Erich Alfred Hartmann (19 April 1922 – 20 September 1993), nicknamed “Bubi” by his comrades and “The Black Devil” by his Soviet adversaries, was a German fighter pilot during World War II who is the most successful fighter ace in the history of aerial warfare. He flew 1,404 combat missions and participated in aerial combat on 825 separate occasions. He claimed, and was credited with, shooting down 352 Allied aircraft—345 Soviet and 7 American—while serving with the Luftwaffe. During the course of his career, Hartmann was forced to crash-land his damaged fighter 14 times due to damage received from parts of enemy aircraft he had just shot down or mechanical failure. Hartmann was never shot down or forced to land due to enemy fire,
Hartmann, a pre-war glider pilot, joined the Luftwaffe in 1940 and completed his fighter pilot training in 1942. He was posted to Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52) on the Eastern Front and was fortunate to be placed under the supervision of some of the Luftwaffe’s most experienced fighter pilots. Under their guidance, Hartmann steadily developed his tactics, which earned him the coveted Ritterkreuz mit Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillanten (Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds) on 25 August 1944 for claiming 301 aerial victories. At the time of its presentation to Hartmann, this was Germany’s highest military decoration.
Hartmann scored his 352nd and last aerial victory on 8 May 1945. Along with the remainder of JG 52, he surrendered to United States Army forces and was turned over to the Red Army. In an attempt to pressure him into service with the Soviet-friendly East German Volksarmee, he was convicted of false war crimes, a conviction posthumously voided by a Russian court as a malicious prosecution. Hartmann was sentenced to 25 years of hard labour and spent 10 years in various Soviet prison camps and gulags until he was released in 1955.
In 1956, Hartmann joined the newly established West German Luftwaffe in the Bundeswehr, and became the first Geschwaderkommodore of Jagdgeschwader 71 “Richthofen”. Hartmann resigned early from the Bundeswehr in 1970, largely due to his opposition to the F-104 Starfighter deployment in the Luftwaffe and the resulting clashes with his superiors over this issue. In his later years, after his military career had ended, he became a civilian flight instructor. He died of natural causes on 20 September 1993.