To his German countrymen, he was known as “the Blond Knight of Germany.” His Soviet enemies referred to him as “the Black Devil of the South.”

German fighter pilot Erich Alfred “Bubi” Hartmann flew approximately 1,456 missions during World War II. He is said to have engaged in aerial combat 825 separate times. He is credited with shooting down 350 Soviet planes and two American planes while serving with the Luftwaffe. In all those missions, Hartmann was never shot down once, though he did crash-land 14 times due to damage or mechanical issues.

Hartmann’s early days

Hartmann was born in April 1921 in Weissach, Wurttemberg. He spent his early years in China, where his father practiced medicine. Hartmann returned to Germany in 1928 and obtained his civilian pilot’s license in 1939. He joined the Luftwaffe in October 1940 and received his military pilot’s license at the Luftkriegsschule II in August 1941. His first active military posting was to Jagdgeschwader 52 on the Eastern Front in October 1942, during World War II. He flew a Messerschmitt Bf 10g.

Wikipedia

First mission, first kill, and last victory

Hartmann’s first flight mission was inauspicious – at best. In a 1993 interview with MIGFLUG, he described it this way:

We were at 12,000 feet and the enemy was far below us. I could see nothing but followed Rossmann down, then we came on them. I knew that I had to get my first kill, so I went full throttle and left Rossmann to shoot at a plane. My shots missed and I almost collided into him and had to pull up. Suddenly I was surrounded by the Soviets and I headed for low cloud cover to escape. All along Rossmann kept talking to me, and I had a low fuel warning. Then the engine went dead and I bellied in,  destroying my fighter. I knew I was in trouble.

Hartmann expected to be thrown out of the Luftwaffe for breaking fighter pilots’ cardinal rules. But that didn’t happen. Instead, he was sentenced to working with ground crews for three days.

Hartmann’s first kill occurred on November 5, 1942. He shot down a Shturmovik IL-2. That was the day of Hartmann’s first kill, and his second forced landing. He was forced to land due to damage from flying into the debris following his kill. What did he learn? To get in close, shoot, then break away immediately. 

Hartmann’s final aerial victory was accomplished at mid-day on May 8, 1945, on the very day of Germany’s surrender. During his military career, Hartmann won the following decorations: Front Flying Clasp of the Luftwaffe; Pilot/Observer Badge in Gold with Diamonds; Iron Cross (1st and 2nd Class); Honour Goblet of the Luftwaffe; German Cross in Gold; and Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.

After Germany’s surrender

To his German countrymen, he was known as “the Blond Knight of Germany.” His Soviet enemies referred to him as “the Black Devil of the South.”

Hartmann and all of Jagdgeschwader 52 surrendered to the American Army; everyone was turned over to the Soviet Union’s Red Army. He was convicted of war crimes charges and ultimately sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment. Hartmann spent over ten years in Soviet prison camps and gulags until his release in 1955.

How does Hartmann’s record of 352 kills stand up? In World War II, top American ace Maj. Richard Bong is reported to have shot down 40 enemy planes. Top British ace James E. Johnson of the Royal Air Force is said to have shot down 38 German aircraft in World War II. What about World War I? Germany’s legendary Red Baron reportedly shot down 80 enemy aircraft, while U.S. pilot Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker is credited with 26 kills.

No wonder, then, that he has been placed first on the Best fighter pilots of all time list. This video includes comments about aerial combat by the Blond Knight and Black Devil.

Hartmann joined West Germany’s Air Force in 1956, where he was the first Geschwaderkommodore of Jagdgeschwader 71. The Los Angeles Times reports that he was instrumental in establishing the new German air force under NATO. He also “taught the pilots tactics and had a thing or two to say about dealing with the Soviets….” Hartmann retired in 1970, then became a civilian flight instructor.

In a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hartmann said: “I hope nobody ever beats my record. I hope nobody ever has to beat my record.” Hartmann died at age 71 in September 1993.

A deeper dive – related reading from the 101:

The incredible story of bomber pilot Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. | History 101

The United States also had heroes of aerial combat, including this bomber pilot with a very familiar family tree

Battle of the Bulge: WWII’s last big fight | History 101

World War II had several pivotal battles on many fronts, including this one