If success is to be measured according to the number of aerial victories, top ten of the most successful fighter pilots in history all served under the Third Reich. These unbelievable flying aces, nevertheless, failed to prevent their country from losing the war.Here’s a quick recap of their extraordinary achievements.
1. Erich Hartmann
The most successful fighter pilot in history was born in 1922 in Weissach, Germany. After spending his early childhood in China, with the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War in 1928 his family moved back to Germany. Erich’s mother, Elisabeth Wilhelmine Machtholf, was among the first female glider pilots in Germany. Already at 14, he became a flying instructor in her gliding school.
Hartmann began his military training in October 1940 at the 10th Flying Regiment in Neukuhren. Two years later, he proceeded to advanced flight training where he learned combat techniques and gunnery skills. In October 1942, Hartmann was assigned to fighter wing Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52), on the Eastern Front in the Soviet Union.
Hartmann flew his first combat mission on 14 October 1942 as a wingman. When they encountered 10 enemy aircraft below, Hartmann, eager to score his first success, opened full throttle and became separated from his squadron leader. He engaged an enemy fighter but failed to score any hits and nearly collided with it instead. His mission subsequently ended with a crash landing after his aircraft ran out of fuel. After violating almost every rule of air-to-air combat, he was sentenced to three days of working with the ground crew.
Under the guidance of some of the most experienced fighter pilots, young and impatient Hartmann steadily developed his tactics. In November 1942, he claimed his first kill, but by the end of the year, he had added only one more to his tally. By September next year, this number rose to 100. The Soviets nicknamed him ‘The Black Devil’ and stayed away from engaging with him. On 17 August 1944, Hartmann became the top scoring fighter ace, surpassing fellow JG 52 pilot Gerhard Barkhorn, with his 274th victory.
Hartmann scored his 352nd and last aerial victory on 8 May 1945, hours before the war ended. 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 tried on fabricated charges of war crimes and convicted. Hartmann was sentenced to 25 years of hard labour and spent 10 years in Soviet prison camps and gulags until he was released in 1955.
In total, he flew 1,404 combat missions and participated in aerial combat on 825 separate occasions. He was credited with shooting down 352 Allied aircraft while serving with the Luftwaffe. During the course of his career, Hartmann was forced to crash-land his fighter 14 times due to damage received from parts of enemy aircraft he had just shot down or mechanical failure. In 1944 Hitler awarded him the highest military honor of all – Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds. Hartmann was never shot down or forced to land due to enemy fire.
2. Gerhard Barkhorn
Gerhard Barkhorn was born on 20 March 1919 in Königsberg (today Kaliningrad) in the Free State of Prussia of the Weimar Republic. In November 1937, he joined the military service in Luftwaffe as a Cadet. He started his flight training in March 1938. After the outbreak of the war, in September 1939, he was selected for specialized fighter pilot training.
Barkhorn flew his first combat missions in May 1940, during the Battle of France and then the Battle of Britain without scoring an aerial victory. His first victory came in July 1941 and his total rose steadily against the Soviets.
On 2 March 1944, he was awarded the Swords to his Knight’s Cross, the third highest decoration in the Wehrmacht. On 31 May, on 273 victories, he was shot down by Soviet P-39 Airacobras. Flying his sixth mission of that day he intercepted some Soviet bombers but failed to notice the escorting fighters. His Bf 109G-6 was severely damaged and despite severe wounds to his right shoulder and leg he managed to crash-land behind his own lines but was hospitalized for four months.
Eventually returning to his unit the psychological damage and combat stress on Barkhorn became apparent. Sitting in his cockpit he became overcome with anxiety, and even when flying with friendly aircraft behind him he felt intense fear. It took several weeks for him to overcome this condition. Returning to combat in October he added another 27 kills, scoring his 301st (and final) victory on 5 January 1945. Less than two weeks later he left JG 52 on the Eastern Front and joined Jagdgeschwader 3 (JG 3), defending Germany from Western Allied air attack.
Barkhorn flew 1,104 combat sorties and was credited with 301 victories on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Red Air Force piloting the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190D-9. He flew with the famed Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52 – Fighter Wing 52), and Jagdgeschwader 2 (JG 2).