Erich Hartmann: The Most Successful Fighter Pilot of All Time

Aidan Herklotz

To be considered an ace pilot, you first must shoot down at least five enemy aircraft. The best German pilot in World War II was Erich Hartmann, who shot down around 352 enemy planes in his three years of service during the war.

That’s a pretty insane amount if you consider the statistics.

Firstly, 350 of his total wins were Soviet aircraft, only two were American. Secondly, the highest success rate of any pilot in the USSR over the course of the war was Ivan Kozhebud, with a measly 64 aircraft. Yes, I know that’s actually a huge amount, but compared to Hartmann, Kozhebud’s looking pretty pathetic right now. But that’s nothing compared to the best US pilot, who took down only 27 planes. Truly disappointing. Anyway, now that I’ve gone over the numbers, let’s try to justify them.

Erich Hartmann had a simple life before World War II. As a child, he always had a passion for flying, probably because his mother was one of the first female glider pilots in Germany. Even when training for the Luftwaffe in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, he showed great promise as a pilot and a knack for breaking rules and ignoring regulations. His flight history during the war is much more interesting though. Yes, he shot down 352 planes, but he also participated in aerial combat 825 times, and flew about 1,400 missions. When comparing that to his shot down count, it’s pretty impressive.

But, his count wasn’t always so impressive. By 1943, he had only shot down 42 planes. By the end of the war, his tally stood over eight times that. It’s impressive how much he improved in such a short time. I believe one reason for his massive success was his lack of respect for Soviet pilots, which was shown to be self-evident throughout the war. He was even quoted to say, “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.” 

Obviously, Erich Hartmann was a Nazi during World War II, so after the Reich fell, he was imprisoned by the Soviet Union and put to trial at Nuremberg. His resolve and stubbornness was so great that he went on a hunger strike for four days before they had to force-feed him. He said he would rather starve to death than subject himself to “Soviet will.” When defending himself, Hartmann said that he wasn’t ashamed of his service during the war, as he had only followed orders (haven’t heard that one before). He was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor by a military tribunal. He initially refused to serve (just more stubbornness), and was put into solitary confinement for around five months. 

After his imprisonment, he actually reentered the West German air force. He went on to work as a flight instructor, and flew fly-ins with other former war pilots. He died at the age of 71 in 1993. Overall, he is remembered for his great success as a fighter pilot, but what I admire the most is his persistence and resolve. Obviously, I don’t admire his stance as a Nazi, but that’s a bit too political for my taste.