I would hope that over the past six and a half years I have made it abundantly clear that I have no particular love for the Nazi regime of mid-20th century Germany. I mean, seriously. Very few people can argue that, especially at the higher ranks, these guys weren't a bunch of seriously evil bastards who possessed very little in the way of redeemable qualities, and they're basically not universally reviled by all people on the planet. It's a fact that makes them one of the greatest villains from history -- nobody likes these fuckers. Even the modern-day Germans hate them. Having said that, I'll also mention that despite all of the horrible bullshit associated with German ultranationalist Fascism, military historians generally also have to concede the fact that one country can't possibly fight a war against every civilized nation on Earth at the same time without producing a couple of stone-cold badasses in the process. So, in an effort to bring a little balance to the page (something I have to take into consideration when realizing that roughly a quarter of the people on my list are there because of their exploits killing Nazis), this week I bring to you the story of one of the most ridiculously tough human beings ever produced by our species – the notorious Hans-Ulrich Rudel.
A product of Silesia, German, Rudel was an utterly unstoppable Stuka bomber pilot who received more medals for bravery than any other German soldier of World War II. This guy was so hardcore that even to this day he remains the most decorated combat pilot of any nation in the history of warfare. He was issued his country's highest award for military valor on five separate occasions, which is an utter mind-hump considering that he was serving in a war where successfully flying five combat missions in a row without exploding was pretty much considered a noteworthy achievement. His record of killing over five hundred enemy tanks in combat is a feat that will likely never be duplicated. This guy was some serious shit.
Rudel is one of the incredibly-gifted, incredibly-lucky motherfuckers who somehow managed to survive the entirety of World War II – he was there during the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and he was there at the end in 1945 when the entire Reich came crashing down around his head. Not many people can make this claim, considering that the Fatherland lost a good 5 to 6 million people in the war, so it needs to be mentioned when discussing Rudel's survivability.
During the invasion of Poland, Rudel worked as a forward observer, flying recon missions over enemy territory and sending back reports to help coordinate the Blitzkrieg. After correctly realizing that being on the front lines of a war is far less terrifying when you are sitting in the cockpit of an aircraft that actually comes equipped with some sort of weaponry, Rudel transferred to dive-bomber training in 1940, where he learned the ins and outs of the notorious Ju-87 Stuka Dive Bomber. Now, the Ju-87 wasn't exactly a glamorous aircraft. It was slow, ugly, hard to maneuver, and the landing gear was always in the "down" position, but it was also one of the deadliest pieces of machinery in the entire war. Equipped with a few hundred pounds of heavy ass-busting bombs and sporting two under-wing mounted 37mm anti-tank cannons, this thing was the predecessor of badass shit like the A-10 Warthog that we all so know and love. At the controls of this thing, however, Rudel was a maestro of bomb-humping the fuck out of any piece of equipment larger than an outboard speedboat motor. Flying in the 1st Squadron of Dive Bomber Group 2, Rudel spent a solid five years of his life turning any and all vehicles with the Soviet Red Star on it into busted-to-shit, melted-down hunks of twisted steel and corpse-parts. It got to be to the point where you seriously couldn’t ride your bike through the Ukraine without this psychotic dive-bomber air-mailing a bomb into your eye socket.
Rudel's most balls-out accomplishment actually came pretty early in his reign of terror across the blood-streaked skies of Eastern Europe. On 23 September 1941, Rudel's squadron was tea-bagging the Soviet Baltic Fleet as they sat helpless in port near Leningrad, and Rudel decided, what the fuck, he was going to set his bomb sights on the huge-ass battleship Marat, which was currently in the process of hammering the German aircraft with a huge battery of anti-aircraft firepower. Rudel cranked the throttle, came in high, then lurched his plane into a ninety-degree dive, pointing the nose of his machine directly at the top of the Marat. Then, just at the last second, he cranked back on the stick, released the bombs, and flew out of there in front of a gigantic explosion – his bomb had gone right into the battleship's asshole and ignited the ammunition stores, causing a ridiculously-tremendor explosion that cracked the hull of the 600-foot-long warship in half and sending her to the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
That's right, folks – Hans-Ulrich Rudel killed a battleship with a two-man aircraft, and he only needed one shot to do it.
Rudel flew 500 missions on the Eastern Front between 1940 and 1942, which is god damned impressive, especially when you consider that U.S. bomber pilots were usually allowed to go home after completing 25 missions without dying (an incredibly rare achievement in its own right). The German hurricane of bombicide was awarded the Knight's Cross a couple times (including once when he was given the award by The Red Baron's cousin), and returned home with enough awards and honors to snap a camel in half. He was made an instructor at a German flight school, and asked to train new recruits in how to be awesome at flying Stukas, but Rudel got bored of that shit pretty quickly and requested to return to the battlefield. He was made squadron commander, flew 500 more missions between 1942 and '43, killed twelve T-34 tanks in one day during the Battle of Kursk, and made such a name for himself as a destroyer of Russian shit that Stalin himself put a huge bounty out on Rudel's head.
The closest Uncle Joe ever came to collecting on that bounty was during a clusterfuck operation that came shortly after Rudel became the first German pilot to fly 1,500 combat missions. On one fateful day, Rudel was leading a team of dive bombers on a run to bust up some more Russian armor, when all of a sudden one of his wingmen was shot down by a pair of douchey Soviet fighters. Rudel managed to chase off the enemy planes (which is impressive in and of itself considering that he was piloting a Stuka against fighter aircraft) and then landed to check on the downed crewmen. This was a pretty routine things for him (it was the seventh time he'd set down behind enemy lines to save his friends from whatever horrible shit the Russians did to captured German pilots), but this time there was a little bit of a hitch – the ground was too wet to take off, and now Rudel and his buddies were stranded 30 miles behind enemy lines with not weapons or support.
Not that this stopped Rudel from continuing to be completely balls-out or anything. He led his team on a desperate run through freezing-cold temperatures, evaded enemy patrols, and covered the thirty miles to safety in a twenty-four hour sprint-fest. Rudel finalized his escape by jumping in the damned Dnieper River and swimming 600 yards through ice-cold water to safety, though the escape was so intense that of the four downed pilots he was the only member to return to base alive. It's just a testament to the fact that you couldn't kill the guy. Shit, a few dozen missions after that, Rudel got his fucking leg blown off by anti-aircraft fire, but this unstoppable killing machine just got a prosthetic leg attached, kept flying combat missions, and used his one good leg to kick the shit out of another 13 enemy tanks. So think about that the next time some hilarious joker declares that something is like "a one-legged man in an asskicking competition."
This is the first thing that comes up when you Google
"one legged man in an asskicking competition".
All in all, Hans-Ulrich Rudel flew 2,500 combat missions -- more than any pilot ever, for any country, in any period of time. His stats speak for themselves – 11 airplanes, 519 tanks, 4 trains, 70 landing craft, two cruisers, a destroyer, a battleship, and over 1,000 enemy trucks and transport vehicles met their ends at his hands. He received the Knight's Cross (Germany's answer to the Victoria Cross or the Medal of Honor) five times – they seriously had to invent shit to add to his Knight's Cross, because there wasn't anything in the book for what you give a guy who already has the Cross with oak leaves, swords, diamonds, bells, whistles, etc.
After Germany somehow managed to lose the war despite Rudel destroying enough war material to comfortably outfit the militaries of a number of smaller countries, Rudel flew his squadron to American lines and surrendered to the U.S. He was hospitalized for a year with a vast array of horrible shit wrong with him (this is what happens when you fight a war non-stop for six years), and then moved to Argentina where he hung out with Fascists and wrote a bunch of totally crazy shit about how he would have fought the entire war again if he'd had the chance. I came across a few references mentioning that his input was used by American engineers while they were designing the A-10 Warthog, though I wasn't able to back this up with any reliable source material, so take that for whatever its worth. If nothing else, you can be damn sure that his successes killing tanks with aircraft played a major part in the decision to develop the famous American ground attack aircraft.
Rudel died in 1982, and is understandably still pretty despised by everyone in Russia.
Kurowski, Franz. Luftwaffe Aces. Stackpole, 2004.
Rudel, Hans-Ulrich. Stuka Pilot. Ballantine, 1958.
Weal, John. Ju 87 Stukageschwader of the Russian Front. Osprey, 2008.
Williamson, Gordon. Knight's Cross with Diamonds Recipients. Osprey, 2006.