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The highest-scoring American ace in history was Richard Bong, who had 40 air victories flying P-38 Lightnings in the Pacific Theater during World War Two. The most famous of the  air aces, the "Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen, had 80 air victories during the First World War. But the highest-scoring air ace of all time remains largely unknown to most Americans, perhaps because he flew for the Nazis. Erich Hartmann, flying a Messerschmitt Bf-109 on the Russian Front in the Second World War, scored an incredible 352 air victories, making him the most successful fighter pilot in history.

Erich_Hartmann

Erich Hartmann

Erich Hartmann was born in 1922, in Wurttemburg, Germany. His father was a doctor who had served in the Kaiser's Army during the First World War, and his mother was a licensed airplane pilot who instilled a love for flying into Erich at an early age. By the time he was 14, Hartmann had already received his glider-pilot license and was teaching flight lessons to children in the Hitler Youth. He received his powered-aircraft license in 1939 and joined the Luftwaffe in 1940. In 1941, while studying "Advanced Aerial Gunnery", young Hartmann pulled a stunt by buzzing his airfield, and was confined to ground duty for a time. After completing his fighter training, he was assigned to JG-52, an air group on the Russian Front. Hartmann's squadron was under the command of Dieter Hrabak, a professional soldier who took a keen interest in training his pilots in the harsh reality of air warfare. Hrabak chafed at the ideological focus of the Nazi Party, and flatly told his new pilots that if they were fighting for National Socialism and the Fuehrer, they had best join the Waffen SS instead. Here in Russia, he told them, was a bitter war against a formidable opponent, and only clear-headed professional warriors would survive.

The newly-arrived Hartmann was assigned as wingman to Paule Rossman, an experienced pilot who would end the war with 93 air victories. Hartmann also got valuable advice and training from other pilots in JG-52, who included Alfred Grislawski (133 air victories),  Walter Krupinski (197 victories), Hermann Graf (202 victories), and Gerhard Barkhorn (301 victories). Hartmann flew his first combat mission on October 14, 1942. When the patrol spotted a group of Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 ground-attack planes, Hartmann broke all the rules of air warfare by breaking formation, leaving his wingman Rossman, and diving at top speed, alone, onto his target. His shots went wild, he nearly collided with the Russian, and he suddenly found himself surrounded by Soviet planes with rear gunners all shooting at him. Fortunately for him, he was able to duck into a cloud bank and escape, but on the way home he ran out of fuel and had to crash-land his Messerschmitt. The experience sobered him, and he turned from an exuberant impetuous flier into a disciplined and self-controlled hunter.

On November 5, 1942, Hartmann scored his first air victory, against an Il-2. His second victory, over a MiG-1 fighter, didn't come until three months later, on January 27, 1943.

Under the guidance of Rossman and Grizlawski, Hartmann began to perfect the basic tactic he would use throughout his career--"get in close". Hartman would carefully stalk his target and approach it unseen from behind and below, getting in closer and closer until, as he put it, "the enemy filled my whole windscreen, and I could not miss". Often, he would open fire at ranges of less than 100 feet. But his first air victory had also illustrated the danger of this technique--when the Il-2 broke apart, pieces of the wreckage hit Hartmann's own fighter and damaged the engine, forcing him to crash-land. Although Hartmann was never forced down by enemy fire, he would crash-land a total of 14 times during the war, either from mechanical failure or from damage caused by debris from his own victims. At one point, when he had almost 100 victories, he was hit by debris and was forced to land behind Soviet lines, where he was captured by Russian ground troops. Faking an internal injury, Hartmann was placed in a truck and taken towards a field hospital--where he escaped and made his way back to German lines.

Throughout 1943, Hartmann's score rose quickly. He reached "ace" status on March 23 by shooting down another Il-2, his 5th victory. By July his score was 42, including 7 Russian fighters in one day. In October, with a score of 148, he was awarded the Knight's Cross.

By this time, Hartmann had become equally famous (or infamous) to the Soviets, who recognized him by his radio callsign "Karaya-1", and also from the black tulip-petal pattern painted on the nose of his airplane. A bounty of 10,000 rubles was placed on Hartmann's head, but most Soviet pilots who recognized his aircraft preferred to run away instead (they called him "The Black Devil"). Hartmann, who was now training student pilots of his own, responded to this by placing new inexperienced pilots in his fighter, safeguarding them from attack.

By May 1944, Hartmann had 202 confirmed victories, and was ordered, along with three other fellow pilots, to Germany to be awarded new medals personally by Hitler. The pilots all showed up for the ceremony drunk on cognac. On May 21, Hartmann encountered his first American airplanes, during a bomber raid over Romania, and shot down one of the escorting P-51 Mustangs. By June 1944, Hartmann was awarded the "Swords" decoration for his Knight's Cross. When he arrived in Berlin to receive his medal, he was told that he would have to surrender his sidearm before entering the room with Hitler (this was just after the July 20 assassination attempt). Hartmann refused, saying that he would decline to accept the medal if he was not trusted. He received his decoration with his pistol on his hip.

In August 1944 alone, Hartmann scored another 35 victories, including 8 on August 23. The following day he scored 11 more, bringing his total to 301 and making him the first fighter ace in history to score 300 victories (only one other pilot, Gerhard Barkhorn, would equal that feat). The very next day he was ordered to Berlin to receive the "Diamonds" decoration from Hitler--and was then banned from combat flight. He was assigned instead to training for the Me-262 jet fighter.

As Germany grew more desperate for experienced pilots, however, Hartmann's combat status was resumed. He was asked by German fighter commander Gen. Adolf Galland to join a special all-aces Me-262 squadron that was defending Berlin, but Hartmann declined, saying he wanted to return to his old Bf-109 unit. On April 17, 1945, Hartmann shot down a Soviet Yak-9 fighter, making him the only ace in history to reach 350 victories. Hartmann's last air victory, another Yak-9, came at nine in the morning on the day Germany surrendered--April 8, 1945. It was his 352nd victory.

Hartmann and his unit surrendered to American troops, but a provision in the Yalta agreement specified that German units that had fought primarily on the Eastern Front were to be surrendered to the Soviets--the Americans therefore turned Hartmann over to the Russians, where he was interred in POW camps until finally being repatriated to West Germany in 1955. Hartmann became an officer in the new West German Air Force and commanded Germany's first all-jet F-86 unit, the JG-71 "Richthofen", until a disagreement with his superiors over the safety of the new F-104 Starfighter (Hartmann thought the plane was a death-trap for the pilot) led to his retirement in 1970. He continued as a private flight instructor, and sometimes flew aerobatic shows with his fellow ace Adolf Galland.

Hartmann died in September 1993 at age 71.

Of the top-scoring air aces in World War Two, all of them were German. Over 100 different Luftwaffe pilots had a score of 100 or more air victories; 15 Germans scored over 200 victories, and 2 aces (Hartmann and Barkhorn) had over 300. The nearest competitors were Finnish pilot Ilmari Juutilainen (who was flying for the Axis against the Russians) with 94 victories, and Japanese Zero ace Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, with 87 victories against the Americans. The highest-scoring Allied pilot was Soviet ace Ivan Kozhedub with 62 victories (he later shot down two American P-51s over Korea).

Why did the Germans score so much higher than their Allied counterparts? Much of the reason is the disparity between the two air forces.  The Soviets were flying early Lavochkin, MiG, Yakovlev, and American-made Lend-Lease P-39 fighters, while the German aces flew the Messerschmitt Bf-109 and the Focke-Wulfe 190, which far outclassed the Soviet aircraft. The Russian pilots were also poorly-trained and poorly-equipped, unlike the superbly-experienced Germans.

American and British pilots scored relatively low numbers because they only flew for a limited number of combat tours, then were rotated out for PR tours or to train new pilots. The Germans, on the other hand, were in for the duration, and they flew until they were killed, captured, or the war ended.

Originally posted to Kossack Air Force on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 01:44 PM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.

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Comment Preferences

  •  F-104 Starfighter (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GAS, blueyedace2, RiveroftheWest

    Looks like it killed over a 100 German pilots and was grounded too.

    Shall we go? Yes, let's go.

    by whenwego on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 02:19:01 PM PST

    •  the entire "century series" was pretty famous for (4+ / 0-)

      killing pilots at a dreadful rate . . .

      In the end, reality always wins.

      by Lenny Flank on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 02:37:57 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  IIRC, One of the Major Safety Record Factors ... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      whenwego, ruleoflaw

      for the Germans was their training emphasis on use of the aircraft in a CAS role in the mountains of Europe, for which it was not well-suited.

      "A famous person once said, 'You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.' But as I once said, "If you don't teach them to read, you can fool them whenever you like." – Max Headroom

      by midnight lurker on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 03:02:46 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  F-104 Starfighter - the song! (4+ / 0-)


      The United States for All Americans

      by TakeSake on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 03:27:48 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  The song refers to Joachim von Hassel (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest, TakeSake

        Very sad story.

        Joachim von Hassel was a German Air Force pilot who would die in the crash of his F-104G on March 11 1970, aged 29.

        At the same time Erich Hartmann was being sidetracked and finally pushed into retirement over his opposition to the F-104, the same battle was raging upstairs.

        Lt Gen Werner Panitzki, the top commander of the German Air Force, was absolutely opposed to the continued operation of the F-104 and was not shy to tell what he thought about the plane, about the lack of progress in improving its safety and, more embarrassing, about how such an immature plane had come to be procured. And he was finally 'resigned' on August 25 1966 for his failure to toe the government line on the F-104.

        The man who fired Panitzki was Kai-Uwe von Hassel, German minister of defense 1963-1966, the father of Joachim von Hassel.

        I deal in facts. My friends are few but fast.

        by Farugia on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 10:37:54 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  They looked cool though (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, TakeSake

      We had a 4-ship of German F-104s visit our base once.

      They look especially sinister in German markings. It looks like something they'd have invented if the war had gone on a couple more years.

      If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

      by Major Kong on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 04:16:29 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  We'll not see their like again. n/t (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueyedace2, schumann, RiveroftheWest

    Rivers are horses and kayaks are their saddles

    by River Rover on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 02:24:34 PM PST

    •  indeed, it may very well be that the era of manned (5+ / 0-)

      fighter combat is itself coming to an end.

      Future airwars may be fought by people sitting at desks with joysticks. (If someone behind a desk uses a joystick to shoot down five enemy unmanned drones flown by someone else behind a desk, does that make him or her an "ace" . . . ?)

      In the end, reality always wins.

      by Lenny Flank on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 02:30:12 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Drone vs drone by remote? (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        River Rover, RiveroftheWest, markdd

        Not gonna happen very often.

        A country that has the money and technology for combat drones is also a country that can afford the means to royally mess with the communications of any other country.

        So a drone country vs. drone country war will most likely start with the drone fleets of both countries grounded and a mad scramble to get those old, obsolete manned planes in the scrapyard back into flying condition.

        Now, if a drone can really fly and fight by itself, that's a different story. But then, I guess, the 'ace' will have go to the software engineers...

        Dreadful, isn't it :-)

        I deal in facts. My friends are few but fast.

        by Farugia on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 08:36:38 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  The more things change, the more they stay (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest, Farugia

          the same.  The experts have declared the age of air to air combat to be over ever since the end of WWI.

          “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

          by markdd on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 11:01:46 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Anything autonomous to do that (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest, Farugia

          would rely heavily on data from sensors.

          If you had the capability to jam/spoof communications you might very well do the same to its sensors.

          It can't fight you if it's blind.

          If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

          by Major Kong on Fri Feb 07, 2014 at 12:24:58 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  For sensors, man and robot are in the same boat (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            RiveroftheWest

            In a conflict heavy on jamming, radars will be mostly useless*.

            But it does not affect optical sensing. And if a pilot can fly and fight using visual and IRST, a sufficiently advanced robot can do the same.

            * But then, most airborne radars are mostly useless in air-to-air combat, or even self-defeating if the enemy knows enough about it to fine-tune its RWRs to its characteristics.

            I deal in facts. My friends are few but fast.

            by Farugia on Fri Feb 07, 2014 at 03:17:51 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Not sure why you'd bother (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              RiveroftheWest, Farugia

              Any sufficiently advanced robotic fighter pilot with optical sensing capability equal to the good old "Mark One Eyeball" would probably cost more than just training a human to do it.

              If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

              by Major Kong on Fri Feb 07, 2014 at 04:09:45 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Things have moved on since the EVS (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                RiveroftheWest

                A lot.

                Actually, optoelectronic is nearing what the first active electronically scanned arrays were for radars.

                What makes beasts like the AVQ-22 and AAQ-6 horrendously expensive (and unreliable?) are the pretty complex zoom optics and all the electromechanical parts for pointing, image stabilization, field-of-view selection, etc.

                But sensor resolutions and image processors are getting to the point where it's possible to replace all that stuff by a set of overlapping fixed focal cameras - a bit like the composite eye of a fly - with the all motion compensation and image reconstruction performed in real time by DSPs. Not a single moving part needed.

                I deal in facts. My friends are few but fast.

                by Farugia on Fri Feb 07, 2014 at 08:39:01 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

  •  oh, I have to make a correction . . . (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueyedace2, RiveroftheWest
    The highest-scoring Allied pilot was Soviet ace Ivan Kozhedub with 62 victories (he later shot down two American P-51s over Korea).
    Although Kozhedub was, like many other WW2 vets, posted to Korea, he did not fly any combat missions there--he commanded a squadron instead. The two P-51 victories supposedly happened when he inadvertently came upon a flight of American B-17s over Germany and was attacked by the P-51 escorts who mistook him for a German plane--and in self-defense he shot down two of the Mustangs. There doesn't seem to be any confirmation for any of this incident, though, and that is why most authorities don't include them in his 62-victory total.

    In the end, reality always wins.

    by Lenny Flank on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 02:35:45 PM PST

  •  looking at Hartmann's photo, one can see why (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueyedace2, RiveroftheWest

    his nickname was "Bubi"--"The Little Boy".  He looks like a damn kid. And of course he was only in his early 20's.

    In the end, reality always wins.

    by Lenny Flank on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 02:36:56 PM PST

  •  Read about Hartmann in the Epic of Flight series.. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ruleoflaw, RiveroftheWest

    years ago.The air war over Europe was brutal and to my estimation overlooked. The book series was well done and probable found cheap nowadays. Good Diary as always!!!

    America, We blow stuff up!!

    by IndyinDelaware on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 03:17:57 PM PST

  •  I might question this statement (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, markdd
    The Soviets were flying early Lavochkin, MiG, Yakovlev, and American-made Lend-Lease P-39 fighters, while the German aces flew the Messerschmitt Bf-109 and the Focke-Wulfe 190, which far outclassed the Soviet aircraft.
    Early on, yes but the later Soviet fighters were at least a match than the '109. The Yak-3 and Yak-9 were quite good as were the Lagg-5 and Lagg-7.

    The Yak-3 was so successful that German pilots were ordered to "avoid combat below five thousand metres with Yakovlev fighters lacking an oil cooler intake beneath the nose!"

    Even the much maligned P-39 was pretty decent at low to medium altitudes. It lacked a supercharger but that wasn't a real problem on the Eastern front because most combat took place at lower altitudes.

    If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

    by Major Kong on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 04:13:27 PM PST

  •  Very informative diary, LF -- thank you! n/t (0+ / 0-)
  •  You're right both Germany and Japan (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, Major Kong

    only had a limited supply of pilots and flew them to exhaustion.  German pilots, like the RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain, had the luxury of bailing out of damaged planes over friendly territory.  I think there's at least one tale of a German pilot (Hartman?) getting shot down in the morning walking back to base and had a new plane as was back in the air that afternoon.

    “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

    by markdd on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 11:07:26 PM PST

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