Here Is the Shocking Story of Nazi Germany’s Greatest Fighter Ace

    Warfare History Network

    History, Europe

    Erich Hartmann amassed a remarkable tally of 352 aerial victories during World War II.

    By May 8, 1945, Adolf Hitler had been dead for more than a week. Germany was in the act of formally surrendering to the Soviets and the Western Allies, so occupying Red Army troops in the eastern German town of Brunn were not expecting to witness what may have been World War II’s last dogfight over Europe.

    They were watching entranced as a Red Air Force pilot entertained them with a one-plane air show. He expertly put his Yakovlev Yak-9 single-engine fighter through a series of intricate rolls, climbs, dives, and stalls while the infantrymen below applauded. Suddenly, a lone German Messerschmitt Me-109 dove on the unsuspecting Russian, riddling his Yak with machine-gun bullets and 20mm cannon shells and sending it spinning toward the German countryside. As the stunned soldiers gathered around the oily bonfire that seconds earlier had been a lethal flying machine, the Luftwaffe pilot banked westward toward his final landing. Erich Hartmann, aerial warfare’s supreme ace, had just scored his last kill—number 352.

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    The son of a doctor, Hartmann was born on April 19, 1922. It was a hard time to be German. Just 31/2 years after its defeat in World War I, the Fatherland was helpless before its victorious, unsympathetic enemies. Political upheaval, poverty, and the worst inflation in history made life in Germany difficult, destitute, and dangerous. Jumping at the opportunity to escape this situation, Dr. Alfred Hartmann moved his practice to China. Despite the language barrier he got on well with his new patients, who were grateful to have such a skilled physician to tend their many maladies. They gathered at his office daily and gladly paid their bills on time. Being German, Dr. Hartmann was not generally associated with the European colonial powers that Asian nationalists were increasingly resisting. Nevertheless, when he found the severed heads of three British acquaintances on stakes outside his door one morning in 1929, he decided to gather up his beautiful wife Elisabeth and two little boys and return home, where he set up a new practice in Stuttgart.

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