Colonel Hans-Ulrich Rudel was undoubtably the greatest ground attack pilot that ever lived. His record is unsurpassed by any combat pilot flying ground attack missions. According to official Luftwaffe records he flew 2350 combat missions beginning in June 1941 and ending when he led the remains of his squadron to crash land on the American occupied airfield in Kitzingen on May 8th 1945.
Born in Rosenheim Bavaria in 1916 he joined the Luftwaffe as an officer cadet. Like many of his era Rudel was an ardent Nazi. Despite that and his unrepentant admiration for Adolf Hitler his combat achievements are unmatched.
His early career was inauspicious. He was not regarded well as a pilot and spent the Polish campaign as an observer and did not take part in a combat role during the campaign in the west, the Battle of Britain or Crete in 1940 to May of 1941. Assigned to Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 (StG 2) Immelmann he finally saw combat in June 1941 in the Soviet Union and thereafter was almost always in combat.
Flying various models of the Ju-87 Stuka Rudel was one of two pilots credited with sinking the Soviet Battleship Marat at Kronstadt harbor near Leningrad (Petersburg) on September 23rd 1941. During the war he was never shot down by an opposing aircraft but was shot down by anti-aircraft artillery or forced to land 32 times. He destroyed over 2000 targets including 519 tanks, hundreds of other vehicles and artillery pieces, he previously mentioned Battleship Marat, several other ships, 70 anding craft, bridges, armored trains and 9 aircraft in air to air combat. His accomplishments during the latter part of the war are remarkable because of the Soviet dominance of the airspace on the Eastern Front. Losses among ground attack pilots flying the venerable Stukas were high and the fact that he flew multiple missions on a daily basis for a sustained period is unsurpassed in modern warfare.
He was critically wounded by the explosion of a 40mm anti-aircraft shell on February 8th 1945 and saved by the quick action of his observer. His right leg was amputated below the knee and despite his wound he returned to combat on March 25th 1945.
He was spent 10 month in American captivity and after his release moved to Argentina where he became a friend of the dictator Juan Peron. He returned to Germany and became active in right wing nationalist politics. He became a successful businessman but his still openly National Socialist political views kept him marginalized in the West German Bundeswehr.
However, with the threat of a Soviet armored assault across the German plain during the Cold War Rudel was tapped to assist the U.S. Air Force in the development of the A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft. Despite its ungainly appearance the A-10, known by its nickname Warthog” has proven to be one of the most successful combat aircraft produced by the United States. His writings on tactics were required reading for pilots involved with the aircraft’s development by the A-10’s lead designer Pierre Sprey.
Rudel was the most highly decorated officer in the Luftwaffe, holding the highest decoration awarded to anyone other than Herman Goering. Alone the holders of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds, he was awarded the gold Oak Leaves.
Rudel was a remarkable pilot and combat flyer. His valor and combat accomplishments are unquestioned but his undying attachment to Nazi ideology following the war caused a scandal that claimed the careers of two Bundeswehr Luftwaffe Generals including World War Two fighter ace Walter Krupinski (197 kills) clouds his legacy. He died in 1982 admired by British and American combat pilots including the legendary British ace Douglas Bader, who did not know his political activities; as well as Germans of Nazi or right wing political leanings. As a Luftwaffe pilot he was not a part of atrocities committed by the SS or Wehrmacht and never tried as a war criminal.
In retrospect it is important to understand that Rudel’s political views were shaped by the times in which he lived and the radicalism that swept Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. Likewise it is also important to note that unlike many others who grew up during the same period like fellow Luftwaffe aces Johannes Steinhoff and Adolf Galland, Rudel never recanted his views and published a tract in the early 1950s that condemned German officers who did not wholeheartedly support Adolf Hitler. He also recommended attacking the Soviet Union in the 1950s in order to reacquire Lebensruam.
I think it is important to be able to recognize military accomplishments but also to recognize that even valiant soldiers can serve evil governments, and some of them give their unrequited support to the evil ideology of those regimes. Thus Rudel is not alone. He stands with other Nazi, Communist, Fascist and others soldiers of totalitarianism whose valor and deeds are tainted by evil and the crimes of the regimes that they supported.
Rudel’s mixed legacy, like many from the Nazi era as well as from other nations should serve as a reminder to any soldier, sailor or airman. That warning is to always be careful to ensure that honest patriotism does not become corrupted by the ideology of those that appeal to fear, hate and revenge as the source of their power.