The Knights Cross was the higher level of the famous German Iron Cross military medal. It was introduced at the beginning of World War 2, and as the long war produced an increasing number of soldiers who repeatedly distinguished themselves in combat as warriors or as commanders, higher levels of the Knights Cross were introduced, with ever higher award criteria.
The tremendous repeated achievements of the greatest German heroes of World War 2, which are significantly higher than those of their allied equivalents, can be explained by two factors:
The German dictator Adolf Hitler, himself a recipient of the Iron Cross in World War 1, clearly enjoyed dealing with reviewing proposed award cases and personally awarding the Knights Cross during the entire war. He also personally made sure that award criteria remained fair and objective, allowing men of all ranks and branches to be rewarded for their combat bravery and achievements as equally as possible. The recipients of the Knights Cross definitely deserved the honor.
There were several other types of German medals, but the Knights Cross was the most desired and prestigious one. Eventually there were seven levels of the Iron Cross and Knights Cross, and being first awarded the previous level was normally a requirement for the next level.
The Iron Cross 2nd class was awarded for an act of bravery in combat or action above and beyond the call of duty.
The Iron Cross 1st class was awarded for three to five additional such acts. During six years of war, iron crosses were awarded to a huge number of German soldiers, sometimes to an entire unit, for example a submarine crew. The 1st class was usually awarded to fighter pilots with more than five kills and to submarine commanders who sank 50,000 tons of shipping.
The Knights Cross was awarded to former recipients of the Iron Cross for five to seven additional repeated act of bravery or for particularly successful command in combat, and criteria kept rising during the war. Fighter pilots received their Knights crosses based on a points system that gave one point for killing a single engine aircraft, two points for twin engine aircraft, three points for a four engine aircraft (usually a heavy bomber), and doubled points for night fighter kills. Submarine captains were recommended after sinking 100,000 tons of allied shipping. A total of 7318 Knights Crosses were awarded during World War 2.
The Knights Cross with oak leaves was awarded to Knights Cross recipients for continued excellence in command or continued great bravery and other outstanding performance in combat. It was awarded since July 1940 to a total of 890 soldiers. The first recipient was General Eduard Dietl, the German commander in the battle of Narvik in North Norway. Fighter pilots usually had to shoot down well over 150 enemy aircraft to receive it, and submarine commanders had to sink 200,000 tons of shipping or more.
Reading through the list of the 160 recipients of the Knights Cross with oak leaves and swords is enlightening. It's practically a list of Germany's most outstanding and famous aces and military leaders. The first two recipients, in June 1941, were the two most prominent German aces of the battle of Britain, Adolf Galland, then commander of fighter wing 26, and Werner Molders, commander of fighter wing 51. The first recipient from the German Navy was Otto Kretschmer, the legendary commander of submarine U-99, and the first recipient from the army was General Erwin Rommel.
Other recipients which caught my eye in the list were top fighter pilot aces like Erich Hartmann (352 kills), Gunther Rall, Walter Nowotny, Johannes Steinhoff and others. Bomber pilot and leader Werner Baumbach who later commanded the Luftwaffe's most secret unit, KG 200. Other submarine aces like Erich Topp. Hans Hube, who was one of the most appreciated commanders in the German military. Hyazinth Strachwitz, known as "the Panzer cavalryman", perhaps the best tank ace in the German army. The most talented German army Generals like Rommel, Manstein, Runstedt and others, and Stuka dive bomber ace Hans Ulrich Rudel, who was Germany's greatest war hero. There was also a single honorary recipient, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, honored with this medal after he was killed by American long range fighters.
This even higher level was introduced in September 1941. Only 27 men were awarded this medal until the end of World War 2, the best of the best, the most outstanding of Germany's many war heroes and senior commanders of World War 2, each having either a long record of numerous acts of bravery and combat successes and obviously tremendous luck just to survive that long, or the most outstanding senior command record, or even both the heroic and command records.
The list includes two submarine commanders (Luth, Brandi), ten ace pilots (Galland, Gollob, Graf, Hartmann, Lent, Marseille, Molders, Nowotny, Rudel, Schnaufer), an army Colonel (Schulz), and 14 Generals and fieldmarshals (Balck, Dietrich, Gille, Hube, Kesselring, Manteuffel, Mauss, Model, Ramcke, Rommel, Saucken, Schoerner, Strachwitz, Tolsdorf ).
The highest medal of all, it was supposed to be awarded after the end of World War 2 to Germany's 12 greatest war heroes, but Adolf Hitler felt that the continuous outstanding achievements and heroism of Germany's greatest war hero, dive bomber ace Hans Ulrich Rudel, were such that he deserved to receive this award sooner, so in January 1945 Rudel became the only recipient of this highest medal.
Rudel's war record is simply amazing in any scale. Like some other great war heroes, he had a very late start. He began the war as a reconnaissance pilot and was training to convert to a dive bomber pilot during the invasion of France. His warrior career finally began with the invasion of Russia in June 1941, and he served in the Russian front until the end of the war, except for short periods in Germany as instructor and test pilot.
In the next four years he flew a total of 2530 combat sorties in which he destroyed 519 Russian tanks, 150 artillery guns, 1000 vehicles, a battleship, two cruisers, a destroyer, 70 landing craft, and also shot down 11 aircraft. He was shot down 30 times, lost a leg, which didn't stop him at all, and performed numerous acts of sacrifice and heroism. Rudel had the rare combination of great warrior skills and tons of luck, and years of intense daily fighting to fully exploit them, which is how he reached such an amazing record for which he became the highest decorated German war hero.