Rudel’s Stukas

When World War II broke out in September 1939, the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber was obsolete. However, during the Blitzkrieg campaigns in Europe between 1939 and 1942 it established itself as a weapon that struck fear into the hearts of enemy soldiers and civilians alike. Even when the tide of war turned against Germany after 1943, the Stuka continued to take to the skies in an anti-tank role. The most famous Stuka pilot was Hans-Ulrich Rudel, whose bravery established him as one of the Luftwaffe’s greatest airmen.

One of the enduring images of the German Blitzkrieg is of swarms of dive-bomber aircraft swooping down on hapless Allied columns. The ultimate dive-bomber was the Junkers Ju 87 Sturzkampfflugzeug, or Stuka. Not surprisingly, the name took on a life of its own and entered popular culture.

The dive-bomber was a purpose-built aircraft, designed to drop bombs with pinpoint accuracy on frontline battlefield targets. To support their panzer offensives, the Germans developed close air support into an art form and the Stuka was central to this effort. The secret of German successes in this field was the close integration between air and ground units. Stuka squadrons worked hand-in-hand with ground units so they could intervene rapidly at the decisive point of the battlefield. These highly specialist squadrons were in the thick of the action and developed an impressive reputation. The need to fly deep into the heart of battle meant Stuka pilots suffered some of the highest casualty rates in the Luftwaffe, and as a consequence became some of the most highly decorated German servicemen. Hans-Ulrich Rudel was the most famous Stuka pilot and squadron commander of the war. He was also the most highly decorated German soldier of the war, being the only serviceman to receive the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves with Swords and Diamonds.

The Stuka

Experience with close air support during World War I led many German officers in the newly formed Luftwaffe in the 1930s to develop plans to build a specialist aircraft for this key role. The result was the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, which first flew in 1935. Although progressively upgraded, the Stuka retained its distinctive gull-winged silhouette that became famous in the early years of World War II.

The single-engined Stuka was fitted with a specialized bomb sight to enable the aircraft to dive vertically on its target, and to automatically open air brakes after bomb release to allow the aircraft to safely pull up when it was 450m (1470ft) from the ground. As a result of this device, the Stuka could drop its bombs within 100m (330ft) of its intended target, and a good pilot could drop his bombs within 10m (32ft). Two wing-mounted 7.92mm machine guns allowed the Stuka to return after dive-bombing runs to strafe their targets. The normal Stuka bomb load was a 1000kg (2200lb) bomb under the fuselage or a 500kg (1100lb) bomb under the fuselage and four 50kg (110lb) bombs under the wings.

To complement this capability the Stukas were fitted with sirens, so-called “Jericho Trumpets”, which produced a frightening whine. This, coupled with its vulture-like appearance, made being on the receiving end of a Stuka attack a terrifying experience.

If the Stuka had shortcomings it was in its short range, only 448km (227 miles) in normal close air support operations, and poor air-to-air capabilities. Whenever Stukas came up against determined fighter resistance they were at a distinct disadvantage, and were dependent on the Luftwaffe maintaining air supremacy to allow them to operate freely.

When the war began, just over 330 Stukas had been built and it remained in production until late in 1944, with some 5000 being built in 15 different versions.

From 1942, the Germans began to find themselves faced by huge Soviet tank formations made up of hundreds of T-34s. These were difficult to destroy with traditional dive bombing techniques, so work began to provide the Stuka with more accurate weaponry. The result was the Ju 87G-1, which sported two 37mm high-velocity cannons mounted in underwing pods. These could punch through the armour of any Soviet tank in service, and allowed Stuka squadrons to directly engage the massed tank waves used by the Red Army. It was with this version of the Stuka that Rudel became famously associated. The Germans also developed an early version of what are now known as cluster bombs to counter the large Soviet tank formations. The 500kg (1100lb) SD-4-H1 contained 78 hollow-charge submunitions that could penetrate the thin roof armour of even the heaviest Soviet tank, including the heavily armoured Josef Stalin II.

German close air support tactics were first put into practice during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), when the first generation of Luftwaffe pilots had a chance to experience modern combat. While the Stuka’s top speed of 400kph (250mph) compared poorly to the 574kph (359mph) of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, the Luftwaffe’s top-line fighter, this was far from a disadvantage in the close air support role. Too much speed would have reduced the time Stuka pilots had to find their targets. The loitering presence of a Stuka squadron hunting for its targets and then swooping down, could be very terrifying for those on the receiving end of such an attack.

In Spain, Stuka pilots learned that the key to providing successful close air support was having good communications with friendly ground troops, who could pinpoint enemy positions and then direct air strikes against them. Combat experience in Poland and France later reinforced this and confirmed the validity of Stuka tactics. This saved the Stukas valuable time finding targets and also ensured that only targets that would influence the ground battle were engaged. So-called Stukaleiters, or Stuka controllers, were posted to each panzer division by the Luftwaffe. These men were usually serving Stuka pilots from the squadrons assigned to that sector of the front, to bind together the Stukas and panzers into a single force. Stukaleiters were given armoured halftracks to work in so they could keep up with the panzer commanders and had air-to-ground radios so they could talk-in attack aircraft to their targets. The Stukas have been described as the panzers’ “flying artillery”, but they brought more to the Blitzkrieg than just firepower. The Stukas ranged far ahead over hostile territory and provided German ground forces with early warning of troop strengths, movements and terrain obstacles.

While the Stukas reigned supreme in the Blitzkrieg battles of 1939 and 1940, when Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering sent them into action against British airfields during the Battle of Britain the thin German fighter cover available meant they suffered heavy losses.

Over the Mediterranean in 1941 the Stuka came into its own as an anti-ship weapon. Luftwaffe air superiority meant Royal Navy warships could be attacked without interruption by Stuka squadrons flying from Italian and Greek air bases. The Stuka’s dive-bomber systems proved highly effective against British warships, revisiting the successes enjoyed during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, when almost 250 Allied ships had been lost to German air power. The high point of the Stuka campaign in the Mediterranean theatre was the support for the airborne invasion of Crete in May 1941. After blasting open the Allied defences for the German paratroopers, who lacked tank or artillery support, the Stukas turned their attention to the Royal Navy warships sent to evacuate the defenders. Nine British warships went to the bottom and 15 were heavily damaged after becoming victims of dive-bombing.

The most famous Stuka pilot of the war did not begin his career at all auspiciously. In 1938, Hans-Ulrich Rudel was posted to one of the first Stuka squadrons, but was a slow learner, and far from popular with his peers because he did not join in the boisterous mess life typical of the prewar Luftwaffe. The 32-year-old Rudel was a teetotaller who did not smoke and spent all his time when not flying playing sport. A few months later he was shipped out to be trained as a reconnaissance pilot. After flying reconnaissance missions during the Polish campaign, he pressed to be transferred back to Stukas. His wish was granted, but it meant he missed the French campaign because he was undergoing flight training. Rudel was now assigned to perhaps the most famous Stuka wing of the war, Stuka Group 2 (SG) Immelmann, named after the famous World War I fighter ace. An argument with his commanding officer resulted in Rudel being grounded during the Greek and Crete campaigns, and being employed instead as a maintenance officer.

Hans-Ulrich Rudel in 1944.

Rudel on the Eastern Front

Rudel was determined to get into the action, and eventually a friend who commanded one of the wing’s squadrons relented, allowing him to fly as his wingman between his maintenance work on the flight line. He flew on the first day of the invasion of Russia and was in action on almost every day for the remainder of the war, except when he was in hospital or receiving medals from his Führer. The wing was in the thick of the action on the central sector of the Eastern Front, supporting panzer columns heading towards Smolensk and Moscow. Rudel became renowned for his determination to press home his dive-bombing runs, pulling up only at the very last minute to ensure his bombs landed on target.

In August 1941, Rudel’s wing was transferred to the Leningrad Front where German troops were besieging the cradle of the Soviet revolution. With Germans on the outskirts of the city, several Soviet Navy ships trapped in the Gulf of Finland regularly turned their big guns on their enemies. The Immelmann wing was given the task of knocking out the warships. Its main target was the 26,416-tonne (26,000-ton) battleship Marat. The wing’s first attack on 21 September with 500kg (1100lb) bombs failed to penetrate the warship’s armour, in spite of Rudel putting a bomb square on target after flying through an anti-aircraft barrage thrown up by 1000 guns.

When 1000kg (2200lb) bombs arrived at the wing, Rudel led a new attack on the Marat. He pressed home the attack with his typical determination and only released his bomb 300m (980ft) above the target. Rudel’s bomb penetrated the warship’s magazine. As it exploded in a massive fireball, Rudel struggled to regain control of his aircraft after blacking out, and only managed to pull it up 4m (12ft) from the sea. If that was not enough of a problem, three Soviet fighters now jumped the Stukas. The attack won Rudel the Knight’s Cross.

The Soviet winter offensive of 1941–42 saw the Immelmann wing supporting hard-pressed German defences in central Russia. When a Soviet tank column broke through the front and threatened the wing’s airfield, Rudel led air strikes that drove them back. For three days, the Stukas kept the Soviets at bay until the Waffen-SS Das Reich Division arrived to relieve the situation. By now Rudel had notched up more than 500 missions and was posted home to train a new Stuka squadron. Not wanting to be out of the action, he soon managed to pull a few strings and got his squadron transferred to southern Russia, where the Germans were pushing south to seize Stalin’s Caucasus oil wells. In the middle of the battle for Stalingrad, Rudel was diagnosed with jaundice but after spending a few days in a field hospital, he absented himself, returned to the front and took command of a squadron of the Immelmann wing. These were desperate days for the Luftwaffe in southern Russia. As Soviet tanks moved to surround the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, units such as Rudel’s Stukas were needed to hold back the Red Army. The Soviet advance was rolling up one German airfield after another, making it more difficult for the short-range Stukas to help the trapped German soldiers.

Cannon Birds

Erich Rudel was now recalled to Germany to form the first experimental anti-tank Stuka unit equipped with the 37mm cannon-armed Ju 87s, dubbed “Cannon Birds’’ by their crews. Rudel took the unit to the Crimea to help counter a Soviet amphibious landing on the Kuban peninsula. The Cannon Birds proved to be an outstanding success against Soviet landing craft bringing troops and supplies ashore, with Rudel alone claiming 70 destroyed. Personally awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross by a grateful Führer for his work in the Kuban, Rudel was now posted back to the Immelmann wing in charge of its Ju 87 G-1 anti-tank squadron, in time to lead it during the July 1943 Kursk Offensive.

As expected, his squadron was in the thick of the action supporting II Waffen-SS Panzer Corps as it attacked on the southern axis of Operation Citadel. His Cannon Birds ranged ahead of the panzers, intercepting and destroying Soviet reserve tank columns moving to the front. Scores of tanks were claimed destroyed by Rudel and his wingmen, with the squadron commander alone claiming to have destroyed 12 T-34s on a single day. Experience taught the Stuka pilots to aim for vulnerable parts of the Soviet tanks, such as engine bays and turret roofs. The exhaust smoke of the Soviet tanks proved a useful aiming point for the Stuka gunners, and a hit against the engine often resulted in a catastrophic explosion. The Soviet practice of loading extra fuel drums on the rear of their tanks made them very vulnerable to Stuka cannon fire. To get a good shot at the T-34s, Rudel recommended dropping down to 15m (50ft) to give the Stuka pilot a good look at the target. Here the slow speed of the Stuka came into its own, because it gave the pilot plenty of time to lay his guns on target.

These attacks proved devastating to the morale of Soviet tank columns and the infantry who rode into the battle on the rear decks of the T-34s. To counter the Stuka threat the Soviets started to move anti-aircraft guns close to their tank columns. In turn, Rudel began to have a pair of bomb- and machine-gun-armed Stukas circling overhead as his Cannon Birds lined up for their attacks. The supporting Stukas would strafe and bomb Soviet anti-aircraft batteries that attempted to open fire. They also provided early warning of the appearance of Soviet fighters that were starting to challenge German air superiority on the Eastern Front. In spite of this covering fire, Rudel’s aircraft routinely returned to base full of bullet holes.

After Hitler’s Kursk Offensive stalled, the Soviets immediately opened a huge offensive against the northern wing of the German forces around Orel, opening a huge breach in the front. Rudel’s tank-killing Stukas were rushed northwards to help stabilize the situation and give ground reinforcements time to mobilize. In the midst of this chaos, Rudel’s aircraft was badly shot up, but he managed to make a forced landing behind German lines and return to the fray. Soviet offensives continued to require the close attention of the Immelmann wing, and Rudel was appointed to command its 3rd Group after his predecessor was killed in action. He had now flown some 1500 sorties and personally destroyed 60 Soviet tanks, earning him the Oak Leaves and Swords to his Knight’s Cross.

Time after time, his Stukas saved the day during the Soviet winter offensive in the Ukraine, culminating in a decisive intervention during the Battle of Kirovograd in November 1943, when Rudel and his pilots blunted an attack by hundreds of T-34s. By now Rudel and his Stuka pilots had been turned into national heroes, featuring almost daily in Nazi propaganda broadcasts announcing more tank kills, desperate situations saved and medals won. To the ordinary German soldiers, Rudel’s tank-killing Stukas were known as the “front fire brigade” because they were always called on to dampen down the most combustible sections of the front. While other Stuka units had switched to flying the two-engine Henschel Hs 129 armed with a 75mm cannon, or ground-attack versions of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, Rudel stuck with his trusty Ju 87. Rudel’s squadron operated from rudimentary forward air strips, and his leadership was instrumental in keeping his ground crews working in freezing weather to put damaged aircraft back in the air time and time again, with minimal spares, tools and facilities. Once in the air, Rudel’s pilots followed him into attack after attack. He appeared fearless. Even when shot down over enemy territory, he somehow managed to escape and return to the cockpit of a Stuka. This incident followed a successful attack to destroy a bridge over the River Dnieper in March 1944. Twenty Soviet fighters swooped on his squadron, forcing one of Rudel’s pilots to land in territory held by the Red Army. Rudel landed to try to pick up his man, only to have his aircraft get stuck in mud. Russian soldiers captured Rudel and his two comrades. He swam a river and walked 50km (31 miles) in an escape bid. Two days later, he reached German lines and was soon back in the air.

Tank killing with the G-1 model Stuka became a Rudel speciality, and by August 1944 he claimed his 320th tank kill. The collapse of the German Army Group Centre in July 1944 brought the Immelmann wing northwards to the Courland peninsula, where it was thrown into one desperate battle after another. In October Rudel was promoted lieutenant-colonel and given command of his beloved Immelmann wing. There was little time to bask in the glory, and he had to lead his fliers to Hungary to help Waffen-SS panzer divisions blast a corridor through to 100,000 German troops besieged in Budapest. Soviet fighters were now swarming over the Eastern Front, making it highly dangerous for the lumbering Cannon Birds to go into action. In the space of a few days Rudel was shot down twice, but returned to the cockpit of a Stuka with his leg in a plaster cast. With more than 2400 missions in his log book and 463 tank kills claimed, Hitler made him the only recipient of the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves with Swords and Diamonds in January 1945. Hitler tried to ground Germany’s most highly decorated soldier, but Rudel insisted on returning to combat duty leading his wing.

Russian tanks were now advancing into Silesia, and Rudel’s wing was transferred to try to contain the situation. Flying from German soil, Rudel’s Stukas were able to rescue several German units cut off trying to retreat westwards to safety. When the Soviets pushed a bridgehead over the River Oder in February 1945, Rudel threw his Stukas into action. He alone destroyed four Soviet tanks, before having an aircraft shot out from under him. After struggling back to base, Rudel took off again to continue knocking out more than a dozen Josef Stalin tanks. In the midst of another attack run his aircraft was blown apart by Soviet flak. Rudel woke up in a field hospital to find out his left leg had been amputated. Despite being told his flying days were finished, Germany’s top Stuka pilot had other ideas. Only six weeks later he was back flying from bases in Czechoslovakia. When Germany surrendered in May, he led the remnants of his Immelmann wing on a last flight to American-controlled airfields in southern Germany.

Tank Killers

Rudel was instrumental in developing the tactics of using cannon-armed aircraft in the anti-tank role. The exploits of his Stukas during the Battle of Kursk was the inspiration used by the United States Air Force in designing the A-10 Warthog tank-busting aircraft at the height of the Cold War, when there was a requirement to counter massed divisions of Soviet tanks in central Europe. This aircraft was built around a multi-barrelled cannon specifically to counter enemy tanks.

As a leader of warriors, Rudel was unsurpassed. He led from the front and set a pace that few could equal. In the course of 2530 missions, Rudel personally destroyed 517 Soviet tanks – the equivalent of five Soviet tank brigades. This was on top of a battleship, cruiser, 70 landing craft, 800 trucks, 150 artillery pieces, as well as numerous bunkers, bridges and supply dumps. He also managed to achieve nine confirmed air-to-air kills. Perhaps more striking was the fact that Rudel was shot down 30 times by ground fire, and wounded five times. On top of this, he successfully rescued six of his pilots who had been shot down behind enemy lines. This was the mark of the man, who ranked leading his men into battle as the highest duty of any soldier.

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