The Second World War’s highest scoring fighter pilot, credited with an astonishing number of 352 kills was a German pilot Erich Hartmann. Although he flew on the Eastern Front, where conditions were so much different from the West, his achievement remains truly amazing. Hartmann’s record looks even more impressive if we compare it to the highest-scoring Allied pilots.
Squadron Leader Marmaduke Thomas St John Pattle, a South African flying for the R.A.F. was the highest scoring Royal Air Force pilot, having 41 victories. U.S.A.A.F’s highest scoring air ace was Major Richard Ira Bong, flying in the Far East, also being credited with at least 40 Japanese aircraft shot down.
Erich Hartmann was flying on the Eastern Front, where the large number of Soviet planes was an important factor. In most cases the Luftwaffe pilots did not have to fly at high altitudes, as the style of flying on the Eastern Front was so different from the Western and they were concentrating on intercepting Soviet planes. The German pilots possessed a tactical advantage, quite similar to the R.A.F.’s during the Battle of Britain, where the Allied pilots could decide when to attack approaching planes and how to attack. Also it should be noted, that German aircraft were faster than the Russian ones. As their main mission was intercepting enemy formations they were able to fly several missions each day. This provided German pilots with a lot of opportunities to kill, but on the other hand, the lack of rest and constant stress meant they sooner or later began to feel the strain and the effects of fatigue.
Erich Hartmann was born in 1922 in Weissach, Württemberg. He had joined the Luftwaffe in 1941 and he was sent to the Eastern Front a year later as a young 20 year old pilot. His early achievements were reasonable, but far from exceptional.
Erich Hartmann shot down his first victim in October 1942. His record grew systematically, right to the end of the war. He scored his 352nd victory when the enemy pilot was doing a victory roll on the final day of the war.
Erich Hartmann was the best-scoring air ace. There were over 100 German pilots credited with shooting down over 100 enemy planes. Most of them flew missions on the Soviet front, but there were also air aces who achieved more than 100 victories on the Western Front, with the best known ones being Marseille, Bar and Galland.
Many of the German pilots preferred to stay over their own lines to avoid being captured by the Soviets in case of being shot down. If they were over German controlled territory they were able to return to their units within hours of bailing out.
Hartmann had to bail out several times. Once, the Soviets managed to capture him. While being escorted in a truck, he struck the escort, jumped from the truck and ran away. He managed to avoid the chase and he returned to his unit.
He received many awards and even Adolf Hitler himself decorated Hartmann with the swords and diamonds to the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. He was nicknamed “Bubi” by his friends but the Soviets called him “The Black Devil”.
The main question is, how would Eastern Front pilots perform on the Western Front? They wouldn`t fly so often, and consequently, they wouldn`t shoot as many planes, but there is evidence, that Hartmann would perform probably as well as on the Soviet front. When he was moved, temporarily, to Romania in 1944, he shot down 5 American P51 Mustangs, while flying his favourite 109.
There was also the experience of a Major Joachim Müncheberg, who had more than 100 kills on the Western Front, but when he was transferred to Eastern Front in 1942, he was shot down 3 times within just a few weeks.
It was definitely not easy for a novice pilot on the Eastern Front, but for the experts there were plenty of opportunities to kill.
In May 1945 Hartmann surrendered to the U.S. Forces in Czechoslovakia. He did not want to surrender to the Soviets, but the Americans turned him over to the Red Army. For the Russians he was a criminal and the Communist court sentenced him to prison.
He was released after 10 years and after his release he joined the new Luftwaffe. He later became Oberstleutnant, an equivalent to Wing Commander and a jet instructor in the German Air Force.
Erich Hartmann died at the age of 71, on 20th September 1993. Four years later, in 1997 the government of the Russian Federation officially admitted that his convictions for war crimes was unlawful.