Dive Bomber Aces of the Luftwaffe
Hans-Ulrich Rudel was born on July 16, 1916 in a Silesian town of Konradswaldau (today’s Grzędy in Poland) in the family of Johannes Rudel, a Lutheran minister. There was nothing in Rudel’s adolescent years that might suggest he would one day become a highly decorated Luftwaffe officer.
In fact, both his elder sisters used to say: “Nothing will ever become of Uli. He’s even scared to go into the cellar by himself.” On April 4, 1922 Rudel entered primary school, but never excelled as a student. He was always more interested in sports than academics. Having passed the entry exams he began his secondary education in the spring of 1926 at Schweidnitz (Świdnica) Grammar School. It was during that time that Rudel became a promising decathlon athlete with an Olympic potential (at least according to his coach). Even before his final high school exams Rudel knew he was going to be a pilot, so right after graduation he applied to the Luftkriegsschule at Wildpark-Werder near Berlin. Having passed a complex series of tests he was accepted for general military training on December 4, 1936, followed by the flight training that he completed in June 1937. With his pilot’s certificate in hand Rudel reported to the I./St.G 168 at Graz-Thalerhof. It was there that he first took controls of a Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber. He later recalled that experience: “The squadron which is stationed outside the town in the village of Thalerhof has recently received the type 87 Junkers; the single -seater Henschel will no longer be used as a dive-bomber. Learning to dive at all angles up to ninety degrees, formation flying, aerial gunnery and bombing are the fundamentals of the new arm. We are soon familiar with it. It cannot be said that I am a rapid learner; furthermore the rest of the squadron have already passed all their tests when I join it. It takes a long time to ring the bell, too long to please my squadron leader. I catch on so slowly that he ceases to believe that it will ever ring at all.”
The CO was right and in December 1938 Rudel was withdrawn from training and transferred to the air observers school at Hildesheim. Having received his commission on January 1, 1939 Rudel reported on June 1, 1939 to the 2.(F)/121 based at Prenzlau. Later that year Rudel saw combat during the Polish campaign and was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. In March 1940 he was posted to the Flg.-Ausb.-Rgt. 43 stationed at Wien-Stammersdorf airfield, where he served as the unit CO’s adjutant. Throughout the French campaign Rudel continued to bombard his superiors with requests to be transferred to a dive bomber unit. His pleas were finally answered and Rudel arrived at the I./St.G 3 stationed at Caen. Despite receiving a lot of extra instruction, Rudel made a painfully slow progress mastering the control of the Ju 87, so in the early spring of 1941 he was sent to undergo additional flight training at Stuka-Ergänzungsstaffel Graz-Thalerhof. After three months of intensive flying Rudel finally achieved the required level of airmanship and passed his final exams with flying colors.
In mid-April, 1941 Rudel reports to the I./St.G 2 “Immelmann” operating in the Balkans, but due to some personal issues with his superiors he ends up spending most of his time on terra firma. When the war against the Soviet Russia begins Rudel joins the 1./St.G 2 and finally gets his chance to fly his first combat mission as a Stuka pilot. The unit’s commander, Oblt. Ewald Janssen (who would later receive the Knight’s Cross), allows the rookie pilot to fly on his wing. “During operations I stick like a burr to the tail of my No. 1’s aircraft so that he becomes nervous of my ramming him from behind until he sees that I have mine thoroughly under control. By the evening of the first day I have been out over the enemy lines four tines in the area between Grodno and Wolkowysk. The Russians have brought up huge masses of tanks together with their supply columns. We mostly observe the types KW I, KW II and T 34. We bomb tanks, flak artillery and ammunition dumps supplying the tanks and infantry. Ditto the following day, taking off at 3 A.M. and coming in from our last landing often at 10 P.M. A good night’s rest goes by the board. Every spare minute we stretch out underneath an aeroplane and instantly fall asleep.”
On July 18, 1941 Rudel receives the Order of the Iron Cross 1st Class and the Gold Front Flying Clasp of the Luftwaffe (Frontflugspange in Gold). On the same day he is posted to the III./St.G 2 as the Gruppen-TO (squadron’s technical officer). The unit, led from August 6, 1941 by Hptm. Ernst-Siegfried Steen, is tasked with interdiction of enemy traffic along the Smolensk – Dnieper – Moscow route. During a raid against the railway yards at Chudovo, on the main Moscow – Leningrad line, Rudel flies in torrential rains and very poor visibility. He pulls out of the dive so low that on his return to base the ground crews discover two pear tree trunks imbedded in his Stuka’s wing leading edges.