just the beginners and young pilots who failed to return, but some of the old hands as well."
On 25 May 1943, when Hartmann was downed for the fifth time - this time when he was rammed by or collided with a LaGG-3 - he suffered a nervous breakdown, and was sent back to Germany to rest. Back home his father told him that he was convinced that Germany had no chance to win the war. Hartmann returned to the Eastern Front in June 1943 determined to prove that his father was wrong.
It was now that Hartmann's rise to success started. He had learned the lessons that he had been taught by Grislawski and Rossmann, and after 180 combat missions was able to master the Bf 109 magnificently. The Soviet novice pilots, who still suffered from shortened training schemes, stood no chance at all against Erich Hartmann. This was proved on the first day of the German Panzer attack at Kursk, on 5 July 1943. Erich Hartmann participated in four missions, and returned from each with a victory. Two days later, he bagged seven in four different engagements. On the last day of July, Hartmann's victory tally had reached 41.
The next three weeks, Erich Hartmann's name would become famous throughout and beyond JG 52. Between 1 and 20 August 1943, he carried out 54 combat sorties and shot down 49 Soviet aircraft. This remarkable victory row ended on August 20, when he was downed himself twice. On the second occasion, he went down in Soviet-held territory, and was captured, but managed to escape and made it back to his own lines.
On 2 September 1943, he was appointed Staffelkapitän of the famous 9. Karayastaffel/JG 52. Engaging a formation of La-5s and Airacobras on 20 September 1943, Hartmann achieved his 100th and 101st victories. But by that time, no less than fifty other German fighter pilots had already reached that total, and it was no longer even sufficient to be awarded with the Knight's Cross.
Erich Hartmann continued to shoot down Soviet aircraft--mainly La-5 and Airacobra fighters--at an amazing pace. He claimed three victories on 25 September, three on the 26th, two next day, a La-5 on 28 September, two fighters on the 29th, and three on the last day of September 1943. By that time his victory total stood at 115, achieved on 333 combat sorties.
The sudden steep rise in "Bubi" Hartmann's success rate created suspicion among several other fighter pilots. One of them was Lt. Fritz Obleser, a twenty-year-old Austrian who had joined JG 52 a couple of months after Hartmann. Obleser also had achieved a large number of victories, and he found it hard to believe that another relative newcomer could rise to such level in such a short space of time. So Obleser asked the Gruppenkommandeur if he was allowed to fly a mission with Hartmann, and he received permission to do so. Hartmann and Obleser took off from Novo-Zaporozhye at 1200 hours on 1 October 1943. As they returned fifty-five minutes later, Obleser admitted that his earlier suspicions toward Hartmann had been unfounded; he had personally witnessed how Hartmann had blown two La-5s out of the sky in a matter of minutes.
On 29 October 1943, Hartmann achieved his 148th confirmed victory against an Airacobra. Now he was finally awarded with the Knight's Cross, and was also given one month's badly needed home leave. After his return to his unit, Hartmann scored his 150th kill on 13 December 1943.
On 6 January 1944, Soviet armored forces with powerful air support attempted to break through the German lines to seize the forward airbase Malaya-Viska, where III./JG 52 was based. The Soviets managed to destroy nine Bf 109s, but failed to complete their task. While Stukas and ground-attack aircraft attacked the Soviet ground troops, the Bf 109 pilots fought against the Soviet air support. Fourteen Soviet planes were shot down in three days, including three Airacobras by Hartmann on 8 January-his victories Nos. 163 - 165.
On 26 February 1944, Erich Hartmann engaged Soviet fighter formations in three separate missions and claimed ten Airacobras shot down-including his 200th total victory at 1440 hrs, his 201st at 1445 hrs, and his 202d at 1450 hrs. Erich Hartmann's importance is displayed by the fact that 40 of the 76 Soviet aircraft that were claimed by III./JG 52 between 8 January and 28 February 1944 were shot down by him alone. For this, he was awarded with the Oak Leaves on 2 March 1944.
But while Hartmann met Hitler in East Prussia to receive his award, the pilots of JG 52 felt the increasing pressure from a steadily improved Soviet Air Force. III. Gruppe alone registered 24 losses through March 1944, and on 1 April 1944, the famous commander of II./JG 52, 250-victory ace Hauptmann Gerhard Barkhorn, was shot down by a Soviet fighter. Returning to his unit, Hartmann experienced the disheartening defeat in the Crimea, culminating with the humiliating evacuation of Sevastopol in early May 1944. However, despite mounting difficulties, Erich Hartmann was able to achieve a total of 172 victories in 1944 alone - including Nos. 250 on 4 June and Nos. 291 - 301 on 24 August.
The question may be risen whether these enormous claims are to be taken seriously. It is extremely difficult to check every single claim made by Erich Hartmann against Soviet loss statistics. But it is a fact that the German fighters claimed a total of 8,501 Soviet aircraft shot down in 1944, while Soviet loss statistics show that 10,400 Soviet aircraft were lost in combat during the same year.
Erich Hartmann survived the war with 352 confirmed victories, a higher total than any other fighter pilot in history. These victories were attained on 1,404 combat sorties, resulting in 825 aerial combats. Of his 352 victories, 260 were achieved against fighters - and seven against U.S. Fifteenth Air Force Mustangs.
After the war, Erich Hartmann spent ten years in Soviet captivity. He then served in the Bundesluftwaffe for some time. He passed away on 19 September 1993.
Me 109 G-6 "1 + ~" flown by Oberleutnant Erich Hartmann, 9./JG 52, Baranov airfield, Russia, August 1944.
2000.11.06, © WW II Ace Stories.