Warrior-Hero of the West: Erich Hartmann, the Blond Knight of Germany

Erich Hartmann was not a figure of world-historical importance, striding across the earth like a colossus. He was not a statesman or conqueror, nor a paradigm-destroying scientist, nor a virtuoso writer moving the masses. He was a simple airman of the Second World War. Yet, the way he performed his duty, with courage and honor—and deadly efficiency—made him the highest scoring ace in history and one of the genuine heroes of Western history. Erich Hartmann is a splendid example of the qualities peculiar to Western Faustian man, such as an acute sense of individuality, iron willpower, and utmost daring. For a few moments let us leave this modern world with its depressing role models, and look back in time to feast our hearts on the story of a great man, full of character and intelligence, a man whose greatest triumph ironically came after the fighting had ended.

Early Life

Hartmann was born April 19, 1922, in Wűrttemberg, Germany, in the heart of Swabia, a region renowned for its hardheaded, frugal, inventive, and proud people, whose number also includes Hegel and Erwin Rommel. Erich’s father Alfred was a doctor with a broad outlook on life, and his mother Elisabeth was capable, adventurous and beautiful. She apparently gave Erich his very blonde hair—and a daring spirit.

Young Erich was an excellent and fearless athlete. He commented humorously much later that his father thought he was “a kind of dare-devil, or an idiot” (Heaton and Lewis 9). His father wanted his boys to become doctors, and Erich assumed he would eventually follow that line, but really he just wanted to fly. From an early age he dreamed of emulating the aces of the Great War. His mother also wanted to fly, so she earned a pilot’s license and took her two sons flying with her. Later the family started a glider club and Erich was in his element: the air.

Erich went through school without enthusiasm, but passed his courses without difficulty. When he was seventeen he spied the future love of his life: Ursula Paetsch. He pursued her single-mindedly, going so far as to pummel a rival, and won her over with his customary directness, sparking a lifelong love affair.

Erich was blessed with an admirable character. (Actually, since people build their characters from the choices of their free wills, Hartmann was responsible for his own character, which is more virtuous. Temperament or natural disposition is what people get naturally; character is formed.) His biographer Raymond Toliver describes Erich as highly intelligent, with a will “almost fierce in its drive to prevail and conquer” and says he was “an incorrigible individualist in an age of mass . . . conformity.” Hartmann, he continues, had a blunt style of honesty that often mounted to a “devastating” lack of tact. Finally, Hartmann possessed “consummate coolness under stress” (Toliver and Constable 5, 12). All this corresponds very well with the characteristics possessed by Western Faustian man as described by, among others, Ricardo Duchesne.

Service in the War

When Hartmann was seventeen, war broke out. He graduated in the spring of 1940, and realizing that military service was inevitable, joined the Luftwaffe. That fall he began a prolonged and detailed training course. His superiors quickly tabbed him as fighter pilot material.

By October 1942, at the height of the German offensive against Stalingrad, he was posted to the Russian Front to join Jagdeschwader 52 (that’s “fighter wing 52” or JG-52) in the Caucasus. The first day, as his commander was speaking with him, an Me-109 came in for a crash landing, trailing smoke. It landed, flipped over, and exploded. Someone cried, “It’s Krupi!” meaning Walter Krupinski, a famous ace and insouciant playboy. He was certainly dead—but he strode out of the wreckage, grinning and complaining about flak. He demanded another plane, went back up, scored a victory, and was shot down again. He returned to base by car, went back up and scored two more victories. Then he desired dinner. This was life in the Luftwaffe: much different from the ground war, far more “clubby” and informal, and kept loose with alcohol.

His commanders marveled at Hartmann’s youthful looks and nicknamed him “Bubi,” German for “young boy.” Erich’s commanders introduced him to combat very gradually. He had to apprentice as a more experienced pilot’s wingman. In his first mission, intent on his first kill, he separated from his leader—a massive breach of discipline—missed and almost collided with his target, and quickly became surrounded by enemy planes. He escaped but eventually had to crash-land. He had broken virtually every rule of aerial combat, and was sentenced to work three days with the ground crew. Humiliated, he had time to ponder his mistakes.

Eventually he scored a few victories, and developed the tactics that led him to 352 kills. His methods built upon a great foundation: he had superb eyesight, was an excellent pilot, and had uncanny shooting ability. Erich served as wingman for Krupinski, who taught him to open fire from very close range (the same tactic used by the Red Baron—Manfred von Richthofen—in the First World War). Erich also resolved to avoid dogfighting, which meant he would eschew the characteristic swirling, chaotic melee that many pilots delighted in. Hartmann decided to carry out only surprise attacks, sizing up the enemy formation from on high, hitting the target fast if the prospects were propitious, and getting away. He estimated that eighty percent of his victims never knew he was there. He would rarely get into engagements that he couldn’t control from the beginning. His coolness “soon became a legend among all who flew with him” (Toliver and Constable 85). This intelligent Swabian carried Germanic efficiency to a lethal peak.

In May 1943 he got his seventeenth kill. He also got a month leave at home. The atmosphere at home disturbed him, with the general civilian unease about the Allied bombing campaign and worry over the outcome of the war. Erich’s father had always been very skeptical about the National Socialist regime, and was totally pessimistic about the war. Erich did enjoy a ray of light, however: he and Ursula got engaged to marry.

He was back at the front in time for the Battle of Kursk, in July. He now commanded a squadron. The skies were full of Russian planes. The Soviets daily threw hundreds of ground-attack aircraft at the German army in each sector, escorted by fighters. JG-52, stocked with famous German aces (their top six men had 1580 aerial kills), had to interdict these waves. They flew four or five missions a day. Erich’s totals began to mount; on July 5 he scored four victories, and two days later, seven. In the first twenty days of August 1943 he shot down forty-nine planes! (That alone was more than the total of the top American ace.)

It is true that Hartmann’s extraordinarily high number of kills was due in part to Russian ineptitude. He once fired a few bursts at four heavily armored Russian ground-attack planes flying in formation; they responded by uniformly executing a rolling evasive maneuver—too low; they couldn’t recover and hit the ground, exploding on impact. Four easy victories. (Later in the war the Russians did show improvement.) This should not much diminish the credit due Hartmann, because he persevered for long tough months of combat and the incredible strain that entailed.

On August 20, 1943, he had a narrow escape. He and seven other Germans engaged eighty Russian aircraft. Hartmann shot down two planes but was hit by flak (he was never shot down by a Russian pilot, or even wounded). His engine overheated and died. He had to land—fifteen miles inside the Russian lines. Once on the ground, he saw a German truck approach. He looked again and saw it filled with Russians. He immediately pretended to be badly wounded, moaning and sobbing and clutching his midsection. He succeeded in tricking the Russians. They gingerly took him to their headquarters, where Erich also fooled a Russian doctor. In consequence, the Russians never handcuffed or bound him, the usual fate of German pilots. However, he knew he had to make his break when he was loaded into the back of a truck and transported eastward. Luckily, there was only one guard in the back with him, and Erich took his chance when the Russian wasn’t looking. He jumped up, slammed his shoulder into him with all the force of his wiry 145 pounds, and jumped out the back of the truck. He sprinted through a field of sunflowers, dodging bullets. It took him a couple days, but he made it back to the German lines successfully. His quick thinking and courage saved his life.

By the end of October, 1943, he had 148 victories. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross. He was becoming famous; the Russians dubbed him the “Black Devil of the South” and placed a bounty on his head. German propaganda also began featuring him as a war hero.

The Black Devil

By March, 1944, he scored his 200th victory and was awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross. Hitler personally handed out this level of award. Erich travelled to Berchtesgaden with several comrades, including Gerd Barkhorn, the all-time second-highest scoring ace with 301, and Krupinski. Problem was, they all got drunk on the train thanks to an indulgent conductor and had to sober up—not entirely successfully—before meeting the Fűhrer. While waiting, Hartmann grabbed Hitler’s military cap hanging on a stand and clowned around with it, and mimicked Hitler giving a speech. His comrades were “laughing like hell” (Heaton and Lewis 39).

Hartmann then had two weeks at home with his parents and Ursula.

By this time, the Germans were retreating rapidly on the Russian front. JG-52 was stripped of some good pilots to defend Germany from the murderous Allied bombing attacks. Hartmann’s unit moved to Romania to defend the crucial oil fields. Here they had to face American bombing runs coming from Italy, and the formidable and numerous P-52 fighters. Hartmann performed well, shooting down eight of them, but in general the German Me-109s did not fare well against the American planes.

In July, 1944, Erich recorded his 250th kill, and met Hitler again to receive the Swords to the Knight’s Cross. Hitler had just survived Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt, and Hartmann was shocked at his appearance. Hitler did not impress Hartmann, who was not prone to hero-worship. He did not hesitate to disagree with Hitler’s assessment of the war on the Russian Front, but Hitler reacted indulgently. He also complained that his generals were not giving him the type of real information that Hartmann was.

On August 23, 1944, Hartmann destroyed eight enemy planes. His total stood at 290. The next day he shot down eleven planes, and became first man to break 300. German propaganda covered the great event, and his unit threw him a party. He thereby won the highest German decoration, the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. (Later Hitler created a higher order, the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves (the only one so awarded) especially for the legendary Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a ground-attack pilot who had destroyed 519 tanks). Only twenty-seven men won the coveted Diamonds. Hartmann flew out to East Prussia to meet Hitler. Security was tight in the aftermath of the assassination attempt, and Hartmann was expected to hand over his side arm before going in; he refused with his usual bluntness, “Please tell the Fuhrer that I do not want to receive the Diamonds if he has no faith in his front-line officers,” and was quietly permitted an exception (Toliver and Constable 143).

Knight’s Cross

Hartmann went on leave afterward, and decided to marry Ursula. Their hometown held a big ceremony. On the honeymoon Ursula and Erich conceived a child. Then Erich went back to the front. He continued to fly to the end of the war despite the rule that Diamonds winners were usually taken out of front line duty. He accounted for fifty more planes destroyed by the end of the war in May, 1945.

By then, Hartmann had flown over 1400 combat missions, engaged in combat 825 times, and destroyed 352 planes. He scored all but one of them before his twenty-third birthday.

Hartmann was one of the most dangerous enemies of Communist power there ever was, even though his actions were not based on ideology. He simply did his duty, mowing down squadron after squadron of Communist stooges, helping to blunt the Communist advance toward the heart of Europe. His work, together with the epic resistance of the German ground forces, helped to preserve the core of Western Europe from Communist takeover. The outcome of the war could have been far worse but for their efforts.

End of Part 1

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