Erich Hartmann joined the German Air Force in October 1940 at age 18. In March 1941 he entered flight school, and in October 1942, already in the 2nd half of World War 2, he graduated as a fighter pilot at age 20, and was posted to fighter wing 52 (JG52) which operated Me-109 fighters in South Russia.
He remained in JG52 until the last day of the war, and in 1400 combat sorties he scored 352 victories which make him the all time ace of aces, the most successful fighter pilot in history. All his victories were in the eastern front. Most of them were Russian aircraft.
When he arrived, with a group of new pilots, his squadron leader, who had 13 victories then, told the new pilots that "On the ground we live by standard military discipline. In the air, the only thing that counts is how many victories you scored. Not rank, aristocratic title, age, nothing. Just how many enemy aircraft you shot down. The highest scoring pilots will always lead the formations, regardless of rank." The message was very clear and definitely got through. Erich Hartmann was assigned as wingman of Rossmann, an experienced pilot with many victories.
Hartmann then accelerated with full throttle, went ahead of the leader, and from 300 meters he opened fire. He fired all his ammunition in one long burst and totally missed. He then immediately had to break away to avoid colliding with the Russian aircraft. Unarmed, he then found himself surrounded by Russian fighters which arrived there and tried to shoot him down. This could be the end of a career that just started, but he managed to escape into the clouds and lose them.
He then heard Rossmann in the radio, telling him that he lost him in the cloud and asking him to rejoin him. When he came out of the clouds he saw a fighter closing in at him in great speed. He thought it might be a Russian fighter and started a series of High-G evasive actions, trying to shake him away. He heard Rossmann calling him in the radio again, but could not understand him. The other fighter eventually flew away, and Hartmann flew in the direction of his base. Suddenly, not very far from the base, the engine stopped, it ran out of fuel. Luckily for Hartmann he saw a German unit nearby and crash landed near it. They took him back to base, where Rossmann was still debriefing the mission.
In his first engagement, Erich Hartmann made so many mistakes. He broke formation, went ahead of the leader, wasted all his ammunition, disoriented, and escaped no other than Rossmann, who had a radio malfunction, and badly damaged his aircraft. His punishment was three days of working with the mechanics, out in the Russian winter.
This was Erich Hartmann's first of 352 victories, including 61 Sturmoviks. It took three months before his second victory.
In 1944, he shot down at least 5 American Mustangs, but most of his 352 victories were Russian aircraft.
While the German army on the ground was pressed harder and harder by the Russian army, Erich Hartmann and his fellow fighter pilots had a very long series of victories. He became famous, and the Russians set a very high reward on his head. They nicknamed him "The black devil" and sent some of their best aces to fight where his unit fought, in order to meet him in air and kill him.
Hartmann's method, developed in over 1400 combat sorties and over 800 engagements, was simple and strict : " Detect - Decide - Attack - Disengage " . He used to close in and "When he fills the entire windscreen you can't miss". Despite his amazing list of victories, he many times decided NOT to attack, when it was too risky, knowing that the war will continue tomorrow but his life could end right there. In addition to excellent eyesight and fast reflexes, he had the perfect combination of aggression and cool temper, the qualities of the ultimate warrior, and the ultimate fighter pilot.
He crash landed 14 times, but always emerged unharmed. Once he was almost captured by Russian soldiers. ( I guess the fact that he always crash landed and not parachuted is an indicator of the usually low altitude of the Russian tactical aircraft, especially the numerous Sturmoviks which used to fly extremely low, as modern Attack helicopters do today ).
He one time took off with two mechanics inside the one-seat cockpit just minutes before the Russians stormed the airfield.
Erich Hartmann was promoted to the rank of Captain, and was decorated several times, each time receiving a higher level of the Knights Cross medal. His highest decoration was the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds, which was basically the highest German decoration, awarded to just 27 men since mid 1941. There was actually one higher level decoration, supposed to be awarded after the war to Germany's 12 greatest war heroes but was awarded, during the war, only to Hans Ulrich Rudel, the Stuka dive bomber pilot who destroyed over 500 Russian tanks.
Near the end of the war Erich Hartmann flew the Me-262 jet fighter for a while, but then returned to the Me-109 . His last base was in Czechoslovakia. His last victory, a Russian fighter, was in the last day of the war. When the war ended, at age 23, he was captured by the Russians and spent 10 years in a hard labor Russian prison.
In 1955, at age 33, Erich Hartmann returned home, to his wife, and joined the new West-German Air Force.
He said that of all his achievements, he's most proud that in over 1400 combat missions he never lost a wingman. He died in 1995.