Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves Swords and Diamonds: Hans-Ulrich Rudel and the Problem of Soldiers Serving Evil Governments

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.


Padre Steve+


Filed under aircraft, Military, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

3 responses to “Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves Swords and Diamonds: Hans-Ulrich Rudel and the Problem of Soldiers Serving Evil Governments

  1. John Erickson

    It’s interesting to note the difference in devotion between the various branches of the German Wehrmacht. The Kriegsmarine tended to have a lot of “casual Nazis” – they talked the talk in order to get funding. The Luftwaffe tended to be polar in their beliefs, either VERY radical or barely paying lip service. The Heer is the most interesting – particularly among the “grunts”, many of whom thought Hitler was full of it until they invaded Russia and saw that the living conditions actually matched what Hitler had described. (The SS, and especially the Waffen-SS, was a different story altogether.)
    Unfortunately, our righteousness against Nazi supporters tended to take a back seat to a person’s usefulness – witness Werner Von Braun, an ardent Nazi, responsible for thousands of slave labour deaths, and the saving grace behind our space program. The Germans made many important contributions both to military history and to future technologies. It’s a pity such inventiveness and military accomplishment had to be linked with such unbelievable evil.

    • padresteve

      It was interesting, Goering ensured that the Luftwaffe unlike the Heer and Marine had no Chaplains….he wanted a certain ideological purity not found in the other services.

  2. padresteve

    Reblogged this on Padresteve's World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate and commented:

    Friends of Padre Steve’s World
    Nothing new today. Things have been busy, Eucharist at my chapel and preparing for our incoming class at the Staff College. I am getting ready to head out to the baseball game between the Norfolk Tides and the Indianapolis Indians in a few minutes, when I get home I will be watching the U.S. play Portugal in the World Cup. So with all that in mind I am doing a re-run of what I think is a thought provoking article about military personnel who accomplish great feats in service of an evil state. Some are actually men of very decent temperament who conducted themselves with individual honor despite serving in the militaries of nations whose actions were criminal, or whose ideology was evil. Men like Erwin Rommel, Robert E. Lee and others come to mind. So anyway, enjoy, have a great day and if you get the chance do some thinking about a pertinent topic, for many around the world accuse the United States of some of the crimes that we have placed leaders of nations and military officers on trial, especially in regard to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a place that I served in 2007-2008.
    Padre Steve+

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