The highest scoring ace of all time was the great German Luftwaffe experte Erich Hartmann with 352 aerial kills. Flying Bf 109s (Me-109s) against the overmatched Soviet MiGs and Yaks for almost three years, he accumulated his unrivalled score. Hartmann claimed, that of all his accomplishments, he was proudest of the fact that he never lost a wingman. He is also reputed to have said. "Get close .. when he fills the entire windscreen ... then you can't possibly miss."
Hartmann was born in 1922, in Weissach, Wurttemberg. At age 19 (1941), he joined the Luftwaffe and was posted to Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52) on the Eastern Front in October, 1942. He scored his first kill in November, and only achieved his second three months later. In the first half of 1943, he worked out some of the tactics which would prove so successful later on. If he was attacked from behind, he would send his wingman down low and out in front. Then he would get behind the enemy and fire a short, quick accurate burst, waiting "until the enemy aircraft filled the windscreen." He would normally content himself with one victory; he was willing to wait for another day. His natural talents began to tell: excellent eyesight, lightning reflexes, an aggressive spirit, and an ability to stay cool while in combat.
As JG 52 retreated along with German ground forces in 1943, Hartmann's score began to mount. The great Kursk offensive, Operation Zitadelle, began on July 5. The Luftwaffe planned to screen the Wehrmacht's panzers from the Soviet Il-2 Sturmoviks, armored tank-busting aircraft, armed with twin 37mm cannon. Hartmann's Staffel 7 of JG 52 moved up to Ugrim, only 14 kilometers behind the front. As the Panther and Tiger tanks moved up, Junkers Ju.52 transports flew in supplies. On the morning of the 5th, four of Staffel 7's pilots did not return, apparently their compasses misled them, due to extraordinary iron ore deposits in the area. Hartmann was promoted to Staffelkapitan on the spot. The offensive ground forward slowly on the 6th and 7th; obviously the Russians had dug in and prepared defensive lines in depth.
On the morning of July 7, 1943, sun rose over Ugrim in the northern Ukraine about 3AM. Staffel 7's Me.109 G10's lay scattered around, in the deep grass of the Ugrim airfield. Hartmann's personal plane, decorated with a large Roman numeral 'I' and the name Usch in a red heart. (Usch Paetch was his fiancee, whom he wrote to daily.) In the comfortable summer weather, the pilots slept in tents. On waking, Hartmann dressed in a gray shirt, blue-gray trousers, and gray shoes. He washed up and shaved in a small stream and ate breakfast, two eggs, cooked by a couple of Russian girls. He and the other three pilots in his Schwarm were assigned to cover an F.W.189 on a dawn reconnaissance mission.
Erich joked with his crew chief, 'Bimel' Merten, and strapped himself into the cockpit. At 3:04, the recon plane started and Hartmann set Messerschmitt's flaps and checked the fuel while Merten cranked the starter. The DB 605's twelve cylinders coughed, belched smoke, and then caught smoothly. His three comrades followed him to the take-off spot. He gunned the engine while stomping on the brakes. When he released them, his 109 shot forward and quickly reached 160 km/hour. He gently pulled back on the stick and was airborne; the other three followed him closely. They all banked left as they went through post-take-off routines: retract landing gear, close radiator flaps, ease back on the throttle, and check gauges, guns, and gunsight.
They climbed to 1300 meters as they flew northeast and then swung southward, with the Fw 189 in view. The flight proceeded uneventfully and the recon plane headed for Ugrim. Hartmann's radio crackled with a report from Adler, the German forward spotting post; a group of ten to twenty Russian planes were headed west. Hartmann throttled up a bit, gained altitude, and turned his Schwarm toward the east without sighting anything for several minutes.
Soon enough, many large Il-2's came into view. With its armor and rear gunner, the Sturmovik was a tough target. With the Sturmoviks closing head-on, Hartmann unhesitatingly ordered an attack. He dived down below them, picking up airspeed, then banked around and came up behind and beneath them, aiming for his target's vulnerable ventral oil radiator. The Il-2's flew straight on.
Hartmann's Bf 109 roared along, doing over 400 MPH; Hartmann streaked into a Sturmovik's blind spot. At 200 yards, its wingspan filled his gunsight ring; still he closed in to 150, then 100 yards before firing. He briefly triggered his 20mm cannon and his two 12mm machine guns, for about one and a half seconds, before his speed carried him in front of them. As other Bf 109s struck their targets, Hartmann glanced back and saw blue flames and black sooty smoke streaming from the Sturmovik's radiator. His twenty-second victory of the war.
Under the deadly attack of the Messerschmitts, the formation of Russian airplanes began to break up. Having regained altitude, Hartmann again zoomed down below the tail of an Il-2. He checked his own rear and stabilized his aircraft. This Russian pilot, alerted to the danger, spotted him and turned sharply to evade. The young blond ace matched the turn and instantly estimated the lead needed for a deflection shot. At 150 meters, he opened fire, and his bullets tore into the side of the Russian tank-buster. More blue flame and black smoke poured from his twenty-third victim's oil radiator.
As the remaining scattered Russian planes fled eastward, Hartmann radioed his Staffel to return to Ugrim. About 4AM, as they approached the field, Hartmann waggled his wings twice, indicating his two victories. On landing, Mertem and other ground crew gathered around him, offering congratulations. Hartmann walked to the operations tent to file his Gefechtsbericht, his after-action report. Early reports from the Adler posts already showed more Russian air activity than on the 5th or 6th. Four pilots sat in their planes, ready to take-off in less than a minute. Hartmann soon fell asleep by his own machine. But only briefly.
By 5:50, he was back in the air, leading a flight of 109s on a frei chase, and he soon found more Il-2s, escorted by fighters. The Messerchmitts attacked successfully, with Hartmann downing another Il-2 and an LaGG-3 fighter. Within an hour, he was back on the ground, with four victories for the day.
Late that afternoon, he led the Staffel up again, to the northeast. They found a group of Soviet LaGG-3 fighters, which they engaged in a sprawling dogfight. It was over quickly and Hartmann had shot down three enemy fighters, making it seven for the day, his largest score so far.
He reached 50 by August of 1943. Within the month, he had reached 80, and was promoted to lead 9./JG52. Earlier in the war, 25 or 50 victories would have earned a German fighter pilot the Knight's Cross. By late 1943, Hartmann had to down 148 before he earned his Knight's Cross. By March 2, 1944, he had reached a total of 202, earning him the Oak Leaves. He was the fourth Luftwaffe fighter pilot to reach 250, the first to reach 300, and the only one to reach 350.
He was awarded the Third Reich's highest regularly awarded military decoration: The Knight's Cross to the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. With apologies to any German readers of this page, I must say that only the Germans could come up with a name like that: "Das Ritterkreuz zum Eisernen Kreuz mit Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillianten".
To be accurate, the highest military decoration was "The Grand Cross to the Iron Cross." It was only awarded once to Hermann Göring. The second highest military decoration was "The Knight's Cross to the Iron Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds" and was also awarded only once to the Stuka ace Hans-Ulrich Rudel. Thus, Hartmann's medal, "The Knight's Cross to the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds," was, to be precise, the third highest German military decoration through WW2, was awarded to 27 soldiers, 12 of whom were Luftwaffe pilots.
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