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Feature – Interview with Erich Hartmann

Photo: Erich Hartmann getting out of his Bf 109 (note Karaya heart logo) - Author's Collection


Following last month’s instalment, Howard Cook concludes his previously unpublished interviews with the world’s highest-scoring fighter pilot, Erich Hartmann

Last month’s issue featured part one of the 1990-91 interviews I conducted with the most successful ace ever, the Luftwaffe ‘Experten’ Erich Hartmann. At the time, as a budding warbird pilot, I was embarking on a course of training to progress to more powerful historic aircraft, so I had a particular interest in the instruction Erich received in World War Two. He had flown the Arado Ar 96 advanced trainer, of which there are just two surviving examples, one at Berlin’s Deutsches Technikmuseum and the other with Flyhistorisk Museum at Sola, Norway. Erich then moved on to pilot, in his words: “a worn-out Bf 109D at Berlin-Gatow… I was pleased to be in a real fighter at last.”

Training fatalities on all sides in conflict are often forgotten. In Erich’s case he had two near misses during his instruction phase, and explained: “I was grounded for showing off and buzzing the airfield and during this time another student was killed in the same aircraft. On another sortie I was flying a timed exercise and had to scramble and take off, and then climb to 4,000m. We were then to dive and land, to simulate us scrambling for a combat sortie and landing back at base. I rolled over into a split-s and there was this very loud bang and the ’109 went into a spin. I took to my parachute and was tumbling until the parachute opened and I landed okay.

“When I joined the squadron [7./JG 52, in October 1942] I was told the new pilots had to rely on the veterans, even though they could be lower than me in rank. I was lucky [with] my teachers and that I started with ‘Paule’ Rossmann who was a Feldwebel. Hrabak told me it was experience in the air that counted, and this was much more important than rank on the ground. He also told me it was necessary to work as a team and to stay alive. Hrabak said if we were dead, we were no good to his squadron!

“I was assigned to fly with Rossmann and I was told by [Dietrich] Hrabak that Rossmann was a good leader and he’d never lost a wingman. This was a good lesson to me, that in contact with the enemy to not lose sight or radio contact with my wingman; I was taught that keeping the unit together was the most important thing.

“In my first combat I was an idiot. I left my leader, my attack missed, I was surrounded by Soviets and had to escape. I then ran out of fuel and had to make a belly landing. I did everything wrong and was grounded for three days and had to work with the groundcrews. I learned many lessons. Rossmann spent time with me and told me it is not necessary to go straight in to attack the enemy when you see them. Look at their tactics and the formation, look to see if someone has fallen behind and take him down first. The pilot who can keep his head and thinks, will win.

“I scored my first kill on November 5, 1942. It was a Sturmovik, which was a very difficult aircraft to bring down because of its armour plate. ‘Dieter’ Hrabak said he never saw an aircraft that could absorb battle damage and still fly as did the Il-2. I used to call it ‘The Concrete Bomber’ and I always came in fast and closed the distance, then fired and pulled away. I did not want to be hit by pieces flying off my target, but that happened a number of times – including on this first kill when I had to belly land again from the damage. From this I learned to get in close, shoot and break away immediately.”

The rest of this feature can be read in the current FlyPast, in UK shops now, or available at

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