The flying tank buster – Hans-Ulrich Rudel 2,000 targets destroyed including 519 tanks

Russell Hughes
 
 
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Hans-Ulrich Rudel was shot down 30 times during his 2,530 missions. He destroyed one battleship, one cruiser, one destroyer, 70 landing craft, 800 vehicles, 150 gun positions, 519 tanks and nine aircraft. His story is simply incredible.

Like so many successful soldiers during World War Two, Rudel showed a great aptitude for adventure, risk and daring from an early age. His first brush with injury came when he was just eight years old as he jumped off a roof with an opened umbrella in an attempt to fly. It earned him a broken leg, but that was small fry in comparison with what would come later on.

Rudel initially came to prominence within the Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 (StG.2), flying Stuka dive bombers in blackout-inducing dives and at speeds that other men would never consider – but when he first joined the force his commanders thought he didn’t fit into the squad of men.

As the son of a Lutheran minister, Rudel didn’t take part in many of the activities that life revolved around for the fighting men. “He doesn’t smoke, drinks only milk, has no stories to tell about women and spends all his free time playing sports. Senior Officer Cadet Rudel is a strange bird,” wrote one of his instructors.

And for a man who spent most of the first half of the war sitting in the backseat of a reconnaissance plane, or not flying at all, the numbers Rudel racked up are truly astonishing.

He flew no combat missions at all throughout the Battle of Britain or the Baltic and Cretan conflicts, and only got his first taste of life in the front seat when he was called on to fight during Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-655-5976-04 / Grosse / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5413180
Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka” dive bomber with 3.7 cm anti-tank guns under the wings. The aircraft, Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s, is being started with a hand crank. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-655-5976-04 / Grosse / CC-BY-SA 3.0

His first engagement was against the Russians, who were well aware that the enemy was coming and wouldn’t be intimidated by the wailing sound of the dive bomber. To add even more fuel to the fire, Rudel was tasked with ending the Soviet Dreadnought Marat’s reign of terror over the German forces attacking Leningrad. It had been launching shells a full 18 miles onto the Axis positions surrounding the city, and Rudel was a part of the force sent to stop it.

In just one month, Rudel had flown 100 missions and had proven his worth as one of the best pilots in StG. 2. For this soldier, hitting the target and making sure ammunition didn’t go to waste was of fundamental importance. Because of this, he developed a tendency to dive too low and fly too close to the ground to make sure the correct target was hit.

“I generally dive to too low a level, to be sure of hitting the target and not waste ammunition,” wrote Rudel in his memoirs. His captain agreed, saying: “This crazy fellow will have a short life.”

The Marat was sitting in the Gulf of Finland, and the Stukas were sent to bring down the beast that had been sending hell and fire into the German forces risking life and limb for Operation Barbarossa. The massive, ship busting 1,000lb bomb released by Captain Ernst-Siegfried Steen missed its mark, but true to form the one carried by Rudel was a hit and exploded on the aft deck.

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