Bf 109E ‘White 13’ flown by Feldwebel Heinz Bar,1./JG 51, September 1939
(May 25, 1913-April 28, 1957) German Fighter Pilot
With 220 confirmed kills, Heinz “Pritzel” Bär was the fifth-ranking German ace of World War II. He downed 15 of his victims while flying a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet, becoming the leading scorer for that type of aircraft. This peerless aerial tactician survived more than 1,000 combat sorties, only to die in a tragic accident.
Heinrich (or Heinz) Bär was born in Sommerfeld, Germany, on May 25, 1913, the son of a farmer. Like many youths of his generation, he was intensely drawn to the burgeoning field of aviation and took glider lessons at an early age. This inspired him to be a pilot for Lufthansa, the national airline. However, Germany imposed very strict qualifications on commercial pilots, and no less than three licenses were required. The hardships of the Depression era precluded any chance of Bär acquiring such experience, so in 1937 he decided to join the newly formed Luftwaffe. His intention was to obtain all necessary pilot certificates in the military, then retire from service and join Lufthansa. He proved himself a natural in the cockpit and by 1938 was serving as a noncommissioned pilot officer. Tragically for Bär, and millions of other young Germans, Adolf Hitler was about to embark on a war of aggression against neighboring countries. Bär’s desired military discharge became impossible by that juncture.
Shortly after World War II commenced, Bär, now flying sleek Messerschmitt Me 109 fighters, scored his first kill on September 25, 1939, when he downed an American-built Curtiss P-36 flown by the French air force. By the summer of 1940 France itself had been overrun, and the Luftwaffe under Marshal Hermann Göring concentrated its efforts against the British Isles. Flying with Jagdgruppe (fighter group) JG 51, Bär emerged with 17 kills, making him the highest-scoring sergeant- pilot of the campaign. This was done the hard way, for Bär, like many German pilots, had yet to appreciate the danger of matching turns with nimble Supermarine Spitfires in combat. Consequently, on at least six occasions, Bär had to nurse his badly shotup Me 109 back to base. Once while he was limping home with an overheated engine, a lone Spitfire shot him down over the English Channel. Swimming several hours before being rescued, a rather dejected Bär was hauled before Marshal Göring, then touring the aerodrome. When Göring inquired what he could have possibly been thinking while swimming, Bär replied, “Your speech, Herr Reichsmarschall, that England is no longer an island!”-a typical response for an audacious fighter pilot.
The Germans handily lost the Battle of Britain, and Hitler subsequently turned his attention east toward Russia. When this was invaded in June 1941, Bär accompanied his unit to the front, racking up another 43 kills in quick succession. For this he received the prestigious Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) with oak leaves-and was finally commissioned a lieutenant. Daringly aggressive, Bär disregarded orders and foolishly pursued Russian aircraft far over enemy territory. In this manner he was shot down again on August 31, 1941, parachuted behind Russian lines, and fractured his spine in two places. But Bär, ignoring intense pain, spent two agonizing days dragging himself 30 miles back to German lines. Hospitalized for several months, he returned to Russia and brought up his total score to 90 victories by February 1942. He then acquired swords to his Knight’s Cross before leaving the Eastern Front with a total of 107 kills. By the spring of 1942, Bär had been transferred to JG 77 in Sicily, where he led a squadron. He spent the next several months fighting numerous British and American air units across North Africa and the Mediterranean. Another 45 enemy planes fell to his able marksmanship before he was finally rotated to Germany for defense of the homeland.
At this time, the U. S. Army Air Force under James H. Doolittle and Carl A. Spaatz had embarked on massed precision daytime bombing of German industrial targets. Almost daily, huge fleets of heavily armed Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators were slowly pounding the Nazi heartland into scrap metal. Bär, a kommodore with JG 1 and then JG 3, transitioned to an even deadlier fighter, the radial-engine Focke-Wulf Fw 190. He also learned how to tackle the heavily armed Allied bombers, eventually shooting down a total of 21. After January 1944, the Americans began deploying large numbers of North American P-51 Mustangs and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts as escort fighters, and German losses rose exponentially. Bär was now pitted against such aeronautical mavens as Francis S. Gabreski, Don S. Gentile, Robert S. Johnson, and Hub Zemke, all accomplished fliers. The battle was joined in earnest, and Bär was shot down a total of 18 times. However, on April 22, 1944, he became only the seventh Luftwaffe pilot to reach 200 kills, confirming his reputation as one of Germany’s great fliers. But the attrition rate suffered by veteran pilots was great, and Bär began leading larger and larger numbers of inexperienced men into combat.
Prospects looked increasingly grim for the Third Reich until the advent of the Messerschmitt Me 262, the world’s first jet fighter, in August 1944. Hitler was gambling that such new wonder weapons could wrest control of the air from Allied hands, so he ordered the creation of special all-jet squadrons flown by experienced aces. In January 1945, Bär was appointed instructor of the Jet Fighter School at Lechfeld. The following month, while flight-testing the Me 262, he established a new airspeed record of 645 miles per hour and an altitude record of 48,000 feet. Shortly after, he was transferred to Gen. Adolf Galland’s Jagdverband JV 44, the elite Squadron of Experts. In this capacity Bär quickly mastered the nuances of jet combat and went on to score 15 additional kills in the Me 262. On April 22, 1945, he succeeded Galland as commander of JV 44, ending the war with a total tally of 215 victories. He was also the lead scorer among Me 262 pilots, an aviation first.
Bär’s career is unique among German aces, for he flew combat missions during the entire war and in every theater. He survived more than 1,000 combat missions against virtually every type of aircraft the Allies could throw against him and won-usually. “A very good pilot in any of these aircraft was tough to handle, and if he had the tactical advantage, he had a good chance to win the fight,” Bär observed. “You see from my own eighteen experiences as someone else’s victory that they often did win.” However, his reputation as a leading jet ace militated against him in the postwar period, for Lufthansa would not hire anyone whom they considered to be a militarist. It was not until 1950 that Bär found work supervising the German Aero Club, an organization founded to promote sport flying. On April 28, 1957, Bär was demonstrating a light plane specifically designed for safe flying- when it inexplicably spun in and crashed, killing him. Having survived five and a half years of nonstop combat, his demise in a civilian airplane seems all the more tragic.
Bibliography Diedrich, Hans-Peter. German Jet Aircraft, 1939- 1945. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publications, 2000; Hess, William N. German Jets Versus the U. S. Army Air Force. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 1996; Hooten, E. R. Eagle in Flames: The Fall of the Luftwaffe. London: Arms and Armour, 1997; Isby, Dave C., ed. The Luftwaffe Fighter Force: The View from the Cockpit. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998; Kurowski, Franz. Luftwaffe Aces. Winnepeg, Manitoba: Fedorowicz, 1996; Mahurin, Walker M. Hitler’s Fall Guys: An Examination of the Luftwaffe by One of America’s Most Famous Aces. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1999; Weal, John. Bf-109 Aces of the Russian Front. Oxford: Osprey, 2000; Weal, John. Focke-Wulf FW-190 Aces of the Western Front. London: Osprey, 1996; Weal, John. Messerschmitt Bf-109 D/E Aces, 1939-1941. London: Osprey, 1996; Weal, John, and Hugh Morgan. German Jet Aces of World War II. London: Osprey, 1998.