Is this the best war memoir ever written? It's certainly the best I've ever read, and I've read a few now. The subject helps, Hans-Ulrich Rudel was one of the most remarkable warriors in history. Driven to prove himself after being considered a failure in his early training period (who initially could not master the difficult Stuka dive-bomber) he was finally tested in combat shortly after the start of the German invasion of Stalin's Soviet Union. Driven by this desire to prove himself to his comrades and superiors he soon began to receive the respect he so desperately wanted until he slowly became 'noticed', then respected, and then finally revered throughout wartime Germany as a living legend. His record and ability to destroy enemy targets was so mind-boggling that no propaganda 'enhancement' was necessary. Over 2,500 combat missions (a world record, on one day alone he did 17), 519 tanks destroyed, 800 other vehicles, armoured trains, a battleship among other warships, shot down over 30 times (always by Flak, never by enemy aircraft), personally hated by Stalin himself who became obsessed with shooting 'this Devil' down and even offering a huge bounty for killing or capturing him - if Rudel had not existed people would say that what he did was simply impossible. The German leadership had to literally invent 2 awards because they ran out of medals to give him. He must have been one of the few men to have had the audacity to disobey Hitler to his face when Hitler on more than one occasion told Rudel to stop flying, insisting that he had 'done enough' and Rudel threatened to turn down his promotion/ medal if he could not fly in combat any more!
As the book was written in 1948, the events are written while Rudel's memories are crystal clear, and it shows - he brings his war years vividly to life. Writing this review in 2012 the events are as fresh as us talking about events in 2009. As well as a brilliant pilot (and sportsman, he was an excellent skier) Rudel clearly has writing ability - his style is informal, he cuts to the chase and never waffles, making the book difficult to put down. When he talks about his meetings with the German hierarchy (he was a national war hero who had frequent access to the higher echelons) it is as though you are touching history, you feel like you are there. His meetings with the German hierarchy offer real historical insights, Speer's professions of loyalty to Hitler late in the war, Goering's feelings of paranoia, Goebbel's utter commitment to victory, a nervous Himmler in 1945 and Hitler's determination to fight on to avoid unconditional surrender. Interestingly Rudel relates that Hitler had tried desperately to secure a peace treaty with the Allies from 1943 but was told that only unconditional surrender was acceptable to the Allies. Also interesting is Rudel's absolute belief that as Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 he witnessed a vast Soviet military build-up that seemed to confirm the German view that the Soviets were about to attack western Europe and that their attack was a 'pre-emptive strike' and fully justified. When the book was written in 1948 no doubt this would have been seen as Rudel simply re-gurgitating German wartime propaganda, but since the publication of former Soviet Intelligence Officer Viktor Suvorov's book "Icebreaker" in 1991 perhaps Rudel's witness statement should be looked at more carefully?
Some of the events that stand out in this remarkable book for me are such as when Rudel returns to base with part of a tree lodged in his aircraft because he flew so dangerously close to the ground, or when he out-flew a Soviet fighter pilot (a Hero of the Soviet Union) in his 'unwieldy' Stuka by flying so low and so dangerously that the Soviet pilot was effectively flown into a solid rock face because he couldn't keep up with Rudel's aerial manoeuvre's; his incredible escape after trying to rescue a stranded Luftwaffe crew far behind Soviet lines (he nonchalantly mentions at that point in the book that he had done this several times before, but he hadn't mentioned it thus far. Maybe it was 'no big deal' to a man like Rudel?) including the swim across a near frozen river and several days of escape and evasion whilst wounded and bare-footed. It's doubtful that he could have survived this ordeal if he hadn't also been a fitness and health fanatic who was tee-total and ran 10km runs before breakfast. You could make a Hollywood movie about this episode alone. As if this wasn't enough, after that all Rudel wanted to do was get back back into combat. No PTSD or therapy for Rudel, his phyical and mental strength were not those of an average man. Perhaps the event that sums up Rudel for me are the events leading up to (and after) him losing his leg in 1945. He relates that after the Soviets secured a bridgehead only 50 miles from Berlin, because of the seriousness of the situation he decided to attack the bridgehead despite massive Flak defences in an action that he would normally have considered suicidal. Always taking the most risks, he did most of the shooting with his Tank-destroyer Stuka whilst his other 'birds' shot up the Flak to affect their aim as he did the attacking. He attacked by diving to 180 metres, flying in a violently erratic manner to avoid being hit by Flak and then levelling off for a fraction of a second to 'take the shot'. He considered that few men had the skill or experience to do it and so was determined to do the bulk of it himself to save the lives of his fellow pilots. He went back four times..... He survived losing his leg and crash-landing afterwards because he habitually finished an attack pointing towards German lines (in case he was hit) and happened to have his units Doctor flying as his rear gunner - he saved his life. After Hitler practically begging him to 'give it up' he disobeyed him again and was back in combat 6 weeks later with a specially made artificial leg designed to be used with stumps that hadn't healed, only weeks before the war ended. He stump was literally bleeding after every sortie.
I read an uncharitable review of Rudel's service elsewhere on the internet which summarised that he was completely impervious to fear or pity virtually to the point of insanity, that he liked to fly, and he liked to destroy. Period. Had the reviewer read this book? It is clear that Rudel wanted to fly, that joining the Luftwaffe allowed this and that initially he felt humiliated by early failure and wanted to prove himself. After that however his motives changed. He became aware (forget the false modesty) that he had developed a rare gift for flying ground attack aircraft and that every enemy tank he destroyed saved German lives on the ground, and every mission he flew (when his aircraft were damaged he would commandeer other pilots aircraft and go out again, letting them rest) in the place of another saved the lives of other German pilots who might not survive what he could. In other words he felt that with great talent comes great responsibility (as they say), and that every time he flew he quite literally 'made a difference' and saved German lives. That was his motivation to keep getting back in his Stuka when he had numerous opportunites to step back and take up a training or desk job, and despite having a wife and young son at home who must have been desperately worried about him.
The book goes on to cover his time as a POW, his refusal to kowtow to his captors and his eventual release. When confronted about German war-crimes and his refusal to condemn Hitler's attack on Russia he replied that whilst he believed that those guilty of war-crimes should be caught and punished - he was guilty of absolutely nothing whatsoever other than doing his duty (he was almost permanently in front-line combat), that he fought for his country and not a political party and that the Allies (particularly but not exclusively the Soviets) had committed numerous war-crimes themselves that they would never have to answer for, including after the war as he clearly states in the book. Almost his entire unit including wounded men, women and his best friend (who had survived numerous missions with him) that had to travel back to Germany on foot (i.e the vast bulk of them), were murdered whilst unarmed by Czech communist 'partisans' after they had surrendered and were unarmed. This was not an unusual event. He won an unlikely ally in RAF Battle of Britain veteran Douglas Bader who of course flew without legs - Bader even tried to get him a better artificial leg. Though not covered in his memoirs (there are other books on Rudel) he also went on to help the US develop their own version of the Stuka, the A-10 ground attack aircraft - and even went mountain climbing after the war, designing artificial legs for disabled climbers. After the war he remained a patriot/ German nationalist and anti-communist even when it was deeply unfashionable and much to the embarrassment of the West German government. When he died in the 1980's the Luftwaffe flew an unofficial fly-past above his funeral, to the disgust of the West German government who tried (unsuccessfully I believe) to find out who had authorised it.
Reading this book is also useful in another sense - it helps put your life in perspective. When you think you are having a bad day, just think about what Rudel went through every day for four years, and then ask yourself again if you're really having such a hard time? He was the man who did his duty no matter what, and who simply would not quit.