The stronger the enemy, the more valuable the prisoner
That is why fascist officers were taken great care of in prison camps of the Vologda region. Erich Hartmann, nicknamed as the “Devil” was one of those people.
The time of the Great Patriotic War is getting farther and farther. However, this time contains a lot of secret, which still come up. There are no doubts there will be more mysteries unveiled in the future.
Major Assi Gan used to write about the time of his imprisonment in the Gryazovetsky camp: “When the river got frozen, the camp elite would often slide on ice. In summer prisoners would swim in the river, whenever they liked. There was also a big football field on the meadow behind the barbed wire. There was also another place in the camp, where we could exercise. There was even bowling there. When the weather was good, prisoners were taken to birch-woods to walk there. There was a cafe in the camp as well. An orchestra would play music there live on Sundays.”
Erich Hartmann wrote: “The camp was controlled by the Russian secret police, which uses the assistance of German betrayers. One of them was a German military judge, who was afraid of Russians as hell. Yet, he did his portion in a reasonable way. All other Germans were basically political pigs and betrayers. They called themselves Antifa. As it turned out, they were former doctors of a German death squad. I do not know, what Russians were going to do with them. They betrayed us yesterday, they would betray their new owners tomorrow. Such people should be kept in hell.”
Antifa means anti-fascist. Indeed, fascist military men (the camp was meant for officers) would repent in that camp. Some of them even studied communism. There was a good reason to repent in a camp – anti-fascists would get better food. In addition to that, they had more shots to be released. Obedient prisoners were also given good opportunities for entertainment. Obstinate prisoners usually spent their time in a punishment cell. Hartmann was one of the obstinate ones. Erich Hartmann’s biography was too unusual to let him be like everyone else.
Hartmann Erich Alfred. Born in 1922 in Germany. Recruited at the age of 18. In 1942 became an officer of the German Air Force. Downed 352 Soviet and American planes. Finished war as a major of 23 years old. Spent more than ten years in jail.
Erich visited the USSR for the first time, when he was a little boy, at the end of the 1920s. His family crossed the Russian border on a train. They were coming back to Germany from China, where Erich’s father worked as a doctor. When the family returned home, Frau Hartmann bought a private jet, so Erich's flying experience started at the age of eight years. When Germany unleashed the war, the guy wanted to serve in the Air Force. Lieutenant Hartmann looked very young in comparison with other German soldiers.
Erich was rather a hot-tempered young man. At times, he even surprised his fellow soldiers with his despise for Russians. Erich was absolutely certain that all Russians were dumb. However, Erich's first battle experience was rather sad: Russian pilots downed his plane. He stayed alive by miracle, having jumped off with a parachute. German older military men would teach Erich that he was not supposed to underestimate the enemy: “Please understand. This Russian pilot was born by a beautiful Russian girl. He has a right to live and to love.” This is very hard to believe, but this is what memoirs say.
Erich could not stand that, he would have lots of tantrums, so he had to return home. When he came back home, he had to suffer from another nervous breakdown. His father told him that Germany was losing the war. Erich made up his mind to go back to the front and prove the opposite.
He became a disaster in the summer of 1943. In July of 1943 he downed 23 planes, in August – 49, in September – 24. He was very good at piloting and targeting planes. Also, he used special tactics. He would attack from the side of the sun, in order to remain invisible as long as possible.
As a rule, German pilots were rather skilful men. A common Air Force unit JG-52, where Hartmann served, had pilots like Gerhard Barkhory – 301 downed planes, German Graf – 212 downed planes, Guenter Raal – 275 downed planes and so on and so forth. In comparison, USSR’s best pilot, Ivan Kozhedub, downed 62 planes. What was the German secret? First of all, they had better planes. Soviet Union’s planes became competitive against German ones at the time, when the war was about to be over. In addition to that, German pilots would perform more sorties. They acted like free hunters, whereas Soviet pursuit planes would basically convoy bomber planes.
When Erich achieved his first success in sky battles, he painted the front part of his plane black. British historians say that Erich was nicknamed the “Black Devil of the South” because of that. To be honest, it is hard to believe that Soviet pilots would make up such a metaphorical name for a German pilot. Russian historians found more prosaic names for Hartmann – either the “Black” or the “Devil.”
Soviet pilots hunted for the Black; the reward was ten thousand rubles. Erich had to hide. He had to paint his plane back. October 19th, 1943 was a sad day for Erich Hartmann. This was the day, when he was taken captive for the first time in his life. His plane was downed with a Russian antiaircraft system. Erich landed right in the hands of the Russian soldiers. However, he was back in the German rear the next day. He pretended to be seriously wounded and ran away.
Russian pilots were not that bad after all. The Soviet Union had its legends too: Ivan Kozhedub, Alexander Pokryshkin, Alexander Klubov. One had to be an ace to make Erich Hartmann feel scary.
Hartmann became the prime enemy of Soviet pilots in August of the year 1944, when he downed his 300th plane. Hartmann became a national hero in Germany. Hitler awarded Erich with a superior German military decoration– The Knight's Cross to the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. After that, Erich went on his vacation and married Ursula Petsch.
When Erich’s popularity was growing, the German army was suffering losses. Soviet troops eventually got the Germans out of the Crimea. The German command wanted that to be explained. Hartmann had to write some reports, in which he complained of Russian severe frost and pilots. He wrote that they would often change their tactics and do something unusual.
Erich Hartmann managed to down a Soviet Yak-7 plane on the day of the German capitulation. It happened on the territory of the Czech republic. Later, he was ordered to fly to Dortmund and yield to the British there. Other German units were ordered to wait for the Soviet troops to arrive. Soviet pilots were longing to get even with German “record-holders,” so the German command tried to hide their outstanding fighters. Erich Hartmann could not fulfil that order. He spilled gas on his planes and set them on fire. German aces were taken captives by American tankmen.
In October of 1945, Hartman found himself in the Vologda region of the Soviet Union. Erich spent two years of his life in the prison camp of Gryazovets. This place was like a resort to him, taking into consideration the fact that he was first imprisoned in a camp that was built on a peatbog. That peatbog prison was horrible: Germans would die there like flies.
When in the Gryazovets camp, Hartmann had to “visit” the punishment cell very often. A twenty-three-year-old major would always refuse to cooperate with the Soviet authorities. He even refused to sign statements that were written in the German language (Erich Hartmann was a master of five spoken languages, including Russian and Chinese). Hartmann was astounded to learn about the “deed” of his friend, another fascist Air Force icon, German Graf. All of a sudden, he announced that he was a friend of the USSR. He even wrote a letter of repentance, in which he expressed a wish to serve in the Red Army. Needless to mention that his wish did not come true. Yet, his imprisonment term was cut. On the other hand, Erich was an inspiration for local dissidents. Even old German generals would follow a young guy, who did not care a bit about his own release.
In 1947 he wrote to his wife that he was carried over to another camp 60 kilometers from Vologda. “We live in big barracks, each packed with 400 people. We sleep on narrow wooden benches. I am sure that they keep cattle in Germany better. The sanitary conditions here are like a thousand years ago. The medical aid is fine. They give us here 600 grams of bread, 30 grams of butter, 40 grams of sugar, and two bowls of soup every day. They also give us a cup of oatmeal porridge. Everyone starves here. There are no washing stands, just wooden tubs. Dystrophy is common for everyone. It seems to me that my organism assimilates this food well, which helps me to stay alive. It is winter here now. Dirty ground is covered with white snow, flees and bugs accompany us always, there are thousands of them here. If I may say so, Russians treat me fine since I am a German hero. I was once present at a session of some sort of a court. However, they did not want to pay any attention to me, because I asked them to shoot me immediately. I just keep hoping that it might be over soon soon. I hope that we will see each other again soon and hug. I just keep repeating this military saying in my mind: “Stand up and win.” We will see each other some day. We will hold each other in our arms and be happy.”
Erich’s wife wrote about 400 letters to him. He read only forty of them. Erich’s son Peter died at the age of three; Erich learned about it a year later. Prisoners were basically busy with building houses and roads. However, Hartman refused to work for the Soviet Union. He only worked on the territory of the camp. He basically referred to international conventions that banned the exploitation of prisoners of war.
The Soviet intelligence did not want Hartmann to participate in public works either. They did not want a German celebrity to show any influence on other workers. In 1950 Hartmann was the leader of prisoners mutiny in a camp of the Rostov region. Prisoners isolated both the administration and the guards of the camp, then and killed all sneaks. Erich called Soviet headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don and demanded the presence of an international committee. A company of shooters arrived instead. The rebellion was suppressed in a blink of an eye. However, this happened years later.
When in the Cherepovets camp, Hartmann was never beaten. As he wrote in his records, an investigator hit him in the face only once. Erich was offered a position in the army of the future German Democratic Republic in return to cooperation. The German pilot answered that he would gladly consider this idea, if he could go back to his fatherland.
The Soviet government wanted to put Hartmann on trial as a war criminal. In this case he would be deprived of his prisoner of war status. This would also push all international conventions away from him. As a result, there were three major allegations: the destruction of 345 planes of the Red Army, the destruction of a bakery on the outskirts of Smolensk and the elimination of 700 civilians (Hartmann shot them from his plane near the city of Bryansk). Erich Hartmann agreed with the first part of the indictment, but rejected all others. He claimed that his military unit did not conduct any military actions either in Smolensk or Bryansk. To crown it all, he said that it was impossible to kill 700 people from a plane.
The trial took place in December of 1949. Erich was sentenced to 25 years of imprisonment. After the mentioned rebellion, his imprisonment term became 25 years longer. Erich’s wife and mother wrote letter after letter to the Soviet government, begging for Hartmann’s release. In her 51st letter to Stalin Erich’s mother, Elizabeth Hartmann, promised that she would make her son swear that he would never take any participation in the actions against the USSR. She said that she would make him lead peaceful and quiet life.
Frau Hartmann found great help on the part of the new German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. During his visit to Moscow in 1955, Adenauer asked the Soviet government to release German captives. The new Soviet government did not wish to aggravate the relations with Germany. It was decided to fulfil the German Chancellor’s request, taking into consideration the fact that Germany offered very good loans in return.
Erich Hartmann returned home in the autumn of 1955. He could do nothing but flying, though. That is why he accepted a suggestion from the German government to go to the USA and to train American and German pilots there. He retired in 1970, took a great interest in car racing and organized several piloting schools for young people. Erich Hartmann died in September of 1993 over pneumonia.
Erich Hartmann retired as a colonel. Erich Hartmann was totally against the arms race. Ten years that he spent in Soviet prison camps were not a waste of time for him, as it seems.
Alexandra Pautova used to work in the Gryazovetsky camp. Her responsibility was to read prisoners’ translated letters out loud. “There were about five thousand prisoners in the camp, presumably officers. The prisoners were guarded with only 89 soldiers. There were some Germans amid the prisoners too. They were conspicuous for their sociability, they were so friendly. However, we were rather cautious about it, we were not allowed even to talk to them. Some German man once asked me: “Could a Russia girl marry a German man?” My answer was: “In this way she would betray her country.”
Alexander Pautova also said that prisoners got their food and firewood themselves. They would plant a lot of potatoes. Twelve German prisoners escaped from that camp, but they were all caught very quickly, except for one major. He was later found in Poland.
Every prison camp had a special graveyard, where dead German prisoners were buried. Only a few people know, where those graveyards can be found nowadays.
Anton Shvedov Natalia Mikhailova Vologda
Translated by Dmitry Sudakov