Friends of Padre Steve’s World
I have been writing about the need to be as transparent and honest about history as possible. I have resorted to calling that un-sanitized history. I will be coming back to that in relation to the American Civil War in the not too distant future but tonight I am going to delve into a different era, an era where the acts of valiant and courageous military men are separated from the cases that they fought for and sometimes believed in.
Colonel Hans-Ulrich Rudel was undoubtedly 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 May 8th 1945.
Rudel was born in Rosenheim Bavaria in 1916. As a young man he joined the Luftwaffe as an officer cadet not long after Hitler took power in Germany. Like many young men and women of his era Rudel was an ardent Nazi. Despite that and his unrepentant admiration for Adolf Hitler and Hitler’s ideology, his combat achievements are unmatched by any ground attack pilot before or since. That ids one of the things that makes him, and others like him so difficult to evaluate for any honest historian.
Rudel’s early career as an aviator was inauspicious. He was not regarded well as a pilot and spent the Polish campaign as an observer. He did not take part in a combat role during the campaign in the west, the Battle of Britain or Crete between May of 1940 and May of 1941. He was assigned to Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 (StG 2) “Immelmann” at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. 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 obsolete Stukas were high and the fact that he flew multiple missions on a daily basis for several years is a record unsurpassed in modern warfare.
Hans Ulrich Rudel was the most highly decorated officer in the Luftwaffe, holding the highest decoration awarded to anyone other than Herman Goering. Among the holders of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds,Rudel was the only one awarded the Gold Oak Leaves.
Rudel was critically wounded by the explosion of a 40mm anti-aircraft shell during a mission on February 8th 1945 and his life was saved by the quick action of his observer. His right leg was amputated below the knee and despite the severity and painfulness of his wound he returned to combat against the advancing Soviets on March 25th 1945. His war ended on May 8th 1945 when he led the remnants of his squadron to surrender to the Americans at an occupied airfield in Kitzingen Germany.
He spent 10 months in American captivity after his surrender and after his release moved to Argentina where he became a friend of the Argentinean dictator Juan Peron. He returned to Germany in the 1950s and became active in right wing nationalist politics. While he was a successful businessman his still openly National Socialist political views kept him marginalized in the newly established 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 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). He died in 1982 still admired by British and American combat pilots including the legendary British ace Douglas Bader. However, many of those men did not know Rudel’s political activities or associations during or after the war. As a Luftwaffe pilot Rudel did not engage in the atrocities committed by the SS or Wehrmacht, nor was he ever 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 other officers who grew up during the same period, including fellow Luftwaffe aces Johannes Steinhoff and Adolf Galland, Rudel never recanted his Nazi views. In the early 1950s he published a tract that condemned German officers who did not wholeheartedly support Adolf Hitler during the war. He also recommended attacking the Soviet Union in the 1950s in order to reacquire Lebensraum, the very doctrine which drove the Nazi invasion of Poland, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the war.
I think it is important to be able to recognize military accomplishments but also to recognize that even valiant soldiers can serve evil governments. Even worse, 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, including Americans. That warning; 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 is just as relevant now as it was when the young Hans Ulrich Rudel joined the Luftwaffe and enlisted in the cause of Adolf Hitler.