Erich Alfred Hartmann
Erich Alfred Hartmann (19 April 1922 – 20 September 1993) was a German fighter pilot during World War II and 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 was credited with shooting down a total of 352 Allied aircraft: 345 Soviet and seven American while serving with the Luftwaffe. During the course of his career, Hartmann was forced to crash-land his fighter 16 times due either to mechanical failure or damage received from parts of enemy aircraft he had shot down; he was never shot down by direct enemy action.
Hartmann, a pre-war glider pilot, joined the Luftwaffe in 1940 and completed his fighter pilot training in 1942. He was posted to the veteran Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52) on the Eastern Front and placed under the supervision of some of the Luftwaffe's most experienced fighter pilots. Under their guidance, Hartmann steadily developed his tactics.
On 29 October 1943, Hartmann was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for 148 enemy aircraft destroyed and the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross for 202 enemy aircraft on 2 March 1944. Exactly four months later, he received the Swords to the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves for 268 enemy aircraft shot down. Ultimately, Hartmann earned the coveted Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds on 25 August 1944 for 301 aerial victories. At the time of its presentation to Hartmann, this was Germany's highest military decoration.
Hartmann achieved his 352nd and last aerial victory at midday on 8 May 1945, hours before the German surrender. 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 National People's Army, he was tried on war crimes charges and convicted. He was initially sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment, later increased to 25 years, and spent 10 years in various Soviet prison camps and gulags until he was released in 1955. In 1997, the Russian Federation (posthumously) relieved him of all charges. In 1956, Hartmann joined the newly established West German Air Force in the Bundeswehr, and became the first Geschwaderkommodore of Jagdgeschwader 71 "Richthofen". He was retired in 1970, due to his opposition to the procurement of the F-104 Starfighter. In his later years, after his military career had ended, he became a civilian flight instructor. Hartmann died on 20 September 1993 at age 71.
Günther Rall (10 March 1918 – 4 October 2009) was a highly decorated German military aviator, officer and General, whose military career spanned nearly forty years. Rall was the third most successful fighter pilot in aviation history, behind Gerhard Barkhorn, who is second, and Erich Hartmann, who is first. Rall was born in Gaggenau, the German Empire, in March 1918. Rall grew up in the Weimar Republic. In 1933 the Nazi Party seized power and Rall, deciding upon a military career, joined the Wehrmacht in 1936 to train as an infantry soldier. Rall transferred to the Luftwaffe soon after and he qualified as a fighter pilot in 1938. In September 1939 World War II began with the German invasion of Poland. Rall was assigned to Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52—52nd Fighter Wing) and flew combat patrols in the Phoney War period on the Western Front. Rall flew combat missions in the Battle of France and Battle of Britain, claiming one enemy aircraft destroyed in May 1940. Rall's wing sustained heavy casualties and the then-22 year old was appointed to Staffelkapitän (squadron leader). He then served in the Balkans Campaign in April and May 1941 without success. In June 1941, JG 52 moved to the Eastern Front, where it remained from Operation Barbarossa until the end of the war. Rall claimed his first successes in the air defense of Romania. In November 1941, he was shot down, wounded and invalidated from flying for a year. At this time Rall had claimed 36 aerial victories. His achievements earned him the German Cross in Gold in December 1941. Rall returned in August 1942 and was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 3 September 1942 for 65 enemy aircraft shot down. By 22 October Rall had claimed 100 and received the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves. He reached 200 in late August 1943. On 12 September 1943 he was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, the second highest military award in Nazi Germany at the time of the presentation. By the end of 1943 Rall had achieved over 250, the second flier to do so after Walter Nowotny did in October 1943.
In April 1944 Rall left JG 52 and the Eastern Front. He was given command of II. Gruppe (2nd group) of Jagdgeschwader 11 and served in the Defense of the Reich where he was wounded for a third time. In November 1944 Rall was appointed as an instructor and flew captured Allied fighter aircraft in order to prepare instruction notes on their performance to German fighter pilots. Rall ended the war with an unsuccessful stint commanding Jagdgeschwader 300 (JG 300—300th Fighter Wing) near Salzburg, Austria, where he surrendered in May 1945. During World War II Rall was credited with the destruction of 275 enemy aircraft in 621 combat missions. He was shot down five times and wounded on three occasions. Rall claimed all of his victories in a Messerschmitt Bf 109, though he also flew the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 operationally. All but three of his claims were against Soviet opposition. Rall joined the West German Air Force in 1956, served as Inspector of the Air Force from 1971 to 1974, and as the German representative to the NATO Military Committee until 1975. After his retirement Rall became a consultant. Among his post-war achievements was the presentation of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. It was awarded to him for his post-1945 service.
Hans-Ulrich Rudel (2 July 1916 – 18 December 1982) was a German ground-attack pilot during World War II and a post-war neo-Nazi activist. The most decorated German pilot of the war and the only recipient of the Knight's Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, Rudel was credited with the destruction of 519 tanks, one battleship, one cruiser, 70 landing craft and 150 artillery emplacements. He claimed 51 aerial victories and the destruction of more than 800 vehicles. He flew 2,530 ground-attack missions exclusively on the Eastern Front, usually flying the Junkers Ju 87 "Stuka" dive bomber.