A German test pilot and fanatic Nazi party member, Hanna Reitsch was Adolf Hitler’s personal pilot, and the only woman to be awarded Hitler’s Iron Cross. She is remembered for her desperate flight to reach Hitler in his bunker in Berlin at the end of World War II.
Hanna Reitsch was born in Germany
(precisely where is disputed) on the 29 March 1912. The daughter of an opthamologist
, she began her studies as a medical student, and hoped to become a flying missionary doctor
. After the Treaty of Versailles
, she was unable to do so, and concentrated on becoming a glider
In 1931 Hanna set the women's world record for non-stop gliding (five and a half hours), a record she was to break several times. 1934 saw Hanna break the world altitude record for women, with a flight reaching 2,800 metres. She set the world record for non-stop distance flight for gliders (305 km) in 1936. Hanna flew the first crossing of the Alps in a glider in 1937, and worked as a stunt pilot in films.
At this point in her career, Reitsch was offered the post of test pilot with the Luftwaffe by General Udet. She seems to have accepted with enthusiasm, and approached her new task with amazing zeal. Reitsch was appointed an Honorary Flight Captain – the first woman to hold that rank.
Hanna tested a range of aircraft – becoming the first person to successfully fly a helicopter. She tested methods for cutting the cables dangled by barrage balloons – a potentially fatal task. She crash landed in the extremely dangerous Messerschmidt 163, and retained the presence of mind to write up her notes before collapsing. These exploits gained her the Iron Cross (first and second class). She supported the notion of a suicide glider squadron, and was the first to enlist. The squadron never flew a mission.
Reitsch’s most famous flight is undoubtedly her epic journey through heavy Russian fire to the Fuhrer’s bunker in ruined Berlin. She had battled extreme weather conditions and enemy action to bring General von Greim (the new Luftwaffe Commander in Chief – it has been suggested that he was her lover) to Hitler’s bunker. Among the last visitors that Hitler ever had, Reitsch planned to die with her leader, but was ordered to make a last ditch effort to win the war. Along with a demoralized von Greim, she piloted her plane to Admiral Karl Dönitz’ headquarters, and attempted to rally the remaining Luftwaffe members for a last ditch stand. The attempt failed, and she was captured by Allied forces.
Reitsch was held for 15 months in an American interrogation centre, before being allowed to leave in 1946. Her family was dead – killed by her father in a murder-suicide shooting, and von Greim was also dead by his own hand.
Hanna Reitsch went on to win several medals in glider flying, continuing to set records and to work as a research pilot. She began the National School of Gliding in Ghana in 1962. Hanna Reitsch died of a heart attack in Frankfurt in 1979, at the age of 67. She had set over 40 altitude and endurance records in gliders and powered aircraft in her lifetime.
Hanna Reitsch was an important symbol for the Nazi party. She typified the Hitler Youth
– blond, brave, good looking and fanatically devoted to the Fuhrer and his cause. Stories abound of women-only squadrons, and of Hitler refusing to allow her to continue with them as she was too valuable. She frequently acted as Adolf Hitler’s personal pilot – ferrying him around in increasingly dangerous situations. At times it was rumoured that Reitsch had smuggled Hitler out of Berlin
on that last desperate flight.
Reitsch remains something of an enigma. History is written by the winners, and any biography of Hanna Reitsch is tinted with the author’s opinions on her Nazism, and her knowledge of the atrocities. I personally find most of these a little simplistic. Some authors, notably Larry Forrester, bemoan the misguided path of evil that this otherwise brave and noble woman took. Some insist that she believed Heinrich Himmler when he insisted that the tales of concentration camps and other atrocities were mere Allied propaganda. Others note that her biography (Flying, my life) was “defensive and self-serving”, and that she did not voice her horror over the atrocities until much after the war.
I suspect that nobody will ever know the truth, and I will not try to form an opinion. Allied test pilots who led far less dramatic lives are lauded, and Hanna Reitsch deserves to be remembered as much as any of these.
Skymen by Larry Forrester 1964.