Hans-Ulrich Rudel was a German ground-attack pilot, and the most decorated German serviceman of World War II, being the sole recipient of the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds. Post-war, he was a prominent neo-Nazi activist in Latin America and West Germany. During the war, Rudel was credited with the destruction of 519 tanks, as well as one battleship, one cruiser, 70 landing craft, 150 artillery emplacements, and more than 800 vehicles of all types. He also claimed 11 aerial victories, earning flying ace status. Rudel flew 2,530 ground-attack missions exclusively on the Eastern Front, mostly flying the Junker Ju 87 “Stuka” dive bomber.
Rudel surrendered to US forces on 8 May 1945 and emigrated to Argentina in 1948. A committed and unrepentant National Socialist, he founded the “Kameradenwerk“, a relief organization for Nazi refugees that helped fugitives escape to Latin America and the Middle East. Together with Willem Sassen, Rudel helped shelter Josef Mengele, the notorious former SS doctor at Auschwitz. He worked as an arms dealer and a military advisor to the regimes of Juan Perón in Argentina, of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and of Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay. Due to these activities, he was placed under observation by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In the West German federal election of 1953, Rudel, who had returned to West Germany, was the top candidate for the far-right German Reich Party but was not elected to the Bundestag. Following the Revolution in 1955, the uprising that ended the second presidential term of Perón, Rudel moved to Paraguay, where he acted as a foreign representative for several German companies. In 1977, he became a spokesman for the German People’s Union, a neo-Nazi political party founded by the extremist politician Gerhard Frey. Rudel died in West Germany in 1982.
Joins Luftwaffe at 20
Rudel was born on 2 July 1916, in Konradswaldau, in Prussia. His father was a Lutheran minister. As a boy, Rudel was a poor in studies, but a very keen sportsman. He joined the Hitler Youth in 1933. After graduating in 1936, he participated in the compulsory Reich Labour Service (RAD). Later the same year Rudel joined the Luftwaffe and began his military career as an air reconnaissance pilot.
World War II Begins – Becomes a Stuka Pilot – Sinks Battleship “Marat”
German forces invaded Poland in 1939 starting the WW II in Europe. As an air observer, Rudel flew on long-range reconnaissance missions over Poland. In early 1941, he underwent training as a Stuka (Junkers Ju 87) Bomber pilot. He was posted to 1 Staffel Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 (StG 2), which was moved to occupied Poland in preparation for “Operation Barbarossa“, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941. In his first day of battle, Rudel flew four missions. In a little over a month he flew 100, receiving the Iron Cross First Class and new respect from his flying mates. “He is the best man in my squadron!” claimed Captain Ernst-Siegfried Steen. “But this crazy fellow will have a short life….” Rudel later wrote in his memoirs, “He knows that I generally dive too low a level, in order to make sure of hitting the target and not waste ammunition.”
On 21 September 1941, Rudel took part in an attack on the Soviet battleship “Marat” of the “Baltic Fleet”. Marat was sunk at her moorings on 23 September 1941 after being hit by one 1,000-kilogram (2,200 lb) bomb near the forward superstructure. It caused the explosion of the forward magazine which demolished the superstructure and the forward part of the hull. 326 men were killed and the ship gradually settled to the bottom. Her sinking was credited to Rudel. His backseat gunner, Sergeant Alfred Scharnowski, was with him all the way. The young East Prussian, the 13th child in his family, was accustomed to having the odds against him. “He seldom speaks,” commented Rudel, “…nothing ruffles him.” Rudel’s unit then took part in “Operation Typhoon”, Army Group Center’s attempt to capture the Soviet capital.
On target approach the flak was so intense that the Stukas, bobbing, weaving and dodging, broke formation. Rudel held station on Steen’s wing, and together they bored in. From miles away they could see Marat tied up with the heavy cruiser Kirov at its stern. Wing-mounted dive brakes extended for greater stability and accuracy, Steen pitched over into the attack, with Rudel right behind him. The airspeed indicator wound up as the altimeter wound down. “I have already picked up Marat in my sights,” Rudel recounted. “We race down towards her; slowly she grows to a gigantic size. Now all their A.A. guns are directed at us.” wrote Don Hollway for historynet.com.
Steen closed his brakes, trying to get down through the flak before it blew him out of the sky. Rudel cut his brakes as well, “going all out. I am right on his tail, traveling much too fast and unable to check my speed.” He passed so close to the lead plane that he could see Steen’s rear gunner, Sergeant Helmut Lehmann, looking terrified that Rudel would ram them. Marat loomed up below, “large as life in front of me. Sailors are running across the deck….Now I press the bomb release switch on my stick and pull with all my strength.” Already too low to use the Stuka’s automatic dive-recovery system, Rudel was also well below his bomb’s 3,000-foot safe release height. “My acceleration is too great,” he wrote. “My sight is blurred in momentary blackout…when I hear Scharnowski’s voice: ‘She is blowing up, sir!’” They had pulled out a dozen feet or so above the water. Behind them Rudel saw a 1,200-foot pillar of smoke and fire billowing from the battleship. His bomb had exploded in an ammunition magazine. Marat’s bow had blown off.
Misses a Mission – Saves His LIfe
The Stukas regrouped at their airfield to next target the cruiser “Kirov”. Taxiing for takeoff, His CO Steen’s plane mired in soft ground, so he switched to Rudel’s Stuka. Rudel had to watch as the CO took off. In the midst of their attack dive, they took a hit in the tail. Unable to pull out, Steen aimed the Stuka at “Kirov”, but hit the sea alongside. Even Rudel’s ardent Nazism seemed shaken by the incident.
Rudel’s Gunner – Erwin Hentschel
Rudel’s gunner from October 1941 was Erwin Hentschel, who served with Rudel for the next two and a half years, both men earning the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Hentschel completed 1,400 sorties with Rudel and drowned on 21 March 1944 when they were making their way to the German lines following a forced landing.
Battle of Stalingrad
In early 1942, Rudel got married while home on leave. Later in the year, he took part in the Battle of Stalingrad. From May 1941 to January 1942, Rudel flew 500 missions. Having survived his first Russian winter and a summer commanding a Stuka training unit. He also married his fiancée, Ursula. By the time he rejoined StG.2, flying the new Ju-87D over Stalingrad, the German Sixth Army had already cornered the Russians in 1,000 yards of the Volga River’s west bank. Stuka bombing precision was essential in this situation.“We have to drop our bombs with painstaking accuracy,” explained Rudel, “because our own soldiers are only a few yards away in another cellar behind debris of another wall.”
In February 1943, Rudel flew his 1,000th combat mission, which made him into a national hero. Within days the Sixth Army was encircled. The Stukas flew 10, 15 sorties a day, dawn to dusk around Stalingrad’s shrinking Kessel (cauldron), where Soviets and Nazis fought to the death over wreckage, rubble and their dictators’ prestige. “Because of the uninterrupted sorties and the stiff fighting,” Rudel said, “…the whole squadron has at the moment scarcely more than enough aircraft to form one strong flight.” StG.2 pulled out to a base 100 miles west of the city, only to find Soviet armor bearing down on the airfield. Rudel flew 17 sorties, stopping the last tank himself just a few yards short of his own runway. “We know the strength of the opposition,” he wrote. “It is too late to free the Sixth Army.”
Experimental Ju 87G – More Success – More Awards
He then participated in the experiments with using the Ju 87 G in the anti-tank role. It had occurred to the German high command that the most efficient way to kill a tank wasn’t by trying to hit it on the roof with a bomb. Armed with two 600-pound cannon pods, the Stuka became slow and unwieldy, unable to dive or carry bombs, but its 6-foot gun barrels could put 37mm tungsten-core shells through square-foot targets from the air at more than 150 yards. This Ju-87G—the Kanonenvogel (Cannonbird) or Panzerknacker (Tankcracker)—would become one of the war’s supreme tank busters, largely in Rudel’s hands. The anti-tank unit took part in operations against the Soviet Kerch–Eltigen Operation. The footage from one of his onboard gun camera was used in a Reich Ministry of Propaganda newsreel. In April 1943, Rudel was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, receiving the Oak Leaves from Hitler personally in Berlin.
July 1943 Battle of Kursk
On 12 July 1943 as thousands of German and Russian tanks wheeled and fired at point-blank range below him, Rudel circled behind the enemy armor formations to attack from the rear. In his first attack he disabled four tanks, and by the end of the first day he had bagged 12—the equivalent of a Soviet armor company. He came in so low he risked being caught in the target’s explosion. “This happens to me twice in the first few days when I suddenly fly through a curtain of fire,” he reported. “I come out, however, safe and sound on the other side, even though…my aircraft is scorched and splinters from the exploding tank have riddled it with holes.”
Loyalty to Stuka
The Luftwaffe already intended to replace Ju-87G with the faster Focke-Wulf Fw-190F in the ground attack role (and Rudel would sometimes fly it), but his name would always be linked to the Stuka. “The evil spell is broken,” he raved about the Panzerknacker. “In this aircraft we possess a weapon which can speedily be employed everywhere and is capable of dealing successfully with the formidable numbers of Soviet tanks.”
Gets His Gunner a Knight’s Cross
Soon appointed wing commander, Rudel formed an elite tank-hunter squadron, a Stuka “fire brigade” tossed into the line wherever the latest Russian breakthrough threatened. His mission tally and score rose dramatically; by November he had racked up 1,500 missions and more than 100 tank kills. His back-seater, Sergeant Erwin Hentschel, became the most successful gunner in the Luftwaffe, with more than 1,200 missions and several enemy aircraft to his credit. Rudel recommended him for the Knight’s Cross, but the paperwork had not gone through when he was called to Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair headquarters to receive his own Swords to his own Knight’s Cross. Rudel took Hentschel along with him, and by sheer force of his personality and respect that he commanded even from Hitler, he arranged for the gunner to receive his medal directly from the Führer.
Forced Landing on a Highway
In the winter of 1943, on reconnaissance mission, lost in thick fog and running low on fuel, Rudel made a forced landing on a highway. “We taxi along the very broad highway as if we were driving a car,” Rudel recounted, “obeying the usual traffic regulations and allowing heavy lorries to pass. Many of them thought they were seeing a ghost plane.” They taxied for nearly 25 miles along, surely some sort of taxi record, till an overpass blocked the way. Leaving Hentschel to guard the plane, Rudel caught a ride to base and returned to take off when the weather lifted.
He also proved that the Panzerknacker was effective against Soviet “flying tanks”, the heavily armoured Shturmoviks. He dropped down alone through the fighter cover. Within three hundred feet of the Il-2 (Shturmovik), he let loose a round of anti-tank ammunition, his target exploded.
Daring Rescue of a Downed Pilot Behind Enemy Lines
Rudel was appointed Gruppenkommandeur of III. Gruppe on 22 February 1944. On 20th March 1944, when Luftwaffe thought that the Stuka’s glory days as a dive bomber were over, Rudel joined the effort to cut the Soviet bridgeheads over the Dniester River near Nikolayev, Ukraine. On his eighth sortie that day, now-Major Rudel saw one of his crews forced down on the wrong side of the river. He landed there to pick them up. He had performed such rescues a half-dozen times before, and had been so rescued himself. But with two extra passengers, his Stuka bogged down in the mud. With Soviet troops closing in, Rudel, Hentschel and the rest ran several miles in full gear. Dropping flight suits and boots, they slid down riverbank cliffs into the water. The 600-yard-wide Dniester was in full flood, a few degrees above freezing and full of ice. “Gradually one becomes dead to all sensation save the instinct of self preservation,” Rudel recalled. His athletic training saved him. Last into the water, he was second to reach the far bank. Eighty yards short, gunner Hentschel threw up his arms and went under. Rudel dived back in, but couldn’t find his flying mate. The rest were soon captured. Rudel had been shot in the shoulder, and was wet, barefoot and freezing. Although deep in enemy territory, he continued his escape. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had announced a 100,000-ruble reward for the capture of the “Eagle of the Eastern Front,” dead or alive. Rudel sheltered among refugees and locals who had no love for Stalinist Russians, and barely survived his trek across some 30 miles of enemy territory to reach German lines.
Refuses Hitler to Be Ground for Injury
His feet were so badly injured that when he next flew he had to be helped into his plane. Yet within the week Rudel chalked up his 1,800th mission, destroyed 17 enemy tanks in one day. On29 March 1944 he went to Hitler’s retreat to receive the Diamonds to his Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest decoration at the time (one of only 27 awarded), and the tenth member of the Wehrmacht to receive this award. The Führer permitted him to wear padded flight boots for the ceremony. Reluctant to risk his hero again, Hitler grounded him, but relented when Rudel said he would refuse the medal if forbidden to fly.
Gets A Troop Doctor as His New Gunner
Upon his return, Ernst Gadermann, previously the troop doctor of III. Gruppe, had joined Rudel as his new radio operator and air gunner. He had put him up for the Iron Cross, but the same did not finally get cleared. He insisted and used his influence in Hitler’s office and not only ensured he got one, but that the presentation was made by Hitler personally.
Rudel’s Repeat Injuries But Flies on Regard Less
Germany needed heroes in the summer of 1944, and Rudel was a great candidate. His completed 2,000 missions, and 300 enemy tanks destroyed. Shot down over Latvia, he crash-landed with his gunner, Ernst Gadermann. Both men were wounded, and both were immediately back in the air. Rudel’s tally now stood at 320 tanks destroyed. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed commanding officer of SG.2. Shot down again and wounded in the upper right leg, he “escaped” from the hospital to fly, with the leg in a cast. By now he had flown 2,400 missions and notched 460 tank kills, approximately equal to three Soviet tank corps. Colonel General Ferdinand Schörner claimed, “Rudel alone is worth an entire division!”
Appointed Leader of SG 2 – Receives The Highest German Award
Rudel was promoted to Oberstleutnant (Lt Col) on 1 September 1944, and appointed leader of SG 2, replacing Stepp, on 1 October 1944. On 22 December 1944, Rudel completed his 2,400th combat mission, and the next day, he reported his 463rd tank destroyed. On 29 December 1944, Rudel was promoted to Oberst (colonel), and was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, the only person to receive this decoration. No other German soldier has ever received it. This award, intended as one of 12 to be given as a post-war victory award for Nazi Germany, was presented to him by Hitler on 1 January 1945, four months before Nazi Germany was defeated. Present at the Eagle’s Nest, the Nazi western headquarters, were Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, Grand Adm. Karl Dönitz, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and Imperial Marshal Hermann Göring. Again Hitler ordered him grounded; again Rudel refused. The Führer smiled and said: “Very well then, fly. But be careful, the German people need you.”
Leg Is Amputated – Claims Many More Targets – Surrenders to Americans
On 8 February 1945, with his leg still in a cast, Rudel shot up a dozen tanks that had breached the Oder River. He used his last cannon round to score an unlucky 13th, a Stalin, but his Stuka was hit by Soviet 40mm anti-aircraft fire. On the verge of passing out, he called back to Gadermann, “Ernst, my right leg is gone.” Gadermann (who would survive the war with 850 missions and earn his own Knight’s Cross) talked his half-conscious pilot down to a crash-landing, pulled him from the wreckage and stopped the bleeding. Rudel woke up in a hospital with his leg amputated below the knee. He returned to flying on 25 March 1945. He claimed 26 more tanks destroyed by the end of the war.
Offers To Fly Out Hitler to Safety
On 19 April 1945, the day before Hitler’s final birthday, Rudel met with Hitler in the Führerbunker at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. By April 26, it was barely possible to fly into the embattled capital. Rudel phoned Hitler’s adjutant, Colonel Nicolaus von Below, offering to land a Stuka on a Berlin road the following morning, and implying he could evacuate the Führer. Hitler refused, and within the week Hitler was dead. On 8 May 1945, Rudel fled westward from an airfield near Prague, landing in US controlled territory, and surrendered. The Americans refused to hand him over to the Soviet Union.
Post-War – Clandestine Move to Argentina
While Rudel had been interned, his family fled from the advancing Red Army and had found refuge with Gadermann’s (Gunner) parents in Wuppertal. Rudel was released in April 1946 and went into private business. In 1948, he emigrated to Argentina, travelling via Austria to Italy first. In Rome, with the help of smugglers, and aided by an Austrian bishop, he bought himself a fake Red Cross passport with the cover name “Emilio Meier”, and took a flight from Rome to Buenos Aires, where he arrived on 8 June 1948. Rudel authored books on the war, supporting the Hitler regime and attacking the High Command of the German Armed Forces for “failing Hitler”.
Years In South America – Reignites Nazi Past
After Rudel moved to Argentina, he became a close friend and confidant of the President of Argentina Juan Perón, and Paraguay’s dictator Alfredo Stroessner. In Argentina, he founded the “Kameradenwerk” (comrades work), a relief organization for Nazi war criminals. Prominent members included many Nazi SS officers, including many who were declared war criminals and whose extradition had been demanded by the Soviet Union on war crime charges. In addition to these war criminals that fled to Argentina, the “Kameradenwerk” also assisted Nazi criminals imprisoned in Europe, including Rudolf Hess and Karl Dönitz, with food parcels from Argentina and sometimes by paying their legal fees. In Argentina, Rudel became acquainted with notorious Nazi concentration camp doctor and war criminal Josef Mengele. Rudel, together with Willem Sassen, a former Waffen-SS and war correspondent for the Wehrmacht, who initially worked as Rudel’s driver, helped to relocate Mengele to Brazil by introducing him to Nazi supporter Wolfgang Gerhard. In 1957, Rudel and Mengele together travelled to Chile to meet with Walter Rauff, the inventor of the mobile gas chamber.
Writes Wartime Memoirs – Stuka Pilot
In Argentina, Rudel lived in Villa Carlos Paz, roughly 36 kilometers from the populous Córdoba City, where he rented a house and operated a brickworks. There, Rudel wrote his wartime memoirs “Trotzdem” (“Nevertheless” or “In Spite of Everything”). In the book, he supported Nazi policies. The book was published in November 1949 by the Dürer-Verlag in Buenos Aires. Dürer-Verlag became very unpopular for publishing books for many former Nazis, and later went bankrupt. Rudel’s book was later re-edited and published in the United States, as the Cold War intensified, under the title, “Stuka Pilot”, which supported the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Pierre Clostermann, a French fighter pilot, had befriended Rudel and wrote the foreword to the French edition of “Stuka Pilot”.
Strong Nazi Sympathy – Becomes Arms Dealer and Military Adviser
In the 1950s, Rudel befriended Savitri Devi, a writer and proponent of Hinduism and Nazism, and introduced her to a number of Nazi fugitives in Spain and the Middle East. With the help of Perón, Rudel secured lucrative contracts with the Brazilian military. He was also active as a military adviser and arms dealer for the Bolivian regime, Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Stroessner in Paraguay. He was in contact with Werner Naumann, formerly a State Secretary in Goebbels’ Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in Nazi Germany. Following the revolution, in 1955, a military and civilian uprising that ended the second presidential term of Perón, Rudel was forced to leave Argentina and move to Paraguay. During the following years in South America, Rudel frequently acted as a foreign representative for several German companies, including Salzgitter AG, Dornier Flugzeugwerke, Focke-Wulf, Messerschmitt, Siemens and Lahmeyer International, a German consulting engineering firm. Rudel’s input was used during the development of the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a United States Air Force aircraft designed solely for close air support, including attacking ground targets such as tanks and armored vehicles.
Returns to Germany 1953 Joins Politics
Rudel ran a huge network of Nazi sypathisers and SS officers, and helped German companies sell discarded equipment to South American countries. Rudel returned to West Germany in 1953 and became a leading member of the Neo Nazi nationalist political party, the German Reich Party (DRP). In the West German federal election of 1953, Rudel was the top candidate for the DRP, but was not elected to the Bundestag. Rudel had an egocentric character. In his political speeches, Rudel heavily criticized the Western Allies during World War II for not having supported Germany in its war against the Soviet Union. Rudel’s political demeanor subsequently alienated him from his former comrades.
Rudel was married three times. His 1942 marriage to Ursula, nicknamed “Hanne”, had two sons. They divorced in 1950. It was reported that one reason for the divorce was that his wife had sold some of his decorations, including the Oak Leaves with Diamonds, to an American collector, but she denied. Also she refused to move to Argentina. Rudel married his second wife, Ursula née Daemisch in 1965. The marriage gave his third son. Rudel survived a stroke on 26 April 1970. Following his divorce in 1977, he married Ursula née Bassfeld.
Death and Funeral
Rudel died after suffering another stroke in Rosenheim on 18 December 1982, and was buried in Dornhausen on 22 December 1982. During Rudel’s burial ceremony, two Bundeswehr F-4 Phantoms appeared to make a low altitude fly-past over his grave. Dornhausen was situated in the middle of a flight path regularly flown by military aircraft, and Bundeswehr officers denied deliberately flying aircraft over the funeral. Four mourners were photographed giving Nazi salutes at the funeral, and were investigated under a law banning the display of Nazi symbols. The Federal Minister of Defence Manfred Wörner declared that the flight of the aircraft had been a normal training exercise.
Summary of Military Career
In all, Hans-Ulrich Rudel was credited with 2,530 missions. The majority of these were undertaken while flying the Junkers Ju 87, although 430 were flown in ground-attack variants of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. He was credited with one battleship “Marat”, sinking one Cruiser, and heavily damaged a destroyer”Minsk”. Also 70 landing craft, some 800 vehicles, 150 gun positions, numerous armored trains and bridges, and 519 tanks. Rudel was also credited with 11 aerial victories, including 7 Ilyyushin Il-2s. He had been shot down more than 30 times by anti-aircraft guns, but never by an enemy pilot. He was wounded five times and rescued six stranded aircrew from enemy-held territory.
Honours and Awards
Rudel was awarded Iron Cross (1939) 2nd Class (10 November 1939) & 1st Class (15 July 1941). Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds. He was the first and only one to get the Golden Oak Leaves on 29 December 1944. He was the first and only foreign to get Hungarian Gold Medal of Bravery (14 January 1945).
Rudel’s first “flight,” was at age 8, when he jump off a roof with an umbrella, in 1924, that earned him his first broken leg. Young Rudel, an avid skier and athlete, came of age in early 1930s Germany at the same time as Nazism and the dive bomber. Plummeting from on high with sirens wailing and bombs whistling, Stukas struck terror long before they struck targets. Yet withstanding rapid changes in air pressure as he plunged thousands of feet, not to mention near-blackout on pull-up, proved difficult for Rudel. And as the son of a Lutheran minister, he didn’t exactly fit into the Stuka fraternity. “He doesn’t smoke, drinks only milk, has no stories to tell about women and spends all his free time playing sports,” wrote one of his instructors. “Senior Officer Cadet Rudel is a strange bird!” Rudel’s fighting philosophy, and that of his life came to him not in the air but when he was on foot, on a Ukrainian hillside the same afternoon he swam the half-frozen Dniester River. With a bullet through his shoulder, his comrades gone and enemy troops closing in fast, he remained defiant: “Only he is lost who gives himself up for lost.”
Credits: The Rudel story has been constructed using materials from various online sources and some interesting snippets have been taken from what Don Hollway wrote for historynet.com in “Hans-Ulrich Rudel: Eagle of the Eastern Front”
Lead Picture Source: warhistoryonline.com