Stuka Pilot by Hans-Ulrich Rudel counts as one of the most famous memoirs from WWII. Rudel can rightly be called the greatest combat pilot of all time. During his 2,530 missions, he destroyed 800 vehicles, 519 tanks, two cruisers, the battleship Marat, and many other targets. His victories cost the Soviet war machine billions of dollars. He accomplished most of this work in the slow Stuka dive bomber. Though he also flew the faster FW-190, one senses a clear favoritism for the Stuka. As a side note, his memoirs and personal presentations on close air support inspired the developers of the A-10 “Warthog.” Also, he personally instructed Argentina’s air force, which proved highly effective during the Falklands War. Rudel’s influence spanned far beyond his time in World War II!
Rudel favored the motto: “Only he is lost who gives himself up for lost.” His combat record of flying as many as seventeen missions a day and flying through serious injuries like a gunshot wound in the shoulder, badly torn up feet after escaping Russian patrols following an unsuccessful rescue attempt of a downed Stuka crew, two 13mm bullets putting his left leg in a cast (Yes, he flew with a cast on his leg), and having his right leg amputated due to machine gun rounds. Part of Rudel’s secret lies in him engaging in sports of all kinds, hiking, and mountain climbing, which built up a strong body. The only sport he did not excel in is hunting: the one outing he describes in his memoirs almost ended with him shooting his friend Fridolin! Rudel’s favorite drink was milk, and he avoided alcohol assiduously.
Despite joining the Luftwaffe in 1936, his flying technique was so poor that he did not fly combat missions until June 23, 1941. His long persistence and struggle with superiors to let him fly in combat paid off. He would eventually be awarded Germany’s highest award, a medal created just for him: the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds. When Hitler presented him this award on March 29, 1944, the head of the German state demanded that Rudel cease flying. Before the Führer and many German generals and admirals, Rudel responded: “My Führer, I cannot accept the decoration and promotion if I am not allowed to go on flying with my wing,” (212). Hitler, who greatly respected Rudel, backed down from his request; though, Admiral Dönitz of the U-boat arm admonished him for his insubordination, which made Rudel glad not to be under that officer! Hitler would repeat his demand that Rudel stop flying through General Göring. Rudel, anxious over the impending invasion of Germany by the Russians, disobeyed this command and kept flying until the end of the war.
The fact that Rudel was a firm believer in the Nazi cause diminishes his reputation. After the war, he created much controversy for aiding the escape of Nazi war criminals through an organization he helped found. During the war, Nazism for Rudel was anti-Bolshevism. Despite being equally evil, many Europeans felt forced to choose between the rock of fascism and the hard place of communism; but, few Nazis remained unapologetic about their service of the Third Reich in the way that Rudel did. Part of this no doubt lies in the extreme suffering and victimization of Germany during and following the war, especially from the vengeful Soviets. When an American officer showed Rudel aerial photographs of concentration camps and asked whether he had seen similar piles of dead women and children, Rudel responded that he had seen them in Hamburg and Dresden and that such horrors were typical in war.
Despite his unwillingness to see the evil of his own cause, Rudel still comes out as not only understandable but inspirational in the book. He even has some good turns of phrase:
Stalingrad is Stalin’s city and Stalin is the god of these young Kirgises, Usbeks, Tartars, Turkmenians and other Mongols. They are hanging on like grim death to every scrap of rubble, they lurk behind every remnant of a wall. For their Stalin they are a guard of fire-breathing war-beasts, and when the beasts falter, well-aimed revolver shots from their political commissars nail them, in one way or the other, to the ground they are defending. These Asiatic pupils of integral communism, and the political commissars standing at their backs, are destined to force Germany, and the whole world with her, to abandon the comfortable belief that communism is a political creed like so many others. Instead they are to prove to us first, and finally to all nations, that they are the disciples of a new gospel. And so Stalingrad is to become the Bethlehem of our century. But a Bethlehem of war and hatred, annihilation and destruction. (66)
This prediction proved all too true, and one recalls Patton’s advice that we drive the Soviets back to the Volga River. Love of country and hatred for the hordes of “Red Asia” motivated Rudel beyond all else, with the love of his fellow pilots coming a close second.
I realized how much the book moved me when I felt a pang of sorrow reading Rudel’s shock and grief at learning of Germany’s surrender on May 8th. The combination of Rudel fighting Russian communists rather than Americans, his full measure of devotion to Germany, and the many losses of close friends combines to put the sympathetic American reader on this German’s side! I needed to remind myself that Germany was no better than Russia and needed to be defeated at that point in time. All of the above combines for a first rate memoir and perhaps the most important German memoir of WWII after Admiral Karl Dönitz’s Ten Years and Twenty Days.