The most spectacular war hero of the 20th Century?

“Only he is lost who gives himself up for lost”

His was a drama where the central figure starts by struggling through repeated adversity over many years, eager to serve but held back apparently unfairly, until at long last, long after most would have lost faith in their own culture, he’s finally given his chance. So his first struggle in the services was against his own, but it may have served him well by training his determination. He had already trained himself in multiple sports to overcome his “nervous and delicate nature”, and he’d earned a reputation for clean living amongst his colleagues, who learned not to expect him to go out drinking with them. Even in the later turmoils, he was determined to get a good night’s sleep when even survival looked doubtful, and also to maintain his sports training, which kept his wits pricked and his feet fleet; without these niceties his survival would indeed have required more than the ordinary miracles he never seemed to run out of.

Photo from Wikipedia by H. Hoffmann/seized enemy property (and cropped).

Like most air aces he’d first hoped be a fighter pilot, but he had to slip down the glamour scale until he reached what others thought he could manage. Although he joined up in 1936 he spent the first five years in non-combat rôles, and by the time he was given his own plane to fly, it was already obsolete. Before the end of the Battle of Britain, it had been withdrawn from active service over England because it was too vulnerable. However, from the year after that, right through to the end of the war he was to fly that type, usually made even slower by his unique modifications, during which time he would destroy over 500 tanks (that’s more than Rommel lost at El Alamein). His tally also included 70 small boats such as landing craft, four armoured trains, a destroyer, two cruisers and a battleship (that’s more than some navies managed). He did all this in a single-engined aircraft considered a sitting duck, yet he was never once shot down by another aircraft despite flying right through to the very last days of the war, crunched from east and west by the Russians and the very air-superior Americans, in a plane made all the less likely as the mount of a hero, for being none other than the “Flying Swastika” itself.

Sturzkampfbomber Junkers Ju 87 ("Stuka") mit 3,7 cm Panzerabwehrkanonen unter den Flügeln. Anlassen des Motors des Flugzeugs von Hans-Ulrich Rudel ("Kanonenvogel") mit einer Handkurbel; (from German Federal Archive via Wikipedia page: “Hans-Ulrich Rudel”)

His book, aptly titled “Stuka Pilot”, eclipses any other account of air war. Whereas the top western fighter aces achieved a score of two or three dozen, their Luftwaffe equivalents sometimes got ten times as many, but Hans-Ulrich Rudel overtopped even them in numbers. But of course the eastern front was a different country – they did things differently there. Stalin was arguably more unpleasant to his own people than Hitler was to some of those he’d conquered in the west, but the Russian troops’ determination was undiminished to say the least. On each of the 32 occasions his plane was forced down, Rudel knew he was fighting above people who’d seen their families starved and massacred by the likes of him (amongst others). My mother and grandmother hated the Nazis but not as much as the Russians did; and many of their soldiers were women. They sometimes served as tank crew, and sometimes as pilots of the Russian equivalent of the Stuka. (The gunner in the back seat was usually a political prisoner – and not all political prisoners are men – but in any case the gunners were given no protective armour, to help them concentrate). I don’t know to what extent they felt troubled by sexism in the workplace, but they were certainly victimised by Rudel’s squadron; according to him the anti-aircraft gunners were usually women, and they were always bombed first.

But don’t think, gentle reader, that our little Hans-Ulrich did what he had to do reluctantly. He’d have seen it as part of his job if it fell to him to exterminate every Russian personally, since he identified strongly, and sinisterly, with some kind of thousand-year-old blood feud between the teutonics and those in the east. That’s a flavour missing from the accounts of Bader, Closterman, or even Heinz Knoke flying mainly on the western front. But then Rudel was a German born in Silesia, which is some way east of modern Germany.

And while Knoke’s close shave where he was captured by French resistance, but convinced them he was an American and finally used their own machine gun on them to get away, was exciting enough, and Bader of course escaped from his window on knottted bedsheets, Rudel’s escapes involved jumping off a high cliff into a river and swimming across, having to ‘hide’ in a ploughed field, running miles without shoes etc etc – and of course he didn’t have to worry about spending years in a POW camp.

No shortage of action there, but it’s interwoven with accounts of his frequent chats with Hitler, whom he respected for his technical understanding, but whom he repeatedly disobeyed by flying on and on throughout the war, whilst accepting the highest medals Hitler awarded. And towards the end it would rate as a supremely fascinating book just for the detailed account of what happened in the very last weeks of the war. He was flying from Romanian airfields at the moment Romania changed over to the allied side! How did the Romanian airfield anti-aircraft guns resolve that situation with the Stukas when their respective operators were sharing the shower-block? And what happened when US fighter-planes westering home noticed Stukas flying east to attack the Russians? Not a lot, he tells us.

By the end, the antiaircraft gunners (the Russians, not the Romanians) had shot most of his legs off, but he didn’t stop shooting up tanks till he guided his squadron to as untidy a landing as they could manage across an American airfield. There he immediately had to defend his Iron Cross from being ripped from his throat by a soldier, but he did have his treasured log book nicked while he was asleep. That seems to have been his greatest regret of the war. He was chopsy with the Americans, but got away with it. And the high manoeuvrability of today’s American A10 Warthog ground-attack jet, and its tungsten-tipped ammunition – they result from his experience via his post-war consultancy work. (And they’re sometimes flown by women but that might not have been his doing.)

His story is a sobering and eye-opening lesson on just how much [wickedness] really can be achieved by absolute determination over a lifetime, but it’s also the most exciting history book I’ve read.

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