Ein Anderer Hitler by Hermann Giesler: After Stalingrad

AFTER STALINGRAD: Jodl Looks Back; Hitler Looks Forward 

Translation and Commentaries by Carolyn Yeager and Wilhelm Mann

Copyright 2011 by Carolyn Yeager

Translators' Introduction:  In the fall of 1943, the Russians were breaking through at Army Group Center, and General Erich von Manstein was trying to solidify the southern front. The Allies’ demand for “Unconditional Surrender” was being trumpeted, which could only force the Reich’s unconditional resistance. In this atmosphere, Hermann Giesler, who as Hitler’s architect was in charge of an operation of the Organization Todt at the Northeast front, was often at Fuehrer headquarters where he had the opportunity to engage Colonel General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations Staff of the OKW [Supreme Command of the Armed Forces] in conversation about the fateful battles at Demjansk and Stalingrad.

We note that both Jodl and Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Commander of OKW, were forced by the “Unconditional Surrender” demand of the Allies to submit to the travesty called the Nuremberg Major War Criminals Tribunal, which resulted in their being put to death by hanging—to the eternal dishonor of that court. Thus, history was deprived of the first-hand account these men would have written—accounts which would have added immensely to our understanding of the decisions made at that time. For this reason, Giesler’s contributions in recording his conversations with Col. General Jodl are a valuable addition to the historical record.

In describing the situations at Demjansk and at Stalingrad, Jodl explains why the first relief operation was successful, but the second was not. We learn some of the difficult strategic considerations behind Hitler’s orders to resist to the end. Many false assumptions and reports can be silenced by learning of Jodl’s analysis. At Nuremberg, he made a strong statement that because of military, political and human considerations, unconditional capitulation was impossible.

In the second part of this installment, we are once again given a look at a more personal side of the Fuehrer. His choice of a successor is something he took seriously almost from the time he became Chancellor of Germany. As the severe strain of the war continued to take its toll on his characteristic enormous energy, this became a more pressing issue to him. We learn from Giesler that Hitler had settled his mind on stuka pilot and war hero Colonel Hans-Ulrich Rudel and, though he tried to get Rudel away from the Eastern Front and in a close working relationship with him without revealing his ultimate plan, he did not succeed.

Finally, under “We will win the war,” we are given a rare glimpse of Hitler utilizing his faith and will power to remain an exemplar of unshakable confidence to his staff in the face of the daily arrival of terrible news and events. Giesler, because he admired Adolf Hitler and had by now spent enough time in his company to know him well, gives a sympathetic and believable portrait of the besieged leader as the end begins to draw nearer. This is compelling reading which we, the translators, are grateful to have the opportunity to bring to you.

The Colonel General talks about Stalingrad

In the fall of 1943, I talked with Col. General [Alfred] Jodl, Chief of Operations Staff of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht [OKW], about “Demjansk”1 and the catastrophe of Stalingrad.

In the winter of 1941-42, a Russian army encircled a German army corps at the Waldai Heights around Demjansk. The six encircled divisions, about 100,000 men, could only be supplied and remain fit for action by continuous daily air support. They repulsed all Russian attacks, and at their wide, extended hedgehog front they kept five Russian armies tied down.2 The divisions in the cauldron [signifying the encircled forces] of Demjansk prevented a decisive breakthrough of the Soviets at the Army Group North.

At that time, I was around Pleskau and Staraja Russia and took special interest in these operations. My friend Schulte-Frohlinde flew a Ju 52, carrying munitions and supply into the cauldron and wounded soldiers out.

My Organization Todt units, together with sappers, were building bridges, roadways, military positions and field railway tracks toward the cauldron as necessary preparations for the attack from the outside and the planned breakout from the inside.

The main battle line on the land-bridge west of the Demjansk cauldron was in the meantime stabilized and fortified. Four German divisions attacked from the Staraja Russa area in order to relieve the encircled army corps. Through mud, swamps and across the Lowat River, the troops fought that battle in an unprecedented manner.

An amazing achievement of men and leadership,” Col. General Jodl said. “Unique also in the history of war is the fact that a whole army corps, encircled, withstood for a long time an all-around attack of far superior forces. And unique also, and a first, that for months an army corps was supplied with all its needs for military operation solely by transport airplanes.”

I said, “Beyond its description in the war histories, Demjansk and Stalingrad will stand as a saga—even with all the bitterness—as a soldier’s Nibelungen epos.”

The Col. General replied, “I know where you want that talk to lead me, but it’s not the time for it yet. [Here are] only a few military points. The Stalingrad disaster began with the collapse of the North flank, and also a part of the South flank, of the 6th Army. Those forces could not withstand the attacking thrusts of the Russian elite armies.3 Encirclement of the 6th Army at Stalingrad was not the only intention of the Russians. Their strategic goal was larger; their thrust was directed toward Rostow.”

I asked, “Don’t Demjansk and Stalingrad show a certain analogy?”

Jodl answered, “Certainly they have a lot in common.” However he [Jodl] sees the fortress [festung] Stalingrad as a double-faced Janus head—“on the one hand it did not concern the position on the Volga and the encircled 6th army only , but also the fate of the Army Group South with more than one million solders and all the area they controlled. On the other hand, you should consider that for six months the 6th Army tied up seven Russian armies at Stalingrad. The rapid release of those enemy forces would certainly have meant a disaster for Army Group A, but it also would have greatly endangered Army Group Don and part of Army Group B. Large parts of the Romanian, Italian and Hungarian armies were already run over by the Russians.3 The breakthroughs had to be dammed, and defense fronts along the Don built. The fight of the 6th Army preconditioned the stabilization of the South flank of the East front where giant gaps were obvious. The situation was extremely threatening.

Something else is connected with Stalingrad—the Volga, the most important waterway for transporting the Baku oil and the American war deliveries from the Persian Gulf. Looking at the military situation of the South flank—the Volga front is for the time being of secondary importance. But Stalingrad, by its special strategic dimension, is much larger than Demjansk, even if you include Cholm and the Wolchow break-through. From both of those gigantic operations one can clearly conclude that the Russians recognized our strategic plans.

"Still some more indications: It surely makes a difference if 100,000 or 250,000 are supplied and made battle-ready by air. The distance and the depth of the enemy’s encirclement played a role; its flak and fighters caused serious problems for the flights of our slow Ju 52 transports. To what an extent and for how long the supply could be secured was a decisive, but unanswerable, question.”

NEED FOR A CORRIDOR

"Because of operative reasons, a relief from the West along the Don could not be considered,” Jodl continued. “Therefore all hope of such a relief was based on Army Group Hoth (Group B) opening a corridor from the southwest. That would have meant freedom of the decision for our combined effort by forces from inside and outside the encirclement.

"It would have been irresponsible to break the Stalingrad encirclement from inside with weakened troops, leaving behind the wounded, without the support of heavy weapons. Operative considerations, and not thoughts about prestige, kept the 6th Army in Stalingrad. The insufficient and weather-dependent supply by the Luftwaffe could not keep the Army in a fighting capability. To have enough food, fuel, and ammunition for the heavy weapons, and also for the break out of the 6th Army with support from outside, a corridor was absolutely necessary.

"An isolated break-out, without heavy weapons, from an unprotected icy-snowy steppe, and through a deeply staggered ring of the Russian armies, would have been an act of despair and led to total destruction. It would have meant the end of the 6th Army, and freed the enemy forces tied down there before the Army Groups at the South flank were secured.

"Around January 9th or 10th, the Russians actually offered the possibility for the 6th army to surrender. However, the purpose and goal of that offer was transparent: they wanted to free their tied-down army in order to move it, together with the other armies, against the not-yet secured defense front of the Army Groups. With regard to the conditions of the surrender, we were well aware what to expect. We were, however, still hoping to organize a sufficient supply line and a break-out through a corridor.

"The detachment of a large fighting force from the enemy, specifically in winter, carries all kinds of risks—it loses its fortified places/positions, and the coverage and protection by heavy weapons. Within the battle area, a detaching move by a division from North to South was carried out. It ended in total destruction—without any cover, the rapidly attacking Russians tore it apart and ran over it. That breakout of one division should be an example of the risk for the breakout of the whole 6th Army.”

Was that the action, as we learned it later, that General Seydlitz ordered by his own decision? Very strange. At Demjansk, he was in charge of the attack divisions breaking the cauldron from outside.

"I have to go to work,” the Col. General said with a serious face. The discussion about Demjansk-Stalingrad was never carried to an end. Yet the Col. General said the essential about the unavoidable development of that fateful battle.

 JODL AT NUREMBERG

Whenever I had a chance, I enjoyed talking to the Col. General because of his realism and his precise description of military affairs.

That heroic fight, and the sacrifice of the Stalingrad soldiers, was to be followed up by triumphant noises from the Allies. Out of their arrogance and blind hate came the harsh and rigid demand of the “Unconditional Surrender.”

Regarding that, in November 1944 I heard some critical observations by the Col. General: “No soldier with responsibility could undergo such a capitulation—it is dishonorable. Knowing all those conditions and the intentions of the enemy, only enraged resistance remains. That has nothing to do with fanaticism; despotism you can counter only with decisiveness, even in hopeless situations.”

Many years later, when I read the Nuremberg protocols, I realized what military considerations were behind his words. When questioned why Hitler did not capitulate in 1944-45, Jodl answered:

Then, to advise to surrender I did not. That was totally out of question; no soldier would have done that; it would not have been of any value […] Not even after the failure of the Battle of the Bulge […] the Fuehrer was as well aware of the over-all situation as we were and he probably saw it clearer much sooner than we did […] also nothing needed to be said to him in that matter anyway […]

Apart from the fact that the question of a capitulation or giving up the resistance is above all a matter for the supreme commander, there were, in the winter of 1944, many reasons against it. One major point—we had no doubt that it could only be an unconditional surrender; at that time the enemy did not leave us in doubt about it. And if we still would have had any doubt about what we had to expect, it was completely eliminated when we got hold of the English “Eclipse.” The English members of the commission will know what that is. It was the exact order of what the occupying power was going to do in Germany after the capitulation. The capitulation required the stand-still on the fronts at the spot where they were, and their capture by the adversaries who stood across the line. The same thing that happened the winter of 1941 at Wjasma had to happen. Millions of prisoners had to camp in the middle of the winter in open fields. Death would have reaped an immense harvest, and above all, those nearly three and one-half million still standing at the Eastern front would have fallen completely into the hands of the Eastern adversary. It was our desire to bring as many people as possible to the West. One could do that only if the two fronts moved closer to each other. Anyway, those were the mainly military considerations we deliberated towards the end of the war. I believe that more will be said about that in later years than I can or will tell today.

Götterdämmerung at Headquarters

It was late at night when Adolf Hitler read the last reports. One received his special attention. Again and again he recognizes, he said to me, that modern weapons give brave men the chance to excel. “If they risk their life, those weapons will lead them to supreme success.” But he [Hitler] has to watch out that the infantryman—the Panzergrenadier, who often has to endure much harder battles, does not come out short when his high achievement is evaluated.

"For quite some time I’ve been aware that only a soldier of great status will be entitled to lead the nation once I retire after the end of the war. That’s why I tried to get acquainted with anyone whose soldierly achievement and manly deed was extraordinary. By having the chance to present the awards for brave soldiers personally, I gained an immediate impression of many. Regardless of his military rank or which part of the armed forces he belonged to, I was open and attentive to him. I talked to everybody in order to find the value of his personality—always searching for the outstanding soldier who could one day lead the nation.

"To his calm audacity and courage, personal charisma has to be added. Thoughtful and logical thinking, combined with an interest in modern technologies and cultural openness, was absolutely necessary. I looked for the solder with imagination and leadership qualities. That naturally spoke for an officer of inborn authority. He had to be convinced this struggle is not only for Germany but for the whole of Europe. Steady he must be, and of strong character.”

STUKA PILOT HANS-ULRICH RUDEL

Adolf Hitler stood up, made a few steps and said, “I found him—the stuka pilot Rudel!”

I was not surprised, for he had been known to the nation for his courage, his fighting spirit and his success for some time. He was an officer of high reputation and an example of its soldiers.

"I wanted to take him in as my assistant,” Adolf Hitler continued. “He should participate in all my sorrows and hopes—not only of military affairs. Rudel’s humanistic education is a favorable qualification for further tasks.

"As a confidant, he should assist me. I wanted to introduce him to all the areas of responsibility and make him familiar with my ideas. I would then have had the opportunity to know him still better, to be sure that he will grow into the leadership of the Reich.

"I had to see in him more steadiness than I should expect—that he showed an iron will and knew how to use it. He said to me, ‘I belong to the front line! As long as there is fighting, my place is there.’ Up to now, I haven’t succeeded. I really can’t tell him I want to take him in as my successor.

"He has a great ability to evade my wish. Straightforwardly, he told me, ‘I can accept that honor only when you allow me to return again to the front.’ He felt that I understand him, yes, that I admire him and that I will not tie him down with an order. I hope he will stay alive!”

WE WILL WIN THE WAR

One evening I witnessed an event that impressed me very much. He put a bunch of reports on the working table, reading as usual standing up, and then walked resolutely up and down the room. He said, “We will win the war!” And he repeated it. After a time I heard him again, “We will win the war, I am very certain of that.” It was self talking, not addressed to me.4

He rang for an adjutant, took the bunch of reports again into his hand, and turned towards me, “Giesler, I expect you after the Lage.” I had the feeling Adolf Hitler stood under a great strain. Just before, during dinner, I noticed his absent-minded pondering. I thought he was still feeling the tension of the previous military discussions, still thinking about decisions. I’m sure those reports were responsible now for that ‘We will win the war.’

For quite awhile I noticed a change in his nature, the slight trembling of his left hand, played down by some joking words. His restlessness is all the way to nervousness; he was overworked. On the previous night, he gave me a hint: “It is very hard for me to find sleep. Sleeping pills, certainly—but they make me only more tired, they do not give me sleep. Only after a long time awake, mostly around five or six o’clock, I fall asleep. Even in darkness or quietness—I’ve become accustomed to the humming of the air conditioning—I cannot fall asleep.

"I have the maps of front lines before of my eyes, from the armies to the divisions to the regiments. Anxiously, my thoughts are touching the front lines, something can happen here, something must happen there.

"I simply cannot switch off after the night Lage and give in to the demand for rest. I wait for incoming reports either from the front, from bombing attacks or of a world political event. At the nightly tea, talking about matters which interest me, I think I might be able to relax. Yes, sometimes it depends what the day had demanded from me. At the relaxing discussions, I am very picky: city construction, architecture and technology are my favorites…well, you know it!”

Worries and doubts overwhelmed me, also, after Stalingrad—the fateful collapse of Army Group Center, the failed defense of the invasion, and also after the assassination of July 2oth. But whenever I talked to Adolf Hitler, worries and doubts were eliminated by the immense fascination and radiation of his personality. His authority, the enormous power as the chief of state combined with his supreme command over the Armed Forces—all that was increased by his simple modesty. His matter-of-fact attitude impressed me, when, in the middle of hard war campaigns, he was thinking about reconstructing cities, as: “We are going to build that this way”—and it sounded like “too bad we can not start tomorrow because adverse matters do not allow it.”

That is what made my worries and doubts disappear, because he was so convinced and believed, “We will win the war.” I was not able to resist his conviction and willpower. Again, it seems to me important to repeat: When we discussed plans for city reconstruction, Adolf Hitler combined unexpected ideas with matter-of-fact considerations before he made any decision. Everything was well thought out—in my own realm I could judge it—by his pragmatic evaluation of any problem. It was clear deliberation, well argued and finally, the assuring word, “That’s the way we are going to build.” Was it different in military matters? I can not imagine that his high intelligence, his ever-awake senses did not see and consider military situations by the same clear observation and judgment.

And I am convinced that the sober-thinking Col. General Jodl did not have to tell him in late fall 1944 that the military catastrophe was approaching from day to day and cannot be stopped.

Adolf Hitler saw the situation clearly, better and sharper than anybody else, because he was able to comprehend the whole scope, from raw materials to weapons, from the fighting strength of the soldiers to the strategic planning. I am also convinced that if it would have concerned only him, he would not have hesitated one day longer. What prevented him? Relentless stubbornness? No, much more—the “Unconditional Surrender.”

That cold formula of destruction he could only counter with his unconditional resistance. That “Unconditional Surrender” was not targeted and limited to the removal of Hitler and the National Socialists, nor the “system,” nor the Wehrmacht and its officers—but the German Nation. Germany, its substance and Lebensraum, was the target.

Even if the leadership of the nation would have been formed by the men of the Resistance, or even by those “men of God,” annihilation on a much bigger scale than the continuance of the war could have taken place. Unconditional Surrender—with that merciless formula the enemy powers not only prolonged the war but recklessly sacrificed German soldiers, civilians, women and children. They also sacrificed their own soldiers.

An additional idea also dominated Adolf Hitler—he felt far superior to Churchill and Roosevelt. To him, both of them were rudimental appearances from the past era of the 19th century. Stalin, however, he considered as a revolutionary who took Lenin’s communism to its final peak. Now he became the European threat—still good Uncle Joe, but for how long could that self-deceit of the Western Powers last? That alliance had to break down. That it did not happen does not speak against Hitler.

But all that means nothing against those defiant, forceful words: “We will win the war, I am certain about that!” Inconceivable for all who did not know Hitler and thought of him as a nihilist—he was a deeply believing man! His road led him through a changing era and he was convinced that it was his task to walk that road, predestined by Providence.

Even more than his penetrating intelligence, his faith determined his thinking, his trust in Germany, himself and his mission, but also his belief in Providence. That belief, enforced again and again on his long way from zero to the Fuehrer of the nation, gave him the strength to be an example of steadfastness and optimism for his staff.

Adolf Hitler was well aware of the superior strength and recklessness of his adversaries, and the dangerous war situation. Any sign of weakness he must have seen as a deadly failure for all. That unbelievable strength to resist this weakness was not based on rational sources, but he gained it by his belief in Providence. How many nights did sleep evade him until he could find rest.

Endnotes:

1. This refers to the the encirclement of German troops by the Red Army around the city of Demyansk (German: Demjansk), southeast of Leningrad. Called the Demyansk Pocket or Kessel von Demjansk, it existed mainly from early February until April 21, 1942.

2. This makes the Russian to German advantage in manpower at least 3 to 1!

3. Paul Carell explains in his book Operation Barbarossa, Schiffer Publishing Ldt., 1991, 495 pgs.: “Catastrophe was already looming by noon on the 19th [November]. Whole divisions from the Rumanian front, above all the 13th, 14th and 9th Infantry Divisions, broke and fled to the rear in panic. The Soviets pushed after them towards the west to the Chir and then to the south and southwest. It became clear that they [Soviets] wanted to break into the German Sixth Army’s rear …” Further explanation is found in Stuka Pilot, Hans-Ulrich Rudel by Guenther Just (1990), page 25: “A promising relief attempt got to within thirty km. of the pocket but the main force had to be pulled back to avert the threat to the entire southern front caused by the Italians’ failure near Bogoduchov.”

4. A possible insight into Hitler’s belief and hope that he could still “win the war” is his admiration for Friedrich the Great, whom he personified as an example of will power and endurance. On the brink of disaster again and again during a seven year war, Friedrich held on, refusing to sign a cowardly peace after the lost battles of Kunersdorf in 1757 and Hochkirch in 1758, thus saving his Prussian kingdom. At the Chancellery in Berlin and in Hitler’s Wolfsschanze and Berlin bunkers, Adolf von Menzel’s painting of Friedrich the Great was the only decoration adorning his simple room.

Category 

World War II

Hans-Ulrich Rudel: The man who might have been the next German Führer

Stuka pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel, on duty, wearing the decoration Adolf Hitler designed especially for him. Below, official photo of Rudel -click to enlarge.


By Carolyn Yeager and Wilhelm Mann
copyright 2009 Carolyn Yeager

You are the greatest and most courageous soldier the German people have ever had."

So Adolf Hitler told Hans-Ulrich Rudel on January 1, 1945 at the bunker headquarters in Berlin on the occasion of promoting Rudel to the rank of colonel and awarding him the highest German WWII decoration: the Knight's Cross with Golden Oak Leaves with swords and diamonds.1

 This was quite a statement considering all the great and courageous soldiers that have fought so valiantly for the Fatherland, yet considering the almost unbelievable accomplishments of this modest man who loved piloting and sports, it was not a rash statement.

Rudel's extraordinary career began after he overcame a childish timidity by plunging himself into sports participation after hearing mocking words from his older sister. Once he had conquered his fear, "no tree was too high, no ski slope too steep, no brook too wide, and no boy's prank too risky" 2 for this son of a Lutheran priest who weighed less than six pounds when he was born July 2, 1916 in Konradswaldau in German Silesia - which since WWII is the section of Poland bordering the Czech Republic. 

He developed the conviction that "one can do anything if one wants to." As a soldier, he famously maintained this belief with his personal motto: "Only he who gives up on himself is lost."

Between the Hitler Youth and school sporting meets, "Uli" became a decathlete for whom an Olympic future was predicted. From childhood he had wanted to become a pilot, but after he matriculated from secondary school his father could not afford the expensive training, as his oldest sister was already studying medicine.3

When he learned of the formation of a new Luftwaffe, he determined, "I will become a pilot!" He passed the difficult entrance examination and began infantry training in Dec. 1936, but his path to becoming the world's greatest pilot was plagued with disappointment. First, he was a slow learner. After volunteering for dive bomber school, he couldn"t seem to get the hang of Stuka flying. And he was an odd duck, eschewing mess life with the other cadets [he didn't drink or smoke] to spend all his spare moments at sports or hiking in the magnificent hills surrounding Graz, in Styria.

Much to his dismay, he was transferred to reconnaissance flying school and during the Polish campaign the only shots he took were with a camera. He was also present, but not allowed to fly, during the Western campaign. Then in September 1940, he was sent back to Graz to a Stuka Replacement Gruppe and on a practice mission he suddenly sensed what had so far eluded him and, even more, he had the clear knowing "now I have got it, now I can make the machine do everything I want it to."4

THE WARRIOR EMERGES

From then on, no one could touch him for skill and precision bombing; he was master of his machine. After Easter 1941, he was posted, with high hopes, to I. Gruppe of Stukageschwader 2 Immelmann on the Greek peninsula, but the CO there refused to allow him to fly operational missions, based on old reports from his adjutant. It wasn't until his Group was transferred to the air base at Raczki on the Eastern Front that Rudel was finally given the chance to show what he was capable of.

On Sept. 23, 1941, his first extraordinary action took place. He sank the Soviet battleship "Marat" at the harbor of Kronstadt. By making a steep, up to 90 degree dive, he released the 2000kg bomb at about 300 meters, apparently striking right into the ship's magazine, and skyrocketed straight up into the air, barely avoiding tremendous anti-aircraft shell fire and the explosion itself. He heard his gunner say, "Herr Oberleutnant, the ship is blowing up!" Congratulations immediately began pouring in from all sides over his radio.

He followed by sinking a cruiser, a destroyer and numerous landing boats around Kronstadt and the Lake Ladoga area. By the end of the war, Rudel had logged an unmatched 2,530 missions. In his first ninety days of flying against the enemy, he made his 500th flight and received the German Cross in Gold. In January 1942, General der Flieger von Richthofen presented Rudel with the Knight's Cross in the name of the Fuehrer, the citation listing his successes against ships, direct hits on important bridges, supply routes, artillery positions and tanks.

During 1942, Rudel's Gruppe flew difficult missions over the Caucasus, directed to their targets by radio. They sealed up a Russian armored train in a mountain tunnel, destroyed harbor installations, airfields, and vessels on the Black Sea. At the end of '42, they flew missions in support of the heroic defense by the surrounded 6th Army at Stalingrad.

In 1943, following his 1,001st mission, Rudel went to a special unit at Rechlin/Mecklenburg that was testing the new anti-tank Ju 87 armed with two 3.7 cm. cannon carried beneath the wings. Flying such an unwieldy but fearsome "cannon bird", Rudel went on to destroy more than 519 Russian tanks by the end of the war.

 Here you can see the cannons fitted under the wings of the Ju 87 "Stuka."

In April '43, Rudel was promoted to Hauptmann and received the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross from Adolf Hitler in the Reich Chancellery, along with 12 others receiving decorations. At this time, Hitler must have already been observing him closely.

Nov. 25, 1943: Rudel [center] receives the Swords for his Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves from the hand of Adolf Hitler. On his left is Dieter Hrabak; on his right his gunner Erwin Hentschel.

PERILOUS FORTUNE

A noted characteristic of Hans Rudel was his unwillingness to stay out of action, even when ill or injured. His healthy lifestyle - which included his continuing regimen of sports and mountain climbing in his spare time - and his positive mental attitude made for a constitution that mended rapidly. He "escaped" from several hospitals before being formally discharged and returned to his group, finishing his recovery while flying again.

Rudel was not immune, however, to the dangers he and his squadron faced daily. His plane was shot down by ground fire or crash-landed over 30 times, but he always managed to return safely. He even landed behind the Russian lines six times to rescue pilot comrades.  On the last such occasion, in March 1944, he landed near the destroyed Dnjester bridge to pick up the two-man crew of a crash-landed Ju 87. As it turned out, the field was so muddy he could not take off again and they were forced to escape by swimming across the icy-cold river. Rudel was the only one of the group to survive, even though he swam back into the river in an effort to assist his floundering gunner, whom, however, he could not save. The other two pilots didn't run, as Rudel did, when they were approached on the other side by Russians who took their pistols. He was shot in the shoulder as he zig-zagged away, and ran/jogged nearly 30 miles, barefoot, over hard, rocky ground, chased by pursuers with dogs, until he reached the German line.

Following this ordeal, his feet were so damaged he couldn't wear regulation shoes or boots for several weeks while he continued flying missions and, in fact, appeared at the Berghof on March 29thas the tenth German soldier to be awarded the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds from Adolf Hitler, the highest existing decoration at that time, wearing his fur-lined flying boots.

Rudel was recognized by everyone as a phenomenon - a soldier who stepped beyond the limits of fortitude and sacrifice, and took risks nobody else dared. But he could not escape the perils forever. In November 1944, he was badly wounded in the thigh but, after an operation and with his left leg in a plaster cast, he continued flying. It was January 1, 1945, on the occasion of Rudel becoming the first and only German to be awarded the Knight's Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds, that Hitler tried to get his hoped-for heir to stop flying. According to Guenter Just:

He received the decoration at Fuehrer Headquarters West at Taunus in the presence of the commanders of all branches of the armed forces, as well as Generalfeldmarschall Keitel, Generaloberst Jodl and several Eastern Front generals. At the same time he was promoted to Oberst. Rudel's joy turned to dejection when Hitler said to him, "You have done enough flying. You and your experience must remain alive as an example for German youth." The high-ranking officers held their breath as Rudel answered, "My Fuehrer, I cannot accept this decoration and promotion if I am no longer permitted to fly with my Geschwader."

Hitler suddenly smiled, "Very well then, fly. But be careful, the German people need you." Afterwards, Rudel spent an hour-and-a-half in conversation with the Supreme Commander and was astonished by Hitler's knowledge in the field of armaments technology. Subsequently he flew back to his squadron in Hungary. 5

Within two weeks, the ban on Rudel's operational flying was reinstated, but he ignored the order from Fuehrer Headquarters, crediting his tank kills to the Geschwader so that the High Command wouldn't notice he was still flying. During missions over the Frankfurt/Oder-Kustrin area, Rudel and his group rescued an army unit that was surrounded by Soviet armored forces. Their reward was seeing the relieved troops wave and throw their helmets in the air for joy.

But Adolf Hitler's concern was warranted. On February 8, 1945, at the Oder Front east of Berlin, a Russian anti-aircraft shell hit his cockpit, smashing into the lower part of his right leg, nearly severing it. Rudel used all his will power to force land the plane, after which his gunner Dr. med. Ernst Gadermann, saved his life by applying a tourniquet above the knee to stop the bleeding. When Rudel regained consciousness in the SS hospital near Seelow, he learned the crushing news that his leg had been amputated right below the knee. Hitler's reaction to the news: "He was lucky to get off so easy."

But even this would not hold Rudel back. His physician told him, "You are finished with flying." But before six weeks was up, Rudel left the hospital with an only partially healed stump and began commanding his squadron again. Wearing a temporary prosthesis and using a counterweight at his steering rudders, he flew again in April and killed his last 14 tanks.

 April 1945: Rudel returns to his squadron without his leg, but undeterred.

On April 19, a day before Adolf Hitler's 56th birthday, he was called to the bunker headquarters in Berlin for a report before he left with his group to the airfield Maerisch-Schoenau in Bohemia. The Russians had crossed the Oder River and amassed their forces east of the Seelow heights for the final assault on Berlin. According to his own account, Rudel suggests to the Fuehrer that victory in the East is possible if "we can succeed in getting an armistice" with the West. He writes:

A rather tired smile flits across his face as he replies: "It is easy for you to talk. Ever since 1943 I have tried incessantly to conclude a peace, but the Allies won't; from the outset they have demanded unconditional surrender."6

The entire staff lined up to say goodbye and wish him well when he left the bunker long after midnight.

Rudel's Battle Squadron 2 continued to support Field Marshal Ferdinand Schoener's ground forces in the east until the final day of the war, when they decided to try to seek safety in the West occupation zones. On the capitulation day, May 8, he and a few comrades purposely landed their Stukas and FW 190's at their home field in Kitzingen in such a way as to shear off the landing gear and even break a wing.  He expected to get medical attention for his leg from the American occupation forces, but instead was "relieved", as all the crews, of his watch, fountain pen and military decorations, and held for interrogation, eventually sent to camps in England, then France, without medical attention. With difficulty, he finally obtained a transfer to a German military hospital in Bavaria where German doctors provided excellent care for his amputation wound. By mid-April 1946 he was released and had a top-grade prostheses built in Kufstein, Tirol.

 

Photo via Gordon

Oberst Hans-Ulrich Rudel's last aircraft, crashed and surrounded by Americans at Kitzingen, 8 May 1945. Rudel can be seen on the starboard wing of his aircraft.

AFTER THE WAR

With no prospects in Germany for ex-National Socialists, in 1948 he and friends Bauer and Niermann managed, with the help of "Odessa,"7 to travel to Cordoba in Argentina and became consultants to the Argentine aviation industry.

The regime of General Juan Peron welcomed not only Rudel, but also Prof. Kurt Tank, the Focke-Wulf aircraft designer, and several German test pilots and Luftwaffen officers. At an aircraft plant in Cordoba, they worked on the first Argentine jet plane "Pulqui 2." Rudel continued to keep his body very fit. He climbed the 7020 meter Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes; following that he scaled the 6920-meter Llullay-Yacu peak three times, being the first man to do so even once. He raced, wearing his prosthesis, on the ski slopes of Bariloche, and completed his book, Trotzdem [Nevertheless or In Spite of Everything], which was translated into many languages and sold more than a million copies. His sports trophies continued to mount into the hundreds.

Early in 1950, after the fall of the Peron government, Rudel returned to Germany and immediately became involved in politics, becoming a leader in the German Reich Party. Hitler would have been pleased. Rudel's concern was for the future of the former German soldiers. He justified his participation with the Third Reich by saying it was not for Germany but for Europe that he fought. He criticized the political climate in the Federal Republic, saying "I think that our democracy has not yet reached the level of the USA. There, you can openly say what you think. You can not do it here, unless you express the opinion of the ruling political parties. When I express my opinion, I am right away disparaged and called a Nazi-Colonel. All I dared to say after the war was frank words to those people who insulted me and offended the soldiers. Since then, they called me a 'Radical Right.'" 8

In 1976, the "Rudel Scandal" brought about the early retirement of two Bundeswehr [former Luftwaffe] generals and the Social Democrat Defense Minister Georg Leber. [read about it at http://wapedia.mobi/en/Rudel_Scandal]

Rudel suffered a stroke in 1970, but his fighting spirit enabled him to recover sufficiently to be able to swim, hike and even ski again. But 12 years later, on Dec. 18, 1982, at the age of 66, Hans Ulrich-Rudel, the "Eagle of the Eastern Front"-- the man of whom the last chief of the Wehrmacht in 1945, FM Schoerner, said "Rudel alone is worth an entire division!"-- and the man Adolf Hitler wanted to succeed him as Fuehrer of the German Reich, died of heart failure in Rosenheim, Upper Bavaria. He left behind three sons, and an unprecedented record of achievement that will probably never be matched, let alone surpassed.

Missions flown against the enemy:  2530 (a world record)

Ground targets destroyed:  2000 (including 519 tanks; 70 assault craft/landing boats, including a Soviet battleship, two cruisers and a destroyer; 150 self-propelled guns; 4 armored trains; and 800 other vehicles)

Air victories:  9 (2 Il-2's and 7 fighters)

Rescue missions behind enemy lines:  6

Shot down/crash landings:  32 (He was never shot down by another aircraft, even though Stalin had placed a 100,000 ruble bounty on his head.)

Wounded:  5 times

Decorations for bravery:  12 plus two foreign. Most decorated serviceman of all branches of the German Armed Forces (apart from Hermann Göring, who was awarded the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross).

During his funeral service at Dornhausen, two Bundeswehr Phantom jet planes circled low over the gravesite 9 where most of his Alte Kameraden, his WWII comrades, were in attendance to bid him farewell with the familiar Nazi salute.

 

Endnotes:

 1.  Guenther Fraschka, Mit Schwertern und Brillanten, 1989, Universitas Verlag, Muenchen, p 119.

 2.  Guenther Just, Stuka-Pilot Hans Ulrich Rudel, 1990, Schiffer Publishing, 277 pg., p 10.

 3.  Ibid, p 11.

 4.  Ibid, p 14

 5.  Ibid, p 32

 6.  Hans Ulrich Rudel, Stuka Pilot, Ballantine books, New York, 1958, p 267

 7.  An organization that was purported to facilitate secret escape routes for SS members out of Germany and Austria to South America and the Middle East.

 8.  Mit Schwertern und Brillanten, ibid, p 125

 9.  Der Spiegel, "Letzer Flug" [Last Flight], Jan. 1, 1983. "Two days before the holy evening (24 December) last year [...] around noontime a funeral began at the village cemetery. Two Phantom jet planes circled in a strange looking pattern in the sky, crossing and bending in a way that with a little imagination one could recognize as a swastika, as one observer thought. A little later one Phantom dived in the direction of the village church, wiggled with its wings and skyrocketed 300 feet above the village. [...] the Deutschlandlied was intoned in all three verses [...] It did not take the Federal Ministry of Defense long to end the investigations about the ominous Phantom's low level flight, with the result it found the Bundesluftwaffe did "neither on the ground nor in the air participate" at Rudel's funeral.

Category 

World War II