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Hans-Ulrich Rudel (1916-82)

Adolf Hitler idolised Rudel and while presenting one of his many awards remarked, “You are the greatest and most courageous soldier the German people have ever had.”

Issue: 04-2017By Joseph Noronha

The son of a clergyman who never did well in school is hardly the right candidate to become a deadly Stuka pilot and the most decorated military aviator in the world. Yet that is the story of Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a German pilot of World War II nicknamed “Eagle of the Eastern Front”. His record of destroying over 500 enemy tanks in air-to-ground attacks is unlikely to be ever exceeded.

Apart from being an airborne killing machine, he was unbelievably lucky, managing to survive intense fighting from the day the War began till Nazi Germany surrendered. He was shot down 30 times and seriously wounded on five occasions, yet lived to tell the tale. He exhausted all the medals and awards the Nazi government had till they finally instituted another medal — the highest in Germany — called Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. It was never awarded to anyone except Rudel.

Hans-Ulrich Rudel was born on July 2, 1916, in Konradswaldau in the German Empire. As part of the Hitler Youth movement he became a champion decathlete with the potential to compete in the Olympics. On December 4, 1936, Rudel volunteered for military service in the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force. His initial flight training was satisfactory, but when it came to practising to make accurate aerial attacks, he was unable to learn the necessary dive bombing techniques. Hence he was declared unsuitable for combat flying. In December 1938, he joined the Reconnaissance Flying School for training in operational aerial reconnaissance as an air observer. But when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Rudel repeatedly requested transfer back to a dive bombing squadron. His pleas were finally accepted and in May 1940 he resumed dive bomber training. But he still had trouble learning the attack technique.

In early 1941, Rudel joined a Supplementary Dive Bomber Squadron — a specialised training unit for new strike pilots. That is where he finally mastered the Junkers Ju-87G two-man dive bomber. In his very first operational mission in June, he disabled four tanks. By the end of the day he had accounted for 12 tanks — the equivalent of an entire armour company. His method was to come in low and close — so close that his plane was usually in danger of being damaged by the target’s explosion. Because of Rudel and a few other intrepid Luftwaffe pilots, the Ju-87G emerged as one of the war’s chief tank destroyers. Rudel alone claimed 519 Soviet tanks.

But tanks were not Rudel’s only prey. In September 1941, he flew a couple of missions against the Soviet Navy’s Baltic Fleet, achieving a direct hit on the Marat with a single 1,000-kg bomb. With his technique of coming in high, then getting into a 90-degree dive above the ship with the nose of his machine pointed straight at the top of the vessel, and releasing the bomb at the last possible instant, it would have been strange had he missed. The attack ignited the vessel’s ammunition store, causing a gigantic explosion that cracked the hull of the 600-foot warship in half. He managed to pull out of the dive perhaps a dozen feet above the water. In all, 326 men were killed and the vessel gradually settled to the bottom in shallow water. It took months to be partially repaired. Rudel later sank a cruiser, a destroyer and 70 landing craft. He also claimed more than 800 vehicles of various types, over 150 artillery, anti-tank or antiaircraft positions, four armoured trains, as well as numerous bridges. Overall, he single-handedly destroyed sufficient war material to comfortably equip the military forces of a small nation.

On March 20, 1944, Rudel landed behind Soviet lines to rescue a downed German aviator, as he had done on at least five earlier occasions. However, he was unable to take off again as the wheels of his aircraft had sunk into soft mud. Accompanied by three other pilots he headed back towards German territory on foot. With Soviet soldiers in hot pursuit, eager to claim the 1,00,000-rouble bounty that Soviet leader Stalin had set on Rudel, the men attempted to swim across the freezing Dniester River. Three got across barely alive after the freezing swim, only to be recaptured. Rudel was wounded but managed to escape again. His motto was, “Lost are only those who abandon themselves.”

February 8, 1945, was another momentous day for Rudel as he managed to destroy no less than 13 tanks. However, during the final attack a 40mm shell hit his aircraft. He was badly wounded in the right foot and crash-landed among friendly troops. His leg had to be amputated below the knee. But he “escaped” from hospital and was flying operationally again by March 25, 1945, after getting his aircraft’s rudder pedal modified. Later, flying with a prosthetic leg, he claimed 26 more tanks before the war ended. His squadron had to surrender to the US forces on May 8, 1945, thus ending his distinguished military career.

In all, Rudel flew 2,530 combat missions during World War II, the majority being on the Junkers Ju-87G, while 430 were flown on ground-attack variants of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. He did not encounter much aerial opposition which accounts for his meagre tally of nine aerial victories, seven of which were fighter aircraft. Neither did he ever take leave nor did he allow injury to keep him out of action. Even Adolf Hitler idolised him and while presenting one of his many awards remarked, “You are the greatest and most courageous soldier the German people have ever had.” Hans-Ulrich Rudel died on December 18, 1982, in West Germany.