An unusual tank duel on the Eastern Front

Junkers Ju 87 "Stuka" dive bomber with 3.7 cm anti-tank guns under the wings.  Rudel may be the pilot,1943.

Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka” dive bomber with 3.7 cm anti-tank guns under the wings. Hans Ulrich Rudel may be the pilot, 1943.

In the Ukraine Hans Ulrich Rudel continued to lead an apparently charmed life. As a Stuka pilot Rudel had been in the thick of the action on the Eastern Front since Operation Barbarossa in 1941. By 1943 he had already claimed over 200 Russian tanks destroyed and had been awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knights Cross by Hitler, an award reserved for the most exclusive group of Nazi heroes. Yet he was still only part way through his wartime career which would leave him with a record of combat that would would surpass practically every other pilot, from both sides, in the war.

In the early days of January 1944 he was party to a remarkable tank ambush:

In the course of our operations during this period we witness a most unusual drama. I am out with the anti-tank flight south and south-west of Alexandria; after firing off all our ammunition we are homeward bound for Kirovograd to refuel and re-munition for another sortie.

We are skimming the almost level plain at a low altitude half way to Kirovograd and I am just above a dense hedgerow. Behind it twelve tanks are on the move. I recognise them instantly: all T-34s heading north. in a twinkling I have climbed and circled round the quarry. Where on earth have they come from? They are Soviets beyond all doubt.

Not one of us has a round of ammunition left. We must therefore let them rumble on. Who knows where they will get to by the time we can return with fresh ammunition and attack them.

The T-34s pay no attention to us and proceed on their way behind the hedge. Further north I see something else moving on the ground. We fly over at low level and recognise German comrades with Panzer IV tanks. They gaze up at us, thinking of anything but the nearness of an enemy and a possible skirmish.

Both lots of tanks are travelling towards each other, separated only by this tall line of bushes. Neither can see the other because the Soviets are moving in sunken ground below a railway embankment.

I fire red Very flares, wave and drop a message in a container in which I inform my tank colleagues who and what are coming in their direction three kilometres away, assuming they both keep to the same course. By dipping my aircraft towards the spot where the T-34s are travelling at the moment I tip them off to the nearness of the enemy. Both parties drive steadily on.

Circling low we watch for what is going to happen. Our tanks halt at a point where there is a gap of a few metres in the hedge. At any minute now they may both be suddenly surprised by the sight of the other at point blank range. I wait tensely for the second when both will get the shock. The Russians have closed down their turret-tops; perhaps they suspect something from our astonishing manoeuvres.

They are still rolling in the same direction, travelling fast. The lateral distance separating the two parties is not more than fifteen or twenty metres.

Now! The Russians in the sunken ground have reached the gap and see the enemy in front of them on the other side of the hedge. It takes exactly two seconds for the first Panzer IV tank to set his opposite number on fire at a range of twenty metres; bits and pieces pepper the air. In another few seconds — up till then I have not seen a shot fired from the rest of the T-34s — six Russian tanks are ablaze. The impression is that they have been taken completely by surprise and have not yet grasped what is happening even now.

Some T-34s move in close under cover of the hedge, the rest try to escape over the railway embankment. They are immediately picked off by the German tanks which have meanwhile got a field of fire through the gap.

The whole engagement lasts one minute, it is in its way unique. Without loss to ourselves every one of the T-34s has been destroyed. Our comrades on the ground are proudly elated at their success; we are no less delighted. We throw down a message of good wishes and some chocolate, and then fly home.

See Stuka Pilot: The War Memoirs of Hans-Ulrich Rudel

A German picture of captured T-34 tanks, somewhere in Russia in early 1944.

A German picture of captured T-34 tanks, somewhere in Russia in early 1944.

Panzer IV in the snow, somewhere in Russia, January 1944.

Panzer IV in the snow, somewhere in Russia, January 1944.

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