Thursday, March 11, 2004

Heroic Huns™

Hans Ulrich Rudel 1916 -1982

By anyone’s standards Hans Ulrich Rudel must qualify as one of the most unusual airmen to have entered the skies. Born in 1916 in Silesia as the son of a priest, he joined the Luftwaffe in 1936 and served in the early part of WW II as an observer flying long-range reconnaissance. During the French campaign he was still in flying school learning to fly the infamous ”Stuka” dive-bomber which was to become a hallmark of the early ”Blitzkrieg” period. Rudel finished his training after the fighting in France was over, and although he later took part of the invasion of Crete he flew outside of the actual combat zone. In fact the war didn’t really start for Rudel until June 23´d 1941 when he was posted to a unit on the Eastern Front which operated Stuka’s. From then on things went fast for him; Unlike their colleagues in the Allied air forces Luftwaffe pilots didn’t get leave after a specific number of missions but simply flew until they were killed, or needed for other duties - like training new pilots.
Subsequently Rudel had already flown 500 missions by December 1941 and on September 23´rd 1941 he accomplished the remarkable feat of sinking the Russian Battleship ”Marat”. He managed to land a bomb in the ships ammunition storage, which exploded, causing the ship to break in half and sink. Rudel was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and was sent to Graz to train new Stuka pilots.
On his own demand he returned to the Eastern front in mid 1942 and in early 1943 Rudel flew his 1000´th mission. Shortly after he was posted to a new unit operating a special version of the ”Stuka”.

This version was designed to destroy Russian tanks and had a 37 mm gun mounted under each wing. The idea was that since they attacked from the air these ”Panzerknacker” (tank busters) could shoot through the thinner armour on the roof and back of the tanks and set their engines on fire or explode the tanks ammunition. Rudel’s unit was quite successful at this and he was awarded both the Oak leaves and later the Swords to his Knight’s Cross. By this time he had become a national hero in Germany, besides causing considerable damage to the Russian war effort. Apart from sinking the battleship he also sank 70 landing craft, 2 cruisers and a destroyer.
This led Josef Stalin himself to place a price of 100.000 rublers on Rudel, dead or alive, and in early 1944 Rudel was almost captured by the Russians when his plane couldn’t take off due to soft ground and he had to hide out in a forrest and swim amongst the ice flakes in the Dniestr River. Rudel’s gunner, Hentchel, regrettably drowned just a few meters from the shore, something Rudel felt guitly about for many years after the war. For this and other acts of bravery Rudel was awarded the highest decoration for bravery the Third Reich had to offer: Diamonds to the Oak leaves and Swords of the Knight’s Cross.
Despite the horrendous conditions in the last year of the war, Rudel continued flying on the Eastern front and was shot down 32 times in all, at one time returning to duty with his leg in a plaster cast. On January 1´st 1945 he was again decorated, this time personally by Hitler who awarded him The Golden Oak leaves with Diamonds and Swords to the Knight’s Cross, making Rudel the only person to receive this decoration.

It was in fact created specially for him as a response to his continuing acts of bravery. Rudel had destroyed an astonishing 519 Russian tanks, about a thousand other vehicles and guns and had flown over 2.500 missions.
In February 1945 his right thigh was shattered by anti aircraft fire and his leg had to be amputated. Naturally, Rudel had a prosthetic leg fitted and continued flying until the last day of the war when he flew his Stuka into the American zone of occupation and surrendered, of course crash-landing the aircraft to make it useless to the enemy.

Despite being almost the personification of the Nazi "Superman" Rudel was never a member of the Nazi party, but he had the greatest admiration for Hitler whom he considered a genius. After the war ended he had trouble finding employment as most Germans wanted to forget the Nazi-era where he had been such a prominent figure. In 1947 Rudel moved to Argentina where he joined many other refugees from the days of The Third Reich who had found a new friend and protector in the Argentinean president Juan Peron. Rudel worked organizing the Argentinean Air force, and even found time to climb the highest mountain in the Americas, the Aconcagua (7.020 m) During this time he published his memoirs and two books on politics, where he not only argued for a new war with the Soviet Union, but he also attacked the German officers who had plotted against Hitler in the latter part of the war, and claimed this had helped the Allies win the war.
Such views of the world were not exactly popular in post war Germany, but in the 1960’s Rudel returned to Germany where he worked as a ski instructor in Tyrol. After the war Rudel was an active supporter of small right-wing political parties in Germany which gathered many former supporters of National Socialism and he remained a controversial figure until his death in 1982.

More in-dept info and pictures at Pilotenbunker (in German)
An interesting page about Rudel and one of his Soviet opponents.

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