In the village of Seiferdau, Southern Prussia, an eight-year-old boy with an umbrella jumped out of a second-story window. The umbrella turned inside out, the boy landed in a flowerbed and broke his leg. That little boy who dreamed of becoming an airman was Stuka ace Hans Ulrich Rudel. Rudel’s journey to fulfill his dream would not be easy, ultimately earning him the highest decoration of any German serviceman in World War II. Adhering to his maxim, “He is only lost who gives himself up for lost,” Rudel faced death untold times.
Son of a Lutheran pastor, Rudel was born on July 2, 1916, in Konradswaldau in Lower Silesia. Not much of an academic achiever, Rudel focused instead on sports. He taught himself to ski at 10, the mountains holding a special place in his heart. With family finances allocated to his sister’s medical studies, Rudel gave up his dream of civil air pilot training. He had decided to become a sports instructor when fate intervened with the creation of the Luftwaffe.
Rudel gained admission into the Wildpark-Werder Military School in 1936. Although wanting to become a fighter pilot, Rudel volunteered for the new Stuka diver bomber formations to avoid assignment to the slower bomber command. Rudel’s sober, milk-drinking habits ostracized him from the hard-partying pilot culture. Being only an average pilot did not help either. Relegated to aerial photography during Germany’s invasion of Poland, Leutnant Rudel nevertheless earned the Iron Cross Second Class. While Stukas blitzed across France, Rudel was training pilots. During the Balkan campaign, Rudel, by then an oberleutnant, was stuck at Reserve Flight in Graz when aerial brilliance came upon him. Rudel’s Stuka stayed attached to his wing leader like “an invisible tow rope,” hardly ever shot wide at bombing or missed at gunnery. Preconceptions nevertheless followed him to Greece. Forbidden to fly in combat, Rudel listened to the “music of the engines” roaring off to Crete.
Rudel’s talents were given a chance after Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. From 3 am to as late as 10 pm, Rudel was in the air over Belorussia. With sirens screaming, the Ju-87 Bertha Stukas turned Soviet supply columns into “seas of wreckage.” Rudel found a kindred spirit in Hauptman Ernst Siegfried Steen of Group III Stuka Geschwader 2, the Immelmann Wing, named after the German World War I ace. Steen affectionately called Rudel that “crazy fellow” because Rudel, who received the Iron Cross First Class on July 18, flew dangerously low for accuracy.
The Immelman Wing next joined the siege of Leningrad where on September 16 the Stukas caught the 23,500-ton Soviet battleship Marat in open water. Steen’s bomb was a near miss but Rudel’s 1,000-pound bomb was dead on. When it was confirmed that the Maratsurvived, Rudel saw red. Braving enemy fighters and the antiaircraft fire of Kronstadt harbor bursting “like the clap of doomsday,” Rudel returned to finish off the wounded Maraton the September 23. Absorbed with hitting his target, Rudel released his new 2,000-pound bomb at 900 feet, forgetting that its fragmentation effect ranged up to 3,000 feet. Rudel momentarily blacked out, skimming 10 feet above the water. Rear gunner Alfred Scharnovski woke him up: “She is blowing up, sir.”
Rudel spent the winter of 1941 in the Rzhev sector. Weakened by lack of winter supplies, frozen petrol, and frostbite, the German soldiers held out against an onslaught of fresh Siberian divisions. Not for the last time, the Stukas defended their airfield from ground attacks. Rudel’s holiday present was the German Cross in Gold followed in January 1942 by the Knight’s Cross. Temporarily sent to reserve flight at Graz as an instructor, Rudel stopped on the way to get married in his home village.
Rudel’s new crews underwent rigorous aerial training, supplemented with morning runs and afternoon swims. Rudel volunteered his trainee Staffel (squadron) to support mountain troops in the Caucasus. Flying over the snowcapped Elbruz Mountains, Rudel was entranced by green meadows and mountain flowers. “For a time I forgot entirely the bombs I am carrying and the objective.”
In September 1942 Rudel completed his 500th operational flight. Reaching his 600th in November, Rudel celebrated by consuming copious amounts of cake. Soon after Rudel contracted jaundice. Ignoring a furious doctor, Rudel staggered from the hospital to take command of 1st Staffel of the Immelmann Wing at Stalingrad. By now the wing had been re-equipped with the more powerful Ju-87 Dora. The close-quarter fighting in the city demanded painstaking accuracy to avoid hitting friendly troops. Overexerted and sick, Rudel pushed himself to the limits to ward off the destruction of the 6th Army, feeling “more as if I were in Hades than on earth.”
On February 10, 1943, Rudel completed his 1,001st operational flight. Promoted to flight lieutenant, Rudel was sent on holiday leave. After captaining the Luftwaffe team in a ski tournament in Austria, a recharged Rudel went on to test the new twin 3.7cm cannon-armed Ju-87 Gustav Stukas. Even slower and less maneuverable than the bomb-carrying Ju-87, the Gustav nevertheless became an excellent tank buster. Resuming command of 1st Staffel, Rudel integrated the cannon Stukas in the fighting for the Kuban bridgehead. Within a few days Rudel himself destroyed 70 of the small Soviet boats trying to cross the lagoons. His efforts earned Rudel the rank of Hauptmann on April 1 and the Oak Leaves on April 14.
In July 1943 the Stukas unleashed a storm of destruction at the Battle of Kursk. Swooping in at 15 to 30 feet above the ground, Rudel’s cannons blasted tungsten-core shells through the thin back armor of enemy tanks. A successful hit entailed flying through an exploding curtain of fire, scorching Rudel’s Stuka and riddling it with splinters. By the end of the first day’s attack, Rudel’s Gustav had destroyed 12 tanks. Other Doras bombarded the deadly Soviet antiaircraft guns or circled to protect against fighters. Despite inflicting heavy casualties on the Soviets, the Germans gained little ground. Worried about Anglo-American landings in Sicily, German leader Adolf Hitler called off what turned out to be Germany’s last great offensive in the East.
On July 17 Rudel took over command of Group III Stuka Geschwader 2, helping slow down the Soviet advance that pushed the Germans to the Dnieper River by August. After destroying his 100th tank, Rudel received the Swords to his Knight’s Cross at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair on November 25.
Rudel’s Stukas were transferred north from the southern front to aid the encircled Cherkassy pocket, then back south to north of Odessa. Promoted to major on March 20, 1944, Rudel led an attack against a Dniester bridge. A new pilot lagged behind and, riddled by Soviet Lag-5 fighters, veered off into Soviet territory. Rudel found the crew in a field waving from beside their downed plane. Landing to rescue them, Rudel’s own plane got stuck in the mud. Pursued by Soviet infantry, Rudel and his companions ran four miles to the Dniester. Confronted by a steep cliff overlooking the river, the four of them slid downhill through thorny bushes. Their clothes and hands ripped, they caught their breath before diving into the icy, flooded river. Reaching the other side, the crew of the other Stuka collapsed beside Rudel. Hentschel was missing. Rudel, himself exhausted, dove back in. He was too late: “If I had succeeded in catching a hold of Hentschel I should have remained with him in the Dniester.”
Rudel and his companions next stumbled upon another party of Russians. Tommy guns pointing at them, his companions surrendered. Dodoging bullets, Rudel made a break for it. Hit in the shoulder, Rudel nearly blacked out. More Russians with horses and dogs came after him. Cresting a hill, he ran down the other side, collapsing in the mud. In the twilight, the pursuers lost of sight of Rudel. He plodded on through pouring rain, running mile after mile, losing all feeling in his feet. Aided by Romanian peasants who shared their meager food, Rudel crossed 30 miles of enemy territory in “the hardest race of [his] life.” The elation of Rudel’s return among the Immelmann Wing was tempered by the news of Hentschel’s death.
On March 29, Rudel initially refused the Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross because Hitler also insisted that Rudel stop flying. To Rudel’s relief, Hitler rescinded his order.
More special awards were to come, along with more attempts to ground Rudel and have him command increasingly fanciful operations. Clad at one meeting as a medieval archer, at another in a toga, the eccentric Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring awarded Rudel with the Golden Pilot’s Medal with Diamonds and the Golden Front Service Medal. The latter featured the number of Rudel’s 2,000 sorties in diamonds. Göring wanted Rudel to lead a new Messerschmitt 410 squadron to combat Anglo-American bombers. The Reichsmarschall also spoke of an unbelievable 300 panzers ready for an imminent Eastern offensive. Furthermore, worried about Rudel’s safety, Göring relayed Hitler’s forbiddance of Rudel rescuing any more downed crews.
Even as the Soviets pressed closer to the German homeland, Rudel experienced the awesome might of the U.S. Air Force. Large numbers of American fighters hunted for prey after escorting bomber formations. Rudel remembered several hundred Mustangs pouncing on his 19 Stukas. For the first and only time, Rudel abandoned the mission but managed to bring his squadron home without loss.