Hans-Ulrich Rudel has been labelled 'mad' and 'Nazi', but if you're interested in one of the most extraordinary wartime pilots - and survivor of one of the harshest battlegrounds - it's best to first seek the man's own words.
Rudel was an incredible pilot - to survive 2,500 missions on the World War II Russian Front in a lumbering Stuka dive-bomber - he simply had to be. Some luck could be involved, but without talent the odds are rather stacked: a slow aircraft, withering ground fire, mechanical failure, and vengeful enemy fighters. It seems Rudel flew his Stuka like a fighter plane - and in doing so, in addition to his huge number of ground kills, destroyed at least one top Russian fighter ace who was determined to shoot him down. Curiously, Rudel remarks that he was a slow learner.
Rudel has compassion for his comrades and respect for the best of his enemies. He's a tenacious soldier, driven by honour and the military oath. He says that he fought for Germany and not a political party. Despite adhering closely to the Germanic doctrine of orders, he breaks orders to save his comrades - and, extraordinarily, defies several direct personal orders from Hitler and Goering.
Yet the character traits that rise above the rest are Rudel's phenomenal survival instinct and self-belief. He never gives up, even in the direst circumstances: captured behind enemy lines with guns pointing at him. "Only he is lost who gives himself up for lost" - seizing at once the slimmest of chances, Rudel breaks free, dodging small arms fire from point-blank range.
The translated style of Stuka Pilot is quite different, yet characterful and eminently readable, with surprising humour running throughout. My annoyance is that Stuka Pilot is the re-edited 1958 version of Rudel's 1949 German autobiography 'Trotzdem'. In Stuka Pilot, Rudel's courage and skill are unquestionable, but perhaps outside of Trotzdem - Rudel's true opinions will never be known.