December 18, 1982: Death of Hans Rudel, Germany’s Greatest Pilot

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A Brief History

On December 18, 1982, arguably the greatest combat pilot in German military history died of a stroke in Rosenheim, Bavaria, West Germany.  Hans-Ulrich Rudel is credited with shooting down only 9 enemy airplanes, and yet eclipses such German legendary aces as Baron Manfred von Richthofen (80 aerial kills, #1 during World War II) and Erich Hartman, history’s all-time leading ace with 353 air to air kills without ever being shot down or forced to land by enemy airplanes (all during World War II).

Digging Deeper

Rudel performed his heroics mainly at the stick of the JU-87 Stuka dive bomber and sometimes in the cockpit of the ground attack version of the Fw-190 (430 missions).  Flying these ground attack aircraft Rudel racked up more damage to enemy personnel and equipment than any attack pilot in history, flying more ground attack missions than any other pilot before or since.  For his efforts Rudel became the most decorated pilot in German History.

Born in Konradswaldau (now part of Poland) in Silesia in 1916, Rudel joined the new Luftwaffe in 1936, originally as a reconnaissance pilot before switching to dive bombers.  Rudel did not see combat during the battles for France and Britain because he was considered a substandard pilot!  His first combat mission in 1941 was against the Soviets, and all of his 2530 combat missions were on the Eastern Front.  (No other pilot flew so many missions.)  Rudel is credited with destroying an incredible 519 enemy tanks (his main claim to fame) and a total of around 800 enemy vehicles.  He also destroyed around 150 enemy anti-aircraft or artillery positions, 4 armored trains and enumerable other ground targets including bridges. While he was at it, Rudel also was the scourge of the Allied navies, with a cruiser and destroyer sunk, about 70 landing craft destroyed, and damaging the battleship Marat sop severely the bow was blown off the ship and she settled in shallow water, later to be raised.

Performing such intense and prolonged combat is dangerous business, and it is incredible Rudel survived such a combat career.  During his time in combat Rudel was shot down by ground or aerial fire 30 times and was wounded 5 times, including losing his lower right leg in February of 1945.  This combat stud was back in the cockpit in March of 1945, but the war was almost over at that point, and Rudel surrendered to American forces in Bavaria.

Unfortunately, this story gets darker when we are forced to report that Rudel was an ardent supporter and admirer of Adolf Hitler, and was an extreme nationalist even after the war.  Upon release from a POW camp in 1946, Rudel started a hauling company in Germany, but moved to Argentina in 1948 by faking his identity and his past.  In Argentina Rudel founded the Kameradenwerk, an organization to help Nazi war criminal flee Europe and settle in South America or the Middle East.  Rudel started another business, this time a brickworks and later branched out into military contracts, a lucrative business aided by Rudel’s friendship with Argentina’s dictator, Juan Peron.  Rudel helped many Nazis, including notorious war criminals such as Dr. Josef Mengele, as well as Italian fascists.

Rudel became an author in 1949 when he wrote his autobiography, titled Trotzdem, or as published in the US, Stuka PilotRudel’s pro-Nazi views as written were subdued by editors in at least some editions, and the book caused arguments inGermany.  An extreme anti-communist, Rudel defended Germany’s part in World War II as a necessary part in the world struggle against communism.  In 1953 Rudel returned to Germany to run for office on a nationalist platform, including criticizing the Western Allies for not supporting Germany against the Soviets during World War II.  Rudel did not win election, but became a pariah among mainstream German politicians.

Rudel caused controversy and scandal in 1976 when he attended a veteran’s reunion in Germany and was seen associating with currently serving General officers, resulting in those generals being forced into retirement.  When the 1978 World Cup soccer tournament was held in Argentina, Rudel visited the German team, resulting in more criticism in Germany.  Even Rudel’s death resulted in controversy, when 2 German F-4 Phantom fighter planes overflew his burial.

In a weird coincidence, Rudel had been married 3 times, each time to a woman named Ursula!

Hans-Ulrich Rudel was an unrepentant Nazi and supporter of Adolf Hitler, but accomplished great things while flying ground attack aircraft, perhaps the greatest combat pilot of all time.  What do you think?  Is Rudel the greatest combat pilot, or does that appellation belong to a different flier?  Please give us your opinion.

Below are listed Rudel’s Awards and Decorations:

Honor Goblet of the Luftwaffe (Ehrenpokal der Luftwaffe) as Oberleutnant in a Sturzkampfgeschwader (20 October 1941)

Wound Badge in Gold

Pilot/Observer Badge in Gold with Diamonds

German Cross in Gold on 2 December 1941 as Oberleutnant in the III./Sturzkampfgeschwader 2

Iron Cross (1939)

2nd Class (10 November 1939)

1st Class (18 July 1941)

Front Flying Clasp of the Luftwaffe in Gold and Diamonds with Pennant “2000”

in Gold (18 July 1941)[10]

in Gold and Diamonds with Pennant “2000”

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds

Knight’s Cross on 6 January 1942 as Oberleutnant and Staffelkapitän of the 9./Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 “Immelmann”

229th Oak Leaves on 14 April 1943 as Oberleutnant and Staffelkapitän of the 1./Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 “Immelmann”

42nd Swords on 25 November 1943 as Hauptmann and Gruppenkommandeur of the III./Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 “Immelmann”

10th Diamonds on 29 March 1944 as Major and Gruppenkommandeur of the III./Schlachtgeschwader 2 “Immelmann”

1st Golden Oak Leaves on 29 December 1944 as Oberstleutnant and Geschwaderkommodore of Schlachtgeschwader 2 “Immelmann”

8th (1st and only foreign) Hungarian Gold Medal of Bravery (14 January 1945)

Italian Silver Medal of Military Valor

Mentioned five times in the Wehrmachtbericht (27 March 1944, 28 March 1944, 3 June 1944, 6 August 1944, 10 February 1945)

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have a favorite pilot from the World Wars?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bader, Douglas and Hans Ulrich Rudel.  Stuka Pilot.  Black House Publishing, 2012.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Bruce Marvin at German Wikipedia of the gravestone of Hans-Ulrich Rudel in Dornhausen, has been released into the public domain worldwide by its author.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.