The last Interview with Erich Hartmann

Of all the fighter aces in history, the first name who usually comes to mind is the “Red Baron” and Erich “Bubi” Hartmann. Therefore those two are top in our best fighter pilots in history ranking.

If you are not familiar with the best fighter pilot ever – you best start with this video:

His 352 confirmed kills will probably stand forever as the benchmark of success in aerial warfare. However, Erich’s war in the air became a footnote to his life following the decade of Soviet imprisonment he experienced following the war. In his own words, Hartmann discussed his life, career, passions and survival in a world few have seen and even fewer survived.

In his last formal interview, Erich Hartmann discussed specific facts that he had usually avoided in the past. This candid insight displays the humanity of the man himself as opposed to simply the warrior of legend, and provides an insight into the character of arguably the greatest fighter pilot who has ever and probably will ever, fight in hostile skies.

Hartmann gave this final interview before he died in 1993.

Erich Hartmann

Q: Erich, when and where were you born?

A: I was born on 19 April 1922 in Weissach. This is near Wuerttemberg.

Q: What was your family like?

A: My father was a respected physician who had been a doctor in the Army in the First War, and my mother was a licensed pilot. My brother later became a doctor also.

Q: Tell about your youth in China.

A: My father’s cousin was a diplomat there, and he convinced the father to move us to China since Germany was not exactly the best place to be from an economic perspective. We lived in Changsha province, and I was young and Alfred was even younger, but I barely remember any of it. Father had gone ahead and we followed. Finally, things became bad for foreigners and father sent us home. We relocated in Stuttgart and father came back later. This was where I lived until the war.

Q: What made you want to become a pilot?

A: Probably the same reason as most boys; the glory of the aces in the Great War, as well as the fact that my mother was a licensed pilot. Mother used to take us up and teach us things. That was perhaps the greatest factor. I knew I wanted to fly. I became a licensed glider pilot at fourteen, and flew as often as I could I became an instructor at age fifteen in the Hitler Youth. Alfred became a Stuka gunner and was captured in Tunisia. That was probably lucky for him and saved his life. My father was not pleased that I wanted to be a pilot, he wanted us to follow him in medicine, and this was also a dream that I had, but it would not be.

Erich "Bubi" Hartmann

Erich “Bubi” Hartmann

Q: When did you join the Luftwaffe?

A: I started military flight training in October 1940 in East Prussia. This lasted until January 1942 when I went to Zerbst-Anhalt. I graduated as a leutnant in March 1942. Later I went to advanced aerial gunnery school, where I got into a little trouble. I was showing off, buzzing the airfield and was sentenced to house arrest. Ironically my roommate flew the same aircraft I had been in and it developed a technical problem, and he was killed in the crash. That was ironic. I arrived in Russia and reported to JG-52 in just before the winter, after a slight mishap.

Q: Was that when you crashed a Stuka?

A: Well, I would not say crashed, because I never got off the ground. We were supposed to fly them to Mariupol, but when I started the Stuka I realized that it had no brakes, and it reacted differently from a Messerschmitt 109. I crashed into the operations shack, and another man flipped his Ju-87 up over on its nose. They decided to send us in a Ju-52 since it was safer for us and the aircraft.

Q: Was this when you first met Dieter Hrabak?

A: Yes, who has been a good friend over the years, as you know. Dieter was the first person to tell me to talk to you since he and the others trust you. I like you also. Dieter was a very understanding yet disciplined commander, and his experience showed. He taught us how not just to fly and fight, but how to work as a team and stay alive. That was his greatest gift. He was very open to discussing his own mistakes, and how he learned from them, hoping we would learn also. Hrabak assigned me to 7/III/JG-52 under Major Hubertus von Bonin, an old eagle from the Spanish Civil War and Battle of Britain. We learned a lot from him also. My first mission was on 14 October 1942.

Q: Your first mission was less than spectacular. What happened?

A: Well, Rossmann and I were in our flight, and Rossmann radioed that he spotted ten enemy aircraft below us. We were at 12,000 feet and the enemy was far below us. I could see nothing but followed Rossmann down, then we came on them. I knew that I had to get my first kill, so I went full throttle and left Rossmann to shoot at a plane. My shots missed and I almost collided into him and had to pull up. Suddenly I was surrounded by the Soviets and I headed for low cloud cover to escape. All along Rossmann kept talking to me, and I had a low fuel warning. Then the engine went dead and I bellied in,  destroying my fighter. I knew I was in trouble. I had violated every commandment a fighter pilot lives by, and I expected to be thrown out.

Q: What was your fate?

A: I was sentenced by von Bonin to three days of working with the ground crews. It gave me time to think about what I had done. What I learned from Rossmann and later Krupinski I later taught to new pilots when I became a leader.

Q: When did you score your first kill?

A: That was a day I will never forget, 5 November 1942, a Shturmovik IL-2, which was the toughest aircraft to bring down because of the heavy armour plate. You had to shoot out the oil cooler underneath, otherwise, it would not go down. That was also the day of my second forced landing since I had flown into the debris of my kill. I learned two things that day; get in close and shoot and break away immediately after scoring the kill. The next kill came in February the following year. This was when Krupinski came to Taman and was my new squadron leader.

Q: Walter told me about the day he arrived, and his episode with the two fighters. What do you remember?

A: He came in, introduced himself, demanded a plane, went up, was hot down, and brought back by car. He then took another, scored two kills and returned, they wanted dinner. The whole event was treated as casually as a card game.

erich_hartmannQ: How did you meet Gunther Rall?

A: Well, I know that Gunther had to have told you about this. He replaced von Bonin as Gruppenkommandeur and we were introduced. That was the beginning. In August 1943 Rall made me commander of the 9th squadron, which had been Herman Graf’s command.

Q: You flew with Krupinski as his wingman often. What was that like, and how different was it from flying with Rossmann?

A: Well, the partnership was a little uneasy at first, but we found that we worked well together. We both had strengths and weaknesses and managed to overcome these problems. It worked out well. Besides, I had to make sure that he came home due to his many girlfriends always waiting on him to come down. I won the Iron Cross 2nd Class while flying with ‘Krupi’. The one thing I learned from him was that the worst thing to do was to lose a wingman. Kills were less important than survival. I only lost one wingman, Gunther Capito, a former bomber pilot, but this was due to his inexperience with fighters, but he survived.

Q: How many kills did you have before you won the Knight’s Cross?

A: I had scored 148 kills by 29 October 1943. My award was sort of late I guess. There were many men who had more than fifty kills who did not receive the Knight’s Cross, which I think was unfair. I also thought it unfair that men like Rall, Barkhorn, Kittel, Baer and Rudorffer did not receive higher decorations. They deserved them.

Q: Tell about your first meeting with Krupinski. I have heard his version from Walter, but I would like your version.

A: I was being addressed by my new Wing Commander (Hrabak) when a fighter came in smoking, and suddenly landed, flipped over and exploded. We knew the pilot was dead. One of the men said that ‘it is Krupinski’, and out of the blinding smoke this man walked out of the wreckage with a burned uniform, but no other damage. He was smiling and complained about the flak over the Caucasus, but without any real surprise on his face. This was my first meeting with “The Count.”

Q: Who were you first assigned to as wingman?

A: Feldwebel Eduard ‘Paule’ Rossmann, who took me under his wing.

Q: Was it typical that an officer would be assigned to a non-commissioned officer?

A: It was for us since he was a seasoned combat veteran. Rank meant little over experience, and that was why we were so successful I think.

Q: Who was your best friend during those days?

A: There were so many, most of whom are still alive, but my closest relationship was with Heinz Mertens, my crew chief. You rely upon your wingmen to cover you in the air, and your team mates in aerial battle, but the man who keeps your machine flying and safe is the most important man you know. We became best of friends, and none of my success would have been possible if not for Mertens.

Q: The bond you two had is also legendary. Why the closeness?

A: I can’t explain it. When I went missing on the mission where I was captured and escaped, Mertens had taken a rifle and went looking for me. He would not give up. That is a loyalty you never find outside the military.

Q: Describe that time you were captured.

A: The Russians were attacking in our area and Hrabak gave us our orders. This was in August 1943, and our mission was to support the Stukas of Hans-Ulrich Ruedel in a counterattack. Then things changed. The Red Air Force was bombing German ground positions in support of their offensive, so my flight of eight fighters located and attacked the enemy, about forty Laggs and Yaks with another forty or so Shturmovik ground attack aircraft. I shot down two when something hit my plane. I made a forced landing and was captured by Soviet soldiers. I faked that I was injured as they approached the plane. The believed me and took me to their HQ and their doctor examined me, and he even believed me. They placed me back in the truck (which was German) on a stretcher, and as Stukas made their attacks I rushed the one guard in the truck. He went down and I left out the back. As soon as I did that I heard the truck stop, so I had to keep moving. I found myself in a great field of very tall sunflowers where I tried to hide as I ran, all the while the men chasing me were firing wildly in my direction. I found a small village occupied by Russians and decided to return to the area I had just come from and wait for nightfall. [It was during this time that Mertens took it upon himself to take off and find Hartmann, armed with only a rifle and water, being concerned when his friend had not returned]. I reached my secure area and took a nap, and later I awoke and took off again headed west. I passed a patrol of Russians, about ten I think, so I decided to follow them. Then the patrol disappeared over a small hill, and then there was a firefight. I knew that that must be the German lines since the men of the patrol came flying back over on my side. I then walked to the other side and was challenged by a German sentry who also fired a bullet at me, which ripped open my trouser leg. I was pretty upset, but this man was in complete fear. I was welcomed into their position, given an interrogation and was asked to prepare for contact. Another group of Russians, obviously drunk walked towards our trenches, and the lieutenant gave the order to fire when they came within about twenty meters. They were all destroyed. I was later told that a group of Russians had entered their perimeter speaking fluent German, claiming to be escaped POWs, and when they came in they pulled out some Tommy guns and killed some men. This explained their caution over accepting me on face value, as I had no identification on me. Everything had been taken when I was captured.

Q: What happened to Mertens? How did you get back?

A: The infantry commander contacted Hrabak and who I was confirmed. They sent me back by car, and I was met by Krupi who had just come back from the hospital. I was also informed about what Bimmel had gone and done, and I was very upset. The next day Bimmel came back and we saw each other, and we had a ‘birthday party.’

Q: Explain what a ‘birthday party’ is?

A: That is a party that is thrown in honour of a pilot who survived a situation that should have killed him. We had a lot of those.

Q: Perhaps the greatest legend surrounding your life was the time you first met Ushi and the love that endured through the years. Describe that first meeting. 

A: We were in the same school, and finally I decided to track her down. I caught up with her and a girlfriend and stopped my bicycle, and introduced myself. I knew that she was the one for me, although I was only seventeen and she was two years younger. Our parents were none too thrilled about it, I can tell you, but they came around.

Q: You had competition for her didn’t you?

A: Yes, but I resolved that problem, it was nothing. Ushi and I were destined to be together, that was fate. And she waited a long time, even after the war. We were married in 1944, but still had little time to spend together.[Actually Erich warned the much older boy away from her, and when Ushi told him that he was harassing her, Erich beat him up, ending the problem]. We were married after I had the Diamonds, and Gerd {Barkhorn] was my best man, with Willi Batz and Krupi as witnesses. We could not marry in a church due to the logistical problems. That would have to wait until 1956

Q: Tell about the time you received the Oak Leaves from Hitler.

A: That was a strange time. First, most of us were drunk. Gerd Barkhorn, Walter Krupinski, Johannes Wiese and I were to report to Berchtesgaden. All of us except Gerd were getting the Oak Leaves, he was getting the Swords. By the time we got there, we were trying to sober up. Walter always stated years later that we had to hold each other up. We had been drinking cognac and champagne, a deadly combination when you have not eaten in a couple of days. The first person we met off the train was Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, Major von Below, who was I think in a state of shock at our condition. We were to meet Hitler in a couple of hours, and we could hardly stand. This was in March 1944, and there was a lot of snow at that time at that altitude.

Q: I spoke to Walter Krupinski and read about the ‘hat event’ in your biography by Ray Toliver and Trevor Constable. What was that about?

A: I could not find my hat, and my vision was not the best, so I took a hat on a stand and put it on, and it was too large. I knew it was not mine at that time. Below became upset and told me it was Hitler’s, and to put it back. Everyone was laughing about it except Below. I made some joke about Hitler having a big head, and that it ‘must go with the job,’ which created even more laughter.

Q: What was your impression of Hitler?

A: I found him a little disappointing, although very interested in the war at the front and extremely well informed on events as I knew them. However, he had a tendency to drone on about minor things that I found boring. I found him interesting yet not that imposing. I also found him lacking in sufficient knowledge about the air war in the east. He was more concerned with the Western Front’s air war and the bombing of cities. Of course, the Eastern Front ground war was his area of most interest. This was evident. Hitler listened to the men from the Western Front and assured them that weapons and fighter production were increasing, and history proved this to be correct. Then he went into the U-boat war, how we were going to decidedly destroy maritime commerce and all of that. I found him an isolated and disturbed man.

Q: What was the feeling about the war in your unit at this time?

A: I don’t recall anyone talking of defeat, but I do know that we talked about some of the great pilots killed already, and the news of the American Mustangs reaching deep into Germany, and even farther. Few of us had any experience against the Americans, although many old timers had fought the British. Those who fought Americans had done so in North Africa, and their insights proved interesting.

Q: What was the atmosphere like when you won the Swords?

A: I had just landed after a successful mission when I was told that I had been awarded the Swords. This was June 1944. I arrived on 3 August 1944 to visit Hitler again for the award ceremony, and there were ten of us Luftwaffe guys in all. Hitler was not the same man. This was just after the bomb plot to kill him, and his right arm was shaking, and he looked exhausted. He had to turn to his left ear to hear anyone speak because he was deaf in the other one from the blast. Hitler discussed the cowardly act to kill him and attacked the quality of his generals, with a few exceptions. He also stated that God had spared his life so that he may deliver Germany from destruction, and that the Western Allies would be thrown back inevitably. I was very surprised at all of this. I wanted to leave and see my Ushi, and I did.

Q: How was the meeting with Hitler and receiving the Diamonds different from the previous two encounters?

A: Well Dieter Hrabak and the rest threw a party before I left, and I was so drunk I could not stand the next day. It sounds like we were all alcoholics, but this was not the case. We lived and played hard. You never knew what the next day would bring. I few my 109 to Insterburg, and JG-52 gave me an escort. When I arrived at the Wolfschanze the world had changed. Hitler had already begun the trials and executions of those involved and everyone was under suspicion. You had to enter three areas of security, and no one was allowed to carry a weapon into the last section. I told Hitler’s SS guard to tell the Fuehrer that I would not receive the Diamonds if I were not trusted to carry my Walther pistol. The guy looked like I had just married his mother. He went to speak with von Below, who was a Colonel then, and Below came out said it was all right. I hung my cap and pistol belt on the stand and Hitler came to me, and said, “I wish we had more like you and Ruedel,” and he gave me the Diamonds, which were encrusted upon another set of Oak Leaves and Swords. We had coffee and lunch, and he confided in me, saying ‘militarily the war is lost,’ and that I must already know this, and that if we waited the Western Allies and Soviets would be at war with each other. He also spoke about the partisan problem and he asked me of my experience. Hitler asked me my opinion of the tactics used in fighting the American and British bombers. Since I did not have a lot of experience with this, I simply stated what I thought was a fact. Goering’s orders to combat them and the method employed was in error. I also informed him of the deficiencies in pilot training; too many minimally trained men were simply throwing their lives away. He also spoke about the new weapons and tactics, and then we parted. That was the last time I saw him, 25 August 1944. I flew back to the unit, where an order for a ten days leave waited. I also had to report to Galland, where we discussed the Me-262 situation. I went back to marry my Ushi, that was all that mattered to me.

Q: During the war what were your worst fears?

A: Well, I feared capture in Russia, that was a very eye-opening prospect. The bombing of our cities also worried us, as our families were very dear to us. I suppose I was most worried that Ushi would not wait, so I always tried to see her whenever I was on leave. Medals meant leave, and that was an incentive. I had the choice of losing her or returning all the decorations, I would send the medals back. She was too important to me, and always has been. It was later learned that the Soviets knew exactly who I was and Stalin placed a 10,000 ruble price on my head. This was later increased, and Ruedel and I had the highest bounties of any Germans during the war, probably with exception to Hitler and a few of the Nazi elite. Every time I went up I knew that someone would be looking for me. I had thoughts of the American western films, where the top gunfighter is called out into the street; another person wanting to make his mark. I felt marked, so I had to change my aircraft occasionally. I found that when I used the black tulip I had more difficulty in finding opponents, who avoided me for the most part. I needed camouflage.

Q: What were conditions like in Russia?

A: Well, in the winter you can imagine. We seldom had hard shelter, living in tents. The lice were the worst, and there was little you could but hold your clothes to a fire and listen to them pop. We had DDT and bathed when we could. Illness, especially pneumonia and trench foot were bad, especially among the ground crews. Food was always a concern, especially later in the war, and fuel restrictions made every mission count. We always flew from grass strips and we were often bombed. These strips were easy to repair, although the terrain made every takeoff and landing an adventure. Sometimes fighters would snap their landing gear, or just dig in and topple over. Maintenance was another nightmare, as supplies and parts were difficult to get to, especially when we were moving around all the time. Despite these problems, we were very successful in the Crimea through 1943-44.

Q: I know that JG-52, as well as other units, flew with foreign air forces. What was your experience with this?

A: We had a Royal Hungarian unit assigned to us, as well as Croats. They were good pilots and fearless in many ways. Good men. We had even more contact especially with the Romanians when we were stationed there, and this was where we engaged both the Americans and Soviets; a very trying time. We were flying in Russia against twenty to one. In Romania, it was thirty to one.

Q: The evacuation from the Crimea was described to me by Hrabak. How was it for you?

A: Well, I would not call it an evacuation, but a full retreat. We had to move, and I discovered that when the radio, armour plate and rear wall, you could stack four men in the tail, but three was about the most I would try. We managed to save many of our precious ground crew from capture using this method.

Q: What were the Soviets like that you captured? Was there any open racism among your men towards these people?

A: Not at all. In fact, I would say that in our group there was the majority who found all the National Socialist idiocy a little sickening. Hrabak made it a point to explain to the new young pilots that if they thought they were fighting for National Socialism and the Fuehrer they needed to transfer to the Waffen SS or something. He had no time for political types. He was fighting a war against a superb enemy, not holding a political rally. I think this approach damaged Hrabak in the eyes of Goering and others, but he was a real man and did not care about anything but his men. Hannes Trautloft was the same way, as was Galland. All the greats with a few exceptions were like that. We even had a Russian prisoner show us how to start our engines in the sub-zero cold by mixing gasoline into the oil crankcase. This was unheard of to us and we were sure we would lose a fighter in the explosion. It worked, because the fuel thinned out the congealed oil, and evaporated as the starter engaged. It was wonderful. Another guy showed us how to start a fire under the cowling and start the engine, another helpful hint. This same guy showed us how to keep the weapons firing by dipping them in boiling water removing the lubricants which froze the mechanisms shut. Without the oils, they worked fine. I felt sad for these men, who hated no one and were forced to fight a war they would rather have avoided.

Q: What were some of your more memorable combat experiences in fighting enemy aircraft?

A: One situation comes to mind. I was in a duel with a Red Banner flown Yak-9, and this guy was good and absolutely insane. He tried and tried to get in behind me, and every time he went to open fire I would jerk out of the way of his rounds. Then he pulled up and rolled, and we approached each other head-on, firing, with no hits either way. This happened two times. Finally, I rolled into a negative G dive, out of his line of sight, and rolled out to chase him at full throttle. I came in from below in a shallow climb and flamed him. The pilot bailed out and was later captured. I met and spoke with this man, a captain, who was a likeable guy. We gave him some food and allowed him to roam the base after having his word that he would not escape. He was happy to be alive, but he was very confused since his superiors told him that Soviet pilots would be shot immediately upon capture. This guy had just had one of the best meals of the war and had made new friends. I like to think that people like that went back home and told their countrymen the truth about us, not the propaganda that erupted after the war, although there were some terrible things that happened, no doubt. Once I attacked a flight of four IL-2s and shot one up. All four tried to roll out in formation at low altitude, and all four crashed into the ground, unable to recover since their bomb loads reduced their manoeuvrability. Those were the easiest four kills I ever had. However, I remember the time I saw over 20,000 dead Germans littering a valley where the Soviet tank and Cossacks had attacked a trapped unit, and that sight, even from the air was perhaps the most memorable of my life. I can close my eyes and see this even now. Such a tragedy. I remember that I cried as I flew low over the scene; I could not believe my eyes. Another time was in May 1944 near Jassy, my wingman Blessin and I were jumped by fighters, he broke right and the enemy followed him down. I rolled and followed the enemy fighter down to the deck. I radioed to my wingman to pull up and slip right in a shallow turn so I could get a good shot. I told him to look back, and see what happens when you do not watch your tail, and I fired. The fighter blew apart and fell like confetti. However, separate from Krupinski’s crash the day I met him, one event is clear and comical. My wingman on many missions was Carl Junger. He came in for a landing and a Polish farmer with horse cart crossed his path. He crashed into it, killing the horse and the fighter was nothing but twisted wreckage. We all saw it and began thinking about the funeral when suddenly the debris moved and he climbed out without a scratch, still wearing his sunglasses. He was ready to go up again. Amazing! Then there was the American Mustangs that we both dreaded and anticipated meeting. We knew that they were a much better aircraft than ours; newer and faster, and with a great range. Once in Romania, we had an interesting experience with both Russians and Americans.

Q: What happened on that mission?

A: We took off on a mission to intercept Soviet bombers attacking Prague, and we counted many American made aircraft with Red Stars, part of your Lend & Lease. But then there were American fighters also nearby, and I was above them all by a thousand meters. It seemed that the Americans and Russians were busy examining each other and were unaware that we were around. I gave the order to drop down through the Mustangs, then the Russian fighters, and through the bombers in just one hit and run attack, then we would get the hell out of there since there were only the two of us. I shot down two P-51s quickly in my dive, and I then fired on a Boston bomber, scored good hits but it was not a kill. The second element also scored a kill against the Mustangs, and my wingman and I were all right. Suddenly the most amazing thing happened. The Soviet fighters and Americans began fighting each other, and the confusion worked for us. They must have not realized that it was a Schwarm of Germans that started the whole thing! The Russian bombers dropped their bombs in panic and turned away. I saw three Yaks get shot down and a Mustang damaged trailing white smoke. That was my last fight against the Americans.

Q: When did you first encounter the American pilots?

A: This was in the defence of Ploesti and Bucharest, and also over Hungary when the bombers came in and they had heavy fighter escort. I was recalled to take over the command I/JG-52, and this was 23 June 1944. B-17s were attacking the railroad junction, and we were formed up. We did not see the Mustangs at first and prepared to attack the bombers. Suddenly four of them flew across us and below, so I gave the order to attack the fighters. I closed in on one and fired, his fighter coming apart and some pieces hit my wings, and I immediately found myself behind another and I fired, and he flipped in. My second flight shot down the other two fighters. But then we saw others and again attacked. I shot down another and saw that the leader still had his drop tanks, which limited his ability to turn. I was very relieved that this pilot was able to successfully bail out. I was out of ammunition after the fight. But this success was not to be repeated, because the Americans learned and they were not to be ambushed again. They protected the bombers very well, and we were never able to get close enough to do any damage. I did have the opportunity to engage the Mustangs again when a flight was being pursued from the rear and I tried to warn them on the radio, but they could not hear. I dived down and closed on a P-51 that was shooting up a 109, and I blew him up. I half rolled and recovered to fire on another of the three remaining enemy planes and flamed him as well. As soon as that happened I was warned that I had several on my tail so I headed for the deck, a swarm of eight Americans behind me. That is a very uncomfortable feeling I can tell you! I made jerking turns left and right as they fired, but they fired from too far away to be effective. I was headed for the base so the defensive guns would help me, but I ran out of fuel and had to bail out. I was certain that this one pilot was lining me up for a strafe, but he banked away and looked at me, waving. I landed four miles from the base; I almost made it. That day we lost half our aircraft; we were too outnumbered and many of the young pilots were inexperienced.

Q: How did you assess your enemy in the air?

A: I knew that if an enemy pilot started firing early, well outside the maximum effective range of his guns, then he was an easy kill. But, if a pilot closed in and held his fire, and seemed to be watching the situation, then you knew that an experienced pilot was on you. Also, I developed different tactics for various conditions, such as always turning into the guns of an approaching enemy, or rolling into a negative G dive forcing him to follow or break off, then rolling out and sometimes reducing airspeed to allow him to over commit. That was when you took advantage of his failing.

Q: There were some sceptics who questioned your kills. Tell about that, and how high did it go?

A: Well, this happened to a few of us. Goering could not believe the staggering kills being recorded from 1941 on. I even had a man in my unit, someone you also know, Fritz Oblesser, who questioned my kills. I asked Rall to have him transferred from the 8th Squadron to be my wingman for a while. Oblesser became a believer and signed off on some kills as a witness, and we became friends after that.

Q: Adolf Galland told me of how he tried to get you into his JV-44 in 1945. Why did you not take him up on the offer, like Krupi and Barkhorn?

A: I did qualify in the Me-262, but my heart and friends were in JG-52, and I felt that was where I belonged. Unit loyalty to me was important. Plus I had many new pilots who needed guidance and instruction. They were getting younger all the time and had fewer and fewer hours of flight instruction before they were thrown into battle. I was needed and that was where I stayed. Rall, Krupinski, Steinhoff and others were transferred to the Reich Defense, where they ended their war. I was torn between these facts, but I felt that I made the right decision at the time. In later years I realized that my life would have been very different if I had stayed with JV-44.

Q: How did you end up in Soviet custody?

A: On 8 May 1945 I took off at around 0800 hours from my field in Czechoslovakia going to Bruenn. My wingman and I saw eight Yaks below us. I shot one down and that was my last victory. I decided not to attack the others once I saw that there were twelve Mustangs on the scene above me. My wingman and I headed for the deck where the smoke of the bombing could hide us. We pulled through the smoke and saw once again the two allies fighting each other above us. Incredible! Well, we landed in the field and were told that the war was over. I must say that during the war I never disobeyed an order, but when General Seidemann ordered me and Graf to fly to the British sector and surrender to avoid the Russians, with the rest of the wing to surrender to the Soviets. I could not leave my men. That would have been bad leadership. There was a large bounty on my head, much like Ruedel. I was well known and everyone knew that Stalin would like to get me. I was marching with my unit through Czechoslovakia when we surrendered to an American armoured unit. They handed all of us over to the Soviets. I remember Graf telling me that, as Diamonds winners, the Soviets would probably execute us if they got us. I had no doubt he was right at the time. Graf also mentioned the women, children and ground personnel who would have no one to help them; they would be at the mercy of the Red Army, and we all knew what that meant. Well, we destroyed the aircraft and all munitions, everything. I sat in my fighter and fired the guns into the woods where all the fuel had been dropped, and then jumped out. We destroyed twenty-five perfectly good fighters. They would be nice to have in museums now.

Q: What was it like for you when you surrendered?

A: Graf, Grasser and I surrendered to the 90th Infantry Division, and we were placed in a barbed wire camp. The conditions were terrible. Many men decided to escape, and some were assisted by the guards. We went eight days without any food and then were told we were to be moved. All of us, even women and children were taken to an open field. The trucks stopped and there were Soviet troops there waiting for us. The Russians then separated the women and girls from the men, and the most horrible things happened, which you know and I cannot say here. We saw this; the Americans saw this, and we could do nothing to stop it. Men who fought like lions cried like babies at the sight of complete strangers being raped repeatedly. A couple of girls managed to run to a truck and the Americans pulled them in, but the Russians, most were drunk pointed their guns at the allies and fired a few shots. Then the truck drivers decided to drive away quickly. Some women were shot after the rapes. Others were not so lucky. I remember a twelve-year-old girl whose mother had been raped and shot being raped by several soldiers. She died from these acts soon afterwards. Then more Russians came, and it began all over again and lasted through the night. During the night entire families committed suicide, men killing their wives and daughters, then themselves. I still cannot believe these things as I speak now. I know many will never believe this story, but it is true. Soon a Russian general came and issued orders for all of this to stop. He was serious because some of the Russians who did not stay away and came to rape were executed on the spot by their own men by hanging.

Q: What was your internment like in Russia?

A: Well, I was somewhat famous, or infamous, depending upon your perspective, and the Soviets were very interested in making an example of me. I was never badly beaten and tortured, but I was starved and threatened for several years. The interrogations were the worst. I know that you have interviewed several Germans who experienced the same thing. The stories are pretty much the same, so I won’t go into details. The first thing they did was give us physical exams to determine how fit we were for hard labour. Then they put us on a train which was diverted from Vienna to the Carpathians in Romania. We were placed in another wired prison with Romanian Communist guards. This lasted a week and then we boarded another train. There was no room in these small train cars, so not all could sit, so we took turns. Finally, we arrived near Kirov and disembarked in a swamp. This was our home for a while. Of the 1,500 POWs who were dropped at this place, about 200 lived through the first winter. This I know from some who survived. They were not fed, just worked to death. I was sent to Gryazovets where Assi Hahn was already. He had been a POW since 1943.

Q: Which camp were you in as a POW?

A: I was in several camps, Shakhty, Novocherkassk, where they kept me in solitary confinement, and Diaterka. I had gone on a hunger strike to protest the slave labor conditions and the fact that the Soviets were simply working men to death out of spite. I was ironically placed in a camp at Kuteynikovo where my squadron had been based in 1943.

Q: Which camp had the revolt?

A: That was Shakhty. This was when I and others refused to work, invoking the Geneva Convention. They placed me back in solitary. This was a work camp for mining and many men were tired of it, and I think my being gone started the problem. Within a few days, the POWs jumped the guards, cornered the camp commandant and freed me. It was quite exciting. Then they sent me to the other camps, and at Diaterka there 4,000 men there.

Q: Describe a camp, how was it laid out?

A: A fine example was Diaterka. There was a high fence, then a dead zone with a walkway for guards and dogs, then another fence with watchtowers with more guards and machine guns. There were long rows of barracks which were not insulated against the cold, and the winters were quite cold I can tell you. Each barrack held between 200 and 400 prisoners depending on its size, and there were rows of wooden bunks in tiers of three to four. The camp was divided into maximum and minimum security sections, with us being in the most secure section. The ultra maximum security section housed elite members of the Third Reich and special Soviet political prisoners, which was another section even within our part within its own wired enclosure. This was where Hitler’s SS adjutant Otto Gunsche and Count von der Schulenburg were held, among others. I stayed there until 1954 when I was sent back to Novocherkassk. This was my last camp.

Q: Did the Soviets try and recruit you, as they did others?

A: Yes, they offered me the opportunity to return home if I worked as an agent for them, which was out of the question. They did not like this either. I was assigned kitchen duties as an inducement to become a converted Communist. I think that if they could get us high ranking and highly decorated officers to convert their job would be made much easier. They converted Graf, which was a shame, but he did not embrace Communism. He looked at it as a pragmatist- it was either the western way or Soviet way, and he was already there. They did release him in 1950, but I would not be so lucky. Those of us who resisted were punished much longer. They wanted me as an informer and even gave me a list of names of officers they wanted information on. They promised me early release if I did this. I refused. They placed me in solitary a few times, for a long time.

Q: How did you maintain your sanity when others did not?

A: I thought of my Ushi. She kept me going, and the thought of my family waiting for me. They threatened to kill my wife and son, or forcibly bring them to Russia, and they spoke about doing terrible things. All of this was to break you down.

Q: Did you have mail or communication with Germany?

A: We were allowed only twenty-five words on a postcard to send out, sometimes a lot less, and this was not often. The letters I smuggled out with returning POWs provided the information they needed. I received about fifty letters from Ushi in the ten and a half years, but she wrote over 400. Getting a letter was the greatest morale boost you could imagine.

Q: You and Graf had a parting in Russia. Why was that?

A: Well, we had agreed never to surrender our Diamonds to the Soviets. My originals were with Ushi, and a copy was taken by an American, and another copy I had also. I threw them away, although they were worthless, rather than surrender the Graf and had given his, and they were on the table of the NKVD officer when I was called in. He wanted mine also. He did not get them. They also wanted detailed information on the Me-262, which they had several captured machines they wanted to evaluate. I did not help them.

Q: What separated the Germans from the rest of the international prisoners; how did all of you manage to survive when so many perished?

A: I would have to say our discipline; we never lost our military bearing and our rigid system and mutual respect for our own authority maintained us. We had the rank structure and presence of mind to form our own leadership committees. Even though we wore no rank everyone understood their place and all worked within the system. That was our strength, as well as many of us have our faith in God. I thought of my faith and my Ushi, and that got me through. Many men found it difficult when word would come that their wives had divorced them, or that a relative, such as a parent had died. My son Peter died while I was a POW but I only learned of this much later, a year or more, as with my father. I learned more when I was repatriated in 1955 along with Hans Baur, Ferdinand Schoerner, Hajo Herrmann, Herman Graf, Johannes Wiese, and several others. Assi Hahn was released earlier than the rest of us, as was Walter Wolfram who had been badly wounded before our capture. Wolfram smuggled a private letter to Usch for me, which let her know I was still alive.

Q: You did receive Red Cross packages available to all prisoners didn’t you?

A: Yes, sometimes, but these were often rifled through and delayed so long the food contents were worthless. Those packages that did arrive well were very helpful, especially when it came to trading with the local civilians. We made many friends with the local peasants, and they had no ill will towards us, nor we them.

Q: How many missions did you fly in the war?

A: I flew around 1,456 I think, but I am not sure of the exact number.

Q: What was your favourite method of attack?

A: Coming out of the sun and getting close; dog-fighting was a waste of time. The hit and run with the element of surprise served me well, as with most of the high scoring pilots. Once a Russian was shot down, especially the leader they became disorganized and easy to attack. This was not always the case, especially later in the war, and there were special units of highly skilled and disciplined pilots, such as the Red Banner units who would make life difficult.

Q: You were never wounded were you?

A: No. I was very lucky, unlike Rall and Krupinski, and especially Steinhoff who was almost burned alive. I was almost killed by a German sentry once returning from a brief period of captivity. That was too close for me.

Q: Were you ever shot down?

A: No, never by an enemy plane, but I had to crash land fourteen times due to damage from my victories or mechanical failure, but I never took to the parachute. I never became another pilot’s victory.

Q; As far as we know you were the youngest recipients of the Diamonds, at twenty-two. Did you find that distinction problematic?

A: I think that being a captain and a Diamonds winner at that age forced a lot of responsibility upon me. I think that I was able to handle all of that responsibility because of the strength and friendship of my comrades. I would say that I was ambitious and eager; I can’t think of any fighter pilot who would not have those qualities. Becoming a hero is not always easy, as you find yourself living up to the expectations of others. I would have preferred to just do my job and finish the war anonymously. It would have made life as a Soviet POW much easier.

Q: What events secured your release?

A: Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was very crucial in this. My mother had written Stalin and Molotov on my behalf without any response. She wrote to Adenauer and he replied personally that he was working on the problem. The Soviets wanted a trade agreement with the west, especially West Germany, and part of this deal was the release of all the POWs. I knew something was going on when we were allowed to go to the cinema and were issued new clothes, suits of a kind, and not prison issue. We boarded a bus to Rostov where we boarded a train in October 1955. Other trains would follow with the last coming in December. As soon as the train stopped at Herleshausen I was able to send a telegram to my Ushi.

Q: What would you say were the greatest highs and lows of coming home in 1955?

A: I learned that my son Peter Erich and father had died while I was in prison, and that was a hard thing for me, and I will say no more. But my mother and lovely Ushi were there waiting for me. They never gave up hope, and I think that my belief in their strength was what got me through the most terrible torture or starvation. Whatever the NKVD did to me, I just thought about my family, and focused upon that. Another sad thing was that when the train stopped and we got out, hundreds of women and men were holding photographs of sons, brothers, husbands and fathers, all asking everyone they saw if they knew of their love one. Many thousands had died and there was rarely any communication back home to anyone as to what had happened, so many never returned and the families knew nothing. They were simply ghosts who vanished. I find that very sad.

Q: What was one of the first things you wanted when you came home?

A: Well, a good meal, and a hot bath! But to see my Ushi was the greatest dream. I also read everything I could find; newspapers, books and magazines, I wanted information. I had been in an intellectual vacuum for so long, I wanted knowledge. Of course, Ushi and I had our church wedding, long overdue.

Q: Was there any celebration for your return?

A: Yes, a big party was planned but I declined it. I did not feel that it was appropriate until everyone was home who was still alive. I also could not believe the rebuilt areas and numbers of new cars, the aeroplanes in the peaceful sky. The clothes style was new, all of it was new. One of the first people to meet me was Assi Hahn, who had been home five years before.

Q: Why did you join the Bundesluftwaffe. Was there anything in your mind that would have prevented you from wearing a uniform again?

A: There is always the thought that you may once again be in the same situation again. I was thirty-three when I came home, and that is late in life to start a career. I had lost touch with much of the world, but the one thing I knew was flying and the military. That was a safe call to make. The thought of fighting another war also frightened me. But I also thought about the needs of my country, and my old comrades had joined and were pressuring me to do the same. Krupi called and wanted me to join he and Gerd Barkhorn on a flying trip to England. Dieter Hrabak even came and talked to me at the house. I joined in 1956. The old boys were back.

Q: How did you get back into flying?

A: I had a friend who let me fly his light plane, and I certified as a private pilot. Heinz Baer was also a great help, as were others. I took refresher and conversion training in Germany, England and the United States on the newer models. I was made the first Kommodore of the new JG-71 “Richthofen” and I was very proud.

Q: I know that you and Steinhoff, among others, warned the German government of the F-104 program and that this was a very sensitive issue. What do you say about that today?

A: Yes. Well, the Starfighter was a great plane, but it had problems, and I did not feel that Germany needed, or that our pilots could even handle this machine without a lot more experience. Much higher up felt that I was out of line, but I stated what I thought was accurate, and I was proven correct, but this made me enemies. I also did other things that were considered criminal, such as having the unit’s F-86s painted with my old tulip pattern, and I created the squadron bars, like in the old days, and this raised eyebrows. I felt that morale was important and camaraderie through a unique and distinguishing emblem was needed. The bars were killed under superior directives, although today all squadrons have them. I did have supporters, such as General Kammhuber, but he was a rare breed from the old days.

Q: What did you do after retirement?

A: I instructed and flew at a few air clubs, and flew in an aerobatics team with Dolfo Galland. Later I just decided to relax and enjoy life. I have my family and friends and am always meeting new ones, like you Colin. We have spoken often for many years, but I feel that now is the time to say some of the things I never really spoke about. There is always a time for everything.

Q: One question many people may have is how can you not have hatred for the Russians after your experiences with them?

A: One thing I learned is this: Never allow yourself to hate people because of the actions of a few. Hatred and bigotry destroyed my nation, and millions died. I would hope that most people did not hate Germans because of the Nazis, or Americans because of slaves. Never hate, it only eats you alive. Keep an open mind and always look for the good in people. You may be surprised at what you find.