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German Pilot Reported 352 Kills : Hope of Top WWII Flier: No Need for New Air Aces

January 03, 1986|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

WEIL IM SCHOENBUCH, West Germany — "I hope nobody ever beats my record," mused Erich Hartmann in the library of his home here. "I hope nobody ever has to beat my record."

The mild-mannered but iron-willed Hartmann is the world's ace of aces; as a Luftwaffe fighter pilot in World War II, he shot down 352 enemy planes--eight American, the rest Soviet.

More than 40 years ago, he was known to his countrymen as "the Blond Knight of Germany" and to the opposing Soviet pilots on the Eastern Front as "the Black Devil of the South" because of the black-painted nose of his Messerschmitt 109.

For his aerial feats, he was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds by Adolf Hitler, and for that same prowess in the skies, he was imprisoned for 10 1/2 years by the Soviets at the end of the war.

His wartime and postwar experiences have apparently left no scars, physical or mental, and at 63 he lives in quiet semi-retirement in his hometown here, south of Stuttgart. He still works as an aviation consultant and entertains former comrades-in-arms, both those from the war and those he met as an officer of the postwar West German Luftwaffe.

Among his friends are many U.S. pilots and military historians who respect the professional views of the most successful combat pilot of all time.

Hartmann was instrumental in setting up the new German air force under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He taught the pilots tactics and had a thing or two to say about dealing with the Soviets because he has observed them closely.

"Watch out when they smile and are pleasant to you," he said of his experiences in the various concentration camps where the Soviets tried to break his spirit and force him to admit to being a war criminal. "That's when they are going to lean on you. I prefer them when they appear to be angry."

To appreciate Hartmann's record of 352 confirmed aerial kills, it is necessary to remember that the top American ace of World War II, Maj. Richard Bong, shot down 40 enemy planes, and that the leading British pilot, the RAF's James E. Johnson, was credited with destroying 38 German aircraft. The World War I ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron of Germany, shot down 80 enemy planes, and the highest U.S. scorer in that conflict, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, scored 26 kills.

Immediately after World War II, some Allied critics suggested that the German pilots on the Eastern Front had deliberately miscounted their kills--that, among other things, squadron commanders took credit for all the planes shot down by their pilots. Some critics also said the Germans were matched against vastly inferior aviators and planes.

But, later, such respected military historians as retired Air Force Col. Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable detailed the meticulous accounting methods of the Luftwaffe and declared that German aerial victories appear to have been genuine.

Further, these historians point out that the Soviets flew first-rate planes, not only Soviet MIGs, Yaks, and Laggs, but also U.S.-built Airacobras and Lightnings.

Proficient Soviet Pilots

Many Soviet pilots were also proficient in combat. The top Soviet ace, Ivan Kozhedub, for instance, shot down 62 German aircraft, while 15 Soviet pilots shot down 40 or more planes during the war, almost all of them from the Luftwaffe.

Thus, historians say, Hartmann's performance can in no way be demeaned. His total may be higher than that of his American or British counterparts because the Germans flew at a grueling pace, often three or four missions a day; Allied pilots usually flew only daily or every other day and were rotated home after 25 or 50 missions.

As Toliver and Constable point out in their book on Hartmann, "The Blond Knight of Germany": "Fighter aces were able to keep alive, for a few brief decades, albeit in tenuous form, the now archaic concept of a fair fight. Man-to-man encounters in which individual martial skill and fighting spirit could affect the outcome disappeared from land and naval battles even as they became the central element of aerial combat. Chivalry thus found a modern echo among air fighters."

Hartmann himself, his once-flaxen hair now brown though not gray, tends to shrug off his accomplishments, but he is proud of the fact that he was never shot down (although he had to parachute or make forced landings).

"I had time to become well-trained before combat," he recalled recently, while sipping a glass of beer. "And I had very fine pilots to go into combat with."

Hartmann, the son of a physician who wanted him to become a doctor, joined the Luftwaffe at 18, fresh out of high school. Two years later, he was assigned to the famed Fighter Wing 52 on the Eastern Front in October, 1942.

Had to Crash-Land

On the very first of his 1,400 missions, he fouled up by not following his flight leader's instructions while tangling with Soviet planes; he ran out of fuel and had to crash-land behind German lines in the Caucasus foothills.

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