A Heart to Heart with Hartmann

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Before I get involved in this article, I would like to wish all of the Alert 5 readers out there around the globe a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. My love for military aviation is probably nearly as old as I am. In my brief 28 years on this planet, I’ve grown up around military aviation. My father was a helicopter pilot in the United States Army so from a very early age I was exposed to one of mankind’s greatest achievements: flight. At the time of my birth, my father was assigned to an Army airfield outside of Nuremberg, Germany. His mission: conduct airborne surveillance and reconnaissance missions of communist troop movements along the border of West Germany with neighboring East Germany and Czechoslovakia. He was a ‘Redcatcher’, one of thousands of American military personnel dedicated to providing an armed deterrence against Soviet aggression in western Europe during the Cold War. His many encounters with his communist counterparts ‘shadowing’ on another alon g the border region are countless. I can always attribute to him providing me with enough aviation related materials ranging from books to model airplanes and when I was two; my first bomber jacket with the sheepskin lining. I wore that jacket everywhere.

Growing up a military child in Germany, there were so many things that at the time I never really thought too much into in my childhood however in adulthood I truly recognize their significance. Nuremberg had been the seat of the Nazi Party’s political rallies during the 1930s and had be the target of extensive bombing operations by the United States Army Air Force and the Royal Air Force during World War II. The headquarters of the unit my father was assigned to had originally been constructed as an SS barracks, which had been captured relatively intact as the US Army pushed through Germany in 1945. The forested area around the airfield he was assigned to had been an ammunition storage point as well as a launch site for the infamous V-2 rockets against positions in England as well. Lastly, one that I had learned of through my father as a child, a nearby lake which was actually very shallow was indeed a deception. Flooded during the day, the area appeared to be a lake to allied reconnaissance flights, however by nightfall it was drained and utilized by the German Luftwaffe to fly night fighters against roving allied patrols in a last ditch effort to defend Adolf Hitler’s crumbling thousand year Reich.

Now here we were some forty years after the end of the war which still captivated the minds of millions worldwide with so much to learn and experience. As I got older and started reading and researching into Germany and with the discovery of Germany’s roll in the Second World War, that was when I first learned of the man known as “Bubi”. Although this man had flown for the Germans as a bad guy, I viewed his story as a tale of redemption and courage. Bubi held the distinction of being the highest scoring fighter ace in military history, and was seen as both a hero during and after the war. The link that brought me to further interest in this character Bubi, was the fact that beside being a military aviator he had combated with and survived the fight against the Soviets; the same opponents that my father had conducted flights to monitor some forty years laters.

Bubi’s real name was Erich Alfred Hartmann and he was born 19 April 1922 to Doctor Alfred Erich Hartmann and his wife Elisabeth Wilhelmine Machtholf in Weissach, Württemberg. With the crippling Great Depression following the Armistice of World War I gripping Germany exceptionally hard, the Hartmann family was forced to find work in China where young Erich would grow up until his family was forced to return to an unstable Germany following the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War in 1928. He would begin his studies at the Volkschule in Weil im Schönbuch from April 1928 to April 1932, the Gymnasium in Böblingen from April 1932 to April 1936,  the National Political Institutes of Education in Rottweil from April 1936 to April 1937, and finally the Gymnasium in Korntal from April 1937 until April 1940, from which he graduated with his Abitur. It was at Korntal that he would meet the future Mrs. Hartmann, Ursula “Usch” Paetsch. Hartmann’s flying career would begin in gliders when he was taught to fly by his mother who was a leading glider pilot in Germany at the time. The glider program was actually run by the fledgling German Luftwaffe and had been heavily supported by the Nazi regime following their ascent to power in 1933. By 1937, Hartmann’s mother had helped organize a glider school and by the age of 14, young Erich became a certified instructor before progressing to gain his pilot’s license for powered aircraft in 1939.

He joined the German Luftwaffe in 1940 and was assigned to the 10th Flying Regiment based at Neukuhren located in the present day Kaliningrad Enclave. On 1 March 1941, Hartmann was transferred to Berlin-Gatow airbase where he would remain in pilot training until October 1941. Following his flight training in Berlin, he progressed to advanced flight training at Lachen-Speyerdorf on 1 November 1941 where he learned aerial maneuvery and gunnery techniques. Shortly after the completion of these courses he would learn to fly the machine which would bring him a claim to fame: the Messerschmitt Me-109.  Hartmann’s time as a trainee was marked by highs and lows which included an incident to which he would learn a valuable life lesson. On 31 March 1942, during a practice gunnery flight, he ignored unit protocol and performed unauthorized  aerobatic maneuvers in his Me-109 over the Zerbst airfield which was rewarded with a three month period of confinement to quarters with the loss of ⅔ of his pay in fines. Hartmann later recalled that the incident saved his life:

 “That week confined to my room actually saved my life. I had been scheduled to go up on a gunnery flight the afternoon that I was confined. My roommate took the flight instead of me, in an aircraft I had been scheduled to fly. Shortly after he took off, while on his way to the gunnery range, he developed engine trouble and had to crash-land near the Hindenburg-Kattowitz railroad. He was killed in the crash.”

 Afterward, Hartmann practiced diligently and adopted a new creed which he passed on to other young pilots: “Fly with your head, not with your muscles.” His newly refocused skill and attention to detail allowed him to accomplish an extraordinary feat when during a gunnery practice session in June 1942, he hit a target drone with 24 of the authorized 50 rounds of machine gun fire, a considered impossibly difficult to achieve. His training had qualified him to fly 17 different types of powered aircraft, and, following his graduation, he was assigned on 21 August 1942 to Ergänzungs-Jagdgruppe Ost (Fighter Supply Group, East) in Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, where he remained until 10 October 1942.

As the clouds of war drew closer for Hartmann, another Hartmann; Erich’s younger brother Alfred Hartmann too joined the German Luftwaffe eager to answer the call of the Fatherland. Where Erich would serve as a pilot of the Messerschmitt Me-109, Alfred would be assigned as a gunner as part of the crew of the infamous Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber where he would see service in North Africa in 1942. Alfred would be shot down and captured by British forces in North Africa where he would remain as a prisoner of war for the remaining four years of the war. October of 1942 saw the remaining Hartmann brother assigned to Jagdgeschwader 52 at an airfield in Maykop, Russia as part of the ongoing Operation Barbarossa campaign in the Soviet Union. Hartmann’s entry into the war was not initially in the pilot’s seat of the Me-109 to which he trained, but rather in the pilot’s seat of the Ju-87 Stuka; the same aircraft his brother had been a crewmember of. Hartmann and other new rookie pilots were tasked with ferrying the Stukas from Maykop to Mariupol. He would be assigned to III./JG 52,  led by Gruppenkommandeur Major Hubertus von Bonin, and placed under the experienced leadership of Oberfeldwebel Edmund “Paule” Roßmann, where he would fly alongside experienced pilots such as Alfred Grislawski, Hans Dammers and Josef Zwernemann. After a few days of intensive mock combats and practice flights, Grislawski drew to the conclusion that, although Hartmann had much to learn regarding aerial combat tactics, he was indeed a talented pilot. It would be from Paule Roßmann that Hartmann would learn the fundamentals of the surprise attack, a tactic that led to his famed “See – Decide – Attack – Break” style of aerial combat.

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Hartmann would take to the air and fly his first combat mission on 14 October 1942, serving in capacity as Roßmann’s wingman. When the pair encountered a flight of 10 Soviet aircraft below, Hartmann became obsessed by the idea of scoring his first aerial victory and proceeded to open full throttle on his aircraft a move which soon separated him from his wingman; Roßmann. Hartmann engaged in a dogfight with an enemy fighter, but failed to score any hits and nearly lost his life when  he barely escaped a midair collision with his foe. Following the failed attempt at gaining his first kill, Hartmann ran for cover in a low cloud bank and his mission ended abruptly when he crash landed his aircraft after running it out of fuel. As damning as the experience was, Hartmann who had violated almost every rule of air to air combat taught to him throughout his training, was grounded and sentenced to three days of working with the ground crews. Following this disciplinary period, twenty two days later, Hartmann claimed his first or many aerial victories over his adversary, an Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik of the Soviet 7th Guards Ground Attack Aviation Regiment. As 1942 drew to a close Hartmann had added only one more victory to his tally bringing his total number of victories two two aircraft.

The youthful appearance and enthusiasm of Hartmann quickly earned him the nickname “Bubi” (a tongue in cheek play on the word meaning “young boy” in the German language) which would stick with him throughout the war.  Fighter ace Walter Krupinski, to whom Hartmann would also be assigned to flight with as a wingman, would constantly urge young Bubi to flew in closer and engage enemy aircraft if he wanted to be victorious more often. On 25 May 1943, Hartmann claimed a Lavochkin La-5 fighter but also collided with another Soviet fighter. Luckily he was able to maintain control of his stricken aircraft and return to base. On 7 July 1943, amidst the large scale of dogfights occurring over the Battle of Kursk, Hartmann managed to shoot down seven enemy aircraft and by the beginning of August 1943, his number of confirmed aerial victories stood at 50. By September 1943, he had notched up another 48 enemy aircraft to his credit and be appointed the position of Staffelkapitän to 9./JG. In his first year of operational service (1942-1943), Hartmann felt a distinct lack of respect towards his Soviet opponents. In later years during recollection, he would state that most Soviet fighters did not have proper gunsights, and their pilots resorted to drawing them on the windshield by hand;

 “In the early days, incredible as it may seem, there was no reason for you to feel fear if the Russian fighter was behind you. With their hand-painted “gunsights” they couldn’t pull the lead properly or hit you.”

 Hartmann considered the American supplied P-39 Airacobra, P-40 Warhawk, and British Hawker Hurricane fighters grossly inferior to the Focke Wulf Fw 190 and Messerschmitt Me 109 flown by the Germans however he conceded that the foreign made fighters provided the Soviets with a wealth of improved gunsight technology. Hartmann became a master of the infamous stalk-and-ambush tactic. He admittingly became convinced that 80% of the pilots he shot down probably had no idea he was closing in on them during the engagement. He soon came to rely on the powerful engine of his Me 109 to perform high powered sweeps and quick approaches, occasionally diving through entire enemy formations to take advantage of the confusion that followed in order to disengage and escape.

During conversation with British test pilot Captain Eric Brown of the Royal Air Force after the war, Hartmann stated:

 “Well you can’t believe it, but the Sturmovik, which was their main ground-attack aircraft, flew like B-17s in formation and didn’t attempt to make any evasive maneuvers. And all they had was one peashooter in the back of each plane. Also, some of the pilots were women. Their peashooter were no threat unless they had a very lucky hit on you. I didn’t open fire til the aircraft filled my whole windscreen. If I did this, I would get one every time.”

 Despite this lack of respect toward their Soviet adversary, the Germans sooned learned a few tricks from their enemy. With the subzero temperatures of the vicious Russian winter setting in and causing the oil to freeze in the Messerschmitt’s DB 605 engines; a captured Soviet airman demonstrated how pouring fuel into the aircraft’s oil sump would thaw the oil and allow the engine to start after only one attempt. Another solution to this problem, also learned from the Soviets, was to ignite fuel under the engine. Hartmann soon became a master of his craft and his preferred method of attack was to use high speed and close in on his prey, holding fire until reaching an extremely close proximity of 66 feet or less, then unleash a short burst at point-blank range. This devastating technique had been taught to Hartmann  by none other than his former commander, Walter Krupinski.

This technique allowed Hartmann to:

  •  Reveal his position only at the last possible moment
  • Compensate for the low muzzle velocity of the slower rate of fire of the German 30 mm MK 108 equipping some of the later Me 109 models (although most of his victories were claimed with Messerschmitts equipped with the upgraded high velocity MG 151 cannon)
  • Place his shots accurately with minimum waste of ammunition
  • Prevent the adversary from taking evasive actions

However successful this proved to Hartmann this also presented an ever present danger. Firing the 30mm cannon at such close range ran the risk of forcing Hartmann to fly through the debris of a damaged or exploding aircraft, thereby resulting in damage to his own fighter in the process. If it was dangerous to dogfight further he would break off and content himself with one victory. His careful approach was described by himself by the motto: “See-Decide-Attack-Reverse”; which involved careful observation of the enemy, making a decision on how to proceed with the attack, engage in the attack, and then disengage to a relate safe position to re-evaluate the situation.

With over ninety aerial victories against the Russians in August of 1943, he engaged in a counterattack against the Russians flying fighter escort for the Stukas dive bombers of Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 led by Stuka ace Hans Ulrich Rudel and he engaged in combat with Soviet Yak-9 and La-5 fighters escorting attack Il-2 ground attack aircraft. He claimed two aerial victories over his Russian adversaries before damage to his plane caused by collision with debris from his kills forced him to land his aircraft behind enemy lines. He was captured by the Russians, His time in Soviet captivity was brief, as using the attacking formation of Stukas for a distraction he overwhelmed his Soviet guard and fled through a field of sunflowers where he hid until nightfall using Soviet troop movements to find his way back to German lines.

October 1943 saw Hartmann earned the distinquished Knight’s Cross award. At the time of the awarding of the Knights Cross, Hartmann’s official record was 148 victories which would climb to 159 victories by the close of 1943 and beginning of 1944. By the end of February 1944, he added fifty more kills to his tally, an endeavour he continued with ever increasing pace throughout 1944. With his rate of victories rising at such lightning speed, Hartmann’s record caught the eye of Luftwaffe High Command in Berlin who constantly had his file reviewed, double and even triple checked. Luftwaffe High Command even went to the measure of having observers flying in the same formation as Hartmann visually monitor his engagements to verify his claims. By 2 March 1944, Hartmann had amassed 202 victories and had managed to earn a 10,000 ruble bounty placed on his head but the Soviet military. The Soviets became all too familiar with Hartmann. They came to recognize German radio communications and Hartmann’s callsign Karaya 1and also they became familiar with his distinctive black tulip design he had painted on his engine cowling near the propellor spinner; a design which earned him the nickname Cherniy Chort which translates into “Black Devil”. Soviet pilots came to fear the black tulip on Hartmann’s Messerschmitt and many were quick to disengage and flee the battle area if Hartmann’s tulip emblem had been reported. The Germans would come to realize this and use the psychological effect of the tulip to their advantage often placing rookie pilots in its cockpit allowing them to fly relatively safe in the skies over the Eastern Front. Hartmann scored the 3,500th aerial victory of his unit on 21 March 1944, however with his kill rate dropping from the reluctance of Soviet pilots to engage his fighterl Hartmann had the black tulip design removed from his Messerschmitt allowing him to blend in with the rest of his unit. This action alone caused Hartmann’s kill rate to jump up significantly by 50 more airplanes by the end of May 1944.

With the 3,500th victory of JG 52, Hartmann along with his fellow pilots Gerhard Barkhorn, Walter Krupinski and Johannes Wiese were summoned to Adolf Hitler’s Berghof mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. Barkhorn was to be bestowed with the Swords to his Knights Cross, while Hartmann, Krupinski and Wiese were to receive the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross personally from Adolf Hitler. On the trainride from the Eastern Front back to Germany, all four of them became intoxicated on cognac and champagne in celebration of their victory.In a drunken stupor unable to stand on their own, they arrived at Hitler’s residence in Berchtesgaden. Major Nicolaus von Below, who was Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant was shocked that such distinguished pilots would dare arrive at the German leader’s personal residence intoxicated. Hitler despised alcohol. After some sobering up, Hartmann was still intoxicated enough to take a German officer’s hat from a hatstand and put it on. Von Below immediately became upset and told Hartmann it was Hitler’s and abruptly ordered him to put it back.

After amassing a grand tally against Soviet pilots on the Eastern Front, Hartmann would face another foe in May of 1944 when he was sent to Romania to defend against the attacks on the Ploiesti oil fields by aircraft of the United States Army Air Force. During his first combat mission over Bucharest, Hartmann claimed two victories over P-51 Mustangs. On 1 June he claimed four more Mustangs and on his fifth mission against the Americans he claimed two more Mustangs before running out of ammunition and being pursued by a flight of eight Mustangs, forcing him to bail out out of his aircraft when it ran out of fuel. Hartmann feared being killed as he hung in his parachute, and his worst fears seemed to materialize as as the Americans circled above him, one of the Mustangs piloted by Lt. Robert J. Goebel of the 308th Squadron, 31st Fighter Group, broke away and proceed to fly straight for him. Breathing deeply and preparing to accept his fate, Hartmann hung helpless in his chute. Lt. Goebel was actually making a camera pass to record the bailing out of the German pilot and banked away from him only at the last moment, waving farewell to Hartmann as he went by.

By mid August, Hartmann had become highest scoring fighter ace with 274 aerial victories and by the 23rd, he stood at 290. A day later he claimed ten more bring him to 300 confirmed kills. After scoring 301, Hartmann was immediately grounded by Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Göring, who feared the possible loss of Hartmann would be a devastating blow to German morale should such a hero be lost. Hartmann managed to somehow be reinstated as a pilot and escape being grounded. Soon Hartmann would gain the distinction of being one of only twenty seven German soldiers to be presented with the diamonds to his Knights Cross with Oak Leaves & Swords and he would travel to Hitler’s Wolfsschanze military headquarters near Rastenburg in occupied Poland to receive the coveted award from Hitler himself.It was during this meeting with Hitler, that it is said Adolf Hitler told Hartmann confidentially,  that militarily,” the war is lost,” and that he wished that the Luftwaffe had “more pilots like him and Rudel.” With the presentation of the Diamonds to his Knights Cross, Hartmann was personally requested to transfer to the Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe jet fighter program by fighter ace Adolf Galland; a transfer which was desputed by Hartmann on the grounds of his attachment to his fighter unit.

At the beginning of February 1945, Hartmann briefly led I./JG 53 as acting Gruppenkommandeur until he was replaced by Helmut Lipfert. In March 1945, Hartmann, his score now standing at 336 aerial victories, was asked a second time by General Adolf Galland to join the Me 262 units forming to fly the new jet fighter. Hartmann attended the jet conversion program led by Heinrich Bär. Galland also intended Hartmann to fly with JV 44. Hartmann declined the offer, preferring to remain with JG 52. He argued his case to remain with his unit citing exteme loyalty and the camaraderie formed within the unit. Now Gruppenkommandeur of I./JG 52, Erich Hartmann claimed his 350th aerial victory on 17 April, in the vicinity of Chrudim. The last wartime photograph taken of Hartmann is known to haven been taken in connection with this 350th aerial victory.

At the end of the war, Erich Hartmann deliberately disobeyed General Hans Seidemann’s order to Hartmann and Hermann Graf to fly to the British sector and surrender to the advancing British forces to avoid capture by Soviet forces. Hartmann later explained:

 “I must say that during the war I never disobeyed an order, but when General Seidemann ordered Graf and me to fly to the British sector and surrender to avoid the Soviets, with the rest of the wing to surrender to the Soviets, I could not leave my men. That would have been bad leadership.”

 Hartmann’s final aerial victory would be claimed in the skies over Brno, Czechoslovakia, on 8 May 1945 the final day of the war in Europe. Early that morning, he was ordered to fly a reconnaissance mission and report the position of advancing Soviet forces. Hartmann took off with his wingman at 08:30 and spotted the first Soviet units just a mere 25 miles away. Passing over the area, Hartmann saw two Yak-9s performing aerobatics for the morale of Soviet columns. Determined to “spoil their party”, Hartmann dove upon the fighters from his vantage point at 12,000 ft  and shot one down from a range of 200 feet. As he lined up the second fighter, Hartmann noticed a flicker of shiny dots above him coming from the West; they were approaching American P-51s. Rather than make a valiant yet follish stand and be caught between the Soviets and the Americans, Hartmann and his wingman fled at low level into a cloud of smoke that covered Brno. When he landed, Hartmann learned that the Soviet forces were within artillery range of the airfield, so JG 52 destroyed his beloved Karaya1 along with twenty four other Me 109s, and large quantities of ammunition. Hartmann later recalled his final violent action of the war:

 “We destroyed the aircraft and all munitions, everything. I sat in my fighter and fired the guns into the woods where all the fuel had been dropped, and then jumped out. We destroyed twenty-five perfectly good fighters. They would be nice to have in museums now.”

 As Gruppenkommandeur of I./JG 52, Hartmann chose to surrender his unit to members of the US 90th Infantry Division as they extinguished the flames of the devastated Reich.

The conclusion of his wartime service saw Hartmann go out with an astonishing 1,404 combat missions flown during World War II, which resulted in 825 engagements and 352 claimed and confirmed aerial victories against Allied aircraft.

After capturing him, the U.S. Army handed Hartmann, his pilots, and ground crew over to the Soviet Union on 24 May 1945, where he was imprisoned.. Hartmann and his unit were led by the Americans to a large open air compound to await the transfer to Soviet military authority. The number of prisoners of war soon reached an astonishing to 50,000. Living conditions deteriorated, and some American guards turned “a blind eye” to escapes. In some cases, they assisted by providing food and maps to their German detainees. As told by Hartmann upon the Soviet arrival to take them into custody:

 “The first thing the Russians did was to separate the German women and girls from the men. What followed was a brutal orgy of rape and debauchery by Red Army soldiers. When the greatly outnumbered Americans tried to intervene, the Russians charged towards them firing into the air and threatening to kill them if they interfered. The raping continued throughout the night. The next day a Russian General arrived at the encampment and immediately ordered a cessation … Later when a few Russians violated the order again and assaulted a German girl, she was asked to identify them from a lineup. There were no formalities, no court martial. The guilty parties were immediately hanged in front of all their comrades. The point was made.”

 Initially, the Soviets tried to convince Hartmann to cooperate with them. He was asked to spy on fellow officers and become a stukatch, or “stool pigeon”. He refused and was given 10 days’ solitary confinement in a four-by-nine-by-six-foot chamber. He slept on a concrete floor and was given only bread and water. On another occasion, the Soviets threatened to kidnap and murder his wife. During similar interrogations about his knowledge of the Me 262, Hartmann was struck by a Soviet officer using a cane, prompting Hartmann to slam his chair down on the head of the assailant, knocking him out. Expecting to be shot, he was transferred back to the small bunker. Hartmann who was not ashamed of his war service, opted to go on a hunger strike and starve rather than surrender to “Soviet will”. The Soviets allowed the hunger strike to go on for four days before force feeding him. More subtle efforts by the Soviet authorities to convert Hartmann to communism also failed. He was offered a post in the East German Air Force, the newly established Luftstreitkräfte der NVA which he also defiantly refused.

 “If, after I am home in the West, you make me a normal contract offer, a business deal such as people sign every day all over the world, and I like your offer, then I will come back and work with you in accordance with the contract. But if you try to put me to work under coercion of any kind, then I will resist to my dying gasp.”

 During his captivity in the Soviet Union, Hartmann was arrested on 24 December 1949, and three days later, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison on accusations of war crimes against the Soviet Union. In June 1951, he was again charged for being an anti-Soviet activist. Hartmann was subsquently sentenced to twenty five years of hard labor in a Soviet gulag in Siberia, where Hartmann again defying the Soviets refused to work. He was eventually placed in solitary confinement much to the disparity of his fellow prisoners. They began a revolt, overpowered their Soviet guards, and freed him from confinement. Hartmann soon filed a complaint to the gulag’s Commandant ’s office, asking for a representative from Moscow to be present and an international inspection conducted, as well as a tribunal, to acquit him of his unlawful conviction which was found on trumped up charges. This was swiftly denied by the Soviets, and he was transferred to a camp in Novocherkassk, where he spent five more months in solitary confinement. Eventually, Hartmann was granted a tribunal, but it being held by the Soviet military was nothing more than a farce at best and it upheld his original sentence. He was subsequently sent to another camp, this time at Diaterka in the Ural Mountains. In 1955, Hartmann’s mother wrote a letter to the Chancellor of the new West German state, Konrad Adenauer, appealing to the Chancellor to secure her son’s freedom. A trade agreement between West Germany and the Soviet Union was arranged, and Hartmann was released along with 16,000 German prisoners of war as one of the final repatriation efforts of German prisoners of war from the Soviet Union to Germany. After spending over a decade and a  half years in Soviet POW camps, he was among the last batch of prisoners to be turned over. Returning to West Germany, he was reunited with his wife Ursula, to whom he had written every day during the course of the war.

As heartfelt a reunion as it was to be back with his beloved Ursula, Erich was faced with devastating news. In 1945, Ursula had given birth to a son Erich-Peter who would pass away in 1948 at the age of three years old having never seen his father. The news of young Erich-Peter’s death was deliberately kept from Hartmann throughout his imprisonment in the Soviet Union. Erich and Ursula would later have another child, a daughter they named Ursula Isabel on 23 February 1957.

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When he was repatriated to West Germany in 1955, Hartmann voluntarily did what the Soviets could not coerce him to do. He re-entered military service in the post war German Bundeswehr, where he was given command of the reformed Luftwaffe’s first postwar operational jet fighter squadron Jagdgeschwader 71 ‘Richthofen’ named after Germany’s greatest fighter pilot of the First World War: Manfred von Richthofen ‘The Red Baron’. His postwar military service saw him make several trips to the United States where he learned to fly a number of United States Air Force types as well as share wartime experiences with the American pilots he had at one time fought against in the skies over Europe. In another show of mockery and defiance against his former Soviet captors, Hartmann as commanding officer of JG-71 had the fighter jets of the units painted with the same black tulip livery he flew into battle with on Karaya 1 during the duration of the war on the Eastern Front. He became a staunch opponent of the German Luftwaffe’s acquisition of the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter calling it a ‘flawed design’ and alluding to the unsafe nature of the jetplane. His harsh criticism of the Starfighter in German service was well validated as the type accumulated some 282 crashes and nearly 115 German pilots were killed piloting the F-104G in non-combat missions, along with deepening allegations of bribes culminating in the infamous Lockheed scandal. Hartmann’s outspoken criticism of the Starfighter however proved vastly unpopular with his superiors and he was forced into early retirement in 1970 effectively ending a military career which had begun in 1941.

Hartmann spent his final years working as a flight instructor near Bonn, even performing in an aerobatics team with his former World War II comrade General Adolf Galland. He would live out his remaining years in Weil im Schönbuch where he would die pacefully at the age of 71 on 20 September 1993.

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During the first weekend of the Advent season in Germany, (the same timeframe as just after Thanksgiving in the United States) I had finished visiting a friend that lived in Mannheim. My friend had served several years as a reservist in the German Army and like myself was an avid fan of military history and a collector of militaria from different periods in German history. Upon departing his home, I took the autobahn and really went out of my way heading away from the route leading from Mannheim to Nuremberg and instead heading towards Stuttgart. The Stuttgart-Böblingen area is home to two of the remaining handful of US military garrisons in Europe including the Panzer Kaserne. Not really having an explanation on why I drove down to Stuttgart besides to see more of Germany, I went past the Kaserne (Kaserne is the German word for ‘barracks’) and stopped at a Lidl (German supermarket) and proceeded to check my phone for any local attractions or anything of interest in the area other than visit the barracks. The thing is for most World War II or just German military history fans in general, many of the American military facilities were captured from the Wehrmacht at the end of the war in 1945 and had the swastikas removed from eagles and elsewhere and generally reused as American garrisons. Henceforth, many history enthusiasts visit these garrisons where they can see remnants and remains of the previous owners (minus the swastikas of course).

With my curiosity for World War II related interests, I happened to randomly do an internet search for the burial place of Erich Hartmann. After several moments it came up on my smartphone; Weil im Schönbuch, Böblingen. So I plugged it into my GPS and proceed to drive the eight kilometers through the city to an outskirt where I drove up a hill and atop this hill was a small cemetery. On this chilly windy day I walked through the cemetery with flowers in hand searching for the gravesite of one of history’s most celebrated aviators. This man had achieved the status of ace of all aces and had been instrumental in the reconstruction of Germany’s air force. After searching for nearly half an hour as I prepared to give up and leave I turned down an random section and there he was. On this peaceful hillside overlooking his beloved Weil im Schönbuch was the final resting place of Oberst (Colonel) Erich Hartmann and his wife Ursula. The inscription on their headstone bears their names and the words In Liebe für Immer or “In Love Forever”. I stood there for a moment and placed the flowers on the grave paying my respects to Mr and Mrs Hartmann before the chilly crisp mid day air forced a retreat from the top of the exposed hill but it was never the less an experience to remember. Unlike the gravesite of Manfred von Richthofen there was no souvenir of military service left by well wishers or those interested in Hartmann, nor was there anything  elaborate. Hartmann was at peace resting atop the hill how I’m sure he would wish to be alongside his beloved wife with an unrestricted view over his homeland that he loved so much.

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Contributed by: D. Rudolph for Alert 5


7 thoughts on “A Heart to Heart with Hartmann

  1. I met and visited the Blong Knight in January 1990 … at his home in Weil. He was a very peaceful and humble man … who voiced “I am just a man.” Interestingly, upon entering his home was part of a Bf 109 propeller incorporated into the entry way. His manner of speaking was clear, concise, and heartfelt. He still had his original “Diamonds” in a bank in Weil. I sensed a man who had caused, observed, and experienced the trauma of war …yet harbored no bitterness. When he spoke of WW2, it was preceeded by the phrase, “in the former times.” Truly honorable man.


    1. Hi, Rob. Similar to my reply to Diane (see below), I wonder if you’d share a little more of your experience with Hartmann. I’m a writer, and I’ve chatted with several people who knew him. This could be a great help for the book I’m working on. Just drop me a note (emailerikschmidt@gmail.com) if you’re willing to share more. Thanks!


  2. A well written article!

    I first “discovered” Erich in the pages of a Time-Life book in The Epic of Flight series. For some inexplicable reason, I was absolutely drawn to his photo. I decided I had to write to this man. Little did I know – and was later to learn – that Erich received between 900 and 1200 letters month back then!! (1988). I found this out when I finally got a response from him. Erich and I began a correspondence which lasted until the year of his death. I still have, and cherish, all of his letters to me. He would know my letters when they arrived in his mail because each envelope had a sticker on it of Snoopy atop his dog house firing his machine gun at the Red Baron.

    My husband and I visited Erich, Usch, and his lovely daughter Ursula Isabel on two separate occasions at his home in Weil im Schoenbuch.
    A beautiful family, indeed.

    In closing, I would like to say (because it’s annoyed me for decades to always see it on the Internet) that Erich didn’t have a middle name! I brought the book The Blond Knight of Germany by Toliver and Constable with me on my first visit so that Erich could autograph it. As he was signing it, he said to me, “Diane, why do you think they show Alfred as a middle name for me? I don’t have a middle name.” I laughed and said, “I guess we both got cheated because I don’t have a middle name either!”

    OK, now I’ve set the record straight about that nonexistant middle name! Do you see it on his gravestone? Of course not!


    1. Greetings, Diane! Forgive the impersonal reply here, but this is the only way I see to contact you. I’m a writer, and I’ve been working on a new book on Erich Hartmann for several years. Would you be willing to tell me more about your interactions with him? So far I’ve met several people who knew him, and I also visited his grave site and former home a couple years ago. What a fascinating person. I’d love to hear your perspective, too. My name is Erik, and you can email me at emailerikschmidt@gmail.com. Thank you!


  3. I read a article of Hartman just before he died and I could’ve sworn he said he never took to the parachute? He preferred to take his chances landing, he did this 14 times. I could be wrong but don’t believe so. Nonetheless the greatest killer in the sky’s ever! Amazing life story.


    1. Yes, he did take to his ‘chute — and was encircled by a “small flock” of P38s, one of which rendered his BF109 unflyable minutes before. Mercifully, they intimidated him to the Nth degree and then peeled off.


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