Erich Hartmann: The Deadliest Fighter Pilot in History | History Hit

Erich Hartmann: The Deadliest Fighter Pilot in History

Harry Sherrin

20 May 2022
Erich Hartmann
Image Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Erich Hartmann, sometimes referred to as the ‘Black Devil’, is the deadliest fighter pilot in history, having downed 352 Allied planes during World War Two over the course of some 1,400 missions.

A German, Hartmann primarily served on the Eastern Front, where he earned notoriety for his ruthlessness and skill in the cockpit of his Messerschmitt Bf 109. He is renowned for favouring the risky tactic of attacking at very close range, succinctly summarising his approach with the line: “when the enemy fills the entire windscreen, you can’t miss.”

Here are 10 facts about Erich Hartmann, the most successful fighter pilot of all time.

1. Hartmann’s mother was a pilot

Hartmann was born on 19 April 1922 in Weissach, in the Baden-Württemberg region of southwest Germany. His father, Alfred, was a doctor and his mother, Elisabeth, was one of Germany’s first female glider pilots.

Messerschmitt Bf 109 airplane

Image Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-662-6659-37 / Hebenstreit / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE , via Wikimedia Commons

Elisabeth instilled in Hartmann a keen passion for flight, showing him the ropes of how to pilot gliders during his teen years. Hartmann was awarded a license to pilot gliders aged 15.

2. He received his pilot’s license aged 18

In 1939, aged 18, Hartmann then received a license to pilot fully powered aircraft, having begun formal fighter pilot training for Nazi Germany. Though the available evidence doesn’t suggest Hartmann was a vocal and ardent supporter of Nazi ideologies and expansionism, he did grow to become an obedient and trusted member of Nazi Germany’s armed forces.

3. He underwent extensive training

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hartmann underwent a thorough fighter pilot training program. During his training, Hartmann primarily piloted Messerschmitt Bf 109s, a model of aircraft that made up the backbone of the Luftwaffe’s fleet.

Hartmann ran into trouble on a couple of occasions during his training. On one occasion, Hartmann was reprimanded and temporarily denied his flight pass for performing reckless aerial manoeuvres near a base.

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4. He fought primarily on the Eastern Front

During World War Two, Hartmann was stationed in Maykop, Russia, a base providing access to the key conflict zones of the Eastern Front.

German armored spearhead in the Kalmyk steppe north of Stalingrad, September 1942

Image Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 169-0368 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE , via Wikimedia Commons

Surviving the Eastern Front – notorious for its brutality, bitter weather and substantial casualties – demanded resilience, skill and, no doubt, a good dose of luck. By all accounts, Hartmann was blessed with these three assets in droves.

5. He survived 1,400 missions

A testament to his incredible skill as a pilot, Hartmann ultimately survived more than 1,400 missions over the course of the war. He was renowned for remaining level-headed, even under immense pressure and heavy fire.

Hartmann’s service wasn’t without close calls, though. During a botched mission in the summer of 1943, Hartmann crashlanded in Soviet territory, only to escape shortly after and walk back to German-held land.

6. Soviets would retreat if they saw Hartmann’s plane

Soon enough, Hartmann’s ability to effortlessly take down Soviet craft and to continually evade death earned him a fearsome reputation. Reports suggest that Soviet pilots could recognise Hartmann by his plane – which sported a depiction of a black tulip – and that when they caught sight of it, they’d simply retreat back to base rather than face Hartmann.

7. He is thought to be the deadliest pilot in history

In total, Hartmann is believed to have downed 352 Allied aircraft – primarily Soviet, but some American – making him the most successful fighter pilot in history by number of kills.

For his efforts, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds, which was Germany’s highest military accolade at the time.

8. His tactic was to strike at close range

Hartmann was so effective as a fighter pilot for a number of reasons. Firstly, he received extensive training towards the start of the war. As the conflict pressed on, Germany was forced to streamline its pilot training program. Secondly, the Nazis didn’t rotate units after tours; Hartmann wasn’t taken out of active service for prolonged periods during the conflict, as was typical for American pilots.

German Stuka dive bombers over the Eastern Front, World War II. A destroyed city is seen in the foreground

Image Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-646-5188-17 / Opitz / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE , via Wikimedia Commons

And lastly, he deployed the tactic of striking at very close range, which – coupled with his sharp instincts – ensured he was less likely to miss. Often, he opted for a surprise attack, only firing when the enemy was up close and in his sights.

9. He spent 10 years as a POW in the Soviet Union

After the close of World War Two, Hartmann was taken prisoner by the Americans, who eventually passed him over to the Soviets. Over the following decade, Hartmann was subjected to brutal attacks and psychological abuse in a POW camp. Eventually, in 1955, West Germany secured Hartmann’s release from the Soviet Union.

10. He died in 1993

Hartmann later joined the West German Bundesluftwaffe, rising to the rank of colonel. But Hartmann butted heads with those in charge, and was vocal in discussing what he perceived as their shortcomings. He was encouraged to take early retirement in 1970.

Hartmann died in Weil im Schönbuch, Germany, on 20 September 1993.

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Harry Sherrin