There can’t be many people that have never heard of the famous Manfred Von Richthofen (The Red Baron), the German ace who shot down 80 planes in World War I. In World War II, however, a German pilot by the name of Erich Hartmann shot down 352 planes. By contrast, the nearest German pilot in that war had around 300 kills, the nearest non-German pilot had 94 kills, and the nearest Allied pilot had around 65 kills. Surprisingly he survived the war as well as 10 years of hard labor in Siberia, dying on December 20, 1993.
The Whole Bushel
Born on April 19, 1922, Erich was taught how to fly gliders by his mother who was one of Germany’s first female glider pilots. Unsurprisingly, he joined the Luftwaffe in 1941 and while undergoing training, he pulled a stunt that earned him three months of confinement and saved his life. The next time he was scheduled to fly the plane, it crashed and killed the new pilot.
After being posted to the unit JG 52 on the Eastern front in October 1942, he scored his first kill—or victory—in November of that year and only shot down another plane three months later. Not the best of starts for an ace.
Under the guidance of his commander and friend Dieter Hrabak, Erich developed his skills as a pilot quickly; he would wait behind the aircraft so as not to give away his presence “until the enemy aircraft filled the windscreen.” As a result, he could hardly miss. The greatest danger of his strategy was the possibility of flying into debris from the destroyed plane. His skill was evident in his record: 352 kills, zero losses (never shot down himself). He was only forced to land due to engine trouble or damage sustained from debris from aircraft he shot down. During one such forced landing, he was taken prisoner by Soviet soldiers, but managed to escape after faking an injury.
Like most pilots, Erich had a personal emblem painted on the side of his plane. The Black Tulip quickly became feared by Russian pilots, who would avoid his plane due to his formidable reputation. Unsurprisingly, this led to a drop in his victories, but he soon switched to a plane painted like the rest of his unit to avoid recognition. (That wasn’t the end of the emblem; new pilots flew in a plane with it so they could get used to combat without being attacked.)
Erich continued flying until literally the last days of the war. He flew his last patrol over Czechoslovakia on May 8, 1945 (the day the war ended), and it was on that patrol he scored his last victory, bringing his total to a staggering 352. He was one of just 27 Germans to win Germany’s highest award (the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds), meeting Hitler to receive it. Despite his many medals, it’s reported that he was most proud of never losing a wingman.
Erich and his unit surrendered to American forces, but they were handed over to the Russians. Where he was held, he witnessed mass rape of German civilians by Russian troops, which was only stopped by order of a Russian general. Sentenced to 50 years hard labor for the “destruction of valuable planes” among other charges, he was sent to a work camp in Siberia. Despite pressure from the Russians, he didn’t join the East German air force, even though they threatened to kidnap and kill his wife and daughter.
He finally returned to West Germany in 1955 (serving only 10 of the punitive 50 years of his sentence) to be reunited with his wife and daughter and joined the newly formed West German Luftwaffe in 1956, but got into trouble with his superiors after strongly opposing the introduction of the new F-104 fighter jet which he felt was badly flawed. After being forced into early retirement, he continued to fly in air clubs and acrobatic teams.
Erich died on December 20, 1993, aged 71.